Saturday, April 29, 2006


The Lose-Lose Country: Why America can never get it right in world politics

The United States probably generates more controversy through its actions on the world stage than any other country. It is consistently ranked in international opinions polls as one of the countries which poses the biggest threats to world peace; at the same time, some of its proponents claim that it is one of the strongest forces for good in the world. A great many people feel highly ambivalent towards it, often for different reasons, but one thing can always be taken for granted in international politics: whatever the United States does, there will be a large body of people who it will alienate and make unhappy.

International resentment of America invariably comes down to decisions that are made by the American leadership: over things that it has chosen to do (invading Iraq) or not to do (ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on climate change). Because of the fact that it comes in for criticism both for action and for inaction, it is not really possible to imagine that the world would be better off if it just minds its own business: in an interconnected modern world, events in one country can have significant impacts in others. It is impossible for the United States to choose a policy course that will not have an effect on the rest of the world. Because America is the world's largest military power and has the world's richest economy, decisions that it makes will often have a bigger impact on the world at large than decisions by other countries will. This is, for good or bad, something that is inevitable and cannot be altered. So the debate is not about whether America should be able to impact the rest of the world: it is about how America goes about doing it.

This fact of global interconnectedness means that the line between affecting another country and intervening in its political affairs is not as clear as might be imagined. The spectrum of possible ways to affect another country range from the deliberately harmful (invasion) to the mutually beneficial (trade agreements) to the unintentional (the Federal Reserve changing interest rates). Any of these types of interventions can be positive or negative: the 1978 Tanzanian invasion of Uganda and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in the same year are widely regarded as justified; conversely, agreements that are supposed to be beneficial can come to be regarded as harmful, as with recent populist condemnations of the trade agreement that Peru concluded with the United States last year. Is there anything wrong with seeking to affect what happens in another country if the outcome is expected to be positive?

Many commentators would cite the principle of non-intervention in other countries' affairs as a bedrock principle of international politics, dating back to the Peace of Westphalia. In practice, however, this principle is observed more in the breach than the observance, and as we have seen above, it is in fact near impossible in the modern world to obey. Moves have recently been afoot at the United Nations to formalise situations when intervention in another state can be justified: the UN Charter originally prohibited intervention "in matters which are essentially within the jurisdiction of any state", but a High-Level Panel on UN reform argued that the UN ought to assume a "responsibility to protect" civilian populations when governments are unwilling or unable to do so - in other words, in case of genocide.

Is intervention in other countries' affairs really justified? If the question asked is, "is it all right for one country to invade another?", then I suspect a majority would say that it is not. But if the question is, "is genocide acceptable?", an overwhelming majority would, hopefully, answer "no". If this is indeed the case, then it cannot be argued that national sovereignty is sacred - in principle, it is all right for another country to interfere in the internal affairs of another country even when it is not directly affected.

But then, where is the line to be drawn? Genocide is one thing, but what about small-scale ethnic cleansing? When does institutionalised discrimination (such as that in apartheid South Africa), which results in deaths through official neglect, morph into a situation of state-sanctioned murder? What about a situation where mass-murder on the part of state authorities is carried out against political groups instead of ethnic ones, as in Chile under Pinochet or Argentina under its military junta from 1976 to 1983? What about simple lack of freedom and political repression? It is tempting to say that this can be decided on a case-by-case basis, with a clear and obvious distinction between a justified intervention (say, intervening in Rwanda in 1994 to stop the ethnic cleansing of 800,000 people) and an intervention that is not justified (say, of a very mildly repressive but relatively unobjectionable state such as Singapore). But differentiating on a case-by-case basis clearly does not work, as the debacle in Iraq has shown - significant divisions existed in opinion in the population in Britain and America, and among elites in most Western countries. The ultimate decision that was reached was, to say the least, contentious.

So, intervention is acceptable in some cases, but not in others. Who is actually to decide, then? In a perfect world, the answer would be the UN; but the UN is clearly not perfect. Despite purporting to contain something of a moral basis for legitimacy in international questions in its Charter, in practice the UN is a talking shop for power plays and horse trading. Where it has been left to its own devices to get on with its work, it has shown itself to be invaluable and (usually) effective, particularly in areas such as humanitarian and social agencies where the member states have granted significant operational independence to the agencies. By the time an issue reaches the Security Council, however, the UN as an actor is largely an irrelevance in terms of actual decision making. Legitimation from the United Nations means nothing more than that the five permanent members of the Security Council happen to be in agreement on an issue; it does not necessarily imply anything about the worth of a given course of action. For example, the United States was able to veto UN involvement in Rwanda, which was as clear a case of justified intervention as could be hoped for. Today, it is China which is likely to veto any resolution on UN intervention to end large-scale ethnic cleansing in Sudan. The UN (in practice) is not a court that decides when laws have been broken and what the punishment should be; it is not even an assembly with democratic credentials representing, in its totality, a single polity. It is rather a forum for diplomacy, which usually involves a hard-nosed calculation of interests rather than anything approaching a moral or legal basis for policymaking.

Which brings us on to America. Why is it that America should be able to decide when it is legitimate to intervene in another country's affairs? The answer has to do with the unique combination of capability and ideology that is found in America today. Perhaps a metaphor is in order. Imagine that you are a muscle-bound action hero, wandering home after work, and you see a weedy little man grab a woman and drag her into a dimly-lit alley. You run to the mouth of the alley and watch as the woman, who is defenceless, starts being punched (or stabbed, or raped) by the man. Everyone else who's around just walks past, ignoring what's happening. A few shake their heads; others egg the man on. You have the power to stop him. Should you do it? Or should you just turn around and walk on?

It would be vigilante justice to intervene, of course. But what if you called up the town policeman in the police station, and he ummed and ahhed a bit then told you that he wasn't going to stop it. "Yes, sure," he says, "of course it's illegal, but I don't really feel like getting involved".

This story is, clearly, an abstraction and a simplification. But it captures an important point about why it is that America is usually the country that ends up contemplating intervention: it does because it can. Because of the fact that America is the country which has easily the most powerful military in the world, American leaders have to make a decision whenever a situation of concern develops in another country. Because of the fact that they can actually do something about it, they have to ask themselves if they should. No other country is in the same position: the European countries are sufficiently weak as to be able to say, "well, that is awful, but there's nothing that we can do," whereas other great and rising powers - China, say, or Russia - usually do not consider issues of morality in their foreign affairs. A situation of concern, for them, is a situation in which they or their interests are threatened.

In fact, America is one of the few countries that brings morality into its foreign policy - and by "morality", here, we actually mean "ideology". It is surprisingly rare in international relations for a country to let its ideology really interfere with its foreign policy: the USSR after the 1920s, China since its revolution, and even Iran today were/are generally fairly pragmatic and rational in their pursuit of national interest. This is not to imply that ideology has no impact whatsoever upon their foreign policy; but foreign policy in the United States has an incredibly schizophrenic character. The United States has two conflicting schools of thought when it comes to foreign policy.

On the one hand is the ideology - the Wilsonian, or liberal, point of view, which takes as its starting point American ideals of democracy and freedom (or nowadays, human rights), and assumes that they are universal in scope. This is a direct continuation of the traditional American perception of itself as a "city on a hill": a country which was explicitly founded upon enlightenment values, which serves as a beacon of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the rest of the world. Under this school of thought, America has a positive role to play in the world and ought to propagate its ideals wherever it can. This was the school of foreign policy that drove Woodrow Wilson and led to the establishment of the League of Nations, and thus, indirectly, the United Nations. UN ideals, as expressed in the Charter, are fundamentally similar to American ideals, meaning that the majority of countries in the world have, in essence, signed up to the American ideology. Intervening on behalf of ideals is thus (so the argument goes) not an imposition of American ideals on an unwilling population, but rather a course of action that forces undemocratic (and thus illegitimate) governments to meet their obligations to their citizens. This impulse to do good formed the essence of Franklin D. Roosevelt's push to create the United Nations (followed by Truman after Roosevelt's death). It was the basis of Jimmy Carter's foreign policy, with its emphasis on human rights. It is also at the heart of the neo-conservative movement which provided the ideological underpinnings of the current Bush Administration's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the other hand, we have a more pragmatic school which more closely resembles foreign policy in other countries. This school simply seeks to use foreign policy to achieve the best results for America. If the previous school was the "Liberal" one, then this is the "Realist" one. This school of thought has changed significantly over the years; prior to Pearl Harbor, it was the cornerstone of American isolationism; thereafter, it successfully mutated to accommodate America's central role in the world and formed the basis of the pragmatic Truman Doctrine, Eisenhower Doctrine, Nixon Doctrine and Reagan Doctrine which ultimately saw America through the Cold War. This pragmatism has formed the basis of American support of undemocratic regimes throughout the world, from South Korea, Greece and Turkey through pre-revolution Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Chile under Pinochet, the Afghan mujahedin, the Contras in Nicaragua, and many, many others. This approach seeks to coexist with nasty regimes rather than to convert them, and its key practitioners are often Secretaries of State or other advisers, including Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft.

Which school of foreign policy predominates very much depends upon the moment - upon the convictions of the President and his key decision-makers, and upon the decision making calculus. When making decisions regarding intervention, America must generally consider all sorts of different factors, including, but not limited to, the moral justification of the intervention, the basis for the intervention in international law, feasibility, likelihood of success and the likely implications in the long-run, the plausible alternatives, the direct costs in blood and treasure, the level of political support in Congress, amongst interest groups, in the bureaucracy, in academia, and in general public opinion, and the attitude of other states and of public opinion overseas. The likelihood of all of these factors being aligned in the same direction is remote. Consider Rwanda, for instance: the moral case was near-watertight, but could not hide the fact that the levels of political support were prohibitively low just six months after the military debacle in Somalia.

So, why is it that America will never be able to get it right? Because of the fact that it is the country that is forced to make such decisions. Different people - both within the United States and in other countries - will put different weights upon different parts of the calculus, and moreover will perceive the values of each part of the equation differently due to different information sets or differences in interpretation and analysis. Because of the sheer heterogeneity of the population of the world, the complex and shifting interplay of justifications and ideologies in American foreign policy, and, often, vital information asymmetries, it is inevitable that when America decides to intervene - or to not intervene - it will be immediately condemned by some people, somewhere, usually loudly and in large numbers.

American dominance is what puts it in this position. The sheer preponderance of economic and military power in one state puts America squarely in the centre of international decision-making and therefore in a position to shape a number of global factors; the fact that it does shape them means that it will inevitably be in the firing line for anyone who disapproves or is disadvantaged by its decisions. (On the other hand, being able to shape such global factors in its advantage may well be ample recompense.) There does not appear to me to be anything intrinsic to America that, divorced from its geopolitical dominance, would remotely justify the sheer scale of opprobrium that is regularly heaped upon it.

So then, America's place in the world is what makes it indispensible in global politics. Because of its sheer economic and political power, and the scale of global integration and interconnectivity today, it cannot escape being the nation that, more than any other, finds itself making the key decisions and taking the lead in interventions in foreign states; the decisions that it takes about making such interventions are characterised by ideology and conceptions of morality as well as by sheer self-interest.

What none of this says, however, is whether or not America usually gets it right or not. Is it actually a force for good in the world? This, perhaps, is a story for another day - I've written quite enough already!

[Please do leave comments on issues that you disagree with, and if you feel that any of the facts or assertions that I made are not tenable, please say so - I shall try to find supporting evidence or other elucidation, if necessary.]

Friday, April 28, 2006


Posting about Politics

Somewhat inexorably, I find myself drawn to blogging about political subjects, which is always a little bit dangerous if it isn't handled with restraint and respect. It's so easy to be drawn into posturing and grandstanding, which is why I thought it would probably be useful at the outset to lay down some ground rules for myself when writing about such things, both for my own benefit and so that everyone else can see where I'm coming from.

If there is one thing that I have learned in all of my time at Oxford, it is that, no matter how sure I am of my arguments, my facts, my analysis, and my sources, I am never, ever, ever right. This thought would be somewhat disheartening, were it not attached to a broader realisation that no-one else is ever right, either. Even leaving aside the rather terrifying thought that even the fundamental building blocks of political argument - "facts" or events - are often open to debate in and of themselves, we cannot escape the conclusion that every single person will approach any given political situation through the prism of their own knowledge melded to their own experience. No-one knows everything, which means that, invariably, there are facts that are relevant to an analysis which are not brought into consideration; furthermore, in order to decide relevance, people will filter the facts that they do know so as to arrive at a coherent analysis. This can be done by accident, it can be done unconsciously (or subconsciously), or it can be done deliberately in order to help the construction of an argument. More perniciously still, even arguments which utilise all the available facts and do not omit facts which are inconvenient can never aspire to the status of truth, because in order to fully explain an event, sequence of events, or policy, it is necessary to have an understanding of the rationales of the chief actors involved in making the decisions surrounding that event or policy - which means a knowledge of the facts that they had when making their decisions, and the personality and experience that led them to interpret those facts in the way that they did. Such knowledge, necessarily, is impossible to obtain, meaning that no analysis could possibly ever capture the truth - the best that can be hoped for is the closest approximation. Complicating the situation further is the fact that truly dispassionate analysis on the part of the analyser is also impossible: as individuals, we are presented with facts, and we mould those facts into coherent theories only through the prism of our own experience. It is possible for two different people to construct entirely different explanations out of identical sets of facts.

Of course, this is all something of an exaggeration - if it were impossible to explain events in the past to an adequate level, no-one would ever try to - but the basic point that I am making is this: there is no such thing as a fact in political analysis; there is only an opinion. There is no such thing as a right argument. It does not quite follow from this that there is no such thing as a wrong argument, either; but we should just bear in mind that any and all arguments, however compelling and plausible, will necessarily never really capture the truth of the situation that they intend to explain. Intelligent people can reasonably come to different conclusions without one of them being wrong.

It follows from all of this that all of the arguments that I may make here are probably wrong, in the end, and I would therefore really encourage anyone who disagrees with me to post a comment to say why; lively debate, after all, is one of the most precious things in any society. I would encourage anyone else (and, it goes without saying, myself) to also bear this in mind when making arguments: getting angry about an argument, being rude, and resorting to making outrageous statements in order to infuriate your opponent and provoke him/her into abandoning a superior position (or abandoning the argument altogether) are never conducive to a decent debate. Sophistry and virtuosity in oratory or writing style are, similarly, distinguishable from correct arguments, and should be regarded as such: clarity is the ultimate virtue in argument, in my opinion. Never be afraid to ask precisely what it is that your opponent means if they have been unclear, or to point out that an assertion is unsupported by evidence or logic.

Lastly, never be afraid to concede if you realise that you have lost. After all, at the end of the day, none of us are ever right! I very much hope that any lapses on my part in adhering to these self-imposed guidelines will be swiftly pointed out, so that I might correct them.

And so, having laboriously drawn up the ground rules, let the arguments begin! Tomorrow, that is. Right now I have to get Julia a birthday present and carry on with my revision notes on Locarno and revisionism in Weimar Germany. So, tomorrow: the impossible geopolitical situation of contemporary America. Stay tuned.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Newspaper Madness

It's no secret that Britain has some of the worst - and the best - newspapers in the world. The tabloid culture, in particular, is a source of much bafflement to many overseas. During the run-up to the Iraq War, the Sun printed a special run of papers in French which read "Chirac is a Worm" and featured a charming graphic of the eponymous French President's head attached to the body of everyone's favourite invertebrate. They then shipped them over to Paris and distributed them free on street corners. The French weren't particularly amused, but nor were they outraged - they were just baffled. "Do people actually read things like this in England?", they probably wondered. "Do they actually pay for them?"

A scan through the front pages will tell you everything you need to know about the British newspaper business, and today is a particularly good day because most of the papers are leading with the same story, which is three fairly large embarrassments for the Labour government that have all arrived at the same time. The Deputy Prime Minister (John Prescott) has revealed an affair with his secretary; the Health Secretary (Patricia Hewitt) was heckled and jeered by an audience of nurses; and the Home Secretary (Charles Clarke) has revealed that foreign criminals who should have been deported after their stints in jail have actually been released back into Britain. None of these are particularly important - the Prescott affair is essentially a private matter, the nurses were reacting in a predictable fashion to Labour finally trying to instil some discipline into the NHS after nine years of pouring good money after bad, and, funnily enough, criminals are actually released from jail all the time, upon completion of their sentences - it just so happens that these particular ones are foreigners. But nevertheless, the headlines arrive - the papers have scented blood.

The Times kicks us off - uninspired and lacklustre since its conversion to a tabloid format, it combines an unfortunate picture of Prescott with a weak pun - "flirting with disaster" - that arguably applies more to its own business strategy. The "FREE DVD" offer - Journey to the Centre of the Earth, if you're wondering - shows us it's target audience of the middle aged with children. The Daily Telegraph is fairly similar - "Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered" - but with a Tory twist. Boris Johnson's loveable face stares out at us, and, keen to outdo its rivals, it offers "FIVE FREE DVDS!" Nowadays these papers have to bribe you to make you want to read them. Disturbingly, a "salacious" gossip piece inside is hinted at by a line at the top boasting of "My night alone with Kevin Costner, by Annabel Heseltine", as if linking faded old film stars with family members of faded old Tories was ever going to appeal to anyone.

The Sun, predictably, turns its attention to far more important matters: the appointment of a new coach for the England football team. It does still cover the Prescott story, though, coming out with a charmingly sensitive caption - "TWO SHAGS", playing on Prescott's "Two Jags" nickname - to accompany a picture of the secretary with the wife. Another "FREE DVD" shows up - this time, a "classic" Doctor Who. The Daily Star - possibly the worst newspaper in the world - is curiously prudish as it repeats the Sun's headline, spelling "Shag" as "Sh*g", presumably because the sort of louts who would pick up a paper featuring "KEIRA - World's Sexiest Woman" and a story on Big Brother featuring an illustration of an unattractive man groping an unattractive woman's breasts would like to consider themselves upstanding citizens with a clear moral compass. On the bright side, returning to Prescott, it informs us that "There's hope for fat gits everywhere". Apparently the real story is the fact that anyone would want to sleep with him.

No moral compass could ever beat that of the Daily Express ("and proud of it"), however - "The paper that stands for REAL VALUES and offers you REAL VALUE for money" (did you see what they did there? how clever) - which takes a break from its lingering moral outrage over never being able to find anyone to blame for the death of Princess Diana eight years ago to target the hapless Mr Prescott, who presents a very juicy target for something more contemporary. "BETRAYAL", it shrieks. "ONLY 35p!"

The Daily Mail, meanwhile, has at least dug up an amusing photo, of Prescott sweeping his secretary into his arms at an office party. His hand is moving in an unfortunate direction, and it appears as if her (pointy) shoe is on a trajectory for the side of his head as a result. "JUST WOEFUL", it inform us. At least we have a "FREE DVD" to make us feel better - "The Ladykillers", appropriately enough.

The Financial Times, as ever, takes a different tack. Although easily the most intelligent daily newspaper in Britain - it's published by the same people who do the Economist, after all - it invariably chooses headlines that serve to pander to the City types who make up its core audience while simultaneously differentiating it from the unpleasant muck that makes up the rest of the country's print media. "LSE head in warning to Putin", it proclaims sombrely, over a picture of London Stock Exchange CEO Clara Furse - shooting daggers from her eyes as ever - and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is not someone that you shoot daggers at and appears to be on the brink of reminding Ms Furse of this fact. "Redefining Retirement" and "Japan's Next PM" are the scintillating stories that you can look forward to inside. At least we can safely assume here that there will actually be news worth reading somewhere within its pages.

Which brings us on nicely to the self-proclaimed "intelligentsia" of the British scene. The Independent, which can always be trusted to do something clever or interesting with its front page, focuses on the scandals - "A SORRY MESS", indeed. It picks out three excellent quotes of the offending Labour ministers apologising, which neatly allows it to editorialise without even saying a word of its own. No Free DVD for the readers of the Independent - they're above such petty bribes! No, instead, they get a "FREE MAP - EUROPE IN FACTS AND FIGURES", which is clearly infinitely more appealing. As for The Guardian - oh, sorry, theguardian - we get similar pretension but with a slightly less judgemental headline: "Triple whammy Wednesday". Doesn't have quite the same ring as "Black Wednesday", which the BBC was using, but you get the idea. The paper's readership base of wealthy, cosmopolitan professionals is given away by features tailored to some of their vital preoccupations, such as "Healthy food in less than 30 minutes" and "How to behave during a massage". Fascinating.

So, as ever, if we want real news we have to turn to the one newspaper that we can trust - twice the cost and half the size of any British paper, the International Herald Tribune (published by the New York Times) is leading with the European Parliament's inquiry into the complicity of European governments with CIA renditions of terrorist suspects through Europe en route to third countries where they can be tortured. When it comes to daily news worth reading, it seems, only the Americans can be relied upon to provide any.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Amusements in History (cont'd)

When the Bavarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed on 6 April 1919 amidst the chaos of the early days of post-Imperial Germany, it was initially ruled by Ernst Toller, a playwright. His foreign minister, a veteran of several psychiatric hospitals, promptly declared war on Switzerland when the latter refused to lend the new Republic 60 locomotives. Shortly after this, he sent cables to the Pope and to Lenin, inquiring as to the whereabouts of the key to the lavatory.

The regime collapsed after six days.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


The Demography Class

We all file into the basement "lecture theatre" on Wellington Square. The demography exam is now only six weeks away - it's time for a little bit of help with our revision. The barely-suppressed sense of urgency is palpable amongst the human scientists and PPEists who have gathered in the room, and, to my mind, there seems to be rather less idle chatter and giggling than usual. Latecomers make do on the floor; the professor leading the class, David Coleman - a giant among demographers - occupies about three tables at the front of the room, which he spends the first five minutes carefully rearranging while everyone watches nervously. We don't really know what to expect; Jenny, Ruth and I (the St John's contingent) haven't reviewed any of our notes beforehand.

Prof. Coleman loves making people nervous. In every single tutorial this time last year, there would be at least one moment where he would address a general question to his students about something that wasn't really very hard, not specifying which of us was to answer; not wanting to appear foolish by getting it wrong, the three of us would stare determinedly at the piles of demography statistics lying around on the floor, the discarded Daily Telegraphs scattered around the tiny office, at the whiteboard covered in his incomprehensible, spider-like handwriting, or even at the essays, clutched in our hands, which suddenly seemed hopelessly lacking. He would peer at us intently over his large glasses, a twinkle in his eye as he contemplated our dilemma for a good thirty or forty seconds before putting us out of our misery.

The class is to be no different. "I know that you're all probably getting rather nervous by now," he begins. "I hope that you won't let that spoil your enjoyment of the moment. After all, now is a time to be savoured! Never again in your lives will you know so much stuff about so many different subjects. From here, it's all downhill! Physically and intellectually. Not financially, of course.

"In fact, you probably know more about these topics than your examiners will! We find it awfully intimidating too, you know." And with that, he sits down on a table in front of forty Oxford undergraduates, ready and able to answer any and all questions that they might possibly have on any part of an impressively wide-ranging syllabus.

It's clear that he intends to enjoy himself. The first, difficult, question that he receives is deflected back into the audience. "Well, good question. What IS the oppenheimer measure of the opportunity cost for women of childbearing? Or first of all, what is an opportunity cost? You there, do you know? No? How about you? Or you? No? Dear oh dear." And, having ably demonstrated the lack of wit amongst his audience, he then proceeds into a virtuoso explanation of the costs of childbearing and the various ways in which it can be measured.

There is a certain relief to be found in that no-one else seems to know anything either; but it is tempered with the sheer terror of knowing that you might be called upon next. Jenny shrinks into her chair, nervously scribbling on her pad of paper, hoping that the tall person sitting in front of her will shield her from the frantic "I don't know!!!" that she is preparing in her mind (just in case). Ruth from New College, eye contact with whom would possibly be more embarrassing than an attempt to answer one of the Professor's questions, asks something about formal demography; instantly we are bathed in the warm glow of a string of Lxs, Mxs, Txs, and total versus cohort person year aggregations. Forty mental notes are made to revise definitions before next week's class.

Finally, it is over. We slink out of the basement room under the stern yet perpetually bemused glare of Professor Coleman, who is helpfully distracted by a question about how to cite sources in exam questions as we reach the exit.

We burst out into the daylight. Jenny starts hyperventilating. Halfway home, panic subsists into giggles. Now that we have escaped unscathed, everything suddenly seems much better again. Perhaps Professor Coleman wasn't quite as consoling as he had hoped, but at least we will tackle today's revision with renewed vigour.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Amusements in History

There is an awfully large danger of getting horrifically bored with one's subject, so it's always a pleasure to happen upon amusing tidbits. My current revision topic - international relations between the wars - has a particularly rich vein of such stories, which one would think could only really come from the age before proper democracy and public scrutiny.
For example, China has always been exceptionally good at behaving in a way that (to Western eyes at least) is pretty classic. My friend Susannah, currently in Shanghai, wrote in her
blog recently about the Chinese worldview, which seems to mix pride and dignity with what, historically at least, looks a lot like arrogance and hubris. Chinese explorers, despite remarkable achievements, were setting out to bring back tribute rather than conquer the world. When the British, motivated by the prospect of trade with the vast Chinese empire, in 1793 attempted to establish diplomatic relations with the Court of the Qing Emperor Qian Long, his reaction was one of disdain:

"If I have commanded that the tribute offerings sent by you, O King, are to be accepted, this was solely in consideration for the spirit which prompted you to dispatch them from afar. Our dynasty's majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures. This then is my answer to your request to appoint a representative at my Court, a request contrary to our dynastic usage, which would only result in inconvenience to yourself ... It behoves you, O King, to respect my sentiments and to display even greater devotion and loyalty in future, so that, by perpetual submission to our Throne, you may secure peace and prosperity for your country hereafter." [1]

The British, somewhat offended, withdrew back to their trading post in Canton, where they could trade in the tea, silk and porcelain that the Chinese had decided were the “absolute necessities” for export of their Celestial Empire to far-off “barbarian” climes.
The Japanese, of course, after being forcibly "opened" by a visit from the US Navy in 1853, and after dithering for a couple of decades, took the opposite approach to China (thanks to the modernisation that characterised the Meiji period) and managed to throw off the yoke of a subservient trading relationship that the colonial powers were attempting to impose upon it. When Japan went to war with Russia in 1904, it managed to trap the entire Russian Pacific fleet in the harbour in Port Arthur with surprising ease. The Russians, understandably irritated, had to send their Baltic fleet to rescue the Pacific one. Denied access to Suez by Japan's British allies (this was before the 1907 entente between Russia and Britain), the Russians had to go all the way around Africa. Off the coast of West Africa, the Admiral decided that the fleet needed some target practice, so a tugboat was strung behind a battleship and the rest of the fleet lined up to try to sink it. Such was the skill of the Russians that the only ship to be sunk was the battleship that was doing the tugging! Unsurprisingly, the Baltic fleet was promptly
sunk by the Japanese as soon as it arrived at its destination.
Russia had another disadvantage relative to Japan, which is that it was quite spectacularly disorganised when it came to foreign policy. It did have a foreign office, known as the Chancery, which dealt with the European nations - but it also had an Asiatic Department that dealt with its Asian expansion and - crucially - Ottoman Turkey and the Balkans. Thus, during the
Great Game in Central Asia, the Chancery, which dealt with Britain, wasn't always on top of what the Asiatic department was trying to do to Britain's Indian possessions; furthermore, coordination was not always impeccable between the diplomats dealing with Austria-Hungary, which had designs on the Balkans, and those dealing with the Balkan nations themselves. Anyone who thinks that Whitehall characterises bureaucracy gone mad should, apparently, be slightly more forgiving.
The Japanese military prowess did not extend to organisational skills, however, and they displayed a remarkably similar affliction to that of the Russians, only this time the dysfuntion was between the military and the diplomatic service. Japanese politics in the 1920s and 1930s is generally quite amusing (well, for someone who didn't have to live through it, anyway), characterised as it is by accidental conquests and prime ministers responding to assassination attempts by drawing their katanas to defend themselves. The 1936 invasion of Manchuria exemplifies the situation. The military itself didn't actually intend to invade Manchuria; it just sort of happened when some local commanders got a little bit carried away. Once it had decided to see the effort through, however, the military neglected to inform the civilian government of what it was up to. The indignant (enraged?) Chinese, rushing to the Council of the League of Nations in Geneva to seek condemnation, were perplexed to find Japanese diplomats who denied that their country was invading China at all. It seems plausible that those diplomats might actually have been sincere.
One of the best targets for those seeking historical amusement, ultimately, has got to be Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who famously saw no need to put off his summer holiday cruise to the Norwegian fjords as World War I was breaking out across the Balkans. In 1889, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was touring Europe with Annie Oakley, famed throughout the world for her skills with Colt .45. When they stopped in Berlin, Annie announced, as usual, that she would perform her signature trick of shooting the ashes from the cigar of a member of the audience. The intention was for her to pick her long-suffering husband, Frank Butler, but no sooner had she issued her challenge than Kaiser Wilhelm, who had been in the audience, bounded onto the stage to volunteer, drew a cigar from his gold cigar case, and lit it with a flourish. Annie, who was hungover, was horrified but dared not back down; sweating under her buckskin, she took aim and blew away his ashes. (After WWI, she wrote to the Kaiser to ask if she might have a second shot. He did not respond.) The year after this, in a similar display of wisdom, Wilhelm dismissed Bismarck.
Later, Germany embarked on a naval construction spree. For all of the weltpolitik, all of the rationales for colonial expansion and domestic consolidation, for all of the need to isolate the social democrats at home and placate the nationalist and industrialist lobbies, there was (according to Fritz Fischer) one over-arching reason for the naval build-up: Kaiser Wilhelm wanted a bigger navy than his Grandmother, who happened to be the Queen of England. The Kaiser's mother - Victoria's daughter - was horrified.
The navy, created at such great cost, fought just one battle and thereafter stayed in port for the duration of the war. Due to be handed over to the Allies as part of the Versailles settlement, the navy's sailors scuttled the entire fleet.
Of course, these incidents may seem funny to a politics student, sitting, affluent and comfortable, in Oxford in the twenty-first century. It seems somewhat less likely that the men and women who had to live through them were quite so amused. Black comedy, as ever, has a tragic subtext.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


Biography and Links

It seems to me that I really ought to introduce myself, just in case anyone should happen by unfortunate accident upon this blog and wonder precisely who it is engaged in such dithering pontification. Well; my name is Nathaniel Kent, and I was born in Plymouth in Devon, UK, to my parents, Jerry and Penny, who are both teachers (Dad teaches middle and high school music; Mum teaches primary school). They had been working in Tanzania for six years before I was born; when I was about three months old we moved to Istanbul, in Turkey. My sister, Gwen, is two and a half years younger than me. When I was six years old, we moved to Munich in Germany, and we remained there until I left for university. I still have a great attachment to Munich: it is a beautiful city, full of authentic culture and wonderful architecture. I attended Munich International School, which was an experience with ups and downs, but I still count myself very lucky in my education. I did the International GCSEs at age 16, and then took the IB Diploma, which I received with 40 points - just enough to scrape my way into St John's College at Oxford University in England to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). I have tried to make the most of my time here in Oxford, joining the Oxford Union with great enthusiasm in my first year, and getting elected to the Committee of the Oxford Law Society, of which I became President in Michaelmas Term 2005. I've also been focusing on building up my CV through work experience, and I have a job at Accenture lined up to start in October, as an IT consultant. In the meantime, I have to get through PPE finals: my entire degree rests on eight exams at the end of May and the start of June, so I'm busily revising at the moment.
In terms of my interests, my extra-curricular activities have been somewhat curtailed since I finished Lawsoc, but I love anything connected to politics, current affairs and international relations; I also like good books (enjoyable, informative, or both), movies and TV shows on DVD (The West Wing is a current favourite), and videogames. I try to read a lot, and I subscribe to The Economist , Private Eye, and Edge, and I also read the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Times Literary Supplement with great enthusiasm whenever I can get my hands on them. My pet hates include rude people (occasionally this can be justification for a certain amount of self-loathing) and bad spelling and grammar, which is astonishingly prevalent these days. (If you find that I have spelled anything wrong or abused a sentence structure or piece of punctuation in any way, then please correct me!)
Well, that's me. If anyone has anything to add about me, then please do go ahead.


A photograph, for the curious

It's not as if the overwhelming majority (all?) of the potential readers of this blog don't already know me, but here I am anyway. I needed to upload a photo into the blog in order to get one onto my profile!
I've gotten a lot of grief for this photo, largely due to the fact that I am, in reality, fatter, uglier, far less likely to wear my collar turned up, and, indeed, unlikely to be anywhere near a beach. But, for reasons of vanity, I shall stick with this photo until a better one comes along. (It took about ten years for this one to show up, so don't expect anything soon.)


Nat's Blog: The Mission Statement, at the time of writing, is tracking 36.4m blogs. By some counts, a new one is added every second. Although I had often considered creating one for myself, I was held back by an uncharacteristic humility: in such a context, what did I have to say that was particularly interesting, or that would be worthwhile for other people to read? It always struck me that the sort of person who create a blog was either plain arrogant or really interesting.
Several factors have prompted a reconsideration. Firstly, I am both more arrogant and more interesting (well, the former holds even if the latter doesn't) than I had previously admitted to myself. Secondly, I am in dire need of tools for procrastination in the run-up to my finals exams (though, in fairness, it's beyond me why anyone would ever want to read about me being lazy). Thirdly, and probably most importantly, I have just been reading an excellent survey in The Economist which has shone new light on the phenomenon of blogging, for me at least. "Blogging," writes Andreas Kluth, "is just another word for having conversations." The myriad of ways which people use to communicate with each other now encompasses the "blogosphere", in a sort of post-email, more-asynchronous-than-IM, more-interactive/expressive-than-facebook kind of way. While I would still stick with MSN for the "does anyone want to go to the cinema?"-type example that was given, blogging seems to be better for serious conversation.
So, I shall keep a blog, and I shall attempt to impose limits upon myself for its use:
1. I shall only post when I have something interesting to say;
2. I shall try to have something interesting to say at least once a day, but if I don't then I shan't say anything at all;
3. I shall try to use it to give an impression on what is going on in my life as well as my thoughts on whatever might be preoccupying me, so that others might keep in touch with me with minimal effort.
So, that is the mission statement. Even if no-one reads it, at least I'll have something approximating a journal that I can look back on when I'm old, grey, and even more self-absorbed than I am presently.
Lastly, if a blog is a conversation, it ought to be two-way: leave comments, e-mail me, facebook me, MSN me, text me, or even (gasp) call or visit me if you fancy responding to anything that I've written. Do keep me up to date with your own blogs and let me know if you're creating one when you haven't in the past, and do feel free to link this blog to anyone that you like.

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