Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Whose Foreign Policy Is It?

My article, "Whose Foreign Policy Is It?", was published on The Guardian's website yesterday.

The article talks about the "democratic deficit" whereby the fundamentals of British foreign policy are consistently at odds with the wishes of the public. It discusses the way in which policymaking is disproportionately subject to pressures from vested interests, and describes some of the ways in which that influence is exerted.

Here's an excerpt:

"While few people would expect every government policy to precisely reflect majority public opinion, it is hard to see what is democratic about a British foreign policy whose very fundamentals – agreed by both Labour and the Conservatives – are consistently opposed by voters.

In February 2003, more than 90% of Britons opposed Tony Blair's government joining the invasion of Iraq in the absence of a second UN resolution. As we know, the invasion went ahead the following month without such a resolution being passed. Three years later, 63% thought Blair had tied Britain too closely to the Bush White House. In the same poll, 61% opposed the assault on Lebanon that Israel was undertaking at that time – an assault that was nevertheless effectively supported by Britain."

You can read the whole article here.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen: our Munich

World War II analogies flow far too freely in political debate, but there's an appropriate one that we can use today as we witness an international conference ending in epic sell-out, with a future cost to be paid by millions of innocents. For Copenhagen, read Munich, with the developing world getting every bit as thorough a screwing from Obama's White House as the Czechs got from Neville Chamberlain.


The science says that a 50% cut in emissions will give us a chance of avoiding a 2 degree rise in global temperatures. A temperature rise above 2 degrees will tip the world's eco-system over the edge, leading to disasters of Biblical proportions - famines, floods and resource wars worldwide. Even 2 degrees will result in disaster for many of the poorest countries, hence their insistence at Copenhagen on a deal that limits the rise to 1 degree or 1.5 degrees. That's a target often described as 'ambitious', which is accurate. For millions in the developing world, staying alive does indeed count as 'ambitious', given the balance of power between them and the wealthy.

So, a 50% cut to avert catastrophe. The US offer? 6 per cent.

Yes, six.

In the end, emissions cuts were not specified in the interim deal that came out of Copenhagen. Nor is there a commitment to provide adequate finance to help the poorest countries deal with the effects of climate change, and nor is there any real sign that legal obligations will be placed on countries to cut their emissions.

The major battle in the conference was over Kyoto. The Kyoto accord is the existing global deal on combating climate change. It placed legal obligations on signatory countries to cut their carbon emissions, and crucially it recognised the historic role of the rich nations in causing the problem. This is the key issue. The effects of climate change are being felt overwhelmingly by the poorest countries, but were caused overwhelmingly by the rich ones. This balance of responsibility and costs - the Kyoto principle - needs to be recognised in the new deal. Obama rejects this. He says developing countries should be "getting out of that mindset, and moving towards the position where everybody recognises that we all need to move together". Say what you like about the man, he gives great platitude.

Pressure was put on the most vulnerable countries, who spent the conference insisting they will not "die quietly", to basically do just that. To accept no legal commitment from the nations that caused climate change to carry out even the minimal cuts they have pledged. To accept nothing like the proper financial compensation owed by the West for its vandalism of other people's environments.

Charities and NGOs were not impressed by the final outcome (which Western leaders are now trying to spin as "historic"). Senior climate change advocacy officer at Christian Aid, Nelson Muffuh said: "Already 300,000 people die each year because of the impact of climate change, most of them in the developing world. The lack of ambition shown by rich countries in Copenhagen means that number will grow."

Kate Horner from Friends of the Earth said: "This is the United Nations and the nations here are not united on this secret back-room declaration. The US has lied to the world when they called it a deal and they lied to over a hundred countries when they said would listen to their needs. This toothless declaration, being spun by the US as an historic success, reflects contempt for the multi-lateral process and we expect more from our Nobel prize winning President."

Tim Jones, climate policy officer at the World Development Movement said: "This summit has been in complete disarray from start to finish, culminating in a shameful and monumental failure that has condemned millions of people around the world to untold suffering."

Hope and change? Nope, just climate change, and all the horrors to follow. That's what the Obama White House offered the world at Copenhagen, and as things stand, that's how this President will go down in history.


Now people inclined to make excuses for Obama will tell you that its all very difficult for him domestically. Lots of resistance at home from a sceptical public, so its hard for him to commit to anything more than he was able to offer. And indeed, this excuse is made for leaders worldwide. Well, its a myth. Here are the facts.

* 70 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide see climate change as a serious problem.
* 53 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide say "dealing with climate change should be a priority even if it causes slower growth and some loss of jobs".
* 82 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide accept that their own countries have a responsibility to deal with climate change.
* 58 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide believe their countries are not doing enough to deal with climate change.
* 82 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide believe their country should sign a deal limiting their carbon emissions at Copenhagen
* 73 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide say if a deal is not reached their country should cut emissions anyway
* 62 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide would be willing to pay more for energy and other products to deal with climate change
* 54 per cent in the US and majorities worldwide support giving assistance to poor nations to help them deal with climate change

The same is true in Britain. See this article. The Mail leaps on the fact that people are confused about the state of the science, as you'd expect. That's the headline. But then you get down to the inconvenient truths.

* 79 per cent see climate change as a serious concern
* 57 per cent support new air travel taxes to cut carbon emissions
* 68 per cent said much higher taxes should be imposed on gas-guzzling vehicles
* 87 per cent supported new building regulations to require high standards of insulation and use of renewable energy, even if it increases the cost of homes.

A myth is being put about that serious action against climate change is politically impossible. But what 'politically impossible' apparently means is not that the public don't support it. Its that elites don't support it, particularly the vested interests in the coal and oil lobbies who were wandering freely round the conference centre in Copenhagen even as respected environmentalist leaders were being ushered out of the building by security for no apparent reason.

In the farce Copenhagen descended into, much was left unresolved, so at least one further global conference will have to be called to firm up the new deal. We've now seen how bad this can get. The only thing that will change the equation is popular activism on an unprecedented scale. The public opinion I cited above needs to be turned into a political force that governments cannot ignore. I didn't use the Munich analogy lightly. Compare the political agreement to what the science says, and the stakes in terms of human suffering are very much on that scale.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In confession, Blair admits launching an illegal war

There’s been some controversy these past few days over remarks made by Tony Blair to the effect that he would still have taken Britain to war even if he had known that Iraq had no weapons of mass descruction (WMDs) in 2003. Put aside Blair’s continued pretence that there was any clear evidence that Iraq had WMD. Put aside the fiction that the existence of WMD would by itself have constituted a case for war (there was no chance that Saddam would have provoked the US by using them aggressively). A detailed look at what Blair said about the justification for starting the Iraq war reveals more about the nature of the decision that was taken than even many of Blair critics have fully realised. Because Blair has now effectively admitted that the war was, at least in part, an act of political violence taken, not as a last resort, but as a policy choice to advance a strategic agenda.



The remarks were made in an interview with the BBC that focsed largely on Blair’s religious faith and the role it has played in his public and personal life. Unable to find a transcript of the interview, I’ve just subjected myself this morning to watching fully one hour of Blair’s sanctimonious, middle-brow twaddle on the BBC website so I could copy down word-for-word the relevant parts of the interview.

No need to thank me.

Here’s what Blair said on Iraq, in full, followed by my analysis of the implications.

Asked if it was WMD that persuaded him to join the invasion of Iraq, Blair says:

It was the notion of him as a threat to the region, of which the development of WMD was obviously one. You'd had 12 years of United Nations to-and-fro on this subject, he'd used chemical weapons on his own people. So this was obviously the thing that was uppermost in my mind, the threat to the region. Also the fact of how that region was going to change and how in the end it was going to evolve as a region and whilst he was there I thought and actually still think it would have been very difficult to have changed it in the right way.

The interviewer then asks: “If you had known then that there were no WMDs would you still have gone on?”

I would still have thought it right to remove him. I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat ... but I find it quite hard because I've spent so much time out there now and you know they're about to have an election which will probably be the single most significant thing that's happened in that region for many years because they've managed at long last to break out of actually the religious divide. So you've got groupings for the first time standing there in elections who are going to be broad-based. Now, we hope that it works. But I'm out there a lot of the time now in the work I do in Israel and Palestine. I can't really think we'd be better with him and his two sons still in charge, but its incredibly difficult and I totally understand that's why I sympathise with the people who were against it for perfectly good reasons and are against it now but for me in the end you know I had to take the decision.

Later on, talking about the decision to invade from a personal point of view, Blair takes the subject back to the broader justifications for the war:

And you also understand I think with these types of decisions that the judgement about them is a very long run thing I mean you ...it all depends what view you take I mean I happen to think that there is a major major struggle going on all over the world really which is about Islam and what is happening within Islam and I think its got a long way to go. So I think its probably only significantly later that you will look back and work out in a context was this helpful to achieving change or was it not helpful, and that's difficult to judge right now.

[Source: Fern Britton Meets...Tony Blair, BBC One, 10:00am Sunday 13th December 2009]

So Blair advances two justifications for the war:

1. The security threat to the region and to Iraqis posed by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction; and
2. The obstacle Saddam posed to “change” in the region.

He then says that minus WMD he would still have thought it right to go to war. He would just “have had to use and deploy different arguments about the nature of the threat”. So what he describes in one breath as “the thing that was uppermost in my mind” turns out a moment later to be a detail, and not fundamental to the decision at all. Therefore we can discount justification 1.

This leaves us with justification 2. Saddam was an obstacle to “change” in the Middle East “and how in the end it was going to evolve as a region” which needed to be “changed in the right way”. Blair was explicitly told by his Attorney General that a war for regime change would be illegal. But put aside the legal question for a moment. One does not unleash a force of nature as catastrophically destructive as war simply because one wishes to effect a form of political change. Violence is only justifiable to avert an ongoing or imminent attack, only as a last resort and only to the extent that is strictly proportionate to the threat. Blair sees it differently. To him, violence can be used as a policy tool if Western political leaders feel that, in their judgement, a certain part of the world needs to “evolve”.

Blair talks about democratic elections in Iraq as proving the worth of his decision, but Blair's was not some principled war for democracy. We know for a fact that Blair has no interest in democracy in the Middle East. When the Palestinians voted for candidates that the West disapproved of in their elections of January 2006 Blair’s government colluded in a US-Israeli led boycott of the occupied Palestinian territories – one of the poorest places in the world - that effectively punished the Palestinian people indiscriminately for how they had chosen to vote. If any election deserves to be described as the “single most significant thing that's happened in that region for many years” it was the Palestinian elections of 2006, because of the overt contempt both for democracy and for the lives of the people of the Middle East that the Western reaction to it demonstrated. This – even more than the ongoing backing for various authoritarian Arab regimes - exposed the narrative of democratisation that Bush and Blair were peddling at the time to justify their approach to the Middle East for the fiction that it always was.

Blair says “in the end you know I had to take the decision”; but this is just the point. He was not in the position of a Winston Churchill, forced by an aggressor into making tough choices. His was not a decision of last resort. His choice to go to war was freely taken, because he thought it might help advance the West’s strategic agenda in the Middle East. There is no such thing as a just war that is freely chosen by the party that instigates it. A war of choice is by definition a war of aggression. Blair, by his own admission, is a war criminal.

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

The limits and context of New Labour's left turn

Today's editorial in The Guardian takes up an interesting theme: the long-term changes in the political economy of Britain and how the apparent move towards "industrial activism", made recently by New Labour, may fit into broader economic trends.


The rise of socialist and social democratic politics, driven by the organisation of mass labour rooted in manufacturing and other blue collar industries, probably reached its peak at around the mid-point of the last century, winning in the process some vital gains in terms of the political enfranchisement and economic welfare of the general population. Subsequent years saw the demographic make up of the country change, with manufacturing industry declining sharply as a mass employer, the move of many working class people into white collar work, an increase in home-ownership and the general break-up of the social base that had driven the Labour Party in particular and the political challenge to the vested interests of the economic elites more generally. The end of this historic socialist/social democratic coalition saw the establishment of a new Thatcherite consensus, first by Thatcher herself, then later on by New Labour.

However, recent months have seen something of a change in tone from the Labour government, including a willingness to intervene in support of the industrial sector and to (vocally at least) challenge the banking industry. We have also seen Gordon Brown directly challenge the regressive taxation policies of the Conservative Party and link those to the privileged background of its leading figures. Obviously Labour has to tack left at least slightly in order to rally support ahead of next year's general election. Its traditional base can no longer be relied upon to turn out and vote after 12 years of neo-Thatcherism from Brown and Blair, not to mention Blair's politically disastrous alliance with George W Bush. So trying to shore up that constituency makes sense. But is there also something deeper at work here?

The long-term social changes and trends described above that undermined traditional Labourism, though not entirely within the control of policymakers, were at the same time, not entirely due to forces of nature. The political economy is a system created by human beings and driven by human choices.

Similarly today, with it having become obvious that the British economy is fundamentally unbalanced and over-reliant on the "socially useless" activity of the financial sector, it is right that politicians should make the conscious choice to change this balance away from "financial engineering" towards "real engineering". This is especially true when climate change demands that we radically and swiftly alter the technological base, a situation that offers huge opportunities in research, development and production to the nation states and companies smart enough to take them. More national reliance on capital investment and less on capricious financial flows would also - potentially at least - render the democratic state better able to hold its own against the demands of elite international economic interests.

So it turns out, after 11 years of New Labour being "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich", that you don't have to accept post-Thatcherite neo-liberalism as though it were written into the laws of physics. You can, in fact, make choices.

The costs of the centre-left's intellectual and moral timidity in the face of the status quo post-Thatcher can be measured in the damage done to the economy by the collapse of those orthodoxies in the autumn of 2008. Labour appears, very slowly indeed, to be coming round to an understanding (an understanding that is at least partially right) of what this might mean politically. It would be a shame if it lost the opportunity to develop this line of thinking more fully, given the unpleasant alternative facing us at the ballot box next spring.

Labour's current politics, irrespective of the recent mild drift away from Thatcherism, still require a serious overhaul or wholesale replacement. That's a long-term task for Britain's progressive majority, requiring dedication and commitment. In the short term, we should be aware of the changing political weather in the aftermath of the banking crisis and work to ensure that the obvious lessons are learnt about the sustainability of neo-liberal economics. In those circumstances, a Labour victory is plainly preferable to a Tory victory in the election next spring. But given New Labour's dismal record in entrenching Thatcherism during its first 11 years in power, and the extremely limited nature of its political conversion post-credit crunch, an anti-Tory vote next spring should be one very small part of a far greater effort to move the long-term trends of the British economy in a more progressive direction.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Venezuela: Inside the Revolution

My review of the documentary film "Inside the Revolution", a look at recent political trends in Venezuela, is published by The Samosa.

An exerpt:

"What is the nature of the political change that has been taking shape in Venezuela since the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998? This has become one of the central questions in world politics over the past decade. Why? Because events in that South American country have direct relevance to the key global trends of the moment: the waning power of the United States, the fading credibility of the neo-liberal economic model, and the slow replacement of the zombified ‘Washington Consensus’.

Inside the Revolution, a film by the documentary-maker Pablo Navarrete, is a serious, insightful and thought-provoking review of Venezuelan politics over recent years. With a particular focus on the perspectives of the poorest and an admirable willingness to let them tell their own story, Navarrete analyses the roots of the transformation taking place in Venezuela, the obstacles it faces, and the prospects for the future."

You can read the whole piece here, and go here for more information on screenings of Inside the Revolution.

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