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Democracy in Decline?

23 November 2020

There’s no hurricane coming, but the windows of downtown Washington are covered with plywood. They were initially boarded up due to fear of street violence during the election, but that fear lingers three weeks after the vote because the restaurateurs and shop-owners (whose premises remain open behind the plywood) think the violence could still happen.

They know their town; they may be right. It’s clear that President Trump’s Infinitely Extendable Last Stand is making people nervous.

Even Judge Matthew Brann, a former Republican Party official, lost his cool. Rejecting Trump’s plea for seven million Pennsylvania votes to be set aside last Sunday, he called the case a Frankenstein’s monster “haphazardly stitched together,” which presented only “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations…unsupported by evidence.”

Some senior elected Republicans are also losing their patience. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called the president’s legal team a “national embarrassment ”. They claim fraud outside the courtroom, he pointed out, “but when they go inside the courtroom they don’t plead fraud and they don’t argue fraud.” That’s because there wasn’t any.

The view from abroad is scathing, with an undertone of panic. Scathing, because in German or Japanese or even Russian eyes American democracy is simply falling apart. Panic-stricken underneath, because all of them (even the Russians) secretly see the United States as the flagship democracy. If that goes under, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The anxiety is all the greater because other populist snake-oil salesmen, mini-Trumps, having been coming to power by electoral means in other countries recently: Bolsonaro in Brazil, Johnson in Britain, Orbán in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines. You could even include Modi in India, except that he has much better manners. It’s a political pandemic, and we’re all doomed!

So I have been summoned, at considerable expense, to soothe the collective fevered brow. My message is simple, but strangely reassuring. The United States is in deep trouble, but democracy isn’t.

The United States is the oldest democracy, but it’s a pretty primitive one. Consider the antique and ridiculous Electoral College, or the rudimentary social welfare system, or the fact that it has the most gerrymandered electoral districts on the planet, or that there is literally no limit on how much money American politicians can spend on getting elected or whom they can take it from.

But if somebody came running up and told you that Brazil, Hungary and the Philippines had ultra-nationalist populists in power, would you panic? Thought not.

Adding India would furrow your brow a little, perhaps, but the Chinese regime is a shameless dictatorship and we don’t see that as putting democracy in danger.

Britain in the hands of reckless populists would be more worrisome if it were a precedent of some sort, but the UK hasn’t been a serious country for quite a while now. Brexit, remember?

When we get right down to it, it’s only the fate of democracy in the United States that worries you, isn’t it? Well, stop worrying, because the US is neither the custodian nor the guarantor of democracy.

There was a time, when the world seemed at risk of being overrun by fascists or communists, that the military and industrial strength of the United States was very important, but the real issue in those Europe-centred confrontations was ‘balance of power’, not political philosophy.

In Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, the United States has been instrumental in crushing democracy just as often as it has saved it. The US is not evil, but it’s just another great power – and when it comes to safeguarding democracy, we’re all on our own.

That’s no cause for despondency, because democracy in not a fragile flower. It is the default political system of the modern world, spreading relentlessly since the first democratic revolutions more than two centuries ago.

It has swept all other political ideologies aside almost everywhere except in parts of East Asia and the Middle East. Even most dictators feel obliged to hold fake election every few years to show their ‘legitimacy’. It has universal appeal because it best reconciles the core human values of freedom and equality. It will survive – and don’t even write off American democracy yet.

Donald Trump has been defeated, although he continues to deny it. He has done much damage to the United States and he will probably yet do more, because the current charade is designed to set him up as the ‘king over the water’, the legitimate monarch wrongly exiled (if only to Mar-a-Lago). But he is not immortal, and the country effectively is.

Polarisation of the kind America is experiencing now is disruptive and tenacious, but it tends to be intergenerational (this episode certainly is), and generational turnover usually erases it in ten or twenty years. The ‘Sixties’ passed, and in all likelihood so will this.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 16. (“Some…any”; and “It…yet”)

mRNA Miracle?

18 November 2020

All the usual caveats apply: don’t go out and celebrate, don’t let your guard down, it’s still going to be a long haul. This winter will be “hard”, warned Uğur Şahin, co-founder and
CEO of BioNTech, the German company that announced the first effective Covid-19 vaccine only a week ago. It can’t be rolled out fast enough to reduce infections much in the current wave, he said.

The publication on 16 November of positive results for a second vaccine, this time by the US company Moderna, strengthened the optimism. Clearly, this coronavirus can be beaten, and there are nine more potential Covid vaccines already in third-stage (final) human trials.

But again, the riders: there will be at least half a million more Covid deaths this winter – or over a million if people don’t observe the lock-downs and other restrictions meant to contain the spread of the virus. “What is absolutely essential,” said Şahin, “is that we get a high vaccination rate before autumn/winter next year.” That’s when it could really be over.

And yet there is cause to celebrate, because of the eleven vaccine candidates that were already in third-stage trials, both the front-runners are ‘messenger ribonucleic acid’ (mRNA) vaccines, an entirely new approach that allows a much faster response to novel viral infections.

Traditionally, new vaccines took around ten years to be developed, tested and approved for general use. For the new mRNA vaccines, it has been ten months.

After Chinese scientists posted the full genetic sequence of the Covid-19 virus online on 10 January, said Drew Weissman of the University of Pennsylvania, “we were making RNA within a week or so”. Weissman then supplied that RNA to both BioNTech/Pfizer (Pfizer is a large American company that gives the German innovators US distribution and regulatory clout) and Moderna.

RNA carries the genetic instructions from the nucleus of the cell to build whatever protein is needed, and for the past decade researchers have been trying to fabricate ‘messenger’ RNA that could be inserted into human cells. The mRNA would then use the cell’s own genetic machinery to make vaccines and other medically useful proteins.

By 2018 several companies had cracked the problem of getting the mRNA past the body’s immune defences. With the full RNA sequence of the new coronavirus in their possession, all they had to do was choose which bit of the coronavirus RNA to use in the vaccine.

Obviously not the whole thing, or it would rebuild the entire virus in the cell. Just a harmless segment of the virus’s RNA, copied millions of times by the vaccinated person’s cells, would alert the body’s immune system and train it to destroy any invading virus with that sequence. (They chose the ‘spike’ that the virus uses to attach itself to the human cell.)

Several companies had mRNA vaccines ready for testing within two or three months, and the results have been spectacular. BioNTech/Pfizer has just reported 95% efficacy for its vaccine, and last weekend Moderna reported 94.5%.

Even better, both BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna included all major ethnic groups and
a significant number of elderly people in their third-phase trials. All categories responded well to the vaccines (which is not always the case with other vaccines).

Yet another mRNA vaccine in third-phase trials could be even better, because it will be far cheaper than the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine ($39 for two shots) or the Moderna jab ($74 for 2 shots) if it pans out. At Imperial College in London, Robin Shattock’s team is working on a ‘self-amplifying RNA’ vaccine that may require as little as one-hundredth of the amount of vaccine.

The mRNA technique may mean that future pandemics can be dealt with far more quickly. The vehicle is already available and waiting to carry the next vaccine. Just ‘plug and play’ for any future coronavirus, as one researcher put it. (We have had three new coronaviruses in the past two decades.)

Pfizer boss Albert Boura went even further: “It’s the greatest medical advance in the past 100 years.” Well, maybe, though a vote taken today would probably plump for antibiotics instead. But we are only beginning to see the potential of mRNA.

There are already trials underway for a wide variety of other illnesses: not just safer, more effective influenza, polio and HIV vaccines, but immunotherapies for cancer, heart conditions, cystic fibrosis and other systemic and congenital diseases.

There is a long, dark winter still ahead of us, no doubt, but miracles may await us over the horizon. And we can now be sure that the light at the end of this particular tunnel is not an oncoming train.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“After…Moderna”; and “Even…vaccines”)

Hong Kong and China: One Country, One System

15 November 2020

One Hong Kong lawmaker, Claudia Mo, said it was “the death-knell of Hong Kong’s democracy fight.” But she was part of it: one of the fifteen remaining pro-democracy members of the Legislative Council (Legco) who resigned on Thursday in protest at the expulsion of four other democratically elected members of the pseudo-parliament.

Wu Chi-wai, speaking for the fifteen who resigned, tweeted that “‘One country, two systems’ in Hong Kong has come to an end.” That is true, and it is regrettable, but it’s hard to see how a mass resignation that eliminates all pro-democracy legislators from Legco helps the cause.

Bad tactics in a good cause has been the hallmark of the Hong Kong democratic movement’s behaviour throughout the past eighteen months. It mobilised a very effective non-violent protest campaign when the Communist government in Beijing introduced a law in June 2019 that directly challenged the deal signed by China and the former colonial power, the United Kingdom, in 1997.

The UK ignored the democratic rights of the city’s Chinese majority for most of its 155-year tenure, but when London handed the colony back to China in 1997 it did get a guarantee that Hong Kong could keep its free institutions, including freedom of speech and of the press, impartial courts, and a separate, partly democratic government for fifty years. ‘One country, two systems’ was the slogan.

Beijing’ new law would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be transferred to mainland courts for certain ‘security’ offenses, so the protesters spilled out into the streets to protect the status quo, which kept all Hong Kongers free from Communist interference. Within three months Chief Executive Carrie Lam withdrew the legislation.

The Hong Kong government is not an entirely free agent and Lam initially went along with Beijing’s demand. By withdrawing it she was signalling that Beijing was willing to drop the matter for now. But the protesters snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The sensible thing to do was accept the concession and go home. Beijing’s demand might come back again in five years, but enjoy the time you have won. The Communist regime will never let you have any more than this, and the mainland population outnumbers you 200-to-one.

Instead of going home happy, the protesters stayed out in the streets and raised the stakes, demanding fully free elections and more autonomy for Hong Kong. They also broke the prime rule and allowed their protests to become violent. (Don’t explain that the police are being violent. Of course they are, but your only safety lies in remaining non-violent regardless of the provocation.)

So Xi Jinping’s Communist regime in Beijing struck back hard against what it saw as a serious challenge to its authority. A new law was imposed on Hong Kong, contrary to the 1997 agreement, that effectively subordinates the city’s legal system to Beijing’s whims.

It was the end of Hong Kong’s legal autonomy, and to rub it in four pro-democracy legislators were expelled from the Legco. In a final quixotic gesture last week all the remaining democrats in the Legco quit too. It’s a prelude to a far larger abandonment.

Hong Kong’s relative freedom was always conditional and ultimately doomed (2047 at the latest), but this blundering collapse was premature and far from inevitable. Only two substantive questions now remain. What happens to Taiwan, and where will all the Hong Kongers who want to leave go?

One-third of Hong Kong’s 7 million people were born on the mainland: some of them moved to the city for the money, but most were undoubtedly getting away from the Communists. Another third will be the children or grand-children of those refugees (the city’s population was only 600,000 in 1945), and will probably share their opinions. A lot will leave.

An estimated 600,000 Hong Kong residents already hold full foreign passports, half Canadians and most of the rest Australian, British or American. They acquired them as an insurance policy, and this is the contingency they were insuring against.

Another three million people hold British National (Overseas) passports or can easily acquire them, and London promises that they can all move to the UK if they wish. The ‘central range’ estimate of the British Home Office is that between 258,000 and 322,000 will come within five years, but it could be many more.

That’s unless Beijing stops them from leaving, but if it closes the gates like that it would be the definitive end of Hong Kong as a great international trading city.

And what about Taiwan? Well, ‘one country, two systems’ was also the promise Beijing was holding out to Taiwan to seduce it into peaceful reunification. That promise has now been comprehensively trashed, and the long-term likelihood of an attempted military ‘solution’ to the Taiwan ‘problem’ has just risen significantly.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and . (“The sensible…one”; and “Hong…go”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Armenia Ceasefire

11 November 2020

This time, the truce will last. The 2,000 Russian troops flying into Armenia this week and fanning out to police the ceasefire lines in Nagorno-Karabakh are being sent there for five years renewable, and neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan will challenge them.

Armenia is in shock, but what remains of the Armenian enclave in western Azerbaijan would quickly be overrun if the Russian troops were not there. As Arayik Harutyunyan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist leader, admitted on Tuesday, “had the hostilities continued at the same pace, we would have lost all of (it) within days.”

Azerbaijanis are jubilant about their victory, but they will abide by this ceasefire. It’s enough: about three-quarters of the Armenian-occupied territory in Azerbaijan has fallen into their hands already, or will be handed over by Armenian forces by the end of this month. Besides, the Russians would be very cross if they broke their word.

Armenia won all that territory in a war that was almost inevitable after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were ‘republics’ during the Soviet era, but the borders that Stalin had drawn for them left a significant ethnic Armenian population inside the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Armenians living in the ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (Province)’ accounted for about four-fifths of the local population. They declared their independence in 1991, and when fighting broke out between them and the Azerbaijanis, Armenia proper, also newly independent, sent troops and weapons to help them.

That war ended in an Armenian victory in 1994, after Armenian troops drove all the Azerbaijanis not only out of Nagorno-Karabakh, but also out of three times as much territory to the north, south and west of it. Armenia wound up with a large territory extending about 50 km east from its own eastern border.

The analogy with Israel’s situation immediately after the independence war in 1948-49 is irresistible.

There were only 800,000 Jewish Israelis in former Palestine in 1949, surrounded not only by a million Palestinian Arabs but by another 50-100 million Arabs in other countries within military reach of them.

There were 3.3 million people on the Republic of Armenia in 1994, and another 145,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. There were no Azerbaijani minorities left in Nagorno-Karabakh nor in the large occupied territories around it, but there were about 75 million Turkish-speaking Muslims in Azerbaijan and Turkey who saw the outcome as an outrage.

That was worrisome, especially for people who were survivors of a recent genocide (the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915-18, the Jews in Nazi-ruled Europe in 1941-45).

However, both Armenia and Israel are supported by very large ‘connected’ diasporas: around 7 million people in each case, the great majority living in relatively prosperous countries like the United States, France, Canada and Russia. So how did they fare in terms of holding on to their lands?

Both countries have held their core territory as defined at independence. They are likely to do so indefinitely thanks to great-power guarantees, for Armenia by Russia and for Israel thanks to French guarantees until 1968 and subsequently by the United States.

Israel conquered quite a lot more territory in 1968, some of which (the West Bank) it is busily settling with Jews and will probably keep forever. Armenia also conquered extra territory in 1994, but it is losing most of it right now.

The ceasefire lines will probably become de facto borders. All the formerly occupied territories around Nagorno-Karabakh will be repopulated by Azerbaijani refugees, including the one road linking it to Armenia proper (but Russian peace-keeping troops will hold it open).

About a quarter of Nagorno-Karabakh itself was also captured by Azerbaijani forces, and will stay in their hands. Most Armenians have already fled the enclave, and only a minority are likely to return given the precarious lifeline through the Lachin corridor and the fact that Azerbaijani troops will remain within 5 km. of Stepanakert, the capital.

Why such dramatically different outcomes? The obvious answer is that Azerbaijan is oil-rich and was spending nine times as much Armenia on ‘defence’. But the Arab world is oil-rich too. How did Israel manage it?

By mobilising the support of its diaspora a great deal better. Immigration has grown Israel’s Jewish population from 800,000 to seven million since independence. In contrast, the population of the Republic of Armenia has actually fallen by a quarter-million, and there was no big influx of Armenians from overseas to Armenia proper, Nagorno-Karabakh or the empty occupied territories.

As with immigrants, so also with money for defence. Why Armenia couldn’t exploit its diaspora more effectively is a mystery, but that’s the difference. The military defeat was the eventual, inevitable result of a long-running political failure.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“That…1941-45”; and “Both…states”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.