Reasons to be cheerful…1..2..3

20150319-pig_photoToday is the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness, although you might not have realised it, given recent headlines. So I thought I’d inject a ray of sunshine by sharing three things that I see in the world today that give me reason to think it may not be all doom and gloom.

The first bit of good news comes from Cuba.  The rapprochement between the United States and the communist country may not be complete, but is far removed from the mistrust and antagonism characterising much of the 54-year diplomatic spat.  Fidel Castro may dislike the warming in relations overseen by younger brother and current President Raul, but, as Al-Jazeera notes, with scheduled flights due to commence and a reopening of the US embassy in Havana on the cards, the direction of travel is clear.

Certainly, Cuba will claim as victories their removal from the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and, simply, their survival in the teeth of prolonged American opposition. Raul Castro has to take a hard line in order to maintain the support of the Communist Party and his influential, if officially powerless, brother. But the transformation of Cuba cannot be done without a better relationship with America; hence the quiet adoption of economic reforms.

Some see this as yet another triumph for capitalism. Writer and satirist P J O’Rourke said: “You can’t get good chinese takeout in China and cuban cigars are rationed in Cuba. That’s all you need to know about communism.” (However, he also admitted to denting the embargo on Cuban goods in the US by having his cigars sent to Canada, repackaged and delivered to him in boxes marked ‘made in Canada’. His defence? “And they are. The boxes ARE made in Canada!”.) But I think the likelihood of a peaceful and respectful conclusion to the last great (original) Cold War stand-off is welcome news.

The second good news story is Israel.  Stick with me on this one.  In this New York Times article, Thomas Friedman, commenting on the Likud party’s victory in this week’s general election, lamented “a good half of Israel identifies with the paranoid, everyone-is-against-us, and religious-nationalist tropes [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu deployed in this campaign”. And by turning his back on a two-state solution Mr Netanyahu has chosen to “tear up the basic tramlines on which a peace deal is likely to occur” according to Nick Clegg, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister. So, an unusual source of rosy-glowness, I agree.

But by taking a position so obviously opposed to established US policy, Mr Netanyahu has provided diplomatic space for US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to negotiate a deal over Iran’s nuclear ambitions (talks are due to conclude on March 31st).  Mr Netanyahu insists that development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities (which they claim is for energy) should be thwarted at every stage. In a speech to a joint session of the US Congress on March 3rd he expressed fears that any concession would leave Iranian nuclear infrastructure intact, thereby enabling “a short break-out time to the bomb”. Others, such as in this article from 2011 in Foreign Affairs, suggest a nuclear-armed Iran would encourage wider proliferation: in such a volatile atmosphere Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and many other Gulf states may conclude their interests are best served by developing their own weapons. It is to head off such nuclear competition and overcome the current tension-filled impasse with Iran that a deal is sought.

Doing nothing is not an option, but for too long the US has had to act with great regard for the relationship with Israel. But the prospect of a sensible and workable compromise has receded as a result of Mr Netanyahu’s insistence on a zero-sum approach to the negotiations. Counterintuitively, he has made wider regional nuclear proliferation more likely. But his prickly attitude to the US and his recent comments running up to Israel’s general election have meant the negotiating space (i.e. diplomatic options available to the US) impacting that relationship has just been widened. As Mr Kerry has less reason to worry about a disgruntled Mr Netanyahu, a more acceptable nuclear deal is increasingly likely.

And the final piece of good news is that Ben Ottewell is on tour this year, playing the South by South West festival in Texas last night, Toronto next week and the UK in April.  Don’t worry, listen to this and be happy; we can all get back to being gloomy tomorrow. That’ll please us Brits.


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