Book review: Stephen F. Cohen, “War with Russia?”

As one of America’s most authoritative historians of Russia and the Soviet Union, Professor Stephen Cohen has authored seven books in a number of genres from traditionally academic to journalistic-scholarly. His latest work, War with Russia? represents a new direction that holds great value as well as accessibility both for a target audience of university undergraduates and for the general public, indeed for all those who would like to believe in a tomorrow for themselves and their children and grandchildren.

 

The chapters in War with Russia? are mostly lightly edited transcriptions of the hour on air that Cohen has each week on the John Batchelor Show, broadcast by WABC AM New York and listened to by an audience estimated to number in the millions. These weekly contributions have been systematically reposted as podcasts in the online edition of the magazine of commentary The Nation together with a summary print text.

 

The book begins with a brief overview of the onset of what is now generally recognized to be a New Cold War between Russia and the US-led West in 2014-15. This is followed by three extensive year by year selections of the weekly entries for the period of malignant flowering of the New Cold War between 2016 and 2018.  Intermixed with the broadcast transcripts there are several of Cohen’s speeches and personal reminiscences of very significant events or meetings in which he participated; because of their special importance, and because they help convey the real life, as opposed to purely scholarly sources of Cohen’s expertise I will call them out below.

 

Style

 

It must be said that collections of essays are a hard sell for any author to trade publishers, who normally deal in monographs.  However, War with Russia? is an important book precisely because of the regularity of the weekly reporting, which allows the reader to follow every significant development in the Russia story over the several year period framed and with the changing perspective of the author as each corner is turned. Yes, this organization of the material results in a certain amount of repetition, but that is a small price to pay to appreciate causality, the interconnectedness and, often, the unpredictability of events.

 

This book is an easy read for a couple of reasons, both related to the format.  First, the source is oral rather than written.  The style is conversational.  Syntax is simple:  what would otherwise in a scholarly work be complex sentences with several dependent clauses here are presented as short sentences, many in fact without verbs. Secondly, the “chapters” are mostly between two and three pages long, that is, bite sized.

 

Importance:

At the start of his essay dated June 21, 2016 Cohen cites the late comedian George Carlin whose on-stage routine still has great relevance.

“A local radio newscaster begins his report: ‘Nuclear war in Europe. Details after the sports.’”

The citation is typical of Cohen’s light touch in this book and also sums up his mission: to provide the details which are a direct answer to all those well-meaning Americans who are confident no war is possible because they hold no animus against Russia and do not see in their daily news any reason to think the US is being provocative, baiting Russia or that Russia is ready to respond militarily.

Cohen identifies as the main driver of relations with Russia since the 1990s and the single most important cause of the present New Cold Warthe triumphalism of American elites in their thinking about Russia as the defeated adversary which lost the Cold War. Hence, the insistence that Russia has no inherent rights of any kind, not to non-intervention in its internal affairs, not to any sphere of interest at its borders, not to a say as an equally entitled participant in managing global affairs. Hence, too, the Russian sense of grievance if not bitterness towards the United States as it realigns its economy and its foreign policy to protect and further its national interests by ways that bring it into direct confrontation with Washington in a number of regions and industrial sectors.

Another recurrent observation throughout the book is the unprecedented halt to all public debate of US policy towards Russia as we head ever deeper into conflict with Russia. All of those who would raise a hand and say “yes, but” are denounced as stooges of Putin or subjected to other ad hominem attacks which evade responding to factual and/or logical objections.

And the final recurrent theme binding the book together is the calamitous decline in journalistic standards at our leading national dailies, The New York Times and The Washington Post, together with the major U.S. television channels.  In the press, opinion and news reporting are mixed up inseparably and the media have become partisan advocates in a fierce political war against the incumbent president. To put it neatly, the motto of The New York Times, “All the news that is fit to print” has degenerated into “All the news that fits.”

Meanwhile, each of the years 2016, 2017 and 2018 has its own clear theme in War with Russia?

 

2016

What stands out in 2016 is hopes dashed. With each passing entry, we see Cohen’s hopes for US-Russian cooperation in Syria to combat ISIS are raised with each announcement of a prospective US and Russian arranged cease-fire.  To Cohen, such prospects of détente- like cooperation could lead to some understandings easing the confrontation of the two nuclear superpowers in Ukraine and in the Baltic States, to name two other potential flash points in the New Cold War.  However, each time the deals brokered by the State Department and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are overturned by an intervention of what Cohen identifies as the “American war party” based in the Department of Defense, in segments of the intelligence agencies, the Congress and mainstream media

 

2017

Cohen’s regular reports for 2017 begin with the hysteria and neo-McCarthyism that set in even before the Trump inauguration and which had as their objective to discredit him and to undermine his legitimacy.  Cohen chronicles here the impact of the “Russiagate” allegations and investigations with all of the accompanying mangling of truth and of our pluralism.

 

2018

Here the leitmotif may be said to be the development of what Cohen and others call “Intelgate,” meaning the unlawful activities of segments of the intelligence community, in particular, the CIA and FBI directors, in the wiretapping of Trump campaign officials and advisers during the 2016 race based on uproven dirt about Trump which people close to Hillary had paid for, namely the so-called Steele dossier. These criminal activities were compounded by the leaking of that dossier to the press. And they culminated in the Director of National Intelligence’s misrepresentation of the findings of the 17 intelligence agencies on alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which gave a patent of credibility to the supposed collusion between Trump and the Kremlin. All of this encouraged media frenzy.

 

Good and superb

The weekly reports show the progressive deterioration of US-Russian relations mostly due to political power struggles within Washington and the abandonment of hopes for reason to prevail and détente to be restored.

That being said, there are among the essays some which stand out above the rest. One in particular to which I direct the reader’s attention is the entry dated August 24, 2017 and entitled “The Lost Alternatives of Mikhail Gorbachev.” It is worthy of special mention because here Cohen is commenting on his own personal experiences, in this instance, a dinner meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev at his home in the suburbs of Moscow.

Cohen reminds us of his close, almost family relationship with Gorbachev dating from their first meeting in Washington in 1987. From this installment we can appreciate that the knowledge informing this book comes not only from Cohen’s formal scholarly research, but also from his life experience in Russia meeting with a range of people from the President down to dissidents, to the offspring of victims of Stalin’s Terror and to other Russian intelligentsia on their home ground.

A similarly important and autobiographical essay is dated  November 8, 2017 and entitled “The Unheralded Putin – Official Anti-Stalinist No. 1.”  This recounts Cohen’s visit a week earlier to Moscow for the opening of  the Wall of Sorrow dedicated to all victims of Soviet repression and focused on the Stalin years from 1929 to 1953.

Yet another memorable chapter is devoted to Vladimir Putin’s address to the joint houses of the Russian parliament on March 1, 2018 in which he unveiled the new, state of the art weapons systems which Russia is bringing into serial production to reestablish its full strategic parity with the United States.  And the final raisins I will pull from the cake are his analytical pieces on the results of the presidential election of  March 18, 2018 and of the Trump-Putin summit meeting in Helsinki in July 2018.  These alone justify buying the book and having a read.

 

Politically brave

In this book, Professor Cohen shows his mettle. I particularly recommend the bold essay dated September 2017 entitled “The Silence of the Doves.” Here Cohen calls out those who otherwise have been political allies, the Progressives, for their descent into celebration of the US intelligence services, of the Mueller investigations with the very harsh and intimidating techniques applied to extract confessions and plea bargaining for the sake of implicating Donald Trump and his advisers.

 

Conclusion

 

In his wrap-up essay, Professor Cohen reminds us that he has placed an interrogation point in his book title: “War with Russia?”   No one can say whether this New Cold War will end badly. But, as he describes it, the New Cold War is substantially more dangerous than the 40 year long original confrontation by that name which we barely survived through a number of mishaps on the way.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

European Populism: possibly fatal contradictions revealed in an interview with Steve Bannon’s chosen coordinator of “The Movement”

The rise of Euroscepticism, which this year has been subsumed by the more generic political designation Populism has been a subject of fascination for those of us who have been hoping for some breakthrough in European politics, an end to the stranglehold of the center right, center left parties. Such a breakthrough could finally lead to an independent-minded foreign policy for the 28 Member States of the European Union, an end to servile pandering to Washington and its instrument of control that is called NATO, an end to the sanctions on Russia and the start of efforts to build a new European Home in which Russia finds its rightful place in the Europe-wide security architecture.

I have called out in particular the last named point, because it is not just one among many policy positions for the EU to rethink thanks to an impulse from the populists. It is the issue facing Europe that must be resolved if we are to have any other issues to deal with.

The present US, and by imitation the European foreign policy towards Russia, which entails vilification of Putin, provocative military exercises at the Russian borders and generally pushing the Kremlin into a corner, is leading us all to the abyss. The suspension by the United States of its adherence to the INF treaty pending withdrawal from the treaty in six months, now the mirror-image suspension of participation by Russia this past weekend opens up the possibility of Europe becoming the first battleground of the coming WWIII should the United States proceed with installation of nuclear armed ground based cruise missiles in Europe as withdrawal from the treaty allows it to do, precipitating a Russian counter measure. This would put European peace on a hair-trigger just as it was in August 1914 over the issue of mobilization orders, but with the time allowances on “to be or not to be” firing of missiles cut down to two or three minutes from first warnings.

Meanwhile, proofs of populism’s rise in political might in Europe have been plentiful. Electoral victories of extreme right “populist” parties in last autumn’s communal (local government) elections across Europe provided reason to expect change when the public again goes to the voting booths in May 2019 to elect the deputies to the European Parliament. Nowhere was this more evident than in Germany where the Alternativ fuer Deutschland (AfD) gained strongly in several of the Laender and became an inescapable part of the political landscape.

In his statements to the press last summer when he launched a platform to coordinate and help finance the Europe-wide populists, former chief strategist for Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Steve Bannon, set the objective for populists to take control of the European Parliament via the coming elections

Looking from the outside, various commentators on European politics have pointed to challenges that the populist parties across the Continent have to overcome if they are to become a force to be reckoned with at the European level.  A good enumeration of these issues was published by the International edition of Der Spiegel at the start of the new year:  “The Year of Populism. Europe’s Right Wing Takes Aim at the EU.”

Among the internal problems facing any coalition of populist forces Der Spiegel named precisely the issue of policy towards Russia, pointing to the fiercely anti-Russian position of Poland, which otherwise, in terms of its critical position vis-à-vis the European Union institutions stands at the forefront of the Eurosceptical forces.

In recent weeks Europe’s most influential populist leader in power, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini spoke about the formation of an Italian-Polish axis to counter the longstanding tandem of Germany and France in charge of European policy-making.  Given his own strongly pro-Putin, pro-Russian stance, Salvini chose to overlook the differences with Poland on that subject.  But is that wise, is it feasible?

This and other obstacles to Europe-wide cooperation of the populist parties arose in a tour d’horizon discussion I had a couple of weeks ago with Steve Bannon’s chosen head coordinator of The Movement, Brussels-based Mischaël Modrikamen.

Neither the name Modrikamen nor the name of the French-speaking political party in Belgium that he heads, the Parti Populaire, are likely to be familiar to readers. But given the man’s central position in determining whether the populist wave in May will be tidal or merely empty hype, it paid to hear how the European populist movement looks from inside.

Modrikamen was the head of a high-flying law firm specializing in major banking and other corporate litigation who left private business some time ago to pursue a political career.  In the last elections his extreme right Parti Populaire polled nearly 5% of the electorate. It has just one deputy in the Belgian parliament and none in the European Parliament.  Nonetheless, Bannon’s choice of this underweight politician who happens to hold Eurosceptic positions had its own clear logic.

Had Bannon looked to the far right in the numerically greater Flemish speaking part of this country, he would have been speaking to the Vlaams Belang, an old style folk nationalism party that was marginalized on its home turf more than a decade ago by the pocketbook (economic)  nationalists of the New Flemish Alliance (NV-A), that has turned centrist since it joined the ruling parties to form a coalition government in 2014. But Vlaams Belang, with or without reason, is widely condemned for its Nazi sympathizer past, and allies with anti-Semitic labels are something Bannon would have avoided for understandable reasons.

In choosing Modrikamen from French-speaking Belgium, Bannon brought into play a leading member of the Jewish community here and a rather astute political thinker. However, he also brought into the very heart of his organization the contradictions that can vitiate chances of populism gaining real power in May.

Front and center is, once again, the question of relations with Russia.

And here, notwithstanding all of his worldly sophistication and rejection of the political correctness of our day in areas like Climate Change, the closing of nuclear power plants and  unchecked immigration, Modrikamen showed himself to be fully brain-washed by our Neocons and Liberal Interventionists on the subject of Russia.

This ally of Bannon asked me in all seriousness whether it was true that Vladimir Putin is a dictator? whether or not I agreed that Putin has killed journalists?

He also made it clear that he is a strong defender of democratic values and rule of law. In the abstract, of course, these are worthy concepts. The problem is they have been weaponized by Washington to serve its global hegemony.

Less equivocal was Modrikamen’s avowal that he is an Atlanticist, meaning a strong supporter of NATO.

And so I ask, with friends like this, does Bannon really need enemies?

Modrikamen freely admitted that The Movement has a real problem with Poland, but the thought of expelling the madcap Poles and rejecting their Russophobia never crosses his mind.  He wants to finesse what cannot in fact be papered over.

In this connection, I appeal to the most serious person in the European populist movement, Matteo Salvini, to rethink his axis with Warsaw.  Salvini is the one smart and brave leader of the populists, as he showed us yet again by the veto Italy applied today to the European Council’s plans to recognize the self-proclaimed president of Venezuela Guaido.  Bravo!  But the alliance with Warsaw will bring down the roof on the heads of populists.

The possibility of defeat in May is very much on the mind of Modrikamen, and the most intriguing insight I took away from our discussion was his scenario for Belgium’s parliamentary election also being held in May. Modrikamen sees the anti-center sentiment likely bringing to power the till now small Green parties in Flanders and Wallonia.  His reasoning here is solid. They are the groups in Belgium which in fact profited most from the anti-government sentiment in last autumn’s communal elections, doing especially well in the middle class districts and among young people.

The Left-leaning Greens are one of the few political forces in Belgium untainted by corruption. Partly that is the result of their not having been in power.  But apart from their pro-environmental positions, no one knows what, if anything they stand for, least of all in foreign policy.  As a wholly inexperienced group, they would easily be manipulated by the centrist party(ies) with whom they will align to form a coalition government. The result would (will) be continuation of the disastrous policies we see today in foreign affairs and in much else.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Vladimir Poutine à l’Occident: “nous vous enterrerons”

J’ai mis en titre un espèce de “fake news” pour raison:  pour attirer votre attention sur le fait que M. le Président de la Russie est trop gentil.  Il ne fait pas telles ménaces comme faisait son prédécesseur, le chef de l’Union Soviétique en 1956.  Il ne martèle pas son pupitre avec ses chaussures lors d’une élocution dans l’Assemblée Générale de l’ONU comme faisait aussi Khrushchev. Ainsi nous les belges, les européens sont inconscients des dangers de guerre chaude que nous courrons par notre politique étrangère du jour.

 cause de son comportement cité en sus, à cause du lancement du Spoutnik dans la même époch et l’invasion des forces soviétiques en Hongrie pour un changement de régime, à cause de ses épreuves dans l’atmosphère des bombes nucléaires de très grande puissance Khruschchev a bien impressioné le grand public et aussi les classes politiques dans  l’Occident comme personne aggressif, non-polis en tête d’un pays dangereux

Khrushchev proposait une politique de “co-éxistence” laissant entendre que non-acceptance par l’Occident équivaut non-existence de la vie sur notre planète. En conséquence, Khrushchev et son pays était toujours traité avec respect et peur par nos contrées.  On pensait qu’il est un rude, mais on ne disait pas qu’il est un voyou, un meutrier des journalistes comme on entend toujours chez nous en déscription de Vladimir Poutine. On ne parlait de la Russie comme pays-station d’essence, pays que ne produit rien de tout intéressant pour le monde, puissance de taille régionale qui intimide ses voisins, comme insistait Barack Obama avec sa décision d’isoler la Russie et de couper toutes relations possibles avec un état paria, même les canaux de communications établis depuis des décennies pour resoudre des malentendus éventuels entre nos militaires.

En contraste avec Khrushchev et les autres chefs d’état de l’U.R.S.S, M. Poutine se montre très civilisé. Même aujourd’hui, dans une période de Nouvelle Guerre Froide, des confrontations permanents avec l’Occident, des sanctions économiques três sévères, des exercises de l’OTAN massives et provoquantes sur les frontières de la Russie, Poutine parle toujours des “collègues” et “partenaires” dans l’Occident pour garder la paix et éviter une escalation des tensions qui peuvent, à son avis, mener vite à un affrontement armé.

D’où cette grande finesse chez Poutine?  Il faut comprendre que son passée comprend beaucoup plus que son service dans le KGB.  Dans les années ‘90s il servait dans l’administration du bourgmestre libéral de Saint-Pétersbourg, Anatole Sobchak. Dans sa qualité de député maire pour les investissements étrangers il a rencontré avec toute une procession des hommes d’affaires et politiciens de l’Europe, des Etats-Unis. Il était dans un entourage pro-Ouest et quand il est arrivé dans le Kremlin en 1999 il gardait beaucoup de ses camarades libéraux près de lui. Ils constituent même aujourd’hui une faction très influentiel.

Dès ses premiers jours au pouvoir, Poutine a espéré d’intégrer la Russie dans l’OTAN et plus généralement dans le monde occidental. Poutine était le premier chef d’état à téléphoner George Bush après les attentats du world trade center pour ouvrir les bases de l’Asie Central, l’arrière-cour de la Russie aux forces américaines en support de l’opération contre le régime des talibes en Afghanistan.

Malheureusement, les intentions amicales de Poutine était rejetées directement par Washington qui considérait la Russie comme une nation en déclin et impuissante.  En 2003, l’Amérique est sorti de la Traité ABM concernant la limitation des systèmes de défense antimissile. Ensuite nous voyons la détérioration progressive des relations entre la Russie et l’Occident jusqu’à  nos jours.  Ensuite le dévéloppement des nouvels systèmes des armaments libellés “asymmétriques” utilisant technologies de pointe que Poutine a exposé lors de son élocution devant les deux chambres de parlement russe le 1 mars 2018. Il disait avec clarité que ses armes peuvent pénétrer tous que les Etats-Unis ont mis en place pour assurer à eux seules la possibilité d’une première frappe nucléaire fatale.  Il réclamait pour la Russie la parité stratégique avec les Etats-Unis et bien entendu, avec l’OTAN en dépit la différence en budget militaire avec les E.U. de 12 fois moins.

L’élocution de Poutine du 1 mars 2018 était adressé à son people en pleine campagne éléctorale. Elle était dirigé aussi aux classes politiques américaines et aux militaires.  Malheureusement, il n’a pas reçu l’attention qu’il mérite dans le grand public chez nous.  Nous, le people, ignorons que la Russie est le seul pays sur la Terre capable d’annihiler les Etats Unis et aussi l’Europe dans 30 minutes.  Nous manquons totalement le sens de risque d’une guerre, devant escaler en échange nucléaire à cause des malentendus entre nos forces armés agissantes en proximité immédiate en Syrie, en Ukraine…demain en Venezuela…donné le quasi-absence de communications et l’absence totale de confiance mutuelle entre les parties.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Vladimir Putin to the West: “We will bury you!”

I have given this essay a “fake news” title for a good reason: to direct your attention to the fact that the incumbent President of Russia is too gentle for his and our good. He does not make threats the way his predecessor, the party boss of the Soviet Union did in 1956. He does not bang his shoe on the desk in front of him while speaking to the General Assembly of the United Nations as Nikita Khrushchev also did.  Thus, we Europeans and Americans are oblivious to the dangers of a hot war with Russia that we risk by pursuing our present-day foreign policy of driving Russia into a corner. War could not be further from our minds, since, we tell ourselves, no one wants war.

Because of his behavior cited above, because of the launching of the first Sputnik during his time in office and the invasion of Soviet forces in Hungary for purposes of regime change, because of the atmospheric tests of the vastly powerful hydrogen bombs that his country was producing to wage war on us, Khrushchev made a strong impression on the broad public and also on the political classes in the West as a person who was aggressive, impolite and at the head of a dangerous country.

Khrushchev proposed to us a policy of “peaceful co-existence,” allowing us to understand that non-acceptance by the West equated to the non-existence of life on our planet. Consequently, Khrushchev and his country were always treated with respect and fear by our countries. We considered him to be a crude fellow, but no one dared to say that he was a thug, a murderer of journalists, etc. that one hears today regularly applied when our politicians and mass media describe Vladimir Putin.  No one spoke back then of Russia as “a gas station not a country,” as a place that produced nothing that the world wanted or said that it was just a regional power that acted badly, all of which Barack Obama used to justify his decision to isolate Russia and cut all possible relations with this pariah state, even the channels of communications established decades ago following the Cuban Missile Crisis to give some stability and predictability in conditions of a Cold War.

In contrast to Khrushchev and the other government leaders of the USSR,  Mr. Putin acts and speaks in a very civilized manner.  Even today, in a period of New Cold War, of permanent confrontations with the West, of severe economic sanctions imposed on his country and provocative NATO military exercises unprecedented in scale being held on Russia’s borders, Putin still speaks of the “colleagues” and “partners” in the West, for the purpose of keeping the peace and avoiding an escalation of tensions which could, in his belief, quickly lead to armed clashes.

Where does Putin’s finesse come from?  One must understand that his past takes in a lot more than his service in the KGB.  During the 1990’s he served in the administration of the liberal mayor of St Petersburg Anatoly Sobchak. In his capacity as deputy mayor with responsibility for foreign investment, he met a whole procession of businessmen and politicians from Europe and the United States. He was part of the pro-Western entourage of the mayor and when he ascended to the presidency in 1999 he kept many of his liberal comrades close to him. They constitute even today an influential faction in Kremlin politics.

From his first days in power, Putin hoped to integrate Russia in NATO and, more generally, in the Western world. Putin was the first head of state to phone George W. Bush after the attack on the World Trade Center and generously offered substantial help, opening up Russia’s back yard in Central Asia to American forces to provide logistical support of the operation the USA would launch against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, Putin’s hopes for reciprocal warming of relations and integration were rejected. At this time Washington considered Russia to be a country in long-term decline and a marginal power. In 2002, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, one of the first landmark arms limitation treaties dating from 1972, showing its disregard for Russian interest in stability and transparency,  and pursuing a policy of altering the strategic balance of power in its favor.  Following this, we see the progressive deterioration of relations between Russia and the West that has lasted up to the present.  Following this, we see the development by Russia of new weapons systems called “asymmetrical” using state of the art technologies that Putin finally spoke about publicly in his speech to the joint houses of the Russian parliament on 1 March 2018. He said then with perfect clarity, but in calm and nonthreatening language that these arms could penetrate everything that the United States had put in place to assure for itself the possibility of a decapitating first nuclear strike.  He reclaimed for Russia full strategic parity with the United States, and, of course, with NATO, despite Russia’s having a military budget that is 12 time smaller than America’s.

Putin’s speech of 1 March 2018 was addressed to his people in the midst of a presidential election campaign. It was also addressed to America’s political classes and military.  Regrettably, it did not speak to the American or European peoples as bluntly as Khrushchev had once done. And so we were allowed to slumber on.

Today, we the people tend to ignore the fact that Russia is the only country in the world capable of reducing the United States and/or Europe to ashes within 30 minutes. We lack any sense of the risks of war that arise from the operations of our military forces in close proximity with Russian and their proxy forces in Syria, in Ukraine…and possibly soon in Venezuela.  This, under conditions of near absence of reliable communications between our civilian and military leaderships and total lack of mutual trust between all parties.

During the original Cold War, there was some limited time during which false alarms of attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles or bombers might be sorted out.  Today there may be 15 minutes between alarm and incoming total destruction.  Anticipating the possibility of a first strike decapitating the national leadership, response launches have been automated and function on the “dead hand” principle.  In effect, the Doomsday scenario described so brilliantly by Stanley Kubrik in his ‘60s film Dr. Strangelove has become operative here and now, though the public has not a clue.

That, my friends, is the reason I say Vladimir Putin has done his and our people a disservice by not engaging in public diplomacy with the American and European peoples, by not scaring us properly so that we can come to our wits and compel our politicians and media to do likewise.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

“War and Peace”: the relevance of 1812 as explained by Tolstoy to current global affairs

Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is widely considered to be the best war novel ever written. Spatially, in its more than 1,800 pages it offers a vast panorama of Russia during the Napoleonic wars, both on the battlefield and on the home front. Temporally, Tolstoy shifts our attention back and forth between the big picture in time-lapse and close-up slow-motion psychological portraits of the leading characters.  With its “scenography” already sketched by the author, War and Peace has inspired a number of beloved films produced both in the West and in Russia. It provided the material for Sergei Prokofiev’s brilliant opera of the same name, which enjoys periodic revivals in the world’s grand opera theaters.

Of course, the dramatizations of War and Peace tend to highlight the affective romantic themes which carry along readers, in particular teenage girls. We envision Natasha’s first ball, her dance with Andrei. We see her by his bedside in his final agony as he succumbs to his injuries from the Borodino battle.  We tend to skip over and ignore the considerable dose of Tolstoy’s historiographical musings on whether great men like Napoleon or Tsar Alexander I are the decisive force of history or the involuntary agents of the people they think they govern, his philosophical shadow boxing with Schopenhauer over free will versus determinism.

Tolstoy injected these “asides” into the work at regular intervals, and then let go of all self-restraint at the very end in the 75 pages of the Epilogue, Part Two. That non-narrative text, in which the author was reasoning directly with his readers rather than through his characters confused professional reviewers of War and Peace when it was first released in 1869 to the extent that there was some uncertainty whether the work even qualified as a novel in terms of genre.

Indeed, some publishers chose to delete the second Epilogue from their editions.  However, the briefer passages of historiographical reflections spread through the novel are there to be savored in most all editions. In the appendix to this essay, I offer an extensive citation of one such “aside” so that the reader can appreciate from Tolstoy’s text his method of reasoning, which is at the same time homely and unrelenting. The given selection focuses ultimately on the relationship between kings, generals, ministers and the people. It is as applicable to our understanding of Donald Trump as it was to Tolstoy’s understanding of Napoleon or Alexander I of Russia. The translation from the Russian is mine.

The philosophical asides of Tolstoy in War and Peace serve as the raw input for this essay, because they strongly suggest the relevance of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in the late spring of 1812 to the psychological and strategic situation we find ourselves in today on the Old Continent in what could well be a prelude to all-out war. To go a step further, I would argue that the Napoleonic invasion of Russia is more relevant today than Cold War 1.0, not to mention WWI and WWII.

To be specific, 1812 as interpreted by Tolstoy raises the following issues:

  1. The precondition for war is the near universal acceptance of the logic of the coming war by not only those who will be doing the fighting but also by all those who must support the war effort in civilian capacity in production and logistics. That is to say people fight not because Power compels them to do so but because they are persuaded it serves their interests

In 1812, the logic of those enlisted by Napoleon was, on the high-minded side, the spread of the values of the French Revolution to the very fringes of autocratic Asia. On the low side, it was the incalculable riches awaiting the victors.  For soldiers and officers that meant whatever could be seized by those lucky enough to occupy Moscow. For the French emperor and his coterie, it meant enforcement of the Continental System that enriched France at the expense of Britain and the other European states.

Transposed to our own day, this issue finds its parallel in the informational war the United States and the West more generally have been waging against Russia.  The defamation of Putin, the denigration of Russia all have been swallowed whole by the vast majority of our political classes, who today would view with equanimity, perhaps even with enthusiasm any military conflict with Russia that may arise, whatever the immediate cause.

 

  1. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was not a French force acting out purely French ambitions but was described by Tolstoy as “a movement of the peoples of Europe from West to East.” The Grand Armée of 680,000 soldiers which Napoleon led had as its core his Imperial Guard of 20,000, which he never deployed in action against the Russians because of their vital role in keeping him in power. Ordinary French soldiers and officers who were put on the field to fight and die made up less than half of the total forces at Napoleon’s orders. They were a still smaller percentage of those who perished in the campaign. The rest of the army consisted of willing recruits from petty German states along the Rhine, Prussians, Dutch, Italians, Austrians and others, in particular Poles, who deserve special mention below.

Transposed to our own day, the multinational forces of French-led Europe of 1812 translate very nicely into American-led NATO.

  1. The single biggest contingent of the voluntary forces serving in the Grand Armée poised to invade Russia in 1812 were Poles, who were there for their own geopolitical purposes to restore their homeland to the map of Europe and to prove their value as Europe’s protectors. This is a point which Tolstoy develops at some length not just because of the numbers of Polish troops, which were very significant, at approximately 96,000 but because of the Poles’ likely influence on how the whole campaign by Napoleon was conceived, including the peculiar decision to march not on St Petersburg but on the ancient Russian capital of Moscow, where the Poles sat on the throne exactly two hundred years before during a turbulent period known in Russian as the Time of Troubles.

Tolstoy goes out of his way to highlight the Polish factor in the invasion. This begins with his description of the June day when Napoleon stood on the banks of the Nieman River which marked the western border of the Russian Empire and gave the order to invade.

While Napoleon rested on a tree stump and looked over his maps, Tolstoy tells us that a Polish lancer came up to him, shouted Vivat and offered to lead his cavalry troops across the river before the eyes of the Emperor. Napoleon distractedly looked the other way, while the lancer’s men attempted the crossing, during which more than 40 of them drowned.  The emperor afterwards made sure that the leader, who did make it across was duly given a medal.

A further tip-off on Tolstoy’s thinking about the role of the Poles in the invasion is his remark on what was going through Napoleon’s mind as he looked across the river to the Russian Cossack detachment on the other side.  He tells us that Napoleon believed he was looking at the Asiatic steppes!

While Tolstoy does not attribute this specific extravagant idea to Napoleon’s Polish allies, who otherwise are close by his side, we note that at this time Napoleon has already donned a Polish officer’s uniform. And in a day or so he will be taking up residence in the home of a Polish nobleman in Vilno (today’s Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, then still a Polish province of Russia) where Alexander I had had his field headquarters just weeks before.

Transposing all of this to present-day, we find that once again Polish ruling elites are hard at work prompting, goading the European Union and the United States to use Poland as the shield against Russia.  The notion of a Fort Trump falls perfectly in line with the sycophancy of their forebears to Bonaparte.

Finally, there are three observations about the invasion of 1812 which Tolstoy repeatedly tells us in his asides. They merit the full attention of today’s leadership in Washington and Brussels.

  1. Watch your supply lines!

It is today widely believed in the general public here in Belgium, in France that Napoleon was  defeated in Russia not by   superior military skills of his enemy but by “General Winter.”  Even a cursory      reading of Tolstoy shows that this is utter nonsense.  The French retreat began after only 5 weeks of the occupation of Moscow in early October, when blasts of winter cold were still months away. But from the moment the withdrawal began the Grande Armée was melting away due to illness and desertions related to lack of provisions. The overall breakdown in discipline following on the marauding and looting during the occupation of Moscow compounded this disaster.

Provisions were lacking for a number of reasons, including very poor decisions by Napoleon on the route of return, using the already wasted Minsk highway. But the single most important reason was that Napoleon’s forces were overstretched.  And, of course, that was no accident. Insofar as the Russian commander Kutuzov had a consistent strategy it was precisely to draw the French far into the country till their ability to sustain war was vitiated by the scorched earth policy of the Russian population, from peasants up to nobility.

 

Transposed to today’s strategic confrontation with Russia, the notion of NATO defending the Baltics or pursuing a war at Russia’s borders generally is as foolish as what Napoleon undertook.  The United States is simply too far away to respond effectively to Russia fighting on its home soil, with or without the forward stationing of US supplies and rotating NATO forces in the East.

           5. Beware of “asymmetrical” responses to your military superiority

Tolstoy devotes considerable attention to the irregular Russian forces operating quasi-independently of the imperial Army which were used with devastating effect against Napoleon during his long retreat from Moscow. These were both Cossack detachments and forces of local noble landowners and peasants who made opportunistic raids on isolated groups of French-led troops and, Tolstoy hints, took no prisoners. They brought into play for Russia great tactical flexibility and heroic initiative outside the lines of command, where, as Tolstoy shows us in detail, there was always wrangling between the armchair generals brought in from court and the field commanders, between native Russian and foreign-born officers.  All of this “asymmetrical” warfare compromises both Napoleon’s and our own vision of the contest in 1812 as one between the military of the ancien régime and the military of revolutionary France in the same way as Napoleon was perplexed and unable to respond to the Russian emperor’s refusal to raise the white flag and negotiate a peace after his historic capital, Moscow, was captured. Such obstinacy was simply not fair play by the inter-state rules of the day.

 

Transposed to today, it compels us to take with utmost seriousness the claims of President Putin to have put in place low cost and deadly asymmetrical weapon systems that can overcome and defeat America’s vast investments in a global missile network to contain Russia and possibly exercise a first nuclear strike.

 

          6. The outcome of battles and of war itself is not foreseeable.

In his narrative of the battles between the warring forces during the 1812 campaign, Tolstoy tells us repeatedly that the relative strength in men and materiel of the respective sides was only one factor to success, however important. That advantage could be overturned by greater determination and morale of the nominally weaker side. It could be overturned by the arbitrary decision of a noncommissioned officer on the front line to shout ‘hooray’ and lead his troops in attack or it could be enhanced by the arbitrary decision of such an officer to shout “we are lost” and pull back his forces in a rout.   In no maneuver is morale more important than in retreat, which was the strategic plan of the Russian leadership.

Readiness for self-sacrifice to save the fatherland was the outstanding feature of the Russians in   1812, just as later proved itself in WWII.  The battle of Borodino was, in purely military terms, a loss for the Russian side which left the battlefield with casualties and deaths more damaging than Napoleon’s Grand Armée suffered. However, it was a moral victory, because unlike all the European armies Napoleon had fought till then, only the Russians absorbed horrific losses from artillery bombardment and nonetheless stood their ground, leaving in an orderly retreat in the end. The way was now open for the French to take Moscow, but the Russian Army was not broken and would be there to enforce the flight of Napoleon’s force after it lost its strength to indiscipline and desertion  during its stay in Moscow.

Transposing this message to our present day, we have reason to take seriously the manifest will of today’s Russians to stand their ground at whatever cost. More generally, we should pay close  attention to a crusader for moderation who has the military experience to justify our respect. In his several books, Andrew Bacevich has argued repeatedly, like Tolstoy, that there are no certainties in war and that wars of choice must therefore be avoided.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Appendix

War and Peace. First pages of Volume Three. Part One     Tolstoy’s philosophical thoughts on historical causality, on the role of Great Men in history and on day one of the invasion.

“From the end of 1811 there began a strengthened arming and concentration of forces of Western Europe and in 1812 these forces – millions of people (taking into account those who transported and fed the army) moved from West to East, to the borders of Russia to which precisely as in 1811 the forces of Russia were drawn. On 12 June the forces of Western Europe crossed the borders of Russia and war began, i.e.an event occurred which went against human reason and against all of human nature. Millions of people did to one another such countless evil deeds, deceptions, betrayals, theft, counterfeit and release of fake bank notes, stealing, arson and murders which for whole centuries you do not find in the chronicles of all courts of the world and for which in this period of time the people who perpetrated them did not view them as crimes.

“What produced this unusual event? What were its causes?  Historians with naïve certainty say that the causes of this event were the offense given to the Duke of Oldenburg, the failure to observe the Continental system, the thirst for power of Napoleon, the firmness of Alexander, the errors of diplomats, etc.

“Consequently, you needed only that Metternich, Rumyantsev or Talleyrand, between the going forth and the rout, had to try harder and write some paper more skillfully or for Napoleon to write to Alexander: “Sir, my brother, I agree to accord the duchy to the Duke of Oldenburg,” and there would have been no war.

“It is understandable that it seemed to be the case to contemporaries. It is understandable that to Napoleon it appeared that the cause of the war was the intrigues of England (as he said on the island of St Helena); it is understandable that to members of the English House of Commons it appeared that  the cause of the war was the thirst for power of Napoleon; that to the prince of Oldenburg it appeared that the cause of war was the violence committed against himself; that to merchants it appeared that the cause of war was the Continental system, which ruined Europe; that to the old soldiers and generals it seemed that the main cause was the need to use them in the affair; to the legitimists of that time it was necessary to restore the proper principles, and to the diplomats of that time, everything resulted from the fact that the alliance of Russia with Austria in 1809 was not sufficiently skillfully concealed  from Napoleon and the memorandum No. 178 was clumsily written. It is understandable that these and still countless more reasons, whose number depends on countless different points of view, appeared to contemporaries; but for us – the descendants who see the enormity of the event and are looking into its simple and terrible sense, – these causes are insufficient. For us it is not clear that millions of people- Christians – killed and tortured one another because Napoleon was thirsty for power, Alexander was firm, the policy of England was crafty and the Duke of Oldenburg was offended. We cannot understand the connection between these circumstances and the fact of murder and violence; why in consequence of the fact that the duke was offended thousands of people from one end of Europe killed and destroyed people of Smolensk and Moscow provinces and were killed by them.

For us, the descendants – not historians, not carried away by the process of searching and therefore with undimmed common sense contemplating the event, the causes seem to be countless in number.  The more we get into the search for causes, the more they are revealed to us and every cause taken separately or a whole array of causes seems to us to be equally just by themselves, and equally false in their insignificance by comparison with the enormity of the event and equally false due to their inability (without the participation of all the other coincidental causes) to create the event which took place. Such a cause as the refusal of Napoleon to move his troops back beyond the Vistula and to give back the duchy of Oldenburg seems to us to rank with the refusal of the first French corporal to enroll for a second tour of duty: for if he did not want to go into the service and did not want a second tour and a third tour and the thousandth corporal and soldier there would be so many fewer people in the army of Napoleon and the war could not have been.

“If Napoleon had not been insulted by the demand that he move back beyond the Vistula and had not ordered his troops to advance, there would not have been a war; but if all the sergeants had not wanted to go for a second tour of duty war also would not have been possible. Also there could not have been a war if there were no intrigues by England and if there was no prince of Oldenburg and the feelings of insult in Alexander, and if there were no autocratic power in Russia, and if there had been no French revolution and the dictatorships and empire which followed from it, and everything that produced the French revolution, and so forth. Without one of these causes nothing could have been. And so these causes, all of them, billions of causes, came together for what happened to occur.  And consequently nothing was the exclusive cause of the event, but the event had to happen only because it had to happen. Millions of people had to abjure their human feelings and their reason, going to the East from the West and killing people like themselves, just as several centuries before that crowds of people went from the East to the West and killed people like themselves.

“The actions of Napoleon and Alexander, from whose words it would seem the event took place or would not take place – were also no more arbitrary than the action of each soldier who went on the campaign by drawing lots or by recruitment. It could not be otherwise because for the will of Napoleon and Alexander (people upon whom, it seemed, the event depended) to be executed it was necessary that there be a coincidence of innumerable circumstances without one of which the event could not be carried through.  It was necessary that millions of people in the hands of which there was real power, the soldiers who shot, carried the provisions and cannon, they had to agree to carry out the will of the singular individuals and weak people and they were brought to this by an innumerable number of complex and diverse reasons.

“Fatalism in history is inevitable to explain unreasonable phenomena (i.e., those whose reasonableness we cannot understand). The more we try to reasonably explain these phenomena in history, the more they become unreasonable and incomprehensible for us.

“Every person lives for himself, uses his freedom to achieve his own personal objectives and feels by his whole being that he can now do or not do some action; but as soon as he does it, this action completed at a certain moment in time becomes irreversible and becomes the property of history, in which it has not a free but a predetermined significance.

“There are two sides to life in each man: his personal life, which is freer the more abstract are his interests, and the elemental life where man inevitably performs what the laws prescribe for him.

“Man consciously lives for himself, but serves as an unconscious tool for the achievement of historical, general human goals. The act completed is irreversible, and his action, coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people, receives historic significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more he is bound up with big people, the more power he has over other people, the more obvious is the predetermination and inevitability of his every action.

The tsar’s heart in in God’s hands.”

“The tsar is the slave of history

“Napoleon, despite the fact that more than ever before in 1812 it seemed to him that it depended on him whether to spill or not to spill the blood of his peoples (as Alexander wrote to him in his last letter),never more than now did he submit to those inevitable laws which forced him (acting in relation to himself, as it seemed to him, by his arbitrary choice) to do for the common cause, for history, what had to be done.

“The peoples of the West move to the East to kill one another. And by the law of coincidence of causes it happened on its own and coincided with this event that there were thousands of small causes for this movement and for the war: rebuke over nonobservance of the Continental system, and the duke of Oldenburg, and the movement of troops into Prussia undertaken (as it seemed to Napoleon) only to achieve an armed peace, and the love and habits of the French emperor for war coinciding with the predisposition of his people, the attraction to grandeur of preparations, and the expenses on preparations, and the need to acquire advantages which would justify these expenses, and the ……millions and millions of other causes which underlay the event and coincided with it.

When the apple falls, why does it fall? From the fact that it is drawn to the earth, from the fact that the stem dries out, from the fact that it is dried by the sun; that it grows heavy, that the wind shakes it, from the fact that a boy standing underneath it wants to eat it?

“Nothing is the cause. These are just the coincidence of conditions under which any live, organic and elemental event occurs. And the botanist who finds that the apple falls because its cells decompose, etc. will be just as correct and just as incorrect as the child standing underneath who says that the apple fell because he wanted to eat it and prayed for this. Just as right and wrong will be the person who says that Napoleon went to Moscow because he wanted this and he was ruined because Alexander wanted his destruction: both right and wrong will be the person who says that an excavated hill weighing a million poods fell because the last worker struck it the last time with a pick. In historical events so called great men are labels which give a name to the event, which like labels have least of all any connection with the event.

“Every action by them which seems to them to be arbitrary and for themselves in historical sense is not arbitrary but is bound up with the whole course of history and has been determined eternally.”

 

29 May 1812 [Old Style] Napoleon left Dresden where he spent three weeks surrounded by his court.

“Although diplomats still firmly believed in the possibility of peace and worked hard with this goal, despite the fact that the emperor Napoleon himself wrote a letter to emperor Alexander calling him Monsieur mon frère and sincerely assuring him that he did not want war and always would love and respect him – he went to the army and gave at every station new orders aimed at speeding up the movement of the army from west to east. He traveled in a carriage pulled by six horses, surrounded by pages, adjutants and a convoy on the road to Posen, Torn, Danzig and Koenigsberg. In each of these cities thousands of people met him with thrill and delight.

“The Army moved from West to East and exchange teams of horses bore him there. On 10 June [Old Style] he reached the army and spent the night in the Wilkovis forest in an apartment prepared for him in the estate of a Polish count.

“The next day Napoleon caught up with the army and in a carriage approached the Nieman so as to inspect the place of crossing. He changed his dress into a Polish uniform and went out onto the shore.

“Seeing on the other side Cossacks and the Steppes spreading out, in the middle of which was Moscow, the Holy City, the capital of a state like the Scythian state, where Alexander of Macedon had gone. Napoleon, unexpectedly for everyone and against both strategic and diplomatic considerations, ordered the attack and on the next day his troops began to cross the Nieman.”

 

 

 

 

 

Thailand Travel Notes, January 2019

A couple of years ago, I took a mid-winter break in India with the modest intent of catching the sun, warming the old bones in semitropical waters and sampling the culture of the country’s southwest, Kerala State, famous as the historic center of the spice trade and of having been the first landfall by Portuguese navigators, whose presence over a couple of centuries is still felt there in surviving architectural monuments.

I went there partly under the influence of the Incredible India advertising campaign which the Indian state has promoted rather heavily on Euronews and other media. Partly it was the influence of a 1997 novel by Arundhati Roy, one of India’s first great women writers, winner of a Booker Prize for The God of Small Things, which highlighted, among other points, Kerala’s status as the most literate part of India owing to long rule by the Communist Party.

As it turned out, what I experienced in India was one lengthy economics-political lesson on the dysfunctionality, incompetent governance and general chaos of the country, even in its richest city, Mumbai, where I spent several days, not to mention in provincial Kochi in the South. Day by day I came to understand why so many educated and middle class Indians have chosen to leave their homeland and take up residence on our shores, returning only periodically as visitors to the 5-star resort hotels where I stayed. I wrote up my observations rather fully in an article to which I now refer the reader – https://wordpress.com/post/gilbertdoctorow.com/241

Precisely because of the inflated image of India as the world’s largest democracy, and because of the presently quite negative image of Thailand among our European and American elites over its human rights record, ruling military junta and other violations of our values, I imagined as I set off on my 17 hour journey to Bangkok that besides sun and surf, my two weeks in the capital and on Phuket island in the south of the country could be instructive and not only pleasurable.

On that score, my hunch was correct and in this short essay I will explain what exactly was, is and obviously will long be the attraction of Thailand for tourism and also for real-life instruction in why our values can be dead wrong. Indeed, their values are the only ones that are relevant to judge the Thais, until such time as the peoples and religious groups populating Thailand may become more closely integrated in terms of wealth and cultures, and their system of governance evolves accordingly.

It was said of Henry Kissinger by way of criticism that he never met a dictator whom he did not like. A bit of exposure to the joys of Thailand under military rule might be the best antidote to such smirky remarks.

Finally, by way of introduction and in keeping with the general focus of my essays on Russian affairs, I have some words to say about Russians in Thailand.

Of all the European nations, the Russians are perhaps the most consistent in choosing locations for their holidays based on value for money, climate and general hospitality. With Russians, these considerations usually outweigh whatever terrorist threats, tsunamis or other mishaps may threaten any given tourist destination, not to mention the politics of that destination, which is furthest from their minds. The only way they could be dissuaded from traveling en masse to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh after the terrorist bombing of one of their aircraft several years ago was for the Kremlin to order a halt to all charter flights to Egypt.

Given the priorities of Russians on vacation, it came as no surprise that two years ago I found almost no Russians in India on my visit there. The one Russian couple whom I met at the poolside cafe of the swank Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai were there only because their planned cruise was cancelled. They explained to me that with respect to India Russians only book Goa. That former colonial enclave, otherwise integrated into the Indian state, does not have dry laws as so many other states do.  Unavailability of liquor aside, it may also be that Russians are not favorably impressed by the general ugliness and poverty of India, realities which they are happy to have left behind in their own past from twenty five years ago.

By contrast, Thailand is awash with Russians, mostly those coming for a couple of weeks of sunshine as I did, but also those who have settled down and run hotels serving their fellow countrymen among other businesses. In Bangkok, the airport information panels are written in Thai, English and Russian. The billboards positioned along major highways warning visitors not to blaspheme by showing lack of respect for the image of Buddha are rendered in Russian as well as English versions.

In Phuket, restaurants, hotels and other public services all have menus and general information in Russian. Often they have some Russian-speaking local staff. In this regard, Russians have largely displaced Germans, British, and Scandinavians who had the resorts to themselves in the period twenty years ago when I first visited here. In our family-oriented Kamala Beach, young Russian couples with their toddlers predominated. Their accents told me they came not from Moscow or St Petersburg but from provincial Russia. And so Phuket has become a kind of “Sochi South” during the harsh Russian winter.

But then again, Russian-Thai relations did not begin last week. Siam as it was formerly known, had a special relationship with Russia going back to the 19th century. Their King Chulalongkorn met with Tsar Nicholas II in St Petersburg during his first Grand Tour in 1897. And one of his sons studied in the Russian Page Corps, married a Russian lady and brought her back to the royal court. In that period the Siamese also had close relations with Germany and England.

The other big tourist flow in Thailand today is Chinese from both mainland China and from the worldwide Chinese diaspora. That flow builds on still deeper historical roots.  The Chinatown in Bangkok is ancient and vibrant today. Indeed, overall Chinese account for 15% of Thailand’s population of 68 million.

Since the mainland Chinese visitors tend to come in groups and are shepherded into dedicated hotels and restaurants and since their tour buses take them to the interior for elephant rides and to shopping rather than leaving them in peace on the beach, their presence is not felt as clearly as the Russians. Of course, the Chinese, like the Russians, are quite indifferent to local politics.

* * * *

 

My single greatest impression of this visit was the sheer delight of smiles. The climate is, of course, a factor.  As I know very well from living in Belgium, on a good day of spring or summer when the sun happens to be out, even generally dour Belgians become animated and sociable, and…may share a smile.

The near equatorial climate of Thailand ensures plenty of sun and warmth. And then we are told there is the influence of Buddhist culture, with its emphasis on getting along and giving no offense.  While these ever-present smiling faces of the Thai may be a culturally imposed mask, that in no way diminishes their effect on the visitor who, willy-nilly, responds in kind. I have not smiled as much in the preceding six months in Northern Europe as I did in two weeks in Thailand, with all the related impact on my sense of wellbeing.

My first visit to Bangkok was back in 1996, and upon entering the city again on the route from the new airport to the center of town, I was amazed by how it has changed. What had been a low-rise city now enjoys a skyline punctuated by dozens of high office and residential towers in all directions, with construction cranes visible at every turn of the highway.

Official statistics indicate that in the twenty plus years leading up to the Asian financial crisis of 1997 which began there, Thailand enjoyed one of the world’s most dynamic economies. To be sure, the time of political turbulence that began in 2004 and the military coups d’état of 2006 and 2014 brought down the pace of economic growth, though it remains enviable on a world scale today. The export led economy is diversified across agriculture, fishing and industrial manufactured goods including cars; it is world-beating in certain sectors. Unemployment is negligible and, as I say, the cranes attest to an ongoing construction boom, at least in the capital, which now has a recorded population of more than 8 million in the city limits and 14 million in the greater metropolitan area.

Bangkok is not a pedestrian-friendly city. The multifunctional tower complexes, like the new indoor malls and longtime specialized street markets are islands in a sea of vehicular traffic. In this respect, it is not very different from Los Angeles, from Moscow back in the ‘90s or from a great many other major cities in the developing world.  On side streets in particular sidewalks may be non-existent and only tourists and construction workers make their way on foot. Moreover, the six-lane or eight-lane thoroughfares which divide up the city have no pedestrian overpasses or underpasses, so that getting from one side to another is problematic.

The islands of glittering towers are set back from the boulevards in open plazas. The prestigious districts such as the foreign embassy quarter where my high-rise hotel was located, are uniformly well landscaped and well-guarded, with security personnel quite visible.  In this regard, Bangkok is in total contrast with what I saw in India.

In Mumbai no building or street was so wealthy as to be spared the clutter of shanties and the milling to and fro of the homeless at street level. The notion of women going out alone in Mumbai was unthinkable for security reasons. The situation was so dire that even the city’s beautiful public beaches were totally empty due to widely reported youth gangs of rapists who descend on the city center each day from the hinterland. As for Indian women, their bird in a gilted cage status contributes to the mobility problems of the middle and upper class ladies whom I encountered everywhere.

Nothing of the sort could be said of women in Bangkok, not to mention the southern resorts.  Moreover, the integration of women into the labor force at all levels was striking.  Even on the construction sites, women wearing hard hats were ubiquitous. And in many restaurants, there was no question but that the real boss was the hefty lady running the barbecue or standing behind the cash register.

Throughout Bangkok, taxis were plentiful, mostly recent vintage Toyotas manufactured locally.  Add to that the fleet of tuk-tuks. These were originally simple open sided vehicles propelled by two-stroke scooter motors but they are now evolving from three wheel to four-wheel versions and are beginning to approach pick-up truck chassis status.  Then there are the traditional passenger vaporetti on the Chao Phrava River that snakes its way through the city center.  But the most impressive urban transit is the elevated metro, the BTS Skytrain.

The air-conditioned Skytrain is vitally important for getting from one end of far-flung Bangkok to another in predictable time given the ever-present vehicular grid-lock on the ground. The ticket prices are not cheap and yet the trains are well filled, as I discovered.  The atmosphere on board was polite, with no pushing. The public address system reminded riders in both Thai and English that they should give up seats “to those in greater need.” By all appearances, this advice was being followed by fellow riders.

Bangkok is a center of commerce, industry and services. One specific niche which bears mention is medical services.  “Medical tourism” represents a tourist flow all by itself, and its significance was striking even in my brief sojourn in the capital.  As it turned out, my high-rise apart-hotel is part of the medical services industry. Many of its rooms appear to be occupied by long-term residents from abroad, elderly and disabled men in particular, who are taken on their short walks at ground level each day by their Thai health-carers. I discovered on a short walk in the blocks adjacent to my hotel that  the second and third floors of a nearby multifunctional office tower are entirely occupied by small medical centers specialized in cosmetic surgery.  Thailand is known as a world’s leading center for sex-change operations.

 

After the tumult of Bangkok, Phuket was as relaxing a resort island as one could hope for.  It very quickly recovered from the reputational and physical damage of the December 2004 tsunami that put it on the world news at the time.  Today there are more than 9 million visitors to Phuket a year and the region is a significant contributor to the 15% of the Thai GDP that derives from tourism.

Early January is peak season for Phuket, and yet tourist facilities were not strained.  Our beach at Kamala always had free lounge chairs for hire and was perfectly clean.  Restaurants had no lines for seating and the featured seafood for evening meals – locally caught sea bass, red snapper, bonita tuna, crabs, rock lobsters and giant tiger shrimp – were fresh and prepared by the chefs with care.

Going back to my first visits here in 1996 and again at the turn of the millennium in 2000, Thailand and Phuket in particular was not cheap.  It is not cheap today, with prices in the major international hotel chains on the Kata beach very similar to those you might find in the Caribbean or in the Gulf States at peak season. However, four and three star accommodations in less known beaches may be a third less expensive and offer outstanding value.

Whatever the category of lodgings, all visitors to the Phuket resorts enjoy the unforgettable celebration of New Year’s arranged by the local authorities.  Thousands of Chinese lanterns are launched from the beaches and create magical constellations as the wind carries them to and fro on their ascent.  The midnight fireworks up and down the coast is a great treat.

I mentioned already that Kamala beach where I stayed with my grandchildren is family oriented.  However, Phuket is welcoming to all kinds of tourists.  At the far end of Kamala, there is a large complex of discos that draws in a numerous gathering of singles every day and night.  From hearsay, I understand that densely settled Patong Beach twenty minutes by tuk-tuk from Kamala always had its attractions for sex tourism. Judging by what you see in bars, fresh or not so fresh young Thai women are  available there for two week romances with middle aged European visitors.

One of the changes to note on Phuket from the time of my last visit in January 2000 is the “coming out” of Islam.  Officially Thailand is 94% Buddhist and 4% Islamist.  But until the nation’s period of civil disturbances began in the Muslim south in 2004 there was no way to know for sure who was who.  Today, one does not have to guess. The substantial Muslim minority in Phuket is visible by dress of the women, or from the ‘As-salamu alaykum’ exchanges between men that you can overhear on the street. . That said, you do not see many mosques, do not hear muezzins such as have taken over the days and even the nights in India’s Kerala State, as I discovered.

In conclusion, Thailand today embodies a strong argument in favor of an open-minded approach to national traditions and systems of governance that are different from our own. The Davos Culture notion of a single set of tracks leading all nations to an identical set of values in the foreseeable future is patently mistaken. What counts more for the vast majority of people is competent economic management bringing growing prosperity to all and a spirit of tolerance that allows all citizens to enjoy their private lives in peace.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Belgian diplomats and corporate businessmen supine before anti-Russian political elites

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the surprising pro-détente feelings of Belgium’s French-speaking social elite who openly criticize the anti-Russian policies being pursued by the government here, in line with the EU consensus. My comments were based on conversations I had with a good many participants in a Russia-themed gala dinner at the country’s most prestigious gentlemen’s club in downtown Brussels. The fact that such a dinner could be held and that its more than 160 seats were sold out speaks for itself.

https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2019/01/13/how-will-belgian-elites-align-in-the-may-2019-european-and-national-elections-defined-by-rising-populism/

For the record, my interlocutors were retired senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, administrators working for the royal family, successful entrepreneurs in the financial services industry and a number of barons and lesser members of Belgian noble families.

In what follows here, I offer impressions of another sampling of Belgian society, this time diplomats in active service and the middle level or senior managers of Belgian corporations with large investments and ongoing business in Russia.  The occasion was a gathering last night of the relevant Chamber of Commerce dedicated to commercial ties with Russia and celebrating the new year with speeches and cocktails. The atmosphere was subdued. One might say funereal, given how the numbers of business members in the Chamber has plummeted in recent years so that trade related bureaucrats from both Belgian and Russian sides now outnumber genuine people doing business, and fonctionnaires serving time are not an outspoken bunch.

The key to understanding what occurred and why Belgian business will do absolutely nothing to pursue its own interests in trade with Russia in the face of an anti-Russian Belgian and EU foreign policy may be found in the opening remarks to the assembly by Belgium’s ambassador to Moscow.

It must be said that the given ambassador is an upbeat and very sociable person, who deftly blends sports and other human interest trivia into his speeches.  He mentioned his hosting in his Moscow embassy Belgians who came to cheer on their Red Devils during the FIFA World Cup this past summer. No doubt he is a genial host.

The problem is that for a position of such potential political importance in one of the world’s key cities for diplomacy, the Kingdom of Belgium chose as its ambassador a person who, by his own admission last night, is just beginning to speak a bit of Russian after two years on the job. There is so much of interest around him he said, so much to learn that he would like to have another ten years to immerse himself in Russian life.

His openness of spirit is laudable, but his admitted ignorance of a country that is not exotic and sits at the doorstep of Europe does not speak well of the professionalism of the Belgian foreign service. By contrast, the Russian ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium, who also spoke to the assembly, has full mastery of French and English, if not Flemish, and enters into direct dialogue with all leading figures in Belgian society without the assistance of interpreters or seeing-eye dogs.

Given the institutional biases of the staff he would take over upon assuming office, the Belgian ambassador to Moscow is a faulty instrument for detecting nuanced intelligence on what is going on in the country of his assignment, which could and should be part of his job in this age of omnipresent propaganda and megaphone diplomacy.

Be that as it may, this likable man opened his speech with a compliment to his hosts and to the audience, remarking that trade relations are an important positive influence on political relations between states.  Sadly, as he made clear in what followed, he got cause and effect backwards.

In effect, during 2018 Belgian trade with Russia fell by 8%.  According to the ambassador, a good part of the story was the worsening perception of Russia in Belgium due to two events:  the Skripal affair in the spring and the Kerch Straits incident in the autumn.  Since he is the spokesman for the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs which has an unequivocal, never questioning view on ‘bad boy’ Russia as Washington, D.C. and  fellow Member States of the EU decide, the best he tries to do is to keep open lines of communication with Moscow so that both sides can set out at length what their respective views are on any given issue.

Compared to thinking in Washington, which since 2014 if not before has been hell-bent on totally isolating Russia and cutting all lines of communication, we may say that the role assumed by the Belgian Ambassador to Russia is enlightened even if it is unproductive of change.

In this regard, the ambassador is only doing on a regular basis what the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel did a year ago when he paid a visit to Moscow and held lengthy talks with his counterpart Dmitry Medvedev and with President Putin.  We are told that relations were cordial on that visit.  But by the nature of the constraints set by Belgian political elites and by the EU, nothing more than briefly improved atmospherics and photo opportunities could result.

Then there was the spring visit to Moscow and St Petersburg by the mayor of Antwerp, leader of the country’s largest single political party, the NV-A, together with a substantial Flemish business delegation.  Here there were concrete commercial topics to be discussed including shared interest in the diamond trade, supplies of Russian petroleum and development of the port of Zeebrugge to receive Russian liquefied natural gas. However, as already mentioned, the impact on actual trade figures was zero due to worsening numbers in other sectors where the ongoing EU sanctions and Russian embargo bite.

Looking to prospects for 2019, the Belgian ambassador to Moscow did not hold back the ugly truth.  Everything will depend on what new sanctions the United States decides to impose on Russia. Belgium and the EU will swallow this bitter medicine whole, given the extraterritorial effect of United States legislation and jurisdiction.  Not even a whimper of complaint on his part. Nor did I notice any rush of the few business leaders in attendance to ask the ambassador for details during the cocktail.

And so, the activities of the Chamber of Commerce, which has a full agenda of official visits to Russian regions, and hosts the periodic Russian business delegations to Benelux, are form without content. It will take a change in government from the complacent center-right, center-left to the “populist” parties on the left and right fringes which denounce the status quo in foreign policy just as in domestic policy before any real prospect for improved political and commercial relations with the big neighbor to the East can be hoped for.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019