It is very painful to watch the images coming from Iraq and Syria. It has often been said that our history began in the Sumerian city of Ur, about 5,000 years Before Christ. There is a continuous cultural line that runs from that remote Mesopotamian city to New York, Paris, or Montevideo. And thus the new jihad unleashed by the Islamic State affects all of us. The caliphate being forged in blood and fire, in the regions joining Iraq to Syria, not only revels in the slaughter of Shiites, Christians, and Yazidis, but also in the destruction of what remains of a splendid pagan past.
Many of these predatory Islamists are young men raised in the West. Why do they do it?
What is the sense of pulverizing with hammer blows a centuries-old winged man-bull, or a majestic Assyrian lamassu belonging to a religion whose origins are whispers long lost to the past?
Certainty is to blame. The violent fanaticism of the jihadists comes from their absolute conviction that they know who the true God is and have no doubt that they are faithfully executing the orders conveyed to them by their sacred book, the Quran.
If we are to believe the Bible, when Moses descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments imparted to him by Yahweh, he knows that the fifth of those precepts is "thou shalt not kill." Yet the anger provoked in him by the sight of the Israelites worshiping a golden calf forged by his brother Aaron leads him to order the execution of 3,000 people. Moses was certain that this act was the will of God.
Constantine, who in 313 issued in Milan the Edict of Toleration, cowardly retracted it in 354 and ordered the destruction of hundreds of pagan libraries and temples. The calcinated rocks gave origin to limestone factories. Five years later, the Christians in Syria, then an illustrious corner of the small Hellenic world, preceded the Nazis by 1,700 years when they organized the first extermination camps for pagans and Jews, in the city of Skythopolis.
Since then, and for centuries, the Jews have been the target of persecution. Pope after Pope, region after region persecuted them, crushed them and expelled them. The Germans, English, Italians, Polish, Russians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Christians, and Muslims all did it. Everyone who could do it, did it, generally in the name of some true God.
Unquestionably, killing enemies of the true God has been a universal and widely practiced sport. In the Middle Ages, Pope Innocent III unleashed the genocide of the heretical Albigenses, also known as Cathars. Tens of thousands were executed. When he was cautioned that he was murdering the just and the wicked, he answered that it did not matter. God would sort them out and send the former to heaven and the latter to hell. That was just the preamble to the terrible religious wars that devastated Europe during the Renaissance and the Reformation, exterminating literally millions of people.
At the same time, in the Americas, while building cities and universities, the priests and the conquistadors massacred Indians, burned codices and destroyed temples or turned them into churches, to destroy forever any vestige of pagan beliefs that they considered demonic because some of them practiced human sacrifice.
Might it be less dangerous to be an atheist? Not at all. The Marxist-Leninists, convinced that "religion is the opium of the people" (a phrase from Karl Marx), persecuted Christians in Russia and Europe, while the Chinese and Cambodians have added Buddhists to the list of victims.
In atheist states, thousands of temples have been destroyed, or confiscated and put to other use. Albania's Enver Hoxha turned the negation of God's existence into a national dogma and even created a Museum of Atheism in which students learned to hate believers. Mosques and churches alike became lay buildings.
In Cuba, more than 200 Catholic and Protestant schools were expropriated, and dozens of priests had to seek exile. To rub salt on the wound, the most pitiless and sinister detention center of the Communist political police is "Villa Marista," a former Catholic school. In the words of a former prisoner who lost his teeth, hair, and religious faith in that prison: "They used to save your soul there. Now they crush it."
Let's admit it: only uncertainty makes us flexible and accepting. Whoever does not doubt is a very dangerous being. He can kill with a steady hand. Just like the jihadists.
Russia and China recently have signed and executed a number of large-scale economic and military agreements - enough to make Russia's own so-called pivot to Asia, and toward the dynamic Chinese economy, seem a success. Multi-billion dollar oil-and-gas agreements and recently concluded Sino-Russian naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea point to strengthening relations between these major Eurasian powers. For Russia, the growing relationship presents many challenges. Foremost among these for the Kremlin is to ensure that such a relationship is balanced, and does not make of Moscow a junior partner to Beijing just as Russia seeks to re-establish its global prominence.
China's vast geopolitical and economic potential certainly entices Moscow - but Russian leaders have to worry that China will seek to use Russia as a means to its own imperial ends. Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda recently interviewed Professor Alexei Maslov, head of the School of Oriental Studies of the National Research University - Russian Higher School of Economics, to put a measure on Russia's tightening embrace with China.
Referring to the Russian agreement to deliver natural gas via pipeline to China for the next several decades, Maslov said "it will cost nearly 1 trillion rubles to build (the pipeline) - but this is a government strategy and we are laying the foundation for an energy relationship for the next 30 years. However, we are not replacing our European deliveries - this project simply augments our existing energy posture."
When KP inquired about the ever-sensitive topic of whether Russia could become a rentier state under China's inevitable economic dominance, Maslov said that in order to change the current economic reality wherein Russia delivers the natural supplies that fuel Chinese consumer technology, "it is necessary to attract Chinese investments in our country, to establish joint ventures. The Russian Direct Investment Fund, for example, has recently transferred to China a number of priority investment projects in which China could invest...such as the construction of strategically important factories, development of land, and raw materials deposits. We are already allowing Beijing to become deeply involved in our economy, and Chinese investments in these areas should be around $20 billion. But so far, Chinese investment during the years of our bilateral cooperation amounts to less than $5 billion. We need a breakthrough."
Can Russia diversify its economy?
When asked to clarify how Russia can change its current economic pattern and emerge with a stronger and more diversified development model, Maslov confirmed the existence of several regional development projects where "China will use its own technology and investments, but 80 percent of products for the construction will be manufactured in Russia. That way, we will get the necessary technology for industrial development - in fact, Russia has finally started doing what China did in the 1980s" to attract foreign investment and spur economic growth. When KP implied that China's recent New Silk Road Initiative could rescue Russia from its current economic crisis, Malsov was dismissive:
"China will only solve its own problems - and we need to look where our interests intersect. For example, this Silk Road is the creation of a huge space that profits China on the territory of many countries. It will include financial cooperation, as well as infrastructure and political integration... and China is willing to fund this gigantic infrastructure to facilitate their access to foreign markets. Our nation is a key component of the initiative, but until recently it competed with Russia's own leadership of the Eurasian Economic Union. This May, we finally were able to create a formula for coordination of these projects. But this Silk Road is not just about the infrastructure - it is a model of a new world order that China offers to all countries."
The Chinese model or the American model?
Maslov said the Chinese model resembles American economic dominance at its height, with the key difference that China will not use it as a vehicle to spread its model of "Confucian socialism" or impose its own ideology. "Soon we may have a situation where China will dictate oil and commodity prices without actually mining for these resources on its own territory. But they want more - and Russia is included in this model to achieve Beijing's goals. Now we need to understand what we ourselves want from China and how to get there," he said.
Lack of academic (and broader) understanding of China as a state is cited as a major gap in Russia's perception of its rapidly developing neighbor. According to Maslov, following the Cold War, Russia was "unprepared for the rapprochement with China. We have very few really knowledgeable specialists on East Asia. Our companies have rushed to China for loans, investments, without realizing that these are not the Europeans, with whom we have a similar way of thinking. There's a totally different business culture and mentality in China." He lamented the fact that the U.S. government, unlike Russia, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1990s on China-centric think tanks, and in the training of specialists.
Maslov dismissed the oft-cited concern that China will absorb Russia economically and might even physically conquer entire regions such as the Russian Far East. But he cautioned that Russia needs to develop its own economy to prevent such a scenario: "We already have several regions that, in essence, only work with China. That is why it is important to build a gas pipeline to China - our social and economic development will follow this project and revitalize the country. If we don't do that, some Russian territories may really go to China - but not through physical capture."
Maslov advocates for closer Russian engagement with China's neighbors - countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. In how own words, in order to prevent Russia and Europe from "losing voice in the coming Sino-American bipolar world order, Russia needs to have closer relations with Europe. We need both East and West."
I will never forget my first trip to Germany.
My father-in-law was at the wheel as we drove across the Polish border into the German state of Brandenburg. The countryside highway was immaculate: Free of potholes and lined with trees for as far as the eye could see. It was crystal clear from the scenery alone that we had entered a very different land.
As we made our way into the nation's capital, I saw two things that shocked me, but for entirely different reasons. The first was a bumpersticker advertising a website called dildoking.de. "Huh, dildoking, that's an interesting German word," I thought to myself. Then, it slowly dawned upon me that it wasn't a German word at all. It was English. And it was two words, not one: Dildo King. Trust me, don't visit that website.
The second shocking thing I saw was a man wearing a shirt that said, "American Military Tour," and it listed many of the cities that U.S. forces had bombed over the past several years. It was not meant to be a compliment.
As it turns out, anti-American sentiment is on the rise in Germany. The Economist recently noted that "anti-Americanism has always been endemic in Germany," mainly on the ex-communist Left. But now, it has become more mainstream. The euroskeptic Alternative für Deutschland party, which has made international headlines for its opposition to the EU and Muslim immigration, is also anti-American.
Anti-Americanism in Germany has become such a problem that it appears to be affecting policy at the highest levels. Many Germans oppose the U.S.-EU free trade deal known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) largely because of anti-Americanism. As the WSJ reports, the same irrational thinking applies to the war in Ukraine, a conflict that is clearly an act of aggression committed by Russia. Despite this, Germans are reluctant to side with Uncle Sam in supporting Ukraine.
Polling has shown a calamitous drop in support for America in Germany. A recent high point, achieved in 2009, was in reaction to the election of Barack Obama. Then, more than 75% of Germans saw America as a trusted partner; today, that number has been cut roughly in half. (A Pew poll on U.S. favorability shows a similar drop, but not nearly as large; the favorability rating dropped from 64% in 2009 to 51% in 2014.) The NSA spying scandal, in which it was revealed that Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone had been tapped, is largely to blame.
German outrage over the incident has now manifested in blatantly anti-American public art displays. In Alexanderplatz, one of my favorite destinations in Berlin, members of the Green Party recently erected statues of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and borderline traitors Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Many Germans find their harmful acts praiseworthy.
From these events, there are two points worth making. First, Germany is so repulsed and guilt-stricken by its Nazi (and then Stasi) past, that it has completely lost its appetite for strong action by either military or national security forces. Thus, the country shies away from taking moral stands on even black-and-white issues, such as the war in Ukraine. And because the U.S. remains the world's only superpower, German angst is directed at us.
Second, then-Senator Barack Obama's campaigning in Berlin, in retrospect, seems rather pointless. Not only do Germans still distrust America, but they provided no electoral votes. Trying to please Europeans, and Germans in particular, is not always time well spent.
The fear of voter anger is pushing European leaders to step back from saving people. Indeed, Europe's heads of state shot big holes in the European Commission's immigration plan concerning refugees in the Mediterranean. Yet however much they may wish it, there is no way to solve the refugee crisis without accepting some electoral risk.
"Last night went to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by a shot of a fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopter gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea around him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter while he sank."
Thus wrote George Orwell in his famous novel 1984, describing a civilization utterly desensitized to scenes of pain and hardship thrown onto other people.
One could be forgiven for thinking that this desensitization has taken hold in Europe as well. As was written here, the EU heads of state considered a plan put forward by the European Commission. The plan on one hand would have dispersed a number of refugees among various EU member states, while on the other hand bombing boats presumably used by people smugglers as they sit empty in Libyan ports.
The 20,000 refugees the Commission proposed be taken in were just 10 percent of the total 200,000 expected to make it to Europe's southern shores this year. Among a European population of about 500 million souls, 20,000 seems insignificant. It translates to 0.004 percent. Yet some countries went ballistic in reaction to the plan. Spain, Hungary, the United Kingdom, France and Poland, among other nations, outright refused to take on their share of refugees.
In some of these nations, refugees from the Third World are not looked upon kindly by voters. In certain Eastern European countries, discrimination against foreigners is rife. Other nations were offended by what they perceived to be an effort by the European Commission to circumvent existing national veto rights on asylum policy, setting a precedent.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that Europe doesn't want the refugees, even though every statistic shows that most European nations are headed for demographic disaster. Too many people are getting older and are soon leaving the labor force, while not enough people are being born to replace them.
Futhermore, having jet fighters strafe dinghies and fishing boats in civilian ports in Libya is a fool's errand. As a Libyan coast guard officer said this week on Dutch television, it would cause more havoc without solving anything. People smugglers would simply fan out to other, smaller ports and use even more dangerous boats. The money is simply too good.
The coast guard officer proposed a far simpler and less deadly plan: Have the European Union buy all unused boats in Libyan ports and then have them destroyed or towed to Europe. There is no doubt that this would probably be a boon to the Libyan boat-building industry and to the officer himself, who helpfully suggested that he could seize the boats in his port and sell them to the Europeans personally.
Nonetheless, it was a plan worth considering. The current Australian prime minister actually proposed the same plan to combat the influx of refugees who come over on boats from Indonesia; but Indonesia would have none of it. There is no doubt about what Jakarta's reaction would have been had Australia proposed strafing boats in Indonesian ports.
It is not yet clear whether the scrapping of the refugee quota proposal now means that the entire plan by the European Commission is off the table. If so, good riddance, because it was a bad plan brought on by a desire to shirk responsibilities - responsibilities such as carrying out true, force-backed nationbuilding in Libya. The European Commission mulled this option over as well, but astonishingly, the idea was politically dead on arrival. The heads of state of the EU member nations - the real power in the union - refused even to discuss it.
And so Europe stumbles on, impotent in the eyes of all the world, while its future lies in the Mediterranean.
There is a larger context that must be considered if we are to understand the struggle with the Islamic State for control of Ramadi. That context is geographical in part and involves the group's control over Fallujah and Mosul, its designs on Anbar Province, and all of the Islamic State's Syrian holdings. The larger issue does not concern only territory, however. It is of vital importance to prevent the Islamic State from establishing an actual, recognizable state to give substance to its declared religious-political caliphate. A state is a government, but a government is not necessarily a state. The Islamic State has established several city, town, and village governments, but these in combination do not constitute a state.
It is imperative to prevent Islamic State from establishing any kind of state. Even a state built initially on war and savagery would become in due course a regime - one that has, as a matter of realistic international diplomacy, a de facto legitimacy because it controls and governs significant territory and looks to be permanent. Gradually, the origin of the ISIS state would become a moot point, as is the case with any revolutionary government that becomes permanent.
As time passes, the psychology of international attitudes would change toward an ISIS state. Its existence, and the necessity of dealing with reality as it is, would become assumptions of international diplomacy. International public opinion would get accustomed to thinking of Islamic State as a proper state, even if it is not part of the so-called international community. (Imagine a certain number of years from now an Islamic State foreign minister taking a seat at an international negotiating table.)
In short, containing the Islamic State writ to local governments is vital, so that destroying it remains a matter of ousting its fighters from given areas, rather than invasion.
Let us imagine how an ISIS regime would be developed. First, the claim of having established a caliphate would be supplemented with a declaration of statehood. As a matter of becoming an established state, ISIS would create a permanent public government with the usual institutions of government (a Cabinet, government ministers, a permanent military, a bureaucracy to administer institutions and policies, a judicial system). In addition to establishing the institutions of a state that might, for example, apply for United Nations membership, ISIS leaders would add the specific, supplementary religious, political, and social dimensions that would wield authority over the entire regime: the caliph himself as a supreme leader, a Sharia council that shares authority with him, and others. The existing clandestine Islamic State caliphate structures are, in other words, a prefiguration of what it would look like as a permanent regime. Finally, to declare a state would appear to be a qualitative leap in Islamic State's success, and this could inspire a new wave of recruits from abroad.
Developing an explicit plan and strategy to contain and destroy the Islamic State is necessary. Everyone knows it will not be easy - it would take years, as President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and our military leaders emphasize. But showing that our military action is not grounded in mere improvisation, which leaves the initiative to the adversary, will get the Islamic State's attention. Putting ISIS on the defensive as often as possible will change the battlefield. Planning efforts, furthermore, should assume that grinding up ISIS will happen in stages, with gains and retreats. ISIS was ousted from Tikrit weeks ago and just took Ramadi this past weekend, for example.
Big regional powers, especially Turkey, must be persuaded that their own interest demands a foray into the fight, militarily as well as politically. The more threatening ISIS becomes to Turkish, Iranian, and Egyptian territory, the greater the pressure to act with military force. Turkey successfully avoided the fight to save Kobani from ISIS. But further down the road its calculation may change. Tehran is already active in Iraq and Syria, in part to keep the Islamic State away from its own borders. The Islamic State, in its long-game maps and ideological declarations, pinpoints the Islamic Republic of Iran as a target country. Saudi Arabia might find itself threatened as well - logically so, because its territory contains the holiest sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina. The Islamic State claims authority over global Islam as a whole, therefore its ultimate goal must be to overthrow the Saudi regime and rule in its stead.
Realistically, in spite of all the dire scenarios that can be conjured, the Islamic State is all but certain to fail and will be destroyed. But the Middle East is changed forever, geopolitically and in human terms. The fundamental issue is how much havoc will be wreaked along the way.
As the U.S. Congress this week continues to debate legislation to address President Barack Obama's proposed nuclear deal with Iran, some critics howl that the bill would usurp presidential authority. They are very wrong.
The Iran Nuclear Review Agreement Act, or S.615, is modest. The measure, introduced by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., sets no negotiating terms, nor does it force the president to define the deal as a treaty subject to approval by two-thirds of the Senate. Instead, it asks the president to submit the proposed agreement and a report to Congress, and then to permit a vote. If the legislature approves the deal, it is done and Obama wins. If it disapproves, Obama can veto the resolution, and Congress likely does not have the votes to override that veto. Again, Obama wins. If Congress fails to vote within 60 days, the agreement, yet again, is approved. Once more, Obama wins.
So what is the big deal? Some observers have gotten it into their heads that the president should have an unfettered hand in foreign affairs.
Steve Coll of the New Yorker recently vented about a 1936 decision in which the Supreme Court endorsed the president's prerogative to lead foreign policy. The court opined that the president alone "has the power to speak or listen as a representative of the nation." According to Coll, the case, U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., "has influenced law and the conduct of foreign policy for almost eight decades," and modern Republicans ignore this history. "They have meddled in unprecedented fashion to undermine President Obama's nuclear diplomacy with Iran," Coll writes.
In fact, the president never has been the sole organ of foreign policy. The U.S. Constitution assigns the president limited powers in foreign affairs. He may receive foreign nations' ambassadors and ministers. He is commander in chief of the Armed Forces, but only when the military is called into service. He also may make treaties "by and with the advice and consent of the Senate."
By contrast, Article I grants Congress the authority to raise and support armies, to provide and maintain a navy, and to declare war. Congress established the Department of State and the Department of War (now the Department of Defense) in 1789. Congress funds these foreign policy agencies, and per the Constitution it has the power to make rules for their operation. The Senate also must approve those the president selects to head these departments and to serve in top diplomatic positions.
The tradition of congressional involvement in foreign policy dates to the start of the republic. George Washington came to the Senate in August 1789. He wanted, as Charlene Bickford recounts in the latest Federal History journal, to discuss with the legislators how to proceed in his dealings with the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks. Washington wanted money and specific instructions on the conditions for negotiating with the tribes. The Senate fell into debate, and the president left, as did Secretary of War Henry Knox. A couple of days later, Washington returned, and a mutually satisfactory arrangement was concluded.
This early instance of consultation in foreign affairs set the template for the future: Foreign affairs was to be a collaborative effort. Both chambers of Congress have foreign affairs committees, and the Senate's dates back to 1816. Members of Congress have been involved in many foreign negotiations. President James Madison appointed congressmen to help negotiate the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. Congressmen participated in the 1945 gathering that produced the United Nations charter.
Presidents and Congress, unsurprisingly, often have found themselves at loggerheads over foreign affairs. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Senate rejected 10 treaties. Sen. Robert Byrd, , D-W.Va., went to Russia in 1979 while the SALT II negotiations were ongoing. Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., traveled along with two other congressmen to Iraq in 2002 to denounce the Bush administration's move to war. That is the nature of things in a system where separate branches share power.
The proposition that the president leads on foreign affairs, and that Congress should not meddle, has matters exactly backward. The Constitution gives all lawmaking authority to Congress and demands the president "take care the law be faithfully executed." Treaties and other diplomatic agreements have the force of law, so Congress has every right to vote to approve their enactment. Let it be remembered, when President Franklin Roosevelt imposed an arms embargo in 1934 that the Curtiss-Wright Export Co. violated, he was drawing upon authority granted to him by an act of Congress.
Raul Castro traveled to the Vatican and met with Pope Francis. Their conversation, behind closed doors, apparently satisfied the Cuban dictator. He declared that, if the Pope stayed the same, "I'll go back to praying and go back to the Church." After all, he added, "I was always in Jesuit schools."
Despite Castro's opportunistic promise of a return to the faith, this was really a meeting between two heads of state, not one between religious brethren. Raul is the president of one of the world's few remaining communist nations, and the Pope, aside from his status as head of Catholicism, is the monarch of a miniscule state legitimized after the Lateran Accords signed in 1929 between Benito Mussolini and a representative of Pius XI.
From a political point of view, these states are two eccentric phenomena with some formal resemblance.
The Pope, as the chief of state, is a kind of king endowed with absolute powers, elected by a small number of cardinals - celibate males, generally elderly. Raul is a president, also endowed with absolute power, supposedly selected by the Council of State (in reality by his brother Fidel), a miniscule group of deputies (many of them military officers) in the National Assembly of the People's Power, whose members are chosen in single-party elections.
Strictly speaking, the authority enjoyed by the two heads of state has nothing to do with the pluralistic and open processes of liberal democracy. That may explain the Vatican's traditional frigidity in the face of an absence of freedoms. That is why concordats with Franco's Spain in 1953 and with Trujillo's bloodstained Dominican Republic in 1954 were acceptable. To neither country did Pope Pius XII demand a change in conduct in order to sign agreements. The objectives of the Church were of another nature.
What are those objectives? The Catholic Church follows three basic imperatives: to spread the Gospel, to educate, and to participate actively and publicly in the moral debate within society. To this, it adds a clear emphasis on the exercise of charity, an activity that functions as the institution's grand earthly mission and as a cohesive element that keeps it united.
The three tasks are intimately linked, but developing any of them requires, at the very least, the neutrality of the state, which forces the institution into a painful obsequiousness - an attitude of complacency toward power that emerged in the Fourth Century after the Edict of Thessalonica dictated by the Emperor Theodosius, the initiator of Caesaropapism. That act transformed the Church. Previously the target of occasional persecution, it became a frequent persecutor.
The Church has since been part of the state or has placed itself next to the state - sometimes in the performance of vile tasks such as those that defined the Inquisition - but it has almost never confronted the state, even when the latter is manifestly criminal. That is not in the Church's nature. Its kingdom, it says, is not of this world.
It is true that Pope Francis has every good intention of helping the Cubans solve many of their material problems. But judging from the jubilation with which Castro has greeted the Pope's mediation and support, the Havana regime sees the Holy See's behavior as a big boost to its political project to consolidate a neo-communist dictatorship with a single party and a mixed economy - an even more conservative variant of the Chinese experiment.
It is likely that the Church's hierarchy in Rome (or Cardinal Jaime Ortega in Cuba) is not excessively worried by the strengthening of a neo-communist model along Chinese ideological lines. (Just as in the past no one in the Vatican lost any sleep over its good relations with Somoza, Trujillo, the Argentine generals, and a shameful etcetera.). But I fear that this could very negatively affect those who aspire to democratic change on the island, similar to what took place in Eastern Europe.
Those Cubans want a transition to a liberal democracy, not to a single-party capitalist dictatorship like the ones in China and Vietnam. Evidently, the Pope is satisfied with that outcome. And that's lamentable.
As another spy scandal involving the U.S. National Security Agency bristles over Europe, one wonders why everybody keeps rubbing up to the snoops at Fort Meade, Maryland. The truth is simple: The United States has for decades put its money where its mouth is. The Americans invested big in intelligence gathering. It is high time others do the same.
"If you're good at something, never do it for free." So said The Joker in the movie The Dark Knight, in response to gangsters who had asked him why he had not already killed Batman.
The Joker's motto could well be that of any country's intelligence agency, as we witnessed again last week in the spy scandal that has electrified German politics. German magazine Der Spiegel reported that the the country's intelligence organization, the BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst), and the German government have for years allegedly helped the United States spy on German companies - and even on European politicians and institutions.
The revelations sparked outrage both in Germany and outside the country. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is directly responsible for the BND. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, Merkel's coalition partner but a political rival, lashed out publicly at Merkel. Meanwhile, the German national prosecutor's office is seriously considering an investigation that may well prove a political threat to the still-popular Merkel.
Why would Merkel condone the snooping on German companies and politicians, as the media reports convincingly allege? Merkel herself hails from East Germany, the former communist German Democratic Republic, where the spooks of the Stasi spy agency eavesdropped on hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens. So why would the chancellor, of all people, keep silent on the troubling alliance between the NSA and the BND?
The fact is that the NSA does such a great job snooping that allied agencies go to great lengths to stay connected to its impressive data repository. No other country over the past 50 years has spent as much on signal intelligence gathering as has the United States. In the post-9/11 environment, the simple truth is that the free world cannot do without the NSA.
Spyworld lives by the quid pro quo. If you cannot give the NSA something they need or value, then you move to the back of the queue at its data shop - if you remain in line at all. Spy bosses everywhere know this.
Take the Netherlands, for instance. Despite an edgy political scandal that erupted in 2014 because of alleged illegal data sharing between its national agency, the AIVD, and the NSA, the government recently proposed expanding the AIVD's digital eavesdropping capabilities. And just last week, France's National Assembly granted its spy agencies the most far-reaching snooping capabilities in the nation's history. It is no accident that one of the provisions in the proposed Dutch law and the new French one are about allowing agencies to collect metadata in bulk.
As far as this writer knows, there is only one organization in the world that has the hardware to crunch all that raw data: the NSA. Because of this, the recent spy scandals involving the NSA and allied intelligence agencies are certain not to be the last.
This may change when European nations get serious about setting up their own variants of the NSA. The idea of the European Union's own version of the NSA is sometimes dusted off at dinner tables in Brussels, but the fact that no government has yet been willing to defer powers of its own intelligence agency to another governing institution probably shows the validity of another truism in spyland: All that friendly allied cooperation is just window dressing.
If you're good at something, never do it for free.
Sunday was a Sunday for Tories in Britain. Clouds metaphorical and meteorological had broken in the capital, leaving 20-odd degrees of celsius in the air, 100 days of tax cuts on the horizon, and five years of Conservative Party rule secured on the calendar.
The shock of Thursday's electoral result, which had delivered an outright majority to the Conservative Party against every prognostication except perhaps that of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, had shifted to euphoria in Tory circles, and to despair on the other side. Commentary quickly circled round to talk of Britain's role in the world - this part was expected, even after an election in which foreign policy had played little part. Everyone knows now without a doubt that a referendum on the United Kingdom's EU membership is coming - it will be in Prime Minister David Cameron's Queen's Speech on May 27. As if there could be any doubt, voices on the party's right immediately began clamoring for the referendum.
While many contemplate worst-case scenarios, the commentary is basted in optimism in some of the more blinkered Tory corners- on broadcast and in print, some enunciated a conviction that David Cameron now is poised to deliver for Britain. He can face down European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and talk to German Chancellor Angela Merkel from a position of strength; he has a strong mandate from the British people. Indeed, David Cameron may be Europe's next great statesman.
Well...maybe. Or, maybe the adrenaline is flowing faster than reason can keep up. Cameron indeed has that chance. But it will not be easy.
As anyone knows who followed the election, the upcoming Parliament will face questions that cut to the core of British identity and national interest. The country's membership in the European Union will indeed be put to a vote by the end of 2017, and a breakup of the United Kingdom itself is still possible.
With no coalition partner to serve as a useful foil the way Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats did for five years, this all now lands firmly on Cameron's desk. Domestic concerns aside, the prime minister's legacy will be created as much in Brussels and in Scotland as anywhere else. And Cameron, who does not wish his country to leave the European Union, much less to see it fragment into its constituent parts, faces constraints that will become more obvious as his government moves forward - constraints placed on him by his electorate and his party, by his European counterparts, and by the effects of his own maladroit handling of the European question.
The political landscape in two years' time
The moment of jubilation is understandable. The Conservative Party pulled 331 seats from a volatile electorate in a vote that served as a referendum on Cameron's leadership. But to understand how quickly constituents could sour on Cameron II, one need only put that number into 650 - the total number of seats in the House of Commons - and look at the map on this page. With no coalition partner, Cameron rules the whole of his nation by a mere five-seat majority - a margin acquired with the votes of 37 percent of Britons - and he only truly represents the southern half of it.
Former Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, who returns to Westminster as a Member of Parliament, let it be known just how obstreperous the Scottish opposition will be when he said in an interview that the Tory majority would "erode and change" within months. Salmond's relative clairvoyance aside, the Liberal Democrats have served as a brake on the more controversial elements of the Tory agenda for the last five years. With the opposition routed and the Conservatives freed up for a more vigorous pursuit of their priorities, it is not difficult to imagine Cameron's personal popularity taking a hit in the months and years to come. He has political capital now, undoubtedly. But how quickly, and how wisely, will he and his party spend it?
Why this matters to Europe
What has to worry the pro-European side is that, in a nation where the opposition has for now lost its footing, the answer to that question may be more relevant to Europe's future than it is to the Tories' near-term electoral prospects. David Cameron said that he would renegotiate Britain's relationship with the European Union, then sell that new settlement to his voters at the referendum. He will split his own party in doing so, facing pressure from his right, as well as from Labour's far left, and a UKIP that is not going away. The stay-in-Europe campaign was always going to get the backing of Britain's biggest political and business figures. The singularity of the general election vote, and the disarray of all other parties except a troublesome SNP, means that David Cameron can likely count on being the face of the pro-Europe campaign.
But first he has to get his deal from Europe. What Cameron wants has never been entirely clear, but Simon Hix outlined the basics:
Originally Cameron sent a list of demands that were about reforming the free movement of people, more powers for national parliaments, some limitations on the ECHR - which has nothing to do with the EU - a free trade agreement with the United States, protecting Britain's interests in the single market, a reform agenda for the single market, for a liberalizing agenda, and so forth.
The sticking point for Cameron is that a lot of his backbenchers want treaty reform for purely symbolic reasons. It's not clear why he wants treaty reform, maybe he's hoping there could be a sort of British opt-out from ever-closer union, some purely symbolic statement that says article such-and-such does not apply to the UK. It seems bizarre to the rest of Europe, but it's symbolic politics here in Britain.
It's impossible for there to be a new treaty by 2017. There may not even be treaty reform; most members don't want to open up the pandora's box of renegotiating the treaty.
Cameron has strained natural alliances in Europe, starting with his decision to take his party out of the staunchly pro-Europe EPP grouping in the European Parliament. And in Europe there are no guarantees anymore - and there is much ambiguity on Britain. Many Europeans see themselves as onlookers to a purely British drama - one that Britain must bring to an end itself. As Hix also pointed out, there are plenty in Europe who are happy to let Britain drift politely away. Any idea that a deal will come easy reflects Britain's growing parochialism: "We elected this man and send him to you with a mandate from the British people." Fine. Just ask Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis how much that's worth.
This is where statesmanship comes in. Cameron and his European counterparts surely recognize the importance of this moment, for Britain and for the European project. The United Kingdom is famously aloof - in the European Union but not of it. Its relationship with the European institutions is unique and has been tested in the past. As Robert Kaplan has written, Europe sits astride an arc of fire, and as its many crises spread, one of its main problems is that "European leaders are, in the main, gray, insipid ciphers who stand for little except finessing rather than dealing with the next crisis, and the next."
Cameron can be different. He has a chance to be bold - to talk to Europe, stand up to his own party, and deliver what used to be a clear message: Europe is better when unified, and Britain is stronger as part of that arrangement. Deliver it with confidence, whatever the domestic political conditions are, because it happens to be true. A British "yes" to Europe - an affirmation from a nettlesome partner at a time of deep crisis - could lend some much-needed muscle to the weakening decades-long project to keep Europe united, peaceful, and prosperous. A "no" to Europe could catalyze a chain reaction toward the disintegration of the European Union, and of the United Kingdom as well. The predictions of doomsayers may yet prove too dire - it is too early to tell. What is sure is that David Cameron will not be a cipher - he will leave a legacy. The job ahead of him will not be easy. Who does David Cameron want to be?
Concession speeches by politicians in America generally go something like this:
I called my opponent to offer my congratulations. [Crowd boos.] Though we didn't win this fight, I know our values are America's values. [Yay!] I will continue to fight hard for you. [Yay!] God bless America! [Yay!]
Notice that, despite losing, most American concession speeches somehow work in a humblebrag. There is also usually an implicit sentiment that the losing campaign was in reality far superior to the winning one, and that he really ought to have won if it weren't for all the knaves and buffoons who voted for his opponent. Finally, there is a nearly blasphemous appeal to the Almighty as a way to garner one final, cheap ovation from the adoring crowd, after which the defeated candidate prances off the stage, hand-in-hand with his spouse, pumping his fist in faux enthusiasm.
Now, compare that to the concession speech of Ed Miliband, the main opposition candidate to Prime Minister David Cameron:
Friends, this is not the speech I wanted to give today because I believe that Britain needed a Labour government. I still do, but the public voted otherwise last night... I take absolute and total responsibility for the result and our defeat of this election. I'm so sorry for all of those colleagues who lost their seats...
First of all, Mr. Miliband looked sick to his stomach. Though he expressed hope for and belief in the future of Labour and its ideas, there was no faux enthusaism. Here stood a man who was able to admit that he and his party had been thoroughly beaten. Then, he takes personal responsibility for the outcome and, amazingly, uses the word "sorry." Sorry? That word isn't even in American politicos' lexicon. And, as expected, he resigned from leading the Labour Party.
Also, consider the concession speech given by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister whose party, the Liberal Democrats, served as the junior partner in a coalition with the Conservative government. Mr. Clegg expressed sorrow that many talented friends and colleagues were booted from Parliament, and he accepted that the election was "immeasurably more crushing and unkind than I can ever have feared." And, as expected, he resigned from leading the Liberal Democrats.
How foreign this is to American voters! British politicians actually apologize, admit bitter defeat, and, most importantly, resign from leadership. That final point is worth pondering.
American politicians never seem to resign. Ever. Most are political careerists who treasure power more than integrity. American politicians only seem to resign when facing incessant media mockery or legal indictments. In Britain, losing an election is sufficient for a politician to bow out of his party's leadership. Actually, it's not uncommon in many countries for prime ministers to resign if they lose key votes in parliament.
In stark contrast, American politicians often hold onto power until it's pried out of their cold, rigor mortis-stricken hands. For instance, it is absolutely stunning that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid -- both of whom had their clocks cleaned in 2010 and 2014, respectively -- are still leading the Democratic party. Due to their lust for power, they haven't the decency to step aside to allow a colleague to steer the ship in a new direction. Such self-centeredness would not stand in Britain. It is not honorable.
The aftermath of the British general election should serve as a model for American politicians. It should also serve as a reminder that the country from which we revolted nearly 240 years ago still has a thing or two to teach us about government.
The people have spoken - magnificently. Contrary to all expectations, an absolute majority for the Conservative Party emerged at the UK General Election held on May 7.
One of the causes of this was the remarkable collapse in support for the Conservatives' minority partner in the 2010-2015 governing Coalition. Savagely cut from 56 seats to 8, the Liberal Democrats indeed emerged as the biggest casualty of the election.
The second biggest casualty is the polling industry. There isn't enough humble pie in all the land for the pundits - from which I do not exempt myself! Lord Ashcroft performed what we all thought was a fantastic public service in spending millions on the most sophisticated polling program this country has ever seen: The return on that investment looks rather questionable now.
What was foreseen, and was realized in spades, was the success of the Scottish National Party. Driven by a remarkably resilient mix of nationalism and grievance, they managed at this election (even more than they did during the recent referendum on independence) to ride two horses at once. The SNP portrayed an upbeat optimism about the sunny uplands that would blossom under Scottish self-rule, while maintaining their more traditional, dour, chestbeating resentment of what they portray as a perpetually anti-Scottish Westminster (a resentment wholly impervious to any facts to the contrary) - a faraway government from which, despite fully and skilfully partaking in its games, they portray themselves as being apart.
To make this ironic point about the SNP's professional political status even more stark, the party's rise to overwhelming success in Scotland (now holding 56 of the 59 available seats) was driven in part by their possession of not one but two of the country's most impressive politicians: current leader Nicola Sturgeon, who emerged as a remarkably strong performer in the campaign despite not even being a candidate for a seat in Westminster, and Alex Salmond, the former party leader who has now returned to Westminster. More than anyone, Salmond has transformed British politics in this generation as he pushed his movement from the fringe to the mainstream.
Incidentally, one feature often remarked upon about the modern SNP movement is the army of "cybernats." These online activists may or may not actually be members of the party, or even aligned with the SNP, but they certainly demonstrate some of the more charmless aspects of nationalism: thuggish bile and aggression delivered toward any criticism of them or their movement; persistent assertion of an apparent (and apparently superior) uniqueness in their character and nature, which excludes both participation in and understanding of their politics by others; and a high-handed, immediate dismissal of any "outsider" who dares to comment on their nationalist movement - such will no doubt manifest itself in the comments here.
The Rough Justice of Britain's Voting System
In any case, a real question about our voting system re-emerges as a result of the election. The system suits an environment in which two parties predominate, but the fragmenting of our party landscape produces results many find hard to justify. With 4.7 percent of the national vote, the SNP got 56 Members of Parliament. UKIP got 12.6 percent of the vote - and one MP. That's the rough justice of First Past the Post - but as support for so-called minor parties continues to grow, just how rough can we allow that justice to be?
(That said, the United Kingdom held a referendum on an alternative voting system during the last Parliament; the case for reform was overwhelmingly defeated.)
An outright triumph
Returning to party political issues, Cameron's triumph is difficult to overstate. He has led his party since 2005; now he will face a wholly new crop of opponents, as all of his main rivals - Ed Miliband of Labour, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage of UKIP - promptly resigned their party leaderships after the election results came in. Meanwhile, the leaders who remain in post - Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP, Natalie Bennett of the Greens, and Leanne Wood, socialist republican leader of the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru party - are not even in parliament. Two of them did not seek seats at this election. As an added bonus, former Labour Chancellor Ed Balls - something of a bête noir for the prime minister and for his close ally, Chancellor George Osborne - also lost his seat.
It is unfashionable to say so, but Nigel Farage's (temporary?) departure from the stage is to be lamented. Not just because it removes a character of great color and verve from the national stage, and not just because he speaks clearly and passionately for a hitherto voiceless part of our population. Most of all, Farage's departure is to be lamented because - notwithstanding the Conservative victory this week - if the broad right-of-center movement is to prevail in the United Kingdom, then in the long term, the rift on the political right must be healed. A City trader and an ex-Tory from the south, Farage's natural home is within a broad-church conservative party - a fact he sometimes hints at when talking about how it was the Tory Party that changed, not him. Farage's successor is very unlikely to be such a figure. Whether or not the party falls into post-election disarray, as some predict, his successor will most likely be much more absolutist, less inclined to reconciliation, probably less Tory in his soul. Farage is a man with whom a deal can be done. Most likely, his successor will not be.
So: what is to come in the new Parliament? A referendum on Britain's membership of the EU in due course. As I have discussed here before, securing long overdue boundary changes must sit very high on the agenda in the new Parliament - most likely in the first hundred days, when Cameron's political capital is strongest.
Within the parliamentary Conservative Party, it is time for the leadership to promote some figures on the party's political right for the sake of party unity. This is now all the more important given the fact that, because the Tories now govern as a single party, Cameron's second-term majority is actually smaller. Candidates should include Andrea Leadsom and Priti Patel (who have been generally loyal and are easy to promote); Graham Brady, Liam Fox, and Dominic Raab (for various reasons, these three are trickier); and finally, trickiest of all, Cameron's opponent for party leadership back in 2005, David Davis - now the standard bearer of the right.
There are policy issues that will promptly threaten the unity of the Conservative Party in government, too. The absence of the Liberals will almost certainly mean yet another attempt to introduce the Snoopers' Charter - which reflects the desire by government to retain data on the telephone calls, web browsing activity, and emails of British citizens. The charter treats us all as suspects and reverses the presumption of innocence. The proposal, beloved by power-grabbing bureaucrats, was defeated not once but three times in the course of the last Parliament. It splits some of the more libertarian-inclined party members - including, obviously, your correspondent - from the authoritarian securocrats who doggedly push this agenda.
Putting ideology to one side, in governing alone now instead of in coalition, Cameron is presented with a management problem. No longer needing to provide Liberal Democrats with ministerial roles, Cameron has 20 new jobs to allocate - and 100 MPs who are sure that they deserve them.
The appointment of defeated former Coalition ministers will attract accusations of cronyism, but that is misplaced. For government to work, patronage is essential to power - and not just for those on the up; the foot soldiers must see that a leadership rewards loyalty by rescuing the fallen, as well.
And what next for the left? They are in something of a quandary. Tony Blair had it right when he said that he suspected that the election would be a contest between a traditional left-wing party and a traditional right-wing party - with the traditional result. Anyone who thinks that Labour lost because they were not left-wing enough needs to examine the record. Leaving aside John Smith, who sadly died before he could contest an election while in the top job, Labour's last six leaders - Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Blair, Brown, and Miliband - can only boast three election victories between them; all three were won by the centrist Blair.
But all of this is "inside the beltway" analysis. Consider the big picture: It is all good for the Conservative Party and for the conservative movement. The victory in raw political combat is complete: Three opposition leaders felled in a day. Now the march of political ideas must resume, at a much higher tempo. Public spending must be reduced. Taxes must be cut. A referendum on our membership of the European Union must be held. For this was the clear and unambiguous agenda of the Conservative Party, and that agenda has prevailed. While aggressively opposed by a noisy, metropolitan, self-appointed elite, these policies have been unambiguously supported by our countrymen. These policies must be enacted. An election result this clear cannot mean otherwise.
Britain's general election on Thursday is one of the most unpredictable in recent memory. Taking a broader view, the vote itself is but the latest step in a fast-moving process of redefining Britain's role in Europe. A referendum on EU membership is likely to take place no matter who takes office at 10 Downing Street (only Britain's political right explicitly wants one). But even if the British people choose not to step out of the union - even if indeed they never do get the chance - it is already clear that British leadership and influence within Europe have taken a drubbing in recent years.
RealClearWorld caught up with Simon Hix, head of the government department at the London School of Economics, to discuss a potential "Brexit" - a British exit from the European Union. The below interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
After the election, what position will the various parties take toward a referendum on Britain's EU membership?
Hix: First off, the Conservatives and UKIP are the only ones saying that they would definitely have a referendum. Having said that, the Lib Dems have announced that if they were in a position to go into government, it wouldn't be one of their red lines. There's growing support among the Lib Dems to have a referendum just to get it over with.
On the other side, Labour are opposed to it, but here's the situation when you think about all the scenarios after the election: With a Conservative majority government, we're going to get a referendum. A Conservative minority government will propose a referendum bill, and that will probably pass. I think there are sufficient Labour backbenchers and Liberal Democrats now who want a referendum. And I'll come back to that.
In a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, if it's a majority, I think they'd propose it and it would get passed. Under a Labour coalition with the Lib Dems, if that coalition has a majority, I think we would not see a referendum. Only if Labour has a majority, or if Labour has a majority with the Lib Dems, those are the only conditions under which I think we won't get a referendum. In a Labour minority government, the Conservatives would propose it as a private members bill, like they did in the last Parliament. The private members bill in the last Parliament got 304 votes in favor and 0 votes against, because Labour and Lib Dem leadership were too scared to whip their members to vote against it. So, you can imagine Labour in a minority government situation. The Conservatives deliberately propose it; they've already got Conservative support; they can count on UKIP support; the SNP I think would be split, because I think there's a bunch of SNP members who think that if we have a referendum and England votes to leave and Scotland votes to stay, we're going to get a second referendum on Scottish Independence. And then there are a bunch of Labour backbenchers - there's euroskeptic backbenchers who want it, there's pro-European Labour backbenchers who want it. Euroskeptics want it for obvious reasons. Pro-European backbenchers are saying let's have the referendum now, because we think we are going to win it. The opinion polls have been moving back toward the EU for the last six months.
Is there substantial and sustained movement back toward Europe?
Hix: I think it's hard to know that it's substantial or sustained, but it definitely looks like the opposition turned a corner. Four, five months ago, it was clear that if we had a vote, the majority would vote to leave. That was in the YouGov monthly referendum tracker. But since then, it's interesting how it's shifted. The rise of UKIP has raised a real question for moderate voters, who are kind of fashionably anti-European. Now they see (UKIP leader Nigel) Farage, and they think, "Oh, if I'm opposed to Europe, does that mean I agree with Farage? Maybe I'm actually pro-European." For a lot of moderate voters who never really thought about this issue, the rise of UKIP has made it more salient. It's made them think, "Actually, I'm not crazy, and the people I trust tend to be pro-European, and therefore I'm not anti-European."
There's a lot of other things going too. I think there are a lot of Conservative backbenchers who want the referendum early; they don't want to wait until 2017. They want to say that the sooner we have it, the sooner we can get it over with. Business uncertainty is one issue, and they also want to lance the boil of UKIP. The sooner the better.
Labour, it's a similar argument among the backbenchers - pro-European and anti-European. If we're going to have it, let's have it early, and the sooner we have it, the sooner we can split the Conservatives. So let's have it now and put the Conservatives in a difficult position. So you can see, for strategic reasons, I think there is probably a majority in the House of Commons in favor of a referendum.
So for everyone's own domestic political prerogatives, we're well down the road toward a referendum.
Hix: My bet is we will have a referendum in 2017.
What's the lead-up to that going to look like? And how is the United Kingdom going to talk to Europe in the meantime?
Hix: Cameron has made a bunch of demands. And then he made another speech in November where the whole list of demands he made were narrowed down to just immigration, and the immigration demands he talked about were actually pretty narrow, and he didn't ask for an emergency brake, i.e. a block on the absolute numbers coming into the country. What he asked for was a limit on access to benefits. And he actually asked for limits on access to benefits that are lower than the limits that now Germany and Denmark are asking for. So it's not hard for the EU to come up with a reform on the 2014 directive on the free movement of people that would actually meet what Britain demands.
And if that happens will the momentum for a referendum slow?
Hix: I think the other way around. I think if that happens, I think the idea is, let's have a referendum because now we can win it. We asked for it, we got it, let's have a referendum. We're now in a different EU, is the argument.
How did we get to this moment?
Hix: Originally Cameron sent a list of demands that were about reforming the free movement of people, more powers for national parliaments, some limitations on the ECHR - which has nothing to do with the EU - a free trade agreement with the United States, protecting Britain's interests in the single market, a reform agenda for the single market, for a liberalizing agenda, and so forth. Looking back on this you can say, an FTA with America, well, that's TTIP and that's going to carry on being negotiated. Some restrictions on the free movement of people, the Commission could well propose something in 2016. As regards a liberalizing agenda, I think the UK government ironically is now pretty happy with this Commission, the direction it's travelling, cutting red tape. On preserving the interests of the City of London, well they've got a British commissioner for financial services.
The sticking point for Cameron is that a lot of his backbenchers want treaty reform for purely symbolic reasons. It's not clear why he wants treaty reform, maybe he's hoping there could be a sort of British opt-out from ever-closer union, some purely symbolic statement that says article such-and-such does not apply to the UK. It seems bizarre to the rest of Europe, but it's symbolic politics here in Britain.
It's impossible for there to be a new treaty by 2017. There may not even be treaty reform; most members don't want to open up the pandora's box of renegotiating the treaty.
If whoever is prime minister gets these concessions but no treaty reform, is that enough? Is the British electorate into anything more than the symbols?
Hix: Not really, but I think there's enough there for whoever's in power to say, we have a new EU and we have a new relationship of Britain to the EU. And in a very tight, 50-50 split public, that can swing 5 to 10 percent of people to the pro side, and that would be sufficient. And I think that's the situation most of the political elite in this country are operating on.
There's a big danger though, isn't there. Scotland already was closer than they thought, and here, opinion is already split 50-50. Anything could happen.
Hix: There's a confidence that people are status-quo biased. There's growing sentiment among pro-Europeans to say, well, bring it on. We think we can win this. We'll have the business community in favor, we'll have the trade union movement in favor, we'll have all the mainstream parties in favor; we can win this. We'll be up against UKIP and some loony Tory backbenchers and some crazy left-wingers, and the crazy right-wing press - that's the worry. (The opposition campaign) will be full-on about freedom, but there'll be a large chunk of that campaign that will be basically racism.
How would a referendum work?
Hix: They have to pass a bill through Parliament. And they will probably set up a "Britain for Yes" campaign and a "Britain for No" campaign, and there will be public money and some kind of rules set up governing access to media and slots on TV. The Conservatives will probably say there's no whip, because they know they will be split, so their politicians could go off. Some prominent politician would have to come forward as the leader of the campaign to leave the EU, and it would not be Nigel Farage. They would want it to be a prominent backbench Conservative who is anti-European. And they would have to find some Labour people who are anti-European as well to join them. The Yes campaign would essentially be very senior figures in all the mainstream parties.
(It will resemble) what we had in 1975. In 1975, we had the bulk of the Conservative party on the Yes, to stay, and we had Labour split. The No campaign was the left wing of Labour, plus a few odds and sods from the right of the Conservative party. But it was overwhelmingly the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats, and the moderate wing of Labour on the "stay in" campaign. It will be the same now, but flipped. Because in the 1970s, the EU represented liberalization of Britain's social democracy. Now it represents market regulations through the backdoor against plucky Britain.
Do you think there's an understanding of what Britain stands to lose, strategically, by being outside of the EU? The loss of influence, the loss of a check over France and Germany, anything like that?
Hix: The No side will run a campaign that says the EU costs us money in terms of what we pay into the EU budget, and we don't get enough back. We don't need to subsidize our farmers, so why does the EU do that? We can get rid of all this red tape. We can compete globally. We trade only about 45 percent with the rest of the EU, the bulk is with rest of the world. The growing markets are in China and India and Latin America. Why be hamstrung by the EU? We will have a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, maybe establish some rules on the free movement of people, but we'll be able to have an independent sovereign brake on that. They'll articulate a campaign that doesn't sound too terrifying.
The Yes campaign will say this is a jump into the unknown. If we leave the EU, they aren't going to let us back in. And they aren't going to let us have market access to the EU. And we'll end up having to apply to all of the EU's regulations to get access to the single market, like Norway does, like Switzerland does. Fifty percent of our GDP is integrated with the single market. For us to be able to carry on trading with the single market, we'd have to apply the EU's rules whether we like it our not.
Those arguments are all about economics though.
Hix: In the British debate, it will come down to that.
Since we're more than likely headed toward a referendum, if you're a Europhile, what coalition would you like to see?
Hix: If all I cared about was Britain's membership of the EU, here is a nightmare scenario: Labour comes to power with a minority government. Cameron is sacked as leader of the Tory party. Theresa May gets elected as leader of the Conservative party. The Conservatives officially adopt a position of Britain leaving the EU. Labour eventually gets bullied into having a referendum, two years into a very unpopular Labour government. The Yes campaign is Labour and the Lib Dems, whom everybody hates. And the No campaign is a Tory party on the rise and UKIP. That's a Europhile nightmare scenario.
If all you care about is keeping Britain in Europe, you'd want (the most recent Conservative-Lib Dem) coalition to carry on. Either a Conservative-Lib Dem majority, or a Labour majority, or a Labour-Lib Dem majority, so they can stop a referendum.
How are Europe's other leaders going to manage relations with Britain, after this election, in the run-up to a possible referendum?
Hix: I've been a lot to Brussels and the other European capitals, and there's a deep frustration I sense among the rest of Europe, saying Britain just needs to make a decision. This is a British issue, and Britain needs to resolve it. There's a difference not just across countries but within countries. In France and Germany, the center-right don't want Britain to leave, but the center-left couldn't really care. Britain leaves, so what? Anglo-Saxon bankers who screwed the world economy, Britain is always going to protect its own financial interests - that's the kind of narrative you hear from the left in Paris and the left in Berlin. Scandinavia, the Benelux, and the center-right in Germany and France, as well as the center-right in Eastern Europe, are saying we really don't want Britain to leave. But they're not willing to give Britain very much to make them stay.
Cameron has also pissed off a lot of people who are his natural allies. He's not only pissed off (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel, he's also pissed off the Scandinavians. (Former Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik) Reinfeldt was a close personal friend of Cameron's, but he was furious when Cameron left the European People's Party grouping in the European Parliament. (Former Polish Prime Minister and current President of the European Council) Donald Tusk is exactly the same. Tusk, Reinfeldt, and Cameron had this strategy to create an AngloScandic-East European, liberal Atlanticist bloc within the EPP to act as a counterweight to the FrancoGerman, more corporatist, more Euro-defense-oriented bloc. Cameron leaves and suddenly he pushes Tusk and Reinfeldt into the arms of Merkel. Poland has been an ally of the United Kingdom, but UKIP's anti-Polish rhetoric is like a red rag to a bull with Tusk, because that plays so badly in Poland. Tusk can't possibly be seen as being close to Cameron. So you can see how Poland is being pushed into Germany's orbit.
Take Alexander Stubb, (former) Finnish prime minister: He's anglophile, he's married to a Brit, his kids are dual nationals, he has his PhD from the London School of Economics, speaks fluent English. He's a classic Scandinavian, Anglophile, center-right liberal; a natural ally for Cameron. Yet he cannot be seen to be anywhere near Cameron, because the UK Conservatives sit with the True Finns in the European Parliament. And the True Finns not only are more loony than UKIP - they have as one of their major policies the withdrawing of language rights for the Swedish minority in Finland, and Alexander Stubb is a Swedish minority.
You could see all of this in the "Stop Juncker" campaign. Cameron said we're gonna stop Jean-Claude Juncker (from becoming head of the European Commission), and he was totally convinced of his power to stop Juncker. And he went to this summit, I think in Stockholm, and there were Merkel, and Reinfeldt, and Alex Stubb, all these center-right politicians, as well as Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who is center-left but Anglophile. These Scandinavians are all very pro-British, but they all one-by-one said to Cameron: "You cannot stop Juncker." And it was a slap in the face. Collectively they all stopped him.
This sort of fits the framework of a country that has turned its back on having a coherent foreign policy.
Hix: Well, this is the point, I think Britain has become very parochial. Not just in Europe but in the world. I don't know what it is. We're stepping back from our global role, but it's a sort of arrogance too, an assumption that the rest of the world is going to do what we want it to, without having to engage. We just assume that Britain is enormously influential because the world speaks English. There's no understanding of our rapidly declining power. And the more we turn away from global issues, the more it's going to redouble the reduction of our global influence.
Violent protests have broken out in the Central African nation of Burundi following the ruling party's decision to nominate the current President, Pierre Nkurunziza, to run for a third term. Many consider Nkrunziza's move to be unconstitutional, as the presidency is limited to two terms. Yet the president and his party, Conseil National pour la Defense de la Democratie - Forces pour Defense de la Democratie (CNDD-FDD) argue he is eligible to run because he was first elected by members of Parliament, not through a popular vote.
Politically driven judicial decisions to extend presidential terms, or to use legal levers to increase the number of allowable terms by altering constitutions, are not new, in Africa or elsewhere. And no matter where it happens - think Venezuela, Burma or Syria, for example - it always ends badly. Authoritarian systems emerge, and security forces are manipulated to protect those in power, effectively ensuring the development of a police-state. Inevitably, the security forces become economically entrenched. Often, if not properly managed by the Beloved Leader, those forces look for a way to run the whole show.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome, manipulating constitutions always creates extraordinary insecurity. Last fall, Blaise Campaore tried to amend Burkina Faso's constitution so he could remain in the president's office. The effort ended in a coup d'etat. Now we have the constitutional shenanigans in Burundi -the most recent example of how leaders who choose to overstay their welcome bring even more unrest and instability to their countries.
Politicians staying on after their expiration date and personality-driven rather than idea-based leadership are two major governance challenges afflicting Africa as well as other parts of the world. And when dictatorial leaders head the foremost regional body (in this case, Robert Mugabe helming the African Union), it is unrealistic to expect democratic change from the top. Indeed, it actually inspires and empowers leaders aspiring to president-for-life status those to stay in office illegally.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden recently commended Nigeria's electoral process and incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan's peaceful acceptance of defeat as a strong democratic example for Africa. While Nigeria is a critical country, there was also enormous pressure on the country's leadership to be accountable to the will of the Nigerian people at the ballot box. Boasting Africa's largest population and economy, Nigeria's progress toward establishing a strong democratic tradition is important to the continent. But as long as Nigeria's smaller, less populous neighbors continue in the vein of rule by so-called strongmen, the continent will not and cannot live up to the Africa Rising narrative.
Rwanda & Zimbabwe
Consider Rwanda. Its remarkable economic progress could stand as an inspiring example to other countries in Africa that are not endowed with a wealth of resources. Yet concerns over current President Paul Kagame's leadership and his rumored desire to remain in office for an extended period of time show that democratic maturity can remain hard to achieve even in countries that appear to be making great strides forward. Zimbabwe was in much the same situation in the 1980s, and that story ended in a broken and repressed country rather than a prosperous democracy.
And now Burundi
Nkurunziza's move to run for a third term in Burundi is deeply polarizing. The opposition sees Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD as violating the Arusha Accords, the agreement that ended the country's bloody, 13-year-long civil war. In a mature system, the opposition might view the president's legal maneuvering as a political plus - a chance to live on the side of democracy and peel off additional support from those disturbed by the president's gimmick-based bid to retain power. Yet in Burundi, the story is not likely to play out that way.
If the CNDD-FDD is willing to blow off the constitutional limits and play by its own rules to run Nkurunziza for a third term, it will likely have no compunction about distorting the electoral field. Opportunities to manipulate the vote under the threat of violence will likely tip the electoral scales in favor of the ruling party. If Nkurunziza cannot be pressured into abandoning his candidacy, he will likely win.
The United States has condemned the actions of Nkurunziza and his party. But the American track record of supporting those who seek to play by the rules of the democratic game has been spotty of late. (Witness the abandonment of the democratic opposition in Cuba.) While it's surely important for the Washington to support democratizers across the globe, the situation in Burundi gives Africa's democratic leaders an important opportunity to stand for democratic institutions across the continent, not just the systems they have helped to build in their own countries.
While African countries need more concession phone calls like the one Goodluck Jonathan made last month, they also need strong legal systems to peacefully handle constitutional matters, independent electoral oversight bodies, strong and independent media to hold leaders accountable, and a vibrant civil society that can use these institutions to check and balance the various centers of power within a country. Leaders like Nkurunziza should recognize that leadership opportunities extend beyond the presidency and that a nation's growth often requires new leadership.
Are Britain's Christians a Constituency?
When I was young the cool thing for Christians to do was to wear WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) wrist bands with pride. It was a mark of devotion, as well as hopefully a reminder of how one should strive to live. I never wore one - I was not that cool - but vividly remember a friend returning to Britain from the United States with a bag full of bands and assorted WWJD paraphernalia.
During this election season in the United Kingdom, one question that has been doing the rounds is ‘What Would Jesus Vote?'
Surveys by the Evangelical Alliance have shown a very high level of political engagement among evangelical Christians, nine out of 10 plan to vote in May's election. But there is absolutely no Christian consensus on which party to support. So what factors determine the way Christians vote in Great Britain?
The differences between the United Kingdom and the United States when it comes to religion in politics are even greater than the relative appetite for low-brow Jesus-themed merchandise: My friend failed to offload the goods he returned with - maybe it was not so cool after all, at age 17, to own a battery-powered WWJD fan. In a like manner, political debate in Britain does not rally the Christian faithful to the banner of any one party, in the way the Republican Party have managed over the past few decades in America.
Party leaders in the United Kingdom tend to come across a bit awkward when they try to talk religion; when Prime Minister David Cameron takes to the stage in front of 45,000 Pentecostal Christians you can almost smell the discomfort. Neither of his fellow party leaders, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg, declare to have a Christian faith, so they almost have an easier ride. For them, Christians are just another group in society to whom they must explain why their party and policies are best. Cameron tries to show that he is one of us, so to speak, but when he fails to explain the meaning of Easter, it is as excruciating as when the supposed Aston Villa fan slips up and appeals for voters to get behind West Ham.
In the United States, four-fifths of white evangelicals voted Republican in the 2012 presidential elections and the 2014 midterms. Furthermore, this group constitutes over a quarter of the electorate - and is growing. It is worth noting that this analysis categorizes black Pentecostal Christians separately, under a general "black Christian category" that overwhelmingly voted Democratic. In the United Kingdom, however, evangelicals' voting intentions tend to reflect the general public. The most recent findings, from a survey taken April 16-21, show the Conservatives with a slender lead, on 31 percent opposed to Labour's 29 percent - reversing a similar small lead shown for Labour in September 2014.
What Christians care about, and what they do about it
It is beneath the surface, once we look at the issues Christians care about and what motivates them to vote the way they do, that we see significant differences.
Over the last year, immigration and race relations topped the UK public's concern in 11 out of 12 months. Far fewer evangelicals cite this as the most important issue facing the country, however. Poverty and inequality stand out clearly as their top concern. When deciding who to vote for, Britain's evangelicals want, in this order, policies that will protect religious freedom; help the poorest; eliminate human trafficking; oppose same-sex marriage; and stop efforts to introduce euthanasia or assisted dying.
This diverse list of policy concerns includes traditional morality issues, but it is not dominated by them. A small number of evangelicals who voted Conservative in 2010 - 6-7 percent - now back the United Kingdom Independence Party, and for many of these, the introduction of same-sex marriage was a key motivating factor. For most, however, disagreement with government policy does not translate into voting behavior.
A few factors stand out in explaining the lack of a political alignment in the United Kingdom between evangelical Christians and any single political party. First, no party provides a policy platform that distinguishes itself from other parties as lining up with evangelical concerns. This is perhaps both a reflection of the lower level of religious adherence in the United Kingdom relative to the United States. In a cyclical turn of logic, some suggest that if only there were more politically engaged evangelicals, political parties would pay more attention.
As it is, political parties pay little more than lip service to evangelical concerns, or they find issues on which there is broad societal agreement. For example, Christian groups have been at the forefront of campaigns on overseas aid and on the prevention of human trafficking, and their pressure has been welcomed by politicians seeking to push through legislation and ensure a sustained policy focus on these areas. This dynamic is seen especially on overseas development: Even in the face of substantial spending cuts, money going to those in greatest need overseas has increased.
For a further understanding of why evangelical Christians have not been tied down as an electoral block, it is only necessary to talk to them about their concerns and the role of government. When asked what the most important issues facing their community and the country are, Christians usually cite poverty or point to local concerns. When asked what that means for their politics, they often talk about helping out at local food banks or debt advice centers. Politics are often ignored as a way of tackling the problems Christians want to see addressed - they prefer to take practical and direct action in response.
The issues that evangelicals say will determine their votes do not actually divide the parties; on religious freedom the parties all say similar things, and each party has a plan to tackle poverty. As concerns human trafficking, there was widespread consensus behind the legislation introduced in the last days of the most recent Parliament.
So out of the panoply of issues that concern evangelical Christians, only some affect their vote; others motivate them to practical action; and some issues are left to one side because Christians see no impact in their vote on issues where the political consensus has moved away from them.
This can mean that when entering the voting booth, evangelicals often look to other aspects of their identity to determine how they vote - family, class, party. It is partly because of this reticence among evangelicals to weaponize their chief concerns via the ballot box that there is little incentive for politicians to go after their votes on these measures.
The revised U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation Guidelines, released Monday, define how both countries will address growing cybersecurity concerns in the Asia Pacific. Decreasing the threat from cyberattacks is of paramount strategic interest to both nations. As Japan becomes more active in its self-defense, the new guidelines help clarify strategic relations between the two allies.
The revisions take into account the changing scope of potential threats, with the addition of defense cooperation in space and cyberspace. Chapter 4 of the guidelines declares a mutual cooperation in sharing cybersecurity information and in protecting infrastructure critical to U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) and to Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF). However, the United States and Japan currently define critical infrastructure differently - the defense industrial base is not included as Japanese critical infrastructure.
In cybersecurity, information sharing is critical. Japan is unlikely to use offensive cyber measures to pre-emptively deter any cyberthreat. The two governments plan to streamline information sharing about cyberthreats and vulnerabilities. There are signs that Japan may change its mind on pre-emptive cyberdefense in the future, as the United States leans towards pre-emptive cyberattacks to protect its critical infrastructure. If Japan were to come under a major cyberattack, the SDF would take the lead in cyberdefense, with USFJ available in a supporting role if necessary. Meanwhile, the revised guidelines have already begun to outline Japan's role in its own right to collective self-defense, stating that Japan will help defend other countries by intercepting ballistic missiles.
A New U.S. Strategy
Monday's release of the revised Defense Cooperation Guidelines came less than a week after the U.S. Department of Defense published its 2015 U.S. Cyber Strategy. That document identified three mission goals: to defend Department of Defense networks, to defend the United States from cyberattacks, and to support military operations and contingency plans. The revised cyber strategy calls for continued growth in U.S. Cyber Mission forces (CMF) -from the current 3,000 in U.S. Cyber Command to 6,000 by 2016. Bear in mind that budget constraints have already delayed the CMF buildup called for in 2013. Also, these numbers do not include the cyber forces already stationed within each of the U.S. service branches.
The U.S. cyber strategy lays out five strategic goals, and Goal 5 prioritizes the Asia-Pacific:
"Build and maintain robust international alliances and partnerships to deter shared threats and increase international security and stability."
While the document calls for strengthening the cyber dialogue with China, it also highlights the need to help allies such as Japan build resiliency in their networks and their critical infrastructure. And though diplomatic measures, such as economic sanctions, for countering or deterring cyberattacks are mentioned, the cyber strategy emphasizes that the United States will use the totality of its cyber capabilities (including pre-emptive measures) to deter state and non-state actors.
With cyberattacks increasing against the financial and health sectors - and in the aftermath of last year's North Korean attack on Sony - cyberthreats have become a huge concern for U.S. and Japanese interests. Unlike kinetic attacks, cyberattacks happen in a matter of seconds and are detected less often before they have already struck.
Japan's location makes it a prime target for cyberthreat actors in the Asia-Pacific from Russia, North Korea, and China - actors who potentially destabilize the region outside of just cyberspace. For now, Chinese hackers tend to focus on cyberespionage, targeting political information and intellectual property rights. Russian hackers are also politically focused, with Russian criminal hackers interested in targeting financial and personal information for their own financial gain. North Korean hackers, though, have arguably been at cyberwar with South Korea - launching cyber attacks against the media and against nuclear power plants.
In 2014 Japan experienced more than 25 billion cyber attacks - 10 billion thought to originate in China. Earlier this month, cybersecurity firm FireEye reported on Advanced Persistent Threat 30 - a China-based, possibly state-sponsored, team that has been spying on key economic, political and strategic interests in East and South Asia since 2005. And new threats keep coming. Interpol has warned that a virus which drains financial accounts through ATM machines (and which has already filched $800 million from accounts in the U.S. and Europe) will soon be at Japan's doorstep.
It is clear that the United States and Japan continue to share a strong strategic, economic, and diplomatic relationship - highlighted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Washington this week. The Defense Cooperation Guideline revisions will help secure the strategic interests of both countries. The new understanding of cooperation in cyberspace will help clarify the roles the United States and Japan will play in the Asia-Pacific region. Cyberthreats will persist in the foreseeable future, but U.S.-Japan cooperation in countering potential cyberthreats will likely reduce the risk to both countries, and to their critical infrastructure.
"They are unanimous in their hate for me; and I welcome their hatred," Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis tweeted late on April 26, quoting former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And then, at long last, he was gone.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras realized that he had to withdraw his finance minister after a series of disastrous stunts by Varoufakis during negotiations with Greece's eurozone creditors. When the last meeting ended in a shouting match, Varoufakis was sidelined. Tsipras's deputy will now lead the negotiations.
For Greece, it's too little, too late.
After months of enduring his pedantic lectures on macroeconomics in the Council of Ministers and his tough-guy public brinkmanship, eurozone colleagues chastised Varoufakis behind closed doors. Varoufakis persisted in lecturing and preaching, not talking politics. Tellingly, while the rule normally is that "what happens behind closed doors in Brussels, stays in Brussels," this time some of the ministers present took to Twitter to confirm their anger with Varoufakis. Patience had finally run out, and the message to Tsipras was clear: Remove this guy. Tsipras promptly did. Varoufakis may have liked to compare himself to FDR, but the difference between them is that FDR was someone who spoke the language of politics; Varoufakis clearly does not.
Varoufakis has been "promoted" to a supervisory role, the office of Tsipras stated. The whole saga goes down as a resounding defeat for the Tsipras government.
Running out of time
While pushing out Varoufakis may help ease tensions, it does nothing to alleviate Greece's woes. Deadlines are drawing ever closer and the Tsipras government is getting increasingly desperate. Last week it tried to syphon remaining spare cash reserves from municipalities and pension funds in an attempt to gather just enough money to pay off an outstanding debt. The municipalities and funds in question refused to hand over their money. Now there is talk of Tsipras threatening to hold a referendum on the tough bailout plans laid out by the eurozone.
A referendum is exactly what former Prime Minister Georgos Papandreou proposed in a bid to pressure Greece's creditors. In the end, the referendum was cancelled, elections were held, and Papandreou's Pasok party was thrown out. It currently languishes in the polls with the support of less than five percent of voters.
Tsipras had better come up with new ideas, ones that please Greece's creditors and strengthen the Greek economy. That, or Mr. Tsipras may find himself to be the new Papandreou - and Greece will fall back to square one. But more likely something worse than that will occur: a default, an idea that is gaining support throughout the eurozone.
Beneath the unswerving lines of deadlocked polls in the race to control the British Parliament, runs a strong current of uncertainty. Britain's long-established Labour-Conservative duality, first shaken in 2010, is likely to be shattered this year as codified electoral distortions and voter discontent reveal themselves in full force on May 7. Why will the Scottish National Party sweep into a kingmaker role with dozens of seats despite registering in the single digits in the polls? What kind of coalition will emerge - or will one of the two major parties carry a Queen's Speech and oversee a minority government? Will Nigel Farage fail to win his own constituency, blunting the euroskeptic UKIP's recent rise?
With two weeks left before Britons head to the polls, RealClearWorld caught up with Peter Allen, lecturer in British Politics at Queen Mary University of London, to unpack some of the trends leading into election night. The following interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity:
Our own columnist Alex Deane has written about the problems with the way the UK counts votes. According to Alex, the Conservatives get the short end of the stick. Is he right?
The way it works is we have a first-past-the-post system, with single-member constituency seats similar to the U.S. House of Representatives. People vote for a candidate, and the candidate with the most votes in each constituency wins. So you don't get rewarded for votes that don't make you win. The way the Conservatives are done over is geographical. As a kind of historical rule, Labour seats will be underpopulated compared to Conservative seats. Say you have two blocks of 100,000 voters. Labour might get five seats out of that 100,000 votes, whereas the Conservatives, if they got 100,000 votes, they might only get three or four seats, because more people live generally in Conservative-held seats. if you think about the Southeast of England, that's where it tends to happen.
So seats are not appointed by population, it's geographical. It's also interesting that the more populated areas vote Conservative.
Where we're sat right now (London) is a massive exception to that rule, because this is very densely populated and it's a Labour stronghold. But as a rule, when you think of the North of England , it's very underpopulated compared to the South. And Wales and Scotland historically both lean heavily toward Labour, and are very lightly populated compared to England. They have tried to change this. We have what are called boundary reviews roughly every 10 years, but they don't keep up with what's actually happened. They have a boundary review, and they might implement changes, but by the time the election comes around, the changes are already outdated. I don't think it's necessarily a conscious thing, it's just an accident of the system. But there's a vested interest for Labour certainly in not changing the way the system works.
Do the Conservatives have a realistic outlook of changing the Labour bent of those areas, of breaking out of their strongholds?
They could do. But they tried to redraw the boundaries in I think 2011, and were voted down in the House of Lords. The argument from people who didn't want to redraw was that it would be gerrymandering in favor of the Conservatives. Generally these things are done by an impartial body, the Boundary Commission. But the Conservatives are trying to force their hand to redraw them in a more fair way. They could try to have a stronger appeal in the north of England, but it's just not a traditional Conservative stronghold.
This election, being as unpredictable as it is, how has it changed campaigners' judgment of marginal (competitive) seats?
If a seat is held by someone with a less than a 5 percent majority, that makes it a marginal seat. That's where the election is won and lost. We have a lot of what are called safe seats where people are just never going to lose, barring some massive seismic shift, which is actually exactly what is happening in Scotland right now. You are seeing a lot of people lose safe seats in Scotland, or we will, in two weeks time, see people lose safe seats. A safe seat being where somebody had a majority of more than 10 percent, for example.
And because the seats are geography- not population-based, there are a lot of those seats in Scotland.
Yes exactly, and the SNP can pick up a lot. Scotland was redrawn, with a reduced number of seats, but Wales in particular still has a lot more seats than arguably it should. If you compare what they call the electoral quota between England and Wales, Wales has a significantly lower quota than England. Wales has far more seats than it should, and that benefits Labour.
In a future election, could we expect a Scotland-type phenomenon in Wales?
Plaid Cymru is still the third or fourth party party in Wales, depending on the poll. Labour and the Conservatives are still the biggest parties in Wales. I can't see that changing unless there was a real serious independence movement, which i don't expect any time soon. The Welsh are generally more happy with the settlement, or at least less willing to challenge it, than the Scots.
Let's talk about the losers in this seismic shift. Who are some of the bigger names who might lose their seats? What are some of the most important individual races to keep an eye on?
Well there's some very very famous people. Charles Kennedy, he used to be leader of the Lib Dems, he looks like he might lose his seat. Douglas Alexander, who's currently in the Labour Shadow Cabinet and actually part of the Labour election leadership, he looks like he may well lose his seat. Danny Alexander, who was chief secretary to the treasury, he might lose his seat as well. So you're going to have a lot of very famous high-profile politicians at risk. It's always hard to tell whether people will on the day suddenly change their mind. But it does look like some of them are in real trouble.
I think one really important seat to watch this time is going to be Nigel Farage's seat in Thanet South. That will be tight. There are some seats that are always kind of tight - a lot of the seats in Birmingham are usually quite close. So there's a few Labour MPs, one in particular called Gisela Stuart, I think she won election last time by a few hundred votes. Hampstead and Kilburn in North London - actually one of my friends is running there, taking over from Glenda Jackson, who was a famous actress, she won an Oscar. She won by seven votes last time.
In Scotland, it's not even the case that they're necessarily marginal seats. They wouldn't have been considered marginal (before), they've just come into play. But now a lot of those are marginal. Generally you see it in the outskirts of urban areas, where social change can have an effect - where something might have happened in the social fabric of that area that would have changed the way that people would vote. Those would be the seats to worry about if you're a political party.
What strategy might UKIP follow? Polls have them at 15 percent, yet they aren't going to pick up a lot of seats.
Obviously they want as many seats as they can get. But they are, like you say, in a very difficult position. This is another example where a national swing isn't going to benefit smaller parties, because you really want a concentration of votes as opposed to a national swing in the electoral system. The electoral system is biased against the smaller parties. So the Lib Dems still are the third party, on paper at least. The polls suggest they're going to be in trouble, but they'll probably bounce back.
Why do you say that?
I think their ground support should come through in the end. The polls have them anywhere between 6 percent and 15 percent. I think it will probably be closer to the 15, although you can't really say with any certainty. But they have had a very good ground campaign for years. They were really good at going into constituencies, building up lots of local activists who then go out and knock on doors.
UKIP haven't had that. They're really new, so they haven't been so good at campaigning in the way that someone like the Liberal Democrats do. They're getting better at it, and people like Matt Goodwin, a political scientist at Nottingham, he's looked in depth at how they campaign, and he suggests they're getting better as well. But that's why UKIP will not be able to have that kind of instant effect that the Lib Dems built up over years - they just haven't had the time to build it up yet.
Having said that, they've got Nigel Farage. He's basically a celebrity. It would be a disaster for them if he doesn't win Thanet South. That would probably would be "it" for them in terms of any sort of credible attempt at making a real difference, because he is the party. I don't think many people would even be able to name anyone else, though there are some interesting characters in the party - Douglas Carswell, for example.
If they fail, I think someone else like them will come around, or Conservative or Labour will have to move in a way that picks up the lost votes.
What will things look like on May 8, and what will happen then?
I can't see a full coalition between anyone other than what we have at the moment, probably. And I don't really see the numbers working out on that front. If you look at every projection, it looks like (another Tory-Lib Dem coalition) is a pretty unlikely outcome. The Conservatives may well get more seats than Labour, but it's going to be very close - it could be a 2-or-3 seats difference based on some projections.
And does the party with the most seats get first crack at putting together a government?
It's not entirely clear. The precedent seems to be that the current prime minister will be asked if he can first. So the Queen will ask David Cameron to try. What (a ruling party) would want to be able to do is to carry a queens speech, which is where they outline their policy agenda for the year, and they would need enough votes to get a majority in the House of Commons. And if Cameron can't, which it may well look like he can't, then it goes to the next, which will be Miliband probably. I think it's most likely that Ed Miliband will be prime minister after May 7, simply because he could put together a minority government. Labour with the support of the SNP, maybe on that one vote, or on an ongoing vote-by-vote basis, could do that.
I don't think Miliband would want that, necessarily. Minority governments are generally unstable, for obvious reasons, and it's highly likely that we'll have another election pretty soon if that arrangement doesn't work out.
Even though the rules have changed for calling elections.
We've got this thing called the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. And I must admit it's very confusing, what the different permutations of it are. Basically it means the next election date is set in stone: It takes place five years after the prior election, so we already know that we're going to have an election in May 2020.
The Act removed the power of the prime minister to call an election whenever suits him or her best. It's a bit more boring form our point of view, but a minority government could still collapse. We wouldn't be bound to hobble on for five years. Ed Miliband, I heard a rumour yesterday that he's now considering scrapping the fixed terms act anyway if he became prime minister. If push came to shove, they could remove a government that didn't command the confidence of the House.
So a Labour-led government would probably not be done by coalition?
It'll probably work on a vote-by-vote basis, or by some sort of agreement. It's almost certainly not going to be a coalition - well, it won't be, they've all said it won't be. What it will probably be is on a confidence basis. Labour will only pursue legislation that it knows the SNP will support - and presumably the one or more Green MPs if they are returned.
And the Lib Dems aren't in this picture?
There just aren't the numbers for the Lib Dems, the only way it makes sense is for (Labour) to ask the SNP. If the SNP have upwards of 40 seats, that's when they become the ones who decide. And in a best case scenario, the Lib Dems look like they'll lose half their seats anyway, so they'd be down to about 30.
This has precedent in Britain, governments working on a confidence basis. It's not unheard of. In one sense this happens already in a very non-formal way. You get people like the Democratic Unionist Party always voting with the Conservative government - or with the coalition government in this case - on a number of issues. So it'd be more about formalizing something that would probably happen anyway. Because the SNP and a lot of the Labour party are ideological bedfellows, even if some of them can't publicly admit it. Quite a lot of the stuff that Labour want to do, the SNP want to do as well. According the Institute for Fiscal Studies this morning, the SNP and Labour plans are quite close economically. It looks like it would make sense for that to happen.
Why does SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon suddenly have this UK-wide appeal?
It's hard to unpack whether it's because she's an actual left-wing politician who's got a national stage, or how much of it is because she's a woman, and she's refreshing compared to Clegg, Cameron and Miliband. But equally, there is something about her. She's got a lot of charisma, she's very good at giving speeches. But also there is the reality that she's probably popular for a lot of people because she's not really in the mix. It's easier to covet something that you're not necessarily going to have to deal with. Even if they were in a powerful position after the election, which it looks like they will be, her aim is still focused north of the border. So for a lot of English people, their idea would be that eventually she won't be an issue anyway, if she's as successful as she aims to be.
When Hillary Clinton tweeted her presidential campaign into being this month, it generated serious excitement among British aficionados of U.S. politics. Despite the imminence of our own general election, Clinton's announcement caused a tidal wave of commentary here, along with particularly intense discussion of whether a female president would automatically constitute a victory for feminism.
The argument chimes with a sudden shift in the visibility of senior women politicians in the United Kingdom itself - a movement prompted by various developments in the substance and the style of British politics. In a country where women's political representation remains among the worst in Europe - 25 years after its first and only female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, left office - that's certainly a trend worth watching.
The trigger point has been the magnified role of televised pre-election debates among party leaders. These are still very new to us; the first took place just prior to the 2010 election and featured the all-male leading cast of Britain's three biggest parties: Conservative leader and subsequent Prime Minister David Cameron, his Labour opponent, incumbent Gordon Brown, and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, the smaller party that is now partner to the Conservatives in the outgoing coalition government.
But on April 2 this year, in an event broadcast on the United Kingdom's major commercial channel, ITV, seven leaders strode out to claim their share of the airtime - and three of them were women. Two weeks later, in the BBC's "challengers' debate" held among the five parties not presently in government, these three women outnumbered the men for one historic moment.
In the intervening five years, change has been effected as much by the extraordinary state of UK politics as by the qualities of the women concerned. The reality of coalition government itself has had an impact: It would hardly have been fair to force Labour leader Ed Miliband to appear as the lone opposition to the two parties of government, meaning another three-way debate was out of the question.
Meanwhile, longstanding dissatisfaction about the convergence of the main parties at the political center has fueled the rise of more radical alternatives on both ends of the spectrum: on the right, the UK Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, and on the left, the Green Party, led by Natalie Bennett, who is the only female leader of a UK-wide political party.
But the most recent and explosive change of all was last year's referendum on Scottish independence, which saw support for the Scottish National Party rocket upward, with mortifying results expected to ensue for UK-wide parties at the upcoming polls - and especially for Labour, which had long dominated Scottish politics. In this climate, the SNP could hardly be excluded from the leaders' debates, and their leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is generally acknowledged to have put in a formidable performance - a revelation only to those south of the border. Sturgeon has since been labeled both as a kingmaker who will decide whether or not to push a liberal-left coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats over the line, and as the most dangerous woman in Britain.
And if one nationalist party was to get their invitation to the debates, that meant an opportunity for another. Step forward, then, Leanne Wood of Wales' Plaid Cymru. The Welsh party has more seats in Parliament than UKIP and the Greens, yet Plaid Cymru had long been treated as a political irrelevance by the United Kingdom's notoriously London-centered media. Wood's contribution in fact produced the most meme-friendly moment in the seven-way debate, when she told UKIP leader Nigel Farage "you should be ashamed of yourself" for his comments on foreign nationals seeking HIV treatment in the United Kingdom.
Change moves to the center
Of course, a few over-egged headlines and some decent YouTube ratings do little to alter the fact that none of these women has the slightest chance of becoming prime minister in an electoral system which will favor the two major parties for the foreseeable future. But change may also be in store from that direction before too long.
When Cameron spoke in March of his possible successors as Conservative leader, naming current Home Secretary Theresa May among them, he merely confirmed what Westminster-watchers had long known, which is that May has used her term in arguably the most challenging ministerial role of them all to shape herself into the first credible female contender for a generation.
Meanwhile, May's opposite number on the Labour side, shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, has been spoken of as a leader-in-waiting for as long as Miliband has occupied the throne, and in fact longer. All of which makes the prospect of a future prime ministerial contest between two women, followed by five years of two female voices raised against each other at the infamously boorish affair that is Prime Minister's Questions, a very realistic one.
We have yet to see what the long-term impact of any of this will be. The Conservatives or Labour may yet win an outright parliamentary majority, or at least enough seats to form a deal with only the Lib Dems. Perhaps the major party leaderships will elude May and Cooper, and all then may revert to business as usual. But as Britain charts novel political territory, the sight of modern-day, politically eclectic female leadership is an important reminder that narrowness and uniformity are not inevitable.
After assuring his top diplomat, John Kerry, that Cuba has been behaving well of late, U.S. President Barack Obama scratched the island nation off the list of countries that abet terrorism.
That was foreseeable.
Obama had already announced in Panama that his government would not seek regime change in Cuba. Havana's presence on the list of sponsors of terrorism was part of a regime change strategy - a political dunce cap meant to malign its adversary on the long road to displacement.
Nevertheless, it was a fair description. For decades, the Castro regime worked hand-in-hand with the nastiest people on the planet, from Carlos the Jackal to the adipose royal dynasty in North Korea, as well as Libyan leader Moammar Ghaddafi and the Colombian narcoguerrillas. Obama's clear wish is to forget such grievances and open a new chapter.
Obama will soon return the Guantanamo base to Cuban ownership. As contemplated in the Helms-Burton Act, that exchange was to take place once Cuba was deemed free, but Obama didn't want to wait for such an uncertain milestone. He asked a friendly law firm for a legal report outlining his options to get rid of the territory, and he got it.
The next step will be to receive from the Navy a memorandum explaining that the base is expensive and of scant military usefulness. The Navy will oblige, opining that it can and should be closed.
The third step will be to relocate or release the Islamist prisoners accused of terrorism. It wouldn't be a surprise to see a final accord that includes a guarantee that, for some period of time, the territory will not be used as a military base.
Strictly speaking, little of this matters, but for one key element: It marks an abrupt turn of American will on the global stage. Washington no longer aims to topple enemy regimes and stand firmly behind friendly governments who share the United States' values and interests. This all adds up to a substantial modification of the vision and international mission of the United States.
Seventy years ago in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, Franklin Roosevelt assumed the leadership of a democratic world that believed in free enterprise. That responsibility was defined in economic terms at the outset - that's what Bretton Woods was all about - but later acquired a political dimension under Harry S. Truman after the outbreak of the Cold War.
The primary objectives of that conflict were to change enemy regimes and support friendly governments. It seemed a zero-sum game: What the West lost the Soviet Union won, and vice versa.
Within that scheme, Washington supported Greece and Turkey, reconstructed Western Europe and Japan, halted and neutralized North Korea's invasion of South Korea, kept Italy and France from being controlled by the Communists, but couldn't stop Vietnam from winning a devastating war. It contributed to stage an anti-Soviet coup in Iran, overthrew Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and, from the sidelines, helped topple Salvador Allende in Chile.
Washington lost in Cuba, and because it never reversed that defeat, it lost again in Nicaragua, Angola, and Ethiopia. Cuba was a moving machine-gun nest at the service of totalitarianism and of the adventurous instincts of Fidel Castro, a kind of Caribbean Napoleon, tireless and fecund, who even in old age proved capable of spawning Hugo Chavez, the Sao Paulo Forum, and 21st-Century Socialism.
Obama's abrogation of the U.S. will to change and sustain regimes begets two problems. The first is that almost the entire bureaucratic apparatus devoted to projecting Washington's power abroad was conceived and fitted toward the overt effort to support its friends and replace its enemies. It is not easy to stop the inertia generated by seven decades of institutions and laws dedicated toward a single purpose.
The second, and the more important, is that although Obama may unilaterally cancel his enmity - while he may personally decide that the enemies of the United States have stopped being enemies - the adversaries of democracy, pluralism, and free markets will continue to fight to change the regimes they oppose. We see this happen in the Americas with the neopopulist family called ALBA, or in the Middle East, where Iran destabilizes Yemen, conspires in the Gaza Strip, and threatens Israel with annihilation.
It is possible that Obama has decided to stop changing or supporting regimes. His enemies, delighted, have different plans.
Only after hundreds of refugees perished in the Mediterranean Sea did European heads of state decide to convene and seek solutions to the ongoing tragedy. Alas, the ideas on the table will not even begin to stem the flood of refugees as none address the root of the problem: civil strife and poverty in Africa.
Most refugees trying to flee to safety in Europe hail from wartorn Syria, or are Africans shuttling through the chaos in Libya for a way off the continent. Although many Syrians try to cross into Europe through Turkey, increasing numbers travel to the Libyan coast via Egypt in order to find smugglers who will put them in dodgy dinghies - or worse. And they pay a lot of money to do it.
After hundreds of refugees drowned this week when their boats sank, and video footage captured the tragedies, European politicians reacted. The European Commission proposed a 10-point plan that boils down to improving search-and-rescue operations and basically doing more of the same.
One theory has been thoroughly disproven: Cutting down on sea rescue operations, which is what happened when the EU nations pulled the plug on Italy's Mare Nostrum operation, does not motivate refugees to stay on African shores. Some governments earlier argued that the very fact that European ships perform active search-and-rescue missions encourages refugees to try and cross the Mediterranean.
Undoubtedly the European Union should beef up its operations to rescue people in distress and find ways to evenly distribute them across the EU member states. But Europe should also actively pursue the stabilization of Libya.
The current situation in Libya is reminiscent of Lebanon during its civil war. Several groups are at once trying to take control of the country. What remains of the national government is powerless. Government services such as the border police and customs have collapsed. It is in this chaotic vacuum that people smugglers find the freedom they need to strip desperate refugees of their money - and all too often, their lives.
Aside from this, the vacuum is also giving rise to Islamofascist groups like ISIS. The self-labeled Libyan chapter of ISIS likes to engage in the slaughter of innocents. What they carry out is the kind of butchery Europe last witnessed during World War II, when Nazi extermination squads enjoyed killing those they deemed lesser beings.
When that war ended and the world came to know the truth about the horrors inside the Third Reich, Europeans said: never again. Then came the mass killings in the Yugoslav civil war, which Europeans were not able to stop without U.S. help. After that war, Europeans said: never again. Then came Rwanda, after which Europe again said: never again.
Just a few years ago, Europeans and Americans removed the murderous dictator Moammar Ghaddafi. The Europeans made the same error they had accused Americans of after toppling Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 2003: neglecting to engage in proper nationbuilding, or even having a strategy for it. Now as Libya descends into civil war, it presents a gateway to Europe not only to refugees, but also to ISIS terrorists.
It is time to own up to Europe's mistakes and stem the tide in Libya. The European Union should engage with the United Nations to set up a large peacekeeping force with a tough mandate, and go to Libya to restore stability, separate the warring factions and disarm them - by force if necessary. Then organize a conference with the factions and establish a democratic federal republic that restores border patrols and law and order.
It will not be easy. It will cost money, it may cost lives. But at least it's a lot better plan than trying to mop the floor dry while the water keeps flowing from an open faucet.