Book Review: Alain de Benoist,”Contre Liberalisme. La société n’est pas un marché”

When I published my travel notes on a nine-day visit to Hungary several weeks ago, readers may have been perplexed over why I bothered.

See https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2019/04/26/hungary-testing-the-waters-notes-from-a-week-of-wellness-and-political-tourism/

My concluding point was that the controversial populist, authoritarian prime minister of Hungary Viktor Orban draws his power from the strong national, ethnic identity of his compatriots. That seems, by itself, an unexceptional observation. However, when I made it I had in mind a very specific intellectual context of “illiberal democracy” which I will now spell out in this essay reviewing the latest book by the notable French political philosopher Alain de Benoist, Contre Liberalisme [Against Liberalism].

The book is unlikely to figure on your list of summer reading. Firstly, because it exists only in the original French edition. Secondly, and more importantly, because it is highly technical, the oeuvre of a first-class Philosopher with an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject who is addressing his peers, not the general public. Alain de Benoist, to those unfamiliar with him, may be described as a consummate bibliophile, dedicating his life to reading and writing books.  He is said to have the largest private library in France numbering more than 200,000 volumes.

Being a philosopher does not mean one is cut off from contemporary life. Quite the contrary in the case of de Benoist, who in this volume casts an occasional eye at Mitterand, at Macron and at ….Viktor Orban who is the main figure in a chapter towards the end of the book entitled “Liberalism and Democracy.” De Benoist tells us how these statesmen do or do not fit into the philosophical profiles he is drawing.

However, his book caught my attention for its direct relevance to what I believe is a much more significant issue of our international relations landscape: it bears directly on the supposedly missing ideological dimension of the ongoing Cold War between Russia and the West. Why that is so I will explain in due course.  But first, I offer a brief overview of de Benoist’s reasoning in this book.

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Contre Liberalisme comprises over a dozen related essays.  Several, such as the “Critique of Hayek” will be of interest to a very few specialists. Others are more accessible and provide a very interesting analytical framework to what we see around us in political, social and economic life, bringing together seemingly very diverse and unrelated phenomena, many of them highly troubling, and highlighting the common thread of causality driving them all.

Because this is not a monograph but a collection of essays, there is a certain amount of overlap and repetition of key points. Since these points are quite subtle and embedded in a dense web of literature going back a couple of centuries if not to Antiquity, the repetition from slightly different angles may be helpful to comprehension.

I found particularly valuable the first 143 pages, followed by the essay on “Liberalism and Democracy” mentioned above and the essay entitled “Representative Democracy and Participative Democracy.”

In his underlying thesis, Alain de Benoist tells us that the common denominator in all strands of Liberalism, both political and economic, is the exclusive focus on the individual and his/her rights at the expense of all else. Society, nation do not exist: they are merely aggregations of individuals.

The trappings of this individual-above-all approach are ‘free movement of goods, capital and people,’ the ultimate primacy of ‘the universal rights of man,’ denial of national sovereignty in the name of those rights, the call for minimal government, turning the state into nothing more than a ‘night watchman’ while the discrepancy in wealth across the population grows and grows, and the middle class melts away before our eyes.

Globalism is a natural expression of the tenets of Liberalism. Open borders, the absence of any restrictions on migration are also part and parcel of Liberalism. An individual has the right to live and work anywhere he pleases.

Nation, ethnicity, history have no value in Liberalism. They are only impediments to the individual’s freedom to create his or her own identity. This identity is as an economic unit, a participant in the market as producer and consumer. One pursues profit, one indulges in unrestricted and unapologetic consumerism. Unbridled egoism is justified by the mythical ‘invisible hand’ first described by Adam Smith whereby serving oneself necessarily leads to the most efficient and fair solutions for society as a whole.

By setting as its highest good the liberation of the individual from all societal, religious and governmental restraints that do not infringe directly on the rights of others, Liberalism underpins extreme feminism, which claims for women full control over their bodies, meaning in practice unrestricted abortions. Liberalism promotes minorities such as LGBT and transgender, including the right of homosexuals to civil marriage, to adoption, to surrogacy. Liberalism is comfortable with gene editing. Liberalism has no objections to narcotics use. It endorses the right to ownership of firearms. Liberalism is the guiding principle for the “progressive” changes in social mores that are taking us to a brave new world, in the views of some, or to Sodom and Gomorrah in the views of others.

Politics as such disappear under Liberalism. Politics imply competition between a variety of different policies serving different end values.  Under Liberalism, it is not the function of the state to determine or serve end values, only to protect the people in their territory as they engage in free exchange from which outcomes emerge spontaneously. Liberalism puts in power technocrats who are not answerable to the people, and who know best by definition. Thus, as Margaret Thatcher famously said to her opponents “there is no alternative.” The role of the state is to administer not govern.

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In his chapter on “Liberalism and Democracy,” Alain de Benoist notes that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the first European leader to apply to himself the label “illiberal.” This was during a speech at the Summer University of his Fidesz Party in 2014:

“The Hungarian nation is not an aggregation of individuals, he declared, but a community which it is up to us to organize, to strengthen and to raise up. In this sense, the new State that we are building is not a liberal State but an illiberal State.”

In this speech, Orban remarked that a democracy is not necessarily liberal: “One can be a democrat even without being liberal.”

Then, in September 2017, Viktor Orban told the Hungarian Parliament that for a Central European people to adopt Western liberalism “would mean spiritual suicide for the Central Europeans.”

And, one month later, on 23 October, the national holiday of Hungary, Orban again singled out “the global force which would like to turn the European nations into a standardized heap” and denounced “the financial empire which has imposed on us new migratory waves, millions of migrants and new invasions of populations to turn Europe into a land of mixed-bloods.”

Taken by themselves, the statements by Viktor Orban might seem inexplicable and extreme. But placed with the context of the abhorrent excesses of Liberalism described by Alain de Benoist and promoted to a large extent by the European Institutions in Brussels, Orban’s positions are logical and brave. It is not for nothing that he is a significant contributor to the populist, Eurosceptic movements of the Far Right not only in Central Europe (the Vysegrad Group and Austria) but also today in Western Europe, where his allies are Matteo Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France.

It is a pity that Alain de Benoist does not extend his examination of illiberalism in Europe beyond the borders of the EU further to the East, because everything he is saying has great relevance for our understanding of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  To be sure, Putin never used the precise terminology of illiberal democracy, speaking instead of managed democracy.  And Putin had his long period of flirtation with Neoliberal economics as practiced by several leading members of his team, most particularly his long time Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin and the Yeltsin-era implementer of privatization, Anatoly Chubais, whose career continued to flourish under the new president.

Putin’s efforts at befriending global capital going back to the time of his accession to power produced very modest results and were largely curtailed after he imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a struggle to establish central government power over private interests and essentially nationalized Yukos – to the chagrin of the Western oil majors who had hoped to acquire a major stake in the Russian industry via a deal with the oligarch and so continue their accumulation of Russian raw material assets.

However, from 2007 Putin emerged on the world stage as the leading defender of national sovereignty against American global hegemony. Putin has placed great emphasis on the Russia’s national history, on the Orthodox Christian faith, on every country’s right to uphold its own traditional values. In a word, Putin has championed national diversity as opposed to standardization and anonymity of some aggregation of individuals.  He has brought back and modernized many of the collectivist obligations of the Soviet, now Russian state including free higher education, affordable universal medical care, heavy state subsidies to all institutions of Culture and Sport. He has thumbed his nose at the Liberal West.

Taken by themselves, and Western analysts of Russia almost exclusively take these pronouncements and policies of Putin by themselves, as something unique to the authoritarian ensconced in the Kremlin, Putin’s political, social and economic pronouncements are denounced as idiosyncratic, eclectic and self-serving, invented on the fly to prop up what is claimed to be a shaky regime, lacking democratic legitimacy.

However, when put in the intellectual analytical framework provided by Alain de Benoist in his latest book, Putin may be seen as entirely aligned with what Viktor Orban and the illiberal democrats of Western Europe are thinking and saying. They have arrived at common positions independently of one another. This commonality includes by the way, state promotion of child-bearing and of family values.

Why is this important?  Because, taken altogether, the talking points of Anti-Liberalism or illiberalism, if you will, constitute an ideology.  It is the great merit of Alain de Benoist’s book that he demonstrates this even if he does not say so explicitly. And ideology is the one component of the first Cold War said to be absent today, now that Communism has been vanquished and both Russia and the West share market-driven economies and democratic political values. This ideological dimension of the New Cold War places Russia alongside political forces in the European Union that challenge the ruling ideology in Brussels called Liberal Democracy.

Regarding those democratic political values, it is very instructive to read attentively de Benoist’s chapter on “Representative Democracy and Participative Democracy.”  In that chapter, the author takes us back to the Age of the Enlightenment to show that from its very inception, the representative democracy which we take as axiomatic was criticized by thinkers like Rousseau for constituting a forfeit of political power by the people to a political class that would finally conduct its business in defense of its own interests, not in fulfillment of the popular will.

In addition to parliamentarism, Benoit elsewhere in the book reminds us that Rule of Law and Separation of Powers, two additional principles that are held up as fundamental by our Liberal minded elites, were put in place by Enlightenment thinkers precisely to dilute the possible exercise of power in conformity with the popular will.

Good, you will say.  These are our bulwarks against monarchical or executive despotism and against mob rule.  However, what do you say when these mechanisms are used by our political class in the United States, in Belgium and many other European countries to enact laws and implement policies which work directly against the interests and against the clearly expressed will of the people for the benefit of themselves and their financial backers? What do you say when these anti-popular elites hold onto power for decades notwithstanding the nominal alternation of parties forming the government?

In his examination of how popular will can actually determine policy at the governmental level, de Benoist promotes the notion of participatory democracy. This goes beyond holding referendums to decide contentious issues. It takes us to less obvious channels by which those in power are informed of the people’s interests and priorities.  It is precisely here that de Benoist is knowingly or unknowingly describing what Vladimir Putin has put in place in Russia to achieve what political analysts in the know appreciate to be one of the most effective systems for inclusiveness in political decision-making in any major state today.

The Russian parliament is clumsy, often not very professional in the drafting of laws and is dominated by one party, United Russia, which is self-dealing as all ruling parties tend to be everywhere. For that reason, in parallel, in 2005 Putin and his entourage created a  Civic Chamber, described by Wikipedia as “a consultative civil society institution with 168 members…to analyze draft legislation and monitor the activities of the parliament, government and other government bodies of Russia and its Federal Subjects.”

In 2011, then prime minister Putin added one further forum for participatory democracy, the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF).  According to Wikipedia, the ONF is supposed to provide the ruling United Russia party with ‘new ideas, new suggestions and new faces. It is intended to be a formal alliance between the ruling party and numerous Russian nongovernmental organizations.”

Then there are the annual “Direct Line” televised interchanges between Vladimir Putin and interested citizens from across Russia. Lasting three or four hours, these programs are an institutionalized mechanism by which the head of state hears and responds to the vox populi without the intermediation of the bureaucracy or legislature.

The end result of all these mechanisms of participatory democracy are policies by the Russian government which are rather closely in harmony with the popular will, more so than in most Western countries. This provides the government with stability, and the leader with ratings far and away above the level of most Western leaders, putting aside that other illiberal democrat Viktor Orban, who is doing very well in his own ratings.

There is always a price to pay for stability:  the inability to put through fundamental reforms such as the Neo-Liberal economists say Russia needs to raise its GDP performance significantly.  But fundamental reforms always sacrifice the interests of one part of society to the interests of another part, and populist leaders like Vladimir Putin try to avoid doing that wherever possible

For all of the above reasons, I hope that those who have proficiency in French will take a look at Alain de Benoist’s latest book Contre Liberalisme. And for those who cannot consult his book, I suggest you pick up copies of Rousseau, Montesquieu and their followers and continuers in North America, such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, to reconsider afresh the merits and demerits of “liberal democracy.”

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

March of the Immortal Regiment, St Petersburg, 2019: reflections of a participant

This year Marches of the Immortal Regiment held by the Russian diaspora in New York, Washington, D.C., Paris, Athens and a host of other cities around the world mean that a great many people everywhere have read reports about the phenomenon from Reuters or seen some brief video coverage on their television news.

This year was my fourth March in St. Petersburg, where my wife’s family is from, where her father got his training to serve in the Navy before he was sent off to what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War, and we know as WWII. She considers it her filial duty to carry his portrait in the March and I am the accompanying spouse. I have already written extensively about the March in previous years and I refer the reader to my first such entry in 2016.

Russians Remember Their WWII Vets

For these reasons, in this essay I will cut generalities to a minimum and focus on personal impressions of what was different and noteworthy this year. Politics intrudes inevitably, but that will be in the concluding section.

 

What was different this time?  

 Firstly, in St Petersburg, the number of marchers reached a new plateau. Official reports put it at over one million.  The last record was around 750,000.   I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the official figures, because this year the procession from Staronevsky Prospekt to the Palace Square went on for at least a third longer than last year as I witnessed with my watch in hand.

This number means that one in four residents of St Petersburg took part. Meanwhile, the number of marchers in Moscow, a city with more than double the population, was reported as 700,000.  The number of marchers across Russia as a whole is said to have been 10 million.

How can we explain the relative inversion of numbers between the two capitals?  Weather may have been a factor.  There were rain and heavy winds at times during the Moscow march. In St Petersburg, the sky was cloudless and the temperature was a pleasant 15 degrees Centigrade.

However, in practice good weather could just as easily account for a low turnout given that one in two Russian city dwellers are the owners of country houses (dachas) where this is just the time to plant seeds in the vegetable patch and to invite the family over for a barbecue followed by a session in the sauna.  That could be still more likely given that this year, by official directive, Russians were encouraged to move part of their vacation time from the first two weeks in January to the period between May 1st and 10th.  Indeed, my usual sources of intelligence, taxi drivers, told me that this year many of their customers and the flow of traffic they encountered was from the countryside to the city on the 8th as people returned from their dachas precisely to be able to participate in the march.

The high number of marchers in St Petersburg is especially notable because of what it tells you about the Immortal Regiment phenomenon.  One has to bear in mind that the Northern Capital is probably the least supportive of the Kremlin among Russian cities.  Therefore, high turnout suggests that the March is genuinely a grass-roots movement rather than some political trick manipulated from on high.

No doubt a contributing factor in distinguishing St Petersburg is that apart from Stalingrad (modern day Volgograd) it suffered the most in the Second World War, losing a very substantial part of the civilian population to the Siege. To this day, the “blokadniki” are given the same official preferment in housing and pensions as the government allots to its veterans.

Another difference with years past was the obvious presence of non-Russian ethnic groups and nationalities among the marchers.  Whereas the first marches I took part in were lily white, this time there were official reports of a Kyrghizstan contingent from Central Asia parading in native dress.  I did not see them, but in the masses around me I spotted a group of a dozen or more marchers from predominantly Muslim Tatarstan. The men wore traditional embroidered silk caps.  All of this argues for the greater inclusiveness of the Immortal Regiment event, and for what is a tolerant variety of nationalism under its umbrella.

Also near me, I saw a fellow in a Jewish kippa.  Otherwise, this year’s fashion item was WWII period soldiers’ caps, which were worn by men and women alike.  However, there was nothing approaching uniformity in dress of the marchers.  One little kid was wearing his Burger King crown proudly.  Some few women were chicly dressed. Most people wore what they could otherwise be seen wearing on the metro weekdays or out at the dacha: fresh looking but inexpensive clothes of the masses.  This was true both of those holding aloft photographs of medaled fathers and grandfathers with officer’s rank and of those holding aloft photos of their relatives who were simple enlisted men.

By age, the marchers this year did not differ greatly from years past. Perhaps more dating young couples than I noticed before, though the greatest numbers were family groups bringing together three generations.  And judging by what I saw looking in the windows of restaurants after we left the march, a goodly number of these families concluded their march with a meal together. Others still surely did as we did and joined friends and family around a banquet table at home.

In the past, there had been live entertainment from little stands posted every few blocks where singers belted out WWII favorites. This time the music was nearly all “canned” marches blaring from street loudspeakers that otherwise are part of the civil defense system. This was a throwback to Soviet times.  However, there were also some amateur musicians who came to spontaneously entertain us: I think of a group of six, led by two accordionists, who played their songs in the middle of our marching column.

Another throwback to the Soviet years was the sprinkling of portraits of Joseph Stalin carried by some marchers. I had seen none in the past. But it would be risky to draw any conclusions about this, just as it would be risky to draw conclusions from Vladimir Putin’s mention in a televised interview the next day that all those who fought in WWII were rightfully considered heroes by their children and grandchildren, because with cries of “For the Motherland! For Stalin!” they rose from their trenches and faced the blazing guns of the enemy.  That is the historical reality which cannot be airbrushed away.

One other thing that seemed to me to be different this year occurred on the television broadcast of the formal celebrations in Moscow in the morning.  Amidst the customary coverage of the military parade, there was the video feed from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the walls of the Kremlin when President Vladimir Putin laid a wreath.  Two steps behind the President was a burly security officer carrying a briefcase.  Obviously from his demeanor, the briefcase – with the nuclear button.  That matches up nicely with the coverage of the latest Russian strategic nuclear-armed missiles that passed through Red Square with the morning parade. Given how these things are stage managed, I take it to be a not too subtle message to Washington.

 

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Arguably, May 9th is the most important holiday in Russia’s annual calendar. Some people rate it more highly than their own birthday.  But it took the invention of the March of the Immortal Regiment to give a family dimension to the group commemorative activities.

During the forty-six years following the end of WWII when Russians lived under the Communist regime of the Soviet Union, people did not talk freely about their family histories, including what they did during the War. This was true even in the last five years when Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost’ opened the media to publication of most everything that had been kept under seven seals until then. The great fear handed down from the period of Stalin’s terror enforced prudence and secrecy at the family level.

What the March of the Immortal Regiment has unleashed is honesty among people about their family past, which now is shared with friends, neighbors and relatives. The March has exercised a cathartic effect on the nation.

A few days before 9 May, the Russia-expert, former CIA officer Paul Goble published an essay in which he asked, condescendingly,  why Russia makes such a big deal out of WWII every year when most countries do not, when the rest of the world rolls its remembrance of its veterans of all wars into one day.

Yes, in Russia, May 9th ranks as the national, family and personal holy day. Why?  Because of the body count. Russia lost 27 million dead in WWII. Hardly a family in the country was spared grief.  Moreover, in Russia today there is genuine pride in the knowledge, little shared in the West, that the biggest contribution to the defeat of fascist Germany in WWII was made by Russia (the Soviet Union). This is a purely objective reckoning based on the numbers of German soldiers who were killed on the Eastern, not Western front. In this context, the Allied landing in Normandy, which is what most Americans know best about the war, was an appendage to what was basically a life or death struggle between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The same logic explains why in Western Europe there is particular attention even today to Armistice Day, November 11, commemorating the end of their Great War. WWI cost Western Europe an entire generation of young men and had enormous impact of the civilian population lasting right up to the second world war.

However, when people like Goble pose their question about Russia’s veneration of its dead in WWII, they show their ignorance of and insensitivity to Russian mentality

The March of the Immortal Regiment has tapped into another set of Russian traditions that preceded all its wars: respect for the dead.

Perhaps the Slavic country with greatest reverence for the departed is Poland, where to this day family members will go to the cemeteries to visit gravesides and leave flowers several times a year and almost without fail on All Saints’ Day, November 1st.

In Russia, visits to cemeteries are rarer, but in the cemeteries themselves there is a great resemblance to what you find in Poland:  nearly all tombstones bear an image of the departed, a photograph, often taken in their youth, set on an enamel plate.

The Immortal Regiment, a veritable sea of photographs of dead relatives who were veterans of the war or who served on the home front, or who lived and died in the Siege of Leningrad, may be understood as a cemetery on the march.

To a large extent, this is a reaffirmation of the popular Christian belief in the Resurrection of the flesh.  I make reference to my Russian wife’s sincere feeling that as we carry her father’s portrait in the March, he is making one more appearance down the city’s main artery, Nevsky Prospekt.  It is not for nothing that in Russian cemeteries, those who can afford it install a stone bench next to the grave so that they, together with family members and friends, can sit down, perhaps quaff a shot glass of vodka and commune with the departed.

All of which leads me back to politics.  In the United States, ‘Russia experts’ like Goble are legion and shout down those who are not Putin-bashers.  They do not visit Russia, often do not have a good command of the language and arrive at their pronouncements from abstract considerations of how things should be.  They lack entirely Fingerspitzengefuehle.  Even if they are writing their personal beliefs and not what their sponsors want them to publish, they are out of touch.  And they are one more reason why our Russia policies are so misguided and unproductive if not counterproductive.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

“Foreign Affairs” magazine at a turning point on U.S. global hegemony?

I have not critiqued articles in Foreign Affairs magazine for at least two years because it seemed pointless to whip a dead horse.  Dead intellectually I mean. I regretted the loss of a sparring partner given that FA was and remains broadly representative of the US foreign policy establishment.

FA was for a long time stuck in the rut of democracy promotion and cheerleading the unipolar, America-dominated world.  Every article celebrated the ‘public goods’ delivered to a world in need of leadership by the United States of America through the international institutions and the “rules based international order” that it created and ran.

The villains on the FA stage were external to the United States, the revisionist authoritarian countries, Russia and China: Russia by its weakness and irreversible decline which prompted Moscow to bursts of aggression against its neighbors to keep its citizenry in line; China by its growing economic and military might which are projected to bypass the United States in the coming twenty years and already threaten freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

When Donald Trump won the November 2016 election on a campaign platform that challenged directly all the tenets of this foreign policy establishment, the initial reaction of the Foreign Affairs editors was incredulity that a renunciation of the globalist world order which brought the lion’s share of financial and geopolitical benefits to Washington could happen in their America.

And so, it now appeared that the greatest threat to US hegemony could come from within the United States, by the fortuitous election of the incompetent and intellectually blinkered real estate mogul from New York City, Donald J. Trump. To their credit, FA did not pursue the Russia-gate explanations for the defeat of Hilary Clinton and overturning of the bipartisan values-based foreign policy in favor of Realpolitik hard power and naked selfishness of ‘America First’.

Trump was denounced by FA for populism. Articles in the November-December 2016 “Power of Populism” themed issue reminded us of how badly populism had played out in South America in the hands of autocrats. In the immediate aftermath of the election, alarm at FA was tempered by the belief that this aberration would not last, that Trump would be impeached, forced to resign for one reason or another. Efforts should be made to hold the hands of our Allies, to reassure them that the American people do not support isolationism, and to prepare for the restoration of the status quo ante following the 2020 elections, at the latest.

However, now, midway through Trump’s mandate, when the Mueller investigation clearly was not producing any “smoking guns” that could bring down the imposter in the White House, when the 2020 electoral campaign is getting underway and the Democrats have not produced any candidate capable of vanquishing Donald, the editors of Foreign Affairs have finally decided to take a fresh view of what the future holds for US foreign policy, namely downsizing.

That is the task of a set of four articles in the May-June 2019 issue as introduced by FA Editor Gideon Rose under the overarching title “Searching for a Strategy.” Rose calls this “a sobering message to someone in real trouble who refuses to admit it.”  His first author, Daniel Drezner, “tells us it is time to face the facts: American hegemony is not coming back; U.S. hard power is in relative decline; U.S. soft power has taken a huge hit.”

Next, Mira Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Friedman Lissner in a jointly written article offer what Rose calls ‘tough love.’ Per Rose, their message is that “Washington has to abandon its post-Cold War fantasies of liberalism marching inexorably forward to certain global triumph. It should temper its ambitions, lower its sights, and focus on promoting freedom and openness within the international system where it can.”

In light of where Foreign Affairs has stood for the past 25 years, this surely sounds like a turning point. However, a close reading of these two essays suggests that it is a bit early to celebrate the triumph of common sense Realism over blind Wilsonian Idealist ideology. The problem is with the quality of their thinking, which is as superficial and insubstantial as the thinking of Dr. Rose himself.

These authors are all working at the level of academic games, without any concern over the real world consequences of the foreign policy that has been in practice for the last 25 years of unending US military action abroad, and in particular the consequences of a war of aggression against Iraq in 2003 that may have caused the deaths of as many as one million civilians and has brought havoc to the entire region which we feel to this day.   All they can say about the past policies is that they were “misguided” or “wrong” by misjudging the ability of the United States to re-order the world in its image.  And so, there were “screw-ups.”

They hold no one to account for this. But without house cleaning, without application of the good old American principle of ‘throw the bums out,’ how can we move forward to new policies based on new operating principles?  We cannot….That this is so is proven by the featured space also allotted in this issue to one of the greatest culprits in the Neo-Conservative inspired foreign policy debacle, Robert Kagan, as I explain below.

Moreover, the three authors suffer from the hot air syndrome.  Like all too many contributors to Foreign Affairs magazine they are generalists who build their argumentation out of off-the-shelf, commonly accepted and never challenged notions. I will mention only several points which fall within my area of expertise, Russia.  They are at best debatable and at worst totally ungrounded in fact.  Notion 1: that Russia is only a spoiler, that it is failing economically and suffering a demographic crisis.   Notion 2: that it was Russian policies which made Ukraine hostile to it. Notion 3: that Russia massively interfered with the 2016 American elections.

My point is that the authors have not personally tested any of these and a great many other propagandistic items of pure fantasy that they deal in as solid facts.  It is impossible for political scientists of this caliber to provide a new strategy for U.S. foreign policy when all they are doing is rearranging the cards in the deck of conventional wisdom.

The third article in this section is by Harvard professor Stephen Walt, the one Realist in the panel whom Rose describes as ‘gloating’ that his past warnings about overreach have been proven prescient. Walt, he tells us, is advocating ‘offshore balancing’ as the better way to go if the United States is to continue to play a determining role in international relations.

Actually, there is a lot more to Walt’s article than an argument for offshore balancing. Walt has used his rare allocation of space in FA to address the issue of unaccountability of foreign policy thinkers and practitioners that I mentioned above, as well as the absence of debate, of challenges to prevailing policy in publications like FA, in think tanks, in universities. It has to be said that Stephen Walt and his fellow Realist, and sometime co-author John Mearsheim of the University of Chicago, are almost the only dissenting voices on the broad outlines of U.S. policy that are given the microphone at FA from time to time.

Good for them!  By I am unsure how their occasional chance to speak out helps the rest of us “dissidents.” I am skeptical of the degree of free-thinking that they themselves would allow if they had the power. I say this in the knowledge that going back three years my colleagues in the U.S., senior academics holding similar views to mine about the need for open debate on our Russia policy, appealed to Walt to arrange round table discussions at Harvard, at the Kennedy School, and received no support from him whatsoever.

Moreover, granted that Stephen Walt’s intellectual courage is far greater than most academics, considering his once taking on the Israel Lobby, that does not make him an expert on Russia, the country that has greatest bearing on U.S. foreign policy today along with China. Consequently, he was as prone to making ignorant pronouncements on Russia in his essay as the other American generalist academics in this issue.

My point is that there can be no true Realism absent an in-depth knowledge of history, culture, language of given regions.  It is for the Idealists to coast along on universalist principles. The Realists are obliged to know their stuff or forfeit that label of honor.

* * * *

Apart from the several essays at the start of the issue commissioned by the editor to deal with the cover page theme, each issue of FA also consists of self-standing articles dealing with a great variety of subjects. Many are written by specialists who have done their own research and are making an original contribution. Sometimes they even challenge directly the conventional wisdom in their field. One such article appeared in the January-February 2019 issue of FA, a harsh and extensively documented critique of UN peacekeeping missions:  Séverine Autesserre, “The Crisis of Peacekeeping.” Not surprisingly, that article brought down on the author’s head a number of outraged Letters to the Editor.

In this May-June 2019 issue, I would mention two essays that justify buying the magazine:  Calvert W. Jones, “All the King’s Consultants. The Perils of Advising Authoritarians” and James D’Angelo, Brent Ranalli “The Dark Side of Sunlight. How Transparency Helps Lobbyists and Hurts the Public.” These prove that the American school of political science is not without its redeeming practitioners. Who knows? They may even be in the majority, but they are not favored by the powers that be in the foreign policy community.

Then there is one further essay worthy of our attention:  Robert Kagan’s “The New German Question. What Happens When Europe Comes Apart?”

I call attention to this piece because Kagan is precisely the troublemaker political scientist who incited some of the worst crimes committed by the United States abroad in the past two decades and walked away from the debacles unscathed, his reputation intact. From the end of the 1990s, he was a key contributor to the thinking of the Neocons, a major advocate of what became the disastrous US invasion of Iraq in 2003. He was foreign policy advisor to McCain during his 2008 electoral campaign and he has been an active publicist for waging the New Cold War on Putin’s Russia.  I devoted a chapter to Kagan in my 2010 book Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations. I included him alongside Zbigniew Brzezinski and Samuel Huntington not because I believed he is “great” but because I believed he was highly influential and inescapable in any review of the intellectual forces guiding foreign policy at the time.

Kagan is yet another foreign policy generalist with a skill for writing that by far exceeds his concern to get facts straight or to consider other sides to an argument. Now in the current issue of FA, we find him making his case for American globalism by stealth: without the firm presence of an American security commitment, Germany may go rogue.

It is not my intention to trash Kagan’s article.  He has done his homework here and presents us with important and justified questions. He even offers some valuable insights into Germany. I have in mind in particular his mention that Germany today has achieved the domination of Central Europe that was the Mitteleuropa aspiration of Wilhelmine Germany before the First World War. This is something that your average reader of The New York Times would not find in his newspaper, and it is such readers Kagan is pitching to, not some lofty academic circle of specialists who need no such discoveries.

What is missing in Kagan is an analysis of what exactly that domination, which I would rather characterize as economic colonization, means for the rest of Europe today, what it means in particular for relations with France, with Russia. This, by itself, should be a matter of concern for students of Europe as it raises the question of the solidarity and notional equality of EU Member States. So we have a potential problem with Germany, even putting aside the question of America’s firm guiding hand being present or not on the Continent. Germany is too comfortable with the countries it can dominate and correspondingly uncomfortable with the big neighbor to the east which it never could and cannot today dominate. Germany gives too close an ear to the Russophobe rantings of the Poles and of the Baltic States.

Almost every one of Kagan’s points in the article calls out for a corrective context to make sense of what he is stringing together like beads to get to his end conclusion that weakening US presence in Europe may lead to all hell breaking loose as Germany reverts to its uglier traditions of the past.

This is so from the very get-go when Kagan tells us that “Germany has been one of the most unpredictable and inconsistent players on the international scene.” He takes this back to the wars in the 1860s and 1870s by which Bismarck forged the nation, and then to the German striving for empire, for its ‘place in the sun’ in the period from the 1890s to WWI.  However, most European nations were forged in the 18th and 19th centuries in the same way, and Germany’s imperial ambitions from the 1890s were entirely in keeping with the spirit of the age, when all major powers including the USA were engaged in the same game of territorial expansion either within Europe or overseas. The question of Germany’s responsibility for WWI is an open and shut case only for those who swallowed Anglo-American jingoist propaganda from the pre-war years and have never looked back.

On the third page of his 12-page article, Kagan sets out his main thesis: “The democratic and peace-loving Germany everyone knows and loves today grew up in the particular circumstances of the U.S.-dominated liberal international order established after World War II.”

Kagan points to the U.S. commitment to European security that protected France, the United Kingdom and Germany’s other neighbors so that they could welcome its postwar recovery and integration into what was becoming the European Economic Community, then the European Union. Moreover, Germany could devote its resources to economic expansion without having to pay for its defense.

He might, of course have dotted his i’s: modern Germany grew up under U.S. military occupation, with more than 50,000 soldiers on the ground in Germany, an occupation that continues to this day and compromises German sovereignty as much as its integration into the EU does.

To this Kagan adds the benefit of US led free trade policies that enabled Germany to become the world’s biggest exporter and enjoy extraordinary prosperity, which tended in Germany, as elsewhere, to prop up the existing democratic political order. The United States acquiesced in trade imbalances for the sake of peace on the Continent.

Then Kagan reminds us that the new Germany was created under conditions whereby Europe suppressed nationalist passions by erecting the transnational institutions. This is particularly relevant in Germany, says Kagan, because “no other nationalism had played such a destructive role in Europe’s bloody past.”  Touché!  At this level of argumentation, it is hard to disagree with him. The possible disagreement comes at a different level over why exactly Germans might become more nationalistic in future.

Kagan goes on to tell us that Germany does not really need NATO for its defense. It needs NATO to reassure its neighbors and to reassure itself: the Germans voluntarily accept shackles because they still harbor fears of old demons.

So what could threaten Germany’s peace with itself and with its neighbors?  Firstly, Kagan names the Eurozone crisis of 2009 and the aftermath of German dictated policies of austerity that turned Southern European nations against Germany and riled up Germans over their own government’s bailing out profligate Member States. All of this was disruptive, but still only economic in nature even if it touched off a wave of nationalism on the Continent.

Now, per Kagan, Germany and Europe are facing a new challenge to the peaceful status quo, namely the policies of Donald Trump which undermine all of the circumstances which Kagan says combined to create the peaceful Germany we love. Trump speaks against the European Union and for sovereign nations. He supports Brexit. He is against free-trade and sharply criticizes the German trade imbalance with the United States. He opposes NATO and those who are not paying their way, and he wants to withdraw from Europe.

Meanwhile Germany appears to be experiencing a renaissance of nationalist politics as seen in the electoral successes of the Far Right Alternativ fuer Deutschland.

Kagan closes by warning darkly about the risks of a rearming Europe, the risks of the rightwing nationalists who might put an end to democratic and peaceful Continent of which Germany has been the single most powerful member.

Everything Kagan has set out is within the realm of the possible, though I would call it improbable. In worst-case scenarios, the nationalist and populist parties may win a third of the seats in the European Parliament in the upcoming pan-European elections of May 26. Meanwhile on the Left, the assorted Green parties are likely to surge. In Belgium, where there are concurrently elections to the national parliament, the Greens may even constitute a majority, if not the lead party in a coalition. Yes, the gains by the anti-elite parties on the Left and Right will overturn the center right and center left bloc that has dominated politics for the past decades and with which people like Kagan feel comfortable. However, that is not the end of democracy, only its best expression in peaceful change of leadership and policy direction.

More to the point, it is arguable that NATO and the American presence are becoming a destabilizing rather than stabilizing force in European politics.  When speaking of the Alternativ fuer Deutschland, one must remember that their power base is in the former East Germany, which is one of those Central European states that was colonized by West Germany following the fall of Communism and has suffered from lustration that decapitated its intelligentsia and from de-industrialization.  The AfD, like a large part of the former GDR population, is anti-NATO, which it sees as an infringement on sovereignty, and for some accommodation with Russia.

And most important of all, Kagan only touches on the one aspect of German national egoism that has touched off nationalism at home and around Europe when he mentions the austerity program and debt reduction.  Far more important for the unleashing of nationalism across the Continent was Merkel’s  ill-considered insistence on open borders to the 2015 flood of illegal migrants into Europe.  Yes, German has a labor shortage for which the incoming migrants were viewed there as manna from heaven. Yes, Germany also had at the time a deficit of good will arising from its hard hearted economic dictates to the rest of the EU. Clearly Merkel sought to make amends by her newfound humanitarianism .  But the empty-headed “Wir schaffen das” [we can manage] from Merkel while opening the floodgates to Muslims enraged a great many Europeans outside of Germany who had high unemployment and no desire for their communities to be overrun by unvetted economic migrants from the Middle East.

It is arguable that the German policy on migration gave the Brexit movement in Britain that small nudge over the 50% line that made the difference and put Europe in full crisis mode.  The reverberations are still being felt in terms of support for the Euroskeptic nationalist and populist parties as we head into the May elections.  Whatever Trump and his erstwhile Alt Right campaign adviser Steve Bannon may have contributed to the unwinding of Europe by their various America First policies is insignificant by comparison.

In conclusion, I find that the May-June 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine has several excellent entries but their merits are outweighed by weak to poor entries featured at the start and introduced by the Editor, not to mention by the lengthy article from the irredeemable propagandist Robert Kagan. Taking the publication for a representative marker, I believe that the U.S. profession of international affairs has unrealized potential to be a useful advisor to policy makers. But it is being held back by the senior editors, by think tank and university department chairmen and women who are wedded to failed policies and ideology for which they never paid a price. What we need at the helm are experts guided by intellectual curiosity who follow Truth wherever it takes them and not generalists guided by ambition for political preference.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

In the musical world, the once meek shall inherit the Earth. Remarks on the Long List of this year’s Queen Elisabeth Competition, Belgium

In this brief essay, I present a straw in the wind.  I freely acknowledge that the facts pertain to a minor occurrence. But I believe that occurrence helps us to understand which way the world is headed and addresses directly the fears of those who still talk about a ‘clash of civilizations’.

The facts in question are the just published Long List of those admitted to compete during the coming month in this year’s Queen Elisabeth International Musical Competition.  The 2019 competition is among violinists.

Wikipedia characterizes the status of the Queen Elisabeth Competition thus: “Since its foundation it is considered one of the most challenging and prestigious competitions for instrumentalists.”  The founding year was 1937, and it was devoted then to the violin, the instrument which the reigning queen played, with mentoring and encouragement by the country’s greatest violinist and composer of the time, Eugene Ysaye.  A competition for piano was introduced the following year. Today there are in addition voice and cello competitions. All come in sequence year after year.

Each year the Queen Elisabeth Competition puts up a new jury, this to avoid favoritism for one or another musical school and for a given pool of students. Each year, the variable number of Long List contenders is winnowed out in the course of three stages held before the public at several different venues, ending in performances at the concert hall of the Palais des Beaux Arts, which is where the winning 12 laureates are named.  Of these, the first six are each assigned a number, the remaining six are undifferentiated.

From the beginning, the first prize winners in the Queen Elisabeth Competition often made spectacular international careers as soloists. From the beginning, a goodly number of the finalists were Soviet performers. The top laureate of the 1937 violin competition was David Oistrakh. In the post WWII period, in 1967, the first prize in violin went to Riga-born, St Petersburg trained Philippe Hirschhorn, then 19 years old, who performed a never-to-be forgotten rendition of the Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1. Philippe later became a family friend and I saw up close the degree of monomaniacal dedication required to reach the threshold of first laureate in such competitions. Were it not for his untimely death at age 50 just as his concert tours were reaching their peak, you would easily recognize his name today. That same year, 1967, the third place went to fellow Latvian Soviet Gidon Kremer, who performs worldwide and maintains his own orchestra. The most recent Russian star who made his name in Brussels as first prize in the competition was Vadim Repin (1989).

In the piano competition, Soviet performers appeared at regular intervals as first prize winners, starting with Emil Gilels in 1938:  see Vladimir Ashkenazy (1956), Evgeny Mogilevsky (1964) and Andrei Nikolsky (1987).

The preeminence of Russians lasted until the fall of Communism. The chaotic post-Soviet 1990s disrupted this and many other cultural and economic traditions in Russia. Many talented youths left Russia to continue their studies and their careers abroad.

In their place, we have seen a potpourri of nationalities among the winners of the Queen Elisabeth Competition, but in the new millennium, a certain trend has been clear: the emergence of the Far East as the spawning grounds of the new super-stars of the classical music world. We saw this unmistakably last year in the vocal competition, when there were numerous Long List entries from China and, more particularly, from Korea.  In this year’s list of violin candidates the trend is overwhelming.

The competition organizers chose the Long List from among a great many applicants who sent in video recordings of their playing for evaluation. In the end, they selected 71 candidates to participate, of whom 64 accepted to come to Brussels and test their fate.

You will note that among the historic names of laureates mentioned above all were men.  This year’s Long List confirms that the future will likely look very different.  Forty-five of the 64 violinists are women. As for nationality, identification is not so straightforward but clear nonetheless.

The organizers speak of 19 nationalities being present, but also note that some (nearly all natives of the Far East) are dual nationals.

Korea is the country with the single largest contingent under its flag – 16, of whom 3 are also listed in other countries.  Japan comes next with a list of 12 candidates all of whom have unmistakably Japanese surnames. The United States follows, with a total of 11. But of these 3, bearing Korean surnames, are shown as dual nationals, while a further 5 have Chinese surnames and one ‘pure American’ has a Korean surname. The Russians have a total of 5, though one is a dual national Canadian and another is a dual national citizen of the Czech Republic. By the same token, the Australian and Belgian entries (one each) have Chinese surnames.

If you put together all the candidates with clearly identifiable surnames and match them with their actual or presumed countries of origin, you find that 44 of the 64 candidates are from the Far East. The dual national status may be explained as young musicians from Korea and China continuing their education and beginning their careers at prestigious schools in the West. The People’s Republic of China, taken by itself, has “only” five entries, the same as France and Russia. Japan seems to buck this trend, with none of its candidates showing a second flag. Then you get the odd candidate from the Czech Republic who decided to study not in the West but with the Russian school, which is gaining in strength.

So what does all this mean and why take your time to analyze the Long List?

For one thing, looking over the list we can be fairly certain that the string sections of all the major Western orchestras will in coming years become predominantly female and predominantly Oriental.  At present these categories are minoritarian.

Secondly, it is encouraging to see the arrival of new blood from the Far East to carry on the traditions of our high culture even as we in the West are presently stumbling badly to the point where we are unworthy of our heritage. In Western Europe, in the United States, vulgarians daily attack all that is beautiful and refined in our opera houses and arts museums, with virtually no outcries from our traditional Kulturtraeger, cowed as they are by political correctness.

Excellence in the performing arts, and most particularly in music, which has intolerant, mathematical roots demands not only one in a million God-given talent but also incredible dedication and competitive drive. Here in Belgium we have very good Conservatory instructors and some very good students, but hardly any have the ambition to succeed in open competition and become a soloist on the world stage. The days ahead of the Queen Elisabeth Competition will show us whether our new friends from the Far East are holding their places by default or by merit.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Hungary: Testing the waters. Notes from a week of wellness and political tourism

Upon reaching a certain age plateau, leisure travel turns in new directions. The time comes to be led by the hand and book cruises instead of flying or driving to cities or resorts on your own.  Depending on personal health issues and financial circumstances, the time also comes to “take the waters,” in the tradition of the 19th century aristocracy and its bourgeois imitators. Both vectors of tourism offer low-stress opportunities to see new sights and make new acquaintances.

 

In the latter regard, thermal springs had been on our ‘to do’ list for several years, but for all that time we took no action, notwithstanding the relative proximity to us of such facilities in Belgium.  Somehow we never found a compelling reason to make the 140 km journey to Spa, even if we were reminded by recent tricentenary celebrations about its “Russian connection” and glorious past. In 1717, Peter the Great took the waters in that curative locale and one of the sources in Spa bears his name to this day.

 

But other fields are always greener. When we finally decided to take the plunge and discover thermal waters tourism, my wife and I opted for a more distant solution. From Russian friends in St Petersburg and from Russians in the European diaspora, we had heard high praise for the thermal lake and spa facilities in Heviz, in the south of Hungary, just next to Lake Balaton. And so that is where we headed on 16 April to join the Easter holiday tourists.

 

To be fully open about my intentions, I was keen to travel to Hungary for a second, rather different reason: to test the political waters in Hungary during this period ahead of the 26 May elections to the European Parliament.

 

At this juncture, when the elites running the European Institutions in Brussels have come under attack from what are called “populist” political movements in a number of countries, the future of European integration is said to hang in the balance. The centrist, status quo parties are almost certain to lose their decades long majority in the Parliament and, consequently, in the Commission. The big intrigue is how much political power will shift to the anti-Establishment populists.

 

Among the foremost populists on the European stage is one Viktor Orban, Hungary’s controversial prime minister who has had the temerity to raise the flag of “illiberal democracy,” thumbing his nose at everything that Brussels today stands for.

 

My attempts ahead of the trip to arrange a meeting with policy makers in the headquarters of Orban’s Fidesz Party were stymied by the “Teflon” nature of the party’s website and telephone answering menu, both only offered in Hungarian. And I did not do much better on site in Budapest even with some assistance from the Business Center receptionist of my hotel:  my request for an interview was received but I never heard back from them.

 

Though denial of official contact was disappointing, it was not out of line with my experience trying to get through to the Flemish nationalist parties here in Belgium.  And so I looked elsewhere for the inputs for the short essay that I present here: namely to my usual sources of intelligence anywhere – taxi drivers, hotel concierges, tour guides and the like. To that I added a reality check in the person of a well-educated and well-informed native of Budapest who, 27 years ago, had been the local business consultant to the US-multinational company for whom I worked at the time when we built a presence in Hungary. In the meantime he has worked for 10 years a manager within another US multinational and most recently has remained active running his own small business in Budapest. This Mr. X generously found a couple of hours for a far-ranging discussion of the current economic and political situation in Hungary, with a focus on the sources of Orban’s dominant position today.

 

Yet, the determining factor in what I will present here comes from my own eyes and ears, as a tourist, walking and driving through the streets of Budapest during our several days there en route to Heviz, visiting the country’s temples of high culture – its national fine arts museum and opera, as well as the main food market, and taking meals in a variety of restaurants about town.   There I found what I was looking for – an explanation of the reservoir of national and ethnic consciousness that surely is what Orban has tapped into.  I will now pass back and forth between these, shall we call them ‘sensual’ impressions of Budapest, plus similar impressions gathered in Heviz, with the more cerebral inputs from my interlocutors and modest on-line research.

 

* * * *

 

Like him or loathe him, Orban is recognized by my various sources in Hungary as being very successful at dominating the country’s political life.  Some people I spoke to attributed his success to electoral fraud which handed him the absolute majority in parliament necessary to make the constitutional changes that have cut away checks and balances in the system so as to ensure indefinite continuation in power. Others spoke about cronyism and institutionalized corruption that prop up his regime.

 

However, Hungary is not a country of ‘white elephant’ infrastructure projects, which is the true indicator of corrupt political systems.  Everything does get done, I was told, even if the price to the state was 10 or 20% higher than a transparent, competitive system would have delivered.  And, more to the point, even a pro-US, pro-EU expert source like Mr. X does not press his charges against Viktor Orban with any enthusiasm. Why?  Because he admits that many of his intellectual friends support Orban, meaning that the question of the man and his right to exercise power are more complex and require a deeper reflection than the paragraph above would suggest.

 

A brief look at the single most important factor in politics anywhere, namely the economy, provides a starting point.

 

For several years now, the Hungarian economy has been one of the best performers in the EU, running at 4% annual growth.  The headline successes have been in manufacturing industry, and, in particular, in the automotive industry.  BMW has a major engine building plant here.  A Mercedes plant is doing full-cycle production of one or another model. And there are numerous automotive component manufacturers. Meanwhile, innovative businesses are said to be flourishing, including, of course, digital age start-ups. Budapest, which has one third of the nation’s population in its metropolitan area, and accounts for a significantly greater share of national GDP, is a major scientific research center.

 

To be sure, at 1,000 euros per month, industrial wages in Hungary are quite low, perhaps one-third those of Germany.  Official unemployment figures, on the order of 4%, are also very low, though I was told that the figures are doped, because Hungarians working abroad are added to the tally of those said to be employed and those out of work are enrolled in state programs that pay subsistence wages of 150 euros per month so as to be removed from the unemployed numbers.

 

Meanwhile, Hungary’s dynamism is obviously starting from a very low base.  It is manifestly clear that retailing is weakly developed, concentrated in malls both on the periphery and within the Budapest city limits. I saw residential neighborhoods without a single bake shop, green grocers or convenience store. Of course, without serious investigation into causes, it is inadvisable to draw conclusions, because such issues as zoning regulations and strength of consumer purchasing power may be in play.  However, except on the so-called Champs Elysées, Andrassy utca, in the pedestrian zone around the St Stephen Cathedral, and around the 5 star hotels on the Danube banks of Pest or on the Castle Hill of Buda, which are all world class, the street level city called Budapest is broadly speaking shabby and in need of serious investment. On the other hand, public transport, meaning the metro, trams and buses are very well developed and offer frequency of service that puts Brussels to shame. So the glass is half full…

 

Meanwhile, what I found in the South of Hungary also bears mention.  The thermal water spa Heviz is patently prosperous and a serious tourist attraction for both foreigners and native Hungarians alike. In our four-star Aqua hotel run by the former state hotel chain Danubius, “home team” Hungarians were the single largest contingent, followed by Russians and Germans.  The town has new, smart shopping streets and a suburban residential lay-out of well-cared-for, free-standing houses, some owner occupied, others advertising (in German primarily) rooms or apartments to let.

 

The train to the station closest to Heviz hugged the coast of Lake Balaton for more than an hour, giving us a chance to note the hundreds, if not thousands of summer homes built along the shores of the lake and going inland to a distance of several hundred meters. Nothing extravagant along the route we passed, just middle class leisure homes on miniscule plots that are well maintained. Here and there were moorings for small motor boats.  The travel time to Budapest from the Heviz area was just over two hours by car on a Euro-standard, toll-free four lane highway.  The comfortable, if slow train takes an hour and a half longer.  In either case, this enormous lake area represents an affordable conceit of the Budapest burghers.

 

Perhaps the best indication of what makes Hungary special is the fact that so many of its citizens have chosen to stay put, not to emigrate.  The figure for departures since the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s is roughly 10%.  That compares with a loss of population on the order of 25% in Bulgaria, Romania and all three Baltic states.

 

It bears mention that all of the countries named which lost such important percentage of the overall population and a still higher percentage of working age and enterprising population were de-industrialized following the fall of Communism.  Moreover, in the case of the Baltics, the actions by the governing elites to antagonize and offend their neighbor and largest trading partner, Russia, was a major factor contributing to economic collapse and emigration. Nothing of the sort happened in Hungary.

 

However, the economy is only one of the possible explanations for the political success of Mr. Orban.  My hunch about how and why he has played a populist, Euro-skeptic card so well draws first on my ‘sensual’ impressions, beginning with the cuisine which we saw everywhere and sampled in many places.

 

In the bad old days of the 1960s and 1970s, the time of Janos Kadar, within the Warsaw Pact countries it was customary to speak of Hungary as a case of “goulash Communism.” The sense of the term was ‘pseudo-consumerism,” with an emphasis on an improved standard of living for the broad population to help with rehabilitation from the scars of the failed 1956 revolution.  I believe the choice of a food dish to stand for eclectic Communism was true to the spirit of the country.  What I saw in Hungary over the past week was surely ‘’goulash capitalism.”

 

By this, I mean to say that Hungary is one of the few post-Communist countries, alongside Poland, which has kept its national cuisine and not been overrun by pizza restaurants, gyro stands and luxury eateries catering to the nouveaux riches and featuring frozen Norwegian salmon steaks or similar wholly imported dishes.  If you find fish on a menu in Budapest, it is likely to be native river or lake fish such as carp, catfish and pike-perch.  While the last named, is a prized catch throughout Europe, going under the name Zander, Sandre or Sudak, the first two are an acquired taste and might best be described as ‘soul food.’  If you look at the poultry dishes, they will surely be a goose or duck leg, or thick slices of fried fresh goose liver sitting atop a grilled apple slice.  These are no nonsense traditional menu items and they are ubiquitous.

 

To be sure, fusion restaurants, hamburger theme bistros and the like are to be found in Budapest, but they are concentrated in the most fashionable streets appealing to international business visitors, such as around the St Stephen’s cathedral and cheek and jowl with the now shuttered Central European University financed by George Soros, Hungary’s public enemy number one.

 

Tradition holds fast in the Hungarian hospitality industry in more than what is on your plate. At several restaurants we were entertained by gypsy music cum Kalman quintets, septets featuring the cembalo, the  instrument of Austria-Hungary, and led by violinists who come to your table to coax out a well-deserved tip, just as would have been practiced a century ago.

 

In the Szeged Restaurant at the start of Bela Bartok boulevard, just across the road from the iconic Hotel Gellert and a hundred meters from the Danube, we were treated to a “folk dance” show that is worth more than a detour. Two costumed oldster cavaliers in their mid-60s danced their fast paced routine in the company of two folk-dressed ladies in their mid-forties. The ladies shed twenty years as they took to the floor and seemed to be enjoying themselves. All were fully professional and entertaining.

 

Such folk shows were a common sight in Warsaw or Krakow in the 1970s, with younger and more comely maiden dancers to be sure, but only in tourist establishments where the guests all had just arrived from Chicago.  By contrast, the diners in the Szeged were basically local Hungarians of a certain age, some with their adult children, who were enjoying old times.

 

All of the foregoing amounts to ethnic identity and leads directly to what Mr. Orban and his “illiberal democracy” is about.  I freely admit that it was not what I had in mind when I came to Hungary in search of social conservatism to explain the rejection of globalism and the EU values minted in Brussels.  I had expected religion, namely Catholicism, to be a key support of the regime. But then I should have consulted Wikipedia earlier, since the poll results it publishes show that only 54% of Hungarians declare themselves to be Christians and only two-thirds of those are Catholics, the rest being mainly Protestants.

 

As I found on the spot, the ethnic identity and national pride of Hungarians has a lot more than a cuisine or folk music to go by. Despite the ravages of the Second World War, the impressive late 19th century, early twentieth century architectural heritage of Budapest is a constant reminder that this was once an imperial capital, sharing the spoils from its subject nations in Central and Southeastern Europe with Vienna. The newly renovated National Fine Arts Museum supports the same vision of grandeur. Its exceedingly rich holdings include very important acquisitions from Esterhazy and other Hungarian noblemen purchased within what was clearly a program of nation-building following the devolution of Habsburg power in 1868.

 

Strolling down the streets of Budapest, it is hard to miss the marble plaques on the facades of so many buildings, identifying famous residents of the past or other historic significance.   On the Castle Hill, these plaques relate in particular to the period of loss of sovereignty following the defeat by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 and to the period of recovery following the expulsion of the Turks in 1686.  The one hundred and fifty years of Muslim domination of central Hungary, during which the Christian population dwindled and nearly disappeared, has not been forgotten.  This goes a long way to understanding why Hungary, of all EU countries, has been the most resistant to the notion of accepting refugees from Syria and elsewhere in the Muslim world under instructions from Brussels.

 

What we have in Hungary is a proud nation with an imperial past that has a distinct ethnic identity which it has never lost, all of which is compounded by a language which sets it apart from all other EU states. Given these facts, is it any wonder that Viktor Orban has found a formula for long lasting political success in thumbing his nose at Brussels and playing the “populist” card?

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

At its 70th birthday, NATO is militarily America’s fifth wheel

As the 70th anniversary of the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization approaches on April 4th, Belgium’s Royal Higher Institute of Defense has published an article which will bring little cheer to staff at the luxurious NATO headquarters situated on the outskirts of Brussels, 15 kilometers away from my home office downtown.

The birthday present in question is entitled “NATO and American technological superiority: a risk for Euro-Atlantic solidarity,” e-Note 26, 18 March 2019.  Coming from the pen of an associate of the Institute, Alain De Neve, this article in French has been researched and set out with high professionalism. It merits wide circulation in the English-speaking world which I alone cannot assure, but let us start the ball rolling here and now.

In this brief essay, I will summarize the reasoning of the author. Why this is worth your reading time comes down to the two main points which follow from what he is saying:

  1. That ‘America First’ is not a policy that began with Donald Trump’s inauguration in office. It was long the underlying principle of US military and foreign policy, only it was generally concealed under the ideological coating of Liberalism within the political dimension of the Alliance that was puffed up in the 1990s to justify its role as provider of stability to the swathe of Central Europe of the former Warsaw Pact countries. NATO was first and foremost the platform for shared values of democracy and rule of law.

 

Trump, as we know, has no patience either with the values jargon, or with the soft power, political dimension of multilateral institutions like NATO, preferring to stick to the military and Realpolitik side of things. And so America’s naked and selfish pursuit of its interests, always present in the past, is now laid bare.

 

America First has been the guiding hand in the new military doctrine for the United States called the Third Offset Strategy which Barack Obama authorized in 2014.  De facto it dispensed with the need for America to have allies, their being only encumbrances for reasons we shall see momentarily.

 

  1. That the spending gap, the inability and/or unwillingness of America’s European allies to reach the minimum spend of 2% of GDP on NATO is not the real issue separating the two sides of the Atlantic.  The shortfall in European spending on defense was the stick used by the Obama administration to bully Europe. It has served the same purpose under President Trump.  But it is only a diversion from the real shortfall of the Allies, and an insignificant one at that.

 

The real gap is a technological gap which the United States has opened up and continues to widen at present, leaving the Europeans to understand that they all are nothing more than a “fifth wheel” militarily, or, at best, a tool kit to be used to pick up additional competences in variable geography alliances to confront challenges that the United States defines unilaterally and without consultation. This is so, because the cutting edge technologies which the United States is developing for its war machine are so far ahead of anything Europe has or will have that the underlying military principle of the Alliance these past 70 years, interoperability of the forces from the various national entities, is no longer feasible across the board.

 

* * * *

What is the ‘Third Offset Strategy’ that Alain De Neve says has left the European allies in the dust?  It is the latest overarching concept of the United States for ‘offsetting’ the perceived threats from those it has identified as its principal adversary or adversaries.

The first ‘offset’ strategy dates back to the 1960s and ‘70s when the United States and its NATO allies confronted the Warsaw Pact which had numerical superiority in terms of men under arms, tanks and other materiel for conventional warfare. The United States then developed a nuclear arsenal for deployment in Europe that one might otherwise call an equalizer.

The second great strategy came in the 1980s and ‘90s with the advent of smart munitions, precision guided missiles and cruise missiles.  This was given the name “Revolution in Military Affairs” and had as its salient features to establish domination wherever and whenever necessary, to shore up American global hegemony. The United States would clear the skies of its prey, followed by the destruction of any opponent’s air defenses and then of all his military and logistical infrastructure.  When this “Revolution” was implemented in the First Gulf War in 1991, the shock and awe effect was as pronounced among the NATO allies as it was among the Iraqis.

Then came the aerial bombardment of Serbia in the Kosovo war of 1999. At this point the inability of European armed forces to deploy effective forces in remote war theaters became obvious. Europe planned to meet this shortcoming. It took steps to transform its armed forces to the doctrinal and technological standards of the US.  However, the operational constraints linked to the contingencies in Afghanistan and Iraq (2003) remained. The technologies resulting from the Revolution in Military Affairs generated new frictions in carrying out operations that were not anticipated well.

De Neve tells us that the “Third Offset Strategy” approved in 2014 was conceived to counter what the US has now identified as its new main adversaries, ‘resurgent Russia’ and ‘emerging China’.  Both have installed access denial systems to frustrate US airpower. Both are powerhouses of military technology.  Both have military capabilities that outmatch anything Europe has on its own.

The “Third Offset Strategy” entails creation of overwhelming US technological superiority across a broad spectrum of innovative and mutually enhancing weapons systems that are generations ahead of anything Europe has.  These systems should revise the global military balance.

Here is how De Neve sums up the program:

“The objective is to distance itself from any international actor, whether friend or enemy or partner on the technological plane in numerous sectors of innovation, including robotics, laser weapons, drone systems, hypersonic and hypervelocity arms, nanotechnologies, 3-D printing, biotechnologies and artificial intelligence. Put in other terms, the ambition expressed by the USA is not only to maintain technological military superiority but to succeed in ensuring unchallenged supremacy of all the critical domains of modern and future warfare.”

In the meantime, the NATO states have experienced a tangible erosion of their own capabilities in Research and Development in the defense sphere. There are many reasons for this. The first is the lower rate of growth of the defense budgets of the European allies while the rest of the world is seeing geometric growth. A second reason comes from the combined civil and commercial nature of most of the innovations which interest defense planners. Finally, a third element is that the innovation is now more costly and happens much faster.

The US is investing in large scale programs favoring technologies that not only safeguard military personnel but keep their options open in all sorts of crisis configurations.  One of the breakthrough technologies is naval sleeper forces ready to be reactivated if needed in a crisis. They can launch their ballistic missiles and drones. They can be kept well hidden until needed. They can strike quickly against the Anti-Access/Area Denial of the adversary. Then there are robotics for crisis deployment. These systems have very brief alert times that are contrary to the notion of consultation with allies and partners. And contrary to an alliance with a geographic specificity, the US wants to be able to prioritize many theaters of action simultaneously.

The Europeans cannot yet figure out the strategic objectives they would like to attain. When they tried to put forward a Global Strategy in 2016, the US responded negatively.

“A big problem is at the operational level. There is too big a gap. As one US Rear Admiral remarked back in 1998, if a friend or ally is operating without the specific tactical communications link, they get in the way and may be shot down by friendly fire.”

Today that remark is very relevant to the deployment of newest American warplane, the F-35, which has its own communications system, the latest generation Multifunctional Advanced Data Link (MADL). By equipping the F-35 with the MADL, the USA sent a clear message to all nations which would want to continue operations in coalition with the USA but hesitate to opt for the F-35 to replace their combat aircraft.”

Europe’s latest answer to the Third Offset Strategy came in 2017 with the creation of a European Defense Fund. It comprises an R&D budget for collaborative work on innovative technologies and products for defense:  advanced electronics, encrypted software and robotics. The second element is development and procurement.  However, the European Defense Fund is not really a broad response to the Third Offset Strategy.

“There is the tendency of the USA now to set as the entrance ticket for coalitions on one or another defense mission ownership of specific weapons systems.”

Thus, by choice, the United States is itself directly undermining the otherwise still weak and failing European defense industry and giving itself a major argument for Europe’s being just a ‘fifth wheel.’

* * * *

The old joke about NATO is that it was devised to keep the United States in Europe, to keep the Germans down and to keep the Soviets out.  One might say that little has changed over 70 years.  Only for “Germans” read today “the Europeans” and for “Soviets,” read “the Russians.” However, even old jokes do die. In effect, the centrality of the European theater in any possible future war has changed.

We are in the age of Great Power politics, when there are only three Sovereign States in the world capable of conducting independent foreign and military policies, namely the United States, Russia and China. On their own, and even in combination with the United States,  the European member states of NATO count for nothing.  It is interesting to see that here in Belgium at the very heart of the NATO organization that reality is now spoken about in public by professionals who know the score.

And so, if the political dimension of NATO has been scrapped by the US administration, if the military dimension is compromised by an unbridgeable technological gap and loss of interoperability, then what is left of NATO at age 70 besides the name and a billion dollar plus headquarters building near the Brussels airport?

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Donald Trump: the guy at the next bar stool speaks to CPAC

Surely Donald Trump is the least “presidential” Chief Executive of the United States we have ever known. And that, above all, may explain why he is likely to be re-elected in 2020 against the united opposition of Democrats and all mass media, indeed over the opposition of all “respectable” society who shudder at the sight and sound of him.

His merits were fully on display yesterday in his rambling, self-indulgent two hour address to the CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, at a hotel venue outside Washington, D.C.

The speech was carried live on youtube.com by several pro-Trump organizations that promised viewers an uncut, fly-on-the-wall experience without intermediation by hostile mainstream newscasters. He reached American and global audiences that may have numbered in the millions.  Like his daily Tweets to his political base, Trump is using the power of social networks and live streaming to run circles around old-technology, print and television broadcasters that are arrayed against him.

One commentator noted that Trump used in his speech a “very unpresidential word” – “bullshit” – when characterizing the oversight role of the Democratic House of Representatives. But the bigger point is that  Trump’s choice of words throughout, his very prolixity and his demeanor at the lectern were all un-presidential.

What we saw was that when he lets himself go Trump has the “common touch.”  Not by stooping down but by just being himself.  We can put aside all the glitter surrounding the Trump fortune, all the gilt on the taps of his bathroom faucets. Trump is common in all senses of the word, including vulgar, crass, a braggard. He is in every way what your typical intellectual or other Establishment stuffed shirt will shun.

But at the same time, his being on a level with, and perhaps beneath the level of the broad public makes him loveable.  The audience at the CPAC yesterday was enthralled. He was interrupted repeatedly by rhythmic chanting of “Four More Years.”

In the Obama days, the media played up the President’s education and supposed sophistication ( a cultivated myth). He was asked his opinion about absolutely everything and, fool that he is. he responded,  never pleading ignorance, going well beyond any possible comfort zone or personal information base.

This does not happen with Trump. No one mistakes him for the Father of the Nation. He is the guy on the next bar stool with whom you can share a locker-room joke.

Trump’s speech had been announced as taking an hour. In fact, it went double that because so much of it was “off script,” ignoring the teleprompter and speaking what was on his mind, not on the mind of his handlers. As he observed, with good reason, he had won the 2016 election precisely by going off script.  “There were 16 Republicans running for President plus me.” Aptly put, not just as a lead-in to his primary identity as a conservative and not just another Republican party card-holder.

Watching him in action yesterday raised issues not only about the present but about the distant past and whether such vicious in-fighting is a new development or an old feature of American democracy and the struggle for power, both on the way to Washington and in DC to retain power once on top.  This was clear from Trump’s mocking Jeff Sessions, his Attorney General who recused himself on the investigation into Russian collusion during the 2016 election. In doing so, Sessions removed the main justification for his having been appointed:  to ring-wall, to protect Trump against the oncoming witch-hunt that was intended to destroy his presidency.

Had he fulfilled the duties Trump intended for him, Sessions would have drawn upon himself all the wrath of Congress and tarnished his own reputation forever.  Instead, he defended his own integrity at the expense of the President’s political fortunes.  One more back-stabber, from Trump’s perspective.

Then as Trump went on to say yesterday, Mueller was installed, Mueller who was a buddy of….FBI chief James Comey. And there you have the real collusion, that of the intel bosses out to get Trump.

These seemingly offhand remarks by the President to his adoring supporters were not material for gossip columns. They are his insider description of the networking or collusion that makes Washington  the treacherous swamp it is. If there is a Deep State, it is in what Trump was describing yesterday.

All of the connections around Trump’s mention of Jeff Sessions bring to mind something long forgotten:  Jack Kennedy’s appointment of his brother Bobby to be Attorney General.  At the time, the appointment was criticized as smacking of nepotism and dynastic ambitions of the Kennedys.  But in retrospect, seeing what Trump has been undergoing at the orders of the “sleaze” whom he rightly says have been in charge of the FBI, it makes perfect sense that Jack appointed his brother precisely to ring-wall himself against the black-mailing sleaze-bag of his own day, J. Edgar Hoover.  And these associations necessarily resuscitate the conspiracy theories that surrounded the Kennedy assassination, with red lines going back to the CIA.

But to return to the vivid and memorable present…

Watching Trump deliver the impromptu half or more of his CPAC appearance changed my understanding of his speaking abilities which was first formed during the televised presidential debates.  I gave him low marks at the time. Not being a lawyer by training, not being a politician till he reached for the nation’s highest office, he clearly had no experience in political thrust and parry. He resorted to verbal aggression with all the subtlety of a cudgel.

Now it was clear that he is indeed an effective public speaker, but coming from a very different genre: the stand-up comedian of a Las Vegas casino show.  His “throw away lines” yesterday were incredibly good politics. They were picked up and disseminated even by his enemies in the media because they were so well targeted and invoked unforgettable images that you just want to share with the first person you meet.

The top pick came early in his speech, when he talked about how he hoped the Democrats would keep their present infatuation with environmentalism, climate change and run their 2020 campaign on that plarform:

“I think the new green deal, or whatever the hell they call it The Green New Deal, right?  I encourage it. I think it’s really something they should promote.

“No planes, No energy.  When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric. ‘Let’s hurry up. Darling, darling, is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television, darling.”

In a situation where Trump’s every word is picked over for possible use in litigation against him, he has become a master of sarcasm and double entendre, language habits which belie the notion of mental laziness or, to borrow from the barrel of insults hurled his way, ‘low IQ.’

 

Thus, we heard yesterday from him about the “collusion delusions”  of those “sick, sick” Democrats, who, upon realizing that the Mueller report will give them nothing to table a motion of impeachment in the House, turned on a dime and started demanding documents from his past dealings in private business hoping to find dirt there.

As for FBI director James Comey, the very bad cop, Trump  made a short story long. He regaled us with  his (surely imaginary) conversation with The First Lady on the day of the firing.  He had told Melania that here, at last, he would find full bipartisan support. After all, Senator Schumer of New York and other Democratic leaders had been calling for Comey’s scalp ever since the days just prior to the November 2016 election when Comey briefly publicly considered reopening the investigation of her misuse of a private computer server to conduct State business,

Then, with reference to the line of questioning directed at his former private attorney Michael Cohen this past week during a Congressional hearing, Trump ripped into his enemies.  “They say Trump was begging the Russians to give him Hillary’s emails.  Begging the Russians!” Here again, his words were dripping sarcasm, as well they might.

* * * *

 

 

The CPAC is by definition all about politics.  But the policy side of politics was absent in Trump’s speech yesterday. He spoke about partisan warfare, about a struggle to stay in power and survive the determined, vicious attack on his presidency being waged by the Democrats.

In that sense, it corresponds to the main point in an essay published by Pat Buchanan a couple of days ago, https://buchanan.org/blog/is-the-american-century-over-for-good-136596

Current American political life is extraordinarily vituperous and self-destructive.  At the same time it is a menace to the world outside the country.

It is an old and true observation that for any given country, foreign policy often is just an extension of domestic policy.  In the United States today, the Rest of the World has no reality in and of itself. It is merely a prop to be used at will in the struggle for power with political opponents.

The current US attempt at regime change in Venezuela is a case in point.  Many critics of US foreign policy have spoken of the oil wealth of Venezuela as the factor driving American support for the self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido. No, with production booming at home, the United States gunboat diplomacy is no longer shaped by oil.  The driving force is domestic voting patterns and how to lock in crucial states by identification with the issues that count there.

We are only four months past the midterm elections and all eyes are already focused on 2020.  In the Venezuela play of the Trump administration, we see the issue on which he clearly hopes to win the State of Florida, with its very large Latino, particularly Cuban population.  The fact that the US economic blockade of Venezuela, its seizure of Venezuelan assets may be causing enormous harm to the civilian population, may precipitate a bloody civil war there: that is all just collateral damage for the Trump administration.  Moreover, the recent appointment of the veteran planner of the Iran-Contra policies under Reagan,  Elliott Abrams has brought into play that old scenario, with Ukraine now starring as the chosen implementer of dirty work against Venezuela in the days ahead.

In the cynical use of a foreign policy issue, namely Venezuela, for the sake of political advantage in the domestic power struggle in Washington, Trump is no better than his Democratic opponents who have used Russia in the same way, as a cudgel against him. If there is any difference here, it is that the Democrats are raising the risks of Armageddon with the world’s other nuclear superpower for the sake of seizing power at home. Reality, truth about Putin’s Russia is not only irrelevant but stands in the way of scenarios dreamed up by the sophomoric political scientist hacks they employ in their assault on Trump.

In closing, let us take one more look at Trump’s successes as a public speaker dating from a couple of weeks ago when he was using all his rhetorical strength to promote The Wall.  I have in mind his rally in El Paso, Texas, on the very border with Mexico.

In advance of that event, on the face of it Trump’s appearance in that city, with its heavily Latino (Mexican) demographics, given its symbiotic relationship with Ciudad Juares on the other side in a shared metropolitan area, should have seemed a losing proposition. All the more so, given that an up and coming, local charismatic Democratic star, Beto O’Rourke, was organizing a counter demonstration.

However, as reported by Dave Eggers in the Left-leaning and otherwise viscerally anti-Trump Guardian newspaper, Trump’s rally was an enormous success.  Indeed a large part of the pro-Trump audience was Latino and people of color, a third of them under the age of 30. Meanwhile, O’Rourke’s counter-demo was pitiful failure.

See:  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/02/why-donald-trump-could-win-again-by-dave-eggers

It is perfectly clear from Eggers’ report that it is not just the “common touch” that Donald Trump has going for him, important as that may be. It is also economic figures that convey a reality of highest ever employment for disadvantaged America, in particular Latinos and Blacks.

The title of the article says it all.  Yes, Trump may indeed win a second term whatever the Democrats try and whomever they put forward.  The paramount question for those of us who hope to survive the Age of Trump is when will he finally act on the one pre-election promise that he has so far been unable to deliver:  normalize relations with Russia and take us back from the brink of nuclear war.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019