One Rant at a Time

Whatever heaves into view........better keep its head down.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why We Need Diplomats

Last week, a gaggle of US Republican Senators signed an open letter to the leaders of Iran, in which they said that as soon as their party wins the next election, they'll reverse a treaty on nuclear energy and weapons. 

Right. We're going to leave behind the content of the letter for the rest of this blog. Let's focus on the method of communication.

By writing directly, these Senators took it upon themselves to speak directly to a foreign government, bypassing the centuries-old practice in which countries talk to each other via ambassadors and diplomats. They took upon themselves the responsibility which is reserved for the President, thereby breaching the Constitution.

A US senator is a domestic politician; he or she is elected to represent his constituency and not his country. He or she should concern themselves with the laws of the land and how it affects his or her constituents, rather than agreements among nations.

Presidents and heads of state, diplomats and ambassadors are the ones who are appointed to talk to other countries on behalf of senators, Congressmen and pretty much everyone else in the country.

So when this troupe of senators put pen to paper to warn a foreign nation that as soon as their party gets into power they'll tear up an agreement their two countries have made, they've essentially gone rogue. They've exceeded their brief, they've undermined the position of their country's leadership and its ambassadors, and they've lowered their country's standing in the community of nations.

Diplomacy evolved for exactly the same reason that traffic lights were invented. If we left it to each citizen to carry on relations with citizens of other nations, there'd be seven billion shouting matches going on at the same time. These 47 fools just went and proved why we need diplomacy.

Meanwhile, Yanis Varoufakis, Greece's finance minister, and his German counterpart Wolfgang Schauble are embroiled in a less-than-ministerial tussle. Varoufakis claims Schauble has insulted him by saying that the recently-appointed Greek minister has been naive in his dealings with the media.

Not only that, but Varoufakis' boss, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, popped up in the Greek Parliament this week saying that Germany still owes Greece money from World War Two: not the most sensitive way to shepherd tense negotiations.

This mudslinging and name-calling may persuade you that those US Senators were on to something when they decided to bypass the normal procedure. But all this unedifying spectacle tells us is that politicians have started to believe that they are more important than the system. 

I've met my share of politicians, and more than my share of diplomats over the years. Let me tell you, politicians are desperate to talk. It's their job. They can't stop themselves from spouting forth on anything and everything. All you have to do is wind them up by asking a question and you're good for the next 45 minutes.

Diplomats, in contrast, have to be cajoled, encouraged to say something. And when they do say it, it's spoken in a code, in a formula that may not mean much to you or I, but means a great deal to other diplomats. And it's delivered slowly, carefully. You can see the gears working in a diplomat's head when you ask him for a comment on something. And when diplomats write to each other, it's even worse. Long, formal sentences full of "heretofores" and "without prejudices". It's basically lawyer-speak.

Which makes perfect sense. Whether we know it or not, there are laws, or conventions that govern the way countries relate to each other, and diplomacy is the practice of that set of international laws and conventions.

My grandfather - a diplomat up to the 1970s - once taught me a guiding principle of diplomacy. He sat me down and presented the following scenario:

"There's been a coup in the country of X-land, and the president's been shot. The next morning you, as the British ambassador in the capital city of X-ville, receive a letter from the new leader of X-land in which he asks for assistance in rebuilding X-land's economy and promises to be a faithful ally in the future. What should your reply be?"

I thought for a while and suggested that I would compose a stalling reply to say that my country would consider what to do next once we had assessed the situation. My grandfather shook his head.

"You would do nothing," he said. "You don't say anything or send anything. Why? Because your government hasn't recognised the new government of X-land. Until it does, the new government is in your official eyes, illegitimate and you don't talk to them or acknowledge their existence. Your relationship is, was, with the deposed leader until you are told otherwise." 

That shut me up.

I add this anecdote only to point out that there isn't a politician alive who could manage to follow those rules, to stay silent and follow protocol.

Politicians have started to believe that they have the right to get involved in issues that are outside their remit, and to ignore the fundamental principles of international relations. Because they're elected, they think they have the rights to *all* the buttons and levers of power, even ones they're not trained to operate.

Diplomacy has been practised, without interruption, since the 13th century. There's a code of conduct, and a reason why that code of conduct has remained in essence untouched since then. Firstly, it works, and secondly, it keeps the grubby, ignorant hands of politicians out of international discourse. Let's hope it stays that way.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Nigel Farage Is a Benefit Fraudster

Ha. Nice catchy title. If there's one thing that I've learned from all my years in journalism, it's that a headline has to be sexy. And when a blog has been dormant for, what is it, eight whole years, you need something with pizazz to catch the corporate attention.

Why eight years? Because I found myself having relatively little to say, because I found myself all written out at the end of each working day, and because for the intervening years, any spare moments I had were devoted to SongsWithoutWhich

But happily, there's been a steady stream of nonsense that has finally filled my cup to overflowing, and One Rant At a Time is officially Re-Opened For Business. I'm back, and I'm hacked off at a lot of things. And because the internet is the only true democracy there is, I'm going to occupy my corner of it.

As you may not recall, I spend a lot of my time working in and around the world of climate change, specifically the efforts countries are making to address the challenge and the money that is being spent. So I deal with people who are deeply rational, financially astute and worried.

So when that charmer Nigel Farage popped up in an interview on the Spiked website, trumpeting both his ignorance about climate change - "I haven't got a clue whether climate change is being driven by carbon-dioxide emissions" - and at the same moment his opposition to doing anything about it, it became an opportunity too good to miss.

For a start, let's just unpack those two sentences. Firstly: "I haven't got a clue whether climate change is being driven by carbon-dioxide emissions." Well, that's fine Nigel, because you're not a scientist. Fortunately, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of qualified, highly-educated scientists all around the world who say that climate change is caused by CO2 emissions. So there's no need to trouble your little head on that, the science crowd has got your back.

Then he goes on to say: "We are a nation that produces 1.8 per cent of global carbon dioxide, so I do not get closing down our aluminium smelters, most of our steel production, and now our refining industry, and all that production being moved to India, and therefore the steel-based products made in India then having to be shipped back to Britain," he said. "This to me makes no sense at all."

Here's where he starts to betray ignorance that ill befits a man of his background. Farage conveniently neglects the fact that none of this closing down of aluminium and steel production has happened due to climate legislation, and he ignores the fact that all of it has happened due to the intense competition in the steel and refining industries worldwide. Not only is it cheaper to make steel in Asia, but countries in that part of the world also happen to be closer to the biggest consumers in the world - China and India. Steelmakers gain in terms of lower shipping costs, lower wages, etc. It's cheaper to refine oil and manufacture cement in Asia for exactly the same reasons.

Rolling back Europe's climate regulations would have ZERO impact on industry's profitability in this country, since those sectors are hardly impacted by the rules in the first place. Sitting in the European Parliament, you'd think Farage would know this stuff.

The Spiked article goes on to say: "Farage declares himself agnostic on climate change" and describes him as opposed to current policies designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

What he's doing here is absolving himself of any responsibility for doing anything. He disputes the science. He rejects it while all around him are knowledgeable people, politicians included, who accept it and are acting on it. This fingers-in-ears-la-la-la-I-can't-heeeeeaaarr-you attitude in someone who wishes to become leader of a country is not particularly reassuring. How will he react when something equally threatening, but far more immediate happens - say, Russian planes flying over UK soil, rather than just over territorial waters? Cover his eyes and pretend he can't see them?

And it's not just his climate denial in the face of facts and evidence that gets my goat. 

Now, to the character assassination: this is a man who takes a £78,000 annual salary as a member of the European Parliament, an institution he wants the UK to withdraw from, while undertaking almost none of the duties an MEP is expected to perform. He participates in less than half of the votes held in the Parliament. He's prepared no legislation, nor has he offered any amendments to any other proposals. The one time he did propose a motion, he failed to turn up to support it. 

In short, Nigel only goes to Brussels because some of us elected him, and because the European Parliament pays him to go; he's certainly not there to work. He's the leader of a political party but doesn't take any salary from UKIP. Brussels - and by extension, you and I - pick up the tab for his ventures. 

He engages in petty stunts to try to highlight his views: last year he pointedly turned his back on the Parliamentary leadership during the playing of the European anthem. To my mind, one of the things that any institution deserves is the respect of its members. This action underlines more strongly than any other the enormous con that he's perpetrating by pretending to be a member of the European Parliament.

Basically Farage is a benefit fraudster, taking public funds under false pretences. When politicians are paid out of our tax money, we have the right to expect that they will work hard and diligently to represent us, rather than treat the office they hold as a vast joke. Nigel Farage is banking on us accepting that because it's his "politics" that drive him to cheat us of our tax money, it's OK.

He's made a monumental miscalculation. How can we, upon knowing how he disrespects us, the political process, his role as an elected official and the European institutions that have been built over the past 70 years, how can we trust him not to treat elected office in the U.K. with the same flippancy, the same cavalier sense of middle-class entitlement?

Since he came to national prominence, he's been fire-fighting pretty much non-stop, as various acolytes betray their real prejudices and passions, and his own peccadilloes come to light. We can only hope that enough radioactive gunk attaches itself to him that he remains a nine-day wonder, and that he loses both his deposit, and his day-job.