Monthly Archives: October 2001

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Agreeing with Cheney 

I didn’t think the day would ever come when I would agree with US vice-president Dick Cheney. But his decision to send the US delegation to Doha, Qatar, for the WTO ministerial meeting was undoubtedly the right one.

According to the Financial Times, Cheney overruled trade representative Robert Zoellick in the face of security concerns that have been termed “substantial”.

Why is it right to go to Doha? Think of the signal that switching the venue (Singapore was available) would have sent. It would have said: “The Arab world is unsafe. We can’t protect our officials. We don’t care that Qatar stuck its neck out when no one else would [after the debacle in Seattle, Qatar was the only country prepared to host the WTO].”

There is some understandable black humour in trade circles. “What do we hope to get out of Doha?” one US official apparently said. “We hope to get out of Doha.” The good news is that the serious differences on the draft document seem to be narrowing. And with fewer officials and fewer business lobbyists expected in Doha thanks to security concerns, there might actually be a streamlined, decisive meeting.

If we have to rely on this guy� 

“Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said yesterday that he had underestimated the tenacity of the Afghan troops because he had not understood that the Taliban ‘don’t see the world the same way we do’.” Maureen Dowd spotted this reassuring sign of intelligence at the top of the military.

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Change for the better

The most heartening event of the last decade was the peaceful, democratic transition in South Africa. When you think of current situations that seem hopeless, think back to apartheid era South Africa, and try to imagine that regime ending with anything other than a bloodbath.

Some of the scale of change in South Africa can be glimpsed in the historically ironic news that the National Party (now called the New National Party) is seeking an alignment with the ruling African National Congress.

The National Party was the architect of apartheid and ran the country until the elections that saw Nelson Mandela become the first president of a truly democratic South Africa. It was also, of course, the party that intelligently sowed the seeds of its own destruction (and averted that bloodbath) by the historic rapprochement between FW de Klerk and Mandela.

As a somewhat regular visitor to South Africa during the transition, I have simultaneously boggled at the difficult problems the country faces and felt uplifted by the number of determined, intelligent people trying to find a path to a successful future.

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Be prepared  

Bill Safire has an interesting series of speculations about the preparation the US should consider to avert the worst consequences of a terror attack on the nation’s command and control. He points out that the Supreme Court is the only arm of government that has no emergency succession plans.

Minute and a huff 

Who wouldn’t have loved to be a fly on the wall this weekend, when Rupert Murdoch was brought to boiling point by the dithering of the General Motors board? After 18 months of hard slog, Murdoch’s bid for the Hughes Electronics and its DirecTV operation failed at the final hurdle.

Whatever you may think of Murdoch’s politics or media sensibilities, there is no doubting he is an extraordinary business wheeler and dealer. There have been occasions when his company has been close to the brink, but he has always managed to pull some life-saving deal together, emerging stronger.

I suspect if GM’s agreement to sell Hughes to EchoStar falls through, Murdoch will come back to the table, despite the weekend huffing and puffing. But I’m sure the plodders on GM’s board never reckoned that Murdoch – who wanted DirecTV so badly – would just walk away, as he did on Saturday. I suspect Murdoch learned long ago that if you make a threat, you have to use it.


The newspapers here in London all ran features about the World Series over the weekend. This is the only time of year when anyone writes about the best game of all, but I thought the pieces were uniformly ill-informed. Everyone took the angle that the Yankees, perennially the most loathed team in baseball, were now the team everyone loved. Nonsense. Fly-by-night fans, who may glance at a game during the World Series, might feel that way, but I find it hard to fathom that real fans would give up the habit of a lifetime.

As Dave Winer has been pointing out for days, it’s perfectly consistent to love New York and detest the Yankees.

The good news is that the Arizona Diamondbacks have won the first two games of the series. I can’t get very excited about Arizona, but I’m delighted that Mark Grace, who was a stalwart for my team, the Cubs, is having World Series success at long last.

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All alone?  

Tom Friedman is usually essential reading in The New York Times, but I do find his perspective distorted at times. “I hate to say this, but except for the good old Brits, we’re all alone.”

Is that really so? From a European perspective, it certainly seems wrong, given how the Germans have been forthright in offering assistance as well. And given that Gerhard Schroder governs as head of a red-green coalition, he has risked alienating a good portion of his traditional supporters by his stance.

I do agree, however, with Tom’s conclusion. “Unlike the free-riders in our coalition, these young Americans know that Sept. 11 is our holy day � the first day in a just war to preserve our free, multi-religious, democratic society. And I don’t really care if that war coincides with Ramadan, Christmas, Hanukkah or the Buddha’s birthday � the most respectful and spiritual thing we can do now is fight it until justice is done.”

Hannibal, we need you  

The horrific fire in the Gotthard tunnel in Switzerland evokes grim memories for millions of Europeans who have travelled through this and other trans-Alpine tunnels. It’s now clear that a rail solution will have to be found, to replace the road haulage across the Alps.

It’s extraordinary that in the 21st century, a major economy, Italy, can be largely cut off from commerce because of its reliance on a handful of tunnels through the mountains.

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Trading places  

It’s looking increasingly likely that the WTO will meet in a couple of weeks time for its ministerial meeting in Doha, Qatar. Before 11 September, there were doubts that Qatar would take place thanks to the increasing volume of the anti-globalisation movement, the lack of progress on preparation for a new trade round and significant disagreements between developing and developed nations about the need for a new round.

But September 11 provided new impetus for progress on trade. As a good analysis in today’s Financial Times notes, “Right now� launching [a new trade round] is increasingly considered essential for symbolic and psychological reasons as much as for economic ones. Doing so would send a powerful political signal of countries’ determination to make common cause in the face of adversity.” This has overcome the new perceived problem of Qatar: a lot of trade officials and businesses are nervous about a high-profile meeting in the Gulf right now.

It’s both important and encouraging that the Doha meeting will take place. The pre-meeting rhetoric makes it seem as though a new trade round is a distant prospect. But I hope that’s skirmishing for local favours, before the real work begins in Doha.

Not so fast  

The other day, I decried the lack of a latter day Wallace Stevens in an executive suite. I should have looked on my own bookshelves. An extraordinary multivolume history of the Hundred Years War (three volumes and counting) is by Jonathan Sumption. UK papers have detailed reports on an important trial on fund management practices (Unilever has sued Merrill Lynch). Lead barrister for the plaintiffs? The very same Jonathan Sumption. I’ll hazard a guess, however, that he doesn’t write 700-page history books in the back of a limousine.

Coping with fragility

However much we delude ourselves, we are all bad at predicting the future. In recent Annual Meetings in Davos, for example, there have been very poorly attended sessions on Afghanistan. Who cared? What relevance could an impoverished, resource-starved country in central Asia have for the leaders in Davos?

The events of September 11 did not create fragility or uncertainty. But one of the consequences was to make evident to all of us that we live in a fragile, uncertain world. The qualities that led to success in the comparatively benign conditions of the last decade may not be well adapted to today’s world. How can leaders deal with the complexities our environment presents?

One part of the answer must be to broaden your perspective. The demands of leadership in recent times, whether in the corporate world or in politics, have meant executives have become almost monomaniacally focused on the task at hand. There hasn’t been the time or leisure, seemingly, to indulge in scanning a wider horizon, either professionally or personally.

The evidence for this observation has been the responses to my question over the years: “What are you reading?” Few answers have been surprising. It’s clearly work-related, if there is any reading at all. For reading, you could substitute, I’m afraid, any intellectual activity outside the constricting parameters of the executive role.

But it is through the exercise of our intellects that our minds can be opened to other ideas and possibilities. In a volatile world, the leaders who have kept their minds agile will be able to reach the necessary decisions by forging new paths, not sticking to the railway tracks that sufficed for a steady-state existence.

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Lasting good  

“Out of the shadow of this evil should emerge lasting good.” UK prime minister Tony Blair delivered an extraordinary speech to the Labour party conference yesterday. It dealt with the coming battle against terrorism, but it ranged far beyond the obvious consequences of 11 September.

In Blair’s view, the war on terrorism is but one step in a battle for justice and equality throughout the world. He posed a daunting challenge to his own country, and to others.

Swiss miss  

If you had told me a month ago that Air Sudan, or perhaps even Air Lanka, had been forced to ground its planes because they couldn’t pay landing fees and fuel costs, I would have shrugged. That this happened yesterday to Swissair is beyond belief.

In addition to the raft of cancelled flights, Swissair’s financial plight is such that stranded travellers can expect no refund. If they can find another airline to fly them, they have to pay again. A Swiss friend told me this morning that many of her friends had booked their Christmas flights already (there still is a lot of efficiency in Switzerland). Now they have no flights and have lost their money.

How did this one-time pillar of efficiency and class fall so low? Part of it, as many analyses make clear, is the inherent problem of running an international airline from a country with only 7 million people. But the major fault surely lies in the evidently bizarre strategy of building expensive, minority stakes in lousy airlines (like Sabena). Swissair destroyed its equity base, piled up its debt, and had little actual control of this network of relationships.

The geniuses at McKinsey & Co, the world’s most storied management consultancy, dreamt up this masterplan for Swissair. The Swissair management must take the final blame, since they could have rejected the consultants’ advice (something too few executives understand is within their power). But I am astounded at how McKinsey seems to be escaping any blame for this commercial disaster.

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Winners and losers  

Quentin Peel in the Financial Times discusses winners and losers in the aftermath of the events of 11 September, as I did on Friday. He agrees that Russia and China are big winners, so far. He also includes a tally of losers. On his account, Israel and Saudi Arabia look the likeliest losers so far. Iran, India and Pakistan are in the balance. A valuable analysis.

Death of liberalism?  

Three separate columnists in The Observer speculated on whether the current situation spelled the death of liberalism or not. Cristina Odone reckons the L-word has had it. Will Hutton calls for something he terms “hard liberalism”. And Andrew Rawnsley has an interesting historical analysis that shows that war is generally good for progressive values.