Boris Johnson’s Houdini act is coming to an end

During a recent trip to London, I did my usual deep dive, meeting as many British political players as I could over the course of a fascinating (if frenetic) three days. As ever, my political marathon did its job, giving me a thorough, if impressionistic, view of what is going on in Westminster.

I spoke to 20 or so high-level political people and invariably asked them the same question: “Can Boris Johnson really somehow keep up the Harry Houdini act and survive ‘partygate?’” To my intense surprise, improving poll numbers to the contrary, all of them said the same thing: “No, not into the medium term. Boris is about done.”

There is no denying that escapology — the hallmark of Houdini’s illustrious vaudeville career — is also the defining characteristic of the present British prime minister. Long known for his humor, sense of fun and cheerful conviction that the rules of the world are not for him, Johnson took first the Conservative Party, and then the country, by storm, winning the largest Tory majority (80 seats) since the Thatcher era.

But these very qualities that made Johnson such a delightful and highly effective campaigner have come back to haunt him, given the horror of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Partygate,” at its essence, is a very simple thing. On numerous occasions, the prime minister and his staff engaged in parties in defiance of the draconian pandemic rules they themselves had drawn up and that the largely dutiful British public was keeping to. The nuance of the story (how many parties there were and how many the prime minister attended) matters far less than the overall picture. Yet again, Johnson thought that ridiculous rules needed to be followed by the little people but were not for him.

The immediate aftermath was dreadful for Johnson, with his premiership hanging by a thread. But then, like the great escapologist and showman who he so resembles, at the very last minute fortune seemed to come to the prime minister’s aid. The Russian invasion of Ukraine crashed down upon the world’s consciousness and changed the subject for Johnson.

The prime minister was propelled onto the international stage, where the mention of something as seemingly trivial as lockdown parties seemed poor form for the press to even bring up, given the life and death stakes unfolding. Changing leaders in wartime is something most publics tend to avoid, if at all possible, though there are plenty of historical exceptions (Winston Churchill in the Second World War and David Lloyd George in the First World War). Seemingly, Johnson was given a second wind, with the subject being changed and him being able to look prime ministerial. So, has the old rogue managed to slip by again? As Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader, wailed at Prime Minister’s Questions this week: “Why is he (Johnson) still here?”

Polling numbers would seem to suggest that Johnson has yet again gotten away with it. A March 11 Opinium poll found the prime minister’s heretofore crashing numbers stabilizing, if from a very low base. A bare majority of those polled (53 percent) still want Johnson to resign, but this is down 10 points from January. Labour’s lead over the Tories has shrunk to just two percentage points, well within the margin of error. It would seem the prime minister, gifted with a pressing international crisis to deal with, has managed to politically turn the corner.

But the experts I spoke with confirmed my feeling that this settling political wisdom is likely to be wrong. Johnson has survived (just) but is on last-chance probation with party leaders and MPs who worry that, when “things get back to normal,” the indelible stain of his previous actions will come back to haunt them. It is not likely that the British public will forget that, while they were making the greatest of social sacrifices demanded of them by their government, the leader of that government was hanging out at what seems to have been a fairly regular booze-fest.

Nor do future events seem likely to rescue Johnson. Year-on-year inflation rose in February to 6.2 percent, its highest rate in 30 years, with skyrocketing food, fuel and electricity costs leading the way. None of these are likely to drop in the near term, as the energy, food and commodities markets have all been roiled by the Ukraine war. Ironically, what the British press is calling “the cost-of-living crisis” is being exacerbated by the very war that politically saved the prime minister in the first place.

The next British local elections are set to be held on May 5, with the government possibly facing a drubbing that will once again call into question Johnson’s electoral prospects. This, coupled with the general misery inflation invariably brings and the seared memory of the prime minister partying while the country suffered, will do for Johnson at long last.

But you have to give the man credit for a brazen lack of self-awareness. Just this past week, Johnson held a party for Conservative MPs at the Park Plaza Hotel near the House of Commons. I hope he enjoyed himself; in political terms, it is likely to be his last.

This post was originally published on Arab News.

The EU awakes from its long strategic slumber

For the first 20 years of my working life, about the easiest general political risk call I could make — whatever the crisis — was that the EU could be counted on to punch well below its weight. Despite having one of the three largest internal markets in the world (along with the US and China), Brussels was bound to disappoint, doing little practically in terms of furthering its specific foreign policy goals, as often it didn’t have any. Nor was it prepared to expend the blood and treasure necessary when it did.

Perennially betting against Brussels — economically sclerotic, militarily impotent, and geopolitically divided — did nothing to harm my political risk call record. Better still, from my point of view, the EU (shamefully) subsidized a coterie of supposedly independent foreign policy experts, who — well aware of where their bread was buttered — functioned at international conferences as little better than cheerleaders.

On the rare occasions the EU was successful, these partisans would trumpet this as a sign that Brussels was ascending to superpower status. When it failed, the not-so-neutral experts would sagely intone that, in failure, the EU would “do its homework,” using its missteps to make the next great leap forward in terms of its integration. This circular analytical reasoning mostly fooled those who were themselves spouting such logical nonsense, but my competitors’ being constantly wrong about Brussels has been very good for business.

However, as the historical adage has it: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” With the Ukraine war, we are living through such weeks. A primary requisite of first-rate political risk work is to constantly check assumptions, even those such as my call about the EU, which have been on the money for decades. For the adage is right: Things change, the world changes in an instant; and we have to be ready for it.

In the case of the EU, the basic problem has always been Germany, its economic motor and by a long way its most important state. Henry Kissinger neatly encapsulated Berlin’s historical tragedy: It is too small to dominate the whole of Europe and too large to be just one of a series of European great powers. This uneasy structural reality was greatly exacerbated during the do-nothing years of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, when for decades nothing happened except Berlin making of itself an intellectual and strategic black hole.

Steadfastly refusing to end its ruinous holiday from history, Merkel’s long, dreary rule led to Germany adopting a mercantilist, economics-first foreign policy, valuing its increasing trade ties with China and comfortable with its energy dependence on Russia. Putting itself in such a strategic straitjacket inevitably lead to Germany adopting a quietist, quasi-neutralist foreign policy, as to rock the boat by siding with the West against these revisionist powers would have had real and disastrous economic consequences. Never said in all this flawed logic was that it was Merkel who was deciding to wear the straitjacket of her own free will, rather than a cruel indeterminate fate thrusting such a choice upon her.

For a generation, this neutralist Germany has made the adoption of a genuine common European foreign and security policy an impossibility, as with a Gaullist France tugging one way and an Atlanticist northern and eastern Europe another, a chaotic tower of strategic babel was the only possible outcome. It was Merkel’s steadfast refusal to re-arm and to have any real outward-looking foreign policy that made a mockery of every effort at Europe forging a common strategic identity. As long as Merkel’s isolationism held sway, betting against Europe was easy.

But, in the blink of a historical eye, things have changed. In about 10 days the new German government of Olaf Scholz adopted almost every policy I have been begging them to undertake for the past 20 years. Germany can, after all, meet NATO’s 2 percent of GDP pledge for defense spending. Better still, after a generation of Germany’s weapons systems atrophying, Scholz has set aside €100 billion to bring its military kit up to speed.

In energy policy, too, big changes are afoot as Berlin has de facto abrogated the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project with Moscow, after decades of western pleas for them to do so fell on deaf ears. Equally significantly, Germany’s isolationist drift has been halted as it moves resolutely back into the US-dominated Atlantic camp. Simply put, in 10 days there has been more strategic movement in Germany than in the past 20 years.

At the higher, European level, Germany’s sea-change alters everything. Suddenly Europe is, in the medium term, not going to be militarily impotent; rather, with a re-arming Germany and an already militarily capable France, it will be a strategic force to be reckoned with. Vitally, Europe’s collective strategic drift toward either neutralism or chaos is also at an end; it is now solidly in the Atlantic camp.

There are surely many bumps in the road ahead, and changes this profound will not proceed in an easy straight line. But that does not lessen the momentous importance of the past few days. Europe’s medium-term strategic position in the world, for the first time in my working life, is on a decisive political risk upswing. 

This post was originally published in Arab News.

As it defies Putin’s pressure, Britain should back Kazakhstan

Shrewd, knowing, screen legend Marelene Dietrich put it well when she said, “It’s the friends you can call up at 4m that matter.” Having just emerged from its own crisis, the government of Kazakhstan has – to the surprise of many – answered the world’s wake-up call.

Despite its close ties to Russia, it has steadfastly refused to align itself with Moscow over the Ukrainian war, instead neutrally offering its offices to broker a peace deal, even as it refuses to recognize the two breakaway Ukrainian provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk, as separate countries as the Kremlin desires. Instead, Kazakhstan has called for Russia to consider dialogue and peaceful settlement of the war, noting its close ties to both belligerents.

To put it mildly, this is not what Vladimir Putin expected to happen.

Going even further, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Kazakh president, has decisively stated that he is cooperating with Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in coordinating humanitarian programs, while at the same time urging Putin to consider an immediate cease-fire.

In wisely stating that “a bad peace is better than a good war”, Tokayev has somehow kept his country’s traditional, multi-vector foreign policy intact, stressing Kazakhstan’s strategic autonomy despite the immense pressures of a war next door.

However, in turn, Kazakhstan has recently sent London a middle-of-the-night wakeup call of its own. How it responds will condition the UK’s relationship with this pivotal, resource-rich state, and the whole of the strategic Central Asian region, for decades to come.

Kazakhstan has had many achievements over the first 30 years of its independence. With its first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at the helm, the country embarked on a programme of strong economic reform and (as a consequence) enjoyed sustained growth.

Equally importantly, Nazarbayev fashioned a true multi-vector foreign policy (with Kazakhstan keeping Russia, China, and the West at arm’s length) despite living in the rough and tumble geostrategic neighborhood of Central Asia. In so doing, he safeguarded Kazakhstan’s strategic autonomy, despite long odds.

Nevertheless, violent riots erupted in the country on 2 January, tragically claiming over 200 lives before they were quelled. While the immediate cause of the disturbance was a rise in fuel prices, the underlying reasons for the unrest also included income disparities, crime, and extremism. Obviously, there is a clear need for further economic reform (moving definitively toward a post-Soviet, market-based economic model) and tackling income disparity, while addressing poverty alleviation and battling corruption.

Yet, as so often is the case, the events of January 2022 are in danger of being grossly misunderstood by a British foreign policy establishment who would rather feel good than do good. In this case, two bastions of old-style, brain-dead, Wilsonian thinking, Chatham House and Dame Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP, have reflexively called for sanctions against Kazakhstan, willfully ignoring what is actually going on in the country.

In the case of Chatham House, in a recent report they admit that the chaotic events of January make it hard to justify specific sanctions on the country due to the violence that occurred. Instead, they confusingly and nonsensically base their preference for sanctions as a policy response on the very income disparity that the Tokayev administration has made it a priority to alleviate.

Disregarding the strategic opportunity that the reformist government of Kazakhstan represents, Chatham instead adopts the usual, dreary paint-by-numbers approach to its domestic upheaval.

As for the scandal-plagued Dame Margaret, the old adage about glass houses and stones would seem to apply.

Rather than discussing her own massive peccadilloes – ranging from making $100 million from the sale of her family’s industrial conglomerate, STEMCOR, in Belarus to China, or to address her horrendous disregard for the horrific abuse of children in Islington’s children’s houses while leader of its council from 1982-92 – somehow, some way, she has the nerve to find Kazakhstan worthy of her moral disapproval.

Instead of seeing further developing ties with Kazakhstan as Britain’s strategic partner in Central Asia, the serially tone-deaf Labour politician is looking for redemption in all the wrong places.

Yet beyond the immediate crisis and the unthinking, censorious comments of its detractors, there is significant, deceptively good political risk news emerging in Kazakhstan. First, despite 30 years’ worth of worries about the durability of the Kazakh state itself, it came through its trial by fire, with the country’s integrity and cohesion never in doubt even as the disturbances raged.

Kazakhstan as a political entity has proven itself to be a genuine, organic country, with a genuine sense of nation and nationhood.

Second, in acting decisively and resolutely in the crisis, Tokayev has made it absolutely clear that he will direct the country’s revived economic reform programme, tackling the very practical underlying issues that people in Kazakhstan most care about, regarding inequality, corruption, and fuel prices.

Moving beyond the first era of Kazakhstan’s independence, it behooves the UK to be part of the second chapter in the country’s ongoing saga. Proposed British sanctions take none of these political risk realities into account, and would only heedlessly damage the UK’s interests.

Kazakstan is doing precisely what every foreign investor has been dreaming of (given its tremendous economic potential and boundless resources of coal, uranium, cotton, and copper), by stabilizing the economy and society. It is committed to maintaining its multi-vector foreign policy, just as the West has great need for friends in Central Asia following the chaotic American pull-out in Afghanistan.

For instance, Kazakhstan has the world’s 12th largest proven oil reserves (approximately amounting to 30 billion barrels), with oil output trebling since 2001, to 1.8 million barrels per day, and going up. Given the grievous need for Europe to find new, safer sources of supply, Kazakhstan amounts to a vital future oil source for a West sorely in need of energy diversification.

Also, in energy terms, Kazakhstan’s uranium will be badly needed as the nuclear industry may experience a renaissance, given the need for clean energy and more, for energy coming from stable, pro-western countries.

Instead of ostracizing Kazakhstan, it is entirely in the UK’s interests to diplomatically ‘lean in’, supporting Kazakhstan’s government. It would seem obvious (though sadly it is not) that when a longstanding ally, through the pressure of overcoming internal crisis, is committed to doing precisely what London urges it to do, more strategic support is both the proper and the practical foreign policy response, not less. It is past time for London to answer Dietrich’s proverbial 4AM phone call.

This post was originally published in Convervative Home.

Biden’s political comeback much less than meets the eye

Washington insiders read polls like the rest of the country looks at baseball scores: Relentlessly, daily, obsessively. A politician’s “numbers” are akin to understanding his political health. A basic rule of thumb is that any president with an approval rating over 60 percent can tell Congress what to do and be pretty sure to get what he wants, so great is his sway with the public. On the other hand, a president with a rating below 40 percent must spend his time trying to squelch rumors that he is dead.

So, on its surface, it is notable that President Joe Biden’s recent numbers tell of his survival from a near-death political experience. Following months of intraparty Democratic bickering, the White House’s signature “Build Back Better” initiative — a multitrillion-dollar bill stuffed with progressive wish-list items like universal preschool and free community college — fell victim to both Senate moderates (such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) and the alarming resurrection of inflation. In the wake of this ignominious defeat, Biden had only a 40 percent approval rating in RealClearPolitics’ aggregation of presidential polls. The president found himself on the cliff-edge of continuing relevance.

Recently, however, things have begun to look up politically for the White House, as Biden’s numbers have slowly but clearly edged upward to about 43 percent approval; far from great, but trending away from the writing off of his presidency. Two seminal factors explain the marginal improvement: The abatement of COVID-19 and the advent of the Ukraine war.

In the case of the first, after two grim years of lockdown, death and economic stultification, at last things seem to be returning to something approaching normal, with the children back in school (if still too often masked, in defiance of “the science”), parents back at work and commerce picking up. The fourth quarter of 2021 saw US gross domestic product increase 0.5 percent, 1.7 percent quarter-on-quarter, and the American economy enjoy its best year as a whole since 1984, growing at a robust 5.7 percent. While these impressive numbers are contextually a reaction to the deep dive the US economy took just before as a result of the pandemic, they do signal a very welcome return to economic normality.

At the same time, the Biden of old has reemerged as a result of the Ukraine crisis. Measured, moderate and clear-spoken, the president has made it obvious that, while he supports the hard-pressed Zelensky government in Kyiv, he is sensibly not prepared to risk widening the conflict by adopting a dangerous no-fly zone over Ukraine. Following his lead, and despite Volodymyr Zelensky’s impassioned pleas, NATO has unanimously followed suit.

Biden’s pro-Ukrainian tilt, then, has its limits. While genuine, it is secondary for the president to containing a possible escalation of the war. Beyond being strategically reasonable, Biden’s position is where most Americans are regarding the conflict. The war has reminded US voters of the “safe pair of hands” they thought they were electing in the first place, before the Biden White House came to be hijacked by the left wing of the Democratic Party.

But it is far too early for White House staffers to be quaffing champagne regarding Biden’s political comeback, as a number of overexcitable commentators have done. For one thing, a three-point “bounce,” while better than a drop, hardly amounts to a sea change in how the American public views the president. A March 15 Wall Street Journal poll confirms this. Only 29 percent of US voters think the president will run for reelection, with a dominant 52 percent believing Biden will call it quits after only one term in office.

If Biden were to run and win again, he would be 82 at the time of his second inauguration, by far the oldest man to have held the most demanding job in the world. Given his increasingly stiff gait, often rambling answers to questions and abject forgetfulness, it is unkind but true to note the president has lost a step over the past few years. The world seems dangerous, complicated and demanding. A large majority of the American people do not think Biden is up to a second term.

Beyond the personal, one issue above all has reared its ugly head, stifling the prospects for Biden’s comeback. As this column has long worried about, it is now increasingly clear that the beast of inflation — long cowed by the resolute actions of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and President Ronald Reagan — has slipped its restraints. Inflation increased to an eye-popping 7.9 percent year-on-year in February, the highest level in fully 40 years. Food, rent and fuel costs were dangerously climbing even before the Russian war has made an energy price shock a reality.

As the world looks increasingly like the dreary 1970s — stuck in a stagflation of low growth, high inflation and decreased living standards — Biden is sure to be blamed for this, just as Jimmy Carter was in 1980. Biden’s uptick in the polls is a blip, not a salvation. Instead, longer-range forces are bearing down on the White House, making it likely that, one way or the other, Biden is merely a one-term president.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Maintaining friendships through the storm: America’s fraying ties to its allies

The American journalist Walter Winchell had it right when he wisely observed that “A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” What holds true for individuals is doubly the case for countries. In the crucible of war, with all the world’s pressures on the line, the like-minded countries that rally around the United States are truly worth their weight in gold.

Indeed, it rightly has been much remarked upon that during Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine — the sternest geopolitical contest to confront the West in years — most of the world has rallied around the United States and taken steps to isolate Russia. However, amid this generally positive initial response, there are a number of holdouts whose failure to condemn the invasion reveal some unpleasant surprises.  

The countries bucking this general condemnation of Russia include significant powers such as China, India, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All pointedly and conspicuously have avoided directly criticizing Russia, despite the fault for the invasion self-evidently being theirs.

Each of the outliers has a different reason for its diffidence. Competing superpower China is making strategic calculations. A hard-pressed Russia, diplomatically assailed on all sides, becomes far more likely to drift into the iron-clad strategic partnership (as the junior partner) that Beijing desires. Pakistan largely is following China’s lead here. For its old rival India, whose close ties with Russia stretch back into the mists of the Cold War, the more concrete reality is that Delhi still obtains much of its high-tech arsenal from Moscow. This is more than enough to keep India diplomatically quiescent.

However, the omission of the UAE from the anti-Russian global alliance should be of greater concern to the United States in many ways. While the others’ differences can be explained away by a clear reading of their national interests, the UAE’s diplomatic path is more puzzling and more problematic for the U.S.

Historically, the UAE has been one of America’s closest allies and partners in the Middle East. It has functioned as the host of a strategically important U.S. military base at Al Dhafra. Given the UAE’s long struggle with the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels of Yemen, like the good friend that it has been, the U.S. granted it military support to defend against Houthi missile attacks, totaling an additional $65 million in air defense weaponry.

Because the U.S. has been a friend in need for the UAE, it is hard for many in Washington to stomach what is seen as a failure by a longstanding ally to do the right thing and close ranks over Ukraine. Dismay is all the more palpable because the UAE presently has a seat on the UN Security Council, as the representative of the Arab bloc. Its abstention over a U.S.-drafted Security Council resolution condemning the Russian invasion should serve as a wake-up call that all is not well in Arabia for U.S. diplomacy. 

In the Security Council, the fact that the UAE refused to join the ranks of those defending a member state against unprovoked military aggression speaks volumes about the reliability of partners on whom the U.S. thought it could count. Even more troubling is the statement by the leader of the UAE, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, in a March 1 call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that “Russia has a right to ensure national security.”

What explains this strange ambivalence? First, there have been years of Emirati and Saudi hedging: The UAE has sought to diversify not just its economy, but also its geopolitical exposure. When the Obama administration ignored the region’s concerns over both the Iranian threat to the region and the Yemeni war, the UAE concluded it could not count on the U.S. to look after its interests.

As such, it expanded its trading and strategic links with both Russia and China. Even beyond this hedging, the UAE on its own reached a convergence of interests with Russia, with both countries supporting authoritarian Arab regimes in Libya and Syria. 

The UAE’s general dissatisfaction with the U.S. increased with the advent of the Biden administration. Despite the White House sending F-22 fighter aircraft and a guided missile destroyer to defend the UAE against attacks from Yemen, its failure to redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist organization has rankled the authorities in Abu Dhabi. President Biden’s refusal to deal directly with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, leader of the UAE’s crucial ally, is also a major irritant.

The UAE’s abstention, then, is indicative of a larger problem for the U.S.: the fraying of its previously rock-solid relationships in the Arab world. The present focus rightly has been on repairing and resuscitating trans-Atlantic relations, but clearly the U.S. cannot just forget about the rest of the world. Or, as a leading UAE diplomat put it, “Confidence has a lot to do with this vote, that finally we are independent enough, competent enough to take this kind of position, which is consistent with our own way of doing things. Maybe it doesn’t resonate too well in Washington, but that’s the way things are going to be from now on.”  

To put it mildly, this isn’t good for the United States. Even as it rightly mends the frayed European alliance, Washington must at the same time rebuild some bridges in the Arab world with its erstwhile friends.  

This post was originally published in The Hill.

Biden has only himself to blame for Gulf hesitancy

As I can attest to from my Washington days, the art of alliance management is a tedious, dreary process. Much as is true of personal friendships, alliances between countries require both parties to see but overlook the flaws in one another, all in the cause that, on balance, the link is worth it. Or, to put it in realist terms, the only thing worse than having allies is not having allies.

Further, both personal friendships and alliances require patient, endless tending; like gardening, it is an endless process. Bursts of energy and attention are not enough to sustain an alliance. What is necessary is a patient, long-standing effort to look at the common interests between countries, looking for where they can work together, while at the same time minimizing interest-based differences so that the alliance does not turn toxic, becoming endangered. Worst of all, alliances cannot be taken for granted; if they are, the neglect inherent in this mindset will come back to bite the neglectful country.

When Joe Biden came to the White House, the necessary, unglamorous art of alliance management was exactly the sort of thing he was supposed to be good at. A foreign policy veteran, as a legislator he had long served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the select group overseeing America’s international relations. Doing the hard, grown-up heavy lifting inherent in alliance management seemed to suit the new president’s temperament and, more, his biography.

So, it has come as a shock that Biden’s frenzied efforts to craft a new energy policy in the wake of US energy sanctions levied against Russia have run into a brick wall, with allies the UAE and Saudi Arabia apparently shunning his entreaties of the need to pump more oil in an effort to lessen the looming global supply shock that is a consequence of the war in Ukraine. Practically, these two countries can uniquely quickly ramp up production, making up for the Russian exclusion. That they have yet to do so speaks karmic volumes — not about the merits of Biden’s “ask,” but about his diplomatic neglect of these two traditional bastions of America’s global alliance system.

In 2021, the US imported nearly 700,000 barrels a day of crude oil and liquefied petroleum products from Russia, about 8 percent of its total oil imports. While it is far less dependent on Russian energy than its European allies, this not insignificant total is sure to send US energy prices higher in the short run. This is particularly devastating for the White House in that inflation is already an alarming 7.9 percent, the highest rate in 40 years.

Biden’s economic team made a fundamental error in throwing too much public sector money at the COVID-19 crisis, even as the US economy bounced back stronger and more quickly than expected. As former Clinton era Treasury Secretary Larry Summers made brilliantly clear, you cannot increase federal spending by 14 to 15 percent of gross domestic product without triggering seriously higher rates of inflation. All this was happening even before the global energy supply shock that is a consequence of the Ukraine war. This is the context that sent a complacent Biden off to ask Saudi Arabia and the UAE for immediate and dramatic help in increasing global energy production to cushion the US from this foreseeable blow.

That the two countries have not been immediately receptive is reportedly a consequence of having been taken for granted throughout the Biden presidency — his neglect of alliance management has come home to roost. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been alarmed at the Biden White House’s headlong rush to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal with Iran. Their concerns have fallen on largely deaf ears, as the US moves close to reviving this disastrous deal.

Second, both the Saudis and the Emiratis were angered by the withdrawal of the US’ terrorist designation status from the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, who are fighting government forces backed by both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Further, the Saudis want more American support regarding the war as a whole. To put it mildly, this has not been forthcoming from the Biden White House, which seemingly cared as little about the core Saudi interest as it was passionate about the Iran deal.

Third, in trying to (somehow) sideline US relations with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Biden White House fundamentally misunderstands how the Saudi system works. In neglecting, ignoring and taking the Saudi and UAE alliances for granted, Biden is reaping what he sowed.

At last aware of the damage done, White House officials are scrambling to set up a visit by the president to Riyadh to try to calm the waters as he pushes for greater oil production. There are indications that the UAE is now open to such an increase. But, to put it mildly, it is a bad time to ask an estranged friend for help, after neglecting that very relationship in the first place. It is the price Biden pays for failing at alliance management.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Stealthily, Abe breaks foreign policy taboos in Japan

Just as last week’s column explained how President Emmanuel Macron’s coming re-election could be attributed to the specific political culture of France, so Japanese political culture is particular, fascinating, and entirely different from any other.

For example, while most of what happens in American politics can be assessed by viewing the (literally) thousands of open-source articles written about it on any given day, Japanese politics tends to happen behind the curtains. If we are lucky, every once in a while, the curtains rustle ever so slightly and its murky world becomes at least partially observable if we have but eyes to see. But Japanese politics is about training yourself to look at a world of shadows.

This past week, with the world’s gaze turned entirely away given the universal focus on the Ukraine crisis, one such rustling of the curtains took place. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe —the most successful premier of his generation, and primary author of Asia’s seminal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quad — enabled a brief glimpse into the world of Japan’s political elite. At 67, Abe remains in many ways the power behind the throne in Japan, as leader of the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party’s largest faction. It was Abe’s support that was decisive in the elevation of Fumio Kishida to his current role as prime minister. It is not too much to say that, even without the formal title, Abe remains the most powerful figure in Japanese politics.

As such, what the kingmaker had to say this week signified nothing less than a toughening of the Japanese position regarding China. Speaking with a bluntness uncharacteristic of his political contemporaries, the former prime minister said Japan should consider “nuclear sharing” of the kind by which other NATO countries such as Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, store American nuclear weapons on their territory. By making it plain that Tokyo could also be open to storing American nukes, Abe is signaling that Japan will not accept either being blackmailed (its perpetual foreign policy strategy) by North Korea or being bullied by a rising China.

Aghast, as his personal constituency is in Hiroshima, the site of the world’s first atomic blast, Prime Minister Kishida somewhat lamely said Abe’s interjection was not government policy. That seems to be precisely the point. At last unbound from the formal constraints of the premiership, Abe has found the intellectual freedom to speak his mind as he tenaciously moves the Japanese foreign policy discourse toward re-making his country—75 years after the end of the Second World War — as a more “normal” foreign policy great power.

But Abe was far from done with his musings. Going further, he urged his American allies to abandon their longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan. Since the Carter era, the policy has been that the US is bound to come to the aid of Taiwan if it is attacked (presumably by China), without ever making it clear if this means the deployment of American ground forces to help repel such an attack. For decades, this very vagueness was politically comfortable for both Washington and Beijing. The US could say to its Asia-first lobby that it was committed to defending Taipei, and China could say to its hawks that the American commitment did not necessarily include the deployment of US forces, meaning a Sino-American shooting war was not inevitable should Beijing choose to invade.

However, for Abe and for many other foreign policy observers, the days of strategic obfuscation must come to an end, because this very vagueness makes the possibility of war more likely as miscalculations become highly likely. Beneath the waves, what Abe is hoping to do over time is prod his primary American ally into offering a formal security guarantee to Taiwan as a way to shore up the nascent but growing anti-Chinese alliance in the Indo-Pacific.

It is not ludicrous to believe the former premier is capable of such strategic magic. The Quad is Abe’s brainchild — a political mini-NATO comprising Japan, India, the US and Anglosphere member Australia that seeks ways to contain Chinese adventurism in the Indo-Pacific and looks to work together as the bulwark of the existing strategic order. After a false start in 2007-2008, Abe’s tenacity paid off as the Quad was reborn in 2017. Pressing his close personal ties with both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump, Abe reassembled the Quad in such a way that it is now seen (along with the AUKUS defense treaty between the US, the UK, and Australia) as the supreme institutional expression specifically designed to halt Chinese adventurism in Asia.

This week, in rustling the curtains, Abe clearly signaled — in the subtle way that is how Japanese political culture works — that his days of crafting the region’s anti-Chinese coalition are far from over. While the US is not likely to station nuclear weapons on Japanese soil anytime soon, nor is Washington imminently about to do away with its strategic ambiguity over Taiwan, in raising these topics — previously taboo in his country — Abe is making his strategic direction of travel crystal clear. There is more work to be done in bolstering the democratic alliance in Asia.   

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Ghost of Charles de Gaulle is the secret to Macron’s political success

As Stephen King memorably wrote in “The Shining,” ghosts are real; “They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” This is precisely what is happening now in the French presidential election, as — more than anything — the ghost of Charles de Gaulle is propelling Emmanuel Macron to victory.

Reading a copy of the French Fifth Republic’s constitution, so personalized is the document to fit de Gaulle’s personality that I conjure an image of the great man’s military kepi. It is easy now, after 64 years of this Republic, to forget that de Gaulle was brought from political exile in 1958 at a time of crisis, both to save France from the political ructions over Algeria that were tearing the country apart, and to replace the weak, legislatively dominated chaotic failure that had been the Fourth Republic.

Instead, de Gaulle — understanding his people’s historical affinity for a strong, centralized executive, a trait apparent from the time of Louis XIV and the Bourbons through both Bonaparte emperors — gave France what it wanted; a centralized state, with an “elective monarchy” at its head. While prime ministers appointed by the chief executive would deal with the anodyne day-to-day functions of the state, the president, unbound, could focus on foreign policy, geostrategy, and high matters of state affecting what de Gaulle liked to call “French grandeur.”

For all that this can sometimes seem faintly ridiculous to outsiders, de Gaulle understood very well what his countrymen organically longed for. As he put it: “All my life, I have had a certain idea of France.” This notion of French grandeur, of a great (if elected) monarch rising above the din and commonplace of everyday life to rule, jibed with what many of his countrymen yearned for. In squaring the origins of the Fifth Republic’s strong role for the executive with this mystical French yearning, de Gaulle’s creation has in practice been far stronger than the four Republics that preceded it; the Fifth Republic has the political legitimacy that comes only with having a system that squares with a country’s specific political culture.

It is not an accident, then, that the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, has a picture of de Gaulle in his private study. Jeered early on in his presidency when he arrogantly compared himself to Jupiter, the Roman king of the gods, Macron was actually on to something Gaullist and profound. Aware that the French want a strong leader, striding the global stage and reassuring his people that France, somehow, remains a great and respected global power, Macron has played the Jovean role to the hilt. But in doing so, he is only delving into the old successful Gaullist playbook, connecting with France’s longstanding political culture.

With just six weeks until the first round of French presidential voting on April 10, Macron finds himself in a commanding political position, thanks to the ghost of the general. A survey reported in The Times finds Macron comfortably ahead with a projected 25 percent of the vote, with far-right populist Marine Le Pen next at 18 percent, followed by far-right television star Eric Zemmour at 14 percent, center-right candidate Valerie Pecresse at 12 percent, and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon rising to 11 percent.

Of those, most are too far to the political extremes of left and right to give Macron any reason to fear. Only Pecresse is ideologically moderate enough to give him a potential electoral scare. Indeed, early polling after her emergence as the main center-right candidate put her neck-and-neck with the incumbent. However, following an amateurish start to her campaign — complete with a disastrous speech at her largest rally —Pecresse is quickly fading from view.

Instead, Macron — channeling his inner de Gaulle — has stolen an electoral march on all his rivals, casting himself as a global statesman loftily looming over a field of parochial, angry, and mediocre contenders. While at first glance Macron’s futile efforts at shuttle diplomacy on behalf of Europe as a whole failed to stop the Ukraine crisis lurching into all-out war, this has not hurt him electorally. Rather, the French people seem to have thought it was better he tried and failed, than merely diplomatically receding into the woodwork.

Instead, in line with the ghost of de Gaulle, Macron’s poll numbers have slightly risen, as he has occupied the international stage as the leading voice of Europe, and has conferred diplomatically as the equal of both presidents Putin and Biden, at least on the surface. With the fledgling German government of Olaf Scholz just coming into being, Macron has filled the diplomatic vacuum as Europe’s foremost strategic voice, precisely as de Gaulle always strove to.

While symbolism, more than actual substance, is at play here, ghosts remain powerful things. One of the oddest side effects of the Ukraine crisis has been the rise of Macron to grasp the Gaullist mantle. In doing so, and in connecting with the French political culture that the general knew so well, Macron has done nothing less than assured himself of a second term as France’s elected monarch.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Defence and security. If the Germans can rid themselves of their sacred cows, then so can the British.

In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway famously said that people go broke “gradually, then suddenly.” History works like this, too. For long periods of time, things continue along a well-travelled analytical path, where little happens, and little changes. Then in a bolt from the blue – gradually, then suddenly – more is altered in days and weeks than has been the case for months and years.

So it is with the Ukraine crisis, as the tectonic plates underlying how the world works are shifting quickly. The EU and Germany are a case in point. For decades, by far the easiest political risk call I made involved Brussels and the major European states over-promising and under-delivering.

That was due to the basic structural fact that, despite having one of the world’s largest economic markets, the EU perpetually punched below its potential strategic weight. Economically sclerotic, militarily impotent, and strategically confused, Brussels almost always amounted to less than the sum of its parts. As I often said during political risk speeches to my clients, my predictive call record has never been hurt by betting against the European Union.

Germany, as ever, lay at the root of Europe’s problems. As Henry Kissinger has sagely pointed out, the structural tragedy for Germany is that it is too important a country merely to be one of a series of great European powers, and too small a power to dominate the whole of the continent. After World War II, this old German problem manifested itself in a new, intractable form. Germany, following the abject horrors of Nazism, simply took a holiday from history, one that the other exhausted European powers initially encouraged.

But, as generations passed, and the continent’s economic motor showed no signs of waking from its strategic slumber, what had provided a respite for the world increasingly became a very large problem, as without real German strategic engagement in the wider world any sort of common EU foreign and security policy was bound to be stillborn.

Over the past 20 years, during my time running my own global political risk firm, I have headed to Germany literally scores of times. Arrestingly, during these two decades, the issues discussed with its governments have never changed. In the case of Germany, rather than solving problems, bringing them up became a sort of fruitless mantra, a repetitive catechism that was merely invoked, but absolutely never acted upon.

Could you spend an appropriate level of GDP on defence?”

“Impossible, given our peculiar history and the pacifist leanings of our people.”

‘Can you lessen your addiction to Russian natural gas, which accounts for a debilitating 35 percent of your total–skyrocketing to over 70 percent if the mammoth Nord Stream 2 pipeline comes online?

“Impossible, our gas imports are an economic, not a strategic, concern, and we have a shared and tragic history with the Russians.”

‘(Sigh) Let’s meet next year.’

And so the intellectual merry-go-round went round and round, a string of reasonable strategic questions being unfailingly met with the word ‘impossible.’ Betting against Germany and Europe was the easiest strategic call out there. Until, all of a sudden, everything changed.

For German strategic culture has altered more in the past ten days than in the past 20 years. Suddenly every strategic ‘ask’ I ever made has all come to pass, with the newly-minted Prime Minister, Olaf Scholz, obliterating 16 years of do-nothing Merkellism in a blink of an eye. At last alerted to the longstanding fact that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a revolutionary power, intent on undoing the post-Cold War strategic outcome, Germany acted, and with wholly uncharacteristic speed.

Nord Stream 2 has been suspended, and is de facto dead. Germany (it wasn’t impossible after all) has agreed to spend the NATO-required two percent of GDP on defense, and has allocated a 100 billion euro defence budget to upgrade its antiquated weapons systems. Every European now finally sees that the purpose of NATO remains vital and unchanging, life insurance in an historically dangerous world. With strong German backing, the EU has agreed to collectively buy defensive weapons, and then given them to the hard-pressed Ukrainians. Germany (and thus, Europe) has awoken from its long strategic nap.

Conclusion: the UK Must Follow

Brexit freed the UK from the clutches of a strategically clueless EU. But what has it done with its newfound independence? John Bew’s analysis for Boris Johnson got the country off to the correct geo-strategic start; the new era is indeed going to be characterized by great power competition.

But speed and strategic clarity also matter. In the time it took Bew and Johnson to recognize the glaringly obvious, drilling down to the operational level (the tactics informed by an overall strategy) has proceeded at a glacial pace.

It is not nearly enough to say that great power competition characterizes our age. The next vital step is to name who the great powers on the chessboard are, and what the arena is that the contest will be played in.

Again, Bew and Johnson are correct in that the Sino-American Cold War – a superpower competition for primacy – is the overriding strategic fact of our age. They are also correct in that the Indo-Pacific is rapidly transforming itself into the world’s pivotal region, where most of the world’s future economic growth as well as much of the world’s political risk come from.

So far, so good, but not enough. For the great powers just beneath the superpowers – who maintain a great deal of room for independent strategic manoeuvre – must also be taken into analytical account. Here is the hidden good news for both the West and the UK, particularly after the momentous events in Ukraine, which have seen a hardening of this evolving strategic picture.

While a wounded, vengeful Russia is now firmly a stooge to superpower China, Robin to Beijing’s Batman, all the other great powers line up firmly in the western-dominated order. Russia and China must contend with the US, India, Japan, and a repurposed EU, as well as Britain and the other Anglosphere countries. The very good news is that the emerging basic power structure of the world favors the UK and an order we can all happily live in.

Practically, this more accurate look at geo-strategy lends itself organically to some practical policy outputs. If even the EU can throw off its shibboleths in a matter of days, now is the time for the Johnson government to do so in the matter of hosting and cosseting Russian oligarchs, as London has shamefully built a pin-striped ecosystem of lawyers, accountants, and PR consultants who allowed the de facto laundering of pilfered Russian money as well as the laundering of reputations for Putin’s cronies.

It is not for nothing that the capital is nicknamed ‘Londongrad.’ This must come to a stop, not in six months, but immediately. If the Germans can throw off their sacred cows, so can the British. It is not impossible.

But at a deeper level, what is required is a rapid change in British strategic thinking. Britain’s calling is to lead the Anglosphere, a great power almost no one has given nearly enough thought about. It must shift its gaze to the dominant Indo-Pacific region. Britain can become a vital player on the world stage, the closest ally of the world’s ordering superpower. If Britain does all this quickly and decisively it will emerge as a major force in the dominant new great power coalition. It is all in Britain’s grasp, but it must do that hardest of things; it must act fast and keep up with history.

This post was originally published in Conservative Home.

Ukraine is the victim of Europe’s refusal to wean itself off of Russian gas

Either you master history or history masters you. Decades worth of political risk analysis can almost always be boiled down to this aphorism.

In the case of Europe’s dealings with Vladimir Putin, rather than mastering history, Europe has vainly tried to take a holiday from it; we’re now watching the doleful results.

First, let’s dispense with Prime Minister Johnson’s speculation that the Russian President is somehow an “irrational actor”.

While his methods are odious, there is nothing in political risk terms regarding Putin’s strategy that strikes me as remotely irrational. Forget the smoke and mirrors about Ukraine’s possible NATO expansion; Putin knows this is not going to happen in his lifetime, if at all. The real reason for Russia’s aggressive actions could not be either more organic or reasonable from the Kremlin’s point of view.

Putin, in his Peter the Great Tsarist pose, wants to restore Russia’s strategic depth, the force that has been the cornerstone of the country’s strategic playbook for the past 300 years.

Mother Russia managed to see off wars of annihilation with Charles XII of Sweden in the 18 century, Napoleon in the 19 century, and the Kaiser and Hitler in the 20th century, all by trading land for time. Surrounded by pliant client states, Russia’s leaders let the invading armies march into the vastness of their country, all the while waiting for time to pass and Russia’s game-changing winter to come. Rather than being irrational, this has formed the basis of a very successful strategic orientation since time immemorial.

With the demise of the USSR, all this was lost, as Russia was weak, led by the chaotic Boris Yeltsin, and NATO expansion proceeded ever closer to Moscow. Upon taking over in late 1999, Putin has made it his life’s mission to restore Russia to at least great power status, even if it will never play in the superpower league as the US and China. To do so, the plan is to restore the country’s lost strategic depth.

This Putin has begun to do. Russian influence in the Balkans has grown, even as Belarus and the Caucasus states (following the Azerbaijani-Armenian war) are now firmly in Moscow’s orbit. But Ukraine remains the jewel in the crown of the strategic depth strategy, for without it in the political fold, as Putin himself remarked in his national address, hypersonic missiles can strike Moscow in just minutes time.

So, Putin looks around, and what does he see? He sees a distracted America pivoting to the Indo-Pacific, where much of the strategic risk is a contest with China and much of the economic reward of the world’s future growth are both lodged.

Then he turns to the EU, and he sees absolutely no threat. The EU is economically sclerotic, politically divided, and militarily impotent. Above all an isolationist Germany, the economic motor of the continent, is addicted to Russian energy, getting over one-third of all its natural gas from Russia. With the addition of the mammoth Nord Stream 2 pipeline this economic dependence was set to become servitude. It is hard to expect the Germans to be tough with anyone who can make them very cold in the winter.

There have been warnings about this for decades, which predictably fell on deaf ears. In political war games I did to help the EU grapple with its energy dependence on Russia there was a predictable outcome: Europe needed to diversify its gas imports, taking more from Norway, Algeria (Europe’s other two major suppliers) as well as Qatar and the US. I was profusely thanked for my efforts, paid in a timely manner. And of course, nothing happened.

If the UK truly wants to “do something” about Putin, even at this late date, it must join with Europe in crafting a dramatically new energy policy, where the sources of supply are finally taken into primary account in political risk terms. The UK has avoided the Russian energy trap, getting less than five percent of its total from Putin. It can and must team up with a befuddled Europe, looking at an energy plan that does not castrate the continent, particularly when it is necessary for it to stand strong in relation to the Kremlin. Putin’s adventurism is not irrational; Europe’s energy policy is. 

This post was originally published in City A.M.