All posts filed under: Foreign Policy

China and the Question of Taiwan

There is no reasoning with someone who has built an entire worldview around the conviction that, as George Bernard Shaw put it, a particular country is the best in the world because they were born in it.1 Shaw’s stinging put-down was actually meant as a definition of patriotism, but it works just as well, or better, when applied to what Orwell once called “the great modern disease of nationalism.” No honest debate on world affairs is possible with an interlocutor who keeps switching into competitive mode, deciding in favour of their nation from the outset, and looking only for evidence to support that nation’s supposed superiority. In most situations, this is mildly frustrating; a benign disease. But when heads of state are suffering from the malignant version, then these failures of logic can become everyone’s problem. In modern-day China, nationalism is at its strongest when dealing with the idea—almost an article of religious faith—that the independent island nation of Taiwan is in fact a Chinese state and must be unified with the mainland as soon …

A Misremembered Day of Infamy

Nothing illustrates better the extraordinary changes in America’s political culture than the almost furtive way in which the anniversary of Pearl Harbor has been marked. The surprise attack by the Japanese imperial navy on America’s Pacific Fleet 79 years ago—on December 7th, 1941—was barely commemorated this year in a nation convulsed by a deadly pandemic and the unprecedented effort by its president to steal an election. The exception to this general insouciance came in the tally of the honored dead compared with the gruesome numbers still being inflicted daily by the COVID-19 virus. (What’s more, as of this writing, the number of American COVID fatalities almost equals its Second World War combat toll.) In the public imagination, Pearl Harbor has become little more than an occasion to contextualize national grieving, a historical calamity that serves as a measure against our present difficulties. This shallow use of a hinge event in history has become typical of a nation that has begun to lose its sense of itself. This is evident in Americans’ diminished standards of conduct at home …

Cuba’s Doomed War on Independent Art

There were seven police officers, all dressed as civilians. They arrived at the improvised Havana music studio on the morning of Monday, September 28th, kicked down the door and found their target—Maykel Castillo Pérez, a well-known Cuban rapper and human rights activist who was in the process of recording a new song. They beat Castillo (better known as El Osorbo), dragged him out of the house, and took him to the Castillo de la Estación de Policía—a colonial-era fortress that serves as the National Revolutionary Police headquarters. There, Osorbo was incarcerated in a tiny cell without being informed of the charges against him or given access to legal counsel. When news of Osorbo’s abduction spread, the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Osorbo’s wife, and a handful of other supporters went to the police station to demand the rapper’s release. “We told the officers that we wouldn’t leave until Maykel was freed, even if we had to sleep in jail, too,” Alcántara told me. But officers eventually apprehended these supporters, too, and dispersed them to other …

Making the World Safe for Autocracy

Hong Kong has long ceased to fit the description given it by an envoy of Queen Victoria as a “barren rock.” Since British gunboats secured its jagged shore in the Opium Wars, it has transformed into a vibrant commercial outpost and a premier international metropolis. After nearly two centuries, the city now has new claimants as colonial overlords, who will undoubtedly wreck the special achievements of the crown colony and set new standards of ruination and decline. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” form of government autonomy received a lethal blow earlier this year when the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp legislature passed new national security laws that effectively prohibited dissent in the enclave. The draconian national security legislation allowed Beijing to bypass the territory’s own parliament and crack down on any activity it deems seditious. Hong Kong’s liberal culture and independent judiciary quickly began to suffocate under the weight of China’s rapacious interference. The Chinese Communist Party is now looking to crush the remnants of the old order. Beijing has announced that it will impose …

What Happened to America’s Soft Power?

For most Americans, the majority of whom will never leave North America, the issue of the US’s image abroad is an issue of tenuous concern at best. The notion that the US’s image abroad has a palpable effect on the efforts of the Central Intelligence Agency to penetrate the inner circles of our foreign adversaries is not something they take into consideration. Perhaps they should. As a former CIA case officer, I was truly alarmed to see a recent Pew poll headlined US Image Plummets Internationally. As the poll notes, “the share of the public with a favorable view of the U.S. is as low as it has been at any point since the Center began polling on this topic nearly two decades ago.” Some of the low standing can be attributed to the perception that the US has handled the COVID crisis poorly. But as much or more is that President Donald Trump is widely despised by our putative allies. The US Department of Defense has a concept, “Preparing the battlefield.” Before the first …

The End of the Islamic Republic of Iran?

The recent explosion in Beirut was like the most recent episode in a tragic decline. Beirut used to be known as Paris in the Levant and the bride of Middle Eastern cities. It was once beautiful, cultured, and exotic. No longer. Last year, hyperinflation, shortages of food and energy, unaccountable government, and a steady erosion of social liberties combined to ignite widespread protests. The protestors only demand: That Iran get out of their country. A New York Times investigative team found that the explosion had been the result of negligence—a rot inside the government. Those protests coincided with protests in Iraq, which also demanded an end to Iran interference, and in Iran itself, where protestors demanded that Iran stop meddling in Lebanon and Iraq. In neighboring Syria, half a million died between 2011 and 2016, and millions more were displaced. There are signs of life in Syria, but no sign of living. Everything Iran touches dies, and its regime extends its malign influence wherever it can. The civil war devastating Yemen began when the Iran-backed Houthis …

Will Workers’ Wages Ever Go Up Again?

Self-employment, temporary employment, on-call work, home-based work, and telecommuting are becoming more common. In some countries, such as Australia, nearly half of the workforce falls into one of these categories. The growth in these types of employment opportunities is often attributed to the rise in app-based gig employers like Uber or Lyft. The employment contract signed by those working in the gig economy is very different from what workers in goods-producing industries had come to expect during most of the postwar era. Back then, for example, you knew when you were working. There were regularly defined work hours (normally 40 hours a week, assigned at a fixed time). These days, your gig employer practises just-in-time labour, putting you on perpetual standby. The company will call you when they need you, thanks. And they might need you for only 10 to 15 hours in a week. And don’t count on receiving much in the way of the non-wage benefits unions negotiated for most industrial workers in America. Get sick or need dental work as a part-time …

Saudi Arabia: The Pragmatic Case for Constructive Engagement

There’s a compelling case that the US and UK should completely cut ties with one of the world’s most repressive regimes that institutionalizes the second-class status of women, outlaws any religion other than Islam and practices “kafala”—a system where migrant workers are relegated to a status that is often not much superior to slavery. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is a country that in the 21st century hosts public beheadings and crucifixions for “crimes” such as blasphemy, apostasy, and sorcery. Dissidents can be indefinitely imprisoned and are routinely tortured for even the most constructive of criticisms. It’s often argued that the West’s close relationship with the Kingdom makes a mockery of the freedom and democracy we claim to stand for. When it became apparent that the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul was most likely ordered by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) himself, Germany, Denmark, and Finland announced that they would cancel all exports of military equipment to the country. Other European nations such as Norway, the Netherlands, Austria, and Sweden …

The Passing of the Second Imperial Age

In the half-millennium of modern European imperialism, from the Spanish and Portuguese in the 16th century to the withdrawing roar of the British and French empires in the 20th, there was one truth on which all of these powers, often at war with each other, could agree. That was, land which could be designated terra nullius (“no-one’s land”) could be taken—indeed, had to be taken—by one of the powers, or another power would get it. So empires conquered large swathes of territory in Africa, India, the Middle East, South-East Asia, North America, and Australasia, most of which was regarded as unoccupied. They did so in pursuit of precious metals and stones, for settlement and defence (of other lands already seized), for points of supply to their ships, in order to demonstrate their power, and—the most cited reason in polite society, even more polite if put into French—for the mission civilatrice or the mission religieuse. That last of these—the obligation to deliver Christianity to uncivilised heathens—is sometimes dismissed as merely the hypocrisy of pious icing layered over …

The Room Where It Happened—A Review

A review of The Room Where It Happened—A White House Memoir by John Bolton, Simon and Schuster (June 2020), 592 pages. Donald Trump’s White House is fast approaching the end of its first term. Meanwhile, the consequences of the administration’s early insouciance about the onset of COVID-19 are manifest across a country experiencing a ferocious new surge in cases. The US President offers his leadership to those who would scrap the sheltering and distancing rules, characterising them as the imposition of a despised bureaucracy—evidence, as one protestor put it, of a “Communist dictatorship.” Trump is, in most moods, fond of Communist dictators, as China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un have been pleased to discover. The head of his National Security Council (NSC) from April 2018 until September last year, John Bolton, fears and hates them. These two men, both in their early 70s, were yoked together for 18 months, a period that ended in predictable acrimony, and which has now produced a memoir from Bolton. Several books have already sought to illuminate the malign …