John Lloyd http://blogs.reuters.com/john-lloyd Fri, 08 Apr 2016 15:17:44 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.5 Islamic State, al Qaeda and nuclear madness http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2016/04/08/islamic-state-al-qaeda-and-nuclear-madness/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2016/04/08/islamic-state-al-qaeda-and-nuclear-madness/#comments Fri, 08 Apr 2016 15:17:44 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=47474
Shi'ite Houthi rebels drive a patrol truck past an Ansar al-Sharia flag painted on the side of a hill, along a road in Almnash, the main stronghold of Ansar al-Sharia, the local wing of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Rada, Yemen November 22, 2014.    To match Special Report YEMEN-AQAP/    REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi - RTSE50J

Shi'ite Houthi rebels drive a patrol truck past an Ansar al-Sharia flag painted on the side of a hill, along a road in Almnash, the main stronghold of Ansar al-Sharia, the local wing of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Rada, Yemen, November 22, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Those who complain that the news is depressing have a valid point. But it could get exponentially worse.

China, Russia, Egypt and Turkey are becoming even more authoritarian. The European Union is “on the verge of collapse,” according to George Soros, one of its strongest supporters. Global warming is worsening. The BRICS countries, which were to be engines of global growth, are all struggling with economic decline and political cul-de-sacs -- with the slightly shaky exception of India. In every case, except those of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping (though not his extended family), the leader has been accused of corruption.

In the United States, both the number of jobs and the GDP are rising, but the bitterness of the political divide and the willingness of parts of the electorate to endorse prejudice as a political principle is itself a crisis, and will be for the next president. The determination of the rich to stay rich and get richer is vividly displayed in the leaks from Panama.

But the news can get more depressing. We might get blown up.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama invoked the need for world leaders to cope with “the danger of a terrorist group obtaining and using a nuclear weapon.” In his speech at the Nuclear Security Summit, he had much success to report: earlier commitments to secure or eliminate nuclear material had been followed by most of the world’s states.

A “but” was coming, and it was large: both al Qaeda and Islamic State actively seek nuclear weaponry, Obama said, and “there is no doubt that if these madmen ever got their hands on a nuclear bomb or nuclear material they most certainly would use it to kill as many innocent people as possible.” That seems likely to be true: both groups have said so, and a member of Islamic State -- which has already used chemical weapons -- obtained surveillance footage of a manager at a nuclear facility in Belgium, with a view, officials say, of possibly developing a “dirty” bomb (a conventional explosive device packed with radioactive material).

The head of U.S. National Intelligence, James Clapper, told a Senate committee last month that “the threat of WMD is real. Biological and chemical materials and technologies, almost always dual use, move easily in the globalized economy, as do personnel with the scientific expertise to design and use them.” The veteran commentator on terrorism, Bruce Hoffman, wrote in March that Islamic State is moving towards the “final Definitive Victory State… when the caliphate ultimately triumphs over the rest of the world.” For that, it will need nuclear weapons.

Hoffman also believes that the two groups most hungry for global domination -- Islamic State and al Qaeda -- may merge, in spite of their leaders’ mutual hostility. This possibility, he said, quoting an unnamed senior U.S. official, “would be an absolute and unprecedented disaster for (the United States) and our allies.”

More cheer? Russia didn’t attend the nuclear summit. Moscow had said last November that it thought the United States was trying to “take the role of the main and ‘privileged’ player in this sphere” -- so it didn’t show. Russia, Obama said to reporters, had made little, if any, progress on the Security Summit’s goals -- because Putin has been pursuing a vision of of “emphasizing military might.”

The United States and Russia are estimated to have between them 95 percent of the world’s 15,000 nuclear warheads: the United States 6,970, Russia, 7300. The United States has been slightly reducing its stock; Russia has not. Obama, in a speech in Prague near the beginning of his first presidency seven years ago, called for a nuclear-free world -- as Ronald Reagan had done before him.

By contrast, Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons on Islamic State, on Turkey and as a response to Western protests when Russian forces seized Crimea. In the summer of 2014, in a more veiled threat, he told a youth group that “Let me remind you that Russia is one of the world’s biggest nuclear powers. These are not just words -- this is the reality. What’s more, we are strengthening our nuclear deterrent capability and developing our armed forces.”

The United States, like Russia, modernizes and upgrades its nuclear forces continually, and is likely to sell Patriot interceptor missiles to Poland -- much to Russia’s fury. But somehow, the widening gulf between the nations has to be bridged, or we face the largest problem of all: a widely-dispersed ability to annihilate much of the world.

The news should not just be “depressing,” but rather a prompt for greater engagement and understanding of its complexity. And with understanding comes the need to support those politicians, officials and organizations seeking compromise and solution. If the 20th was the American century, the 21st must be the world’s, in which the facts of multiple threats prompt a mutual response. Without it, the cocoons we seek to hide from bad news crumble more by the year.

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Why Russia and China may cheer for a President Donald Trump http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2016/02/25/why-russia-and-china-may-cheer-for-a-president-donald-trump/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2016/02/25/why-russia-and-china-may-cheer-for-a-president-donald-trump/#comments Fri, 26 Feb 2016 01:05:07 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=46585
Posters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are seen outside Trump's Nevada caucus night rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, February 23, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

Posters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are seen outside Trump's Nevada caucus night rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, February 23, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

Global threats mount, and on top of the heap a jester gesticulates, roars and guffaws. The United States – no, the world – is in thrall to the Donald Trump reality show, on many days commanding more TV time and newsprint than the rest of the candidates for the presidency combined. The would-be leader of the free world has not spent a day, not an hour, on public service The Celebrity Apprentice statesman has not served a political apprenticeship of any kind.

They love him for it. Cleansed by wealth and fame, he has not been besmirched by active politics.

It’s still unlikely, but no longer inconceivable, that he will be president. Nate Silver of Fivethirtyeight, the man who generally calls it right on how elections go, is still skeptical that he will win the nomination, but much less so. He writes that “things are lining up better for Trump than I would have imagined… it’s not his continued presence in the race that surprises me so much as the lack of a concerted effort to stop him.” The trouble is, the people who would stop him are the Republican establishment. Politicianssss… hiss!

What, then – taking this a stage further than Silver is yet prepared to do – would President Trump find when he reaches the Oval Office, and the files thud on to the desk (he might, of course, sweep them to the floor and shout to his aides – “Expel the Mexicans! Build that wall! Keep out the Muslims! Tell the Chinese to get lost! Get that nice guy Putin over here!).

But suppose he decided to govern.

Trump's predecessor, whom he abused daily, tried hard, in his first term, to “reset” relationships – with President Vladimir Putin of Russia (for which the phrase was coined); with the leaders of the Middle East, deeply resentful over George W Bush’s war on terror; and when he arrived on the scene as president in 2012, Xi Jinping of China.

He was very nice to the Europeans too -- I attended a speech he gave in London’s echoing, mediaeval Westminster Hall in May 2011, when he declared that “there are few nations that stand firmer, speak louder, and fight harder to defend democratic values around the world than the United States and the United Kingdom.” And he clearly highly esteems Chancellor Angela Merkel, even if his spooks likely hacked her cellphone. (More leaks this week from Edward Snowden’s trove of NSA documents claim to show they tapped Silvio Berlusconi’s phone when he was prime minister too – especially when he was making calls to Putin)

Yet for his pains, he has given Russian and Chinese nationalism – powerful and scary engines, both – a shared doll in which to stick needles. Putin, the world’s most determined anti-westerner, gave a speech of incendiary force in March 2014 – saying that the Western states “prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies but by the rule of the gun… they act as they please…decid(ing) the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right.” Pressing a spring (Russia) to its limits was dangerous, he warned, for “it will spring back hard.” Since then, it has only got worse.

It’s a little better with China, but not much. Xi’s trip to talk to Obama in Washington in September wasn’t a shouting match but little was agreed – little, that is, when set against the scale of the issues the two most powerful states in the world have before them. Earlier this month, Xi ordered the news media – including foreign media working in China – to obey the Party dictates: he’s closing up ranks as growth slows, and he fears disaffection in the country and in a Party he is seeking to cleanse. The West is a handy punch ball to which to divert aggression.

Many of the leaders in the Middle East whom Obama sought to reassure are gone, swept away by the “Arab Spring,” which he lauded in the London speech. Then the Spring itself was swept away, and new autocrats appeared, or chaos reigns. The Europeans love him (except when a row over phone hacking erupts) – but the European Union nearly lost its currency, it is losing its no-internal-borders policy and it is unable to be a full partner to the United States.

What has been lost in this? Perhaps the world itself. The challenges facing world leaders now are greater than anything in the post-Cold War period. In a book out next month, the Russian expert Robert Legvold lists some of them: they include trying to master the rapidly approaching second nuclear age, in which states with aggressive intent toward their neighbors (Pakistan and India; in the future, perhaps, Iran and Israel; North Korea and much of the rest of the world) are seeking to build nuclear arsenals.

The list includes, too, grasping the nettle of climate change, realizing that it is already too late to stop the rise of the oceans and the damage it will inflict on mainly poor, low-lying countries – and devising strategies to relieve mass distress as well as to prevent the warming becoming still worse.

It contains developing fruitful negotiations on the future of the Arctic, which at present, it seems, Russia will unilaterally militarize.

Political leaders have never operated as globally as they do now; the globe had never been so threatened by massive destruction as it is now; it has never needed joint action, agreements with substance, an end to feuds, as it does now. But we find ourselves, not in a new and hopeful era, but in a return to a cold war that could make the world cold and dead.

While a man with a growing chance of being the leader of the free world grins and waves and bellows - "We're winning, winning, winning the country, and soon the country is going to start winning, winning, winning."

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Alexander Litvinenko and Karl Marx’s stepchildren http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2016/01/26/alexander-litvinenko-and-karl-marxs-stepchildren/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2016/01/26/alexander-litvinenko-and-karl-marxs-stepchildren/#comments Wed, 27 Jan 2016 02:48:04 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=45946
Marina Litvinenko, the widow of murdered KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, attends a demonstration in support of Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister of Russia and prominent critic of Vladimir Putin, outside the Russian Embassy in London March 01, 2015. Nemstov was murdered two days ago as he walked across a bridge near the Kremlin in Moscow. REUTERS/Neil Hall (BRITAIN - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR4RN56

Marina Litvinenko, the widow of murdered KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. REUTERS/Neil Hall

The sway of Karl Marx’s stepchildren in the West is not to be underestimated.

That became clear last week after retired English judge Sir Robert Owen released a report on the death, a decade ago, of Alexander Litvinenko in London. Litvinenko, a member of the Russian FSB (the Russian acronym for the Federal Security Service) had turned against his service. He came with his family to London and worked with the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, the two united in fierce opposition to the Russian state in general and President Vladimir Putin in particular. His former employers hated him: in Moscow, agents reportedly used a photograph of his face for target practice.

In November 2006, Litvinenko, by then a British citizen, met two other FSB officers in a London hotel, and they took tea together. Litvinenko’s tea was laced with polonium-210, an extremely rare element. He died a slow and painful death. The two agents, Andrei Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun, slipped back to Russia, where the former is a member of parliament and the latter a businessman. Owen’s report pointed the finger not just at Lugovoy and Kovtun, but at the Russian president who, Owen wrote, “probably” authorized the murder.

"We regret that a purely criminal case has been politicized and has darkened the general atmosphere of our bilateral relations," Maria Zhakarova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said primly in response to the report.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said the reports findings were a grave matter and that further action would be taken against Russia on top of the sanctions already imposed. But, Cameron added, the UK would have to continue “some sort of relationship” with Russia. Right away, a chorus of realists – cynics, if you prefer – said, “You bet it will.”

The UK is the biggest investor in Russia – largely through the energy company BP, which has invested $16 billion in the country through its 20 percent stake in the Russian state’s oil corporation, Rosneft. It’s a troubled relationship: Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, is banned from travelling to the West. But Bob Dudley, head of BP, sits on the Rosneft board, and says that the ban doesn’t affect the business relationship. BP was hit badly by the Deepwater Horizon oilrig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, forced to pay out tens of billions for the cleanup. The result has been a shrinking company that is more dependent on Russia.

The City, as London’s financial district is known, has grown still richer from the Russian super-oligarchs, three of whom head the Sunday Times UK rich list. They and their colleagues earned the City more than $400 million, while 70 Russian companies have been listed on the Stock Exchange.

The City is reaching out to another authoritarian state, in this case not encumbered with sanctions. Already, two out of every three payments in the Chinese currency renminbi (outside of China itself) take place in London. As and when China liberalizes the currency, the City is in pole position to win most of the business.

China’s growth has slowed and Russia’s finances grow worse by the week under the impact of oil prices so low that gasoline could cost less than bottled water even in Europe.

But they’re led by unsentimental men eager for expansion of their power, willing to make deals however and wherever they can, with reserves of both cheap labor and scientific prowess.

Marx wrote, "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”

He was observing the ceaseless ambition of the “bourgeoisie” – the business elite – in the West, especially the UK, in the mid-late 19th century, when the unleashing of finance and industrial capitalism demanded that both “establish connections everywhere.”

Now, it’s Russia and China determined to outperform the present generations of the Western bourgeoisie, grasping after the spoils of globalization. Its leaders care little for human rights in their own countries and nothing for them in the countries with which they trade. Where Western states pose awkward questions about rights and corruption, the new authoritarians assure all their partners that these issues are their own business.

The West, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago, believed that globalization would be under their control. Long into the future, the eastern side of the globe would, it was thought, be largely composed of countries striving to catch up.

Now they are catching up. Now they are seeking markets and promoting investments everywhere, chasing them “over the entire surface of the globe.” Now they understand how dependent the rich democracies are on them to continue to remain rich – a promise every party seeking power must make at elections, events that do not trouble the rising authoritarians.

Now their hands are on the levers of globalization, too, and they are increasingly able to steer the process their way. “Some sort of relationship” will increasingly take priority over outrage.

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Quest to tear down statues over racism is intellectually vapid http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2016/01/20/quest-to-tear-down-statues-over-racism-is-intellectually-vapid/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2016/01/20/quest-to-tear-down-statues-over-racism-is-intellectually-vapid/#comments Thu, 21 Jan 2016 02:02:20 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=45871
The statue of Cecil John Rhodes is bound by straps as it awaits removal from the University of Cape Town (UCT), April 9, 2015. UCT's Council voted on Wednesday to remove of the statue of the former Cape Colony governor, after protests by students. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTR4WMJ3

The statue of Cecil John Rhodes is bound by straps as it awaits removal from the University of Cape Town, April 9, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

The late 19th century was a great age for putting up statues, and the early 21st, for pulling them down. As the states of the European empires gained their independence, the statues and other memorials of their colonial masters came to seem ridiculous. 

The Congolese President Mobutu Sese Seko ordered the statue of King Leopold II of Belgium -- a more than usually rapacious imperialist -- removed from the capital, Kinshasa, in 1967. Re-erected in 2005 on the grounds that the king had some “positive aspects,” it caused widespread offense and was taken down again in hours.

The British businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes has fared less well. The man who “created” Rhodesia lived and died in southern Africa, making a vast fortune from diamond mining. He believed that Britain should run the world -- a version of his will directed the trustees to fund a “secret society… the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world.” Though his 

The novelist John Buchan, himself strongly imperialist, described Rhodes as “a murky and distorted genius.” Rhodes lived in an age where the doctrines of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Malthus and even Charles Darwin inclined the imperialist British to regard British white men as the summit of a descending hierarchy of intelligence and fitness to rule: to believe the empire’s motherland should inherit the earth was no large stretch.

The statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town was removed last April, as the university authorities supported the students’ “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign. Yet in neighboring Zimbabwe -- once Rhodesia -- President Robert Mugabe has not bowed to pressure from war veterans to dig up Rhodes’ body from its grave near the city of Bulawayo: Godfrey Mahachi, head of the country’s museums and monuments, said that “it is part of national history and heritage and therefore it should not be tampered with” -- and it hasn’t been.

No such view among many students of color in Britain’s most famed university. The “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign has come to Oxford, where there’s a Rhodes statue in a niche of Oriel College, Rhodes’ alma mater. Brian Kwoba, a PhD. student and leader of the campaign, said that “Cecil Rhodes is responsible for all manner of stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of Black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labor exploitation in the diamond mines and devising proto-apartheid policies” -- and he’s right.

Oxford’s chancellor, the former Conservative cabinet minister Chris Patten, has robustly told the protesters that if they “aren’t prepared to show the generosity of spirit which Nelson Mandela showed towards Rhodes and towards history… then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere.”

In the United States, as in the United Kingdom, students have seized on memorials they deem oppressive and speech they deem offensive -- and are prepared to campaign militantly to have these wrongs removed. The campaign at Yale University, where racial tensions began to escalate last fall, is the most complex. In a detailed piece on the dispute, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Danny Funt wrote that “protesters demand exemption from the rules of open discourse.”

That isn’t how they see it. One of the exhibits in the racism charge is that black women students seeking entrance to a fraternity party last October were allegedly turned away, because the organizers would accept “white girls only”: the reporting of the event by the Yale Daily News was judged as racist, according to the CJR piece, because its account “incensed some students, who felt it made the denial too prominent and reduced allegations to a he said, she said stalemate.”

Around the same time, back in the UK, the writer Germaine Greer, a leading, highly individualistic feminist of her generation (she’s in her mid-70s) was the target of an attempt by students at Cardiff University to ban a talk she was to give because she did not believe that transgendered men were women. She was labeled “transphobic” for expressing views hurtful to transsexuals. She seemed at first inclined not to give the talk -- but assured of security, she did, and repeated her views with her usual clarity: “I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock. You can beat me over the head with a baseball bat. It still won’t make me change my mind.”

A recent poll by the magazine Spiked showed that half the UK universities have some form of curb on free speech, applied by the student unions. Many of those restrictions are at the top universities, such as the London School of Economics, Edinburgh and Cardiff. 

At both Yale and Cardiff, the notion that speech should be free is being inverted: freedom can be oppression, where what is freely said is judged to hurt, or show lack of respect, or contain masked prejudice. That’s intellectually vapid: it speaks to a space populated by groups and individuals unable to speak to each other, struggling for the right to have their view accepted before they discuss.

The Yale protests, and those against Rhodes’ statues in Cape Town and Oxford, however, raise the more substantial matters of race, the legacies of imperialism and the low representation of students of color in the student body, and even more among scholars. On this, something can be done: at Oxford, especially, student admissions are heavily skewed to pupils from British private schools, who tend to be white. (Though a rising proportion are of Asian descent. Afro-British student numbers are rising more slowly, and Afro-British scholars even more so.)

But the statues of Rhodes should be left where they are (too late, for Cape Town). In keeping with the spirit and practice of a university, they could be accompanied by a plaque of some size, linking to a website, with an unvarnished history of the man’s actions, illuminating what Buchan called his “murky” qualities, as well as what Mahachi wants: an account of his contribution to Zimbabwe’s, and South Africa’s, heritage. 

Statues erected to commemorate should remain to spur reflection, and criticism. In these eruptions of cultural warfare, the only guide is mutual commitment to understand -- which can never end, if we retain liberal values. 

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Russia can only use the United States as an excuse for so long http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/12/29/russia-can-only-use-the-united-states-as-an-excuse-for-so-long/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/12/29/russia-can-only-use-the-united-states-as-an-excuse-for-so-long/#comments Tue, 29 Dec 2015 05:17:45 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=45469
Russian Matryoshka dolls decorated with images of U.S. President Barack Obama (R), his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev (C) and Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are seen on display at a market in Moscow July 3, 2009.  REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

This 2009 photo shows Russian matryoshka dolls decorated with images of President Barack Obama (R), then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (C) and Russia's then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

Sergei Guriev, Russia’s most prominent free market economist, left Moscow in 2013 for Paris, in fear of his liberty. He had publicly supported dissidents, criticized the administration’s policies, was an active and committed liberal, in politics as in economics. He produced, earlier this year, a 21st century equivalent of Niccolo Machiavelli’s “The Prince”: a blueprint of how the modern autocrat rules, and remains.

Unlike the Florentine, though, Guriev isn’t recommending a course of action, he’s describing it; and he doesn’t believe it will be good for the state, but ruinous. If, in this and other writings and interviews, he’s right about the nature of Russia’s governance, his country is in for a bad crash. And when Russia in its present condition crashes, the world will shake.

The modern autocrat will often have regular elections (which he always wins), a parliament with an opposition (that isn’t a threat), and most of the institutions of a democratic society, such as a vaguely independent judicial system, “free” media and freedom of travel for citizens. Recent examples include the former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, the present prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan, the Chinese Communist Party and, of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Some of the press will be critical; some demonstrations will be allowed; foreigners will come and go fairly freely. The autocrat will imprison some dissidents, crush some protests, censor some productions, websites, books. But it’s quite possible to live well enough since, as Guriev writes, “repression is not necessary.”

If – and this is a big if – “mass beliefs can be manipulated sufficiently by means of censorship, co-optation, and propaganda.” And the greatest of these is propaganda – because it fulfills a popular need, and isn’t felt by most as an imposition, but as a welcome underpinning in belief in the goodness of the state, the ruler – and of themselves. Russians, writes Arkady Ostrovsky in his recent “The Invention of Russia,” came to believe in themselves as a more moral people than Westerners – a long-held religious view, modernized, secularized and emphasized throughout the 15 years of Putin’s domination of Russian politics. Above all, they feel superior to Americans – the “propaganda feeds not on ignorance but on resentment…having an imagined but mighty enemy, America, makes people feel noble and good.”

Propaganda, TV shows and films constantly feeding a sense of national and self-worth, can, in the modern autocracy, substitute for prison camps and torture dungeons. But they cannot do so forever. In an interview this summer with Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute, Guriev agrees with Ostrovsky that “having an enemy as big as the U.S. is an explanation for falling living standards.”

The fall has produced wage cuts, unemployment and higher prices, but it has been cushioned by a large reserve fund. That’s being drawn down steadily: Guriev reckons it will be exhausted in under two years – and after that, a deluge.

The Russian president has received many Western plaudits -- from the Republican candidate for presidential nomination Donald Trump, from Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front; while Alex Salmond, former first minister of Scotland, said that he had “restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing.” He’s credited with being a master tactician, alert to every Western weakness, whose realism has allowed him to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over chaos. Reluctantly, the United States has had to climb down from demanding Assad’s ouster so that the Western allies can, with Russia, concentrate on defeating Islamic State, the greater threat because of its enthusiastic sponsoring of terrorism.

But tactics get you so far. He can certainly tweak the American nose, painfully. But what’s the strategy?

It will have to be good – for under his leadership, Russia has found itself encircled with enemies, and uncertain friends. In the west, Ukraine – dismembered and bankrupt -- is now, more than ever determined to carve out a future as a European state. Beyond Ukraine, Poland's most powerful politician, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party Jaroslav Kaczynski -- who picked and promoted both the  president, Andrzej Duda and the Prime Minister, Beata Szydlo --insists that the truth has not been told about the death of predecessor Lech Kaczynski. Kaczynski was killed when his Polish Air Force jet crashed in Russia on the way to Smolensk on April 10, 2010, and many in Poland blame a Russian conspiracy.

In the north, the Baltic states have troops from other NATO members stationed along their boarders as a warning to their giant neighbor. In the south, Turkey, once a friend, is now a despised lackey of the United States after its shooting down of a Russian fighter. In his end-of-year press conference, Putin said the country was “licking the U.S. in a certain place.” To the east, China is – according to Fu Ying, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Peoples’ Congress, “not an ally,” and it will not “form an anti-American bloc” with Russia -- though relations are business-like, with trade much increased.

Of the other post-Soviet states, Moldova and Georgia are seeking Western alliances; China is wooing the Central Asians with much success, and even loyal Belarus is hedging its bets.

It could be different – and in an optimistic view, it might be. The accord reached between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this month might yet be built on a withdrawal of Russian military from Eastern Ukraine, a de-escalation of anti-Western propaganda, a search for common projects, a commitment from the European Union that Ukraine could have trade agreements with Russia as well as with the Union. All these could fundamentally alter the relationship between Russia, the EU and the United States.

But it’s unlikely. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Georgy Arbatov, the Communist regime’s main expert on the United States, said to the West that “we are going to do a terrible thing to you… to deprive you of an enemy.” The Putin regime has worked hard at reversing that terrible blow: and has helped create enmity once more, since it needs enemies for its legitimacy. It won’t want to let them go easily.

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Fallout for Europe may be greater if Britain stays in the EU http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/12/24/fallout-for-europe-may-be-greater-if-britain-stays-in-the-eu/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/12/24/fallout-for-europe-may-be-greater-if-britain-stays-in-the-eu/#comments Thu, 24 Dec 2015 05:54:11 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=45420
Union flags and the Big Ben clocktower cover notebooks are seen on sale in London, Britain, Thursday  December 17, 2015. European Union leaders could clinch a deal with British Prime Minister David Cameron in February to prevent the bloc's second largest economy leaving, European Council President Donald Tusk said on Thursday. Cameron is seeking to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the bloc it joined in 1973 ahead of a referendum on membership to be held by the end of 2017. Some EU leaders are wary of agreeing to all of his demands, however, particularly on cutting benefits for EU migrants to Britain. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor   - RTX1Z564

Union flags and the Big Ben clocktower cover notebooks are seen on sale in London, Britain, Thursday December 17, 2015. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

The United Kingdom is trying to get itself out of the clutches of what it believes will be a uniting Europe. Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum to the British people by 2017 on whether or not they wished to remain a member of the European Union. He may give them one as early as next year.

Britain has been a member of the European Union and its predecessor organization since 1972.

The negotiations on this, now fully joined after months of a phony war, are highly technical -- lawyers’ and diplomats’ work. But at root, this is a move with very large implications, as much for the other members as for the UK.

The British government’s approach has been to declare that the issue needs a negotiation. If in talks with his fellow European heads of government, Cameron can obtain a series of changes that loosen the UK-EU relationship, he would recommend, and campaign for, a “Yes” to remaining a member in the coming referendum.

It’s clear he wants to stay in. Business people, the Conservatives’ most loyal allies, are largely in favor, as are other main parties -- the press (probably), the unions, the upper ranks of the civil service, the universities and, not the lightest weight on the scales, the United States of America. But he has a large number of people in his party, and a few in his cabinet, who would prefer to get out.

So, it seems, do millions of Brits: Polls presently show that opinion is more or less evenly balanced. Cameron needs to show that he has convinced the EU to change so that continued membership will appear to be a lighter weight to bear, with fewer affronts to national sovereignty than in the past.

Hardest for Cameron -- but perhaps most important to his public -- would be to change a founding principle of the European Union, that everyone must be treated equally everywhere. This is especially dear to those countries, mainly former communist-bloc states like Poland, Romania, Czech Republic and others, whose workers come to Britain in large numbers because of its relatively low unemployment.

He has put up four areas in which change must come, to placate the grumpy British lion. There must be an explicit recognition that the euro is not the only European currency. Red tape must be cut. The UK must be excused from the clause that commits EU members to “an ever closer union.” And immigrants to the UK from other EU member states won’t get work -- or out-of-work -- benefits for four years.

In talks earlier this week in Brussels -- the first nitty-gritty gathering on the issue, where fellow heads of government actually focused on the UK’s pesky demands -- Cameron did quite well. Everyone said they wanted to keep Britain in, were prepared to compromise and would have some ideas by February, when the leaders meet again.

So he might get what he wants, a result that he could, with not too much spin, present to his colleagues and to the electorate as a substantial shift. The vote -- there’s a lot of “don’t knows” in the present polling -- may go for staying in. Yet if it does, the consequences would be more momentous for the EU than if Britain voted to leave.

For it would mean that the UK -- the union’s second- biggest economy, a nuclear power, U.N. Security Council member, major military power -- would be in Europe only conditionally. Britain would enjoy the economic benefits, but remain unambiguously attached to its own parliament and laws, scorning any efforts to form a European state.

As such, it would constitute a pole of attraction for other states if the euro does not recover momentum; if Greece returns to crisis; if another state joins Greece in the critical ward; if migrant flows build up once more.

In a post on the website of the International Financing Review, the former Italian diplomat and commentator Antonio Armellini argues that the British demand can only be accommodated by creating an explicitly divided Europe. Britain, and others who don’t want to join the euro, would “share the basic principles of democratic representation, market economy and fundamental rights,” while those in the eurozone proceed to a closer unity. The euro’s survival, he writes, “is inextricably linked to the ability of its members to agree on an appropriate form of supranational economic governance, on which all the other arrangements for members and non-members will ultimately depend.”

It’s an idea whose time, many more than Armellini believe, has come. But the challenge it poses to those who, in the eurozone, are presumed by Armellini to want ever closer union is enormous. It would mean European ministers of economy, of internal affairs, of defense and much more laying down the law and practice for the European Union, overriding the governments of the national capitals.

Like the last round in a high-stakes poker game, it would call those who remain playing to show their hands, and to judge who is bluffing. It would show which countries, and which political parties and leaderships, are willing to jump into the unknown, abandon what real power they have and commit themselves, and their electorates, to the building of a new nation.

The British have owned up. They have implicitly admitted that they are cautious, pragmatic and insular. They like their own political arrangements best, whether or not they like their politicians. If the other European leaders find a way of keeping the UK in, and the referendum vote goes for remaining a (semi-detached) member, the EU would have to live with a very large cuckoo in its uneasy nest. Much more, its member states’ leaders would finally have to put to their people the prospect of being governed by those they regard as foreigners. Nothing technical about this: It would be the time when an enormous political transformation would have to be embarked upon – or shirked.

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Europe’s got its own Donald Trumps http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/12/10/europes-got-its-own-donald-trumps/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/12/10/europes-got-its-own-donald-trumps/#comments Thu, 10 Dec 2015 20:30:05 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=45254
Golf - RICOH Women's British Open 2015 - Trump Turnberry Resort, Scotland - 1/8/15 US Presidential Candidate Donald Trump as he views his Scottish golf course at Turnberry Action Images via Reuters / Russell Cheyne Livepic - RTX1MNC1

Presidential candidate Donald Trump views his Scottish golf course at Turnberry.
Action Images via Reuters/Russell Cheyne

As an assailant, reportedly shouting, “this is for Syria” stabbed a fellow traveller in a London metro station last weekend, an as-yet unidentified onlooker shouted -- “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv!” In the way of today, it became a hash tag almost instantly, and was used by Prime Minister David Cameron when asked about the incident after a speech he gave in the English Midlands city of Derby.

Sourpusses have carped over Cameron’s upper-class accent enfolding a phrase in the patois and accent of London’s immigrant working class. But it’s been much repeated, retweeted and lauded, taken up as a defiant response of multicultural London to violence and prejudice.

The incident was given a further boost when Donald Trump, picking up on the stabbing, said that there were parts of London which the metropolitan police do not patrol, for fear of radical Islamists offering them violence. A petition was already circling, with the support of more than 300,000 people, to ban the Republican front-runner from the UK. Trump owns two golf courses near the northern Scottish city of Aberdeen. (The government said it wouldn’t ban him.)

Everyone of note in London denied that the police had any no-go areas. London’s witty Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, said that "the only reason I wouldn't go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump." Thus was a nation united in condemnation of violence, bigotry and Trump.

Creeping in below this unity of people with leaders, old with new Londoners, were two polls that received little attention. One showed that fully 25 percent of the British thought Trump was right to call for the banning of Muslims from entering the United States -- a number which included 30 percent of Conservative voters, 21 percent of Labour voters and 61 percent of those who vote for the new right-wing grouping, the United Kingdom Independence Party.

The second poll, for The Sun, claimed 19 percent of Muslims surveyed showed at least some sympathy for those who went to Syria to fight with jihadists. The poll roused objections immediately. What did “sympathy” mean? Which jihadists? But there was something there – especially among the 18-34-year olds surveyed, 25 percent of who expressed “some” sympathy.

And another spoiler of the unity mood: several police officers said there were parts of London in which, though patrolled, they had been told not to wear uniforms while travelling to and from work. One said that Trump had “pointed out something plainly obvious, something which I think we aren't as a nation willing to own up to.”

This week is a kind of hiatus in Europe. People are waiting to see if France’s National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, can maintain its gains from last week in the second round of voting in regional elections this coming Sunday. If the center-left and -right parties agree to call on their supporters to rally round the one centrist party most likely to win in each region, the Front may be confounded, and win control nowhere. It would be down, but not out -- any more than Trumpery will be out if he slips down the polls. Through midweek, though, there was little sign of it. Reuters’ tracking poll showed his call for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States has not dented his appeal. In fact, some polls showed his popularity among Republican voters had actually increased.

The French mood was already sour on Muslims after the murders by jihadists of journalists at the magazine Charlie Hebdo in January. The greater bloodshed in Paris last month seems to have made it toxic, especially in many working/lower-middle-class areas. Increasingly, voices on the far right reach the mainstream, as that of Guillaume Fay, a member of the New Right and a passionate opponent of immigration, arguing that the Front “crystalizes the anguish of millions of French natives who have become progressively strangers in their own country, in the land of their fathers… they are the ones who suffer the ravages of mass immigration and mounting Islamicization… such people feel nostalgic for a France that is disappearing and where they lived well.” Nostalgia is notoriously selective, sentimental and self-indulgent, which means, it can, when widely shared, be powerful.

Dependent on secular, civic values and buoyed by the success of the economies which sustained democratic states, European liberal democracies were welcoming to all -- until many came. There were no great (though not empty) spaces, no recent history of nations created by immigrants, no Statue of Liberty (a gift from the people of France!) presiding over the influx of huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The huddled masses now yearn for Europe -- and it is closing against them. Under Trump, Lady Liberty would be decapitated -- as a recent cartoon showed -- and those yearning for America would face a new religious test.

Fear is the spur. The stabbing in London; the massacre in San Bernardino; the greater bloodshed in Paris; the incessant warnings that worse is to come, combine to make Muslims living in or coming to Western societies objects of ever-deeper suspicion.

That around 12,000 are killed by guns each year in the United States -- a vanishingly small number of which deaths are attributable to Muslims pursuing a personal violent jihad -- is beside the present point. The killings strike at the heart of U.S. liberal generosity, a defining element in the United States’ appeal abroad and of pride in itself at home. In France, the other great Western revolutionary nation, which still proclaims its republican ideals, something of the same recoil is happening.

Trump and Le Pen privilege bigotry over common purpose to oppose murder. They indict a community of believers with the crimes of their faith’s fanatics. It was comfortable to dismiss them when it was ridiculous to think they would win. But now they are winning.

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The end of the post-World War Two order http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/12/05/the-end-of-the-post-world-war-two-order/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/12/05/the-end-of-the-post-world-war-two-order/#comments Sat, 05 Dec 2015 14:44:59 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=45165
lepen.jpg

Marine Le Pen, French National Front political party leader and candidate for the National Front in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region, addresses French farmers as she campaigns for the upcoming regional elections, November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

After World War Two, having crushed evil, Western politicians unleashed a deluge of good. Welfare states were created, with healthcare, education, pensions and social services extended to entire populations.

The European imperialists, under the not-so-gentle prodding of the no-longer-imperialist United States, began to pull down their union jacks and tricolors -- a process which was both bloody and protracted, but which ushered in, year after year, new states free to rule themselves.

A small group of highly motivated men lobbied for an extraordinary dream to be given substance: a union of the European states, ultimately a federal Europe -- and, framing it as a medium for ending Europe’s centuries of war, they won part of their point (a union, but not a federal one).

These changes seemed to be the will of the people. In Britain, Winston Churchill was beaten in the post-war election by his loyal and unassuming deputy in the wartime coalition, Clement Attlee. Churchill, in a graceless put-down, said that the Labour leader was a modest man who “had much to be modest about” -- who then modestly pioneered huge social change. Everywhere, including in the United States, trade unions flourished, and were brought in to help to determine much of economic policy.

The push came mainly from the left, but the reforms got a large consensus with the center right -- especially with the Christian Democratic parties in continental Europe, infused with Catholic social teaching. These reforms were what are called today “top down”: framed and run by governments and large state institutions staffed by technocrats. When a member of Attlee’s government, Douglas Jay, wrote that “the gentleman in Whitehall (the government bureaucracy) really does know better than the people themselves what is good for them,” there were no calls for his resignation. That was what politicians and bureaucrats were for: to give people what they needed, to make life fuller, less risky.

At a conference at the Flemish Academy in Brussels this past week, the writer Ian Buruma, the Academy’s “thinker in residence,” argued that “postwar” was over. By that he means that the consensus that more or less held between center-left and center-right over social provision, strong states and, in Europe, a movement to closer integration, holds no more.

The “rot began in the 1980s,” Buruma believes, with the administrations of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. It was deepened as the collapse of communism spurred the anti-collectivist mood; and now breaks down entirely, as “Neoliberalism filled the vacuum, creating vast wealth for some people, but at the expense of the ideal of equality” and “the rise of right-wing populism reflects revived yearnings for pure national communities, that keep immigrants and minorities out.”

I think that “neoliberalism” isn’t much help in understanding what’s happening to Western economies, which, even with some cuts, still spend hugely on socialized medicine, education, pensions and social care. In the case of the United States, spending on socialized medicine (Obamacare) has meant a rise in state spending on health. In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, spending on health between 2010 and 2014 -- the austerity period -- has grown in richer countries, albeit by a measly 1 percent. Isn’t neo-liberalism supposed to mean slashing state budgets?

It’s true, though, that quite a lot of the state spending passes through the public health and education bureaucracies to private contractors. For a variety of reasons, there’s still a predisposition to think private enterprise is more efficient. It’s certainly true that the collectivist assumption that organized labor was good for society as well as the workers has shrunk, as unions have.

And it’s even truer that the European Union is in real trouble. Its economy is still weak, its borders, opened under the Schengen Area Agreement of 1995, are closing under the pressure of desperate migrants.

This is the time when gentlemen (and ladies) in governments everywhere don’t just not dare to know better, but really don’t know what’s happening to them. This is the time when populism thrives -- in the United States, on the right, where a blowhard real estate mogul leads the Republican nomination race, but also, in a different way, in Europe.

The European populist right is doing well in many states. The National Front in France is now ahead of all other parties in all polls for regional elections happening Sunday. In the Netherlands, the strongly anti-Muslim Freedom Party also tops the polls. In Italy, two populist parties -- the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo and the Liga -- are first and third in the polls. Both are opposed to more immigration. And in Poland, which of all the post-Communist states has done best, its income per head doubling over the quarter of a century, a populist party runs the government, holding up both Russia and the EU as enemies of the true Poland.

The post-war push to slough off imperialism assumed that new, independent countries would produce governments responsive to the will of their peoples. That they would be pushed by newly enfranchised citizens to raise living standards and run more or less efficient and honest governments.

Instead, throughout Africa and the Middle East, governments are bywords for authoritarian rule or corruption or more often both. The resulting poverty and frequent wars power the migrant flows to Europe. The Dutch economist Erik Schlokkaert, who spoke at the Postwar Conference in Brussels, said that “nobody believes that the migration pressure will stop. It is impossible to keep Europe as an island of prosperity in a sea of misery.”

What is to be done?

Actually, a lot.

We can begin by taking climate change seriously and putting pressure on those who pollute. We must work to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction; combat violent jihadism; revitalize civil societies; assist developing countries in keeping their citizens by cleaning up government and reforming their economies; seek agreements with Russia on Syria and Ukraine; encourage citizens everywhere to hold, not just governments, but themselves to account for their choices and public actions.

On these, people of the left and right could again find a post-post war consensus. On these, political movements can again find causes and the need for renewed energy. It’s a tall order: and it’s not true that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, for we have a lot to be fearful about. But we can do nothing other than try to shape up, and tackle the challenges the 21st century throws at us so generously.

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The Vatican can’t seem to get out of the secrets business http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/12/01/the-vatican-cant-seem-to-get-out-of-the-secrets-business/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/12/01/the-vatican-cant-seem-to-get-out-of-the-secrets-business/#comments Tue, 01 Dec 2015 05:33:02 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=45084
Saint Peter's dome is seen at the Vatican November 24, 2015.     REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi - RTX1VM7L

Saint Peter's dome is seen at the Vatican, November 24, 2015. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Leaking is essential to journalism. It is the ethical problem at the heart of the trade -- since much leaking depends on the leaker breaking a promise not to leak. The conundrum is “solved” by appealing to the higher cause of holding power to account.

That rationale can vary from having the force of exposing official lies or corporate fraud to the grubbiness of publishing details, usually sexual, of the private life of well-known people. But leaking is especially essential in the coverage of the intelligence services, and of the way in which security in the face of militant jihadism is administered. It’s necessary to get beyond bland statements and partial briefings, and get some purchase on the scope and methods of institutions now, in every state, much more powerful and much larger than they had been since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

The George W. Bush administrations were as angered as any before them by the leaking which surrounded their actions, especially in the second half of the 2000s. But, as reporters learned to their delight, the wars within it, in key departments like Justice and State as well as in the security services, meant that leakers had a large interest in getting their objections out, and in weakening opponents whom they thought wrong, or dangerous.

Under President Barack Obama, however, whose administration is more disciplined and which has been directed to go hard on leakers, the pickings -- say reporters -- are thinner, the penalties harsher. Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA officer who leaked material on Iran to New York Times reporter James Risen for his 2006 book State of War; John Kiriakou, also once with the CIA, who disclosed information about a brother officer to journalists; and Stephen Kim, a former State department expert, who gave details of contacts between the United States and North Korea to a Fox News reporter, have all served or are serving jail sentences for their acts.

The administration has not, however, prosecuted the journalists who received and used the leaks, tempted as the people in the White House and at Justice seem to have been. Officials will try to stop publication by appealing to the damage it will cause, especially to intelligence gathering -- and sometimes editors will agree to at least delay. Once the story is out, however, vengeance is (relatively) swift for the leakers, while the leakee is left alone, albeit roundly cursed.

This isn’t the way the Holy See, under the Peoples’ Pope Francis, operates. And while the Vatican is not the CIA, it's central to the lives of many millions, and has a large effect on the world: and thus the way in which it conducts its business should be known. Yet two journalists, Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, who tried to shine some light on that are on trial for disclosing confidential Vatican documents in recent books. Together with the journalists, three others who helped them -- a Spanish priest Monsignor Angelo Balda, his secretary Nicola Maio and a public relations consultant Francesca Chaouqui, members of a commission tasked with developing financial reforms, are also indicted.

The journalists’ books are critical. Caroline Wyatt, the BBC’s religious affairs reporter, writes “In Avarice, Emiliano Fittipaldi says "crazy" sums were spent on business class flights and furniture. Gianluigi Nuzzi's Merchants in the Temple describes a pattern of financial mismanagement and greed at the heart of the Vatican.”

Fittipaldi wrote, in an article in the Rome daily La Repubblica, , (in Italian) that he called his book “Avarice” because it was “one of the seven deadly sins which sets man apart from God” -- and he wanted to dramatize the problem. “I was perfectly well aware,” he writes, “that to reveal that the apartments of Cardinal Bertone (former Vatican State Secretary), renovated with funds from the Foundation of the Baby Jesus meant for the care of sick children, would get on the nerves of those who knew about the matter for years, and kept it hidden”

The apartment, when renovated, will allegedly be 6,500 square feet, with space for three nuns who have attended him to live there. Bertone, who was replaced by Francis, denies the apartment is so large, and blames “vipers and spies” for disclosing the details about him.

This isn’t a Stalinist show trial. The journalists, who live outside of the Vatican City state, attend voluntarily. Though the accused could theoretically get up to eight years under Vatican law, few expect prison sentences, if pronounced, to be carried through. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and columnist for the National Catholic Reporter in the United States, wrote that the previous pope, Benedict XVI, pardoned his butler who stole some documents from him, and that “Pope Francis will undoubtedly do the same if these people are convicted.”

Maybe. But the law which specifies up to eight years imprisonment was introduced, on his own initiative, by Francis in 2013 -- a sign of his exasperation with leaks about arguments with senior cardinals, and disclosures on child abuse. The Vatican’s penal code, based on early 20th century Italian law, has been updated -- and targeted on those who embarrass the hierarchy.

Reese wrote that “Vatican City is a state that can enact and prosecute laws, but it is also the central office of the Catholic Church. In this case, it should act like a church not a state.” In fact, it is acting as both a state -- headed by a figure chosen by a small elite through divine intervention -- and a church. Religions have always had a punitive side to keep the faithful in line. The Inquisition and witch-hunting have long gone from Christianity, but the instinct to punish those who defy the church -- in matters large and small -- remains.

It’s too late for that. Italy, the surrounding state, has imperfect news media, but a strengthening belief in the need that they be as free as their most spirited journalists can make them.

Francis is foolish to sully himself by prosecuting a media that has lionized him as a liberal reformer. But he’s also foolish in a deeper sense -- for failing to recognize that it’s a mistake to suppress rather than to admit, to condemn the messenger and reward the perpetrator. When details of the actions of people and institutions usually end up swimming in the vast sea of the ‘Net, that folly is compounded. Even the Vatican cannot be a sanctuary for scandal.

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Islamic State has become an existential threat to the West http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/11/18/islamic-state-has-become-a-existential-threat-to-the-west/ http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/11/18/islamic-state-has-become-a-existential-threat-to-the-west/#comments Wed, 18 Nov 2015 05:13:15 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/?p=44918
Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. The fighters held the parade to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq, a monitoring service said. The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), posted pictures online on Sunday of people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, the SITE monitoring service said. Picture taken June 30, 2014.  REUTERS/Stringer (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTR3WKNM

Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

The Europeans have -- it’s not news -- tended to be snooty about the Americans. Especially the French, but the attitude is ingrained even in the “special relationship” with the UK.

In interviews with intelligence service people, mostly retired, for a project for the Reuters Institute, I often heard that senior British officers had thought the phrase “War on Terror” to be a stupid one, and that they never used it. It was not a war, they believed. The struggle was not “existential.” It was a serious challenge from serious militants: hard, vicious but finite.

It’s different now. Francois Hollande, the Socialist president of France, has said that the slaughter in Paris last Friday evening was “an act of war.” Pope Francis, at a commemoration service for the 100,000 Italian soldiers killed in the World War One (his grandfather was one of the soldiers who survived) said that “one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.”

The Europeans aren’t being snooty anymore: Paris, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, has brought Europe together in an agony of anger -- so much, that it is the U.S. president who feels compelled to remind us that we should have a duty of welcome to refugees from Syria.

And there’s another switch. Vice President Joseph Biden, speaking on Monday in Los Angeles, said “I say to the American people: There is no existential threat to the United States. Nothing ISIS can do could bring down the government, could threaten the way we live.”

But the man who commanded the British armed forces from 2010 to 2013 thinks that’s mere complacency. General David Richards said at a history festival in June this year that the threat is existential and "that we need to approach this issue of Muslim extremism as we might approach World War Two back in the 1930s.” In a recent book, he’s said to have told the British prime minister that he lacked the courage to take the fight to Islamic State, being too obsessed with wishing to appear liberal.

There are three main reasons why Richards is right and Biden wrong. First, for some three decades, the nightmare of politicians and secret services has been that rogue states, and/or terrorist groups, would acquire weapons of mass destruction. It runs through “At the Center of the Storm,” the memoir of George Tenet, CIA director from 1996-2004. It kept successive presidents, from Clinton through Bush to Obama, awake at night; prompted their interventions abroad and (in Obama’s presidency) the heavy use of killer drones. It has meant that the National Security Agency (NSA) has now incomparably the largest budget of any intelligence service anywhere, so that the first “chatter” which reveals that the nightmare has real flesh can be detected.

Islamic State might be the organization to put flesh on that nightmare, because it has the money and can buy the expertise to make WMD. An investigation last month by the Financial Times found that in the areas of Iraq it controls, ISIS has “a sprawling operation almost akin to a state oil company that … recruits skilled workers, from engineers to trainers and managers and produces about 34,000-40,000 barrels per day. The oil is sold at the wellhead for between $20 and $45 a barrel, earning the militants an average of $1.5m a day.”

Put together money, expertise and an Islamist-nihilist philosophy, and you have a weapon of huge destructive power, pointing at both the West and the East.

Second, Islamic State is funding a large increase in its cyber warfare capability. George Osborne, the British chancellor, said on Tuesday that “ISIS' murderous brutality has a strong digital element. At a time when so many others are using the Internet to enhance freedom and give expression to liberal values and creativity, they are using it for evil.”

Determined cyber attacks mounted by experts in cryptography could disable health and power systems, air traffic controls, nuclear power stations and much else: the human costs could quickly run into the tens of thousands, if closely coordinated.

Third, ISIS, more than any other of the Islamist groups, has the power to attract large numbers of young Muslims -- men and women -- to come to Syria and Iraq to fight with them, or to remain in the countries in which they were born and become an enemy within these states. The glamour of death, murder and “revenge” seems a powerful draw -- amplified, it seems, by the hours many of the young jihadists spend before a screen replete with images of “Crusaders” and Jews murdering Muslims. There is thus a potentially active network of supporters in most of the Western countries, either radicalized or the future targets of radicalization. And there is no way, outside of a locked-down authoritarian state, for all of them be monitored all the time.

The safeguards of a democratic society bounded by the rule of law place limits: a member of France’s internal secret service, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure, told the Le Monde reporter Jacques Follorou that, “You have to prioritize, if the lads don’t commit any crime, its complicated to justify phone taps. You can’t put people on whom you have no evidence under 24-hour surveillance.”

This is not quite like any other war; nor can it be fought with previous wars’ weapons. Ranged against Islamic State is the military might of the United States, the European states and, now, Russia. Surely, with the military and intelligence technology at their disposal, they can destroy a force which seeks to bring down 21st century civilization and substitute for it a mediaeval theocracy?

Yet working for the theocrats is the sluggish reluctance of the liberal, consumer societies of the West to gear up for war; to surround themselves with new security systems which will inhibit travel and entertainment; to lose or reduce the liberal safeguards which have been regarded as indispensable. Working for them, too, is a hatred so pure that young men can stride among the bodies of other young men, and women, and shoot those who moved -- then blow themselves up. Working for them is the lack of our comprehension about how serious they appear to be.

This, I think, adds up to war: and an existential threat. A threat to our existence, our way of life.

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