Pakistan, democracy and the curious demise of the independent press

The truth is I was expecting the letter. And it came on November 8 while I was in Rome, thinking about what to write for my weekly column in Dawn, Pakistan’s leading, independent newspaper.

Dawn’s editor Zaffar Abbas wrote to say that he was sorry. The newspaper was in trouble. “The unannounced state policy of the last over two years to put a squeeze on the paper was already having its toll, and now several other factors have added to its financial problems”.

And as a result, there was no room for my weekly column from Europe anymore. He hopes it’s a temporary snag. But I fear it isn’t.

Dawn is in the firing line of Pakistan’s military and the current army-sponsored   populist government of Imran Khan. The newspaper is too independent, too daring, not ready to bow and scrape, to lie and pander. My colleague Cyril Almeida is being tried for treason. Other journalists are also being muzzled.

I’ve been writing for the paper for at least 25 years and enjoyed every minute. It has never been my main job. I’ve worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review and now as Director for Europe and Geopolitics for Friends of Europe, one of Europe’s leading think tanks.

Writing for Dawn, however, kept me linked to my country of birth. The editor said I had a “loyal following” of readers who wanted to hear an insider/outsider’s view of global politics, Europe, America, China and Pakistan.

I loved it – and put my heart and soul into every weekly column I wrote which, like clockwork, appeared every Saturday.

But I knew the hammer was ready to fall.

An article I had written just before the July elections in Pakistan had – for the first time – been axed because it was considered too tough on the role of the military. Other pieces since then have been vetted to make sure there was no offensive content. Truth be told, it was becoming extremely annoying.

Ironically, my last article in Dawn, published last week, was about the global war on free speech. And I underlined that  journalism in Asia was most at risk.

The attacks on Dawn are a sad – nay tragic – sign of the slow death of Pakistan’s democracy. And in fact it’s no longer the army or the “civilian government” led by Imran Khan which is in charge. Religious extremists run the show.

For proof look no further than the so-called blasphemy case against Asia Bibi and, earlier, the decision to cancel the appointment of a renowned economist Atif Rehman Mian as an adviser to the government because he belongs to Pakistan’s Ahmediya minority.

Seventy-one years after independence, Pakistan’s path to democracy has been a  roller-coaster ride. Thrills one minute, despondence and tragedy the next. Heroes morphed into villains – and bad guys were reborn as heroes.

International media reports – on and off –  on the clamp down on the media, the soap-operatic conduct of leading politicians and the rise of intolerant, extremist voices.

The picture is of a complicated country which is part problematic troublemaker, part an enigma, with a deep state within a state, fragile and polarised, uncertain of its loyalties.

There is little doubt that through the years, Pakistan’s toxic military-intelligence has stood centre stage, manipulating politicians, pulling the strings, making key decisions, taking sides and clamping down on press freedom.

But despite the turmoil and military meddling, Pakistan had persevered on its democratic trajectory. Democracy in Pakistan was messy and flawed but many believed it was also ultimately resilient.

Dictators came  and went. Military coups were  followed by civilians in power – and the other way around. In between, there was  heady talk of transparency and accountability, combating corruption, building a new and stronger economy.

Through the turmoil and turbulence, democracy doggedly ploughed on. That was thanks to the resilience and democratic aspirations of the people of Pakistan, a strong media, civil society representatives and human rights defenders.

Pakistani politicians, meanwhile, were more than willing to collude and connive with anti-democratic forces.

But times have changed. Dramatically. Imran Khan’s election has confirmed and reinforced the role of an ever more intrusive military and, even more dangerously, it has unleashed the demons of religious extremism.

Sustained democracy in the 21st Century hinges on strong institutions and good governance. Strong democracies require an honest and credible press, an active and committed civil society, robust municipal and city authorities and the active political participation of women, young people end ethnic minorities.

Pakistan’s current “rulers” are – one by one – crushing all the drivers of democracy. I fear there may be no going back.


View From Abroad: Lies, immigration and the battle for Europe’s soul

WORLD attention is rightly focused on America’s controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the US decision to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The US moves have been criticised by many in Europe. But in fact, governments on this side of the Atlantic are engaged in a similarly epic struggle over immigration, human rights and the rule of law.

Make no mistake: the battle over immigration raging across the continent is for the soul, hearts and minds of Europeans. After a temporary lull, migration is back on the top of the European Union’s political agenda. And the debate is fiercer and more corrosive than ever before.

Take a look: The perils of Pakistani migrants heading to Europe

Europe’s xenophobic and nativist far-right parties — both in government and outside it — are leading the conversation. And winning it.

Their get-tough approach to migration and asylum has seeped into the agenda of most mainstream European political parties. Very few politicians dare to contest the false assertions that migration is bad for Europe because it threatens the European way of life, leads to increased unemployment, crime and terrorism.

Fanning the fires of the constant diatribes against migration and migrants is US President Donald Trump. In recent tweets, Trump made the false claim that crime was up in Germany since the 2015 arrival of refugees from the war-torn Middle East.

The US leader has many fans in Europe, including the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who has a special bee in his bonnet about Muslim immigrants and Islam in general.

But others are not far behind. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a right-wing conservative who is in coalition with the far right, has called for the formation of an anti-migrant “axis of the willing” with Germany and Italy to push for more restrictive border policies at an EU level.

Set to take over the EU presidency from July to December, Kurz has promised to pursue his hard line on migration at the EU level in the coming months. In a move, which made headlines across the world, Italy’s new populist right-wing government recently closed its ports to the Aquarius rescue ship carrying over 600 refugees.

The boat, whose passengers included children, pregnant women and people needing medical attention, was welcomed by Spain’s new centre-left Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Now, Italy is back in the spotlight with its interior minister Matteo Salvini’s call for a census of the country’s Roma community with the aim of expelling those who are not Italian citizens. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition remains under threat following her interior minister Horst Seehofer’s demands that Germany should be able to expel registered asylum seekers to other EU countries.

Importantly, these and other demands by the increasingly rabid right- wing politicians in Europe are clearly illegal under national and international legislation, a fact which is being highlighted by experts.

Any plan that suggests a blanket return of asylum seekers at the border of a European country would come up against both EU law and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank. A census based on ethnic background is against Italian law, with many saying the plan evoked memories of race laws in 1938.

Still, slowly but surely, however, despite the protests from some, EU policies are moving further to the right. EU leaders next week are set to endorse plans to create so-called “regional disembarkation platforms” or offshore facilities outside the bloc — possibly Tunisia — where “economic migrants” would be weeded out from refugees who are “in need of international protection”.

The aim would be to “reduce the incentive to embark on perilous journeys”.

Divisions continue to simmer on other issues. The introduction of compulsory refugee relocation quotas is vigorously opposed by Hungary and other central European countries and proposals for a long-overdue overhaul of the Dublin system, which assigns responsibility for processing asylum claims, are still deadlocked.

However, the EU’s new seven-year budget includes an array of new tools, including a “migration management window”. An investment fund for African countries has been set up to “tackle the root causes of migration”.

Italy, with EU support, has been providing training and logistical support to Libya’s coastguard in a bid to better patrol the Mediterranean. And spending on migration control is set to account for €9 billion of the EU’s development budget between 2021 and 2027.

The numbers of asylum seekers knocking on European doors have fallen compared to the 2015 crisis. The EU’s asylum office counted 728,470 asylum applications in 2017, a 44 per cent reduction on the 1.3m applications in the previous year. But those figures are still far higher than the pre-crisis levels; around 460,000 people applied for asylum in EU countries in 2013.

The concern is that with wars still raging in Syria and Yemen and high population growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of migrants seeking to come to Europe is likely to stay high.

European politicians know this, just as they know that Europe needs migrants to prop up the continent’s economies and declining social welfare systems. With one eye on the next election, few have the moral courage, however, to stand up and say so. It’s easier to rant and rage. And mislead the public with distracting headlines and over-the-top, blatantly illegal proposals.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2018

View from abroad: Democracy is about more than winning elections

AS Pakistan heads to the polls and politicians in the country make epic promises to create a “new Pakistan”, it’s important to remember: democracy is not just about who wins the elections.

It’s not about who gets to be prime minister, takes over the reins of power, travels to faraway lands to meet famous people and then comes back home to hold cabinet meetings, travel in motorcades and give ponderous speeches about fighting corruption, both moral and financial.

Democracy is about good governance. It’s about institutions. Civilians in charge and military in the barracks. It’s about strong, solid institutions, people committed to putting the interest of their fellow citizens above party and personal interests and following the rules and laws of the land.

Pakistan is not the only country which faces the challenge of fighting off populists or a powerful military.

Politicians who are so focused on fulfilling their personal ambition that they forget their duty to the nation and the people who elected them are the norm in many parts of the world.

Strong democracies require an honest and credible press, an active and committed civil society, robust municipal and city authorities and the active political participation of women, young people end ethnic minorities.

Let’s start with the press. It used to be the case that journalists were murdered, abducted and censored only in countries ruled by dictators and autocrats. Or, as illustrated by the brutal killing of 10 journalists in Afghanistan last week, media came under attack in countries wracked by war.

Journalism is still a perilous profession in many parts of the developing world. But as witnessed recently when investigative journalists were killed in Slovakia and Malta, working as a reporter is also becoming increasingly risky in many established democracies.

And then there is the constant outpouring of hostility against journalists promoted by media-bashing enthusiasts such as US President Donald Trump and his friends and fans in central and eastern Europe.

By calling reporters “enemies of the people”, these and other political leaders are not just attacking journalism and journalists, they are endangering democracy itself.

The warning contained in the latest World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, should give us pause for thought.

Yes, fake news and propaganda are all interfering with elections, referenda, politicians’ reputations and, more generally, with governance across the world.

But democracies are also under threat from within. By promoting hostility and animosity towards journalists, politicians in established democracies are also encouraging the rise of populists, prompting decisions like the one on Brexit and facilitating the dissemination of toxic messages against migrants, refugees, women, Jews, Muslims and other “others”.

The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is one of the worst threats to democracies,” according to Christophe Deloire, the secretary general of Reporters without Frontiers. “Political leaders who fuel loathing for reporters bear heavy responsibility because they undermine the concept of public debate based on facts instead of propaganda. To dispute the legitimacy of journalism today is to play with extremely dangerous political fire.

Second, to revive dying democracies let’s stop looking for “hero” politicians and focus instead on the many extraordinary ways in which ordinary folk are changing the world.

It is time to move beyond the conventional wisdom that political parties are synonymous with democracy and that it’s only about who wins elections and referendums. Politicians in Pakistan and elsewhere have helped to make the world more tribal and polarised, to make the global political discourse shallow and crude.

While politicians argue and squabble, it’s ordinary folk who are shaping the world. Regretfully, they are not often in the headlines – good news rarely is – but they are the ones welcoming refugees, demanding equal rights, asking for gun control, cleaning up our parks and our oceans.

Look carefully, and it’s clear that these so-called “strong” men actually fear their own people, especially human rights defenders, including people like the late and much-celebrated Asma Jahangir.

Third, democracy will only thrive and flourish when the global body politic encourages the participation of women and young people.

The feminist movement is already gathering momentum – even in conservative countries where women have traditionally taken a back seat. When women become more confident with wielding power – their power – they will be able to really challenge convention and change the way societies think and behave.

Fourth, democracy is about what happens in villages, towns and cities. The real heroes of the 21st century are not national politicians but local ones. They are the men and women who have to deal with the day-to-day problems of citizens.

In Europe and America, it’s mayors and local authorities who are standing up for immigration, fighting climate change and working in myriad ways to improve the lives of “ordinary” citizens.

So yes, let’s celebrate democracy and let’s vote in elections – national, provincial and local. But let’s also remember that true democracy is not a top-down affair, something that the “rulers” grant to the “ruled”.

It’s about holding politicians to account, a free press that doesn’t hesitate to speak truth to power and giving everyone in society – women, young people, minorities – a say in shaping the future.

Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2018

Europe’s long search for a hero

DEEP down inside, whether we admit it or not, we’re all looking for a hero. Male or female, adult or child, cynic or naïve, we want a saviour, someone to look up to and inspire. It makes life more meaningful, it gives it direction.

This is true for individuals — and it’s true for communities and nations. In addition to parental guidance, young people crave the advice of mentors. Religious people bow to the knowledge of priests, rabbis and imams.

Political parties abide by the instructions of their whips and group leaders. Armies follow generals. And entire nations want to be led by strong presidents and prime ministers.

But here’s the problem: There is no shortage of villains but heroes are few and far between. The landscape — both national and global — is littered with villains. Bad guys get visibility, media attention, and votes. Good guys come last. Or at least, that’s what it looks like for the moment.

For proof, take the European Union. There’s no dearth of Eurosceptics and EU critics, autocrats and illiberals. In fact, the list of European bad guys (and some bad girls) is long and getting longer.

In contrast, the EU is desperately looking for a hero and an accompanying heroic narrative. The right person, we are encouraged to believe will bring renewed vitality, energy and a sense of purpose to the still-28 nation bloc.

And the right narrative will wake up Europe’s rather disenchanted and distracted European citizens, making people more aware of the EU’s worth and value.

The EU’s founding fathers (there must have been mothers there as well but they aren’t in the history books) were certainly visionary and inspiring. Men such as Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Paul-Henri Spaak and others, laid the foundations of the modern EU in the aftermath of World War II.

Their success in healing the wounds of war is unparalleled. They may have started small by focusing on cooperation on steel and coal but their ambitions were big.

And then, luckily in the 1980s just when the EU was in danger of slowing down, a new generation of builders of Europe emerged: Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, François Mitterrand, the French president and, perhaps above all, Jacques Delors, a former French finance minister who, over time, became THE European hero.

As president of the European Commission between 1985 and 1995, Delors drove the establishment first of the frontier-free single market and then of the treaty that led to the Euro, the single European currency.

Today, the one big lament of EU insiders is that there has never been “another Delors” to lead Europe. So, the search goes on.

For most of her 11 years in power, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the undisputed “queen” of Europe. There is general agreement across the bloc that nothing ever gets done in the EU, unless Merkel approves.

But with her business-like approach, her focus on solving current problems rather than looking at wider challenges — and possibly the mere fact that she is a woman — Merkel has never fitted the role of “European hero”. Neither has she aspired to do so.

Never fear, however, the messiah has appeared. The EU has a new saviour, he is young and handsome and very, very pro-European and his name is Emmanuel Macron.

The French president, now one year into his term, is widely recognised as the European reformer, the man with a vision for Europe’s future and the capacity to make it come true. Sort of.

Last week, Macron vowed the European Parliament and EU wallahs across Europe with a three-hour-long intervention packed with punch and passion. There were sound bytes galore and plenty of ambition.

Taking the bull by the horns, the French president condemned the rise of “illiberal democracies” in Europe. Echoing the language of historians about Europe’s slide into war a century ago, he said he would not belong to another “generation of sleepwalkers” and let the EU wither in what he called an atmosphere of “civil war”.

His most quoted quote? “We are seeing authoritarianism all around us and the response is not authoritarian democracy, but the authority of democracy.”

Interestingly, Macron’s address to the parliament only briefly mentioned his lauded Eurozone reforms, possibly because his hopes for an EU-level finance minister, a common EU budget and EU-level bank deposit insurance isn’t too popular with the new coalition government in Berlin.

But Macron does have another important card up his sleeve. He is the one EU leader who has an “inside track” to US President Donald Trump, giving him the nickname of the “Trump whisperer”.

The French president will be in Washington next week, seeking to convince his very unpredictable American counterpart to drop his threat of trade tariffs against US steel and stay true to the nuclear deal with Iran.

Perhaps the Macron magic will work, perhaps it won’t. After all while he still shines in Europe, the French leader faces a summer of strikes and protests at home by disconnected workers.

But then, who says that all heroes have to be perfect?


The fall-out from the US-led military strikes in Syria will keep us busy for days. Ending the seven-year old war and bringing peace to Syria must certainly be high on the global agenda. It also makes it even more vital to urgently tackle the task of reviving dying democracies.

Populists, illiberals, authoritarians, military dictators and once-democratic-leaders-gone-bad litter the landscape, making the world a more dangerous place. The world’s erstwhile most-powerful nation is being run by a man obsessed with Twitter. Other leaders similarly swear and swagger. Policy by sound bites is becoming the norm.

But what’s a person supposed to do? Democracy is about politics. And politics is about politicians. And politicians belong to political parties. So democracy is about political parties and who gets elected, gets the most votes, gets to sit in the parliament, pass laws, look important.

Well, democracy is also about people. It’s about all of us living together, sharing the planet and taking responsibility for it. It’s about active citizenship, rights and obligations, give and take.

Democracy is also about people. It’s about all of us living together, sharing the planet and taking responsibility for it

As the world becomes more tribal and polarised and the political debate more shallow, it’s no surprise that more and more people are getting fed up with politicians, their quarrels and infighting, their tendency to put party above nation. Their neglect of citizens’ interest. Their corruption, moral and/or pecuniary. Their dominance, their negligence and their egos.

And while everyone’s attention tends to centre on those who follow and vote for the hate-mongers and bigots, there is also another, more heartening global story. It’s about “ordinary” people taking matters into their own hands to work for the common public good. They are doing so through individual initiatives, local action, national movements and global campaigns.

Look carefully: while politicians argue and squabble, it’s the ordinary folk who are shaping and reshaping the world. Whether it’s trying to stop massacres or shelter refugees, cracking down on crime and guns, cleaning up parks and street corners, demanding safe food or fighting for equal opportunities, it’s the story of people, joining forces, putting aside their differences to tackle shared challenges.

Young Americans are taking to the streets to urge an end to gun violence, anti-Brexiteers are actively working to stop Brexit, Hungarians are protesting the policies and actions of Viktor Orbán and many Israelis are calling for peace with Palestinians. Their actions are getting bigger, stronger and more ambitious.

These moves very rarely make the headlines and if they do, they are quickly replaced by more virulent and toxic voices, those who see the world as an unending competition. The nasties make the headlines and actively troll their adversaries on social media. Hate and prejudice gets global attention. But the reality of today’s world is not just about those who insult and offend. It is also about constructive connectivity, of people putting aside their differences and grievances to join hands in the hope of making positive change.

Look carefully: while politicians argue and squabble, it’s the ordinary folk who are shaping and reshaping the world

Like En Marche in France, some movements do have leaders. But mostly these movements are amorphous, messy, volatile and leaderless. Some are short-lived, others live on.

Certainly spontaneous grassroot movements cannot replace well-organised political parties. They are vitally needed, however, to build and maintain open and inclusive societies, to keep politicians on their toes, to name and shame, keep politics more or less clean and drive constructive change. Sometimes their voices are drowned out by harsher clamour. Sometimes ‒ like the #MeToo movement ‒ they can transform old behaviours.

Like authentic and independent journalism, people-led political and social campaigns are vitally important for the survival of democracy. Little surprise then, as in Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Russia, media crackdowns and demonisation of civil society organisations are the unpleasant hallmark of autocrats and illiberals.

As it navigates increasingly treacherous waters, the EU can no longer rely on political parties to push for freedom and democracy, whether at home or abroad. As illustrated by the European People’s Party’s (EPP) leniency towards Orbán, the US Republican Party’s failure to rein in Trump, the party political debates over Brexit or indeed the failure to find a negotiated solution for Catalonia, politicians can no longer be relied on to think first of the public or national interest.

The EU can no longer rely on political parties to push for freedom and democracy

If the EU is serious about the renewal of democracy both in Europe and globally, it must engage more forcefully with non-state actors, including local and regional authorities, business leaders, labour unions and students, women’s groups and representatives of ethnic and religious minorities.

These discussions can no longer be a mere ritual, an after-thought or an obligation. Financial and moral support for pro-democracy groups, both at home and abroad, should be redoubled. Whether at home or outside, European Commissioners and members of the European Parliament must step outside their rarefied bubbles and engage, engage, engage with the demos.

Speeches and brief appearances at conferences and conventions are no longer enough. With elections to the European Parliament around the corner, it’s more and more urgent to change the EU’s rules of public engagement. It’s time to get personal and make emotional connections.

Yes, people are being seduced by populists across the world. But many more are working courageously to stop the global slide into despair. They deserve our support and attention.


This time it’s really different. Or at least it should be. This year’s International Women’s Day on 8 March comes amid an unprecedented global movement for women’s rights, equality and justice.

There’s no getting away from it. Having started in the glamourous world of Hollywood, the #MeToo movement of women demanding an end to sexual harassment and violence has gone global.

Women’s rights are on the agenda of even the most conservative societies. Brave women are coming out with their painful #MeToo stories of abuse but also with demands for changes in laws, traditions and mindsets, which still stand in the way of their right to education, health, jobs, political representation, economic empowerment and more.

But there is no room for complacency. The push-back against women has already begun in many countries. Take your foot off the pedal – even for a minute – and there’s a danger of slippage, of the return to old mindsets and suffocatingly restrictive traditions.

So how can the current momentum for equal rights be maintained? And also, how can the demands for change be turned into policies to ensure that change truly happens?

The push-back against women has already begun in many countries

It’s important to keep up the pressure, to continue the global marches and campaigns and to make sure that equal rights issues continue to trend on social media. It is important to get men involved and to insist, as Hillary Clinton did in Beijing in 1995, that “women’s rights are human rights”. Most of all, it is important to press for new policies, stronger action and strict enforcement.

Even as the momentum for equality picks up speed, three key areas are often neglected.

First, although they represent over a quarter of the world population and a majority of the global agricultural labour force, the rights of women in rural communities are often forgotten.

As underlined by UN Women, less than 20% of landholders worldwide are women. Women in rural areas are paid less than men and lack infrastructure and services, decent work and social protection.

But these women are also challenging stereotypes by using innovative agricultural methods, setting up successful businesses and acquiring new skills, pursuing their legal entitlements and running for office.

Second, despite the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which recognises that women play an integral role in conflict prevention and resolution, and despite evidence that the chances of lasting peace increase when women are part of peace negotiations, women are still not always given a place at the table in peace-making or the crafting of constitutions.

Between 1992 and 2011, women made up just 9% of negotiators in peace processes, according to a study by UN Women. Also, in spite of much lofty political rhetoric, the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda is one of the most structurally underfunded and under-implemented agendas of the Security Council.

It is time to recognise the role of women entrepreneurs as key development actors

Women can also play a key role in the fight against extremism and radicalisation. Sadly, women and girls are not only victims of systematic sexual violence by extremists but have also become targets of recruiters. Currently women make up at least 20‒30%of foreign terrorist fighters in Syria.

Third, it is time to recognise the role of women entrepreneurs as key development actors. Across the world, women entrepreneurs and innovators are contributing to the jobs and growth agenda and helping to implement Agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

However, while women entrepreneurs create new businesses, disrupt established industries and develop innovative platforms at a record pace, they still face institutional barriers to starting and growing a business that makes financial parity with male entrepreneurs a long-term challenge.

In the 21st Century, almost all societies pay at least lip service to gender equality and recognise the vital role played by women in society, politics and business. UN resolutions and lip service are not enough, however.

Brave women are stepping up the pressure. They need the support of their families, the wider public and – very importantly ‒ urgent action and enforcement by governments.

When Eurasia meets Indo-Pacific: the brave new world of geopolitics

THANK you, Donald Trump. Uncertainty over the global impact of US president’s America First policy has unleashed an unexpectedly vigorous new “great game” of geopolitical musical chairs as nations rethink their age-old friendships and alliances — and enmities.

True, it’s not just Trump’s unpredictability that is triggering a re-ordering of the post-war, liberal, world order. China’s emergence as a self-confident and assertive “Great Power” is worrying many of its neighbours.

Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU has sparked uncertainties about the future of both Britain itself and of the EU. Russia is playing a secretive game of hide-and-seek with the alleged ambition of further destabilising liberal democracies and their leaders.

Taking their lead from the US president, populists — from both the left and the right of the political spectrum — are enjoying their moment in the sun.

And of course, everywhere you go there are signs of dangerous new power dynamics, strategic repositioning and emerging tensions and conflicts. If The Economist and a swathe of other recent books and articles are to be believed, the world is on the verge of a horrible, full-scale, war.

Certainly, inter-state and intra-state competition and rivalries are getting heated in many parts of the world. With their bitter age-old animosities, Pakistan and India are in a league of their own. North Korea’s “great leader” Kim Jong-un is as unpredictable as the current occupant of the White House.

The wars in Syria and Yemen continue to shock in their cruelty and disregard for the killing of innocent men, women and children. Afghanistan’s hopes of peace are dashed one terrorist attack at a time. And so on.

But these are not the wars that the scaremongers are fretting about. No, it’s about the Third World War, the clash around-the-corner between America and China, which, based on a precedent set by the Peloponnesian Wars of Fifth Century BC between a rising Athens and the established Sparta, pre-ordains that war is inevitable when an emerging power attempts to supplant a hegemonic power in international politics.

Could be. History can and does repeat itself. Harvard Professor Graham Allison’s latest book on the subject, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides Trap?, has received global attention.

On the face of it of course, the stage is set for increased Sino-American rivalry. China’s increased economic, political and diplomatic heft is giving the US a run for its money especially — but not only — in Asia.

America’s new National Security Strategy singles out Russia and China as competitors that have emerged to “challenge American power, influence and interests”. Beijing is also criticised for its aggressive investment and other economic activities — a reference to the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative — and leveraging advanced technologies which, according to Washington, it has often acquired through stealth and theft.

Beijing, meanwhile, is in no mood to be cowed down. President Xi Jinping has made no secret of his quest for Great Power status and a belief that he is leading China into a new era of global influence. In small and big ways, China is seeking to share America’s hitherto overarching Asian presence. For many, Xi’s real plan is to dominate all of Asia.

Which brings us to the “Indo-Pacific”, a term now being used by the US, Japan, Australia and India — which have also set up a so-called “quad” of democratic nations — to describe the region once known as the “Asia Pacific”. For many, it’s about trying to counter China’s growing influence in Asia by recognising India growing eminence and hopes of playing a more powerful political and economic role in the region.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s idea of a quadrilateral security arrangement involving Australia, India, Japan and the US goes hand in hand with his hopes for a “free and open Indo Pacific” seek to link the rising Asian economies with still largely underdeveloped Africa.

It’s not just about zero-sum games and pre-programmed confrontations, however. History can also teach lessons. The European Union, established after World War II, is one example of nations having learned through tragedy and experience that it’s best to avoid the horrors of war. The Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean) also sees itself as a peace project.

And it is true that even as they compete and quarrel, most world powers are also engaged in an equally exciting — but less headline-making — game of cooperation and collaboration.

China is balancing its controversial actions in the South China Sea with a charm offensive — and plenty of money — based on its pro-connectivity Belt and Road Initiative. China’s previously tense relations with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are on the mend. China and Asean are going to start negotiations on a code of conduct for activities in the South China Sea.

Japan and India are working together on connectivity projects in Africa. India and Asean are drawing closer and the EU is working with Japan, India, Asean and China on critical 21st century challenges such as climate change, urbanisation and water management.

For some, the focus should now turn to “Eurasia” as a vast swathe of land encompassing both Asia and Europe but also as a new world order. Bruno Maçães, a Portuguese scholar and former minister, believes that 21st century will not be American or Asian, but rather “Eurasian” — dominated by the interplay of the powers on a Eurasian supercontinent, above all China, Russia and the EU.

Trump has certainly disrupted the way nations have conducted their affairs for over 70 decades. The current disorder and disruption can be scary at time. But they also offer a time for states and people to rethink, reassess and rewrite the rules.

Perhaps the lesson from history is simple: when in doubt, engage — and cooperate.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2018

View From Abroad: Europe’s soft power is a source of strength, not weakness

IT’S not easy being the only adult in the room. As the world lurches from bad to worse, US President Donald Trump insults and offends on Twitter, other leaders talk equally tough and everyone has zero-sum games on their mind, the European Union is the odd man out.

With its talk of peace and cooperation, building partnerships, creating networks and preserving the multilateral order the EU seems out of step with the toxic mood of the times.

The US rants about hard power, rockets and bombs, threatens to press on the nuclear button and warns of fire and fury if confronted by its “enemies”. Also on the cards are sanctions and plans to cut off aid for Iran and Pakistan, bombing North Korea and launching a trade war against China. The list is long, the talk is tough.

Trump’s America hates Islam and Muslims, thinks many African countries as well as Haiti and Salvador are “shitholes” and is retreating from its global “obligations” including on trade and climate change.

Viewed from the White House, Europe and Europeans are flabby and soft, such wimps. Not spending enough on defence. All that talk of values and principles, all those statements about human rights, all those promises to engage, discuss and dialogue. Such absolute losers.

True, some EU member states aren’t averse to equally harsh views on how to deal with an independent judiciary, media and minorities. But as spotlighted most recently by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the EU — collectively — is a robust defender of a liberal, rules-based world order.

Take note of Merkel’s denunciation at Davos of the “poison” of populism, her commitment to finding multilateral solutions to global problems and her insistence that isolationism and protectionism are not the best way to deal with a complex and changing world. The French leader, meanwhile, made a similarly passionate appeal for environmental protection, gender equality and the need to fend of nationalism and populism. Macron also noted that in the Middle East and in Africa’s Sahel region, “we’ve got not only to win the war against terrorism but we’ve got to create conditions for durable peace.”

The Davos crowd of globalists and “citizens of nowhere” lapped it all up of course. Macron received a standing ovation. But Davos is not the real world. The conversation, for example, was very different at the “Raisina Dialogue” held in Delhi just days before the good and the great braved massive snow storms to arrive in Davos.

Organised by the Observer Research Foundation and the Indian ministry of external affairs, the two-and-a-half-day Raisina conference in Delhi offered striking and sobering insights into changing geopolitical dynamics, power shifts and the interests of countries — and their leaders — that many people in Brussels still view as the “rest of the world”.

And what a world it is too. America still matters, most participants seemed to agree. In fact, America matters more and more. President Trump’s tough talk resonates with the other strongmen in the world and many who back them.

Take Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who opened the Raisina Dialogue by highlighting the need to develop economic, military and political power to emerge as a strong nation because as he underlined: “The weak don’t survive.”

Forget all that talk of “soft power”, agreed others, the world belongs to those who wield “hard power”, have big military machines and are ready and willing to torture, maim and kill to defend their national sovereignty and the nation state.

What a contrast with a Europe which “doesn’t do geopolitics”, is unable to deal with a wily China and a resurgent Russia and waffles on about resilience and preserving the liberal international order, said others, adding for good effect that with the refugee crisis and eurozone woes as well as Brexit and populism, Europe was a spent force.

“What is suitable for the EU is hardly imaginable anywhere else in the world,” said a participant, adding that Europe may see itself as a model for others, but it was only a “regional organisation, unable to play a role on the global stage”.

For EU representatives at the meeting, all the strongman talk of “nation states was 19th century stuff”. “Sovereign states competing with each other without rules is a recipe for catastrophe,” said former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt. The EU’s decision to share sovereignty was based on experience.

But here’s the thing: the divide between Europe and a world hooked on the joys of hard power is set to grow wider and deeper. Trump and Brexit have unleashed the demons of populism and nationalism.

Europe’s ability to stand up to the geopolitical transformations will depend on whether it can practice what it preaches. The harsh, populist messages from Poland and Hungary, the presence of far-right politicians in the Austrian government with their loud anti-immigrant rants and Muslim-bashing, the treatment of refugees and migrants in many member states, erode Europe’s global standing.

The EU must also become less defensive, more self-confident and more assertive in protecting and promoting the real liberal democratic order. It must continue to speak out in favour of freedom, fundamental values and basic human rights. It should do so forcefully even in the face of criticism not just from Russia and China but also from Washington.

The need for a new and inspiring European narrative has never been more urgent and more necessary. Being peaceful — striving for peace, engaging in dialogue, speaking for the vulnerable — is not a sign of weakness. It’s the true strength and power of Europe. And it should remain so.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2018

European far right’s anti-Muslim rants are losing power to shock

CALL it “insult fatigue”. Only a few months ago, abusive insults and rants hurled at Muslims by Europe’s far-right parties — and by some Eastern European leaders who are equally fanatically anti-Muslim — had the power to anger and shock.

No longer. True, journalists are still reporting on some of the more outrageous comments by the motley group of Islam-haters. And the anti-Muslim diatribes of the far right on Twitter and other social media sites still get traction among their devoted followers.

But the truth is that for many average Europeans, it’s all turned a bit tedious. Far-right leaders, who were once seen as charismatic and worthy of 24-hour media coverage — including “blonde bombshell” France’s Marine Le Pen and her Dutch fake-blonde male counterpart Geert Wilders — have become much too predictable. They haven’t changed their tune. It’s the same old, same old, toxic song.

The far right’s demands to “keep Muslims out, send them home” have become ordinary and routine as have their claims that all male refugees are potential rapists and the women are submissive, oppressed and complicit.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said that refugees from the Middle East are really “Muslim invaders” in disguise. The far right Freedom Party in Austria is part of the government and its interior minister wants to “concentrate” asylum seekers in special camps.

So what? Big deal. After all, it’s 2018, folks and ordinary people have other things on their mind.

The optimist in me is reassured by the European public’s collective yawn at the shenanigans of the far right. This collective European shrug shows a certain degree of maturity and sophistication. Doesn’t it?

And if they are ignored, the far right will stop trying to be so obscenely poisonous about Islam and Muslims and go back to being obnoxious in other ways. Won’t they?

There’s no doubt that Europe’s Muslim bashers are become boringly repetitive. US President Donald Trump may have turned Muslim-baiting into a global sport, causing hysterical excitement and emulation among his European fans, but the novelty is wearing off.

Whisper it softly, but Trump and his wannabes in Europe have lost their lustre. After all, most Europeans, like most Americans, are not racists or Islam haters. Many are welcoming refugees into their homes, recruiting them into their companies, helping them integrate and become “good” citizens. Governments are working hard on revamping their migration policies. The refugees, meanwhile, are getting on with life. It’s getting better all the time.

If only it were that simple. The lack of public anger at the far right’s racist, xenophobic and inhumane rants is not a good thing. It betrays a tragic numbness in the face of repeated verbal aggression, an acceptance of the unacceptable.

In fact, the lack of reaction from other EU leaders when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban says all refugees seeking entry into Europe are “Muslim invaders” is disappointing.

It is sad that given his nasty views, Orban was invited to attend a meeting hosted by the German Christian Socialist Union (CSU), Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partners. Orban also continues to be feted by the European Peoples Party, the leading conservative political group in the European Parliament.

And as for Austria, the country’s new Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz has been received and welcomed — and congratulated — for this “pro-European” views by top EU leaders, including European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker.

The Commission chief has remained silent on the fact that Kurtz’s government includes the far right Freedom Party whose interior minister Herbert Kickl has said he wants “basic services centres, suitable infrastructure that enables us to concentrate people in the asylum process in one place”.

The comments have provoked outrage, with Alexander Pollak, head of migrants charity SOS Mitmensch, calling it a “deliberate provocation” and left-wing essayist Robert Misik saying “a Rubicon has been crossed”.

The opposition Green Party warned against the “language of National Socialism creeping into our way of thinking and feeling”.

But the silence of others in Europe has been deafening.

There is some hope, however. Heads of states from seven of the EU’s southern members last week issued a joint declaration calling, among other points, for a more integrated migration policy and asylum system.

The leaders of Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain met in Rome and released a statement, saying they were “firmly committed to a common European policy on migration”.

The “Southern Seven” are understandably angry at having to bear the brunt of the number of refugees arriving on Europe’s shores.

But Orban and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki have refused to take in migrants under an EU quota system. “In terms of migration and quotas that were to be imposed on [EU] member countries we strongly reject such an approach as it infringes on sovereign decisions of member states,” Morawiecki told a joint news conference after recent talks with Orban in Budapest.

Austria’s Freedom Party may be the only far-right party in government in Western Europe but similar groups are making inroads in other countries.

In neighbouring Germany, the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered parliament for the first time, winning 94 seats.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party came second in elections last March and in France Marine Le Pen of the National Front (FN) reached the run-off for the presidency but was defeated by the liberal Emmanuel Macron.

The initial buzz created by Europe’s far right may have died down but the parties themselves are alive and kicking — and waiting for the next election, possibly in March in Italy, to get back in the spotlight.

No, Europe’s far right is no yawning matter.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2018

VIEW FROM ABROAD: It’s been a difficult year, so why does Europe have a spring in its step?

ASK any European policymaker and she/he will tell you it’s been a difficult year, a rollercoaster ride of peaks and troughs, moments of elation followed by periods of grim introspection.

And yet as 2017 draws to an end, the European Union appears to have a spring in its step. Part of it is mere relief at having made it through the last 12 months without a major catastrophe. The EU despite the doomsters and the pessimists has shown its resilience.

Better still, whether in the Netherlands, France or Germany, a majority of Europeans have shown their ability to resist the toxic and corrosive populist messages of division and confrontation.

There’s more. The European economy is doing better and jobless rates are down. The EU’s executive European Commission last month sharply lifted its growth predictions to a 2.2 per cent expansion in 2017, the fastest pace in a decade. Significantly, unemployment in the Eurozone fell to 8.8pc in October, its lowest level since January 2009.

And while it may seem bizarre to outsiders, Britain’s decision to leave the EU — and the angst and remorse this is causing among many British people — has highlighted the successes of the Union.

It’s not just the incompetence of the British Brexit negotiators or the deep divisions the EU divorce has triggered within British political parties. It’s that each time Britain seeks to disentangle itself from the Union, it highlights just how much it is going to lose in terms of its interests, clout and reputation.

Take trade. Brexiteers may dream of a “Global Britain” sweeping across the world, striking magnificent free trade agreements, but the reality is that no country has said it would rather strike a trade deal with Britain than with the EU.

Also of course, it is now becoming clear that Brexit Britain will be economically worse off outside the EU and that crashing out without a deal would see the economy take a £100 billion hit. Since the Brexit vote, UK’s economic growth has slowed considerably and the country has been overtaken by the eurozone.

Interestingly also, part of the new energy in Europe is due to US President Donald Trump’s increasingly erratic behaviour. The EU has condemned the American president’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, saying that status of Jerusalem should be determined by Israelis and Palestinians in direct negotiations.

Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, has said she has promised the Palestinian Authority she will work towards the division of Jerusalem.

In recent days, with Britain now out of the picture, EU nations have also achieved a 70-year-old ambition to integrate their defences by launching a pact between 25 EU governments to fund, develop and deploy armed forces together.

In what European Council President Donald Tusk described as “bad news for our enemies”, the EU decided to stop wasting billions of euros on fragmented defence policies while also lowering Europe’s heavy reliance on the United States.

Denmark, which has an opt-out from EU defence matters, and Malta were the only EU countries not to sign up along with Brexiting Britain. The pact, called Permanent Structured Cooperation, or Pesco, is meant as a show of unity and a tangible step in EU integration.

Trump’s criticism of low European defence spending and his constant warnings that Europe could no longer rely on the US if countries did not pay up, have also played a role.

This brings us to France and its charismatic young president, Emmanuel Macron, who is now viewed as the de facto leader of Europe albeit in partnership with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The latter, however, is a diminished figure after the recent elections as she struggles to form a government.

Last week, the French leader hosted the Paris climate summit with 50 heads of state and government and over 4,000 other participants. He then invited the five Sahel countries — Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad — to coordinate the fight against terrorism in the region.

But when it comes to EU reform, Macron is well aware that he cannot implement his European political ideas without the German chancellor.

Also, for all their happy year-end smiles, EU leaders are deeply divided not only on Eurozone reform but also on how to deal with refugees and migrants, with most central and eastern European states deeply opposed to taking in any newcomers despite EU demands that they do so.

The New Year will certainly confront Europe with new and complex challenges. But there’s a sense of achievement in having got through a difficult year, relatively unscathed. For the moment.

— The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2017