Sunday, 30 March 2014

The End of the Line - Why Turkey is entering a period of unrest and what might emerge on the other side

On Wednesday 12th March, renewed violence broke out on the streets of several Turkish cities. Running battles raged between the police and civilians protesting against the continuing premiership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The confrontations were sparked by the funeral of Berkin Elvan, a 15-year old who had been struck from close range by a tear gas canister allegedly while walking to get bread during the last major protests in Istanbul in June; he has spent the intervening nine months in a coma, and his death takes the overall toll to eight. A crowd of 100,000 attended his funeral in Istanbul, the majority of whom then went home immediately afterwards. Those who remained escorted his coffin to the graveyard across town, as per tradition, and the burial was completed at 1pm local time. Four hours later, a large group was intercepted by police heading for Taksim Square, the gathering point for June's protests and location of 30-40 deaths under similar circumstances in the 1977 Taksim Square Massacre. 

The Turkish protest movement is passionate but fragmented. With intellectual capital Istanbul at its epicentre, the multi-generational movement has successfully used humour and mockery to lampoon President Erdogan, who has aided this portrayal of himself as pantomime villain by banning Twitter and Youtube in the country. On one side stands a police force which has proven itself very comfortable with the extensive use of tear gas and water cannon, on the other stands Communists, revolutionaries and separatist Kurds, along with Kemalists who canonize the secular values of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of Modern Turkey. The protestors are united by one clear goal: the removal of Mr Erdogan from power. The problem comes, as is so often the case, when the question is asked of what should follow ‘Tayyip’ - Erdogan’s disrespectful nickname. Evening street meetings are held by each sub-group, where Erdogan's latest crimes are deplored and grievances are nursed, but no figure has yet emerged from the streets with a coherent answer to Turkey's problems, let alone with the potential to replace him.

From Ataturk to Erdogan
Turkey has enjoyed mixed fortunes since Ataturk dragged the new nation from the ruins of the old Ottoman Empire following defeat in the First World War. In 1922 Ataturk abolished the Ottoman Sultanate and the Caliphate followed in 1924; he founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Ataturk envisioned a truly secular republic, and as part of the secularising process he banned the ever-divisive headscarf so characteristic of muslim women. Ataturk's one party state endured until 1946, when the end of World War Two brought a multi-party system with it. But removing religion from government left a power vacuum, and Ataturk chose to fill this void by resting his new country on the shoulders of the military. This decision would come back to haunt Turkey for much of the 20th century, with military coups in 1960, 1980 (followed by a period of martial law), and a forced deposition in 1997 hamstringing any attempts at concerted Turkish growth. The periods of true democracy were not much better, with Bulent Ecevit’s democratic government earning global opprobrium by invading Cyprus in 1974, and a shambolic succession of short-lived prime ministers bumbling through the 1990s.

In 2002, an attempt to reform Turkey's economy to bring it into line with EU accession requirements led to severe economic turbulence, and a dissatisfied populace demanded a general election. The newly formed AK Party, led by then mayor of Istanbul Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won by a significant margin, and the current regime was born. During the election and afterwards, Erdogan and his party were aided by the support of a religious figure named Fethullah Gulen, who had emigrated to the United States in 1999 but retained an extensive network of supporters in various positions of influence. The newly-installed Prime Minister Erdogan set about galvanising Turkey's economy with EU integration still very much in his sights. A period of explosive growth has been the result, and Turkey's GDP has risen from $232bn to $789bn since 2002.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan – a power corrupted

Mr Erdogan’s first moves as Turkey’s premier were exactly what the country needed. While he was setting the economy on track for expansion and growth, he was simultaneously defanging the Turkish military. One by one the influential generals were put on trial, until the once-dominant army had been politically neutered; this is an impressive achievement. Under Erdogan’s stewardship, Turkey has grown to be the sixth largest European economy and is a member of Jim O’Neil’s “MINT” group of countries to watch, alongside Mexico, Indonesia and Nigeria. Turkey’s performance is even more impressive when compared with that of its immediate neighbours: Greece and Cyprus have both required EU bailouts, Syria is mired in civil war, Iran is an international pariah crippled by sanctions and Iraq is still struggling in the aftermath of US occupation. In his second election in 2007, Erdogan’s support was increased from an already dominant position to 47% of the vote, and this dominance was sustained in 2011.


As time has worn on, however, Mr Erdogan has begun to undermine some of Turkey’s secular traditions. Although a former mayor of Istanbul, the prime minister’s main powerbase is in the rural expanse of Anatolia, which is traditionally less well-educated and more Islamic than the more Western-facing Istanbul. This has allowed Mr Erdogan to quietly pursue the gradual introduction of more traditionalist attitudes, most clearly evidenced by the headscarf issue; Turkey has seen a return of headscarves into its culture, most famously on the first lady herself. There was much furore over a move to make Turkish Airlines’ cabin deck uniforms more traditional, while the protests of June 2013 were sparked by a proposal to bulldoze a park in the centre of Istanbul and replace it with a shopping centre built in the style of a traditional Ottoman army barracks. Istanbul’s liberal population is appalled by the prospect of regression in its womens’ rights, and every step in an Islamic direction is met with great outcry.

Meanwhile Mr Erdogan’s behaviour becomes increasingly autocratic. His ill-judged split with former ally Gulen has led to a soft civil war ta
g place between the two parties. As part of this struggle, the forces of Gulen have released recordings containing Mr Erdogan advising his son on how to hide large sums of money, and one in which Mr Erdogan appears to dictate the news to the press. Erdogan has responded in extremely un-democratic ways, reassigning hundreds of law enforcers who had been investigating these cases, and personally banning Twitter and Youtube in a manner which has since been described as illegal by members of the Turkish parliament. In his speeches, Mr Erdogan refers to these tapes as an attack on the state, betraying his own personal perspective that he and the state are now one and the same. It is still unclear whether he will succeed in his current goal of increasing the power of the presidency, ready for him to take the Putin-esque move of assuming that role in advance of the end of his third term as prime minister. Failing that, it is suspected that he will abolish the AK Party’s internal rule against running for a fourth consecutive term, leaving him almost certain to remain in power unless forcibly dislodged.

A growth economy in peril
Turkey under Erdogan swiftly developed a powerful presence in various global markets. Due to a winning combination of low wages and a close proximity to European, Russian and Middle Eastern markets, Turkey found that it was able to compete strongly in white goods (largely through manufacturer Beko), textiles, furniture and car-making.This competitiveness has stimulated foreign investment, and these investors have been rewarded with astronomical returns.

During this period of sustained success however, a problem has been growing under the surface. As so often happens in economics, Turkey has become a victim of its own success. The vast inflows of external capital into the economy have caused the lira to rise in value, which, along with the higher wages of the average Turk, has decreased Turkey’s competitiveness. This decrease has led to a rising current account deficit. What this means is that every year, Turkey is importing (machinery, chemicals, semi-finished goods, fuels and transport equipment) more than it is exporting. In order to bring in all these products from abroad, Turkey needs money, and it is the aforementioned foreign investors who have been providing it. The reason this situation is coming to a head, having been sustaining itself quite comfortably for several years, is that the United States has recently started shutting down its quantitative easing policy. At various intervals since November 2008, the Federal Reserve has been pumping money into the markets, meaning that there was plenty to be allocated to economies like Turkey’s; but now the gravy train is coming to a halt. Many emerging economies find themselves in a predicament similar to Turkey, but none to quite the same extent.

What does this all mean? It means that it is very likely that Turkey is about to enter a period of quite severe economic turbulence; considering the fact Mr Erdogan is finding it hard to keep his people onside even in the current climate, it is hard to imagine how he will be able to survive it without resorting to drastic measures.

The strategic outlook
Russia’s recent indiscretions at the other end of the Black Sea have improved Turkey’s strategic position in two ways. If the US decides to use a strategy of encirclement to contain the newly assertive Russian Federation, Turkey’s position at the gateway to the Black Sea makes it a key building block for such a strategy. As a member of NATO, Turkey’s aid can probably be relied upon as long as the current regime remains in place; this leaves the US with a strategic incentive to support Erdogan through his difficult period. Meanwhile, Europe suddenly finds itself in the market for alternative suppliers of oil and gas, with Turkey an obvious transit state for new pipelines stretching up from Kurdistan. Again, this leaves the Europeans with a stake in keeping Turkey stable and friendly. US and EU support could be sorely tested, however, if Mr Erdogan’s crackdowns were to become significantly bloodier than they have been thus far.

If it is able to overcome its short term financial problems, Turkey could well become the dominant power in its region. With the largest economy by some margin it could be a powerful counterbalance for Balkan countries that are still eyeing EU accession, while shared Turkic ethnicity with many of the states of the Caucasus and Central Asia could be a basis for lasting economic relationships. With its Islamic credentials making it a potential leader to the fractured Middle East, and with a secular government still appealing to the post-religious Europe, Turkey could be capable of achieving that rare goal: being all things to all men.

Next steps
In order to realise this bright future, Turkey needs to do two things. It must find a way to rid itself of Mr Erdogan, a giant personality that has tipped over the edge from being powerful and effective to being self-serving and faintly maniacal. The Turkish people are unlikely to receive help in achieving this from outside Turkey (with the exception of Mr Gulen in Pennsylvania), and Mr Erdogan’s mandate remains assured for as long as he has the majority from Anatolia. A worsening economic situation and Mr Gulen’s revelations might go some of the way to eroding the latter, while a serious political challenge from within his party would help Turkey to begin to imagine a post-Erdogan world. The enigmatic Fethullah Gulen’s is not a name sung by those on the streets, so he would face an uphill struggle should he decide to try to seize control for himself, though he has already proven himself a shrewd string-puller, so this state of affairs may change. To many, the situation with Gulen brings back memories of Iran before the revolution of 1979, but today’s Turkey is considerably less susceptible to that kind of Islamic revolution than Iran was at that point. Sitting President Abdullah Gul is generally viewed from the street as Erdogan’s patsy, so he would probably not be a viable alternative to the current Prime Minister.

The second urgent requirement is a restructuring of the economy. Turkey must build a roadmap for how it will achieve the next stage in its development, possibly using a combination of education and retraining to become a service economy in the manner of South Korea. It will become more adept at using its growing regional clout to shape its surroundings to its benefit, and this will provide plenty of opportunities to enrich itself further, but first it must escape the trap it has built for itself. A difficult period is beginning, but if the ensuing unrest creates the circumstances for the removal of Mr Erdogan and a reshaping of the economy, then this crisis could come to be viewed as the greatest opportunity that Ataturk’s nation has seen since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

NB there are several charts and graphics that complement this piece but which are not supported by blogspot. For a complete version please contact me

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Crimean Crisis - and why it’s not really a crisis at all

February 21st 2014. That is the key date in the recent Ukrainian crisis.

It’s not the 21st of November 2013, the date that President Viktor Yanukovich turned down a deal with the European Union in favour of stronger ties with Russia, leading to the first street protests. It’s not December 8th, when 800,000 people demonstrated on the streets of Kiev. It’s not January 16th, when parliament passed anti-demonstration laws that were subsequently repealed. Nor was it two days later, when policemen were shot by protesters as the demonstration escalated. On February 20th, a day that will live long in the Ukrainian collective memory, 77 protestors were killed by riot police. February 22nd was the day that Yanukovich was removed by an extra-legal vote from the Ukrainian parliament. On 28th February, pro-Russian troops seized control of Crimea. On March 16th that region held a referendum, with Russia recognizing the independent country the next day, the first step to integrating it into the Russian Federation. 
None of the above are the most important date of the whole affair. That dubious honour goes to the 21st February, which was the day a meeting was held in Kiev between the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland, a Russian negotiator, President Yanukovich, protest leaders from the streets, and the political opposition. At this meeting it was agreed among other things that:

a)      Ukraine would return to its 2004 constitution by September 2014;
b)      Presidential elections would be held the same year;
c)       “The Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, Poland and the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation called for an immediate end to all violence and confrontation”.

This was a compromise which suited all concerned. The protestors achieved a reverse of Yanukovich’s oppressive political reforms and an election date, the Europeans achieved an end to the violence as well as the likelihood that the next president would be pro-Europe, while the Russians kept their man in power for a while longer and saved any face that was previously being lost by the undermining of President Yanukovich’s position.

The next day, Yanukovich had fallen. With the ceasefire broken by the protestors, and with parliament voting for his impeachment on extremely questionable legal grounds, he disappeared, surfacing in Russia five days later. The only side that lost out due to this turn of events was the Russians (and Yanukovich himself, which bothered nobody). Putin found himself locked out of the new Ukraine that was now forming, and saw himself as the victim of what was at best a broken promise and at worst outright skulduggery; everybody, including the ever-sanctimonious Europeans, had given their support to the previous day’s agreement. At the very least Europe’s foreign ministers could have criticized the coup, considering it was extra-legal and undemocratic. Instead he saw the Europeans welcoming the new leaders, as the Western press presented the triumphant speech from the newly-freed Yulia Tymoshenko as something similar to Nelson Mandela’s release. With this hypocrisy, along with his new strategic position meaning that he now held no cards, Putin the poker player had to act, and Crimea was the result.

February 21st symbolizes a turning point in the crisis. It is the last day before events occurred which changed the roles of all the antagonists. Before the 21st, protestors were still protestors, Yanukovich was president and Russia and Europe were applying predictable pressure in either direction. After the 21st, the protestors and opposition had become an illegitimate government, Europe had hypocritically sacrificed its values for the sake of a positive result, and Russia was forced to take extreme measures to achieve its goals. Tellingly, in a meeting in Madrid on March 4th, after the occupation of Crimea, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told EU Foreign Policy Chief Baroness Ashton that the only way Russia’s actions could be reversed would be on the basis of a return to the February 21st agreement, presumably with a different president since Yanukovich was by that stage heavily discredited. 

In itself, seizing Crimea did not advance Putin’s position a great deal. It was already the location of a Russian naval base (the lease was due to expire in 2017, although this would probably have been renewed after some negotiations which might have caused Russia to make some concessions). The GDP of Crimea is only $4bn, which is 0.05% of Russia’s GDP in 2012, hardly a significant addition. There are undersea oil reserves off Crimea which are estimated to produce about 7 million tons of oil per year, Russia produced 494 million tons of crude oil in 2009, again the gain is neglible. The fact there were insignia-less uniforms to hand at such short notice suggests that this is a play that has been available to Russia’s leader for some time. The manoeuvre, which was carried out perfectly and with very little bloodshed, including a rather stylish move to box in the Ukrainian navy, was a very effective way for Putin to achieve his aims. These were threefold: 
1)      Bring the Europeans back to the negotiating table over Ukraine, ultimately keeping Russia involved in that country’s future;
2)      Save face both externally and internally - a great deal of Putin’s ability to manoeuvre comes from the illusion that he commands much greater power than he actually does;
3)      Apply more financial pressure on Ukraine at a time when it is already facing deep economic problems. $4bn is 2% of Ukraine’s 2012 GDP, while the 7 million tons of oil will now have to be imported, possibly from Russia.

Predictably, the Western world has been thrown into a flap by these events. Rhetoric has abounded that this is “the start of a new Cold War” and “the most dangerous moment for Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union”. In truth very little has happened, Russia has taken control of a region that should probably have been Russian in the first place without firing a shot (bloodshed during recent seizures of Ukrainian bases in Crimea is somewhat smoothed by the fact that it is post-referendum), and to great celebrations within that region. Once begun, the annexation process would have been extremely hard to reverse, but now with the referendum having taken place it would be virtually impossible to revert to the status quo ante, considering the attitude of the Crimean population.

Looking ahead
Fears that Putin will now set his sights on Russian populations in Eastern Ukraine, before then taking over the Baltic states under similar pretexts are nothing more than fear-mongering. Crimea represented a unique situation in that it is almost an island, already contained a sizable Russian base which made an invasion unnecessary, and had a clear ethnic Russian majority. Taking the Eastern areas of Ukraine would be much messier, as it would be unclear where new lines should be drawn. Putin also knows that an invasion of the Baltic states would bring a robust military response from the West, since they are part of NATO. That is not to say that he will not threaten to do these things, Putin's actions in Crimea have given his threats a new credibility which he will take full advantage of at the negotiating table. 

As such, what will happen is probably exactly as Mr Putin foresaw before making his move. The West will take a long look at Crimea and realise that there is little to be gained from causing themselves intense economic discomfort by imposing significant sanctions, when the ultimate aim would be the liberation of a region of Russians who are currently enthusiastically celebrating their imprisonment. Red lines will be drawn around the rest of Ukraine, with stern repercussions spelt out for what would happen in the event of Russia crossing them, and a period of diplomatic frost will follow. This will pervade until an American president needs Russian help in Iran, Syria, or somewhere similar, at which point there will be a rapprochement. Meanwhile both sides will return to the long-term struggle for Ukraine, with the West trying to find the money to consolidate the new government’s independence and Putin hard at work undermining it. In the great game that is taking place in Eastern Europe, the score currently stands at about 4-1 to the West.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Case of the Missing Airliner

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth - Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

'The Case of the Missing Airliner' was blown wide open by Saturday's announcement from Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak that the plane's communication systems had been deliberately cut. This eliminated the most likely explanation up to that point – that mechanical or pilot error had caused the aircraft to crash at the moment contact was lost – and turned the case into a criminal hijacking. The core question, which has remained unchanged from the moment flight MH370 disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of March 8, is this: What happened to the plane?
The aircraft contained seven hours-worth of fuel, so it must either have landed or crashed within that time period. Considering the facts that a) control of the aircraft was successfully seized and b) it took five days for authorities to confirm this fact, giving the hijackers a very useful head-start, they have proven themselves capable of meticulous planning and effective execution, and thus it is worth examining their possible ultimate intentions. Meanwhile it is important to bear in mind that from the minute the plane diverted from its course, any number of factors might have caused it to crash into the sea or a remote piece of land, whether or not this was the ultimate intention of its hijackers.

1) Flight crew
Operationally speaking, the actors with the fewest obstacles to overcome to effect a successful hijacking would be the flight crew. With the trust of the passengers already gained, it would be reasonably straightforward for one or both of the pilots to lock themselves into the cockpit, switch off the transponder and change the direction of the aircraft. The key question in this case would be why? In February this very occurrence took place, when an Ethiopian pilot diverted the course of an Addis Ababa to Milan service and landed in Switzerland, seeking asylum. In this scenario our pilot might have switched off the transponder in an attempt to reach his chosen destination before authorities realised his intentions. This scenario plays out with the plane crashing, possibly in an attempt by passengers or other flight crew to regain control of the aircraft. Other possible motivations for a flight crew hijack include a dramatic suicide and insanity. The lack of a suicide note would seem to detract from the point of such a dramatic act, whilst insanity is likely to have been preceded by erratic behaviour in the months leading up to the event, of which there has been heretofore no mention. It should also be noted that members of the flight crew might have been paid to conduct the operation. This would imply a high level of complexity and resources from the organisation responsible. It would also imply that the ultimate goal of the operation would be to land the plane, since a mercenary would need to be alive to spend his earnings.
2) A ‘terrorist’ organisation
In order to examine the possibility of a hijack by an external group, it becomes necessary to explore what value could be gained from the aircraft:
a) the aircraft – although a 777 has a market value of upwards of $150m when new, the planning required for the operation and the ensuing publicity make it very unlikely that this was a simple snatch and grab operation – for one thing it would be extremely hard to sell;
b) 227 passengers – including 153 Chinese and 38 Malaysians; other nationalities represented include the US, France, Ukraine and Russia;
c) cargo – although it is unlikely that an object of importance or significant value would be carried on board a common passenger flight, it is possible.

The most likely target of the hijacking would be the passengers. Their value can be broadly split into three categories:
i) economic – a ransom could be extracted for their safe return;
ii) political – pressure could be brought to bear on a government;
iii) unknown quantity – it is possible that one of the passengers has a value that has not thus far been revealed. A family member of an influential figure for example, or a high-ranking intelligence operative travelling incognito could, if captured, present kidnappers with significant rewards.
An economically-motivated hijack is piracy by another name. Attention immediately shifts to Somalia, whose residents have notoriously been carrying out the maritime equivalent of this act in the Indian Ocean for several years. The aircraft appeared to be turning in the direction of the Horn of Africa before communication was lost, and it is quite possible that a runway could be provided which would allow a 777 to land. This, however, is a substantially more complex undertaking than boarding an oil tanker from a small boat waving AK-47s, and the lack of Somalis on the passenger manifest makes it immensely unlikely. 

The Straits of Malacca has historically been a hive of piracy, but concerted actions by Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore in recent years has all but wiped this out. The 38 Malaysians aboard, however, could perhaps contain some of these former ne'er-do-wells seeking a new outlet for their piratical instincts. In order for this scenario to play out, these actors would need to have prepared a runway capable of supporting a landing 777. This would presumably require an extended period of jungle clearing and concrete-laying in an obscure corner of the Malaysian archipelago, which would be reasonably easy to find if investigators knew what they were looking for. 
A final group potentially motivated by economic concerns would be a heretofore unknown international organisation along the lines of S.P.E.C.T.R.E from the James Bond series. On a more realistic note, Al Quaeda has proven itself capable of such an operation in the past, but using such an act to raise money would be a departure from its traditional methods.

The fact that the passenger manifest contained 153 Chinese nationals would give a potential kidnapper a considerable hold over the Chinese government. A neighbouring Asian country would have the wherewithal and the means to effect such an operation, as well as a runway for a successful landing. North Korea, the most deranged of China's neighbours, is hypothetically within the aircraft's range. China has not been making political friends in its immediate surroundings of late, but even the ever-erratic North Korea knows that kidnapping another country's nationals is not an effective lever for extracting political concessions, not to mention the fact that China has long supported the Kim dynasty against Western pressure. A state-sponsored operation is exceedingly unlikely.

There is a group with a substantial political axe to grind against China, and it has recently been demonstrating its willingness to do so. This group also happens to be based along Flight MH370's last known course. This group is the Uighurs of Xinjiang, a separatist region in the northwest of China. The Uighurs have recently expanded their terrorist activities away from their heartland, with six men armed with knives leaving a wave of devastation in their wake in a train station in Yunnan Province, in the southwest of China, on the 1st of March. There was at least one Uighur passenger aboard flight MH370. This scenario is undermined by two factors: 1) it would be a significant upscaling in the Turkestan Islamic Army's operations thus far and 2) if the original plan was to land the aircraft, it would be very hard to secure a runway large enough within Chinese-occupied Xinjiang without attracting attention. If the original plan was to crash the aircraft, why has a successful operation not been announced? Since the Uighurs are Muslim, it could be conjectured that an Islamic group such as Al-Quaeda might provide operational assistance and arrange the use of a runway in a sympathetic nation such as Yemen or Somalia, however an anti-Chinese operation would again be a strange departure from Al-Quaeda's previous modus operandi – to conduct operations against America and its allies.

Why so quiet?
The obvious explanation for the lack of hard facts in this case would be that the aircraft now lies at the bottom of the sea. The change of course and considerable amount of fuel remaining on-board means that investigators are now looking for debris across the whole of the Indian Ocean, significantly complicating the search effort.

If the aircraft was hijacked and successfully landed with the intention of extracting an economic or political ransom for its passengers, it would make sense to devote some time to covering tracks before sending the ransom note. For example, the instant Somali pirates revealed themselves to be responsible, international search efforts would immediately be trained upon that country, and it is quite hard to hide a wide-body jet in such an economically backward nation. Time would be needed to cover the aircraft in order to prevent aerial detection, or perhaps even to dismantle it, all while moving the passengers to a separate location far from the landing point.

If the hijack were motivated by the capture of a politically sensitive VIP, it is possible that a deal is currently being done behind the scenes for their safe return, the same is true of a valuable object which might have been in the plane’s cargo hold.

Would Sherlock Holmes have already solved this case given the facts available? It seems unlikely. An increased international search effort and an appreciation of the criminal context of the disappearance will aid understanding, but unless a message is released by those responsible or physical evidence of the aircraft emerges, it is possible that Flight MH370 will join the long list of unsolved mysteries so adored by thriller-writers everywhere. 

Sunday, 9 March 2014

A leaked email from Hilary Clinton to Vladimir Putin

WTF Vlad!
A leaked email from Hilary Clinton to Vladimir Putin

Vlad WTF!!

I thought we'd been through all this!? Remember the road map?? We let you into the clubs, G8, Security Council, and you gradually westernize, opening up your markets and improving the quality of life of your citizens...sounding familiar yet? It was always going to take a while but it was happening…and now you've gone and invaded another sovereign country and lied about it. That's a backwards step Vlad.

Oh I know why you did it, you thought you needed to change the game after the Europeans let Yanukovich fall. You thought this was a painless and elegant chess move to get them back to the negotiating table on your terms, and the fact it felt like something Comrade Stalin might do made it fun at the same time. You applied Soviet thinking to a 21st century problem, and for the moment you're feeling pretty good about it, but it’s not going to work out well for you.

Oh sure, in the short term it'll feel like a victory, but there will be a long term cost. The targeted economic sanctions will irritate your friends, but you were correct in your gamble that the West a) won't intervene militarily and b) won't impose wider economic sanctions, addicted as they are to your gas. If I can put this in terms of a pool game, you've just potted the ball you were leaving next to the hole to block others – you've gained some points that were always in the bag, and you've suffered in the big picture. The long term cost will be that you have taken a step away from a sustainable Russian future, and you're now headed in a direction where your options will become more and more limited and your influence will fade. On this course, Russia becomes like twentieth century Poland or nineteenth century Spain, a former great power which is tossed around by its neighbours.

You see the strategic model which created the Soviet Union and before that the Russian Empire is not one that is open to you, for the simple reason that you don't have enough people. The Tsars and the Soviets used to take over a new region and then send in Russian settlers, and this "russification" of the frontier territories kept the empire growing very effectively. It was a hard empire to administer because of its size, sure, but it ultimately stood toe to toe with every great threat it faced until 1989. While defending, Tsar Nicholas II lost twelve million Russians to the German advance in WW1, while Stalin lost over twenty million in WW2, but there were always more people...

In contrast, your Russia has a serious population problem. In a developed world of falling fertility rates you have one of the lowest. Added to this your population is one of the oldest, and with the lowest life expectancy of any European state they're all dying off! Every day that passes there are fewer Russians in the world, and demographics is not a train that changes direction quickly. Oh and did I mention that Russia is absolutely massive? Siberia alone is one tenth of the world's land mass.

So you're struggling to fill Russia, let alone the old Russian Empire, because you haven't got the numbers. You've also got a problem on your border with China, which is populated like the Arizona desert on your side and like Rhode Island on the Chinese side. The Chinese are generally not an expansive people, but you're in serious danger of suffering an uncomfortable snipping at your undercarriage unless you change things. Vladivostok is five times closer to Beijing than it is to Moscow!

Now Vlad, a war is about to begin, and before you get excited I'm talking about a war of soft power - it'll be a competition for immigrants. All of Europe faces a similar problem to you but to a lesser extent, and they'll soon be competing to attract immigrants from all over the developing world, particularly Africa. In 2050, a quarter of the global population will be in Africa, and Russia is one of the most black-unfriendly countries in the world! You should be trying to change these attitudes. Your topless photo shoots and virile Russia displays may feel good to you, but they present an old-fashioned and ethnically homogenous image to the world, and that makes it harder to attract immigrants who don't match it. Also if you could stop spontaneously closing retail banks and pocketing innocent people's savings, that would help too. Russians don't save money any more because they don't trust the future, thats not an attractive culture for people looking for a place to start a family.

And Vlad, would you just generally STOP doing this scary act you like to do, I mean what is it with Russia? I've got a personal theory its because the Mongols gave your country such a rough childhood so that you now only feel comfortable when you're imposing yourselves on others, textbook abused child syndrome…

Anyway we can discuss that over vodka martinis some time. The point is that your global awkwardness creates a personal problem for me. That problem being that Barack is useless at dealing with it. That makes him look weak and then all Democrats look weak, and then those crazies in the Republican Party start looking strong. I've got an election to fight in 2016, and trust me Vlad, you'd find me a much easier president to deal with than those other guys.

So what do I see you doing next? You won't like the answer. I'd like to see you westernize, create reliable institutions, institute a true democratic process and improve the living standards of your people. Ultimately I see you joining Europe, where you will be one of its most powerful players. At the moment you're living in the past and following an outdated strategy that doesn't work in today's game. I know you're an
ex-KGB man and old habits die hard, but if you or your successors do not compromise your beliefs, you'll be left behind and ultimately consumed by others on terms that you will not find favorable. More Sochi less Stalin!

So there it is.

Pass my regards to Dmitry, and do keep in touch!

All the best,

PS Have you still got that reset button I brought over in '08? Barrack wants Kerry to take it round to all the places he's visited so far :-D

PPS Here's a photo of a dog that looks like you. HaHAH!

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Chinese are not coming - why fears over China’s rise are ultimately misplaced

In 1402 a great treasure fleet departed the coast of China bound for Calicut, a trading port on the west coast of what is now India. The expedition was captained by a giant eunuch named Zheng He (pronounced 'jung-her'), who according to some reports stood seven feet tall. The fleet of 62 ships, including some of the largest vessels ever constructed, carried gold, silver, porcelain, and silk; these riches were traded for wonders such as ostriches, zebras, camels, ivory and a giraffe. Over 30 years and seven great voyages, Zheng traversed the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and Red Sea and even reached as far west as the east coast of Africa, with the final voyage setting sail in 1431. Most of Zheng's destinations were remote by contemporary Chinese standards, but they were not unknown, and he returned with ambassadors for the Chinese court, since every Asian state he encountered wanted to maintain contact with the mighty China. The end of this Chinese charm offensive came abruptly with a change of emperor, and Zheng He found himself appointed Defender of Nanjing, his seafaring days officially over.                     

The significance of these thirty years comes from the fact that it is one of only two periods in the sprawl of Chinese history when the Middle Kingdom can be said to have faced outward. The second of these periods began in 1978 with Deng Xiaoping's assumption of power, and it is still underway. China is by far the oldest culturally distinct civilisation in the world, with its modern inhabitants able to trace an unbroken cultural thread back to the third millennium BC. For four thousand years, it has followed a predictable repeating pattern: a strong emperor seizes power and establishes a dynasty, subsequent emperors become gradually less competent until a great uprising overthrows the regime; a period of disunity follows, a new figure emerges to unite the regions again and a new dynasty is founded. Although the periods of disunity have produced some of China's great poetry and verse (Confucius lived in one such period) it is the cohesive periods under strong emperors which have always been feted as the great eras of Chinese history. From the mythical Xia, through the mystical Shang, to the feudalistic Zhou and the brief but nation-establishing Xin, to the great identity-forming Han dynasty; the constructive but swiftly corrupted Sui, the cultured Tang with its poets and painters, the inventive Song, the invading Mongol Yuan dynasty; the stable Ming, the occupying Manchu Qing, and most recently with the authoritarian Communist Party, control of China has changed hands roughly every two to four hundred years. Throughout its long history, China has always been distinctive due to its lack of interest in the outside; this is in sharp contrast to almost all the other great powers in history, who have sought to prove their greatness by subjugating others. The borders of China have gradually grown to their current limits, but not once did a Chinese emperor cast a covetous eye over Japan or Thailand (previously Siam), let alone attempting a disastrous conquest of Russia in the manner of Napoleon or Hitler. External markets were accessed, most famously via the Silk Road which stretched across the Central Asian steppe to Europe; foreign threats were confronted, sometimes successfully, sometimes not – there were constant problems with the northern Xiongnu tribes which later became the Jurchens and ultimately the Manchus, the Mongol horde swept through the Chinese heartland and most recently the Europeans arrived with their gunboat diplomacy. Since the first days of the Xia, the world outside has presented problems much more often than opportunities.               

A respect for authority                 
In order to maintain a unified and subdued kingdom, the primary concern of any Chinese ruler, China has generally alternated between two formative philosophies - legalism and confucianism. Qin Shi Huang Ti (chin-shurr-hwung-dee), the man who gave China its name and who lies guarded by his terracotta army, ruled by extreme legalism - a regime so punitive that the slightest legal infraction would be punishable by death. This ultimately led to his own overthrow when an army patrol delayed by bad weather reasoned that since they faced certain death due to their lateness, they had nothing to lose from attempting a rebellion. Confucianism by contrast is less about rule by fear and more about rule by respect. It promotes a great deference to one's parents, to figures of authority in general and to the ways of generations that have gone before. Between them, these two alternating foci have created a deep national respect for centralised authority. Another common and binding philosophy amongst generations of Chinese rulers was that foreigners were not a positive influence and where possible should be kept at arm's length.

A Chinese island               
The reason for China's isolationism lies within its geography. The area now defined as China is round and topographically homogenous, isolated by its surroundings. To the north and west lies the central Asian steppe, a giant area of flat grasslands where resident horse-riding tribes constantly hindered any attempt at its crossing. The Himalayan mountain range separates China from its Indian neighbours to the south and west, while dense jungle fills the southern territories of Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia. The South China Sea to the east completes the picture to leave the great nation surrounded and cut off by impassable barriers, very much like an island. Within this landmass lie the Yellow and Yangtse rivers, ideally placed for use in communication and whose flood plains create some of the most fertile soil in the world, capable of feeding a gigantic population. This alignment of geographical factors led to the emergence of an early common dialect, from which has sprung China's unusually unified history, and explains much about the Chinese psyche. For, if your closest neighbour is hard to reach and you have everything you need, why waste time thinking about him? This regional goliath dominated its surroundings throughout its history, with nascent cultures in Japan, Korea and Tibet living under its shadow and often unashamedly copying its culture. For the first 3,800 of its 4,000 years, China lived as "The Middle Kingdom", secure in the knowledge that it was the greatest civilisation in the world.

This peaceful domination was shattered in 1792 by the arrival of the HMS Lion, a 64 gun man-of-war of the Royal Navy. It carried the Macartney Embassy – a large British delegation seeking trade concessions. The Qianlong emperor of the Qing dynasty was at this stage entirely confident that China was the centre around which the world metaphorically revolved, and visitors from obscure regions were expected to kowtow. Britain was a proud young nation in a hurry, and a complete failure of communication resulted. Lord Macartney was swiftly returned to London empty-handed, but unfortunately for China his was not the last white face seen on Chinese shores, for soon began one of the most humiliating periods in Chinese history. First Great Britain, and then the other European powers returned in numbers, and forced a series of deeply unbalanced treaties upon the Chinese. The neighbouring Japanese, until then viewed as the insignificant island across the sea, added insult to injury by learning Western ways and extracting concessions from China under threat of invasion. With the outbreak of the First World War, China sensed an opportunity to earn some goodwill from its European tormentors, and 140,000 Chinese men and women were sent to serve in the Chinese Labour Corps on the side of the Allies. The Treaty of Versailles, however, proved a great betrayal of China, and rather than being returned to its rightful owner, the German territory on the Chinese mainland was instead given to Japan. A concerted Japanese invasion of China in 1931, followed by 14 years of intense Chinese suffering at Japanese hands, topped off a century of humiliation. In a country where saving face is everything and humiliation is the ultimate punishment, the impact on the Chinese social consciousness is hard to overstate.

A modern power           
Fast forward to the present day, and as China has grown impressively since 1979, overtaking developed economies to become the second largest economy in the world, the reaction of Western commentators has been predictably wary. The prism of paranoia through which many in the west surveyed the rise of Japan in the 1970s and 80s has been brought to bear on China. Where hands were once wrung over Japanese takeovers of American companies, the new pressure point is currency - namely the Chinese accumulation of US dollars and the subsequent choke-hold that this is perceived to give them over the United States. Some observers have looked back even further, at the rise of Germany and the subsequent pain that this brought to the world, suggesting that the circumstances which brought about World War One are repeating themselves on a grander scale one hundred years on. More optimistic commentators are hoping for a peaceful handover of primary power status, similar to the passing of the baton from the UK to the US in the darkest moments of World War Two, and seek ways that this can be brought about. In truth, none of these previous models of growth can be laid upon China's rise, for the simple reason that none of those other countries contains 1.4 billion people with a shared unbroken history of 4,000 years. Every country is defined by its own past and geography, and just as each of these examples differ from each other, so China's course will ultimately be one that has been hitherto unplotted.
Up to this point in its recent period of development, China has been pursuing its standard growth model. This involves i) create a powerful centralised authority which unifies the country, ii) occupy the buffer states of Tibet and Xinjiang to secure China's heartland, iii) initiate a period of industrious growth. European encroachment in the 19th century has now added a iv) obtain control of the seas immediately surrounding China's mainland. The modern model differs from its predecessors in the globalised nature of the world that surrounds it. Historical China was largely limited to the natural resources that were contained within its land borders, but a modernised world with global trade allows China to access minerals from locations as far-flung as Brazil, Africa and Australia. This growth in scale should not be seen as a rapacious Chinese takeover of these countries, but as a logical extending of the scale of its economy. At the other end of the value chain, China has always been a major exporter of products to the Western world – Roman ladies in the second century CE were swathed in Chinese silk, and porcelain which came to be known as china was in hot demand in Victorian dining rooms throughout the nineteenth century. The difference between the ancient Silk Road trade goods and today's ipod components is only that the latter functions on a scale which has been made possible by the modern container ship. There is also nothing new about the multitude of Chinese nationals constantly arriving on foreign shores. Approximately fifty million Chinese live outside the mother country, but these individuals follow a long and thick line of Chinese emigrants through history. From the great wave of Ethnic Han Chinese that spread over the sea into South East Asia between the tenth and fifteenth centuries AD, to the vast numbers that arrived in the United States throughout the nineteenth. This constant phenomenon comes as a direct result of the fact that the Chinese heartland only has about one third the arable land per person as the rest of the world, but even with this overcrowding the percentage of Chinese living abroad is not far above the global average of 3.2 percent (3.8% approx).

'The Yellow Peril'                 
In foreign policy, the West often sees China as being difficult and unfriendly, endlessly creating obstacles and refusing to toe the line, frequently in league with Russia. This can be particularly hard to stomach in cases such as the ongoing attempt to manage North Korea, where frankly barbarous practices are allowed to persist partly thanks to tacit Chinese support. Such frustrations can be explained by the clash of cultures that remains similar to that experienced by Lord Macartney in 1792. European empires dating back to the Romans have had a "civilising" urge, with conquered tribes expected not only to submit to imperial rule, but to ultimately thank their conquerors for civilising them. This paternalistic ethos has been carried through the British Empire to the modern US domination, with George W Bush and Tony Blair cutting a swathe through the Middle East in an effort to "help" its residents. China, by contrast, has never sought to impose itself on weaker countries, excepting those buffer states that it must occupy to secure its heartland. The concept of preaching to another state about how to rule itself would be anathema to the Chinese psyche - as many African leaders have found to their delight. China subjugates Tibet and the saintly Dalai Lama because to abandon that province would be to negate the defensive properties of the Himalayan mountains; hypothetically a free Tibet allied with India could bring Indian troops to the edge of China's heartland, with India remaining secure behind its Himalayan barrier. North Korea, hive of torture and injustice that it is, remains an important buffer between western-minded South Korea and Chinese territory. A unified Korea would again bring western troops to a crossable Chinese border. Meanwhile the Chinese refusal to ratify measures against countries such as Iran and Syria in the UN Security Council stems from its instinctive dislike of preaching to others, along with an awareness of how quickly this type of moral crusade can be launched upon an authoritarian state such as itself. Chinese foreign policy is dictated by an overwhelming sense of some matters essentially being none of its business. Russia, by contrast, is much more European in its outlook and often plays a purposefully difficult and antagonistic role in order to extract concessions from western peers on an opportunistic basis. The two powers are often placed in the same bracket, but it is these core differences in world view which have made them awkward bedfellows throughout their histories.
Headlines were grabbed recently by China declaring an air defence zone over the disputed Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands. Much of China's recent 'assertive activity' in Asia can be explained by its desire to build a maritime buffer zone to match its land barriers. The increased military spend has largely gone towards developing its asymmetric capability - medium-range land-to-sea missiles, submarines and cyberwarfare capabilities are designed to make it difficult for the US Navy to impose itself in Chinese waters. It should be noted than none of these weapons would be of particular use in an invasion of another state, with the exception perhaps of Taiwan; they are conceived as tools for fending off a foreign power, and are ultimately defensive. Even the recent muscle-flexing around the Senkakus (and a submerged rock near South Korea), is more evidence of an attempt to own the East China Sea so that nobody else can. Memories of a British ironclad sailing up the Pearl River Delta and bombarding Canton (now Guangzhou) still keep China awake at night.

A benevolent giant
And so the possible future of a peaceful and confident China emerges. Safe behind its policed geographical barriers and hard at work, with the import of materials and the export of finished products being its only recourse to venture outside. Unfortunately there are two wild cards which are more than capable of shattering this utopian idyll - the United States and Japan. The US, currently undertaking a slow and creaking pivot to Asia, is the sitting incumbent of the East China Sea that China would like to occupy. The waters themselves are not of deep importance to the US, and could probably be abandoned without great upset, were it not for the longstanding US commitment to Taiwan. This island of 23 million inhabitants, only 112 miles off the coast, is another key strategic target which would need to be controlled if China is to secure its future. Throw in Japan, a giant that has been emerging from a quiet period in its history, and which owns various island chains that China covets for similar strategic reasons, and you have a recipe for conflict that could negate all of China's relative lack of expansionary ambition. It remains to be seen whether Japan's economic experiment will succeed in resuscitating its economy, early signs have been mixed;  if it returns to its slumber, and if an ever more isolationist America decides not to breach the peace for the sake of Taiwan, the process of China establishing its local ground-rules could proceed without a hitch.

Meanwhile, China is already wrestling with some weighty internal issues. From soaring debt levels to the social problems created by a slowing economy, Mr Jinping has been handed a difficult presidency. If he is successful in overcoming these issues and he establishes a secure platform upon which his country can thrive, history suggests that other nations will have little to fear and much to gain from a strong China. In the small town version of the world, where America is the swaggering policeman and Russia the small time gangster, China is a dignified, diligent and slightly paranoid old man, still recovering from a long convalescence after a nasty brush with a gang of teenagers, and hard at work installing around his property the most powerful security systems money can buy.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Scottish Independence: Back to the Future

On the ninth of September 1513, a force of 30,000 men under James IV of Scotland was drawn up on Flodden Hill, facing 26,000 Englishmen. The battlefield was located ten miles south of the border with Scotland, and the Scots king had chosen an excellent defensive position for his army, which carried the latest weaponry - Swiss pikes, early muskets and cannon. The English King Henry VIII was campaigning in France at the time, leaving the Earl of Surrey to command this rump English force against the invading Scots. On paper, the battle was Scotland's to lose, and had James held his position on Flodden Hill it would likely have been a great Scots victory to rank alongside Robert the Bruce's triumph at Bannockburn two hundred years previously. As it happened, Surrey was able to tempt James away from his position and down onto Flodden Field, a muddy swamp which rendered his modern cannon unusable. Three hours of fierce combat later, and James lay dead on the battlefield, the last king to lose his life in battle on British soil.

While this battle was a decisive blow to Scottish hopes at the time, it was not a conflict with many broader repercussions. The importance of the battle is largely symbolic, as it represents the last major example of Scotland and France working in concert against England as signatories to the so-called "Auld Alliance", an ongoing treaty which had imposed strict limits on the strategic options of English rulers since 1295. The terms of the alliance required that if either party was attacked by England, the other would invade English territory, creating a war on two fronts for the English aggressor. This period had also coincided with a long-running English campaign to construct a continental empire from a platform of territories inherited through various marriages. Decisive victories in battles such as Crécy and Agincourt had given England the early advantage in this “Hundred Years War”, but growing French cohesiveness ultimately overwhelmed the invaders and in 1558 Calais, the last great English overseas possession, was lost under Queen Mary I. Forty years later Mary's sister, Elisabeth lies on her deathbed with no heir, and James VI of Scotland rides to London to unify the island under one ruler: King James I of England and Scotland.

It is during this century, the sixteenth, that England’s grand strategy undertakes a significant volte face, as it moves away from land battles and towards naval superiority. This is a much more suitable strategy for an island nation outnumbered by its French neighbours by a ratio of five Frenchmen to every one Englishman, and well-positioned to exploit the predominant Atlantic trade routes of the time. The unification with Scotland allowed Britain to shrink its land forces and to focus on its navy, with the English Channel providing a policeable barrier which proved impermeable to any would-be invader. In fact unified Britain would come to make a strength out of its relatively tiny land army, since necessity dictated that its generals use cunning and diplomacy rather than brute force to achieve British goals; as a consequence colonial forces would often be made up largely of native troops, minimizing British casualties as well as costs. With a fortified moat securing its home territory, Britain was able to build a global empire upon which the sun never set, and as recently as 1982 it was still able to project its power to the southern tip of South America in the Falklands War. This is part of the reason why September's referendum on whether or not Scotland will remain a part of the United Kingdom is so historic for Great Britain.

History has proven repeatedly that the most fraught relationships are between land neighbours who share a border. While Scotland has an ethnic background of Celtic origin and England is historically Anglo-Saxon, both nations have interwoven over the centuries, which along with recent waves of immigration means that the only real evidence of separation is now historical, cultural and (to a fading extent) linguistic. So it is likely that, at least at first, an independent Scotland would be able to do business with the UK. It is also likely, however, that the characters of the two countries would begin to diverge as differing interests and attributes drive them in subtly different directions. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has intimated at various points that it would pursue a Scandinavian model of government, with an egalitarian ethos allied to generous public services, and in Ireland's happier days it expressed admiration for the Irish miracle. It is the likely adoption of Ireland's business policy which might bring the new nation into conflict with London. Ireland has long sought to undercut the UK's corporate taxes, attracting investment from non-EU businesses to whom the idea of an English-speaking EU member just a short hop from the western continent appeals. Edinburgh is five hours by train from London, which is itself less than three hours from Paris. If Scotland successfully enters Europe and adopts the Euro, the UK could find itself flanked by two Celtic Tigers enthusiastically undercutting its prices. This might create tension, particularly as Edinburgh has the potential to compete with London in financial services in a way that Dublin never could.

In addition to economic considerations, Britain's military would immediately suffer if Scotland ended its participation. Several of the British Army's most decorated regiments are Scottish by ancestry, and the loss of these great names would erase many of the regimental legends - these are the stories that every army tells itself and upon which its identity rests. While Scotland makes up only eight per cent of the UK's population, the relatively high levels of poverty north of the border has resulted in a higher percentage of Scots in the armed forces, and these would need to be replaced. Britain's nuclear deterrent, a submarine-borne missile named Trident, is currently stationed at Clyde Naval Base on Scotland's west coast, a sparsely populated natural harbour the like of which would be hard to find in the rest of the UK. In 1964 the UK Continental Shelf Act led to seismic exploration in the North Sea which has yielded considerable quantities of oil, peaking at six million barrels per day in 1999. Reserves are now considerably depleted by 40 years of extraction, but estimates of the field's remaining life have ranged up to 20 years. These reserves would belong to Scotland, which would come as a severe blow to the UK's energy strategy. While shale gas has been drilled in the North-West of England, the country is too well-populated for extraction on a scale that could provide energy security.

An independent Scotland's first strategic imperative would be to join the European Union. The region does not contain sufficient mineral deposits to support its economy, so a co-operative approach from within Europe would be the best way to attract investment. In order to enter the EU, a strong relationship with Germany would be helpful; it is likely that Alex Salmond’s first official visit as Scottish Prime Minister would be to Berlin. A mutual affinity and similar history would provide a foundation for a close Scottish-Irish friendship, while a warm Franco-Scottish relationship has endured, possibly thanks to an undercurrent of anti-English antipathy. Scotland's Scandinavian pretensions suggest a close relationship with Sweden, Denmark and Norway could succeed, while the birthplace of Adam Smith would be likely to preach an inclusive free-market approach that could appeal to some of the newer entrants to the European project in Eastern Europe. One country that has already made its negative feelings clear is Spain, which suspects that any slack offered to the Scots would be taken up with enthusiasm by Catalan separatists. The other major European player is Italy, although that country is in such a state of political turmoil is it hard to predict what type of regime will emerge from the melee. The United States would be likely to treat Scotland as it treats Ireland, with a nostalgic affection that does not include truly taking it seriously. A Scotland on favourable terms with the rest of Europe might prove something of a needle to the UK, using its influence in the bloc to extract concessions from its larger neighbour, particularly if the UK pursues its current strategy of keeping Europe at arm's length.

Meanwhile, a United Kingdom relieved of Scotland would undoubtedly be weakened. The armed forces would be depleted, while for the first time in 400 years England would have to formulate strategies for how to cope with a land invasion. The UK's "special relationship" with the US, already fading, would become even less pronounced due to the former's increased discomfort with providing support for military engagements. This in its turn might make the UK less assertive in Europe, forcing it to become more willing to toe the party line, and removing a major impediment to increased European integration. London, already responsible for 22% of the UK's GDP, would become even more influential, with the rest of England acting as little more than a backdrop to the capital's greatness. On the positive side, with Scotland removed the topographical difficulties of the country become considerably more manageable. A more compact UK shorn of some of its wildest mountain ranges, national parks and isolated islands would provide a more conducive environment to pursuing a concerted communications policy. Following the example of a country like Estonia, a commitment to fibre optic cable and public wifi services could make the UK an effective hub for the provision of a true internet service economy, finally solving the riddle of how the country will relate to the world in the 21st century.

Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

Letter to Egypt

Dear Egypt, 

I have never had the pleasure of visiting your country, although I would very much like to. You are the cradle of civilisation, architects of The Pyramids, enjoyers of 3,000 almost uninterrupted years of empire (still a record), and endless sources of wonder for Victorians and schoolchildren alike. Having said all that, since the end of the Ptolemys things seem to have gone somewhat downhill. From being a Roman toy, through various Arabic and Turkish empires (which admittedly were pretty impressive), up to British rule, you haven't done those demi-immortal pharoahs of yore very proud. Then the post war period happened, and you were caught up in a bigger power play same as everyone else, so that wasn't really your fault, then General Nasser seemed a good egg so authoritarian rule wasn't so bad, but the dictators started getting grabby and suddenly!...suddenly the boot was on the right foot, for the first time in 2,000 years the Egyptian people had a semblance of control over their own destiny! There was still the army to dislodge, never an easy feat, but subsequent events proved it was possible. So all that was needed was cohesion, a group ability to step away from your petty squabbles and do what was right for the country. 

We Westerners would have loved it if you'd gathered around someone like Mr El-Baradei, but even if you had resoundingly chosen Mr Morsi or that Captain from the old regime, at least it would have been democracy. Democracy is a beautiful thing, and that is for one major reason - it heals itself. Bad rulers are a fact of life, just as stupid people haunt every village and town, but democracy allows the selection of the perfect successor to heal the wounds inflicted by the previous government. So Mr Morsi was a bad leader, that happens, just look at George W Bush, but he would have gone, and if he'd done a truly terrible job then the next time you would have voted in his opposite, who would have no doubt taken things too far back the other way. All the while, however, you would have all been learning - what you liked about Mr Morsi, what you liked about his opposite, and gradually things would have started shifting towards the centre and a modern government. And a modern government has the people's best interests at heart, as they must to preserve their power and with the glint of personal gain diminished. It would have been a tough time, tourism would have fallen in the short term (though grown greatly in the long term), but if there is one thing history has taught us it is that the Nile can keep a large population fed, so you would not have starved. 

But you didn't, you were impatient, you saw the incompetence and remembered the power you had felt in Tahrir Sq and you wanted it again. The army, who had been anxiously monitoring events, played you like a fish, telling you everything you needed to hear to return to its muscular grasp, like Daisy to Tom Buchanan, and you now find yourself falling back into a new loveless relationship with an authoritarian state, with nobody knowing when the next opportunity for freedom will come. Maybe you can comfort yourselves that it was not all in vain if another people can learn from your tale, if the Turks can rid themselves of Mr Erdogan or Syria of Assad, they will look to your example and maybe, just maybe, logic will trounce human nature and they will stay together long enough for a lasting democratic platform to be established. Perhaps that might happen but I fear that for you the chance has passed

Your servant, 
Hercules Grytpype-Thynne