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The politics of The Karate Kid...

Karate KidThe Karate Kid is an evil pinko Hollywood propaganda film (and I mean that in a good way). Daniel, son of a Noo Joisey single-mum transplanted to blue-collar Reseda, falls in love with a rich girl whose family sneers at him and is beaten up by rich kids from the ultra-expensive - and ultra-EVIL - Cobra Kai gym, run on fascist lines and glorifying pain and cheating. Unable to afford tuition, thanks to the economic oppression of his Mom, he insteads works for free tuition at the hands of the secret karate master ethnic minority gentleman next door, whose wife and child died as a direct result of the US government's racist policies.

The "self-help/hard work/working for exploitative wages and being grateful for it" montage made the whole thing seem unthreatening to white
suburban Dads. But in the end, rich capitalists, who glorify in the oppression of the working man, who only achieve more because of the vast sums invested in their education and who cheat to win, are identified with EVIL: pain, cruelty, pettiness and fascism. Daniel is goodness personified, a poor boy with his non-White equally poor best friend. Together they crush the forces of fascism and revanchism, because despite their willingness to cheat and huge social advantages, Daniel is not only more moral but also better at karate.

bonsai tree bits show Miyagi's culture is beautiful, ancient, wise and in every respect equally to be treasured as ours. Although it has an unfortunate tendency to kill innocent people in internment and forced labour camps with particular cruelty, the fact that Miyagi's wife and infant daughter died in a US government internment camps demonstrates "We have all been hurt. We have all inflicted wounds." As I said, pure pinko propaganda.

While the Crane Kick scene was rather good. But the film was lame - even had a massively clichéd "one good Nazi who ultimately saw throught it all" scene. And still vastly better than the truly lamentable Karate Kid 2.
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Come let us adore him - thoughts from a disillusioned Christian about to attend Midnight Mass

A few hours to kill at home before I go down to St. George’s to make sure the heating has come on at its appointed time for Midnight Mass. Some thoughts waft into my mind from a long distant RE class, probably from the latter years of my (fairly unhappy) Primary School education, I would think from Mr. McGinnity in P6 or P7. I would have been about 10 years old. Somehow it seems of particular relevance tonight.

The shepherds, we were told, were not an obvious choice to be among the first people to see God made man. The shepherds let a tough life, isolated in their highland pastures, far from synagogues, often unable to keep holy days and rarely able, given the marginal nature of their existence, to be ritually pure. I am not sure how true that is. I know nothing of the sociology of Palestine in the era of Christ.

But the story has a consonance with the totality of the Gospels. It is often the outcast who is given the gift of seeing Christ face to face. While the shepherds may or may not have been considered good Jews, the Wise Kings of the East could scarcely have been monotheists of any sort. Mary and Joseph, fresh from their hasty shotgun wedding, were scarcely better representatives of orthodox religious respectability.

The beginning of Christ’s life on Earth prefigures its culmination, when the thief and the foreign soldier recognise the divine that the holy men choose to destroy, and the women, so often dismissed as unreliable, are called to be the first witnesses to the Resurrection.

O come let us adore Him. It is this vulnerable infant we are called to adore, a hick from the sticks born in a barn a long way from home, his family soon to be on the run from a minor Roman satrap so crazed and terrified for his position that mass infanticide seemed a reasonable option. It is a fitting beginning for an itinerant preacher from a backwoods town destined for an early and excruciating death.

God incarnates himself not in power but in vulnerability, not as the son of an Emperor destined to rule but the bastard son of a carpenter from the middle of nowhere. Again, the beginning of Christ’s life prefigures its culmination. Just as God rejected power in His entry into this world, so He rejects it again as He departs it, dismissing the potential for revolution on Palm Sunday and instead choosing the path towards the Cross.

And yet the Churches seem so obsessed with power, the Church of Ireland of my adoption as much as the Irish Catholicism of my baptism. The fear of a secularised society among the hierarchs of both institutions is tangible, a nostalgia for the certainties of a Christendom that collapsed in the space of a generation clouding impartial judgement of the transparent flaws of Irish Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, in its mid-20th Century pomp. I do not miss the directives from the pulpits, the chained swings, the homes for fallen women, the visceral sexism, homophobia, and snobbishness, and the unashamed tribalism seen most clearly in the casualness with which worship of flags and nationality was allowed to displace worship of almighty God.

As CF Alexander wrote on the morning of the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, “in the time of plenty, little fruit we bore Thee.” Why do we pine for it so much? Do we really think an Ireland with gay marriage is a less Christian country than an Ireland of Magdalene laundries, institutionalised child abuse or the Penal Laws? Do we really wonder why people reject our claims?

We are not called to worship the Church on Christmas Eve, but the Christ-child in his manger. The Church is not a set of people bound by common rules determined by men in purple clothes, but the community of those who fall before the manger and adore the King of the Universe, who loves us so much that he became one of us and died to save us.

I have never been so estranged from the institutional Church and yet I have never been so convinced of the truth of the Christian faith. Perhaps that is not a bad position from which to go to meet the Christ-child tonight.

British politics, Britain

A UKIP breakthrough in 2015?

Crossposted at Slugger O'Toole...

UKIP has been consistently polling in the high single digits and low double digits across Great Britain for well over a year now. This is the most significant and sustained burst of polling for a fourth party in Britain since at least the Greens’ post-Euro election surge in 1989. Arguably, the UKIP surge is more significant than that, as it has not depended on the positive publicity generated by an unexpected breakthrough in an off year election fuelled by protest votes, but has simply emerged from nowhere, driven doubtless partly by ex-Tories disillusioned with the party’s record in government, and partly by the crisis in the Eurozone. Its support is also remarkably consistent from month to month, as opposed to the ‘sine curve’ of sudden emergence and equally sudden collapse more common to ephemeral minor parties in the UK and internationally.

The context of the unexpected 15% Green Party vote in the 1989 European Elections is also instructive. An unpopular Tory government faced a Labour Party beset by internal personality conflicts and led by a man with mediocre popularity ratings hounded by the right-wing press. The LibDems were in the midst of their immediate post-merger turmoil and, just like today, were not in a position to be the recipient of protest votes.

By the 1992 General Election, of course, all three major parties had gotten their act together to some extent and the Greens sank without trace. When they did eventually return their first MP in 2010, it was a result of the entire resources of the party being put behind tenacious local activism in a single seat, rather than a national breakthrough.

Despite the consistently high votes they now attract at Euro elections, UKIP have yet to come even close to winning a parliamentary seat. Their vote has hitherto disappeared like frost on a sunny morning come general election time, and unlike the Greens and the LibDems, UKIP’s local government base is virtually non-existent. The party simply didn’t operate a targeting strategy in any general election before 2010, when it decided to throw its resources behind a quixotic attempt to upend Speaker John Bercow in Buckingham, a constituency with no UKIP track record and without especially favourable demographics for it.

This encapsulates one of UKIP’s problems – it has yet to grasp that the electorate does not care all that much about many of the things that UKIP cares about. While Bercow may be seen as the spawn of Satan among highly politically aware voters on the radical right, he’s hardly a household name, is reasonably liked by his own constituents and in any case, with no Labour or LibDem candidate standing against the speaker, was always going to receive the votes of the large liberal-left minority interest which exists in any parliamentary constituency.

UKIP equally has yet to grasp that it may better advised to shut up about the EU for a while (people know they’re against it), to focus on issues like immigration and law-and-order, regarded as being of much more importance by the electorate. Presenting an economically right-wing alternative that isn’t in thrall to the City of London might also prove surprisingly popular.

I think this is the make or break moment for the UKIP project. UKIP came second in the 2009 Euros, and although they trailed the Tories by 28% to 17%, this was at a point when the Tories were riding high in the polls and UKIP were, until the surge of coverage they always get immediately before a European election, barely registering. In a low turnout election that most people don’t care about to an explicitly European body, it is not impossible that UKIP could actually be the largest party.

Could they then ride a post-Euro election surge to a breakthrough in the House of Commons? Possibly – the British electorate, like those in just about every Western country besides the USA, is becoming increasingly disaffected and consequently disloyal. But it’s a big ask.

UKIP does not seem to have much of a clue about how a minor party builds up to winning parliamentary seats and it seems unlikely that they will get one in the time they have left. Especially as the few defectors they attract with serious election organisation skills come from the Tories, where campaigns are heavily nationalised and most effective when they are, rather than the LibDems whose hyper-localised campaigning style is more suited to insurgent minor parties. The Greens copied the LibDem playbook successfully in Brighton and almost in Norwich in 2010, and the BNP also frankly plagiarised LibDem campaigning material before being undone by its transparent fragility as a political party. UKIP just doesn’t seem to get it.

It’s hard to think of anywhere where UKIP has a local government base or a significant month-in-month-out ground operation. Nigel Farage has stalked around the South Country at election after election, from Salisbury to Bexhill to Ramsgate to Buckingham, without ever leaving an infrastructure behind him.

UKIP’s ideological model ought to be the Canadian Reform Party of the 1980s, which broke through by winning over those who felt culturally repelled from Mulroney’s pro-Quebec, socially liberal, Tories. The problem for UKIP is there is no Alberta, no great reservoir of culturally conservative, anti-centralist, tendency even in their best regions of the UK.

It’s not hard to identify the constituencies that might prove most amenable to a UKIP breakthrough, though – pockets of Southern England which are almost entirely white, with high elderly populations, relatively poor national transport links which prevent them being sucked into London’s ever expanding exurbia, and relatively low levels of either public sector employment or non-age related benefit dependence. They are particularly thick on the ground along the south and east coasts, where there are even places where it’s relatively common to see Union Flags on flagpoles in gardens these days – the Isle of Wight and the Sussex coast in particular.

A LibDem collapse in the South West might open up space for UKIP to break through there, although I’m not sure that they aren’t perceived as being too economically right-wing for the LibDems’ working-class core vote in the West Country, despite the big Euro election vote they get in the region.

In any case, all this depends on some hyper-active UKIP member or small group of members getting the personnel and money together make this happen, and having the time and stamina to sustain relentless activity, week after week, for two and a half years. I’m just not aware of anyone who fits the bill.

You Gov's Peter Kellner notes the nightmare scenario for the Tories is a sort of 1983-in-reverse where UKIP does well enough to cost the Tories dozens of seats while not actually winning any MPs itself. Such an outcome would have been rendered impossible had the AV referendum gone through. It would be deliciously ironic if a UKIP surge, mediated through the First Past the Post electoral system, wrecked Tory chances in 2015. But there is far too much water yet to flow under the bridge to predictions about what might happen in 2015 with any confidence.
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First Thoughts on Justin Welby

Welby is potentially an interesting choice, and that's why I'm giving him a chance. He offers things to both the left and the right. Pure enough ideologically to satisfy conservatives, he comes with the potential to be a radical and credible critic of the West's worship of Mammon, and that is something beyond price. The fact that he is an obvious pillar of the Evangelical establishment - Eton (and it is a very good school which produces a radical side as well as a Bullingdon side), Oxbridge, blue-chip London post, HTB, Cranmer Hall, St. John's Durham - makes him all the more valuable as a potential dissenter within the Establishment.

But he's on the wrong side of a paradigm shift on the gay stuff. I don't find the divide on gay marriage to be a gay-straight thing at all. A lot of older gays are very conservative on the issue, often because they grew up in a horrid environment and are just grateful that they aren't criminals anymore. And a lot of younger straights are more radical than I am. And when I say to them, I'm not making too much of a fuss over this, they say, nope, you shouldn't have to put up with this and nor should anyone else. And the upper middle-classes needn't think this is just a chattering classes concern. I live on a council estate, a poor one, and a lot of working-class straight people, especially young women, are very exercised about this. It's just not on that people can't get married because they're a woman in love with another woman.

I'm sorry, but Mr. Welby is not going to stand in judgement over us, saying we're sinners because of who we love and that our marriages aren't real marriages and expect not to get comeback. Sorry, dude, but I'm not going to pretend I live in a 1930s drawing room, with all the potential for sin that creates, to satisfy a bunch of straight people.

All the same, Welby is not a choice to be dismissed. He comes with real strengths.
Nobody's perfect.
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Three Months From E-Day: What do the National Polls Tell Us?

Crossposted at Slugger O'Toole...

McCain v Obama 2008 polling and Romney v Obama 2011-2 polling.

We are approaching the final three months of the US Presidential race. Despite the hundreds of millions spent on advertising already, the polls have barely moved all year and show most Americans firmly in one camp or the other already, a nation ideologically polarised in a way it has not been for generations.

In the Spring and Summer of 2008, Obama consistently polled in the 46-48% range against McCain. He led consistently but narrowly, and was unable to get to the magic 50% mark. The differences between national polling in 2008 and 2012 are minimal. While Obama just can’t break 50%, Romney hasn’t led in the much-watched Real Clear Politics polling average since the autumn of last year.

The incumbent’s job approval rating is probably the most studied polling number in US Presidential re-election campaigns. Gallup has been tracking Presidential job approval since 1937 (!) so there is plenty of historical data to sink one’s teeth into. An approval above 50% is held to more-or-less guarantee re-election, while Presidents’ re-election campaigns start to get into deep trouble as their approval drops into the mid 40s.

According to Gallup, in the year of Bush’s re-election campaign, his approval ratings the very high 40s and low 50s (his slide into the mire came during his second term). Obama has spent pretty much all of 2012 trading in a narrow range of 45-50% approval. Bush Jnr. won re-election narrowly enough, with a margin of barely 2% in Ohio making the crucial difference, so Obama, with slightly lower approval than Bush in 2004, is clearly in the danger zone.

For comparison, by the summer of 1980, Carter’s job approval according to Gallup was consistently in the 30s, as was George Bush Snr.’s in the summer of 1992. Gallup didn’t poll job approval for Gerald Ford after May 1976, but in the Spring, his approval ratings were in the high 40s, almost exactly mirroring Obama’s. Although Ford wasn’t re-elected, he lost Wisconsin by less than 2% and, you’ve guessed it, Ohio by a wafer thin 0.27%, and a reversal of both results would have seen him re-elected.

Obama’s approval rating puts him in the danger zone, but far from in the death zone. Perhaps the most reassuring factor from his point of view is that he is consistently polling better in the key swing states that will decide the election than he is across the country, a subject I will return to in a future article.

If it’s advantage Obama so far – albeit a narrow one – what might change things in Romney’s favour?

Looking back at 2008 campaign, there were three clear surges in the polls. Obama and McCain both had their respective convention bounces. It is difficult to remember that for a week or so, Sarah Palin helped McCain’s support surge before retreating just as quickly. Finally, through September and October, Obama’s poll ratings slowly, but steadily and relentlessly, climbed as he cruised to a comfortable win on the back of his dominance both of the airwaves and the ground campaign.

Will that happen this time? Obama had an enormous warchest in 2008, able to fund even an enormously expensive half-hour prime time documentary advertising spot. With Romney outraising Obama considerably and a 2010 Supreme Court decision effectively removing all restraint on third party spending on advertising in US political campaigns, Obama will almost certainly fight the final three months of this campaign at a significant disadvantage on the airwaves.

Obama has had one huge advantage over the Summer. Despite his huge warchest, the Romney campaign is pretty much unable to spend money until the Republican National Convention is over and the Primary Election campaign is formally over. American campaign finance laws say that money raised for a Presidential Primary campaign can only be spent during the period of the Primary. After the long and expensive Republican Primary campaign, Romney’s Primary campaign account is pretty much empty, and what is left needs to spent on salaries and field offices.

With Romney TV advertising presence minimal, Obama has poured money into advertising in swing states over the Summer, and much of it has been pretty brutal, seeking to define Romney as a tax-dodging plutocrat who made his millions from shipping American jobs to China. Swing state polls indicate this might be making a difference. Not only is Obama polling better where it matters, but Romney’s negatives are much higher in those places too.

In September, however, Romney will be able to blitz the airwaves. With third-party sympathisers already spending hundreds of millions attacking Obama, it’s hard to see a negative ad war from Romney himself doing much to change people’s opinions of a sitting President they already know a lot about. With Romney’s personal popularity ratings in the toilet, a smart Romney campaign will leave the Obama-bashing to outsiders and focus on building up their own candidate. Romney is, as we saw in London, an awful campaigner on the stump, however, and it may not work. But it seems to be one of the few paths available for Team Romney to break the election open.

As I noted above, the party conventions do move the polls, albeit usually briefly. Probably the only way to make the convention bounce last for Romney is to pick a Vice Presidential nominee who adds to the ticket. To me Chris Christie, the popular governor of New Jersey, is the candidate most likely to turn things round for Romney. With proven experience in governing and proven appeal to moderate swing voters, he adds a lot. If nothing else, he puts New Jersey and its 14 electoral votes in play and probably turns around a Romney campaign in neighbouring Pennsylvania which currently seems doomed.

The scuttlebutt is that Romney is wary of being eclipsed by Christie, as McCain was overshadowed by Palin in 2008, and is unlikely to take that option. That would be a major mistake in my view, but in that event perhaps the only other VP nominee with the potential to be a campaign changer is Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. He is an effective campaigner with a bullet-proof CV and a compelling personal story, but will his deep economic conservatism play with working-class whites in the Midwest? All the other names in the frame strike me as Just Another White Dude and unlikely to make much difference either way.

The final factor which might be crucial in the final months is the campaigns’ ground operations. Obama has a huge network of field offices in place in swing states to organise door-to-door canvassing and get out the vote operations – 60 in Florida alone. He has also ramped up the already impressive level of technological sophistication and organisation his ground war team displayed in 2008. Many, including me, had assumed that he would not be able to recruit anything like the number of grassroots canvassers he had in 2008, but interestingly he is raising more money from small donors this time than he did last time. This is an area where Obama will have an advantage, but just how much remains to be seen.

Finally, there are the Presidential debates. While this is hardly an area where Romney naturally excels, he will be prepped by some of the best in the business and it has been a long time since a Presidential debate proved decisive in America. A desperate Obama, trailing a long way behind, may have felt compelled to use his undoubted debating skills to go for the jugular, but real life is not the West Wing, and Obama with a wafer-thin lead is unlikely to take major risks.

When all is said and done, if some major event external to the campaign doesn’t happen, the most likely scenario at this point seems to be that Obama grinds his way to re-election after a less than edifying campaign. With the economy in a mess, in the US and globally, and the Middle East a tinderbox, the capacity for ‘major events’ to happen is clearly large. Few of the possible major events are positive for Obama, who must now hope the campaign remains mired in trench warfare.
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US Indies are mostly shy Dems or GOPers

Fascinating article by the excellent Larry Sabato on - although 40% or so of American voters define themselves as independents, only about 10% of them actually are. The rest lean clearly to one or other of the big parties, but are shy about it. Despite the rise in self-declared independents, American politics has become plainly more polarised, and he goes on to argue this implies a very tight re-election race for Barack Obama.
world politics, realpolitik, international relations

Iran And The Bomb

Crossposted at Slugger O'Toole...

The current edition of Foreign Affairs magazine contains a leading article by Professor Kenneth N Waltz provocatively entitled Why Iran Should Get The Bomb (it is worth taking a few minutes to read this short but cogent article).

The crux of Waltz’ argument is that power begs to be balanced. Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly especially coupled with American support, he argues, created a regional imbalance of power which is the primary driver of instability in the Middle East. A nuclear balance of terror in the region should, in his view, encourage actors in the region to behave more responsibly, as it has in the Subcontinent since India and Pakistan became formal nuclear powers. Since nuclear weapons came on the scene, no two nuclear powers have ever gone to war against one another. Iran’s theocratic leaders may be unpleasantly authoritarian and ideologically expansionist, but they are not mad. The consequences of an Iranian nuclear strike – massive retaliation by Israel and possibly the United States – are as clear to the Ayatollahs as they are to anyone else. Nor is passing on nuclear weapons to terrorist groups or other states likely to appeal to decision makers in Tehran, any more than it did to Mao’s unpleasantly authoritarian and ideologically expansionist régime in the 1960s.

To me, however, the more pertinent question is not whether Iran should be stopped from developing The Bomb, but whether it can be. North Korea has managed to become a nuclear power despite its crushing poverty, isolation, primitive economy and clear technical failings in its nuclear weapons programme. Iran, which maintains friendly relations with Russia and China is, at present, awash with oil money and has an education system capable of training as many nuclear scientists as it needs.

Western conservatives seem to work from the standpoint that Iran’s nuclear programme can be derailed at relatively little cost to Israel and still less cost to the West. Memories of Israel’s successful surgical strike on Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981, and more recent obliteration of what was almost certainly an undeclared Syrian reactor construction programme, fuel the idea that Iran can be forced to abandon its dream of becoming a nuclear power through air-strikes alone. However, Iran’s nuclear programme has been developed with the risk of an Israeli or American strike, whether by planes or missiles, uppermost in the minds of its planners. Facilities are, as far as is possible, in hardened underground sites. Any air strike which failed would likely only encourage Tehran to increase the tempo towards weaponisation, while leaving the US to deal with diplomatic and probably military fallout, a subject I will return to below.

Israel has instead pursued a high-risk strategy of assassinating key Iranian nuclear scientists, four of whom have now been killed in attacks while travelling to work, using locally recruited agents. The Stuxnet computer virus, aimed at the enrichment plant at Natanz, represented a joint American-Israeli attempt to disrupt the Iranian nuclear programme by non-conventional means. However, its success in introducing significant delays to the programme simply underlines how difficult it would be to destroy it entirely.

Iran’s nuclear programme has significant support outside the Islamic world. Moscow and Tehran have established a joint venture to complete and operate Iran’s long delayed civil nuclear power plant at Bushehr. Russia seems to see little threat in, at the least, an Iranian civil nuclear programme. Russia has nuclear weapons, a lot of them, and is a Security Council veto power. Its consequent diplomatic clout has been on display for all to see in Syria. It tends to see its interests in the region in narrow economic terms – for example, support for Syria has not prevented some enormous sales of military technology between Israel and Russia, in both directions, in recent years. As a major energy exporter, Russia’s economic interests in the Middle East are often far from being in consonance with Western ones.

Even without Russian support, Iran can take a number of steps to retaliate against any American-Israeli attack on its territory. It has already rattled sabres about closing the Straits of Hormuz, and while so far that has looked like an empty threat, it remains a go-to option in dire circumstances.

That could risk antagonising the Chinese, vastly more dependent on Middle East oil than the Americans and whose economy currently looks vulnerable. There are steps it can take which are more directly targeted at specifically American interests, however. Iran has long sponsored or encouraged terrorist attacks by proxies against its enemies, and as we saw in Bulgaria this week, it continues to do so. However, attacks on that small scale are likely to be seen in both Washington and Jerusalem as an acceptable price if they are the consequence of preventing a nuclear Iran. On its own doorstep, however, Iran has the capacity to undermine American interests in the region on a much bigger scale.

Iran’s influence in Iraq is already enormous and, while it has avoided antagonising America too directly since the occupation, if it wanted to it could. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is close to Tehran and some of the parties in his governing coalition are intimately connected to Iran’s most powerful politico-religious figures. Afghanistan, nestling on Iran’s eastern border, plays host to around 90,000 US troops and relations between Tehran and the Taliban have warmed considerably in recent years. And on the other side of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shi’a Eastern Province, home to the biggest chunk of its oil production, is perpetually unhappy with Riyadh, often for good reason. Bahrain also remains a powder keg, and of course nobody has the slightest clue how the situation in Syria will eventually pan out.

Stirring tensions in any of those countries represents a major escalation by Tehran, one that could provoke military conflict with Turkey or Saudi Arabia, a nightmare scenario for the entire region. However, hawks in Tehran may decide that as long as their nuclear programme is not derailed entirely, they can afford to wait. Once they have The Bomb, they will almost certainly be secure from any future attack, as North Korea has been.

That raises the prospects of a nuclear standoff between an American backed Israel and a Russian backed Iran. Is that necessarily a bad thing? It gives the world’s two largest nuclear powers all the incentive they need to push for a final settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, probably empowering America to seek more concessions from Israel in return for the maintenance of its nuclear umbrella and encouraging Russia to pour oil on troubled waters that might involve it in a situation well out of Moscow’s comfort zone.

The Middle East is about as far from the United States as it is possible to be, and projecting American power in the region is expensive and depends on what are, even in today’s globalised environment, fragile supply lines. Is it time for America to accept that its interests are now strategic rather than global? Asia's rise makes a mockery of American universal hegemony, as does America's own failure to project power into Iraq and Afghanistan.

Middle East oil mostly flows eastwards, fracking is driving US domestic gas production through the roof, and the oil sands in Alberta and Utah together with Brazil’s massive new offshore oilfield probably means America can meet its energy needs entirely from the Western Hemisphere for decades to come. For the more brutal realists that inhabit every US administration, it is probably easier to engineer coups in Venezuela than it is to keep the Middle East from exploding. How does America’s deep entanglement in the Middle East benefit it in concrete terms? Is it time to consider whether a policy of broad US disengagement from the Middle East best suits its interests?

In the short term, it would unleash howls of protest at home and it would take a brave politician indeed to raise the subject in an election year. In the medium term, it might prove popular with an American electorate weary of seemingly endless foreign wars.
world politics, realpolitik, international relations

Ships, and the Chinese goods that sail on them...

Crossposted at Slugger O'Toole...

I bicycled along the harbour shore in Titanic Quarter today in an unseasonably cold breeze. As always, my eyes were drawn to the ships at dock on the other side of the harbour. These ugly brutes, these unsung workhorses of the maritime world, are the capillaries through which a huge proportion of international trade flows. Almost every manufactured good sold in Ireland comes off one of these ships into one port or another. I spotted the flag of the Marhsall Islands, by all accounts more a tropical hell than a paradise in the middle of nowhere in the Pacific, a bleak chain of atolls famous mainly for being a nuclear test site and beset by poverty and squalor, and wondered at it flying in the Port of Belfast. The Yasa Aysen is owned by a Turkish shipping company.

Shipping is the oldest truly transnational business. It was the St. Gabriel of globalisation, having operated at a truly global scale for at least four generations, powered at first by the telegraph cable, later replaced by shortwave radio, now replaced by communications satellites, and like everything else profoundly impacted by the internet.

We never see them in Belfast, but there are some enormous ships coming in and out of China these days; on the route to South America they run manufactured goods one way and soya the other. On the routes to Rotterdam and Long Beach they mostly run empty back to China. There is some demand but shipping costs are low because of the amount of empty space. The West mainly exports invisible goods to Asia. This looks to me like a dangerously one club strategy. There are exceptions – Germany remains a power exporter, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries also punch way above their weight. Even the US exports quite a bit of high-end manufacturing equipment to China. But neither the UK nor Ireland makes very much that people in Asia actually need. To me, this is a problem.  

Anyone with any doubts where the workshop of the world is in the early 21st Century should look at this chart on Wikipedia of the world’s busiest container ports. 6 out of the 8 busiest container ports and the world are Chinese. Chinese dominance is broken only by Singapore at number 2 and Pusan in South Korea at number 5. 9th place goes to Dubai, a massive hub for middle-men selling Chinese goods to Africa, India and Europe.  

Where do Europe and North America figure? Rotterdam comes in 10th – Rotterdam does a lot of things but a big part of what it does is take Chinese goods off big container ships, and send them up the Rhine by barge. The biggest American container port is Los Angeles at number 17, again a massive recipient of Chinese manufacturing exports.

But the big story from these figures is how much Chinese trade is not dependent on Europe and North America, a fact forgotten by too many in the West. So great is the Far East’s dominance in this list, that it is obvious that most of China’s trade in goods, by volume if not by value, is with other Asian countries. And nearly all of Africa is awash with Chinese goods, as anyone who has been there recently can attest to.

What is perhaps more surprising is just how much of a minnow India is. Its only container port in the top 50 is Mumbai, way down at number 26. India is growing in manufacturing strength, but its manufacturers remain vastly more focused on the domestic market than China’s. India’s great export strength is its capacity to export the skills of its English-speaking middle-class via the internet. The Indian white-collar workforce is growing fast, and while in the main their standard of living is not high by Western standards, it remains more than adequate enough to buy Indonesian-made televisions and Chinese-made tea sets. Expect Mumbai to keep moving up that list fast in the years to come.

The increased importance of imports from other parts of Asia for Indians’ standard of living has already had one positive real world outcome. The piracy problem in the Straits of Malacca, through which passes 40% of the world’s trade and 40% of the world’s oil, has been stamped out. India’s navy joined those of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, all countries whose militaries have long and deep histories of distrust, in a multinational anti-piracy effort that worked. The settlement of the Achenese conflict doubtless also helped.

With shipping through the Straits secure, traffic management might become the next nightmare to confront the world’s busiest shipping lane. Remember, 60% of the world’s population lives in Asia, indeed the majority of the world’s population lives between the longitudes of Karachi and Tokyo, that is between 67 and 140 degrees East. As Asia’s middle-classes continue to grow, perhaps the long floundering proposals for a canal across the Isthmus of Kra might finally gain traction?

One point worth noting is the explosive growth in regional Chinese ports in recent years. China has been exploding economically. Could it overheat? Has it overheated? No country in history has gone forever without a serious economic crash and China’s run of fortune will at some point come to an end, at least temporarily. One of the remarkable things about China in comparison, let’s say, with the 19th Century USA, is the stability of its economic growth. Contemporary China’s contrast with the booms and busts of the years of the deadwood American Presidents could not be starker. But what will eventually make it go off the rails? One looks at numbers like these and comes to the conclusion that its just going to keep cooking until a bubble pops. What happens then? If I were the foreign affairs guru in the Head of Government’s office of any country in the world, that’s what I would be trying to work out.

Your Print Off and Keep Guide to Following Tally Information in the Irish Stability Pact Referendum

Voters in the Republic went to the polls for a referendum on EU related issues today for the third time in 4 years. Although polls have just closed, the result will probably not be announced until well into Friday afternoon. However, those involved in the various campaigns will have a sense of how the result is shaping up from mid-morning. With my handy print off and keep guide, you can keep track of how the tallymen’s estimates compare with the actual election results in the two Lisbon Treaty referenda in 2008 and 2009, as well as checking how they compare against the sort of results the Yes and No campaigns need in each constituency to prevail nationally.

The guide is in MS Word 2002 format – nearly all computers should read it OK but if yours really can't try this graphical format from Google Docs.

Real Irish election nerds can probably stop reading at this point, just print off the guide, and bookmark the RTÉ Referendum Twitter account in preparation for tomorrow’s frenzy of tally Tweets. For those who don’t list election results as one of their primary leisure pastimes, the information below might be helpful.

The explanation for people who more-or-less understand how Irish elections are counted.
While official figures from tomorrow’s referendum will probably arrive during the early to mid afternoon (counting referenda is quick because they have a very short ballot paper with only two options), tally figures will start being circulated online or in the broadcast media from mid-morning. At first these will be partial tally figures covering a certain proportion of the ballot boxes in that constituency; buy from around 11 a.m., tally teams will start releasing full tallies.

Those used to Northern Ireland election counts should bear in mind that the tallying process in the Republic involves much more co-operation between parties and much more co-operation on the part of election officials than is the case on this side of the border. Tallies are correspondingly more accurate than we are used to in the north.

It is very easy to tally in a referendum when the counting officials are trying to be helpful. Many tallies will be accurate within a few votes.

As tallies are released, you can use the guide check how the results compare against the referenda on the Lisbon Treaty held in 2008 (defeated by 46.6%-53.4%) and 2009 (passed by 67.1%-27.9%).

I’ve added a metric called “estimated winning post 2012. An evenly split vote would have required a 3.4% swing to the Yes side in 2008 and a 17.1% swing to the No side in 2009. The “estimated winning post” was arrived at by adding 3.4% to the 2008 Yes vote in each constituency, subtracting 17.1% from the equivalent 2009 Yes vote, and taking the average. It isn’t intended as a contribution to academic psephology, but it gives a broad indication of how Europhile or Eurosceptic each constituency is.

If the tallies are mostly ahead of the winning post, then an overall Yes vote is almost certain, if they are mostly behind a No vote is almost certain, and if they are clustering close to the winning post, then we all have a long and exciting day ahead of us and a basic comparison tool such as this will tell us nothing other than the result is likely to be very close.

Not sure where to find out tally information? @RTE_Referendum on Twitter will probably offer the best balance of being comprehensive and easily accessible. Those with more time on their hands might consider the boards on

Adding to the complication is that there have been boundary changes since the 2008 and 2009 referenda. Fortunately, 19 constituencies have unchanged boundaries and can be compared directly – these are marked in yellow in the guide. A further 9 have only minor changes, with less than 5% of their previous population moving, usually a few small villages or a small city neighbourhood. Comparisons here should also be pretty straightforward and these are marked in dull orange. I would advise a little more caution in comparisons for the 6 constituencies marked in bright orange, where between 5% and 10% of the population have moved since the previous EU referenda. And I would not read much into any comparisons in the 9 constituencies marked in red, which have either had radical boundary changes or are entirely new.

If you don’t live in Ireland and all this seems completely bizarre…
In most countries, votes are counted in the polling station once the polls close. In Ireland, like in the UK, ballot boxes are taken to central counting centres for each constituency and only opened once they arrive there. While in Britain boxes are opened and votes counted as quickly as possible on election night, in Ireland the complexities of counting votes under the PR-STV system means that counting traditionally starts at 9 am on the day after the election.

Official results for any given constituency are only released once the entire constituency has been counted and verified. Unlike most other countries, voting figures by ballot box or election precinct are never released.

The first step in the count is that each ballot box is opened and polling staff check to see whether the total number of ballot papers in each box matches what the officials in polling stations said there should be. This is a basic protection against ‘box stuffing’. While this is going on, party workers stand in front of the table where the votes are being checked with clipboards and, quite literally, mark bar gate tallies of the total number of Yes and No votes in each vote. Some dude with a laptop then bangs the results into a spreadsheet, does a bit of basic maths and produces an estimated result, usually very accurate, hours before the official results are produced. In the days before laptops, they did this with pencils, long division, and the inside of empty cigarette packets...

Parties also get the benefit of seeing which way different areas vote and can tailor their own campaigning and canvassing strategies appropriately. This must seem a very odd process to people in the majority of the world’s democracies where this information is provided as a matter of routine and is seen as an important anti-fraud safeguard. It is, however, part of the charm and magic of Irish election counts, the world’s greatest spectator sport.

asian politics, european politics

Trouble at t’Mill for Frau Nein?

Crossposted here at Slugger O'Toole - why not visit Northern Ireland's best political blog?

With most major developed economies struggling badly since 2008, Germany has seemed to be the calm centre of everything. The leader of any other industrialised country would pinch themselves if they had to deal with Angela Merkel’s problems. Germany shrugged off double-dip recession fears in late 2011 as its economy powered ahead again in 2012. Germany’s unemployment rate declined to 7% in May, its lowest level since shortly after reunification. Labour market reforms have fuelled growth in relatively insecure service jobs without denting the standard of living and job security of Germany’s industrial workforce. The East is, ever so slowly and partly by exporting tens of thousands of young workers to Hamburg and Munich every year, catching up with the West. The old western coal and steel heartlands finally seem to be reinventing themselves, with clusters of bleeding edge industrial firms dotting the landscape, from nanotechnology in Saarbrücken to clean energy on the Ruhr. Germany’s social and economic problems are as real as those of any other country; but just for the moment, they seem to be managing them better than any of the other big boys.

The USA, Japan, France, all fear Chinese competition; Germany instead makes the machines that the Chinese need to remain the workshop of the 21st Century world.

In struggling parts of the Eurozone, from Kerry to Crete, Angela Merkel has become a hate figure, the symbol of German callousness while weaker economies burn. Frau Nein orders that the PIGS’ books be balanced, whatever the cost to the people of the Eurozone’s struggling fringe. From afar, she seems to bestride the scene like a colossus, the immovable champion of austerity. For as long as Germany funds the European Union and German financial credibility underpins the Euro, Germany can call the shots, especially when other major net EU contributors like the Netherlands are equally hawkish.

At home, however, Merkel is far from all-powerful. A run of brutal state election results means that her coalition of Christian Democrats and right-wing Liberals is now a long way short of an overall majority in Germany’s indirectly elected Upper House. Getting legislation passed means negotiating with the social democratic SPD. Her personal poll ratings are poor. Although her party is polling at levels comparable with the Union’s indifferent 2009 general election result, and remain well ahead of the SPD’s, support for her FDP coalition partners has collapsed. There seems to be no prospect of a centre-right majority in national parliamentary elections scheduled for the autumn of 2013.

Merkel’s “Frau Nein” stance is not universally popular in Germany. It has its enthusiastic supporters and its detractors, among the punditocracy and among the voters. Germans have no desire to fund Greek civil servants to retire at 60, or Ireland’s relatively generous benefits for the long-term unemployed, when they made difficult decisions on pensions and welfare themselves a decade ago. But Germans are equally aware that their economy is more dependent on exports than any other established major economy. Only China regularly exports more than Germany. Some years the USA pips Germany for second place in the world export league, in recent years usually not. Japan has long since been left for dust in fourth place.

If Italians, Spaniards and Greeks see a collapse in their living standards, that means fewer customers for German exporters and lost jobs at home.

I asked one prominent German election blogger today where he thought domestic opinion lay on Eurozone austerity. He said – look at France. The election there was effectively a referendum on austerity and the country was more or less split 50:50. In Germany, he said, opinion was just as closely divided.

If Angela Merkel wants to remain Chancellor, given the collapse of the FDP, her only hope is probably a ‘grand coalition’ with the SPD. Her first term government was a grand coalition, and it worked surprisingly well, as it often does at state level. The two big parties often find it easier to find common ground around the mushy centre than they do with the more ideological parties of the left and right. The SPD doesn’t like austerity on principle and doesn’t think it will work for the German economy in the medium term; the SPD’s left is currently flexing its muscles inside the party.

The pressures for Merkel to shift on austerity now seem to be on the cusp of irresistibility. As well as needing to rebuild relations with the centre-left at home, Merkel is isolated in Brussels. Sarkozy is gone. Her key allies in the EU now seem to be David Cameron, very much a fringe figure as far the Euro goes, and Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, no more a household name in Germany than he is in Northern Ireland.

Domestically, Merkel’s key strength is the inability of the SPD to produce a candidate for Chancellor who ticks all the boxes. Four names are in the frame. One, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, leader of the opposition in Parliament, led the SPD to its worst election result since 1890 last time round and few expect him to worry the favourites.

Party leader Sigmar Gabriel is parodied by the right as ‘Siggi Pop’ after a period as the SPD’s “Representative for Pop Culture and Pop Discourse” in his younger years (only in Germany). Gabriel is a master at keeping the SPD’s warring factions moving in the same direction, but lacks the common touch and lacks gravitas at the same time.

Peer Steinbrück, a tough and able Finance Minister in Merkel’s first government, is probably the favourite to get the nod. He is highly rated by voters for his undoubted economic competence and ability to communicate difficult issues in layperson’s terms, and often tops popularity ratings among German politicians. He is, however, too centrist for the taste of the SPD’s resurgent left wing, and with the Greens polling at record levels for the past two years, the SPD can afford no complacency on the left.

The SPD left would love to see Hannelore Kraft, the Prime Minister of Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), throw her hat into the ring as a candidate for Chancellor. Sunday before last, she led the SPD together with their Green coalition partners to a sweeping overall majority on the Rhine and Ruhr. NRW, home to 18 million people, is the California of German politics, the biggest electoral prize of them all.

During the previous two years of SPD-Green minority government in NRW, Kraft played The Left party for fools, and then persuaded the electorate to dump them out of the state parliament entirely this month. NRW has more than its fair share of left wing strongholds, especially the ex-coal mining towns along the Ruhr, with over a century of far-left political tradition only strengthened by the large Turkish and Kurdish populations that live there today. If The Left can’t get 5% of the vote here, it will struggle anywhere in the West. If The Left again becomes a regional party of the former East Germany, it becomes a lot easier for the SPD to form stable governments, in the states and at national level.

Kraft made very public promises on the night of her re-election that she would serve a full five year term as state Prime Minister before seeking federal office – perfect timing for a run for Chancellor in 2017. We all know, however, that politicians’ public promises are worth as much as… well, politicians’ public promises. Kraft is currently crushing Merkel in head-to-head polling on preferred Chancellor. She is the SPD left’s dream candidate at this stage – a woman with a proven track record of moving her own party to the left while still winning centrist voters, working well with the Greens without being overshadowed by them, and crushing threats from the far left at the ballot box. She continues to dismiss all overtures to run for the big job, but that hasn’t stopped the overtures from pouring in.

If the clamour for Kraft to run becomes too loud to quieten, we may yet see the first all-female race for the top job in a major industrialised democracy. And on current polling, that would spell deep trouble for Angela Merkel.