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Qatar Quarantine

Public-spirited businessman Moutaz al-Hayat is flying 4,000 cows into Qatar from the United States and Australia to boost milk supply in his country, which is being blockaded by most of its Arab neighbours in the Gulf. It will take sixty flights, and is definitely not cost-effective. But that may not be his biggest problem.

Ninety-nine percent of Qatar is open desert, and most of the very limited grazing areas for cattle are already fully occupied. Is al-Hayyat also going to airlift in the fodder for his 4,000 cows? There are many ridiculous aspects to the current crisis over Qatar – but it does have a serious side too.

Compared to the real wars (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya) currently raging in the Arab world, Qatar’s crisis is a bit like a tempest in a teapot. The country is tiny but rich, and nobody is getting killed there yet. Yet there is a blockade, and refugees, and troop movements, and it is not inconceivable that the gas-rich Gulf state might get invaded and its government overthrown.

On 5 June all of Qatar’s Arab neighbours in the Gulf withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, Qatar’s gleaming capital. They also cut all land, sea and air communications with the country. Roads were blocked and flights were banned, which is pretty serious for a country of 2.7 million people (only a quarter-million of them actual Arab citizens of Qatar) that produces almost nothing except abundant natural gas.

Qatari citizens visiting or living in Saudi Arabia, Bahrein, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were ordered to leave within fourteen days. Qatar Airways lost its landing and overflight rights in those countries, necessitating extensive detours, and the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television service was blocked.

It is a real blockade because 40 percent of Qatar’s food comes in across its one land border, with Saudi Arabia, and that is now closed. The “refugees” are better dressed and educated than the normal ones, but the ban on Qataris living in the hostile countries and citizens of those countries living in Qatar is already uprooting people and breaking up families.

As for military movements, there have been no reports of Saudi Arabian troops moving towards the Qatari border, like they did before they rolled across the causeway into Bahrein in 2011, but speculation is rife that they might.

The Saudis would love to replace the current Qatari ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, with some member of the royal family who would toe the Saudi line. And since intra-family coups have become a bit of a tradition in Qatar, the Sheikh couldn’t complain if other family members decided that he had become a liability and opted for a Saudi-backed coup.

This is a pretty low-key crisis at the moment, but it could turn much nastier – and there are two further complicating factors. One is that Qatar hosts the biggest US military base in the Middle East: there are 10,000 American troops in the country. The other is that there is also a Turkish military base in Qatar.

The Turkish-Qatari agreement was signed two years ago and there are only about a hundred Turkish soldiers on the base yet, but it will accommodate 5,000 eventually. Turkey could fly the rest in very quickly if it chose to, and it just might do that if the crisis worsens. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has backed Qatar from the start.

Does this mean that Turkey could end up fighting Saudi Arabia in defence of Qatar? It sounds very far-fetched, but things have got so violent and complex in the region that people and countries no longer just stab each other in the back. They are also stabbing each other in the front, the sides, and the unmentionables.

Turkey and Qatar are both close US allies, but they support the same Sunni extremists in the Syrian civil war, and have lavished money and arms on some groups that both the United States and Saudi Arabia see as terrorists (ISIS, the Nusra Front, etc.).

Saudi Arabia, like most of the Sunni-ruled Gulf states, used to support the same extremists. Now it doesn’t any more – or not all of them, anyway – and says it is blockading Qatar because that country does still give money to the “terrorists”.

Whether that is true is debatable, but the Saudi Arabians managed to convince President Donald Trump that it was true during his recent visit to Riyadh, so Trump encouraged this blockade. Indeed, he takes the credit for it.

“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of radical ideology,” he said. “They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to horror of terrorism!”

And they have just founded a “World Center for Countering Extremist Thought” in Riyadh. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Qatari…blocked”; and “The Saudis…coup”)

Making China Great Again

“Passing the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) is as important to me as another aircraft carrier,” said former US defence secretary Ashton Carter two years ago, as the negotiations on the huge new free trade organisation were nearing completion.

Given that the United States already has twice as many aircraft carriers as all the rest of the world put together, that comment could be taken several ways, but Carter actually did mean that the TPP was strategically important in his eyes. As it was for ex-president Barack Obama, who saw the TPP as America’s main tool for containing China’s growing influence in Asia.

China, deliberately excluded from the 12-member club, saw it that way too. The official Hsinhua news agency regularly referred to the TPP as “the economic arm of the Obama administration’s geopolitical strategy to make sure that Washington rules supreme in the region.”

But the Obama administration is gone, and Donald Trump has just cut off that arm. “A great thing for the American worker, we just did,” Trump said after signing a document withdrawing US support for the TPP on Tuesday.

In fact, quitting the TPP is unlikely to do American workers much good economically, but it may not do them much harm either. Most analyses have concluded that the deal wouldn’t have had much effect either way on US wages and jobs – but leaving the TPP will certainly have a big impact on US power and influence in the world.

Xinhua was right: for Obama, the TPP was always more about the strategic rivalry with China than it was about economics. It still is, but Donald Trump’s electoral strategy has obliged him to declare war on free trade.

The voters that Trump targeted most heavily were working-class Americans who felt betrayed and abandoned as the well-paying jobs in manufacturing disappeared. However, there was no point in telling them that automation was destroying their jobs (which it is), because he could not plausibly promise to stop automation.

But if he claimed that the real problem was free trade, which allowed the Chinese and Mexicans and other sneaky foreigners to steal American jobs…well, he could certainly promise to stop that. He would build walls, cancel free-trade deals, even launch trade wars. It all sounded pretty credible, if you didn’t know that the vast majority of the lost jobs were really being stolen by robots.

So once he was in office, Trump was obliged to “unsign” the TPP deal, even though its main purpose, from Washington’s point of view, had been to perpetuate American economic and strategic dominance in Asia and freeze China out. In the eyes of Trump’s supporters (and maybe even in his own), he was slaying a dragon.

It looks different through the eyes of America’s erstwhile partners. As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in August, eleven other countries had to make big and politically painful concessions in return for access to the huge US market. “If at the end, waiting at the altar, the bride doesn’t arrive, I think that people are going to be very hurt.” And hurt feelings do matter, even in diplomatic circles.

The biggest cost to the United States is the fact that America’s defection from the TPP doesn’t automatically kill the notion of an Asian free-trade bloc. Australia is already talking about keeping the TPP going without the United States, but the likelier outcome is that the Asian members start trying to link up with China, Indonesia and even India in China’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

In that case, the United States could end up excluded from a free-trading bloc that includes half of the world economy. The dominant economy in that bloc would be China’s, so the main practical effect of Trump’s action would be to give a major boost to China’s power and influence in the world.

This pattern is likely to be duplicated in other areas where Trump is pledged to abandon long-standing US diplomatic commitments. It is already happening in the domain of climate change, where Trump’s decision to “unsign” the 2015 Paris treaty to curb global warming has opened the door to a leadership role for China instead.

At the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos earlier this month, China’s President Xi Jinping said that “all signatories must stick to” the Paris deal: “walking away” from the pact would endanger future generations. And while Trump is slashing US spending on climate change, Xi has pledged to invest $360 billion in renewable energy in the next four years to reduce China’s greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s easy to look good in the eyes of the rest of the world when the standard of comparison is Donald Trump’s administration. He is making China great again, even if that is not quite what he intended.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“It looks…circles”)

The End of the Big Trade Deals

US president-elect Donald Trump announced on Monday that he will cancel the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” on his first day in office (20 January 2017). That will kill the TPP off for all 12 countries that agreed on it just over a year ago: as Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, the TPP would be meaningless without the involvement of the United States. But then, it was pretty meaningless even with American involvement.

Japan and the US were the only two really big economic players in the TPP deal. All ten other partners – Canada, Mexico, Peru and Chile on the eastern side of the Pacific, and Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand on the western side – have a total population scarcely bigger than that of the United States alone.

It was really just an attempt to create a Pacific trading bloc that excluded China, thereby preserving what was left of the traditional US and Japanese domination of the region’s trade. For just that reason, the other big trading economies of the region, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea, stayed out of it. They preferred to play the giants off against one another.

Chinese influence and trade in South-East Asia may grow modestly as a result of the TPP’s cancellation, but no profound transfer of power or wealth will ensue. There were no big tariff cuts coming as a result of the TPP anyway, because actual taxes on international trade were already low. The real focus was on removing so-called “non-tariff barriers”.

The classic example of a non-tariff barrier was Japan’s attempt in the 1980s to ban imports of foreign-made skis on the grounds that Japanese snow was “unique”. A great deal of detailed haggling in the TPP talks went into breaking down thousands of similiar (and sometimes equally ridiculous) barriers to trade, but any country that wants to keep those gains can just incorporate the same deals into bilateral trade treaties with other ex-TPP members.

Not many jobs would have been gained or lost, in the US or elsewhere, if the TPP had gone into effect. The same is true for the US-European Union equivalent of the TPP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which was dead in the water even before Trump was elected. Donald Quixote is attacking windmills, not dragons, because the great free-trading spree of 1990-2008 has already come to an end.

It was not working-class American voters who killed TTIP. It was mainly European consumers who didn’t want hormone-laden American beef, US-grown GM foods, and chlorine-washed American chickens on their supermarket shelves.

To be fair, European left-wingers also played a role in mobilising opposition to the deal, by raising the (probably correct) suspicion that the “Investor-State Dispute Settlement” process (ISDS) in the proposed treaty was designed to cripple the ability of European goverments to impose high safety standards in health and environmental issues.

Most of the jobs that moved from developed to developing countries in the heyday of “globalisation” (or often, in the US case, just from Rust Belt states to Sun Belt states where wages were lower and unions were weak or non-existent) left long ago. In recent years eight American jobs have been lost to automation for every one that went abroad.

Most economic strategies, including both protectionism and free trade, conform to the law of diminishing returns. The same goes for political strategies, but they tend to lag even farther behind the realities. That’s why the old white working class in the US (and therefore Trump) still feel compelled to “fight “ free trade – and why even Hillary Clinton, once an enthusiastic advocate of the TPP, was ultimately obliged to turn against it .

When she finally made that U-turn, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, mocked her as “a case study in political expediency.” Now he has been appointed as President Trump’s chief of staff, and he will change his tune accordingly. But the cross-party consensus on this does not make it the right tune.

The truth is that these now aborted free-trade deals were merely the finishing touches on an edifice whose basic structure was completed more than a decade ago. Those who had devoted their lives to building that edifice simply kept on doing what they were good at doing, necessary or not. And all the while technological change was conspiring to make them as irrelevant as the people who so vehemently opposed them.

Cultural lag being what it is, the last battles in this long war – probably between the US and its NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico, and between the US and China – are yet to be fought. We may be entering the next decade before the political process anywhere seriously engages with the reality of automation as the main destroyer of jobs. But reality always wins in the end.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“It was…issues”)

It’s Abrupt Climate Change, Stupid

16 February 2014

It’s Abrupt Climate Change, Stupid

This is not how it was supposed to happen. The standard climate change predictions said that people in the tropics and the sub-tropics would be badly hurt by global warming long before the people living in the temperate zones, farther away from the equator, were feeling much pain at all.

That was unfair, because it was the people of the rich countries in the temperate zone – North America, Europe and Japan, mainly – who industrialised early and started burning large amounts of fossil fuel as long as two centuries ago. That’s how they got rich. Their emissions of carbon dioxide over the years account for 80 percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin that are now in the atmosphere, causing the warming, yet they get hurt least and last.

Well, what did you expect? The gods of climate are almost certainly sky gods, and sky gods are never fair. But they have always liked jokes, especially cruel ones, and they have come up with a great one this time. The people of the temperate zones are going to get hurt early after all, but not by gradual warming. Their weather is just going to get more and more extreme: heat waves, blizzards and flooding on an unprecedented scale.

“In 2012 we had the second wettest winter on record and this winter is a one-in-250-years event,” British opposition leader Ed Milliband told The Observer newspaper last Friday. “If you keep throwing the dice and you keep getting sixes then the dice are loaded. Something is going on.”

The “something” is abrupt climate change. In Britain, it’s an unprecedented series of great storms blowing in off the North Atlantic, dropping enormous amounts of rain and causing disastrous floods. In the United States and Canada, it’s huge blizzards, ice-storms and record low temperatures that last much longer and reach much further south than normal. Welcome to the “temperate” zone of the northern hemisphere.

There have been extremes in the “temperate” parts of the southern hemisphere, too. Australia has just had the hottest year ever, with record-breaking heat waves and severe bush-fires. Argentina had one of its worst-ever heat waves in December, and parts of Brazil had record rainfall, floods and landslides. But that is probably just the result of gradual, relentless warming. The abrupt changes seem to be mainly in the northern hemisphere.

Geography may explain the differences. There isn’t all that much land in the southern temperate zone, and the vast expanses of ocean that surround it moderate the land temperatures. Moreover, the polar jet stream in the southern hemisphere simply circles the Antarctic continent, and does not operate over land – whereas the northern polar jet stream flows right across North America and Europe. And it’s the jet stream that matters.

The extreme weather trend in North America and Europe is less than five years old, so the science that might explain exactly what is happening is still quite tentative. The first hypothesis that sounded plausible, published in 2012 in Geophysical Letters, blamed a slowing of the northern hemisphere’s polar jet stream.

The paper, entitled “Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes,” was written by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors’ methodology has been challenged by other climate scientists, but I think that in the end Francis and Vavrus will turn out to be largely right. That is not good news.

They start with the fact that the Arctic has been warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, so the difference in temperature between the Arctic air mass and the air over the temperate zone has been shrinking. Since that difference in temperature is what drives the jet stream that flows along the boundary between the two air masses, a lower difference means a slower jet stream.

Now, a fast jet stream travels in a pretty straight line around the planet from west to east, just like a mountain stream goes pretty straight downhill. A slower jet stream, however, meanders like a river crossing a flood plain – and the big loops it makes extend much further south and north than when it was moving fast.

In a big southerly loop, you will have Arctic air much further south than usual, while there will be relatively warm air from the temperate air mass in a northerly loop that extends up into the Arctic. Moreover, the slower-moving jet stream tends to get “stuck”, so that a given kind of weather – snow, or rain, or heat – will stay longer over the same area.

Hence the “polar-vortex” winter in North America this year, the record snowfalls in Japan in 2012 and again this winter, the lethal heat waves in the eastern US in 2012 – and the floods in Britain this winter.

“They’ve been pummelled by storm after storm this winter (in Britain),” said Jennifer Francis at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago last week. “It’s been amazing what’s going on, and it’s because the pattern this winter has been stuck in one place ever since early December.” There’s no particular reason to think that it will move on soon, either.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7.  (“There have…matters”)