This week's big questions: What should we do about Syria? Is protest here to stay?

This week's questions are answered by renowned development economist Jeffrey Sachs
  • @jeffdsachs

Who is more right on Syria – Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama?

Surprisingly, Putin. Yes, Russia is no doubt backing a tyrant in Bashar al-Assad, but Putin is correct that it is not the job of the United States or the West to overthrow the Syrian government. We have had enough US-led regime change in the Middle East. It repeatedly leads to disaster. It is time for Middle East region to sort out its own problems without Western meddling.


With Brazil following on from Turkey, following on from the tumult in the Middle East, is protest here to stay?

Protest today is pervasive: Brazil, Turkey, Athens, Rome, Paris and even Stockholm. And let’s not forget the Occupy Movement in the US, which was put down by a police crackdown. Tensions are high in many countries, from rich to poor. Governance is in crisis as a result of economic crises, inequalities and the challenges of globalisation.


How much of a breakthrough is the G8 tax agreement?

The G8 agreement is a small step forward. Tax havens are completely abusive and should be ended comprehensively. The schemes operated in the Caymans and British Virgin Islands serve no social purpose, only private harm: tax evasion, capital flight, corporate secrecy and lack of accountability. The US, UK and Switzerland bear the main responsibility to clean up this corrupted, global network of abuse. And countries should remember that hosting tax havens is like riding on a tiger: it’s very hard to get off safely! Thus, Iceland, Ireland, Cyprus and other countries with aggressive policies of attracting global capital through financial deregulation and low-tax regimes have ended up with financial bubbles and deep economic crises.


What chance of peace in a post-Nato Afghanistan?

The Afghanistan war has been a disaster. The US and UK should get out. Instead, the UN should sponsor a serious development programme, pooling efforts of the US, Europe, the Gulf Co-operation Council, China and Japan. With proper investments, Afghanistan’s mining sector could help to fund long-term development.


How concerned should we be about the UK’s rising inflation?

Not very concerned. It’s still low and projected to remain low by the IMF and others. Worry about recovery, growth, skills, employment, but not too much about inflation, at least for now.


What is the wider lesson of the failure of EU’s aid for Egypt to stop corruption?

When a long-standing regime like Mubarak’s falls, the downward spiral can be very powerful. Instability and unrest lead to a deepening economic crisis, for example through a dramatic loss of tourist dollars. Just as expectations rise, economic realities get worse, and tensions multiply as a result. Egypt needs a financial time out to help it out of the downward spiral.


What is the significance of the multi-billion-pound trade deal that is under discussion between the EU and the US?

The EU-US trade deal is a useful, modest step forward. I support it, but don’t expect miracles from it. It shouldn’t be oversold. US-EU trade is already reasonably open, so there are not huge gains that will come with a new treaty.


Your latest book is about John F Kennedy’s quest for world peace. If he had been president on 9/11, would the world now be a very different place?

If JFK’s approach to peace in 1963 had been applied after 9/11, the world would be safer, more prosperous and on a far healthier trajectory. We have real problems to solve: poverty, environmental threats, hunger and social exclusion. Instead, we are wasting lives, time and money on disastrous military approaches that will solve nothing. As JFK put it best, “So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”


How worried should we be about the extent of US state surveillance?

Very worried. The intelligence agencies have been without much, if any, restraint for a decade. State surveillance is not only massive and threatening to basic freedoms, but is also tied to secret and not so secret US wars that are destabilising parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

We don’t know the full scale of today’s military-intelligence complex, nor the full extent of the damage it’s causing, but we know that it is vast and that President Obama has followed President Bush in unleashing the CIA, JSOC and other secret war-making groups without missing a beat (and, according to some accounts, enlarging on Bush’s wars).


Should we accept that GM crops are the future?

GM crops are very likely to contribute to crop nutrients, drought tolerance, saline tolerance and other key traits of enormous significance for the poor. They are one tool among many, not the magic bullet. And they must be properly evaluated and regulated, of course.


Jeffrey Sachs’s ‘To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace’ is published by the Bodley Head at £14.99