Recent Foreign affairs Articles
It feels like the calm before the coming storm. The situation in Ukraine is likely to escalate very quickly, and yet there seems to be worrying lack of urgency about it everywhere.
Three things happened over the last week that have set the stage.
1) Rather than going home after taking over Crimea, Russia started amassing troops on the Ukranian border. It also started directing its people inside Ukraine to take over various towns and cities in the east of the country. There are obvious examples of this: well-armed and well-trained ‘militias’ have sprung up everywhere; the newly appointed police chief in Horlivka admitted to being a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army.
2) In response, Ukraine said it would launch a military operation to take back its own territory unless the militias left peacefully by Monday morning. Fair enough: any government would want to fight back against armed (and foreign) militias who have taken over its towns without any democratic mandate.
3) The deadline passed and the Ukrainian govt did nothing. Then, it asked for UN peacekeeping forces to maintain order. Today, the Ukranian govt belatedly launched military operations, but there are reports that some troops in the east are defecting to the pro-Russian side. Meanwhile, the Ukranian economy is near collapse.
The key problem here is that Ukraine is too weak against Russia. If Ukraine gets bogged down in a long battle against pro-Russian forces in the east, it would only hasten a collapse of its economy.
Putin is betting that the Ukranian economy collapses before his does, which would trigger a crisis for the EU and force them to agree to his demands.
This is why we have to get involved now rather than later. This could mean all out trade sanctions, UN peacekeeping forces or NATO forces. If Ukraine collapses then Europe will feel the full force and force us to agree to Putin’s demands. It would be the worst crisis for Nato and the EU in a generation.
Hoping that Russia will back off from strong words is foolish – Putin’s only hope now is that Ukraine goes down before him. And he’s doing his utmost to make that happen.
‘Ukraine stands on the brink of a possible military showdown with Russia this morning,’ says Human Rights Watch today.
This isn’t an exaggeration either – the acting President of Ukraine issued a warning to pro-Russian forces yesterday, calling on them to lay down their weapons.
That deadline has now passed and there are no signs that the militants are giving up. In fact, they are bolstered by Russian money and weapons and the build-up of Russian troops on the border.
So what happens now? This is where confusion reigns and why Putin is resting easy for now.
Ukrainian forces will try and take back government buildings occupied by pro-Russian forces, but are likely to face heavy resistance and won’t be able to take them back quickly.
That will give Putin more time to create disorder and to reiterate his claim that Ukrainian forces are harming ordinary ethnic Russians. It would give him internal justification for more explicit military action in Ukraine.
If Putin then takes stronger military action in Ukraine, what do the UK and USA say then?
Calling on him to withdraw is not enough clearly, Putin has ignored them so far. I suspect Ukraine is looking for promises of military backing from the United States and European states before it continues.
But sooner or later we will have to confront the question: what do the USA and UK do is Ukraine goes to war with Russia? We cannot just sit on the sidelines and watch because it has huge security and energy implications for us.
But there seems to be no appetite for such promises from the West to guarantee Ukraine’s safety. Our politicians want to avoid answering such questions. Some of them are busy holidaying in Lanzarote. I don’t suspect Vladimir Putin is too worried for now.
The test of democracy and of the rule of law, both here and in Greece, is not how it treats the best of us but how it treats the worst.
That doesn’t mean we should be complacent. There are real threats to justice in Britain, such as cuts to legal aid. However the battle is clearly not yet lost here.
Meanwhile in Greece the authorities have moved to arrest members of the Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, including its leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos and four other Golden Dawn MPs. They’ve been charged with belonging to a criminal organisation and it’s claimed that guns and ammunition were found in Michaloliakos’ home.
Recent posts by reservists belonging to elite Greek military units calling for a coup, the killing of a prominent leftist musician, sustained attacks on immigrants and left wing protesters, had all brought things to a point where the state seems to have felt obliged to act.
I feel obliged to say two things. Firstly that I believe in muscular democracy; in other words I do not believe that a democracy, in the name of democracy, should hand the means of its own destruction to non-democratic forces.
When Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared at one point that he saw democracy as a bus, you use it to get to your destination and then get off, he associated himself with autocrats everywhere who have exploited democracy from Hitler onwards.
The minimum qualification for seeking power democracy must be a commitment to surrender power democratically when citizens demand it. For that reason it’s hard to justify allowing Golden Dawn or any other anti-democratic group an electoral platform.
The other thing I would say is this; however odious Golden Dawn the party and its members may be they must get due process and a fair trial. It’s not so much a concern about creating martyrs. Most knuckle dragging far right thugs would fetishise a rotting dog’s carcass if it served their warped cause. Nope, it’s because the damage done to Greek democracy by further degrading its already damaged institutions would be almost as bad as letting Golden Dawn damage them.
There’s a passage in A Man For All Seasons, where Sir Thomas More is debating with his son-in-law Wiolliam Roper, that puts it better than I could.
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
Bang ‘em up, throw away the key and all that, but do it proper and do it so a better, more confident, more self respecting, more honest, more democratic Greece can come out of this.
this blog was originally posted here.
Many, but by no means all Greens are worried about population. It’s a multiplier on many of the problems we face. But it’s a very sensitive subject, as David Attenborough has discovered.
When I heard Attenborough say: “what are all these famines in Ethiopia, what are they about? They’re about too many people for too little piece of land. That’s what it’s about,” I hear the echoes of generations-old, lazy thinking about Africa and Africans summed up in the notion of the White Man’s Burden.
A little while ago there was a row about whether Green World, the magazine for Green Party members, should take an ad from the group Population Matters of which Attenborough is a prominent supporter. I argued, quite vociferously that it should; I dislike any attempt to stifle debate.
The anti-Population Matters lobby, among them Lib-Con regular Adam Ramsay, pointed out that the carbon footprint of a country like Mali is so small compared to Western nations that the population could double, treble or more without having much impact on the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
True, though unless we keep Malians poor or we can roll out clean energy fast that may not remain the case. And every African needs to eat the same minimum as every European, and even people in the rich West can only eat so much. Over-population results in countries hitting a food production buffer long before they hit an energy buffer.
But David Attenborough and others also need to stop blinding ourselves with stereotypes about Africa.
Firstly, in simple terms of density sub-Saharan Africa is far less populated than North West Europe, the Indian subcontinent, China and Japan.
Then, when one looks at which nations import and which export food, an even more interesting picture emerges. Many West and East African nations are net food exporters – Ethiopia included.
What do they export? Well next time you pick up a packet of mange-tout check out its origin. Chances are it’ll come from Kenya along with cut flowers and other products that drink up water and use valuable agricultural land.
Yes, populations outstripping the ability of the land to support them is a problem; but not in Africa. It’s a problem in Japan, and Saudi Arabia and Russia. It’s a problem in South East England and potentially across most of Europe too. But those are wealthy countries, so we don’t tell people there to stop having children.
Africa’s problem, on the other hand, is one of economics and justice; debt, balance of payments, the need for foreign currency and poverty. It’s about foreign governments and corporations (the Chinese prominent amongst them) buying up land because they know that rich nations consume more food than they can.
If only David Attenborough were as knowledgeable about the human as he is about the animal world he might have talked about the Black Man’s Burden – part of which involves feeding Europeans who are quick to advise, slow to listen and who, for the most part, simply don’t seem to care.
Jonathan Kent blogs here.
Last Friday, the Green Alliance published their review of the three major political parties’ activity on the environment since May 2010. The “Green Standard 2013” makes disappointing reading for all parties – but for none more so than the Conservatives.
On becoming Prime Minister in 2010, David Cameron said he would lead the “greenest government” ever. He described the existence of a fourth, mysterious minster at the Department for Energy & Climate Change, “who cares passionately about this agenda – and that is me, the prime minister. I mean that from the bottom of my heart”.
Yet despite such reassurances, Cameron’s own Chancellor has repeatedly suggested that environmental progress would compromise a healthy economy. Meanwhile, Owen Paterson, the UK’s Secretary of State and political leader on all things environment, has publicly questioned the reality of human-induced climate change.
However, neither the Liberal Democrats nor Labour have come away unscathed either. The Green Standard describes Labour’s failure to lead upon, prioritise, or even propose credible solutions to green the UK economy.
The Liberal Democrats are portrayed as having “no clear vision for the environment” –a portrait which certainly rings true as only yesterday, the Lib Dems backed a motion to support fracking- a fossil fuel industry vociferously opposed by 1000s of demonstrators nationwide, with 67% of citizens preferring to have a wind turbine near their home than a fracking site.
As extreme weather and energy insecurity bear down on our continent, we need someone to lead us to a better place, fast. While British politicians flag, our EU membership may haul us out of the smoggy darkness. The EU’s record on the environment, while not perfect, is often better than Britain’s record.
From addressing carbon capture, to banning bee-harming pesticides, the EU is providing both a platform to debate these issues, as well as leadership in exploring change.
Let’s take fish as an example. In 2005, the Northeast Atlantic was 95% overfished. Recognising the seriousness of the situation, the European Commission tackled the issue head on through determined fisheries management. Today, the same waters are only 39% overfished.
Concurrently, the European policy governing fisheries has undergone significant, progressive reform; a process frequently led, perhaps surprisingly by Richard Benyon, the UK’s Tory Fisheries Minster. A chance on the world stage allowed him to push for positive change, in a way which he’s failed to do at home, as shown by his desultory progress in establishing only 31 of the originally propose 127 marine conservation zones in UK waters.
The possibility to participate, shape and share a common future on issues such as air quality, weather, natural resources and energy security is one that shouldn’t be overlooked by the debate on our membership of the European Union.
The environment is one issue we’re unable to go alone – we need to be in it to win it.
Former PM Tony Blair was on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, saying the Syrian conflict wasn’t about trust in the same way was Iraq, because we know that chemical weapons exist in Syria and were used on innocent people very recently.
Before I come to the issue about trust, it’s worth emphasising that Blair is right about the second part.
What we know, is that on 21st of August 2013, several canisters of gas opened in several suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus, and within a short time approximately a thousand people were dead.
But after that the facts become hazy, because the UN inspectors weren’t given much time to gather evidence and didn’t take many of the local samples offered to them (see Section 3).
To my mind there is little doubt that the Syrian governement carried out this attack. Tony Blair said the same thing this morning. But where Blair still continues to get it wrong is that this is still very much about trust.
There is little trust in claims (by the US government and others) that chemical weapons were used.
There is little trust in announcements by US and UK governments that Bashar al-Assad is behind these chemical attacks.
There is hardly any trust in the ability of the United States government to intervene in the Syrian conflict constructively.
This lack of trust, built up in large part due to Iraq, is the reason why the public remains deeply unconvinced and our politicians so hesitant to act over Syria.
So, trust matters.
Which is why Tony Blair has it so wrong. And the aim of western government now should be to build up that trust again. Confirm use of chemical weapons with proper evidence for everyone to see, show evidence that Assad’s regime was behind it, make the case for intervention by explaining what exactly you want to do and the exit strategy. Only once that is done can there be any public trust in any decision to intervene in Syria.
It’s extraordinary that Tony Blair still thinks trust is irrelevant.
In the Times today, David Aaronovitch uses Ed Miliband’s Syria vote as a spring-board for criticism (£) about his leadership of the Labour party. “The Syria vote crystallised his failings. He waits for mistakes, then like a scavenger exploits them,” he says.
Put aside the fact that this is the job of opposition politicians, I think those hawks in favour of going into Syria should be pleased by what happened last week.
Yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard from Chuck Hagel and John Kerry on their position on Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry: Since President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go, it is not insignificant that to deprive him of the capacity to use chemical weapons, or to degrade the capacity to use those chemical weapons, actually deprives him of a lethal weapon in this ongoing civil war, and that has an impact. That can help to stabilize the region, ultimately.
Oh, so they want ‘regime change’… except the White House Press Sec said just last week: “The options that we are considering are not about regime change“.
And then, more confusion…
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: And this is about getting to an end game. That end game is a diplomatic settlement. It is driving this toward what we believe, the president believes is the only way out of this, if for no other reason than what Secretary Kerry has noted: We do not want to see the country of Syria disintegrate, result in ungoverned space, which I think the consequences would be devastating for our partners, for our allies, the entire Middle East. Then we would all have to respond in some way.
So the end game is regime change, or not… but it’s definitely a diplomatic settlement. Though if Assad doesn’t want to negotiate his own removal, then we’re not going to force him, because that would mean the collapse of Syria, which we don’t want.
Well, that clears it up. Basically, the United States govt has no specific idea about what they want from their attack on Syria… or they’re not telling us. See this scathing post by Joshua Foust for more.
All this underscores an important point – even those who want action in Syria aren’t clear what the US govt is planning or wants from their intervention. I bet David Aaronovitch is unable to articulate what was the specific aim of the military action the UK and USA were about to rush into last week.
This is the point Ed Miliband was making. Of course, those who want ‘firm action‘ don’t care for such subtleties – they want a leader to stand strong regardless of whether the details have been worked out. There’s a certain amount of arrogance amongst some military interventionists that they don’t need to explain evidence, make a proper case, have a detailed plan or listen to public opinion. They want strong action and they want it now.
Such foolishness only helps isolationists because they’re right to then say that the US and UK are likely to make the situation worse. If we rushed into Syria without an exit strategy we can quite easily make that proxy war much worse.
Those who want intervention in Syria (like myself) should be pleased that President Obama was halted by what Ed Miliband set in motion, and demand more detail about what the US military intends to do, as Congress is now doing. That would be the best way to help Syrians. The ridiculousness of the criticism is further underscored by commentators such as Deborah Orr (who I have enormous respect for) saying he was right in what he did but should have done it differently. Err, how? It’s not the opposition leader’s job to help the Prime Minister avoid embarrassment because he failed to even convince his own side.
There are some really ridiculous criticisms out there of Ed Miliband’s leadership, but this really takes the biscuit.
UPDATE: This piece in the Atlantic makes a very persuasive case on why, a court would conclude that the case against the Syrian government was “not proven” – see Section 3.
When we are thinking today about Syria there’s only one place to start: the desperate situation of up to 8 million people in urgent need of help.
More than a million and a half are refugees in neighbouring countries, states that have their own problems, serious economic strains, and that need help to provide the homes, the blankets, the care, that these often traumatised refugees need.
Millions more are displaced, or at risk, within Syria. We need to ensure that every effort is made to get humanitarian supplies, medical supplies, to them.
And we need to find a way for the UN to protect them from future attacks of all kinds, to fulfil its responsibility to protect. The UN should be creating safe corridors through which they can escape – and eventually to achieve a ceasefire in the civil war.
I agree with President Obama on one thing: “We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale.” Indeed, we – the international community, acting collectively under UN auspices — must save them from attacks of all kinds.
And yet the US focus, the French focus, is on what are clearly plans for a missile strike against the Syrian regime, a strike that no one is claiming is going to remove the dreadful President Assad, that no one claims is going to take any productive step towards helping to construct an alternative government for Syria, a strike that will, simply, take more lives, including, undoubtedly, lives of people, men, women, and children, who have nothing to do with the conflict, but are simply trying to survive in the middle of an awful civil war.
But there’s no evidence, no sense, in the claim that a US missile strike, covered with a fig leaf of whatever other countries beyond France can be persuaded, bribed or pushed into “participation” in the attack, is going to stop any future gas attack, from whichever side it might come.
And no, we haven’t seen real evidence, independent scrutiny, in what happened in that hell in a Damascus suburb on August 21. John Kerry says: “This is common sense. This is evidence. These are facts.” Well, we’ve heard that before, and we’ve good reason not to believe it.
The vote in Parliament this week was a big step forward – a step forward for British democracy, a step forward for our place in the world. And the impact has been found around the world.
It seems unlikely that this evening’s decision by President Obama to refer his plans for an attack to Congress would have occurred without the Westminster vote. But is for Britain this should be only the start. We could take three more steps – important steps.
1. Call off the world’s biggest arms fair planned for London next month.
2. Stop selling UK arms to abusive regimes. Our £12bn arms industry is a trade in misery, in death, in supporting regimes like that of President Assad, and the dreadful human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.
3. Scrap Trident nuclear weapons, making us truly world leaders. So I say to Congress, I say to President Hollande, I say to whichever Arab regime the Americans are hoping to bribe, bully or persuade on board an attack, please, stop, think.
The combined UN-regional talks route to a ceasefire in Syria is a difficult route, strewn with obstacles. But it’s the legal route. It’s the route that can help the people of Syria and the region to together find a way forward – not have it imposed on them, as the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, had the route imposed on them, with continuing awful results.
The route to justice for a horrific gas attack is the International Criminal Court. As Caroline Lucas said this week: “Crimes against humanity and international law have been committed. Once there is evidence of responsibility for these appalling attacks, those responsible must be dealt with by the International Criminal Court.”
The UN and the International Criminal Court are the right routes. But it’s time the world – America, Nato, the UK – took the right route.
This article is an adaption of a speech I made today at the No Attack on Syria demonstration.
Wow. It is extremely, extremely rare for a sitting Prime Minister to lose a vote on going to war.
Here are my five quick thoughts.
1) There is now almost no prospect that Britain will join the US in action against Assad.
Cameron has been humiliated so badly I doubt he’ll go back to the House of Commons on Syria, especially as he will now have to take his cue from Ed Miliband. And he hates taking Miliband’s lead more than anything else. This has now become more about the politics in Westminster than the people of Syria. Besides, according to some tweets, he has dismissed any more action on Syria anyway. Defeat on a another vote would have likely to have led to a confidence motion.
2) It is too easy to say that Cameron lost because the isolationist wing of the Tory and Labour party are dominant. But people forget we went into Libya to take out Gaddafi not long ago!
No, Cameron lost because he wanted to rush into Syria and dismissed any caution or calls for proper evidence. He misjudged the mood on both sides of the House and assumed that no one would defy him on a vote of war. That’s why he lost.
3) This is clearly very humiliating for Cameron, but I’m also wondering where it leaves Nick Clegg. The Lib Dem leader abandoned the party’s traditionally anti-war or at least cautious position in favour of siding with Cameron. And now they’ve both been handed a defeat. At least if Clegg took a principled stand he would have gotten back some support.
4) To underline how complicated this conflict is, the Muslim Brotherhood chief in Syria has been criticising the United States for not intervening in Syria earlier.
5) I was for British intervention in Syria to warn Assad about the usage of chemical weapons. It’s unclear where President Obama stands now but I hope he will present the full evidence to Congress and militarily warn Assad anyway. If Assad steps up usage of chemical weapons now, part of the blame will lie on Cameron’s obstinate behaviour.
Update: I’m sick of sanctimonious people saying I should stop talking about Westminster and its implications, instead of what this means for the people of Syria. As I pointed out earlier – this was a feeble intervention that would have made very little difference. Even US action is not going to be about stopping the bloodshed or deposing Assad. I wanted the UK to join the USA in this but either way it would done almost nothing to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
Update 2: If anyone still has doubts that chemical weapons are being used in Syria, see this short BBC film from last night.
There are some commentators who write about international affairs entirely through western eyes. Of course, The United States is the most powerful nation on earth and spends more on weaponry and defence than the next 10 countries combined.
But the US doesn’t always dictate events, and doesn’t always have its finger-prints on everything. I find this attitude a bit patronising and racist – other countries across the world have their own agendas and constantly interfere in foreign affairs for their own ends. ‘The White Man’ doesn’t control everything, much as many self-styled anti-imperialists like to believe.
In 1971 for example, India’s PM Indira Gandhi stuck up two fingers at the US and, with explicit guarantees from the Soviet Union, liberated Bangladesh from the murdering Pakistani armies. More recently, India and Pakistan meddled in Afghanistan along with Iran and the USA to help create instability before the invasion of 2001.
The civil war in Syria is a case in point. Iran, Russia and Hezbollah have been intervening in the region for years to bolster Assad and keep him armed against the rebel army. On the other side, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have lined up against Assad and have been helping the rebel forces.
Saudi Arabia is key here because it has also been funding the Egyptian army coup against the Muslim Brotherhood (which it sees as the real danger) – despite pressure from the United States not do so. Anyone who thinks the ‘Muslim ummah’ is united and speaks with one voice should come back to reality.
So the strongest argument against US, UK and French involvement is: why the hell should we get involved in this huge mess? Stay the hell out!
And that’s a strong argument. Except it’s a bit bogus.
The USA, UK and France aren’t actually planning an intervention. And this certainly isn’t a humanitarian one.
Sure, the news media is in overdrive and to most people it sounds like Iraq all over again. There is a lot of sabre-rattling and discussions about chemical weapons and UN resolutions. There are strong statements being issued by every major politician vaguely related to all this. Media commentators are salivating all over the media.
But most of it is hot air designed to rattle Assad. What we’ll actually see are a few missiles being dropped on Assad’s key military targets from warships stationed much further off. There will be some carefully targeted attacks on weapons shipments to deprive Assad of firepower. That’s likely to be it.
Unlike Libya, there aren’t even immediate plans for a No Fly Zone and nor demands for regime change. Many of you won’t believe it, but wait until this so-called intervention starts.
And why are we taking such feeble action? Because Assad used chemical weapons on his own people. This means we either make a big show so as to dissuade him and others, or risk usage of chemical weapons proliferating. And that’s it.
This isn’t a humanitarian intervention. Our politicians have dressed it up as such, and commentators are arguing against intervention on that basis, but we should stop pretending it is. (If it were me in charge I would have done something before 100,000 people got killed in Syria. I would have intervened in Congo and other places too). But ever since the lies over Iraq there is no appetite for foreign intervention and so we’re stuck with angry words and feeble threats.
Syria is already a battleground with lots of foreign players interfering in its affairs. The United States won’t even come close (if they wanted to, here’s what they would do).
NEWS ARTICLES ARCHIVE