Pope Benedict xvi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are laying the groundwork for the biggest change in French governance since the French Revolution. Sarkozy’s enthusiastic welcome of the pope to Paris in September would hardly have been newsworthy were he the leader of any other state, but France has strict laws to guarantee a secular state. Some believe Sarkozy broke these laws in his grand reception of Benedict, personally meeting him at the airport before hosting him at Élysée Palace. Those laws, though, may change. The pope told Sarkozy France needs a “new reflection” on the “true meaning of laïcité,” or secularism. In a ceremony at Élysée Palace, he spoke about a new kind of “healthy secularism” that is “fundamental to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion.” To the pope, a healthy secularism means Catholicism.
The pope also wants Catholicism to be more ingrained in Italy. While visiting the Mediterranean island of Sardinia September 7, Benedict spoke of Italy’s need for a “new generation” of Catholic politicians committed to using their beliefs to shepherd their country.
Meanwhile, an Italian comedian is facing possible prosecution under one of Mussolini’s laws that forbids “offending the honor” of the pope. Sabrina Guzzanti made controversial remarks about Pope Benedict xvi at an anti-politics rally in Rome in September.
As the European Union rises, the Catholic Church wants to ensure it has a leading role. The Lisbon Treaty, aka EU constitution, failed because it was not Catholic enough, according to Ireland’s top Catholic figure, Cardinal Sean Brady. “Without respect for its Christian memory and soul, I believe it is possible to anticipate continuing difficulties for the European project,” said Brady in August. Translation: Catholics will support you if you enforce their day of worship and religious views.
Following Russia’s Georgian operation, Poland formally agreed to host a U.S. missile interception base on its territory August 21. As part of the deal, the U.S. agreed to come to Poland’s aid “in case of military or other threats.” Before the Georgian war, 70 percent of Poles surveyed were against building the missile base on Polish soil; afterward, 63 percent supported an American military presence in Poland. According to another poll, half of Poland fears a Russian attack. As Russia grows more aggressive, watch for fear to motivate European countries to forge a similar alliance to the one Poland and the U.S. signed.
Meanwhile, torn between Russia and Europe, Ukraine’s ruling coalition became divided against itself and folded in September. The tug-of-war inside Ukraine mirrors the tussle outside. Ukraine lies on the border of Europe and Russia and is strategically important to both. Watch Ukraine as the line is drawn between East and West.
Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is currently heavily involved in drawing this line. Already Europe is implementing his pro-Russian—or rather, Russian-wary—foreign policy. Europe has refused to commit to inviting Ukraine into the EU, for example. And at a summit on September 1, heads of the 27 EU nations agreed on a soft declaration on the Russia-Georgia crisis that made no mention of sanctioning Moscow.
As Europe grows in power, it is becoming less free. A series of proposals adopted by the European Parliament will now allow citizens of one EU nation to be convicted by another EU nation even if they were not present at the trial.
Europe hosted one of the most anticipated events in physics history in September. The $8 billion Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, Switzerland, was successfully activated on September 10, though a technical fault caused it to be temporarily shut down 10 days later. Despite the anticipated initial glitches, the fact that this machine is in Europe, not America, reflects an important shift. The ongoing loss of leadership in the field of science is another symptom of a U.S. superpower at the end of its life cycle. Europe is ready to fill the void.
Israel is set to gain a new prime minister, with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni winning the Kadima primary in September. Livni was given six weeks to form a coalition government. If she fails in that effort, national elections will be held in early 2009. Polls indicate that if an early general election were called Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu would win.
Israel freed 198 Palestinian prisoners, including some serving time for murdering Israelis, on August 25. “This is a gesture and a trust-building move aimed at bolstering the moderates in the Palestinian Authority and the peace process,” the Prime Minister’s Office stated. If the so-called moderates in the Palestinian Authority were really moderate, however, they would hardly want Israel to release terrorists.
On his first trip to Syria, France’s President Sarkozy met with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad, on September 3. By courting Damascus, France is increasing Syria’s legitimacy in the international community despite its support of terrorism. “Sarkozy’s visit [is] also a recognition of the regional clout Syria has with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, in addition to its close ties to Iran—all opponents of U.S. policy in the Middle East” (Associated Press, September 3). While Europe is seeking to deepen its involvement in the Middle East, such involvement will only work against the interests of Israel and the United States.
In August, shortly after the Russia-Georgia crisis erupted, Syrian President Assad visited Russia to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev, who agreed to strengthen military ties with Syria. Indications are that the current Russian-U.S. impasse is leading Russia to provide more weapons and diplomatic aid to countries and terrorist groups that are opposed to America. “The Russian move into Georgia has begun a tectonic shift in the (Mideast) region,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert in the U.S. “It has emboldened Syria, Hezbollah and Iran to push harder against Israel and the U.S.” (ibid., August 26).
Iran in particular provides Russia with considerable leverage. Russia, a major arms supplier for Tehran, is assisting it in its nuclear program and is protecting Iran through its veto power in the UN Security Council. If the U.S. wants Russian cooperation on Iran, it must not press Moscow too much elsewhere.
Iraq’s parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of prosecuting the secular Sunni chairman of Iraq’s Democratic Party, Mithal al-Alusi, for visiting Israel to attend a counterterrorism summit in September. Members of the parliament said Alusi committed a crime by violating a law that had been in place during Saddam Hussein’s administration. Alusi responded, “What they really want is to threaten any person who talks against Iran.” At the summit, Alusi had said, “Iran is at the center of all the troubles in our region.” Alusi could actually face the death penalty for attending the conference. Thus is the nature of the “free and democratic” state American efforts are creating in Iraq.
The U.S. and Iran agreed to hand over members of the Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq (mek) to Iraqi authorities, the Saudi daily al Riyadh reported September 3. Approximately 3,360 members of the group are currently being held in a U.S. camp in Iraq. Iraq has given the mek six months to leave. Tehran considers the mek—whose goal is to replace Iran’s Islamist theocracy with a secular regime—to be a terrorist group. The U.S.’s protection of the group has been a major obstacle in U.S.-Iranian negotiations over Iraq. Now, “By essentially selling out the mek,” Stratfor reported, “the United States risks sending the wrong message to its current allies” (September 4). As America increasingly loses power and prestige on the world stage and its military forces continue to be overstretched, we can expect it to become less and less reliable as an ally.
Iran claimed it successfully launched a “dummy” satellite aboard a multiple-stage satellite-launch vehicle August 16. Though the U.S. reported that the launch failed, it still demonstrates progress in Tehran’s missile program. Stratfor reported Iran appears to have a workable design that incorporates a second stage, which, when perfected, will mean Tehran will have missiles with a longer range.
As tensions between the U.S. and China remain high, Beijing is working to increase its strategic relationship with Germany. On September 10, Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang traveled to Hamburg and met with Frank-Walter Steinmeier. During the meeting, Steinmeier and Zhang stressed the need for maintaining Chinese-German dialogue as a means of establishing a realignment of global power. “We are seeking a new world order,” Steinmeier said. “New political and economic centers of powers are emerging, and China is one of them.” Dejiang responded favorably to Steinmeier’s remarks, agreeing that “Current global crises can only be surmounted if we join forces.” Both China and Russia are reciprocating Steinmeier’s overtures of friendship in order to overthrow the current American-dominated world order and replace it with a multipolar world.
These plans for a new world order are already expanding beyond just economic threats. Russia plans to dispatch the Russian Navy to the Caribbean Sea before the end of the year, according to Deutsche Presse Agentur. Moscow reportedly plans to use warships and planes in joint exercises with Venezuelan forces. This would be the first time Russia has held maneuvers in waters patrolled by the U.S. Navy since the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Watch for Washington to lose ground in its existing theaters of military deployment as the U.S. is forced to further extend its already-overstretched defense capability to cope with the pressure being applied to its perimeters by a resurgent Russia.
Meanwhile, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is looking to East Asia. On August 31, Putin called for Russia’s first pipeline to its Pacific coast to be completed without further delays. The completion of this pipeline will open up the energy-hungry markets of China and Japan to the practically untapped oil reserves of Eastern Siberia. The first half of it is on schedule for completion next year. The Siberian wilderness has presented an obstacle to the oil trade between Russia and its eastern neighbors, but once Moscow gets pipelines in place, it is likely to become one of East Asia’s chief energy suppliers.
Japan is in political turmoil. On September 1, Yasuo Fukuda became the second Japanese prime minister to resign his office in less than a year. Despite his failure to elicit governmental unity or economic stability in Japan, Fukuda did manage to accomplish one very important thing during his time in office. He strengthened Japanese ties with mainland Asia, especially China. Now that he is gone, however, Japan vitally needs a strong leader who can pull it out of its economic and political malaise. As American power on the world scene declines, expect a future leader to arise who will exploit the relationship with China in order to move Japan further away from America and closer to its Asian neighbors.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon held a security meeting August 21 to address a rise in kidnappings and drug-related murders. bbc News reports that there is an average of 65 kidnappings per month in Mexico, but because many may be paying the ransom to free their loved ones, the real number could be much higher. More than 2,600 have died in drug-related violence so far this year. President Calderon has dispatched more than 30,000 soldiers across the country, but that measure has not been effective. Public marches in response to the kidnappings were held August 30. Less than two weeks later, on September 12, Mexico suffered its highest death toll for a single day in 2008: 41 homicides.
One quarter of Cubans left their homes as Hurricane Ike swept through in early September, damaging much of the country. Losses are estimated at $3 to $4 billion, a staggering cost for the island. Still, Havana rejected an offer of aid from the U.S., perhaps hoping to get a better offer from Russia, which had delivered 200 tons of humanitarian supplies to Cuba a few days earlier.
Latin American countries are increasingly taking a firm stance against the United States. Nicaragua recognized the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia September 2, siding with Russia. Presumably in response, the U.S. trade secretary canceled a planned visit to Nicaragua. Bolivian President Evo Morales expelled U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg September 11 for allegedly inciting violent protests. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez expressed his support for the action by giving the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela 72 hours to leave and pulling Venezuela’s ambassador from the States. For more on Latin America’s swing away from the U.S., read our September article “The Hidden Enemy in America’s Backyard.”
After months of violence and negotiation, Zimbabwe’s officials finally signed a power-sharing agreement September 15, and as of this writing are deadlocked over the appointment of cabinet ministers. March elections were won by Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, but Robert Mugabe, head of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and dictator of Zimbabwe for nearly three decades, refused to recognize the results. Instead, he renewed violent intimidation of opposition politicians, their families and voters. Mugabe, who retains much if not all of his power, knows exactly where he sits, telling his party: “Anyhow here we are, still in a dominant position which will enable us to gather more strength as we move into the future. We remain in the driving seat.” Regardless of who is appointed to the cabinet, Mugabe will keep his presidential position, head the cabinet, and control the army. As prime minister, Tsvangirai will inherit Zimbabwe’s 11 million percent inflation.
Along with despots, famine, hiv and terrorism, add flooding to the list of Africa’s perils. About 150,000 people have been displaced in Benin alone, with tens of thousands displaced in other African countries as well. In an August 19 press release, the World Health Organization (who) described floodwaters across West Africa as a health risk to millions, and said flooding will add to the impact of the food crisis. There has been “widespread damage to bridges, roads, railway lines and other infrastructure vital for delivering health services and humanitarian supplies,” who said.
Commentators have decried financial “blood in the streets” as gigantic financial institutions are bought out or go bankrupt—an economic catastrophe that signals America relinquishing the role of global financial leader (see article, page 4).
While American bank failures are becoming as routine as eating lunch, the Bank of England is telling Britain its economy is in for a “horrible surprise,” a startling prospect, since Britons themselves are already used to huge banks such as Northern Rock failing. David Blanchflower, of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, says unemployment will rise by 60,000 per month starting in October and continuing for several months. Another Bank of England monetary policy committee member warned that house prices could fall by about 30 percent before the end of the year. Credible rumors are also circulating that Halifax Bank of Scotland Group is in danger of imminent collapse.
“Islamic law has been officially adopted in Britain,” London’s Sunday Times reported September 14. “The government has quietly sanctioned the powers for sharia judges to rule on cases ranging from divorce and financial disputes to those involving domestic violence. Rulings issued by a network of five sharia courts are enforceable with the full power of the judicial system, through the county courts or High Court. Previously, the rulings of sharia courts in Britain depended on voluntary compliance among Muslims.”
Early September saw a pack of hurricanes and tropical storms howl across the Gulf Coast and the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. Gustav, a Category 2 hurricane, flooded the Louisiana coast with a 14-foot storm surge at the beginning of September. Days later, Tropical Storm Hanna paced along the entire seaboard, dumping rain and causing isolated flooding. Tropical Storm Josephine swirled in the eastern Atlantic off Cape Verde without causing major damage, but Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 storm when it jumped onto land, chewed up Galveston, Texas.
Australia’s most important farming region, the massive Murray-Darling Basin, is experiencing the worst conditions on record. Rivers are at critical levels, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission said September 2, with the amount of water entering the Murray River at a record low, and more dry weather is predicted. The drought report “paints a picture of the worst conditions since records began in 1892,” the Australian stated (September 2).