• The Demise of the West

    Students of the global economy have foreseen for a couple of decades that the centre of economic gravity was about to move from what we used to call “the West” – a shorthand term for the USA and Europe and their respective spheres of influence – to Asia, (now not just Japan, but China, South Korea, Singapore, India and others as well).  Few would have expected, though, that one of the principal drivers of this development would turn out to be the American President himself.

    But Donald Trump has committed himself to a series of policy initiatives which seem destined, if not designed, not “to make America great again” but to “make China great again”.  The most obvious manifestation of this supposed “strategy” is the launching of trade wars against America’s traditional trading partners in Canada, and Europe, as well as against China.

    Trade wars, according to Trump, are “good and easy to win”; but he is about to find out that they are dangerous, messy and destructive.  They are destructive not just in economic terms but in geo-political terms as well.  For the West’s leaders, they signal the end of the close alliance that has exerted great influence in world affairs – and that significant turning point has been given added impetus by Trump’s decisions to abandon his traditional friends by withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal and from the Paris climate change agreement.

    The demise of “the West” was emphasised by the recent G7 summit, when Trump refused to sign the closing communique and found himself in disagreement with virtually all of his allies when he urged the re-admission of Russia.  His attack on the Canadian Prime Minister was simply further evidence of his lack of concern for the damage he had caused.

    The irony of all this is that the vacuum that has been created by America’s withdrawal will be quickly filled by the other potential global superpower, China.  The increase in China’s influence – welcome or otherwise – is already clearly apparent, not least in the Asia-Pacific region.  The recent Australian legislation, beefing up security against foreign influence was clearly directed at Chinese interference in Australian domestic affairs.

    But it is not just in the international sphere that America has abandoned its long-held leadership role.  An important element in the Western hegemony that has dominated the world scene for so long has been the sense that the West represents the best way of doing things – that factors such as democracy, the rule of law, human rights and civil liberties, a free press, are all essential aspects of a successful society.

    Yet it is precisely these aspects of American society on which Trump has launched his most bitter assaults, with the result that the US is no longer seen or held up as an exemplar of all that is best in Western values – quite the reverse.  Trump has succeeded in demonstrating that America democracy is deeply flawed, and can no longer be seen as shining a beacon light for the rest of the world.

    Trump’s surrender of any claim to American moral leadership is of course entirely consistent with his personal moral stance – his lies, his racism and his attitudes to women are as unacceptable to most people as his policy of separating children from their parents and holding them in cages.

    It is hard to believe that the American people can stand idly by and allow such damage to be done to their history and values.  If American democracy is to mean anything, it must rapidly re-discover itself.

    Bryan Gould

    2 July 2018

  • At Last – A Republican Who Tells It Like It Is

    As President Trump stumbles from one bungle to the next, particularly in the field of diplomacy, the mystery is that the Republicans have stayed silent, and have offered no dissent or criticism in response to Trump’s many failings – not just in respect of foreign affairs but in domestic affairs (of which there have been many) as well.

    But, at last a Republican Senator has had the courage to break ranks and tell it like it is.  The Arizona Senator, Jeff Flake, has just published a book, titled “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and A Return to Principle”, which spares Trump nothing in its condemnation of his moral and policy mis-steps.  And Senator Flake has gone further, lambasting the President in a recent speech in these terms:

    “Our presidency has been debased by a figure who has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division and only a passing familiarity with how the Constitution works…the Congress, is utterly supine in the face of the moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily…I do not think that the founders could have anticipated that the beauty of their invention might someday founder on the rocks of reality television, and that the Congress would be such willing accomplices to this calamity. Well, simply put: We may have hit bottom.”

    It is hard to over-state the sense of despair, disbelief and disgust that these words express.  They cannot be dismissed as the complaints of a political opponent.  We can only assume that there are other senior Republicans who feel similarly but who do not have the courage to risk their seats in Congress or their political futures if they tell the truth.

    As it happens (and not surprisingly, since they come thick and fast), this development comes hard on the heels of yet another Trump debacle – the cancellation of his meeting with Kim Jong Un.  The episode tells us a great deal about Trump’s order of priorities and how his mind works.

    We know that President Trump saw his meeting with the North Korean leader as a defining achievement of his Presidency, and it did, in truth, offer a brief hope of an enduring peace on the Korean peninsula and a permanent relief from the threat of nuclear war.

    But, important though these worthy goals may have been, they were clearly not the outcomes that were uppermost in Donald Trump’s mind.  How do we know this?  Not just because of the pleasure that Trump obviously derived from the (faintly ridiculous) suggestions that he should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but because we have seen photographs of the impressive celebratory coins that Trump had struck  – coins that bore the profiles of both Trump and Kim – to mark the historic meeting even before it had happened.

    The boost to Trump’s ego was apparently so valuable and tempting that he could not forbear from claiming it even before the meeting had taken place – and now that the meeting may not after all take place – he is left, not with egg, but fragments of precious metals, on his face.

    We should all be alarmed that international relations, involving major questions of war and peace, and nuclear war or not, should be in the hands of someone whose priorities are so narrow and self-serving.  Even more seriously, major decisions are being taken by someone who displays a lack of understanding of how other countries react when they are insultingly treated – taken for granted, threatened and pushed around.

    The Singapore meeting, if it was to happen, had to be preceded by the most careful preparation, to make sure that both parties knew exactly what was in the other’s mind.  We now know that what was in Trump’s mind was the potential boost to his popularity, not the unresolved questions as to what Kim meant by de-nuclearisation.  And any chance that Kim would be prepared to offer what the Americans wanted was certainly dashed by the crude threat that Kim, if he failed to come up to scratch, would suffer the same fate as Colonel Gadaffi of Libya.

    Instead of those careful preparations, however, we had a repetition of nuclear threats and boasting by Trump about American military might.  That Nobel Prize now looks a long way away – and Senator Flake may soon find that he has some company in the Republican Party.

    Bryan Gould

    25 May 2018

  • Big Rocket Man?

    As with any informed discussion, facts are important in the political debate.  But, all too often, the facts are submerged by the spin put on them by the politicians – and what we hear in the end is the story about the facts, rather than the facts themselves.

    A classic instance is the meeting organised to take place in Singapore next month between President Trump and President Kim Jong Un of North Korea.  To hear the way Donald Trump tells it, the meeting is a triumph for his brand of “diplomacy” – his insults and threats of nuclear attack and trade embargos have, we are told, forced a reluctant North Korean dictator to the negotiating table where he will make a number of concessions.  Trump is able to parade as both a tough leader, “putting America first”, and as a peace-maker.

    But it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the narrative that Kim Jong Un has no doubt put before his own domestic audience – and an attentive international audience as well.

    My focus on developing a nuclear capability has paid off big-time, he will say.   The strategy has meant that the leader of the most powerful country in the world has asked to meet me and seek a deal. I am able to meet him as an equal – I also head a nuclear-armed state.  And he will need me to help him, so that he can tell his people at home that the meeting was a success – there will be no more patronising insults.  “Little rocket man” has become “big rocket man!”

    And Kim can go further.  Now that I have established this elevated status for my country, he can say, I have been able to show how magnanimous and far-sighted I am.  Now that we have nuclear weapons and delivery systems that mean that our rockets can reach America, I do not need further nuclear tests and rocket trials, so I will happily offer a “concession” to this effect; I already have all the capability I need to make sure that no one pushes us around.

    I am happy to give assurances not only to the Americans, but also to the Japanese and other countries who are nervous about our ability to attack them that we have no intention of doing so.  And I can demonstrate our peaceful intentions by making new overtures to our brothers in South Korea, as I have done, crossing the border and bringing an end to the state of war between us, showing Koreans in both the North and the South that we are one people and that I am the one person with the strength and vision to unite them.

    Not only do I know that this vision of the future commend itself to Koreans, but it also has the support of our backers and sponsors in China (who are much more important to us than are the Americans) and who will continue to help us to lift living standards and improve civil liberties at home.  We do not need democracy to show that my popularity at home has grown in leaps and bounds in response to the initiatives I have taken.

    It is not a bad story, is it?  It provides a persuasive alternative to the American account of what has happened and will happen.  Like the Trumpian story, it is of course designed to identify the teller as the hero, and to place him centre-stage and to show him in a good light; but, tellingly, it has the additional virtue of corresponding quite closely with the facts and that is no doubt how it will be seen around the world.  Donald Trump, eat your heart out.

    Bryan Gould

    13 May 2018

     

  • Another Commonwealth Gold Medal

    The Prime Minister’s first trip overseas in her new capacity has undoubtedly been a great success – for her personally, for New Zealand and even – perhaps – for the Commonwealth itself.

    The charm, freshness and intelligence which produced a largely unexpected election victory at home have all now been recognised on the international stage and have drawn forth a range of favourable responses from international leaders who have clearly been intrigued not only by a fresh face but by someone they had not expected to see – a young woman leader – not only attractive, but having the temerity to be pregnant into the bargain – and with surprising self-confidence and sure-footedness on her first foray abroad.

    The image she presented is entirely one that New Zealand wishes to present – the image of a country that dares to be different and to break new ground and that is keen to find new and better ways of doing things.

    The response and the special attention she received,  from the Queen herself and from other senior Commonwealth and European leaders – Prince Charles, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, Theresa May – were not just a feather in her cap, but a plus for New Zealand as well.  And that plus could turn out to be of considerable value.

    She has helped to breathe new life into the Commonwealth – so that an international association of amazing scope and variety, whose potential has never been properly recognised, can start to play a full and valuable role – and, if that should lead to a new trade agreement extending across so many countries at different stages of development, that could bring huge benefits not only to us but to a significant proportion of the world’s population.

    Not everyone, of course, will welcome the Prime Minister’s success.  While most Kiwis will be quick to acknowledge the favourable impression she has made, her political opponents at home are clearly a good deal less enthusiastic.  As the good news stories and images filled our screens, their angst is almost visible and audible.

    There, before their very eyes, they could see the next election slipping away from them and, with Simon Bridges struggling to make an impression, not least with his own supporters, we are constantly offered evidence of how desperate they are to prick the bubble of this latest version of Jacindamania – one that has now reached international proportions.

    So, stepping up to the plate are those who are being pressed into service to say something – anything – that might take away some of the gloss.  The problem for such nay-sayers is that they are obviously struggling to find something sensible, let alone anything of substance, to say.

    So, the headlines tell us that Jacinda is “just like Trump” and that Jacinda’s partner, Clarke Gayford, is open to criticism because he travelled with her (so much for gender equality) and commits the crime of spelling his first name with an “e”.  Anyone who bothers to read beyond the headlines in an effort to find any substance to support them is doomed to disappointment; one suspects that the headline is all there is and that it is in any case the real point of the exercise, intended simply to plant the impression in the reader’s mind that those not ready to join the Jacinda fan club at least have some company.

    It may be that the Prime Minister’s return to home territory will alleviate the panic that has beset her opponents and that we will then return to politics as usual and a greater preparedness to give credit where it is due.  In the meantime, as we celebrate another win for the Black Ferns to follow up on their Commonwealth Games Gold Medal, let us also enjoy the success achieved by another of our most promising and well-performing young women, as she carried our flag into the international arena and came home with a gold medal.

    Bryan Gould

    24 April 2018

     

     

  • The Dogs of War

    In 1954, Sir Winston Churchill famously advised an American audience that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”.

    Churchill was of course someone who knew about “war-war”.  His political career had encompassed both world wars and he had been a great leader of Britain in the Second World War; no one knew better than he did the price that is paid when countries go to war.

    He also knew how major conflicts could start unexpectedly.  He would have remembered that it was the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that precipitated Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia – and that in turn caused the Central Powers (including Germany and Austria-Hungary) and Serbia’s allies to declare war on each other, thereby launching World War One.

    If he had been alive today, Churchill would no doubt have been alarmed at the similarities between that episode and the stand-off that recently occurred between Russia and the West over Syria.  In this latter case, there was the same build-up of tension between great powers, and a precipitating event – this time, the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime against civilians in Douma – prompting a warlike response from the US, the UK and France; all the ingredients were there to set in train yet another major conflict.

    There was of course no shortage of hotheads who were keen to see military force used by the Western allies and who were quick to dismiss any thought that diplomacy might have had a role to play.  It is understandable that the West felt that they could not allow such a criminal act by Assad against his own people to go unchallenged; but it is still regrettable that their first recourse was to arms, rather than an attempt to persuade the United Nations to authorise a sanction that was appropriately condemnatory but less risky.

    Sadly, of course, the United Nations had revealed itself to be impotent in such a circumstance, by virtue of Russia’s willingness to use its veto in the Security Council to preclude any sanction that would harm the interests of its Syrian ally.  It might nevertheless have been useful to force Russia to own up to its willingness to support an ally that had made itself an international outcast through its use of chemical weapons against a civilian population.

    In all of this, our own Prime Minister – new as she is to the international scene and to issues of war and peace – showed amazing maturity and good judgment in recognising both the need to take a stand against chemical warfare but also the desirability of turning first to diplomacy as a solution.  “Shoot first, talk later” is a good policy for small boys in the playground, but it is a dangerous course in the real (and nuclear) world.

    It is also the favoured option of those simple-minded commentators who see themselves as hard-headed realists, “telling it like it is” and debunking the illusions of the “idealists” (those, that is, who would prefer not to go to war).   Warmongers like these should be asked about Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and whether those wars validate the view that military force always guarantees the best outcomes.

    War invariably creates more problems than it solves, and that is to say nothing of the suffering and loss endured by those who actually have to wage it on the ground.  Churchill himself, the architect of the ill-fated Gallipoli adventure, would be the first to acknowledge that it is easy to launch military attacks from the behind a desk, when the main brunt is borne by others, and the outcomes are far from certain.

     

    The gravest risk facing mankind is that there is never any shortage of those ready to “let slip the dogs of war.”   Diplomacy and working through international agencies may be less thrilling to armchair warriors but that is where we should be putting our efforts.

    The United Nations was created by the victors in the Second World War as a means of reducing the chances of a further world war.  It is far from perfect, but we have avoided the worst for nearly three-quarters of a century.  We would do better to address its frailties rather than give up on it.

    Bryan Gould

    22 April 2018