Thursday, May 12, 2016

Flash Points: The Emerging Crisis in Europe by George Friedman

Published in 2015

George Friedman's Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe (2015) provides a brief but cogent history of Europe from (at least what used to be called) The Age of Exploration up to the present. Friedman presents the history as a background for an assessment of current affairs in Europe. This is not just an homage to the idea of history, but instead it provides the necessary foundations to understand contemporary Europe.

The Portuguese, followed by the Spanish, initiated the exploration of the world of the Atlantic Ocean on around to the Indian Ocean and into the Pacific as a result of the monopoly on spice trade held by Venice and the Ottoman Empire. The existence of the Ottoman Empire as a major Muslim civilization pressing (once again) on Europe bears no small resemblance to the problems that Europe faces today. Today, the Muslim world of North Africa and the Levant are not unified as they once were under the Ottomans; instead, they're very disunited. But the resulting social and economic dysfunction are pressing Muslin migrants toward a relatively under-populated but relatively affluent Europe. The conflicts between Christian Europe and neighboring Islam began shortly after the establishment of the Muslim tradition in the 700s, and these conflicts continue today.

In addition to identifying the ongoing the Christian-Muslim conflict along the borders of Europe, Friedman notes the development in early modern Europe of commercial adventures, scientific and military knowledge, capitalism, nationalism, and (later) industrialism, that allowed Europe to dominate the modern world. At its apex in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the British Empire included areas around the globe, followed by the French and other European ventures. What Europeans didn't control directly, they greatly influenced. But as Friedman notes, all of this was thrown out the window beginning in 1914 with the horrible destruction of the First World War. The immense destruction of this war was followed by an interregnum of 20 years of relative peace only to break out again in the conflagration of the Second World War that ended in 1945. By 1945, Europe was exhausted. Into that scene stepped the U.S. and the Soviet Union to impose peace and bilateral division of the continent. By the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, Europe had arrived at the point where believed it could establish a perpetual peace through the integration of nations that eventually became the European Union.

Friedman provides a much more in-depth history than I have summarized here, but it is a speedy one that only obliquely references some deeper issues. Friedman reveals that he was originally a student of political philosophy, specifically of New Left movements in Europe in the 1960s and 1970sand the political philosophy of the Frankfurt School. I sense that Friedman knows it deal about the intellectual history of Europe, which he only hints at, and which he ignores in his emphasis on geopolitical relations.

After this brief history lesson, Friedman focuses on the problems of contemporary Europe. These are not new problems. He identifies them as often long-standing problems that arise from the fact that Europe is an amalgamation of borderlands that create flashpoints of conflict. Those borders include those between Christians and Muslims; between Romans (and their Romance language-speaking successors) and Germans; between peninsular Europeans and mainland (Russian) Europeans, and so on. Each part of Europe exhibits its own problems of borders. Friedman makes a point of including the Balkans and the Caucasus mountain region as a part of Europe, although the major European nations often want to ignore them. Of course, the Balkans were the tender that set off the explosion of the First World War, so contemporary Europeans ignore this area at their own peril.

Friedman's analysis focuses on the geopolitical and economic needs of each of these regions of Europe. His analysis is knowledgeable cogent. His ability to take the long view of these complex makes it especially worthwhile

My only serious criticism of Friedman's analysis is his disinterest in political systems and ideologies. I also have this criticism of the work of Robert Kaplan, who worked with Friedman at STRATFOR, an international political analysis and forecasting venture. Certainly national leaders, and those who need to understand their decision-making, ignore geopolitical realities at their peril. For instance, U.S. decision-makers often ignored geopolitical motivations when trying to assess the intentions of the Soviet leaders in the period immediately after WWII.  There should be a balance. George Kennan was correct in his contention that certain geopolitical and historical realities that influenced Soviet behavior were carried forward from the Russian Empire. However, neither can ideology and political systems be ignored. To this end, Philip Bobbitt's work, The Shield of Achilles, provides an exemplary counterbalance. Bobbitt recognizes that changes in strategic dynamics entail changes in constitutional regimes. Friedman (and Kaplan) gloss over this important factor in nation-state decision-making, and thereby limit the effectiveness of their analysis. Indeed, with the rise of extreme ideologies in Europe (and in the U.S.), we are experiencing competing ideologies and political systems at play in the foreground. Political systems and ideologies never don’t negate geopolitical realities, but they do add a complexity into the mix that Friedman ignores. This surprises me because of Friedman's background in political philosophy. It's not the regimes necessarily adopt a political philosophy outright—even Marxist regimes never fully went down that path—but they do have an influence that is overlooked in this work.

My criticisms notwithstanding, I came away from this book with a much deeper understanding of European conflicts and attitudes that have been around for a long time and that are likely to create tensions and problems in Europe in the immediate future. Indeed, with the possibility of Britain exiting the EU, with right-wing regimes arising in Hungary and Poland, with renewed Russian aggressiveness, and with a growing tide of Muslim immigration, Europe is likely to be in for a tumultuous period. Friedman is a knowledgeable guide for helping anyone interested in attempting to comprehend this puzzle called Europe.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Ezra Klein, Robert Reich, and Theda Skocpol

Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein, founder of & now podcaster
Ezra Klein of has launched a podcast featuring interviews a variety of guests, and I've listened to two interviews so far, Robert Reich and Theda Skocpol. I recommend both, and based on these samples, others will likely prove worth listening to. And since these two interviews proved informative and provocative, they merit some comments.

Robert Reich: progressive, Sanders supporter, Clinton knower
Robert Reich served as Secretary of Labor during Bill Clinton's first administration. For this, he is perhaps best known. During the podcast, I learned that he went on a date with Hillary Clinton (she at Wellesley, him at Dartmouth), he worked for Robert Bork (Yale Law connection), and he was friends with John Kenneth Galbraith. Each point merits some further consideration. As for Galbraith, he was very tall, while Reich is very short. (I can personally attest to this as he campaigned in Iowa City for Bill Bradley in 2000, speaking at fellow lawyer Jim Larew's office. When Reich arrived, I could only tell by the slight commotion. He was hard to see. But, what he lacks in physical stature, he makes up in intelligence and general panache.) As to Bork, he liked Bork personally, but he disagreed with him about politics and antitrust. (He worked for Bork at the DOJ on antitrust issues.) And finally, despite what seems to have been a pleasant introduction to Hillary and a later friendship with Bill, Reich has endorsed Bernie Sanders. What gives?

Die-hard anti-Clinton folks or HRC conspiracy types will be disappointed. He shares not anti-Clinton animus.Instead, he believes that Sanders represents a movement that can transform American politics, and Reich argues, our politics needs some serious transformation. Here's where his thoughts become thought provoking and bear some discussion.

I agree with Reich that the growing inequality in society and the distorting role that big money plays in our politics are of primary concern. Both of us want to remedy this situation. He argues that Sanders represents change, while HRC represents the best management of the status quo. (By the way, he labels Hillary "a thousand times better" than any Republican alternative.) He argues that like Obama before her, HRC would work within the system and make more marginal changes. He believes that Sanders can bring about much more.

I disagree. He cites, for example, FDR as a role model. But FDR, who brought about a major realignment of American politics, did not do so as the head of a movement, but as a cautious, calculating, and canny politician. FDR would throw bones as to the right, such as austerity and balanced-budget nonsense (that extended the Depression as a consequence) while he crafted significant changes in our laws and political landscape. Lincoln, too, was a cautious, calculating, and canny politician who, like Roosevelt, was careful not to get too far ahead of this electorate or the Congress. (Consider Spielberg's film about Lincoln and the 13th Amendment, as well as Emancipation, as examples of this.) As Garry Wills argues, prophets, like Martin Luther King, Jr., or other activists, get out ahead on issues, politicians follow behind and put things in order. We need both. As head of a cause or movement, Sanders has hit upon a nerve, showing a base for progressive change (as Trump has discovered a base for a nativist populism). The energy and spirit of the Sanders movement are vital and could crucial to progressive success, but a movement alone can't get things done. Sanders, as a governing politician, would prove wonderful on the ideas and speeches, but weak on getting legislation enacted. (Sanders displays shortcomings on the realities of getting legislation passed, and progressives like Paul Krugman have had to call him out on this.) The president is the person who must work with Congress to get real results. Congress, by its very nature, makes sausage; it's not gourmet, but it feeds people. Sanders offers fillet minion, but Congress couldn't serve fillet minion in a million years. It didn't' during the New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, or at any other time. (They do, some of them, seeming willing to try to serve pie-in-the-sky, but let's pass on that.)

Reich makes as good a case for Sanders as can be made and does so without any anti-Clinton animus, but it falls short, as does the Sanders candidacy.

Theda SkocpolTheda Skocpol, whom Klein also interviewed (separate podcast), is a respected political scientist at Harvard. Her insights, from political science as a discipline to the Tea Party to right-wing American politics in general, are insightful. But one thing I take from her and from many other sources is key. While Donald Trump is a joke with the potential for a disaster, the people who have voted for him have valid concerns. Not well expressed or understood (thus their susceptibility to Trump's demagoguery), but real. Elites and political parties this group at our peril and to the peril of our Constitutional system.

Ezra Klein did a good job with both interviews, and I look forward to more of them.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Andrew Sullivan Takes on Trump the Demagogue

Image result for Image: Ross douthat
Ross Douthat starts the conversation
Ross Douthat's recent blog entry commented on a piece by Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine about Donald Trump. Douthat's piece was interesting; Sullivan's article essential. 

Image result for Image: Andrew Sullivan
Andrew Sullivan: a medium for Plato
Sullivan, for those not acquainted with him, is an emigre from the UK to the US who's been in the thick of American political discourse since the early 1980s. He served a stint as editor of The New Republic, and he became a prolific blogger at The Atlantic, The Dish, and then on his own website until he decided to hang it up 2015. He considers himself a conservative, but he supported Barack Obama for president in 2008 and 2012, and he was an early and influential supporter of gay marriage from a time when it seemed unthinkable. Among other attributes, Sullivan is gay, Roman Catholic, a Harvard Ph.D. in government, and a student of Michael Oakeshott, the mid-20th-century British philosopher. Sullivan has been known to change is mind about some subjects, such as the Iraq War and Republicans for president. Having recently joined the staff of New York Magazine, he has written perhaps the most singularly impressive article on Trump and Trump's movement that I've come across. While I'll provide some excerpts and commentary below, I urge you to read it in full (here). 

Shall I compare thee to . . . ? Hmm, could be, doc. I see some likeness.
The place to start is Sullivan's conclusion: 

For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.

But while I begin my consideration of Sullivan at the end, Sullivan starts his analysis at the beginning--with Plato. Plato experienced the Greek democratic polis, and as a result of his acquaintance with democracy, he wrote The Republic, which includes a scorching critique of democracy. Sullivan summarizes and quotes Plato's portrait of a demagogue:
He is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time — given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion. He makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class — and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess—“too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery” — and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.

Does this remind you of anyone? Sullivan echoes Plato's complaint that democracy can develop--tends to develop--an inordinate trend toward equality that jettisons authority and leaves elites bereft of power. (I think that Sullivan could have mined the Federalist Papers for similar insights, but he notes that they'd read their Plato, so I quibble.) 

Sullivan recognizes that elites can abuse their power, and he accuses American elites of having done so. He writes: 

An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: “We Respectables” deserve a comeuppance. The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.
While I think that Sullivan overestimates the importance of "massive and increasing public debt" (Obama has reduced it significantly, and of itself, it's not a pressing economic issue), his underlying point remains valid: American elites have let down a segment of the population; in particular, white, working-class males. Sullivan and I realize that for many, sympathy with white males in our society hardly seems warranted, but for a significant segment of them, it is. Sullivan does an excellent job of discussing what's happening to this group--the core of the Trump constituency--and how they have arrived at a place where Trump's demagoguery became attractive to them. 

Sullivan draws on the work of Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here and Eric Hoffer's The True Believer (1951) to reveal the psychology and motivations behind mass movements. These references work to great effect. Sullivan also contends that Trump's movement has "fascist elements" but doesn't qualify as true fascism, at least yet. I agree with his assessment. Trump, at least for now, is more Berlusconi than Mussolini, but we can't be complacent. I appreciate Sullivan's careful parsing of terms such as "fascism" because such parsing is essential to meaningful analysis and dialogue. 

Yet, Sullivan also knows how to craft an insightful observation:

Tyrants, like mob bosses, know the value of a smile: Precisely because of the fear he’s already generated, you desperately want to believe in his new warmth. It’s part of the good-cop-bad-cop routine that will be familiar to anyone who has studied the presidency of Vladimir Putin.
It's Putinism more than fascism or Berlusconi-like antics that I fear from Trump. 

Image result for Image: Silvio Berlusconi & Putin
Putin & Berlusconi: Trump role models? 

Finally, I can't resist this insight from Plato that Sullivan channels: 

[L]ike all tyrants, he [Trump] is utterly lacking in self-control. Sleeping a handful of hours a night, impulsively tweeting in the early hours, improvising madly on subjects he knows nothing about, Trump rants and raves as he surfs an entirely reactive media landscape. Once again, Plato had his temperament down: A tyrant is a man “not having control of himself [who] attempts to rule others”; a man flooded with fear and love and passion, while having little or no ability to restrain or moderate them; a “real slave to the greatest fawning,” a man who “throughout his entire life ... is full of fear, overflowing with convulsions and pains.” Sound familiar? Trump is as mercurial and as unpredictable and as emotional as the daily Twitter stream. And we are contemplating giving him access to the nuclear codes.
Sullivan has written an exceptionally perceptive and persuasive piece, and I join him in urging everyone concerned with the well-being of our Republic to take heed of his warning. This is no longer an issue of party victory or a time to gloat over the collapse of any semblance of respectability in the GOP. It's more serious than that. Much more serious.