• Is Donald Trump Really A Deal-Maker?

    As Donald Trump surveys the current state of his relationships with China, Iran and North Korea, with all of whom he has recently engaged in a somewhat confrontational way, even someone as resistant to self-doubt as the US President might conclude that his supposed expertise in doing deals might leave something to be desired.

    His imposition of tariffs on Chinese imports seems to have back-fired as American business (and the world economy) begin to count the cost; his tearing up of the deal with Iran to the effect that sanctions would be lifted in return for their renunciation of any ambitions to develop nuclear weapons has likewise led to a sharp increase in tension in the Middle East; and his much-touted agreement with North Korea has been met by a resumption of the testing of missiles with nuclear capability by Kim Jong Un.

    Someone with a little more self-knowledge than Donald Trump might be given pause for at least a moment by these responses to his efforts at what might laughingly be called diplomacy. It is clear that the author of The Art of the Deal has much to learn about international diplomacy – that the tactics of threat and bluster and waiting to see who blinks first may or may not work in private business but have a poor record in the sphere of international relations.

    Even in private business, there must be major question marks over such high-risk tactics, if the story told by his tax returns over more than a decade is to be believed. Those tax returns show that, rather than the successful businessman he claims to be, he actually lost more than a billion dollars over the period (with the convenient result that he paid no tax).

    It is not just the obvious damage that has been inflicted on the American economy and on wider American interests that must be entered into the balance sheet in evaluating Trump’s initiatives in international relations. What must also be taken into account are the lost opportunities, flowing from Trump’s refusal to accept a leadership (or any) role on issues like climate change and even on specific issues like requiring the social media companies to take a more responsible approach to the publication of hate speech. And that is to say nothing of his bewildering apparent subservience to Putin’s Russia and his readiness to alienate his Nato allies.

    It is one thing to take chances with one’s own money – as the record shows that Trump is more than prepared to do. It is quite another knowingly to take risks with the nation’s interests. His willingness to do so is persuasive evidence that it is not the nation’s interests that are his prime concern.

    Rather, it is his chances of re-election that are top of his agenda. He seems to calculate that if he can posture as an American hero – Captain America, no less – the voters of “his base” will applaud and flock to his banner. He must also calculate that, provided he can dominate the message they receive, “his base” will not bother to worry about the true cost to American interests of his diplomatic failures.

    As for world peace and stability, these are even further down the list of priorities – if they feature at all. Trump’s focus is entirely on issues much closer to home.

    Bryan Gould
    14 May 2019

  • A New Crime of Ecocide

    Two developments over the past week or so demonstrate how serious is the existential crisis we now face, in terms of the damage we are doing to our planet, and how far we are from facing up to our responsibilities.

    First, was the UN report on the millions of plant and animal species that have been, or are about to be, lost for good as a consequence of human activity over the greater part of the earth’s surface.

    And secondly, and disappointingly, was the government’s publication of its environmental targets, which fell far short of anything, especially with reference to methane emissions, that could legitimately be described as effectively grappling with the issues that inevitably arise in the wake of the human-led degradation of our planet.

    None of this should come as any surprise. Wherever one looks, there is unmistakeable evidence of a “business as usual” response to the alarm bells that are now ringing insistently. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to downplay the urgency of the situation, exacerbated in our case by a typically Kiwi “she’ll be right” attitude.

    Yet, wherever one looks, the evidence of growing crisis cannot be ignored. In terms of climate change, there seems little understanding of how close we are to a “tipping point” – and that’s assuming that it hasn’t already been reached – a “tipping point” that arises as the great polar ice caps melt away. The danger is not just the consequent rise in sea level that threatens the survival of coastal and island communities around the world; it is, rather, that the loss of the ice caps will generate a huge change in the various balancing factors – in terms of ocean currents and temperatures – that have maintained the climatic stability we have enjoyed until recently.

    And then there are the continuing projects to destroy vast areas of natural habitat, and to replace it with commercial crops. Again, the threat, from such as the palm oil industry, is not just to the survival of creatures (like orang-utangs) whose homes are being destroyed, but also to the natural balance that is needed to maintain the conditions for human survival.

    Depressingly, one must then add to this catalogue of impending disaster, the cavalier attitude that we humans continue to demonstrate on issues that reduce the chances of survival of species that are already threatened. By continuing to use fishing methods that predictably mean the persistent depredation of marine mammals, such as various species of dolphins, the trawler industry demonstrates how little we care about such “trivial” issues and how much priority we give to our own (supposedly more important?) short-term search for profit.

    The common characteristic of these attitudes is that everything pales into insignificance when measured against the commercial exploitation of the world’s natural resources and creatures. If, as I suspect is the case, the general response to this phenomenon – even from the perpetrators – is a shrug of the shoulders and the question “what else do you expect”, then it shows how much we depend on government to intervene in what is otherwise the over-riding pursuit of profit by private commercial interests.

    If, however, governments demonstrate (as our own government seems to have done) their unwillingness to act decisively and their impotence in facing down, in the interests of the planet’s survival, the business lobby, where else are we to go?

    If big international corporations have enough muscle to whip governments into line (as the fossil fuel industry has seemingly done with Trump’s administration in the US), what other remedy or discipline is available to ordinary citizens so as to ensure that proper responsibility for the earth’s survival is recognised?

    A clear answer to that question is being offered by a campaigning British lawyer. Polly Higgins has launched a campaign to create a new international crime; following the precedent of the emergence of genocide as a crime that could be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court, she proposes a new crime of “ecocide” – that is, the crime of acting in such a way as to destroy the world’s ecology and natural balance.

    Her proposal would make the “rapers and pillagers” criminally liable for the harm they do to the rest of us and would create a legal duty of care to protect the environment.

    Her argument is that governments have demonstrated their impotence in the face of the large-scale rape and pillage of our natural environment; so why not, she asks, pray in aid the provisions of international law. Why shouldn’t ordinary citizens, alarmed for example by the large-scale destruction of areas of rain forest by commercial interests, be able to launch a prosecution against the perpetrators that would mean that they could be found guilty of a crime against humanity – just as they would do if they were responsible for a murderous attack on a particular group of people?

    Her campaign is gathering momentum, although she herself has suffered a setback, having been diagnosed with cancer. She is confident, however, that her campaign will survive her, and will eventually succeed. She has set up a group called the Earth Protectors to carry on her work. We must hope that she is right. As a former teacher of international law, I can only applaud. Our children need some protection against the destruction of their future.

    Bryan Gould

    10 May 2019

  • Can Joe Biden Pull It Off?

    The announcement by former Vice-President Joe Biden of his campaign for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential election will – for those with long memories – bring back recollections of a famous instance of plagiarism which had repercussions on both sides of the Atlantic.

    In 1987, the British Labour Party was led by my old friend and colleague, Neil Kinnock. The voters’ reaction to Kinnock was at best mixed, but no one could doubt, as befitted his Welsh origins, his oratorical gifts; at his best, he was the finest and most effective platform speaker in the country.

    He made a particularly moving speech at the Welsh Labour Party’s Annual Conference in that year. Why, he asked, am I the first Kinnock in a thousand years to go to university? And why, pointing to his wife, Glenys, is Glenys the first woman in her family to go to university? Is it because, he asked rhetorically, all the earlier members of our families were thick?

    He went on to make the argument that social discrimination and economic inequality were the factors that had held their families back and to advance the case for making sure that those factors were counteracted by political action.

    The speech was widely commended and evidently did not pass unnoticed on the other side of the Atlantic. Joe Biden, then the promising young Senator from Delaware, announced later in that same year, that he would seek the Democratic nomination for the forthcoming presidential election. He made an effective speech in which he asked the same rhetorical questions as Kinnock had used – even to the extent of pointing to his wife, as Kinnock had done, and asking the same question about her.

    When sharp-eyed and sharp-eared commentators detected the plagiarism, Biden’s campaign was holed below the water line. His career eventually recovered and he duly became a well-regarded Vice-President to Barrack Obama – and the episode stimulated a friendship between Biden and Kinnock which led to Kinnock being invited to Biden’s inauguration, when Biden welcomed him jokingly as “my speech-writer”.

    Joe Biden is today recognised as one of the most popular, experienced and able Democrats, and reports have it that his candidature would be greatly feared by Donald Trump. That is not to say that his campaign has got off to a winning start; it has instead been dogged by allegations from a number of women of inappropriate touching, though nothing in the same league as Trump’s self-confessed (and notoriously boastful) groping.

    For those who look to 2020 as offering a new start for a USA that has lost its way, the Biden candidature nevertheless looks promising. He has made a strong start in identifying the 2020 campaign as a battle for “the soul of America”.

    We must hope that, in modern America politics, the revelation or recollection that a candidate is possessed of the odd human foible will not be a fatal handicap. The calamity into which a Trump presidency has plunged the country is so all-embracing that almost any escape route must be given constructive consideration.

    If, as Trump’s own assessment seems to suggest, Biden has the beating of Trump in 2020, then we must hope that Biden can again overcome setbacks and can win the battle for a more generous and inclusive America, an America that again can play a full and constructive part in resolving issues, like climate change, that matter to the world as a whole, and one that is led by someone who deserves the respect of those who are asked for their votes.

    We have surely had our fill of someone who lies and blusters as a matter of course, who entirely lacks a moral compass and any sense of social justice, and who deliberately exacerbates the fault lines of ethnicity and religion that threaten to disfigure and disable the world’s greatest and most closely scrutinised democracy.

    Someone with Biden’s record – not perfect and humanly fallible – may be just the kind of candidate who can remind the American people that politics is best conducted by those who are real people and not just constructs of reality television shows. I hope he has some great speeches left in him and does not need help from unwitting “speech-writers” – however good they may be.

    Bryan Gould
    28 April 2019

     

     

     

     

  • Combatting Global Warming

    Climate change and global warming are now undeniably with us. The evidence for them is overwhelming and even former “deniers” now concede that something significant (and unwelcome) is happening.

    The real question now is “what do we do about it?” Some response is clearly needed. The biggest obstacle to effective action is the widespread belief, particularly on the part of those who maintain that the market must never be second-guessed, that combatting global warming will be bad for the economy.

    We see this particularly when it comes to energy sources. The reliance on fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – is correctly recognised as the principal factor in creating climate change; not only is the process of getting them out of the ground damaging to the environment, both at sea and on land, but burning them to produce electricity spews vast quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

    But doing without fossil fuels is widely seen as a recipe for economic slowdown. The government’s decision to stop the prospecting for gas and oil reserves at sea, for example, has been lamented as a step backwards in economic terms.

    At first sight, this reliance on fossil fuels – and the belief that we cannot do without them – seems surprising. We live on a planet that is bursting with energy sources. We can see energy sources wherever we look – in the wind, the tides and rivers, in geothermal steam, and most of all in the sunshine.

    All that we need is a little effort and investment so as to turn these natural energy supplies to account. The technology is rapidly developing to make this possible.

    Nowhere is this more apparent than in the eastern Bay of Plenty where I live and which is blessed with abundant sunshine. Day after day, the sun shines on our roof and large quantities of potential (and free) energy go to waste.

    My neighbours and I have decided to do something about it. A number of us have decided to install solar panels on our roofs and to harvest the energy they will produce. We are satisfied that the benefits we gain will outweigh the installation cost and that we will enjoy a future in which the cost of electricity will cease to be a major burden on our budgets.

    More importantly than the boost to our finances, we believe that our investment points the way to
    a solution to the climate change issue. If ending our dependence on fossil fuels can be shown to be economically as well as environmentally the way to go, the major obstacle to effective action will have been removed and replaced by an incentive to greater efficiency in every sense.

    We have a plan to replace our current car, when the time comes, with an electric one (which we should be able to charge from solar power), so that we will further reduce our demand on fossil fuels. And quite apart from all these material gains, we hope to enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that, rather than exhausting the earth’s natural (but finite) resources by digging them up and burning them, we will be working with the planet to use the resources that it provides to us for nothing and in abundance.

    We owe it ourselves, to future generations, and our planet, to use our human ingenuity to preserve what we have and can pass on. Best of all, we don’t need to wait for someone else – such as the government – to do something about climate change; we can take action ourselves.

    There is of course a capital cost but it will be repaid by the savings we make; it might well make economic sense, in some circumstances, to extend a mortgage so as to make an investment that produces such obvious benefits.

    That is not to say that there isn’t a role for a far-sighted government. Tax or other incentives could well help to stimulate the uptake of solar power (or other renewable sources such as wind power). But the real message is that we need not sit helplessly by, wringing our hands, while our planet fries. We have at least part of the solution in our own hands.

    Bryan Gould
    5 March 2019

  • Trump, Kim and Hanoi

    The so-called “summit” in Hanoi between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un a few days ago ended with no agreement, despite Trump’s earlier optimism that an agreement was available – the meeting was, in other words, either a non-event or possibly a second date that went horribly wrong.

    But behind the smokescreen of fantasy and bluster, what was really going on? The episode tells us a great deal about each of the participants and, in particular, about how far Trump will go to keep himself in the headlines and to distract attention from his troubles at home.

    What seems clear is that the meeting was engineered by Trump for no better reason than to serve his own electoral purposes, and was a further indication of his readiness to focus always on getting himself re-elected – which seems to be the only thing he really cares about.

    Judged in its own terms, however, the summit was a failure of “deal-making” on the part of both supposedly expert “deal-makers”. Kim’s misjudgment was in believing that he could use Trump’s appetite for flattery to enable him to slide past him a deal that totally brought an end to US sanctions against North Korea while doing little to make good Kim’s promise to denuclearise.

    Trump’s misjudgment was in believing what he wanted to believe – that he could soft-soap Kim into giving up his nuclear weapons. He appears to see in Kim a kindred spirit, someone he can admire and emulate and whose dictatorial powers he can envy and seek to replicate.

    What is alarming – though not surprising to Trump watchers and critics (among whose number I count myself) – is the President’s willingness to subordinate what could have been an important international interaction to his own domestic political ambitions.

    This smoke-and-mirrors non-drama was, of course, being played out against the backdrop of the incendiary testimony of Michael Cohen (Trump’s former personal lawyer) to a Committee of the House of Representatives as to what he knew about his former client and employer. If even a smidgeon of what Cohen said is to be believed, the judgments made by many of us about Trump’s fitness for office have been far too mild.

    Perhaps the most significant thing Cohn said in his statement came, however, when he focussed on – not Trump directly – but on the Republican members of the House. “I am now – after ten years – holding Donald Trump to account – something that you, yourselves, should have been doing,” he said.

    The point should surely have struck home. In labelling Trump “a racist, a conman, a cheat”, Cohen told us nothing we didn’t know already; he was simply adding his voice and his personal observations on the Trump he knew to many other voices.

    What has been missing from this scenario is any effective response from Trump’s Republican colleagues – any sign that they recognise the nightmare they have helped to launch on the American public and polity. By averting their gaze, and by going along with the diversionary tactic resorted to by Trump in Hanoi, they have made themselves – collectively and personally – complicit in what looks increasingly like a conspiracy against the American people.

    We do not need to regard Michael Cohen as beyond reproach – he is certainly not that – but this sounds very much like the voice of someone who has been pushed beyond what he can endure. The American public and the Republicans in Congress now need to find the courage to listen carefully to the opinions and the conclusions of someone who worked closely with Trump as a loyal henchman over many years. This evidence shows that it is not just the Hanoi “summit” that is now at risk.

    Bryan Gould
    1 March 2019