As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world.
But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough.
This blog is about the new ideas that can change our world and how a 'new multilateralism' can tackle the global challenges of our age.
Change the World, Reports from the Fabian new year conference

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Record turnout ... by US standards

This election has been a wonderful example of how democracies can renew themselves.

writes James Forsyth as The Spectator's CoffeeHouse prepares to blog through election night.

And he's certainly right about the many different ways in which the intensity of interest and participation has broken US records. Forsyth reports on turnout predictions:

The latest predictions I’m hearing for turnout is 64 percent. This would exceed the 63 percent turnout in the 1960 Kennedy v. Nixon race and be the highest since 1908; this in a year where already a record number of people have donated to the candidates and where more people watched the convention speeches than ever before.

This is impressive in US terms - and some states may get up as high as 90 per cent. But it isn't exactly in a different universe than the 61.4% which was seen as a pretty devastating indictment of voter apathy in the UK last time, well below the historic norm if a little up on 2001.

The US and international media are making a lot of the possibility of record turnout.

But we should hold off on the comparisons with South Africa 1994. That was unusual in that there was no official electoral register, but the 19.7 million votes cast accounted for around 90-91% of the estimated 21.7 million eligible voters.

Somebody with more academic expertise might explain why US turnout levels might not be directly comparable - but I would guess that the headline figure might also be artificially boosted by registration being more difficult in the US than several other democracies, although the Democrats seem to have made impressive inroads into that this year.

I would suggest that the level of intensity and the large number actively engaged in following the election closely is more impressive than the breadth of participation across the entire electorate.

And if they weren't interested this year ...

How to help Burma's democrats

The global civil society campaign Avaaz and democracy campaigners in Burma believe they have found a pressure point on the Burmese Junta, which keeps the democratically elected leader Aung Sung Suu Kyi under house resist and so often seems to regard itself as immune to international criticism.

Avaaz have put out a call to action, asking supporters to put pressure on Lloyd's of London - as "the world's oldest, most respected insurer, which cares a great deal about its global reputation" - to stop insuring the Burmese Junta, to meet with campaigners for Burma to hear their concerns, and to disclose all Burma-related risks.

They recommend that we all write to Lloyd's chairman Lord Levene about the issue.

The Observer reported, on Sunday, cross-party political pressure on Lloyd's chairman Lord Levene, with Conservative John Bercow and Labour's Glenys Kinnock quoted. This should be an issue on which British political leaders and parties can unite: Gordon Brown has shown a strong interest in Burma, and the opposition parties have also been advocates of the democracy movement.

Several big insurers have pulled out - with Willis and Aon, and global reinsurer Swiss Re declaring earlier this year that they will cease their business relationships with Burma, as have Arab Insurance Group and others.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Obama and McCain would 'talk to Taliban'

Time's Joe Klein has a significant interview with Barack Obama.

It includes a significant development in his thinking on Afghanistan.

Actually, Obama and Petraeus seem to be thinking along similar lines with regard to Afghanistan. I mentioned that Petraeus had recently given a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in which he raised the possibility of negotiating with the Taliban. "You know, I think this is one useful lesson that is applicable from Iraq," Obama said without hesitation. "The Sunni awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally," he said, referring to the Petraeus-led effort to turn the Sunni tribes away from the more radical elements of the insurgency. "Whether there are those same opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored," he said.

Wired's Noah Shactman, one of the most respected reporters on security issues, has, perhaps significantly, got a McCain campaign source to respond consensually.

"There are differences over timing, strategy, etc. But there is consensus that at some point there will need to be an effort to talk with some of these [Taliban] guys and peel off more moderate elements".

This might be surprising in the final phases of a campaign when there could have been a late partisan advantage to be made in politicising (perhaps misrepresenting) Obama's position on 'talking to the Taliban'. (Maybe Schactman has got a view informed more by McCain's foreign policy advisers rather than his political operatives).

That Obama is here endorsing the emulation of an important part of the Petreaus strategy in Iraq may have a good deal to do with that. But perhaps, and despite all recent appearances to the contrary, 'Country First' is still an argument which holds some sway with the McCain campaign on issues that really matter.

PS: Even outside of the campaign context, the British experience shows why politicians can be wary of this debate in public.

Last December, British discussion of strategies to "split" the Taliban generated front-page Brown: It's time to talk to the Taliban headlines. A Parliamentary statement which generated We will not negotiate with Taliban, insists Brown headlines the following day.

The proposed strategy was always, rationally, somewhere in between. Or as Paul Woodward of War in Context put it: 'We will not talk to the Taliban who we won’t talk to, apart from those who we will talk to'. And that appears to be the policy which both US candidates are converging on too.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

McCain's future: the market was rigged!

Trading in political futures on the leading InTrade market gives Obama an 84% chance of the White House, against 16% of McCain.

Check out the graphs - and notice how late the Obama surge broke.

And now we know why. InTrade has revealed in a statement that a single institutional investor spent hundreds of thousands to make McCain look more competitive on the market than he was. This reduced the Obama probability of winning down by around 10 points over a month. (This is not simply counter-cyclical betting by somebody who thought the herd were getting it wrong: they were deliberately betting at much worse odds on InTrade than were readily available elsewhere).

CQ has all the details of how it was done. I heard about this on Paul Krugman's blog, but even the Nobel winner has to doff his hat at Nate Silver, who spotted something suspicious and worked out from the betting patterns a few weeks ago. (Sliver's blog takes political numbers to a new art form).

But there wasn't enough of a future in it. You can buck the market for a while. But you can't buck the election.

'I can live with defeat says McCain' probably isn't the best headline in the momentum stakes either.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Belgians for Dubya

About to catch the Eurostar to speak to the Flemish Social Democrats' conference in Brussels tomorrow morning.

This could also be a chance to investigate a mysterious quirk in yesterday's international poll on the US election, carried by The Guardian, Le Monde, Le Soir and other newspapers.

The public in all eight countries preferred Barack Obama to John McCain, with the lead ranging from 17 to over 60 points, and majority support for the Democrat everywhere except Poland (43-26) and Mexico (46-13)

A second question asked Since the start of the Bush Presidency, how has your opinion of the US changed?

In seven out of eight countries, opinions of America had changed for the worse.

But not in Belgium. Voters there do back Obama over McCain by 62% to 8% - quite a similar result to those in Britain and France. Yet 52% of Belgians have improved their opinion of America since 2000, while for 39% it has deteriorated. That's a 13% positive Bush bounce in America's global appeal among Belgians, compared to deficits of 44% in Britain, 64% in Canada and 68% in France.

Why? I shall try to ask around and report back ...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A deserved Nobel

Has the Nobel prize lost its glitter?, the Observer asked this week. Like the rest of its panel, I didn't think so.

There are good tributes to this year's peace prize winner Martti Ahtisaari from fellow Finn Reijo Ruokanen and from ex-Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans for the International Crisis Group. But celebrations in Aceh or at the Martti Ahtisaari Primary School in Namibia may best capture the reasons for the award.

If securing Namibia's peaceful independence is Ahtisaari's proudest achievement, the award of the prize this year was also intended to bring renewed attention to Kosovo. The International Crisis Group - which is among the most focused and valuable of any foreign policy think-tank - has recently published a report recommending how to support Kosovo's fragile transition.

Friday, October 10, 2008

McCain may take Macedonia

And that's about as much good news as can be found for the Republican candidate right now.

McCain is still within 6 points in RealClearPolitics' poll of polls, but the InTrade futures market now gives Obama a 76.6% chance of victory with McCain back to 23.3%. The dramatic slump in his prospects over the last month is also captured by PoliticalBetting's graph of the UK betting markets.

Meanwhile in Macedonia, McCain's appeal is holding up a little better, according to The Economist's totally unscientific Global Electoral College based on reader's online votes.

This would be fun, but election night isn't going to be cliffhanger. Only Georgia has John McCain on its mind, where the Republican has 68% of the vote at time of writing, while he was hanging on to 53-47 leads in both Macedonia and Andorra. And that's it. In a much expanded worldwide electoral college, Obama's current lead is 8501 to 16

This web-based self-selecting methodology may well have a pro-Obama bias: The Economist gives him an overwhelming lead in the US too. But there are similar messages from conventional worldwide opinion polls. Obama had a clean sweep in a 22-nation BBC poll and Reader's Digest global Presidential poll.

Obama also edged ahead in Israel this summer, though another poll found McCain ahead in the Palestinian territories: both somewhat counterintuitive results.

Only Americans get to vote on November 4th. These global polls are never too good for the Republicans - and they can be more of a headache than a boon to the Democrats. But George Bush was more popular than John Kerry in 2004 in Poland, the Phillipines and Nigeria, and tied his opponent in India. All four countries have now swung behind the Democrat contender in 2008.

Its unfair to say that McCain is less popular than Bush. But Barack Obama's distinctive global appeal suggests that he could yet make the world fall back in love with America again.

The World After Bush

As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world. The Bush Presidency will not leave the legacy its architects intended. But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough. This blog is about the new ideas which can create a 'new multilateralism' to tackle the global challenges we face.