Is Obama trying to become the least trusted president of the US in recent memory? If he is, he doing a very good job of it. Just in the last couple of months he has managed to alienate many of his formerly most reliable friends, none worse than Germany, although Canada would also have a good case of feeling most offended. Perhaps the Canadian irritations seem to be small matters, but they have certainly added up, and do nothing to bring about any sense of harmony among the second and third largest countries on earth, not to mention a feeling of solidarity in North America. There is no doubt that Canada is quickly drawing away from its long-standing position of being a close ally of its smaller southern neighbour, whose arrogance in such matters as the naming of ambassadors, the paying of obviously-due bills, the willingness to co-operate on border issues, and the inability of Washington to understand that spying on your friends and neighbours is considered unacceptable by respected governments, and the simple absence of courtesy visits is simply rude by Canadian standards. The two US ambassadors to Canada appointed by Obama have both been non-diplomat bagmen for Democrats with no experience in foreign affairs or for that matter in Canada. The US seems to be unwilling to pay for the building and maintenance of a new border crossing on the desperately needed new bridge to Canada near Detroit, but has plenty of money for drones cruising along the once so-called longest unarmed border in the world. The almost total absence of visits by the Candian Prime Minister to Washington and the US president to ottawa does nothing to dispel the feeling that these two countries are not getting along well.
But the situation with regard to Germany has deteriorated even more rapidly. Any North American liviing in Germany has long had the feeling that the Germans basically ten d to look at eh US through rose-oloured glasses, no doubt because of the US eole in t he Second World War and its aftermateh. (These same German almost never know anything about the role of Canada , whose army played a major part in the D-Day invasion and fought its way on its own through northern France and the Netherlands.) But that good will has almost been destroyed by the revelations about Washington’s tapping of phones of the leaders of government there, including the private cell phone of Prime Minister Merkel, who seemed honestly taken aback by this revelation . As she was brought up in the DDR, she is more or less the last person on earth who has to be reminded of the awful reaction of citizens who hear that their private communications have been listened to by threatening governments, in this case a foreign one. And now the head of the CIA in Berlin has been kicked out of Germany as the proof of illegal spying that came out of his office continues to widen . What birdbrains allowed this to happen? did they really think the Germans, by far the central power of Europe. would take this affront without acting? And there we can see it: Merkel talking with Putin in Rio about the Ukrainian situation, which has left the US once again all at sea, German Foreign Minister Steinmeyer icily confronting an outmatched US Foreign Minister Kerry in Vienna. It’s all unnecessary, if there were only some sense of diplomatic skill coming out of Washington . But there isn’t and we shall see what the consequences are of such amateur behaviour.
As events in Ukraine continue to seem to spin out of control, some aspects of the crisis seem to be getting clearer:
1. Crimea is lost to Ukraine and will soon be understood by almost everyone to be apart of Russia – again. It is time for the western leaders to stop saying otherwise. It is a peninsula in the Black Sea that Russian armies have fought for over the centuries against the British, the Ottomans and others when it was threatened with invasion, and no one stepped in to defend it when Russia just took it over , not even the Ukrainian army that was stationed on it. Most of the people who lived there were in favour of the return to Mother Russia and Putin wasted no time in welcoming them back. In Russia itself it was an event that worked greatly to increase Putin’s popularity.
2. Ukraine has always functioned as a kind of buffer zone between the Russian Empire and western Europe. . There is no doubt that the western part of Ukraine, with the city of Lwiw/Lwow/Lemberg has been at different times a centre of Polish, Yiddish, German and Ukrainian cultures. There is absolutely no doubt that its inhabitants would vote overwhelmingly to look west for its future, but it is also true that western Europe has never been particularly welcoming towards them. When the EU clearly placed its eastern boundary on the Ukrainian/Romanian border and welcomed Romania and Bulgaria into its military wing, NATO, it made life very difficult for those western Ukrainians who would love to enjoy free travel and close relations to the people in the lands beyond the visa-controlled Romanian border. Ukranians have emigrated in large numbers over the last century and a half, especially to the Canadian prairies, partly because they never felt particularly welcome in central and western Europe while simultaneously being subjected to enforced famine by its Slavic brothers to the east.
3. There is real uncertainty about what would happen in eastern Ukraine if such a vote were held. Cities of a million people like Donetsk and Karkov – and suddenly Odessa seems to have joined this assembly – seem to be so divided on the topic that civil war seems a real possibility if serious negotiations aren’t held immediately. Nobody seems to really know what Putin’s plans might be, but his recent suggestion that the pro-Russian separatists should act with a bit more caution, may be a sign that a kind of semi-autonomous status within the Ukrainian Republic for Russian-speaking areas areas of eastern Ukraine might be a negotiable position that would be less threatening than anything anyone else has been able to think of. .
4. Putin has proven to a ruthless and powerful opponent in all this. Here on his home turf he has been able to completely outmaneuver both his Ukrainian adversaries and the western leaders who have so ditheringly come to their defence. His foreign minister makes mincemeat of all the western foreign ministers except the German Frank-Walter Steinmeyer who is very aware of how awful the actions of west European armies in Ukraine have been in the recent past. Putin has a black belt in judo, and he has proven he is one tough customer, but it may be that he has made all the moves he plans to make and that a negotiated settlement based on a Ukrainian Federation can bring some chance of peace to this tormented part of the world. If not ….No Comments
The role of public opinion in the current Ukraine/Crimea crisis is a good illustration of the short sightedness of America’s reduced commitment to public diplomacy, as it continues to have a defense budget that more than exceeds the combined defense budgets of the next ten largest countries’.
President Putin has committed considerable resources to Russia’s international TV, “Russia Today” (RT), including an American operation that can be viewed in English or Spanish. In 2011 it was the second most popular international broadcaster after the BBC and claims particularly high viewership in the U.S.’ five largest cities. An international TV network that competes with CNN for its audience, including and especially a Western audience, “Russia Today” is available to some 85 million Americans via cable TV and internationally to over 650 million people via approximately 250 cable and satellite providers. RT also manages a sophisticated website that focuses on U.S. news as well as international news. And while clearly a propaganda tool of Russian foreign policy, it has managed to find Western viewers tired of CNN’s diet of American-centric news augmented with a heavy offering of political and social drivel.
The 2011 budget for RT was ca. $380 million, a large jump from its 2008 $120 million budget probably partially due to a serous image deficit following the Russia – Georgia conflict. In any case from an American perspective RT amounts to Russian operated surrogate broadcasting within the U.S., much like what Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were to the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.
At the same time that Russia has promoted its image outside Russia via RT Putin has succeeded in improving his popularity at home with extensive and harsh control of traditional sources of information, especially TV, radio and the print press. While RT has ready access to American audiences Putin has banned Russian radio stations from affiliating with Radio Svoboda, RFE/RL’s Russian broadcast service, forcing that service to rely heavily on social media, access to its website and its increased popularity on You Tube. Native Russian investigative journalists have had a tendency to “go missing” or worse; anti-government rock groups go to jail and demonstrations merely lead to mass arrests.
During the Cold War U.S. surrogate radio broadcasts into Russia and its Warsaw bloc and Soviet neighbors provided news of their own countries and the world otherwise not available. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakdown of the Soviet Union those efforts were reduced and, in fact almost eliminated. Assuming the Cold War was over, the U.S. Senate, led by a somewhat naïve Russell Feingold, led a move in 1994 to cut RFE/RL’s budget from $210 Million to $75 million. Today, RFE/RL broadcasts to 21 countries (including Afghanistan, Iran, and of course Russia) in 28 languages via the Internet, SMS text messaging, online video, satellite radio, and popular social media networks with a budget of $95 million – less than one quarter of RT’s budget. America no longer seriously competes with Russia in the critical area of public opinion and the results are obvious as we watch the Russian people salute the re-emergence of an at least semi-cold war.1 Comment
Ok. So Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is a mite paranoid and more than a mite pissed off. Seems that You Tube and Facebook have been peddling some troubling audio of Erdogan carrying on with his son about his need to hide some money – well, actually quite a lot of money – before those police not yet fired by the Prime Minister come a-calling. Other phone conversations capture Erdogan threatening newspaper publishers for having published articles critical of him and his political party. This is consistent with his habit of jailing journalists and academics who voice criticisms of his government. Indeed, it is possible now to question whether Turkey actually is a functioning democracy.
Erdogan’s solution to the leaked conversations? Ban Facebook and You Tube from all of Turkey! This after announcing laws that allow police to trace website searches on individuals’ computers and to ban any websites that suggest dishonesty or paranoia or sedition or whatever might displease the Prime Minister. Alas Erdogan might be running into a problem with all of this since President Abdullah Gul has already said that banning social media is not acceptable and he will not sign such a law. And if that is so, it is a dead issue and Erdogan might be more concerned about his future than anyone would have expected six months ago. Gul has always been the loose piece in this puzzle – a somewhat less pious Muslim with a mind of his own and no real debt to Erdogan.
In addition, while Erdogan has been busy waging war against free expression and the Internet the Turkish Constitutional Court has found that charges brought against a former army military chief of staff by Erdogan’s government last year was improper and has opened the possibility that all of the charges that broke the military’s secular influence on power in Turkey were improper.
Erdogan’s power in Turkey has been partly theocratic but more importantly economic. The economy has flourished, quality of life has improved and a lot of people have benefitted financially. But the current crises have had serious negative effects on the economy and people are getting restless. Turkey faces a major choice in important local elections this month: it can stay with Erdogan and sacrifice free expression and free access to information with the hope for renewed economic development or opt for moving toward a more secular government with the hope for a commitment to free speech, and the rule of (secular) law. These elections will be an early indication of whether Erdogan has gone too far in his efforts to stifle political debate and manipulate public opinion.1 Comment
And so the Crimean crisis seems to have settled down a bit. The Russian military has taken control of the Crimea, encircled Ukrainian army bases on the peninsula, and warned the two Ukrainian war ships out on the Black Sea to not even think about confronting overwhelming Russian power at its naval base in Sevastopol. Russian solders show no sign of leaving an area the size of Sicily in which 70% of the population speaks Russian and welcomes their presence. There is no doubt that if a plebiscite were held, which the Russians are demanding , the people of the Crimea would vote to join Russia. Needless to say, this is a complicated situation, demanding patience and knowledge.
Meanwhile Putin says he has called back the dogs of war out on the Russian-Ukrainian, where 150,000 Russian troops happened to be holding training exercises near Russian-speaking cities in eastern Ukraine, which might well also vote to join Russia. These areas pose a much greater threat to stability in Europe if Russian troops move in “to protect a Russian minority in a former USSR republic” stranded there by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ukraine has no treaty connection with western Europe and has no chance of joining the EU or Nato in the near future as some really ignorant commentators in the west seem to think. But Estonia and Latvia do an d include with large Russian populations still unhappily stranded after twenty years of living in independent Baltic states. They are both in the EU and Nato and any Russian movement to recover them would automatically bring all EU nations into a military confrontation with Russia. For many this will recall the way that Europe stumbled unknowingly into a carnage that killed 60 million people exactly a century ago in “The War that Ended Peace (the title of Margaret Macmillan’s fine new book on the topic) would make a lot of experts who know the complicated history of Eastern Europe very nervous indeed. If Russia should cross the Russian-Ukrainin=an border near Donetsk or Kharkov, it is unclear what might happen, and nobody is taking bets on the future of the Crimea, but Estonia is another matter. That would bring war.. And so the poobahs are assembling again, this time in Kiew, which has proven to be a very unwelcome place for good government, no matter who won the democratic elections, in the twenty years since Ukraine became free. Western commentators have found it easy to forget (or not know) that the recently deposed Prime Minister of Ukraine, who even the Russians don’t like, won an election that was deemed to be fair and square by the UN observers. He may have acted like a corrupt despot when in power, but he did win an election in which the current temporary Prime Minster, got 7% of the vote and seems to be unimpressing almost everyone.
But here they come to lay flowers , deliver some platitudes and hopefully solidify votes at home. The Canadian foreign minister John Baird does his job well, knowing there are i,3 million ethnic Ukrainians in Canada and that Ukrainian affairs play an very significant role in the settlement of the Canadian prairies,,an d the determination of elections. But before he leaves, he does mention that Canada is not considering any kind of military response. (The US might consider recalling their ambassador to Canada to give them insights into the history of Ukraine but they can’t do that since they haven’t had an ambassador in Canada for many months). John Kerry, the US Secretary of State follows Baird by several days but takes the same trail and states that Russia will have a price to pay if it doesn’t stop its aggression. Unfortunately a tired and confused-looking Kerry cannot answer any questions about what that price would be. Lat time Obama used football talk to warn about crossing a line drawn in the sand in Syria the result was no response from the US when someone did precisely that and a very clever chess move from a surprisingly wily Putin. The US certainly cannot be contemplating a military response, but it doesn’t exactly want to admit it. Putin knows it and looks like a cat who swallowed a canary in his press conference. H e also know that while the US can’t do much but bluster, he can cut off the fuel lines which heat most of Ukraine and a great deal of western Europe. How do you like dem chops? Let’s hope Putin is also a pragmatic figure and knows that he too certainly does not want a war, and that he steps back and considers what to do on the Crimea.. And th at will take serious negotiations by a number of parties. One figure who seems to be placing himself and his country in a position of mediation is German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Whether he likes it or not, he may have to step in and play a big role as this (very fine) German Foreign Minister has a unique insight into the dangers that come up like ghosts from the past when countries get carried away thumping nationalistic big sticks out on the borderlands of Eurasia.4 Comments
Abdullah Gul, President of Turkey, has signed into law a government proposal designed to give the government extraordinary powers of censorship over the Internet, including blocking of specific sites viewed as a threat to the Turkish government and collecting the histories of web searches of individuals’ computers. This is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest attempt to eliminate free speech in a country that until recent months had served as a model of secular democracy in the Muslim world.
While Turkey’s economy and its people’s overall quality of life had flourished for 11 years under Erdogan, the very personal nature of his leadership had for some time been moving the country toward a less democratic culture in which religious Islam began to play an increasing role, personal and political corruption began to flourish, and freedom of expression began to suffer. The root of the problems is a competition between Erdogan and his brand of Islam and that of Fethullah Gulen the leader of a Sufi-based brand of Islam. Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan operates a large Turkish social, political and educational enterprise from his current home in Pennsylvania. He became disillusioned with Erdogan’s personalized Islam-centric approach to leadership which at best can be characterized as arrogant; at worse as megolamanic.
Political moves by Erdogan during the past year have placed the country’s commitment to secular democracy as well as his power at risk. It began with a public demonstration against Erdogan’s move to replace a public park in Istanbul with a shopping mall but it was clear that much of the demonstrators’ incentive was Erdogan’s increased authoritarianism. The demonstrations grew in size and led to a brutal police crackdown that was abrupt and violent, leading to at least 7 deaths and thousands of injuries. Erdogan’s response included a clumsy attempt to blame the U.S. and Israel for inciting the demonstrations. What followed included street riots, and police arrests of Erdogan allies for crimes of vast public and private corruption. Erdogan responded with take-overs of the police and judiciary, censorship of news, arrests of journalists and academics for speaking out, and the new restrictions on access to Internet content. All of this has contributed to a decline of the Turkish economy, and the erosion of the Turkish model of a secular democracy into a state with two Islamic sects fighting for power while secularists struggle to regain influence.
While most of the damage done to date is to the Turkish people and their democratic state, Turkey’s importance to the West raises the international stakes. Turkey’s geography, its importance for stability in the Middle East, and its unique ability and position to blend secular democracy into a 99% Muslim population with a rich history of power and influence lends it an importance beyond the merely symbolic. It has benefitted from a successful, growing economy, a commitment to education for all (including women), a thriving tourist industry, an agricultural output that is the envy of its region, and the second largest military among NATO members.
While its efforts since the late 1980s to become a full member of the EU have been rebuffed, that became less of an issue as EU countries’ economies have suffered through years of an ill-advised austerity while Turkey’s thrived. There is, in fact, little incentive or interest now in Turkey in becoming an EU member. As a further indication of Erdogan’s movement away from the West, he gave a contract to China to build its missile defense system, provoking alarm among fellow NATO members – especially the U.S. – while signaling his desire to shift turkey’s interest away from the West and towards greater influence in Asia.
Western democracies have held up turkey as a model of what can be accomplished in a Muslim country committed to secularism and democracy. As Erdogan continues on his current path that model may cease to exist. While the future of turkey lies in the hands of its people the West needs to do whatever is possible to short circuit Erdogan’s autocratic limits on free expression. The U.S. has begun to play a small role in that effort by supporting various “pirate” radio stations run by Turkish expats dedicated to providing a free flow of information currently being kept out of Turkey’s tradional press and media. While clearly premature for the U.S. to add Turkey to its official international surrogate broadcasting efforts the time for a Radio or TV Free Turkey may well be approaching. The European Union also needs to take a hard look at Turkey’s limited membership role in the Union and begin to apply pressure for the return of basic human rights, including a free press and unfettered access to social media and the Internet in general.2 Comments
A sort time ago, during the first week of January , and in the midst of the peak travel time of the New Year, Canada’s largest city, Toronto, got a bit of a wintry blast, nothing out of the ordinary in northern climes. All airports from Yellowknife to Murmansk stayed open and were not severely affected by this rather normal winter weather up here in the north. Except one – Pearson International in Toronto, by far the largest one in Canada, the fourth largest in North America and a crucial one for flights going in and out for much of North America. Now the powers that be at Pearson – and the CEO of the now semi-privatized airport was in Edmonton at the time and made his decisions on the basis of phone calls (Edmonton Airport of course remained open) decided that Pearson Toronto could handle international flights but not domestic ones. His subsequent explanation was that it was slippery and cold out there for his workers and the pilots had to drive their planes carefully into loading docks, causing delays. The result, of course, was chaos. Canadians could indeed arrive at Pearson Airport from far-off places but then could not travel on to Canadian destinations, in some cases for 3 or 4 days as traffic backed up. Montreal’s Trudeau airport remained open of course but could not send its scheduled flights on to Toronto, causing chaos in Montreal, which made for good business for trains and busses, which of course travelled normally, but there weren’t enough of them to handle the increasingly restless crowds. Officials at Vancouver Airport could only look on in astonishment as planes failed to arrive from the east, and sent many of its thousands of daily international travellers off to Asia without their luggage, as chaos ruled the luggage routes to Asia.
Finally on Saturday, 10 days after these exciting events, the most Canadian of all explanations came in. Mr. Vijay Kanwar, the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority apologized in a full-page ad in the Globe that probably cost as much as the wages of the workers who were ready to take on the cold and ice for “the inconvenience that passengers and their families experienced during last week’s extreme weather conditions” . And he also announced the most Canadian solution to such a problem - “the board of Directors has established anad hoc committee to review last week’s events, which will “conclude its work within 90 days and share it findings with the public”. And these guys speak of my brother and me as hosers. They are still laughing in Inuvik about ”the extreme weather conditions” that Hogtown couldn’t deal with. Why even the Maple Leafs made it to the rink and played under such conditions. Don’t ask about the result.2 Comments
Now let’s get this straight. A mid-level worker in a country’s security division has access to highest-level secret service documents and comes across information that he thinks should not be kept secret. And so he makes it public. It turns out that that is easier to do than it used to be, and that is true with all other sources of information meant to be kept secret. You simply copy that information and send it out on the internet. Or you do it Canadian style. An undistiguished sailor in the Canadian navy did it and was caught delivering it to the Russian Embassy (in a quaintly old-fashioned way) in an envelope. It turned out that the Russians hadn’t even asked for it; they simply received it and paid a modest sum of money to a chap in financial trouble who sold it for cash and ended in jail. And now a Chinese-born Canadian citizen who works as a research engineer for a subcontractor for the shipbuilding firm contracted to build Canada’s next generation of warships, has been arrested by the RCMP, charged with having approached the Chinese Embassy with an offer to sell the plans for the ships. The Chinese government denies it, but the chap sits in jail. All in all these seem like plots for one of those fine English comedies about amateur crooks, mink thieves, spies, ladykillers, etc, that the Brits can’t make any more, but they do suggest that there is no such thing as secure information communications any more.
And then on a much more startling level, with no sense of comedy involved, another (Australian) chap with apparently easy access to much more explosive material about US spying ended up disclosing it and claiming (and receiving) exile in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. But in the most dramatic case a US middle-level technician in the US security establishment took his vast amount of digitalized highest security level information with him to the Moscow Airport and began to gradually send out on the internet stunningly massive amounts of information about the way the US spy system now works – on an unimagined level of electric spying, apparently of just about everybody. He does not sit in jail, because he managed to get into Russia first. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, is furious because the chap in Russian exile published documents that seemed to prove that the US had tapped the chancellor’s private cell phone. Angela Merkel was born and raised in Communist East Germany, whose main claim to fame was setting up an all-powerful spy network that relied on its own citizens spying on each other with the result that everyone knew that you could not talk in a hotel room or on the telephone anywhere without assuming that some thug was listening in. Imagine what Chancellor Merkel makes of the current constellation of world powers. President Obama claims that he didn’t know anything about this mass Big Brother collection of information. If that is true, it’s terrible. If it isn’t it’s worse..No Comments
Here is a tip for the many Yankee readers of this column, and it is of interest only to real football fans.
Do yourself a favour in 3 hours. Turn off whatever boring slugging match you are watching on the NFL Channel , and pull in that signal coming from Regina, Saskatchewan, and watch the only real old-time football game scheduled in snowy minus 30 C (who knows what that is in Fahrenheit) conditions as the oldest trophy in sports, the 101st Grey Cup, goes to the winner of the Hamilton Tiger Cat /Saskatchewan Rough Rider game. Don’t miss it, it will be the way the NFL games used to be played.
In any case, the only skilled NFL game on today (New England/Denver) has been cleverly scheduled to follow up on the Grey Cup game and pick up the few exhausted football fanatics, who want more.2 Comments
Ace foreign correspondent of the Mackenzie Brothers Network Wally Balloo, or possibly Artie Schermarhorn – it was impossible to determine precisely who was reporting, as both had called in simultaneously though they were both inexcusably behind schedule – reports from Toronto, Canada, that Bob and Doug McKenzie’s uncles Rob and Doug, bigger than life mayor and largest city councilor of Canada’s largest city, have been dramatically displaying why its previous name, Hogtown, was indeed well-considered.
My brother and I find outrageous Big Uncle Rob’s defence of smoking crack, drinking to oblivion and then driving home, knocking over a fellow female councilor while exiting the chambers in a huff and, worst of all, using a word on live tv – for God’s sake he spake that on the CBC from the chambers of office – which shocked and stunned all those daytime voyeurs who would otherwise be watching Coronation Street – that dare not be spoken – think of a little kitty cat – unless it is the name of a trio of Russian girls desecrating a church in Moscow, in which case it is excellent , or one of those cutesy Bond girls with lots of hair, in which case it’s funny and fabulous, and shows how nasty the Russkies are. In some quarters he has even allowed himself to be called the biggest hoser of them all, a title that my brother and I have shared without interruption since those legendary good old days of yore when we sat in front of cases of Molson Canadian and waxed on about the state of Canuck culture.
Meanwhile our Central European correspondent Word Carr, winner of 16 diction prizes just reported that Uncle Rob and his pals, after creating such mayhem that Toronto suddenly found itself in the centre of international interest, finally proved to be died-in-the-wool Canadians by ordering takeaay poutine (not Putin as most Amurcan listeners thought they had heard) for a final meal My brother and I have decided that such unverified rumour-mongering reportage is unworthy of a veteran reporter and Mr. Carr has been assigned to our Guam bureau.