Why the Chinese government is not going anywhere

I heard someone ask today why the possibly 180,000-and-rising protests every year in China do not bring down the regime like they are doing in the Middle East. Here is my take.

First, protests in China are usually not against the regime. They tend to be against a crooked local politician. The book Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China’s Peasants illustrates decently, if anecdotally, the blatant corruption and brutal repression of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s local elites. Most of China’s protests and riots occur at a local level, for local reasons. The reason we see demonstrations against, say, Japanese claims to the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands on the news is that they are the exception. In fact, the Chinese government has usually been able to exploit popular discontent and direct it toward Japan (unlike Arab governments’ unconvincing blame tossed at the US and Israel), which means that the enemy is not the Chinese government but the Japanese government.

Second, the Chinese media wear a muzzle. News outlets played down or failed to report the protests in Egypt, and websites blocked keyword searches for “Egypt”. Naturally, they could not simply say nothing at all was happening, and as such, the state-run media towed the line it always has, that the violence is due to trying to implant democracy where it does not belong, and that all the Chinese people really want anyway is stability. Given that internet censors in China have in the past shut down Facebook, Twitter and the other online tools that have notably helped many protesters organise, they will not hesitate to do so again if Chinese citizens appear to be doing the same.

For the third reason protests will not bring down the Chinese government, you may first want to read this article. In it, Professor Joshua Tucker makes the point that, while we tend to focus on “the dictator”, dictatorships, like all governments, are more of a coalition of elites that support the guys at the top. If, say, the businesspeople and intelligence services decide their interests are better served deserting the government, they will do so. The CCP is an enormous collection of politicos, businesspeople, bureaucrats and military men, all of whom win money and face by being associated with the upper echelons, and few of whom have any reason to side with anti-government protesters. The government is very effective at co-opting various segments of society, and now comprises businesspeople and intellectuals, along with the usual suspects. The upper class is thus very happy with the status quo.

Finally, a large part of the middle class likes the government because they consider it responsible for the growth in wealth and basic stability they have experienced over the past generation. People often vent their rage publicly when the economy diminishes, and indeed is a major reason for the current anti-government riots; the Chinese economy, on the other hand, continues to grow (albeit unevenly). The young urbanites who participated in China’s 1989 anti-government protests have grown up and moved on. China’s population has aged somewhat since then, and a younger population usually means more popular outrage (including in the current Middle East protests). The middle class, too, would probably need to be won over before anyone could bring down China’s government, and most of it will not be. In short, an Egypt-like takedown of the Chinese government is not going to happen any time soon.

Stop trying to combat terrorism

It has been nine years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the US, and we are still talking about fighting terrorism and killing terrorists. However, if we really want to end terrorism, we should start not by combating it, but by understanding it.

Misguided policies are usually at the root of terrorism. Governments in Central Asia, for example, are still pouring money into anti-terrorist campaigns putatively aiming to end terrorism. Instead, they strengthen the state vis-a-vis the people who hate it, and strengthen calls for terrorism by giving the people ever-better reasons to engage in it. Miroslav Jenca, head of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia, told Xinhua that the instability in Central Asia was a breeding ground for terrorist activity. “[T]he wider region is fast becoming the main front on the global war against terror.” But tactics so far have done nothing. Is it because they are insufficiently integrated into a region-wide or global campaign? No, it is because they ignore the reasons people are so discontented. People in Central Asia, from western China to eastern Uzbekistan, are repressed and harassed by their governments and treated like scum. Separatism, Islamic militancy and other hostile outbursts against the state are almost inevitable in such conditions. Do governments not know that, or do they simply want to fight a war with no end in order to extend their governments into more people’s affairs and take away more people’s freedoms? As we ponder that question, Uzbekistan holds 14 human rights activists in jail and 25 men under arrest for terrorism in Tajikistan have escaped from prison.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are just two examples of state failure accelerated by overzealous anti-terrorist campaigns. The US government has helped fund counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia in return for bases by which to attack terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US Department of Defense says the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF has helped “set the economic, political and security conditions for the growth of an effective, democratic national government in Afghanistan.” But merely to look at the headlines, we see huge corruption and ineffective governance in Hamid Karzai’s government; violence against foreign soldiers and locals by Taliban, whose membership does not seem to be waning despite the pressure on them; and a battle for hearts and minds that is tumbling down the sinkhole of counter-insurgency. Perhaps I am being unfair, assuming that nine years is long enough to bring about results. But while the public in countries contributing troops to the ISAF grows restive, the Taliban and other so-called “terrorist” groups are not shrinking. Is this War on Terror showing any meaningful reduction in terrorism?

Muslims in Canada have been arrested under terrorist charges, including recently. Many of the “Toronto 18” accused of a terrorist plot in 2006 have been charged. It is likely that their desire for violence came from their seeing Muslims around the world suffer. One notoriously talked about beheading Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Terrorism in Canada, including attempting to kill a pro-war prime minister, suggests to me the Toronto 18 plot was an expression of rage against Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. History lends itself to this analysis. In 2004, bombs went off in Madrid three days before a general election that were obviously a protest of Spain’s involvement in Iraq. With little regard to Spanish politics at the time, some accused the Spanish people of caving in by electing a new government and immediately ending Spain’s commitment to Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, pre-election polls suggested Spanish voters had been at best lukewarm on the war and the government who had led them to war. For two days following the Madrid bombing, the government tried to manipulate information and blame the Basque militant group, ETA; the public’s finding out it was in fact an offshoot of al Qaeda added anger to shock. A few days after the election, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote an article headed “The world must unite against terrorism”, in which he called the removal of Spanish troops from Iraq a victory for the terrorists. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant. A more important question is, was it the right thing to do? He proceeded to conclude that Britain must not follow suit. A year later, Britain suffered its own terrorist bombing, almost definitely to end the UK government’s killing and debasement of Muslims in Iraq.

Muslims are accused of becoming radicalised in madrassas, some of which are funded by the Saudi royal family to spread its brand of Islam around, and perhaps to spread Islamic extremism. I am no fan of religion of any kind, least of all the Saudi Wahhabist variety. But similar schools with similar messages have existed for centuries. The influence of Saudi-funded mosques and missions is a shadow compared to what Muslim terrorists actually rebel against: repression, murder, injustice and occupation. (Incidentally, the Arabic word “madrassa” does not mean “place where people go to get transformed into jihadist suicide bombers” but “school”.) The US has always been nominally against those things, but its foreign policy says otherwise.

Terrorism is a weapon of the weak. It is usually an expression of anger and frustration at a state (unless it is performed by a state) by people who believe they have no better option. The enormous overreactions to terrorism are evidence that it works. We need to stop throwing money and lives into the bottomless pit of killing terrorists and begin listening to them and their supporters and changing foreign policy behaviour accordingly.

Perhaps we could take all the money we are spending on guns, drones and bombs to kill terrorists and put them toward public health in that part of the world. We could spend it building friendly relations among people of our countries, rather than just the elites getting together to carve them up. How about the ISAF and NATO and the Coalition of the Willing leave Iraq, Afghanistan and those other countries altogether, at least until the people welcome them back? Watch the terrorists’ grievances and claims to legitimacy wash away.

The news for the past week, 28/8/10

This is your Menso World News weekend update. Here is the news.

The PKK have announced a ceasefire for the millionth time.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are in some kind of peace talks, also for the millionth time.

Uighur separatists are suspected of having set off a bomb that killed some people in Xinjiang. Turns out the bomb wounded more people than it killed.

Some people have died in India’s Red Corridor in fighting between the Maoist Naxalites and the groups they fight.

Observers documented mass rape in the Congo. Is that the first you have heard of it?

A Muslim wrote a scathing article about the “Ground Zero Mosque”, and another wrote about why the veil is wrong. We haven’t heard much about female genital mutilation recently, so I guess that’s not going on anymore.

Somali pirates are being talked about by important international legal bodies. A bomb exploded at a hotel in Mogadishu too, but that’s not as cool as pirates.

Some suspected Islamic terrorists were rounded up by the secret service of a big country, accused of plotting to blow something up.

There are some problems related to Gypsies. Those damn gypsies, always causing problems.

And finally, Glenn Beck did something crazy.

So much for the news this week! Not that any of it’s news.

Destroy the old world, forge a new world: Posters and the Cultural Revolution

In China today, one can find posters for sale in stores and on the street from the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The Cultural Revolution was a time of turmoil, in which so many Chinese people still alive today participated, but seem to prefer to forget about. To them, sorry. I simply find the subject a fascinating example of so many phenomena: mass movements and groupthink, propaganda and personality cult, imaginary enemies and violence.

When the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, it called on revolutionaries (so everyone that did not want to get humiliated or killed) to write big-word posters (大字报) with images and slogans that appeal to Marxist ideals. This is a brief look at the posters of the Cultural Revolution and how they, like so much propaganda for revolution or war, whipped up public fervour for violence.

Of the posters I have seen, there are a few noticeable themes. (The captions, where there are captions, are translations of each poster. Where there is no caption, the words are my own interpretation.) First is gathering support for the revolution. Second is children. Third is military and defence. Fourth is reverence for Chairman Mao. I have added a poster of Red Guard taking down “counter-revolutionaries” and photos that illuminate the reality behind the posters.


Some points of note:

Mao Zedong is always smiling. The people are smiling at Mao, unless they are busy destroying counter-revolutionaries.

The colour red is employed more than any other. Red is not only important in Chinese culture (symbolising joy and good fortune) and communist culture (the blood of the workers), the colour red draws people in and elicits emotion from them (see more in this video on Nazi propaganda). Mao wanted his last revolution to channel the energies of his cult, and red helped ensure he did.

The first poster is of destroying the relics of the old world. Under the revolutionary’s foot are, among other things, a crucifix and a Buddha statue. The photo next to it is of a public burning of Buddha statues.

Many of the posters show people with guns next to people with farming implements. Mao’s Little Red Book is usually there, either in the hands of everyone or in the hands of those at the head of a long line. The book itself seems to be leading the way.

The animosity displayed during the Cultural Revolution was not only directed at internal bourgeois enemies but also at external ones, such as the Soviet Union, whoever planned to invade China and whoever was occupying Taiwan. I saw the poster reading “destroy the Soviet Union” when I lived in Beijing; it actually read “destroy [or ‘smash’] the Soviet Union” on the left and “destroy imperialist America” on the right. This photo was taken at Beijing University.

The posters depict masses of people all aligned behind Mao, as if all the people of China were following his every word. Millions, of course, were.

For similar posters, see these other sites:
http://benross.net/wordpress/cultural-revolution-propaganda-part-3/2009/01/17/
http://www.iisg.nl/landsberger/
http://chinaposters.org/themes/themes
http://www.docspopuli.org/ChinaWebCat/gallery-01.html
or this site for more photos:
http://chinaspot.org/some-photos-about-cultural-revolution/

Arms for Taiwan, finger for China

The US and Taiwan have good relations. Though the US does not officially recognise Taiwan as independent from China, like the rest of the world it treats Taiwan as what it is: a de facto independent state. And now it is apparently time for a new arms deal between the US and Taiwan. The US sells arms to just about everyone, so why not to a little island in the Pacific? What could China possibly be angry about?

If you answered “a lot”, you not alone. Since the government of China considers Taiwan a renegade province which will, inevitably, one day be reunited with its true owners, and since a huge number of people in China fervently agree, American arms sales to Taiwan are a kind of provocation. If the Chinese government sold weapons to al Qaeda, Americans would feel approximately the same as the Chinese do at present.

I believe that any group of people that wishes to be independent should be, regardless of what some militant nationalists say. Therefore, I am all in favour of Taiwan’s continued independence from China. However, there is no reason to provoke China by selling Taiwan another $6.4b in arms. As I said, I support independence, and the US government has already made it clear that it does too. It established the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 and updated it with the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act in 2000. The Acts both authorise arms sales but the central clauses state in clear terms that the United States guarantees Taiwan’s security and independence. Even though it has always denounced it, China’s government grudgingly accepts the security pact. Why antagonise China further?

The United States needs China. Its government, in particular, through decades (or at least one decade) of myopic policies, is financially dependent on China like a teenager with a credit card is dependent on his father to bail him out. The two countries are, of course, economically interdependent; witness the Chinese government’s understandable threat of sanctions on American arms manufacturers. They should be cooperating more on political and military levels–in the Security Council; on East and Central Asian security matters, where their interests coincide; on Iran, which for some reason Barack has a desire to punish but which China is wisely declining to rush into a decision on; the list continues. Their divergent attitudes on the Dalai Lama are another source of Chinese anger, but the US government accepts Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, and can leverage this acceptance to extract other concessions. Neither has an interest in war with the other.

The problem is, at root, one of ego. China and the US both see themselves, at a cultural level, as the rightful superpowers of the world. Each needs to be the best in the world, the biggest, the richest, the fastest, the strongest. Over the next generation, we will see this playground need for supremacy play out everywhere from the oceans to the Olympics. But why do we need to be number one? Surely, we should be working to be better than our former selves, not better than others. But instead of setting our own goals and working with others to achieve them, we treat others as competitors and train to beat them, even cheating or holding them down if necessary.

Only through recognising their common interests and cooperating on them will the US and China avoid violent collision. Billions of dollars in arms sales to Taiwan is not the way to build a partnership that affects the entire world.

I should mention one other point, however. China’s government (unlike its people) do not actually want Taiwan to be “reunited” with the mainland. Claiming unwavering and fully legitimate sovereignty over Taiwan serves two functions. It is a kind of bone thrown to the Chinese people that whips up anger at foreigners for their support for Taiwanese independence, which in practice means more support for the CCP. And it can be a blunt foreign policy instrument to use against foreign governments, to extract concessions: you owe us for your support of Taiwan. Though I still think the US should not antagonise China unnecessarily, there is every reason to regard China’s claims about Taiwan skeptically.

Toying with history is a dangerous game

This post is largely based on Dangerous Games: the Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret Macmillan.

The recent history of history

During the Cold War, history was not considered as interesting as it is now. The capitalist and communist systems were about building a new world, not looking back; and old rivalries, such as Croats vs. Serbs, were supposed to have been lost in the swirling mists of time.

The 1990s therefore surprised everyone by ushering in a more complicated, international order. The ethnic conflicts that had so characterised the pre Cold War world had not perished but simply frozen, just under the surface. But an equally inaccurate reading of history led some to think that the new fighting was based on age-old conflicts, rather than, to go back to the example of Yugoslavia, on Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tuđman’s ambitious opportunism in carving up Bosnia between themselves. A merely superficial understanding of history meant that whether to intervene to end the war in Yugoslavia was a question that cost thousands of lives to answer.

Bad history hides answers

There is a mass of bad history out there, sometimes recognisable by its sweeping generalisations. It is conventional wisdom that the Treaty of Versailles led directly to World War Two. However, this account overlooks the fact that treatment was not as severe as many Germans claimed at the time. Germany only paid a fraction of the bill, and Hitler cancelled it outright. The Weimar Republic government’s mismanagement of its economy was far more damaging. Germany also had bad leaders, who thought they could control Hitler once he got into power. Hitler’s ambition and fierce nationalism were much more influential on the outbreak of the second war.

The manipulation of history is increasingly pervasive in our world. Many governments have departments devoted to commemorating history or “heritage”. They vet history text books to ensure their compliance with the approved version of the story. They believe the past should be used as a tool to create patriotic citizens.We hear one-sided or false histories employed to justify anything in the present. Though history, like the present, is very complicated, painting very blurred lines between good and evil, the abuse of history reduces the complicated to a simple pattern of our good deeds and their criminality. History can thus be an escape to a simple, innocent world from a Norman Rockwell painting. (A romantic past is also good for tourism.)

The descendants of the allies of World War Two believe it was the last clearly, unambiguously good war–even though they were allied with one of the most murderous regimes in history. In North America, Churchill is remembered as the hero who soldiered on alone against Hitler, rather than the author of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of World War One. And the romantic past can remind citizens who do not know history very well why they should support current leaders. George Bush compared himself to Churchill (the great commander, not the Gallipoli guy) and Truman (the unpopular one whom history has vindicated nonetheless); Stalin compared himself to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, the iron-fisted rulers who made Russia strong; Saddam Hussein compared himself to Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria who fought crusaders; and Mao Zedong liked to draw parallels between himself and the Qin Emperor who united China after the Three Kingdoms Period. Analogies draw pretty pictures of ugly faces.

History and collectivism

Publishers and TV stations profit from idealised versions of history because they make us feel good about ourselves and our ancestors. Our approach to history strongly affects our collective self-image. Most people are collectivists: they feel they belong to a group that is bigger than they are, and that everyone else does too. They look to history books to provide not the truth but meaning. We tell and retell stories about ourselves and our groups, and since we do not want to feel bad about anything we associate ourselves with, our stories inevitably make us look good and feel proud.

That leads us to ask, what is history for? Is it to know the truth? To learn lessons for our lives? To create a community? To create patriots? To legitimise current government policy? Or to understand how we got here?

Why is truth important in history? Because only then can we understand the present, understand ourselves and most importantly, understand others. That means a) why our group is no more moral than any other group, b) why others are angry with us, c) what we should do to make things right. If we do not learn, or at least seek out, the truth in history, we will write off everyone else’s anger as irrational. We have given you so much and this is how you repay us? Without truth, or at least a consensus on what the truth is, we have only yelling.

Army regiments have official histories because they are unifying, but they are usually one sided or simplistic. Organisations and ethnic groups have their own heroes. We like heroes and we want our heroes to be pure, so we take inspiration in their good deeds, sometimes exaggerating or even inventing them to create a role model, and ignoring or painting out their faults. The public, and thus politicians, suggest huge honours for soldiers alive and dead, even though the veterans themselves are often non committal. Commemorating soldiers can be good for unity around values that politicians like: nationalism, war, duty, and so on.

History has taken the place of religion as our source of myth. Our group came before and will outlast us, and in a time where fewer believe in an afterlife, our group is a source of immortality. But if the essential features of history, context and causality, are absent, we can see history as an inevitable progression toward a glorious present or future for our group, when in truth it is much less clear. Please also see my book for a discussion of the futility of chasing our identity.

Whose fault is it?

Politicians are quick to make apologies: the pope apologised for the Crusades, for instance; Bill Clinton for slavery; Tony Blair for the Irish potato famine. Apologies are easy. But how do any of them help things? Dwelling on past events like slavery and the Holocaust can make it harder for us to deal with the here and now.

We usually see history through the lens of the present. After the imperialist Suez campaign of 1956, WW2 became seen as the time when all British came together and fought off evil. They felt nostalgia and pride. Churchill’s account of WW2 suggested that the war cabinet was unanimous that Britain must fight on alone. However, the historical account shows that there were long debates in the cabinet, sometimes exploring how to avoid war. A similar debate went on in the American administration over dropping the atom bomb on Japan. When historians began to show that the allies were not always united, and made some morally questionable moves, they were attacked in the press. The US Air Force itself even took offence. Many critics, some who never even read the books they were attacking, said that the historians could not possibly know what happened because they were not there. Margaret Macmillan was even told that, as a woman, what could she know about military affairs anyway?

“Being there does not necessarily give greater insight into events,” writes Macmillan; “indeed, sometimes the opposite is true.” Memory is highly flawed. We think we remember but our memory is often very inaccurate. It is selective and malleable, not set in stone, not recoverable. As Primo Levy, a prominent scholar of the Holocaust, said with a sigh after interviewing Holocaust victims, when a memory is evoked too often, it becomes set in stone, stereotyped, adorned and embellished. And collective memory is stronger because it lasts longer, adorned and embellished over generations. Some nations date their nationhood, or their great win that unified them and expanded their land, or their great defeat since when they have always struggled to regain their land, back hundreds or thousands of years.

The danger of nationalist myth

Israelis and Palestinians dispute every aspect of their history. Both sides tell and retell their own official histories. Since history lies at the heart of their identity and claim to the land, it is impossible for ideologues and hardliners on either side to agree on anything. They seem to believe that proving the length of their claims to the land would be a title deed to it. Fortunately, there are moderates on both sides working together to correct the mistakes and write fairer versions of history books for students to learn about each other, rather than the grievances of their own side and the evils of the other. Unfortunately, few teachers are using them.

Archaeology has assumed a central role in the land debate. But real scientists are not ideologues. Israeli archaeologists have found no evidence at all that Moses or Abraham ever existed, that either the Kingdom of Solomon and David or the Jerusalem of old were anything more than a town, and that there were any Jews in Egypt. Science threw the whole Old Testament into question. In fact, the Old Testament had never been meant as historical record. It was only in the past two hundred years or so, with the wide acceptance of science as a means of discovering the truth, that anyone tried to link religion with science. Nonetheless, Jews, Christians and Muslims repudiated everything the archaeologists found. The truth is a threat to identity.

Israel was founded by creating myths. The fathers of Israel looked back into Jewish history to sculpt their new country. They found Masada–the great defeat and martyrdom of Jewish zealots. But Masada was never particularly important in Jewish history until the modern era. Now, it has become a symbol for Israeli unity in the face of hostility: never again shall Masada fall. In practice, this has meant that no amount of brutality is too much to protect Israeli lives.

But Israelis are only newcomers to the idea of nationalism. Until the past few centuries, and in many cases until WW2, Europeans did not consider themselves part of a “nation” but part of a religion, or guild, or clan. Yet, nationalist historians claimed to have found evidence that there have been discernible German, French, Polish and other nations within recognisable borders for hundreds of years, ignoring the migration and intermarriage between groups. While some myth might make us feel good, we need only look at the nearly one hundred million people who died in the two World Wars, along with Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Tibet, Chechnya, Turkey and Sudan to see nationalist myth in its purest form.

History painfully challenges the assumptions of sensitive people, but to accept the truth is a sign of maturity. In the pre Civil War South of the United States, history books used to show a very simple and beautiful history. Life was easy, polite, cordial, even between slaves and their owners. Textbooks in the South played down slavery and made Africans seem fortunate to have been given the chance to come to America, though they were clearly not clever enough to rule themselves. After desegregation, museums, monuments and textbooks, embarrassed, rescinded most of their mistakes. In France, debate continues about the implications of the French Revolution, Napoleon’s conquests and France’s involvement in Algeria. French historians have tried to make people understand that Napoleon was more a racist dictator than a national hero; others want to erase the prior downplay of the brutality of the Algerian War of Independence; still more dispel the untruth that all French were united in resistance to the Nazis in World War Two. However, in the United States and France, like everywhere else, not everyone appreciates an even view of the past.

Nationalists use dreams of a Golden Age, a time when our nation was great, to motivate people to violence. Mussolini led Italians to believe in a new Roman empire, which led them to disaster in World War Two. Religious fundamentalists are much the same, wanting to restore the Golden Age when all the faithful lived in harmony, until pagans arrived to end it. In the hands of populists, history becomes prophecy. Each nation has a creation myth. Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, used the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge to promote a more militaristic view of history–pride in Canada’s military accomplishments, rather than a critical look at them. China’s government is very selective about history. It cannot repudiate Mao completely because his legacy is their party, and thus their legitimacy rests on his memory. They order “patriotic education”, emphasising how patriotic all Chinese people have always been. They morphed socialism, which the Chinese no longer believe in, into patriotism by calling it “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The past few hundred years of Chinese history is one long line of humiliation that is entirely the fault of foreigners, and conclude that the humiliation will never end until Taiwan is permanently reunited with the mainland. But stories of past glories or wrongs come at the cost of abusing history.

The rise of Hindu nationalism in the 1990s saw the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya by Hindu nationalists who claimed it had been built on the birthplace of the god Rama. More than 2000 people were killed in subsequent riots around the country. In part of a drive to peg India as a strictly Hindu nation, whose worthwhile accomplishments were all made by Hindus, those who destroyed the mosque declared they would destroy more Muslim buildings around India. Of course, believing that one’s civilisation could ever be one pure religion, ethnicity or culture is nonsense: civilisations, societies, cultures and nations are very fluid constructs, as any balanced reading of history can tell us. But the communal violence India has suffered since Ayodhya is testament to the power of historic myth.

Playing the game

One factor that made the Cold War so dangerous was that neither side understood the other. Cold War policymakers paid little attention to the lessons they could learn from history about the other sides. US governments took the USSR’s threats and revolutionary utterances at face value, and the Soviet and Chinese communists believed that the capitalists were willing to go to war in their imperialist quest for wealth. American experts on China predicted the Sino-Soviet Split but were drowned out by Soviet-watchers and hardliners, who said that Mao was under Stalin’s control even after 1961. Russian and Chinese governments believed (and still do) that Western talk of human rights is a mere excuse to meddle in those countries’ internal affairs. “If you do not know the history of another people, you will not understand their values, their fears, and their hopes, or how they are likely to react to something you do.

“There is another way of getting things wrong,” continues Macmillan, “and that is to assume that other peoples are just like you.” Robert Macnamara worked hard after retiring from the US State Department to understand what went wrong in Vietnam. He believed that Americans pasted a portrait of themselves on Vietnam, believing they saw a thirst for freedom akin to the American experience. American officials also thought they could escalate the bombing campaign and raise the pain on the North Vietnamese to force them into a cost benefit analysis that would lead them to conclude it was time to throw in the towel. If they had looked more carefully at the war the Vietnamese fought against the French, they may have realised the determination of the Vietnamese independence movement. They failed to understand the culture and the politics of Vietnam and the personalities of its leaders. The US government has still not learned history very well, as evidenced in George Bush’s uses of the word “crusade” to refer to his manichean foreign policy, his lumping together of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and his administration’s belief that Iraqis would welcome the foreign powers as liberators.

History can show us who made different, better decisions. President Barack is in a similar situation to that of Nixon contemplating the war in Vietnam. Nixon opened relations with America’s enemy, China, which helped him manage Vietnam and the USSR. Barack might be wise to do the same with his Maoist China, Iran. Cooperation with Iran could mean help in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than hindrance of America’s efforts. (Please see my post on why Iran is the bad guy.) Ah, but of course, we should be learning not from Nixon in Nam but from Munich and the foolish Neville Chamberlain.

Talk of appeasement and Munich is bandied about as if to mean one should never talk to one’s enemies. Disregarding the fact that it was not at all clear what else Chamberlain should have done in 1938, the assumption behind allusions to Munich seems to be that everyone other than us knows only the language of force. It is necessary to treat the claims made in history’s name with skepticism, or leaders will use it to bolster claims about the present. Saddam was likened to Adolf, and we all know how to deal with Adolf. George Bush and American neoconservatives have invoked Munich as a clear signal that we should not talk to but isolate or even attack Iran and Syria. But are Iran and Syria Nazi Germany? Is talking to their leaders a sign of weakness? The Munich analogy has been applied liberally since World War Two: Anthony Eden used it to justify a disastrous episode of gunboat diplomacy in 1956, for example.

Learning history is important. We can learn about the world, learn about how to be successful and how to fail, how we should act and how others might react. But manipulating history for political purposes, or ignoring inconvenient parts of history, do not help make better decisions or forge a better future. We must learn to be thorough and think critically about history, to avoid believing the lies about history and its lessons, or we will be doomed to repeat it.

Sanctions on Iran? Let’s be Daoist about it

The Menso Guide to War’s good friend President Barack is proposing sanctions on Iran. Actually, he is proposing further sanctions on Iran. The history of US sanctions on Iran goes back to the deposing of the shah and the hostage crisis of 1979. Barack thinks more sanctions would be a good way to get what he wants in the Middle East, and many Americans support him. I am afraid, however, he is wading in over his head.

The proposed bill targets Iran’s dependence on imports for gasoline. The UN Security Council has passed several resolutions condemning Iran’s enrichment of uranium, because it could use uranium to make a nuclear weapon. In fact, it may already have a nuclear weapon. More resolutions express more accepted condemnation and as such give measures like sanctions (or military action, depending what the resolutions say) more legitimacy. Iran has violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So sanctions are justified to make it stop enriching uranium, right?

Not so fast. Why does Barack want sanctions on Iran? Is it a punishment? My homegirl Hillary has said that, if the sanctions could just target the “relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran”, they could serve the US’s goals. True, it may weaken the regime financially but it would also hurt the people, as sanctions often do–think of the deepening of poverty in Iraq during the 1990s. For instance, the $2b in Citibank belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that the US government froze in 2008 will likely be made up from other assets the Guard own in Iran. Someone always ends up paying, and it is rarely the elites. The people would be pushed into the hands of the hardliners, as I argue they already have been for years since the demonisation of Iran began under Bill Clinton and got no better under George Bush. This outside push on Iran is why a fool like Ahmadinejad can get elected there in the first place. If history is any guide, the people will not turn on their government if threatened or impoverished but run to it for protection.

Will tougher sanctions force a change in policy? Do Iranians even have a right to nuclear technology? For years now, the Iranian government has made it quite clear that it will enrich uranium whether the outside world likes it or not. And why should it? It has become part of the status quo that India, Israel and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons, and though they (along with North Korea) are the only four states not party to the non proliferation treaty, they are allies of the US. Israel gets into wars all the time: in the 62 years since 1948, Israel has fought 7 wars and 2 intifadas. India and Pakistan are continually at odds with one another, and though I disagree with him on Iran, Christopher Hitchens believes the India-Pakistan conflict is the most likely of the world to turn nuclear. Meanwhile, the US is trying to isolate Iran in the kind of double standard that makes international politics the confusing mess it is. If anyone tries to force Iran to give up nuclear capability of any kind, they will look like bullies and hypocrites.

Barack is using a sizeable amount of his political capital in the Security Council drumming up support for sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, the US government talks about how much it would like to talk to Iran and gently persuade it to do the right thing, but the ayatollahs just won’t cooperate. American politicians claim to be wide open to talking to Iran but wide open to bombing it to rubble as well. These arguments play well to the same voters as believe the mindless cliche that our enemies only understand the language of force. Aside from the fact that the claim that the US government is trying to engage Iran is doubtful, how do Hillary and Barack expect the Iranians to open up when they have been pushed away for two decades? You cannot push others away with one hand and expect them to shake your other one.

There seems to be surprisingly little discussion in Washington at the moment about the consequences of putting away all sanctions on Iran. If only American political culture were less impulsive and more Daoist. Daoism considers peace first. It favours non-action, which would be a propitious innovation for a culture that feels the need to move quickly forward in any direction. Daoists remain open minded and flexible, not committed to a single way of thinking, especially after that way has failed. And it believes in relativism, that what path might be right for one may not be right for all.

Perhaps that is why the Chinese government has said that more sanctions on Iran may not be necessary right now, and that it may be prudent to wait. (In truth, I believe Chinese government ideology is pragmatism, not Daoism, but Daoism is a good way to contrast the foreign affairs of the US and China.) It has declared its preference for dialogue over punishment. The Chinese government makes a habit of stating that it is not Chinese policy to interfere in other states’ affairs. It has backed sanctions in the past because like all nuclear powers it does not want anyone new in the club. But perhaps Chinese officials have realised that there are other ways to deal with adamant people.

Why are we so afraid of a nuclear Iran? It is not as if possession of nuclear weapons makes it likely or even possible to use them. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has made them all but useless. Yet Barack has made disarmament a major part of his foreign policy.

I am looking forward to a day when Daoists run the US State Department and liberals run the Revolutionary Guard. Perhaps then we will be able to talk to each other.