There is still venom in the West’s sting


    It is becoming increasingly popular to speculate that the West’s and in particular the US’s Golden Age is coming to an end. After years of dominating the financial system, giving the West disproportioned power over the rest of the world, the situation might be changing. This power has often attracted much criticism as it set the scene for imperialism as well as the ability to influence global events to fit with the Western view of the world.

    The surge in power for the West started centuries ago and could be explained by understanding the relationship between religion, government system and how that contributes to individual innovation (Brilliantly explained in Niall Ferguson’s book Civilization). The current narrative, however, is that while the Western countries are now sinking in debt, they are looking for countries such as China, Brazil, Russia and India to bail them out, ultimately handing over a great deal of power.

    This change in power, understandably, has a deep effect on the Middle East, since typically in politics, as some powers are rising and some declining, there is a consequential change in alliances and ideology.  A very direct effect of the current alignment could be seen for example with the result of the elections in Egypt. If not understanding the relationship, it would seem very odd that the Al-Nour (extreme Salafi Muslim party) and Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas’ sponsor party from which it branched out) are calling to respect the peace agreement with Israel, while Hamas itself is calling to occupy all of Israel and rejects its existence (one would expect the movements to be aligned or the more extreme Salafis to oppose Israel at least as much as Hamas). It wouldn’t be wrong to assume that had the US not been supporting Egypt financially and influencing the Middle East, a war between Israel and Egypt would have broken out shortly after the election or toppling of the army rule.

    Considering the US and West’s power over the Middle East, this shift in power should be very concerning for Westerners, since a financial shift could change reality very quickly. For example a shortage of oil supply or increase in price could break the already fragile economy, which is still very much reliant on the combustion engine for mobility (and existence).

    One of the intriguing questions is how did this situation occur and how could the timing be explained. No doubt, plenty of books will be written about the topic offering different explanations as well as discussing the shortcomings and periodicity of the capitalist financial system. However, a simpler explanation would be the evolvement of the political systems in moving away from communism and towards capitalism and the time it takes them to readjust. The changing technology is also a major factor in the time and depth of this changes taking place (setting up a call center in India these days is arguably easier than it was to establish a new trading route for goods).

    Regarding the timing, there is no surprise that while the new economies have suddenly opened their trade routes and technology made their integration easier, many of the funding from the Western companies, were diverted to the countries that could offer comparable services cheaper. The result was Western companies increasing profit, while developing countries showing a massive growth to their economies. Ironically, the capitalist push to increase profits and stay competitive is what led to the banking systems taking irresponsible risks, which ultimately led to the economic crisis in the West. As a result the West is now going to those previously weaker economies, looking for funding.

    This shift of power is very apparent in politics as suddenly China, Russia and Brazil are rearing more economic power than ever before and affecting real outcomes. For example China and Russia have been voting against any actions to be taken as a response to the killings of protestors by the Syrian government, or against tougher sanctions against Iran. Turkey, which also showed great growth and economic stability in 2010, also defied the West and moved its ideology and investment towards the East. It should be noted, that this move coincided with some criticism by the Turkish government of the German handling of the Turkish population as well as the falling out with Israel (an event unimaginable, when Turkey had a dependent and weaker economy).

    However, despite the grim outlook for the Western world, at times one must balance the headlines in the media with the facts on the ground, in order to fully grasp the situation. 

    Despite being an oil rich country and the economic crisis in the West, tough sanctions on Iran are starting to bite and the Iranian economy is showing signs of collapse by the rapidly growing inflation and consequential an even higher unemployment rate (Iran does not release official statistics). Some argue that the sanctions are inefficient and liken the situation to North Korea, who continued its nuclear weapon program, despite the sanctions, however, this comparison ignores the big middle class in Iran (which didn’t exist in the same way in N. Korea), who are motivated to protect their financial assets.  The Iranians also do not have the same isolation from the Western world as the North Koreans.

    Perhaps not directly or wholly related, but since taking a hard-line in politics, Turkey has also seen a massive decrease in its currency (60% decrease against the dollar from 2007 to 2011, taking into account that the dollar has taken a tumble in those years as well). There are many reasons for this change, however no doubt that decrease in investment and tourists has had an impact. Also, since 2005 Turkey’s external debt (i.e. total public and private debt owed to non-residents and repayable in foreign currency, goods, or services), has been rising rapidly from $16 billion in 2005 to $270 billion in 2011. While Turkey is still considered an emerging economy with a forecast to grow, it is obvious that its economy is tied with the rest of the world and it has to acknowledge that and act accordingly both economically and politically.

    Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, Brazil and other countries around the world are in a similar situation, in which while they have more prospect for growth, their markets are, dominantly, the Western world. This situation is not likely to change, until there is enough critical mass and infrastructure from countries completely independent of the Western world to trade amongst themselves. There are speculations that this is already taking place, however, it will take time until “new” countries on the scene match the innovation and knowledge of the Western world (political change in those countries almost certainly has to happen first).

So, while the West is losing ground and the reality for its citizens is almost certain to change somewhat, one mustn’t jump to conclusions or lament fate prematurely, after all, the US had the same fear in the 80’s when Japan was gaining ground.

Arab Spring Turning into a Bitingly Cold Winter


 

    As the winter months are upon us and in the Northern Hemisphere we feel the cold weather, so do we start to realize the true error of what we called the “Arab Spring”. The term Arab Spring is based on the “Spring of the Nations”, which took place in 1848. It was in fact a series of revolutions which took place in the world, without any apparent central coordination and opposed the multi-national empires. The revolutions extended achievements are somewhat debated, but it was certainly a big step towards giving every country more power to rule itself.

    The Arab Spring started in a somewhat similar way, while there was no apparent central coordination; people in the street rose against their absolute leader and demanded more control. However, unfortunately, this is where most of the similarities end. Unlike Europe and the world at the time, the Middle East did not have a limited number of empires that ruled the region. In fact it was quite the opposite, each country in the Middle East has/had its own ruler and the revolution was never about breaking the rulings into smaller chunks, so that the leader truly represents the local interests.

     In the Middle East the countries already have local rulers, who were supposed to look after the local interests. The real dispute is whether they were actually doing it, as well as the fact that they could not be replaced by a democratic procedure, if they weren’t.

    When the Egyptians started gathering in Tahrir Square, many people criticized Obama for not responding quickly enough to the government crackdown. The “common wisdom” accused him for not doing so, because of Mubarak’s positive attitude towards the West. However, while that might be partly true, there is another bigger issue. Like many others, Obama didn’t know who would come next. While accepting that democracy is a positive process as a whole, Obama like many other leaders appreciated that true democracy is not something achieved overnight.

    Many people consider democracy the act of the people putting ballots into voting boxes and then giving the power to he/she with the most votes, however, this is where most people are mistaken. The action of voting is merely allowing people to participate, however democracy cannot exist without other institutions to support it. For example, how could people form their opinion with the absence of freedom of press? If no mass medium is reporting objectively on what is really happening how could people judge the candidates or their policy? Or even be aware that things could be different?

    Another institution, whose presence is essential, is the Court of Law. How could anyone seek justice or expect the country to be run fairly, when there isn’t a truly independent body that serves as a judge on matters that might be uncomfortable for the government to bear? In a way an objective media can exist only in a country where the law enforcement and courts are fair and independent and therefore can protect it from unfair censorship or retribution.

    While some institutions are missing from democracy, there are some whose presence is a hindrance, for example religion. When religion becomes a political power, democracy is damaged, since in some cases people are made to vote as religion dictates rather than what they truly believe in. Having religious involvement in politics is an issue that can be seen in Western democracies as well. In the Middle East for example, it is said that Israel is getting to a dangerous point, where the religious population is inclined to vote in accordance with the religious leaders, which is hampering the democratic process. It could be argued that it is the people’s choice to become religious, however there are plenty of examples to refute that and argue against its participation in the process of democratic elections. Another worrying example would be the US, which also has a large element of religious votes, however there it is also based on values and there is a true separation between religion and state.

    Returning to the concept of the 1848 Spring of Nations, while in 1848 the countries fought a separate local rule in the Arab Spring, it seems that the end result is turning out to be quite the opposite. In the Arab world, it seems that the religious parties are gaining more power and it is actually more likely that the Muslim Brotherhood movement would have a continuum of control across borders, as they win the majority in every country. Bizarrely this is very reminiscent of the Al-Qaeda goal to have a single Muslim Caliphate rule for region. So in some ways, the partial democracy taking place in the Middle East is pushing the region further away from the West in terms of ideology and consequently commerce and culture.

    However, while the revolutions are taking place and governments are changing, one must remember that in the Middle East many things are in play and therefore do not always seem logical to a Western eye.  As the US is ramping up its pressure on Iran, putting it under more economic constraint and possibly stopping its nuclear power, the result might invoke a regime change and possibly a decline as a key player for the foreseeable future. In the same breath it could be argued that despite the militant stance the Al-Nour  (Al Qaeda inspired Salafi party in Egypt) and the Muslim Brotherhood, have declared in their election campaign, once they start to govern they will find it difficult to give up the US financial aid ($1.5 billon a year according to Forbes magazine), as well as see tourism dithers as a result of their Muslim stance and Westen-phobia, so will become less radical.  Syria has not yet collapsed and the recent talk of a Hamas “kiss and make-up” deal, may harm Hamas and Hezbollah more than they think as Asad loses more legitimacy and sees his army taking more beatings from the rebel army.  This will no doubt have a ripple effect on Lebanon and the Israel/Palestine conflict, which may have a ripple effect on other aspects as well.

 

    So predicting which player will rise, which player will fall and what will the reality look like, once the dust has settled, is currently anyone’s guess.

Christopher Hitchens


   Before being able to welcome 2012, Christopher Hitchens lost his battle to cancer and passed away at the aged of 62. Hitchens has been a journalist and an author for a long time. Many will remember his strong anti god-view and his accusations of the Church and Mother Theresa, in particular accusing her for spreading ignorance, disease and undesired populations growth. However, most of all he would be remembered for taking a stand in support of the Iraq war, which has labeled him a liberal turned neo-con in the minds of many.

    Hitchens was also especially interested in the achievements of Thomas Jefferson as a person and a founding father of the USA. He wrote a biography of Jefferson and often used his knowledge to combat claims that the US was founded on the base of religion (he differentiated between faith and organized religion). 

    Hitchens has been a long time reporter on the Middle East. He covered the politics in the Arab countries including the wars and the political developments. He was also a known criticizer of the Israeli policy over the Palestinians and opposed the idea of Zionism harshly, however, he was a supporter of the notion of the Jews living in peace in a UN recognized democratic country.

    Hitchens was dubbed a neo-con, when he refused to follow the ultra-liberal move towards criticizing the Western involvement in conflicts in foreign countries and mainly for speaking out in favour of the Iraq war, while Noam Chomsky and other prominent left-wing thinkers took an opposing view.

    Hitchens was a talented orator and a true polemic. In the early millennium he enjoyed ripping people like George Galloway apart in debates, exposing their double standards of supporting and promoting war in Iraq, Syria and Gaza and returning to the West to criticize violence.  Hitchens also criticized the history of the anti-war coalition, which opposed involvement in the Bosnia conflict as well. When debating with an anti-war promoter, Hitchens would often recount the ideology of Al-Qaeda and published reasoning (such as over the dispute in East Timor) to prove that their actions are not as a response to Colonisation, rather a spread  of their way of life globally.

    Noam Chomsky who was once revered by Hitchens was applauded for his earlier work, but harshly criticized for his new-found promotion of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and his “anti-imperialist” view.

    The World has lost a truly inspirational man who was not afraid to say what he thought and argue his point even if it didn’t fit the “liberal” stream he used to belong to.

    It is a shame that Hitchen’s death was not more widely publicized. However he lives behind him a wealth of knowledge and his essence and a string of books and publications such as Hitch-22, God Is Not Great, Love Poverty and War and others.

    The global intellectual debating scene will miss one of its most talented members.