The Agenda: Politics - Issue 147 - Magazine | Monocle

thumbnail text


Action stations

Italian politics is never dull as new parties rise and fall with regularity. In October the country returns to the polls for local elections in which key posts such as the mayorship of Milan and Turin are up for grabs. It’s a chance for emerging political movements to test their mettle with the electorate. One new name on the ballot is Azione, a party founded in 2019 by Carlo Calenda (pictured), a one-time Democratic Party (PD) member who served as minister of economic development in the government of Matteo Renzi, who himself


“Calenda, who has thrown his hat into the ring for the mayoral race in Rome, describes Azione as a progressive alliance that is anti-populist and pro-European”

abandoned the PD to start his own centrist political party Italia Viva. Keeping up?
Calenda, who has thrown his hat into the ring for the mayoral race in Rome, describes Azione as a progressive alliance that is anti-populist and pro-European. While he is courting the business community, he has an uphill battle against two populist forces in the form of centre-right candidate Enrico Michetti, backed up by Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigrant League party, and incumbent Virginia Raggi of the Five Star Movement. So far, Calenda has received mixed reviews for his biggest campaign proposal to date: a merger of treasures from several museums in the capital under one roof to create a single cultural institution to celebrate Ancient Rome.

News in brief

  1. Setting sail
    Czech Republic

The anti-establishment “pirate” movement has evolved across multiple countries in Europe since it emerged 15 years ago in Sweden. And while the broader movement struggled with infighting and conventional politics, some of the more developed parties are making gains in countries such as Luxembourg and Iceland. Meanwhile in the Czech Republic, the Pirate Party, which already counts the mayor of Prague among its victories, could secure enough votes in the country’s general election on 8 October to enter the government’s ruling coalition. “Their main concern is modernisation and anti-corruption,” says William Nattrass, a journalist and current affairs commentator based in Prague. In a country plagued by corruption since the fall of communism, that goes a long way.

Good signal

The Swiss railway laboratory at eth Zürich, the city’s institute of technology, is a place where the world’s leading transport engineers get to play with a large toy train set. Built to a scale of 1:87, it is designed to simulate potential rail hazards. In 2019, eth announced that the trains needed a new home. That year, hundreds of metres of miniature track were moved to Hangar Seven of the Swiss Air Force Centre in Dübendorf. “It’s the dream of every child to have a railway layout for themselves,” says Marc Pingoud, a civil engineer and railway specialist connected with the project. The reconstructed parts are finally scheduled to be ready in October. Then it’ll be full steam ahead for a new generation of engineers.

The Foreign Desk


US interventionism

In February, in his first major utterance on foreign policy as US president, Joe Biden told the (virtual) Munich Security Conference, “America is back; the transatlantic alliance is back.” The sighs of relief might have been audible from space.

But since the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan – which was, essentially, Biden ineptly executing the hasty plan he chose to inherit from his predecessor – it has seemed that the US is perhaps not quite as “back” as previously advertised. The end of the US-led intervention in Afghanistan was certainly a chaotic, tragic botch. It does not follow, however, that the same can be said of absolutely everything that preceded it.

Despite the urge, gleeful in certain quarters, to write off the entire Afghan enterprise as a waste of time, lives and resources, a 20-year respite from the miserable repression of the Taliban is not nothing. Millions of Afghans have had access to opportunities that would otherwise have been denied them. The long-term consequences of that may yet prove to be extraordinary.

Any plausible US president would have responded to the attacks of 11 September 2001 by going after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and their hosts, the Taliban. A nation acting narrowly in its own defence might have contented itself with rousting its enemies, demonstrating its overwhelming might and establishing a small military presence that would enable a swift response to any further threat. But in Afghanistan, the US and its allies attempted something grander.

In the 1990s, a conventional wisdom coalesced that recollections of Vietnam and a smaller but more recent trauma in Somalia stayed America’s hand over Rwanda and (initially) Bosnia-Herzegovina. It became apparent in both cases, and with horrific consequences, that the world did not possess an answer to the question, “If not America, then who?”

It might well be that the US, chastened abroad by its experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, beset at home by nativist rage, is now out of the intervention business for at least some while. But something of which we can be certain in uncertain times is that one day someone, somewhere, is going to have urgent cause to hope that this isn’t the case.

Mueller hosts ‘The Foreign Desk’ on Monocle 24



Spoils of war

The US has got its troops out of Afghanistan. They did not get out everything they brought in with them. As the Taliban retook the country, they acquired a considerable inventory of equipment abandoned by the US and the Afghan military: thousands of vehicles; dozens of aircraft; innumerable small arms.

However, the big-ticket items – the aeroplanes and helicopters – might only be useful to the Taliban as props in gloating photographs. For a start, there might not be that many of them. As the Taliban marched on Kabul, dozens of Afghan aircraft were flown to Uzbekistan: a custody battle between Washington and Tashkent might loom. Operating what remains will not be straightforward.

“It will be difficult for them to maintain and operate any air capability in the long term,” says Nick Reynolds, land warfare research analyst at Rusi.

The vehicles and other kit are a different matter. “The sheer amount captured will assist them,” says Reynolds. “However, most of what they have is for infantry and mechanised forces – useful for consolidating their control of the country and defeating local opposition but hardly high-end and unlikely to allow them to pose a threat to neighbouring countries. Nor will it allow the Taliban to prevent Nato counterterrorist operations from operating in Afghanistan.”


Abandoning an embassy

The revelation by a Times of London journalist, in late August, that British Foreign Office staff had left behind papers identifying Afghans who had helped the UK on the embassy floor in Kabul baffled many, not least current and former diplomats. All embassies and consulates around the world have a comprehensive plan in place should they need to close their mission in a hurry. Near the top of the to-do list: evacuate all family members and non-essential staff; destroy all classified information.

“If you’re leaving the embassy, you want to ensure that classified and sensitive information doesn’t fall into the hands of the wrong people,” says Lewis Lukens, a former US diplomat who previously served as the ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau. “And it’s not just top-secret cables to Washington analysing the [local] leadership. It’s also documents with people’s social security numbers, dates of birth and personal information.”


Exactly how this information is destroyed will vary but incinerating paper documents and destroying hard drives with hammers or acid are the preferred methods, says John Everard, the UK’s former ambassador to Belarus and North Korea. Shredding can be unreliable. Lukens explains how “in the Iran hostage crisis, [the US] shredded a lot of documents. The Iranians got children who had been working making carpets to piece the documents back together.”

The next steps will be determined by the circumstances under which the embassy is being closed. The worst-case scenarios – exiting under fire or a hostage situation – were avoided in Afghanistan but the former diplomats monocle spoke to mostly agree that events might have simply overtaken those on the ground. “They would have calculated that they had

a bit longer between the troops going and the Taliban taking over to do some of the things that [they then had] to do in a hurry,” speculates William Patey, the UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012. “They were making some of it up as they [went] along; you don’t normally have to evacuate your locally engaged staff.”

The final step on the list? Leaving the keys with the neighbours (in most cases, a friendly embassy). “It sounds like a trivial point,” says Everard. “But at some point someone will need to reoccupy that building and will need a way in.”


In the basket: Anti-aircraft missile

In the basket: s-400 anti-aircraft missile system
Who’s buying: Belarus
Who’s selling: Russia
Price: $300m to $500m (€252m to €420m)
Delivery date: tbc

Russia has used sales of the s-400 to stake out its strategic imperatives before; previous customers include China, India and Nato member Turkey. Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has admitted that Belarus can’t afford the s-400s and suggested that a recent $1bn (€842m) loan from Russia was conditional on Belarus using some of the money for this purchase (with a mates’ rates discount). It’s an offer Belarus can’t refuse – and Russia will be delighted to have one of its own weapons systems covering a greater expanse of both Ukraine and Nato’s eastern reaches.

Images: Getty Images. Illustrator: Robert A Di Ieso

Share on:






Go back: Contents

Global views: Long reads


sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • The Foreign Desk