Sometimes the stereotypes are right

It’s usually a charmingly naive belief that wars are the fault of leaders, and if the Ordinary People could choose we’d all live in peace. It doesn’t take long, considering some parts of the blogosphere, your local bar, the historical record and such, to realise this is absurdly simplistic. For one thing, there are always plenty of people who, whether they knew it or not beforehand, burst into a dark bloom of hatred at the hat of a drop. For another thing, the structural forces, the permanently-operating factors in Soviet military jargon, that make leaders do these things would work just as well whoever the individuals are.

Call me a determinist and spank me if you like, but I doubt that’s seriously contestable. But the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to defy this, or at least it has done in the last two years or so. Consider the detailed draft agreement on the Golan Heights, but not just that – the Prisoners’ Document agreed between Hamas and Fatah, Khalid Meshaal’s recent statement that Hamas would accept Israel within the 1967 green line as a “reality”, and more, going back to the ceasefire offer set up by MI6 station chief Alistair Crooke back in 2002, and it’s hard not to conclude that some people aren’t trying.

As Simon Hoggard said about Northern Ireland, they’ll do anything for peace but vote for it. More accurately, they would vote for it if it was on offer – majorities of both parties to the conflict express this view in polls. There are probably lessons to be learned about the long-term management of national interests in a small space from Europe – Gordon Brown’s chief economist and now MP, Ed Balls, has apparently been commissioned to study the economic aspects of the question, and he’d be a fool not to look back at the Monnet/Schuman plans. I doubt he’d like it very much – what did happen to the suggested French-Italian-Spanish initiative after all, then?

In conclusion, though, it’s tempting to think that the continuance of the conflict has a lot to do with hierarchy itself, and the vastly enhanced power and status that war gies leaders. If it wasn’t for the frozen war, Belfast politicians would be of similar status to those of Bradford. No US presidential gladhanding there.

Update: You doubt my method? The Globe and Mail reports that Dick Cheney rejected an offer of Iranian help in Iraq and Lebanon in 2003…oh, and another offer: Jalal Talabani says the Iranians offered him and the US talks “from Afghanistan to Lebanon”..

Franco-British Union

Well, it’s now well-blogged that in September, 1956, the French Prime Minister Guy Mollet made an offer of a union between France and Britain to the then PM, Anthony Eden. General reaction has been a mix of shock and amusement, rather like the disclosure of John Major’s affair with Edwina Currie. But was it really that strange?

British political discourse now uses the word “Suez” and the year 1956 as a signifier for not joining the EEC and a lot of things besides – imperialism, militarism, subservience to the US, sexual repression, governmental botching and more. As always when the national processes of mythogenesis get to work, any content of meaning has long since been painted shut like a window in a defunded schoolroom.

But in 1956, it wasn’t all that weird..
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Sarko’s In, But Where are the Votes?

Nicolas Sarkozy has been “elected” as the UMP’s presidential candidate. Why the scarequotes? Well, “elected” usually implies a contest between more than one candidate. And Sarkozy was faced with only one contestant-the Apathy ticket.

Over Christmas, he successfully neutralised most of the possible internecine threats, bringing essentially all the serious rightwing politicians on board. The key to this was his recruitment of former Prime Minister (and convicted criminal) Alain Juppé, who was parachuted into a parliamentary seat back into Bordeaux town hall in the autumn, possibly in the hope he would run against Sarkozy.

But Juppé has signed up with Sarko, almost certainly in exchange for a promise that he will return to the prime minister’s office if the Right wins the election. Defence Minister Michéle Alliot-Marie, meanwhile, saw her campaign fail to get off the ground in a meaningful fashion. That left only Sarko to face an uncontested election. You might have expected a North Korean majority of 90+ per cent, but it didn’t happen. Only 69 per cent of those eligible to vote picked Sarkozy over the apathy ticket.

Before that, though, there had already been some other interesting developments..
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North Sea neuroses

Matthias Matussek, once London correspondent of Der Spiegel and now its culture editor, not to mention brother of top diplomat Thomas Matussek, has a book out. Wir Deutschen: warum die anderen uns gern haben können is meant to be a call for a renewed German patriotism and pride in culture. This would usually suggest a very dull book, but I enjoyed it immensely. Not for the right reasons, though.

Matussek’s approach is idiosyncratic, not that there is anything wrong with that, and the book is really a collection of essays, on topics ranging from Heinrich Heine and Angela Merkel to Britain, Britain, the German economy, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the World Cup, Britain, Danish cartoonists, the East after reunification, and Britain. In fact, an obsession with Britain runs through this book like letters through a stick of rock-hardly a page passes without comparing some German institution, writer, company, statesman or building to one in Britain, and no chapter is complete with a volley of snark directed roughly westward.

Now, it is a truism that Britain and Germany share a mutual obsession. But this would be less interesting if it wasn’t for the sheer wordcount devoted to complaining about the British obsession with Germany. There is a complete chapter on Anglo-German relations, which I looked forward to-the possibilities are immense. Would he dig into the pre-1914 closeness that gave Bradford a Little Germany (and its own Nazi, Ernst-Wilhelm Bohle, born there in 1903 and later Rudolf Hess’s right hand) and Leeds a Dortmund Square, Robert Graves a relative on the Oberste Heeresleitung?

Nah. Instead, most of the chapter is dedicated to the results of a trip to Germany for some schoolteachers his brother’s embassy organised, and a pleasant but uninformative weekend in the country with John Le Carré.
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Indigènes

France is, finally, honouring its North-African war heroes in the wake of the release of the film Indigènes. The film is by French director Rachid Bouchareb and its main cast of five were collectively awarded the Best Actor prize at the film festival of Cannes. The title of the film means “natives” but the official English-language title is “Days of Glory”. From BBC News:

The film is about the campaign from Provence through to Alsace in 1944-45 as seen through the eyes of four soldiers, who leave their homelands in Algeria and Morocco to fight for France.

President Chirac has seen the movie, was moved by it and:

…has announced that the pensions of foreign soldiers who fought in the French army are to be brought into line with those of French ones.

Another interesting quote from the same article:

Many in the audience were themselves of North African origin, and had no idea of this part of French history. “I never saw an Arab or an African soldier in my history books”, says 23-year-old Salima, a student from the Paris suburb of Seine-St-Denis. Her parents come from Morocco and her grandfather fought in the war. (…) “When you go to Africa, people tell us we’re not African. In Europe they tell us we’re not European. We are, and we’re staying. “We’re a bridge that Europe and Africa needs, especially in these times”.

Baltic Framework

Our recent posts on governments in Stockholm and Schwerin are as good a reason as any to highlight Northern Shores, by Alan Palmer. (It’s published in the US as The Baltic.) I had intended to write a premature evaluation, but then I finished the book, which I picked up during a business trip to Helsinki, so this is slightly more considered.
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Overdue Evaluation (The Prize, by Daniel Yergin)

There is not much market for reviews of books published almost a decade and a half ago, so without further ado, my thoughts on The Prize, by Daniel Yergin. This evaluation is overdue because I started reading the book when I bought it, back in 1997. I put it down around page 400 (which is a little more than halfway), so this review is likely, very likely, to be stronger on the second half of the book.

Yergin’s subtitle is The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, which gives both theme and thesis. The title, if I am remembering an early part of the book correctly, comes from a statement made about oil by Winston Churchill: “The prize was mastery itself.” The argument is that understanding oil is central to understanding the twentieth century and, by extension, the world today. To complaints that the war in Iraq is “all about oil,” the only proper answer is “Of course.” The last century’s major conflicts, and many of its smaller ones, were driven by oil, determined by oil, or both. Without an understanding of oil, much of the period will remain opaque.
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Premature Evaluation, pt. 4 (The Hungarians)

I suppose I should be happy that there is a recent, one-volume general history of the Hungarians. Their history is not exactly the stuff of bestsellers, even if Hungarians were crucial in everything from computers to the atomic bomb to Hollywood studios. Ten million people, give or take, speaking a non-Indo-European language in and around the Carpathian basin. Their exact origins unknown, their polity long divided, their armies prone to getting wiped out.
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Premature Evaluation, pt 3 (The Fatal Shore)

What to do when you haven’t finished a book but find yourself with something to say about it?

Convention dictates that one should finish a book before reviewing it (although I have my doubts about any number of published reviews), but on the other hand, The Fatal Shore, by Robert Hughes, was published 20 years ago; this is not breaking news. So out with the convention, in with the thoughts.
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Montenegro III: Am Not, Are So

Continuing AFOE’s first point-counterpoint debate between two posters, here’s my final post on Montenegrin independence.
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