Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Grating Indian Bizarre of Paul Theroux

Last week attended a talk by Paul Theroux, who luxuriated in the attention of the great and good at a talk in Delhi's American centre. I've never read a book by the 68-year-old author (he's written dozens) and after this session I never will.

Mr Theroux had nothing illuminating to say about his wanderings only remarking , immodestly, that he was one of the few travel writers to go back and retrace their steps. chatwin never did, he said with pride.

Paul Theroux went to find a tree he had planted in Kenya in teh 1960s. He talked at length about the trip, with the vim of some editor of Lonely Planet Africa. He went from London to north eastern India decades ago and said he'd done it again. And written about it again. Fascinating. Mr Theroux, like the V S Naipaul he condemns and so obviously admires, appeared supremely self-confident.

The audience had some interesting questions, among the foamy appreciation. Had he ever been wrong? (No). What civilisation did he most admire? (Vietnam because they forgave America). To a Sikh Mr Theroux went on about how he must know how difficult it must be to invade Afghanistan. he said here must be something wrong with giving aid to africa because the locals all had gone off to be English teachers in the west not in Africa. Given the difficulty of travelling for poor africans to America he sounded like some colonial worrying about uppity locals.

What Paul Theroux gave was a performance, a strut amongst the natives. Perhaps he should never have left home.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The beginning of history

The unilateral declaration of independence by Muslim-majority Kosovo from orthodox-Christian Serbia has focussed the world’s gaze on Balkans again. The region is a rare piece of real estate in geopolitics — one that is able to provide a base to meddle in the soft underbelly of your adversary.

The pokers here is the EU-US axis. The target here is Russia, whose gas and oil wealth has propelled it back into the first rank of powers. Under President Putin, Russia seeks to expand its sphere of influence and curb meddling foreign powers who he sees, often rightly, as being behind the country’s decline in the 1990s.

These are not mere phantom theories. Russia knows to its cost the emergence of US-backed Islamism. The current secretary of state, Robert Gates, has admitted in his 1997 book “From the Shadows” that the US was giving aid to Islamic rebels in Afghanistan six months before the Soviet Union invaded. Zbignew Brzezinski, then President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, defended this action saying it gave the Soviets “their Vietnam War”.

In many ways we are present at the beginning of a new world. Kosovo can be seen as the convergence of two trends. The first is political. There is a divide between those who favour single-party nationalist perpetual government, like that in Russia, and the multi-party system of political representation, like that of the EU. Note there is no need for the system to be secular, in effect recognising the shadow of religion on societies.

The second trend is the emergence of small nations when for centuries there was a tendency for countries to get bigger. Building large industries using captive home markets under the protection of trade barriers was the global economic norm until the mid-seventies. This favoured big nations. But the consensus fell apart in the 60s and 70s. A series of trade talks in the 1970s led to national governments scaling back tariffs.

Then came the movement of capital flows across borders in the eighties. This meant small countries did not need large populations to accumulate savings – they could attract cash from global investors who wanted better returns than they got at home. There was also an acceptance that the absolute amount of capital was not important; rather, it was the amount of capital per worker. Again small nations benefitted - despite calls for protectionism in larger economies suffering under high oil prices and unemployment.

Kosovo is a sliver of Europe and will almost certainly have a noisy multi-party system of government. It almost certainly be within a new western bloc – with its security guaranteed by the US and eventually federation with the European Union. Kosovo’s political and economic model will be modelled on the west and its stability reliant upon it.

We can see this process at work in Afghanistan, Georgia and Lebanon. Again the powers that have regarded these as virtual backyards are being replaced by western powers.

But Kosovo is a step further – carving out a state from Serbia. This is a direct result of the mid-90s war which the international community has decided was Serbi’as fault. Belgrade was simply unable to ensure human security in Kosovo. That Saddam Hussein massacred his own people was also the excuse the Blair and Bush war on Iraq.

The rising powers of the world, Russia, India and China all face Islamic insurgencies. Like Serbia they no doubt would not countenance the principle of independence for Chechnya, Kashmir or Xinjiang. All three nations might consider themselves too big and powerful to worry what the world thinks. But Kosovo is an important marker in international relations - emphasising that sovereignty and territorial integrity will be balanced with human rights. As long as it suits the US.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Mirage of power

Pakistan again. My comment is free piece went up.

Despite the impression many have Pakistan is not a failing state. It is an extremely centralised one, run by set of actors over which there is little oversight. The most importnat of these is the military. In fact the only reining in is done by the Saudis, the Chinese and the Americans.

This for me remains the central point - and one upon which the Pakistani state needs to act. Whoever wins needs to be responsive to popular concerns especially on the economy. More attention perhaps on what the common man wants and less on containing India/Iran/Taliban or whatever else foreign backers desire...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The illusion of power

At a talk the other night in Delhi to hear about Pakistan's forthcoming elections from various Indian thinkers - and a Pakistani diplomat - the mood was pretty somber. For the Indians Pakistan is either a failing state on the verge of collapse or a state about to fall into the hands of radical extremists. Either way it looks bad.

The elections were considered rigged - no independent judges, no independent election commission and local administration in the hands of feudal landlords. The caretaker government, which oversees the polls, is run by General President Musharraf's (GPM's) hand-picked PM. All true am afraid.

Almost uncommented upon by the western press are the millions of missing voters in this election. The election roll has shrunk in Pakistan by 20m electors since 2002 when the last (rigged) polls were held.

The Pakistani diplomat defended his country saying it was a victim of three historical earthquakes: the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and 9/11. These had seen the rise of extremism. This is a brave defence and one that is hard to swallow given that the Pakistani army bred its own extremists to gain depth in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

But the Pakistani diplomat, from the NWFP cadre, put his finger on exactly the problem. The politics of Pakistan is too important to be left to voters. The casting votes are in foreign hands. Truly popular policies - like ending US influence and subsidies to cope with rising food prices - won't be considered.

That underlines the grubby little secret of the west's engagement with Islamabad. For the US, the impression that a "free and fair" poll will be enough. For the Europeans, facing Afghan ire it will also be enough to rubber stamp these polls as acceptable. Saudi Arabia and China need no convincing on the need to avoid popular mandates.

Pakistan's voters will not decide the government this time. Despite plummeting popularity GPM will not face impeachment - you need 225 plus seats in a 342 seat house. Punjab has about 150 seats. Sindh another 60. No wonder Nawaz Sharif, son of Punjab's soil, and Asif Zardari, Benazir's Sindhi businessman husband, are talking.

It will remain just that. GPM has only to get his quislings, the MQM and religious parties together for long enough to frustrate the Nawaz-Zardari bandwagon. In a few months, I suspect, GPM thinks the alliance will crumble - and he will be able to divide and rule a sham chamber elected under shameful conditions.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Kerala, Naveen Andrews and me

I loved this interview in the Guardian with Naveen Andrews because it deals with a lot of issues that I think about.

Like Andrews my parents came from Kerala to Britain in the 1960s. I too was slapped. I too was never gifted a linguistic heritage (my Malayalam stinks and I have learnt Hindi the hard way) because my parents wanted me to fit in. I also prefer the in-your-face working class racism in Britain to that found in the mouths of the smug middle-class. Unlike Andrews I was not a teenage dropout or an alcoholic. Drugs never led me to a serious addiction. I also do not have kids.

But in the piece I sensed something of Andrews that a group of young British Black people who grew up in 1970s London shared. That of hubris and defiance. I can see his point when Andrews talks of never feeling "at home in London, because people were constantly telling me I didn't belong here, so after a while, you tend to believe that." He is spot on in saying "people who would blanch at the idea of being thought of as being racist when they know that it fucking well is obvious."

Britain's self-perpetuating elite and its frozen snobbery is only softened by London's recent blaze of ethnic diversity. But I think Andrews found himself, like a lot of us, defying the order of things. The result is that you become an outcast. When you run afoul of the people in charge, you soon learn that you have to be chastized regardless of the value of your services. Maybe that is why he left Britain - and found love and a life away from home.


Saturday, February 2, 2008

My enemy's enemy is my friend

This week's Economist has a story which asks: "How America's own intelligence services have brought international policy on Iran to the edge of collapse". It concludes

"Iran may not yet be home free, but the international campaign to stop it getting the bomb that many countries think it wants is on the point of failure."

The story's theme is that US spies fumbled badly in producing a report last month which said Iran stopped its secret nuclear-weapons programme in 2003. A disaster for the Israelis who fear annihilation, the French and Germans who were working at the UN to contain Iran and of course the UK-US nuke-busters who consider Iran the Great Satan. Only the Russians and the Chinese (who else?) will gain.

My conspiracy theory of the day is different. The US economy is sinking - laid low by the bursting of the credit bubble. Having oil prices touch $100 is a burden the US can do without. So the president was seen begging the Saudi oil minister to increase supplies - and hence reduce the price on world markets. The Saudis are unmoved.

What could pressure them? Of course, Riyadh's rivals to the supremacy in the Middle East are the Mullahs of Teheran. So the US eases up on the Iranians - and brows furrow in the Arabian landmass. The US also wants the Saudis to tow the line in Pakistan, where they have considerable sway in the upcoming elections. Again giving Iran some leeway to chase after the Persian bomb would have the Saudis reaching for the rosemary.

None of this behaviour would surprise anyone in the Middle East where everyone knows my enemy's enemy is my friend.