For a US State Department employee in Guangzhou, China, it started one evening in 2018 with a sound like a glass marble hitting the floor overhead with a loud crack, followed by headaches, insomnia and memory loss. Fifteen other American officials in China reported similarly inexplicable symptoms.
A few months earlier, in a Moscow hotel room, visiting CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos experienced what felt like vertigo. His health steadily deteriorated over the following months and years, with migraines, dizziness and exhaustion, to the point where he was forced to retire.
Two senior US intelligence officers suffered the same abrupt and baffling medical problems on a visit to Australia earlier this year.… Seguir leyendo »
The problem with freezing conflicts in a defective fridge is that after a while they start to stink. That’s what happened to the nasty ancestral feud between the Armenians and Azeris in the rugged mountain terrain of Nagorno-Karabakh. Vladimir Putin slammed them into the freezer drawer marked “Eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, Transnistria and miscellaneous other territories — to be consumed at leisure” and forgot. Now he is faced with a full-scale war on the southern borders of Russia that could soon turn into a geopolitical flashpoint.
That’s how imperial power unravels: the centre neglects the periphery, blood is spilt and strength ebbs away from the leader.… Seguir leyendo »
Covid-19 should not have struck us so unawares. Why did the warnings of Bill Gates and others go unheeded? Why were even rich countries so unprepared? The answer is clear. Governments recognise a duty to prepare for floods, terrorist acts and other risks that are likely to occur in the short term and be restricted to their own countries. But they have little incentive to tackle longer-term threats that are likely to occur long after they’ve left office and which are global rather than local.
Such threats are many and varied — and looming ever larger. As we’ve discovered to our cost, pandemics can strike at any time; so can worldwide failures of infrastructure.… Seguir leyendo »
Angela Merkel may be patronisingly pigeon-holed as Mutti, the consensus-seeking matriarch of Europe, but she is also capable of wielding the assassin’s blade. A crucial step in her rise to power in Germany was the way she used a strategically placed comment article to turn over her mentor Helmut Kohl. After being pushed aside, the great trencherman got some petty revenge by telling a would-be biographer that Merkel had barely known how to hold her cutlery at the dinner table when he first took on the callow East German.
Well, Merkel certainly improved her knife skills. Two of the men now positioning themselves for the imminent arrival of the post-Merkel era were sacked by her in the past because she feared their ambition.… Seguir leyendo »
I’ve spent most of the past week nose down in Troubled Blood, the fifth Cormoran Strike novel by JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith. It is the best one yet, by miles — confident, utterly gripping, niftily plotted, clearly meticulously researched (there are all sorts of faint echoes of long-ago murders) and heavy on satisfying characterisation. The plot — there are no spoilers here, by the way — concerns the disappearance 40 years before the start of the book of a female GP who may or may not have been the victim of a serial killer. The novel was published on Tuesday and is 944 pages long.… Seguir leyendo »
Lenin once said that “there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen”. If Covid-19 is the great accelerator then perhaps the most significant change it has hastened is the shift in the balance of power between East and West. In a timely new book, The Wake Up Call, out this week, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge argue that the virus has exposed serious flaws in western governments and demonstrated the growing strength and resilience of many eastern states. With high death rates and a looming economic crisis, Britain, America and the European Union have, they write, failed the “stress test” of the pandemic.… Seguir leyendo »
The summer of 2020 is providing ample proof that whatever dissatisfactions we in the West have with our own governments, there are millions who would risk death to live under their aegis. It will no doubt be argued that Lebanon’s real problem is poverty fuelled by elite greed, and that the thousands of migrants who have risked the dangerous Channel crossing are fleeing wars we started.
But Lebanon was not poor 40 years ago, when its GDP per capita outpaced that of its neighbours by more than a half, yet it was equally marked by the corruption that has sparked protests in recent days.… Seguir leyendo »
The hand-painted matryoshka doll that separates into ever smaller components is more than a tourist cliché for visitors to Moscow. It is also the design principle of a daunting weapon in the new battle zone of outer space.
The Russian satellite Kosmos 2542, launched last November, gave birth to a sub-satellite, Kosmos 2543. Baby Kosmos started to stalk an American spy satellite. Then, last month, 2543 released a high-speed projectile in what appeared to the United States and Britain to be something like a weapons test.
The Kremlin says that these manoeuvres are all about inspecting damage to Russia’s space fleet.… Seguir leyendo »
The Three-Body Problem, by the Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin, is about as far out of my literary comfort zone as it’s possible to get. Alien invasions and virtual reality computer games underpinned by theoretical physics and quantum mechanics do not often feature in Jane Austen or Hilary Mantel. But when a friend gave me a copy of the book, I was gripped. It is a fantastical story that gives a fascinating insight into the clash of civilisations between China and the West.
Liu’s novel — the first part of a trilogy — is based on an apocalyptic struggle for supremacy between two rival powers.… Seguir leyendo »
It is worth keeping this illusion in mind, I think, when considering the activities of Russia and, for that matter, China.
On the surface, these nations seem engaged in conventional subterfuge and foreign influence. The Russian activity investigated by the intelligence select committee, for instance, was partly about electoral manipulation, influencing democratic votes to tilt policy in its favour. Or take China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), an attempt to build large projects in foreign nations, thus deepening the soft power of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC).
Look at the picture a little longer, however, and it starts to morph. It is not that the analysis of the select committee is flawed, or its facts wrong.… Seguir leyendo »
Aphrodite rose gracefully out of the waters of the eastern Mediterranean and its Nereids guided sailors in distress. How did this sea, cradle of so many civilisations, end up as a military flashpoint? This year its eastern shores could become Europe’s equivalent of the South China Sea, bristling with great power tension, or a model for co-operation. I would like to believe the latter but it is going to require a leap of faith in the ability of hard-nosed autocrats to give ground and in terrorist groups to show restraint. That’s a stretch.
Let’s start with the positive. The discovery of large undersea hydrocarbon reserves is giving shape to a new regional constellation: Egypt and Cyprus, Israel and Greece.… Seguir leyendo »
‘Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia!” The instructions to the Delta team in pursuit of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were probably less direct than that of the Mexican crime lord in the Sam Peckinpah splatter movie but there’s little doubt that it was effectively an American hit job. In the end, the trapped leader of the Islamic State death cult blew himself up, sparing the need for an awkward debate about the ethics of targeted assassinations.
The problem, though, is that most modern terror organisations cannot be decapitated. When Osama bin Laden was eventually run to ground in Pakistan in 2011, a cache of porn and works by Noam Chomsky on the bookshelves of his hideout, it became clear he had become largely irrelevant to the daily proceedings of al-Qaeda.… Seguir leyendo »
How did the irony escape us? I predicted on this page almost two months ago that while we were obsessing about Theresa May “running down the clock” on MPs, another was ticking: Brussels was running down the clock on us. And this week Britain was finally cornered into a humiliating six-month extension during which we’ve had to promise not to misuse our voting rights as a member of the European Union.
So here’s the second irony, also still escaping us. The limbo in which we now sit until November, and which everyone calls humiliating, is a trial run for a Brino (Brexit in name only) Brexit.… Seguir leyendo »
The armies are massing, the war drums are thrumming, Nigel Farage and Tony Blair stand mouthing Gladiator-style pep talks in the mirror before the battle to come. Increasingly it feels as though another referendum is on the horizon. The hoped-for delay to Brexit points to a second vote. Changing demographics point to a second vote. Parliament’s most popular option has been a second vote. If that second vote comes, Remain must be ready to remedy the mistake made last time around: leaving all the patriotic tunes to Leave.
For more than three years Brexiteers have employed the language of patriotism very effectively.… Seguir leyendo »
A famous, if apocryphal, story is told of the French statesman Georges Clemenceau negotiating to buy a statuette in a bazaar. The shopkeeper offered it for “only” 75 rupees, while the Frenchman counteroffered with 45 rupees. After that, no matter the haggling, he refused to move. And there they were. Stuck.
Eventually the shopkeeper threw up his hands and said: “You are impossible! I’d rather give it to you.” Clemenceau smiled, pocketed the statuette and said: “Done.” And then he added: “You are very kind, and such a kindness could only come from a friend. Allow me to offer you a gift in return.… Seguir leyendo »
Brexit fatigue: a condition in which you weep uncontrollably at the sight of members of the ERG; start twitching at the mention of meaningful votes; suffer hallucinations that you are being strangled slowly by one of Theresa May’s chunky necklaces while a waxen Michel Barnier recites the text of Article 50 like the last rites.
Goodness, we are bored with it. Bored, exhausted, sick to the back teeth. Louder grow the voices arguing that we simply need a resolution, whatever that may be. Last week various figures speaking for business said that we needed to crack on and do something — anything.… Seguir leyendo »
In an attempt to distance myself from our Brexit insanities I am deep in Africa. My hope was to stand a little back, take a calmer and less partisan view.
Some hope. With distance, anger only grows. The further you travel the stupider this Brexit thing looks. People here, whose world of cyclones and cassava-harvests barely touches ours, have heard there’s a bad business going on in Britain. In any satellite’s heat-map of hotspots of human lunacy, the United Kingdom blushes crimson from outer space.
Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, shorn of even a hint of what might come after, failed to clear the Commons yesterday.… Seguir leyendo »
Speculation about whether Brexit will or will not happen has entered the realms of tea-leaf fortune-telling, which I shall not venture upon. Instead, I have been musing upon how, as a nation, we have come so close to committing what some of us regard as the gravest national folly of our lifetimes.
The most obvious reason is that the Devil has the best tunes. The obsessives seeking to quit Europe have sung their siren songs with a close harmony wholly absent from our side. This is partly because they forswear the smallest responsibility for making the unworkable work: several quit government rather than be caught by cameras at the wheel in a head-on collision with reality.… Seguir leyendo »
Political history is full of surprises and we may be on the brink of another. It may be that all the effort required to understand Labour’s stance on a second referendum, the blizzard of parliamentary amendments and the varied proposals for Brexit delay are all beside the point. The point is now on the horizon and, if you squint a little, you can glimpse the distant sign of a deal passing. Not many in the political class are ready for the surprise that may be with them before long.
Brexit is the subject that it is impossible to keep in proportion.… Seguir leyendo »
In the summer of 2014 the world’s TV audiences were stunned by pictures of Yazidi families being rescued from Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. We saw coalition air forces dropping food and the Kurdish PKK saving families after they had been mercilessly attacked by Isis and were fleeing for their lives across the mountains. The men were escaping execution; the women, rape and sexual slavery.
The heroics continued as camps were quickly built to accommodate the Yazidi escapees. In capital cities around the world and at the United Nations, good men and women made inspiring statements about standing with the Yazidi people and protecting them from genocide.… Seguir leyendo »