The Art of International Negotiations

The methodology of engaging international relations seems to be breaking down. Two issues that come to mind are the US attitude to the International Criminal Court, and Brexit.

Regarding the ICC, on September 10, John Bolton, the US National Security Advisor, announced that Washington would “use any means necessary” to push back against the influence of the ICC. The ICC was established in 2002, and has succeeded in convicting a number of war criminals from Africa and former Yugoslavia, although one can question exactly the nature of the sovereignty of the broken laws. Thus a senior military man could be prosecuted for the actions actually carried out by more junior soldiers, even in the absence of clear evidence of such orders. Obviously, people carrying out, or even worse, ordering murder, torture, etc, need punishing, but there also needs to be some sort of sovereignty, the reason being that, in my mind anyway, justice needs to be blind to the origin or nature of the perpetrators. If it is only the losing side that gets prosecuted, it is essentially victor’s justice, which is usually little better than revenge. Given that the US, Israel, China and Saudi Arabia have refused to ratify the founding document, on the basis that it had unacceptable consequences to national sovereignty, the concept of “international” is clearly questionable.

Now, as far as I know, no US citizen has ever been indicted, probably because it would be futile, but apparently there has been agitation regarding US soldiers in Afghanistan, particularly regarding alleged torture of detainees. Now, the argument then is, if the crime took place in Afghanistan, the fact that the US has not ratified the court is irrelevant, and any perpetrator of a crime against a ratified member can be prosecuted, irrespective of the nationality, or at least that is the view of the ICC. Of course, arresting such a person is another matter. Here, however, there is a further issue. Some of what is alleged, e.g. waterboarding and indefinite detention without due process, apparently occurred with the permission of very senior US officials and politicians, and apparently the President. This raises the question, exactly how does such an organization decide whether the President of the United States has ordered or permitted something that is illegal? But if the United States is exempt, why are lesser countries susceptible to prosecution? Is it a case of might makes right?

In any case, Bolton’s statement that the US would ban any such members of the ICC from entering the US, and it would sanction their funds and prevent them from using the US financial system is certainly a shot across the bow. The question then is, is this the way of going about negotiations? Or does the US feel there is no alternative? It is certainly acting as if the rest of the world is some sort of unfortunate added extra. In terms of international relations, the United States, through President Trump’s recent speech at the UN, has effectively declared it feels it wishes to separate its interests from those of the rest of the world. America first! I for one agree that all is not right with the UN, but I do not believe that attitude helps.

The Brexit negotiations are more confusing. The EU rules meant that when Britain elected to leave, there was a two-year period to sort out all the consequences, but at least the last six months of that appeared to be required to put the agreement in place, which left 18 months to reach the agreement. That has almost expired. The EU has decided that the UK has been “dawdling”, and trying to present the EU with a deal that would have to be agreed at the last minute, or no deal. The problem with that approach is that “no deal” works both ways, and the assumption that the other side is desperate to have a deal may be misguided. However, there are issues on which the EU is quite obstinate. One is that if the UK wants access to the EU markets, Britain must accept the free movement of citizens, and stopping that is one of the reasons Britain elected to leave the EU. There are other demands by the EU: manufactured goods must be by the EU rulebook; the European Court of Justice will have overall jurisdiction; the UK must retain European labour and environmental laws. Now it is reasonable to require such things for goods that are shipped to the EU, but the EU should have no say on goods that do not touch the EU as it is none of their business.

Some seem to predict a total disaster for the UK if they leave with no deal, however we should note that the UK buys £318 billion from the EU, and exports £235.8 billion. So, if all trade stopped, the EU would suffer an extra £82 billion. But the situation is worse than that because Britain’s exports of manufactured goods to Europe include an extensive array of parts, etc. These days, large complicated objects are not made by one company, but rather they are assembled from parts supplied by a large number of different manufacturers. So trade will not stop, and it is in both sides’ interests to keep it going with as few hold-ups as possible.

The other major problem is the Northern Ireland border. Theresa May offered a tolerably straightforward solution, which would allow smooth crossing of the border provided certain “paperwork” (essentially electronic in this case) was properly completed. The EU have responded by saying Northern Ireland must remain fully within the customs union, which effectively means that Northern Ireland would become part of Eire in all but name. No UK prime minister could accept that. As a negotiating stance, President Macron of France has stated the British plan is unacceptable because “it does not respect the integrity of the single market.” Effectively that is saying, either be in the EU or do not trade with it. That is a fairly tough stance. President Macron went further and called some of the Brexiteers liars. Not exactly diplomatic.

There is fairly clear evidence the attitude towards the UK from Brussels has hardened, and they seem to be forcing Britain to opt for “no deal”. Mrs May, being pushed into a corner, has responded by saying that it was unacceptable for the EU to reject her plan and offer nothing in return except “no Brexit”. To succeed in negotiations, both sides need something, and in this case, both sides need trade to continue. Neither side does well out of a failure. But both sides also need reasonably good will, and a desire to reach an agreement. Not a lot of promise there. It is hard to get rid of entrenched pig-headedness.

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UK Election Fallout and Qatar: what would you do if in charge?

Suppose like me you are an author of fiction. Given the following situations, put yourself in someone’s shoes and ask yourself, what next?

The first event was the rather unfortunate end result of the UK election. What was delivered was what I consider to be the worst possible outcome. The problem is, voters are sucked in by “jam today”, or “I am annoyed about something.” So, what now? First, some background. The national debt of Britain now stands at £ 1.73 trillion, and the interest payment on this debt is about 6% of revenue. That might seem to be reasonably sustainable, but there is the overall issue of Brexit looming. The UK has apparently had a recent surge in GDP, despite the threat of Brexit, but it is not clear that will last, and interest rates will probably grow from their record low. Suppose they double, which is easy from such lows. 6% suddenly turns to 12%, and that is ugly. (The existing loans will stay at their agreed rate, but can you pay them back when they mature? Otherwise you have to borrow at the new rate.) It appears that Jeremy Corbyn was promising a lot of spending, together with an unspecified increase in taxes. My guess is a lot of the youth vote that went to Corbyn thought the rich would pay. The usual problem with that assessment is that while the rich can be made to pay significantly higher taxes, to get the amounts needed to make a significant difference in revenue tax rises have to go a lot deeper. There are just not enough rich to soak. On the other hand, people may well argue they needed more money to go to health, education, or whatever. The question then is, can you pay for what you want?

May was apparently promising austerity. That is hardly attractive, but it was also put forward in a rather clumsy way. Cutting out school lunches is not only hardly a vote winner, but it is also never going to make a huge difference. Putting that up front is a strange way to win an election. It seems that the Tories were so convinced they were going to win that they decided to put up some policies that they knew would be unpopular, so they could say later, “You voted for them.” The two who are believed to have largely written the manifesto have resigned (really, pushed by angry senior Tories) but the question remains, why were they left to write it? Why did the senior Cabinet Ministers not know what was in it, or if they knew, why did they not do something about it? There’s plenty of blame to go around here, folks, nevertheless there are two hard facts: if Britain and the EU cannot manage Brexit properly, there will be severe economic problems, and economic problems seem to be like a very active virus that goes everywhere very quickly. The second is, if debt gets out of hand, the country spends so much on interest repayments that it ends up in the position Greece is now in. Anyone want that?

So, put yourself in some position: what would you do? My opinion is the Tories should realize that Corbyn has no chance currently of forming a government (because he needs every non-Tory vote) and get on doing something that has at least some public appeal. May either has to go, or learn oratory and get some empathy for the others.

The other event is the Arab attempt at isolating Qatar, on the grounds it is financing terrorism. Actually, the Saudis are almost certainly the biggest such supporters. The real reason appears to be either Qatar is friendly with Iran, or alternatively Qatar is the home of al Jazeera, a TV network that tries by and large to report the facts, warts and all. The US position on this is obscure. President Trump has lashed out against Qatar, without any particular evidence, although Qatar is known to have given refuge a number of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The US is also bombing Assad’s troops in Syria to prevent them getting at fleeing ISIS fighters; it seems that terrorism is being actively supported by the US, which make no strategic sense. At first, it looks as if Qatar could be quickly invaded from Saudi Arabia, but whoever does that would have to be very careful because Qatar houses the biggest local US base in the region, and has 11,000 military personnel there. To add to the complications, Turkey has promised to send troops. Fighting Turkey should mean fighting NATO, although with President Trump nothing automatically follows.

So, imagine you are the leader of Qatar, what would you do? Return the Muslim Brotherhood members to Egypt where they would probably be tortured and/or executed? Promise to stop funding terrorists? (If you really are not, this is easy to keep, but maybe not so easy to convince others that you are keeping it.) Remember, whatever you decide to do, you have to be prepared for whatever consequences follow. Not easy working out what leaders should do, is it? Writing fiction is, of course, easier, because you control what happens next. But if you want that fiction to have some relation with reality, what happens next has to be plausible, so here is your chance to get some practice.