Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Mediterranean Standoff Shows Little Sign Of Resolution


So far Greece has played a masterful hand against Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean standoff. It has collected an impressive list of allies against Turkish attempts to claim a larger slice of the maritime territory and has used this tension to build up its armed forces.


            It has also been extremely fortunate in its opponent. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan is extremely unpopular outside Turkey and has diplomatically isolated his country. I have found only one country, Azerbaijan, that half-heartedly supports Turkish claims over maritime sovereignty. He has not only alienated most of the European Union members but has also alienated the vast majority of Arab countries who are happy to align themselves with Greece. Erdogan was furious when the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain recognized Israel. But, as usual, he glosses over inconvenient facts. Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Israel and still has several daily flights to Tel Aviv. He has always portrayed himself as the leader of the Muslim Middle East but those claims have now drifted into fantasy land.


            Even the loudly trumpeted maritime pact with the UN-recognized part of Libya remains stillborn. In order to become effective the pact had to be ratified by parliaments in both countries. The Turkish parliament quickly ratified it but so far the Libyan parliament has rejected it. Therefore that agreement has no legal standing and is just another baseless claim by Erdoğan.


            Beyond these various maritime agreements Erdoğan has other problems that limit his options. Turkey is bogged down with military adventures in Syria and Libya with no end in sight. Keeping a large part of its army in Syria and supporting mercenaries in Libya is an expensive exercise – one the country really cannot afford. After years of mismanagement the Turkish economy is in tatters and the currency keeps sinking to one record low after another. Unemployment is rising and inflation is running well above the Central Bank’s benchmark interest rate. Erdoğan has a pathological hatred of interest and rebuffs every attempt by the Central Bank to counter currency weakness by increasing interest rates. According to his logic the currency is not sinking because of his own mismanagement but because of machinations by the so-called interest rate lobby, the Free Masons, George Soros (he of the infamous anti-Turkish Jewish lobby), the Knights Templar and other assorted malign foreign forces.


            But beneath the bellicose language Turkey does have a point in all these discussions about maritime boundaries. The sad thing is that if the Turkish position were presented by someone other than Erdoğan people might actually pay attention and try to solve the problem intelligently. But no one is inclined to give the swaggering neighbourhood bully such consideration.


            The Greek position may be within the strict letter of the law but often seems unnecessarily provocative. When you look at a map of the Aegean there is a string of islands extending along the Turkish coast from Mytilene in the north all the way down to the tiny (12 square kilometres) island of Kastellorizo in the south. Then, of course, there’s Cyprus off Turkey’s southern coast. But that’s another long, complicated story. These islands enable Greece and Cyprus (at least the internationally-recognized part of the island) to claim sovereignty over a large part of the Aegean and much of the  eastern Mediterranean.


            Understandably these claims infuriate Turkey, which has a long coast line of its own stretching from the northern Aegean all the way around to the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, because it feels hemmed in and denied access to potential maritime riches by a chain of relatively small islands. The various laws and treaties governing maritime rights can fill at least one very large bookcase. Suffice it to say that Greece and Turkey have conflicting views on the application of these laws and treaties. Just one example – Greece has signed the United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Seas which states that Greece is entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone around the islands. Turkey has not signed this convention and says that convention applies only to the countries that signed it.  In fact Turkey does not recognize a legal continental shelf and EEZ around the Greek islands. As far as Turkey is concerned the continental shelf should be measured from mainland Turkey and not the adjacent Greek islands.


            Beyond these migraine-inducing legal arguments there is the even more fundamental question about the size of the resources under the sea. While significant gas fields have been discovered in the indisputably Israeli and Egyptian zones there is serious question about resources near Cyprus. Exploration off Cyprus has so far yielded disappointing results. And nothing has yet been found in the Aegean. But let’s say a major field is discovered. What exactly do you do with it? Some people talk grandly about an undersea pipeline extending from the waters off Cyprus to Crete or Rhodes and then somehow to the Greek mainland and onto Italy. Such a pipeline is astronomically expensive and at today’s natural gas prices completely unrealistic. Ah, you say, send it to Cyprus where it will be converted into LNG (liquified natural gas) and sent on its way in ships. Too bad no such LNG facility exists on Cyprus. And it’s doubtful anyone would build one unless a major field is discovered and gas prices increase sharply.


            Looking at a map and ignoring politics for a minute the obvious solution is a pipeline through neighbouring Turkey, a country with multiple pipelines and only 40 miles from Cyprus. Logical? Perhaps. But this is the Aegean/Mediterranean region that has a much longer history of conflict than of logic and cooperation. One might hope for a breakthrough but that would require more statesmanship than is visible right now.


Monday, 17 August 2020

Trump's Retreat From The World Is Nothing New


We had dinner with a European friend the other night and he spent most of the evening wondering how the America he had grown up with had become so inward looking, so isolationist. It’s no wonder he was confused. He and I are part of the post-WW II generation when the United States assumed, more or less by default, a global leadership role with programs like the Marshall Plan, NATO, AID and strong support for international institutions. To be honest, the options for the rest of the world weren’t all that appealing. Americans might be overbearing monoglots with scant interest in or regard for the nuances of global relationships. But they weren’t Russian.

            Even as Europe and other parts of the world recovered, grew stronger and developed their own agendas no one doubted that the United States remained pre-eminent. Of course there were leaders like Nehru, Nasser, Tito or even Charles De Gaulle who often clashed with the US and challenged that pre-eminence. But few people seriously suggested that the Americans retreat back to North America, pull up the draw bridge and forget about the rest of the world. Like it or not the US acted as a type of security blanket for much of the world.

            Now, with the Trump administration retreating from a global role as fast as it can a lot of people in my generation are wondering just how this happened. How can the United States throw off the role of leadership so casually? Who will fill the vacuum? Where did this isolationism come from?

            Actually, it is not a recent arrival at all. It has always been there, has always been part of the American fabric. What Trump is spouting now is nothing new. People forget that until WW II America was a deeply isolationist country. All during the 1930s large America First organizations sprang up fuelled by the incendiary pro-Hitler, pro-Mussolini, anti-Semitic radio broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin and were adored by millions across the country. It took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States to turn the tide.

America First rally in the 1930s

            But all Father Coughlin did, like Trump, was to tap into a deep well spring of distrust and enmity that many in the New World felt toward the Old World. ‘Who needs them and all their problems? We’ve got more than enough to take care ourselves? To hell with them.’ In a country founded and strengthened by waves of immigrants it is ironic that the first manifestation of this mood was in the 1840s when a powerful anti-immigrant force called derisively the Know Nothings sprang up and became a political force suppressed only by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860.

Know Nothing motto from 1840s 

            Not our problem’ was the dominant American theme for most of WW I. Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on a pledge to keep America out of the war. It was only the result Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare that finally brought the Americans into the war in 1917. But then, led by Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, the country rejected the League of Nations – the center piece of Wilson’s post-war plans.

League of Nations? You must be joking.

            After WW II these nativist instincts were suppressed but never went away. As long as the Cold War raged there was general – even if reluctant – agreement that American military and economic presence all over the world was necessary to counter the Russian threat.

            With the end of the Cold War and its bi-polar global power structure, the rise of China along with other regional economic powers like the European Union, and seemingly endless inconclusive military conflicts the post-WW II global consensus began to fracture along old, familiar lines. Trump – like other so-called nativist populists around the world – recognized and capitalized this trend. In the 1930s the code word was cosmopolitan, i.e. internationalist, multi-lingual, and worst of all Jewish.  Now the term globalization encompasses all those old phobias – along with many new ones - and has become the code word for all the country’s problems – especially by aggrieved white males.

            Jobs lost in the Midwest? Blame globalization. America out-voted in the UN and other international organizations? Blame the ingrates that come with globalization? Good money poured down the rat hole of so-called international aid? What a joke! Disaster relief? Only if they side with the US on many other issues. So-called allies disagreeing with the US? Nothing but a bunch of poncey ingrates! All they want to do is bleed us dry!

            Lost in these diatribes is the small fact of continuing American domination of much of the world’s economy despite the undoubted rise of China. American financial institutions, tech companies, pharmaceutical companies, entertainment companies, and many others span the globe. The power of the American Treasury Department and the US Dollar is unparalleled. In many ways the Secretary of the Treasury has more international power than the president. Because of the unique position of the Dollar as the world’s reserve currency the Treasury Department has the ability to levy heavy fines and sanctions against international banks that are seen to violate American regulations on things like money laundering and terrorist financing.

            In large part the election this November will reflect this sharp divide. Those who value positive American engagement with the rest of the world will most likely vote for former Vice President Joe Biden. Those for whom global engagement spells nothing but trouble and want to build walls and pull up the draw bridge will undoubtedly side with President Trump. The stakes – and not just for America – are high. We shall see.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Time To Call Tayyip Erdoğan's Bluff

With his latest move to change one of Orthodox Christianity’s most powerful symbols from a museum into a mosque Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan is once again demonstrating his complete contempt for international cooperation or opinion. He simply doesn’t care – at all. The only thing important to him is to maintain the unwavering support of his nationalist and fundamentalist Islamic base of support, a base that has shown signs of weakening in recent years.

Haghia Sophia before the Ottoman conquest

            To the world at large Erdoğan is Turkey. That is a serious mistake. His main damage over the years has been to obscure the complex, rich reality of Turkey – a complexity which he loathes. There are literally millions of hard working, well educated people in Turkey who reject his narrow, inward view of the world.  They want to engage with the rest of the world not retreat from it. Indeed in the last round of municipal elections they showed their strength when the opposition won almost all the major cities including Istanbul. These cities and surrounding areas  contain the bulk of Turkey’s population and the vast majority of the country’s economic activity. There are promising signs that the success in local elections could be carried to the national level. This is what Erdoğan really fears and why he has to work hard to maintain is base of support.

            Why is the status of Haghia Sophia so important? Constructed in the 6th century AD by Byzantine Emperor Justinian it stood for almost 1,000 years as a powerful symbol of Christianity with its soaring dome and glittering mosaics. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 one of their first acts was to convert this symbol into a mosque. It remained a mosque until 1934 when the Turkish republic’s first president Kemal Ataturk – determined to secularize and modernize the country – converted it into a museum. Thus it remained until today. Erdoğan and his fervent followers deeply resent Ataturk’s secularization drive and have tried over the years to weaken his hold on the Turkish public. The conversion of Haghia Sophia back into a mosque is simply their latest, boldest, step in trying to settle decades-old grievances against Ataturk’s legacy and the outside world – especially the perfidious West. It remains to be seen if their Islamic zeal will make them destroy the remnants of the original glorious 6th century mosaics inside Haghia Sophia. After all, human representation in any artistic form is an anathema for Islamic fundamentalists.

Will these precious mosaics in Haghia Sophia be destroyed?
            Is there anything the rest of the world can do to make Erdoğan reverse this decision? In the short term, not really. Isolated in his bubble and surrounded by sycophants he is impervious to criticism – especially from Europe. This time is slightly different in that Orthodox Russia has also severely criticized the conversion. But the Russian condemnation quickly gets tangled in the delicate and complex web of Russian/Turkish relations and might not have much effect.

            But that doesn’t mean other countries and international organizations are completely impotent in this matter. Erdoğan is a very shrewd, clever villager who has little knowledge of or interest in the rest of the world. But up to now has played his international counterparts like a harp. They can flap their arms in despair at some of Erdoğan’s moves, express all the righteous indignation they want and he just laughs because he knows full well those are empty gestures. They won’t do anything. Turkey may be resource poor but it occupies what has been considered a critical piece of geography, literally spanning East and West. It is a member of NATO and played a key role during the Cold War. However, those ties are fraying and Turkey’s useful role is being questioned more and more. There are also strong elements in Turkey that want to get rid of all Western alliances and focus more on Eurasia – an area they feel is more politically and socially compatible with their 16th century vision for Turkey. Much of Turkey’s economic elite is horrified at such an Iranization of the country, but it’s not clear how much – if any – influence this elite has.

Erdogan in a familiar pose
            Erdoğan loves to stress that Turkey is a sovereign nation and can make its own decisions. True enough. But other nations are also sovereign and are perfectly free to make their own reactions to Erdoğan’s moves. Merely whining does no good at all. He feeds on that. It is time to get serious and call his bluff. He wants to change the status of historic monuments? Fine. But there must be consequences, regardless of any inconvenience. International cultural organizations could make Erdoğan’s Turkey a pariah and withdraw the country’s membership. Yes, there are countless valuable antiquities in Turkey. But if anyone thinks coddling Erdoğan is the way to preserve those he is kidding himself. He has shown an undying love of modern concrete over natural beauty or ancient sites – especially if they are Christian.

            What else could be done? Erdoğan is exposed in Syria. Yes, the Assad regime is an abomination but Orthodox Christians in Syria should be very afraid of the alternative of the fundamental Sunnis, the Al Qaeda offshoots supported by Erdoğan. The West together with Russia could put serious pressure on Assad to do a deal with the Kurds, who hate Erdoğan, and work for a loose federation that keeps Syria together while getting rid of the Turkish occupation of the north-western part of the country.

            Thanks to Erdoğan’s mismanagement the country’s economy has become quite fragile with an over-reliance on imports, dwindling foreign currency reserves, high unemployment and massive foreign currency debt obligations. Officials may be adept at managing these challenges in the short term but longer term the country will pay a high price.

            Ah, but the immigrants you say. Annoy him too much and he can unleash millions of immigrants – most of whom are not Syrian refugees -- into Europe. Yes and no. Several months ago Greece showed what could be done with a little resolve. Close the border. Bulgaria could do the same. Most civilized countries recoil at such measures. But it is up to Europe to set its own immigration terms and not permit Erdoğan to use these unfortunates as pawns to intimidate other countries.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

A Long Way Around But We Finally Made It

After a circuitous two-day trip we finally managed to escape from the travesty that has befallen Boris Johnson’s Britain and land in Greece. This involved a flight to Geneva then a train trip to Zurich and finally, the following morning, a flight to Athens. Arriving in Geneva one is reminded of something that seems to have escaped the ‘New’ Britain – efficiency. We caught a train directly from the Geneva airport for a comfortable scenic ride directly to the Zurich airport. Train officials were mortified that the train was 6 minutes late. They shouldn’t have worried. This small taste of efficiency was very welcome. British officials, on the other hand, seem to have lost the ability to be mortified by anything, let alone mere train delays. A delay of only 6 minutes would be cause for celebration throughout the country. One more thing, the check-in queue at Swiss Air in Zurich very early on Friday morning was extremely long. But there were more than 20  check-in counters and they were all manned. Consequently the queue moved quickly. The same story at security. Every position was manned and it took less than 3 minutes to clear security despite the crowds.

            Because our trip had originated in the UK we were tested for Covid-19 at the Athens airport. We had previously given our trace-and-track details and were allowed to continue our journey even though the results wouldn’t be ready until the next day.  Had we tested positive – we didn’t – we would have been notified to self-isolate for two weeks. Seemed like a reasonable approach – especially when compared to the ham-handed approach in the UK where there was no attempt at testing (let alone tracking) and arriving passengers were simply told to quarantine for two weeks. Now, when the UK is finally modifying that policy many countries aren’t sure they want British tourists because of the virus spikes in the country.

Track and trace? Promised by June, now delayed indefinitely.
            British governments weren’t always this incompetent. But now there’s a prime minister who acts as though he would be much happier as the master of ceremonies at some pub’s karaoke night rather than lead a serious country. That’s hard work and requires real knowledge of major issues. Much easier to use one’s natural glibness and focus on simple, short crowd pleasing slogans like ‘Get Brexit Done.’

Much more fun than Prime Minister's Question Time

            Even though Britain is starting to re-open the country faces many more serious challenges like a treaty with the European Union and a trade agreement with the United States. Both of these are problematic. If this wasn’t enough they have to figure out how to pay for all billions of Pounds given to support companies and individuals during the worst of the virus.

            The deadline for the treaty stipulating relations with the European Union is December 31, 2020. Failure to agree a treaty by then would mean Britain leaving with ‘no deal’ which would result in total confusion and self-inflicted damage to the British economy. But, sadly, British negotiators seem to have adopted the ‘My-way-or-the-highway’ approach in these talks which were going to be difficult in the best of cases. This is fine if you have the upper hand which the UK most definitely does not. It needs friction-less trade with the EU far more than the EU needs an obstreperous, naively arrogant Britain.

            Unfortunately, Boris Johnson displays little interest in or knowledge of economics. Concerns of business and financial leaders worried about being cast adrift from the country’s largest and most important market interest him not at all. He loves the idea of so-called Global Britain able to form its own trade relations untethered to the cumbersome EU. In theory possible, but that requires the very diplomatic and bureaucratic skills scorned by the current government. It also requires management skills fatally lacking during the Covid-19 crisis.

            The government’s big hope is a trade deal with the United States. After all, Johnson and American president Donald Trump share a deep contempt of the European Union and a deep distrust of independent bureaucratic competence. 

Both of them believe sheer bluster can replace competence
But Johnson will soon discover that it is very hard for a small fish to negotiate equally with a whale. The only way the US would agree to such a trade deal is if Britain basically accepts everything the US wants – namely free access to the health care system and food markets.  This raises fears in many parts of the UK about soaring drug prices and lower food safety standards. Those fears may well be exaggerated but given their acceptance by a large part of the UK population they pose a real hurdle for Johnson. 

On a more practical note, there is absolutely no chance at all of any trade deal being completed before the US presidential election in November. If Joe Biden wins Johnson could face someone much more eager to work with the EU than with an ‘independent’ Britain. I suspect the priority of any trade deal with the UK would slide way down the long list of issues that any Biden administration would face. Johnson would quickly discover that the world is a very lonely place for medium sized countries not connected to any major economic bloc.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Boris Johnson Has Really Accomplished Something Quite Unique

People can love the Tories or loathe them. But up until now they were usually considered a ‘safe pair of hands’ for managing the UK government apparatus. They generally knew how the complicated business of government works. Now, Boris Johnson has achieved something truly quite remarkable in his relatively short time as British prime minister.  Governments can be incompetent. They can be hypocritical. They even can be arrogant. But rarely do they manage all three at once. Johnson’s government, in the short span of five months, has achieved this noteworthy goal. Rather like choosing the first three finishers at the Grand National. Extraordinary, really.

            Driven by ideological zeal not seen since the religious wars of the Middle Ages this government prided itself on being the anti-Establishment Elite. They were going to shake up the stodgy – but hitherto relatively efficient – government apparatus and consign all Brexit unbelievers to the Tower – if not worse. A rousing victory over Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour was followed by a lengthy victory lap. All ministers tainted with some residual affection for strong trade ties with the European Union were quickly purged and sent to re-education camps. They were replaced by nonentities whose only qualification seemed to be memorizing the new Tory anthem. This is the NEW Britain. We will stand proudly alone. We are at last free to develop trade relations with whomever we want. We will change Britain!  And on, and on, and on. You could just picture them marching  in-step proudly down Whitehall arms swinging vigorously under banners proclaiming the New Order.

            And then something unexpected happened. Reality. The real world in the silent, deadly form of Corona Virus slipped unseen under the door (as only a foreign virus would do) and began to devastate large portions of the population. While alarm bells were ringing in most other serious countries Britain’s prime minister – not known for hard work at the best of times – saw no need to interrupt his holiday. Infection, what infection? No reason not to attend a large sporting event or take part in Chinese New Year celebrations.

Infection, what infection. Nice timing, Boris.
            Meanwhile people were inconveniently becoming very ill and dying in large numbers. Again, other countries (dare I mention Germany) were taking early precautions and benefiting from a well-stocked public health service. The brutal, harsh, unforgiving light of this real crisis rapidly stripped away the millimetre-thin veneer of competence of this so-called New Elite. Ministers really didn’t have a clue how to respond and received no guidance from the top. Isolate? Don’t isolate? Keep schools and shops open? Close them? Let everyone get sick and pray for the best? Test and trace? What’s that? Whatever you do, don’t for God’s sake tell me Greece of all countries is testing and tracing!

            And this was even before we get to the sad state of preventive equipment or the catastrophe in care homes.  The PPE cupboard was bare and the government had to scramble around the rest of the world looking for simple things like masks and gloves. When a large shipment of masks arrived from Turkey most of them were unusable. The government never checked that they were made by a newly formed company in Turkey that had never, not once, made a mask. Well done, lads. The sheer bumbling incompetence of the New Elite has us longing for the bowler hats, rolled umbrellas, and pin-striped suits of the Old Elite.

            And then the draconian Lockdown. All of us – well, most of us anyway – were consigned to our homes to avoid getting or transmitting Covid-19. Better late than never – even if most European countries had instituted this policy long before. But then the back door – Heathrow Airport – was left wide open. Thousands of international passengers arrived each day and passed straight through without any testing or tracing at all. By this time the Own Goals were mounting up. The other team didn’t even have to try.

PM's favorite adviser, Dominic Cummings. 
            After almost two months of isolation things are starting to loosen up a little. But just as this is happening the truly hapless Home Office minister – unfazed by reality or the impossibility of enforcement -- proudly proclaims that she is firmly slamming the barn door shut after all the horses have left. All international air travellers arriving in Britain after June 8 must be quarantined for two weeks. Such a step might have been useful at the very beginning of the crisis, but now – when European countries seem to have gotten Covid-19 under some control – it is just pointless window dressing.

            So much for Incompetence. Arrogance is running a close second. Admit they made mistakes? You must be joking. Just send the bruised and battered Health Secretary once again before remorseless TV cameras to assert everything is under control. Of course we’ll have the required testing in just two weeks. Well, actually, better make that six weeks. Rather reminds one of the Charge of the Light Brigade. That didn’t work out well, either.

            Meanwhile, Hypocrisy is making a late charge on the outside. Remember, all of us are in this together. Stay Home. Save Lives. Save the NHS. Unless, of course, you’re a cabinet minister or key adviser. The government could have blunted the impact of wandering ministers and advisers getting caught by simply apologizing and saying it wouldn’t happen again. But then it’s only Old Establishment wimps who see the need to apologize for anything to anyone. This is the age of the Dirty Harry (Make My Day) Tory. Apologize? Of course not. Nothing to apologize for. We’re the new Elite. We can do whatever we want. Boris Johnson went so far as to say he was sorry that people were upset at his key aide’s journey. Not sorry about the journey itself, mind you. Just that some people were upset about it.
Who is running the country? Sir Humphrey or Dominic?

            And this is the team that is supposed to lead the UK to the sunny uplands of prosperity and national pride? Makes Yes Minister look very good indeed. Sir Humphrey, where are you when we need you?