Friday 28 May 2010

28 May 2010

NEW YORK -- I’m here for the closing hours of the somewhat inelegantly named Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference. (In UN jargon, it’s simply RevCon, and you can see why.)

They have these things every five years – the general idea is to take stock of how adherence to the non-proliferation treaty is going and do whatever tweaking is necessary.

Now, if you’re old enough to remember the 1960s and 70s, you will remember when the debate over nuclear disarmament was a very big deal. Ban the Bomb was as potent a marchers’ slogan then as Troops Out Of Iraq was in the first decade of the 21st century.

We lived with the threat of nuclear Armageddon. We knew that the US and Soviet Union could blow us all to bits many times over – and at the height of the Cold War, we were taught how to shelter under tables and cover our windows with brown paper if nuclear war looked imminent.

So what happened? Why has this conference passed virtually unnoticed? India and Pakistan have both acquired a nuclear weapons capability since the non-proliferation treaty was signed; so has North Korea, and Israel has had one for decades, even if to this day it refuses to say so.

In theory, what they’ve been talking about here over the past month or so is how to strengthen the mechanisms which are meant to prevent more nations going nuclear – and, in parallel, hasten the process by which those nations that already are nuclear move towards being un-nuclear.

The conference is due to end today. If the delegates representing 189 governments fail to agree on a final statement, many will interpret that failure as a sign that the non-proliferation treaty is on its last legs. Five years ago, at the last review conference, they did fail – so a failure again today would mean that for a full decade, no discernible progress has been made.

You may think that UN conferences come and go, end in failure, yet somehow the world seems to survive. (Does anyone remember the Copenhagen climate change conference?)

But many senior diplomats think this is a crucial moment. In the Middle East, there are countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, all of which might begin to wonder if the time has come to dip a toe into the nuclear weapons water. Tensions on the Korean peninsula could lead to some serious re-thinking in east Asia as well.

If you heard the programme last night, you’ll have heard my interview with Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and secretary of state to both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the 1960s and 70s. He’s one of several eminent elder statesmen who have signed a declaration calling for progress towards a world free of all nuclear weapons.

But he takes a chillingly “real politik” view of the likelihood of that happening. And he more than half accepts the principle that a nuclear balance of terror can, paradoxically, help keep the peace. Ask yourself this: are India and Pakistan more or less likely to go to war – as they have done so often in the past – now that both are nuclear powers?

“There is a substantial element of truth in the balance of terror argument,” said Dr Kissinger. “But only when the balance was bi-polar.” In other words, when it was just the US and the Soviet Union eye-balling each other, the risk of nuclear Armageddon was manageable. Now, he says, it is much more difficult to keep that risk properly balanced.

I asked him if the reality is that, over the coming years, the world is likely to see more nuclear-armed powers, not fewer. Yes, he said, that is the reality -- unless someone actually uses a nuclear bomb. If that were to happen, it would give an immediate boost to the non-proliferation cause.

We left the rest of that terrible thought unspoken. But as you enter the United Nations headquarters building these days, you see huge photographs of what Hiroshima and Nagasaki looked like after the US atom bomb attacks in 1945. Some thoughts don’t need to be spoken.

By the time I’m back on air tonight, we may even know whether RevCon 2010 has come up with something worthwhile. At the very least, they’re hoping to be able to agree to hold another conference in two years’ time to discuss specifically a nuclear-free Middle East. Israel says it can’t even begin to talk about that until after a comprehensive regional peace settlement has been agreed.

My guess is it’ll take many more conferences.

Friday 21 May 2010

21 May 2010

There was a time when if you sank another country’s warship, it was universally regarded as a pretty unambiguous act of war.

So what did North Korea think it was doing when, according to a report by a team of international investigators, it fired off a torpedo at a South Korean corvette and sank it with the loss of 46 lives?

Trying to delve into the minds of North Korea’s leaders is a task that has beaten much better brains than mine. But I can at least come up with a few questions that need to be asked, even if I’m woefully short of answers.

First of all, was it a deliberate attack, or a mistake, an accident, or an act of insubordination by an ill-disciplined submariner? If it was the latter, it would be deeply worrying: North Korea is not the sort of place where you want the military running out of control.

Second, if we assume that someone in authority did give the order to fire the torpedo, why?

Third, who was that someone in authority? If it wasn’t the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who is said to be in poor health after reportedly suffering a stroke two years ago, who else could it have been? And, again, why?

And fourth, what will South Korea do about it? After all, no government can sit idly by after 46 of its citizens have perished in an unprovoked military attack.

As I say, I have no good answers, but here are a few salient facts to bear in mind.

First, yes, the attack on the corvette Cheonan last March was an act of war, but, in theory at least, North and South Korea are still at war. An armistice agreement was signed at the end of the Korean war in July 1953, but although it was signed by the UN, the US, North Korea and China, it was never signed by the South Koreans. The two sides did sign a non-aggression pact in 1991.

Second, the most recent naval clash between the two countries, last November in disputed waters of the Yellow Sea, was reported to have resulted in the deaths of one or more North Korean seamen. The March torpedo attack could have been ordered in retaliation.

Third, North Korea has a long history of provocative acts when it wants to attract attention in the hope of persuading others (in this case, presumably, South Korea) to engage directly in negotiations. The current government in Seoul is far less amenable to such contacts than were its predecessors.

And fourth, yet again, all eyes are on China. It is North Korea’s most important ally, but is reported to have been less than impressed by the way Pyongyang has handled the nuclear weapons issue. Kim Jong Il was in Beijing earlier this month, but little is known of what transpired.

All of which will make for a difficult encounter when US secretary of state Hillary Clinton turns up in Beijing this weekend. She’ll want to know what the Chinese know about the Cheonan incident; but it’s doubtful that she’ll learn much. As the New York Times reported yesterday, the report blaming the attack on North Korea “injects a potentially combustible element into [Clinton’s] talks.

Even nearly 60 years after the end of the Korean war, the divided peninsula remains one of the word’s most dangerous potential flash-points. No one knows what will happen after Kim Jong Il departs from the scene, but there have been recent reports of renewed famine in parts of the country and a UN humanitarian aid team is due to visit later this month.

As for the South Korean response, no one seems to be expecting retaliatory military action, although there may well be some noisy sabre-rattling in the form of joint US-South Korean naval exercises, just to remind the North that its neighbours to the south still have some powerful friends.

Friday 14 May 2010

14 May 2010

Regular readers may recall that from time to time I pick up odd bits of paper that I find on the bus. I’m never sure if they actually exist, or whether I’m simply imagining them – but this is one I picked up yesterday.

It was headed “Note to Nick – for your eyes only”, and it was unsigned. This is what it said:

“Nick: first of all, congratulations. You did it. One day soon, when you have a moment, you’ll have to explain to me how – having won fewer seats than you had last time – you’ve ended up as deputy Prime Minister. Not bad going, I reckon. Not bad at all.

“Second, you asked for my thoughts on what you should do next. Here are some early ideas.

“ -- You need to move fast to end this “gay wedding in the Downing Street garden” stuff. Yesterday’s papers were full of it after your lovey-dovey press conference with Cameron, and it’s got to stop. It’s not helpful – remember what Spitting Image did to David Steel by portraying him as David Owen’s puppet? These things can do real damage.

“ -- If you were thinking of changing your name to Cameron, don’t. (Ask Miriam about it if you’re not sure.) I’ve already heard Robin Lustig on The World Tonight call you “David Clegg” during one of the TV debates – he insists it was a slip of the tongue, but you can never tell with these people.

“ -- You need to start thinking right now about the party conference in the autumn. Osborne’s emergency budget will be horrible, as you know (by the way, you will make sure, won’t you, that Vince Cable isn’t rude about him in public – what he says in private is one thing, but you must keep Vince busy … I know he’s fuming that he’s not Chancellor, but let him take out his frustration on the bankers). I suggest you urgently get something meaty done on political reform – the AV referendum bill, House of Lords, whatever – to throw to party members. You may be able to keep them quiet for another year – but five years? No chance … Well done, by the way, for keeping the TV cameras out of the party conference this weekend – you can’t be too careful at this stage of the game.

“ -- Keep going with the happy-clappy stuff. You don’t have to worry about Sarah Palin, so “changy feely” works well here. Callers to the phone-in shows have been overwhelmingly positive so far … we need to keep talking about the “new politics” for as long as we can.

“ -- Try not to do Cameron better than he does. He doesn’t like it, and he’ll turn on you if he sees your ratings going up while his go down. It’s going to be tricky, but you need to remember that he is the boss. (Maybe stick a note on your fridge door? “Tories: 306 seats. Lib Dems: 57”.)

“ -- Finally, you may not like this, but grow a beard. Obviously, you’ll need to discuss with Miriam, but it will help voters tell you and Dave apart. (It might also win you the support of Keith Flett of the Beard Liberation Front who, as far as I know, has never voted Lib Dem in his life.)”

As I say, I may have imagined the whole thing …

And now a quick note about a special programme we’re doing next week. As part of our 40th anniversary celebrations, I’ll be chairing a special World Tonight debate at the leading foreign policy think tank Chatham House. The subject is “Britain in the world: the future of British foreign policy.” We’ll have a panel of speakers from the UK, the US, Germany and India, and if you have a question you’d like me to put to them, please send it in, either by email or as a comment on the blog, before Tuesday lunch-time.

The programme will be broadcast next Wednesday, 19 May, at 8pm on BBC Radio 4.

Friday 7 May 2010

7 May 2010

What do you mean, you still don’t know who won? It’s easy: no one did. They all lost.

The Tories didn’t get the majority they needed; Labour lost shed-loads of seats, and won only a slightly higher share of the national vote than in their disastrous election showing in 1983.

And the Lib Dems? Well, it seems Clegg-mania lasts barely longer than 24-hour flu. It looks as if they won pretty much exactly the same share of the vote as they did in 2005.

Thousands of voters lost as well – lost their opportunity to vote as long lines outside polling stations swamped the system. There were ugly scenes in some places, and there’ll be some ugly recriminations as everyone tries to shift the blame to someone else.

I’ve just got home after my all-night stint at the BBC World Service. And I don’t mind admitting that I am mightily perplexed. It was Ed Miliband who came up with that politicians’ favourite, when I spoke to him in the small hours of the morning: “The people have spoken. But we don’t know what they said.”

Here’s what I think they said. Despite all the focus on the national TV debates and the main party leaders, voters seem to have made up their minds based on their assessment of their local constituency candidates and local issues.

Except, of course, in the places where they didn’t. (I’m sorry, but it’s been that sort of night.) There’s no national picture – or at least none that I can discern – in its place, we have 649 local elections. (There was no voting in the North Yorkshire constituency of Thirsk and Malton because of the death of one of the candidates.)

All of which makes trying to predict what lies in store hugely unpredictable. This isn’t how UK elections are meant to be, is it? We’re not like other countries, with their confusing, messy, complex political systems. We like our politics neat and tidy – if we don’t like this lot, we vote for the other lot. And the removal men are in Downing Street before lunch-time.

Well, not any more, they’re not. This is politics as the rest of the world does it – and it looks as if we may have to get used to it. Or will we revert to type? If, for whatever reason, there’s another election in a matter of months, will we then scurry back to the safety of our two-and-a-bit party system?

One of my studio guests during the night was Jim Wallace, former leader of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland and former deputy first minister. He knows what it’s like to work in a coalition with Labour – and he says coalition politics aren’t easy, but nor do they spell the end of the world as we know it.

So, do I believe that even though the Conservatives won more votes and more seats than Labour, Gordon Brown will somehow manage to stay on in Downing Street?

Frankly, I find it hard to. On the other hand, a week ago I was still predicting an overall Conservative majority. That’s how much I know.

If you were Nick Clegg, and Gordon Brown phoned to ask for a chat, what would you say? “Sorry, Prime Minister, no deal, you’re yesterday’s man”? Or “Yes, of course, let’s talk, but just wait a moment while I answer the call on the other line”?

“Hello, David. Just hang on a moment. I’m just talking to Gordon …”

Perhaps it’ll all make more sense after I’ve had some sleep. But somehow, I doubt it.