Bird's-eye view

At long last there is a foreign minister on the international scene with ice-cold blood in his veins and an uncomplicated, unemotional comprehension of national interest. His name is Kieren Keke. He carries the flag for Nauru, an eight-square-mile island-nation of 11,000 inhabitants in the South Pacific famous on two counts. It is the smallest republic in the world, and its principal source of revenue was through the export of phosphates formed by bird droppings. That was undoubtedly the most valuable bird waste in history, but the republic killed the local version of the golden egg by selling more phosphate than the birds could drop.

When the money ran out, Nauru’s imagination blossomed. It invested millions of dollars from its national saving in a London musical. The musical flopped, wrecking the country’s bank balance. It then tried to solve Australia’s troublesome problem by providing a base for immigrants en route to the Pacific El Dorado, in return for suitable compensation. Regrettably, the refugees wanted refuge in Australia rather than amidst lost bird droppings.

But Nauru’s imagination remained fertile. In 2002 Nauru took $130 million from China to break relations with Taiwan. In 2006, presumably after this sweetener was exhausted, it reopened links with Taiwan. It is not known whether there was a financial angle to this decision, but the track record tells its own story. This year Nauru recognised Abkhazia (population:215,000), one of two nations that Russia liberated from Georgia in 2008. The price: $50 million. Keke has also paid a visit to the second region, South Ossetia, possibly with an accountant as travelling companion. The message has gone to every chancery: if the price is right, Nauru, a full member of the United Nations, will oblige.

There might even be a touch of High Marx about Nauru’s foreign policy: to Nauru according to its need, from China and Russia according to their ability.

Regrettably, international relations are rarely conducted with such Nauruvian clarity. Big powers tend to offer middle-class nations either a promissory note, if they have been good, or a demand notice, if they have strayed off the indicated path; there is never a clean transaction, let alone a gift voucher.

Transparency may indeed be harmful to bilateral relations, because governments may have to script one narrative for their domestic audience and quite another for the international one. This was Barack Obama’s dilemma in Copenhagen. He could not summon his predecessors’ less-than-sublime indifference to Kyoto, which played well with an electorate that has been trained to believe that the world owes it the luxury Americans have become accustomed to. Neither could he open himself up to a cavalry charge by his opposition. Republicans, led by Don Sarah Palin Quixote, might be racing towards every windmill in sight, but the careful politician knows that even an insane spear can draw blood from a weak spot.

B-Grade Security Council
Clever Obama bought peace at home by a hard-line text, and deflected criticism abroad by creating a sort of B-Grade Security Council on climate change along with four well-behaved nations, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. This is one of those Christmas presents with packaging from Tiffanys and a gift from the sale at Woolworths, but it does have the advantage of sparkling impressively at the Christmas party. It is only when you open the package in the silence of your room that you discover that this is just another off-the-peg necktie.

Pakistan’s gift from Washington is the usual: food coupons wrapped in a set of demands. Rarely has a wartime alliance been as fraught with tension as the US-Pak war against terror. Roosevelt and Stalin were more compatible. This had nothing to do with personality. They had no confusion about the identity or nature of the enemy. When last reports came in, America was sending Drones to kill Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani in their suspected hideouts in North Waziristan. The Pakistan establishment considers them past and future assets, and potential rulers of Afghanistan once American troops begin to depart in 18 months, leaving a crumbling Karzai regime in their wake. A second Drone target was Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who has a truce with the Pak army. The short-term Washington interest is now in open confrontation with the long-term Islamabad perspective. America is engaged in one battle from the air, Pakistan in a separate one on the ground.

Such divergence may be sustainable on the surface since it would be foolish to fracture the alliance, but there will be turmoil below surface calm. Pakistan is already placing curbs on the movement of American personnel, including civilians. One wonders if Richard Holbrooke, who has been placed in cloister for a while, will soon be brought back to show his customary heavy hand. Of course the left hand will never know, or seek to know, what Holbrooke’s right hand is
doing.

Eighteen months takes us into the middle of 2011. There is, in the meantime, 2010 to get through. I don’t know what you make of the immediate future, but my depressing feeling is that 2010 is going to be The Year of the Bloody Mess.

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