Monthly Archives: April 2008

Kissinger on Asia as the Next Europe

Henry Kissinger outlines Three Revolutions that present new challenges to the old model of state-based power politics.

These transformations take place against the backdrop of a third trend, a shift in the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Paradoxically, this redistribution of power is to a part of the world where nations still possess the characteristics of traditional European states. The major states of Asia — China, Japan, India and, in time, possibly Indonesia — view each other the way participants in the European balance of power did, as inherent competitors even when they occasionally participate in cooperative ventures.

In the past, such shifts in the structure of power generally led to war, as happened with the emergence of Germany in the late 19th century. Today the rise of China is assigned such a role in much alarmist commentary. True, the Sino-American relationship will inevitably contain classical geopolitical and competitive elements. These must not be neglected. But there are countervailing elements. Economic and financial globalization, environmental and energy imperatives, and the destructive power of modern weapons all impose a major effort at global cooperation, especially between the United States and China. An adversarial relationship would leave both countries in the position of Europe after the two world wars, when other societies achieved the preeminence the nations of Europe sought through self-destructive conflict with each other.

No previous generation has had to deal with different revolutions occurring simultaneously in separate parts of the world. The quest for a single, all-inclusive remedy is chimerical. In a world in which the sole superpower is a proponent of the prerogatives of the traditional nation-state, where Europe is stuck in halfway status, where the Middle East does not fit the nation-state model and faces a religiously motivated revolution, and where the nations of South and East Asia still practice the balance of power, what is the nature of the international order that can accommodate these different perspectives?

Leave a comment

Filed under Asia, economics, Europe, nationalism, U.S.

Preaching Dreams vs. Preaching Nightmares

From: Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, by Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), pp. 1-3:

THIS BOOK was born from an essay, “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World,” that we wrote in the fall of 2004. We released the essay in pamphlet form at the annual conference of environmental donors and grantees, hoping to spark a conversation among insiders. What we didn’t expect was that it would be read and debated by such a diverse audience, from college students to corporate executives, everywhere from Italy to Colombia to Japan, or that it would become a projection screen for the hopes and anxieties of the broader progressive community in the United States.

After all was said and done, the passages of our essay that seemed to resonate the most with readers were those that criticized environmentalists for their doomsday discourse. The most quoted lines in the essay were these:

Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an “I have a nightmare” speech instead.

We went on to contrast the environmental movement’s complaint-based approach to politics with King’s positive vision — and called on environmentalists to replace their doomsday discourse with an imaginative, aspirational, and future-oriented one.

What we didn’t know at the time we wrote those words was that King had given an “I have a nightmare” speech. In fact, he had given it just moments before he gave his “I have a dream” speech.

The setting was the August 28, 1963, March on Washington. Hundreds of thousands of people had crowded before the Lincoln Memorial, on the Washington Mall, to hear King and other leaders rally the country to support civil rights legislation. Millions of others watched on television, where the speech was carried live by all three networks….

The operating metaphor in King’s nightmare speech was the debt white America owed African Americans. “We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” he said, but “instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.” The words revealed King’s fears that the march wouldn’t be taken seriously by Congress and the White House. “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment,” he warned. Those who underestimated the movement’s power, he said, would have a “rude awakening.” It was perhaps the darkest and most discouraged speech King ever gave.

But then something strange and wonderful happened. A voice rang out from the back of the dais. It was Mahalia Jackson. “Tell them about your dream, Martin!” She could feel that King had dwelt too long in the dark valley — he needed to bring the crowd up to the sunlit mountaintop. Having heard him give riffs of the dream speech to earlier audiences, Jackson knew just what King needed to do. “Tell them about the dream!” she cried once more.

King seemed to address his next line — “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair” — as much to himself as to the crowd. He then pattered — “I say to you today my friend” — and paused, triggering soft applause from the tired audience and buying himself the time he needed to reorganize his thoughts.

King then seemed to find the words Mahalia Jackson had tossed him, and he began the new speech. “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.” From there King led the hot crowd in a rapid climb out of the valley.

[W]hen we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children — black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics — will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

With the words “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last,” racial integration suddenly felt inevitable.

On this day 40 years ago, the day Dr. King was shot, I was finishing up my freshman year of college at the University of Richmond, Virginia, after spending most of my life as a foreigner in Japan, where I learned about segregation in the U.S. but did not experience it the way I did its legacy while working at my uncle’s filling station in Tidewater Virginia: old black men who still insisted on addressing a young white boy as ‘sir’, old black women who could not bring themselves to use the formerly “whites-only” restrooms, and movie-goers who still segregated themselves at the drive-in theater in Suffolk by entering through the formerly segregated entrances (whites to the left, blacks to the right) and parking on the white side or the black side of the lot.

On my first solo trip to an American drive-in theater in my uncle’s car, I unknowingly drove in through the black entrance. Despite the cold reception at the ticket booth, I didn’t discover I was on the black side of the theater until I went to the refreshment stand between features and discovered that I was the only white kid on my side and that there were no black folks on the other side.

Nowadays, blacks are much less segregated in the South (and West) than in the big Northern cities. And the world is much less black and white.

Leave a comment

Filed under U.S.

Fallows on China the Fragile Superpower

In a blogpost about the disconnect between China’s internal poverty and external superpower status, James Fallows ends up quoting from his own piece on American values in the November 2007 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

When living in Japan, I heard accounts from many Japanese who had gone to the U.S. for business or study in the 1950s, after the Allied occupation ended. They looked at the factories and the farms and the vastness of America and asked themselves: What were we thinking?

How could tiny Japan have imagined challenging the United States? After the Soviet Union fell and the hollowness of its system was exposed, many Americans asked: What were we thinking about “two superpower” competition with the U.S.S.R.? Its missiles were lethal and its ideology was brutal and dangerous. But a rival to America as an overall model? John F. Kennedy was only one of many to suggest as much, in his 1960 campaign references to the prestige gap as well as missile gap that had opened. Eventually, we all learned there was no comparison at all.

I think if more Americans came to China right now and saw how hard so many of its people are struggling just to survive, they too might ask: What are we thinking, in considering China an overall threat? Yes, its factories are formidable, and its weight in the world is huge. But this is still a big, poor, developing nation trying to solve the emergency of the moment. Susan Shirk, of the University of California at San Diego, recently published a very insightful book that calls China a “fragile superpower.” “When I discuss it in America,” she told me, “people always ask, ‘What do you mean, fragile?’” When she discusses it here in China, “they always ask, ‘What do you mean, superpower?’”

Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, nationalism, U.S., USSR

Highly Stratified Classlessness

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 171-172:

There was a direct correlation between the allocation of material goods and power or position in the socio-political hierarchy. Below the Soviet elite nobody had many possessions – most people lived in a single pair of clothes – and there was barely enough food for everyone. But in the distribution of even these few goods there was a strict ranking system with infinite gradations between the various categories of employee based on status in the workplace, skill level and experience, and to some extent on geographical location, for rates of pay were better in Moscow and other major cities than they were in the provincial towns and rural areas. Despite its egalitarian image and ideals, this was in fact a highly stratified society. There was a rigid hierarchy of poverty.

Private trade partly compensated for the frequent shortages of the planned economy. People sold and exchanged their household goods at flea markets. If they could afford it, they could buy the produce grown by kolkhoz peasants on their garden allotments and sold at the few remaining urban markets tolerated by the government. People were allowed to sell their furniture and other precious items at the state commission stores, or exchange their jewellery and foreign currency for luxury foodstuffs and consumer goods at the Torgsin shops developed by the regime in the early 1930s to draw out the savings of the population and raise capital for the Five Year Plan. The black market flourished on the margins of the planned economy. Goods unavailable in the state stores were sold at higher prices under the counter, or siphoned off to private traders (bribe-paying friends of the manager) for resale on the black market. To cope with the problems of supply an ‘economy of favours’ came into operation through small informal networks of patrons and clients (a system known as ‘blat’). In many ways the Soviet economy could not have functioned without these private connections. To get anything (a rented room, household goods, a railway ticket, a passport or official papers) required personal contacts – family and kin, colleagues, friends, or friends of friends. The same blackmarket principles were known to operate in Soviet factories and institutions, where many goods and services were supplied and exchanged on the basis of personal contacts and favours. Soviet propaganda portrayed blat as a form of corruption (the aim of rooting out these private networks of patron-client relations assumed an important role in the purges), and this view was shared by many workers, in particular. But most people were ambivalent in their attitude to blat: they recognized that it was not right morally, and certainly not legal, but relied on it, as everybody did, to fulfill their needs and get around a system they knew to be unfair. Without blat it was impossible to live with any comfort in the Soviet Union. As the proverb said: ‘One must have, not a hundred roubles, but a hundred friends.’

Leave a comment

Filed under economics, Russia, USSR

Cuyahoga River Fires of 1868, 1912, 1936, 1952, 1969

From: Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, by Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), pp. 22-24:

On June 22, 1969, oil and debris on the surface of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames and burned for twenty-five minutes. The burning river quickly became national news. Time magazine published an article headlined “The Price of Optimism,” complete with a spectacular photo of the river aflame. Randy Newman wrote a song about the famous fire. And decades later, environmental leaders remembered the fire as an emblematic cause of the burgeoning environmental movement. “I will never forget a photograph of flames, fire, shooting right out of the water in downtown Cleveland,” President Clinton’s EPA administrator Carol Browner said years later. “It was the summer of 1969 and the Cuyahoga River was burning.”

But the famous photograph that appeared in Time was not of the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969. It was of a far more serious fire in 1952 that burned for three days and caused $1.5 million in damage. In fact, the Cuyahoga had caught fire on at least a dozen occasions since 1868. Most of those earlier fires were much more devastating than the 1969 blaze: A fire on the Cuyahoga in 1912 killed five people. A fire in 1936 burned for five days. The 1969 fire, by contrast, lasted just under thirty minutes, caused only $50,000 in damage, and injured no one. The reason Time had to use the photograph of the 1952 fire is that the 1969 fire was out before anyone could snap a picture of it.

For at least a hundred years before 1969, industrial river fires were a normal part of American life. In his scrupulous reconstruction of the era, the environmental law professor Jonathan Adler writes,

The first reported Cuyahoga River fires were well over a century ago. Indeed, it appears that burning oil and debris in rivers was somewhat common. Due to the volume of oil in the river, the Cuyahoga was “so flammable that if steamboat captains shoveled glowing coals overboard, the water erupted in flames” … The Cuyahoga was also not the only site of river fires. A river leading into the Baltimore harbor caught flame on June 8, 1926 … The Rouge River in Dearborn, Michigan, “repeatedly caught fire” like the Cuyahoga, and a tugboat on the Schuylkill burned when oil on the river’s surface was lit.

It wasn’t that nobody had noticed that the river had become a disaster. In 1881, the mayor of Cleveland called the Cuyahoga “an open sewer.” The problem was that there wasn’t the political will to do much about it. After the Civil War, the city was understandably more concerned with building a new sewer system to prevent more cholera outbreaks than with addressing the occasional river fire.

Like the sad and largely unacknowledged history of the Cuyahoga, smog in Los Angeles and other cities was bad in 1970 but hardly worse than the foul air Americans breathed in earlier eras. All of which begs the question: if modern environmentalism was born in response to the dramatic visual evidence of industrial pollution, why wasn’t it born in 1868, 1912, or 1952?

3 Comments

Filed under economics, industry, U.S.