Weekend Reading

Only one must-read this weekend from here in soon-to-be-stormy Appalachia:

A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come, an epic, semi-autobiographical article by historian Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic magazine.

Ms. Applebaum has written extensively on the former Soviet Union and East Bloc, including a book that was really seminal for me, called Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, about a 1991 road trip across just collapsed eastern Europe. A Washington Post columnist married to Radek Sikorsky, a former Polish Foreign Minister, she’s uniquely positioned to write a first-person account of the changes in Poland over the past not quite thirty years.

And there have been astonishing changes. On my first trip to Warsaw, in March and April of 1992, state-owned enterprises, the stores in the buildings that lined the streets, had largely gone bust, and newly private commerce from Gdansk on the Baltic Sea to Tiranë, Albania on the Adriatic, was largely carried out through an ad-hoc system of hastily-assembled kiosks between the storefronts and the streets, Here is an example from near the Warsaw train station, a snapshot from 1992:

Today Warsaw presents as a modern, if still Stalinesque architecture-afflicted city.

But all is not well, in Poland or as Ms. Applebaum describes, Hungary and other parts of eastern Europe as well. Her article is well worth your time as a marker of the state of the region today. Especially if, as we look to be here, you are shut indoors with a storm raging outside.

Next week we return to Africa with a post on 3 Quarks Daily at the beginning of the week. I will repost it here next Wednesday. See you next week.

 

 

Weekend Reading

Don’t know about you but the anonymous column in the New York Times doesn’t make me feel better. An unknown group within the executive branch doing unknown things to undermine a presidency that’s doing it best to undermine itself. Not reassuring.

For years I bemoaned the over-long interregnum between the end of the Cold War and whatever came next. Everybody knew the institutions fashioned after the Second World War, the IMF, the UN, NATO, needed restructuring to factor in the rise of players outside North America and Europe and all the other new realities, but nothing seemed to budge.

Change is finally coming hard and fast. My ten-cent theory is that the catalyst was the 2008 sub-prime crisis and the endless austerity pursued after it, coupled with resentment that none of the responsible players in the financial industry was seen to pay. All facilitated by around forty years of dedicated Neoliberal economics.

The “Post-Cold War world” lingered until it didn’t. Now, with changes coming like lightning, most political thinkers trying to come to grips with the new, still unnamed era, gravitate toward the rise of the loosely defined idea of “populism.”

Too loosely defined, says Jason Frank in Populism isn’t the problem in the Boston Review. He writes,

For … prominent advocates of the populist thesis (there is a) common danger posed to democracy by such disparate leaders as Trump and Chavez, Orbán and Morales, Erdoğan and López Obrador, and such disparate political movements and parties as Podemos and the Tea Party, Syriza and Alternative for Germany, the Five Star Movement and the National Front.”

“As Roger Cohen argued in a recent New York Times op-ed, … the term … has “become sloppy to the point of meaninglessness, an overused epithet for multiple manifestations of political anger.”

– Balakris takes a look at one of Neoliberalism’s favorite ideas, privatization, in Italy’s bridge disaster: an inquest into privatisation at ft.com.
– Adam Tooze takes a look at The Forgotten History of the Financial Crisis in Foreign Affairs (You may have to sign up for this one).
– Scooted along by the Euro crisis, European politics took the lead in the phenomenon of vanishing center parties. The U.S. is catching up, writes Gracy Olmstead at The Week, in The vanishing political center.
– In spite of his article’s title, Timothy Shenk is optimistic in Is Democracy Really Dying? in The New Republic.
– And last on the general subject of the shrinking center, the Swedish general election is Sunday. Couple of articles:
So Long, Swedish Welfare State? by Nima Sanandaji in Foreign Policy, and
A Guide to What Could Be the Most Uncertain Swedish Election Yet by Nick Rigillo at Bloomberg

Lighter stuff: August is the hottest month in our part of the world, so two articles about the north:
Vikings Razed the Forests. Can Iceland Regrow Them? by Henry Fountain at the New York Times, and two book reviews in
The Big Melt by Tim Flannery at the NYRB.
– And finally, just for fun, a really well-written article I thoroughly enjoyed, a book excerpt, The Worst Ever First Day on the Job by Finn Murphy at Literary Hub.

Have a good weekend. See you next week.

Sad!

“In May 2015, there were 69,460 jobs in coal mining itself — only 15,900 of which were extraction workers or helpers, mining machine operators or earth drillers. That’s 0.019 percent of the American workforce that month.”

– That’s from the Washington Post. The Bureau of Labor Statistics website says there are 2,800 more coal mining jobs now than in the month President Trump was elected.

Count me as an opponent of the Trump administration, but doggone it, it’s hard not to feel bad for the president (Yep, I just wrote that) out rallying tonight in West Virginia, working the 0.019 percent, looking for friends.

Because back in Washington today his 2016 campaign manager was convicted of corruption, while his personal lawyer pleaded guilty to eight crimes, naming the president as a co-conspirator in campaign finance violations.

The president is a Tweeter, not a poet. But if he were:

“Witch hunt witch hunt,
crooked Hillary, Pelosi too!
Remember we hire only the best,
that I can tell you.” Believe me.

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.