News in brief N°1

A summary of select international news: Poverty and loneliness in the UK, who holds wealth in Europe, on US decline, war in Syria, war in Afghanistan.

The United Kingdom has created a new government ministry: the Ministry of Loneliness. This is meant to be a response to growing depression, social isolation, and emotional distress in much of the population. Looking more closely at part of that country, over a quarter of London’s population lives in poverty. This, despite the fact that more people are now employed than they have been at any point since 1992. The portion of individuals living in “deep poverty” has increased. So, there’s more work available yet the pay and working conditions fall far short of adequate for a dignified or secure life, thanks to low wages, temporary job contracts, and growing limitations to social programs. The poorest 50% of households own a little over 5% of the city’s wealth while the richest 10% hold over half of the wealth. In comparison, nearly 88% of the planet’s wealth is in the hands of the world’s richest 10% of people, while the richest 1% owns 50.1% of the wealth (Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report of 2017).

Germany’s largest union, IG Metall, is in conflict with employers as workers demand such things as higher wages, better rights and time to care for children and sick relatives, and compensation for dangerous work. These have resulted in a number of day-long strikes. Labour productivity, or the real output of work per hour, has vastly improved in Germany, growing by nearly 40% since 1991. Meanwhile, real wages in the same period have increased by only a little less than 10%. This simply means that a growing share of the wealth generated by each worker is pocketed by employers, owners and investors. Despite seeing a growing share of their output slipping away from them, the industrial workers of IG Metall are actually better off than many other workers, who don’t have any union representation and are forced to take what they can get without being able to bring to bear the power of an organised collective. Those wage-earners who are on the lowest third of national income earnings are now being paid less in real wages than they were in 2000. Germany is the most unequal country in the Eurozone, with the most affluent in possession of the greatest concentration of wealth in contrast to poorer citizens.

The United States Department of Defense has completed a military strategy report entitled the ‘National Defense Strategy‘, which states that that country’s “primary concern” is with conflicts of power between competing nation-states as opposed to terrorism. The document’s summary names four countries in particular as US rivals: China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. The report highlights that the country is at risk of “decreasing U.S. global influence, eroding cohesion among allies and partners, and reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in our prosperity and standard of living.” Also, that more needs to be invested in the US military in order to maintain their “military advantage” over others. In other words, that the US core interest lies in maintaining their position of global dominance, keeping allies in line with their core interests and plans, as well as maintaining and improving economic penetration of other countries as a strategic necessity. In 2016, the US spent more on military spending than the eight next most expensive national military forces combined. Put another way, the US accounted for more than a third of the world’s national military expenditures (See table on page 2 of SIPRI fact sheet).

In the meantime, a major-general of the Chinese army has analysed and commented upon the strategic role of the US dollar as a means to US international power. The US dollar has a unique function, that of a global reserve currency, giving it the advantage of playing the role of medium of exchange and measure of price for the most important part of world trade and national debts. This provides the US with the ability to pull a portion of wealth from abroad into its own national body. This is increasingly being challenged, by such countries as China and Russia. China, therefore, seeks to use such strategies as the Belt and Road (also known as the New Silk Road) policy of international trade, agreements, and development as a means to establish a new set of international norms and rules prior to the possible expulsion of the US dollar as the singular global reserve currency.

A series of attacks have taken place in the Afghan capital city of Kabul, directed against the central government’s authority. These attacks took place within a ten day period of each other and targeted highly guarded areas that are under the special protection of the central government and the US military. Two of the attacks were claimed by the Taliban while a third was claimed by the Islamic State. The US led war in Afghanistan has lasted over 16 years. The US Special Inspector General’s office on Afghanistan has recently released a report within which it complains that the Department of Defense instructed them not to release information on key measures of the ongoing war. Specifically, they were “not to release to the public data on the number of districts, and the population living in them, controlled or influenced by the Afghan government or by the insurgents, or contested by both.” Publicly available data indicates that the Afghan government has been losing territory to its foes at least since the start of 2016. The head of Afghanistan’s intelligence has visited Pakistan to deliver accusation that at least one of the attacks was directed by groups based in Pakistan. The attacks come after a US government announcement that it will cut nearly all military aid and funding to Pakistan.

In Syria, a Russian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jet was shot down by a portable anti-aircraft rocket. The successful strike was claimed by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda. Russian representatives have informally accused the US of providing Syrian fighters with advanced weaponry capable of shooting down the warplane, something that the US denies. As for the Turkish military attack against the Kurdish controlled district of Afrin, a series of rare on-the-ground reporting by a Western journalist provides some valuable information: Robert Fisk states that the city of Afrin has itself not yet been bombed, that the Turkish military push has been strangely muted and combat relatively scarce, while Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have oddly vanished from the general scene of fighting in Syria despite their earlier presence (the articles are published between 26 January – 2 February).

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