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Austerity, Protests, Elections and Scandals: An International News Roundup

Stephan Richter discusses major international news stories with Diane Rehm on National Public Radio.

May 1, 2012

Stephan Richter discusses major international news stories with Diane Rehm on National Public Radio.

On Europe’s austerity and bad economic news

The numbers are bad. But the question is — are they trying to do the right things to right the ship for the long haul? This is basically a case of industrialized economies not doing their domestic bookkeeping for some decades and having too many benefits and too many public sector jobs. And ultimately, global financial markets won’t bail you out if you live beyond your means.

And so what the UK government and others are doing is to try and balance their books. That is going to be wrenching. That’s going to be tough. It’s tough on people. It leads to unemployment. With the French elections coming up, there are big debates about more growth in Europe.

What’s interesting about Europe politically is that it is really the people on the right wing, very often the Nationalist right, who are demanding more state spending. It’s not just the left, as one would expect here in the United States.

On public anger about the economy

While it seems like a cacophony of news out of Europe today, it is not limited to Europe. We have the princeling scandals in China. We have the same deep, if not deeper, divisions in the United States on the budget. U.S. voters have the same level of frustration as the Le Pen voters in France.

A couple of things strike me. The first is that Europe doth protest. The Americans are supposed to be the revolutionaries. The objective economic situation in the United States isn’t much better than in Europe. So I’m surprised that the Americans are almost docile by comparison.

In America’s inner cities, young African Americans are unemployed at about the same rate as young Spaniards. But in Spain, Indignados are protesting in the streets. Nobody is so indignant in the United States.

That is a strange thing to observe. But it leads to a bigger question: whether foreign policy is still possible in the future because the world’s major countries are almost incapacitated by problems on the home front. And that’s an interesting challenge for the future of diplomacy.

What the French presidential election means for Europe

President Hollande — for it looks like the Socialist candidate will win — has a much smaller area in which to maneuver than he’s letting on. He is saying he will renegotiate a lot of agreements and so on, but we’re forgetting that some large countries, such as Italy and Spain, are literally on the brink and at the mercy of the confidence of financial markets.

If the president, the new president of France, is expected to throw oil on the fire, French voters will be disappointed in Hollande. This man is known as a bureaucrat (in the best sense of the word), as a circumspect political manager, not a firebrand, not a revolutionary, not a Socialist. He’s a manager who has “managed” the Socialist Party.

That is also why I believe, in terms of the Franco-German relationship, there will not be more than symbolic changes. In the end, Hollande won’t be able to force a change in the role of the European Central Bank — which has already spent several hundred billion dollars to stabilize the economy.

I don’t think that Angela Merkel is going to move much — not because she can’t, but because financial markets would bring helter-skelter to all of Europe if the French tried to have a nice cozy side deal.

On China’s Bo Xilai scandal

It sounds like the best reality TV show that neither British nor American producers ever invented. This is rich stuff and very meaningful.

But the news gets worse for the Chinese because they don’t officially have a president-elect. Xi Jinping — who is expected to have that job, and most likely will, as things stand — is a princeling himself. He’s the son of a very prominent revolutionary official. And so the perception from the Chinese people’s side is not fortunate. And the party leadership is extremely nervous because they had this wonderful succession planned.

We here in Washington are always so keen on term limits. I personally have asked myself this question: Why on earth do the Chinese have these strict term limits? Because Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, is a rather good guy, it seems to me, who often at least asks the right questions. So it might have been good if he could have moved up. But the Chinese have this strict rule that if you haven’t made the top job by 60, you’re out. Compare that to the average age of U.S. Senators.

On the conviction of Liberia’s Charles Taylor for war crimes

This is also a big-time message for the United States. With all the U.S. political opposition to the International Criminal Court, what does the Taylor case do? It establishes the oldest and greatest principle of American law, the power of precedent. We finally have it, it is a good one, and it is absolutely right. We can’t limit it to Africans.

Just imagine if, instead of invading Iraq, we had advocated ICC proceedings against Saddam Hussein. It would have definitely saved the American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars that could have been used for infrastructure, education and all these good things.

When we look back over the next 30 or 40 years, the Taylor case will be significant far beyond West Africa. In that sense, it’s actually positive because it shows that Africa is beginning to have democratic transitions on the basis of elections in which old guys, who have ruled their countries with iron fists for 30 or 40 years, can actually get voted out — and they submit to the vote. That is a fascinating story.

Editor’s note: These remarks have been edited for the sake of clarity and accuracy. An unedited transcript of the April 27 broadcast is available on the Diane Rehm Show website. The show can also be streamed here.


What's interesting about Europe is that it is really the people on the right who are demanding more state spending.

In Spain, Indignados are protesting in the streets. Nobody is so indignant in the United States.

Hollande is as a bureaucrat (in the best sense of the word), a circumspect political manager, not a firebrand.

Just imagine if, instead of invading Iraq, the United States had advocated ICC proceedings against Saddam.