The US residential polls are akin to a drama that is staged every four years in which the American are actors on stage and the rest of the world is the audience. With one major difference, however. While in a usual theatrical performance the viewers are there mostly for amusement, though some may be enlightened and enriched by the experience, in the case of the US elections, unlike in others, their fates are inextricably linked to the outcome of the play. This is not predetermined by any playwright, though it can often be predicted. It is not implausible therefore for some on-lookers to want to intervene in what’s happening onstage. It must be done discreetly, and with great circumspection. Take for instance, the Russians in the American elections in 2016. The Russians and President Donald Trump hotly dispute allegations of any such interference.
The Maldives is a picturesque country of merely 515,000 people located just beyond the southern tip of the South Asian land mass, in an idyllic Indian ocean setting. The nation is spread across 26 pretty atolls, comprising about 1192 islets, not all still inhabited. These are lapped by crystal blue waters containing flora and fauna of remarkable magnificence. Its scenic bounties attract droves of tourists who frolic in the sands, sun and the sea in salubrious languor. It has a thriving fishing, garment and tourism industry which have recently helped it graduate out of the United Nations list of Least Developed Countries (LDCs).It is so tiny that used to be said that the catch of a single large fish any day could cause a remarkable jump in its Gross National Product (GDP) numbers. It is not without reason that the archipelago has often been compared to a paradise.
There is not much good news for President Donald Trump of the United States these days. If electoral polls have any credibility, he is staring at the face of almost certain defeat in the elections come November. So, when the so-called Abraham Accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was sealed in a telephone call between him and the leaders of Israel and the UAE, signalling a sliver of silver lining in the otherwise hovering dark clouds over him, Trump was ecstatic. A Trump twitter called it a “HUGE breakthrough among “three GREAT friends!”.
Sri Lanka is a country endowed with abundant natural beauty. The serenity of its geographical bounties matched the peaceful nature of its polity in the aftermath of the passage of power to local political leaders with the withdrawal of the British from the island in 1948. Its Constitution was crafted by some of the brightest legal minds of the British Commonwealth. The nation seemed well on the path to prosperity and progress. So much so, that once Lee Kuan Yew looked upon that country as a model for Singapore, with its commonly shared experience, to emulate.
President Jimmy Carter of the United States had once paid Iran glowing tributes, which was received quite normally in American policy circles and raised no eyebrows: He had said: “(Iran was) an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world”. In one of the weirdest ironies of history, within months in 1979, with the Iranian Revolution, the perception of Iran in American eyes underwent a most radical transformation. It was followed by the hostage-taking of American diplomats, and a nose-diving of bilateral relations. Since 1980 there have been no diplomatic connections. However, over the years a kind of modus vivendi had evolved, a grudging tolerance of each other accompanied by some functional interactions. Eventually, in 2015, the US along with key European States entered into what was called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), virtually capping Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and largely stabilizing the relationship.
On the first Sunday of July, there was an important telephone call between the Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi and the Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Duval. Some important decisions were announced thereafter. This is not to say that these were the outcome of that interaction only. For weeks the militaries of both China and India and their diplomats had been negotiating on the grounds of the disputed territory along the Line of actual Control at the Galwan Valley, as well as through other channels to end the bloodiest border stand-off between the two Asian powers that had lasted two months. True, while not a bullet was fired in anger, troops had battled with sticks and stones that left twenty Indian soldiers dead and, reportedly, an unknown number of Chinese casualties. Indeed, it appeared that the two sides, who had fought a war in the Himalayas in 1962, was yet again on the brink of a possible war.
Singaporeans went to polls on Friday the 10th of July. It was a crisis election, seen as the most significant since the country’s independence in 1965, given the backdrop of the COVID 19 pandemic and its massive negative impact on the economy on this small but wealthy island republic. Out of a population of nearly 5.85 million on election day, the number of registered voters stood at 2.65 million. It was no surprise that in a nation with a reputation of unmatchable discipline, the voting was an orderly process. In conformity with rules each voter was masked, safe distancing was scrupulously maintained, and their hands were sanitized as they entered the booths. The elderly, who needed it, were provided assistance. The electorate returned what has been assessed as a sophisticated, calibrated and mature outcome. It re-elected the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) to power with a sufficiently strong enough mandate to help it pull the nation out of the crisis. At the same time, it also created a diversity in the legislature that would ensure that the government did not have a blank cheque for unrestricted authority.
William Somerset Maugham was already an established author when he began to focus on short stories. His interest in this genre was actually meant to have been a form of relief from novel-writing, but interestingly it was this literary form that rendered him more famous in the East. Though intensely English in attitudes and behaviour, he was not quite a ‘legit Brit’. Born in Paris (in 1874), he learnt to speak in French before he spoke English, spent some time studying at Heidelberg Germany, before continuing further education in England, then settled down in the south of France. Having written a few novels, he turned to short stories. Perhaps due to his cosmopolitan exposure, he was deeply influenced, in his short stories, by foreign writers. In particular, the Russian author Chekov and the Frenchman Guy de Maupassant.
President Donald Trump has got himself a wall. But it is not the one of his choosing, as one on the Mexican border. It is on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, a high fence that now separates him from his people. But as polls for him keep dipping, and the prognosis for a victory in the upcoming November elections keep worsening, a prediction from an unlikely person should bring him cheer. The source is none other than the Foreign Minister of a country that Trump considers to be in the forefront of his list of foes: Javad Zareef of Iran. I have known Zareef and worked with him as a fellow diplomat for years and would rate him as a person of extraordinary intellect. Speaking at an interview on Instagram with an Iranian journalist Farid Modaressi, Zareef stated that despite all that is happening, Trump’s support base of 30 to 35 percent has not moved , and till that occurs, he still has over 50 percent chances of re-election. Zareef did not elaborate if he himself would prefer such an outcome, calculating that four more years of America with Trump at its helm , might eliminate that nation totally from the global power scene, which for Zareef and Iran, ought to be a consummation devoutly to be wished!
The departing German envoy in Singapore, Ambassador Ulrich Sante, in a recent published article in the Straits Times shared some of his thoughts with the readership including on the impact on the community of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Among other things he has noted that it has implanted in us what in German is called Lebensangst, literally meaning ‘fear of life’ but in a broader sense, the loss of trust in resilience, and coldness. He has impassionedly argued: “We need to regain trust in each other again, to show warmth and affection and not treat everyone as potential messengers of death. Social distancing serves its purpose, but it cannot be a recipe for all time. It has the power to lead to social division, perhaps the most serious danger our societies face these days”. He is right. There is nothing to replace a light touch or a gentle caress to bring humans closer together. The handshake and the embrace were tools devised as humanity progressed towards civilized conduct, as these acts were performed to demonstrate that those hands carried no weapons.
The eyes of much of the world were focused on Beijing during the last week of May. That was because China had scheduled for that time-perod what is generally collectively termed “Two Sessions” or Lianghui in Mandarin. These are back-to-back annual parliamentary meetings of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC). The event usually take place in March, but this year had to be pushed back to May because of the COVID virus. Again, ordinarily, these last ten days, but this year, for the same reason, the period was compressed to a week.
Politics have exacerbated the already severe pains that the raging COVID Pandemic have been inflicting on the global population. The spread of Coronavirus coincided with three major developments in the global arena. First was the end of what Charles Krauthammer, the American neo-conservative guru had called, as the title of his book on that subject suggested, America’s “Unipolar Moment”. This was the period, since the implosion of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, when the United states was the only pre-dominant superpower that ruled the roost in the global arena. Though China was rising in the meantime, politically, economically and militarily, it was still coy about it, conforming to the Deng Xia0ping counsel to “hide its capabilities and bide its time”.
Despite all the preoccupation with the current raging pandemic, it sadly appears that there has been no let-up in the global arms race among the major powers. In mid-May, the United States President Donald Trump, at an event for his new Space Force at the White House made a significant announcement, It was that the US was building right now an “incredible” new missile which would travel faster than any other in the world “by a factor of almost three”. This was obviously a response to the latest Russian ‘Avangard’ missile, which Russian President Vladimir Putin claims in invincible, with a speed of twenty times that of sound. The Chinese, reportedly are also feverishly working on their own hypersonic counterparts. All these would be strategic tools to significantly alter the war-fighting capabilities of humanity in the future.
When the United States and China signed the First-Phase of their Trade Agreement in January this year, President Donald Trump called it a “momentous step”, and the world believed they had stepped back from a dangerous brink. But, alas, to cite an idiom that is so current today, it was but a ‘false positive’. As the globe reels from the surgoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is possible that the rapid deterioration of US-China relationship can become one of the worst side-effects of this raging virus.
(The Daily Star) - The Annual Jamboree of global defence leaders at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore is much more than just a talkathon. Amidst the wining and dining, and in the chambers and corridors, policymakers and thought leaders get the opportunity to interact with one another intensely over a weekend. They try to make sense of how the regional critical security and related issues are evolving, against the backdrop of a rising Asia and a burgeoning superpower competition in what is now being increasingly viewed as the “Indo-Pacific Region”. Over the last several years the United States seemed to enjoy a walk-over vis-à-vis the agenda in the absence of senior Chinese protagonists. It invariably resulted in a spot of “China-bashing”, and a consequent erosion of its significance, the high quality of discourses notwithstanding.
Only a few would be persuaded that President Donald Trump is deeply informed about any moderately complex subject. Ballistic missiles is one such. In fact, such a notion becomes firm when one considers his expression of bewilderment when Japan did not shoot down the North Korean “Hwasong-15” missile in flight just as the Saudis had done the Houthi projectile fired from Yemen. Anyone with even meagre understanding of missile technology would know that thetwo situations were not the same. And that the former action would have been well-nigh impossible with available Japanese capability.So when he caught out the Russians cheating on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty of 1987, he took many by surprise. The Russians might have indeed tried to pull wool over American eyes by quietly deploying a new medium range weapon in violation of that landmark agreement. This is not to say that Mr Trump came to this conclusion on his own. At least it was apparent that he heeded counsel in this regard, which in itself is a silver lining of no mean consequence.
America has had a fairly inscrutable history. Haven to the oppressed in the European continent, its early settlers, while relishing the fruits of freedom, pretty much exterminated its indigenous inhabitants. At the same time, as a reaction to absolutist monarchies elsewhere in the world it created pluralist institutions. In this “New World” the Lord did not supposedly anoint Kings investing them divine rights, but imparted them directly to the people through the Constitution. While their leaders penned and pronounced praises to liberty (in the “Federalist Papers” written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, for instance), notions of equality were not extended to their black African slaves. While they were explicit in expressions of their new world coming to the aid of the old, their entry into the Great Wars of the twentieth century was actually effected only when their interests were directly threatened. They initiated the use of nuclear weapons of mass destruction in warfare, only to champion their elimination when others, particularly not of their ilk, sought to acquire them. While their intelligence agents relentlessly worked towards regime-changes in other countries, they themselves reacted adversely when others allegedly sought to do the same in theirs. So, how was it that America, such a bundle of contradictions, able to project itself as a beacon of morality on the international scene over such a sustained period of time?
In my previous avatar as a diplomat, like much of the rest of the world, I saw myself as an ardent advocate for change in Myanmar. It was in the grip of Generals who ran a horrendously repressive regime. In 2009, urging calm on those who wished to come down hard on the ruling junta, I had written in a publication: “The main challenge with Myanmar is to find the right balance between the carrot and the stick. The balance needs to tilt in favour of the carrot.” A decade down the line, circumstances require me to alter that thesis. Today, I would opt for the stick. And much of the rest of the world would agree.
The relationship between a smaller and a larger neighbourly state, as also between a weaker and stronger one, is often tricky on both sides. Though not always, it requires greater dexterity on the smaller protagonist. This is because more “power” tends to reside with the larger, which is also usually the stronger partner.
Shakespeare had once observed, through his character Marcellus addressing Horatio in the drama Hamlet, that there was something rotten in the State of Denmark. Thereafter, he sought to analyse those remarks by weaving an incredibly complex scenario that focussed on the woefully morbid persona of his brooding and indecisive hero, Prince Hamlet. Were the English bard to return to the present times and be asked on his view as to what ails contemporary Pakistan, he would perhaps respond, with incontrovertible logic and certitude, that it is the economy. Prime Minister-elect Imran Khan would agree. Mr Khan would also conclude that the indecisiveness of the young Dane would be a luxury that he could ill afford.
A fundamental law of physics, also applicable to the social sciences, is that everything in nature is in a state of flux. The sage Heraclitus had said we never step into the same river twice. The flow of the river of life today has remarkably gained a momentum that is torrential. It gushes ahead washing away old values, norms, and the societal architecture that human mind and endeavour had conceived and created over a long period of time. As it leads us into the digital post-modern era dominated by big data, cloud-computing, and artificial intelligence, it also impacts on the politics, economics and sociology of how we organise our lives.