Helsinki

The site of the Trump/Putin summit is a compact, handsome, livable low-rise town of around 600,000. Click these photos to enlarge them.

President Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg is a little less than 400 kilometers up the road. The high speed Allegro train connects Helsinki with St. Petersburg in three and a half hours, four times a day.

Mr. Putin must feel – almost – at home. The lay of the land, the lakes and forests, is the same in Finland as where the Russian president grew up. Here is Mr. Putin with Sauli Niinistö, the Finnish president, on a boat tour when we saw them last summer. Saimaa, the name of the ship, is also the name of the lake:

There are many more photos from lovely Finland here, at EarthPhotos.com.

Meanwhile in Turkey

Reserve a little thought space for the upcoming Turkish elections. Both presidential and parliamentary elections are coming in nine days time, and by most accounts President Erdogan finds himself in a tightening race. An article in Bloomberg titled Why Erdogan’s Election Has Gone From Shoo-In to Nail-Biter writes about

“the prospect Erdogan wouldn’t work with a hung parliament and instead call an election do-over if the results were not to his liking.”

The president said Monday that

“he expects the next presidential and parliamentary elections to end in the first round, with little possibility of a second one.”

But a Reuters poll just out today shows Ergodan

“falling short of a first-round victory … with his support dipping 1.6 points in one week…. The poll also showed his ruling AK Party was forecast to lose its parliamentary majority in the June 24 vote.”

So, we may expect an excess of media riches on Sunday, 24 June: England vs. Panama, Japan vs. Senegal and Poland vs. Colombia in the World Cup, and Erdogan versus a more-than-usually-united opposition in the Turkish Election Sweepstakes.

Quotes: On European Populism

I think this quote, from Will Italy’s Populists Upend Europe? by Mark Leonard today at Project Syndicate, makes the salient point with an economy of words:

“An Italian government combining two very different strands of populism will pose a serious threat to the European project, because it could form the core of a new federation of populists and Euroskeptics that have hitherto operated separately. No longer would Euroskeptics be fragmented into different tribes of anti-immigrant politicians on the right and anti-austerity politicians on the left.”

Seems to me this is the key to making an effective (if potentially frightening) populism adhere. Can opposite poles hold together?

I’m with the less austerity camp, and I find some level of “common currency abuse” on the part of “German fiscal hawks,” as Leonard calls them. I’m less inclined toward the xenophobes and God-and-country nationalists at the other pole. Perhaps they feel the same in reverse?

Can this coalition hold together?

Italy is the European spot to watch this summer. That is, unless the May government falls.

Anybody?

Soft Power

Gordon Chang is enjoying a TV punditry renaissance just now, having rebranded himself as a North Korea expert. In his previous life as a pundit he wrote The Coming Collapse of China – seventeen years ago. No surprise he went to ground for a while.

I fear Joseph Nye may be making the Chang mistake. In an article for the Australian think tank ASPI, he similarly discounts the juggernaut that, truth is, China really is nowadays.

Nye has come around toward the end of his career to focus on an idea he coined the term for back in the late 1980s: the idea of “soft power,” understood as the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion. He thinks China is sorely lacking in soft power, writing

“no one should be tempted by exaggerated projections of Chinese power. If the US maintains its alliances with democratic Japan and Australia, and continues to develop good relations with India, it will hold the high cards in Asia. In the global military balance, China lags far behind, and in terms of demography, technology, the monetary system and energy dependence, the US is better placed than China in the coming decade. In the Soft Power 30 index, China ranks 25th, while the US is third.”

Maybe. But should push come to shove, does the United States under the Trump administration have the will or the desire, at the far end of its supply lines and on China’s doorstep, to resist Chinese expansion inside the nine-dash line?

Nye writes “no one knows what the future will bring for China. Xi has torn up Deng Xiaoping’s institutional framework for leadership succession, but how long will Xi’s authority last?”

Since 5 June, 1989, when that man stood in front of the tank just outside Tiananmen Square, wishful-thinking pundits have written similar things about each successive Chinese leader, and their conviction that sometime soon anti-authoritarianism will triumph in China.

I’m just saying, how’s that working out so far?

When that man stood in front of that tank, China was a mere shell of the global behemoth it has become since. Its model of state capitalism has since beguiled the leaders of just about every developing country in the world, showering them with loans and influence free of judgmental politics, like the gleaming new railroad between Nairobi and Mombasa, the Madaraka Express train in Kenya,  and the massive Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. That, seems to me, is its own sort of soft power.

Dear Mr. Nye: a word of caution on the soft power thing. No Gordon Chang moment, please.

Silly Diplomats

As Russian Foreign Ministers go, I think Sergey Lavrov is a pretty cool dude. He is charismatic, dynamic, he engages with European and American interlocutors in English, a skill his boss hasn’t mastered.

He is an effective mouthpiece for his government, a dedicated cynic and as far as faux patriotism takes you, a cool dude.

Still, I think his recent charge of “Genocide by sanctions” may be just a twinge too far. A bit of a reach.

Weekend Reading

We’ve had a lovely run of weather in southern Appalachia, warm, sunny afternoons and cool crisp mornings for days now. That looks to hold for the weekend, part of which will be spent down by the creek with The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers, which just may be a great book. I wish you well wherever you are, and a fine weekend. Call your mother.

Now a selection of interesting weekend reads:

Life as a Kuffar: My Seven Lost Years in Kuwait by Carla Wilson at Quillette
American military extends its reach worldwide – lily pads by David Vine at investigativereportingworkshop.org
What makes a translation great? by Katy Derbyshire at scroll.in
After-Shocks of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake by Ian Johnson at the NYRB
How the chicken nugget became the true symbol of our era: This is what happens when you turn the natural world into a profit-making machine, by Raj Patel and Jason W Moore in the Guardian.
The Weird Science Behind Chain Restaurant Menus by India Mandelkern at munchies.vice.com
America goes rogue by Andrew J Bacevich at Spectator USA, in which he writes,

“By and large, I dislike Munich analogies. But in this instance the comparison may have some merit. In 1938, faced with a megalomaniac in charge of a fearsome military machine and surrounded by a coterie of fanatic militarists, the European democracies wilted, paving away for a great disaster. Today another megalomaniac with a fearsome military machine at his command and responding to the counsel of the latter day equivalent of Goering and Goebbels is on a tear. History will not treat European leaders kindly if they repeat the mistakes of Neville Chamberlain and Eduard Daladier. As an American, I believe that Trump needs to be confronted, not indulged.”

In principle, I’m a fan of any iconoclast who comes from the military. Andrew Bacevich is terrific.

And a couple of useful bookmarks:

– The USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory has links to 14 webcams covering the Kilauea volcano, and
Here is a live map of the conflict in Syria and the larger region, with a running, updated newswire

Finally, while rounding up the week’s news, all you can say is, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. George Will!

Take care.

Quotes: On the Impossibility of the European Union

I mentioned a couple weeks back that I’m working through a trio of books on the common theme of the challenges facing liberal democracies, and specifically the European Union. I think this quote, from After Europe by the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, particularly well illustrates the wicked insolubility of the Euro Debt Crisis that broke out first in Greece some eight years ago:

“In handling the rebellion from Athens, European leaders faced a stark choice. They could either allow Greece to default and thus put the common currency at risk, destroy the Greek economy, and send the message that in a political union of creditors and debtors there is no place for solidarity – or save Greece on (Greek Prime Minister Alexis) Tsipras’s terms and thereby signal that political blackmail works, inspiring populist parties across the continent.

Faced with the dilemma, European leaders identified a third option: to save Greece on such Draconian terms that no other populist government would ever be tempted to follow its example. Tsipras is now the living demonstration that there is no alternative to the economic policies of the European Union.

Krastev calls it “the victory of economic reason over the will of the voters” and writes that “For the common European currency to survive, voters of debtor nations must be deprived of their right to change economic policy despite retaining a capacity to change governments,” and that this is not democracy. He contends that

a political union capable of backing the euro with a common fiscal policy cannot be accomplished as long as EU member states remain fully democratic. Their citizens will just not support it.”

So the choices are democracy or the common currency, but not both. It’s hard for me to find fault with his analysis. No wonder Krastev called his book “After Europe.”