Monday, December 17, 2018

Did the Trudeau government make a serious blunder?

Apparently the Government of Canada was warned four days in advance of Meng Wan Zhou’s flight plans and of the United States’ request for her arrest and extradition when she transferred in Vancouver. 

Did the Canadian Government not foresee the consequences of executing an arrest warrant?   Surely the prudent thing to have done would have been to quietly and anonymously tip off Ms. Meng, or the Chinese Government, about the planned arrest. That way, Canada would have avoided being part of a very dubious kidnap/ransom operation, would not have faced retaliation from China with two of its citizens taken hostage, and probably could have avoided the wrath of an unhinged administration in Washington (plausible deniability).  

The way things are now, it is going to be very difficult for China or the US to back down, and Canada is caught in the middle - caught between two gangster regimes, some have said.  There has been a lot of harrumphing in the Canadian media about how Canada (unlike China) is a country bound by the rule of law.  But sometimes the law can be a cumbersome and ineffective instrument, especially when wielded in bad faith (Trump with his penchant for suing anyone who crosses him knows all about that).   I can’t help thinking that a quiet tip-off could have avoided recourse to the courts and saved all of this trouble, and may even have helped prevent a new cold war.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Medieval practices in the modern age.

Is there anyone who thinks that the arrest of Meng Wan Zhou was not political?  If so perhaps they should read the following piece by Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs. 

In it he names over twenty international banks (including all of the big ones such as J P Morgan Chase, HSBC etc.), which, since 2010 alone, have paid fines for violations of US Government sanctions against Iran and other countries.  But Jaime Dimon was not grabbed off of a plane and taken into custody or even charged with anything.  Nor was any other bank executive.  

Sachs rightly asserts that corporate leaders involved in criminal wrongdoing should be prosecuted, rather than the authorities allowing their companies to negotiate fines with prosecutors.  But he points out that very few American CEOs or CFOs have faced such prosecution, in spite of the manifest wrongdoing associated with the 2008 crash.  But Meng was arrested, and she now faces years of house arrest while lawyers argue over her extradition.  An earlier extradition case in Canada, involving Rakesh Saxena, an Indian financier accused by the Thai Government of embezzlement, took 13 years to resolve before he was finally extradited!  

And yesterday, as if to confirm the political nature of the arrest, the American president himself said he might intervene if it helped in his trade dispute with China!   It is almost an admission that she is being taken as a hostage.  No doubt her legal team took note. 

Once again the USA is violating international norms, undermining the trust and the rule of law which underlie cooperation between governments.  Taking foreign leaders hostage for ransom or leverage was something that happened in the Middle Ages.  Surely we have collectively realised the damaging nature of such practice. 

W. H. Auden in his poem September, 1939 called the 1930s a ‘low, dishonest decade’.   It seems that in the first two decades of the 21st. century we are following down similar dark paths, pioneered pre World War II.  

I hope that the Canadian extradition court, will take the political nature of this arrest into consideration and deny the US request.  Don’t hold your breath though - it could be many years before Meng Wan Zhou leaves Vancouver.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Is Hostility Towards Russia Part of a Grand Strategy?

Those who know me or who have read my blog or Facebook posts, know that for a long time I have lamented the fact that since the end of the Cold War leaders in the West (US, NATO, EU) have done everything in their power to exclude Russia from integration into their network of alliances, trade organizations etc. Instead they have sought to isolate and demonize Russia, as if the Cold War had never ended. Indeed in recent years it has seemed that there has been a concerted effort to revive and heat up the Cold War.  To me this has always seemed a foolish and dangerous policy, and I have often wondered what lies behind it. The aim of this blog is to suggest a reason for the hostility to Russia.  I am not saying that it has been in place from the outset, but rather that it has emerged as part of a ‘Grand Strategy’, especially since the turn of the century, when the presidency of Boris Yeltsin was succeeded by that of Vladimir Putin.  Perhaps it was on the back burner following 9-11 when Islamic fundamentalism took centre stage, but I suspect that in the minds of strategic thinkers it has been there all along.  

Under Putin's presidency, Russia has recovered somewhat, from the depths to which it sank following the collapse of the USSR and the Yeltsin presidency,  and is now showing much more confidence in international affairs.  After seeing duplicitous Western behaviour in the invasion of Iraq, and the intervention in Libya under the false claim of protecting civilians, Russia has shown itself now ready to stand up and challenge what it sees as violations of its own interests.  The protracted conflicts in Ukraine and Syria resulting from this have helped in bringing the relationship  between Russia and the West to new lows.  

Was this sad deterioration of relations inevitable?  While Russia doubtless bears some responsibility, I think few can deny that the West has done everything in its power to goad and humiliate Russia. Is there a reason behind this strategy? Or is it just an old Cold War reflex?  Or an attitude in Washington that cannot tolerate any government unwilling to bend the knee to the American hegemon?  Or the need of the military industrial complex to have a potent enemy in order to justifiy the bloated defense budget?  Probably all of these play a part.  But since this approach to Russia has continued under both Democrat (Clinton, Obama) and Republican (Bush) presidencies, and since Trump’s pre-election intention of establishing better relations with Russia has caused so much outrage, one must ask if there are other reasons. 

Here I offer a speculative answer.  It is something that struck me on reading the following article on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  

China is currently investing enormous sums into creating a single economic area throughout the  Asian landmass by means of building transport infrastructure, increasing trade and by establishing cultural linkages.   The Silk Road Initiative involves creating transportation links (railroads, highways) along the ancient silk roads that linked Europe with China, and the Maritime Silk Road Initiative involves creating ports and infrastructure along the sea routes through the China Sea and Indian Ocean, to the Middle East.  There is also a project to develop the North East Passage sea route, through the Arctic, north of Siberia.  

Of course Asia is a cultural-historical concept, not a geographical one, in the physical sense, at least.  Physically there is one Eurasian landmass, and not only would the Belt Road Iniative link China with Central Asia, it would link China with Europe.  Imagine China linked with Western Europe by high-speed rail links. The trade opportunities between Europe, advanced in high-tech, and China with its manufacturing power and large population, would be tremendous. 

Russia would straddle the trading routes and with its vast natural resource base it would provide resources and energy to both termini.  It also has the brain power and would have the potential to experience rapid industrial and technological development. 

It would be the Heartland Theory of geographer Halford Mackinder realized. For Mackinder, The World Island was the Eurasian landmass.  He opined in 1904

who rules the World-Island commands the world.’

In this picture, the US is nowhere to be seen.  It could conceivably, in the long run, find itself relegated to an isolated, debt-ridden, backward-looking country, with a massive and unaffordable military (and a poorly educated and over-armed citizenry) relying on rust-bucket technologies and polluting energy sources.   

But if Europe could be quarantined from connection with China and the rising industrial power of East Asia, America’s nightmare could be avoided, or at least delayed.  And a way to do that would be to keep Europe and Russia locked in Cold  War attitudes of mutual suspicion and hostility towards one another.  Under this scenario, the best US strategy might be to ramp up hostility towards Russia, goading it by advancing NATO to its frontiers, tearing up arms control treaties and encouraging ‘colour revolutions’ in neighbouring states.  

This is pretty much what has happened since the end of the Cold War.  Rather than trying to bring Russia into the fold, US  policy has been the exact opposite.  Maybe there has been more thought behind this strategy than I had credited - maybe it is not just a knee-jerk Cold War style hostility to all things Russian?  If Europe can for ever be kept at daggers drawn with Russia, the dynamics of the world game would be US-Europe vs. China-Russia rather than the US vs. an integrated World Island.  

Please note I am not trying to praise the political systems in either Russia or China.  And I would certainly prefer to live in a Western democracy than either of them.  But trading connections could and should increase prosperity and opportunity for all sides.  And it should be able to happen without compromising our freedoms and values.  

But I am afraid that the US with its constant militarism, rising deficits and reliance on borrowed money, coupled with its inward looking threat of protectionism, has taken a seriously wrong turn.  

In spite of America’s bad choices, Europe doesn’t necessarily have to follow.   I don’t expect much from Brexit-absorbed Britain under Theresa May’s Tories, but I do wonder when other European powers, in particular Germany, will wake up and see that their interests don’t necessarily rise and fall in the west. The sun, after all, rises in the east.  It sets in the west.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Cronyism set to reach new heights.

George W. Bush was often thought of as epitomizing crony capitalism.  But Donald J. Trump carries cronyism to a new height.  Not only is Trump himself and family (Ivanka, Jared et al.) using their positions for personal gain, he has made appointments to cabinet positions of people friendly (if not an actual part of) the industries they are supposed to regulate.  

Thus we have the Environmental Protection Agency run on behalf of polluters, an Interior Department run by people who want to loot federal land, an Education Department run by the for-profit schools industry.

And now he is making trade policy which will benefit those who have the ear (and pockets) of people in power.   As Paul Krugman writes:

“There’s a reason we have international trade agreements, and it’s not to protect us from unfair practices by other countries. The real goal, instead, is to protect us from ourselves: to limit the special-interest politics and outright corruption that used to reign in trade policy”.   

Krugman points out that there usually are many more people hurt by tariffs than by those who benefit.  But those who benefit have the ear of the policy makers. It is interesting that steel (along with aluminum) are the first products subject to import duties.  I heard former Reagan Budget Director, David Stockman, on the radio yesterday saying that the steel industry has been a major crybaby for years, perennially trying to get Government help for the industry.

Before WWII, “Tariff policy used to be one of the dirtiest, most corrupt aspects of politics both in the U.S. and elsewhere” (Krugman).

Following the repeal of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, under FDR, temptations for these crony special deals vanished.  But cronyism is one of the defining characteristics of Donald Trump.  It’s not surprising that he’s moving to impose tariffs.

A House Divided.

We would do well to pay heed to the old enmities bubbling up in our politics: it is not that we are on the verge of another civil war, but that the Civil War never truly ended. With the exception of slavery itself, what divided the United States then divides us still today.”

These are the words of Manisha Sinha, historian of the Abolitionist movement and the Civil War.

Interesting to note, though, that while the divisions are pretty much the same, the positions of both major US parties have done a 180 degree switch.  In the 1860s, the Democratic Party was the party of the southern slaveholders and their conservative northern allies (“doughfaces”) while the Republicans were liberal on abolition and the political rights of black Americans.

One Man’s Democracy Promotion is Another’s Meddling.

Did you ever wonder who produced and paid for all of the banners and signs (printed in English) seen at anti-government demonstrations in places as diverse as Iran, Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Georgia etc.   Well it’s a good bet that the National Endowment for Democracy played some part in it.  

The NED, founded in 1983, was the brainchild of Reagan’s CIA director William Casey to (in the words of the late Robert Parry) “take over CIA programs that attempt to influence foreign elections by promoting the selection of candidates who supported U.S. policy and would ‘do what the U.S. government tells them to do.’”  

The NED has a budget of $180 million from US Government, and distributes grants to supposedly promote democracy.  It is prohibited from engaging in partisan political activities and from ‘promoting democracy’ in the USA; also it is required to receive approval for all grants from the State Department prior to dishing them out. But this didn’t prevent it from financing opposition factions in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Venezuela, not to mention Ukraine and Iran. Did you ever wonder where the $5 billion that Victoria Nuland bragged about spending on the 2014 overthrow the corrupt (but elected) government of Ukraine, came from.?  It’s a good bet that the NED had something to do with it.

Meddling in other countries elections (like those pesky Russians did to deny Hillary the throne). Heaven forbid!

Dereliction of Duty?

Dereliction of Duty.  

This was the title of a book by current National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster.  It’s thesis (and it indeed grew out of the author’s PhD thesis) was that during the  Vietnam War, the Joint Chiefs of Staff displayed a dereliction of duty by becoming politicized and acceding to the wishes of then President Johnson and his civilian advisers. I haven’t read the book but it sounds a lot like a professional soldier trying to shift the blame for a lost war - the old ‘stab in the back’ excuse, which the military leadership of losing sides have leaned upon in the past, the most notable being the German high command during the Weimar years following WWI (and eagerly seized upon by Adolf Hitler).  Besides in a democracy is not the military supposed to be subordinate to the elected government? 

Anyway the following article

suggests that McMaster, since assuming the National Security position in Trump’s cabinet, has himself been derelict in his duty of standing up to the mercurial President.  In other words, he has become politicized and failed to perform the duties expected of the leadership position.  

There have been rumours of McMaster being given the boot by Trump.  Was he perhaps behind the neutering of son-in-law Kushner?   Or is it perhaps Chief of Staff John Kelly (another right-wing general) who eased out both Steve Bannon and Kushner and has now got his sights set on McMaster?  

Shakespearean intrigue indeed.  I wonder which of the Bard’s tragedies would best lend itself to being set in Trump’s Washington?