Five of the world’s other looming crises


India’s coronavirus infections surpass China, but contagion slowing
Perhaps understandably, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many other international stories off the news agenda.
It is global, it is deadly and it is multi-faceted, raising all sorts of questions, not just about how we respond to the initial crisis, but about the way we organise our societies and the way we run our affairs.
Some major international problems have been pushed to the sidelines since the outbreak of the crisis and it may now be too late to deal with them. Others have been made much more intractable. And some governments are seeking to use the distraction of the Covid-19 pandemic to pursue long-held ambitions.
Here are five issues that we should be keeping an eye on in the weeks and months ahead.
The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New Start, that limits the long-range nuclear arsenals with which the US and Russia threaten each other, expires in early February next year. Time is getting short if it is to be renewed. This is the last of the great arms control agreements inherited from the Cold War which still survives.
Without it, there are real fears that the absence of constraints and the lack of transparency could result in a new nuclear arms race. The fact that esoteric weapons like amazingly fast hypersonic missiles are being developed gives this threat of a new arms race an added danger.
Russia seems willing to renew the agreement, which would be simple in procedural terms. The Trump administration, though, seems determined to abandon the New Start treaty unless it can expand it to bring China on board. There is absolutely no interest in Beijing in joining the regime. And it is now far too late to draft a comprehensive new document anyway.
So, unless there is a late change of heart in Washington, or a new administration, the New Start treaty looks as though it could be history.
The row over the US withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement that seeks to limit Iran’s nuclear activities is just about to get a good deal worse.
Currently there is a wide-ranging United Nations embargo that prevents countries from selling various kinds of advanced weaponry to Tehran. But under the UN resolution that backed the nuclear deal, this arms embargo is due to expire on 18 October this year. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has already warned that if the US succeeds in its desire to have the embargo renewed, then there will be “grave consequences”.
However, there is little chance of Russia agreeing to an extended arms embargo. In which case Mr Trump wants the Europeans to invoke a mechanism in the nuclear deal that restores much more widespread economic sanctions against Iran (the very sanctions that were largely lifted in the wake of the agreement).
Mr Trump’s gambit is to say the least extraordinary. The US walked away from the JCPOA and has since sought to ramp up pressure on Tehran. Iran has breached many of the agreement’s terms, but not necessarily in ways which are irreversible.
Now though the administration seems to be saying that Iran should stick to the deal that the US has abandoned or face renewed sanctions. It is an effort by the Trump Administration, as one senior former Obama-era official noted, “to have its cake and eat it”.
Relations between the US and Iran will get even worse and existing tensions between the US and its key European allies will be exacerbated. And it is not as if the arms embargo has significantly changed Iran’s regional behaviour nor its ability to arms its proxies.
Israel’s long-running serial election campaign has come to an end with the embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retaining his post, at least for a period, after a power sharing deal with one of the main opposition parties.
Despite the legal cases that are pending against him – indeed, possibly in part because of them – Mr Netanyahu is proposing a controversial nationalist agenda which includes a desire to annex areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, effectively making them a permanent part of Israel.
Arguably, this would end once and for all any chance of a “two-state solution” – despite provisions for one in Donald Trump’s peace plan – that has been the waning hope of many who want to see a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Palestinians themselves are already crying foul and several governments in Europe and elsewhere are urging caution, in some cases talking about potential sanctions if this policy goes ahead. As ever, the Trump administration’s position will be crucial. Will it effectively give a green light for the move or will it counsel constraint?
It certainly appears that Mr Netanyahu has been emboldened by President Trump’s decisions to back Israel’s annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The current US position is ambiguous, with suggestions that it will make its support of annexation in areas of the West Bank conditional on Israel agreeing to negotiate over a Palestinian state.
Some analysts believe that having used the issue of annexation to mobilise nationalist support during the election season, Mr Netanyahu may find some way to back down. Maybe the Americans will help, since there is no way hard-line Israeli nationalists want to see any kind of Palestinian state.
But it’s going to be a bumpy period ahead.
It’s a term that so many of us have almost forgotten.
But the clock is ticking: the transition period following Britain’s departure from the European Union ends on 31 December. Talks on the terms of their future relationship have begun in a tentative way, but there is no indication that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is even contemplating any delay or extension to the transitional phase.
However, the pandemic has changed the whole context of Brexit, not least by precipitating an economic slump that it could take years to recover from. There seems little appetite in Britain to revive the old debate. Time is anyway short.
While the EU’s initial response to the Covid-19 crisis did not present it in an especially favourable light, it has to some extent rallied. It is not going away. And Britain’s own handling of the crisis has been no great example either.
Britain’s departure from the EU is going to strain both sides. Maybe it will produce a more consensual approach to guide their future relationship. But battered by an economic recession and making its way in a much less hospitable world, key economic and diplomatic decisions – how far to back the Americans? How far to stand up to China? – are going to play out for the UK in a much harsher light.
The global response to the pandemic is in a sense a testing ground for the international community’s capacity to deal with the biggest and most complex international challenge of all – climate change.
In terms of co-operation, the Covid-19 experience so far yields a very mixed report. And the tensions that are likely to persist in the post-pandemic world will complicate things greatly.
Getting the “process” of climate change back on track is one thing – crucial meetings, like the UN’s Cop26 climate conference that was to have been held in Glasgow in November, have been postponed until next year.
But the question that remains is how will the international mind-set have changed? Will there be a renewed sense of urgency and purpose? And how far will the new global order allow for rapid progress on this hugely complex issue?
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