The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Colin Powell, 1997

I find this interview soothing, makes me pensive. Try the first 15 minutes.

Book Review: Mitterrand's last breath of vanity

Politics and literature were the passions of Mitterrand’s life. Though he had written many books, and as a world leader had much to write about, the 200 days he had left to live upon leaving office in 1995 were not enough to produce anything like Churchill, de Gaulle or even Bush I or Giscard d’Estaing. What we have is a little book, Of Germany, of France, which attempts to frame what is perhaps his most important legacy: Franco-German reconciliation and European integration.

At the heart of the book is his policy towards German reunification. Here he omits much and lies a little. His own reticence becomes sideshow to Gisard and Thatcher’s outright opposition to unification. He glosses over the rather serious crisis between Bonn and Paris in late 1989, essentially on the differing paces of German and European unifications, which led him to have a meeting with the German foreign minister in which he luridly described the resurrection of the “Europe of 1913”. He says that meeting Thatcher on the 20th of January, she drew a “portrait” of a German-dominated Europe. The record shows that that is precisely what he did.

"I should like to stress that the root of evil in Germany is Prussia."

So lies flow from Mitterrand’s mouth like the Rhine through Charlemagne’s legacy. The book remains useful and pleasant. He is lyrical. It is an ode to Mikhail Gorbachev. Was he a failure? “Yes, if we think in terms of power, no, if we think in terms of History. Because everything began in Moscow.” More so, the book is an ode to Prussia. Yes, the militaristic northern Kingdom that united that German nation and was destroyed by the allies after WW2. He laments the destiny of Prussia as a victim of Hitler’s war, he disagrees with Churchill’s judgment that “I should like to stress that the root of evil in Germany is Prussia.” Mitterrand says “He was mistaken, while knowing it. It would have been better to recognize that the destruction of Prussia struck the German nation on its head and by dividing Germany of the sort her neighbors achieved a long sought after goal.”

"The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step."

Instead, he waxes lyrical about Prussia as an early constitutional state and Frederick the Great as an enlightened despot. He quotes a Prussian officer who was involved in the 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler, the day it failed and he was killed for it: “None of us can complain about our lot… the value of a man is measured by his capacity to sacrifice his life for his ideals. Never forget that you have been raised on Prussian soil… This carries a great obligation: to serve the truth, to accomplish one’s duty to the end. Never will we be able to separate the notion of liberty but from true prussianism…” Mitterrand’s requiem: “That was the soul of Prussia before Stalin suffocated it.” A mixture of fear of Germany and love of Prussia. It is all true but terribly anachronistic. Prussia had long since died, annihilated by Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianisms into a economically dysfunctional and socially traumatized caricature of the police state. Yet Mitterrand could still tell an East German leader in 1989 that he was convinced that “Prussia would reappear in her true dimension, one of the richest reservoirs of men and means of Germany and of Europe.”

In all this poetry we find revealing or shocking little phrases. Clearly showing what his preference would have been for the events of 1989-1990, he was “not insensitive” to Giscard’s argument for European federation as a prerequisite to German unity, but that “I had to deal with History as it was being made, not as it might be dreamed.” There’s also an astounding bitterness when he writes that German critics of his foreign policy are “probably the expression of a grudge for having paid heavily the price of Nazism and who did not forgive the vanquished of 1940 for being among the victors of 1945.” And while in interviews he constantly asserted that, because of ‘Europe’, he was not afraid of the 80 million inhabitants of united Germany, he still writes that unification was a “challenge” to France, the answer to which, among other things was “to encourage our demographic growth, already more promising than that of Germany.”

Ultimately, the work screams “Legacy!” It is a “last breath of vanity.” Mitterrand incarnated at one time or another almost everything: Catholic, agnostic, conservative, socialist, Vichyite, resister, parliamentarian, republican monarch… But he wants to be remembered for Europe above all. “But if Europe does not have an answer to everything, her entering center-stage, after three quarters of a century of subjugation, sometimes of humiliation, restored to our countries and first of all of those of the Community the chance to make History instead of suffering it… But if we call vanity my European will, I accept that.”

Threats to 'Europe': "imperial ambitions" and "the epic illusion of glory in solitude".

For Mitterrand “dreams of the predestination of Germany and France, that geography and their old rivalry choose to give the signal. I work towards it too. If they have kept in them the best of what I do not hesitate in calling their instinct of greatness, they will understand that it is a project worthy of them.” This project? Europe. A Europe threatened by the temptations France’s “epic illusion of glory in solitude” and Germany’s “imperial ambitions, those of the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs.” Concluding darkly that “the great powers of the rest of the world will attempt to ruin the coming of a new order which is not theirs.” We can be optimistic, France's Gaullist adventure outside of NATO has been (over so slowly) coming to an end since the 1990s, Germany has remained (minus its policy towards the collapse of Yugoslavia) a model of the civilian state and member of the community of nations.

What we have here is more poetry than history. The book also includes one other chapter, foreign reactions to his election in 1981, and the editor says Mitterrand was working on including the Gulf and Yugoslav Wars. It is a shame he was not given enough life to give a whole account, really a self-portrait, of his years as president.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Book Review: Memories of Thatcher

It is hard to remember how bad things seemed for the West in the 1970s. Western economies reeled from the Oil Shocks and stagflation. The communist world grew to include South Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia. The Soviet Union began a campaign to intimidate Western Europeans through the installation of SS20 nuclear missiles capable of vaporizing every NATO base in Europe in a matter of minutes. In 1979, one might have been forgiven for being pessimistic about the West’s prospects. Nonetheless, that was the year Margaret Thatcher came to power, just in time to catch the coming neoliberal wave which would bring free market reform from Chile to China and destroy the Soviet Empire.

There is much more to Thatcher than that, however, as this book (Diplomacy and Disillusion at the Court of Margaret Thatcher) by the Hungarian-born specialist on Eastern Europe George R. Urban. An occasional informal adviser to Thatcher (the subtitle “An Insider’s Account” is somewhat an overstatement), Urban gives us his account of the Iron Lady. Initially he is enamored with her. Literally. Seduced, as many men strangely were, he found her “an attractive lady” who though in her fifties had “retained the movements, the legs and walk of a young woman.” He wrote some of her “Churchillian rhetoric” calling for the rollback of the state at home and the defeat of communism abroad. Upon meeting her for the first time, he was delighted that “this highly intelligent, well-informed and resolute lady would make mincemeat of the American leadership.” He adds “what a pleasure to see a person of ideas in charge of declining Britain!”

The book is a selection of Urban’s diary entries introduced with short passages that explain the time and context. The story is that his gradual disenchantment with Thatcher as someone systematically opposed to both ‘Europe’ and Germany. He records her saying as early as 1984 (!) that “there is no question that if the Germans were reunited they would, once again, dominate the whole of Europe.” Needless to say, this would pose some problems later.

In particular, Urban wants to set the record straight on the “Chequers Seminar” in March 1990 in which Thatcher invited a number of historians and experts to give her advice on Germany. It eventually was leaked in the press that the seminar’s participants, and Thatcher herself, had an extremely anti-German tone. Urban, with most other participants, pleaded that they had not been anti-German or conspiratorial, but that that had been the Prime Minister’s attitude. As her guests asked her to accept unification she would answer with statements like “Yes, yes, but you can’t trust them.” or “Ah well, but not when you are talking to Germans. They will always be the same.” In fact, she had reached her conclusion some days before, echoing Mitterrand’s 1913, she told him “we may be going back to the state of affairs preceding the First World War.”

“…it is possible that the real problems of the future will be quite new: for example Muslim fundamentalism in France and Britain…”

The debate central to Urban’s book is a little surreal from today’s vantage point. But a contemporary reader unfamiliar with both British domestic politics and end of Cold War foreign policy will, however, find many other things of interest. Telling things on the era. I don’t think Urban had 9/11 in mind when he wrote to Thatcher, downplaying Europe’s potential problems with German and Russia, that “it is possible that the real problems of the future – and of course there will be some – will be quite new: for example Muslim fundamentalism in France and Britain supported by Libya or Iran.” Who cannot see some vindication for Vladimir Putin when Urban told Thatcher, “half in jest” that in Yeltsin’s Russia “what the ‘dark masses’ need is the periodic application of the whip, as so many Russians have been telling us. The present chaos, too, is waiting to be sorted out by a strong man of one kind or another. […] Even today, many Russians will volunteer the opinion that only a Tsar-like figure can keep them in order.”

“The present chaos [in Russia] is waiting to be sorted out by a strong man of one kind or another.”

Urban is writing before Tony Blair coined the term ‘Cool Britannia’. His Britain, only 10 or 20 years ago, is a weird place. The infamous and legendary anti-immigration populist Enoch Powell writes that the idea of the Soviet Union being bent on world domination is a self-serving American lie that has “no basis in fact”. As though it were the 1950s, Urban notes that “it is English chic to show Spartan exterior if not downright poverty.” Whole pages of the book are made up of Urban or Thatcher’s lamentations of the state of English: Why did all Britain’s goods come from Germany or Japan? Why were the only stores open till late at night owned by Pakistanis? Why were the English so sloppy, lazy, easy-going and humble? It was quite embarrassing for a statesman’s nation to be thus: “Thatcher is in many respects too good for Britain… She is cut out to be the leader of a nation with the thrift and work ethic of Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, perhaps even the US, where her vision, resolve and free-market enthusiasm would produce lasting results.”

This tension, not like unlike that between De Gaulle and France, between Thatcher the English patriot and her distinctively un-English qualities (Urban notes a few: “moderation, give-and-take, respect for minority views, the distrust of grand schemes and theories…”) is only one of the paradoxes of her character. She is far more complicated than what many people who praise her legacy today seem to think. Thatcher, who according to Mitterrand “becomes like an 8-year old girl when she is with Reagan,” was outraged when the US invaded Grenada, on the grounds that it violated “Commonwealth sovereignty”. Thatcher, the Cold Warrior, like George Bush went to Kiev to oppose Ukraine’s independence (No “vive le Quebec libre” here…), supporting the collapse of communism and the integrity of the USSR. Thatcher, the nationalist, justifies this with a critique of Wilson of which given the troubles we have had, even today in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, I can only approve: “It is Woodrow Wilson, of course, who is ultimately responsible for the damaging myth of the single-nation state. Such states cannot work. Wilson got it all wrong. He is the one to be put in the dock of history.” Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Thatcher, for 15 years leader of the Tories, eventually came to dislike the term “conservative”: “we are a party of innovation, of imagination, of liberty, of striking out in new directions, of renewed national pride and a novel sense of leadership. That’s not ‘conservative’, is it?!”

The paradoxes and complexities escape her image in the United States. Urban describes a lavish party hosted by the Heritage Foundation with her as guest of honor: “It was a black-tie occasion. Everybody who is anybody in Washington and beyond was there – some fourteen hundred of them… The queen couldn’t have done better, what with the country-club conservatives, corporate America and the military all gathered under one roof… America was conferring on MT the sort of honorary imperial presidency she had vainly sought at home… But here in Washington, seat of the only remaining superpower, with the symbols, and the reality, of the might of America so theatrically displayed, she could, for a brief hour or two, savor the rewards of history she felt were her due. She was praised by her hosts to the point of embarrassment. When the black ties stood up to toast her, it was like a regimental gathering drinking to the monarch.”

This kind of honor is not something that Thatcher could receive in Britain without some heckling: hated by a large part for the mass unemployment her policies caused, thrown overboard by her own Conservative Party for the poll tax’s unpopularity, disliked by the foreign policy establishment for her opposition to both German unification and European integration… In Britain, the aggressively neoliberal/libertarian/neoconservative (whatever you want to call it) streak is quite alien to the nation’s character. She has only found an enduring appeal to the Euroskeptics still fighting against ‘Brussels’.

Thatcher and Reagan, withering into history...

It is strange that of all foreign leaders, only British ones like Churchill and Thatcher ever have conservative cults dedicated to them in the US. Her hallowed place in the Pantheon of American conservatism, like Churchill’s, is a skewed one: she has been reduced merely to the proponent of limited government and the flamboyant Cold Warrior. She has been stripped of all the idiosyncrasies, contradictions and petty parochialisms that make up every political life and every human being. One wonders if she can truly take comfort as she basks in the glory of being etched into the memory of the Americans, for what they see in her is not her, but a vain reflection of themselves.

Rue Britannia

"Rue Britannia is a daily cartoon featuring RueB, a new embodiment of today's Briton. See her perspective on events that are affecting the UK from home and abroad."
I've just discovered this neat little startup comic/blog call Rue Britannia featuring this scantily clad young lady as the modern day RueB. This pugnacious little strip looks like my surest way of keeping in touch with the various happenings and 'controversies' that barely make an echo beyond the Channel.. He also wants people to advertise it so maybe his readership will be about 3 people bigger!

Monday, June 09, 2008

"You're not listening. I'm telling you something important."

LBJ calls a friend at 6AM:
"Listen," he began. "I've been reading Carl Sandburg's biography on Lincoln and no matter how great the book's supposed to be, I can't bring Lincoln to life. And if it's true for me, one President reading about another, then there's no chance the ordinary person in the future will ever remember me. No chance. I'd have been better off looking for immortality through my wife and children and their children in turn instead of seeking all that love and affection from the American people. They're just too fickle."
I tried at first to cajole him from his morose mood by teasing him that from this day forward I would promise to include a question on Lyndon Johnson on every final exam I gave at Harvard so that at least for the length of my teaching career, students at Harvard would never forget him. But he cut my banter short with an unusual abruptness. "You're not listening. I'm telling you something important. Get married. Have children. Spend time with them."

I came across remarkable passage in two very first pages of Doris Kearns' biography of LBJ. I had it lying around but never read it. I was too busy with Randall Woods' much bigger bio and then moved on. It has certainly whet my appetite for more..

Quote of the Mo: Mitt's Famous Last Words

"Don't sit too close to me. I've become more radioactive than Mururoa."


OK, so he had another 100 days to go.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Letter to Newsweek: 'Reform'

On"Une Annee Horrible" June 9, 2008.

Dear Sir,

I agree with Gordon and Vaisse that Sarkozy has had a rough year, but why must every article about France obsess about reform? It is the only word on people's lips! Thatcher's Britain needed 'reform' because its GDP was a whopping 20% smaller than France's. Today, France's GDP is 5% smaller than Britain's. Alas, not all nations have the fortune of North Sea Oil and an English-speaking financial capital. Nonetheless, France has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, French homeowners have not fallen victim to the voodoo-financing of banks and the French economy is not suffering from currency depreciation, recession or inflation. France does not need half as much reform as people say it does. Sarkozy will continue being "Chirac on caffeine", tinkering here and there, being basically unremarkable as French presidents have mostly been since the end of the Cold War.