I have blogged before on the one-sided nature of America and Britain's alleged "special relationship". With President Obama's visit this week, it has once more come under the spotlight, with the president and David Cameron using the phrase many times during their press conference. Others - notably Brexiters - have been decidedly sniffy about the relationship, while for the president himself it has been clear that he enjoys visiting members of the royal family if nothing else.
As to where it really stands in a modern world of powerful regional unions and multi-country trading alliances, it probably isn't a surprise to learn that strong though the emotional resonance may be, the reality is not terribly significant. Michael Crowley on Politico analyses where the special relationship stands today, and suggests that other European countries (quelle surprise) such as France and Germany enjoy a more influential role than the one-time ruler of the thirteen colonies. But Obama does love the Queen.
Observer commentator Andrew Rawnsley goes on holiday to Vietnam to celebrate his significant wedding anniversary and ends up ruminating on the EU referendum. Which may have been trying for his wife, but is good news for us, as he produces a fascinating consideration of the nature of regionalism and why the eastern experience may be one which offers a guide to the British voters on the EU.
Vietnam is well entrenched in our historical memory largely because of the "Vietnam War" which still features on our GCSE history specifications, and has a cultural pull through a range of well known films in particular. Some of which carefully discriminating teachers like myself show in class when it's really, really relevant and instructive to do so (say, Friday afternoons, end of terms, times when other pressures have pushed out the lesson planning, afternoons when you just want an easy life, an undue confluence between me and my students' lack of desire for anything more than thoroughly passive learning.....). It is also increasingly popular on the student gap year trail - those years when teenagers can "find themselves" and realise they never lost themselves in the first place.
Anyway, the admirable Mr. Rawnsley provides us with a few useful pointers about the strengths of encasing a nation's future within helpful regional structures, and he does so by looking at the Vietnam situation. He notes, in particular, that:
Two millenniums of resisting a succession of foreign invaders have forged a tremendous sense of national pride in the Vietnamese. At the same time, this is a country that has become an ardent joiner of multinational organisations and economic partnerships. “Deep international integration” is now its lodestar. Membership of Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is seen as crucial to its security and prosperity. It takes pride in hosting summits of Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). It has signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which seeks to create a single market from 12 countries with a combined population of around 800 million commanding 40% of world trade. Modern Vietnam has grasped what its feudal emperors did not: you can’t wall yourself up against the world.
Any aspiring A2 Global politics student might find the point about the benefits of Asean particularly relevant to their exam preparation, while the rest of us may consider it a prescient warning about Brexit. Rawnsley went on to note the contrast between the country's communist rule and its capitalist pretensions, with Prada, Gucci, Chanel and Cartier occupying city centre space just metres away from monuments to Ho Chi Minh, the country's communist founder. And, of course, the west wants in, but Britain's best route is via the EU.
A Britain that wants to maximise its future prosperity will seek to be part of the future of coming countries such as Vietnam. There is Vietnamese interest in aspects of Britain, particularly a perceived British expertise in insurance, banking, science and technology. But compared with other global actors, we are not that significant in the Vietnamese scheme of things. Certainly not as important as its complex relations with the US and its Asian neighbours, especially the historic enemy and one-time occupier to the north. In so much as the UK matters to a country such as Vietnam, our influence is leveraged through membership of the EU. After three and a half years of negotiation, the EU and Vietnam recently signed a free trade agreement (FTA). When Mr Hammond came visiting, getting the FTA ratified was the main point of the talks from the perspective of his hosts.
Take or leave Mr. Rawnsley's conclusions as you wish - I prefer to take them if I'm honest - but the lessons from the far east about the importance and impact of regionalisation in a globalised world seem thoroughly on point.
Donald Trump's startling success in the current Republican primaries is starting to hit home and spark a tranche of "we could have a president Trump" articles. None of them make for happy reading and they're not intended to. Trump is the horror story that most liberal observers of politics - whether that be liberal-right or liberal-left - hoped they wouldn't have to witness. Could it be that the "pax occidentalis" that has held since the end of the Second World War is about to come apart?
Trump is an easy to recognise trope of the populist nationalist variety. He shares none of the internationalism of any of his post-war predecessors. His candidature hearkens back to the days of Warren Harding, but with an added nastiness. His victory would bring to the White House a man who is perfectly capable of bringing the old international, American protected consensus crashing down. Anne Applebaum considers this disaster in her Washington Post column, and adds a potential Marine Le Pen presidency of France with a British exit from the EU to the mix, just for good measure. It's a pretty depressing vision.
Comparisons with Hitler are over-used and inaccurate, but what is apposite is the comparison between the frustrated, politically dislocated electorate of Weimar Germany in 1933 and the current frustrated, politically dislocated electorate of America in 2016. The Spectator's Freddy Gray has provided a fascinating and cogent analysis of both what it is that Trump is tapping into in America, and how it is likely to play out in America's world role (worth buying this week's edition for, an online preview is here). Gray writes that "an ever larger number of Americans feel angry at the system. The Donald embodies their rage and multiplies it as in a hall of mirrors". Yes. Exactly. That's what populist demagogues do, and when a nation feels uneasy about itself and its manifest destiny, an electorate can turn quite nasty. Nasty electorates produce nasty leaders.
Gray is particularly good, later in his piece, at acknowledging the huge impact America has had on the nature of the post-war world, and the democratic security that western nations have rather taken for granted, even as much of the rest of the planet disintegrates into strife and savagery. A president uncommitted to such a role is more concerning than we might think. As Applebaum notes, Trump has little time for modest democratic politicians and their compromising, negotiated positions, but he does express admiration for Vladimir Putin. Putin is arguably the most sinister and dangerous man to govern Russia since the late Josef Stalin. He seems to combine similar levels of paranoia about the non-Russian world with an opaqueness that makes him impossible to read. (He is, incidentally, superbly portrayed in Netflix series "House of Cards", as fictional Russian president Petrov.)
Of course, much of this is speculative. Trump is not only not president, the odds are still against that possibility. Marine Le Pen is not yet president of France and could suffer the same fate as her once popular father. But electorates are not bound to elect moderate, reasonable men and women, and we may just have reached a time in the affairs of liberal nations when de Tocqueville's fear of democracy may prove wholly justified.
The devastating impact of bombing and renewed fighting upon Aleppo in Syria is being brought home to us via news reports and tales of ever increasing numbers of refugees. It also places a spotlight once again upon the imperturbable Russian president, Vladimir Putin's, Middle East strategy. Briefly hailed as a joint step forward with western interests, it is in fact clear that Putin - unsurprisingly - has no interest in western aims and is methodically, and successfully, pursuing a Russia First policy in his dealings in Syria.
The BBC's diplomatic correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, gives a cogent and clear assessment here of just how Mr. Putin is winning his own war in Syria. And, as Marcus points out, it includes an abject lesson to western governments mired in confusion as to how to carry out middle-eastern policy. Marcus notes that Russia chose a credible side to back in the civil war, one that had sufficient forces on the ground; set herself achievable goals (in this instance to back the Syrian government and bolster its control of a clear area); and committed sufficient forces herself to achieve her limited aims. She is succeeding admirably. The West by contrast, as Mr. Marcus notes, is struggling even to work out what its aims are.
Nothing will come out of the present round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva and it is unlikely that Syria will ever revert to its original borders in a single, unified state. With Libya heading the same way - see another BBC correspondent, Frank Gardner's report here -there is an urgent need for the key western governments to work out a viable response, especially since Libya's mess, unlike Syria's, emerged directly out of a proudly trumpeted interventionist policy from Mr. Cameron and the then French president Nikolas Sarkozy. Getting rid of dictators seems easy. Filling the vacuum is, as ever, a nightmare.
You might have thought that Donald Rumsfeld would at least have the decency to keep quiet. Having wrought such damage upon the Middle East as the result of his ill-considered and misconceived policies, he could at least have spared us his ongoing thoughts. Yet here he is again, giving an interview to the Times about the current problems and casting himself as a wise man of the past.
Extraordinarily, Mr. Rumsfeld has announced that he was never really in favour of imposing democracy upon Iraq. George W Bush made a terrible mistake, he suggests. His amnesia is all the more culpable given how much of Iraq's current day trauma stems from errors, mistakes and sheer arrogance on the part of Rumsfeld himself. It does seem extraordinary that he is now suggesting he was not an ideological fellow traveller in the great crusade to impose western democracy on Iraq. Indeed, it is worth just recounting just how responsible Rumsfeld was for the disaster that overtook Iraq, not so much from the initial invasion but from the botched aftermath.
The manifold failings of the worst man to hold the office of American Secretary of defence are documented in many places elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that this was the man who – in pure neo-con fashion – was the strongest advocate of a war against Iraq in the counsels of the Bush presidency, and the strongest advocate of doing so with minimum men on the ground. Having scythed through Baghdad, Rumsfeld’s forces were then confronted with a horrendous security operation, and faced with the Secretary’s unyielding demand that this too be undertaken with the most underwhelming force possible. Rumsfeld, indeed, even stopped one division from going to Baghdad at all, in the belief that it was an unnecessary expenditure.
The man in the Pentagon thus hamstrung the very forces he had sent into Iraq right from the start. There was worse to come, though, in the form of his sweeping aside of the cautious but politically aware team of American reconstructionists who were in Baghdad and headed by Jay Garner, in favour of the brash, arrogant and wholly unsuited Paul Bremer. Bremer, a man of supreme egoism who likened himself to General MacArthur, insisted on complete authority to run Iraq. It couldn’t have gone to a less qualified individual. Bremer had no knowledge whatever of the Middle East – unlike Garner and his team, or the Iraqi originally slated to be a co-leader, Zalmay Khalilzad. His foreign experience had been as a chief of staff to Henry Kissinger, and an ambassador to the Netherlands. It was this lack of any prior involvement in Mid East affairs that endeared him to the ever cretinous Rumsfeld.
Bremer arrived in May 2003 to an urgent need to establish some sort of authority in Baghdad. His predecessors, Garner and Khalilzad, had been making some useful moves to incorporate previous Iraqi civil servants and military commanders into a new governing authority. Bremer swept this aside, since he had arrived determined to stamp his authority on Baghdad by dismissing the whole of Saddam Hussein’s political and military structure. His first order was thus to bar the top four levels of Saddam’s Baath Party from holding any government office. As the CIA station chief in Baghdad noted, Bremer had just disenfranchised 30,000 people.
Bremer’s Order No 2 was even more catastrophic. Despite the talks that had been going on between Garner and Khalilzad and potentially sympathetic Iraqi army commanders, Bremer’s order – drafted by former Clinton aide Walter Slocombe – removed the entire military structure that had existed under Saddam. The reaction in Iraq was furious, with angry demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities; sixteen US soldiers were wounded by violent protests in Mosul, a matter of particular annoyance to General Petraeus whose forces had up to that point been making some headway in winning over the city’s population. And if Order No 1 had sent 30,000 officials to unexpected unemployment, Order No 2 did the same for 300,000 well armed soldiers. It is no surprise to discover that many of those soldiers formed the nucleus of the Islamic Army of Iraq and Syria that is causing so much grief today.
Bremer’s orders, confirmed by Rumsfeld, were ill considered and destructive, but even the logic on which they were based was flawed, not least because Bremer failed to make even the most cursory investigation of the country he had come to rule. Had he done so, he would have discovered that the Iraqi army’s top ranks had far fewer Baathists than he had thought. A mere half of the generals, and only 8,000 of the 140,000 officers and NCO’s were committed Baath Party members. The Iraqi officers who had been in discussions with Garner and Khalilzad knew this, but Bremer had dismissed their contribution out of hand. He ended up pursuing de-Baathification of a military that hadn’t needed it.
There is a final indication – and perhaps an appropriate one – of Paul Bremer’s mendacious ignorance of Iraq and Arab culture. He and Slocombe had devised a scheme to replace the Iraqi military with a ‘New Iraqi Corps’. NIC, when pronounced in Arabic, sounds very much like “fuck”. It is a fitting commentary on a man who has retired into a peaceful life of painting and lecturing in the bucolic countryside of Vermont while the reverberations of his ill-thought out and gung-ho policies continue to condemn thousands of Iraqis to death, torture, or – often at best – a wretched existence carved out in the midst of slaughter, and fear of the ISIL monster which has filled the vacuum he created. Mr. Rumsfled may not have been in favour of imposing democracy. The trouble is, he doesn't appear to have been in favour of imposing anything at all.
The book “Cobra II” by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor (chapter 24) provides much of the narrative detail referred to above.