The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'geopolitics'
Eurovision 2016 has been and gone. This time, much of the weirdness apparently fell by the wayside in the semifinals, thus arguably making watching the finals even more essential for fans of the Old Weird Eurovision. Further weirdness was lost when Romania failed to pay its EBU bill and was unceremoniously disqualified, depriving audiences of a few minutes of dependable gothic oddity (to their credit, Poland tried to fill that gap, though they didn't quite manage it; Poland, after all, is not Romania). And, for the second time ever, Australia was invited to compete; this time, they almost ended up winning. Also for the first time ever, the event was broadcast to the United States, undoubtedly causing mass confusion there, though perhaps not as much as it would have some years earlier. Also, this year, the voting system was split: first came in the votes of the nations' juries of experts, and then the aggregated public phone votes, a system apparently designed to maximise suspense, something in which it succeeded.
As for the songs themselves: Sweden appeared to walk the tightrope of showing competence whilst avoiding the risk of having to host it twice in a row (something that almost bankrupted Ireland in the 1990s), and sent in a hair-gelled teenager singing something unmemorable. Cyprus brought the hard rock, or at least hard-rock-flavoured dance music, and Georgia went landfill-indie (and got douze points from the UK, the spiritual home of landfill-indie, for their efforts). France, I thought, were decent, and the two Baltic states that made it through were as well. Australia entered with a very competent minor-key electropop ballad about intimacy at a distance, with lyrics about FaceTime and cyberpunk-style visual projections, and for a while, looked like it would win, running away with a commanding lead in the jury vote; but it was not to be: the night belonged to the geopolitical faultline between Russia and Ukraine:
Russia, it seems, tried very hard to win, throwing vast amounts of resources at it, as if it were a matter of national prestige. Their song was, by Eurovision standards, first-rate, and the setting was helped with some impressive projection-mapping effects. It was as if Putin himself gave the directive that Eurovision 2017 was to be in Moscow, and instructed everybody to do whatever it took to make it happen, up to and including having the performer, Sergey Lazarev, butter up the decadent liberals of Euro-Sodom by having gone on record criticising Russia's anti-gay laws and the annexation of Crimea. As such Russia had been the bookmakers' favourite to win, geopolitics notwithstanding. When the votes came in, though, the juries largely snubbed Russia, with them getting nul points from 21 juries. Even the torrent of phone votes, which overwhelmingly favoured Russia (and again, that could be anything between overwhelming apolitical approval of the song and/or Russia's formidable internet spammers taking time out from bank fraud to do their patriotic duty) couldn't reverse this; Russia only made it up to third place, coming behind Australia. To add insult to injury, the winner was Ukraine, whose song, 1944, was a sombre, harrowing and pointedly political number about the genocide and expulsion of Crimea's Tartars by Stalin (and, indirectly, alluding to Putin's annexation of Crimea, sailing close to the EBU's rules against political gestures). Set to skittering dubstep beats à la Burial, it was a decent song, though standing on its own, not overwhelmingly the best in the show. Had it not also served as a middle finger raised at Putin's Russia, it might have languished in the middle of the rankings; but geopolitics is geopolitics. (See also: the Israeli entry, which should probably have also done better. Their song wasn't bad, but voting it down was a chance for the cosmopolitan liberals of Europe to signal virtue and tell Netanyahu where to stick his security wall, so it was doomed from the outset. I imagine Dana International had the benefit of a period of relative calm and optimism when she won.)
Geopolitics may also have a little, though probably not a lot, to say about Britain's dismal result. Their song was not abysmal (the UK has done worse in previous years; there was the jaunty number performed by a crew of saucy flight attendants, or the middle-aged bloke playing a teenage hip-hop gangsta-wannabe, or various times when they barely made the minimum effort. Perhaps Britain lost points because the Frogs and Krauts and their wine-drinking garlic-eating buddies are sick of our ongoing national tantrum about wanting to leave the EU. Perhaps they don't like our aloofness and smug sense or superiority (though, were that the case, how does that explain Sweden consistently doing so well?) Or perhaps we just don't get it; when everybody else does minor-key anguish soaring to triumphantly defiant choruses on a wave of synth arpeggios and key changes, we remain terribly British and aloof, tossing off a cheery singalong, all the better to shrug off as no big deal when we inevitably end up in the bottom five.
After all the contestants had performed and the votes were coming in, there was the usual entertainment. This year, they had Justin Timberlake to perform a medley of his hits, in an event referred to by some as Justin Toiletbreak; this was done either to welcome the Americans tuning in for the first time, or as a showcase for the Swedish pop songwriting and production industry that powered Timberlake's musical career. Sweden's musical history was also showcased in a medley of international Swedish pop hits since the days of ABBA (I had forgotten, for one, that synth-led hair-metallers Europe were Swedish; for some reason I thought they were German). The highlight of the break, though, was this deconstruction of the formula for a Eurovision hit, bringing in everything from bare-chested drummers to little old ladies baking bread and incomprehensible folk instruments.
So: Eurovision 2017 will, it seems, be in Kiev. It'll be interesting to see what happens: will Australia (which, not being in the EBU, has been there on suffrance, though managed to do impressively well) come back for a third time, or take its seat as the Sweden-equivalent of the Asia-Pacific song contest being planned? (Will Eurovision itself, in a few years, pivot away from being merely Europe-plus-a-few-neighbours and become a set of regional contests, culminating in a global final?) Will the Russians compete in front of what can only be expected to be a hostile away crowd in Kiev, or will this strengthen calls in Russia to turn their backs on it set up their own “Eurasian” song contest, one without all that problematic gayness? And if Britain, by then, has voted to leave the EU, will it also take its ball and go home?
The results of Eurovision 2014 are in, and, as reported here, the big winner was Austria's Conchita Wurst, a bearded drag performer, with a resolute and melodramatic torch song titled Rise Like A Phoenix. Wurst (whose real name is Tom Neuwirth) won a runaway victory, with 290 points and a string of 12s, including ones from countries who might otherwise haver found a bearded drag performer too transgressive. The runner-up was the Netherlands, 52 points behind with a rather nice piece of slow-burning Americana.
2014 was arguably the most geopolitically charged Eurovision Song Contest in years, if not decades; the kitschy music equivalent of the World Chess Championship of 1972, in that, within its formalised, tightly circumscribed arena, the tensions of an active geopolitical fault line manifested themselves. As back then, the fault line was between the West and Russia, only the ideologies and alignments were different.
One thing that was evident was a collapse of Russia's public image at Eurovision; no longer were they another country in friendly competition; they were the enemy, the face of oppression. Their performers (two teenaged girls who, to be fair, probably had little to do with the invasion of Crimea or anti-gay laws) were booed, as was their announcer during the voting, or the few instances of other countries, mostly former Soviet satellite states, giving Russia douze points. Also telling were the low scores which Russia got; whereas in the past, states bordering Russia or containing large Russian-speaking populations (as most former Soviet republics did, thanks to Stalin's population transfer programmes) could be counted on to give Mother Russia a solid vote, this largely seemed to collapse. This seems to support reports of a schism between ethnic Russian minorities in countries such as the Baltic states and the state of Russia, with many Russian-speaking citizens of other countries deciding that their feelings for their linguistic homeland don't translate into loyalty to an aggressive authoritarian regime.
An obvious proximate cause of this collapse was the Ukrainian crisis; within days of the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia annexing the Crimea and making threatening noises at the rest of Ukraine (and some to say Finland, the Baltic States or even Alaska may be next in the hungry Red Bear's sight). Finally, the half-hearted pretence that Russia was a democracy (albeit a managed one, like, you know, Singapore or someone) and a member in good standing of the community of peaceful, cooperative nations was discarded for good, and a more brutal, Hobbesian order asserted itself for all to see. And no longer shackled by the need to feign liberalism or tolerance, Russia has been moving as rapidly at home as it has abroad; just this week, a law requiring bloggers to register with the government has been passed.
Russia's anti-gay laws, and the tacitly state-sanctioned persecution of gay Russians by vigilante groups had already been on the radar, particularly in the context of Eurovision (which, whilst not specifically a gay event, has always had a strong gay following, because camp). The disproportionately harsh prosecution of Pussy Riot, whilst attracting less criticism in more conservative countries, didn't do Russia any favours either, and the gradual closing down of opposition media and occasional unsolved murders of journalists did not make for an optimistic mood. Recently, these elements have been converging to form an image not of a country struggling with democracy and pluralism, but one governed by an ideology which holds these ideas in contempt as signs of weakness, a country where closing itself off against the outside world. The ideology of Putin's Russia is what they call the Russkaya ideya (Russian Idea), or sometimes “Eurasianism” or “National Bolshevism”; explicitly anti-liberal, mystical rather than rationalistic, strongly authoritarian and hostile to foreign influences. The ideology is new, though it is synthesised from a strain of absolutism that has existed in Russia, in one form or another, since the time of the Czars: the State being at the centre of things (the “unique state-government civilisation” that is Russia, according to its ideologues), and all power flowing from it. Even the Russian Orthodox Church, with its enhanced influence in the new order, is subordinate to the state; in Russia, God serves the Czar.
It is not clear whether, had Russia kept its troops within its borders, paid lip service to liberalism and pluralism and not said anything about gays and “traditional values”, Conchita Wurst would have won, certainly by such a large margin; her song was good, in a Bond-theme sort of way, but not overwhelmingly superior to everything else. The Netherlands' entry (which came second), for example, was quite good, and there was a sentimental case for giving the gong to Sweden, it being the 40th anniversary of ABBA winning and all. (Sweden's entry was in the good-but-not-memorable Eurovision standard basket, which, geopolitics notwithstanding, might well have sufficed.) Undoubtedly some of the douze points Austria got were a vote not so much for the music but for what it represented and, perhaps more importantly, against what an endorsement of it represented a rejection of.
With liberalism as anathema to this new cult of Holy Russia, Eurovision has been in its sights for a while; Russian legislators have condemned it since last year, and there are calls to set up a rival one, one with firmly enforced “traditional values”. (This wouldn't be the first time something similar happened; during the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact countries briefly attempted to run a song contest to rival Eurovision; it was held in Poland, and was by all accounts a ramshackle affair. Interestingly, neutral Finland participated in both Eurovision and it.) In any case, Conchita Wurst's resounding victory will probably do little to calm the situation, but is likely to embolden those in Russia calling for restrictions on such foreign imports. (Their proposed solution, to omit the offending song in Russia, would be forbidden under EBU rules; some years ago, Lebanon ended up dropping out of Eurovision because the rules did not permit it to ban its citizens from voting for Israel.) It would be unsurprising if Russia (and perhaps some politically dependent states like Belarus) are notably absent from next year's contest, and the new cultural iron curtain becomes slightly more opaque.
Another interesting consequence may be that of Russia ending up owning a certain type of reactionary conservatism, making it less palatable abroad, and forcing conservatives in eastern Europe to choose between siding with the Great Bear across the border or siding with the gays and feminists within their own borders, establishing a geopolitical schism much like the Cold War one, only this time with elements of the Right rather than the Left being beholden to Moscow. We are already seeing admiration for Putin from the envious beta-males of the populist Right, from UKIP in Britain to teabaggers in America; if Russia succeeds in establishing a “Conservative International“ (along the lines of Stalin's Comintern) and drawing like-minded reactionaries and authoritarians abroad into its orbit, we may soon see Alexander Dugin's books on Eurasianism (in English translation, from a state-run publishing house in Moscow) alongside the Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises and Bill O'Reilly that fill the reading lists of the right-wing fringe.
Russian Prime Minister and President-in-waiting Vladimir Putin has been awarded the Confucian Peace Prize, created by the Chinese government to "promote world peace from an eastern perspective", beating a field of other candidates, including Bill Gates, Angela Merkel and a Beijing-appointed Tibetan Panchen Lama:
The 16-judge panel said that Putin deserved the award because his criticism of Nato's military engagement in Libya was "outstanding in keeping world peace", regardless of the fact that it had no bearing on the outcome of the north African conflict.
The Chinese organisers claimed they established the award last year after preparing for years to create something that would "promote world peace from an eastern perspective". But the Confucian peace prize appeared more like a rushed and botched attempt to upstage the Nobel laureate status granted to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
The Economist Intelligence Unit's 2010 Democracy Index, a ranking of countries from most to least democratic, is out. The actual report requires registration, but the Wikipedia page contains a list, and various news sites across the world accompany this with explanatory commentary. A press release is here.
The report divides the world into four blocks, in order from best to worst: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes. The largest group, by population, is flawed democracies, followed by authoritarian regimes and, some distance behind, full democracies.
The four most democratic countries are—quelle surprise!—Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden. They're followed immediately by New Zealand (which is looking increasingly like a chunk of Scandinavia in the Antipodes) and Australia. That's right, Australia is more democratic than Finland, Switzerland and Canada (#7. #8 and #9). The United States is at #17 (with a score of 8.18/10) and the UK is at #19. (The US loses points due to the War On Terror, whereas the UK's problem seems to be political apathy. Though is that the cause or, as Charlie Stross argued, a symptom?)
Meanwhile, France under Sarkozy has fallen out of the league of full democracies, and been relegated to the flawed democracies; there it is kept company by Berlusconi's Italy, Greece, and most of the Eastern European countries (with the notable exception of the Czech Republic, who are one step above the US), along with South Africa, Israel, India, East Timor, Brazil, Thailand, Ukraine and a panoply of African, Asian, Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Below the flawed democracies lie the hybrid regimes; these include Hong Kong (a notional democracy with Communist China keeping it on a leash), Singapore (a model of "managed democracy"), Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, Palestine and Russia. And at the bottom are authoritarian regimes, including the usual suspects: Cuba, China, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Saudi Arabia and such. It will surprise few to learn that the bottom spot is held by North Korea, with a score of 1.08 out of 10, followed by Chad, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Burma.
The press release states that the democracy ratings are worse than in previous years, with democracy declining across the world. Several factors are cited for this decline, including the economic crisis, the War On Terror, and declining confidence in political institutions. The press release also says that the crisis may have increased the attractiveness of the Chinese authoritarian model.
The scale of the rankings is, of course, not scientific. A rating of 9.8/10, as Norway has, would suggest that 98% of policy is decided at the ballot box, rather than in negotiations with other states, interest groups, bondholders and the like. And if 81.6% of Britain's decisions were democratically made, grossly unpopular decisions like trebling university tuition fees or invading Iraq would not have happened. One could imagine a more accurate scale, which estimates what percentage of a country's public affairs are decided through democratic discourse. A better measure would also have to take into account media pluralism, the education levels of the public, and access to unfiltered information; if a country's media is controlled by a few media tycoons, the will of the people will act as a low-pass filter on their opinions.
Not content with its own massive internal high-speed rail programme, China is planning to build high-speed railway lines spanning Asia. The lines will drive westwards through Bhutan, India, the central Asian republics and into Turkey, ultimately connecting with Europe's networks; there will also be another trans-Siberian high-speed line (though weren't the Russians looking into using Japanese shinkansen technology for that?) and an eastward line heading down to Singapore, via Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. The plan is to have trains running at between 200 and 350kmh, bringing a journey between London and Beijing down to two days. Mind you, that involves transit through Iran and Burma (both closed societies whose authorities like to keep a tight grip on anything coming or going) and crossing the somewhat fraught Indian-Pakistani border.
China will fund the programme, in return for mineral rights from the countries, and won't harp on about human rights; already, the Burmese junta has signed on.
Less than a year into his first term, President Barack Obama has won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, essentially for not being a douchebag ("his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples"). Which suggests that expectations of what the US President is meant to do on the world stage have fallen so far in the past eight years that the rest of the world is jubilant when he doesn't just growl and shake his fists at everyone else.
The world's longest-ruling head of state, Gabon's President Omar Bongo, is dead, after ruling the country for 42 years, i.e., since independence from France.
Other than having had staying power, Omar Bongo seems to have lived up to his bodacious-sounding name, as reported here five years ago.
Via Bruce Sterling, some background on the rise of Somali maritime piracy, which is threatening to strangle trade through the Suez Canal (and is reaching out to the route around the Cape of Good Hope):
Some analysts write fearful tracts that the pirates have links with terrorists and extremists, that the chaos is a direct result of international neglect of Somalia, and try to link pirates to the islamist insurgency that control much of the south or the recent terrorist bombings in Somaliland. This is nonsense. The origins of Somali piracy are not found in the southern half of the country, where a “transitional government” is dueling the Union of Islamic Courts with the half-hearted assistance of the Ethiopian military. Somali piracy originates in Puntland, a self-declared autonomous region of Somalia at the horn, hailed for years by policymakers as a model of a stable Somali state.
Piracy has its origins in the organized communities of the Puntland coast. In the 1990s, a group of fisherman in settlements there banded together to prevent illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste off their shores. This harmless community action inspired many analysts to designate Puntland a model for Somali civil society. When some ships illegally fishing were boarded in attempts to police the region, the reward offered for the boats return was enormous—amounts that were many times the monthly income of entire villages. Piracy took off as an attempt to gain income from this type of civic policing, and slowly grew to what Kaplan called the “innocence” of piracy. It wasn’t long before the pirates became more ambitious, using the fishing boats they captured to hunt larger prey. And with the money that came in, small fishing towns were transformed into pirate havens. As responsible organizers, pirates have invested some of their profits back into the franchise, replacing barely seaworthy rafts with speedboats, AK-47s with modern arms, and GPS tracking systems to boot.
Analysts were right about Puntland’s organization, but they were wrong that Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, president of the transitional government and the former leader of Puntland, could spread the discipline of goverment and organization to elsewhere in Somalia. Instead, it’s become the parent of a business model that could be copied in other lawless regions of the world.
Threatened by rising sea levels, the Maldives' government has come up with a potential solution: divert a portion of the islands' tourist revenue into a sovereign wealth fund, and buy a new homeland.
"We can do nothing to stop climate change on our own and so we have to buy land elsewhere. It's an insurance policy for the worst possible outcome. After all, the Israelis [began by buying] land in Palestine," said Nasheed, also known as Anni.
The president, a human rights activist who swept to power in elections last month after ousting Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the man who once imprisoned him, said he had already broached the idea with a number of countries and found them to be "receptive".
He said Sri Lanka and India were targets because they had similar cultures, cuisines and climates. Australia was also being considered because of the amount of unoccupied land available.
Having invaded Georgia and crushed its military, a newly emboldened Russia has told the West that it can forget about Georgia's territorial integrity, and the Russian-speaking enclaves in the country won't be returned to Georgian sovereignty. And short of provoking a nuclear stand-off, there is little the West is likely to be able to do about it.
If (as is likely), Russia gets away with slicing bits out of Georgia, I wonder who will be next in its sights. Ukraine, which is looking towards joining the EU and NATO, is one candidate, though pro-Western tendencies there may be checked merely by supporting pro-Russian parties and threatening to turn off the gas. And Poland, which recently signed a deal with the US to host missile interceptors (designed, ostensibly, against Iranian rogue nukes, though it's likely that a rising China is the real motivation), drawing threats of military strike from Russian commanders, can't be sitting too comfortably. Though in my (entirely amateur) opinion, the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—may have the most to worry about.
Consider the following: The Baltic states are a thin panhandle, connected to the EU by a narrow border. They are the only part of the EU to have recently been part of the Soviet Union, and thanks to Stalin's population transfer programmes, have a substantial ethnic Russian minority, many of whom resent being coerced into learning the local language (after decades of Russian being the official language of government); reports of discrimination are common. Furthermore, there is the question of Kaliningrad, a Russian territory which is cut off from mainland Russia by Poland and Lithuania; for a resurgent regional power, this must be a terrible loss of face. An invasion of Lithuania, prompted by the prerogative to defend Russian-speaking minorities and resulting in a land corridor being carved out to Kaliningrad (and the Baltic states being conveniently isolated by land from the EU proper) could look tempting now.
Of course, as the Baltic states are NATO members, such an incident would be likely to trigger a war between Russia and NATO in its entirety (which, of course, includes the US, an even more powerful superpower). Though Russia might calculate that, with the US and other allies being overstretched and worn down in the Middle East, they may be somewhat weakened.
Great news on the human rights front: China is no longer one of the most systematic human rights violators, according to the US State Department's annual human rights report. This is the first time in many years that China has been removed from the list, now containing Iran, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Belarus, Sudan, Uzbekistan and, from this year, Syria.
Which raises the question: is China really that much less repressive than Iran, or is it just a more valuable trading partner? And where's Saudi Arabia?
As the receding polar ice caps expose land and shipping lanes, setting the scene for the next great international land grab, Iceland's University of Akureyri is offering a course in Polar Law, to prepare a generation of lawyers uniquely equipped to deal with the resulting issues:
Emphasis is placed upon relevant areas of public international law, such as environmental law, the law of the sea, questions of sovereignty and boundary disputes on land and sea, natural resources law, the rights of indigenous peoples in the north, self-government and good governance, and land and resources claims in the polar regions.
(via Boing Boing)
At the stroke of midnight last night, nine new countries joined the Schengen Zone, the area in Europe without any internal borders. The zone now extends well into eastern Europe, encompassing the former Eastern bloc nations and ex-Soviet Baltic states which joined the EU in 2004, and going right up to borders with Russia and the Ukraine.
The other side of this has been a fortification of the Schengen zone's new easternmost frontier, with intensive patrols and high-tech sensors being deployed to prevent illegal immigration from (or through) their eastern neighbours.
Venezuela's increasingly autocratic socialist president Hugo Chavez's latest act has been to change Venezuela's time zone by half an hour. The announcement was made suddenly, and takes effect on Sunday. Chavez says that the shift will improve the "metabolism" of Venezuela's workers and allow children to go to school in sunlight. There may be geopolitical symbolism in the act, though: the majority of the Capitalist-Imperialist world's time zones are in one hour increments from Greenwich, whereas time zones breaking away from the Greenwich-imperialist tyranny include ideologically sound holdouts against the Washington consensus, such as Iran, Afghanistan and Burma. (And, oddly enough, South Australia.)
It has not been recorded whether Chavez intends to rename the months, seasons or ages of man. Rumours that Ken Livingstone is planning to shift London's time zone by half an hour in solidarity have not been confirmed.
WIRED has a photo gallery of Soviet video games; these were arcade machines, sometimes inspired by American or Japanese ones, manufactured in the Soviet Union (often at military manufacturing facilities; presumably because civilian electronics manufacturers in the USSR weren't up to scratch). They often were more primitive than western counterparts (some feature mechanical score counters and lack controls that western equivalents had), cost 15 kopecks per game (not enough for most Soviet youth to be able to play more than a game a week), and thematically avoided the zapping-space-aliens themes of the capitalist world, instead combining a sort of earnest socialist benignness (there were Russian folk games adapted for the arcade, games simulating socially worthy occupations such as firefighting), with the odd bit of ideologically-sound militarism (sinking Nazi submarines during the Great Patriotic War, and shooting down enemy fighters (presumably of a capitalist persuasion, though the article didn't say)). Interestingly enough, a common feature of all the games was the lack of a high score table; the idea of such an individualistic, competitive feature was, for obvious reasons, frowned upon.
Compared to western games, they looked a bit shabby and lacklustre. So as soon as Communism collapsed and Nintendos and PCs started flooding in, they pretty much disappeared. Most were destroyed, though a few survived; and now, four collectors in Moscow are finding and restoring these machines, for display in a Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines, which they have set up in a bomb shelter under a university dormitory.
(via Boing Boing)
The former Communist state of East Germany, which disappeared from Europe in 1990, still exists in the Caribbean; well, sort of. There is an unpopulated island off the coast of Cuba which Fidel Castro gave to East Germany in 1972, naming it "Cayo Ernesto Thaelmann", after a Communist politician executed by the Nazis. During the Communist era, it was apparently effectively East German territory; a Party-approved pop singer made a record there in 1975. It's not known how much the DDR used the island other than that, though by the time the Berlin Wall came down, it was apparently uninhabited, to the point where those negotiating the reunification treaty forgot it existed. This state of affairs continued until 2001, when a German newspaper discovered it and attempted to sell it, upon which, the Cubans, not wanting any more capitalist running-dog lackeys in their neighbourhood, swiftly declared that the transfer was "symbolic" only.
The Grauniad has a photographic piece on the first railway crossing between North and South Korea in 57 years:
The last time a train attempted to cross was on New Year's Eve in 1950, when the line was used by thousands of refugees fleeing an advance by Chinese and North Korean troops. Their journey came to an abrupt halt when US soldiers riddled the steam water tank with bullet holes. The tracks were destroyed to slow the progress of the communist forces.
Today's test run is seen as a step towards closer economic ties between rich, open South Korea and the poor, isolated North. It is hoped that the lines will eventually link to the Trans-Siberian railway and allow connections spanning more than 5,000 miles from London to Seoul.
Sweden expands its soft power yet further, by becoming the first country with official diplomatic representation in Second Life. The Swedish embassy in the multiplayer environment won't actually issue passports or visas, but will tell people where to get them in
the real world First Life, and provide information about Sweden.
(via Boing Boing)
Nuclear weapon designs handed over by Libya to US authorities have been found to have originated in China. Could this mean that the proliferation of nuclear weapons to rogue states/terrorist groups is part of a US/Chinese proxy war? If so, that suggests a few other possibilities: what if, for example, the movement known as al-Qaeda is funded behind the scenes by China; what if, say, 9/11 was intended as a stern warning from China in some acrimonious underground negotiation (would the gerontocrats who ordered the Tienanmen massacre have any qualms about killing thousands of innocent foreigners to make a point?), and the invasion of Iraq (whose WMDs and terrorist links remain elusive) was intended as the reply? Or is that too far-fetched? (Paging Mitch...)
The German State Secretary, Jürgen Chrobog, is reported to have told Foreign Ministry colleagues that the US is turning into a "police state". (Mind you, if any country knows what a police state looks like, Germany does, having seen several examples in the last century.)
Meanwhile, German Defence Minister Peter Struck is apparently having delusions of grandeur:
However, Herr Struck told reporters before the meeting that he had no intention of begging for forgiveness for Germany's stance against the US-led war in Iraq. "It's not for a German Defence Minister to show regret or guilt feelings towards his American counterpart. We have an equal relationship," he said.
No, Pete, you're a branch-office state in McWorld. You take orders from Washington. (Or perhaps from London, which takes orders from Washington.) Got it? Ignore this reality and there'll be Consequences. You don't want to end up like Libya or someone, do you?
After regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, it was only a matter of time before Blair and Bush turned their attention to France. The detested Jacques Chirac, a past friend of Saddam Hussein, refused to disband his force de frappe weapons of mass destruction; the coalition acted in preemptive self-defence; though it was a pity about the Louvre.
The toppling of the Chirac regime was the inevitable application of this ideology. It was not imperialism. Washington had no desire to stick around when the cameras had already been directed to a new rogue. It was rather adventurism. American foreign policy did mergers and acquisitions, not management. They could topple but, as they found in Kabul and Baghdad, they had no clue about rebuilding. They just wanted to make a point. Upset Uncle Sam and you will lose your power, your palace, your art treasures and bring death and destruction to your cities.
Tony Blair cheered the fall of France. He, too, had his reasons. He had longed to see M Chirac with a bloody nose. Since 2002 he had supported Americas new coercive diplomacy and grown hugely popular as a result. Not since Palmerston had nations quaked when a British leader said he had no plans to attack them. Now Mr Blair might be Americas chosen candidate for president of Europe. Anyway, Britain was in bed with America and could hardly climb out now. Washington would not like that. Mr Blair would not want a nasty hole at the end of The Mall, would he?
The EU's expansion gains steam: Former Yugoslav republic Slovenia votes yes to joining the EU, and by a landslide too. (89.61% voted for joining the EU, with 10.3% against.) This is a more dramatic result than the close majority in the Maltese referendum some weeks ago. Slovenes also voted for their country joining NATO, with a 2/3 majority. Next up: Cyprus (the Greek half) on Saturday, and then Hungary on the 12th of April.
The expansion of the European Union moves on: Malta has voted yes to joining the EU. The tiny Mediterranean island was the first nation to have its EU accession referendum, and the yes case won, albeit narrowly, despite concerns over jobs and loss of sovereignty. The next test will be Slovenia's referendum on the 23rd.
The Pentagon declares that France is no longer an ally and must be "contained". Pentagon Policy Advisory Board Richard Perle also declared that the UN Security Council, on which France has a permanent seat, is irrelevant. Multilateralism, and the post-WW2 ideal of resolving conflicts through debate and consensus, edges one step closer to collapse. (via die puny humans)
(France is one of the small number of "legitimate" nuclear powers. Perhaps now that France is no longer worthy of trust (in the ways that, say, Israel and Pakistan, are) we can expect the USA and Britain demanding that France abandon its weapons of mass destruction or face military intervention? Won't Ann Coulter be pleased when that happens.)
While ~40% of Britons want to invade Iraq, another poll shows that 40% of Americans want to annex Canada. Though the article stresses this isn't a manifestation of belief in America's God-given manifest destiny or desire to dominate the continent, but a gesture of friendship and good will to their friends up north. (Hmmm.. could it be something like "let's liberate our Northern brothers from the shackles of state-funded medicine and gun control and give them citizenship in a real country"?) Meanwhile, just under 20% of Canadians favour Canada joining the United States. (via rotten.com)
(Does anyone recall the proposals floating around during the dot-com boom for northern California, Oregon and Washington state to unite with British Columbia, all parties cutting loose Washington DC, the Bible Belt, Quebec and other such liabilities and making a new manifest destiny out of dot-com stock options?)
It's official: according the the UN, American nationals cannot, by definition, be war criminals, and crimes against humanity can only be committed by non-US nationals. At least for the next 12 months, renewable annually. And so, justice comes from the barrel of the biggest gun.
(What happens when China comes into its own as a world superpower, and demands that Chinese nationals be exempted from prosecution, threatening to sabotage the UN process if it's unfairly denied this privilege that the US has (as would be the rational thing for China to do faced with such a snub); or when Israel pushes for exemption for its operations in the Palestinian territories, with US backing? Or when Indonesia (the world's third most populous nation, and a potential economic and military powerhouse) starts doing so, and pushing its weight around? Or when a dozen other countries do the same? The criterion for exemption from prosecution doesn't seem to be anything other than "might makes right" (unless you believe in the doctrine of America's God-given Manifest Destiny or some other system of teleological mumbo-jumbo, of course). So we'll end up with a club of powerful nations who are above the law, and a puppet kangaroo court existing solely to try their defeated enemies and keep the small fry from rising above their station in world affairs.)
Recently East Timor, which attained independence after years of bloody repression, held presidential elections. A thought that occurred to me: would East Timor have had any chance of getting its independence today, had it not done so before the World Trade Center terrorist attack? Probably not; given how governments across the world have capitalised on the War On Terror to label domestic pro-autonomy movements (from Chechens to Uighurs) as "terrorists" ineligible for sympathy or human rights, I can imagine Indonesia being given carte blanche to pacify its recalcitrant province by all means necessary, with no interference from the Western media, in return for joining the coalition against al-Qaeda.
Cool Britannia et al. In this postmodern age of designer style over generic substance, nation-states are learning from corporations and redefining themselves as brands:
The British management consultant Peter York has even argued that Nike's "swooshffitick logo means precisely what the crucifix meant to an earlier generation in ghettos -- it promises redemption, vindication and a way out."
In Belgium, for example, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has hired a team of image-makers to rebuild the country's reputation after years of scandals involving government corruption, child pornography, and dioxin-polluted chickens. In an attempt to clear the air, Belgium has decided to introduce a new logo and hip colors and will sport the cool Internet suffix ".be" as its international symbol. The overall aim of the campaign is to emulate Virgin, which, according to one Belgian advertising expert, "isn't big, but you see it everywhere you look."
(from the Council on Foreign Relations, who may or may not be a front for the Bavarian Illuminati and/or secretly controlling everything fnord from behind the scenes.)