Trump meets Kim.

Now the dust has settled and the media seems to have got bored with this meeting, what was achieved, and who, if anyone, came out ahead? Some of the comments about this meeting seem to me to verge on the ludicrous, but my answer to those questions, what was achieved was that the two countries at least started talking to each other, and nobody came out ahead.

The meeting led to a statement where the north agreed to “work towards complete denuclearisation” and the US committed to provide security guarantees to the North. Commentators have moaned that the statement left out “verifiable” and “irreversible”. Actually, the document gave no hint as to how this denuclearisation was to be achieved or what the terms mean, which is hardly surprising because such details need to be worked out, and that takes a long time. Equally, the US gave no clue as to how it was to provide security guarantees. This will be significantly more difficult because US Presidents have a habit of tearing up commitments made by previous Presidents. Ask Gaddafi, who gave a promise not to go after nuclear weapons in return for security. If I were Kim, I would expect this to be clarified well before I started to throw away what security I have.

Just to be clear, North Korea has adopted a porcupine strategy for security. The porcupine knows that in an all-out contest it will die. What it tries to do is to make it so obvious at the start that such a victory will come with a price that the predator will not wish to pay. Kim would know he cannot win an all-out fight with the US, but with nuclear weapons he can exact a very undesirable price. The reason they have been developed has been obvious too. George Bush invaded Iraq on a totally trumped up charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and then killed Saddam in an example of “victor’s justice”. He then put North Korea on a list of “the axis of evil”. The then Kim had to do something, and nuclear weapons were as good as any other option for a security guarantee.

Many commentators seem to think Trump gave away the shop and got nothing back. How? Apparently by talking to Kim, he promoted Kim to being an international figure. Well, I think that is the nearest to total rubbish that there is. Trump wanted Kim to give up nuclear weapons, his security blanket. How, short of all-out war, was this ever going to happen if he refused to talk to Kim? You can’t get anyone to do what you want without talking to them. Trump also said he would cancel future military exercises along the border. That is not much of a concession. The US military is very highly trained, and these exercises were more for show than anything else. Added to which, Trump claimed the cancellation saved the US a lot of money, so it was as much a gift to himself as to Kim. In the meantime, Kim has apparently destroyed a bomb-testing site and declared no more nuclear tests. In reality, he probably decided that he needed no more tests, and destruction of the site gave news, and stopped people from further investigating the site. He has also agreed to have US bodies from the Korean War repatriated to the US. Again, neither of these are big deals, but Kim has at least given them. Both sides made small concessions to the other that were not that meaningful, but they each gave something.

In my opinion, very little has actually happened, and the biggest gain is the two leaders have stopped prodding each other and started talking to each other. It is hard to know where this will end up, but I suspect that as long as Kim keeps a low profile and stays polite, the up-coming potential trade war will take up far more attention.


Scottish secession? A failure of governance?

In the previous post, I discussed the issue of secession, admittedly, because it was a blog post and not a book, in a very oversimplified way, but the question remains, why join, or why secede? First, union. Groups unite because together they are stronger than when separate. Historically, strength was important to save the citizens from being exploited, or even pillaged. The US is now so strong militarily that probably nobody can defeat it, but that would not be the case if it comprised fifty squabbling separate countries. Similarly, the fact that the US has such a strong economy means that it alone of all countries can print the world’s reserve currency. However, to form a union, the various disparate groups have to give up things. Why secede? My guess is, at least one of the various groups feels it has been discriminated against. Thus in Iraq, the main problem is probably not religion, but rather the corruption of the various leaders who use religion to support their positions and suppress others. We see that at present in Iraq where the US set up a “democracy”, and al-Maliki set about suppressing the Sunnis. But shortly, Scotland will vote on secession. What could have led to that? The question is important because it shines some light on the nature of governance. Points to note are that the Scots have not been deliberately treated differently from any other citizens in the UK, which in turn has been quite reasonably governed. There has been no selective discrimination, and no clearly bad governance or corruption. So why? 

My guess is the ignition point came from Margaret Thatcher. Her ultra right wing policies caused the end of heavy industry in the UK, which in turn was largely in Scotland. The problem was not restricted to Scotland, as the Welsh coal industry shutdown, and the English automotive industry was effectively ended, but the damage to Glasgow was probably far greater than anywhere else. So, why did Thatcher do that? It most certainly was not just to deal to Labour party constituencies. The problem was that the industries in Britain had become very inefficient, and could not stand on their own two feet.

There were various villains. First, the cost of labour was not competitive with the cost in places such as Korea. The options for Clyde shipbuilding, for example, were to pay workers on Korean levels (that was not going to happen), sell their ships for higher prices (how?), or they had to make them more efficiently. The German automotive industry faced the same challenges, and it succeeded by accepting it would have to sell cars at a higher price, but they would make them better. The key was to give value. Many British industries did not follow this strategy, which required intense investment in R&D, and in modernizing their factories. Management failed Britain, and management is also part of governance.

The Unions were also part of governance, and were part of the problem. To protect employment, they demanded over-manning. The classic example involved changing a light bulb. It has been stated that an electrical worker had to change the bulb, a rigger had to hold the ladder, and there had to be someone from stores to bring the new bulb. This in turn has given rise to a range of jokes. One of the more biting examples is:

How many theoretical physicists are required to change a light bulb?

Answer: Two. One to hold the bulb, and one to rotate the Universe.

The joke has nothing to do with light bulbs, or employment.

Another problem is that union requires sharing, and agitators leap on the advantages of not sharing, when there are such advantages. Thus if Scotland secedes, Scotland will get the oil money. That will make some Scottish politicians salivate. There will be a price, and whether the voters hear about such prices is another matter. I have no idea what the Scottish voters will decide, but it raises the issue that as the size of a union grows, what matters most? Economic efficiency or fairness? What should be done to promote what you choose? Any thoughts?

Syria, Iraq and Ukraine: Is Secession right?

Those who have followed this blog for a while will recall a number of posts on some of the issues involved in these countries. What is common to these countries is that all have armed uprisings to achieve either overthrow of the government, or secession. We might also note that many in Scotland want to secede, BUT they are going about it by having the Scots vote on it. Further, my guess is that if Scotland secedes, there will still be a substantial fraction of the Scots who do not wish to. If we think of Ukraine, the question of secession by the East may well be answered differently if only the east votes, or if all Ukraine votes. Majority have to win a vote, but the majority of whom? If there is an armed uprising, for the uprising to end, there has to be a good reason to lay down the arms. So to end the uprising, either concessions have to be made, or the rebels have to be removed from the field, either by arrest or by killing. Now, not everybody can get their way, so why do they want secession? Alternatively, why does Union work?

The most obvious example of where union works is the US. There we have fifty states, many of which would qualify as powerful countries, and they are held together by a Union. The United Kingdom almost works, but is apparently a little creaky at the seams. So what are the differences here? The most obvious one is history. Scotland and England spent many centuries warring. The parts of the UK still consider themselves separate countries within the Union, which makes it different from the US. One important aspect of the US is that the educational system imprints the importance of being United, and the citizens accept that. So, in my opinion, a United system works best when everyone speaks a common language and has no more than location to identify citizens as being different. Notwithstanding that, a Federal system works quite well when there are regions with different languages and different cultures, provided the Federation accepts the differences and shows pride in them. Thus Canada, although occasionally a little creaky, basically works well. In the US there are differences between states, and again these are accepted and praised. The Federal government makes a major effort to see that all states are treated more or less equally. Also, a fair application of fair law is required.

Now if we look at our troublesome regions, Ukraine is plagued by a section that uses a different language, and worse than that, the Western Ukraine has in the past seemed to want to suppress that language, and there is no reason to believe that attitude will change. Poroshenko has promised that suppression will stop, but the problem there is nobody believes him. That gets to the next obvious requirement for a Union: the various parts have to trust the whole to treat them according to agreed rules. Ukraine fails because law is not strongly founded there.

When we look at Syria and Iraq, the problem is reasonably clear: governments based on religion do not work when there is more than one religion. Governments must be secular. It is here that the West has failed these regions. Yes, Saddam and Bashir are not exactly examples of good governance; they have been brutal and of course they are/were anything but democratic. However, provided you obeyed the rules, you were generally safe there, and until the West started bombing Iraq the first time, Iraq was prosperous, secular, safe, and reasonably liberal. Now it is a feeding ground for Jihadis, who cannot wait to get revenge on the West. Now, the Shia government has decided to get revenge on past suppression, and it is actively discriminating against the Sunni minority, which is hardly desirable when that minority provided most of the military class previously. The US hardly helped either by effectively making the Kurdish part a separate entity.

The question now is, what should be done? My view is that everybody else should keep out. Yes, what is going to happen is not going to be pretty, and a lot more blood will be spilt, but this is largely due to outside intervention. There has been no sign of competence so far, other than in bombing, so why does anyone think there will be an improvement? The problem is, politicians visualize the ending they want; they do not seem capable of visualizing what they do not want.

Why should my comments count? I have no special experience that makes my opinion more important than yours, and my one and only experience that is relevant was being caught up in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, during which I talked to people from both sides. On the other hand, I have thought quite a bit about the issues in general because in the future history novels I write, I have “invented” various forms of governance to support the themes related to abuse of power. After all this thought, I do not know the answers, although I think I can guess what will not work. If you, the reader, feel you can contribute, please do.

Finally, remember the reduced prices on my Mars novels this solstice; see the previous post for details.


One of the themes of my trilogy First Contact was that advanced aliens with a sense of morality would not wish to contact us. Yes, I know, there was some law to that effect in Star Trek, but in First Contact it is not so much that they are forbidden per se from becoming involved, but rather, if they do, they must take full responsibility for the outcome. Accordingly, they prefer not to get involved. This raises the question, should leaders of powerful nations adopt a similar philosophy? While no action can be guaranteed to succeed, should such leaders at least enunciate their end goal and a plan on how they will get there before intervening? At least give everyone an indication that they have a planned end position, and it is worth the risk.

This is where my views on Syria are probably different from many of the Western leaders. Let us consider the logic of the situation. Suppose we assert

The use of chemical weapons to kill innocent civilians is a crime.

I think we could all agree on that. Now, how about

Any act that leads to the killing of innocent civilians is a crime.

Agree? If not, why not? If so, why? These are not so simple questions, because the politician will assert that the cruise missile is a “surgical” instrument, and any deaths are unfortunate collateral damage. Perhaps, but what do you think the relations of the dead think?

What is going on in Syria is a continuation of what was effectively started in Iraq, although the seeds were sown when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The resultant carve-up into countries based on someone using a pen and ruler on a map was not one of the Western leaders’ better moments. However, whatever you will say, the countries of the mid-east were fairly stable and relatively pleasant to live in until Saddam Hussein elected to go to war with Iran. We do not know the cause of this, but we do know the western nations did not exactly over-exert themselves to stop it, until it became obvious that it was not going anywhere. Nevertheless, leaving aside this war, Iraq was a tolerable place for Iraqis to live in, provided you were not considered to be a dissident. Now, the western leaders and our press did not like Saddam Hussein’s way of dealing with dissidents, nor for that matter, others’, nevertheless provided you were not a dissident, life was reasonably good in similar countries. Yes, some people who were favoured got richer than others, but name a country where this does not happen to some extent?

Eventually, the West decided to invade Iraq and get rid of Saddam, nominally to get rid of weapons of mass destruction. You may recall the assertions that such weapons were there: there was “undeniable evidence”, even though UN weapons inspectors could not find any. This hardly provides confidence in the current assertions regarding Syria. Of course, once the invasion was completed, there were no such weapons. Also, tens of thousands of otherwise innocent Iraqis were killed. So, what happened next? The army of occupation was too small, and the occupiers for some reason seemed to think that the Iraqis would be so pleased to have foreigners tramping all over their territory, but unfortunately they were not. Even worse, the US disbanded the Iraqi security police, and in the resultant chaos, there was unprecedented sectarian violence. Even now we still have dozens of innocents being killed per month. The West intervened, it had no idea what to do, and it walked away, taking no responsibility for the mess it made.

Having learned nothing, the West then bombed Libya. How many people really think that Libya is a success? Yes, Gaddafi has gone, but are the Libyan people better off? Now, there is the urge to bomb Syria. Exactly what will that achieve? If a quick burst would really prevent further uses of chemical weapons, then perhaps that is an achievement. Whatever else, however, it is fairly clear that it will not stop the overall killing. Worse, this sectarian violence is really simply yet another consequence of the Iraqi intervention, and once again, everyone will walk away if and when the dust settles. What is the West’s long-term goal in Syria? Getting rid of Assad may seem an achievement, but what will replace him? The most likely are the fundamentalist jihadis, or what we could loosely term Al Qaeda. Now, that would be an achievement for the West.

One last question. If you lived there, and had to give up one of the following, which would you give up? The right to elect your leader, or the right to always end up alive after walking down the street? What moral right do outsiders have to intervene if what follows is worse than what is there now?