Friday 16 December 2016

2016: Goodbye and good riddance

Syria's second city, Aleppo, has 'fallen' to Syrian government forces, backed on the ground by a motley bunch of fighters from friendly neighbours and from the air by warplanes from a powerful ally.

Meanwhile, Iraq's second city, Mosul, is in the process of being 'liberated' by government forces, backed on the ground by fighters from friendly neighbours and from the air by warplanes from a powerful ally.

Or should that be the other way round? Has Aleppo been 'liberated', and is Mosul about to 'fall'? Funny things, words. So much depends on the eye of the beholder.

The warplanes dropping bombs on Aleppo were mainly Russian. The ones bombing Mosul are mainly American. Perhaps that's what makes the difference. The 'rebels' in Mosul are from the notoriously brutal Islamic State group; the ones in Aleppo were more difficult to label, but included several whose ideology and brutality are virtually indistinguishable from IS.

The lesson to be learnt from Syria, we are told, is that this appalling tragedy is the kind of thing that happens when foreign powers turn their backs on tyranny and refuse to intervene. The lesson to be learnt from Iraq, on the other hand -- and Libya, and Yemen, come to that -- is that chaos, violence and human suffering on an unimaginable scale are what follow when foreign powers intervene.

If only there were clear lessons to be learnt. If only life were simple. Perhaps the truth is that the world's major powers -- for the sake of argument, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: the US, Russia, China, France and Britain -- are still grappling with the new geo-political realities of the post-1989 world.

Two of those powers, neither of them democracies, seem to have decided that they do understand this brave new world in which global Communism is no longer seen as a threat to the future of the Western way of life. Russia and China have watched and learnt as the US first brandished its big stick in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, and then withdrew back into its tent, its big stick snapped into pieces.

While Russia has used its military muscle in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, China has been drawing new battle lines in the South China Sea.  On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that according to a US think-tank, China has just installed anti-aircraft weapons and other weaponry on all seven islands that it has built in the South China Sea.

If confirmed, it would seem to be a new, and potentially dangerous, raising of the stakes, just as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is rattling his sabre at Beijing. (Moscow, on the other hand, is being sent nothing but coochie-coochie messages.)

So this is where we are, as 2016 draws to a close. The UK has voted to withdraw from the European Union, ushering in several years of uncertainty and instability both here and there. The US has elected a president who has zero political experience, who is waging open war on the CIA because it says Russia directly intervened in last month's presidential election to help him win office, and who says he doesn't need to read intelligence briefings because he's smart enough to manage without them.

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has spotted the disarray among his traditional foes (let's face it, he would have to have been totally myopic to have missed it), and Xi Jinping of China has realised that no one outside the Asia Pacific region seems to care too much about his steady expansion into waters well outside Chinese sovereignty.

Second rank powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are running amok in the Middle East, carving out zones of influence and arming sundry proxy militias, just as the US did in central America in the 1970s. Far from having learned nothing, they have learned too well.

I have been hunting frantically for a silver lining, and I think I have found one, albeit one that is tissue-thin. The new secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, is a man of real substance with an impressive track record. He takes office on 1 January, and bears a giant responsibility at a time when the bad guys seem to be winning.

Oh, and if you think nothing good at all happened in 2016, don't forget the peace agreement in Colombia, which brought to an end a 50-year-long conflict in which more than 200,000 people were killed. It is a remarkable achievement and deserves recognition at the end of a year during which, at least for us liberal internationalists, there was precious little to celebrate.

By the way, thank you for proving me wrong the other day when I suggested on this blog that no one would be interested in what I wrote about climate change. The post was downloaded and shared by six times as many people as the previous week's. There's hope for us yet ...

Friday 9 December 2016

'One thing we haven't mentioned yet ...'

A few days ago, I recorded one of those year-end radio discussions that help to fill the schedules between Christmas and the New Year. (It'll be on the online radio network Monocle24 on 26 December.)

You know the kind of thing: highs and lows of the year gone by; thoughts about the year to come; most influential political leaders. Right at the end, one of my fellow panellists remarked: 'You know, there's one thing we haven't mentioned yet, and that's climate change.'

The presenter suggested that it might make a good name for a new radio show: 'One thing we haven't mentioned yet'. And it would always be about climate change.

Earlier this week, it was reported that sea ice levels in both the Antarctic and the Arctic have hit record lows, leading to fears that the effects of climate change might be far worse than previously thought.

According to Mark Serreze, director of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado: 'There are some really crazy things going on.' In some parts of the Arctic, temperatures last month were 20 degrees Celsius higher than normal. I'll write that again: 20 degrees higher than normal.

Then on Thursday, the sainted Sir David Attenborough said: 'There has never been a time in history when the natural environment has been under greater threat than it is now.'

So why wasn't it splashed across all our front pages? Why do we pay more attention to the late-night online ravings of the US president-elect than to threats of impending global catastrophe?

In fact, the two issues are not unrelated, given that Donald Trump has claimed (on Twitter, of course) that 'the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.'

And now he has appointed as the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency a man who still insists that the evidence for human-induced climate change is 'far from settled'.  According to Michael Brune of the environmental campaign group the Sierra Club, Scott Pruitt is 'a climate science denier who, as attorney general for the state of Oklahoma, regularly conspired with the fossil fuel industry to attack EPA regulations.' The New York Times said his appointment signalled 'Mr. Trump’s determination to dismantle President Obama’s efforts to counter climate change — and much of the EPA itself.'

Poor old Planet Earth. We journalists can't really cope with slow-moving stories, and we hate complexity. Climate change is both, which is why stories about it tend to get buried deep inside the newspapers, or way down at the bottom of their websites. In the words of Alan Rusbridger, who mounted one last major climate change campaign before he stepped down as editor of The Guardian last year: 'Journalism tends to be a rear-view mirror. We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead. We favour what is exceptional and in full view over what is ordinary and hidden.'

Exceptional? Like the fact that 2016 is about to go down as the hottest year on record? Ask people where floods, storms, cyclones and hurricanes have devastated communities more frequently than ever before -- and then ask how exceptional things have to be before we take them seriously.

No one knows what Donald Trump really thinks about climate change because he blows hot and cold (sorry) about it. And it may well be that his new EPA director will not have things all his own way. According to Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit: 'It's unclear to what extent Mr Pruitt will be able to deliver, or what impact four years of trying will have in the real world. Many US states, headed by California, are heading inexorably in a clean energy direction, and both they and environment groups are promising legal action if the new administration tries to turn back the clock.' (Full disclosure: I am a member of the ECIU's advisory board.)

Of course, no one believes experts any more, so perhaps there's no point quoting what they say. Senior military men are often thought to know what's what, however -- certainly, Mr Trump seems to trust them enough to stuff his administration with them -- so here's what some of them think about climate change.

Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, of the US State Department's Foreign Affairs Policy Board, for example: 'Climate change could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. We’re already seeing migration of large numbers of people around the world because of food scarcity, water insecurity and extreme weather, and this is set to become the new normal.'

And Major General Munir Muniruzzaman, former military adviser to the President of Bangladesh and chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council on Climate Change: 'South Asia is one of the most water-stressed regions of the world. A combination of water scarcity in the climate-induced conditions and regional politics has made the right brew for a potential conflict ... Climate change is the greatest security threat of the 21st century.'

When I was in northern Nigeria last month to report on the massive humanitarian crisis that is about to explode there following the Boko Haram insurgency, I saw for myself what can happen when huge numbers of people are displaced by violence caused at least in part by food scarcity. Yet it is so much simpler to blame the disaster on jihadi extremists than to confront the role played by changing climate patterns.

I have given up making predictions these days, but today I'll make an exception: I predict that this blogpost will be shared  by far fewer people online than anything I've written over the past several weeks.

Climate change? Boring. Or will you prove me wrong?

Friday 2 December 2016

Richmond Park: the turning of the tide?

At last, some good news. So thank you, voters of Richmond Park, for ousting your pro-Brexit, squillionaire MP Zac Goldsmith, and thank you, victorious Lib Dem candidate Sarah Olney, for saying this:

'Our message is clear: we do not want a hard Brexit. We do not want to pull out of the single market. We will not let intolerance, division and fear win. Richmond Park was full of people like me, who felt the country was going wrong, that the politics of anger and division were on the rise, that the liberal, tolerant values we took for granted were under threat. Today we have said no. We will defend the Britain we love. We will stand up for the open, tolerant Britain we believe in.'

So has the tide turned? Is Sarah Olney the harbinger of a bright new dawn, a better future? Not so fast, my friend, not so fast.

For well over 200 years, Western liberal democracies have subscribed to two fundamental principles, both of which, despite the good people of leafy Richmond Park, are now being challenged for the first time since the fall of Fascism. (And I say that as someone whose first job as a foreign correspondent was in Fascist Spain in the early 1970s.)

The first principle was enshrined in the US independence declaration of 1776:  'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'

The second became the rallying cry of the French revolution: 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité'.

Does Donald Trump believe that we are all created equal? That we are all equally entitled to certain unalienable rights? All of us, including Muslims, and flag-burners, and Mexicans? Does he even recognise the word 'truths'?

Does Marine Le Pen believe in liberté, égalité, and fraternité? Including for France's five million Muslim citizens? And refugees?

The fact that these questions even need to be asked suggests the depth of the crisis into which the West is sinking. It extends much further than who sits in the Oval Office or the Elysée Palace, because it challenges the very principles on which our societies and our nations have been built over more than two centuries.

Nationalism and nativism seem to be sweeping away liberalism. 'We are all created equal' is being replaced by 'Me and my country, first and last.' And even if you don't believe that history repeats itself, it does no harm to look back at history once in a while, if only to see whether there might be some mistakes we could avoid making a second time.

No parallels are exact, of course, but Europe before the outbreak of each of the 20th century's catastrophic world wars bore too many worrying resemblances to some of what we are witnessing now: a nationalist fervour whipped up against both external and internal enemies; the hunt for scapegoats; and rapid social and economic change that left millions of people feeling alienated and ignored.

The institutions that grew out of the debris of the Second World War, imperfect as they are -- the European Union, the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and its predecessor the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) -- were all born of the grim experience of protectionism and extreme nationalism. Today, alas, no world leaders remember the 1930s and what they led to, which may be why they seem so blithely to be ready to make the same mistakes all over again. In the words of the historian Mark Mazower, quoted in this excellent overview of the similarities and differences between then and now: 'The political class has very impoverished historical memory and as a result it has a very limited imagination.' 

This weekend, voters in two European countries will have a chance to reverse what Philip Stephens of the Financial Times calls 'the populist narrative of an indigenous dispossessed. ' In Italy, they'll be voting in a referendum on constitutional reform that, in effect, is a referendum on the country's ruling class. And in Austria, they'll be voting, again, for a president, with one of the two candidates representing a party that was established by former Nazis.

If the Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer wins in Austria, and if Italy's prime minister Matteo Renzi is defeated in Sunday's referendum, the nationalist drums will continue to beat ever louder. With nationalism comes protectionism, a tearing up of the free trade agreements on which global trade has depended for the past several decades. Protectionism also means the reintroduction of tariff barriers, competitive currency devaluations and rising unemployment. It's not a pretty sight.

But it is important for liberals and free traders neither to lose heart nor to concede ideological territory. For one thing, it cannot be repeated often enough that in the US, Hillary Clinton won two and a half million more votes than Donald Trump. In other words, American voters did not endorse an ignorant bigot, even if the vagaries of their electoral system conspired to put him in the White House nonetheless.

(And, by the way, if anyone still thinks that Trump is on the side of the white working class, do please take a closer look at the people he's appointing to run his administration. According to the Washington Post, his nominees so far include 'several multi-millionaires, an heir to a family mega-fortune and two Forbes-certified billionaires.' Champions of the dispossessed? I don't think so.)

For another thing, Le Pen may not win in France, and despite what the opinion polls say, Geert Wilders of the Dutch anti-immigration Party for Freedom may not win next March's general elections in the Netherlands. (Come on, who believes opinion polls any more?)

Which brings us back to Brexit. It seems to be slowly dawning on the British media that the terms on which the UK eventually leaves the EU will not be dictated in London, but in Brussels and Berlin. Twenty-seven against one is not exactly a battle between equals, and there is still no sign that Theresa May or her three Brexiteers have any idea at all how to play what few cards they have. So far, it seems that all they have managed is to exasperate our EU partners into some pretty brutal briefing against the omni-shambles that is the government's current strategy.

The Lib Dems' grande dame Shirley Williams claimed on the eve of the Richmond Park poll that a Lib Dem win would 'change the political weather', just as her victory in Crosby did 35 years ago. I'd love to think she was right. But at least the result should strengthen the resolve of those who want to slow the rush to a Brexit disaster. The battle has only just begun.