Red Alert 2

It is 20 years since the Cold War ended in Europe with the total collapse of the Soviet Union.  Since then, high-level relations between the United States of America and Russia have eased considerably.  In a situation that was unthinkable only 30 years ago, the United States is currently completely reliant upon the Russian Space Program to resupply the International Space Station with American personnel and equipment.  However, with the imminent re-election of the political dinosaur Vladimir Putin and deep divisions within the United Nations Security Council over Syria and Iran, is the world sleepwalking into a Middle East centred superpower showdown?

British Foreign Secretary William Hague certainly thinks so.  In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph, Hague spoke of his fears that Iranian nuclear proliferation will lead to ‘the threat of a new Cold War in the Middle East.’  Political scaremongering aside, it is highly unlikely that long-standing enemies of Iran such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel would allow Iran to be the sole confirmed nuclear power in the region.  Indeed, there has been frenzied speculation within the Western press that Israel is set to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities this summer.  Worryingly, American intelligence chiefs have only been able to announce that ‘to the best of their knowledge’ Israel is not poised to launch an attack.  For a country that values Israel as a close ally in the Middle East and has such an extensive intelligence network the world over, such statements are hardly reassuring.

It is also true that there is no love lost between the East and West.  From the early 20th Century Russia has been a constant threat to Western prosperity and European ambitions, famously signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany during Europe’s darkest hour which among other things divided Poland and much of Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence.  However, recently it is the assumed international political unification of China and Russia which is giving commentators cause for concern.

Civilians fleeing shelling by government forces in Syria

For the people of Syria Russian and Chinese unity in opposing Western backed international action has had devastating repercussions.  Despite evidence from the United Nations showing that an estimated 7500 civilians have been killed as a result of shelling and violence in key Syrian cities such as Homs, both Russia and China were the only two members of the United Nations Security Council to veto a watered-down resolution condemning President Assad and calling for him stand to stand down.

This lack of action has had dire consequences, and not just for the Syrian people who are now at the mercy of a reinvigorated and fearless President AssadAlready, political commentators are talking of a ‘proxy’ war; one in which Russia and China are supportive of President Assad’s regime on one side and the United States, European Union and Arab Nations (bar Iran) supportive of the breakaway Syrian National Council on the other. 

Indeed, at the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunisia, William Hague confirmed that the United Kingdom was to officially recognise the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the country.   Furthermore, he promised that Britain would ‘intensify’ links with the Council – which at the moment is Syria’s largest and most developed opposition group.  For weeks now, there have been rumours that foreign nations are interfering in Syria by supplying the opposition forces with weapons, training and in some cases men.  Finally, Hague also fired a warning shot towards Russia and China by declaring that “”those who back the Syrian regime from now on will find themselves in an even more isolated and indefensible minority.”  As any amateur historian will confirm, such ‘wars by proxy’ are typical of a ‘Cold War’ and indirect superpower showdown.

Additionally, aside from confrontation over Syria it is the recent actions of the Kremlin which has added to the speculation on whether we are sleepwalking into another superpower showdown.  Despite repeated denials by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a meeting with security analysts and Putin near a nuclear weapons research centre was most revealing.  When speaking, Putin stated that he did not see a ‘chill’ in relations with the United States.  Somewhat paradoxically, he then went on to explain how Russia aims to increase defence spending and refrain from further nuclear missile reductions until conventional weapons can do comparable damage in a bid to compete with the United States.

So, is the world sleepwalking into a superpower showdown, centred on the Middle East?  As has been stated before in this blog, the sphere of international politics is almost impossible to predict and to go any further than analysing the current trends and trajectories of possible outcomes would be foolish.  However, what is certain is that the United States and Europe have been battered by an economic debt crisis, two exhausting wars and a ten year obsession with confronting Islamic radicalism.  The political desire for any prolonged confrontation with a potentially formidable enemy is simply not present.

On the other hand, unlike the United States and European Union both Russia and China are awash with money.  Possessing mammoth foreign currency reserves, Chinese investment is increasingly being sought to bail out a cash-strapped European Union.  The political bargaining this brings should not be underestimated.  Within Russia, high oil prices are being used to fund the renewal and expansion of the previously neglected Russian military, designed solely to offer an alternative to American influence around the globe.

The Middle East is simply acting as a proving ground for a rejuvenated East and a tired, moralistic West.  Much like post-war Europe, two opposing ideologies wish to control a region which is currently experiencing a generational upheaval.  With Syria currently in a state of unofficial civil war, political instability in newly formed Arab nations and an increasingly isolationist Iran in continued pursuit of nuclear technology the pickings are potentially very rich for the victor.  A similar situation in postwar Europe created a 40 year conflict, fought through proxy wars and an ever increasing nuclear arsenal.

Maybe the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists were right to move the doomsday clock closer to midnight after all.


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There is a good chance that until Wikipedia and thousands of other affiliated sites held a one day ‘blackout’ on the 18th January not many people had heard of the controversial American bills SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act).  Designed to do exactly what it says on the tin, the two acts are supported by a wealthy and increasingly politically influential Hollywood which appears to be unwavering in its desire to maximise profit and unwilling to alter its approach and embrace the benefits of the internet.  Although now temporarily postponed, what exactly is all the fuss about?

Designed to combat copyright infringement and piracy, PIPA and SOPA would allow any American company, group or wealthy citizen the ability to shut down a website without due process when suspected of hosting copyrighted material.

It does not take a genius to work out that this would be bad news for the much vaunted Western guarantee; ‘freedom of speech.’  Whilst the acts have undoubtedly been introduced with the best of intentions in a bid to combat the estimated 95% of illegally downloaded music, the approach would be akin to cracking a nut with a sledgehammer.  Or, as Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Digital Agenda Commission said on Twitter: ‘Speeding is illegal too, but you don’t put speed bumps on the motorway.’  In other words, the collateral damage for any action taken against a website would be enormous and out of proportion.

As a legal and technical nightmare for many large websites the proposed legislation is so unworkable in practice that it could force internet favourites such as Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia and WordPress offline.  Required to monitor every posted link and upload, American companies would be responsible for essentially policing the internet and all their users.

Within dominant and largely uncensored search engines such as Google, PIPA and SOPA have not been well received.  In protest at the prospect having to regulate search results and remove links to foreign websites suspected of distributing copyrighted information, Google openly supported the thousands of websites that were ‘dark’ on the 18th January.  Although still available, the Google logo was ‘redacted’ and links were given to users urging them to contact their local political representative to make their objections known.

Likewise, Wikipedia caused momentary panic to thousands of students through being one of the most popular websites to ‘go dark’ in protest at PIPA and SOPA.  Whilst there were ways around this blockade, all java-enabled desktop users were greeted with a black imagine entitled ‘Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.’  In a related message, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales explained that Wikipedia was against the proposed legislation because it was ‘badly drafted’ and would be ineffective at preventing copyright infringement.  Instead, Wales believes it would damage ‘the free and open internet’ as there was a possibility that SOPA and PIPA could be used as a stepping stone towards more repressive and controlling legislation.

How Wikipedia chose to protest against PIPA and SOPA

It should be remembered that the World Wide Web is undoubtedly unique.  Free from the control of any one nation, the internet is a lively area where any information, pictures and media can be shared seamlessly around the globe.  Although daunting, this modern deluge of information has been invaluable to humanity.  From enabling people to find the best car insurance deal to ensuring the survival of the Arab Spring protest movement through the use of social media, the internet serves as a tool of progression for mankind.

An attempt by the United States to enforce PIPA and SOPA would severely hamper this.  Forced into a regulatory role, American companies would be required to censor the internet and as the world’s sole technological superpower this would naturally impact upon all other countries.  For instance, France already has the Creation and Internet Bill whereby users are given a ‘three strikes’ policy when suspected of downloading copyrighted content before their internet connection is disconnected and disabled.  Likewise, the United Kingdom has the largely hated Digital Economy Act, although this has yet to be passed into law due to a series of legal challenges.

Whilst there is undoubtedly a need to act against people who repeatedly distribute and download copyrighted content, the current brutal Hollywood-backed approach is not the correct course.  In addition to charging a fair price to reflect the fact that consumers are no longer receiving a physical product when digitally purchasing media, governments around the world should begin to make better use of existing laws before bringing in draconian and overpowered measures such as PIPA, SOPA and the Digital Economy Act.  As the world’s technological superpower and alleged guarantor of freedom, the United States must take the lead.

However, this does not mean to say that other countries should be afraid to act and seek a solution.  Whilst usually lamented for being nothing more than a place for endless discussion, the European Union has been surprisingly decisive when the freedom of the internet is discussed.  In a recent resolution that was almost certainly aimed at the United States, the EU stressed a ‘need to protect the integrity of the global Internet and freedom of communication by refraining from unilateral measures to revoke IP addresses or domain names.’

In response to this resolution and a tidal-wave of public anger since January 18th, the United States Congress announced on January 21st that both PIPA and SOPA were to be suspended, pending further investigations.  It seemed like the world finally had something to thank the European Union for.  And then the secretive global ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) was signed in Tokyo only five days later by the very same European Union.

Let round two begin.


Loadsamoney!

For my own self-preservation I should probably start by making it known that I do not follow football.  Unless I am playing (badly), football is not something which appeals to me.  Add to this the fact that so-called Premier League ‘superstars’ are paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a week for what seems like quite a charmed life and it is unlikely that I will ever become a convert.

Before every avid football follower kicks off, take for instance the recently announced news regarding Didier Drogba.  As the star of the Chelsea team, Drogba has no doubt been instrumental in helping Chelsea to win numerous Cups, titles and trophies.  And as a trouble-free and committed player, Drogba is seen as a good role model to football mad youngsters who dream of competing on a professional level.  However, despite such accolades should one man be worth the eye-watering £270 000 a week that the Chinese football club Shanghai Shenhua were rumoured to be signing him for?  In a country where poverty is widespread and the average person only earns $5000, the suggested wages are astronomically ridiculous.

I do not doubt that a career as a footballer is hard work.  For every successful Premier League footballer there will be thousands of others desperate to take his place – the effort required to remain at the top of the game and away from the piranhas below is substantial.  By the very nature of the career being a sport, a footballer needs to remain physically fit, free from injury and eat relatively healthy foods.  Again though, does this really justify such a substantial wage?  Many ‘ordinary’ people eat healthily, keep fit and participate in sport without the need for payment.  They simply play for the sheer pleasure of playing.  Likewise, Championship players are paid nowhere near as much for an almost identical role.

Despite being in the depths of the worst financial crisis since 1929, some English clubs are now awash with Arab oil money and investing heavily in players; often paying wages which even before the economic crisis would have been classed as absurd.  Wayne Rooney is purported to be on around £250 000 a week.  Fernando Torres receives an estimated weekly wage of £220 000 and Manchester City’s Yaya Toure earns £220 000 a week.  For Manchester City, the wage demands of players in 2010 led to them spending an estimated 107% of their annual revenue on player salaries.

It has been argued by some that this focus on money has made the game inaccessible to ordinary families and unsustainable in the long run.  With the cheapest adult match tickets now priced at an average of around £35 to see a top-flight football match, the decline in the number of families attending games has been remarkable.  Instead of the family occasion it used to be, it could be argued football has now become a Saturday afternoon jolly; one dominated by wealthy professionals, corporate sponsors and devout followers from the working class.

It is somewhat ironic then that some of the wealthiest people choose to participate in a game played by 22 people and containing thugs such as Joey Barton and Wayne Rooney.  As the ‘star’ midfielder for QPR, Barton has been accused and convicted of common assault and actual bodily harm, yet still manages to commandeer a weekly wage of £60 000.  For a man universally disliked, is he really worth twice as much per week than the average soldier, fire fighter, police officer or nurse is paid in a year?

Joey Barton. Is this serial brawler really worth £60 000 a week?

It is not just footballers who share the unfortunate perception of being overpaid and out of touch.  Within the City of London, executive pay can often reach stratospheric amounts.  As former Chief Executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Sir Fred Goodwin oversaw the meteoric expansion of the bank.  Conversely, because of the actions he took as Chief Executive, Sir Fred Goodwin also oversaw the largest annual loss in UK corporate history; an estimated £24bn.  However, despite his failings resulting in RBS requiring a financial bailout from the taxpayer, Goodwin was awarded with a severance package and pension deal worth an estimated £16m.  The reward for failure had never looked so good.

So, can this be solved?  In the wake of recent public outrage the Coalition government has promised to investigate excessive executive pay.  However, before the righteous get excited it is unlikely that action will be taken because without global agreement, any action to limit executive pay would just be a shambolic and damaging gesture of goodwill designed to appease struggling families.  Legislation would simply force investment abroad, creating further problems for an already economically bruised Britain.

We should also be uneasy about the idea of government intervention to limit top executive pay.  To intervene would have all the hallmarks of a Stalinist state.  It would also risk opening the door to further government intervention regarding pay and bonuses – this affecting the very core of Western civilisation and the capitalist system on which we all depend.

The solution may be much simpler.  Perhaps executives, footballers and high earners should just adopt some common sense and implement some morals.


Alex Salmond: Freedom Fighter

The future flag of the United Kingdom?

The rebels in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt would not exactly call him a ‘comrade in arms.’  Hollywood would no doubt decline any offer to create a movie documenting his ‘struggle,’ and apart from his arrogance he shares little in common with William Wallace.  I am of course referring to Alex Salmond – leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Scottish First Minister and chief antagonist in the push for Scottish independence.

With the referendum date now pencilled in for 2014, who exactly is Alex Salmond, what do the SNP want and how will it all play out?

Famously protective of his private life, Alex Salmond was born in Linlithgow, Scotland and is married with no children.  Able to trace his ancestry to before the 1707 Acts of Union between England and Scotland, Salmond studied economics and history at the University of Saint Andrews.  Upon graduation, he pursued a career as an economist.

Unlike his private life, much more is known about Salmond’s political beliefs.  As a fierce left-wing supporter of Scottish independence, Salmond’s political career almost ended spectacularly early when he was suspended from the SNP due to his support and involvement in the radical socialist republican 79 Group.  As can be seen from this song the group are hardly politically liberal, open minded election material.  However, by 1987, Salmond had been able to claw his way back into the SNP, defeating the Conservative MP Albert McQuarrie in a local election.  It is here that his stratospheric rise through the ranks of the SNP began.

Appointed as SNP Deputy Leader in 1987, Salmond took advantage of the power vacuum within the party in 1990 by standing for and winning the leadership election.  Throughout the 1990s he was heavily critical of Westminster whilst maintaining heavy involvement in supporting policies promoting Scottish devolution.  However, by 1999 Salmond had resigned after facing a virtual media blackout, heavy criticism and the full force of Westminster for a number of political blunders including opposing the NATO bombing of Serbia through likening it to the Nazi German bombing of Glasgow.

Despite this, it was in 2004 that Alex Salmond had once again clawed his way back into the SNP and public eye.  Having entered into the 2004 SNP leadership battle, Salmond emerged victorious with a majority of around 75%.  Since then, he has overseen the continued electoral success of the SNP with these successes culminating in the 2010 general election in which the SNP emerged victorious within the Scottish Parliament.  Armed with a sizeable majority, the SNP have promised to hold a referendum on Scottish independence; the desired ‘yes’ vote being their final hurdle in a bid to become independent of the United Kingdom.  Arguably, this video explains the issue most succinctly.

Currently, the main three political parties of Westminster are opposed to Scottish independence.  In a rare display of unity, both David Cameron and Ed Milliband have spoken out against Alex Salmond, claiming that Scottish independence would profoundly affect the British Isles and considerably weaken the political union.  Both political leaders have also stated that independence would be ‘bad’ for the UK economy, especially if Scotland were to abandon Sterling and adopt the Euro.

How the independence referendum will play out is unknown.  All current indicators appear to support the conclusion that if a referendum were to be taken today the idea of an independent Scotland would be rejected by the population; Westminster arguably pushing an early referendum for this precise reason.  There is no doubt that Britain would be weaker should the union be broken.  Not only would the breakaway of Scotland throw the future of the remaining Union into doubt, but additionally there would be significant headaches for politicians involved in discussion over the military, economic policies and border controls.

It is also highly likely that whatever the result it will destroy the losing political party.  For the ruling Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition a defeat would likely be the final nail in a coffin for a political relationship that has already suffered heavily from the continuing slew of poor economic data, high unemployment and widespread public discontent with severe budget cuts.  On the other hand, for the SNP a defeat would signal the end of a party which does not appear to have much policy and substance past opposition to Westminster, support for independence and bribery of the population via free prescriptions and non-existent university fees.

And despite these problems, should Scotland become independent it must be remembered that the politicians will have a responsibility for at least a small portion of the often talked about and over-hyped national debt – all £1 trillion of it.  For a country with an economy only totalling £140bn this would be a substantial burden.  After independence the SNP would no doubt soon realise that money is no longer channelled from the wealthy South East of England towards a deprived and desolate Glasgow City.  The English taxpayer would no longer be responsible for funding expensive Scottish nationalism and Scotland would no longer have the benefit of a highly-trained and professional army, paid for and maintained by Westminster.

How sustainable are those free prescriptions and subsidised university fees now?


The New World Order

Largely ignored by the mainstream media, a recent Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) report has shown that in terms of the world economic league table rankings, Brazil overtook the UK in 2011 to become the world’s sixth largest economy.  Whilst disappointing for Britain, other key European countries suffered a similar fate.  By 2020 Germany, Italy and France are also expected to slide significantly down the league table, having been overtaken by the rapidly emerging Asian ‘tigers’ and BRIC countries.  Aside from the obvious dent to national pride and international economic influence, what does the report mean for the future of the United Kingdom, Europe and the Western world?

When considering Western decline, most concerning for Europe, America and Japan is the spectacular rise of two BRIC countries; Russia and China.  Largely reliant on natural resource exploitation for predicted future growth, Russia is both a past adversary of the West and a likely future one.  Recent Russian defence spending has focused on enlarging the armed forces to cope with high unemployment, joint military manoeuvres with China and an increasingly bombastic international role culminating in the now largely forgotten 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Unlike Russia, China is not particularly resource rich.  Despite this, the official Chinese military budget has increased by nearly 200% since 2001; this being fuelled by exceptional double-digit economic growth throughout the decade.  Unofficially, the budget is rumoured to have increased by an even larger amount.  This budget amplification has enabled the Chinese to design and produce advanced stealth fighters, create a naval base in the Seychelles to directly threaten India and purchase rusting Russian aircraft carriers.  Again, similar to Russia, China has become increasingly vocal within international politics by peddling ludicrous territorial water claims and adopting an ever more offensive posture with regards to Taiwan.

Will the Chinese Army become a common sight aound the globe like the US Army is today?

When Russian and Chinese investment is contrasted with severe Western military budget cuts (including those recently announced by the United States) and combined with increased international posturing, commentators are rightfully concerned that the West faces a tough choice; to either submit to the new economic powerhouses or invest in the military and suffer from increased debts and economic stagnation.  Furthermore, it is a certainty that at some point this century the United Nations Security Council will have to be overhauled to reflect modern day politics; this likely costing the West dear in terms of their previously almost unrivalled control of international affairs.

Faced with the CEBR report, continued Chinese and Russian intransigence combined with military expansion, a stubborn economic financial crisis and a continuous slew of disappointing economic data it would be rational for Western politicians to panic at the prospect of a century increasingly dominated by a series of unstable, unmanageable and untested countries.  Especially countries ever more flush with cash and lacking a fondness for quaint European traditions, American excess or Japanese electronic domination.

However, this predictable panic is often unnecessary.  Since 1945, the UK has been suffering from a slow international decline as the Empire has been gradually disbanded; a direct result of having fought and shouldering the burden of two devastating world wars.  Despite such decline, this has not meant an end to peace and prosperity for the British people.  Instead, decline has been ‘managed’ to ensure that aside from brief periods in history, British military power and influence around the globe has remained constant, national security has not been threatened and living standards have generally increased, decade after decade.

If managed correctly, many commentators are confident that gradual Western economic decline is not necessarily the doomsday scenario that scaremongers predict.  Whilst international politics and conflict is inherently difficult to predict, unbiased observers are able to see that economic decline does not always correlate with a demise in international influence, foreign policy or military power.  Provided that investment is made in the right areas, the British – and in some respects, Western – role in the world as nations of highly educated and skilled designers, service sector workers, high-end manufacturers and engineers can only complement non-Western economic growth.  Indeed, the rapidly growing countries of Asia and Latin America need our skills and expertise as much as we need their natural resources and mass produced factory goods.

Whilst the CERB report is undoubtedly a blow to British and Western visions of self-importance, I can still see one reason within the report to be cheerful.  Apparently, should the predictions turn out to be accurate the British rate of economic decline will not be as quick as that of our closest continental neighbour and age old national adversary, France.  By 2020, the United Kingdom will have come from behind to beat the French to eighth in the global pecking order, and by quite a considerable margin too.  Now that is a cause for celebration.  Someone pass the Chardonnay…