Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Why China Might Have the last Word in Iraq

China always kept a low profile in the war in Iraq; they were disinterested in the matter. However, few people realise, maybe not even the Chinese themselves, that it is actually they who may well have the final say as to how and when US involvement in Iraq ends. This is because if one follows the money to see how the US is financing the war, much of it ends up in Beijing.

When governments spend more than they can earn back in taxes they have to borrow the rest by issuing debt. This debt in the US comes in the form of US Treasury bonds. The latest estimates of the Congressional Budget Office are that the US Government will spend 260 billion dollars more than it earns this year. Most of this deficit is accounted for by spending on the Iraq War which recently reached 100 billion dollars a year. We know that the war is being debt financed because most of the spending comes from emergency appropriations, when the Department of Defense asks for money from Congress outside of the usual budget procedure.

At the same time the US currently has a huge trade deficit with China. This deficit is so large that container ships often come back empty from the US on their return journey to China. Currently China sells around 100 billion dollars more goods and services to the US than the US sells to it in return, and this difference is made up for in US dollars.

The Chinese have to do something with all of their accumulated dollars. And a large proportion of them go into buying US Treasury bonds. The Chinese now hold an incredibly large share of the US public debt with almost half of all US Treasury bonds being owned in Asia. This recycles the dollars that China receives back into the US economy, more specifically into the hands of the US Government. Furthermore this willingness on the part of the Chinese to buy T-bonds keeps debt cheap for the US Government.

Now suppose for a moment that China stopped buying US Treasury bonds. This would certainly not be implausible. The Chinese central bank has often talked about diversifying its foreign currency holdings into Euros and other currencies. With the absence of an important buyer of its debt, the US would either have to raise interest rates, raise taxes or cut spending. An increase in the interest rate would raise the return on bonds, making them more attractive to other potential buyers; raising taxes or cutting spending on the other hand means that less has to be borrowed.
As the US already faces a huge burden of repayment on its existing debt, and many predict a slowdown in the US economy this year, raising interest rates may not be possible. If taxes are increased, the public will inevitably start to ask questions as to why they are being expected to hand over their money to the Federal Government, and they might not like the answer. If this Government went to the American people to ask them for more money to fight the Iraq war, there is little chance that they would be willing to pay. A swift pull out from Iraq that would drastically cut US Government spending and with it the budget deficit, might be the only option left.

In Europe we often see Americans' fear of the state and aversion to taxation with some perplexity. However in a state such as the US, which only provides for the most basic levels of public service, the majority of the government’s activities are necessarily occupied by defence. Americans know this and for them, like the British liberals of the eighteenth century, low taxation is seen as a means of keeping a violent state in check, making sure that if wars have to be fought then approval has to be sought from the purse of the public. Now it seems as though the large capacities of governments to run such deficits has long since made this check on government power obsolete. Now the power to dictate policy to the government lies not in its constituency but in the hands of its financiers. And for the US Government trying to pay for a war in Iraq, its financiers are in Beijing.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Special Relations

Last week a talk by a professor at my University and long time employee of the State Department Kendall Myers, at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, produced a storm of controversy in the UK. What was surprising to all of the students attending the talk, was that Kendall Myers wasnt saying anything that we didnt know already.

Even for us British students here in the US, it has become common knowledge that the US takes little notice of little Britain. Well at least only as much notice as it takes of, Japan, France, Germany or any of its other allies and yet the British still believe that they are "special". I myself found it amusing to be called a "euro" by all my American friends last year, whilst my fellow Brits think of themselves as so uneuropean.

The ensuing attacks in the British press on Professor Myers as a low level official who knows nothing about US-UK relations, are not only wrong but do nothing if not avoid the real issue at hand. Firstly he is not a low level official, not many people have heard of him in the States, but only for the same reason that not many people have heard of members of the British foreign intelligence community. It seems rather ridiculous, as some commentators have tried, to claim that someone working in the intelligence and research department of the US State Department and a thirty year expert on US/UK relations knows nothing about what is happening with regards to US foreign policy towards Britain. The subsequent clamoring, from Kim Howells the Foreign Office minister, and the Number 10 spokesman for his resignation, are nothing more than a cynical attempt to play the man instead of the ball. It is a shame because what was said at the meeting was quite important, and it would have been far more profitable for all if the content was discussed and not the man, who is beyond doubt an authority.

One curious aspect of the special relationship is that no one seems to be able to define what it is exactly that makes it special, that is, different from any relations that the US or UK has with any other nations. Some have argued that it is our colonial history and common values that have made this relationship special. This argument withstands no historical interrogation. If these were the foundations of a special relationship than the United States would have far more special relations with the French, who helped them throw off their colonial oppressors and whose philosophy provided the ideas behind the US constitution.

Personally I have always found this argument quite patronising towards the Americans, nothing more than a piece of British arrogance. Because two states cannot be equivocated to two friends. Two friends have no responsibility other than to each other, whilst states have responsibilities to millions of their citizens and hundreds of billions of dollars economic resources. Why would America sacrifice its own resources and risk its own citizens lives for nothing more than a vague nostalgia for their former colonial master, the ones after all who threw the Pilgrim Fathers out of Britain in the first place.

There is also the argument of "The Bridge" that Britain can be the US ally within Europe, to explain to the Europeans what the US cant explain to them themselves. To act as the US Minister plenipotentiary to Europe. However as another one of my professors so aptly pointed out, "Do the Brits really think that if we wanted to speak to Paris, we couldn't just pick up the phone?".

Although many quote Churchill, who first coined the phrase ‘special relationship’ few remember what he said immediately after these words. Churchill was very specific about what he meant by the term special relationship and for him it needed to be something tangible requiring, "not only the growing friendship and mutual understanding between our two vast but kindred systems of society, but the continuance of the intimate relationship between our military advisers”. Churchill, was speaking in 1946 after fighting a war where the relations between British and US military advisers were so intimate that we had British generals commanding US troops and vice versa. Commanders of both forces knew each-others plans in detail and there was cooperation between forces at all levels. Although it was always unlikely that this level of cooperation would continue for long after the war, cooperation between the British and US militaries did exist at a higher level than between other forces throughout the cold war. One thing that was also mentioned at the same talk last week by another commentator was that British and US nuclear submarines take weapons from the same stockpile, something that involves incredibly high levels of trust.

Looking at the Special Relationship in this way, as an enhanced level of cooperation between military forces, we can see that Kendall Myers clearly had a point. When Rumsfeld said on the 11th of March 2003, 9 days before the beginning of the war that British involvement was “unclear”, it demonstrated a shockingly low level of coordination between US and UK forces, and showed just how little the Department of Defence cared for British support. Furthermore as Robin Niblett, the future director of Chatham House pointed out during the same evening, the British are seriously considering pulling out of the plan to build a Joint Strike Fighter with the US and during the Iraq war requests by the British for intelligence material were turned down by the Americans. Again, these are all things that we knew already, what is new however, is that after three years, Rumsfelds remarks that the US didn't need the British, are perhaps finally beginning to sink in in London.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Help the Homeless

Today a homeless person in Georgetown articulated to me a fundamental in difference in American and European thought more clearly than anyone has before. "Here, in America", he said, "If you are homeless, its your own fault, its because you were drinking too much or something". Now I have heard the same sort of thing before, but it is has usually been from empty, over privileged kids who don't have an idea what hardship means. As if completely oblivious to their own situation as well as that of others, they truly believed that it was through their own choice that they were where they were. I usually put it down to their lack of brains, and lack of heart.

This was different, this man was professing an ideology that was responsible for his own situation. This for me demonstrated that this mode of thought was a product of something deeper than just social blindness, a deep seated societal belief. A belief that both takes away the homeless' ability to help themselves and the homed the will to help them.

This is one thing that distinguishes Americans from Europeans. Europeans despite their many differences tend to think much more that if you are homeless and poor this is as much a responsibility for society than it is for the individual. Article 1 of the German constitution even goes as far as to say that the state has to guarantee 'human dignity'. Even in free market Britain, there is a welfare state that although meagre is at least comprehensive.

The reasons for this difference is I believe a result of one of Europe's few shared experiences, war. The battlefield of the two world wars was Europe, and the devastation that it brought to the countries it swept through was a force so powerful that no amount of individual effort could resist it on its own. In Germany, the whole country was brought to its knees twice in the space of 30 years. In Britain, bombs rained down on London as Coventry burned. During the first world war, lines of blood were carved through France and the low countries in the trenches. The reconstruction of Europe after these wars was something that only a society and not just individuals could achieve.

One of the shocking things about America is just how much homelessness and poverty there is. in every public park in Washington there is a small troop of people sleeping on benches. Modern life makes it incredibly difficult for these people to get out of the cycle of poverty, without an address you cant get a bank account or wash or do many of the things necessary on order to get a job and lead a normal life. If this problem is going to ever be solved, one day soon people are going to have to realise, its not their fault.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

College Football

The fourteenth and fifteenth largest stadiums in the world (discounting racing stadiums) are the Michigan Stadium and the Beaver Stadium according to Whilst looking this up by the way I found somewhat to my surprise that five of the stadiums in the top ten are in Iran! What is surprising about these stadiums is that they are both the home of university American football teams. The Rose Bowl in California, that some of you may remember for hosting the 1994 World Cup Final is the home of none other than the UCLA college football team. These teams are made up of students, not professionals, who play in varsity leagues. What is perhaps even more amazing than the size of these stadiums is that the universities actually manage to fill them. The Wolverines, the team of the University of Michigan has hosted crowds of over 100,000 on almost 200 occasions and the last time that the attendance figure fell short of this mark was in 1975.

Successful American universities have a very different atmosphere from their European counterparts. There in an intense sense of loyalty and dedication to ones university that is simply not present on the old continent. On matriculating to an American University, college life quickly subsumes the identity of the individual. Campus living means that everything in your life is directed towards the school. Students support their college football team instead of their local team, for example. Many college groups, whether they be musical or sporting or other activities strive for an excellence that gives a sense of pride to the students extending far further than the immediate friends of those involved. The specialist and more prominent schools in business and international affairs bring in a constant stream of high profile figures and alumni, such as leading politicians, CEO's, high ranking civil servants, and internationally renowned academics who hold seminars and give lectures on their experiences demonstrating just how far you can go with your degree.

The frenetic pace of these extra curricular activities means that there is little time to discover life off campus. Neither does this finish after your graduation, alumni will continue to support their college football team for the rest of their lives, when in Bologna last year my girlfriend at the time and a graduate of Cornell University was I thought slightly too excited about a forthcoming visit of a group of acapella singers from her Alma Mater. By contrast I dont think I would make too much of an effort to go and see the Warwick University Symphony Orchestra play, even though I myself played in it for three years. Alumni events take place regularly, and some of them can be quite impressive. There is no escaping, the reach of the alumni network is global. I was slightly surprised to find myself getting invitations to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, for lectures that had been co-sponsored by the SAIS alumni network London chapter, and I havent even left my school yet.

This strong sense of loyalty that universities work hard to engender in their students I believe plays a large role in the success of American universities. For one thing, this sense of loyalty enables American universities to command vast sums of money. The amount of private donations to American universities is truly astonishing. The total amount of private donations to education in the US runs to around $40 billion a year. Harvard and Princeton receive around half a billion dollars each.

It is for this reason that I look at the attempts of UK universities to plug the shortfall in their budgets through private donations with great scepticism. Universities in Britain simply do not command the loyalty or the attachment of their alumni that their US counterparts do. We cannot rely on simply trying to encourage a culture of giving, which is what politicians in Britain now are currently talking about. US universities work hard and invest lots in their sports teams, musical groups, arts, culture, alumni relations and other such activities that attach students to their Alma Mater for the rest of their lives, and until we start investing in the cultural side of altruism as well universities will have to look for other ways in which to fund themselves.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Wounderful Wide Web

Internet dating, comes in many forms. One particular type that has been fascinated me was is the missed encounter on Craig's list. For those of you that dont know Craig's list, it is a free adds website, extremely popular here in the States, I first came across it when looking for a flat in D.C.. On the site you can get your hands on absolutely anything and everything apart from drugs and arms, but most definitely sex. The missed encounters section is where people come to post messages to people they have met or seen in the hope that they will get into contact. Simple enough you might say, but some of the posts leaves one wondering. Here are just a few examples of posts that appear.

Tysons Corner 9ish- working on your laptop - w4m - 25

Reply to:
Date: 2006-10-04, 11:34PM EDT

I was with a friend of mine grabbing dinner when I saw you pass by on your way to Barnes and Noble. As we were leaving I saw you working on your laptop by the escalator. I just want you to know that I noticed you and on the rare chance that you see this, I would love to hear from you.

gorgeous woman/starbucks in old town (me-runner taking a quick break) - m4w

Reply to:
Date: 2006-10-11, 11:01PM EDT

you had a skirt on...wanted to say hello but chickened out...

This one is a classic...........

I horked on your tits. - m4w

Date: 2006-05-23, 12:49PM CDT

Me: Tall, dark, (I'm told) handsome. I vomited a little bit of home brew down your blouse. You said, "Cute."

You: Cleavage covered in my vomit.

I think we had a moment. Call me?

Jokes aside, and we can only hope the last one is a joke, the posts immediately came to fascinate me, as they left me with so many questions. I can only imagine how many people with skirts on pass through a starbucks any given day, and what are the chances that on any given day, out of the millions of people who work in D.C., someone who was working on their laptop would be scanning craig's list to see if anyone noticed them? Who are the people that do scan the list hoping that someone may have posted something about someone who vaguely matches their description? Whilst it may seem fanciful to think that anyone would ever have any success trying to meet people in this way, and quite frankly why would you want to try, the list remains extremely popular.

Egged on by a couple of my friends I decided to investigate the phenomena, and took the bold step of making a post myself. I have copied it in below.

Dupont 1pm - m4w - 24

Reply to:
Date: 2006-10-05, 11:11PM EDT

I saw you from the window and almost dropped my frappucino, you were tall had long flowing brown hair. You were dressed to kill. We made eye contact and looked interested, email me if you were.

Now I wasnt even in Starbucks at 1pm, let alone making eye contact with anyone, fortunately my coffee maker arrived from Italy last week and has saved me from the living hell that is American coffee. However I thought that there might have been enough people there that this might work. I sat glued to my computer screen, waiting for a flood of emails from desperate Washingtoniennes.

Unfortunately for my blog, but probably fortunately for me, nothing came. I think that you probably need to have actually had some kind of connection with someone for this to work, rather than just make up a faux encounter whilst round at dinner with friends.

Whilst considering how to further my research, help came from an unexpected source. I was at a concert a few nights ago and a girl asked me for a lighter, I talked to her for at the most 5 minutes before she went on her way, we didnt exchange numbers, I couldnt even remember her name. By the time I woke up in the morning she had already managed to track me down using facebook. The internet networking tool I had only just joined a few days before. I have to admit I was slightly put out by this, but I decided to go ahead and ask her out all the same.

I ended up having a very pleasant evening, with a charming and above all, normal and intelligent girl. Although I admit I had actually talked to her in person before she contacted me off the internet, I myself would probably not have looked for her on the web (even if I had remembered her name), and it struck me that this was probably more to do with a cultural difference between Americans and Europeans (and Brits are definitely considered Europeans here) rather than a product of me being normal. Scanning around Craig's list's international sites seemingly confirmed this. There are far far far more posts on the personals sections of the US sites than there are in other places. In other international cities they mostly seem to be prostitutes and Americans posting. Neither has internet dating taken off in Europe in the same way that it has here.

It suggests that Americans seem to be far more comfortable meeting new people than we Europeans are. Americans for whatever reason are, much friendlier to strangers, people smile and greet each other in the street, in every shop you are asked how your day is going by the person at the checkout and this is often a lot less fake than we Europeans like to think it is. The girl at the bar spoke to me for five minutes and wasnt trying to sleep with me! This daily ritual of interaction with complete strangers, however superficial makes people far more confident when meeting others for the first time, something that can only help in an age when 'networking' is deemed so important. With less fear of meeting strangers, there follows more of a willingness to do so and hence the birth of networks that allow this to happen.

I am not trying to suggest this is the only reason why people seek each other over the World Wide Web, one could also make the case for loneliness, but without the implicit trust required to spend the evening with a complete stranger im sure these meetings would not happen, no matter how lonely one might be.

I can only leave you with the suggestion that we make more of an effort to be nicer to strangers. If not for the betterment of society as a whole, few are as altruistic as to think in such grand terms, and not because you have a particularly strong desire to get involved with internet dating, but because, as my beloved professor was so fond of telling me about reading the classics of modern political economy, it will make you a better person.

Friday, October 06, 2006

La Mere De La Liberte

One of the most interesting things about living in abroad anywhere is discovering the various stereotypes, images, views and opinions that foreigners hold about you and your nation. Whilst living in Italy last year quickly I learnt that when my friends told me that I was wearing a 'combinazione inglese' it wasn't a compliment, and on arriving here I couldn't understand why people kept complementing me on my teeth, until I realised the reputation that British people had for bad ones.

One of the great things about D.C. is that you get to meet and talk to people from all over the world. Whilst walking down embassy row you seem to leave America and enter the world, as every building becomes the territory of another state.

The other night whilst attending an event that included a prominent French politician, I heard one view of the Britain that that should have filled any Brit with immense pride. He told the assembled audience that in France, Westminster is referred to as "la mere de la liberte". I found it incredible that a country such as France, with the huge importance that it places on its own fundamental values of liberte, fraternite and egalite can look to Britain, and still call her parliament the mother of freedom.

The context however, made this remark come as a dagger to the heart. The speaker was sharing this particular French idiom to try to get across just how disappointed and appalled he was with the British for passing a law in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that allowed indefinite detention without trial or review by a judge. How could an institution with the greatest and most illustrious tradition of upholding freedom, that was established when in the rest of Europe we were still barbarians, he said, allow this law to pass? what hope is there for others?

When looking around the world today, the freedoms that we enjoy in the Western world are actually quite rare. Europe and America make up only 10% of the worlds population and despite the many justified complaints that people make, on these two continents we are very free compared to the other regions of the world. Importantly we have managed to achieve these freedoms whilst at the same time not sacrificing our security.

Iraq under Saddam Hussein had security without freedom whilst now the people there have freedom without any security. As the debate on our civil liberties continues, we should not see security and freedom as a trade off, having either one without the other is not desirable. Developing the kind of societies that have both has been one of the greatest achievements of Europe and America. The institutions that have provided the foundations of these societies have in many cases taken hundreds of years to establish. The world looks to them as it does to us and we would do well not to let them down.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Dear All,
Welcome to my blog. Washington D.C. is often the focus of the worlds attention, often referred to as the centre of world politics. As someone who has for a long time been interested in politics, it has often been a place the I have looked at from the outside. Now, having just moved here a month ago I have the view from the inside, and have quickly become allured by American culture and politics.

In this blog I hope to give a picture of America as seen through the eyes of a 'legal alien' as well as thoughts and comments on my home country as seen looking from the other side of the pond.