Small World: Boxing Day blues

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

When you read these sentences it will be, if you live in Downton Abby or live by Wikipedia, “Boxing Day, the day following Christmas Day, when servants and tradesmen receive gifts from their bosses or clients, known as a “Christmas box.” It seems that the fete had its origins in the Roman Saturnalia when slaves and masters changed places for a day.

It is also the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who spoke out at excessive length against the ruling judges, was accused of blasphemy and then stoned to death. There’s a lesson there: slaves, servants or tradesmen should be careful with their words on this day or it could lead to a rocky holiday.

I have nothing to worry about, being neither employee nor tradesman nor slave and not employing or managing any of them. Still, as I have learned over the years, moderation in language, both in tone and number of words, is the safer course. That makes it hard to say something sensible about the state of our foreign relations, but I shall try.

The starting point for this review is our — as the “world’s only superpower” — relations with the runners-up or second-tier nations, called the BRICs or Brazil, Russia, India and China. Things have soured with each of them and, please note, none of them reside in the Middle East where unhappiness with the USA is a way of life.

Brazil is still smarting from the revelation that the NSA, our electronic spying agency, has been listening in on their private conversations, including those of their president, a lady just like the top person in Germany, whose cell phone we also eavesdropped on. President Obama hasn’t found the formula to assuage Latin feelings so we can count on irritation to build — especially if our arch spy Edward Snowden is granted sanctuary down there.

Irritation also affects Washington-Moscow relations and neither side seems interested in smoothing feathers. Unhappy with Russia’s anti-gay laws, Obama and co. will not grace the winter Olympics in Sochi. Washington is also unhappy with Russia’s threatening to install missiles on their western border not far where we have put some anti-missile bases. Russia’s largess towards their ex-dependency Ukraine, saving it from bankruptcy and blocking it from signing on with the European Union in some form, also fuels Obama’s bile. Yet, the two ex-enemies, now only antagonists, are seeking to cooperate on Syria and Iran. We shall see whether either side has the sense and internal fortitude to pull back from a downward spiral.

Downward seems to be the direction of US-India relations at the moment. It started the other day when police in NYC hauled in the deputy consul general there for not paying her Indian servant enough and making a false statement about it. Handcuffed and put in a cell with drug addicts, the comely young woman was also strip-searched, she said. Long-suppressed Indian rage ensued (national elections next year) and a series of measures were inflicted on our embassy in New Delhi, starting with the removal of cement blocks designed to thwart terrorist bombers and continuing with demands that the embassy provide details about all the Indians it employs, as well as the names and salaries of teachers at the American Embassy School; that the embassy commissary stop importing liquor (now they are cutting muscle); and that diplomatic identification cards for consular staff members and their families be returned. Plus demanding an apology. Will either side have the sense and fortitude to pull back?

Finally, China offers potentially the most serious problem. The prospering and aspiring Inner Kingdom claims jurisdiction over nearby waters and islands also claimed by South Korea and old enemy Japan, the Philippines and others. Beijing is also pushing around American news agencies as if they were local subordinates. Washington actively backs its smaller allies in the region. No one yet has found the sense and fortitude to work for a peaceful resolution.

I could go on by turning to the Middle East where Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others, maybe including Afghanistan, are unhappy but (1.) their irritation is wrongly based and we are plainly right and (2.) I recall that St. Stephen talked too long and was stoned.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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