Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Vote Conservative or Labour

Let’s face it, whatever the results of tomorrow’s British general election, the world isn’t going to end. Not since the 1970s has so little divided the principal British political parties. Watching the three televised debates between Labour’s Gordon Brown, the Conservatives’ David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, the striking thing was how similar were their political visions. Where one of the party leaders stood out from the consensus – as Cameron did over Europe, or Clegg over Trident – he was attacked by his opponents in moderate, civilised terms. This is as it should be: the great ideological conflicts of our age have been resolved in the domestic sphere, and the choice is principally over who will best manage the existing order. In this sense, we are a step ahead of the US, where such battles are still being fought out.

Cameron and Clegg have placed a lot of emphasis on the appeal for ‘change’. This is highly ironic, given that the British people do not want real ‘change’. If they did, there would be real electoral benefit to be had for politicians in adopting radical policies. The fact that all three principal British parties adopt such moderate policies shows their awareness of the fundamentally conservative (with a small ‘c’) inclinations of the British electorate; to threaten real ‘change’ would be electoral suicide. Cameron’s and Clegg’s talk of ‘change’ is simply an attempt to play up to our spoilt, cry-baby, navel-gazing culture of political commentary. Some countries face real problems; here we have the MPs’ expenses scandal – for all the whining that it provoked, you’d think we were the victims of a veritable genocide. A year ago, on the way to the airport, I met a young man who had served as a soldier in Afghanistan; after spending time there, he told me, he found it ridiculous how much we Britons like to complain about so little. This explains the relentless media hounding of our current prime minister; unexciting and undistinguished as he is, Brown has been reasonably competent at his job; he certainly does not deserve such vicious treatment.

Of course, there are things wrong with our country; top of the list, I would put the atrocious quality of our schools, and the consequent deleterious effect that poor education has on the morals of our youth. But distressingly, education barely featured in the three leadership debates. It was sad to hear all three party leaders pander to the moronic anti-immigration consensus; Clegg at least had the courage to advocate an amnesty for long-term illegal residents of the UK. Mass immigration is economically necessary and culturally beneficial for any thriving, dynamic modern society; the only way drastically to curb immigration would be to have an economy so poor that nobody much wanted to come and work here.

Instead of educating our population about immigration’s benefits, our politicians find it easier to pander to tabloid-driven popular xenophobia. I am, however, reassured that their talk of curbing immigration is just in order to placate the masses; as Clegg pointed out in the third leadership debate, the Conservatives’ talk of an annual ‘cap’ on immigration makes no sense if most immigrants come from the EU and can’t be prevented from coming. Yes, Mr Cameron/Brown, of course you’ll curb immigration if you win the election, nudge nudge, wink wink. If it keeps the less sophisticated part of our electorate from voting for the fascist parties, I’m happy for you to pretend. But really, it would be better if you challenged popular prejudice instead of playing up to it.

This does not mean the election is irrelevant. The first big question is, if Cameron wins, whether he will prove to be a Conservative Tony Blair, and firmly cement his party in government, as in opposition, as a forward-looking party of the centre. Or whether he will prove a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the Conservatives will ape their divisive predecessors of the 1930s and 80s. I am cautiously optimistic that the first scenario is more likely.

The second big question is, of course, whether we will get a hung parliament and, consequently, electoral reform. The existing electoral system cannot really be justified on democratic ground, but I cannot honestly pretend to be heartbroken that the little parties – the BNP, UKIP, Greens, Respect, etc. – are effectively excluded from parliament – God forbid that any of them should exercise influence over our foreign policy, or that any of them except the Greens should exercise influence over our domestic policy.

A system of proportional representation that resulted in a three-party system might be more democratic than the current two-party system, but it would also be more rigid; at present, elections offer the chance of real change of government in response to public dissatisfaction; a three-party system could condemn us to a succession of similar coalitions. A case could be made that this is the price we must pay for something less arbitrary and unfair than the present first-past-the-post system, with so many votes wasted and so many voters denied a real choice. But it is not a simple question.

The main parties’ differences over foreign policy are greater than their differences over domestic policy, and it is here that the Liberal Democrats’ talk of change is ominous. A party whose leader puts the word ‘illegal’ in front of ‘war in Iraq’ should not be in government: it is one thing to oppose the war in Iraq for honourable reasons; quite another to adopt the ideological jargon of the deeply reactionary ‘anti-war’ movement. Being opposed to ‘illegal’ wars translates as only favouring military intervention abroad when it is authorised by the UN Security Council; in other words, when it is supported by Russia and China. Clegg complains that the Conservative Party is allied with homophobes and climate-change deniers in the European Parliament, yet he seems to feel that our military intervention abroad should be contingent on the approval of two of the world’s most brutal and dangerous regimes.

What is more objectionable: the Conservatives forming a new European Parliamentary grouping with a Latvian party, some of whose elderly members commemorate the SS, and with a Polish party hostile to homosexuality ? Or the Liberal Democrats upholding the sanctity of a UN Security Council whose Russian member uses weapons of mass destruction against its own Chechen citizens, ethnically cleanses Georgians from South Ossetia, racially persecutes Caucasians, murders human rights activists and carries out terrorist bombings against its own population ? To say nothing of its Chinese member… Let us not forget: the reason that there are any ethnic Albanians left in Kosovo today is because NATO waged an ‘illegal’ war in 1999 to halt Slobodan Milosevic’s genocidal campaign against them. 

When David Cameron courageously spoke out in defence of Georgia from Russian aggression in 2008, Liberal Democrat shadow foreign-secretary Ed Davey shamefully condemned him for ‘macho talk’. Davey believes in the need to ‘talk to Tehran’, to avoid ‘antagonising the Russians’, to ‘engage Russia and China’, to ‘fully back the UN’. A foreign policy decided by the Liberal Democrats would ensure that, were another Bosnia- or Darfur-style genocide to occur, Britain would avoid doing anything ‘macho’ that might actually stop it, but would work through the UN, in partnership with Russia and China, to ensure that absolutely nothing meaningful would be done. Davey is my local MP here in Kingston and Surbiton, and as the electoral race here is a two-horse one between the Liberals and Conservatives, with Labour running a distant third, I am going to vote Conservative.

For Labour and the Conservatives are the only two credible parties of government. Labour has pursued a reasonably sound foreign policy, correctly both pro-European and pro-American, though since the uninspired Brown replaced the brilliant Tony Blair, Britain has been punching beneath its weight in world affairs.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, have taken a courageous stand to break with the federalist-conservative Sarkozy-Merkel bloc in the European Parliament; to strike a blow against an inward-looking fortress Europe. As I have written elsewhere, the accusation that the Conservatives in the European Parliament are allied to extreme reactionaries is a red herring, given that both the Sarkozy-Merkel federalist bloc in the European Parliament and the Labour Party’s allies in the Council of Europe include some equally reactionary elements – Russian anti-Semites, Turkish genocide-deniers and Italian ‘post-fascists’. The question is whether the Conservatives in office will build an alliance for a broader, non-federalist model of Europe – as I hope they will – or retreat into the narrow-minded national realism that characterised John Major’s government.

I greatly admire the record of the Labour government since 1997, and am glad I voted Labour in the last election. I am hopeful, if not quite confident, that a Cameron government would be a worthy successor. If you feel optimistic, give the Conservatives a chance. If you want to play it safe, vote Labour.

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Wednesday, 5 May 2010 Posted by | Britain, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It is a mistake to pretend that Kosova is unique

JasamKosovoMost of us can probably remember, at least once in our lives, asking some apparatchik something along the lines of ‘Couldn’t you please, please make an exception, just this once ?’ and getting the reply: ‘I can’t do that ! If I made an exception for you, I’d have to make an exception for everybody. It’d be more than my job’s worth.’ You and the apparatchik both know that he could perfectly well make an exception for you if he wanted to. But you also both know that he is right in saying that there is nothing special about you, and that you are not uniquely worthy of being treated as an exception. The question is: does he like you or doesn’t he ?

Similarly, trying to pretend that recognising Kosova’s unilateral secession from Serbia is legitimate on the grounds that it is wholly unique and without precedent in international relations is unconvincing, firstly because it isn’t true, and secondly because it begs the question: if it can happen once, can it not happen twice or multiple times ? To which the only reasonable answer is: yes. There may very well be occasions in the future when the Western alliance will be forced to recognise an act of unilateral secession by a subject people and territory from the state that rules them. Everybody knows this is entirely possible, and pretending it isn’t simply destroys the credibility of those who do.

Of course, the reason our officials and statesmen are pretending that Kosova is a unique case is in order to avoid scaring away other countries from recognising Kosova’s independence; countries they fear might otherwise worry a precedent were being established that could be applied to a secessionist region or nationality of their own. But this calculation, too, is misguided, because a) it rests upon a fallacy, and b) it represents a bad geopolitical tactic. We shall briefly explain the fallacy, before focusing on the bigger question of why the tactic is a bad one.

a) It is fallacy to point to Kosova as a precedent, because if a precedent has been established, it was established long before Kosova’s independence was recognised. It was certainly established by the early 1990s, when all the members of the former multinational federations of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia who wanted independence were granted it – except Kosova. This was despite the fact that in the case of Yugoslavia, the federal members that declared independence had done so unilaterally, without the consent of either the federal centre, or of all other members of the federation. There is absolutely no reason why the recognition of Kosova’s independence should not be treated as essentially the same as that of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia. In contrast to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for example, which were not members of the Soviet Union but simply autonomous entities within Georgia, Kosova was a full member of the Yugoslav federation in its own right, independently of the fact that it was also an entity within Serbia. As a member of the defunct Yugoslav federation, Kosova was entitled to self-determination after the dissolution of that federation had been internationally recognised, and after other members of the federation had been accorded that right.

More generally, the former Yugoslav states are far from the first unilaterally seceding entities to be accorded international recognition – think of France’s recognition of the US in 1778 and Britain’s recognition of Bangladesh in 1972.

b) There is no need to pretend that Kosova is a unique case to avoid scaring other states away from recognising its independence, for the simple reason that, when all is said and done, other states’ policies on whether or not to recognise Kosova are really not determined by fear of Kosova becoming a precedent – even if these states are faced with separatist threats of their own. Turkey, faced with a very real Kurdish separatist insurgency and bitterly opposed to the secession of Nagorno Karabakh from its traditional ally, Azerbaijan, was nevertheless one of the first states to recognise Kosova’s independence. Turkey has also promoted the break-up of Cyprus, via the unilateral secession of the self-proclaimed ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’. Russia, which vocally opposes the independence of Kosova, which is faced with secessionist movements within its own borders and which brutally crushed Chechnya’s bid for independence, has nevertheless simultaneously promoted the unilateral secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. India, which likewise opposes Kosova’s independence and likewise faces secessionist movements within its own borders, was instrumental in achieving Bangladesh’s unilateral secession from Pakistan. In other words, states which might be seen as having as much reason as most to fear a ‘Kosovo precedent’ being established are quite ready to support unilateral acts of secession when they feel it is in their interests to do so.

It might be objected that the states in question are all powerful enough to feel confident that they can crush any secessionist movement they face. Yet fragile Macedonia, which fought an armed conflict with Albanian separatists earlier this decade, and which might have more reason than almost any state to fear a ‘Kosovo precedent’, has recognised Kosova. Fear of the ‘Kosovo precedent’ is not, therefore, a decisive factor in a state’s decision on whether or not to recognise Kosova’s independence (we can make an exception here for states such as Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova that are currently in a state of  territorial dismemberment, and that, were they to recognise Kosova, might conceivably suffer retaliation in kind from Belgrade or Moscow)

It may be that, all things being equal, a state faced with a secessionist movement of its own is more likely to sympathise with Belgrade than with Pristina. In one or two cases, such as Spain’s, this sympathy may be electorally significant enough to sway the course of its foreign policy. But so far as almost all non-recognisers are concerned, other factors count for more: a state is likely to oppose Kosova’s independence if it is hostile to the West (Russia, Iran, Venezuela); if it has traditionally enjoyed good relations with Belgrade (Greece, Egypt, Indonesia); or if it simply sees no particular interest in recognising it. All these factors are reasons why it is not only pointless, but actually counter-productive to pander to the opponents of recognition by reassuring them that Kosova is a unique case and will not become a precedent.

As things stand, rogue states have no reason to fear that the international community will ever grant independence to secessionist territories. They therefore enjoy a virtual carte blanche to suppress secessionist movements or other rebellions as brutally as they wish. None of the forms of deterrent threatened against or exerted on the Sudanese regime, from sanctions to international war-crimes indictments, appears to have cooled its bloodlust with regard to Darfur. But were Khartoum to fear that its genocidal actions might potentially result in the loss of territory, it might be less inclined to pursue them. The Western alliance would enjoy that much more leeway in exerting pressure over a rogue state such as Sudan.

Conversely, a close ally such as Turkey, which faces a genuine secessionist insurgency, knows very well that the Western states will never make it the victim of such a precedent: everyone knows that Turkish Kurdistan is not going to be liberated by NATO, as Kosova was; a ‘Kosovo precedent’ will not frighten states like Turkey. But this does not mean that such states can get away with indiscriminate brutality with impunity. Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish population has dramatically improved over the last ten years, as Ankara’s goal of EU membership has required it to improve its human rights record. Just as NATO acted as the bad cop over Serbia and Kosova, so the EU has acted as the good cop over Turkey and the Kurds. Western allies can be guided toward ending repression and discrimination against national minorities, reducing the appeal of violent separatist movements. Rogue states, on the other hand, should have reason to fear that their brutality may potentially result in a loss of territory. For all states that abuse the human rights of their national minorities, this is a healthy choice to be faced with.

This does not, of course, mean that the Western alliance should indiscriminately threaten states that abuse human rights with territorial penalties. Rather, the ‘Kosovo precedent’ could function rather like the nuclear deterrent, i.e. deter more by its potential than by its actual application, and by its occasional application against only the worst offenders: as was Milosevic’s Serbia; as is Bashir’s Sudan. Nor would a ‘Kosovo precedent’ mean a free-for-all for all secessionist movements. There is a lot of space between the untenable pretense that Kosova is ‘unique’ and the rather comic nightmare-scenario threatened by Kosova’s enemies: of innumerable separatist territories all over the world responding to Kosova’s independence by trying to become Kosovas themselves. Kosova itself, after all, was scarcely given red-carpet treatment by the Western alliance in its move to independence: a decade elapsed between Milosevic’s brutal suppression of its autonomy and its liberation by NATO; almost another decade elapsed between liberation and the recognition of its independence, during which time it was forced to endure international administration and engage in exhaustive negotiations with its former oppressor. Even now, Kosova  is still faced with a very real threat of permanent territorial partition, as the Serbs maintain their hold on the north of the country. The Kosova model may not prove as straightforwardly attractive for other potential secessionists as the Cassandras claim.

Kosova’s independence was recognised as the result of a confluence of multiple factors: its existence as an entity in its own right within the Yugoslav federation; its overwhelmingly non-Serb, ethnic-Albanian population; the brutality of Belgrade’s treatment of this population; the unwillingness of the Milosevic regime to reach an accommodation with the Western alliance over the issue, following on from its years of trouble-making in Croatia and Bosnia; the unwillingness or inability of post-Milosevic Serbia in the 2000s to reach agreement with the Kosovars; and the simple lack of any workable alternative to independence. These were an exceptional set of circumstances. The truth is, that it is possible to envisage a similar set of circumstances leading the Western alliance to recognise the independence of another secessionist territory in the future. Sometimes it is better to tell the truth.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Sunday, 31 May 2009 Posted by | Balkans, Former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Serbia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment