All posts filed under: World Affairs

The Erdoğanization of Hungary

Earlier this week, ostensibly in light of the COVID-19 crisis, the Hungarian parliament granted the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, rule by decree. With fewer than 500 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus as of this writing, Hungary has not yet been badly hit by the pandemic, so this draconian measure was almost certainly unnecessary. Followers of European politics, however, are not surprised. Next month, Orbán will complete an uninterrupted decade in office (having previously served from 1998 to 2002), and his tenure has been marked by a series of moves to scale back post-Cold War liberalism hitherto embraced by Hungarians. In 1956, as the second decade of the Cold War got underway, an anti-communist revolution erupted in Budapest. Stalin had died a few years previously and been replaced by Nikita Khrushchev from the pro-reform faction of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. Khrushchev’s speech before the Soviet congress, in which he had condemned Stalin, led commentators and analysts across the West to wonder if tensions might be easing. In the winter of that year, encouraged …

Sanders’ Indifferent City on a Hill

In the months since the outbreak of a deadly global pandemic, Americans have rediscovered the world outside. None of the contenders vying for the presidency in 2020 has articulated a particularly coherent or ambitious global role for America. But the only candidate who seems to understand at least that foreign policy is not a dispensable part of American politics is Joe Biden. It is possible that the appearance of a lethal virus incubated in the wet markets of Wuhan has persuaded voters in the Democratic primaries that Biden is the only viable option in a world of such bleak possibilities. The current incumbent, of course, is wedded to an “America-First” program—in truth, little more than an irritable mental gesture, to borrow Lionel Trilling’s gruff description of conservatism—that is plainly ill-suited to a superpower in an interconnected world. Trump’s brash pursuit of transactional dealing and short-term self-interest is also incompatible with the design of American power in a democratic order. Meanwhile, the Democratic field, evincing a deep-seated provincialism, has not inspired confidence about its willingness to …

Losing the Mandate of Heaven

A pandemic would spread quickly, overwhelming China’s healthcare system, causing a breakdown in social order. Then the old chaos of the past will come again. The mighty CCP of today might suddenly look a weak and vulnerable thing. ~Kerry Brown, 2019 1 Earlier this month, Xi Jinping was exposed to the sharpest critique that any mainlander has dared to make since China’s president-for-life first took power. Xi was blamed for the coronavirus epidemic in the widely shared essay “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear.” True to his subtitle, the author eschewed anonymity. Xu Zhangrun is a law professor at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. After attacking China’s dictatorial system in a series of articles published in 2018, Xu was demoted and banned from teaching, writing, and publishing. Undeterred, he adopted an even sharper tone in his latest piece. The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the reality of politics under the Communist Party, he says: “the fragile and vacuous heart of the jittering edifice of state… a storied bureaucratic apparatus… [that] repeatedly hid or misrepresented the facts.” And …

Putin at the World Holocaust Forum

Earlier this month, some 10 days after the World Holocaust Forum held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem to commemorate the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, the museum issued an unusual apology for a film presentation that contained “inaccuracies” and “created an unbalanced impression”—by, among other things, memory-holing the 1939 division of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and the Soviet occupation of the Baltics in 1940. The apology letter, signed by Professor Dan Michman of Yad Vashem’s International Institute of Holocaust Research and published in Haaretz, referred to this assault on historical facts as a “regrettable mishap.” But the presentation was actually part of a much bigger problem: the degree to which the forum was turned into a showcase for Russian President Vladimir Putin, his revisionist history, and his friendship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The January 23rd forum—funded mostly by Russian Jewish billionaire, European Jewish Congress president, and Putin ally Moshe Kantor, and organized in partnership with the Israeli government—more or less channeled the Kremlin propaganda narrative of World …

How Damaging Will the Coronavirus be to Xi Jinping’s Authority?

President Xi has become, since his inauguration in 2012, China’s most powerful leader since Mao. His likely longevity in the post is strongly suggested by the presence of those around him in senior positions—all older and therefore unlikely to succeed him. He has been personally popular and has published his own thoughts on China and communism in a form also not seen since the time of Mao. Xi-ism is not quite a thing yet, but the signs are there. So why, then, is his authority under threat? Let’s start with Hong Kong. The stream of protests, which have run there over the last six months—and their enormous scale—has disturbed Beijing. The protests, whatever their immediate cause, are protests against the mainland government and hence the Communist Party headed by Xi. Diplomatic pressure from the U.S., in particular, has hurt. The ineptness of the Hong Kong SAR government, with knee-jerk and ill-thought-out responses that have frustrated both pro- and anti-establishment groups, has not helped. The mainland liaison office in Hong Kong—effectively an embassy—has a new head, who …

Holbrooke and the 68ers

Our Man—Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century by George Packer, Knopf, 608 pages, (May 2019) Power and the Idealists by Paul Berman, W. W. Norton and Company, 348 pages, (April 2007 Reissue) I. George Packer is a shrewd chronicler of American decay. In his 2013 book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, Packer reveals a battered, post-recession United States—from gutted factories in Youngstown, Ohio to abandoned housing developments in Tampa, Florida. The Unwinding isn’t a polemic—it’s written in the style of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, so it includes long profiles of the main “characters” alongside shorter essays about major American figures (from Colin Powell to Oprah) and page-long, staccato blasts of ads, lyrics, movie quotes, and headlines over the years. While some of the portraits in The Unwinding are evocative accounts of American resilience and ingenuity, if you pick up the book today, it’s like reading the prequel to Trumpism. And it hasn’t escaped Packer’s notice that his most recent book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End …

Private Military Contracting Is Misunderstood

When I tell someone I used to be a security contractor, they almost always reply: “Oh you mean like those Blackwater guys?” I immediately have to dispel the myths and negative connotations associated with the private security industry. No, I do not work for and never have worked for Blackwater. I have, however, worked for Constellis, the company that purchased their successor, Academi. My very first contract was with the Department of Defense, fresh out of a standard Marine Corps career of four years—this time I could grow my hair slightly longer. After six months spent working for the Constellis corporate monolith, I decided to leave for another contract with a company that had been around just as long as Blackwater but with a more innocuous name—SOC. Constellis was my first taste of corporate employment: power points, rosters, emailing permissions, time sheets, supervisors for supervisors, positions in the company that were unicorn-like in their purpose. The Marine Corps prepares you for life in a bureaucracy, but its allure as a war fighting organization is able …

Behind the Great Firewall

There is a thriving community of Westerners in China making and posting videos on YouTube about their lives and experiences there. That may sound odd since YouTube, along with literally hundreds of the world’s other most popular websites, is banned in China. Anyone in the country wanting to connect to YouTube (and/or Facebook, Instagram, Google, Wikipedia, etc.) needs to purchase a Virtual Private Network (VPN); software for a phone or computer to disguise its IP address and which enables the user to circumvent the infamous Great Firewall of China. The legality of VPNs in China is another question altogether: selling a VPN is illegal, owning one is iffy, and using a VPN is ubiquitous–but also draws suspicion. Exact numbers are hard to come by but estimates suggest that more than 30 percent of internet users in China have a VPN installed on at least one of their devices. Like so many things in China, legality is often a question of circumstance and usually not even the most important question. YouTubers in China run the gamut …

How Long Before the Regime Falls in Iran?

The death of Iranian Quds Force commander General Quassem Soleimani has produced some truly bizarre media coverage. Some Western media outlets are framing Soleimani’s death as the loss of a deeply beloved hero, such in this January 7th episode of the New York Times The Daily podcast. The podcast spends more than 20 minutes describing how Soleimani was a beloved totem, a living security blanket that Iranians believe protected Iran from instability (by fostering instability in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, apparently). The closest thing in the podcast to an acknowledgement that Soleimani led a group of armed thugs that viciously suppressed dissent in Iran, including turning their guns on Iranian protestors less than two months ago, was a single sentence in the podcast: “To be clear, there are plenty of Iranians who did not love or respect Soleimani.” “Plenty” seems an inadequate way to characterize the majority of Iranians. Seventy-nine percent of Iranians would vote the Islamic Republic out of existence if given a chance, according to one poll. Yet somehow that torrent of …

Iran’s Fawning Western Apologists

The last Shah of Iran, ousted by revolution in 1979, often warned of “the accursed alliance of the red and the black” that threatened his country. By this he meant the union between the radical Left and Islamist reactionaries, two ideological camps that, in theory, should have little common ground. My family, which had leftist leanings and opposed the monarchy, left Iran when I was young. I have never had a taste for monarchy, neither in my native Iran nor my adopted country of Canada, and am not usually fond of quoting the Shah, a monarch who ruled Iran as an imperial state. But in recent days, as I’ve observed reactions to the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leader Qassem Soleimani, I must admit that, when it came to red and black, the Shah was quite astute. And it will be interesting to see which side Western leftists support now that there is a real threat of regional war. Soleimani was killed in Baghdad by a U.S. drone strike on January 3. Since …