Sunday, December 1, 2013
It is a sign
of today’s topsy turvy world that Western Europeans dismiss and debase the EU while Eastern Europeans clamor for it.
It reminds Talleyrand of a certain line about learning and forgetting. The uprisings taking place now in Ukraine are sad mainly
because they are so unnecessary. What will Vladimir Putin gain by having such people on his side of the ledger? More to the
point, if the EU cares so much about Eastern Partnership, then why didn’t it offer the same to Russia? Even the architects
of the Marshall Plan found it in their hearts to do so back when such inducements came in more sophisticated—and successful—packages.
Today’s draftsmen of virtual borders should be careful. They may get much more than they wish for.
Monday, October 14, 2013
the familiar drama now underway in the American legislature, Talleyrand is reminded of the portrait drawn by Henry Fairlie
in his superb book about the 1960s, The Kennedy Promise, and of the cycle of expectation and crisis which then dominated
the country’s politics. It is summed up in this paragraph:
It is one of the uses
of political activity that it enables us to listen to the conversation of a society. Part of the justification of politics,
therefore, lies merely in the continuation of the activity itself, the carrying on of the conversation. These—the activity
and the conversation—take place in the political institutions which are today regarded, not least by those who should
know better, with an ignorance and an impatience which are unprecedented. The character of a political institution seems no
longer to be comprehended. No matter that the draft of its keel is deep; people expect it—trade union or party or legislature
or department—to respond to fashionable cries. But a political institution of true value does not answer to these ripples;
it feels the tow of public opinion on great issues, slow and undramatic, beneath the surface. One cannot neglect the fact
that the total effect of the political method of the Kennedys was to bring the political institutions of the country into
disrepute by the promise to transcend them.
Thursday, September 5, 2013
The French Mandate
Alexander Stille makes a nice case for why the French have gone out on a limb over Syria. Yet he neglects to mention the fact that Syria (and Lebanon) were
once under French control as a League of Nations Mandate. Perhaps this grants a special responsibility? (We recall that Iraq
was under a British mandate.)
Some people have suggested that today’s Middle East is undoing a century of geopolitics: ending once and for all the Sykes-Picot division of postwar
spoils. Sykes and Picot are long dead. But does anybody take a mass redrawing of borders seriously? Let’s pray not.
For now the evident sentimentality of some Europeans touches the heart. It also makes for a convenient explanation
of why the French once reflexively took the Serbian side in the wars of Yugoslav succession while the Germans took the Croatian
side, etc. Thankfully Americans don’t much go for this kind of thing: if they give a toss about a place like the Philippines,
it won’t be because anybody knows about their occupation of it long ago.
Too much emotion is
never a good thing, however. "A sentimental policy knows no reciprocity."
Monday, September 2, 2013
Raising the Stakes
Edward Luce has invoked a popular metaphor for Barack Obama’s predicament, perhaps recalling the president’s statement that he “does
not bluff.” Evidently not. With his latest Syria gamble, Obama “risks getting into a game of poker he cannot control.”
not be the best metaphor—card games are won not by controlling your opponent literally but by outsmarting him with the
hand you're dealt. Throughout the Cold War and after, games metaphors were mixed and imperfect: Soviets play chess, Chinese
play go, Americans play checkers, and so on.
In this case a better analogy would be to judo. And we all know who the judo artist is.
Whatever happens in the next couple
of weeks (and much will almost surely happen in Syria), there’s little doubt that the Americans and their allies have
been put off balance. They are not yet thrown.
What would a real defeat look like? To answer that question, at least from the Russian perspective,
we have to ask what the aim would be. Saving a vicious Syrian client is probably not the principal one. Nor is reversing a
40-year-long departure from major player status in the Middle East.
There’s a bigger and more obvious target which continues to
be vilified by many Russians, for quite understandable reasons. Contingency planners should be asking, if Obama takes one
for the team now, what will happen if the conflict continues to spread and NATO is forced to act? Where will the American,
British, French, German and other governments stand then?
Article V is like virginity; if its deterrent value is lost, there’s no going
are not the main players in this conflict, of course. But they are master opportunists, and a very big opportunity has, up
to now, been delivered to them. Humiliate a great power when it’s down, it may come back. Humiliate an alliance, the
Friday, August 30, 2013
Shots Across the Bow
is having fond memories of Mr Madison’s war when he, following the naïve example of his predecessor, sought to
teach us a lesson and ended up taking his country to war on behalf of a principle, and losing badly.
What Mr Obama’s game is now is anybody’s guess. His
shot probably won’t be a dud. It may allow him to check this box and get back to the things he really cares about. Yet
he must know that an attack on Syria at this moment violates several tenets of American policy, namely:
--do not launch a military attack without significant international
support and a clear casus belli.
not launch a military attack without preparing the American people and reaching a consensus over costs and benefits.
--do not launch a military attack without a full contingency plan.
--do not, ever, speak of a military attack as being “tailored”
and “limited” and expect to be taken seriously by the people you’re trying to influence.
--do not, ever, enter someone else’s civil war unless absolutely
Perhaps the Vietnam syndrome really
is dead. Perhaps Obama and his team know much more than they’re letting on. Perhaps their diplomacy is much more subtle
and successful than it appears. For his and his country’s sake, we must hope so.