Since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago and the always somewhat fragile agreement between Northern Ireland, part of th eUK and the independent Irish Republic there is only one place left in Europe where a dividing line separates parts of what had once been a united country: Cyprus. A Nomansstrip runs through the capital city of Nicosia, and beyond, that divides the country into a northern part, with an ethnic Turkish population, occupied by Turkish troops from the mainland, and an independent southern part populated by ethnic Greeks. Previous attempts to unite the two parts have failed but once again discussions are going on. Much depends on the approval of the Turkish government in Ankara, which is by no means a certainty, as well as agreement on land exchanges, and a method for organizing a single government for the entire island, built on two somewhat autonomous provinces. There are many problems to be resolved, but also much to be gained if agreement can be reached. It would in particular be a very welcome development for the European Union, to which the southern part belongs – and the newly united one would presumably enter – as it would be a demonstration of trust in the future of the EU despite the unwitting British effort to demolish it. Stay tuned!No Comments
“The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.”
― Edward R. Murrow
In March of 2014 this blog published a lengthy post about Russia’s growing and America’s shrinking public diplomacy efforts, specifically international broadcasting. So here we are now with a population beginning a flirtation with Russia and its president – a man with an easy solution to his troublesome media – jail them, kill them, or both. Some of this new American infatuation with Russia and Putin is certainly due to the full force gale of Trump and his Breitbart accomplices, but there is considerable evidence that Russia Today TV has made successful inroads throughout the West. It has done this with a well supported, worldwide broadcasting effort with enough real news to gain a degree of credibility while slipping in the news that is not real when it suits them.
On a recent trip to Italy we had access to three government supported English language TV stations: BBC occasionally, Russia Today regularly throughout the day and an English language station operated by China. CNN International – a private organization of mixed quality – was also available. On a trip to Germany a few years ago we had access to CNN which was having a Wolf Blitzer extravaganza about the balloon boy and Al Jazeera English which was by far the better of the two.
International broadcasting, as a part of public diplomacy is cheap, has in the past been effective, and can reach millions of people – as the Russian program does. But in the great competition for American taxpayers’ money, U.S. armament companies win, with the help of job hungry Congresspeople. So we are spending over $500 billion on defense, including billions on costly and frequently failed weapons systems and can barely squeeze out $750M for international broadcasting. To put it in a different perspective, Russia, with a broken economy, currently spends in excess of $1.4B on international broadcasting, the U.S.spends ca. $750M. China spends an estimated $7B.
Looking to the future, the Congress recently provided a clue by passing the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that includes an amendment that would “permanently establish the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) position as head of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency that oversees all U.S.-funded non-military international broadcasting, while removing the nine-member bipartisan Board that currently heads the agency.” The philosophy behind the historic role of the Board has been that it serve as a firewall between broadcasters charged with providing honest, fact-based reporting and the ideological whims of politicians. It served the interests of the country through the years of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, both George Bushes, and Barack Obama.
Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and the Voice of America made major contributions to ending the Cold War by providing honest journalism to countries behind the iron Curtain, but any lesson from this seems lost. The likely emasculation of the Broadcasting Board of Governors indicates that it will likely not survive the presidency of Donald Trump who may instead finally get his very own TV and Radio Networks to do with as he wishes. Under the new law the CEO who will take over the responsibilities formerly belonging to the bipartisan Board will be appointed by the President. What could possibly go wrong? Well, how about Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon for CEO?No Comments
If the President elect of the U.S. has a world view it is a mystery. Similarly, if he has a strategic foreign policy strategy for the U.S. it too is a mystery. But there are clues that lead to thoughts of possible threats to world stability and, by extension, to American security.
Trump’s recent break from U.S.-China policy by accepting a call from the President of Taiwan was initially presented by much of the press as a faux pas. It was subsequently presented by the Trump camp as a clever, thought-out strategy to put pressure on China to bend to the will of the President elect. This theory is as realistic as his plan to have Mexico pay for America’s Great Wall. U.S. policy toward China was transformed in the Nixon years and clearly both countries have benefited from what was seen then as a seismic shift. Trump risks changing the nature of the relationship at a time when the U.S. has been focusing on developing stronger economic ties throughout Asia – the continent with the fastest growing economy.
During his campaign, Trump provided his view that NATO had become a too costly commitment for the U.S. and one that was unnecessarily confrontational to Russia. He has threatened to weaken America’s commitment to the NATO treaty that has served American and European vital interests for over 50 years, unless the European members step up their financial stake in NATO. While there may be a reasonable argument that Europe has not shouldered its share of the costs, (arguably true for some countries, not so for others) reducing America’s commitment to NATO would give a message to Russia that an invasion of the Baltic states could be a risk worth taking. As it did when invading Eastern Ukraine, Russia could argue that they are assisting ethnic Russians gain their freedom. It is curious that Turkey’s President Erdogan is the one NATO leader that Trump has reached out to with praise. He is the one NATO leader who is turning his country into a near dictatorship, with thousands summarily jailed, including hundreds of journalists who have been critical of him.
Trump has been highly critical of the Iran nuclear deal which has been supported by the members of the UN Security Council (incl. Russia and China), as well as America’s European allies. In criticizing the agreement Trump joins Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, several Republican Senators, right wing ideologues like John Bolton, and several major funders of GOP candidates, notably casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. While Trump has said he would walk away from the deal it is easier said than done, since our European allies and other treaty signatories would refuse to follow suit and American economic interests would likely suffer as other countries’ businesses take advantage of the U.S. reneging on the deal.
Trump has reached out with praise to the new President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who has become a human rights nightmare as he exhorts his countrymen to summarily execute anyone in the country suspected of being involved in drugs. This has led to thousands of killings – many simply murders – with no reference to a system of justice. In this case Trump is making a mockery of the U.S.’s historic commitment to human rights and systems of law. His behavior shrinks our stance in the world and begins to provide a nasty model for the application of quasi fascist behavior. See this NY Times piece for a taste of Duterte’s world: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/07/world/asia/rodrigo-duterte-philippines-drugs-killings.html?action=click&contentCollection=Opinion&module=RelatedCoverage®ion=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article
Trump has not said much about Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East in general other than to criticize Obama for failing in everything he has done in that part of the world and claiming that he will defeat ISIS almost as soon as he is in office. The decisions his administration make in that region will affect millions long into the future and we are largely left to guess as to what he would actually do.
Trump has made it clear that he believes he has a special relationship with Russian President Putin and indeed he may. They share a capacity for bullying, a disregard for human rights, a sensitivity to criticism, a willingness to harass the press (in Putin’s case including murder and imprisonment) and an attraction to kleptocracy. He does not seem to worry about what Putin has done in the world – e.g. Syria, Ukraine, Georgia, Chechnya, etc. – and has been eager and able to participate in the Russian economy, an economy that could teach Wall Street a thing or two about cronyism.
There is currently much talk of giving Trump a chance before judging him. Since he was elected we have no choice but to give him his chance, but judging can begin anon. Look at his appointments, listen to his words, read his tweets and form a judgment. If he fools us and turns out to be realistic, thoughtful and intelligent then we can adapt our judgment. Looking at his appointments to date, his short list for Secretary of State, and his statements during and after the campaign, it seems unlikely we will find that necessary.3 Comments
It has been an awful week for Canadians. On the day before their US neighbours made a mysterious and potentially threatening choice of a leader, Leonard Cohen died in Los Angeles, and on the next day, as he had requested, a plane flew the body of the crown jewel of post-war literature and song, back to his home city of Montréal, and on the day after that he was buried there in the family plot after a private traditional Jewish ceremony. It was almost twenty years ago that the best German writer of his generation, the very cerebral Durs Grünbein, told me that he really only knew only knew of one Canadian writer, Leonard Cohen, as he had become the splendid troubadour of the post-war world. At that time Cohen had written two novels, one of which received Canada’s highest literary honour, and about ten books of poetry, all of which contained some poems that had become as well known as any lyrics written by anybody else in this period. What set him apart from other writers was that he had set a number of his published poems to music, and had made a very successful career singing them. Space here is far too limited to begin listing the several dozen of these songs which have become part of the repertoire of the twenty-first century’s gathered memory. No other author comes close to matching them.
But the most extraordinary part of Cohen’s career was still to come. Instead of moving at seventy into a well-endowed retirement, he began anew his travels around the world as a true troubadour would do, presenting these and many newly-conceived poem-songs in almost 400 concerts over six years, most of them sold out, while expanding the themes of his new songs into a celebration of the broadness of life’s possibilities and the inevitability of the ending of it all. And he had widened their scope by powerfully adding a foundation of spiritual satisfaction with the whole process that had been missing in his earlier years. And what a group of songs they were (according to his son Adam he was writing on the day he died), culminating in several new disks that were as unexpected as they were triumphant. His last one , “You want it darker” begins with a title song accompanied by the choir from his childhood synagogue in Montreal, and with a Hebrew solo by its cantor. It appeared a couple of weeks before Cohen’s death. When you look carefully at the full implications of his extraordinary poems about Auschwitz, Hitler and the fate of Jews including his family and that of his Montréal friend, the Rumanian-born Canadian poet Irving Layton, for whom he served as pallbearer, we can certainly add Leonard Cohen’s name to the small list of the foremost Jewish writers of the post-war period. In the end he completed the circle, returning in full force to his beginnings in the Jewish section of Montréal. Cohen begins Harry Rasky’s film, “The Song of Leonard Cohen”, the best presentation of his life, by singing in French the wonderful French-Canadian song “Un Canadién errant” (“A wandering Canadian”) and admitting on questioning that he feels it pretty much also applies to him. May the force be with him.2 Comments
Picture this scene. You are sitting in the splendid bier garden in front of the splendid Jagdschloss on Rotkreuzplatz in splendid Munich on a splendid June afternoon, minding your own business while meditating on the Augustiner situated in front of you, when someone comes along and staples a poster on one of the trees affording you shade. Oh no, the political junkies have dared to come into an area off limits to them. One of the Lederhosen or Dindl servers will soon remove this poster but what is it all about? Why, it says STOPP CETA!
What is that? Never heard of it. Read on and you find out it is the proposed Canada-European Free Trade Pact. They never pay any attention here to Canada, unless the hockey team is pummelling the German one, so what do they care about a free trade pact? As it turns out, by mid-October this is the headline event in the papers. On October 27 Prime Minister Trudeau, his photo once again prominently displayed (Journalists just eat up his good looks and youth on a continent where politics is dominated by unappealing old men – Merkel is an exception but not on the youth side), is supposed to sign the CETA agreement, already approved by the EU representatives. But now that the UK has bizarrely left (or so it seems) the European club, the fractures in the among unity of the rest of Europe are becoming more and more evident.
It turns out that CETA, and any foreign agreement approved by the EU must after that be approved by the parliaments of each country. BREXIT has changed the rules on this. If the Brits can just take their ball and go home, so can anybody else on the supposed team. And anybody else includes some real wild cards these days; Hungary, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, even Denmark and the Nethelands, have very different views about immigration and globalization, for instance, than do Germany and Sweden.
But experts are willing to bet that all of these countries will sign the document when it is on the table in Brussels on October 27.After all, as has been pointed out by many leaders, if you can’t make a free-trade deal with Canada, the non-European land that is closest in its laws and general views to those of Europe, who could they make a deal with?
But they had all forgotten Belgium, the least governable country in the EU. It turns out, as they now all know, that the Belgian constitution says that each of the three main parts of Belgium – the French-speaking Walloons in the south, multilingual Brusselians in the centre and the Dutch-speaking Flems of the north – must agree unanimously or the government in Brussels cannot give Belgian approval. And now it is the Walloons who seem to be leaning to saying no, thus scuttling the whole deal, which took 7 years of negotiate. No doubt they we will be facing tremendous pressure in the next two weeks – the French President is there as we speak – but it may be that this CETA Non-Pact will signal the end of a functioning united Europe – and of the Euro, if it does not get signed on that table on October 27.
On October 9, 2008 the day of the second US presidential (so-called) debate in Missouri, Angela Merkel was in Mali, making the very difficult trip to a country torn in half by east/west political and religious disputes that have turned it into a battleground for a brutal civil war. It is clearly one of the most dangerous parts of Africa or for that matter anywhere, and it is widely expected that Canada will soon send special forces troops to join the French contingent there in attempting to help restore order to a battered land, once better known for its splendid music. And that seems to be the only reason that Kanzlerin Merkel was also there.
It was exactly sixteen years earlier to the day that Angela Merkel became the Kanzlerin of the recently reunited Federal Republic of Germany. The daughter of a Lutheran pastor in the old East German Peoples Republic, she was relatively young and not very experienced at 50, and it’s fair to say, in retrospect, that no-one imagined at the time that she was potentially a long-term Powerfrau in the tricky world of German politics, and that within a decade she would enjoy a reputation as the most powerful and respected government leader anywhere nor that she would soon become the most honoured politician in the world. But in the sixteen years during which she became the longest-ruling leader on a floundering continent where, after a catastrophic war that had ended little more than a half-century before her inauguration, Germany has under her leadership become the uncontested economic and arguably even moral centre of Europe.
And yet there she was on a day when she could have enjoyed a bright spotlight in Berlin, offering help to a country in great need of it, far from home and very far from a place that could bring her political gains. At home in this last year she has made decisions declaring Germany’s willingness to accept virtually all refugees (almost a million at this point) from a terrible war zone, and that has cost her some popularity. But she still says “Wir schaffen es” (“We’ll make it work”) and she still enjoys the support of more than 50% of the German population. Most experts believe her party will win the upcoming German election if she decides to run again.
Hard to imagine that on that same day, the two candidates running for Head of State of the United States, still the most powerful military presence in the world, could put on such an embarrassing and demeaning piece of sordid entertainment as the so-called debate. One can forgive the female candidate, Hillary Clinton, for gradually starting to look like a smiling robot, since that must have been because the overwhelming thuggery of her opponent Mr. Trump, often lurking threateningly just behind her, was something she could not have been prepared for. But what does it say about the political system that allowed such a spectacle to take place after it slowly simmered into a boil in the course of more than a year? My advice for Mme Clinton is to take a break after she wins (which she will) and go over to Berlin and have a long talk with the woman who has walked the walk rather than just talk the talk.No Comments
Last Wednesday night NBC’s Matt Lauer hosted what was to be the first serious discussion of security issues by candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. By all counts the evening was a disaster for Lauer. With each candidate appearing – separately – for 25 minutes Lauer managed to spend almost half of Clinton’s time on repeated questions about her email server while Secretary of State. It was as if Reince Priebus had written the script. Lauer then got to some of the real issues but, having wasted half the allotted time on the email nonissue, was constantly interrupting Clinton and telling her to hurry it along while she attempted to provide rational, specific answers. It was embarrassingly unprofessional, useless to potential voters and an insult to the viewers.
Lauer followed with a series of questions to Trump that included no followup, no corrections of obvious lies, and no attempts to get him to actually address issues on which Clinton had provided detailed answers. Whether you agreed with Clinton you at least knew where she stood. Trump was even allowed to get away with the old “secret plan” trick that Nixon used to avoid saying what he intended in Vietnam (a plan that turned out to cost an additional 20,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands of Asian lives – in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia).
Lauer’s gift to America arrived the next day. It began with an editorial in the Washington Post that ridiculed Lauer’s performances and called out the Post’s rivals in the press for their weak, even cowardly, coverage of the Trump campaign as well as their mindless focus on the nonissue of Clinton’s email server. As Charles Pierce has pointed out on his Daily Politics Blog for Esquire, while the Post’s editorial did not mention names, certainly the New York Times comes to mind. The Times’ editorial stance against Trump has been solid while its reporting has harped on the same litany of non- and phony issues that has kept cable news and talk radio twisting reality to its listeners’ interests.
Others have followed. Andrew Bacevich in an op ed in the Boston Globe, late night TV hosts joking about it, social media full of viewers’ rants, NBC executives reported by CNN to have said his performance was “a disaster” and the Chairman of NBC News felt compelled to defend Lauer in an internal memo released to the LA times
The Washington Post was singled out by Trump during the primaries and its reporters were no longer allowed access to the campaign. In response, the Post did what it does best: continued to report the news as it sees it, much as it did during Watergate. The Managing Editor of the Post is Marty Baron who came to the Boston Globe and took on the Catholic Church over its record of child abuse, against the advice of some who feared reprisals by the Church. We know how that worked out
So, Lauer’s gift has been to force some part of the press to look at itself and consider its own performance. Whether it is a gift that keeps on giving remains to be seen, but the evidence will be there for all to see. Will the mainstream press give priority to major issues and stop harping on fundamentally meaningless issues like Clinton’s personal emails? Will it not be bullied by Trump’s arrogant behavior and demand actual answers to questions about meaningful policy issues? Will it push back on Trump’s comments about Vladimir Putin and report the reality of Putin’s behavior and its risk to the U.S. and its allies? And will the press stop catering to the American fringe by regurgitating right wing fantasies on Vince Foster’s death, Whitewater, Clinton’s personal emails and President Obama’s birthplace?
Hillary Clinton is by no means a perfect candidate. But the press owes us its best efforts to treat her fairly by seeking from both candidates answers to the serious questions we face. Anything short of that is a dereliction of duty,6 Comments
Gold Medal – for stupidity beyond the pale – Ryan Lochte, USA
Silver Medal – for unrelenting boorishness – Hope Salo, USA
Bronze Medal – for outstanding chutzpah – Justin Gaitlin, USA
Any pattern here?6 Comments
Remember the good old days when the very concept of British comedy was not an oxymoron? Shakespeare had several good shows, Alec Guiness and the lads were terrific as a bunch of bungling robbers or, on occasion, even ladykillers. The Carry on Boys carried on in their (to many folks) hilarious ways and Marty Feldman and the crew added a touch of lunacy to the overall mixture. And let’s not forget the young Peter Sellers as a union boss, an Indian second-string actor mistakenly invited to a Hollywood party, or the many-gendered leaders of a mock republic. And to top it all off, there were the incomparable Pythons, who dominated tv for nearly a decade, adding such signature lines to the general vocabulary as the brave Sir Robin’s admonition to the band of (un)happy warriors to “run away, run away” when under pressure, or Sir Gawain’s analysis of his physical condition – “it’s just a scratch” – as his limbs are lopped off by the giant guardian of the road.
But is has been several decades since the Pythons ruled the comedy world, and it is with a sigh of relief that the world (or at least the European part of it) was treated to a new English comedy team arguably outperforming even John Cleese, Michael Palin, Erik Idle and the lads in their cleverness and creativity on the comedy front. Now the cast of characters in this fiasco is supposed to include a prime minister, who demanded a plebiscite on leaving Europe, on the assumption that it would lose and his female replacement, when it didn’t, the leader of the opposition (or one of the oppositions) and a windbag of a mayor with a Trump-copied hairdo, who has learned only one thing – to turn with the wind. And amazingly these were all real people, and they got the chance to act out their roles in real history, if their is such a thing, (can the US election really be real?) and they succeeded in acting with a comic touch that impressed even veteran theatre people, though some thought that their frequent attempts at farce were a bit much. And then, to top it off, each of the leaders of the Brexit, boys, taking the brave Sir Robyn’s advice to heart, jumped ship after they had won, which they could hardly believe and had no idea of what to do afterwards. (They are not the only ones) The cartoonists of the German papers could hardly believe their luck as they sketched out the clownish crew racing for the row boats to escape in. Now some critics have pointed out that this is a plot too heavily drawn from French bedroom farces (and this at a time when the French Prime Minister is most memorable as the guy who hopped on his vespa wearing a moonman helmet in order to scoot off to his mistress one evening while his bodyguard followed in a car, or was it a bike?). In summary, the prime minister, assuming that his plan would fail, actually had misread the tea leaves and was forced to resign when the votes were counted, the loud-mouthed supporters of leaving Europe actually had no intention (and no plan) of actually doing so and disappeared as fast as they could, and the new female prime minister immediately named the most outlandish of the Brexiters to be the new foreign minister. He was met with derision of course by his European counterparts, some of which are real heavyweights unused to clowns and said so.
My brother and I had the great pleasure of being part of an overflow crowd on the day after Brexit in front of the large public-viewing screens in the Löwenbräu Biergarten in Munich, watching the European soccer championship quarter-final match between the Icelandic team, drawn from a country with 330,000 citizens, and England, drawn from a country with about 20o times as many people. There was a table of Englishman near us, and a table of Icelanders not far away, and they of course each cheered for their home teams, though the English table became silent as the game progressed. The rest of the crowd was made up mainly of other Europeans , who cheered loudly every time Iceland had the ball and marched triumphantly out onto the streets after Iceland won. It was of course to some extent just a show of overwhelming support for a complete underdog but it was also certainly also a sign of the dark future for Great Britain’s future relationship with Europe. And maybe that’s not so funny after all.1 Comment
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity……….WB Yeats
It is simple to blame Donald Trump for the ugliness, banality and venality of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. But he can also be viewed as the proverbial canary in the coal mine. There is clearly a large amount of fear, frustration and anger in America and Trump may merely be its visible representation. While there is considerable angst over the possibility of Trump becoming president, it is worthwhile to look beyond him to the people that have enabled him to occupy such a prominent position. These include those who voted for him in primaries, but also the press for not treating his candidacy seriously, and for a political party that has in general lost its bearings.
The Republican Party has, since the Bill Clinton years, become an obstructionist institution dedicated to pandering to the basest instincts of it’s least rational members. The election and reelection of President Obama has intensified their commitment to avoid all attempts at actually governing, including the simple activity of holding hearings on a Supreme Court nominee. They managed to produce a primary election season of unrelenting nonsense and stupidity. The list of candidates is mind numbing in its lack of talent, intellectual capacity and fundamental honesty. They fooled no one and are now left holding the bag called Trump.
But Trump, as ugly and mean-spirited a candidate as we have seen since George Wallace, can be seen as a warning to the country and its putative leaders that much of the country’s rot has settled into that portion of a population that has identified with Trump’s nativist view of America’s place in the world. A world in which foreigners are threats, Muslims are all potential terrorists, women are only sometimes useful tools, and what is needed are simple-minded solutions, implemented by a proto-fascist leader.
While this environment was largely created by the Republican Party some responsibility can be shared by Democrats who participated in relaxing the rules regulating banking and financial institutions, in waging useless and stupid wars from Vietnam to Iraq, and institutionalizing unfairness in the economy. But regardless of how we parcel out the blame it is clear that the United States is facing a serious, long-term threat that is largely self-generated by rancid politics, a weak media, and an uninformed populace.
Many Americans were seriously injured by the 2007-2009 recession brought on by rapacious financial institutions and inadequately addressed by the government. Many Americans have had to learn – or relearn – that American military power can be misused, costly and with long term negative consequences. Many Americans have become scared of terrorism that since 9-11 2001, has cost fewer deaths in America than guns fired by toddlers. Many Americans have seen their jobs move to foreign countries with cheap labor while international companies pay little or no taxes in the U.S..
Given the failure of government to address America’s problems in a meaningful way it is less of a surprise that a campaign based on bigotry, ignorance, bombast and bullying could be successful. And given the nastiness of the Republican attacks on President Obama’s legitimacy it becomes understandable that a naive populace would gravitate to the man with the easy answers and the loud voice. Whether there are enough such voters in America is a question to be answered in November but regardless, the country has some very tough issues that will require more than a presidential election to begin to address.
The job of the canary in the coal mine is to die in order to alert miners of the existence of poisonous gases. Donald Trump’s job as a canary does not require his death. In fact he has done his job well enough already to alert much of the world of the existence of some poisonous gases in the United States. Now it’s time for the miners to begin the long task of digging themselves out. Denying Trump his ultimate prize would be a good first step.1 Comment