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President Xi Goes to Florida

Probably more than any other high-stakes diplomatic meeting, I find the meeting of President Trump and Xi Jinping deeply amusing.

The idea of the president of China flying to America to meet with a former reality television star is in itself marvellously funny. But, the fact that this conference is to take place in Mar-a-Lago – the surreal, garish, grown-man’s Disneyland dubbed the ‘Winter White House’ – is the icing on the comedy cake. I simply cannot imagine a location less suited to President Xi, save perhaps an amateur dramatic production of Footloose. Come to think of it, Xi might enjoy the film – if only as evidence of the omnipresent disregard for authority plaguing America. Kevin Bacon, you’re a monster.

I can only imagine that officials from both nations are finding this meeting markedly less funny.

Indeed, with North Korea and the trade deficit on the agenda, it will likely be a tense meeting between what must surely now be recognised as the two global superpowers. I must acknowledge my lack of especial insight into this meeting, having not extensively studied China’s relationship with the US, though I suspect I am in the majority on that. What is perhaps within my grasp, is the recognition of the unexpectedly weak hand of the US in these talks.

China does not need anything from the US. Unlike in earlier administrations, China is not seeking concessions or commitments from America. They got that a few months ago when Trump affirmed the ‘One-China’ policy. By contrast, America has a more significant wish-list: China to pressure North Korea into abandoning any nuclear programme, and an end to Chinese goods being dumped in US markets.

As any avid reader of The Art of the Deal will know, the power in any negotiation lies with the less desperate party – and Trump is certainly desperate for a win. Frustrated by Congress, dogged by scandal, beset by ethics conundrums, it is fair to say that Trump is in a far weaker political position than Xi.

So, as an armchair observer, I am certainly not expecting more than a photo-op and perhaps a commitment to further talks. Anything more than this is probably unfeasible in such a short confab. If nothing else, it will be the chance to witness the new American policy in action.

Will Trump hold open the door for Xi? Or will it be America First?

Written By: Matt Allen

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Westminster: What can be done, and what should be done

“We will not be cowed”, declared Sadiq Khan in the aftermath of the Westminster attack.

This was, perhaps, the defiant response Londoners needed to hear – to recalibrate the senses and strengthen our resolve. Resisting the temptation to let the blood boil, anger mount, and fury fly forth – Khan offered a sober, stony-faced call for unity. It was a touching moment.

Since then, ink reserves have been near-exhausted by the acres of newspaper content devoted to the attacks. Could police and intelligence services have prevented them? Are the defences at the Palace of Westminster proportionate to the terror threat? Should the Muslim community work harder at rooting out radicalisation?

I don’t intend to provide solutions to any of these problems. I am not a Police Officer, security expert, or scholar on Islam. I have no particular insight into these attacks, and am as ill-informed as anyone. But, like everyone else, I have an opinion on what ought to be done next.

Sadiq Khan’s response was perfectly pitched. The reality is that there will always be individuals hell-bent on causing us harm, and tools which enable this will continue to be readily available. Nobody would contemplate banning cars or knives from sale, and any form of restriction is clearly impractical. From all my experience, Islam is a religion of peace – and perverted justifications for personal bloodlust can take any shape. Demonisation, hostility, and knee-jerk reactions are unhelpful.

Yet this doesn’t feel enough.

Staying strong and resilient in the face of terror is possibly a necessary state of mind, but is hardly an active policy. What could cities across the UK practically be doing to lower the threat? In other words, is Sadiq Khan’s plan enough?

Perhaps there is scope for us to better fund our police force. Maybe it would be worth teaching critical thinking in schools so that people are less swayed by the promise of radicalism. It could be worth redoubling our efforts to develop driver-less cars, to take one weapon out of the armoury of those who try to harm us. These might be practical policies, but I’m not sure they would give confidence to tourists uncertain about whether the UK is safe to visit, or to the single mum walking home from work in Westminster.

That’s why Sadiq Khan’s words were so important. They weren’t a statement of policy, but a prescription for a mindset. “We will not be cowed”. It may not be much, but it’s all we’ve got.

 

Written By: Matt Allen

In Defence of the Indefensible: MPs

Politics inspires the extreme. From the passion of the activist to the ceaseless sparring of the party worker, rarely is it said that our political system also inspires calm. In the world of Westminster tempers rage, rhetoric escalates and reason evaporates with almost intoxicating speed and intensity.

The extraordinary irony in all of this is that within the Palace of Westminster 750 committed public servants sit who, with notable exceptions, are consummately professional and intelligent. Their primary motivation, once again with some major exceptions, is to change our worlds for the better.

These days it is fashionable to hate.

Your MP is lucky enough to find themselves in the company of estate agents, sex criminals and antibiotic-resistant diseases in that, under the public eye, there exists no defence for them. Instead, they find a 24-hour political media machine which too often robs our public servants of the most basic of considerations.

Troubles in your private life?

Well, it’s not private any more. Want to take your young kids on Holiday? You’re a slacker. Did you have the temerity to send your kids to the best school available to you? You’re now not only a hypocrite, but you’ve also forced us to ask ourselves the question, do you even really love this country at all?

If you could give voice to the news that blares across petrol station courtyards from the likes of The Sun and The Express, you’d find yourself confronted with a mean, capricious character, gleefully revelling in the embarrassment of others. But don’t think that it’s just the red-tops who so keenly participate in the nation’s favourite sport of politician-baiting. ‘Proper’ publications like The Telegraph, Mail and Times too are often found tearing into individual MPs, if anything, with even greater ferocity than their tabloid peers.

This special brand of vitriol all too often strikes a stark contrast to the genuine dignity, selflessness and heroism that characterises the way so many of our representatives conduct themselves publicaly and privately.

Take, for example, Tobias Elwood MP – former Captain of the Royal Green Jackets – who continues to serve as a Foreign Office Minister. As images of last Wednesday’s horrific events began to trickle in, people across the country watched rapt by the carnage left in the wake of a twisted, destructive individual. Most will not have noticed, hidden behind the fluorescent jackets of the emergency services, a blood-stained Elwood, desperately trying to stem the blood flowing from PC Keith Palmer’s stab wounds.

Despite the minister’s repeated attempts at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Palmer would be pronounced dead at the scene. For his heroism, Elwood would later be made a member of the Privy Council.

If not Elwood, think then of Mary Creagh, the member of Parliament for Wakefield who, only moments after finding herself in the midst of an attack on the capital, ran to Westminster Station to protect any unaware commuters. With no identification Creagh convinced the TfL controllers to instigate a lock-down, potentially saving dozens of lives – she was not to know that armed officers had already shot and killed the perpetrator.

Of the 750 people that represent you in Parliament, 50 have served in the armed forces, more than ever before possess past or current ties to the charitable sector and only 14% have never held a ‘proper job’. The rest of the house encompasses former city traders, miners, lawyers, social workers, journalists, doctors, actors and farmhands to name but a few.

So, how is it that this group of largely decent people of such diverse circumstances and opinions are tarnished with the same brush?

The simple answer is that blame is easy.

Arguably, blame even plays a fundamental role in a healthy democracy. In public life, it allows for the free press to hold politicians accountable, and provides disincentives for our elected officials to turn to corruption or negligence. It is the fear of blame coming back to bite at the ballot box more than anything that keeps the most rabid of politicians at bay.

However, blame has evolved from a means of enforcing responsibility into something far uglier and more dangerous. We witnessed it on 23 June. It swept the United States; even though the commentariat continue – somehow – to be astonished on an almost daily basis, it’s painfully obvious that across the West, people are angry.

Consider the past few years: the financial crisis of 2008, the impact of the gig economy on wage security, constant fear of Islamic terrorism; it would be madness to suggest that this anger is unjustified. However, it would be entirely justifiable to argue that this anger is being directed to the wrong place.

No campaign better embodied the hijacking of legitimate anger than Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ movement. The uncoordinated, ill informed and sweeping scapegoating of almost every major American political figure was a master-class in manipulation. Trump rode to power on a wave of anger, no longer directed at any party or president, but at the very notion of the powerful. I believe that even across calmer waters, a similar phenomenon is developing in our own country.

This not only gives rise to fears of a Trump-like rise in populism, but even more worryingly means that our representatives must now fear for their own safety.

To occasionally resent those at the top is natural, to dehumanise those who seek to represent us is not. It is a distinction that was made particularly clear after the tragic demise of Jo Cox last year – her killer maintaining the belief that his council house was to be taken by an immigrant family.

United in grief, the country learned about Jo the local advocate, the selfless humanitarian and devoted family woman. On her way to her surgery that day she had merely been another politician.

Whilst clearly her assailant was a volatile man, his actions cast a light on the searing anger that is felt by so many towards those they hardly know. Too infrequently are we able to separate public figures from their ideals, and too often are we willing to create monsters where there exists merely fallible men and women.

So yes, hate may be fashionable for now but things don’t have to be this way. As the great political philosopher Coco Chanel once said “fashion changes but style endures”.

For decades, Westminster has been filled with style. Decent, honourable people like Jo Cox and Tobias Elwood will continue to pass through its illustrious hallways long after they are a distant memory. There will – it goes without saying – also come the corrupted, bigoted and Machiavellian because that is part of the very nature of power. But that being said, in order to allow these people to prove their worth to us, we must collectively allow them the consideration to leave their mark.

As a society, we must reign in the avalanche of animosity and return blame to its rightful place as a tool, not a blood sport. Rather than being so hasty in the rush to judgement, long may we remember that our civil servants are no less human than any of us.

If we can accomplish this, then hopefully we can look forward to the days where praise for our representatives need not come hand-in-hand with an obituary.

Written By: Tom Dore

Sometimes, Good News Happens.

It’s easy to be depressed by the news. Whether one reads The Guardian or The Sun, there seems an inexhaustible wealth of despair for our journalists to mine. The world is full of enemies, idiots, and monsters. Trump looms large on the global consciousness and people of all political persuasions are mired in pessimism – either despairing at his administration, or denouncing opponents to it.

I don’t intend to deploy the infuriating refrain of the ‘Brexiteers’ (get over it; stop moaning; you should be celebrating – delete as appropriate), but instead rummage in the bag of current affairs for something worthy of praise.  

Though Timor-Leste (East Timor) hasn’t often been called upon to save the world, mostly because it only gained independence from Indonesia in 2002, this South-East Asian state is perhaps the last bastion of good news. It may not have received much coverage, but Timor-Leste had a presidential election on 20th March, the first power transition since UN peacekeepers left in 2012. It was the first time Timorese-Australians were allowed to cast an absentee ballot. Early indications suggest the former revolutionary hero Francisco Guterres has won.

In a region of instability, Timor-Leste has become a halcyon-state. Democratic norms are deeply entrenched, the population are active citizens and engaged in political issues, and the elections were held without issue.

By any measure, this isn’t much.

Indeed, in an ideal world these features would not be praiseworthy but expectations. Yet, the healthy state of Republican values in Timor-Leste is disproportionately encouraging. While much of the developed and developing world alike are becoming disenchanted with popular governance, while acceptance of authoritarianism insidiously rises, while enthusiasm for healthy political discourse ebbs, Timor-Leste reminds us all of the simple promise of democracy. Against all odds, a small nation succeeded in gaining independence and, despite a history of conflict and corruption, affirmed a commitment to a participatory political process.

Before the immigration site crashes, I must dissuade those who have interpreted my words as meaning Timor-Leste is a form of utopia. It faces difficult challenges in the years ahead – especially with regard to its economic dependence on rapidly depleting oil and gas reserves.

I cannot pretend to be an expert in Timor-Leste, having never been to the country and reading but a fraction of its history; it is apparent that it will have to make tough choices in the coming decades. But this makes its steadfast affirmation of democratic government all the more praiseworthy.

I may not have restored your faith in human progress – Timor-Leste certainly didn’t aspire to achieve as much – but, sometimes, good news happens.

Written By: Matt Allen

There’s Something About Korea

Having focused on North Korea, I want to consider South Korea. More specifically, ex-South Korean leader Park Geun-hye’s removal from office by a constitutional court vote. The ousting comes amid a myriad of protests triggered by  the former President’s supposed involvement in corruption.

While this move is a fascinating exercise in unofficial but pure democratic force – whether just or unjust – the world is seemingly less interested in what this means for South Korea but rather what this means for an increasingly unstable and volatile Asia. As China and North Korea seem to maintain their uneasy alliance in spite of missile testing, the US is actively responding to the threat by deploying a THAAD system (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, a system that defends against incoming missile attacks from inside or outside the atmosphere via missile interception) that, like missile defence systems deployed during the Cold War, threatens to escalate the production of arms in the area.

China has been seen as quite aggressive in response to this strategic deployment in the Republic of Korea and yet their website has seen no changes to even indicate a recognition of Trump’s presidency, let alone any of the crises that Korea has been part of recently. The Chinese website reads as a glowing report card of things that China is “urging” the world to do, like a father that wants to push their child to make good decisions.

So why is this relevant to the loss of an elected official in South Korea?

The US will be sending B-1 and B-52 strategic nuclear bombers to South Korea in response to increased threats from a dangerous and likely armed North Korea. However, if China gets the sense that weakened leadership and increased US involvement, combined with the ever increasing US-Australian military exercises, are just a little too coincidental, we can only expect to see an escalation in tension that has not been seen since the 1980s.

Whether Trump was something you wanted or hated, his administration appears increasingly unaware of how delicate the situation in Asia really is, specifically around the South China Sea. As the US blindly supports their usual allies and wildly antagonises those they believe to be “wrong”, the responsibility of delicacy balanced with strength in that region falls rather squarely on the shoulders of South Korea. The US can no longer be relied upon for anything more than bankrolling aggressive attitude across the global stage.

Knowing that China is becoming ever frustrated with the US, Australia and most intervening powers, was it prudent for such a shift in power in South Korea to have taken place now?

It’s now too dangerous a situation to simply brush domestic affairs in hot-spot regions such as the Koreas or the Middle East under the rug, calling their timing ‘unfortunate’ as the world takes one more arrogant stride towards the abyss. It’s time for South Korea and the world to recognise that in these connected times, there is no such thing as a domestic matter.

 

 

Written By: James King

http://www.lockheedmartin.co.uk/us/products/thaad.html

http://english1.english.gov.cn/china_world.htm

http://www.janes.com/article/67658/usaf-f-22-raptors-to-undertake-three-week-training-in-australia

How do you solve a problem like North Korea?

It was while I was guiltily enjoying a clip of the British television import (invasion?) The Voice USA that a heterodox thought occurred to me. Why don’t we have a talent show for things that matter? There are shows where people competitively sing, dance, bake, sew – even bargain hunt. Clearly on some level, we view these programmes as being an effective means of identifying talent; if we didn’t, why on Earth would we inflict the winner of Britain’s Got Talent on the Royal Variety Performance?

We could pit members of the general public against one another to come up with solutions to some of the most pressing issues of our time. Got the perfect replacement for austerity? Apply to be on The Great British Macroeconomic Policy Formulation-Off. Have the perfect conception for future institutional relations between European nations? Welcome to Who Do EU Think You Are? (Admittedly not a talent-show, but the use of EU to mean ‘you’ would at least be familiar to readers of right-wing papers). Have a great idea for British foreign policy? Battle it out with others on the X(tra-national affairs) Factor.

Though this is glib, it would at least generate some new thinking. The reason I bring this up is the stark paucity of substantive analysis of Britain’s policy towards North Korea. I recognise that this is far from our sole responsibility. Our involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953), friendship with regional neighbours, and general interest in a secure world-order means we cannot continue to place our fingers in our ears whenever Pyongyang starts to make noise.

Currently, our policy has echoed that of the US. ‘Strategic patience’ has largely consisted of economic and diplomatic sanctions on North Korea in order to discourage bad behaviour. As anyone who has been following news of missile tests will understand, such an approach has palpably failed. The regime elites are capable of appropriating wealth in any circumstance, and care little for the plight of the cowed masses.

Yet those who blithely suggest war equally misunderstand the situation. North Korea is not Saddam’s Iraq. The North Korean People’s Army is the fifth largest in the world, with 1.2 million active troops, and stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Any military action would come at great cost, and victory would be far from assured.

What to do about the perennially troublesome Korean peninsula has been stumping the best and brightest foreign-policy experts for too long. Perhaps opening it up to the general public wouldn’t be such a mad idea. If nothing else, it’d be better television than Casualty.

 

Written By: Matt Allen

Time to Say Goodbye to the Scots? Hardly…

For a party whose total dominance over the Scottish political landscape was predicated on losing the very referendum they had campaigned for, the SNP seem very keen for a second crack at independence.

As our government flails wildly, attempting to scrape any sort of trade deal from this messy Brexit and the official opposition seems content to repeatedly strike itself in the face, is it any wonder Nicola Sturgeon looks so eager for the second round?

In fact, despite the massive collective freak-out of the British media, don’t be so certain that Tuesday’s intervention by the Scottish First Minister was anything other than clever manoeuvring by a woman long under-appreciated as the U.K.’s smoothest political operator.

Let’s analyse the facts. Whilst it is true that recent polls have placed support for independence at record highs, a more in-depth examination of the figures paints a different picture. A glance at the core demographics shows us the No camp holding a healthy 10-point lead in committed voters (i.e. those convinced of their positions), with a 35% share of the electorate compared to the unionists’ 25%.

Anyone whose political memories reach back a dizzying 9 months to 23rd June will remember how similar statistics ended up leaving the nation’s politicos and pollsters squirming at their own predictions of a victorious Remain camp (the Leave campaign perhaps more so than anybody else).

While headlines might never admit it, public opinion is a weather vane not a monolith. No matter which direction the political winds are blowing this week, come 2019 the Unionists will have to win just over 15% of the Scottish Public, a much less daunting task than the SNP’s 25%. Furthermore, the raw data available suggests that Scots are getting – if anything – more Eurosceptic than ever before, negating Sturgeon’s claim that Brexit has created a previously undiscovered appetite for independence. This appetite is so absent that on the same day that Sturgeon hinted at a second referendum, her own senior economic advisor released a report claiming the country would take 10 years to recover from a Yes vote.

In a nation suffering from referendum fatigue, these are not the conditions in which a shrewd political communicator chooses to launch a renewed bid for independence. This, therefore, begs the question:

Why would the leader of the SNP risk such likely defeat at a time when she commands four times as many seats in Holyrood as her closest rivals?

To this question there are many potential answers, but the most convincing by far is that Sturgeon has no intention of making a successful bid for Scottish independence. Consider this, only a day after the grand design for another independence referendum is unveiled, Sturgeon was already reported to be willing to shelve any referendum plans in return for Scottish access to the Brexit.

Does this sound like the language employed by a committed separatist?

Of course not. Sturgeon – once again – is simply playing political games to force the hand of a Prime Minister who she knows has no desire whatsoever to soften the line on Brexit. Bear in mind, none of this is to say that a referendum will not eventually take place. Just because Sturgeon isn’t aiming for a win, doesn’t mean the SNP won’t happily fight a fight they know they have every chance of losing.

Why? Because losing the battle to leave the union is the political ace of spades that has ensured the SNP’s complete domination over Scottish politics. Every time a referendum is held, it guarantees the SNP the full political support of any Yes voters whilst serving as a reminder to al other Scots of the overbearing power of the English-centric Parliament within the UK.

Essentially a vote to stay reminds the Scottish public that while the SNP may be in power, ultimate control over their affairs is held by that much hated of beasts – British Parliament. For a political party, this is the pinnacle of strategic positioning, complete control over a society’s infrastructure with a handy scapegoat to absolve them of any blame for its troubles.

I’m not saying that Sturgeon doesn’t dream of an independent Scotland at some point down the line, but what we’re seeing now is far more likely to be a reaction to her own disapproval rating reaching 23% than the European referendum result.

This political game will end one of three ways; hypothetically May could concede ground on the Brexit issue (much to the chagrin of her backbenchers who barely appear to be on the leash), but this would seem the least likely. Too much time and media resources have been expended on casting her as the ‘Red white and Blue Brexiteer’ to cede ground to a regional power. Instead, it is more than possible that, to avoid a constitutional crisis for the third time in almost as many years, May will do a deal with the SNP for greater devolution, thereby allowing Sturgeon to return victorious to Holyrood once again.

Of course, if the PM decides to call Sturgeon’s bluff, this gives rise to the possibility of a second referendum in 2019 throwing the country into yet another interminably dull and bitter news cycle.

Regardless, once the First Minister sweeps back once again into power in 2021, you can be fairly safe in assuming it’ll be as a member of the United Kingdom.

Written By: Tom Dore

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/25/brexit-deal-uk-eu-trade-pacts

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/15/second-scottish-referendum-wouldnt-just-put-union-risk-could/

http://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/how-would-you-vote-in-the-in-a-scottish-independence-referendum-if-held-now-ask#line

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/15/charts-show-scotland-thinks-sturgeons-plans-independence-as57/

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/06/nicola-sturgeon-offers-shelve-independence-vote-for-soft-brexit-eu

http://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/do-you-think-nicola-sturgeon-is-doing-well-or-badly-as-first-minister#line