Quotulatiousness

June 24, 2015

Nathan Rothschild did as much to defeat Napoleon as Wellington

Filed under: Britain,Economics,Europe,History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Matt Ridley decries his own taste in reading (too many cavalry charges and panzer tanks) and declares that we should honour the man who propped up the Duke of Wellington financially for making Wellington’s battlefield and diplomatic efforts meaningful:

Galloping bravely against an enemy, in however good a cause, is not the chief way the world is improved and enriched. The worship of courage as a pre-eminent virtue, which Hollywood shares with Homer, is oddly inappropriate today — a distant echo of a time when revenge and power, not justice and commerce, were the best guarantee of your security. Achilles, Lancelot and Bonaparte were thugs.

We admire achievements in war, a negative-sum game in which people get hurt on both sides, more than we do those in commerce, where both sides win.

The Rothschild skill in trade did at least as much to bring down Napoleon as the Wellesley skill in tactics. Throughout the war Nathan Rothschild shipped bullion to Wellington wherever he was, financing not just Britain’s war effort but also that of its allies, almost single-handedly. He won’t get much mention this week.

So I ought to prefer books about business, not bravery, because boring, bourgeois prudence gave us peace, plenty and prosperity. It was people who bought low and sold high, who risked capital, set up shop, saved for investment, did deals, improved gadgets and created jobs — it was they who raised living standards by ten or twentyfold in two centuries, and got rid of most child mortality and hunger. Though they do not risk their lives, they are also heroes, yet we have always looked down our noses at them. When did you last see an admirable businessman portrayed in a movie?

Dealing is always better than stealing, even from your enemies. It’s better than praying and preaching, the clerical virtues, which do little to fill bellies. It’s better than self-reliance, the peasant virtue, which is another word for poverty. As the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey put it in her book The Bourgeois Virtues: “The aristocratic virtues elevate an I. The Christian/peasant virtues elevate a Thou. The priestly virtues elevate an It. The bourgeois virtues speak instead of We”.

May 27, 2015

Russian deputy prime minister – “Tanks don’t need visas”

Filed under: Europe,Military,Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Your weekly dose of Cold War nostalgia this week comes by way of Dmitry Rogozin, the eminently quotable Russian deputy PM in charge of the Russian defence industry:

“I’ve always joked about it… so what if they won’t give us visas, put us on sanctions list … tanks don’t need visas,” he told an interviewer on Russian state television last Sunday, according to AFP.

Last year, the former ambassador to NATO and notorious Putin loyalist, was put on a sanctions list of both the U.S. Treasury Department and the European Union, which made Rogozin announce that the Russian defense industry has “many other ways of traveling the world besides tourist visas.”

Additionally, after Romania prevented the deputy prime minister’s plane from entering its airspace in 2014, he announced that “next time I will fly in a Tu-160″ — referencing Russia’s newest strategic bomber. That comment made the Romanian Foreign Ministry issue a statement calling Rogozin’s words “a serious threat.”

Back in 2013, after the commissioning of the first Borei-class SSBN (see: “Putin’s Red October: Russia’s Deadliest New Submarine”), the Russian Cabinet member tweeted: “You bourgeoisie tremble! You are screwed!”

The most recent diatribe comes in the wake of two-week long Western military maneuvers in the Arctic, codenamed “Arctic Challenge” and involving 115 fighter aircraft and 3,600 military personnel from nine countries.

[…]

In response to yesterday’s launch of “Arctic Challenge”, the Russian Defense Ministry announced a four-day long military exercise of its own, a “massive surprise inspection” involving 12,000 troops 250 aircraft and 689 units of “various weapons and military equipment” targeting an “imaginary enemy.” The snap maneuvers are taking place in the Ural mountains and Siberia – home to Russia’s central military district.

Dmitry Rogozin’s most recent comment on Russia’s ties with the West was published yesterday on his Twitter account: “It’s not Russia that threatens the West. Its foundations will crash down under the pressure of ISIS and gays.”

May 17, 2015

The Yasukuni Shrine is part of the reason Japan can’t apologize for their historical aggressions

Filed under: Asia,History,Japan,Pacific — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At The Diplomat, J. Kevin Baird looks at Japan’s continued resistance to examining their own military and diplomatic history after the First World War:

Japan faces the expectations of its friends and neighbors to express itself on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will formulate and express those words. In doing so, he faces a dilemma. The focus of that dilemma is Yasukuni Shrine and what it speaks to regarding Japan’s view of the Pacific War. Will Japan demonstrate contrition in seeking atonement, or does it aim for exoneration by rehabilitating its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere motivations for the Pacific War? Histories yet to be may hinge on that choice.

[…]

In 2014, Shinzo Abe rejected the idea of Japan emulating Germany’s actions, citing differing political contexts for postwar Europe versus Asia. He implied the quest for European unification somehow mandated the German approach. A divided and adversarial East Asia, it seems, made Japanese attempts at atonement futile or counterproductive. That argument may be made, but it skirts the core issue of Japan’s stance, more deeply dividing the region and entrenching adversarial national relationships. Abe and his advisors surely understand this. Japan’s ability to shape regional and world affairs, as it is fully capable of doing and aspires to do, hinges upon how it is perceived by the community of nations, especially those of East Asia. Abandoning the ideal of reconciliation over its wartime actions cannot be an option on the Japan table. What strategy for realizing their ambition is at work? It may not be contrition and atonement.

German artist Hans Haacke wrote, “Museums are managers of consciousness. They give us an interpretation of history, of how we view the world and locate ourselves in it. They are, if you want to put it in positive terms, great educational institutions. If you want to put it in negative terms, they are propaganda machines.” A museum and shrine in Tokyo may bring Abe’s strategic posture on reconciliation into sharper focus. Yushukan Museum stands on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine. Therein is locomotive C5631, identified as the first to trundle down the Thai-Burma rail line, where more than 100,000 forced laborers and prisoners of war died in its construction.

A memorial to Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal also stands on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine – a member of the International War Tribunal for the Far East panel of judges, he wrote of the Class A war criminals, “I would hold that every one of the accused must be found not guilty of every one of the charges in the indictment and should be acquitted on all those charges.” Pal considered the Pacific War provoked by the Americans and the war tribunals a sham. He stood utterly alone in this dissent among his 11 peer judges, but Japanese nationalists hold his views as authoritative and see Pal as a heroic figure. In 1968, Japan secretly enshrined 1,068 executed war criminals at Yasukuni as divine martyrs. Like those who did not survive the war, the executed soldiers had nobly sacrificed their lives in defense of the Japanese motherland against European Imperialism. The museum explains this defensive nature of the Pacific War. Abe and many other prominent Japanese statesmen regularly pay homage to those men.

May 4, 2015

David Warren on the “Three Stooges of the Apocalypse”

Filed under: Europe,History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

David Warren recently read Margaret MacMillan’s Paris, 1919 and discusses the three leaders who had the most influence over the peace process:

Recently, breezing through Margaret MacMillan’s blockbuster, Paris 1919 (2003) — the kind of book I am apt to pick up from the Salvation Army thrift shop — I considered her mildly revisionist account of the Peace Conference that held the world rivetted through the first six months of that year. Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, and Georges Clémenceau are rightly absolved of responsibility for everything that happened in the next twenty years; for there were clowns after those clowns.

I think of them as the “Three Stooges of the Apocalypse.” They were themselves not causes but symptoms of a disease, which for a word we might call post-modernism. President Wilson did the most permanent damage. He was the Barack Obama of that historical moment, enjoying an immense charismatic popularity in Europe. A moral and intellectual simpleton, he had handy to his lips a short list of glib progressive nostrums that appealed to great masses of the war weary.

All three were men of terrific ego, and little substance: models for the new kind of politician that would emerge more fully from the War. Each was from his own peculiarly desiccated cultural background a man largely free of any religious conviction. Wilson had the Calvinist Puritan sensibility, to the degree that he was privately well-behaved; Lloyd George and especially Clémenceau were just old rogues and whoremongers, charming from a distance. Paradoxically, it might have helped had Wilson been more corrupt, and less “principled,” for his principles were exactly those on which post-modern liberalism was awkwardly erected: democracy, equality, bureaucracy, national self-determination, and all the rest of that rot.

To the point, the British and French dealt out pieces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire between themselves like patches on a Monopoly board, except for the Turkey of Ataturk’s fait accompli. Wilson watched with mild distaste while focusing his own efforts on rewarding every poisonous little balkanic European nationalism he could find under a rock. Other problems, like the new Soviet Russia, that could not be painlessly fixed, were progressively ignored. The Old World of aristocratic family orders, above nationalism, was unceremoniously trashed for the new one of seething demagogic republics, and all that would follow from that. It was a Brave New World that would be implicitly, and often explicitly, post-Christian.

April 23, 2015

Kicking Neville Chamberlain while he’s dead

Filed under: Britain,History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Poor old Neville … he’s become such a byword for failure that they’re even comparing Barack Obama to Chamberlain. This is hardly fair to either party:

One of the hardest things to do in history is to read history in context, shutting out our foreknowledge of what is going to happen — knowledge the players at the time did not have.

Apparently Neville Chamberlain is back in the public discourse, again raised from the dead as the boogeyman to scare us away from any insufficiently militaristic approach to international affairs.

There is no doubt that Neville Chamberlain sold out the Czechs at Munich, and the Munich agreement was shown to be a fraud on Hitler’s part when he invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia just months later. In retrospect, we can weep at the lost opportunity as we now know, but no one knew then, that Hitler’s generals planned a coup against him that was undermined by the Munich agreement.

But all that being said, let’s not forget the historic context. World War I was a cataclysm for England and Europe. It was probably the worst thing to happen to Europe since the black death. And many learned folks at the time felt that this disaster had been avoidable (and many historians today might agree). They felt that there had been too much rush to war, and too little diplomacy. If someone like Britain had been more aggressive in dragging all the parties to the bargaining table in 1914, perhaps a European-wide war could have been avoided or at least contained to the Balkans.

If you’ve read my Origins of WW1 posts, you’ll probably agree that Britain alone could not have averted the First World War, although they could have stayed out of the war (which would probably have guaranteed a German victory by 1916). Unlike the attitudes in 1914, few Europeans wanted any kind of war in the late 1930s, having learned too well what the casualties of modern war could be. The idea that Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier could somehow have deterred Hitler requires an amazing lack of awareness of the political realities in Britain and France at the time … and of the state of the respective armed forces of the two nations. Neither politician could have survived the reaction if they’d forced Hitler’s hand … which might well have served Hitler’s purposes just as well as the “scrap of paper” did in the end.

In a postscript, Warren also points out that FDR could just as easily take the place of Neville Chamberlain for his own “sell out” of Poland and the rest of what became the Warsaw Pact “allies”:

Years ago in my youth I used to excoriate FDR for caving into Stalin at Yalta, specifically in giving away most of Eastern Europe. I still wish he hadn’t given his moral authority and approval to the move, but even if we stood on the table and screamed at Stalin in opposition, what were we going to do? Was there any appetite for extending the war? Zero. That is what folks who oppose the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan get wrong in suggesting there were alternatives. All those alternatives involved a longer war and more American deaths which no one wanted.

April 16, 2015

An alliance of monsters – Hitler and Stalin, 1939-1941

Filed under: Europe,History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In The New York Review of Books, John Lukacs reviews a new book from Roger Moorhouse documenting the brief alliance between the Nazi and Soviet regimes:

In the vast literature about Stalin and Hitler during World War II, little is said about their being allies for twenty-two months. That is more than an odd chapter in the history of that war, and its meaning deserves more attention than it has received.

Two factors were involved in this neglect. One was that after Hitler chose to conquer Russia he did not succeed; Stalin emerged as one of the supreme victors of World War II. The other was the Western Powers’ relative lack of interest in Eastern Europe. Yet the war broke out in 1939 because of Eastern Europe, as a result of the British (and French) decision to oppose the German conquest of Poland. The political earthquake of the Nazi–Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939, nine days before the outbreak of war on September 1, did not deter Britain and France from declaring war on Germany upon its invasion of Poland. This is one of the few—very few—decisions in their favor at the time. That they were reluctant in the months that followed to wage war seriously against Germany is another story.

Three quarters of a century have now passed since 1939. A fair amount has been written about the Nazi–Soviet Pact since then, mostly by Eastern European writers and historians. The Devil’s Alliance is a good account by the British historian Roger Moorhouse of what the pact meant for Hitler and Stalin—and, worse, for its victims. Perhaps the book’s most valuable part deals with the immediate consequences of the pact in 1939. Before then, obviously and stridently, Nazism and communism were outright enemies. From the very beginning of his political rise Hitler described Judaism and communism as his principal enemies. Stalin, by that time, was less of an ideologue. Like Hitler, he was a nationalist; he had little interest in international communism.

April 14, 2015

QotD: Blaming France for causing the First World War

Filed under: Europe,History,Military,Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

To begin with, any attempt to shift blame for World War I from Germany onto the French-Russian alliance has to deal with Germany’s responsibility for creating that alliance in the first place. If France wanted Alsace and Lorraine back, it was only because it had lost the territories in a war engineered by Germany. Karl Marx, in a moment of rare foresight, predicted that Germany’s decision to annex Alsace and Lorraine would end “by forcing France into the arms of Russia.” Similarly, it was Germany’s decision not to renew its alliance with Russia that led to increasing enmity between Russia and Austria, and to the creation of an anti-German alliance between Russia and France. And the German decision to rebuff British overtures in favor of a naval arms race (not to mention provoking the Agadir Crisis) pushed yet another potential ally into the enemy camp. Germany’s ability to lose friends and alienate people would continue during World War I itself, with such brilliant diplomatic maneuvers as the Zimmerman telegraph, unrestricted submarine warfare, and the decision to let Lenin back into Russia.

But leave all that aside. It’s certainly true that France wanted to get Alsace and Lorraine back from Germany, and that France knew the only hope it had of beating Germany in a war was with Russia as an ally. But this had been true for decades prior to 1914. Had France and Russian really wanted to start a war with the central powers, they had plenty of opportunities. But they didn’t. Clark himself concedes this, noting that “at no point did the French or the Russian strategists involved plan to launch a war of aggression against the central powers.”

What’s more, far from being an instigator, France was disengaged during much of the July Crisis. Attention in France during July 1914 was focused on a particularly lurid murder trial involving the wife of a prominent politician. During the key period of the Austrian ultimatum, both the French president and prime minister were stuck on a boat returning from St. Petersburg. And when leaders did finally arrive in Paris, their moves were not aggressive. The French prime minister cabled Russia on July 30 that it “should not immediately proceed to any measure which might offer Germany a pretext for a total or partial mobilization of her forces” and the French army itself was pulled back six miles from the German frontier.

Josiah Neeley, “Historical Revisionism Update: Yes, Germany (Mostly) Started World War I”, The Federalist, 2014-01-06

March 28, 2015

QotD: The outbreak of war in 1914

Filed under: Europe,History,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

This book thus strives to understand the July Crisis of 1914 as a modern event, the most complex of modern times, perhaps of any time so far. It is concerned less with why the war happened than with how it came about. Questions of why and how are logically inseparable, but they lead us in different directions. The question of how invites us to look closely at the sequences of interactions that produced certain outcomes. By contrast, the question of why invites us to go in search of remote and categorical causes: imperialism, nationalism, armaments, alliances, high finance, ideas of national honour, the mechanics of mobilization. The why approach brings a certain analytical clarity, but it also has a distorting effect, because it creates the illusion of a steadily building causal pressure; the factors pile up on top of each other pushing down on the events; political actors become mere executors of forces long established and beyond their control.

The story this book tells is, by contrast, saturated with agency. The key decision-makers — kings, emperors, foreign ministers, ambassadors, military commanders and a host of lesser officials — walked towards danger in watchful, calculated steps. The outbreak of war was the culmination of chains of decisions made by political actors with conscious objectives, who were capable of a degree of self-reflection, acknowledged a range of options and formed the best judgements they could on the basis of the best information they had to hand. Nationalism, armaments, alliances and finance were all part of the story, but they can be made to carry real explanatory weight only if they can be seen to have shaped the decisions that — in combination — made war break out.

Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.

March 23, 2015

What’s in a name?

Filed under: Britain,History,Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Mark Steyn linked to this rather amusing communication from the British embassy in Moscow, back in 1943:

Embassy letter from Moscow

If it’s not quite legible, he also provided a text version:

H.M. EMBASSY
MOSCOW

Lord Pembroke
The Foreign Office
London

6th April 1943

My Dear Reggie,

In these dark days man tends to look for little shafts of light that spill from Heaven. My days are probably darker than yours, and I need, my God I do, all the light I can get. But I am a decent fellow, and I do not want to be mean and selfish about what little brightness is shed upon me from time to time. So I propose to share with you a tiny flash that has illuminated my sombre life and tell you that God has given me a new Turkish colleague whose card tells me that he is called Mustapha Kunt.

We all feel like that, Reggie, now and then, especially when Spring is upon us, but few of us would care to put it on our cards. It takes a Turk to do that.

Archie

Sir Archibald Clark Kerr
H.M. Ambassador

March 22, 2015

National Review columnist says Obama is right and his critics are wrong … about the TPP negotiations

I’m a very strong free-trader, but what I’ve heard about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations makes me feel that it’s less to do with any kind of free trade and much more to do with “managed” trade, where favoured companies get sweetheart deals and cronies get their cut of the action. In spite of that, National Review‘s Kevin Williamson says we should all hold our noses and follow behind President Obama and sign the TPP so we can find out what’s in it, so everyone can get their free unicorn … or something:

If there were $3 trillion sitting on the sidewalk, would you stoop to pick it up? That is the main question facing advocates of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a proposed treaty to liberalize trade and investment among a dozen nations including the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, and Japan — and the trade-and-investment accord’s antagonists, too.

“The first thing you need to know is that almost everyone exaggerates the importance of trade policy,” writes TPP critic Paul Krugman in the New York Times. That may seem a strange sentiment for a man who won the Nobel Prize in economics (*) for his work on trade — perhaps the Sveriges Riksbank exaggerated the importance of trade economics? — but Professor Krugman has a point. The effects of large-scale international accords in trade and other economic areas are difficult to forecast, and such deals interact with other economic realities in ways that are not always entirely obvious. When NAFTA was under consideration, we were warned about that infamous “giant sucking sound” by Ross Perot and other protectionists, while the free-traders predicted that the accord would prove a massive boon to the U.S. economy, as well as to those of Mexico and Canada. The reality, as measured by the Congressional Budget Office and others, is that NAFTA has had a small positive effect on U.S. economic growth. Human progress is made up mostly of small positive effects. Beware policymakers offering dramatic promises: As Daniel Hannan points out, those advocating the adoption of the euro promised that it would add 1 percent GDP growth to each participating nation in perpetuity and that it would also provide a check on political extremism — wrong and wrong.

The dispute over TPP finds Barack Obama at odds both with congressional Democrats and with progressive activists, and making uncomfortably common cause with the most reliable partisans of free trade: most everybody who hates his guts.

Some Republicans have reservations about investing the president with “fast track” authority — meaning that he would be empowered to negotiate a deal that would then get a simple yes/no vote in Congress, which turns out to have a say in international affairs after all — because they are mindful of this imperial president’s habitual infliction of violence on the Constitution and of his seething contempt of the legislative branch in which he served for approximately eleven minutes. But it is unlikely that Republicans will in the end say no to a trade deal.

Professor Krugman’s case against TPP is, in brief, “meh.” He offers very little in the way of substantive criticism of the proposed accord, instead pooh-poohing it as modest, something that might add no more than 0.5 percent, and probably not even that, to the incomes of the participating nations. Those nations represent more than one third of the world’s economic output, though. Brad DeLong of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth addresses Professor Krugman’s sniffing directly: What if the additional growth were only half that 0.5 percent number? “In a Pacific region whose GDP is now approaching $30 trillion/year,” he writes, “that is $75 billion/year. Capitalize that at 4 percent/year and we get a net addition to world wealth of $3 trillion. That is indeed a very small number relative to the wealth of the world both now and discounted into the future. But that is a rather large number compared to other things the U.S. government might do this year. So why not grab for it?”

February 16, 2015

QotD: The impotence of the League of Nations

Filed under: Britain,History,Japan,Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Within a couple of months of the Invergordon mutiny, Japan intervened in Manchuria, deaf to all the entreaties of the League of Nations. While, today, we are used to the fact that a ringing denunciation from the United Nations is probably the single most ineffective tool in international relations, the revelation of its predecessor’s impotence came as a disagreeable surprise. So many statesmen had placed their faith in collective security that the naked aggression of the Japanese left them floundering for a response. In 1931 the British people had more pressing concerns than remote Asian wars, but the lesson was not lost on Germany’s rising political star Hitler, nor the posturing Mussolini in Italy whose Fascist Party dreamed of a new Roman Empire.

Max Arthur, The True Glory: The Royal Navy 1914-1939, 1996.

February 6, 2015

Baird makes for the exit

Filed under: Cancon,Government,Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Paul Wells on the somewhat precipitate departure of Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird:

This is the third time Stephen Harper has found himself suddenly short a foreign minister and the first time it has mattered. On May 26, 2008, Maxime Bernier resigned the portfolio after he left confidential documents at a girlfriend’s house, and the capital was briefly awash in bad puns about “leaky briefs.” In the federal election of May 2, 2011, Lawrence Cannon lost his seat to a rookie New Democrat. Now John Baird.

But Bernier was — is — a libertarian who was convinced that if governments talk to one another they will find new things to do when they shouldn’t be doing much of anything, so he was never entirely sure Canada should have a foreign minister and a little put out that it apparently had to be him. And Cannon took no joy in a job that pushed his limited interpersonal skills beyond their natural breaking point. […]

Baird, on the other hand, has been an absolute breath of fresh air. Of course he’s been a conservative (as opposed to merely a Conservative) foreign minister, so DFAIT lifers Paul Heinbecker and Jeremy Kinsman would reliably get the vapours at the mention of his name. He sold embassies and official residences. He informed DFAT-D (as the newly renamed ministry came to be called) envoys that they would have no more space in their cubicles in Ankara or Canberra than their counterparts in Ottawa were permitted. He stuck close to talking points, which could make him maddeningly terse: following him around central Europe last April, I passed a dejected reporter for the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita leaving the Canadian embassy in Warsaw. “They gave me 20 minutes for an interview,” my Polish colleague said. “When I ran out of questions, we still had eight minutes left.”

But Baird travelled constantly, met everyone who’d talk to him, kept his eyes open, and radically expanded the breadth and complexity of the Harper government’s foreign policy. When the Conservatives were elected in 2006, they acted as if Canada’s relations with the world could be reduced to the anglosphere (friendly governments in the U.S. and Australia, the palatable Tony Blair in London) plus Israel. When those governments changed, usually for the worse from Harper’s perspective, Ottawa’s instinct was usually to turtle and blame the stupid world.

December 26, 2014

Normalizing US relations with Cuba

Filed under: Americas,Economics,Government,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The United States has been in a Cold War state of tension with one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere for half a century. The benefits of this strategy are hard to find (and harder to justify), but the drawbacks are pretty stark. The recent move by the Obama administration to move to more normal diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba may be driven by short-term petty political considerations, but the move is correct and rational on the larger scale. In The Federalist, Tom Nichols tries to talk the conservative base in off the window ledge by pointing out that there’s a strong conservative case as well:

Okay, everyone. Calm down.

There are a lot of reasons to be worried about the president’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. Not least among them is that this is the least-adept foreign policy team in post-Cold War history (yes, I include the Carter and Bush 43 White Houses in that evaluation), and after six years of being taken to the cleaners by bad regimes, it feels like it’s happening again. It also looks too much like a quid pro quo for the release of an imprisoned American. And it’s being rationalized by the president himself in terms that show little understanding of the origins of the entire policy he’s about to overturn.

With all of that said, it’s still the right thing to do, and conservatives oppose it at their political peril.

Before we go any farther, however, what exactly are we actually talking about? To judge from the reaction of some conservatives, President Obama just proposed to send Fidel Castro a personal masseuse in a bikini stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. The fact of the matter is, we don’t know what will come from this, other than “normalization:” that is, the ability to establish an embassy, carry on diplomatic relations, and negotiate over trade. Congress — dominated by Republicans for the next two years — will have a large say in how all of that proceeds. So it’s important to maintain some perspective here, especially since there is only so much the president can do by fiat.

[…]

First and foremost, conservatives need to think carefully about the argument that Cuba is simply too evil a country to have a relationship with us. There is a moral “whataboutism” trap in that position, and liberals will gladly (and rightly) spring it. Many of the people thundering that we cannot even think of dealing with the Castros are the same conservatives who celebrate our massive, and utterly immoral, trade relations with China, a nominally Communist giant whose human rights abuses and mischief in the world dwarf Cuba’s.

Is our indulgence on China only because China is huge? Very well: I also note no similar outrage over our healthy relationship with much smaller Vietnam, a country in which American boys were killed and tortured, often with Chinese weapons and Chinese assistance. Other examples abound.

Yet we normalized relations with both nations. How many of us are wearing clothing with a “made in Vietnam” label right now? (I still can’t get used to that.) Think of it this way: all that cheap junk at your local department store eventually funds nuclear missiles aimed directly at the United States. Are we all ready for a China boycott and closing our Beijing embassy, or is moral outrage reserved only for small nations too broke to buy their way out of our condemnation, however justifiable?

November 20, 2014

QotD: Obama’s negotiation skills

Filed under: Politics,Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

[President Obama] said he would take executive action on immigration by year’s end unless Republicans passed a bill. It’s certainly a bold negotiating tactic: You can do what I want, or I’ll go ahead and do what I want anyway. This is how you “negotiate” with a seven-year old, not a Senate Majority Leader.

I’m not sure that isn’t what Obama thinks he’s doing, and I’m sure many of my left-leaning readers are chuckling right now at the comparison. But Mitch McConnell is not a seven year old; he’s an adult, and he just won an election in which voters repudiated Obama and his party. (Temporarily, I am sure, but just the same: As someone once said, “Elections have consequences.”) McConnell is not the proverbial Tea Party extremist who won’t negotiate; he’s an establishment guy, known as a strategist and a tactician, not an ideologue (which is why the Tea Party isn’t that fond of him). In short, he’s someone who can make deals. Responding to McConnell’s rather gracious remarks about finding common goals by announcing that you know what the American public wants, and you’re going to give it to them no matter what their elected representatives say, seems curiously brash. It might chill the atmosphere today when he sits down with congressional leaders.

I wonder if Obama even knows how to negotiate with Republicans. It’s not as if he has a long, distinguished record of passing legislation in a mixed environment. His later years in the Illinois State Senate enjoyed a solid Democratic majority, and he jumped into the U.S. Senate at a propitious time. Soon after he arrived came the wave of 2006, when Democrats controlled both houses of congress by comfortable margins, and Senator Obama was far too junior to be negotiating with the White House. Then came the financial crisis, and another wave, and Obama spent the first two years of his presidency in a happy situation where he could get things done without needing the support of the opposition. He didn’t even negotiate with his own party; the Senate negotiated his health care bill, and Nancy Pelosi whipped it through the House.

Post 2010, of course, he also hasn’t had much practice negotiating. I’m not interested in another tedious argument about who did what to whom; whatever the cause and whoever’s fault it may be, the fact remains that the president has spent the last four years in a stalemate: Neither party can leave, and neither party can win.

It’s a little late in the president’s career to learn the fine art of making deals with people who fundamentally disagree with you, but might be willing to work on whatever small goals you might share. I suspect it feels more comfortable to go along with the strategy that has worked decently well over the last four years: hold your ground, complain about Republican intransigence, and hope that Republican legislators give you another opportunity to play long-suffering adult in the room.

Megan McArdle, “Does Obama Even Know How to Negotiate?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-11-07.

October 30, 2014

“Free Trade” deals usually have little to do with actual free trade

Filed under: Americas,Economics,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

It’s not exactly a revelation that what politicians call “free trade” agreements are usually tightly constrained, regulated, and micro-managed trade: almost the exact inverse of what a genuine free trade deal would look like. This is primarily because politicians and diplomats have hijacked the original term to describe modern mercantilism. In The Diplomat, Ji Xianbai looks at how so-called free trade negotiations are little more than diplomatic beat-downs of the weaker parties by the stronger:

The classic mercantilism, the one associated with the idea that the precious metals obtained through a favorable balance of foreign trade were essential to a powerful nation, may be historically obsolete. The core of the mercantilist view, namely that self-interested states maximize economic development by optimizing political control to strengthen national power, is very much alive and well. Indeed, the vitality of mercantilism as a state of mind may have infiltrated every corner of the international political economy. If one considers the essence of mercantilism through Robert Gilpin’s definition – the attempt of governments to manipulate economic arrangements in order to maximize their own interests – multiple examples immediately come to mind: Japan’s “economic totalitarianism” system in which the entire society was united in deterring foreign competition in the postwar period, China’s ascendance since 1980s through an export-led development mode underpinned by a deliberately undervalued currency, and Germany’s unprecedented trade surplus accrued from the stringent austerity imposed on its economy to sustain competitiveness in the aftermath of the euro crisis.

Compared to those national triumphs of classic mercantilism, there is a less visible showroom, but one in which mercantilism presents itself over and over again in the form of legal mercantilism. This would be free trade agreements (FTAs), negotiations of which are usually kept in the dark. In bilateral FTA negotiations, legal mercantilist governments endeavor to impose their own (or desirable) trade rules and economic policies on other sovereign countries, usually with the aid of a combination of economic immensity, political hegemony, and asymmetric trade dependence, to create a sort of “international best practice,” favorable trade rules, and legal gains that can be leveraged and multilateralized at a regional and/or global level. The “competitive liberalization” strategy aptly pursued by the U.S. since 2002 is one such legal mercantilist policy, which aims to create another “gold standard” in international trade standard setting to project U.S.-friendly economic policies all over the world. In short, the U.S. expects the trade policies of other nations to follow those of the U.S., in the same way that their currencies used to peg to the U.S. dollar.

The U.S.–Peru FTA (PTPA) marks the very first success of Washington’s attempts to subordinate other countries’ sovereignty to its own national interest by squeezing non-trade-related provisions into a bilateral trade liberalization agreement and overriding foreign national laws. To provide a level playing field for American companies, the PTPA lays out detailed measures that Peru is obliged to take to govern its forest sector. The Forest Annex of the PTPA requires Peru to set up an independent forestry oversight body and even enact new Forestry and Wildlife Laws to legalize key provisions of PTPA. The U.S.–Colombia FTA (CTPA)’s labor provisions represent an “even more blatant assault on another country’s sovereignty.” Meanwhile, Colombia was forced to agree to establish a dedicated labor ministry; endorse legislations outlawing interference in the exercise of labor rights; double the size of its labor inspectorate; and set up a phone hotline and an internet-based system to deal with labor complaints. Examples of similar provisions abound: Don’t forget that the U.S.-Panama FTA has “helped” revamp Panama’s tax policy on behalf of Panamanians.

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