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.