No Deal Boris

Last time I looked at the Brexit trainwreck, I predicted that May would seek an extension from the EU (which she did) but assumed they would want a concrete commitment to finality, through a referendum (which they didn’t). I ended with the observation

To be clear, “No Deal” doesn’t really mean that. A literal no deal would see Britain reduced to food rationing in a matter of weeks, air travel cancelled immediately and so on. In reality, “No Deal” means a series of emergency deals, cobbled together in circumstances where the EU faces significant but manageable economic costs, while the UK faces catastrophe.

Now May is on the way out, and it appears she will replaced by Boris Johnson, the British politician most hated by the EU. There’s no prospect that he will be able to negotiate a deal, even if he wants to. So, unless he is overridden as May was, a No Deal Brexit is on the cards.

But, contrary to what I wrote above, I think there’s now every prospect of something approaching a literal no deal. Johnson will certainly not be keen to make the kinds of accommodations needed for a manageable No Deal Brexit.

From the EU’s point of view, a few weeks of total chaos, followed by an abject surrender from Johnson, looks a lot more appealing than the same scenario applied to the earnest, if incompetent, Theresa May.

As the not so old English curse (attributed, as is normal in such cases, to ancient Chinese wisdom) has it, “may you live in interesting times”. Johnson is certainly interesting, and is a curse the English have brought on themselves.

Prematurely right about the global right

I pitched this article about the emergence of a global rightwing movement to the NY Times back in 2015, but the argument wasn’t obvious, and I let it slide. Now I wish I’d tried a little harder to place it.

The proposed nuclear agreement with Iran has seen the Republican party line up with Israeli prime minister Netanhayu to denounce the deal negotiated by the Obama Administration. In itself, this is unsurprising. Bipartisanship in foreign policy, epitomized by the phrase ‘politics stops at the water’s edge’ has been on the wane for years, and is now virtually dead. The GOP celebrated Netanyahu’s recent election victory as a win over the Obama Administration, while the Administration made it clear they would have welcomed the opposite outcome just as warmly.

The alignment between the Republican Party in the US and Netanhayu’s Likud in Israel is an instance of something more significant: a globalization of partisan politics in which political alliances transcend national boundaries. Throughout the English-speaking world, and increasingly beyond it, politics is realigning along the fault line of the US partisan divide.
Until recently, in most Western countries, attitudes to the United States reflected political positions inherited from the Cold War. Conservative parties were strongly supportive of the US government and the US alliance, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats held office. Those on the radical left were equally strongly opposed to the United States and all its actions, and were indifferent to the nuances of US domestic politics. Centre-left parties contained a wide range of views, and sought to thread a middle path: pro-American but seeking a greater degree of independence.

This position had changed radically by 2007, when conservative Australian Prime Minister John Howard stated that Al Qaeda would welcome an election victory for the Democrats, and for Barack Obama in particular, a remark exploited by the Bush White House. Howard’s conservative successor Tony Abbott followed suit, describing the Obama Administration as ‘the most left-of-center government in at least half a century’ in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

A similar alignment has emerged between the GOP Conservative Harper government in Canada. The most notable example is the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, which has become a signature issue both for Harper and for Congressional Republicans.

In the UK, Prime Minister Cameron has maintained the traditional position of a ‘special relationship’ with the US, regardless of partisan alignments. However, the Eurosceptic right, represented by the rapidly growing UK Independence Party and by dissident Tories like former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, has formed an alliance with the conservative wing of the GOP. Farage’s attacks on Obama earned him an invitation to the 2015 CPAC conference; the invitation of a foreign politician to such a domestic event is notable in itself.

These attacks on Obama by conservative political leaders are mild compared to those to be found in the conservative media in almost all English-speaking countries. A typical example is a 2010 article by the political editor of the UK Daily Telegraph, Alex Singleton, announcing the end of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US. Singleton announced that since the American people ‘chose to elect an idiot who seems hell bent on insulting their allies’, he would henceforth boycott the United States. His remarks were widely circulated in US conservative circles.

On the left, the same pattern is found in reverse, most notably on the Internet and particularly on social media such as Twitter and YouTube. Reflecting their relatively young and educated audience, these media have a pronounced liberal lean.

In the 20th century era of mass media, the world paid attention to political developments in the United States, but the reverse was not true, except where the issues could be framed in terms of pro-US and anti-US forces. By contrast, the flow of political information in social media goes both ways, and is framed in terms of partisan alignments, with a left-liberal view predominating. For example, video clips of Australian politicians have regularly gone viral in the United States, in recent years. Centre-left politicians, such as former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard are nearly always presented favorably, while conservatives like Tony Abbott are targets of derision.

Like other forms of globalization, the rise of global political partisanship is driven in part by technological developments such as the Internet and by the growth of international travel. Equally important, however, is the fact that debates about key political issues such as climate change and equal marriage largely transcend national boundaries. Even on issues of war and peace, traditionally the core business of international politics, the picture is similar. Alliances are now so fluid and temporary that the big divide is not between one side and another, as in the Cold War, but between believers and doubters regarding the use of military power.

For the moment, this globalised partisanship is confined to a politically active minority. Voters in general still think in local or national terms, and are unsympathetic or actively hostile to the idea that foreigners might influence their political choices. But just as with the emergence of polarisation on party lines over recent decades it is quite possible to imagine that this will change.

Voting is largely about choosing candidates who represent “people like me”. Increasingly, this is coming to mean people with similar views and lifestyles, wherever they may live, rather than fellow-citizens on the opposite side of the political and cultural divide. This may be seen from opinion polling showing a sharply rising proportion of political partisans who would be upset if a child married someone of the opposite persuasion. By contrast, only a small proportion of Americans would be upset if a family member married a foreigner.

It remains to be seen how the new era of globalized politics will develop. The partisan divide emerging over Netanyahu clearest instance so far, but it is unlikely to be the last.

Islam is part of Western civilisation

As the arguments about Western civilisation roll on, I’m struck by the assumption, seemingly shared by both sides of this debate, that the Islam and the Islamic world aren’t part of “Western civilization”.

Islam is an Abrahamic religion, standing in essentially the same relationship to Christianity as Christianity does to Judaism. That is, Islam claims to be the completion of the prophetic mission of Christianity, just as Christianity claims to represent the fulfilment of the promise of the Messiah to the Jews. In each case, the older religion rejects this claim [1].

These disputes have occasioned persecution and bloodshed right down to the present day, between and within the religions. On the other hand, all of these religions have promoted learning and encouraged acts of charity. However you weigh up the achievements, follies and crimes of Western civilisation, it is absurd to deny that all three of its major religions have shared in these things.

Ever since Muhammad claimed power as an armed prophet in the 8th century, Islamic states and rulers have been part of the European struggle for control of the Mediterranean and the countries around it. In this context, Muslims appear sometimes as the targets of crusades or the instigators of jihad (the two words have essentially the same meaning), and sometimes in alliance with (further distant) Protestants, such as Elizabeth I, against Catholics.

A striking effect of the exclusion of Islam is that courses on “Western Civilisation” reproduce the discredited notion of a “Dark Age” between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. This period coincides almost exactly with the Islamic Golden Age, which carried the torch of Western civilisation for hundreds of years, giving us algebra, universities and much more.

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Closed borders

Reversing its position for the second time in about a week, the Morrison government has refused entry to Milo Yiannopoulos, known, among other things, as a promoter of “ironic” Nazi trolling of the kind practised by the Christchurch murderer, whose actions he implicitly endorsed, describing the victims as practising a “barbaric and evil “religion.

This isn’t a free speech issue: Yiannopoulos’ repulsive statements are still freely published here, and there has been no attempt to suppress them. If he were in Britain (his home country), the thorny question of “no-platforming” would arise.

Since he wants to come to Australia, however, the issue is simply one of freedom of movement. Yiannopoulos is a supporter of closing borders to large groups of people of whom he and his political allies disapprove. It seems entirely fair that this policy should be applied to him and others like him, before being considered more generally.

We should extend the ban on Yiannopoulos and apply it to any foreigner belonging to an organization or social media group that wants to close borders on the grounds that particular religious and ethnic groups are undesirable, present risks of terrorism and so forth. It’s grimly obvious that Yiannopoulos and his fellow racists are just such an undesirable and potentially dangerous group.

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Trump gets if (half) right

Donald Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw all US troops from Syria (and a large number from Afghanistan) has provoked plenty of criticism, not reduced by the enthusiastic support he has received from Vladimir Putin.

Rather than go over the arguments in detail, I’d like to make a point that seems to be missed nearly all the time. Whether acting for good or ill, the history of US involvement in the Middle East has been one of consistent failure at least for the last 40 years. The last real success was the Camp David agreement in 1978, which created the durable illusion that the US is crucial in resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute. The first Gulf War looked like a success at the time, but created both Al Qaeda and the conditions for the disastrous second war. Apart from that there has been nothing but failure: Reagan in Lebanon, 40 years of failure on Israel-Palestine, failed confrontation on Iran, incoherent attempts to influence oil supplies, and, of course, the second Iraq War including the rise of ISIS).

Whatever the motives, Trump’s decision to end military involvement on Syria is in line with Obama’s much criticised policy rule “Don’t do stupid shi*t.” Unfortunately, this move has been combined with increased support for Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran and the Palestinians, and for an incoherent policy towards Turkey. Still, half-right is better than completely wrong.

The immediate point here is not to allocate blame or praise to Trump, but the importance of avoiding reflexive hawkishly responses of the kind emerging from the Foreign Policy Community. More generally, this event stresses the urgency of the need for a progressive foreign policy based on the presumption that military intervention in foreign disputes is almost always harmful and hardly ever preferable to civil aid. The same is mostly true of military aid, particularly when it is given to dictators who mostly use it to oppress their own people.

Armistice Day

It’s 100 years since the Armistice that brought an end to fighting on the Western Front of the Great War. Ten million soldiers or more were dead, and even more gravely wounded, along with millions of civilians. Most of the empires that had begun the war were destroyed, and even the victors had suffered crippling losses. Far from being a “war to end war”, the Great War was the starting point for many more, as well as bloody and destructive revolutions. These wars continue even today, in the Middle East, carved up in secret treaties between the victors.

For much of the century since then, it seemed that we had learned at least something from this tragedy, and the disasters that followed it. Commemoration of the war focused on the loss and sacrifice of those who served, and were accompanied by a desire that the peace they sought might finally be achieved.

But now that everyone who served in that war has passed away, along with most of those who remember its consequences, the tone has shifted to one of glorification and jingoism, exemplified by the proposal that current and former military personnel should have priority boarding rights in air travel.

In part, this reflects the fact that, for countries like Australia, war no longer has any real impact on most people. As in the 19th century, we have a small professional army fighting in faraway countries and suffering relatively few casualties. Tens of thousands of people may die in these conflicts, but the victims of war impinge on our consciousness only when they seek to come here as refugees, to be turned away or locked up.

In the past, I’ve concluded message like this with the tag “Lest we Forget”. Sadly, everything important has already been forgotten.

Update I haven’t heard Scott Morrison say much that I agree with. But his observation that “War is always a failure of our humanity” was one of the better responses to today’s centenary, and gives me some hope that the lessons of the Great War have not been totally forgotten.

Time to join the generation game? Definitely

A little while ago, I partially recanted my long-standing rejection of the idea that “generations” are a useful way of thinking about such issues as political attitudes. The UK elections showed a very strong age effect, reflecting the way that the politics of nostalgia, represented by Brexit, appeal to the old and appal the young.

The same appears to be true of “Make America Great Again”, at least according to the exit polls. In every racial group, there’s a clear cohort effect, with the younger cohorts favouring the Democrats.

& Exit poll results, by age and race

The Republicans had majority support only among whites over 45.

The age effect would probably be a bit smaller if education and urban/rural location were taken into account, but it’s still striking.

Regarding the political implications I said last time

If current demographic trends continue, and nothing else changes, the political right will be doomed by demography to permanent minority status. That’s possible, but one-party dominance has rarely lasted long in the countries I’m talking about. And, as Stein’s Law has it, if a trend can’t continue, it won’t.

So, a long period of leftwing success would presumably produce a political realignment in which culture war issues are no longer a dividing line. On the other hand, if leftwing governments are elected and fail to deliver on their promises (or worse, implement their promises and fail disastrously) their support among currently young cohorts may be replaced by permanent oppositions.

Of course, this assumes that democratic processes survive long enough for these demographic processes to do their work.