Friday. 14/2/2020

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Ed Stocker

On the defensive

The Munich Security Conference, which starts today, is often heralded as the Davos of defence conflabs. And yet there’s a sense of undeniable malaise now when it comes to global events such as these. Last year, for example, the chair of the conference wrote that “the whole liberal world order appears to be falling apart”, while this year we can expect a debate on a central theme of “Westlessness”. The premise? That Western nations are facing a crisis of confidence in who they are and how they should orientate themselves, while bouncing between liberal internationalism and resurgent nationalism with its accompanying isolationist fallout.

That sounds like doom and gloom but the Munich conference’s theme is just reflecting the uncertainty that’s dominating international institutions, which is all the more reason for somebody to step up and act decisively. With the US displaying what can only be labelled as an unpredictable foreign policy – oscillating between withdrawing troops from Syria amid international scorn (President Trump has signalled that he wants to do the same in Afghanistan) and the highly interventionist assassination of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani on foreign soil – perhaps the EU could choose to seize the mantle and lead convincingly. Of course, many nations within the bloc have their own domestic problems but demonstrating a strong, coherent and, most importantly, unified foreign policy would be a start.

And then there’s Brexit. Any hopes of close co-operation between the UK and EU over international affairs have been damaged by London’s decision to send a junior minister to the Bavarian city instead of defence secretary Ben Wallace. As the UK seeks to find its own place in a world of “Westlessness”, such downgraded attendance at the biggest multilateral gathering since the country left the EU is surely not a good look.

Geopolitics / Afghanistan

Trigger for talks

The US and the Taliban are reportedly close to implementing a temporary ceasefire that could pave the way for talks to end the 18-year-long war in Afghanistan. The conflict, the most protracted in US history, has cost the country more than $2trn (€1.8trn) and claimed the lives of more than 2,000 of its service members as well as many thousands of Afghan civilians. So is the White House finally preparing to bring its 12,000 US personnel stationed there home? Donald Trump called off talks with the Taliban at the end of last year but domestic considerations (rather than a pragmatic geopolitical agenda) could make peace more likely this time. “Trump is desperate to give the US public something to cheer about ahead of November’s presidential election,” Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford, tells The Monocle Minute. “With North Korea and Iran looking like increasingly precarious situations, Afghanistan is a more realistic option.”

Politics / China

Inside influence

China has tightened its grip on Hong Kong by putting Xia Baolong (pictured), a former state leader and trusted ally of Xi Jinping, in charge of overseeing the city’s affairs. A supporter of the now-scrapped extradition bill, Baolong made headlines in 2014 for tearing down crosses from the top of churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang – an action that drew international condemnation.

Now he has been named director of the Hong Kong and Macau affairs office, which has been elevated in stature above Hong Kong’s own Beijing liaison office, a target of pro-democracy activists in recent months. The reshuffle suggests that Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, is losing further influence. “Lam is not seen by Beijing as having any real leadership or influence in Hong Kong,” says Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based writer and lawyer. “She is basically in a position where she is only speaking to Beijing’s script, no more no less.”

Business / Asia

Rocking the boat

With coronavirus cases on the rise globally, the plight of two cruise ships in Asia – the MS Westerdam, which arrived in Cambodia on Thursday, and the Diamond Princess, quarantined in Japan since 5 February – raises questions about the wider industry’s short-term prospects. Asia ranks low among cruise destinations: according to the Cruise Lines International Association, only 10 per cent of itineraries for 278 cruise ships worldwide include an Asian stop. However, the continent supplies a higher percentage of passengers worldwide, with more than four million setting out from Asia every year. So far only the Diamond Princess has had any confirmed cases of coronavirus. Japan had imposed strict quarantine conditions aboard the vessel and some Asian countries have denied MS Westerdam and other cruise ships entry to their ports; bookings in the region will take a hit as a result. Before the outbreak, global cruise-passenger numbers had been expected to reach 32 million this year, extending a steady upwards trend from 19.1 million a decade ago. That is now unlikely.

Trade fair / Netherlands

Branching out

For most of us, a trip to the garden centre has long been a pleasurable weekend pastime and yet the pioneering entrepreneurs and CEOs in this industry are faced with multiple challenges. This came to a head at The Garden Retail Experience, a major industry event near Amsterdam that wrapped up yesterday. Among the problems discussed there were price wars and challenges around sustainability – running a company selling plastic plant pots can be a surprisingly dirty business. The dialogue continued into industry side-events, such as a round-table discussion that brought together major green-fingered players for more concrete conversation. “Trade exhibitions are overwhelming experiences,” says Erwin Meier-Honegger, managing director of Meier Garden Centre (pictured) in Switzerland, whose side-event in partnership with Smiemans Projecten addressed rampant industry greenwashing and the need for better architecture in garden centre buildings. “It’s somehow an information overflow and an in-depth reflection is missing; therefore the exchange with like-minded colleagues is indispensable.”

M24 / The Urbanist

Down by the water

We look at some of the ways that waterside cities interact with their coastlines, from Oslo’s efforts to lower pollution to the fight against rising tides in New York. Plus: a report from Alexandria, Egypt’s second city.

Monocle Films / Czech Republic

Sound of Prague

The Czech National Symphony Orchestra has struck an international chord, with its redoubtable musicianship attracting big-name pop and music-score clients from Ennio Morricone to Sting.

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