Peter Apps http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps Peter Apps's Profile Wed, 28 Oct 2015 00:00:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.5 Britain’s top fictional spy also its greatest intelligence asset http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/10/27/britains-top-fictional-spy-also-its-greatest-intelligence-asset/ http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/2015/10/27/britains-top-fictional-spy-also-its-greatest-intelligence-asset/#comments Tue, 27 Oct 2015 05:00:24 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/?p=811 IRISH ACTOR PIERCE BROSNAN POSES FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS DURING A PHOTOCALL IN CANNES.

REUTERS/Luke MacGregor/Eric Gaillard/Files

In the 62 years since James Bond first appeared in print, there’s no doubt he has helped boost the reputations of his real-life counterparts in British intelligence.

Now, Daniel Craig — the truest to author Ian Fleming’s original vision since Sean Connery, if not ever — is back on screen in “Spectre.” The franchise is as strong as ever.

In reality, however, the decades since Fleming first penned “Casino Royale” have been distinctly mixed for the United Kingdom and its spies.

For sure, the Secret Intelligence Service — traditionally known to its members as SIS and to the rest of the world as MI6 — and its sister service MI5 retain a world-class reputation. They are in good company. The reach and skill set of those two agencies — responsible for foreign and domestic intelligence, respectively — are more than equaled by signals intelligence specialists Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Britain’s special forces — the Army’s Special Air Service (SAS) and Royal Marines’ Special Boat Service (SBS) are also legendary.

They have, however, been far from infallible. Even as Fleming wrote of their prowess in the early 1950s, some stellar embarrassments loomed.

Throughout the late 1950s and 60s, Whitehall (one-word shorthand for the UK’s version of the State Department, the Pentagon and CIA and FBI headquarters) was torn apart by slow-burning scandal as news emerged that some of Britain’s most trusted intelligence officials had in fact been spying for the Soviet Union. More recently, there have been controversies over officials’ complicity in torture and rendition, as well is the small matter of their intelligence-gathering related to Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Bond and his fellow fictional British operatives, however, allow UK intelligence to project an image that goes well beyond the niggling issues of reality.

It might have only the most tangential relationship to what really happens, but it still has real-world impact.

A couple of years ago at a drinks reception in Washington, a former CIA official told me he believed neither he nor anyone else in the U.S. government would ever turn down a briefing from British intelligence. It wasn’t just about the quality of the material, he said — good though it often was.

Even the phrase “British intelligence,” he said, had a mystique, glamour and style that was intrinsically fascinating. He suspected British officials were well aware of it, he added, and deliberately styled themselves accordingly.

Whether that is genuinely the case — at least more than subconsciously — I’ve never been able to confirm.

One thing is definitely true — British intelligence officials and agencies are much better than their transatlantic cousins at keeping secret what they actually do. And therefore — either by accident or design — their fictional alter egos end up filling the gap.

It’s not just Bond — he is just by far the most visible example. There is George Smiley and the other ever-depressed, dogged and morally compromised spies of John le Carré. Then there are the works of Frederick Forsyth, Erskine Childers and John Buchan — the latter going back well before Bond to the years before World War One.

Even some of the more obscure British spy fiction is unmistakably first-class. My personal pick would be the 1978-1980 ITV series “The Sandbaggers,” described by the New York Times a quarter of a century later as “the best spy series in television history.”

For anyone who has ever worked in any kind of bureaucracy — or, for that matter, been around conflict and violence — the show simply feels real.

The reason, of course, is that all of these books and shows were written by individuals either employed by or closely exposed to British intelligence. John le Carré spent decades claiming to have been former British Foreign Office before admitting he was SIS. Forsyth — author of “The Day of the Jackal” among others works — this year revealed he had performed tasks for SIS while working as a reporter behind the Iron Curtain. “The Sandbaggers” writer Ian Mackintosh was a former Royal Navy officer who worked in intelligence, and whose death in a plane crash has never been satisfactorily explained.

With the British government much more reluctant than the Americans to give former officials permission to write their memoirs, fiction by well-informed insiders has for years been almost the only available window.

But it is fiction — and that’s important to remember. Fictional narratives, the truism says, must make sense in a way that reality seldom does. Narratives also tend to feature heroes — or at the very least, compelling protagonists — in a way that real life doesn’t always echo, either.

That of course, is particularly true of Bond. His creator, Fleming, started life as a Reuters reporter before discovering that the job didn’t pay for the lifestyle he wanted. (Although crucially, he later conceded, it did teach him how to write.)

World War Two offered an escape from his second career in banking — but again, his time in naval intelligence (like Bond, he held the rank of commander) seems to have been less exciting than hoped.

What it did give him, however, was the material to create Bond and his world. He would later model his fictional secret service chief “M” on his wartime boss and Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral John Godfrey. (The real chief of SIS is always referred to as “C,” and has been since its first leader, Mansfield Smith-Cumming, who always initialed documents “C” in green ink.)

Fleming had worked with some of the more colorful characters at the heart of World War Two espionage, including Alan Turing, the technical genius who broke Germany’s Enigma codes, and William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a U.S. official who went on to start the CIA. Several well-bred (and quite possibly long-suffering) Whitehall secretaries helped provide the model for Miss Moneypenny.

Fleming’s time on the more glamorous side of life in London and overseas — including covering Stalin’s 1930s show trials in Moscow for Reuters — gave him the experience to inject other realistic details.

From the start, though, what really made the James Bond series work was the fantasy: the lone agent with the “license to kill,” the femme fatales, the over-the-top evil masterminds with unnecessarily complex plans. And, of course, the conceit that Britain’s top agent might repeatedly save the world. It was a reassuring — if not always plausible — pitch for an era in which Britain’s empire was disappearing, and with it much of its global influence.

In the corridors of power in Whitehall, such worries — particularly over the importance of Britain to the United States — are on the rise again. The end of the Afghan war, declining UK defense budgets and the 2013 vote to avoid entanglement in Syria — as well as an upcoming European Union membership referendum — all risk making the country appear irrelevant, officials and pundits warn.

Somewhere out there, though, I can’t help but suspect, at least a handful of SIS officers are gleefully exploiting their ongoing mystique to win sources, access and — maybe, just maybe–achieve something important.

Or alternatively, of course, seduction and sex.

 

This column appears courtesy of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For more information visit www.projects21.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Columbus’ journey key to understanding today’s America. That’s not good http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/10/11/the-case-for-renaming-columbus-day/ http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/2015/10/12/columbus-journey-key-to-understanding-todays-america-thats-not-good/#comments Mon, 12 Oct 2015 00:37:37 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/?p=808 Angela James, vice chairperson of the tribal council on the 250-member Pinoleville Pomo Nation, is seen in Ukiah

Angela James, vice chairperson of the tribal council on the 250-member Pinoleville Pomo Nation, is seen in Ukiah, California, January 23, 2015. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

For most Americans, Columbus Day is little more than a day off and a chance to get some final sunshine before winter. For the descendants of the indigenous populations of the Americas, it must feel rather different.

Native Americans and other campaigners have been calling for a “reimagining” of Columbus Day. Rather than lionizing — or simply commemorating — the Italian-born explorer, they say, the day should focus on those who lived on this side of the Atlantic for thousands of years beforehand. What happened to them, they believe, has been sidelined, and almost wiped from the history books.

It’s hard not to see their point. Even now, Native Americans are remarkably marginalized.

Christopher Columbus himself, of course, has always been a somewhat problematic historical character: unreliable navigator, relentless self-publicist, chaotic colonial administrator and, many historians believe, probable mass murderer.

He certainly had guts. His entire 1492 expedition relied on the world being round — which most people had believed since the ancient Greeks, but no one had actually proved.

The Spanish-financed Columbus was relying on some distinctly dodgy geographical estimates, partly because he confused Arabic and Roman miles. He thought Japan was not much more than 1800 miles from his departure point in Cadiz. In fact, it was four times that. Had the Americas not existed, he and his crew would have died in the ocean when their supplies ran out.

What was good news for the Europeans, though, was devastating for those already there.

Franciscan friar Bartolome de la Cassas estimated that within the first 14 years of the 1494 establishment of a colony, some 3 million people — 98 percent of the pre-discovery population — had died of disease, slaughter by the Spanish or been worked to death as forced labor. “Who in future generations will believe this?” he wrote. “I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it.”

Even if de la Cassas was wrong on the scale of the numbers, here clearly was a population collapse that would today be almost certainly referred to as genocide.

All of this, of course, happened well outside what is now the United States and well before its creation. But the brutal truth, Native American campaigners point out — remarkably gently, all things considered — is that what happened with Columbus opened the door to something very similar across a much wider area.

Upper estimates suggest the Native American population of what is now the United States might have peaked as high as 18 million before disease and deportations began to take their toll (although others put it significantly lower). By 1800, that number had crashed to 900,000. By 1900, only 250,000 remained — this at a time when the population descended from Europeans was skyrocketing.

Columbus, of course, was a man of his time. His fellow explorers were raised against the backdrop of the savage wars with Muslims for the future of Spain. The horrors and brutality of the Reformation were only decades away.

The Indian Wars of the 19th century — which finished only in the 1860s in the aftermath of the American Civil War — were scarcely less brutal. And for all the brutality of some of the native atrocities against settlers, there was a brutality to the U.S. government response that still shocks. Behind it, of course, was the semi- religious certainty of America’s “manifest destiny” that backed the ever-expanding westward settlements.

General William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding U.S. troops in Mississippi, wrote bluntly: “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children.” His successor, General Philip Henry Sheridan, talked more euphemistically of the “reduction of the tribes.”

Sheridan’s strategy involved not just military action, but the mass slaughter of the wild prairie buffalo on whom the tribes depended.

“We took away their country and their means of support, broke up their means of living… introduced disease and decay among them and it was for this and against this they made war,” Sheridan later wrote. “Could anyone expect less?”

Since then, the Native American population has begun to recover. The 2010 U.S. census recorded 2.9 million people identifying as Native American or Alaskan, 0.9 percent of the total U.S. population, with another 2.3 million self-identifying as Native American and mixed race. Still, they remain among the most marginalized groups in the country — even compared to newly-arrived immigrants.

According to a report published last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), young adult male American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) had the highest rate of suicide of any group in the country — 34 deaths per thousand in the 18-24 bracket, more than twice most other groups. And that, the CDC concluded, was probably an underestimate — many suicides were not reported, they also found.

Things may be slowly changing, though. The Native American population is now no longer just confined to distant reservations: some 70 percent were recorded living in urban areas in 2012, up from 45 percent in 1970 and only eight percent in 1940. As with African-Americans, urbanization brings with it greater political activity and clout — even if it also brings new social problems like gang crime.

The campaign to rename Columbus Day, growing slowly since the 1970s, might be the strongest sign yet. Four states — Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota, all with considerable indigenous populations — have already replaced it with “Native American” or “Indigenous Peoples Day.” Last year, the cities of Minneapolis and Seattle joined them.

It has been a long time coming.

 

This column appears courtesy of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For more information visit www.projects21.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The war in Afghanistan has so far cost $33,000 per citizen. And will not end well. http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/10/01/the-war-in-afghanistan-cost-of-33000-per-citizen-and-will-not-end-well/ http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/2015/10/01/the-war-in-afghanistan-has-so-far-cost-33000-per-citizen-and-will-not-end-well/#comments Thu, 01 Oct 2015 05:00:21 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/?p=806 Afghan local police (ALP) sit at the back of a truck near a frontline during a battle with the Taliban at Qalay- i-zal district, in Kunduz province, Afghanistan

Afghan local police (ALP) sit at the back of a truck near a frontline during a battle with the Taliban at Qalay- i-zal district, in Kunduz province, Afghanistan August 1, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Fourteen years old this month, the West’s war in Afghanistan had all but vanished from the headlines. Even before the fall of Kunduz this week, however — the first provincial capital to be taken by the Taliban in more than a decade — it was clear that all was not going well.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that United States and allied officials were reviewing White House plans to scale down NATO troop numbers in Afghanistan to several hundred by the end of next year, from some 10,000 now. A reduction on that scale, they apparently worry, could leave the door open for not just a Taliban recovery, but also significant inroads by elements of Islamic State.

Like the Russians before them, NATO appears to have squandered lives, resources and a surprising degree of goodwill — and with little left to show for it.

Even the most cursory examination reveals phenomenal waste. According to calculations at the end of last year by the Financial Times and others, the war had already cost almost $1 trillion (less than the $1.7 trillion spent on Iraq, but still staggering). The official responsible for scrutinizing spending, U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko, says that, adjusted for inflation, efforts at development in Afghanistan have now cost more than the Marshall Plan to reconstruct post-World War Two Europe.

Divided equally among Afghanistan’s 30 million citizens, the trillion dollars amounts to some $33,000 per head. That would be more than $2,300 per year, per person spread across the 14 years of the war. (Although, in reality, the lion’s share of spending has come in the last seven years of the Obama administration.) Annual per capita Afghan income in 2014 was only $670.

According to SIGAR, the United States has no real idea, even now, how many Afghan troops, health centers or schools its money has backed. The money is almost certainly going to pay for personnel who never existed. (SIGAR’s reports and comments make depressing but fascinating reading — a must for anyone who really wants to understand what has gone wrong in Afghanistan.)

The simple truth, I would argue, is that we tend to look at the Afghan war in entirely the wrong way, and because of that the United States has spent its money poorly, too. The United States, British and broader Western media outlets have focused their coverage on the Western soldier experience.

Even now, if you told most Americans or Brits to consider the “real tragedy” of the Afghan war, they would think of dead and maimed NATO personnel, of their widows and children. But that’s like my view of the Sri Lanka war being entirely colored just because I broke my neck in it (which of course it is).  It’s understandable, even unavoidable — but it misses the bigger picture.

According to fatalities monitoring website icasualties.org, 3495 coalition soldiers have been killed since 2001 — 2364 Americans, 453 Brits and 678 others. Brown University’s Cost of War Project, however, estimates that a total of 92,000 Afghans were killed over the same period. At least 26,000 of those, they believe, were civilians.

The real fight that counted was always the struggle for control between the government in Kabul, the various regional power centers and the Taliban. It’s a fight that had been ongoing since the Russian withdrawal in 1989.

The hope in Afghanistan was that several years of tough action by Western troops would break the Taliban and shape a country that could be handed back to the Afghans. The reality, though, seems to have been that all sides knew Western troops would eventually leave.

Exact breakdowns of where the money went in Afghanistan are difficult to make — not least because Western personnel rotating through the country often failed to keep proper records, according to SIGAR. But it is clear that a very large amount — probably the vast majority — went to the Western military effort. According to the Washington think tank the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, by 2014 the war cost $2.1 million for every U.S. service member on the ground.

Huge amounts of equipment — from mine-hardened patrol vehicles to new patterns of camouflage clothing — were rushed into production. By 2010, a U.S. or NATO soldier suffering catastrophic injuries in Afghanistan could expect a better standard of medical care than that available at any major Western city trauma center.

For all the talk of strengthening the Afghan forces, their kit was always much more basic — troops without body armor, often in civilian-style pickup trucks.

This weekend, the New York Times reported Afghanistan’s most decorated helicopter pilot complaining that new U.S.-delivered attack helicopters were all but useless — unable to reach the mountaintops often occupied by Taliban, often suffering jammed guns and other mechanical failures. According to SIGAR, Afghan security forces are seriously lacking in cold-weather gear — a must for soldiers based in mountainous regions where winter can last for seven months.

Several commanders, particularly U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, tried to focus on building Afghan capacity and winning hearts and minds. For most of the troops and more junior leaders in warfare, however, Afghan forces were rarely more than a distraction, danger or joke. Given the number of times Afghan troops turned on NATO members, that’s hardly surprising. And while the New York Times might only just have discovered the alarming habit of Afghan forces having sex with teenage boys, the phrase “man love Thursday” had long been the topic of horrified conversation among Western soldiers not easily shocked.

The problem, though, is that if Western troops don’t stay in Afghanistan forever — and they probably will not — the Afghan forces are almost the only show in town. And if Afghan forces can’t hold, power will be transferred to the kind of warlords who preceded them, Taliban or otherwise.

Even the work done on strengthening the Afghan government may simply have created something unsustainable. SIGAR estimates that the Afghan government costs $8 to $10 billion a year to run — but can raise no more than $2 billion itself in revenue. That leaves it more dependent on outside support than probably any other nation.

It’s not all bad news. Even SIGAR — never prone to put a gloss on things unnecessarily — points to reduced maternal mortality rates, at least modestly improved access to education, and a new government under President Ashraf Ghani that seems genuinely keen to assert its authority and tackle corruption.

The U.S. forces that remain there may still be able to make a difference. Indeed, it is easy to forget now that many, many fewer — only a handful of special operators and intelligence agency paramilitaries — worked with local groups to oust the Taliban from much of the country within weeks after September 11.

Their departure, though, would not mean the end of the fight for Afghanistan. It might only be the beginning.

 

This column appears courtesy of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For more information visit www.projects21.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When Vladimir Putin looks in the mirror, does he see Syria’s Assad? http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/09/21/why-vladimir-putin-is-betting-big-on-assad/ http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/2015/09/21/when-vladimir-putin-looks-in-the-mirror-does-he-see-syrias-assad/#comments Mon, 21 Sep 2015 05:00:53 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/?p=803 Election poster of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin are seen on a car at al-Qardahah town

Election poster of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) are seen on a car at al-Qardahah town near Latakia city May 26, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled al-Harir

As Russia ups its game in Syria — apparently supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime with tanks, naval infantry and air defense systems — Vladimir Putin is deliberately putting the West in a very difficult position.

Moscow and Washington have been at loggerheads over the conflict since its beginning. At its heart is not just spiraling geopolitical rivalry, but a deep-seated ideological division.

The result has been the 21st century’s answer to the 1930s Spanish Civil War between Fascists and Communists that presaged World War Two, a grinding, unending conflict fuelled by larger states that just wouldn’t compromise.

Ever since he rose to prominence in the late 1990s, Putin’s style of government — and his political pledge to the populace — has been relatively simple. Chaos — whether the conflict in Syria now, or the free-for-all and economic collapse that followed the end of the USSR — is dangerous and must be avoided.

That strategy, Putin has always made clear, takes strong leadership and a willingness to sometimes be brutal. It is an approach that, he and many Russians appear to believe, was successful in Chechnya and will now work against Islamic State.

The view from Washington — particularly the White House and State Department — could hardly be more different. Particularly since the “Arab Spring,” the U.S. government has argued that dictatorship and a lack of accountability is the problem in Syria. Given all those he has killed, the White House contends, Bashar al-Assad must go.

The problem, of course, is that Washington’s policy on Syria has been an unmitigated failure — a position that many current and former U.S. officials now concede. The rise of Islamic State was bad enough. Now, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are voting with their feet, fleeing the packed refugee camps of the Middle East and creating another new crisis in Europe.

Exactly how much the West is to blame for events in Syria is open to argument. Even as violence flared in late 2011, some Western diplomats were concluding that their nations had made matters worse. By encouraging anti-Assad protesters, particularly in the aftermath of the civil war in Libya, they felt the United States and its allies had created an unrealistic expectation that the West might intervene. Signaling that that was not going to happen, they felt, might have taken the edge off the protests much earlier and ultimately saved lives.

For others — particularly in the United States, itself a post-revolutionary country — such talk misses the point. It was Assad and those around him who chose to brutally crush dissent, they say. Assad’s survival in office cannot be endorsed. Even if a major military intervention against him is politically and perhaps practically unworkable, supporting a moderate opposition is the only real option.

The problem, of course, is that that approach hasn’t worked. Islamic State has taken over much of the country. And while U.S. and allied Arab jets and drones pound Islamic State positions, Assad’s forces are using much greater — and much more indiscriminate firepower — against other rebel groups.

For Moscow, the situation in Syria offers both opportunity and danger. Through dramatically stepping up their support for the government in Damascus, they can strengthen their geopolitical hold on their only real ally in the region. It’s yet another chance to embarrass the West.

Behind that, though, Russia is more worried by Islamic State than almost any outside nation. If Islamic State gets too much of a hold in the Middle East, Moscow fears, it could help reignite the conflicts in the Caucuses crushed more than a decade ago at such great human, financial and military cost.

For Putin, the ideal would be for Russia to play its part in a broad anti-Islamic State alliance. Under those circumstances, every power would play to its strengths. U.S.-led forces could launch strikes against Islamic State leaders and others. In Iraq, Russian military support — primarily in the form of equipment such as fighter jets — already fits in with support from Iran and Washington. In Syria, Moscow could give new backbone to government forces as those forces did the things Washington would rather not know about.

In Iraq, to some extent, this has already happened. Russian military supplies — particularly Su-25 Frogfoot jets — already bolster the Iraqi military alongside support from the United States and Iran. When it comes to Syria, however, any talk of a broader anti-Islamic State alliance has gone nowhere.

If anything, Washington has stepped up attempts to stymie Russian action, lobbying first Turkey and now Greece to deny Moscow military overflight rights.

But there are some awkward, awful truths. Such action might simply wind up prolonging the war. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Western states have had little or no long-term success with a counterinsurgency strategy based on targeted strikes and attempts to establish rule of law. Several other nations, however, have proved more effective with much more brutal tactics. Russia did it in Chechnya. Sri Lanka did it against the Tamil Tigers.

I covered the Sri Lanka war for Reuters. It was horrible. The government used a strategy of overwhelming indiscriminate firepower backed by human rights abuses. But it’s hard to deny it worked and that the war is over.

Moscow seems to have concluded that in Syria, only the government has the capability and will to win.

It’s hard to imagine large numbers of Russian troops going on the offensive in Syria. But after Chechnya and now Ukraine, the Russian military has no shortage of specialists who understand the darker side of modern conflict. They could be embedded in a similar way to U.S. advisers in Iraq — but with much less of a tendency to urge restraint.

The West has little moral high ground here. In Yemen — before a withdrawal earlier this year — officials privately say Western special forces deliberately avoided embedding too closely with government troops to avoid being implicated in the inevitable human rights abuses. And in Iraq, Shi’ite militia loyal to the U.S.-backed government have committed so many atrocities that some regional experts say Sunni populations would often rather see Islamic State stay.

For now, the Obama administration is unlikely to switch its Syria policy during its final months in office. Nor is it likely that a President Hillary Clinton would switch policy radically from her time as Secretary of State to allow Assad to stay. Given the ongoing confrontation in Ukraine — with U.S. advisers now working to train Ukrainian forces while Russian troops fight a few hundred miles away — the chances of doing a deal with Moscow may get even slimmer.

For several years, some Western officials have held out the prospect that Russia might sign off a deal whereby Assad leaves but those around him stay. Increasingly, though, officials in both Washington and Europe whisper that keeping him in place might be the simplest option. Earlier this month — shortly before the scale of Syrian migrant numbers prompted Germany to tear up the Schengen Agreement and re-establish border controls — German Chancellor Angela Merkel conceded it was necessary to talk to Moscow about Syria. The Russians may be hoping for more slippage to come.

That would suit Putin fine. He has no interest in a precedent that authoritarian leaders should stand down just because they have been in power too long or killed too many.

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As U.S. influence in Asia falters, allies increasingly look to themselves http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/07/31/u-s-influence-in-asia-is-faltering/ http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/2015/07/31/u-s-influence-in-asia-is-faltering/#comments Fri, 31 Jul 2015 05:00:09 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/?p=800 Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force'S new helicopter destroyer DDH183 Izumo is seen before its launching ceremony in Yokohama

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s new helicopter destroyer DDH183 Izumo is seen before its launching ceremony in Yokohama, south of Tokyo August 6, 2013. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

 Three years after the Obama administration announced its “pivot to Asia,” American allies in the region are looking somewhat unconvinced.

While no one disputes that managing China and its multiple neighborhood conflicts remains on Washington’s radar, this effort is often overshadowed by other priorities. In particular, the Middle East and confrontation with Russia — both historic preoccupations that had been expected to subside — keep on emerging at the top of the agenda.

The result is relatively simple. Those countries in Asia most worried by China — Japan, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia and others — are increasingly banding together. They worry they may need to be capable of taking matters into their own hands regardless of what the United States might do.

It’s a phenomenon that manifests itself in multiple different ways. Japan and Australia, for example, may collaborate on a new submarine — including sharing highly classified information. In another sign of new regional alliances forming, India has also invited Japan to take part in its “Malabar” naval war games, designed to showcase India’s naval strength in the Indian Ocean.

After Congress blocked President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal last month, Singapore’s foreign minister told an audience in Washington that the United States was losing its levers of power in the region.

“The choice is a very stark one,” K. Shanmugam said. “Do you want to be part of the region or do you want to be out of the region?”

The deal passed through Congress soon thereafter.

This is not, whatever critics might say, a world without American leadership. It’s more complicated than that — and America is still an important player.

Washington remains the dominant naval power in Asia even against the backdrop of a growing Chinese fleet. And, crucially, it remains without doubt the single-most important partner for each of its regional allies. Even India, historically dedicated to a “non-aligned” position between East and West, has moved much closer to Washington under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Malabar military exercises will also involve the United States.

But it is a world where American leadership is pulled in multiple different directions. The United States must deter both Russia and China from attacking its treaty allies — and so sparking a major war — without simultaneously antagonizing them so much that conflict becomes more likely.

Much of Washington’s military and diplomatic focus, meanwhile, remains on the Middle East: the war against Islamic State, the Iran deal and — for Secretary of State John Kerry in particular — the Israeli Palestinian peace process. These distractions are understandable and in many cases unavoidable — although Kerry in particular has a reputation for being not interested in Asia, which some analysts say has been harmful to relations. China, in contrast, remains resolutely focused on its immediate neighborhood.

And at the same time that America’s military dominance is being challenged by other powers, its own spending is beginning to slip.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, U.S. defense spending is now 20 percent below its peak in 2010 — although still 45 percent above its 2001 levels.

Asian countries, by contrast, have been on a major spending spree in recent years. Australia grew its defense budget by 6.7 percent in 2014 alone. South Korea and India saw their spending rise 2.3 and 1.8 percent. In January, Japan announced its largest defense budget since World War Two.

How closely these countries will coordinate their defenses — and how tightly the United States is wrapped into that system — remains to be seen. For China — whose 9.7 percent spending increase last year tops any other country in Asia — the greatest worry is that its potential enemies coalesce into a formal NATO-style structure, although this seems unlikely for now. More ad hoc relations, for example, between India and Vietnam or the Philippines and Japan, are growing by the year.

In Washington, some current and former officials, as well as analysts, worry that the United States may simply lose its ability to shape events in the region — while still risking being dragged into a conflict if one, or more, of its allies end up fighting China.

While few believe anyone in Beijing or elsewhere would wish for such a conflict, China has clearly signaled its intention to boost its clout in its immediate neighborhood. China’s various construction projects on disputed South China Sea islands — as well as an increasingly assertive posture by its naval and air forces in the region — will likely continue and intensify.

This trend goes well beyond China’s immediate neighborhood. From Sri Lanka to Afghanistan, analysts now talk of a “new great game” in South Asia as China jostles against India, in particular.

The Middle East, paradoxically, may provide some indication of how this could go. For all Washington’s ongoing focus on the region, many of its allies — particularly the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia — increasingly question its commitment there. They, too, are ramping up their defense spending: Saudi Arabia’s 17 percent increase last year was the greatest hike worldwide.

As a result, the United States has increasingly struggled to influence and control its allies in the region. The Saudi-led campaign against Iran-linked Houthi militia in Yemen, for example, seems out the West’s realm of influence. The same goes for the multiple regional powers backing different groups in Libya.

Asia’s confrontations will, for now, almost certainly remain bloodless and largely contained offshore and to the economic, business and cyberspace spheres.

But whatever Washington does, its grasp on the region — like so many others — is slowly faltering. It may or may not be an Asian century — but in Asia at least, it will be regional powers that increasingly call the shots.

This piece appears courtesy of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For more commentaries and information, visit www.projects21.com

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How will the war against Islamic State end? http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/06/19/how-will-the-war-against-islamic-state-end/ http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/2015/06/19/how-will-the-war-against-islamic-state-end/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 10:15:03 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/?p=798 Displaced Sunni people fleeing the violence in Ramadi, cross a bridge on the outskirts of Baghdad

Displaced Sunni people fleeing the violence in Ramadi, cross a bridge on the outskirts of Baghdad, May 24, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

“Tell me how this ends,” U.S. Army General David Petraeus said in 2003, not long after the invasion of Iraq. What started as a private comment to a journalist later became his mantra.

It was a bold question, designed to cut through messy thinking from other officials as Washington tried to find its way out of the conflict. The result, of course, was much more complex than the U.S. military had hoped.

The most important answer to Petraeus’ question is that “it” wasn’t going to end. Rarely do wars have firm and tidy endings, an armistice or a final defeat like that of Germany in 1945 or Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers in 2009. Even if the killing stops, confrontations continue through politics and elsewhere.

Iraq was always going to be messy after the United States’ departure. Some of the Sunni groups who backed the Petraeus-led troop “surge” now fight with Islamic State. The attempted multiethnic Iraqi state began unraveling even before the United States left.

The histories of Somalia, India and elsewhere show the departure of a major imperial-style power is often followed by a battle for control between those who remain. The same is already happening in Afghanistan.

Still, fighting the Islamic State — both in Iraq and neighboring Syria — will not go on forever. How will it end? What can be done now?

Earlier this month, ex-National Security Council Iraq director Douglas Ollivant said there seem to be limits to how far Islamic State can spread. While the group has thrived in ethnic Sunni areas where government was weak — in Iraq and Syria, but also increasingly in Libya and elsewhere — when it butted up against other ethnicities or more functional states such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, it struggled.

Islamic State seems unlikely to take over the entire region — as some of the more apocalyptic analyses suggested last year. The challenge, therefore, is to limit its spread in a relatively limited space and then push it back.

The group has had some high-profile recent victories, most notably Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. Unlike the “old” al Qaeda, holding territory is central to the group’s reason for existing. If it cannot retain its territory, by its own terms it is a failure. Mounting hit-and-run attacks, even against the West, would not be enough. That’s why the Ramadi and Palmyra victories are so important, making up for much larger territorial losses elsewhere in Iraq.

No nation — with the possible exception of Iran — has a coherent strategy against Islamic State. The United States and the West have one strategy for Iraq, and slightly less than a strategy for Syria. But that’s not as stupid as it sounds. Defeating Islamic State in Iraq would destroy the group’s legitimacy, and undermine both its appeal to new recruits and its ability to intimidate those in the region.

Part of Islamic State’s stated aim is to dismantle the Iraq-Syria border and carve out a new territory across the region. Most experts say that letting either country fall apart is simply so messy that almost no one really wants it. Iraq’s primary ethnicities — Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurd — may not like each other, but the country cannot be redrawn into viable separate entities. Sunnis and Kurds both benefit from oil revenue from the Shi’ite south — and it’s not clear that a small Shi’ite state would be able to protect those resources.

Two years ago, some analysts suggested that Syria could unravel. But today that’s much less likely. More probable, diplomats quietly say, is a deal whereby someone in Damascus — probably not Bashar al-Assad — remains in control of a country with the same current borders. Few expect that to be quick.

That means that the question of how the Islamic State war ends is really a question about what a viable post-war Iraq and Syria might look like.

The problem now, says former UK Director Special Forces Graeme Lamb — an adviser to U.S. commanders like Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal — is that the Shi’ite-run Iraqi government is so dependent on Shi’ite militia and Iranian support that many Sunni now fear the departure of Islamic State. They suspect it may simply be followed by brutal reprisals and savage ethnic domination.

Changing the narrative, Lamb believes, ultimately comes down to creating a roadmap to a future Iraq in which those groups feel much safer. If Sunni groups see that as a potential reality, they might be persuaded to turn on Islamic State, just as some did against al Qaeda during the surge. But that shift requires a very different Iraqi political environment than exists today.

During the 2007-9 “surge,” local Sunni leaders were won over by a combination of promised political reform and their growing frustration with foreign al Qaeda fighters. Repeating that may be tough. But that does not make it impossible.

In Syria, Western governments lack the kind of understanding they gradually obtained in Iraq.

Most Western and other officials increasingly believe the high-level deal will be done elsewhere, probably between Russia and the West and regional powers. That will probably mean easing Assad aside somehow, perhaps with a deal for immunity from prosecution.

To win and preserve its caliphate, Islamic State faces huge problems. The history of non-state groups trying to carve out larger amounts of territory in the face of strong government opposition is not a happy one. The Tamil Tigers failed last decade. Nigeria’s breakaway Biafra failed in the 1960s. The South didn’t manage it in the American Civil War.

There are, of course, a handful of exceptions: Kosovo, Eritrea, South Sudan. But to be recognized and established, they required a degree of international acceptance and backing that it is almost impossible to imagine for Islamic State.

The mismatch between a non-state group and its government is enormous. The latter can call on international financial aid, buy weapons, or rely on intelligence support, advice and equipment from other governments. Islamic State might be rich in terms of militant groups, but it is already feeling the squeeze.

In May, Israeli intelligence told foreign reporters that total Islamic State revenues had dropped from $65 million a month in the middle of last year to some $20 million now. Oil income in particular had fallen, even as taxes and ransoms rose — both potentially helping alienate the populations now under Islamic State control.

Coalition airstrikes are also having an effect, as will new weapons deliveries. A lack of anti-tank weapons, experts say, was a major factor in the loss of Ramadi. In the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, the combination of the two held Islamic State back and denied the group a crucial propaganda victory.

Extra U.S. and allied advisers could also make a difference — although too many might simply be viewed as a renewed foreign occupation.

To be beaten, however, Islamic State has to look as though it is losing. It isn’t there yet.

This piece appears courtesy of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For more commentaries and information, visit www.projects21.com

 

 

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Scottish National Party victories real seismic change in UK election http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate-uk/2015/05/08/scottish-national-party-victories-real-seismic-change-in-uk-election/ http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/2015/05/08/scottish-national-party-victories-real-seismic-change-in-uk-election/#comments Fri, 08 May 2015 12:41:37 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/?p=795 Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, makes a speech on the final day of campaigning in Edinburgh Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, makes a speech on the final day of campaigning in Edinburgh Scotland, Britain May 6, 2015. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

There is no shortage of political intrigue for Britain’s political chattering classes to fixate on following Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives win of a majority in Parliament on Thursday.

Why were the opinion polls so wrong? Whose idea was in to have opposition Labour’s commitments carved on a giant stone monolith? Will David Miliband, beaten by younger brother Ed for the Labour leadership, return from across the sea in America? What will London Mayor Boris Johnson, long a political rival of Cameron and now back in Parliament, do next?

The truth, though, is that who won Downing Street may not be close to the most significant outcome of last night’s vote.

The real seismic change was the sweeping victory by the Scottish Nationalists who have now all but eradicated the mainstream London-based parties north of the border.

Only last September, the SNP were seen by many as a spent political force after their failure to win their independence referendum. Now, however, it is clear that was only the start of the story.

Another vote on that subject now seems more likely, even if it was not an SNP election promise, and even if a majority of Scots are still seen wanting to continue in the union.

Who governs in London is still important. David Cameron’s victory — particularly in an election previously judged too close to call — will enhance his personal authority. The Conservatives will continue to trim public spending more aggressively than Labour would have.

There will now be a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership in 2017.

But the Conservatives must now rule without any representation in Scotland. Already, the SNP are talking about how “illegitimate” that makes London rule.

A Labour victory, however, would have delivered an opposite but equal problem. Now wiped out in Scotland — once one of its strongholds — they would have been likely dependent on SNP support to rule. The level of influence that would have given the SNP in Westminster, many believe, would have infuriated English voters.

Britain’s traditional two-party dominance has been fraying for decades with the rise of the third-party Liberal Democrats as well as the SNP.

The Liberal Democrat bubble, of course, has now seemingly collapsed. The price of the 2010 coalition deal was compromise — particularly on university tuition fees — and their voters have abandoned them as a result.

The SNP have avoided such a trap. They may have lost last year’s referendum but in other respects it played into their hands. All three London-based parties banded together to fight them in what many Scots considered an excessively patronizing and fear-based campaign.

The pro-union campaign may have won the referendum battle but for the time being at least, they lost the war.

The Conservatives were already all but extinct north of the border. Now Labour and the Liberal Democrats have joined them, taking with them an entire generation of Scottish politicians who had focused their political energies on Westminster rather than Edinburgh.

The SNP has been able to ride the broader antiestablishment backlash that followed the financial crisis. Labour, meanwhile, still finds itself heavily blamed for both the 2008 crash and perceived overspending in the years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Partly as a result, Scotland and England now seem on different political cycles. Scotland has moved to the left, England much less so, perhaps even to the right.

Within England, Labour may recover. A similar unexpected defeat in 1992 was, after all, followed by the Tony Blair Labour landslide five years later.

Throughout this campaign, there have been complaints from all sides that neither party leader had true “rockstar” potential. The next election could be a different matter.

On the conservative side, Boris seems the one to watch. The Labour leadership campaign is only just beginning. But it too could yield interesting results.

Current favorite is Andy Burnham, a career political professional more in the Cameron/Miliband mould. Then there is Chuka Umunna, a rising star often compared to Barack Obama, as well as Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. Then there is Bradford MP Dan Jarvis, a former officer in the notoriously tough Parachute Regiment. A face-off between him and Johnson would be a very different matter to Cameron and Miliband.

Cameron may still prove the real victor. Having pledged not to seek a third term in office, he could find himself the first Prime Minister to leave office on his own terms in decades, avoiding the normal rate of electoral defeat or internal party coup.

For now, however, it’s what is happening in Scotland that really matters. it’s not clear the United Kingdom can survive it.

This piece appears courtesy of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For more information and other commentaries, visit www.projects21.com

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Scottish National Party victories real seismic change in UK election http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate-uk/2015/05/08/scottish-national-party-victories-real-seismic-change-in-uk-election/ http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/2015/05/08/scottish-national-party-victories-real-seismic-change-in-uk-election/#comments Fri, 08 May 2015 12:41:37 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/?p=794 Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, makes a speech on the final day of campaigning in Edinburgh Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, makes a speech on the final day of campaigning in Edinburgh Scotland, Britain May 6, 2015. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

There is no shortage of political intrigue for Britain’s political chattering classes to fixate on following Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives win of a majority in Parliament on Thursday.

Why were the opinion polls so wrong? Whose idea was in to have opposition Labour’s commitments carved on a giant stone monolith? Will David Miliband, beaten by younger brother Ed for the Labour leadership, return from across the sea in America? What will London Mayor Boris Johnson, long a political rival of Cameron and now back in Parliament, do next?

The truth, though, is that who won Downing Street may not be close to the most significant outcome of last night’s vote.

The real seismic change was the sweeping victory by the Scottish Nationalists who have now all but eradicated the mainstream London-based parties north of the border.

Only last September, the SNP were seen by many as a spent political force after their failure to win their independence referendum. Now, however, it is clear that was only the start of the story.

Another vote on that subject now seems more likely, even if it was not an SNP election promise, and even if a majority of Scots are still seen wanting to continue in the union.

Who governs in London is still important. David Cameron’s victory — particularly in an election previously judged too close to call — will enhance his personal authority. The Conservatives will continue to trim public spending more aggressively than Labour would have.

There will now be a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership in 2017.

But the Conservatives must now rule without any representation in Scotland. Already, the SNP are talking about how “illegitimate” that makes London rule.

A Labour victory, however, would have delivered an opposite but equal problem. Now wiped out in Scotland — once one of its strongholds — they would have been likely dependent on SNP support to rule. The level of influence that would have given the SNP in Westminster, many believe, would have infuriated English voters.

Britain’s traditional two-party dominance has been fraying for decades with the rise of the third-party Liberal Democrats as well as the SNP.

The Liberal Democrat bubble, of course, has now seemingly collapsed. The price of the 2010 coalition deal was compromise — particularly on university tuition fees — and their voters have abandoned them as a result.

The SNP have avoided such a trap. They may have lost last year’s referendum but in other respects it played into their hands. All three London-based parties banded together to fight them in what many Scots considered an excessively patronizing and fear-based campaign.

The pro-union campaign may have won the referendum battle but for the time being at least, they lost the war.

The Conservatives were already all but extinct north of the border. Now Labour and the Liberal Democrats have joined them, taking with them an entire generation of Scottish politicians who had focused their political energies on Westminster rather than Edinburgh.

The SNP has been able to ride the broader antiestablishment backlash that followed the financial crisis. Labour, meanwhile, still finds itself heavily blamed for both the 2008 crash and perceived overspending in the years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Partly as a result, Scotland and England now seem on different political cycles. Scotland has moved to the left, England much less so, perhaps even to the right.

Within England, Labour may recover. A similar unexpected defeat in 1992 was, after all, followed by the Tony Blair Labour landslide five years later.

Throughout this campaign, there have been complaints from all sides that neither party leader had true “rockstar” potential. The next election could be a different matter.

On the conservative side, Boris seems the one to watch. The Labour leadership campaign is only just beginning. But it too could yield interesting results.

Current favorite is Andy Burnham, a career political professional more in the Cameron/Miliband mould. Then there is Chuka Umunna, a rising star often compared to Barack Obama, as well as Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. Then there is Bradford MP Dan Jarvis, a former officer in the notoriously tough Parachute Regiment. A face-off between him and Johnson would be a very different matter to Cameron and Miliband.

Cameron may still prove the real victor. Having pledged not to seek a third term in office, he could find himself the first Prime Minister to leave office on his own terms in decades, avoiding the normal rate of electoral defeat or internal party coup.

For now, however, it’s what is happening in Scotland that really matters. it’s not clear the United Kingdom can survive it.

This piece appears courtesy of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For more information and other commentaries, visit www.projects21.com

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What does this election tell us about modern Britain? http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate-uk/2015/04/29/as-the-uk-election-looms-should-the-rest-of-the-world-care/ http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/2015/04/29/what-does-this-election-tell-us-about-modern-britain-2/#comments Wed, 29 Apr 2015 09:21:45 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/?p=791 cameron.jpg

Britiain’s Prime Minister David Cameron gives a speech during an election campaign visit to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in London, England, on April 27, 2015. REUTERS/Adrian Dennis/Pool

Whoever comes out on top in Britain’s May 7 general election, they will have pledged some very substantial changes.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Conservatives have promised to renegotiate powers with the European Union and a referendum on Britain’s membership. Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband says the time has come to turn away from the unfettered power of the markets, promising “mansion taxes” and tighter regulation.

The election looks to be amongst the closest in recent memory. Polls had been little changed for months although recent shifts have left some analysts now expecting Labour to come out ahead. Britain’s two-party system, however, may now be gone forever. Most expect a hung parliament with no party having enough MPs to rule without going into coalition.

That in itself could usher in a period of instability and political paralysis, perhaps another election.

Overall, the campaign has showcased a very different, divided Britain. The focus has been almost entirely domestic — aside from Europe, the rest of the world has rarely been mentioned.

With Britain now a much reduced power — and signalling with its parliamentary vote on Syria in 2013 that it is now much less prone to foreign intervention — the election has so far been largely ignored overseas.

For the U.S. government, much of the focus on Britain rests on persuading it to go back to its defence spending commitment of two percent of gross domestic product. The British defence budget has fallen below that level — theoretically a NATO agreed standard, but one most countries fail to reach — under Cameron. But neither major party has pledged to go back to it.

Britain’s European neighbours are also watching.

A Conservative government dependent on the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) would have little choice but to take a tough line with the European Union, perhaps even bringing forward a referendum on “Brexit” — a British departure.

Cameron, most experts believe, would rather keep Britain in the EU and is hoping to secure just enough reforms to be able to claim a victory that might allow that to happen. Still, some businesses and financial firms have openly threatened to quit the country if it leaves.

Overall, however, polls show most business leaders preferring the Conservatives, a measure of just how much some of Miliband’s rhetoric has upset them.

As seen on mainland Europe, the main battleground has been economic — particularly the future of austerity. As in 2010, the Conservatives broadly favour cutting public spending to reduce the deficit while Labour want to cut back less to preserve growth.

But the gap between the parties may not really be that large. Neither has outlined detailed spending plans. If anything, the most stridently anti-austerity party is the Scottish Nationalists, one of the reasons it looks set to almost sweep the board north of the border.

After its defeat in the Scottish referendum in September last year, the Scottish National Party has pledged not to repeat that vote any time soon. But it has reiterated its opposition to replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent.

In the aftermath of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and with Russian bombers and submarines now routinely probing UK air and maritime borders, that decision now has much greater strategic relevance.

Whichever main party dominates, it will almost certainly find itself dependent on smaller players – the Liberal Democrats, SNP or Greens who want Trident abolished (although the Liberal Democrats are open to an alternative cheaper system). But the simple truth is that both main parties remain committed to it and have enough votes to push it through parliament.

The true importance of the election, then, may be simply what it tells us about 21st-century Britain and politics in general. The two-party divide in Britain in which a single main party invariably ruled seems gone for good. The rise of smaller parties seems to mean coalition governments — almost unheard of in recent history — are the new normal.

The country also looks more sharply divided. In many of its cities, almost no-one votes Conservative. In the countryside, almost nobody votes Labour. And Scotland looks more than ever under the control of an entirely separate political bloc.

What lessons does that have for America? There are certainly stark differences. The U.S. two-party system is much more entrenched, groups like the “Tea Party” tend to exist within the major parties rather than breaking away. In the U.S., social issues — abortion, gay marriage — are much more politicised.

In both, disillusion with politics looks near an all-time high. In the U.S., it’s hard to imagine a repeat of the youthful exuberance that accompanied Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. In 2010, many young British voters turned to the third-party Liberal Democrats only to be hugely disappointed by the concessions they made in government, particularly on university tuition fees. The two main parties remain close to the centre ground — a centre ground that not everyone believes truly still exists.

Both countries are clearly struggling to determine their place in the world, albeit from very different positions.

In both, opposition politicians have been critical of what they call the “failure” of Obama and Cameron in Libya. But foreign policy is simply no longer the focal point it was in the years of George Bush and Tony Blair.

In 1962, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson said Britain had lost its empire and not yet found a role. If the near-total absence of foreign policy in this election is any guide, it may no longer want one.

 

This piece appears courtesy of The Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For more information and other commentaries visit www.projects21.com

 

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What does this election tell us about modern Britain? http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate-uk/2015/04/29/as-the-uk-election-looms-should-the-rest-of-the-world-care/ http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/2015/04/29/what-does-this-election-tell-us-about-modern-britain/#comments Wed, 29 Apr 2015 09:21:45 +0000 http://blogs.reuters.com/peter-apps/?p=790 cameron.jpg

Britiain’s Prime Minister David Cameron gives a speech during an election campaign visit to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in London, England, on April 27, 2015. REUTERS/Adrian Dennis/Pool

Whoever comes out on top in Britain’s May 7 general election, they will have pledged some very substantial changes.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s ruling Conservatives have promised to renegotiate powers with the European Union and a referendum on Britain’s membership. Opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband says the time has come to turn away from the unfettered power of the markets, promising “mansion taxes” and tighter regulation.

The election looks to be amongst the closest in recent memory. Polls had been little changed for months although recent shifts have left some analysts now expecting Labour to come out ahead. Britain’s two-party system, however, may now be gone forever. Most expect a hung parliament with no party having enough MPs to rule without going into coalition.

That in itself could usher in a period of instability and political paralysis, perhaps another election.

Overall, the campaign has showcased a very different, divided Britain. The focus has been almost entirely domestic — aside from Europe, the rest of the world has rarely been mentioned.

With Britain now a much reduced power — and signalling with its parliamentary vote on Syria in 2013 that it is now much less prone to foreign intervention — the election has so far been largely ignored overseas.

For the U.S. government, much of the focus on Britain rests on persuading it to go back to its defence spending commitment of two percent of gross domestic product. The British defence budget has fallen below that level — theoretically a NATO agreed standard, but one most countries fail to reach — under Cameron. But neither major party has pledged to go back to it.

Britain’s European neighbours are also watching.

A Conservative government dependent on the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) would have little choice but to take a tough line with the European Union, perhaps even bringing forward a referendum on “Brexit” — a British departure.

Cameron, most experts believe, would rather keep Britain in the EU and is hoping to secure just enough reforms to be able to claim a victory that might allow that to happen. Still, some businesses and financial firms have openly threatened to quit the country if it leaves.

Overall, however, polls show most business leaders preferring the Conservatives, a measure of just how much some of Miliband’s rhetoric has upset them.

As seen on mainland Europe, the main battleground has been economic — particularly the future of austerity. As in 2010, the Conservatives broadly favour cutting public spending to reduce the deficit while Labour want to cut back less to preserve growth.

But the gap between the parties may not really be that large. Neither has outlined detailed spending plans. If anything, the most stridently anti-austerity party is the Scottish Nationalists, one of the reasons it looks set to almost sweep the board north of the border.

After its defeat in the Scottish referendum in September last year, the Scottish National Party has pledged not to repeat that vote any time soon. But it has reiterated its opposition to replacing the Trident nuclear deterrent.

In the aftermath of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and with Russian bombers and submarines now routinely probing UK air and maritime borders, that decision now has much greater strategic relevance.

Whichever main party dominates, it will almost certainly find itself dependent on smaller players – the Liberal Democrats, SNP or Greens who want Trident abolished (although the Liberal Democrats are open to an alternative cheaper system). But the simple truth is that both main parties remain committed to it and have enough votes to push it through parliament.

The true importance of the election, then, may be simply what it tells us about 21st-century Britain and politics in general. The two-party divide in Britain in which a single main party invariably ruled seems gone for good. The rise of smaller parties seems to mean coalition governments — almost unheard of in recent history — are the new normal.

The country also looks more sharply divided. In many of its cities, almost no-one votes Conservative. In the countryside, almost nobody votes Labour. And Scotland looks more than ever under the control of an entirely separate political bloc.

What lessons does that have for America? There are certainly stark differences. The U.S. two-party system is much more entrenched, groups like the “Tea Party” tend to exist within the major parties rather than breaking away. In the U.S., social issues — abortion, gay marriage — are much more politicised.

In both, disillusion with politics looks near an all-time high. In the U.S., it’s hard to imagine a repeat of the youthful exuberance that accompanied Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. In 2010, many young British voters turned to the third-party Liberal Democrats only to be hugely disappointed by the concessions they made in government, particularly on university tuition fees. The two main parties remain close to the centre ground — a centre ground that not everyone believes truly still exists.

Both countries are clearly struggling to determine their place in the world, albeit from very different positions.

In both, opposition politicians have been critical of what they call the “failure” of Obama and Cameron in Libya. But foreign policy is simply no longer the focal point it was in the years of George Bush and Tony Blair.

In 1962, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson said Britain had lost its empire and not yet found a role. If the near-total absence of foreign policy in this election is any guide, it may no longer want one.

 

This piece appears courtesy of The Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). For more information and other commentaries visit www.projects21.com

 

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