International Papers

Rockets’ Red, White, and Blue Glare

A new wave of anti-Americanism washed over Europe this weekend, set off by concerns about the Bush administration’s support of National Missile Defense. Britain’s Independent summarized the opposition to NMD: “[I]t is expensive, it is unproven, it will destabilise arms-control efforts, and it does not even meet the most likely threats from rogue nuclear states, chief among them the ‘bomb-in-a-suitcase’ scenario.” Most of Europe, like Russia and China, opposes NMD, but governments have been reluctant to say so publicly for fear of jeopardizing relations with the incoming Bush administration.

On Friday, British opposition leader William Hague came out in favor of NMD, warning that if Britain—and the rest of Europe—fails to get behind the project, the United States will abandon its allies and focus instead on a “purely national” shield. Britain’s liberal press dismissed Hague’s statement as a rather desperate attempt to make political capital out of the issue when his Conservative Party faces almost-certain defeat in the general election expected to be called this year. The Independent said that although Hague may be “adopting a posture for the sake of pre-electoral mood music rather than any conviction about the national interest,” Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Labor government have to get off the fence and forcefully oppose NMD: “There is no point in Mr Blair pretending that Britain enjoys a special relationship with the US if he is not prepared, in a firm but friendly way, to tell Mr Bush that he is about to make an expensive mistake.” The Observer also demanded that Blair “must not kowtow to Bush.” Since the missile-defense system would depend on early warning monitoring stations around the world—including the Fylingdales base in northern England—Britain would make itself a “legitimate target,” and “[o]ffering to house a misguided American weapons system would further isolate us from our deeply sceptical European allies.”

In an interview with the International Herald Tribune, departing Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described U.S. plans for national missile defense as “an elephant in the room.” But an IHT op-ed advised Europeans to quit their bitching: There was no “compelling reason to take the lead in a crusade against U.S. missile defense. Indeed, since the shield is a hot button issue in the United States, where it receives bi-partisan support, the Europeans should refrain from giving the impression that they are denying the U.S. population its right to defend itself against missiles.”

A story with a short half-life? Even as the papers teem with the latest speculation about Balkans syndrome (see, for example, this Sydney Morning Herald story linking cancer-related deaths with flak jackets made from recycled DU shells), the backlash has clearly begun. In a piece headlined “DU fears are baseless,” Toronto’s liberal Globe and Mail declared, “People in wealthy nations such as Canada have never been healthier, yet we fret about our health as never before. Almost every day brings a new health scare.” The Times of London took up a similar cry, diagnosing Brits as being in the grip of Guff War syndrome, “the pathological tendency to surrender our critical faculties whenever an army of scaremongers fires off another hysteria-tipped broadside about an unsubstantiated or exaggerated risk to public health.” The op-ed said the public is currently “predisposed to accept that there must be something in these panics, regardless of the known facts” and it blamed the government for being “too sensitive to public criticism. … By repeatedly giving in to the scaremongers, Whitehall has given these health scares the kind of credence and credibility they do not deserve.”

Sitting room: The Australian, meanwhile, attacked the airlines for failing to take action on deep vein thrombosis—the condition recently dubbed “economy-class syndrome.” Instead of issuing health warnings and instructing passengers to do in-flight exercises (even though, the op-ed observed, “the challenge of lifting one’s self up from a tight-fitting window seat and rucking across two fellow-passengers in a space that would inhibit the passage of a python, and then elbowing one’s way along crowded aisles can be, so to speak, fatally discouraging”), the companies should address the overcrowding that exacerbates the risk of thrombosis. A U.S. study concluded that the minimum safe space between seat backs is 100 centimeters; two Australian airlines mentioned in the piece squeeze passengers into seats 20 percent to 10 percent smaller. It’s too bad the story didn’t provide the dimensions of other long-haul airlines’ seats.

Hong Kong action: Hong Kong’s top civil servant and second-in-command resigned unexpectedly Friday. Anson Chan announced that she would leave office in April, 18 months before the end of her term, citing “personal reasons.” The Straits Times of Singapore called this explanation “unconvincing,” as did Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, which interpreted Chan’s statement that she has “no plan and no intention” to run for the post of chief executive next year as meaning, “she has by no means categorically ruled out the possibility.” Chan has had several clashes with Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, and last September Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen told her to “give better support” to Tung. The chief executive is appointed by Beijing, and an op-ed in the Hong Kong iMail said Chan knows she will not have the support of the 800-member committee that makes the selection. The op-ed speculated that she left because Tung “and the dimwits who surround him want to introduce an anti-subversion law. … This whole project is riddled with difficulties and threats to civil liberties that pose a severe challenge to Hong Kong’s freedoms. It seems likely that she does not want to be on the premises while this is under way.” Libération of France declared that Chan had been a “sort of barometer of China’s respect for the autonomy of the former British colony. … On Friday, the ‘Anson Chan barometer’ left the good-weather zone.”

Beer bust: If there’s one sector of Russia’s benighted economy that should be doing well these days it’s alcohol producers and wholesalers, but instead the government has outlawed booze. The Moscow Times reported that last August Russia’s tax code was changed, requiring fundamental reforms to the alcohol excise system before Jan. 1, 2001. In November, realizing that virtually nothing had been done to create the new system, the Duma voted to extend the deadline. However, at the last minute, President Vladimir Putin vetoed the extension, and since no new system was in place, all production and sales of alcohol were technically illegal after Jan. 1. Several distilleries have stopped selling, while others “continue business as usual and hope for the best.” Meanwhile, the health ministry called for controls on beer to fight a “deadly addiction sweeping the nation.” Russian law doesn’t consider beer an alcoholic beverage, and ads often target children and teens. An editorial agreed that alcoholism is Russia’s most serious problem and that it is “ridiculous” that beer is considered a nonalcoholic beverage, but it said, “It is especially frustrating to watch as government agencies address serious problems with proposals that are almost laughably inadequate.” Vodka is the real issue, and since vodka duties accounted for $470 million in state revenues last year, “the Russian state is as addicted to drink as the Russian people are.”