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Eighty Years On: Is 2016 the New 1936?

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Karl Marx, 1852

We would all prefer a farce to a tragedy, so let us hope that Marx was right. But he has been wrong a few times in the past, so we must entertain the possibility that what awaits us is tragedy.

The “first time”, in this instance, was the 1930s, when the painfully slow recovery from a global financial crash led to political polarisation, beggar-my neighbour trade wars, and the rise to power of anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist leaders in a number of countries. The consequences included the Second World War, death camps, the first and only use of nuclear weapons, and forty years of Cold War.

Well, we had our global financial crash in 2008, and the recovery has certainly been slow. Average incomes in many Western countries have still not recovered to pre-2008 levels, and the growth of nationalist and racist sentiment is evident in major countries like Britain (the Brexit vote), France (the rise of the National Front), and above all the United States (Trump).

The wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that transformed so many developing countries at the end of the Cold War ended with the failure of the “Arab Spring”, leaving a new dictatorship in Egypt and civil wars across the Middle East. In parts of Asia the process has even gone into reverse (military rule in Thailand, death squads run by populist elected governments in the Philippines and Indonesia).

Authoritarian, ultra-nationalist governments hostile to the European Union have come to power in post-Communist Eastern Europe (Fidesz in Hungary, the Law and Justice government in Poland). And a trade war is brewing between the United States and China no matter who wins the US election in November.

You could add to the list of worries a new ruler in China (Xi Jinping) who is more autocratic and readier to play the nationalist card than any other Chinese leader since Mao, and a Japanese prime minister (Shinzo Abe) who promises to remove the anti-war clause from the constitution. Not to mention that addict to high-stakes international brinkmanship, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Quite a list, but does it really mean that we are back in 1936 (fascists in power in Germany, Italy and Japan, civil war in Spain, the Great Purge in the Soviet Union), with the catastrophe of global war just three years away? Or is it just a grab-bag of local problems, failures and worries of the sort that are bound to exist in a world of almost 200 independent countries? Probably the latter.

Right- and left-wing parties are a legitimate and inevitable part of any democratic society, but they both tend to spin off or mutate into more extreme and paranoid versions of themselves in times of economic hardship. It is difficult to argue, however, that the times are really that bad at the moment.

Times are very hard in most developed countries for the old working class, who have been left behind by globalisation, and that is where most of the support for right-wing extremism comes from. But there really aren’t enough of them to take over the state: Trump will not win in November, the National Front will not win next year’s French election, and the Brexiteers in Britain – well, that remains to be seen.

The Middle East is a disaster area, of course, but it is a pretty isolated disaster area, apart from occasional small-scale terrorist outrages in Western countries. To live in fear of a world-wide Islamic caliphate is as delusional as to hope for it.

Democracy is not in retreat in Africa or Latin America, and the pluses and the minuses more or less balance out in Asia (military rule in Thailand and more authoritarian elected governments in the Philippines and Indonesia, but more democracy in Burma and Sri Lanka). Nor should we see the triumph of a couple of ultra-nationalist parties in traditionally nationalist Eastern European countries as a sign of things to come in the rest of Europe.

This is not to say that the European Union will survive in the long term without major changes. We are going through a historic shift of the centre of gravity of the global economy from the North Atlantic world to Asia, and many things will have to change as a result.

It is possible that the United States and China might stumble into a military confrontation at some point: that risk is implicit in the kind of power shift that is underway in the early 21st century. But we are not on the brink of any great and awful calamity in the world. It is not 1936.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“Right…moment”; and “This is…result”)

Trump in Power

Let us suppose that it is July 2017. Let us suppose that Donald Trump, nominated as the Republican candidate for the US presidency exactly a year ago, won the November election – quite narrowly, perhaps, but the polls are certainly suggesting that such a thing is possible. So he was inaugurated six months ago, and has started to put his campaign promises into effect.

We may also assume that the Republican Party retains control of both houses of Congress. If it doesn’t, then Trump’s ability to execute his plans would be seriously circumscribed, but the surge of support that gives Trump victory would probably also give the Republicans a win in some close Senate races. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives, thanks to extensive gerrymandering, is practically fireproof.

Trump’s three most disruptive campaign promises were also the three that had the most appeal to his core voters, and he is implementing them fast. They are: a 40 percent tariff on all foreign imports, an end to free trade deals, and tight curbs on immigration – especially the famous “wall” on the Mexican border.

It won’t actually be a wall, of course. It will be the kind of high-tech barrier that countries build when they are really serious about closing a frontier. There will be a ditch about three metres deep and ten metres wide extending for 3,000 km along the US-Mexican border. It will have a three-metre-high razor-wire fence along the front edge of the ditch, facing Mexico, and another along the back edge.

The front fence has a high-voltage current running through it. The back fence carries the video and infra-red cameras and motion-sensors that detect attempts to cross the ditch, and the remotely controlled machine-guns that respond to those attempts. There are also land-mines down in the ditch. Why is it so lethal? Because long experience has shown that the only way to really close a border is to kill people who try to cross it.

The “wall” is not yet finished in July 2017, of course. It will take several years to complete, at a cost of $30-50 billion. Already, however, there are daily deaths among the tens of thousands of Mexican protesters who gather at the construction sites – and a few among Mexican-American protesters on the other side of the fence as well.

The Mexican government, faced with economic disaster as the millions of manufacturing jobs created in Mexico to export back to the United States evaporate, has broken diplomatic relations with Washington, as have several other Latin American nations. State Department experts are worried that a radical nationalist regime may come to power in Mexico, but “establishment experts” are not welcome in the new White House.

Negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and European Union have been broken off, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership will never be ratified by Congress. The legislation for a 40 percent tariff on foreign imports is still making its way through Congress, as is the bill to end the North American Free Trade Agreement (which is causing panic in Canada, 73 percent of whose exports go to the United States).

The new laws will go through in the end, and the most important casualty will be US-China trade (as Trump fully intends it to be). China is already in a thinly disguised recession, and the impact of the new trade measures will turn it into a political crisis that threatens the survival of the Communist regime.

Beijing will certainly respond by pushing forward with the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which would include sixteen nations of the Asia-Pacific region but exclude the United States. However, it may also manufacture a military confrontation with the United States to distract popular discontent at home with a foreign threat. The dispute over the South China Sea would do nicely.

Japan, which is starting a major military build-up after Prime Minister Abe finally removed the anti-war Article 9 from the constitution in March 2017, will be at America’s side in this confrontation, but its European allies may not. Trump’s pro-Putin posture has not gone down well in the EU, which worries about Russia’s intentions, and his demands that Europe’s NATO members pay more of the alliance’s costs have not helped either.

The European Union, still in shock after Britain’s Brexit vote in 2016, has been further shaken by the near-win of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right, anti-EU National Front, in the May run-off of the French presidential elections. The spectre of EU collapse comes nearer, and Europe has no time for America’s Asian quarrels.

In the United States, the economy is still chugging along despite the stock-market crash of November 2016. Trump’s big increase in the military budget, his huge expansion of infrastructure spending (with borrowed money) and the rise in the minimum wage have kept the machine turning over for the time being. The effect of declaring a trade war on the rest of the world is not yet being felt at home – but it will be.

And it’s only July 2017. Trump still has another three-and-a-half years in the White House.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“We may…fireproof”; and “The European…quarrels”)

Brexit: May’s Strategy

So far, so good. Boris Johnson, the face of the “Out” side in last month’s Brexit referendum and now Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, got through his first encounter with the 27 other foreign ministers of European Union countries on Monday without insulting anybody.

They were gathered in Brussels for a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, and “Boris” was on his best behaviour. He didn’t call anybody a “monosyllabic Austrian cyborg” (Arnold Schwartzenegger) or “a cross-eyed Texan warmonger” (George W. Bush).

The poem he wrote in May about Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan having sex with a goat – just google Turkish President Offensive Poetry Competition – didn’t come up as there were no Turks present. There were no Russians at the Brussels meeting either, so nobody objected to his recent remark that President Vladimir Putin looks like Dobbie the House Elf.

As for John Kerry, he was the soul of tact about Johnson’s description of Hillary Clinton as a woman with “dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.” Boris is the Clown Prince of British journalism, but you have to admit that he is a very odd choice for chief British diplomat.

He wasn’t the only surprising choice that new Prime Minister Theresa May made in filling her cabinet. The man who gets the tricky job of negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union is David Davies – who as recently as two months ago thought that this could be done by making trade deals separately with each EU member. (They always negotiate as a bloc.)

But Davies was a leading Brexiteer during the referendum campaign, so he gets the job anyway. Liam Fox, the new Secretary of State for International Trade, who will have the thankless task of negotiating new trade deals with countries around the world to make up for Britain’s lost trade with Europe – deals that cannot come into effect until the UK has actually left the EU – was also a leading voice in the pro-Brexit campaign.

So May (who was in favour of “Remain”, and probably still secretly thinks it would have been the better outcome) has chosen the three most prominent Brexiteers to deal with the hugely difficult task of finding a way for the United Kingdom to leave the EU without ending up in the poor-house. Johnson, Davies and Fox are certainly not the three best negotiators for the job, so what is she up to?

One part of her strategy is obvious: “Keep your enemies close.” With the three leading Brexiteers in the cabinet, they will have less time and opportunity to plot against her. But another adage also applies: “Give your enemies enough rope, and they’ll hang themselves.”

The Brexiteers won the referendum by promising that exit from the EU would be easy and painless. So let them take charge of negotiating that exit – and let them take the blame for the very painful terms that Britain will probably have to accept as the price of leaving.

Will they be worse terms than a different negotiating team might achieve? Johnson is profoundly unpopular in Europe: France’s foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, told French radio that Johnson “told a lot of lies to the British people and now it is him who has his back against the wall.” But a more charming (or at least less insulting) British foreign secretary would probably get the same deal. It’s not really about personalities.

The great advantage for May in having the Three Brexiteers negotiate the deal is that nobody will be able to say that a more devoted team would have got a better deal. And maybe by then she will even be able to say that the deal is so bad that the UK should have another referendum (or a general election) about it before actually leaving.

She can’t say that now, so she just says “Brexit is Brexit”. But at least two years will pass before the outcome of the exit negotiations is known, and by then many things may have changed.

The British pound may be worth even less (some suggest that it will be at par with the US dollar). The British economy will probably be in a recession, and maybe a full-scale financial crisis, as foreign investment dries up and the huge British trade deficit becomes unmanageable. Jobs will have begun to disappear in large numbers, and British voters may be in a quite different mood than they are today.

Or maybe they will be even angrier at the stupid foreigners who won’t accept that the world owes them a living. You can’t really predict how the politics will play out. But May loses nothing by letting the leading Brexiteers try to make their promises come true – and when they fail, as they inevitably will, it might even create a chance to reverse the verdict of last month’s referendum.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“One…themselves”; and “Will…personalities”)

Britain: Shakespeare in Action

It’s a bit like a Shakespeare play – specifically the final scene of Hamlet, when almost all the play’s major characters die violently. And now we’re down to one. Her name is Theresa May.

It has been barely three weeks since the United Kingdom (or at least, 52 percent of those who voted) chose to leave the European Union, but all the main Brexit leaders have already left the stage. The Conservative Party has always been notable for its ruthlessness, and leaders who threaten to split the party get short shrift.

The first to go was Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the referendum expecting that a pro-EU outcome would finally make the anti-EU obsessives on the right of his own Conservative Party shut up. It was a needless, fatal blunder.

Cameron allowed some of his own cabinet members to campaign for “Brexit”, in the belief that they would return to the fold, chastened by defeat, when the country voted for “Remain”. Instead, the “Leave” campaign won, and Cameron announced his resignation the morning after the referendum.

However, he said that he would stay in office until October, to give the party time to choose a new leader. This would have involved three months of political paralysis, but it also gave Cameron time to settle his own future (he seems to be angling for a senior job with NATO). And then the slaughter started.

It was generally assumed that one of the pro-Brexit Conservative leaders would replace Cameron, most likely Boris Johnson. His presence at the head of the Brexit campaign probably gave it the million extra votes it needed for victory – but he was clearly shocked by the prospect of actually having to lead the country into the post-Brexit wilderness.

Johnson disappeared from sight for four days after the referendum, which gave the co-leader of the Brexit campaign, Justice Minister Michael Gove, time to plan a coup against him. Gove was supposed to be running Johnson’s campaign, but instead he announced that Johnson was not up to the job and declared that he was running for the leadership himself.

Johnson withdrew (probably glad to be out), and Gove’s treachery was so blatant that even his fellow Conservatives turned against him. For comic relief Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, also quit, saying that he wanted his life back. All the main Brexit leaders were gone in just two weeks, leaving only Andrea Leadsom as a pro-Brexit contender for the Conservative leadership.

Leadsom was a hard-right pro-Brexiter who only entered parliament in 2010. She was a lightweight who would never normally be seen as a potential prime minister, and her views were so extreme – marriage should only be for Christians, not gays; bring back fox-hunting – that she probably could not win a general election.

But Conservative members of parliament worried that she might win the leadership race anyway, because the people who decide that are the 150,000 paid-up Conservative Party members, a socially conservative, middle-class group with an average age of 60. So the pressure on Leadsom to step aside grew and grew.

On Monday morning Leadsom caved in, ensuring that the last woman standing, Home Secretary Theresa May, will be the new Conservative leader and British prime minister. There will be no split in the party, and there will be no three-month hiatus in British politics. May is seen as a “safe pair of hands,” and she will be in office within days.

She will have a free run in parliament, because the opposition Labour Party has a radical new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, elected a year ago by the rank and file of the Labour Party, who has never had the support of even one-fifth of the party’s Members of Parliament. Corbyn had always been hostile to the EU, and his lacklustre campaigning for “Remain” contributed to the fact that fully one-third of Labour voters backed Brexit.

As a result the Parliamentary Labour Party is now in revolt against Corbyn, and a senior Labour politician, Angela Eagle, is officially challenging his leadership. The Labour Party will be off-line politically while it settles its internal struggle, so Theresa May will have a free run for a while.

May supported “Remain” in the referendum, but very quietly. She has now pledged to carry out the wishes of (52 percent of) the voters and lead Britain out of the European Union – but that doesn’t mean she has the faintest idea how to do it.

The Guardian newspaper summed up the situation in an editorial last Wednesday: “It is now brutally clear that there is not a plan – no plan for how and when Britain leaves, no plan for future relations with Europe, and no plan at all for how political assent might be secured for any of the imperfect political options on offer.” That is as true for May as it was for the defunct pro-Brexit leadership.

But cheer up. Assuming that Angela Merkel remains Chancellor of Germany and that Hillary Clinton wins the US presidential election in November, by year’s end the three biggest Western countries will all be run by women. Maybe they can sort it all out.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“She…while”)