The fine line between defence and politics

On Monday 18 October the Chinese vice-president, Xi Jinping, was promoted to second-in-command of his country’s Central Military Commission, the government body which controls the 2.2 million-strong army. It is a posting which is undoubtedly seen as a stepping-stone to the presidency in 2013 in a nation where the military and political promotions go hand-in-hand.

The next day, 5000 miles away in London, the coalition government led by the Conservatives announced wide-ranging defence budget cuts. The run-up to the publication of the ‘Strategic Defence Review’ was dominated by criticism from the opposition Labour party, the public, soldiers, sailors and airmen alike. Even the Defence Secretary himself was found to have been railing against the cuts he was asked to find by George Osborne, the British Chancellor. The outcome of the report has been a source of contention and paradoxy: the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Ark Royal, is to be retired four years earlier than planned but two new aircraft carriers will be built. However, there will be no British planes for use on the ships for 9 years. In addition to the naval cuts, the number of tanks and artillery pieces will be slashed by 40% and up to 20,000 service jobs will be at risk.

The government has stressed that a streamlining of a mismanaged and economically wasteful budget was imperative but there is no doubt that the British military standing in the world will be severely reduced, and any future conflicts will probably be impossible without allies’ aid.

But this notion does not apply to the UK alone. The Falklands War in 1982 was a purely British-Argentine affair, although each combatant did receive oral backing, Argentina from some fellow South Americans and Spain, and the UK from the US and Chile. Times have advanced though and if tensions rise once more in the South Atlantic, then Argentina would be able to call on direct military support from friends on the continent, notably Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela. Britain would be unable to respond as it did in 1982 and would have to seek out allies of its own.

The current Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, reshone the spotlight on Las Malvinas last weekend through Twitter when she labelled British soldiers carrying out exercises on East Falkland island ‘pirates’. Chavez also joined in online, recalling for the return of the archipelago to Argentina.

Looking further north, there is a different type of military deployment occurring in Colombia and Mexico. Both countries have large-scale deployment internally, as presidents Santos and Calderon look to conquer the drugs gangs. Mexico has sent the greatest number of soldiers to the frontline, and has also increased the remit of the navy and its marines, who are regularly involved in operations inland, not just in coastal areas. The gangsters are ingenious, and only the armed forces have the firepower to engage with the gangs, and the know-how to intercept seaborne missions and underwater deliveries via miniature submarines, although these conflicts have led to a massive death toll over the last four years, with more than 28,000 killed.

Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are the two African countries which are consistently in the current military news regarding Africa. Somalia hits the headlines for the ongoing unrest and firefights between the Al-Shabab militia and government forces, with the armed piracy situation adding to the problem. And the DRC is in the news for the gross abuses of villagers carried out by the army. The African Union (AU) provides peacekeeping elements to both these nations, among others, and it is in Africa where we see this type of military sanctioning and control the most in the current climate.

Looking back across the Indian Ocean, Burma has been under the control of a military regime for the past 22 years, and any attempts to promote democracy are dealt a fierce rebuke. Upcoming elections will be closed to outside observers, disallowing direct comment on the campaigns and results. Indeed, as Indian Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen remarked on Thursday 21 October, only Burma’s closest allies, (which he cited as India, China and Thailand), have enough sway within the governing junta to be able to argue for democracy or promote greater transparency regarding human rights. Burma has an omnipotent role for the military in daily life in the country, but it is not the only Asian country to place such great value on the standing of the armed forces.

Last week, North Korea’s rulers named the present leader Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un as a general, and the foreign media (which was allowed within the borders, albeit under tight monitoring) was quick to point out the proximity of military high-command to political office. It certainly seems that Kim Jong-un, the dictator’s youngest son, will replace his father as the head of the country, but such a transition would have been extremely difficult without first giving him a prominent military role.

South Korea has US backing but has been keen to extend the diplomatic arm in recent months, refusing heavy-handed retaliative action after its neighbours sunk a warship in May. With Australia and New Zealand playing minor roles in Afghanistan, there remains the possibility that they could find themselves getting more and more involved with the nations to their north in the future.


Europeans having to swallow some tough medicine

On Tuesday 12 October, huge strikes are scheduled to take place across France. On the same day, a right-wing party in Spain called España 2000 is planning a demonstration of Spanish-ness in the face of what it sees as reprehensible attacks on the nation by the present government. And in the UK, there has been widespread condemnation of the Government’s ‘austerity’ measures, such as the recent announcement to cut child benefit for those earning in the top tax bracket.

It seems that the peoples of Europe are muscling up and finding their voice to respond en masse to governments’ differing plans to address budget deficits and economic shortfalls. On Friday 8 October, the French Senate approved a preliminary section of more wide-ranging pension reforms. But rather than being a trivial amendment buried deep within some unimportant preamble – the Upper House has given the thumbs-up to raising the retirement age by two years, from 60 to 62. This has not gone down well in France and unions look set to go ahead with an unlimited walk-out in protest at the changes from this Tuesday. There were well-attended strikes when this bill was first floated but the politicians in Paris have continued with their reforms in the face of popular denouncements. But these changes are needed.

Across the Channel, the Government is four years further on with its retirement age reform plans (from 65 to 66 from 2016) and it has also met with militant unions and a vocal general public. Yet people are living longer and funding their pensions costs more. Providing for them is made even more difficult when, as outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne wrote simply – ‘There’s no money left!’ But alterations to the age from when Europeans can begin withdrawing a state pension are not new – in 2007, Germany passed a law raising the age to 67. Looking further afield, the Australian government plumped for 67 when its proposal got through parliament there last year. There has been criticism that the right-wing government in Paris and the Conservative-led coalition in London are, on one hand, enjoying swinging the axe and concocting a painful dosage for the public (particularly the Roma in France), whilst on the other hand steering clear of having to taste their remedies themselves. David Cameron, the British prime minister, is a fan of saying that ‘we are all in this together’ but critics highlight the personal fortunes that he and his Chancellor, George Osborne, enjoy.

But it is not only conservatism which is cutting public services and tightening the belt. In Spain, the socialist government is having to cut spending as well. It provoked large-scale protests when it announced the proposal to cut public sector salaries by 5% across the board from next year. In addition, like the Conservative plan in the UK, it has approved a drop in MPs’ pay, although the Spanish figure of 15% is more impressive than Cameron’s 5%. There are other similarities. Zapatero has committed to scrapping the ‘Baby Cheque’ policy, which saw mothers able to apply for a €2,500 grant (rising to €3,500 for the ‘numerous families’) and the Coalition has planned to reform the child benefit system in the UK. Although unpopular, both the Conservative-dominated government in the UK and the Socialist leadership in Madrid have realised the unsustainability of such benefit policies.

And just as Labour will want to step into the leftist opposition breech in debating the cuts in the UK, so the right-wing political classes have been venting the fury at what they see as a deliberate debilitation of the power and role of the central Spanish state by Zapatero’s government. Right-wing party España 2000 have complained about the number of immigrants in a Spain where jobs are scarce and they have organised a protest for the coming Tuesday – Columbus Day, or Day of Hispanicity. The members of the party will be celebrating their three key principles: the unity of the country, the Spanish language and the values engendered in the national flag. This will be a thinly-veiled attack on devolution, a key policy of the present government and one which the centrist party believes has contributed to the economic problems of the day, along with an open-door immigration policy.

Protests will be coming from all angles and all sides of the political spectrum to the different governments of Europe this autumn and it will be a measure of their reformist ability as to how well they allay the fears of the masses. The unions in the UK have managed to install Ed Miliband as their preferred successor to Gordon Brown at the head of the Labour Party with an aim to rally the rebellious troops against the necessary cuts being outlined by the Coalition. Their partners in France and Spain are also standing up to the deficit-reduction packages being offered by their respective governments. Over the next few months we will see who blinks first.

Is the Nobel Peace Prize becoming a dangerously political award?

The BBC has reported that China is unhappy at the prospect of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the imprisoned activist, Liu Xiaobo. Mr Liu has called on China to account for its actions and has been a fierce human rights activist and is now in jail, serving a sentence for ‘incitement to subvert the state’. So will the plan by the Norwegian Nobel Committee (NNC) to award Mr Liu the Peace Prize upset China? Does this mean that the Nobel Peace Prize is becoming increasingly political?

In December 2009, US President Barack Obama became the 117th recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. Global reaction to the announcement was mainly negative, arguing that as Mr Obama had not even been in power for a year and had only been nominated a fortnight after moving into the Oval Office, there were insufficient reasons to honour him. Mr Obama was widely criticised for accepting the award. At the time it seemed as though his political background influenced the decision and that Scandinavia had taken a dislike to George W. Bush’s foreign policy and assertive conservatism. In short, Obama’s election had signalled a change at the top of the US government, and this change was welcomed in Scandinavia. The NNC seemed to base its decision on Obama’s policies and plans for the future. Immense pressure has been placed on the president to live up to his billing as a laureate and demonstrate his worthiness of the award. So far his progress has been uneven. He missed his own deadline on closing Guantanamo Bay prison but succeeded in ending combat operations in Iraq. He convened Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu but no deal was reached on the Israel/Palestine Peace Process.

Now the Norwegians are making noises regarding honouring the human rights efforts of Liu Xiaobo. China is unhappy. Beijing jailed Mr Liu for subversion a few weeks after Obama picked up the prize and the US and the EU have both condemned the judgment. Both have called on China to relax its militant approach to political dissidents. So what does this news mean for the Committee itself? It certainly came under criticism for last year’s choice, so it would like to steer clear of an overtly-political ceremony this year. Awarding Liu the prize would do the opposite and result in diplomatic disagreement and argument between China and the West. There is no doubt that Liu is a brave and committed supporter of human rights but the Committee is treading on unsteady ground in the run-up to the announcement of the recipient on 8 October. Its decisions carry huge significance and it must think carefully. If the NNC goes with Liu, China will accuse it of pandering to the liberal democratic policies of Europe and North America whilst Beijing critics will champion Liu as a defender of the sanctity of human rights and highlight China’s repressive regime. If the prize goes elsewhere, China will surely claim a moral victory for political persuasion; the West will complain and be left bewildered by the unforeseen choice of a committee that it sees as a vehicle for its international political ambitions.

There are other ways in which politics is linked to the award. In 1976 Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams received the prize for the work in establishing the Community of Peace People to try to work towards a peaceful resolution of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Earlier this year Corrigan joined the flotilla which tried to breach the Israeli aid blockade and reach Gaza and which ended in a violent confrontation between activists and Israeli commandoes. She has become a staunch critic of the Israeli political position and spoken up for the Palestinians.

Of course the NNC could not foresee the way in which Corrigan’s activism would manifest itself 34 year after giving her the award but her actions do show that the Peace Prize has become inextricably linked with politics. For better or for worse, its nominations reflect the political attitude of Scandinavia. Such is the prestige and gravity of the award, the honouring of the laureates can represent a stumbling block on the diplomatic tables of the world powers. The global reaction to the decision next week will be intriguing.