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Olympic Torch

7 April 2008

The Underpants of the Olympic Flame

By Gwynne Dyer

If I were the Chinese bureaucrat responsible for guarding the sacred Olympic Flame, the place I’d worry about most is Australia. It was there, just before the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, that a student pretending to be an Olympic athlete ran up to the mayor of Sydney and presented him with an “Olympic torch” consisting of burning underpants in a can nailed on top of a chair leg. He was gone before they realised it was not the real thing.

His intention was to mock this pathetic neo-pagan ceremony that was originally invented by the Nazis to spice up the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The 1936 Olympics was Nazi Germany’s coming-out party, so Hitler’s people arranged for 3,442 racially pure Aryan runners to do a relay race with an “Olympic torch” along the 3,442-km. route from the Temple of Hera on Mount Olympus to the stadium in Berlin.

There had never been a torch connected with the original Olympic games in ancient Greece, and the revived Games got along without an international relay race just fine for forty years before the Berlin Olympics of 1936 — but if there was one thing the Nazis did well, it was propaganda. Leni Reifenstahl even made a documentary film about how the torch came from Athens to Berlin (and within five years Hitler’s armies had occupied all the countries along the route).

This year’s Olympic Games were supposed to be Communist China’s coming-out-party, and the route is even more ambitious: twenty-one countries on all six inhabited continents. But that includes Australia, and I really wouldn’t send the torch there if I wanted to preserve China’s dignity. As England is the spiritual homeland of irony, so is Australia the world capital of mockery, and by the time the torch gets there (if it ever does) the Australians are going to feel challenged. It was burning underpants in 1956; what might it be in 2008?

The bar will have been set quite high by the time the torch reaches Canberra. After the propaganda triumphs for the “Free Tibet” movement in London, Paris and San Francisco the rain of humiliations for the Chinese regime may ease off for a while (although I wouldn’t guarantee the torch an easy ride in Buenos Aires, either). But after Dar es Salaam, Muscat and Islamabad, where they don’t care much about Tibet, comes New Delhi, where some people care a great deal.

There will be a lot of Tibetans in New Delhi, so the run there, if it happens, may resemble a low-intensity war. Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta may be quiet, but then comes Canberra, where Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has already said that the blue-track-suited Chinese thugs who have jogged alongside the torch-bearers in other countries to fend off protesters will not be allowed to operate.

The “thug” description is courtesy of Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, who was overheard on the phone saying that the organisers should “get rid of those guys. They tried to push me out of the way three times. They are horrible….I think they were thugs.”

It has become a nightmare for the poor, doomed Chinese bureaucrats who set this thing up: constant humiliations if they carry on with the planned route (which also goes through Tibet itself!) and utter humiliation if they cancel it.

For the moment, they are brazening it out. “The Olympic flame belongs to the people around the world,” said Wang Hui, a spokesman for the Beijing Olympic organising committee, “so the behaviour of a few separatists would not gain sympathy from people and will cause strong criticism and is doomed to fail.” So far, though, I haven’t been hearing much criticism.

Never mind the silly torch, and the equally bizarre three-layer cake that is the actual Olympics Games of today. (An international athletics competition on the bottom, an orgy of nationalist self-congratulation in the middle, and a sickly-sweet pantomime of international love and brotherhood on the top.) What’s actually colliding here are two irreconcilable views of the world.

For almost all Chinese, the turmoil in Tibet is a threat to national unity. Only in the past century have Tibet and the Turkish-speaking, Muslim province of Sinkiang come to be seen as a necessary part of that national unity, but they are now. Chinese propaganda insists that the local people support that consensus, but it makes no difference if they don’t. They have to stay, because national unity is at stake.

For almost everybody else, China and Tibet is obviously a colonial relationship, and it’s perfectly natural for the Tibetans to seek independence. They won’t get it this time round, and they may never get it, but why would you be surprised that they try? Indeed, why wouldn’t you support them?

Foreign governments will never support Tibet’s independence, because they depend on China’s trade and they value “stability” in China above all else. Foreign individuals are under no such constraints, and the interminable, multi-national Tour of the Torch is giving them a lot of opportunities to show their feelings. It isn’t “anti-Chinese,” just pro-Tibetan, but there will be much anger and many hurt feelings by the time this is done.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“There had…route”; and “The thug…thugs”)

NOTE: This article is going out before the torch reaches San Francisco. If something extraordinary happens there, an update will be forthcoming.

The Indo-US Alliance: The Wheels Fall Off

29 October 2007

The Indo-US Alliance: The Wheels Fall Off

By Gwynne Dyer

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s response made perfectly good sense. If his allies in parliament were willing to bring the government down to block the nuclear deal with the United States that he had spent two years negotiating, he would drop the deal. “One has to live with certain disappointments,” he said last week. “We are not a one-issue government. The deal not coming through is not the end of life.”

Much odder was the response in Washington. State Department spokesperson Tom Casey was the very soul of discretion, saying that while the United States would like the agreement to be ratified as soon as possible, he would not tell Indians how to manage their own internal affairs. But others with strong links to the strategic and foreign policy community in Washington were more outspoken.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned that India’s failure to implement the nuclear deal with the US could raise questions over its trustworthiness, and might sabotage New Delhi’s campaign for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. In a burst of frankness, he added that an Indian rejection of the deal “would certainly be a disappointment” for the Bush administration, which “has put a lot of effort behind this.”

Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, on a visit to India, called it “a very important deal” and urged India to expedite it. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, warned that it needed to be ratified by year’s end to avoid “damage” to the relationship between the countries.

Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation (which is close to the Bush administration), said that rejecting the deal would undermine India’s goal of increasing its global stature and influence: “Not only would New Delhi be perceived to have shot itself in the foot, (but) it would be highly unlikely for any future US administration to contemplate major initiatives with India.”

Who would have dreamt that so many important Americans want to help India take its rightful place as one of the 21st century’s superpowers? The chorus of concern for India’s future status was heart-warming, but the reality is that the United States has its own strategies, in which India is just a pawn. All the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger lamentation in Washington about India’s lost opportunity covers a deep frustration that the Indians are finally baulking at Washington’s plans for them.

Since the late 1990s, strategists of all political stripes in Washington have identified China as America’s emerging strategic rival, and have fixed on an alliance with India, the other rising Asian economic giant, as the solution to the problem. The Bush administration has invested huge diplomatic resources in luring India into a de facto military alliance with the United States, and its efforts seemed to be rewarded in 2005 when the two countries signed a “ten-year military cooperation agreement.” But India’s main reward for signing up was the nuclear deal.

Ever since India’s first test of a “peaceful nuclear explosive” in 1974, its civil nuclear industry has faced an international trade embargo on nuclear technology and fuel that was initiated and largely enforced by the United States. India’s string of nuclear weapons tests in 1998 led to an even harsher embargo — and killing the embargo was Washington’s quid pro quo for India’s membership in what amounts to an anti-Chinese alliance.

The negotiations took five years, and getting the necessary legal changes on the hyper-sensitive issue of selling nuclear technology and fuel to India through the US Congress has already taken two more. Now, at the final stage, and for entirely discreditable reasons, various Indian political parties have decided to block the legislation. The ensuing controversy has filled the country’s media since August, and even threatens to bring down the government.

Everybody in Indian politics who opposes the deal pretends that it restricts India’s freedom of action, but that’s nonsense. If India tested nuclear weapons again, it might forfeit certain advantages that the deal with Washington confers on it, but at worst it would be no more isolated than it is now.

The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which actually began the negotiations with the United States, now opposes the deal just because it is the opposition. And the small Communist parties that keep the Congress-led government in power with their votes (though they refuse seats in the cabinet) are mainly motivated by their traditional anti-Americanism and their reflex loyalty to Communist China.

Never mind. It doesn’t matter what the motives of the Indian Communists and the BJP are. The point is that they are crippling an alliance that threatens to drag Asia into a new cold war.

Without the nuclear deal at its heart, the emerging military alliance between the US and India will be vulnerable to any change of the political wind in Washington or New Delhi. Neither the Bush administration nor Manmohan Singh’s government will give up on trying to develop a closer military relationship, but this is good news for anyone who thinks that surrounding China militarily and feeding Beijing’s fears is a really stupid idea.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Lisa…India”; and “Everybody…now”)

The End of Cheap Food

6 July 2007

The End of Cheap Food

By Gwynne Dyer

The era of cheap food is over. The price of corn (maize) has doubled in a year, and wheat futures are at their highest in a decade. The food price index in India has risen 11 percent in one year, and in Mexico in January there were riots after the price of corn flour (used in making the staple food of the poor, tortillas) went up fourfold. Even in the developed countries food prices are going up, and they are not going to come down again.

Cheap food lasted for only fifty years. Before the Second World War most families in the developed countries spent a third or more of their income on food (as the poor majority in developing countries still do). But after the war a series of radical changes, from mechanisation to the Green Revolution, raised agricultural productivity hugely and caused a long, steep fall in the real price of food. For the global middle class, it was the Good Old Days, with food taking only a tenth of their income.

It will probably be back up to a quarter within a decade, and it may go much higher than that, because we are entering a period when three separate factors are converging to drive food prices up. The first is simply demand. Not only is the global population continuing to grow (about an extra Turkey or Vietnam every year), but as Asian economies race ahead more and more people in those populous countries are starting to eat significant amounts of meat.

Early this month, in its annual assessment of farming trends, the United Nations predicted that by 2016, less than ten years from now, people in the developing countries will be eating 30 percent more beef, 50 percent more pig meat and 25 percent more poultry. The animals will need a great deal of grain, and meeting that demand will require shifting huge amounts of grain-growing land from human to animal consumption — so the price of grain and of meat will both go up.

The global poor don’t care about the price of meat, because they can’t afford it even now — but if the price of grain goes up, some of them will starve. And maybe they won’t have to wait until 2016, because the mania for “bio-fuels” is shifting huge amounts of land out of food production. One-sixth of all the grain grown in the United States this year will be “industrial corn” destined to be converted into ethanol and burned in cars, and Europe, Brazil and China are all heading in the same direction.

The attraction of bio-fuels for politicians is obvious: they can claim that they are doing something useful to combat emissions and global warming (though the claims are deeply suspect), without actually demanding any sacrifices from business or the voters. The amount of US farmland devoted to bio-fuels grew by 48 percent in the last year alone, and hardly any new land was brought under the plough to replace the lost food production. In other big bio-fuel producers like China and Brazil it’s the same straight switch from food to fuel. In fact, the food market and the energy market are becoming closely linked, which is very bad news for the poor.

As oil prices rise (and the rapid economic growth in Asia guarantees that they will), they pull up the price of bio-fuels as well, and it gets even more attractive for farmers to switch from food to fuel. Nor will politics save the day. As economist Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute told the US Congress last month: “The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world’s two billion poorest people.” Guess who wins.

Soaring Asian demand and bio-fuels mean expensive food now and in the near future, but then it gets worse. Global warming hits crop yields, but only recently has anybody quantified how hard. The answer, published in “Environmental Research Letters” in March by Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution in Stanford, California and David Lobell of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is quite simple: for every 0.5C (0.9F) hotter, crop yields fall between three and five percent. So two degrees C hotter (3.6F), the lower end of the range of predicted temperature rise in this century, means a twelve to twenty percent fall in global food production.

This is science, of course, so that answer could be wrong — but it could be wrong by being too conservative. Last year in New Delhi, I interviewed the director of a think tank who had just completed a contract to estimate the impact on Indian food production of a rise of just two degrees C in global temperature. The answer, at least for India, was 25 percent. That would mean mass starvation, for if India were in that situation, every other major food-producing country would be too, and there would be no imports available at any price.

In the early stages of this process, higher food prices will help millions of farmers who have been scraping along on very poor returns for their effort because political power lies in the cities, but later it gets uglier. The price of food relative to average income is heading for levels that have not been seen since the early 19th century, and it will not come down again in our lifetimes.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Soaring…price”)

America’s Indian Ally

27 February 2006

America’s Indian Ally

By Gwynne Dyer

Chances are you won’t hear a single word about US-Indian military links in the mainstream media’s reporting about US President George W. Bush’s first visit to India this week. For months the media in both countries have been encouraged to speculate about whether a deal on US-Indian cooperation on civilian nuclear power would be ready in time for Bush’s visit, but that deal is just the quid pro quo. The actual “quo” was a de facto military alliance between India and the United States, but we don’t talk about that in front of the children.

“The largest democracy in the world and the oldest democracy in the world are becoming strategic partners, and that is a very consequential development in international politics,” said US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns on 24 February after a visit to New Delhi. “Consequential” is the right word. The two countries that will have the world’s second- and third-largest economies a generation from now have made an alliance against the country that will have the biggest economy, China — but hardly anybody in the media seems to have noticed.

It’s not secret. The joint US-Indian military training exercises of the past few years and the arms sales that are now eagerly awaited by American defence industry are public knowledge (but only if you have been paying close attention). Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee went to Washington in person last June to sign the ten-year agreement on military cooperation and joint weapons production with the United States. It’s just that talking too loudly about all this would upset the Chinese, and it would upset some people in the United States, too. Not everybody in Washington welcomes the idea of a military alliance to “contain” China.

So let’s pretend our priorities are elsewhere, and send the press chasing off down the wrong path. Happily, there is a different issue that they can be persuaded to believe is important, because New Delhi’s defiant series of nuclear weapons tests in 1998, which were followed by a series of Pakistani nuclear tests, triggered not only US sanctions against the two countries but broader sanctions by the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group.

Since then, India has faced serious obstacles in importing nuclear fuel and technology for its ambitious civil nuclear power programme, because everybody suspected that the sensitive material would end up in India’s nuclear weapons programme. This mattered less in practice than it did in theory, since India obviously had nukes already — but international acceptance of a nuclear-armed India is still seen as a prize worth having in New Delhi. So Washington had leverage.

After 9/11, the US immediately offered to lift sanctions on Pakistan in return for General Pervez Musharraf’s cooperation in the “war on terror.” Logically, that meant that sanctions against India should be lifted too, but since Washington did not need India’s cooperation in the same urgent way — the terrorists who attack India are not the same as those who attack American targets — it could demand a political price from India for ending sanctions. The biggest part of that price was a military alliance with the United States.

It will never formally be called that, in deference to India’s old non-aligned tradition, but the neo-conservatives who run American foreign policy under Mr Bush are determined to build a ring of alliances around China. With the aid of lavish promises about access to next generation American weapons systems, military co-production agreements, shared intelligence, joint exercises, and general American support for India’s aspirations as a great power, the deal was done — except that the United States could not keep its promise to provide India with nuclear fuel and technology unless it could satisfy the Nuclear Suppliers Group that they would not end up in weapons.

The 44 members of the NSG have promised not to supply such materials to any country that does not accept strict International Atomic Energy Agency controls and inspections. In view of the Bush administration’s current campaign against an alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme, it would not go down well with the IAEA, the US Congress, or the other members of the UN Security Council if the United States just started supplying nuclear materials to India. It needs some political cover.

All the negotiations of the past few months have been about finding some way of disentangling India’s peaceful nuclear power programme from its military programme, so that it can accept IAEA safeguards on the former and become eligible for US supplies while keeping the latter free from intrusive foreign inspections. Since the two Indian programmes have been thoroughly entangled for the past thirty years, that is taking a lot of time – and this is the problem that journalists covering Mr Bush’s visit have been encouraged to focus on. It distracts attention from the military aspects of the relationship, and it creates the impression that both sides are behaving responsibly.

They are not. They are building an alliance that is bound to alarm the Chinese, who cannot fail to see it as directed against them. There is absolutely no evidence for aggressive Chinese intentions towards India or anywhere in South Asia, but Washington and New Delhi are laying the foundations for a new Cold War in Asia.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Since…leverage”; and “The 44 members…cover”)