Opinion

John Lloyd

In Ukraine, a choice of civilizations

John Lloyd
Oct 16, 2013 17:57 UTC

KIEV — In 1993, the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington proposed that “the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.” His theorythat the world was divided into potentially warring civilizations — and later, his book on the topic — have been denounced by legions of critics, mainly on the liberal side. But it had and has retained one group of unlikely fans: Russian nationalists.

They saw in his definition of “Slavic-Orthodox culture” (including much of the former Soviet Union and reaching deep into East-Central Europe) a confirmation, albeit from a surprising quarter, of their own view of the world. That is, that Russia is and must remain the central and organizing power of a collection of states that history, religion and culture had predisposed to unity, and to a distinctly separate identity from a West that would devour them behind a front of “spreading democracy.”

President Vladimir Putin of Russia is an ardent Huntington-ite. His much quoted view that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century signaled a deeply felt loss of a world in which Russia ruled not so much by force but by cultural and political leadership. In such a view, the nations that comprise that civilization are less important than the civilization itself. For a Slavic-Orthodox state to shift to the West would not be a choice, but a betrayal of the bloc’s essence.

In a few weeks, the state that lives on the fault line between Huntington’s Western and Slavic civilizations will have to make what James Sherr, one of its foremost Western observers, calls “a civilizational choice.” Sherr writes that the European Union is about to offer Ukraine an Association Agreement and trade pact that will “provide tangible mechanisms of integration with the EU” — an open invitation to shift the core of Ukraine’s statehood to the West.

There is another offer on the table, from the east. Russia has constructed a Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) that takes in Belarus to its west and Kazakhstan to its south. The ECU is said to be both rules-based and relatively efficient, “harmonized with international norms and the World Trade Organization regime.” Russia is not just inviting Ukraine to join the ECU — it is seeking to frighten it into it, instituting the beginnings of a trade embargo to show what might happen on a bigger scale if its offer were spurned, and threatening higher prices for the gas it supplies to its neighbor.

Maybe don’t give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses

John Lloyd
Oct 8, 2013 16:16 UTC

As we saw last week, Africans are desperately risking, and losing, their lives in the struggle to get into Europe. They come above all from the war-afflicted states of Eritrea, Somalia and Syria. They trek to Libya (itself now increasingly in bloody turmoil, a Spring long gone) or Tunisia, and from there seek a boat to the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost piece of Italian soil, nearer to the north African coast than it is to Sicily.

The emigrants pay up to 1,000 euros to traffickers, who sometimes take their money and disappear, sometimes pack hundreds of them into fishing boats, which might normally carry a dozen men. From there they set off to cover the 80 or so miles to the lovely island, a luxurious resort with some of the best beaches on the planet, and now the fevered hope of some of the world’s poorest.

At the end of last week, a 66-foot ship with upwards of 500 of these people sank less than a mile from Lampedusa. More than 150 were rescued; as many as 350 may have drowned. Italy, mired in recession with burgeoning unemployment for all, and especially for the young, is no more generous to illegal emigrants than the rest of Europe, but the scale caused shock there and throughout the continent. Unlikely, though, that it will it cause a change in attitude.

Goodbye to all that centrism

John Lloyd
Sep 30, 2013 20:17 UTC

How much longer will the political center hold in Europe? Its erosion, years in the making, is only picking up speed. In Italy, the latest political crisis presages the collapse of the centrist left-right coalition. In Austria, a recent election barely gave a similar coalition enough votes to continue governing. The European Union nations are hurtling toward elections next spring for the European parliament, which will bring real debate and divide to what has been a largely consensual assembly. Not far separated from the yolk of the financial crisis, nationalism is the politics of the times.

While Europe’s economy is making a slow, small improvement (with exceptions in the south), its politics are becoming much more fragile. Most economists say that the crisis can only be fully remedied by taking more powers into a powerful Euro-center, one that’s fiscal, financial, macro-economic, and thus political. Brussels believes it must be done: but no national government, even Germany’s, believes it could deliver popular approval for the move. The crisis is already forcing integration, yet causing citizens to recoil from the EU. That’s the central contradiction of Europe, stark and grim.

Voters now demand that their national governments protect them from the fallout of treaties that their political leaders signed. Citizens are concerned that immigration — especially from the two latest (and poorest) EU members, Romania and Bulgaria — is ruining their societies, and the growing recoil is forcing these politicians to retreat from their commitments. Manuel Valls, the French Interior Minister, said in an interview last week that many of the Roma (once known as gypsy) people who have come to France mainly from Romania and Bulgaria and live in squalid camps, should return. A European Commission spokesman responded the next day, saying such a move would break European law.

For Germany, mum’s the word

John Lloyd
Sep 23, 2013 17:17 UTC

If every nation gets the leader it deserves, what would Angela Merkel’s smashing victory on Sunday say about Germany?

It would show that Germans are cautious, prefer consensus to confrontation in their politics, and dislike pizzazz in their politicians. They both want a united Europe and despise southern European states that can’t manage their finances. At least, that’s how they are for the moment. (European politics, even in Germany, are febrile these days.)

Angela Merkel has achieved a rare fusion with a nation into which she was not born. Merkel is the daughter of an East German, socialistic Lutheran pastor, passionately fond of opera, fluent in Russian and moderately good in English, with a doctorate in quantum chemistry. But, as an approving German woman told the BBC, she is now seen as “one of us.”

The Church and organized labor’s new orthodoxy

John Lloyd
Sep 17, 2013 21:24 UTC

Two of the western world’s great organizations, the AFL-CIO and the Roman Catholic Church, decided last week to tackle two of the world’s great problems differently than they had for decades before. This might just be another proof that they’re getting weaker (they are). Or it might be a big, good shift.

The two groups are hardly alike. One is concerned with the material; the other occupied with things spiritual.  But last week they were united, as the leaders of both appeared ready to break with tradition and leave behind a history of exclusion. These moves haven’t attracted much notice: but if the two leaders follow through, the consequences will be enormous.

Let’s address the AFL-CIO’s action first. At its convention in Los Angeles last week, the confederation’s President Richard Trumka noted that CEO pay had gone up 40 percent since 2009, and invited the delegates to imagine “what kind of country we would live in if ordinary people’s incomes went up by 40 percent. Almost no one would live in poverty!” True, but an expected line from a union boss. But then he moved on to say — extraordinarily, for a union representative — that “we cannot win economic justice…for union members alone. It would not be right and it’s not possible. All working people will rise together, or we will keep falling together.”

Putin’s vision of equality

John Lloyd
Sep 13, 2013 19:28 UTC

The light on the discussions on Syria in Geneva between the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers is dim and flickering and may well be snuffed out. But at least there’s a light.

For the light to become brighter, world powers must declare war not on each other, but on noxious geopolitics. It is time to end the zero-sum game. World leaders are magnetized to its bare calculus: if you’re up, I’m down. It’s not a pleasant equation, but it’s terribly hard to give up.

Vladimir Putin is a great aficionado of the game, partly because he was trained to be, as a KGB officer. All secret service people think that way. In their often brutal world, when your enemy wins, you are pretty sure to have lost. It’s likely that Putin enjoys his success in delaying the U.S.-led putative strike against President Assad of Syria as a move that establishes himself as a world figure with the future of Syria in his hands, while President Obama flails about, seeking to keep the military option on the table while constrained to follow Putin’s way. The Russian autocrat has put himself in tune with public opinion in the U.S. and Europe, and put a shine both on himself and on autocracy.

Mark Thompson’s two-front war

John Lloyd
Sep 10, 2013 19:38 UTC

Mark Thompson is a burly, clever, self-confident, occasionally slightly intimidating man who until a year ago ran the BBC and is now chief executive officer of The New York Times Company. He’s been at the center of a very open row with his previous employer and one much more covert with his present one — not so much because he’s a troublemaker (though he seems to find it easily) but because trouble is being made for news media with high standards.

Thompson was the subject of a recent piece in New York magazine, which reported growing tension between him and Jill Abramson, the Times’ executive editor. It claimed that “the role of ‘visionary’ at the paper, traditionally held by the news chief, was now being ceded to Thompson,” and that he was usurping some news functions. Author Joe Hagan’s sources were mostly unnamed: one of them told him that Thompson had said to “a Times executive” that “I could be editor of the New York Times: I have that background.” That’s not an emollient statement for Abramson, two years into her job.

At a Reuters Institute event last weekend in Oxford, which I chaired, Thompson declined to speak about the BBC. He was to appear before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on Monday, and there was huge interest in the row that had developed between him and Chris Patten (Lord Patten of Barnes), the chairman of the BBC Trust — a hybrid regulator/cheerleader for the Corporation. Patten had professed ignorance of large severance payments made to a handful of senior BBC executives towards the end of Thompson’s reign, signaling that he shared the MPs’ disapproval at the size of such handouts by a publicly-owned body. But Thompson produced a 13,000-word document for the Committee, which claims that Patten, and his predecessor, were fully briefed. When he finally appeared before the MPs on Monday, he and Patten rehearsed their previous, strongly phrased, positions.

Why democracy is an insufficient force against WMD

John Lloyd
Sep 4, 2013 15:33 UTC

The British parliament’s refusal to countenance military intervention in Syria, and President Barack Obama’s decision to delay a strike until Congress approves it, point to a larger, even more dangerous contradiction of the mass destruction age.

That is, parliamentary democracy and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sit ill together. Each confounds the other’s natural working.

This is for two reasons. First: everything about weapons of mass destruction — their possession, storage, security and use — demands centralized, authoritarian control and rapid decision making unimpeded by debate, except from within a tiny command circle. And when a rogue state uses or threatens to use WMD, leaders must react rapidly and forcefully, unconstrained by their legislatures. When they are so constrained, the result can be similar to what the British government suffered last week. Democracies that wish to police the use of WMD are held back by the same protocols that allow these institutions to thrive.

On Syria, England defects

John Lloyd
Aug 30, 2013 21:18 UTC

Thursday’s British House of Commons vote against Britain aiding in a Syrian intervention led me to center on one question: what will happen to the U.S.-UK relationship? Is that alliance now gravely weakened? Can it survive in a meaningful form?

Specifically, will Britain ever again be able to partner with the United States in any future military interventions? Without Britain, the United States will certainly carry on. It has a new best friend in France — french fries top of the menu now! — and maybe Turkey will be willing, too. In the UK, Prime Minister Cameron says Britain will remain committed to mobilising opposition to the Assad regime, delivering humanitarian aid, and deploring the use of chemical weapons.

George Osborne, the chancellor, said that the U.S.-UK relationship was a “very old one, very deep and operates on many layers.” President Obama, in an astonishingly passionate speech he gave to the UK Parliament in May 2011, agreed, calling it “one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known.”

In Egypt, violence justified by a hope for democracy

John Lloyd and Abdalla F. Hassan
Aug 27, 2013 20:25 UTC

CAIRO — Alaa al-Aswany, one of Egypt’s most famous novelists, talks to visitors in a dental surgery room. Aswany, 56, was (and still is) a dentist by trade before, in middle age, rising to fame and controversy as a writer both of novels (The Yacoubian Building and Chicago) and opinion (long running columns in the independent and opposition press). He was dressed in a grey jacket and black shirt and, unusually for a dentist, smoked throughout the interview we conducted over the weekend.

Genial and expansive, he’s also angry — most of all at the Muslim Brotherhood, whose year-long government was, to his joy, cut short by the army last month. But he’s also fuming at the West, especially the U.S.: he thinks America has “no credibility left” in the Middle East’s most populous country because of its hypocrisy and naiveté.

What Aswany says matters. He’s a world literary figure, routinely listed among the world’s most influential Muslims. He had his own part in bringing down the regime of President Hosni Mubarak thanks to a confrontation on television between the writer and Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister Mubarak appointed. It was the first time Egyptians had seen a government figure chastened on live television, prompting Shafik’s resigned the next day. Shafik went on to become a presidential candidate but lost in runoff elections to Mursi. 

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