Populism falters in Australia, threatens Europe

Populism seems to be the latest political term in favour, but it is being applied across the political spectrum.

The unexpected defeat of Labor in the election Australia, after promoting  ‘populist’ type policies (like in dealing with climate change), has been seen as a setback for populism.

Washington Times: A populist surprise down under

Political trends, like the common cold, are contagious. Revolutions are often not confined to one country. The Communist revolution in Russia soon spread across the first half of the 20th century. The rise of fascism occurred in tandem across wide swaths of the world.

The period beginning in our own century might loosely be called the Age of Populism.

Gallup now says 4 in 10 Americans have embraced populism, perhaps not knowing everything about populism. The list of nations that have seen the birth of populist movements is a long one, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, Israel, Hungary, the Philippines, Mexico, India, and Brazil. Ten thousand miles away from America, a populist revolution has exploded in Australia.

Scott Morrison won his first full term as prime minister of Australia, confounding expectations that the country’s voters were ready for a change after six years of tumultuous leadership.

But Australia’s “quiet voters,” as the prime minister called them, had a different idea. Mr. Morrison’s victory — his Liberal party is in fact the small-c conservative party in Australia — took an outright majority in parliament.

Australian voters rallied to the prime minister’s bold, Trump-like message.

I thought that lack of boldness was a feature of Morrison’s campaign, compared to Labor who thought the time was right for left wing populism. Bill Shorten was seen by voters as a threat to middle Australia’s future.

I don’t think that Scott Morrison is generally seen as a populist leader. He won more because he was the least unpopular.

New Zealand contrasts with this, as popular leader Jacinda Ardern is widely praised, even though her government keeps watering down or avoiding dealing with populist policies.

Blomberg editorial: The Populist Threat to Europe’s Future

The European Union is under siege. In elections from Sweden to Spain, right-wing populists continue to gain strength, while support for traditional parties withers. Populist groups expect to make sizable gains in this week’s elections for the European parliament — giving them more power than ever before over the institutions at the heart of the EU.

Europe’s cohesion hangs in the balance. Though the Brexit fiasco has diminished the appeal of leaving the EU, populists remain determined to undermine it from within. They want to halt the momentum of European integration, curtail the authority of Brussels and limit the EU’s ability to force member states to adhere to democratic norms.

European leaders need a coherent strategy for fighting back. That requires they come to grips with the scale of the populist surge and address the legitimate grievances populists have exploited for electoral gain. At the same time, they must resist the urge to placate the demands of agitators on both the right and the left.

But Europe consists of many countries. While operating under the EU umbrella there a a variety of issues in different countries.

The landscape of populism is as diverse and cacophonous as Europe itself — from the yellow-vest protesters in France to the far-right Alternative for Germany to Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement — but common threads help to explain its appeal.

Populist leaders harness public frustration with political elites, who they cast as corrupt and indifferent to the daily struggles of voters. They draw support from citizens with low levels of formal education and those living in regions that have suffered from globalization. And populists play on cultural anxieties, blaming the loss of national identity on immigrants, asylum seekers and the faceless bureaucrats of the EU.

Both right wing and left wing activists think they can tap the support of ordinary citizens, assuming they will support their ideals. This is often flawed thinking.

Political insurgents have also benefited from the erosion of voters’ loyaltiesto traditional parties. In countries with fractured electorates, like Belgium and Sweden, the mere process of forming a government can take months, and sometimes years. As ruling coalitions become more ideologically diverse, their ability to govern effectively declines — which only strengthens the populists’ anti-establishment message.

This isn’t happening here. One of the biggest criticisms in New Zealand is that the two major parties, Labour and National, are barely distinguishable with what the do in government, especially on economic policy.

If pursued at both national and pan-European levels, political and economic reform can restore confidence in mainstream parties and blunt the appeal of populism. That work won’t be easy, nor yield results overnight. But for the sake of Europe’s future, it needs to start now.

That’s as unlikely as what is proposed is idealistic.And it’s vague – the left and the right are trying to pull economic and social reform in different directions, while governments are getting more messed up in the middle – Britain’s attempt at reform via Brexit is a continuing disaster.

Donald Trump promised to ‘drain the swamp’, but hasn’t achieved much, especially what could be called reform. His biggest claim to fame is reshuffling the swamp monsters, and tweeting nonsense.

Australia has just chosen more of the same politically and economically, with no sign of anything looking like reform. Australians voted for the status quo.

New Zealand is continuing largely the same, with even modest tax reform and social reform both being rejected by the government this year.

Populism is more popular in social media than in politics, but it is amplified by small minorities who keep getting disappointed by voters and governments.

A simplistic label like populism doesn’t fit the real world, which is far more diverse than simplistic reforms can deal with.

“A majority of French and Germans now trust Russia and China more than the United States”

Donald Trump is shaking up international relations. Some of this may eventually be for the better. He things he deserves a Nobel Peace prize – see Trump boasted at a news conference on Friday that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had given him a copy of a five-page letter he’d sent to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which selects the annual Peace Prize laureates – but that is debatable.

But the Trump doctrine (chaos and shoot from the tweet) is also very risky and threatens the established super power balances.

And at increasing risk is relationships between the US and Europe.

Longtime analyst of German-American relations Karl Kaiser: “Two years of Mr. Trump, and a majority of French and Germans now trust Russia and China more than the United States.”

NY Times:  Rift Between Trump and Europe Is Now Open and Angry

European leaders have long been alarmed that President Trump’s words and Twitter messages could undo a trans-Atlantic alliance that had grown stronger over seven decades. They had clung to the hope that those ties would bear up under the strain.

But in the last few days of a prestigious annual security conference in Munich, the rift between Europe and the Trump administration became open, angry and concrete, diplomats and analysts say.

A senior German official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on such matters, shrugged his shoulders and said: “No one any longer believes that Trump cares about the views or interests of the allies. It’s broken.”

The most immediate danger, diplomats and intelligence officials warned, is that the trans-Atlantic fissures now risk being exploited by Russia and China.

The Europeans no longer believe that Washington will change, not when Mr. Trump sees traditional allies as economic rivals and leadership as diktat. His distaste for multilateralism and international cooperation is a challenge to the very heart of what Europe is and needs to be in order to have an impact in the world.

But beyond the Trump administration, an increasing number of Europeans say they believe that relations with the United States will never be the same again.

International relations never remain the same, they keep evolving, but the Trump thump could end up being a seismic shift in power balances.

If Europe moves closer to Russia and China this will further isolate the US. To an extent this is what Trump wants, he puts nationalism well ahead of international interests, but he may not understand the potential repercussions and unintended consequences.

The most visible pushback against Washington came from Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — who delivered an unusually passionate speech — and from her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen. They spoke about the dangers of unilateral actions by major partners without discussing the consequences with allies.

They cited Mr. Trump’s recent announcements that American troops would leave northern Syria and Afghanistan, as well as the administration’s decision to suspend one of the last remaining arms-control agreements: the ban on land-based intermediate range missiles.

That decision affects European security, and there has been no alternative strategy, Ms. Merkel said. Abandoning the treaty, despite Russia’s violations, helps decouple Germany from the American nuclear umbrella.

“We sit there in the middle with the result,” Ms. Merkel said.

The Syria pullout, she continued, could only help Russia and Iran. That view was echoed by the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who called American policy in Syria “a mystery to me.”

Trump’s Syrian policy is contentious within the US. Immediately following his announcement of the US pulling out of Syria, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis resigned.

Last week: Russia, Iran, Turkey to hold fourth round of Syria talks in Sochi

Thursday’s meeting between Putin, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will focus on the long-term settlement of the Syrian crisis, the Kremlin said in a statement on Monday.

But the three leaders will also discuss projects and coordination on the international arena.

The Syria talks run in parallel to the Geneva talks organised by the United Nations.

But Russia distrusts the negotiations organised by the West. On Wednesday, Russia stayed away from a Middle East conference organised by the United States in Poland, a NATO member.

Last month (Fox News):  Trump administration riles European Union with diplomatic snub

President Trump has angered European Union officials by downgrading the E.U. delegation to Washington’s diplomatic status — and not telling them.

The move by the State Department, reported by Germany’s Deutsche Welle, downgraded the E.U.’s Washington delegation from member state to international organization.

“We don’t exactly know when they did it, because they conveniently forgot to notify us,” an E.U. official told the outlet, which reported that the move initially happened in October or November.

Two days ago (Fox News): In Munich, Pence doubles down on criticism of Europe over Iran nuclear deal, urges removal of Maduro

Vice President Mike Pence asked European allies to follow Washington’s lead and withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and urged the European Union to recognize Venezuelan politician Juan Guaido as the country’s president during a speech to world leaders at the Munich Security Conference.

“The time has come for our European partners to stop undermining sanctions” against Iran by offering economic incentives in exchange for limiting its nuclear program, Pence said Saturday, speaking after German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

MSNBC: Pence met with silence; Merkel hammers Trump

While speaking at the 55th Munich Security Conference, VP Mike Pence was met with silence after mentioning President Trump. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the Trump administration’s foreign policies.

Wall Street Journal:  Munich Conference Highlights a Divided U.S.

A divided America was on display this weekend in Munich where Vice President Mike Pence and Democrats including his predecessor Joe Biden offered competing visions of the trans-Atlantic relationship that could shape the world for years to come.

Both Mr. Pence and the Democrats claimed to stand for U.S. leadership on the world stage and accused each other of wrecking a world order that is under threat by rival powers, namely China and Russia.

Mr. Pence presented a strong defense of the Trump administration’s “America First” policy to world leaders gathered for the annual Munich Security Conference. The theme this year, “Picking Up the Pieces,” reflected a view widely shared among European nations: that the world order is in danger because of a breakdown in the relationship between the U.S. and its European allies.

Politico.eu: Munich Insecurity Conference

The Munich Security Conference — a forum conceived during the Cold War to discuss security threats and challenges — has never been an event for the faint of heart. Even so, the mood at this year’s gathering, the 55th, would best be described as funereal.

It’s no secret Europeans and Americans (i.e. the Trump administration) have been at odds over a laundry list of issues including the Iranian nuclear deal, climate policy, trade and commitment to NATO. Yet the interaction between the two sides in Munich — which bordered on the caustic, both in public and behind the scenes — left some participants warning that the estrangement threatens to hobble the transatlantic security alliance at a time of growing instability.

Instability heightens risks.

James Stavridis, a retired American admiral who served as NATO’s supreme allied commander until 2013, said the alliance’s paralysis was most apparent where it can least afford it: hybrid warfare, an area that all sides agree poses a severe threat to the stability of democratic systems.

The threat to democratic systems is not just in the US and Europe.

ABC (Australia): Scott Morrison reveals foreign government hackers targeted Liberal, Labor and National parties in attack on Parliament’s servers

He confirmed earlier reports, revealed by the ABC, that the nation’s cyber security agencies believed a foreign government was behind the attacks.

“Our cyber experts believe that a sophisticated state actor is responsible for this malicious activity,” Mr Morrison told Parliament.

Investigations into hacking and foreign interference in elections in the US are controversial, but connstitutes a major threat to democratic systems.

Back to Europe: Angela Merkel Ruffled at Prospect of More Trump Hardball Tactics, Sources Say

Merkel’s chancellery team is concerned at the prospect of further hardball tactics from the Trump administration after fending off U.S. efforts to turn her European Union partners against a new gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, the people said, asking not to be named discussing private conversations.

The U.S. effort to drive a wedge between Germany and its EU allies had helped spur Merkel to deliver one of her most impassioned speeches when she addressed the meeting earlier in the day. Her defense of the multilateral order challenged by Trump earned a standing ovation from the audience of presidents, prime ministers and senior defense officials.

She also added a geopolitical dimension to her argument, warning that isolating Russia at a moment of tectonic shifts in global relations was not in Europe’s interests.

“Consciously shutting Russia out politically, I think that’s also wrong,” Merkel said. “Europe can’t have a geopolitical interest in halting all relations to Russia.”

If Trump keeps pissing other countries off he will get what he wants to an extent, a more isolated US. What fills that power vacuum could constitute a major shift in international power balances.

Divisions in Europe and the rise of the extreme right and left

From Missy in the UK:


The political discourse in Europe is getting more intense as divisions are pushing people more and more to the extremes of left and right.

In the UK the Brexit debate has led to the divisions coming to the fore, however, this isn’t new in politics here, as many who were around in Thatcher’s time will remind you. Social Media has given a wider audience to it though, and the anonymity for some on social media has given the opportunity for language to become more and more abusive, something that is now spilling over into real life.

Those on the far left are happily calling political opponents fascists, far right, nazis, meanwhile some anti Brexit supporters are talking about killing all Leave voters, whilst others are calling Leave voters racists, xenophobes, nazis, fascist (that word again).

Some far left activists and activist groups have publicly called for Conservative politicians to be harassed wherever they go, they have sent death threats, and wished their children dead, whilst some on the far right (not as organised in groups as the far left extremists) have threatened rape and violence to those that they disagree with. This is not sudden either, several years ago when a back bench MP, the now Shadow Chancellor called for direct action against Conservative MPs calling them social criminals, he has also been filmed repeating a dubious ‘joke’ calling for violence against a female Conservative MP using the phrase ‘lynch the bitch’. When MPs are using language like this against their colleagues in the House of Commons who can blame their followers for thinking it is acceptable?

Anna Soubry, a pro Remain conservative MP has reportedly used extreme language to describe leave voters, (I have not seen any video evidence of her reported comments as I have of McDonnell’s), she also referred to her own Conservative colleagues that support Brexit as extremists and called for them to be slung out of the party. There is also a report that about 3 or 4 years ago she referred to her constituents as racists.

Yesterday during an interview on College Green Anna Soubry was shouted down by Brexit supporters and called a nazi. This has gained a lot of media coverage, which is prompting much condemnation, but also a bit of bemusement as to why the media have not covered as extensively pro Brexit MPs being shouted down and abused, or why the term nazi is suddenly so distasteful to pro Remain supporters when many of them have been using it for the last 3 years to denigrate Leave supporters. The bemusement and the whataboutery isn’t good for discourse, but it shows up the hypocrisy of many on the extremes of politics, where the language they use against those they disagree with is not okay when it is used against them.

Many on the left of politics in the UK tend to take the moral high ground on abuse against politicians, pointing to the murder of Jo Cox as evidence the left don’t do violence, only the right do. This is a dangerous position to take as we see in the violence of groups like Momentum and Antifa.

Today a story came out from Germany. Yesterday a German politician was badly beaten by three masked men in Bremen, he was saved by a construction worker who came to his aid, it was reported he was left half dead. The politician? Frank Magnitz, the leader of the AfD in Bremen.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-46792556

It is not healthy for our democracy to descend into this level of abuse, words are used to shut down debate or invalidate someone’s opinion and it becomes the loudest that are heard and considered the voice of the majority, even though they are most likely the minority on the extremes. When words like racist, xenophobe, nazi, fascist are used to describe people who want to have legitimate discussions on topics like immigration the meaning of these words are diluted, and then they are no longer listened to or taken as credible descriptors of someone’s beliefs.

European Court says religious feelings and religious peace overrule free speech

The European Court of Human Rights has made a ruling saying, that the right of people to have their religious feelings protected  and the “legitimate aim of preserving religious peace” in Austria.

That this is in a case in which a women was convicted for calling the Prophet Muhammad a pedophile is likely to inflame a contentious and volatile situation in Europe.

Deutsche Welle – Calling Prophet Muhammad a pedophile does not fall within freedom of speech: European court

The ECHR ruled against an Austrian woman who claimed calling the Prophet Muhammad a pedophile was protected by free speech. The applicant claimed she was contributing to public debate.

An Austrian woman’s conviction for calling the Prophet Muhammad a pedophile did not violate her freedom of speech, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday.

The Strasbourg-based ECHR ruled that Austrian courts carefully balanced the applicant’s “right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected, and served the legitimate aim of preserving religious peace in Austria.”

The woman in 2009 held two seminars entitled “Basic Information on Islam,” during which she likened Muhammad’s marriage to a six-year-old girl, Aisha, to pedophilia.

The court cited the Austrian women stating during the seminar that Muhammad “liked to do it with children” and “… A 56-year-old and a six-year-old? … What do we call it, if it is not pedophilia?”

An Austrian court later convicted the woman of disparaging religion and fined her €480 ($546). Other domestic courts upheld the decision before the case was brought before the ECHR.

So the European Court of Human Rights has not made or imposed this law, they have supported lower courts.

The women had argued that her comments fell within her right of freedom of expression and religious groups must tolerate criticism. She also argued they were intended to contribute to public debate and not designed to defame the Prophet of Islam.

The ECHR recognized that freedom of religion did not exempt people from expecting criticism or denial of their religion.

However, it found that the woman’s comments were not objective, failed to provide historical background and had no intention of promoting public debate.

The applicant’s comments “could only be understood as having been aimed at demonstrating that Muhammad was not worthy of worship,” the court said, adding that the statements were not based on facts and were intended to denigrate Islam.

It also found that even in a debate it was not compatible with freedom of expression “to pack incriminating statements into the wrapping of an otherwise acceptable expression of opinion and claim that this rendered passable those statements exceeding the permissible limits of freedom of expression.”

As well as growing anti-Islam sentiment and speech this gets into wider issues of free speech that have been raised in New Zealand.

There are risks from people who claim the right to free speech to promote extreme views, to deliberately misrepresent, and to try to inflame and divide.

It is difficult to get a fair balance between the right to free speech and deliberate provocation and harm.

 

Heat waves – signs of a wider problem

Several parts of the northern hemisphere are suffering from heat waves, but raised temperatures are a wider problem.

AccuWeather: Intense heat wave to build across western Europe as wildfires rage in Sweden

A hot July across much of western Europe will climb to another level this week as a heat wave builds from Spain to Scandinavia.

The Guardian: Why is Europe going through a heatwave?

Scientists say this ‘extreme’ weather in the northern hemisphere may soon be the norm

Partly, it’s just the luck of the weather. The jet stream – the west-to-east winds that play a big role in determining Europe’s weather – has been further north than usual for about two months. A stationary high-pressure weather system has left the UK and much of continental Europe sweltering. Iceland, by contrast, has been hit with clouds and storms that would normally come further south.

“The current hot and dry spell in the UK is partly due a combination of North Atlantic ocean temperatures, climate change and the weather,” said Len Shaffrey, a professor of climate science at the University of Reading.

The heatwaves in the northern hemisphere are undoubtedly linked to global warming, scientists say. “There’s no question human influence on climate is playing a huge role in this heatwave,” said Prof Myles Allen, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford.

RNZ: Japan declares heatwave a natural disaster

Japan’s weather agency has declared a heatwave sweeping the country a natural disaster, with at least 65 deaths recorded in the past week.

An agency spokesman warned that “unprecedented levels of heat” were being seen in some areas.

The heatwave shows no sign of abating, forecasters say.

An here in New Zealand we are experiencing another relatively mild winter with signs of an early spring already. This is a virtual repeat of the past few years (here in Dunedin at least).

Trump versus NATO

The NATA summit in Brussels has started with Donald Trump on the offensive.

RealClearPolitics:  In Testy Exchange, Trump Hits Germany for Being ‘Captive’ to Russia

In a combative start to his NATO visit, President Donald Trump asserted Wednesday that a pipeline project has made Germany “totally controlled” by and “captive to Russia” and blasted allies’ defense spending, opening what was expected to be a fraught summit with a list of grievances involving American allies.

Trump, in a testy exchange with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, took issue with the U.S. protecting Germany as it strikes deals with Russia.

“I have to say, I think it’s very sad when Germany makes a massive oil and gas deal with Russia where we’re supposed to be guarding against Russia,” Trump said at breakfast with Stoltenberg. “We’re supposed to protect you against Russia but they’re paying billions of dollars to Russia and I think that’s very inappropriate.”

The president appeared to be referring to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring gas from Russia to Germany’s northeastern Baltic coast, bypassing Eastern European nations like Poland and Ukraine and doubling the amount of gas Russia can send directly to Germany. The vast undersea pipeline is opposed by the U.S. and some other EU members, who warn it could give Moscow greater leverage over Western Europe.

Trump said “Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia” and urged NATO to look into the issue.

Will Trump install a gas pipeline from the US to Germany to keep them captive to him?

Stoltenberg pushed back, stressing that NATO members have been able to work together despite their differences. “I think that two world wars and the Cold War taught us that we are stronger together than apart,” he told the president, trying to calm tensions.

Guardian: Angela Merkel hits back at Donald Trump at Nato summit

Angela Merkel has pushed back against Donald Trump’s extraordinary tirade against Germany on the first day of the Nato summit in Brussels, denying her country was “totally controlled” by Russia and saying it made its own independent decisions and policies.

In less blunt language than the US president’s, the German chancellor made the point that she needed no lessons in dealing with authoritarian regimes, recalling she had been brought up in East Germany when it had been part of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.

Arriving at Nato headquarters only hours after Trump singled out Germany for criticism, Merkel said: “I have experienced myself how a part of Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union. I am very happy that today we are united in freedom, the Federal Republic of Germany. Because of that we can say that we can make our independent policies and make independent decisions. That is very good, especially for people in eastern Germany.”

She also hit back at Trump’s criticism that Germany contributed too little to European defence. “Germany does a lot for Nato,” she said.

“Germany is the second largest provider of troops, the largest part of our military capacity is offered to Nato and until today we have a strong engagement towards Afghanistan. In that we also defend the interests of the United States.”

Merkel has much more experience dealing with other countries than Trump, something that is essential in a part of the world where there are a lot of countries in close proximity.

Europe comprises 50 countries, has a population of about 740 million,and has an area of 10,180,000 km2.

The United States is a single country with 50 states and has a population of about 345 million, and has an area of 9,833,520 km2.

So about the only thing similar is the land area.

Russian influence in Latvia and Estonia is far more real. The Baltic countries  have been directly controlled by Russia twice (and by Germany once). They border Russia and have many ethnic Russian citizens.

NY Times: Trump Derides NATO as ‘Obsolete.’ Baltic Nations See It Much Differently

As President Trump joins his second NATO summit meeting — having called the alliance “obsolete,” derided its members as deadbeats and suggested that American military protection is negotiable — there is deep unease on the alliance’s eastern flank. And that sense has only been heightened by Mr. Trump’s scheduled one-on-one meeting next week with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

The United States ambassador to Estonia, James D. Melville Jr., became so exasperated with the constant statements from Mr. Trump disparaging the alliance and the European Union that late last month he quit in disgust.

And as the Trump-Putin meeting approached, a popular Russian-language Latvian newspaper ran a picture of the two men, cheek by jowl, with the ominous headline: “What Will Trump and Putin Agree On: The End of the E.U.?”

For the nations of Latvia and Estonia, nestled between Russia and the Baltic Sea and with large ethnic Russian populations, NATO is no abstraction.

Long before the debate over the Kremlin’s interference in the American election, there was alarm in the Baltic nations over Russian attempts to influence public opinion and exploit the complicated issues of ethnic identity in a region reshaped by war and occupation. In both the annexation of Crimea and its actions in Ukraine, the Russian government has used protecting the rights of ethnic Russians as a pretext for intervention. About one-third of the populations of Latvia and Estonia are ethnic Russians.

Most of the ethnic Russians arrived after the war, when the country was under Soviet domination. They have long been educated in separate schools and formed different social bonds as the nation has struggled to integrate them into society.

But the assimilation process has been made harder by increasingly aggressive propaganda campaigns in the Russian-language news media, narratives widely believed to be directed from Moscow with the intent of heightening divisions.

The inter-relationships between European countries are complex, with long histories.

I don’t know if Trump understands any of this. His bully and bluster approach to achieving what he wants may work in some ways for the US, but it is unlikely to reduce Russian influence (or Chinese influence) – and it is at real risk of doing the opposite.

He continues to drive wedges between different countries and the US. His selfish isolationist is likely to reduce  influence over time, as the rest of the world learns to rely less on the United States – especially if the tempestuous Trump stays in charge for any length of time.

 

The star of Donald?

The Trump versus Iran situation is a high risk international play, with Trump having isolated the US from Europe and other allies, apart from Israel, and he is talking big on threats against Iran (who is close to Russia and China).

Who knows what might happen now? No one can do anything but guess and hope.

Perhaps the star of Donald will shine peace on the Middle East. It would be an unprecedented international success.

But it could as easily turn to custard in an already very lumpy region of the world. In distance countries we must hope that it doesn’t become nuclear custard – the level of Trump’s current rhetoric can easily be interpreted as threats of a big bang.

The danger is that one day Trump may paint himself into a corner, and either have to back down bigly, or push a very dangerous button.

We may end up with the mushroom of Donald.

On Ardern’s fence sitting on Syrian attacks

Jacinda Ardern stood out from allies by not giving a strong endorsement of the US/UK/French missile attack on Syria. Neither did she take a stand against violence and war.

Her careful positioning on a wobbly fence may have disappointed both sides of a bitter war argument.

Chris Trotter points this out in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has a bob each way on bombing Syria

The latest strike against Syria marks a further deterioration in the conduct of international affairs. Of more concern, however, is the quality of the response it elicited from Jacinda Ardern. The New Zealand Prime Minister’s remarks were not the sort to inspire either confidence or respect.

In matters of this kind, a prime minister has two viable choices. Either, she can line up behind New Zealand’s traditional allies and deliver a hearty endorsement of their actions. Or, she can take a stand on principle and distance her country from the justifications, decisions and actions of the nation’s involved.

What a leader should not do is attempt to have a bob each way. Why? Because, as the Ancient Greek storyteller, Aesop, pointed out some 2500 years ago: “He who tries to please everybody, ends up pleasing nobody.”

Ardern may not have strongly annoyed anyone by her middling muddy response, but pleasing nobody could be a bigger problem on the left, where her support comes from.

Had Ardern denounced the vetoing, by the United States, of a Russian Federation proposal for an international inquiry into the alleged chemical warfare attack on Eastern Ghouta, as well as the Russians’ tit-for-tat vetoing of a similar proposal put forward by the US, she would have elicited widespread support from UN member states.

That support would have grown if she had further declared her disappointment that military action had been initiated by the US, France and the United Kingdom (all permanent members of the Security Council) before inspectors from the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had been given a chance to examine the scene of the alleged attack, gather samples, and make their report.

Perhaps Ardern had other international considerations (Prime Ministers always do). She may wanted to appear to stay onside with France and the UK ahead of her European trip this week.

She could also have announced that, if the Eastern Ghouta incident was confirmed by the OPCW as a chemical attack, then New Zealand would be seeking a vote explicitly condemning its perpetrators at the UN General Assembly, as well as a re-confirmation of the UN ban against the deployment and use of chemical and biological weapons.

Such a course of action would have identified New Zealand as an outspoken defender of the UN Charter and encouraged other small states to take a stand against the precipitate and unsanctioned military actions of the United States and the two former imperial powers most responsible for the century of instability which has beset the nations of the Middle East –  France and Britain.

At a more pragmatic level, such a response would undoubtedly have strengthened New Zealand’s relationship with that other permanent member of the Security Council, the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese have consistently and vehemently opposed unsanctioned and unprovoked military attacks against the sovereign territory of fellow UN member states.

Such would have been the high road for New Zealand: coherent, consistent and principled.

Alas, it was not the road Ardern chose to take.

Instead, having lamented the Security Council’s veto-induced paralysis, the statement issued by New Zealand’s prime minister went on to say:

“New Zealand therefore accepts why the US, UK and France have today responded to the grave violation of international law, and the abhorrent use of chemical weapons against civilians.”

Using fewer than 30 words, Ardern telegraphed to the world that New Zealand’s fine words about diplomacy and multilateralism should be dismissed as mere rhetoric. In reality, her country is perfectly willing to set aside its commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts between nation states, and the rule of international law, if the United States, the United Kingdom and France ask them to.

Rather than take an unequivocal stand for peace, the UN Charter and the rule of international law, New Zealand’s prime minister has chosen to talk out of both sides of her mouth. An opportunity to assume moral leadership and demonstrate political courage has been heedlessly squandered.

That’s fairly harsh criticism from a fairly left leaning commentator – and it’s not the first time Ardern has been accused of talking out of both sides of her mouth.

This may blow over most voters unnoticed, but it also has risks for Ardern.

I wonder what Trotter and the left think of the trade deals Ardern is trying to progress in Europe and the UK.

‘Full steam ahead’ on Trump agenda

The White House is trying to show it is “full steam ahead” with President Trump’s agenda, but steam emitting ears still often dominate the news.

Washington Times: White House says ‘full steam ahead’ on Trump agenda

Returning from an overseas trip that was both celebrated and controversial, President Trump is plowing “full steam ahead” with his domestic agenda, the White House said Tuesday, brushing aside jibes by foreign leaders and new questions about top aides’ links to Russia.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer looked for momentum from the president’s history-making journey across the Middle East and Europe, hoping to break free of the unyielding news coverage of alleged collusion with Russia and other criticisms that have distracted from Mr. Trump’s accomplishments.

“We’re back at home now, and the president and his Cabinet are moving full steam ahead on the president’s agenda,” Mr. Spicer said at the daily White House press briefing. “We’ve got a pretty bold agenda.”

Little had changed in Washington during Mr. Trump’s nine-day trip, however, and Mr. Spicer again clashed with reporters and accused them of peddling “fake news.”

He insisted the president’s agenda was on track and gaining steam, although he acknowledged some frustrations with the pace of Congress.

Having a bold agenda and making progress can be different things.

Mr. Trump’s plans to replace Obamacare, overhaul the tax code and launch a massive infrastructure program remained bogged down in Congress.

“The U.S. Senate should switch to 51 votes, immediately, and get Healthcare and TAX CUTS approved, fast and easy. Dems would do it, no doubt!” tweeted Mr. Trump.

The suggestion that the Senate do away with the filibuster rule, a proposal that would dramatically alter the nature of the chamber, had virtually no support from GOP senators.

What’s more, the two bills Mr. Trump named are, under current rules for certain budget bills, already exempt from filibuster.

Again Trump is contradicting Spicer, or Spicer is contradicting Trump.

He also tweeted about the stalled agenda, which has denied him a major legislative victory after five months in office.

And momentum from Trump’s first overseas trip has not always been in a positive direction.

Mr. Trump repeatedly took to Twitter to vent about news reports focusing on Russia and on comments by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that were presented as an indictment of the president’s diplomatic skills.

“We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change,” the president tweeted.

There have been mixed reactions to Trump’s visit to Europe.

And it looks increasingly likely that Trump will announce a US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, which will put them at odds with most of the world.

Steaming ahead? Or just steaming?

An older missing link

Missy posted this fascinating article:

A new find in the Eastern Mediterranean has led some scientists to believe that there is a possibility that humankind began there rather than in Africa as previously believed.

The fossil find is approximately 200,000 years earlier than believed to be the beginning of humans. The scientists believe that this find shows the beginning of the change from apes to humans.

That’s an accurate description, less so the headline and opening paragraph.

From: Europe was the birthplace of mankind, not Africa, scientists find

The history of human evolution has been rewritten after scientists discovered that Europe was the birthplace of mankind, not Africa.

That’s not what was found. The new discovery is of human fossils from Europe that are older than the oldest ones found in Africa, but that doesn’t rule out older human ancestors having lived in  Africa or elsewhere.

The new discovery just sets the timeline back a bit more, but there is still a lot that’s unknown.

Currently, most experts believe that our human lineage split from apes around seven million years ago in central Africa, where hominids remained for the next five million years before venturing further afield.

But two fossils of an ape-like creature which had human-like teeth have been found in Bulgaria and Greece, dating to 7.2 million years ago.

The discovery of the creature, named Graecopithecus freybergi, and nicknameded ‘El Graeco’ by scientists, proves our ancestors were already starting to evolve in Europe 200,000 years before the earliest African hominid.

An international team of researchers say the findings entirely change the beginning of human history and place the last common ancestor of both chimpanzees and humans – the so-called Missing Link – in the Mediterranean region.

It doesn’t “entirely change the beginning of human history”, it just provides another piece of the jigsaw that pushes knowledge back a another couple of hundred thousand years – if the dating is accurate.

The article also says as much.

“To some extent this is a newly discovered missing link. But missing links will always exist , because evolution is infinite chain of subsequent forms.

Probably  El Graeco’s face will resemble a great ape, with shorter canines.”

Someone has had a shot at visualising that.

An artist's impression of Graecopithecus 

An artist’s impression of Graecopithecus 
Credit: National Museum of Natural History – Sofia, Assen Ignatov

Fascinating, but this is unlikely to be the first link in the human chain.

And another point:

During the period the Mediterranean Sea went through frequent periods of drying up completely, forming a land bridge between Europe and Africa and allowing apes and early hominids to pass between the continents.

If the Mediterranean was dried up completely then Africa and Europe were effectively not separate continents, they were part of a continuous land mass.