Notes On The News
by Gwydion M Williams
The Cold War stayed cold because both sides knew they’d be smashed flat whatever they did. Hitler started a war in 1939 because he knew he had a good chance of winning it. From the time when the USSR got atomic weapons, both sides knew that a war would wreck them even if they were technically the winner. Atomic weapons are massively destructive and almost impossible to stop. Counter-missiles have long been around as an idea, but was not taken very seriously until Reagan announced plans in the 1980s.
A ‘Missile Shield’ would never have done what Reagan promised, it would never have made both sides safe. But it was said at the time that if the USA could get some sort of missile shield in place, they would then have a ‘First Strike Capability’. If they started a war, they could hope to damage the enemy’s missiles enough to survive without too much damage. Maybe lose their top 10 or 20 cities but come through as ‘masters of the world’.
If it had worked, it would have made all the difference in situations like the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia in 2008. Russia stepped in and pushed back the Georgian army, on the assumption that the USA was not going to escalate. Partly because they were already overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. And partly because Russia has inherited the USSR’s huge nuclear arsenal and retains the capability to wreck the USA.
China also must have been worried. China has a much smaller nuclear arsenal than Russia. I’ve not seen it mentioned, but maybe when the candid histories of the Twenty-Zeroes come to be written, it may be learned that China demanded an end to the Missile Shield as the price for making concessions on Global Warming.
Of course the Obama administration claims that it’s not dropped the idea of a missile shield, just shifted away from the idea of basing it in Poland and the Czech Republic. They can have ship-based systems, but there’s a limit to what even an aircraft carrier can support, and also ships are inherently vulnerable whereas land-based systems can be well dug in. The proposed land-based systems might not work just now, but in 10 or 20 years time they might have become formidable. That was Russia’s worry, that and NATO’s habit of pushing ever eastward.
It may however be that the Poles are not sorry to see the idea dropped. They were supposed to be the core of ‘New Europe’, the countries once ruled by Moscow and which were supportive of US action in Iraq back in 2003, when the phrase was coined. But ‘New Europe’ isn’t actually new at all, it is a diversity of countries with a lot more in common with Western Europe than with the USA. The visible failure in Iraq and now Afghanistan must have had an effect, and so too was the failure to support Georgia when it came to the crunch.
“Under the previous Czech and Polish governments, the new Nato allies spent little time cultivating better links with Russia or courting defence ties with the EU; they built their security squarely around close links to Washington. The east Europeans gave their full support to the US over Iraq and, in exchange, sought Washington’s guarantees to defend them against Russia. Missile defences became a touchstone of US commitment to eastern Europe: the bases in Poland and the Czech Republic were to serve as a ‘tripwire’ that would trigger automatic US intervention in case of a Russian aggression.
“This picture has begun changing long before this week’s decision to cancel missile defence bases in eastern Europe. The new Polish government, which came to power in 2007, thought Poland’s reliance on a single ally, especially one about to go through dramatic presidential elections, too risky. The incoming Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski knows better than most that US foreign policy can occasionally be fickle; he spent years in Washington as a foreign policy pundit. So the new government set out to repair relations with Russia and the rest of Europe. Sikorski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk travelled to Moscow on several occasions; they recently hosted Vladimir Putin in Gdansk at ceremonies commemorating the outbreak of the second world war.”[B]
It seems also that 48% of Poles are glad the missile shield has been scrapped.[B] Maybe there is hope for Europe after all.
[The drift away from pro-US policies continued, with a positively hostile right-wing government getting elected in Hungary. The 2014 Ukraine Crisis has encouraged a return to seeking US help on military matters. Which would have been a good reason for the USA to encourage such a crisis.]
Understanding of the Second World War has been going backwards since the 1960s. Back then, most adults had lived through it. They knew that Nazism had won power during a massive world slump triggered by Wall Street speculators. They knew also that the Versailles Peace Treaty had been grossly unfair, so no one felt like defending it. And there were always many on the Left saying that Britain was hoping to use Nazi Germany to destroy the USSR.
The Weimar Republic had been an abject failure. It lasted 15 calendar years, 1919 to 1933. Twelve different men served as Chancellor, none of them lasting very long but two having two terms. Technically you could say that Hitler was the 13th and last, when he was made Chancellor on 30 January 1933. But within a few months he had abandoned Weimar and made its constitution meaningless. Germany became officially a one-party state in 14 July 1933. June 1934 saw the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, when he massacred the internal Nazi opposition and anyone else he disliked. In August 1934, President Hindenburg died and Hitler took over with no superior. The conservative elements in government were discarded. 1935 saw the Nuremberg Laws, consolidating discrimination against Jews, who were no longer regarded as citizens. This was also done on racial grounds, not religious which had been the norm before then in most countries.
Then in 1936, he organised the Berlin Olympics as a grand celebration of Nazism, and no one important stayed away. That same year, Germany and Italy intervened massively in the Spanish Civil War, with Britain’s Neville Chamberlain claiming ‘no knowledge’ of the matter. 1938 saw union with Austria and a claim on Czechoslovakia, with Chamberlain giving Hitler everything he’d asked for at the Munich Agreement.
Meantime the USSR had been seeking some sort of agreement with Britain and France. A majority of Britons wanted it after Hitler encouraged the secession of Slovakia and then annexed the Czech remnant. But the British government kept stalling, just as they had stalled over Spain until the Republic finally fell. Instead they gave a guarantee to Poland, giving Poland the confidence to refuse Hitler’s demand for the ethnic-German city of Danzig, made a ‘Free City’ by the Versailles Treaty. Poland had made its own pact with Nazi Germany in 1934 and had taken some ethnic-Polish territory from Czechoslovakia after Munich. But Poland refused to allow Danzig’s position to be normalised. This was the context of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which the Poles complained about at the recent commemorations of the start of World War Two.
Does anyone suppose that Hitler would have kept the peace without the Non-Aggression Pact? He was definitely planning a World War in due course, though he wasn’t decided on when to start it or who to attack first. Naturally Britain, France and Poland would have preferred him to attack the Soviet Union first. Naturally the Soviet Union preferred it should be the other way round, as it in fact was. No one expected that Poland would be overrun in a few weeks – in World War One, it had taken more than a year for the combined power of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Bulgaria to conquer Serbia.
Warsaw was surrounded and the Polish position hopeless when the USSR invaded and took back territories that Poland had taken after wining a brief war with the Soviets in the early 1920s.
The brief Soviet occupation of ex-Polish territory bought them time. The whole logic of collectivisation and the ruthless drive to industrialise had been to have a big enough military-industrial base to defeat an invader. This succeeded, though Hitler came close to winning . An additional result was the saving of large numbers of Jews whom the Soviets shipped east during their occupation. Of course the mass extermination was only started after Britain decided to fight on after the Fall of France. Up until then, Jews were discriminated against but still living where they had always lived. It was only after Britain decided to keep the war going that Hitler publicly announced that all Jews would be expelled from Germany, a policy which led on to mass killing when it was found there was no where for them to go.
China is feeling very self-confident nowadays. The USA botched its brief dominance in the 1990s and now needs Chinese support to get anything done. China is no longer under any real pressure to adapt to Western ways. Indeed, Western pressure was incoherent, getting caught up side-issues like supporting the Dalai Lama and the Xinjiang separatists. This lost them the big prize, those core Chinese who wanted to extend the process of ‘Opening Up’ [and copying the West].
This may have had an effect on the succession, which has been orderly since the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997. Jiang Zemin was designated as heir after the Tiananmen Square crisis of 1989, when he defused a similar situation in Shanghai by talking to the protestors. He was President from 1993 to 2003. Hu Jintao took over from Jiang Zemin as Party General Secretary in 2002, President in 2003, then as Chairman of the Party Military Commission in 2004 and finally Chairman of the State Military Commission in 2005.
The expectation has been that Hu Jintao would serve 10 years as top man and then do an orderly hand-over to someone else, beginning in 2012. It was also expected that the choice would be Xi Jinping. Hu Jintao served as Vice-President from 1998, Xi Jinping from 2008. The constitution also limits the President to two five-year terms, meaning that Hu Jintao must give up that job in 2013. It was expected that Xi Jinping would take over Hu’s state and party job in an orderly handover.
This is now in doubt. The two Military Commissions are important and Xi has not got the expected promotion to deputy in the Party Military Commission:
“Vice-President Xi Jinping was expected to be promoted to Central Military Commission deputy chairman at last week’s annual plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee.
“Mr Hu was given the position at the equivalent stage of his career.
“Mr Xi is still considered the most likely candidate to succeed Mr Hu, but his path now appears to be contingent on a period of bruising deal-making….
“A Beijing source who supports Mr Hu said the events showed the President was gaining greater control over the 200-member Central Committee and was taking a stand against allies of former president Jiang Zemin.
“‘There will at least be hope for change which, rather than so-called ‘stability’, is what the people want today,’ he said.
“Cheng Li, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Mr Xi’s failure to win promotion showed the Communist Party was developing more sophisticated mechanisms for leadership succession.
“‘You do see checks and balances appearing in the system, there can be no single ‘strongman’, and new rules of the game are emerging,’ he said.”[C]
Xi was seen as Jiang Zemin’s choice and as being part of the more Westernising wing of the party. But nothing is simple in China. Back in February 2009, he caused surprise by coming out with some anti-Western remarks:
“Mr Xi, 55, is touring South America in his role as deputy president and, although it is widely acknowledged that he will be Hu Jintao’s successor as China’s leader, very little is known about him…
“While passing through Mexico, however, Mr Xi launched into an outspoken rant that provided a rare insight into his character.
“After proudly claiming that China has already made its contribution to the financial crisis by making sure its own 1.3 billion people are fed, he said that ‘there are a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country’.
“He added: ‘China does not export revolution, hunger, poverty, nor does China cause you any headaches. Just what else do you want?’
“Commentators suggested that Mr Xi was lashing out at his Mexican hosts for siding with Britain and the United States in calling for China to improve its human rights record.
“China has also recently come under attack from the US for ‘manipulating’ its currency and distorting world trade, although these comments were toned down at last week’s G7 meeting in Rome.
“The phrase ‘having a full stomach and nothing better to do’ is an earthy insult in Chinese for cynical troublemakers.
“His speech was judged far too inflammatory by censors inside China, and was instantly deleted from websites and news reports.
“Chinese nationalists instantly jumped on Mr Xi’s words, offering support for his hardline position and criticising the government for being too diplomatic in its dealings with foreigners. They lauded Mr Xi’s frankness in comparison to the staid caution of Mr Hu and Mr Wen.
“However, their support was shortlived. Bloggers trying to write about Mr Xi’s speech soon had their posts taken down by censors.” [D]
What was said sounds reasonable enough, just not the thing for a visiting politician to say. China has so far been very low-key about its rising power and avoided getting into arguments with the West. Sounding off might have cost Xi the top job: we’ll have to see. But it could be that Hu will try to follow Putin’s example, hand over the Presidency to one of his own faction and hope to remain the actual leader.
One other interesting detail. Mao’s status has been rising in China after a low point under Deng. The collapse of the pro-Moscow Communists suggests that Mao was absolutely right be break with Moscow, even at the cost of considerable hardship in 1959-1961. The 1997 crisis of the ‘Asian Tigers’ and the long stagnation in Japan shows limits in the non-Communist East Asian model that Deng had been so impressed by. As I’ve said before, it was the tripling of China’s economy under Mao and its rise as a nuclear-armed Great Power that made the USA so keen to advance non-Communist East Asia.
Mao’s reputation also remains solid among ordinary Chinese – as indeed does Stalin’s in Russia. His grandson Mao Xinyu gets some of the reflected glory. This month there was a story about him being promoted to major-general – which at 39 would have made him the youngest in the People’s Liberation Army. The first story said:
“His elevation has not been announced formally, but state media said he was recently introduced by the new title while making a speech as a researcher for the Academy of Military Sciences. [E] This was soon corrected; he is still just a Senior Colonel. [H] But his importance and popularity seems to be rising.
[Xi Jinping did of course succeed. And has taken a line of no concessions to Western values, as well as launching an anti-corruption drive. Whether he made some deal or was always planning to act so is something we probably won’t know about till many years in the future.]
Taiwan’s former President has been jailed for life for corruption. When his party displaced the Kuomintang, it was hailed as proof that Taiwan had got Western-style democracy with alternation of powers. Now it’s become clear it has nothing of the sort:
“Taiwan’s former President Chen Shui-bian has been sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of corruption by a court in Taipei.
“Mr Chen was charged with embezzlement, taking bribes and money laundering, involving a total of $15m (£9m) while in office from 2000-2008.
“Mr Chen had denied the charges, saying they were politically motivated.
“His wife, Wu Shu-chen, already jailed for perjury in the case, was also sentenced to life for corruption…
“Mr Chen has previously said the charges were constructed by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) government in a political vendetta. He has admitted accepting money but said it was campaign contributions.” [F]
I doubt the man was any more corrupt than the Kuomintang, or the various post-war leaders who turned Japan into an economic superpower. But the idea of two rival teams competing for power in a sporting manner is no part of Chinese tradition, whereas party politics in Japan was part of the Meiji modernisation and was doing OK before the 1930s World Slump.
The Kuomintang has been autocratic and corrupt from its earliest beginnings as a revolutionary sect. It all along had ties to Secret Societies that had begun as underground resistance to the Manchu conquerors of Ming-dynasty China, but had largely degenerated into gangsterism. Sun Yat-sen tried to use them in their original role, but never let them corrupt him. Things were otherwise with Chiang Kai-shek, who spent several years in Shanghai and was close to the notorious Green Gang, maybe an actual member. He was also believed to have been involved in the shooting of Tao Chengzhang, a nationalist rival to Sun Yat-sen. Two recent Western biographies take different lines on the matter. Jonathan Fenby in Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost accepts that Chiang shot the man while the man was in hospital, but excuses it as a ‘loss of temper’. J Taylor in The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China takes a different line – it was a political murder, but nothing to do with Chiang who was not there and knew nothing about it. Oddly, he makes no attempt to deal with Fenby’s alternative version in an earlier work. Or maybe not so odd – both books are whitewash jobs on a brutal and ineffective leader who achieved nothing in his years in power.
Interestingly, it seems he never lost his dream of recovering his lost authority:
“Most people in China and Taiwan might think they know what happened after the long and bloody civil war between the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Communist Party ended in 1949.
“But recently declassified government archives have revealed a previously unknown secretive plan by Taiwan’s late President Chiang Kai-shek to take back mainland China.
“Chiang and his troops had fled to Taiwan after losing the war to the Communists but, despite great obstacles, he was obsessed with the idea of taking back the land he had lost.
“According to these newly-revealed government documents, by the 1960s Chiang thought the time was right to launch a counter-attack, given the devastating famine Mao Zedong’s leadership had unleashed and the possibility China would soon have a nuclear weapon.
“The US was fighting the Vietnam War then, and Chiang knew he needed US military assistance if he were to succeed so he offered to help the Americans fight the war in Vietnam in exchange for US support.
“Washington objected to Chiang’s suggestions, but Chiang went ahead with his preparations anyway…
“In 1965, the plans were ready. Soldiers and officers drew up their wills, while the top brass were trying to choose the most suitable ‘D-Day’ to deploy their troops, according to the archives.
“But Beijing had discovered the plan. On 6 August 1965, two Taiwanese naval vessels assigned to transport troops on a reconnaissance mission were sunk by Communist forces. About 200 soldiers were killed.
“In November the same year, another vessel sent to drop off supplies for soldiers stationed on one of Taiwan’s outlying islands was hit by Communist torpedoes, killing some 90 soldiers.
“The heavy loss of life surprised Chiang Kai-shek. He then realised China had significantly improved its naval capability. Chiang was forced to scale back and eventually abandon his plan.
“But according to Gen Huang Chih-chung, who was an army colonel at the time and was part of the planning process, Chiang never completely gave up the desire to take back China.” [G]
Contrary to what the article says, Mao’s authority had not been weakened by the ‘Three Bitter Years’ of 1959-1961. He’d got the country free of Moscow and that was a grand achievement. He was able to launch the Cultural Revolution and throw the country into chaos without any faction appearing that regarded itself as anti-Mao. Still, Chiang had a big army that was loyal to him. If he’d ever got US backing it might have been possible to start a war, though the USA would probably have had to bear the main burden. Whether they might try it would have hinged on whether or not the USA could win in South Vietnam – we knew at the time that it was the key Cold War struggle.
A much worse world might have resulted if the USA had won in South Vietnam. Just as it might have happened if they’d got what they were after in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The recent election in Germany is being described as a triumph for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Actually her party stayed about even in votes and won 14 extra seats out of a total of 622. The Free Democrats gained 32 and she no longer needs the Social Democrats, who lost 76. But the Greens gained 17, while 22 seats were gained by the Left Party, an alliance of dissident Social Democrats and former Communists.
The German Social Democrats must be losing out because it’s not clear what they stand for. They might fall apart completely. The Christian Democrats sometimes sound as if they want to go back to the successful Mixed Economy of the 1950s and 1960s. But do they have the determination to change the global financial system in the face of British and US resistance? New Labour are determined to limit any reform to the small matter of bonuses. They are so convinced that the virtues of finance that they are bitterly against any attempt to restore the controls we had in the 1970s. Blair speaks for most of them when he speaks about ‘not going back to them methods of 40 years ago’. This despite the visible failure of the revived methods of 80 or 120 years ago, private finance not much regulated by government.
Meantime in Norway, an expected victory for the centre-right failed to happen:
“Jens Stoltenberg yesterday vowed to strengthen Norway’s welfare system and defend jobs after winning re-election as prime minister of western Europe’s biggest oil producing state.
“His centre-left coalition clinched a narrow majority in Monday’s poll after seeing off a stiff challenge from opposition parties promising lower taxes and greater free enterprise.
“The result was a vote of confidence in Norway’s cradle-to-grave welfare system and an endorsement of Mr Stoltenberg’s efforts to insulate the country from the global downturn.
“But two of the biggest long-term dilemmas facing Norway were left unresolved: whether it should join the European Union and whether it should open pristine Arctic coastline to oil drilling.” [K]
In Portugal, the two main parties are the Socialists and the Social-Democrats, with the Social-Democrats being the centre-right and promising lower taxes and less public spending. The Socialists have just been re-elected, though with a reduced majority.[K]
Britain seems certain to vote the wrong way at the next general election, choosing lower taxes and less public spending, something that will benefit the rich. But that’s just Britain, where the New Right ideology started. The tides of the world are flowing the other way.