Trump: One year on


Donald John Trump has been President of the United States for one year now. As he progresses through the first full week of his second year in office, it is time to look at the previous year and how it affected the world, including New Zealand.

The effect Mr Trump has had on New Zealanders has been largely negative. Whilst many including myself supported his withdrawing the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement – and wishing New Zealand had followed suit, there has been little else to celebrate. Mr Trump’s foreign policy and contempt for environmental science puts at risk much of the good New Zealand and other nations have worked towards.

I do not know what Year 2 of Mr Trump’s first term in office will bring, so I am looking at the recent past (i.e 2017) to see if there are clues. The key points for me in the past year have been:

INTERNATIONAL

  1. The tensions on the Korean Peninsula, despite recent talks about North Korea attending the Pyeonchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, remain very high and credible concerns exist about how the regime will react to any further tightening of sanctions. Not only that, but the historical risk of Chinese intervention should any conflict break out is also plausible.
  2. Withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership. This is perhaps the only thing on the world stage, I am happy to credit Mr Trump with. The T.P.P.A. is a toxic deal for all 12 nations and I had hopes that when Mr Trump withdrew the U.S. others would have second thoughts as well.
  3. The intervention in the Syrian War in April 2017 drew alarm. Mr Trump ordered the firing of 59 cruise missiles into Syria to attack a Russian base. Aside from the fact that there seemed to be little actual purpose – it has not altered the outcome of the war; many were left wondering, what if the Russians had fired back?
  4. The decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is effectively a middle finger salute by Mr Trump to the entire Arab world and Palestine. In one stroke, more effectively than all of the steadily encroaching illegal Israeli settlements could have achieved, Mr Trump has dumped the Israel Palestine peace process on its head.
  5. Mr Trump’s threat to walk away from the Iranian nuclear agreement threatens to undo an essential deal that potentially saved a lot of lives – the deal saved the Middle East from a pre-emptive Israeli military strike that could have flung the whole region into a major conflict that would have overshadowed the proxy wars in Iraq and Syria

DOMESTIC

  1. The war waged by the White House on science. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a lady who believes in the theory of creation as opposed to the theory of evolution; climate change is a hoax; and science in general should not be trusted. Whilst largely a domestic issue, it sends the wrong signals to academics worldwide about how this Administration will tackle science.
  2. The Mueller probe into whether or not Mr Trump or his associates, including his sons and daughter Ivanka had any election period dealings with Russians involving bribery or the disclosure of confidential information is slowly making progress – some call it a witch hunt, while others are watching what they consider to be the wheels of justice in motion. Whilst impeachment seems like an impossibility at this stage, I expect the Mueller probe to claim a few of Mr Trump’s staff.
  3. The financial aims of the Trump Administration are very different from those the Obama Administration. One sought to improve the regulatory control of the banking sector after one of the biggest financial crises in nearly 100 years. The other (current one) is helping to exacerbate financial operating conditions that now look similar to those just prior to the 2007-2009 Global Financial Crisis. The catch is unfortunately banks have little room to manoeuvre in, in that neither raising or lowering interest rates is going to help that much.
  4. For a western nation that has an immensely rich immigrant tapestry there is a lot to be alarmed about regarding the signals Mr Trump is sending to the vulnerable peoples of nations less lucky than the United States. It is more than a little rich to be telling Yemeni’s to stay at home whilst arming the nation that is bombing them into the ground;

New Zealand’s best course is probably to stay on the current one: be honest and tell Mr Trump’s officials what our expectations are. I am not expecting a visit from him because it seems that only Democrats visit New Zealand. The ideological differences between New Zealand and the Trump Administration may discourage a visit. If he comes, he should be accorded the due dignity of a head of state, whilst perhaps it being suggested he attend an A.N.Z.A.C. Day dawn service with the Prime Minister, to realise New Zealand’s effort in war have not come cheap.

Hawaii missile warning a reminder of the times


Yesterday’s ballistic missile scare in Hawaii had haunting echoes of a time I had hoped had long since past. It only lasted about 40 minutes before officials announced it was a false alarm, but in that time, Hawaii had a terrifying taste of what to expect in the minutes before an actual missile strike. And more than 70 years after the first nuclear weapons test, it is a reminder of what a volatile world we live in and what we are bringing our children and grandchildren up in.

But let us have a brief look back in the time line of war scares and see how we compare today with earlier times. In 1947, a bunch of concerned scientists called themselves Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and instituted the Doomsday Clock.

The doomsday clock is no ordinary clock. Whereas an ordinary clock continually goes forward, except when the hour hand is wound backwards for the end of daylight savings, this one goes forward and back. It is designed to show how close the world is to nuclear midnight, a time at which if – heaven forbid – we ever get there, the world, or part of it, will be understood to be in the midst of some sort of thermo/nuclear conflagration.

Timeline of the nuclear doomsday clock (Source: Bulletin of Atomic Scientists).

The timeline shows how the clock has moved backwards and forwards over the years, depending on the level of international tension. It started life in 1947 at 23:53PM and kept slipping progressively forward as tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. increased. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis should probably be the lowest point (closest point to nuclear midnight)as during the 13 days of this crisis the United States was actively preparing to invade Cuba to destroy medium range missile sites installed by the U.S.S.R., aimed at the U.S., not away that short range sites also existed and could be aimed at the invasion beaches. At this stage, though not shown due to the short duration of the crisis it was probably 23:59. It improved after that, through the 1970’s, but started to deteriorate again to reach 23:58 in 1984 as a result of major wars between Iraq and Iran, and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan.

When the Cold War ended at the end of 1991 it was 23:47, with major cuts happening in military forces across the world. The threat of nuclear war had receded. The major proxy conflicts between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. with their client states had ended.

A bigger problem was who or what would fill the void left by the collapsed U.S.S.R. Initially that was unanswered. Later in 1994-95 Russia began trying to reassert its influence by destroying a separatist movement in Chechnya. In 2000, current Russian President Vladimir Putin was elected for the first time. Nationalism began to infiltrate Russian politics and defence spending began to increase once more.

In China another rival of the U.S., the Chinese economy and military spending were both growing in near double digit figures. Their large, Soviet inspired military of the Cold War began a massive transformation into the second most powerful military machine in the world today, slimmed down in size but with weapons, tactics and training fit for the 21st century. With a roaring economy came a roaring demand for raw material – coal, oil, gas, wood, steel. And most recently a Chinese agenda for a century of the Dragon.

Decades of interference by the C.I.A. in other countries affairs bit America on 11 September 2001. Whilst the world and the U.S. were rightfully horrified at the huge loss of life, such interference was always going to eventually boomerang on them. The then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld may have been looking into a crystal ball when he said that the war might last 15-20 years and involve multiple invasions. Whatever the case, that has happened. But with a lack of obvious outcomes apparent, many have tired of the constant American emphasis on terrorism, especially when some of their actions have undermined the cause.

And all this time, the Kim dynasty of North Korea has quietly gone on its way observing events world wide and learning from American actions. With unfathomable brutality he and his daddy and grand daddy have made North Korea a vast prison camp with nuclear deterrence. With China (reluctantly and most likely more interested in their own one party state) acting as an insurance policy against American invasion, Kim Jong Un probably felt quite safe until Donald Trump assumed the Presidency.

We should not take anything for granted here in New Zealand. We should consider how we can mitigate the consequences of a war on the Korean peninsula – assuming in the first instance it is a conventional war with no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons involved. The political and economic fallout will be huge with huge loss in just about all sectors of the economy, and in particular the flow of international tourists to and from N.Z, but also various trading sectors.

Obviously I sincerely hope that the tensions de-escalate on the Korean Peninsula. However the level of fear and panic that was caused by the false ballistic missile warning in Hawaii, shows what would happen in the event of an actual attack, irrespective of whether it was in Japan where several warnings from actual missile over flights, or somewhere further afield.

These are fascinating times without doubt, but for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think I am the only one who really wants a de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula, whilst being acutely aware it could get much, much worse.

New Zealand must condemn Jerusalem decision


On Wednesday, New Zealand time the President of the United States, Donald Trump made the shocking announcement that America would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

New Zealand must condemn Mr Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. We must not follow America and move our diplomatic mission there. The media and the politicians have ignored the history of the Palestinian struggle and it will come back to haunt them.

Not surprisingly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is over the moon. And in recognition of it, against the walls of the old city, the American and Israeli flags were projected side by side.

In effect Mr Trump has ripped the Middle East process into shreds of paper and then thrown them in the face of the Arab world, the Palestinians. The Israeli Prime Minister and his hawkish Government, plus the hard line Republicans in the United States are the only ones applauding.

The effect is more than to just anger the Palestinians and the Arab world. Along with his inflammatory efforts dealing with North Korea and Iran, Mr Trump has now added a third place that he is offside with around the world. What are the conflict around the world at greatest risk of turning into international conflicts with potentially world wide consequences? There are a few:

  1. North Korea – on tenterhooks, with one false move possibly starting an international conflict that has regional, possibly global consequences
  2. Iran – not on tenterhooks yet, but creeping that way with America, Saudi Arabia and Israel ratcheting up the inflammatory rhetoric despite its compliance with the U.N. nuclear deal
  3. Eastern Europe – high risk, with N.A.T.O. forces building up and Russia actively seeking to counter their influence, and a boil over could rapidly escalate into an international conflict
  4. South China Sea – not on tenterhooks, but potentially the one with the biggest risks as a direct military confrontation between super powers is not likely to end well for anyone
  5. Palestine – comparatively stable for now, and would not have made this unique list but for Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel

In 1917, whilst World War 1 was going full bore in Europe, Britain and France embarked on a bit of empire building in the Middle East. In 1916 two new nations were carved out, with borders paying scant attention to the ethnic or religious communities there. Their protestations were put down brutally and the new nations were called Iraq and Syria. In 1920 Winston Churchill – the same Winston Churchill who would be lauded as a hero 20 years later for staring down Nazi-era Germany – authorized the bombing and gassing of Iraqi rebels. Britain and France wonder these days why they are not so popular in the Middle East.

Palestine and the Arab lands did not do much better under the Balfour Declaration and people wonder why there is so much animosity in the Middle East. Let us have a look at how the Palestinian animosity towards Israel and the West came to be.

The Balfour Declaration came about for several reasons:

  • World War 1 was not going well for the British and it was hoped that by announcing a formal Jewish state in recently occupied lands, Britain could increase the support among the Jewish communities in major allies and neutral countries
  • Britain wanted to create a land bridge between crucial Middle territories such as Egypt with its “crown jewel” India – a British backed Jewish state would be part of that land bridge
  • Despite agreeing with France on how to carve up the Middle East, Britain viewed its dominance in the region as essential

In the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28 June 1919, Britain was entrusted with the temporary administration of Palestine on the understanding it would work with the Arabs and the Jews. The Jewish population increased rapidly in Palestine. Unlike the Jews, the Arabs were not granted any sort of nationhood despite helping Britain with the war against Turkey. Animosity over this continues to the present day.

So, it is against this background that Mr Trump has made a highly inflammatory and totally irresponsible decision to support Israel having its capital in Jerusalem. Combined with his refusal to rebuke Mr Netanyahu for Israel’s ongoing annexation by stealth of Palestine, this effectively amounts to a non-military declaration of war against Palestine and it should be roundly condemned.

And it is.

 

Trump anti-Muslim tweets no help to religious tensions


Last week United States President Donald Trump was looking at videos from Britain First, an anti-immigrant hard line nationalist group in Britain of alleged Muslim offences. One was of a boy being attacked. Another was of a statue being desecrated and a third one was allegedly of a Muslim attacking a Dutch boy on crutches. Then he retweeted them, to the horror of British Prime Minister Theresa May.

By retweeting the videos of a known nationalist hate group, Mr Trump sent a signal to Muslims that he does not view them or their religion in the same light as he does other religions. He has in effect condoned hatred on a religion and its members when most of all the West should be seeking to understand the Islamic world better.

Mr Trump’s rebuttal of Mrs May’s criticism potentially harms the British-American relationship. Mrs May was right to point out that the retweets were highly and unnecessarily inflammatory. And this has given Mrs May and her Government some unlikely allies in places she might not thought them to possibly exist.

I am no fan of Mrs May who I think of as the “Maybot”, because she was perceived to have the empathy of a robot to the victims of the Grenfell apartment block fire. However, Mrs May was quite right to rebuke Mr Trump for retweeting those videos.

Mr Trump made two significant mistakes in his response:

  1. He was too lazy to find her proper Prime Ministerial Twitter handle and sent it to another person called who also just happened to be called Theresa May
  2. His put down of Mrs May would have spoken volumes about how Mr Trump views his relationship with Britain – being able and willing to put down America’s nearest and dearest ally, which is sometimes referred to as the 51st State of the U.S. is a hugely problematic indictment on him

American diplomats will be wondering how to undo the damage. For them such a slap in the face of the senior official of their most loyal ally will be staggering. America and Britain will survive this, but the reverberations will continue for awhile yet.

This should concern every other nation wanting peaceful rapproachment with the Islamic world. The so-called leader of the free world showing contempt for a perfectly valid warning about Britain First shows how little understanding Mr Trump has of diplomatic relations.

Or cares.

 

Winston Peters going to North Korea?


On Tuesday, New Zealand Time amid conflicting news about a mysterious deal that President Donald Trump announced, purportedly involving New Zealand, another interesting piece of news emerged. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters might be off on a trip to North Korea talk peace and encourage the rogue state to see reason.

Anything that delays or stops a military confrontation between North Korea and the United States must be a good thing.

But will it honestly work? I do not know the answer, but I think in honesty – it would be great if I am wrong – Mr Peters’ influence on the United States and North Korea is severely restricted. Pyongyang has backed itself into a corner from which it has nowhere to go – any move to appear accommodating on nuclear weapons compliance would be a climb down that Mr Jong Un cannot afford, as it would make him appear weak before the military whose compliance he needs.

And if it does work and miraculously Pyongyang agrees to return to the negotiations table, there is a frustrating and dangerous truth: everything that has been negotiated in the past has been thrown out the window by North Korea months or years later. If somehow a deal were to be struck, how do we know this would not end up on the growing pile outside the proverbial window?

Pyongyang has another problem. Even if it DID want to comply with demands to dismantle its nuclear weapons and the facilities used for them and were to start doing so, the sophistication that has now been achieved means it would have considerable difficulty undoing its weapons programme. It would need to wind up its enrichment facility, remove, disable or downgrade any nuclear reactors it has. The stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and any plutonium it has managed to manufacture would have to be handed over. The only way any of this could happen is if the orders to do so came from Kim Jong Un. And Mr Jong Un has very explicitly said North Korea will never surrender its nuclear weapons programme – at least not peacefully.

The stakes are high. Japan, with its long and dreadful memories of American bombing in the late stages of World War 2, has had numerous emergency drills to prepare its citizens in the event a conflict does start. It’s hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to weaken the constitutional constraints on Japanese military activity that were imposed by the occupying Allied Powers in 1947, a move that could potentially alarm its neighbours.

South Korea, which has to contend with the cantankerous North on a day to day basis, might be the least concerned. After all as the significant southern half of Korea, many of its citizens will know people in North Korea and share the – probably – very far off dream of a united peaceful Korean peninsula. It does so against the cold and no doubt nerve wracking reality that North Korea’s artillery is within firing distance of Seoul and even a short bombardment would probably cause tens of thousands of casualties.

And then there is China. Don’t ever forget the one country that can crush North Korea’s regime pretty much whenever and however it wants, or prop it up. This is the same China – albeit a much stronger one economically, politically, militarily in 2017 – that invaded North Korea in 1950 to prop the regime up against the United Nations advance, forcing the Korean War into a bloody and ultimately undecided stalemate.

Mr Trump might have nasty visions of North Korea attaining a degree of nuclear weapons prowess that threatens United States security. But North Korea will have noted the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It will have noted the anti-Iranian rhetoric emanating from the White House and as the third member of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s “rogue state” clique, the North Korean regime knows neoconservative America would love to get rid of it.

Would a young, possibly impressionable dictator with reactionist tendencies take very kindly to invtervention by a Minister of Foreign Affairs from a nation not one of his impoverished countrymen know anything about? Would he just laugh it off and use it to create propaganda against the United States and South Korea? Maybe.