All posts filed under: World Affairs

Twilight of Democracy—A Review

A review of Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum, Doubleday (July 2020), 224 pages. Historian and journalist Anne Applebaum’s new book The Twilight of Democracy sees a democratic world, as Rupert Brooke saw his world at the onset of World War I, “grown old and cold and weary.” So weary of democracy’s institutions and processes, so coldly contemptuous of the liberals of the Left and Right who administered them, that many of those who previously supported these central pillars have instead embraced one or another form of right-wing fundamentalism. This may manifest as nostalgic yet virulent nationalism, or reactionary Catholicism, or an invocation of Great Leader-ism which is, she writes, “at once serious and unserious.” Illustrative of the last of these types, she says, is Santiago Abascal, the leader of the Spanish anti-immigrant party Vox, who was filmed riding a horse to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings—unserious, because plundering popular culture for the purposes of rousing self-glorification is so obviously crass; serious, because it is rousing, nonetheless. The title of Applebaum’s book communicates the seriousness …

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 …

From India’s Himalayan Border to Our Local Cell Networks, It’s Time to Push Back Against China

High in the Himalayan mountains, Chinese soldiers ambushed Indian troops this week, resulting in a brutal battle on the Indian side of their shared border. Twenty Indians were killed, while China won’t disclose its losses. It was the deadliest confrontation on the border in over 40 years. As a result, some Indian strategists are openly discussing recognizing Taiwan and providing more visibility to the Dalai Lama, state-owned telecoms are blocking Chinese equipment from 4G upgrades, and millions of Indians downloaded an app that helps remove Chinese apps from their phones (before Google removed it). All of this comes at a time when much of the world remains angry at China’s leaders for their initial handling of the COVID-19 crisis. This week’s apparent provocation is part of a larger recent pattern with China. From the South China Sea, to Taiwan, to Hong Kong, Beijing has been seeking to change facts on the ground in a way that benefits its own strategic and economic interests. In a recent Atlantic Council discussion of the India-China border issue (convened …

The Battle for Russian Journalism

Russia is a heavily authoritarian state, where the ruling class serves itself first and best. The country’s politics revolve almost entirely around the figure of Vladimir Putin, who has been the nation’s president (with one four-year break) since 2000. Closely researched books—such as Putin’s Kleptocracy by the late academic Karen Dawisha, and Putin’s People by the journalist Catherine Belton—convincingly expose his personal corruption and the culture of theft among his closest associates. These people see themselves, in Belton’s phrase, as “anointed custodians,” and have decided that their mission to restore at least part of the empire of which Russia was shorn by the break-up of the USSR entitles them to great power and rewards. Nevertheless, Putin’s Russia is not Xi Jinping’s China nor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt—there does exist some space for civil society. It is more like an upscaled nuclear-armed version of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. An opposition exists, but it cannot win. The leader may be criticised, but not replaced (except, in Putin’s case, when he arranges it as a manoeuvre to extend his reign). Protests are …

Do We Really Want a New Cold War?

Fear has been making some pretty foolish policy decisions in the last few months. In the US, the decision of several state governments to move patients infected with COVID-19 into nursing homes probably takes the prize, but a close runner-up would be Congress’s CARES act, which misguidedly paid the unemployed to stay unemployed. Trillions have been allocated to remediate the damage done by shuttering non-essential schools and businesses, but relatively little of that Niagara of dollars has made its way downstream to the small businesses and schools that have been most harmed by the lockdowns. As usual, our solons have been trying to crack a walnut with a sledgehammer. Fear has been giving no wiser advice on foreign policy. Politicians and commentators left and right have been competing to march us into a new Cold War. Hold the Chinese responsible! Sue them! Impound their US bank accounts! Uproot all our supply chains that pass through China! Show China who is boss in the South China Sea! Send Chinese students back to China before they can …

How New Zealand Is Beating COVID-19

Things are getting back to normal in New Zealand. In the past two months, every time I have been to my local supermarket the rules have changed. At the start of Lockdown Level 4, a two-meter spaced queue had been marked out and a long tent had been erected to accommodate it. There was a “one trolley, one person” rule, an insistence on a single “designated shopper” per household, and a ban on bringing recyclable bags into the supermarket. Contactless payment was preferred and cash was discouraged. Customers were required to maintain two meters distance from the person in front of them at the checkout. All staff wore some kind of PPE, and some wore face visors. Perspex barriers appeared at the deli counter and the checkout. There were shortages of baking products, yeast was for some reason unobtainable, customers could purchase no more than two packets of pasta or tins of tomatoes, and messages were broadcast over the Tannoy system instructing customers to shop normally. In response to the sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 …

Cold War Now or Hot War Later

One might have expected the COVID-19 crisis to produce an inflection point at which agreement was finally reached about the menace presented by China’s regime. However, more than a few political figures and intellectuals remain unconvinced. Writing in Reason, Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, announces that “there is no China crisis.” Against the gathering consensus that China’s brand of authoritarian capitalism and aggressive nationalism poses a genuine threat to the American interests and security, Drezner serenely reassures his readers that it is “hysterical” to believe that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) possesses the power or the will to challenge and subvert the international system. Is this true? Drezner readily concedes that the old Washington consensus—the notion that engagement would spur China’s transformation from ruthless dictatorship to responsible liberal stakeholder in the international order—was erroneous. Although globalization (the integration of world markets for commodities, labor, and capital) has raised living standards throughout the world, including in China, there is scant evidence of political progress in Beijing. To the contrary, General Secretary …

After the Virus: The Way We Live Next

How will we live, or be forced to live, after the pandemic? “I don’t know” is—according to Paul Collier, the famed development economist—the most honest answer to this question and others related to the cause, rise, treatment, and decline of the current pandemic. This is, after all, an unprecedented disease of rare speed and communicability, for which there is no cure and no agreed political and social response. Yet, contradicting himself within weeks, Collier wrote a similarly powerful essay in which he argued that centralisation had failed, and devolution from those who pronounce from on high to those who practice on the ground is necessary. Perhaps he was merely demonstrating that, in this maelstrom of conflicting arguments, no-one, no matter how distinguished, can wholly know his own mind from day to day. In any case, agnosticism is as unwelcome to journalism as it is to governance. And journalists, who operate under fewer constraints than governments, can at least consider some likely alternatives, while remaining alive to the possibility that unknown unknowns will continue to turn up, …

Italy and the EU: The Hard and Stony Road Ahead

“Too many,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on April 16th, “were not there on time when Italy needed a helping hand at the very beginning. And yes, for that it is right that Europe as a whole offers a heartfelt apology.” And heartfelt the apology probably was. For weeks, von der Leyen and her colleagues had been receiving frantic pleas for assistance from the Italian government, and little had been forthcoming. By mid-April, Italy was at last beginning to pull out of the dire circumstances that had placed it at the top of the world’s league of COVID-related death: At its grisly peak at the end of March, nearly 1,000 Italians a day were perishing from the virus, a terrible figure that will, as in other countries, almost certainly turn out to be an underestimate. It was still in great need of help—from the EU, above all—but it was no longer the worst place in the world. It was time for the EU to display some public contrition. But, for several reasons, …