Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt …

The question of debt is often absent from media coverage of the progress, or not, of the world economy. But a troubling problem is that debts have continued to rise since the 2007-08 crisis. Compared to the size of the economy, the total outstanding debt of the non-financial sector rose from just over 200% of GDP at the end of 2008 to over 244% at the end of 2017, with a 10 percentage point jump in 2017 alone.[1] Given that world economic growth remains weak, this is not likely to be a sign that optimism about future prospects has led to more borrowing for investment and consumption. Some recovery was likely once the banking system had been stabilised, but the latest numbers are the highest on record.
High debt is a dull, but debilitating burden for corporations, consumers and governments who have built up their borrowing. But this liability is also an asset for those who have lent their money or bought the debt securities. The latter include not only banks, but directly or indirectly, many corporations and consumers, especially the rich and those whose pensions and other income relies on interest and debt repayments. So the debt cannot just be wished away with no consequence. For example, even if banks wrote off the debts owed to them, this would damage their finances and risk insolvency, with further repercussions throughout the financial system, as became clear in the wake of the 2007-08 crisis.

Data details

The latest data from the Bank for International Settlements show a worse picture for global debt than indicated in a note I made on this blog a few months ago (see also the article with country details two years ago). As remarked before, the burden of debt will increase not only with its level – indicating how much has to be repaid eventually – but also with any extra funding cost that comes from higher interest rates.
On the latest data, both the ‘advanced’ countries and the ‘emerging market’ countries as a group showed a rise of debt compared to GDP in recent years. The rise in emerging market debt was from a much lower base, but much more rapid. Pictures for different countries are mixed, however.
Among the advanced countries, debt ratios stabilised in the US, though they have remained at a high 250% of GDP. They have fallen in Germany to around 175%, down from near 200% in 2010. In France, debt ratios have now risen to just over 300% of GDP; Japan remains the basket case, with a rate rising to 373%.

In emerging market countries, for many the debt ratio has stabilised in the past year or two. China’s rose strongly in the previous decade to just over 250% of GDP, but may have now flattened out. Similarly for South Korea, which now has a debt ratio of around 230%. Brazil’s debt ratio is lower and has steadied at around 150%. India’s is lower still, and has been flat at close to 125% of GDP.

Tony Norfield, 29 August 2018

[1] The figures are for the more than 45 areas reporting to the Bank for International Settlements, a group that includes all the major ‘G10’ countries and also the principal ‘emerging market’ countries such as China, Brazil, India, Russia, Korea, Indonesia, Philippines and Turkey.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Jews, Zionism and Israel

The reason behind the turmoil in the British Labour Party about anti-Semitism is not any actual anti-Semitism among party members. Instead, the turmoil is largely promoted by supporters of Israel who have worries about Jeremy Corbyn, and it is joined by other Corbyn opponents. Here is a leader of a major British political party who supports (some) Palestinian rights and who has dared to criticise the Israeli government for oppressing them. Given that the Labour Party has traditionally been the major pro-Israel force in British politics, one can see why the pro-Israelis have been apoplectic. Issues brought out by this episode (‘series’?) lead me to examine the relationship between being Jewish, Zionism and Israel.

Religion and ethnicity

Judaism is an unusual religion in having an ethnic, or genealogical dimension of how a ‘Jewish’ person is defined, rather than focusing only upon religious affiliation. Religion is commonly a social-political marker, not an ethnic one, although often people follow the religious label, if not the religious practice, of their parents or of the community in which they live. In the cases of Christianity and Islam, anyone who decides to follow the relevant beliefs can become a Christian (Catholic, Protestant, etc) or a Muslim (Sunni, Shia, etc), once they have gone through certain rituals. But it is a more protracted process to become Jewish, and is often bound up with whether one’s mother is also determined as being Jewish. If the mother is not, that does not bar the son or daughter from becoming Jewish. But if the mother is already considered to be Jewish, then automatically her son or daughter is so too, even if that person does not practice Judaism. For example, it is possible to be a ‘Jewish atheist’. The line only seems to be drawn against those who openly practise another religion, who thereby are no longer defined as being Jews.
This genealogical factor is reflected in Israel’s infamous 1950 Law of Return, whereby it is possible for all Jews, both ‘ethnic’ and religious, to go to Israel and gain citizenship. As a 1970 amendment to the Law defines it: ‘For the purposes of this Law, “Jew” means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion’. That amendment also added in the ‘grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew’ for good measure.
Although the genealogical criterion of Judaism is not the same as a purely ethnic definition of ‘Jewishness’, it is something that fits very well with the Zionist political objective of identifying Israel as the ‘homeland of the Jews’, one from which they had supposedly been cast out some two thousand years before. There are many ironies and contradictions in this, not least that early Zionism was mainly atheistic and had been in conflict with Orthodox Judaism. David Ben-Gurion, a future founder of the state of Israel, was also not religious and did not believe in the ‘exile’ story – though by 1948 he had abandoned this view.[1] To add to the mix, one should also note that some branches of Judaism reject the establishment of an Israeli state before the coming of the Messiah, while some Christian Zionists see the ‘ingathering of the exiles’ as a precursor to the Second Coming of Jesus!

Zionist mythology

There is no evidence for any mass expulsion of the inhabitants of ancient Israel, by the Romans or by anyone else. But an ethnic definition of Jewishness seems to have taken root among Zionists who were heavily influenced by the blood and soil racism of 19th century Europe, and who looked to define an ethnic people for their corresponding ‘national home’. (That the Zionists were responding to anti-Semitism and pogroms, especially in Eastern Europe, does not excuse their reactionary views.) Studies showing close links between the DNA of many different groups originating in the Middle East, Jewish and non-Jewish, undermine the notion of a specific Jewish people. Judaism has also long been a proselytising religion, converting people in Europe, Asia and Africa, an inconvenient fact covered up by the story of an ethnic group that must ‘return’ to its lost land.
But let us suppose for a moment that this Zionist mythology were true. Let us imagine, for example, that all the Jewish settlers in Palestine who come from the US, from Poland, from Russia or wherever could claim to trace their bloodlines back to King David. Would this have any bearing on how to assess the state of Israel? It is no justification at all for the expulsion of Palestinians and the seizure of their land after the 1947 UN Plan of Partition or in the 1948 war – in which over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled – or in the subsequent years. Just imagine being kicked out of your home because somebody shows up and claims that their ancestors lived there more than a thousand years ago! Of course, Jewish settlers in Palestine do not need to make this absurd claim; they can just rely upon the power of the Israeli state to drive out, kill or marginalise non-Jews.

Jews, the Holocaust and Israel

Many people who identify themselves as being culturally or religiously Jewish may not support political Zionism. To be more specific, they may not support political organisations and parties labelled Zionist, and especially not the right-wing parties that now dominate Israeli politics. But how many do not support the state of Israel, or do not see it as a necessary haven just in case there is a resumption of murderous anti-Semitism seen in Europe from the early 1930s and in the Holocaust? Those events turned even some prominent socialists and anti-Zionists into supporters of Israel.
The problem with this view is that it takes the crimes of Europeans and asks, even demands, that the Palestinians pay for them! Somehow, the slaughter of Jewish people by Europeans is seen to justify the dispossession of Palestinians from their land. This foundation stone of the state of Israel in 1948 is commonly ignored in public debate. At most, concerns are raised only about the subsequent outrageous injustices and land grabbing of the Israeli regime.
To understand the establishment of the state of Israel one needs to examine imperialist politics, not the Old Testament of the Bible or Hebrew scriptures. Important issues were not so much the efforts of Zionists to designate Palestine as the rightful homeland of ‘the Jews’. More significant were the rabid nationalism that swept Germany in the wake of the post-1918 international treaties that had impoverished and humiliated it, and the more general conditions of the time that had promoted fascism. Attacks on Jewish communities were rife, not only in Germany, and major countries like the US and the UK had also taken steps in their immigration laws to restrict the influx of Jewish, and other, refugees. In that context, the Zionist choice of Palestine as a destination became an attractive option by the time of the post-World War Two deliberations among the major powers.

Imperialist politics

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 that the British ‘Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ is widely seen as the beginning of the process to establish the Israeli state. But while it was the first major concession to Zionist opinion by a big power, its main aim was to build support for Britain’s war effort, both in Europe and the US. It was a deceitful document, pretending also to be concerned with the rights of other communities in Palestine, and it was not seen by the British then as a definite commitment that they could or would need to implement in the future. Above all, the Balfour Declaration was an expression of imperial arrogance, relating to a land that the British had not yet even taken from the Ottomans. However, this seizure was later endorsed by the League of Nations, and the British Mandate for Palestine included the terms of the Balfour Declaration.
In the event, British policy was not especially pro-Zionist in the thirty years after the Balfour Declaration. This was both because there were different factions in the British ruling elite and because its policy was mainly concerned not to ruin important relationships with Arab countries – for example, the UK abstained in the vote on the 1947 UN Plan of Partition. Although the British put down Arab rebellions in Palestine and British military and police commanders usually supported the Zionists, they also limited the immigration of Jewish refugees from Europe into Palestine. Zionist leaders continued to press their case with the British, but this did not stop their terror attacks on the British in Palestine – notably the King David Hotel bombing in 1946. They also moved to do deals with the French, who, rivals with the British for control of the Middle East, provided Zionist militias with military aid with which to oppose British control.
Zionist leaders were fully aware of the precarious position they would find themselves in with their plans to steal Palestinian land. That problem was to be overcome by a deal with one or more of the major powers. The early, but only partial success was with the Balfour Declaration, with some British statesmen seeing the future Israel as a ‘little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism’, so they were open to such deals. Later, the French would also cooperate with any local force to combat Arab nationalism opposed to its colonial rule in the region. The culmination of these views resulted in the British-French-Israeli plot against Egypt’s Nasser in the 1956 Suez crisis. But when that failed, and the British and French were revealed as second rate powers, the Zionists turned more fully towards cooperation with the US, which was growing concerned about how to control the Middle East.
These days, Israel’s US connection is paramount, exemplified by US support in terms of military supplies, of US vetoes at the UN of any resolution criticising Israel and by the billions of dollars of US government aid and private contributions every year. However, support from European powers is also important for Israel. Europe is sometimes more critical, but offers special trade deals and, highlighting the contradictions of the ‘Jewish homeland’ supporters, allows Israel to take part in the Eurovision Song Contest and to be affiliated with UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations!

Too much trouble?

Israel was established as a tool for imperialism. It remains one today, but in recent years Israel has become more of an embarrassment than an unquestioned asset. It is a ‘country’ that cannot define its borders, because it always wants to seize more land; a ‘democracy’ that oppresses a large proportion of its citizens on ethno-religious grounds, with discriminatory laws, checkpoints, police brutality and murder; a racist, gangster state that repeatedly threatens destabilising military action in the Middle East and steps beyond its boundaries by interfering in major power politics. Israel has another problem too: recollections of the Holocaust that in past decades had given it so much unquestioned support are fading as a political force. Despite the efforts of pro-Israel lobbies to talk up the threat of anti-Semitism today, and despite the continued acquiescence of mainstream media in covering up its crimes, the foundational non sequitur, Europeans kill, so Palestinians must pay, is no longer enough completely to silence liberal concern about the massacres in Gaza and to prevent questions being raised about the nature of the Israeli state.

Tony Norfield, 22 August 2018

[1] On these topics, I would recommend the book by Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, Verso, 2009, and also Sand’s more recent article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, ‘How Israel Went From Atheist Zionism to Jewish State’, 21 January 2017.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Indian Boots on the Ground

Britain’s exploitation of India up to Partition and ‘independence’ in 1947 went much further than extracting investment and trading revenues and dominating its economy. Just consider the British Indian Army, established under British government control in 1858 after it took over from the East India Company. Manned by colonial Indian subjects, this force was critical for British imperialism’s many battles. In wars large and small, especially those outside Europe, against national liberation movements, uncooperative populations and rival powers, Indian troops greatly boosted the numbers of those who would fight and die for it.[1]
Prior to 1914, British armed forces had largely been used to police the Empire. Since Napoleon early in the 19th century and the Crimean War with Russia in mid-century, there had been little or no direct conflict with other major powers. British policy was to depend upon alliances with others, rather than to maintain a large standing army itself. So it was important to be able to draw upon a force of colonial troops when needed, including for the policing of the British Raj.
Important though they were for British power, Indian troops commonly faced racial discrimination, were looked down upon by white officers and were often used as cannon fodder, while also being given worse grade arms and equipment than regular British troops. Attractive as a cheap military resource for the Brits, these men could nevertheless see enlistment in the army as a reasonable option. There was regular pay and regular food, something not always available in the Indian economy dominated by British Empire interests – as became brutally clear with the Bengal famine in 1943.

Extra battalions

At the start of World War One in 1914, British army regular forces numbered less than 250,000, but they had grown to 3.8 million by 1918, including reserves, helped by conscription after volunteers proved insufficient. Over the same period, the British Indian Army grew from around 150,000 to more than one million, of which some 700,000 served overseas, making it a valuable additional force. This latter army fought in Ypres, Loos, Neuve Chapelle and Gallipoli, and in Mesopotamia (roughly corresponding to Iraq today), Palestine, Egypt and East Africa.
Although troop numbers fell back in the 1920s and 1930s, the Second World War and its aftermath saw a further utilisation of Britain’s Indian Army. Battle locations during the war included in North Africa (Tunisia, Libya and Egypt) and Europe (Italy, especially). A good book on this period notes that, in early 1942, “264,000 Indian troops were serving overseas, including 91,000 in Iraq, 20,000 in the Middle East, 56,000 in Malaya and 20,000 in Burma.”[2] By later that year, the Indian army had recruited another 600,000 men, and by the end of 1942 it stood at almost 1.55 million. Another 280,000 were recruited in 1943. By 1945, it had grown to some 2.5 million. This compared to 3.5 million in the British army you will more commonly read about.
Indian troops were, of course, used by the British to push back Japan’s wartime incursions into India itself. But the downside for the Brits in the early 1940s was that many Indian prisoners of war (held by the Axis powers) were ready to switch sides and join versions of the anti-colonial Indian National Army. Japan, in particular, made efforts to attract these forces.
Ahead of India’s independence, the Brits had to be a little cautious, but that did not prevent them from using Indian troops to help put down anti-colonial movements in Malaya, Vietnam and Indonesia. These were efforts by the much-lauded ‘socialist’ Labour Government to restore not just the British, but also the French and the Dutch to their former status. To add to the outrage, Britain also used just-defeated Japanese troops for the same purpose!
Despite demobilisation after 1945, by April 1946, “the Indian army still had two brigades in the Middle East; four divisions in Burma; three divisions in Malaya; four divisions in Indonesia; one division in Borneo and Siam (Thailand); a brigade in Hong Kong; and two brigades in Japan.” A division comprised roughly 10-15,000 men, and a brigade roughly 1,500-3,500 men.
Oh well, that’s enough about soldiers.

Tony Norfield, 24 July 2018

[1] The points below focus on Indian troops, but one should note that the British also used African troops and Chinese labourers in their war efforts. France also made great use of its African colonies. A good book detailing these points for the First World War is David Olusoga’s The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire, Head of Zeus, 2014.
[2] This, the later quotation, and most of the information on Indian troop numbers, are taken from Srinath Raghavan, India’s War: the Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945, Penguin, 2017. For the post-1945 period, also see Christopher Bayley and Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars: the End of Britain’s Asian Empire, Allen Lane, 2007. A good online source for the history is here.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

The Good Old Days

With the British ruling elites tearing themselves apart over foreign policy these days (regarding the European Union), I thought I would take a brief look back into happier times. Here are some choice quotations from major politicians and newspapers that stressed how much Britain’s position in the world produced big benefits.
First, Winston Churchill in April 1929. He is talking in Parliament about the City’s revenues, and its role as a global broker, as well as the big returns on British foreign investments:
“The income which we derive each year from commissions and services rendered to foreign countries is over £65,000,000, and, in addition, we have a steady revenue from foreign investments of close on £300,000,000 a year, 90 per cent of which is expressed in sterling. Upon this great influx there is levied, as a rule, the highest rates of taxation. In this way we are helped to maintain our social services at a level incomparably higher than that of any European country, or indeed of any country.”
Note that both kinds of revenue do not all come from the colonies, at least not directly, and most will have derived from transactions with and investments in other major countries. Nevertheless, such revenues were important for social services even before the post-1945 ‘welfare state’. I give an updated, contemporary assessment of these in my book, The City.
After 1945, the British Empire was somewhat diminished, as was its investment and dealing revenues. However, these remained important. As Ernest Bevin, the Labour Foreign Secretary, put it to the House of Commons in February 1946, stressing the importance of imperial stability as well as the revenues coming from the Empire:
“When I say I am not prepared to sacrifice the British Empire, what do I mean? I know that if the British Empire fell, the greatest collection of free nations would go into the limbo of the past, and it would be a disaster. I know, further, it would mean that the standard of life of our constituents would fall considerably.”
This concern about the ‘standard of life’ of British constituents was a key point for Labour’s social imperialism, and tallied with the views of the arch imperialist Churchill.
The importance of the Empire was also stressed in major UK newspapers at the time, for example in noting how US dollar-based earnings from the exports of commodities from Malaya (later Malaysia) were important for keeping Britain’s Sterling Area financial system in place:
“It is Malaya’s dollar earnings which keep the sterling area afloat.” (Manchester Guardian, 13 December 1950)
“Malaya is Britain’s biggest source of American dollars.” (The Times, 9 June 1950)
Malaya, of course, did not have access to these dollars, which were deposited in London, and from which, in general, only the UK and the ‘white’ dominions could draw. Malaya saw its funds translated into (depreciating) sterling and had to use this sterling to buy British goods.
Professor W Arthur Lewis summed it up in a Financial Times article, ‘The Colonies and Sterling’ in 1952:
“Many Colonies must sell their produce to Britain at prices below the world price, and, through exchange control, must buy from Britain at prices above the world price, or pay an ever-increasing sum into the Bank of England, because Britain will not deliver goods in return for what she receives.
“Britain talks of colonial development, but on the contrary, it is African and Malayan peasants who are putting capital into Britain. … The British colonial system has become a major means of economic exploitation. …
“The Colonies are exporting far more than they import, and are building up large balances. They cannot get all the imports they need, especially of capital goods, and their development programmes are in consequence retarded. They are in effect paying Britain for goods which she does not deliver.”[1]
His only error in this was to say that the colonial system ‘has become’ a major means of exploitation, whereas it had always been one. Other examples of Britain’s colonial exploitation post-1945 are given in my articles on Labour’s colonial policy and on how the welfare state was funded in 1945.

Tony Norfield, 18 July 2018

[1] Cited in R Palme Dutt, The Crisis of Britain and the British Empire, Lawrence & Wishart, 1953. The Manchester Guardian and Times quotations are also from Dutt. The remainder are from Hansard.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Debt Troubles

McKinsey Global Institute's latest report indicates how total global debt levels were still rising in 2017 (although they have been stable compared to GDP since 2014). There is a much worse trend for countries with FX debt and whose exchange rates have dropped, since the burden of every $1m borrowed will have increased. Interest rates on this debt are no longer at the extremely low levels where they had been held for years by central bank policies.
The US Federal reserve has been tightening policy, raising interest rates modestly, and some other major central banks are following suit, based on their view that some kind of economic recovery is under way. But the persistent high levels of debt show the fragility of that recovery.

Global Debt Outstanding by Economic Sector

Source: McKinsey Global Institute, June 2018
After the rapid accumulation of debt in the early 2000s, little of that debt was written off in the acute phase of the crisis from 2008 as central banks stepped in to salvage not just the financial system but the economy in general. So there remains a chronic and high debt burden, held by governments, households and corporations. In recent years, debt has risen most in ‘developing’ countries, whereas it has tended to be reduced somewhat or stabilise in richer countries (see here for a review I did in September 2016).
The key equation remains:
Higher interest rates + Higher debt = Repayment trouble!
There are lots of visible problems in the imperialist world economy, from Trump’s trade war, to the rivalries in the Middle East and elsewhere. This debt problem is one less evident, but one that is more pervasive.

Tony Norfield, 20 June 2018

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Iran Sanctions, Imperial problems

Trump's anti-Iran move on Tuesday was deeply worrying for allies of the US. It is a blow for those countries, especially in Europe, that were hoping to build on the big expansion of trade with and investment in Iran after the July 2015 nuclear deal was signed. But it is more than just an economic opportunity under threat. As Germany’s Zeit Online commented ‘with nationalism and protectionism, Donald Trump is gradually eliminating the world order shaped by the USA’. Here I look at some implications of the latest US policy and the reasons for its timing.

Holy orders

The extent of the new US sanctions is at present unclear, although there will be some delay before full implementation. What worries the Europeans is that they are unlikely to apply only to US companies, like Boeing.
On past form, any company not doing as the US wishes could be liable to suffer financial penalties. They could also face problems of access to the US market and its banking system – the latter being necessary for all international companies that use the US dollar. This extra-territoriality of US sanctions, in the words of France’s Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire, makes the US ‘the economic policeman of the planet’, and that is ‘not acceptable’.
Last October, the now ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed that the US will not interfere in Europe’s business dealings with Iran. But the newly appointed US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, has taken a very different tack. He followed up Trump’s statement with a threatening tweet: ‘German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately’.
It would be hard to top that as a sign of imperial arrogance, something that has become ever more embarrassing for US allies under the Trump regime. To have a smoothy like Obama advance US interests after a chat among ‘friends’ was acceptable. Now the veneer is off and the modus operandi of the nincompoop POTUS is to fart, blame someone else and carry on regardless.[1]

The little, big problem

Following the long years of sanctions, Iran is far from being a big economic partner for the major western powers. Last year it was only number 33 in the ranking of external trading partners of the European Union. Trade between the EU and Iran was close to €21bn, with a little over €10bn of both exports and imports, but this made up less than 1% of the EU’s total external trade. EU trade with India is four times bigger, and it is more than seven times bigger with Turkey. US trade with Iran is much smaller still, roughly $200m last year, which is barely a rounding error in the statistics.
Nevertheless, there had been rapid growth in trade for the EU in recent years, mostly imports of fuel from Iran and exports to Iran of manufactured goods, especially machinery and transport equipment. From 2014 to 2017, EU exports grew by nearly 70% and EU imports by nearly nine times.
Much more trade growth has been in prospect, together with attractive investment opportunities, for EU companies such as Renault, PSA Group, Airbus, Siemens, Total, Alstom and others. Iran’s half-wrecked economy offered a cornucopia of deals in the tens of billions to refurbish, resupply and rebuild.
All that is at risk with the new US policy. More important, however, is that the Iran deal was the result of a longwinded negotiation involving all the major powers, and now the US has walked away from it. This calls into doubt the status of more or less anything else the US has signed up for in the past, and also the status of the US as the unquestioned leader of the western powers.

Why now?

Why did former president Obama’s signing of the joint agreement with Iran look like the ‘worst deal ever’ for Trump? First, note that the US has sustained hostility to a country that dared to step out of line in 1979, when the Shah was overthrown, and has since not been cooperative enough. While the US has come around to accepting other miscreants – notably Vietnam, which beat it in a war – this is very rare and is, in any case, a very slow process. Similarly for Cuba. The irony in Iran’s case is that, aside from sections of the elite who make gains from managing the sanctions regime to their advantage, the country was overwhelmingly in favour of doing a deal with the west as a means of gaining access to technology and development. Nevertheless, despite signing the 2015 deal, Obama was not exactly friendly to Iran. Even afterwards, US political prejudice hindered American business prospects in Iran, with the Europeans much quicker to take advantage.
What seems to have scuppered the Iran deal now is the problem that US policy faces in the Middle East region. This is behind Trump’s long signalled change of course.
Apart from its own direct military intervention, the US has had two elements of control in the Middle East: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Each of these has become more unstable and problematic in recent years, causing trouble for western policy and some embarrassment when it comes to ‘human rights’ in family plutocracy Saudi Arabia and Palestinian rights in the racist gangster state of Israel. Yet the US has not been able to find alternative local tools. After the disaster of US policy in Iraq, another adventure, to replace Assad in Syria, and so to undermine Russia, has failed. This now leaves the US with two dysfunctional supports in a region scarred by imperialism, a mess that it cannot sort out.
The US inability to get rid of Assad has raised Saudi Arabian and Israeli paranoia about Iran. Worried about the stability of their own regimes, they see a long shadow from the bogeyman who does not necessarily do what the US wants and use this to disturb the US’s own discontent. This is neatly summed up in the invention of the so-called ‘Shia crescent’ of Iranian power and influence from Iran through Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Saudi Arabia even sees Iran in Yemen, while Netanyahu starred in his own special anti-Iran video for Trump. In an inversion of reality that only someone of his powers can provide, Trump even outdid them with his latest comment that Iran backs al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Trump will tweet and things may change again. But it looks like the foundations of the world order are crumbling further.

Tony Norfield, 9 May 2018

[1] Apologies for lowering the tone, but the word ‘trump’ in colloquial English also means to break wind.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Nervous About Russia

Two weeks ago in Salisbury, less than 10 kilometres from the UK’s Porton Down chemical weapons establishment, a Russian and his daughter appear to have been poisoned. Sergei Skripal was a former Russian military intelligence officer who acted as a spy for the UK’s MI6. In 2006, he had been tried and convicted for high treason by the Russian authorities, but was released in 2010 as part of a ‘spy swap’ with the UK and settled in Britain. Skripal and his daughter remain in a critical condition, with medical staff reporting that they had been poisoned with a nerve agent.
The British government has claimed that the Skripals were poisoned with the nerve agent ‘Novichok’. But in the past two weeks it did not release any proof of this either to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), or to the Russian government that it blames both for producing the agent and for the attack. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, UK Foreign Secretary and blathering embodiment of a power in decline, has just revealed that the OPCW will investigate from tomorrow.

Not to be taken: Novichok

Novichok is the name given to a class of extremely toxic nerve agents reported to have been produced by the former Soviet Union and Russia up to 1993. The production took place in several locations, and, with the break up of the Soviet Union, supplies of it and/or knowledge of how to manufacture it could also have been passed on to other countries. It is likely that Porton Down has such knowledge, since that would have been necessary for them to claim the attack on the Skripals was with Novichok rather than something else.

Who dunnit?

Claims that Russia initiated the attack rest on some shaky foundations. It is not clear why such a specialist method was used that would inevitably be linked to the Russian state. Or even why there would be an attempt at assassination at all, unless Skripal had continued to work for the UK intelligence services. However, one could argue that a Russian link was deliberately used to deter other Russian spies who might consider collaborating with the UK – with the message that ‘Eventually, we will punish traitors’.
Less plausible is the view that Putin needed this episode to marshal support in today’s presidential election that will likely result in his fourth term in office. Less plausible still is the Russian argument that the Brits did it to smear Moscow, although anti-Russian hysteria has a long history in Britain so that was a natural reaction.
One notable feature of the UK’s mainstream media coverage of this event was how there was an immediate and unanimous condemnation of Russia, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn denounced when he called for evidence.[1] Such is the operation of the ‘free press’.

Winding up

If Russian policy was to poison Sergei Skripal, then, apart from its role as a deterrent, that action could best be understood as a political wind up. The Salisbury location reminds people that the holier-than-though UK also deals in chemical weapons. The rationale for the timing is less clear; although in the wake of Brexit and Trump’s America First policy, the UK is in a weak position to do anything more to Russia than has already been implemented. NATO’s encirclement of Russia is more or less complete, but Russia has now developed new missile systems that undermine this threat. Effective economic sanctions against Russia have probably also reached a limit, because Europe does not want to cut off Russian energy supplies.
Russia can embarrass the UK, an anti-Russian stalwart of the Anglosphere, with little cost. Such an action would also demonstrate that it is not to be trifled with, as already shown by its actions in Syria. By comparison, the Brits have a more appropriate international ambassador than they might have thought in Boris Johnson.

Tony Norfield
18 March 2018

[1] Somewhat inconsistently, Corbyn also agreed with the UK Government’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats.