Sunday, December 06, 2015

Review of Tuchman's "The Proud Tower"

Anyone who has read Barbara W. Tuchman's more famous work, The Guns of August, will already know that she far exceeds the average historian in raw ability to set words in front of each other. Her prose is lucid, engaging, evocative, and deeply moving in a way that the modern historian simply cannot match. Even more than in The Guns of August, Tuchman distinguishes herself in The Proud Tower by demonstrating a particularly discriminating ability to insert choice quotes from contemporaries; the 'pithiness' much lauded in an era when oratory skills were still the primary currency of societal influence. Mere "color," a professor once described these bon mots to me in dismissal. Color goes a long way, however, in enlivening a world with which we are only familiar in black and white photography.

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890-1914 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996).

What struck me about The Proud Tower, first published as a series of literary articles in the 1960s, then, was not Tuchman's virtuosity as a writer--which I had expected--but rather the unanticipated contemporary relevance of many of the period's societal and political debates and moods which she so vividly details. The chapters, which each cover a particular trend, evolution, or twist in history, invite the reader to compare and contrast with modern problems. The parallels are often striking. More importantly, the dissimilarities which emerge as Tuchman sketches each issue are instructive in helping the reader think through change and recurrence in political life.

The Proud Tower opens with a survey of the last truly aristocratic government of the United Kingdom, Salisbury's coalition of conservatives and liberal unionists formed after the 1895 election, and closes with the assassination of the French socialist leader Jean Jaur├Ęs on the eve of the war. The scope is mostly confined to Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. The structure of her writing varies between chapters revolving around biographies and those which focus on key struggles. In the first category are her sketches of Tom Reed, speaker of the House of Representatives who broke the power of the "silent quorum" as a minority veto but whose traditionalist non-interventionism was overwhelmed by a cresting wave of imperalist fervor, and Richard Strauss, whose music was both a reaction and a representation of the emotional evolution of the dark undercurrent of fatalistic nationalism in contemporary German society. In the second category are Tuchman's descriptions of the Hague Peace Conferences, the rise and fall of anarchist violence ("propaganda of the deed"), the Dreyfus Affair, and the last hurrah of the British Liberal party--a constitutional restriction on the veto power of the House of Lords--before it lost the progressive mandate to Labour.

Where to begin with the comparisons?

1. The Rabble are Rising

A theme which runs through the collection of essays is the end of government by the privileged and the rise of populism as the foundation of political legitimacy and power. Not only was Salisbury's 1895 government dominated by aristocrats, the Liberal opposition was as well. The ideal that government was best left to those accustomed to the effort, educated by a lifetime managing vast personal estates accumulated over the centuries, was dead by the time the House of Commons voted to pay members an annual salary of 400 pounds in 1911. This "Transfer of Power," as Tuchman describes it, was characterized by the extension of universal manhood suffrage (and soon after the war, women's suffrage as well), and the organization of labor into parties and unions.The efforts of the conservatives, in Britain and elsewhere, to hold firm against the tide of popular power, appealed to the belief that only the privileged had the necessary disinterest to think of the national interest first and personal aggrandizement last. They saw the rise of professional politicians as marking the ruin of political independence.

The shift in political power caused by universal suffrage and the rise of working-class parties was unprecedented, yet a further evolution in the basis of political organization is presently threatening as great a leap as the one described by Tuchman. That evolution, of course, is the destruction of 'party elites' and partisan intellectuals at the hands of social media and direct appeals to the electorate. In the United States, the Republican Party has Donald Trump on its hands; in the United Kingdom, the Labour elite was trampled under by Jeremy Corbyn's rank and file. In Spain, new parties have pulled the rug from under the old Socialist and Popular Parties, while in Italy the rise of protest parties shows a new political vitality. The erosion of support for the traditional right in the United Kingdom (to UKIP), in Germany (to AfD and others), in France (to Marine Le Pen), and in Switzerland (to the SVP) demonstrates the widespread elimination of policy intermediaries. Of course, this trend has hurt the left in many of these states, with conservative-by-nature working-class voters finding new voices outside the traditional left-right divide - this is most clear in Poland where the victory of the Law and Justice Party is as much a product of the discrediting of the left as the rise in nationalism. 

As a group, the political elites are bemoaning there new irrelevance in much the same tone as the conservative heirs of Lord Salisbury. Without the guidance of the established political intellectuals, cries the Eurocrat in Brussels, the free-trader in Washington, and the economist in Buenos Aires, the people will run the state into the ground! The old model of consensus-seeking centrists tottering on the backs of uneducated masses is failing, but what will replace it is still emerging. It remains unclear whether the current destruction of political elites is one iteration in an endless cycle of political death and rebirth, stretching back to the nineteenth century, or the advent of a new politics built on greater citizen participation and polarization enabled by new technology and new media.

2. The Bomb, the Pistol, and the Terror

The anarchists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were successful in their immediate goals, but hardly relevant as a political force compared to the trade unionists and organized Socialists. As related by Tuchman, six heads of state or government were assassinated by anarchists in the twenty years before the war: a president of France, two prime ministers of Spain, an empress of Austria-Hungary, a king of Spain, and one president of the United States of America. That list, of course, does not include Alexander II of Russia, killed in 1881. The list also does not include the numerous deaths caused by indiscriminate attacks, such as the bombing of Paris' Cafe Terminus in 1894, and which strained the fabric of urban European society as forcefully as the two terrorist attacks in the same city this year. From 1892 to 1894, Paris was subjected to:
"A two-year reign of dynamite, dagger and gunshot [which] killed ordinary men as well as great ones, destroyed property, banished safety, spread terror and then subsided."
I read Tuchman's accounts of the anarchists and their deeds in the shadow of the recent Paris massacre. The parallels between anarchism and Islamic extremism are unnerving, but only run so far. The problem facing law enforcement officials was similar: how to identify those individuals or groups, motivated by a common but disorganized ideology of violence, who might emerge from political apathy to conduct unpredictable and undeterrable acts of mass violence. Anarchist intellectuals encouraged propaganda of the deed, but were always at arms length from the suicidal perpetrators of actual attacks. Indeed, the "lone wolf" character of anarchist violence insulated those intellectuals from the law in much the same way preachers of religious extremism are protected at present. 

 Where the comparisons fail, however, is in the content of the ideology and what this meant for the terrorists' grand strategy. Anarchism, famously, opposes political organization as antithetical to its goal of a stateless society. Isolated anarchists conducted their attacks in an attempt to spark a revolution that would overthrow the aristocratic order and introduce a better world through a mass uprising. The goals of Islamic extremists, to the degree they are properly understood, appear to be more narrowly coercive: punish western societies for interfering in Muslim countries, and introduce enough pain that they accede to the inevitability of recognizing the Islamic State. Anarchism failed in part because a 'spark' was not enough to generate a revolution; the strategic underpinnings of anarchist tactics was fundamentally flawed. The validity of the strategic underpinnings of Islamic terrorism are harder to mark up as a failure. One might note the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombing, after which the Aznar government's support for the invasion of Iraq cost it its mandate.

3. Dreyfus and the Political Divide

The Dreyfus Affair dominated the political landscape of France from 1894 to 1899, and going by Tuchman's description of the divisiveness of the scandal, in recent decades nothing of as intense a furor has totally consumed one society's political elite. The story of poor Captain Alfred Dreyfus gives the lie to claims that modern democratic politics are somehow more rancorous than in the past. The extremes of passion engendered by the affair, as described in Tuchman's account, must be read to be appreciated. I will only summarize the events.

Dreyfus was the unintentional victim of well-founded suspicions that a French artillery officer on the General Staff was leaking secrets to the Germans. The hunt for the leak produced Dreyfus as its main suspect; he was tried in late 1894 and found guilty. Dreyfus' prosecutors were sure of his guilt, but could not extract a confession; as a result, they fabricated proof. The army closed ranks around the prosecutors and protected the fabrications as military secrets for the next five years until Dreyfus was re-tried and freed. To earn him that re-trial, a motley alliance of politicians and public intellectuals (a native specialty of France) labored intensively through publication of the facts and lobbying of successive governments, to establish doubt in the military's case. The conservative establishment pushed back against the allegations of a stain on the military's honor, and used every tool of the law to prevent justice.

I first learned about the Dreyfus Affair in the context of the history of European anti-Semitism. Dreyfus, a Jew, was suspect because of his identity, and the anti-Semitism of both his military prosecutors and the anti-Dreyfusards who defended them is well illustrated by Tuchman's account. To her credit, however, Tuchman also sets the affair in the context of other pressures in French society: nationalism, liberalism, raw personal ambition, and militarism. All of these factors played a role in influencing which camp the main players found themselves. I know of several book-length takes on the affair but haven't had the time to read any of them. If, like me, you are unfamiliar with the story, Tuchman's chapter is an eye-opener.

4. Richard Strauss and the Rise of China

Richard Strauss--not him of the Viennese waltzes, but rather the composer of that famous theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey--was an odd choice for Tuchman's chapter on the political climate of Germany on the eve of the war. It was an odd choice because Strauss was not a political actor and his music was not particularly beloved of the Kaiser and the other men of power. Wilhelm II disliked, for example, the explicit and sensuous themes of Strauss' opera Salome and opposed a debut in Berlin. While Strauss admired the Kaiser in the 1890s, the feeling was never mutual; Wilhelm's tastes were too orthodox. "You are one of the worst... All modern music is worthless," the emperor once informed Strauss after a concert. (page 308).

Listening to his works, it is not difficult to imagine the scenes which greeted the debuts of Strauss' masterpieces. Tuchman writes of the confusion in the audience, followed by chaos, and finally applause and approbation across Europe's capitals. Strauss' operas and tone poems were booed in the concert hall, but earned mass appreciation over time. But Tuchman's implicit argument, that there was a certain atmosphere of decay and politico-emotional self-destruction embodied in Strauss' music that could only have been produced by Wilhelmine Germany, cannot be evaluated except by ear. Read the chapter, then have a listen.

Last year, on the centenary of the First World War, there was a deluge of thought pieces comparing Imperial Germany to modern China. The argument runs something like this: both countries are hyper-nationalistic, economic powerhouses, challengers in an international power system (see: Graham Allison's Thucydides Trap), and resigned to fight for its space in the sun. Therefore, expect war. What is interesting about Tuchman's portrayal of the political mood in late-Imperial Germany is that the cultural datapoint, or at least the musical datapoint, does not to the argument. China is not a contemporary cultural and intellectual superpower in the way that Germany was at the turn of the century. China has no Nietzsche, and it has no Wagner or Strauss. In addition, it is utterly absent of the "nero-ism" Tuchman portrays in the cultural climate in Germany, and for that, maybe, we should be grateful.

5. Arms Control at the Hague

Finally, Tuchman's account of the Hague Peace Conferences, called by the Tsar to the general astonishment of political society, are a reminder that the foundations of the modern liberal international order were hard fought for. The conferences had three committees corresponding to three agendas: arms limitations, arbitration, and humanitarian rules in war. The committees had varying degrees of success, but each contributed to the future development of norms which now form the basis of modern international society.

Arbitration, of course, has been under attack for a long time (outside of the WTO) the norm of peaceful settlement of international disputes has always been fragile and under-appreciated. The challenges come from multiple directions: China's non-participation in the UNCLOS arbitration on the South China Sea is famous; Russia's flaunting of the ITLOS ruling on its detention of the Arctic Sunrise less so. More fundamental to the disintegration of support for peaceful dispute-settlement was the U.S. withdrawal of compulsory jurisdiction for the ICJ--a move both short-sighted and destructive. But there are also reasons for optimism, such as the upsurge in territorial cases filed by Latin American states. 

Tuchman notes an early attempt at the Hague Peace Conferences to ban an entire class of future weapons: bombs dropped from the sky from balloons. At the time, there was not even a word to describe this tactic given its novelty. A five-year ban was agreed on, the Russian military delegate noting that "the various means of injuring the enemy now in use are sufficient" (page 262). This historical dead-end poses a severe challenge for proponents of a ban on autonomous weapons, another class of future technologies which may well prove too useful to belligerents to keep out of arsenals. 


There is little of Tuchman's book which does not draw you in better than any airport page-turner. For the avid consumer of politico-historical narrative, The Proud Tower is as entertaining as it is informative. The only mild criticism I can muster against Tuchman is that her anti-German sentiments, fashionable in Anglo-Saxon society for long after the wars, show through at odd spots.

It is unfortunate, however, to be forever in the shadow of the knowledge that The Guns of August was so widely criticized in latter years for missing what was and what was not important in the causes of the First World War. I don't know enough history (or historiography) to assess whether a similar criticism is valid against The Proud Tower, but the shadow of doubt is hard to escape. Nonetheless, Tuchman's prose always runs ahead of that shadow and enjoying the book on its entertainment value alone is likely no great sin.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Summer Reading in Review

Just a brief recap of what I've been reading over the last few months, before I forget my impressions.

China Mieville, The City & the City (New York: Ballantine, 2009)

I've always been a fan of China Mieville, in part because he is an LSE PhD who dabbles in international law, and in part because his prose is so admirably awkward. Several of his novels are quite good, certainly his Bas-Lag series (The Scar, Perdido Street Station, and Iron Council) but also newer material like Embassytown and Kraken. That said, The City & the City is probably one of his weakest efforts, alongside King Rat (which had a deus ex machina featuring drum'n'bass music IIRC).

Mieville's career conceit has been to write one novel in each genre. Embassytown was his hard sci-fi effort, for instance, while Railsea was a homage to Moby Dick. The City & the City is his attempt at the crime novel, and for the first third or so it zips along quite well per the typical murder mystery format. It's the ending that lets down the reader, with an anti-climactic twist reminiscent of The Scar.

Karl Leyser, Communications and Power in Medieval Europe, Two Volumes, Timothy Reuter, Ed. (London: Hambledon, 1994)

These two volumes had been on my list of to-read books for several years now, constantly being pushed aside during grad school. I had almost forgotten that Leyser was a historian, not a political scientist; I went into these two books expecting a more systematic treatment of the relationship between communication and power, but instead got a loosely connected series of essays from across Leyser's areas of expertise. Leyser taught during an era when the modern pressure to "publish or perish" was less acute, and as such many of the essays were only collated and sent to press posthumously.

Despite my initial misconceptions of the collection, I learned quite a bit about subjects with which I was less familiar. It is hard for me to pass judgment when I know so little of the modern literature in this field. Leyser was primarily an expert in the Carolingian through high medieval periods of German history, with a parallel focus on Anglo-Saxon England. The themes in the collection range from queens and queen mothers in Ottonian rule to the role of reversions to the Imperial crown in provoking the Saxon revolt against the Conradines in the mid-late 11th century (Leyser argues that this revolt was largely separate in origin from the Investiture Controversy - I had not known this). There is definitely much to learn for the uninitiated, and it helps that Leyser's writing is very easy to read despite a fair number of typos in what seems to have been a very lightly edited text.

Simon Winder, Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

I saw this on the shelf at a local bookstore over the winter and got stuck into the first chapter before having to pull myself away at that time. I finally had a chance to revisit Winder's follow-up to Germania (2010), which I haven't had a chance to read, in July. Danubia is a five hundred year run through the Habsburg territories of eastern Europe, with a large focus on Hungary and the archducal lands in Austria. I have to say that it was a bit of a disappointing tome, despite many charming revelations. A broad criticism would be that by covering too much, Winder fails to give much depth to any one topic. A more petty criticism would be that his frequent digressions into travelogue narration adds little to the flow of the book while introducing jarring shifts in tonality--he swears a lot for no good reason, much like Stephen King (who I can't read, sorry).

That's not to say the book isn't worth a read. The Habsburgs are endlessly fascinating, yes, but the true value of this book is in illustrating the social dynamics that wrecked parts of Europe that suffered less glamorous fates during the early modern period. His accounts of war, devastation, and repopulation in Hungary and Galicia (the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, i.e. the hunk of the Polish state that Austria received in the former's dismemberment in the 18th century) are particularly moving and provided inspiration for my last blog post. While his accounts of his travels themselves are rather pointless, the art history that is linked into this narration can be enjoyable at times.

Catherine Merridale, Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin (New York: Picador, 2013)

I know less of Russian history than I would like, having only previously read a few of the classic novels and plays and Robert Massie's annoyingly superficial biographies of the Greats: Peter and Catherine. Merridale's Red Fortress was therefore very helpful for fleshing out my familiarity with the Muscovite state. Naturally, the book covers much more than just the Kremlin--the focus on the complex is largely an excuse to write a general history of the political development of Russia.

I took notes on Merridale's text, which is something I don't often do while reading for pleasure. She has a knack for snark:
"As one political scientist put it at the time [late perestroika]: 'too much freedom makes many Russians feel uncomfortable.' This sort of commentary flatters western prejudice, which is why it has persisted through so many complete changes of regime." - p. 7.
Her primary argument which ties the long history together is simple:
"the single genuinely continuous thread is the determination of successive Russian rulers to rewrite the past" - p. 16.
 Other interesting tidbits:
  • The "Third Rome" analogy began life as a warning in the 1520s that all great empires could crumble. (p. 56)
  • Zoe Paleologus' dowry was the Morea, which was actually controlled by the Turks at the time. Another flash of brilliance in Byzantine diplomacy. (p. 63)
  • The Italian poet Luigi Pulci described Zoe thus: "A mountain of fat...All I could dream about all night were mountains of butter and grease." (p. 64)
  • The wars in the mid sixteenth century nearly destroyed the Muscovite state. One statistic showed that acreage of land under cultivation in Vladimir, Suzdal, and around Moscow dropped by 90% in the decade after 1564. (p. 133)
  • The inquiry into the death of Ivan the Terrible's youngest son, Dmitry, a potential claimant to the throne, concluded that he had cut his own throat while playing with a knife. (p. 142)
  • In the period of turmoil between 1606 and 1612, there were eight self-appointed "true tsars" fighting each other for the Muscovite throne. (p. 161)
  • In 1610, the heir to the Polish throne, Wladislaw, had a real chance to be crowned Tsar with the support of the surviving boyars, but essentially blew it by waiting too long to arrive in Moscow and allowing the Orthodox church to drum up opposition to the prospect of a Catholic monarch. (pp. 164-166)
  • A Scotsman, Christopher Galloway, designed a clock for the Saviour Tower with seventeen hourly divisions that marked off time between sunrise and sunset. Erected in 1626, the face of the clock turned, rather than the hand. (p. 185)
  • Under Aleksei Mikhailovich, the second Romanov tsar, the importation of scientific equipment and literature from various German lands led to the first introduction of German technical words into the Russian language. (p. 205)
  • On Paul, Catherine's successor, and his aversion to reform: "he seemed to combine the worst qualities of a spiritual mystic with the sadism of a sergeant-major, while his Francophobia (which was at least as much about his mother as about Robespierre) was jarring to a court raised on the philosophes)". He banned words such as 'fatherland', 'citizen', and 'club' because of their supposed connections with the revolution. (p. 257)
  • In describing Paul's murder, "It ought to have ranked among the most popular crimes in Russian history (an interesting shortlist to compile), but instead it became another cursed regicide". (p. 258)
So lots of fun material.

Current Reading

I'm trying to read Diarmaid MacCulloch's history of the Reformation, but it is slower going than I expected. It looks like a solid piece although the chapter headings suggest a morass of sticky topics in the latter third.

I picked this volume up in a San Francisco bookshop way back three years ago, but again haven't had time to look into it. For a brief period in 2012-2013, I soaked up quite a few books on political aspects of the early modern period including a few histories of the Thirty Years War and large gobs of the historical sociology literature that followed Charles Tilly and so on. I am hoping MacCulloch's book will round out the purely religious aspects of my familiarity.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

What the Iran Deal and the EU's Humanitarian Crisis Have in Common

After not writing for a while, I was determined to resume the effort both as a conscious attempt to prevent rusting and because abandoning this endeavour a second time felt ignoble in so many ways. Luckily, the world has been full of fun happenings that merit comment.

Two of the most important events of this summer have been the conclusion of the "Iran Deal" and the humanitarian crisis in Europe. At first glance, these two might seem worlds apart in their causes and implications. The experts who opine on the two are in distinct sets - one is a 'hard' security problem and the other speaks to compassion, cooperation, and identity politics. That said, they both perfectly underline one axiomatic truth of negotiations in international relations: no effective agreement is possible if it does not take into account the core interests of the affected parties.

The "Iran Deal" (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; abbreviated as the JCPOA and sometimes rendered as "jick-pow" by tone-deaf government analysts) is a negotiated agreement between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) and the Islamic Republic of Iran on the subject of the latter's nuclear program. The negotiations have been on and off for more than a decade, conducted first by the EU3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), but only gained traction in late 2013. The nature and purpose of the negotiations have been well covered by the media - I don't see cause to go through those again. To sum up: everyone (who isn't a useful idiot) suspects Iran has a nuclear weapons program based on extremely convincing but entirely circumstantial evidence, but a combination of sanctions and diplomatic pressure have convinced Teheran to seek negotiations to get out of the dead-end into which it has driven itself. The agreement limits the scope of Iran's civil nuclear program and establishes monitoring and verification mechanisms, in exchange for a lifting of sanctions. This is a gross simplification, and I could spend hours talking about it.

The Iran Deal has been heavily criticized for conceding too much to the Iranian side. Honestly, I sympathize with this criticism: I was moderately shocked at Iran's ability to smuggle in an 11th hour commitment to lift UN sanctions on the import of conventional arms. These sorts of last minute concessions were a genuine surprise, and will likely lead to a deterioration of regional security. Nonetheless, on balance the Iran Deal is much, much better than no deal. If we bear in mind that there is no negotiated settlement possible that takes into consideration Iran's primary interests, it becomes apparent that the JCPOA is probably not far from the best deal that could be had.

Take, for instance, the issue of "anytime, anywhere" inspections. From the perspective of the verifying party, it is obvious that the only way to prevent cheating is to be able to demand and get access to all suspicious facilities. By not accepting this demand, Iran's bona fides appear suspect. The correct way to think about this is to consider whether any of the P5+1 would have accepted "anytime, anywhere" inspections in a verification mechanism applied to themselves. Would, for example, the United States allow foreign experts anytime, anywhere access to intelligence or military headquarters, or the president's bedroom? Leaving aside the question of military sensitivity, there is also the problem of domestic legal rights. Would an "anytime, anywhere" regime conflict with civil liberties?

I don't want to speak too much about the Iran Deal. Tugging at any one knot of the problem easily produces a lengthy string of legal and political ramblings. I think the deal's advocates have explained well in the media why we must take into consideration that axiom of negotiations I noted above, that no deal is effective and sustainable without due regard for all parties' interests, when judging the Iran Deal.

Now, consider the EU humanitarian crisis (strictly, it isn't just an EU crisis as the origins are outside Europe and non-EU countries have also been affected). The western European states who have advocated loudly for a quota and redistribution system to alleviate pressures in front-line states have chosen to ignore the axiom I discussed above. Instead of seriously taking into consideration the interests of the eastern EU states, they have defaulted to moralizing, lecturing, and buck-passing. As a result, their primary objective--a cessation to the suffering--has not been achieved.

The western EU states have a strong interest in acting in a way that comports with the liberal ideological foundations of the European regional order. This is a noble motivation and should be applauded. Some of the western states also have an interest in accepting migrants to reverse demographic decline - according to some analysts this is a rather important consideration for Germany. The southern Mediterranean EU states have a different set of interests; while they generally share the liberal motivations of their northern neighbours, they have a more pressing logistical and financial interest in distributing the cost of receiving refugees.

The eastern EU states, and here I am speaking principally of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic (yes, the Visegrad Four - who said the group was good for nothing?) but also Croatia and the Balkan states, have different interests. As best as I can frame it, these nation-states have expressed an interest in preserving their territory and state for the primary national group - Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks, and Czechs. That is their bottom line: they do not want other national groups settling in their territory and changing their national composition. Rather an understanding, accepting, and working around these interests, the western EU leaders--and most commentators--have adopted a strategy of attempting to delegitimize the eastern EU states' stated interest and to shame them into changing their policy.

This will not work, and continuing down this path will only damage Europe's unity. What Europe needs now is a negotiated agreement on how refugees and migrants will be distributed and who will bear the costs for their salvation. The first step toward agreement must be a recognition by the western EU states that they do not have the right or the ability to decide what are their negotiating partners' interests. The V4 and other eastern states share interests that are deeply grounded in national identity and Europe should not bash itself apart against these sturdy constructs.

Take, for example, Hungary. Three are three aspects to Hungary's history that play to a deep national defensiveness. First, as any Hungarian will tell you, the country's territory is much diminished compared with its medieval glory. Prior to its defeat by the Ottomans and subsequent centuries of rule from Vienna, the medieval kingdom of Hungary included both present-day Slovakia (Hungarian kings were crowned in Bratislava, then known as Pozsony or Pressburg in German, through to the nineteenth century) and Transylvania, now part of Romania. Second, following the Battle of Mohacs in the early sixteenth century and the election of a Habsburg as king, the Hungarian national territory became a permanent buffer between Austria and the Turkish threat. The population and land that remained in crescent-shaped royal Hungary were repeatedly abused by marauding Ottoman vassals and the Habsburgs themselves. As a border territory, perennial raiding and low-intensity warfare led to depopulation, resettlement by Germans and other ethnic groups from across the continent. Essentially, the Hungarian lands were used by the greatest of the European ruling families to absorb the violence of Turkish expansion. Third, as the front line between Christian Europe and the Muslim world, there is an obvious religious aspect to the construction of national identity.

Never mind that no such thing as a Hungarian national identity existed prior to the eighteenth century, and never mind that many other ethnic groups shared that territory. Never mind the long history of Hungarian petty nobles oppressing their subject Romanian, Slavic, and Jewish subjects. Unfortunately, only the Hungarian people get to create their national myth. As outsiders, we do not have the right, the authority, or the power to compel Hungarians to discard their silly sentiments about long-dead rulers and borders. If the country says it is not ready to share its territory with other national groups, we cannot say that it must. Attacking and attempting to delegitimize the Hungarian national identity only entrenches positions and alienates fellow Europeans. It is not just Hungary - Poland struggles with as equally as tragic a national history but at least its approach to this crisis has been tempered by a desire to be a leader within the EU.

Europe cannot afford the discord this crisis is generating. After the ill-will generated by the Greek bailout talks and in the face of renewed Russian hostility, the EU should be focusing on moving forward in areas of agreement while downplaying disagreements. Ultimately, the moral good of European unity is as weighty as the fate of the Arab world's refugees. Fortunately, it appears that the EU commission is moving toward accepting that some states will not take more refugees but may be convinced to offer up money to share the cost of resettlement. It is a shame it took so long for the states to recognize this way forward, for there are costs to delay.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Scottish Referendum: Two Images of the State

Tomorrow, Scotland votes on whether to become a state independent of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. What is most interesting to me about the campaign is the underlying clash between two different images of the future of the European state implicitly supported by the two sides. This clash, although masked by practical questions (e.g. currency, debt, treaty accession/succession) that have captured the most media attention, gives rise to those very questions, as they are little more than tension points where the two images don't match up.

What do I mean by this?

The two images offered by the opposing sides are each conceptualizations of the role of the nation-state in the European regional system of states. On the side of the nationalists, the promise of continuity in some areas (economics, (im)migration, currency) and change in others (sovereign status) is an implicit blueprint of a minimalist, entangled, semi-sovereign state. On the side of the unionists, the concerns about economic disruption, the threat to withdraw access to the pound, and the prospect of EU accession ab initio reflect a more traditional view of the state.

To a largely unacknowledged degree, both sides are arguing about an independence cost/benefit equation that is inherently unsolvable. It cannot be solved because it is dependent on the image adopted by the analyst. When the nationalists argue that an independent Scotland is viable, what they are actually saying is that the cost/benefit equation produces a net benefit if their image of the state is true. The unionists are arguing that independence would be a net loss if their image of the state is true. 

Which image is reality? The correct answer is that either image could be true if relevant actors (London, Edinburgh, Brussels, and the other EU capitals) willed it to be true. The nationalists are correct if the actors agree to negotiate on good faith, amend treaties quickly, and proactively welcome Scotland into the European family. The unionists are correct if the actors decide to make Scotland into a warning against further secession within the European Union. If Madrid makes EU accession difficult, if Westminster makes access to the pound difficult, if Scottish industry moves across the border, then independence will come with a high price tag.

But what is important to realize is that the nationalists are promising a bright future conditioned on a social reality that is beyond their ability to create unilaterally, and the unionists are threatening dire consequences which they have every ability to mitigate.

While outsiders like myself have no vote in the referendum, we will definitely be affected by the result. As such, I have an opinion on which outcome would be best: independence. This is for two reasons.

First, the weak image of the state is more conducive to further European integration and the consolidation of the supranational project. The more states within the union, the better the argument for qualified majority voting and the weaker the voice of individual states. I do not realistically see an option for Madrid to block Scotland's accession indefinitely because the moral opprobrium would be enormous. This is not the same thing as Greece blocking Macedonian accession -- Scotland's importance is central, not peripheral. And if what remained of the United Kingdom were to leave the EU, that might actually spur greater integration through the removal of a perennial spoiler in the club.

Second, the European family of nations needs to accept a fundamental reality of international politics: any system that cannot change will be rife with either conflict or injustice. Without means for peaceful change, any status quo grows vulnerable over time to its accumulated tensions. In the UN-era, the means for peaceful change were vested in the International Court of Justice, in Security Council responsibilities, and in now-outdated entities such as the Trusteeship Council. To an important extent, the failure of states to accept the jurisdiction of the ICJ and constant gridlock in the Security Council have contributed to an inability to manage and legitimize peaceful change.

The European regional system has always prided itself for pioneering more progressive norms than the global system at large. If it continues in this project, it must be willing to talk openly about peaceful change and how it is to be brought about. Further, with the EU's deep commitment to human rights, it has a moral responsibility to ensure that Scotland's individual citizens are not economically and socially disadvantaged despite wishing to remain part of the European community. The fundamental problem is that the legitimacy of state action now has two arbiters - the sovereign will of the people on one hand, and the responsibilities of international law and the expectations of peer states on the other. Finding a balance between the requirements of these two arbiters is the individual responsibility of each state, but also a multilateral problem that is systemic in nature. Reconciling the will of the Scottish nation with the existing framework of the European community must be a give and take, not a simple rejection.

That's all. Let's see how tomorrow goes down. My strong suspicion is that the "No" vote will win based on past polls, barring a strong enthusiasm gap leading to higher turnout for "Yes".

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Comment on Starrs' 'American Economic Power Hasn't Declined'

I was linked to this Dec. 2013 International Studies Quarterly article by Sean Starrs of City University HK earlier today:

Sean Starrs, 'American Economic Power Hasn't Declined—It Globalized! Summoning the Data and Taking Globalization Seriously', International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 57, Issue 4, (Dec. 2013), pp 817-830.
This paper argues that a fundamental failing in the debate on the decline of American economic power is not taking globalization seriously. With the rise of transnational corporations (TNCs), transnational modular production networks, and the globalization of corporate ownership, we can no longer give the same relevance to national accounts such as balance of trade and GDP in the twenty-first century as we did in the mid-twentieth. Rather, we must summon data on the TNCs themselves to encompass their transnational operations. This will reveal, for example, that despite the declining global share of United States GDP from 40% in 1960 to below a quarter from 2008 onward, American corporations continue to dominate sector after sector. In fact, in certain advanced sectors such as aerospace and software—even in financial services—American dominance has increased since 2008. There are no serious contenders, including China. By looking at the wrong data, many have failed to see that American economic power has not declined—it has globalized.
Starrs first justifies looking at the profits of transnational corporations (TNCs) as a lens for estimating national power by arguing that:

"[C]orporate profit-making is inherently a power process, not only because of class struggle (the more profit for owners, the less wages for workers, and vice versa) but also because accumulation is differential vis-a-vis competing corporations. Thus, as profit is both means and end of accumulation, it indicates both potential and actual power." (p 18)

His argument against using old measures such as GDP relies heavily on the growth in intra-TNC transactions and how this masks a growing divide between where economic activity occurs and where profits accrue to. His examples include the dominance of Coca-Cola and Pepsi in the Chinese beverage market despite being American-own, and the fact that while Chinese workers assemble Apple's electronic products, the profits flow back to the United States through IP licensing.

Starrs goes on to look at the dominance of U.S. companies based on the "national distribution of profit across the twenty-five broad sectors of the top 2000 corporations in the world" (p 820). His conclusion is that the U.S. is still dominant across 18 out of 25 sectors, and has in fact grown in relative dominance between 2006 and 2012 in six sectors.

Then, Starrs does something interesting and important: he examines who owns the corporations in his previous analysis. So, instead of just rolling profits up to the tax domicile of each TNC, he attempts to assign nationality with one further level of granularity--by shareholder. First, he looks at cross-border TNC-to-TNC acquisitions, finding that American corporations owned 46% of the listed shares of the world's top 500 corporations, despite only accounting for 167 of the top 500. Then, he examines the share ownership pattern of the top 20 firms in four regions: the United States, the EU, Japan, and China (HK-listed H shares). The data shows that U.S. shareholders owned 86% of shares in the US, 24% in the EU, 20% in Japan, and 31% in China/HK. Starrs acknowledges that his exercise in assigning nationality to shareholders is limited by the fact that many shareholders are large investment firms that aggregate funds from individuals of all nationalities. However, he makes an assumption, relying on the proportion of millionaires that are American (76%) as a proxy for nationality distribution of managed funds, that most of these individuals are Americans.

Starrs conclusion is that the United States is still dominant. In fact, in some respects, it is more dominant because it owns and derives profits from more of the world in comparison to its GDP and other traditional measures than it did before.

I like this article a lot. It recognizes important implications of widely accepted but misunderstood patterns. However, I think Starrs overlooked a couple factors that I've come across recently in my day job that I'll explore below.

Starrs explanation of how profits relate to power (^^look  up there^^) is not wholly convincing. He cites several theorists on how the United States has power because of structural factors, resources, or a large market. Then he puts forward his "profit is both means and end of accumulation" argument and moves on to discussing why old measures fail. It is, I think, deceptively attractive to think that simply because Americans are making the most profits, then Americans must be the most powerful state. Part of power is the ability to maintain a standard of living, as much as simply have a standard of living. Power is forward looking; accumulation today does not mean accumulation tomorrow, and changes in profits can lag behind changes in power. The capability to maintain future profits matters.

If we take a very simple line of critique (I haven't thought this through too hard) and argue that profits are power because, ultimately, they can be taxed and grant states greater politico-military capabilities, then I think Starrs' argument runs into trouble. While greater profit would imply greater state revenue ceteris paribus, we live in a world where taxation policy, particularly corporate income tax, is strongly warped by nearly century-old structures that maintain a distribution of power that has long passed the world by.

The short of it is that the soft laws on corporate tax, constituted by the OECD model tax treaty and transfer-pricing rules that spell out how companies can value intra-TNC transactions, were established in the 1920s and strongly favor investors over 'source' countries (territories where resources and labour were located). One reason is because those soft law principles were written by the former colonial powers, who invested at roughly reciprocal levels between each other, but on severely non-reciprocal levels with their colonies.

Double taxation treaties have extended this principle around the world, leading to a situation where investor (more frequently referred to as 'residence') countries get first dibs on a TNCs profits, while source countries agree to lower withholding taxes and recognize high thresholds to local TNC activity before a right to tax emerges.

Exacerbating the problem are increasing problems with transfer-pricing brought about by the very growth in intra-TNC trade that Starrs discusses in his article. The arm's-length principle, which is the basic rule by which transfer-pricing must be done, stipulates that a TNC treat its subsidiaries as separate business entities. When making a transaction (say, a sale of iron ore from South Africa to Switzerland), the price of the transaction as documented by each legal entity must reflect market prices. The profits of each local subsidiary is calculated using those prices and taxed accordingly. This rule may have made sense in the 1920s, when communications and transportation limitations meant that subsidiaries of a single firm effectively operated independently. But with the spread of activities across borders, the situation has changed. Supply-chains now stretch across continents because of central design; in fact, TNCs arose in part because cross-national supply-chain management allows these firms to create products at lower cost than if the local subsidiaries were independent companies. That is, there is no comparable market price for many transactions within TNCs. Thus, the arm's length principle has become a central vector for profit stripping, whereby TNCs attempt to decrease prices within firms so that source country subsidiaries book lower profits while residence country parent companies, often located in low-tax jurisdictions, book higher profits. This is referred to as transfer-mispricing and fits in the gray area between tax evasion and tax avoidance/planning.

Similarly, profit stripping also functions through IP, intra-TNC services, and debt. A parent firm can charge a manufacturing subsidiary substantial royalty fees that cancel out any local profits the subsidiary would otherwise report. Alternatively, a parent firm could charge a local subsidiary inexplicably high management fees that likewise strip away the sub of its profits (the NGO ActionAid argues that Associated British Foods has been doing this to its sugar-manufacturing subsidiary in Zambia via a management subsidiary in the tax haven of Ireland). Finally, a parent firm can choose to finance a subsidiary's operations through debt and demand back large interest payments that nullify the sub's profits and can be used to obtain a residence country tax credit in some cases.

There are many other forms of intra-corporate tax shenanigans. I won't go into them. The debate on the scale at which these activities occur is heavily debated, but concern about them has increased to the point that the OECD has launched a project on what it and the G20 refer to as 'Base Erosion and Profit Shifting'. While driven by very specific U.S. and European concerns about their ability to tax corporates, the project's overarching goal is to align profits with value - that is, remove incentives to shift reported profits around the globe and alienate it from the economic activity that created it. 'Value', throughout the life of this project, has been hard to define. But the ol' "you-know-it-when-you-see-it" test for obscenity applies, particularly as there exists an entire industry--and industry whistleblowers--focused on innovative tax planning.

The OECD is not the only actor pushing back against the existing global tax regime. Brazil, India, and China have made ways by unilaterally introducing new deviations from OECD recommendations that allow them to claim more of a TNCs profits within their borders. Two common strategies involve hard-setting transfer prices for certain goods or services and lowering the threshold of activity a TNC needs to perform in a jurisdiction before the source country can tax it. Each of those three countries made contributions to the transfer pricing manual developed by the UN ECOSOC Committee of Experts on International Cooperation in Tax Matters spelling out their concerns about profit shifting and how they were modifying their corporate tax code in response.

So, if profit shifting is a fact, and emerging market states are pushing back against it, what does this mean for Starrs thesis? Taking a big leap, we could argue that it means the disproportionate accrual of profits to U.S. shareholders is 'artificial' and misaligned with real economic activity, however the latter is defined. In fact, this artificial accrual is an effect of the growth of TNCs, but not in the benign way that Starrs describes. Further, we could argue that other states are waking up this reality and pushing back to limit the profits that TNCs can take home to the United States. As a consequence, it is possible that over time the trend Starrs detects will be reversed and U.S. companies will become less dominant as compared to foreign competitors as they incur larger tax costs.

This is all a stretch, but I think it's something Starrs needs to take consideration of. A further point might be that, in fact, perhaps state capabilities are not ultimately derived from the ability to tax corporates, but from the ability to tax rich shareholders. Here again, Starrs would run into a problem. If U.S. corporates become less profitable in their home domicile due to more taxation abroad, then shareholders will also take back less in dividends. At the same time, because developing countries rely more on corporate tax than developed countries, they will strengthen in capabilities while the U.S. weakens.

I will readily admit that the above is half-baked. But, even if there may be problems with my little thought experiment, I think it illustrates well why I believe Starrs needs to explicit lay out a more detailed justification of how profits mean power.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Intermediate-Range Diplomacy

On July 28, the United States formally accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Allegations of impropriety have been stewing for a few years now, with experts debating whether Russia had really crossed the line or not. (NB: the Russians also accuse the U.S. of pushing the limits of the treaty with its ABM systems and testing decoys.) Presumably, U.S.-Russian consultations on that issue have hit a dead-end. This raises the question: why did the United States choose to bring up INF now, in the midst of rising tensions over Ukraine?

The question is worth asking because the INF is one of the most important arms control treaties entered into by the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. As such, it is also one of the most visible, tangible, and fundamental embodiments of the common security interest underlying the two countries' relationship. When concerns about treaty compliance arise, the sides typically address them in formal and informal consultations out of the glare of public attention -- which is exactly what was done over the past three years. Calling out the other side publicly is an abnormal step which can put real pressure on the treaty itself. So why is the United States doing that now?

There are a number of different answers, each tied to an expectation of how Russia will react to the accusation. First, Russian President Vladimir Putin could publicly back down by promising to address the compliance issues in good faith. That would preserve, for now, the common interest and indicate an underlying resilience in the nuclear understanding between the two countries despite the crises in other spheres of engagement. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama might be under the belief that INF compliance would be an easy de-escalation option for Putin that would take some of the urgency out of the general political crisis over Ukraine, which has been exacerbated by the downing of  Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. In other words, INF compliance would be a signal of reassurance to the international community that the bad old days are not coming back.

However, this expectation might be a little optimistic (or worse, naive). Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, the Russian approach to relations with the United States has centered around making Washington play a guessing game as to whether those bad old days are, in fact, coming back. Throughout his career, Putin has repeatedly made comments suggesting that the pre-1989 world was actually preferable to the post-Cold War. While some of this may have just been bluff or noise for domestic consumption, it would be a tall order to expect the Russian president to perform a volte face and publicly embrace such a visible symbol of the new order as the INF.

Second, the United States may believe that publicly accusing Russia of violating the INF could result in a private breakthrough in bilateral consultations on the issues. In other words, Putin could say nothing in public, but signal a secret willingness to smooth things over. There are a few problems with this interpretation, mostly to do with signalling and audiences. Presumably, if Russia wants to trade compliance for some political benefit, this has to be done in the public eye. It is hard to see how the United States would manage the optics of a public carrot for a private trade-off. At the same time, Russia would not benefit from private compliance because signaling value would be lost compared with a public message.

Third, there is the possibility that Obama expects the Russians to renounce the INF. The possibility is hard to ignore, but gut instinct seems to suggest we are not in danger of such a radical move yet. I say "gut instinct" because it is difficult to second-guess why in the first place Russia was moving ahead with its alleged violations. And, I say "hard to ignore" because the political environment is now venomous enough--and nationalistic fervour in Russia heightened enough--that Putin might see few political costs to further escalation. If Russia genuinely feels that is threatened by the U.S. ABM systems in Europe in the same way as the Pershing IIs of the late-Cold War, perhaps it will choose such a path. But, if Moscow's griping about AEGIS on-shore and associated systems is really the fig-leaf that some analysts believe it to be, then preserving the INF would seem to be in its favour. However, within both the United States and Russia, there are calls for updating the INF to allows for deployments ex-Europe (and see NYT article on latest developments for old Russian proposals). While there is absolutely no evidence this view has moved into the mainstream of U.S. strategic thinking, it is possible that the Obama administration would see some upside to the end of INF in allowing flexibility in the Asia Pacific.

Finally, it is possible that Russia does nothing and says nothing. An equivalent outcome would be for Moscow to simply state that it does not consider itself to be in violation of the INF. If this is the likely outcome, then the only gain the United States would see from pointing a public finger at Putin would be rhetorical shaming. Piling on the blame and pressure may well be an integral part of the U.S. strategy for maintaining momentum on sanctions and ostracizing Russia. The question then becomes: how much does the world care about INF?

Chances are, the Obama administration has considered all of these outcomes and decided that any of them would be acceptable. At this point, a decision on Russian withdrawal from INF could be seen as not quite the crisis it would have been in 2011 when Clinton, McFaul, and others were still pursuing a reset in relations. As a study in escalatory tactics, the effects of the U.S. decision to go public on the issue should be monitored closely.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Sometimes I Read - Vol. I

I previously mentioned that I read too much and write too little. As far as problems with my intellectual habits go, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to reading too much, too much of my reading has been internet fluff.

But out of the actually 'substantive' material I've been going through, one book sticks out in my mind:

Andrew A. Latham, Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades (Routledge, 2011).

Here's an interview from late last year with Prof. Latham explaining his motivations behind writing this little tome.
"The prevailing common sense (in IR at least) is that this was an era of non-statist “feudal heteronomy”, radically distinct from the early modern international system that superceded it sometime between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries.  According to this view, the late medieval translocal order was not an international system, properly understood, for the simple reason that it did not comprise sovereign states interacting under conditions of anarchy.


My objective in writing this book, however, was to demonstrate that this is a deeply flawed characterization of late medieval world order, one largely without warrant in the contemporary historiographical literature.  By the mid-thirteenth century, the convergence of new or revived discourses of sovereignty, territoriality, public authority, the “crown” and political community had given rise to a new “global cultural script” of sovereign statehood that was being enacted on various scales, around various social forces and through various institutional formations in every corner of Latin Christendom


Expressed in the language of IR theory, the various forms of state that were crystallizing during this era may have been structurally differentiated, but they were functionally isomorphic (in terms of their common constitutive ideal and its practical expression).   Ultimately, they were all states – distinctively late medieval states to be sure, but states nonetheless."
The first few chapters of Latham's book are a penetrating critique of the realist-liberal-constructivist orthodoxy in treating the pre-modern era as either not worth studying, or not amenable to analysis. In one section, he compiles a list of sins that international relations scholars commit in working with historical material, returning time and again to John Gerard Ruggie's 1983 article 'Continuity and Transformation in the World Polity'. I don't have the book with me anymore and didn't take very good notes, but off the top of my head I can remember these points:
  • Cherrypicking historical examples to match an agenda
  • Treating one side in a contentious scholarly debate as settled fact
  • Failing to use the latest in historical research and sticking to important, but outdated authorities
Incidentally, he mentions, the first in a positive light and the second in a negative one, two recent works I enjoyed immensely:
  • Andreas Osiander, Before the State: Systemic Political Change in the West from the Greeks (Oxford University Press, 2008)
  • Daniel H. Nexon, The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe: Religious Conflict, Dynastic Empires, and International Change (Princeton University Press, 2009)
As well as, in passing, one I'm still trying to finish:
  • Thomas N. Bisson's The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton University Press, 2009).
For anyone curious as to why I like to read pre-modern history, the rationale goes something like this:

Everyone claims that we live in an era of great social and political change, with the international system shifting and transforming on multiple levels - every area of high or low politics. The most profound transformations in system are those that change its very nature, those that change what sort of games the actors are playing, or even who the actors are. In order to understand, anticipate, and prepare for these sorts of changes, we need to know more and think more about the last times systemic changes of this magnitude have occurred. That's not 1991, or 1945, or 1914, or 1848, or 1814, or 1789, or even 1648. We need to look back further, past the veil of Westphalia and into an unstructured and unanalyzed history that has been far too often glossed over in theory.