Recent Foreign affairs Articles
I doubt this post is going to change many minds, but its worth explaining my position anyway
Imagine a situation where your neighbour is a drunk man who comes home and beats his wife every day. You can hear her screams and unsuccessful attempts to fight him off and feel powerless. The police are unable to intervene and she carries on getting beaten and raped. Do you sit by and do nothing because it’s not happening in your house? I wouldn’t.
Foreign policy isn’t exactly the same, but I’ve always believed we should intervene in other countries if a humanitarian crisis is taking place. I’m not an isolationanist though I recognise that governments don’t always have humanitarian concerns at heart when they interfere in other countries.
Syria is not Afghanistan, or Iraq or…
Would you support an arms embargo on the Palestinians and deny them the right to defend themselves against Israel? I wouldn’t. I bet most of you wouldn’t either.
Ahhh, but Syria is different – you say. You’re right, it is. It is also different to Afghanistan, Iraq and other recent conflicts. Which is why I don’t buy the argument that this is like Iraq (which I was vehemently against) or other conflicts.
The aim isn’t to flood Syria but increase pressure on Assad and Russia. It is a warning shot with the aim of pushing them to negotiate. At the very least it would make it harder for Russians to feed Assad bigger missiles. This is a VERY limited intervention with support from neighbouring Arab countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. I repeat: it is not Iraq.
There’s a reason why the ‘red line’ was chemical weapons, not the 90,000 dead. The UN (and US) aim is to demand action when chemical, biological or nuclear weapons are used, in the hope that it sets a precedent and dissuades countries from using them despite availability. If no action is taken at all and Assad sees this as a bluff, it could open the way for more chemical weapons being used.
How many is too many?
There is a real danger that unless Assad willingly abdicates or transitions Syria to a democracy, the civil war could go on for years. Another 100,000 could be dead. Instead, in an effort to end the stalemate, we have a limited intervention by Nato forces, working in conjunction with other Middle Eastern countries, to put pressure on Assad to step down. To compare this with the bombing of Iraq or Afghanistan isn’t just absurd but actually ignorant.
How many dead people is too many? A quarter of a million people dead? Half a million? A million? Would you oppose any intervention at any cost to human life? I wouldn’t. I think 90,000 is far too much. I also think it should be a limited intervention, and evidence of chemical weapon usage fully explained. I don’t think our govts should get a blank cheque, but neither should we sit by and watch tens of thousands get slaughtered.
I wrote a post the other day that caused something of a stir. I argued that migration of the young & skilled from southern European countries could mean that those left behind face a very bleak future. Let me explain a bit further.
I am emphatically NOT arguing that there is anything intrinsically wrong with young, skilled people leaving in search of a better life elsewhere. Migration benefits both the migrants and the receiving countries. Immigration is a GOOD thing for countries that have ageing populations and skills shortages – as most Western countries do.
But where people can freely move to other countries, the sort of ‘internal devaluation’ that forces down wages in search of ‘competitiveness’ inevitably causes migration when the same jobs in Greece and Germany pay vastly different wages. Unfortunately it is this sort of ‘internal devaluation’ that has been forced on the Eurozone periphery because their membership of the Euro prevents them from devaluing their currencies vis-a-vis their main trading partners, which is the usual means by which countries restore competitiveness.
Traditionally, young migrants send money back to their parents. But in the West, with pension and healthcare systems that support the old, the explicit contract between children and parents is weakened. I don’t have evidence to support this but I think that young migrants are much more likely to send money home when there is little state pension or healthcare provision in their country of origin. If they believe that the state will support their parents, they may not send money home.
The problem is that the people left behind are older, less able and lower skilled, which makes these countries less attractive to businesses. After all, why would a business choose to locate itself somewhere where the local workforce is ageing and poorly skilled? So businesses would go elsewhere too. That would cause GDP to shrink further.
The population’s need for state support would actually increase as it ages and gets sicker, but tax revenue would fall as working people and businesses leave. That adds up to long-term decline and a growing burden on the state’s finances.
And old people and long-term disabled don’t generally pay taxes. So where will the taxes come from to support the welfare systems that these people depend on?
There is one final ingredient in this poisonous mixture. Most of these states are already highly indebted. With a growing burden on their healthcare and pension systems and falling tax take due to GDP decline, their debts can only get worse. The fiscal compact gives primacy to debt service over maintaining public services. As I see it, therefore, these states will eventually be forced to dismantle their welfare systems – the pensions and healthcare required by their ageing populations – to avoid debt default.
Eventually, I suppose, the old and the unskilled will also leave – if they can, and if any country will receive them. For although the European Union is in theory committed to the free movement of people, I wonder how real that commitment would turn out to be in the face of large-scale migration of pensioners and benefit claimants from the Eurozone periphery. I suspect that free movement of people might turn out to be another of those European laws that are binding in good times but illusory in bad.
Therefore as Krugman said, the combination of labour mobility with internal devaluation and lack of fiscal union in the Eurozone is potentially lethal.
There is no possibility of recovery for countries caught in the deadly embrace of high public debt and youth migration. For them, “internal devaluation” actually means creeping desertification.
A longer version of this blogpost is here.
If the UK government is considering arming Syrian rebels, it should also consider embedding British personnel with rebel forces.
This arms supply method was developed by Fitzroy MacLean in his dealings with the Partisans in WW2. It is accounted for in MacLean’s famous book Eastern Approaches.
The reason for embedding personnel, with our equipment, is partly that we can then be sure who is using our arms, but also in order that we have a relationship and an influence, both now and in post-conflict Syria.
In WW2 the Balkans were just as bloody as Syria is right now, if not more. Whole villages were executed as Nazi punishments. Engaging the Partisans, MacLean would often dissuade them from responding in kind. “A modern country would not do that kind of thing.”
He was reminding them that after the war they would be expected to join the international community, as a nation, not a barbarous tribe. MacLean probably averted a considerable number of massacres and atrocities, but he was only able to do so because he was present.
British influence, of this kind, would be felt by the Syrian rebels, if we were arming and amongst them.
Most of the reports concerning the character of the rebels comes from Turkish and American intelligence in Syria. The problem with this intelligence is not that it is wrong, but that it paints a picture of the rebels unaffected by a relationship with us. They long ago gave up on the west as allies. We have little influence, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar has considerable clout.
My point in describing the MacLean system is to draw attention to the humanitarian benefits, which cannot be replicate by sitting on the sidelines and saying “Nothing to do with us. We’re not responsible.”
Do we achieve innocence through inaction? If a man is drowning and we stand by and watch, are we not responsible for his death, due to our lack of action? If a doctor watches a man die, knowing that the medicine in his bag which could save him, has that doctor done nothing wrong, by his inaction, of has he killed the man by his failure to act?
If the rebels demonstrate themselves as barbarous, while under the influence of the Saudis, are we not at least partly responsible, by our refusal to enter and engage?
By embedding our personnel, we can pick and choose which militia can use our technology.
We can encourage talks and cooperation between factions, acting as honest broker. We can influence a peaceful outcome and avert further tragedy. That is the type of player we should be.
Firstly, I’d like to thank Sunny, for saying that the campaign for Labour to support an EU referendum is “cool”.
He’s right; out of all the groups calling for the Labour Party to support a policy launched this week, Labour for a Referendum is the most in vogue.
However, on the main crux of his article, that our campaign is “Dead on Arrival”, we would have to, somewhat controversially, disagree.
Sunny outlines three main points for his argument. I will try and rebut each of these points as thoroughly, fairly and, crucially, quickly as possible.
1) Supporting a referendum would make Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers more demanding.
I don’t see this as being Ed Miliband’s problem. If Labour supported a referendum one suspects that Tory MPs would attempt to push their own leader into a more hardline position rather than ours.
Sure, Tory backbenchers might become more demanding, but that would only lead them to more internal bickering, rather than dividing our party?
2) You shouldn’t get involved when your opponents are infighting.
The idea that we should adopt a grab-the-popcorn approach to opposition and let the victory come to us seems flawed. While it makes perfect sense not to rush into policy commitments so far before the election, when we see the Tories in disarray we should capitalise on it as best we can.
Milk that subject for all it’s worth. Grab it and run. Put a spanner in the works. Use whatever metaphor you want, but sitting back and relaxing is easy, but it is no path to a Labour majority.
3) Labour’s line is settled, we can’t go back on it now.
We’re not expecting to change Labour’s policy by the end of the week. That’s not the plan. What we want is for a commitment to an EU referendum to be in our 2015 manifesto. We think it’s the right thing to do, we think it’s popular and we think it will help get Ed Miliband in 10 Downing Street.
But we’re happy to play the long game. 2017 is indeed “far, far away”, although it is likely/definitely going to be half as far away when we go into the next election. Everything Miliband has said about it so far has been couched in language that suggests that this is a policy liable to change if circumstances do.
Our job, as Labour for a Referendum, is to make sure that the pressure is kept on, and that Miliband knows just how helpful a pledge could be.
Finally, I can only apologise that Labour for a Referendum did not exist a year ago. Circumstances changed.
Dominic Moffitt is Campaign Director for Labour for a Referendum
I was running my own campaign calling for Labour to offer an EU Referendum before it became cool. But now, given all the renewed focus on this question, a group of Labour folks have set up a Labour for a referendum campaign.
Unfortunately, it is Dead on Arrival. Finished. The chances succeeding now are very near zero.
And there are very simple reasons for this.
1) Mad Euro-sceptic Tories have shown that once you feed the beast it only grows and gets more demanding. So Ed Miliband will not want to feed it at all.
2) When your opponents are in chaos and fighting against each other, why wade in too? It is much better for Ed Miliband to let the Tories carry on making a fool out of themselves. It’s not like the EU Referendum is going to come at an earlier date just because Tory backbenchers want it so.
3) The Labour leadership have settled on a position now: committing to a referendum now would only lead to more uncertainty over the UK’s relationship with Europe, given 2017 is so far away. It makes no sense to junk that position at now.
I was told by a senior shadow cabinet member, over a year ago, that at one point all three parties were negotiating a joint position on offering an EU Referendum. At that point I was optimistic that it would be in Labour’s next manifesto or materialise as a commitment even earlier.
But for some reason the negotiations broke down and the three parties could not agree on jointly offering an EU Referendum. And so everyone went their separate ways.
A more coordinated campaign to get Labour to agree to a referendum should have been launched over a year ago. At this stage, mostly thanks to the antics of the Tory right, there is no chance the Labour leadership will entertain the idea now.
Ever since the disaster at the Rana Plaza textile factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, some commentators have been trying to guilt-trip cash-strapped western consumers for the terrible conditions of workers in Bangladesh’s Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector, where wages are as low as £27 a month.
We’ve been told that our insatiable desire for cheap clothing is what keeps wages down, and working conditions so poor that factory fires are endemic and corners cut so badly that buildings collapse, as Rana Plaza did.
But we think cash-strapped consumers aren’t the problem, and the TUC have researched and published a quick graphic to explain:
The suggestion that consumers are to blame struck us as a bit too convenient. So we asked the textile unions in Bangladesh how much their members were paid to make a t-shirt.
Believe it or not, there’s actually a term for how long it takes a textile worker to run up a basic t-shirt: the ‘Standard Minute Value’ or SMV. And the time it takes is 10.565 minutes. That’s a rough estimate, presumably!
Textile workers usually work over 200 hours a month, producing nearly six t-shirts every hour. So the princely wage they receive for each t-shirt is roughly 2p. We’ve found costs in high street shops ranging from £2 to £10, with the archetypal t-shirt mentioned in several reports costing £6.
So the price you’re charged for a t-shirt has nothing to do with the wages of the textile workers who made it. To double their wages would increase the production cost of a basic high-street t-shirt by 2p.
That all suggests that someone’s trying to pull the wool over our eyes about who’s really responsible for the low wages and poor health and safety standards in Dhaka’s RMG sector, and it’s the global brands and manufacturers who set the prices.
Bizarrely, some of them have insisted that they have no control over wages, hours of work, factory safety and the like. But they can determine the time it takes to manufacture a t-shirt down to three decimal places and determine what the stitching on the hems looks like! Pull the other one!
We’re supporting the global union for textile workers, IndustriALL, who are demanding that global brands, retailers and manufacturers sign up to an agreement on health and safety and wages. You can support them by by taking this e-action.
Crucially, workers in Bangladesh need the right to join a union and the right to negotiate terms and conditions with their employers. But they also need to work in safety, as the International Labour Organisation has insisted.
The people who should be feeling guilty are the people who run those global multinationals and the Government of Bangladesh. Not shoppers like you, struggling to get by on wages that are also not increasing, while the costs of food, fuel and accommodation continue to rise.
Workers everywhere need dignity at work, based on decent wages and decent jobs.
About six years ago, bloggers from across the political spectrum banded together for a campaign to offer asylum to Iraqi interpreters to British armed forces. It was a long and bumpy campaign, and we didn’t get all that we wanted at the time, but it helped to get more Iraqi interpreters into the UK than if we had done nothing.
Now it’s time to revisit the issue, for interpreters who have helped British armed forces in Afghanistan.
The reasons this is the right thing to do are straightforward:
1) These interpreters have helped save the lives of British soldiers in Afghanistan.
2) They put their lives at risk, from extremist elements, to help British forces.
3) If we abandon them, it hurts British peace-keeping missions in the future. Locals will be less willing to help British armed forces in the future if they think they will be abandoned at a later date.
Whether you were for or against the war in Afghanistan, helping Afghani interpreters and their families is the morally righteous course of action. This says nothing about whether Afghanistan was right or wrong – only that these people need help, and should be offered asylum in the UK for their services.
* * * * * *
The campaign also has wide-spread public support. A Sunday Times opinion poll found that most Britons agree we should offer asylum to Afghan interpreters who worked for British troops. Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem voters all support the call for protection for the interpreters – while UKIP voters were narrowly against it.
There is an email petition by Avaaz.org and I fully support that, though I think there should be a off-line campaign focused on lobbying MPs too.
The Times is once again campaigning strongly on this issue, and I hope other newspapers will follow suit.
* * * * * *
It would help if bloggers wrote about this issue too, or highlight related stories in the press on Twitter, to keep up the momentum.
Support from Lib Dem and Tory bloggers & figures would be really helpful – this has to be a cross-party campaign.
What I’m looking for right now are offers of support and help, and ideas on how to take this forward. The first step is likely to be a meeting in a pub somewhere (in London, sorry) to discuss how to take the campaign forward and who can help in what way.
A few years agao, I blogged about the campaign to save the Iraqi translators who had worked for British troops in the country.
Appallingly, the British Government refused to give them asylum, even though it was their work helping (perhaps, even keeping alive) British soldiers that had got them into trouble in the first place.
Via Aavaz, I learn that the British Government may now repeat this shameful episode in relation to translators working with British forces in Afghanistan. They want to give compensation, in lieu of asylum.
This really is not good enough. We have a duty to protect these people. Failure to do so would not only be a moral outrage – it would damage the reputation of British forces abroad and make it much harder to recruit local translators for future military operations.
Aavaz have a petition, which I have signed. Please do the same.
Why does the British Government drag its heels on these ethical no-brainers?
I worry that it is down to the confused debate about immigration in this country. Asylum seekers, refugees, economic migrants and illegal immigrants are all very different types of migrant, but they are all spoken of as similarly illegitimate and unwelcome.
We cannot allow an immature debate at home to hobble our soldiers working abroad.
In 2010, 140,000 children aged under five died in Bangladesh. If the country had the same mortality rate (pdf) as the UK, only around 15,000 would have done so. This implies that around 125,000 Bangladeshi children die each year from poverty.
This fact, however, does not feature prominently in nightly news bulletins, even though it is equivalent to two Rana Plaza collapses every week.
There is, of course a simple reason for this. The news reports abnormal events, not normal ones; "dog bites man" is not news. Collapsing buildings are abnormal and so newsworthy whilst acute poverty is normal and so isn't news.
This bias is inherent in the nature of news. And yet it can be misleading. You cannot understand why so many Bangladeshis tolerate working in sweatshops until you realize that doing so gives their children not just a better chance in life, but a better chance of life. Thanks in part to the economic development brough by those sweatshops, child mortality in Bangladesh has fallen.
However, news reports which draw attention to the evils of sweatshops but not to those of rural poverty understate the benefits which such sweatshops have brought. Yes, they're hellholes which perhaps could and should be improved upon – but they're better than the alternative.
In this sense, news generates a bias amongst its western consumers; it encourages a hostility to globalization and industrialization even though these are – albeit imperfect – routes out of poverty.
There's a parallel here with attitudes towards crime reporting. It's a commonplace that whilst crime has fallen in recent years, the fear of it hasn't. A big reason for this, I suspect, is that violent crime – being abnormal – gets reported whilst folks living safely, being normal, does not. Ordinary reporting thus warps our perspective.
You cannot reasonably judge a probability distribution merely by looking at the far tail of it. But this is what the news invites us to do.
There's another relevant bias here. Whilst under-reporting deaths from rural poverty the news is full of the doings of the rich and powerful. This too can have pernicious unintended effects. Laboratory experiments (pdf) have found that the mere act of communicating with others can induce them to behave more altruistically towards us. This implies that we are likely to be better-disposed towards the rich and powerful than we otherwise would be, and less well-disposed to the silent poverty-stricken billions. This too generates a bias towards tolerating poverty.
I say all this as a caveat to a common complaint. Everyone complains – with justification – about bad, right-wing, dumbed-down linkbait journalism. But even when journalists are doing their jobs well, they are contributing to some unpleasant biases, by the very nature of what constitutes news. You cannot, rationally, base your political opinions in what your see in the news.
Prime Minister David Cameron has today written an op-ed for the Daily Telegraph arguing that ‘we need a nuclear deterrent more than ever’.
But rather than making an effective case for Trident it shows how shallow the arguments are, and in fact undermines the entire project.
Cameron’s claims that we need Trident centres around one country. “Last year North Korea unveiled a long-range ballistic missile which it claims can reach the whole of the United States. If this became a reality it would also affect the whole of Europe, including the UK,” he writes. But this seems to be drinking North Korean Kool Aid – accepting their discredited claims at face value.
In reality the dictatorship has a few mid-range (1800 miles) missiles that would cover South Korea, Japan and possibly the US territory of Guam in the Pacific Ocean. But even these missles are untested according to most independent experts. It has test-fired some long-range rockets in the past but they failed. The idea that North Korea has developed an inter-continental ballistic missile, fitted with a nuclear warhead, that could hit the United States is a fantasy worthy of the North Korean propaganda machine. The Prime Minister undermines his entire project by asking us to take this ridiculous claim at face value.
Cameron has clearly timed the piece well. Last night North Korea escalated tensions against the South and the US by moving mid-range missiles to the east coast. It also locked South Korean workers out of a joint factory complex and said it would restart a previously shut-down nuclear reactor.
But this just exposes how ridiculous the situation is. South Korea may have good grounds to argue for a nuclear deterrent, but the UK does not feature in the military considerations. We aren’t even required to play a part. North Korea is clearly a threat but it is not our threat, and it’s highly unlikely to be a threat to the UK in the coming future. Of course, Trident is a long-term project, but it comes with an opportunity cost: resources are diverted to a big unwieldy deterrent rather than smaller, more cost-effective measures to tackle the threats the UK is likely to face.
In other words the Prime Minister is calling to spend billions on our behalf on a weapon for an enemy that isn’t even concerned by us.
How about a focus on the threats we are likely to face in the future?
Furthermore, it’s not even clear why a full nuclear deterrent is needed more than a scaled-down version. The United States is in fact looking to change course in dealing with North Korea after realising that a show of force may have provoked the crisis further. And what does our Prime Minister want? He wants a big show of force in the foolish belief that this will somehow deter North Korea. If they are willing to threaten the United States why would they even care how many nuclear weapons we have?
I’m not a pacifist and neither do I think it’s likely the UK will get anywhere by unilaterally disarming itself. Clearly, multi-lateral treaties to reduce nuclear stockpiles are the way forward. So what kind of a signal would such a full renewal of Trident send to other countries such as India and Pakistan, who refuse to sign the NPT and keep testing nuclear weapons? Why wouldn’t they use the UK as an excuse to continue arming their stockpiles and putting the lives of millions of people at stake.
And lastly, the decision to spend billions more on a remote threat rather than using that money to help people in the UK undermines the claim that ‘there is no money left’. There clearly is – it’s just earmarked for the sorts of vanity projects that Conservatives like rather than for the most vulnerable in our society.
NEWS ARTICLES ARCHIVE