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Merkel’s harsh words on Brexit played to her German audience – but the UK should still take note

Merkel may find it hard to stomach Trump but she will not be wishing away US military power from Europe with any relish.

Germans have elections, too. It was at a campaign event in Bavaria that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, made a statement that has been interpreted as having grave implications for the cohesiveness of the Euro-Atlantic alliance. “The times in which we could totally rely on others are to some extent over, as I have experienced in the past two days,” she said, referring to both Donald Trump and Brexit. “We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”

The event was hosted by the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. The CSU and CDU have had complicated relations over the past 18 months – after falling out over the handling of the refugee crisis – but their alliance has been forged again with an eye on the general election scheduled for September. Martin Schulz, Merkel’s Social Democratic rival, has sought to outflank the chancellor by vocally condemning Trump, and he opposes the 2 per cent GDP commitment on defence spending required of Nato members.

Though the context is illuminating, Merkel’s frustration is sincere. Her remarks followed the G7 in Sicily, at which Trump refused to confirm US agreement to the Paris climate-change deal, and more tensions over Nato in Brussels. The chancellor has dominated German politics by monopolising sober centrism. The implication of her remarks is that sober centrists have to face some new realities about their old friends.

Back in the United States, Trump’s first foreign tour had been scrutinised intensely, particularly among what remains of the besieged foreign policy establishment. There had been expressions of relief after the first phase of the tour, in the Middle East, passed without major embarrassment. The president stuck to the script given to him and seemed to enjoy the medieval ceremonialism in Saudi Arabia.

That is not say the pilgrimage to Riyadh passed by without controversy. The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was criticised for holding a press conference with his Saudi counterpart, Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, without informing the American media. Likewise, there was no mention of the Saudi state’s double standards on extremism, or its abominable record on human rights. But in truth, the restatement of a close US-Saudi working relationship on critical issues such as confronting Iran represented no great deviation in US foreign policy.

However, as Trump moved from the Middle East to Europe, there was renewed evidence of continued tensions within his administration. Having told an assembly of Arab states that he was not there to “lecture” them, the president then scolded Nato allies in an eight-minute speech in Brussels. Unsurprisingly, he returned to two favourite themes that play well to his base – the need for allies to pay more for defence, and to steer more of those efforts to focus on addressing immigration and terrorism. He was “very, very direct” with the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, about the “chronic underpayments” from other countries that he says place an unjustifiable burden on US taxpayers.

This much is familiar terrain. Yet what was different about Trump’s comments at Nato headquarters – and what rattled the Nato heads of state more than the failure to confirm a deal on climate change – was the element that was conspicuous by its absence: Article 5.

Before the speech, the New York Times was briefed by the White House that the president would reaffirm America’s commitment to this article, which holds that an attack on one Nato member is an attack on the West. Since Trump declared Nato “obsolete” during his election campaign, his national security team – particularly the defence secretary, Jim Mattis, and the national security adviser, H R McMaster – have worked hard to reassure US allies of the country’s long-term commitment to collective defence. Trump’s omission of any mention of Article 5 was an indication of the see-sawing of influence between factions within the White House. It suggests that the insurgency against the Washington national security establishment, led by Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has not quite burned itself out. Having set the pace over Syria and North Korea, the “deep state” was forced to take a back seat again.

For all the sound and fury, the walls of Jericho are more solid than we might presume. The moral high ground can be a lonely place. Merkel may find it hard to stomach Trump but she will not be wishing away US military power from Europe with any relish. Germany still does not meet the 2 per cent defence spending commitment and the US still leads on Nato’s southern and eastern flanks. For all the talk of an EU army, there is no successor organisation for European security. As Stoltenberg clarified at the end of the summit, the “facts on the ground are the strongest possible commitment to the alliance”. For the moment, Nato remains the only game in town.

Meanwhile, in his meetings with both Trump and Vladimir Putin, the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, has signalled his intent to be the weather-maker in Europe. Bucking the trend towards Franco-Russian rapprochement, Macron scolded Putin and warned that France will use force in Syria in the event of another chemical weapons attack. He is betting on a Franco-German axis as the foundation of a new Europe in which France distinguishes itself as the leading ­security provider.

The Brexit negotiations cannot be isolated from these fundamental questions of European security. Whoever forms the new government will have to act fast to orientate their actions to this fast-changing orbit. 

John Bew is an NS contributing writer and the author of “Citizen Clem” (Riverrun)

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning

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South Africa’s new dawn: How Jacob Zuma’s misrule was ended

“We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade.”

On the afternoon of 13 February, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a popular Johannesburg radio station began receiving calls about a peculiar incident.

A truck had lost its load along the M2 highway and people were scurrying to pick up what they believed to be tiny nuggets of unprocessed gold. The highway became congested as motorists pulled over to join the search. Even for a city that rose from the dust of a gold rush, this was a bizarre scene.

The first radio caller was giddy with excitement, as was the second. The third did what South Africans do best: he made light of an otherwise confusing and anxious day in the young nation’s history. “It’s manna from heaven,” the caller said. “Zuma’s just been recalled and already the roads are paved in gold.” Nine years into the president’s disastrous rule, South Africans had not lost their sense of humour – and were awaiting a new dawn. The police cleared the scene along the M2, no one proclaimed a worthy find and the nation returned to waiting for Zuma’s next move.

Technically, the president did not have to resign as head of state, despite the opposition of the ANC, the proud liberation movement turned ruling party that Zuma led for a decade until December 2017. Realistically, he had no options left.

With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the ANC was ready to table a motion of no confidence the next day. Defiant to the end, these final hours on the eve of Valentine’s Day were Zuma’s last stand.

They called him the “unstoppable tsunami” and with good reason. Zuma damaged South Africa and the ANC in ways only history will fully capture. He wrecked a country struggling to rebuild itself under the shadow of apartheid. Under his rule, the economy stagnated, unemployment rose, poverty grew, violent crime spiked and corruption became endemic.

“South Africa was headed in the wrong direction,” says Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which governs in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town. “We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade,” the political analyst Stephen Grootes concludes.

Zuma lurched from one scandal to the next. He was acquitted of rape, avoided almost 800 corruption charges for over a decade and nearly crashed the economy by recklessly firing a respected finance minister. Taxpayers were misled over exorbitant upgrades to his private mansion (a swimming pool was defended as a fire-fighting feature) and his friendship with the controversial Gupta family placed him at the heart of what became known as “state capture”: the looting of state coffers through the corruption of senior government officials.

“State and independent institutions were repurposed for the enrichment and protection of Jacob Zuma,” says political commentator Justice Malala. “He went through the guts of the framework, pulled out the institutions he needed and systematically broke them down or took away their independence.”

The institutions ranged from the tax revenue service to the public broadcaster, from the police to the prosecuting authority, and from the intelligence services to crucial industries such as mining.

Although constitutionally barred from governing beyond 2019, Zuma was widely believed to have engineered a plan to hold on to power (and avoid prosecution) through his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was campaigning to take over from him. By December, when the ANC met to pick its next leader, who would go on to become the country’s president in 2019, a mood of despair and hopelessness had set in.

The race was close. In the end, 179 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast separated Dlamini-Zuma from her challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader and businessman who had campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-growth platform.

Ramaphosa’s victory in mid-December was a turning point. It removed the prospect of Zuma’s continued rule, began an instant shift in political power and sparked a moment of renewed hope. Ramaphosa had his own controversies, but was viewed as largely incorruptible. He had risen through the trade unions, served the ANC and built his wealth in the private sector. 

Following Ramaphosa’s election, the extent of state capture emerged through superb investigative journalism.

Politically driven prosecutions fell away, a hugely unpopular nuclear energy deal with Russia was frozen and, as Zuma was being recalled, police cars arrived outside the home of the Gupta family.

And yet, the president refused to leave the Union Buildings quietly, prompting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. “He was the worst possible combination of ignorance, selfishness and incompetence that could have been inflicted upon the long-suffering people of South Africa,” read an editorial in the Daily Maverick on 13 February. “Now, stripped to the bare essence of being Zuma, the final image emerges, one of the selfish man who cared only for himself.”

Journalist Richard Poplak concluded: “What is born in chaos dies in chaos.”

 Zuma’s departure allows for the rebuilding to begin. The role played by the media, civil society – which found its voice during the Zuma years – and the judiciary (particularly the constitutional court) is being recognised. New president Ramaphosa delivered an inspiring state of the nation address the day after being sworn in.

“You can survive bad leadership, but what you won’t survive is bad institutions,” Mmusi Maimane told me.

There are no delusions over the epic challenges ahead. Unemployment is at 27 per cent (and is much higher for young, black South Africans) and GDP growth is stranded at 1 per cent. However, there is optimism, too: the “lost decade” is over and the Rainbow Nation’s renewal has finally begun. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia