Dangerous liaisons

A Global diary

It began so well. First there was Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, suddenly thawing the permafrost that only weeks earlier had paralysed the G20 summit in St Petersburg and uniting to abolish chemical weapons in Syria. 

Then Obama was phoning to practise his Farsi on Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, himself displaying a flirtatious ankle to the Great Satan, promising to disavow weapons of mass destruction. Were these dangerous liaisons the dawn of a new spirit of détente abroad? 

Well, abroad possibly, but sadly not at home, for a dangerous lack of liaison plunged the USA into federal shutdown, symbolically closing the Statue of Liberty itself. Republican congressmen opposed to Obamacare – the President’s totemic health programme – froze non-essential federal funding, closing public agencies, leaving civil servants unpaid and threatening an even greater crisis of a national debt default. For all his international dalliances, President Obama struggles to forge a domestic coalition. Weeks of political inertia left the USA looking ungovernable and the world’s most powerful man impotent.

Not so, the world’s most powerful woman. German voters reinstalled Angela Merkel as Chancellor, confirming her as the Mutti – Mummy – of the nation, and uncrowned Queen of Europe. It is a role she assumes with a modesty that belies a formidable core. Merkel is not so much Iron Lady as Graphene Chancellor, incredibly strong but remarkably flexible. Transforming the Fatherland into the Muttiland involved creating coalitions that work for her, but not her rivals-turned-political-partners – such as the liberal FDP – who wither in her shadow. The FDP failed to win any seats in the Bundestag, which poses problems as Merkel tries to build a new coalition. The flies are wary of being invited into the spider’s parlour. It could take time. 

For a true Iron Man, step forward Australia’s new premier, Tony Abbott, leader of the conservative coalition that ousted Labor in September’s election. The super-fit sports fanatic, Oxford Boxing Blue, triathlete and volunteer fireman famously competed in the 2011 Port Macquarie Ironman triathlon. But he charged it on expenses as official business, which just weeks into his premiership helped land him in a row over claims for a string of perks. Oops. Abbott, a former Rhodes scholar, may be gaffe-prone. In a slip of the tongue during the election campaign, he opined that Labor premier Kevin Rudd was “not the suppository of all wisdom”. Whether Abbott won despite that, or because of it, isn’t clear. But he got there in the end. 

There was an ignoble farewell for Bo Xilai, Chinese princeling, former Politburo member and leadership contender with the common touch, a potent combination that won him powerful enemies. He received a life sentence for corruption after a show trial. There might have been worse – or more inspired – solutions to the Bo problem. China holds the world record for annual executions. It also plans to put a man on the moon. 

By contrast, General Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary Vietnamese military genius who created a turning point in history by outflanking superior French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1958, received a hero’s funeral in Hanoi, attended by tens of thousands. Giap, who died aged 102, was the last of the Indochina revolutionaries, admired both by his own people and his foes – including US military strategists whom he engaged in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. He was, like his hero Napoleon, a tiny figure but a vast presence. 

Seamus Heaney, the Nobel laureate Irish poet, author and playwright, who died aged 74, was not a warrior, but also had presence, with cascading white hair and the hint of a quiet revolutionary. His acclaimed translation of Beowulf turned the epic Anglo Saxon poem into a modern bestseller and helped secure the Derry farm boy’s place in English literary history. 

Heaney won his Nobel Prize, aged 56. Malala Yousafzai, the charismatic Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban and turned human rights champion, was – to wide disappointment – passed over for a Nobel Peace Prize this October. She has one consolation. Alexander the Great wept when he had nowhere left to conquer when he was 32. What would it have been like at 16?


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