Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"A World in Disarray" as seen by Richard Haas

Richard Haass has been on television programs as an expert in diplomacy and is well qualified to do so.  His words are measured and balanced.  Even if you don't totally share his political philosophy what he says and writes is worth considering.

He admires skilled diplomats and names Castlreagh, Metternich and Talleyrand and suggests the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15 was a good example.  The world is much more global now and every nation has global concerns such as climate change, health and trade.

He favours action after analysis.  He faults the Republicans for invading Iraq and even more for disbanding the Iraqi army and top level Baath party members.  After that he concedes there are no really good options, but nonetheless criticizes Obama for not trying to re negotiate to slow down troop withdrawals. There were a lot of factors, political, military and psychological.

He also faulted Obama for drawing a red line with Syria and then not enforcing it.  My perspective is that once Iraq was invaded it opened up a can of worms. and yes it was one of Obama's lapses in careful wording.

He is in favor of multi-lateral institutions, an example of which is Europe.  He feels the more they are linked the less apt they are to resort to war.

The United Nations is good, but sometimes needs to be gotten around.  Vetos assure some nations will continue to participate, but hamstrings the institution.  He speculates that over time nations will see their best interest lies in working together.  He points out that NATO intervened in the former Yugoslavia when it was needed.

Asia Pacific is the area that is most likely to develop to major power.  The rest of the world needs to develop links.  South Korea and Japan are both capable of developing nuclear weapons, but have declined with the understanding United States will defend them.  Although the Trans Pacific Partnership has been curtailed with U.S. declining, Haas felt it should have included China

South Asia which is basically the Indian sub continent is also growing to a major power.

Latin America and Africa need to develop links regionally and globally.  In general the author would like to see NGO and corporations invited to take part in international boards to expand input.

The big international concerns that affect every nation include climate change, health, nuclear weapons and trade.  Understanding each other's needs and a willingness to compromise or better work together is necessary for mankind to survive

"A World in Disarray" is not intended to be a prescription for all problems but as a guideline for how we should try to steer global relations.  A worthy read.

A little more up to date you can check out Richard Haass being interviewed by Bloomberg News on Donald Trump's first foreign trip:


Friday, June 23, 2017


Thomas Jefferson is revered for many things--the writer of the Declaration of Independence, the third president, accepted the Louisiana Purchase. and above all was thought to be a great liberal thinker.  There is one blemish on his record that now is hard to deny.  He likely had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a mulatto slave and fathered some children by her.  Almost over-whelming circumstantial facts plus some DNA evidence point to the likelihood of the relationship.  For many this is proof of hypocrisy.

Historical fiction has a dilemma.  Some things are known and cannot be ignored, but lots of things are not known that would help us to understand better.  There is virtually no records of their actual relationship nor even what Sally looked like so really everything is speculation.  A Picasso quote exemplifies the role of fiction, "Art is the lie that shows us the truth."

Stephen O'Connor couldn't resist and wrote "Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings," a fanciful speculation.  Was Jefferson a hypocrite?  History records much that demonstrates Jefferson was enlightened and sympathetic to blacks, but was very much constrained by the culture of the times.  When Jefferson was ambassador to France he took over or had sent some of his slaves and he paid them as they were technically free as France did not allow slavery.  When it came time to return they had the option to stay.  Supposedly Sally bargained for her unborn child to be free when turned 21.  Of course they all had family and friends back in Virginia and in reality were treated relatively well.

With over 600 pages it is intimidating to many of us, but it is easy to read as it is broken down in small segments.  It zips back and forth in time and gives a perspective from different angles.  How did the relationship get started?  what effect did it have?  how does Jefferson's personality align with cultural reality?  A curious world is anxious to fill in the many gaps

The author uses different tools including actual letters and records.  Over a range of chapters O'Connor has Jefferson watching a movie sometimes in the company of James Madison and his wife.  Long dead people express their feelings.  In reality we never can know the internal thinking process of actual historical people.  The reader is free to doubt the motivations, but they are interesting.

From my reading Jefferson is a very conflicted man, but also practical.  Not without stereotypical beliefs he advocated equality and took steps to reduce slavery.  His slaves were well treated by standards of the day even getting some trained in trade skills.  He seemed to be concerned what females wanted.  Above all he really was a Renaissance man who enjoyed philosophical discussions and took an interest in a wide variety of activities.  He also enjoyed inventing things, one of which is surprisingly a swivel chair.

He felt that for democracy to survive it required public education and freedom of the press.  He founded the University of Virginia doing the initial architecture and unlike most other universities it was centered on the library rather than a church.

Sex is obviously a driver for the reader.  The author stretches it out.  Thomas Jefferson had never had sex with a virgin  (his wife was a widow and he is said to have visited prostitutes) and Sally is portrayed as a naive 16 year old, thirty years his junior.  The author originally supposed the first sexual encounter was rape, but his research hinted that it might not have been.  In O'Connor's telling, their relationship develops as he tries to teach her to read and have philosophical discussions.  His first attempts result in rejection and fear and his supposed sense of decency creates a wrestling match inside his head.  Eventually they are regular sex partners and she gets pregnant while in France.

Sally is often portrayed as a loving partner, but also one who resented the inequality.  Although given a lot of "freedom", she was not really free.  In reality she probably could pass as a white, in fact her children did.  She realized she was a half sister to Thomas Jefferson's children by his wife and was related to other whites through her mother. but was not given their range of choices

Most of the writing is concerned with the time before Jefferson became president with emphasis on France and Monticello.  In Paris he was very close to Lafayette.  He distrusted both John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and liked James Madison, but the reader is not offered too many political insights.

The book itself is not proof that an intimate relationship existed between the two.  The author accepts that such a relationship was very likely and fills in some of the gaps.  One would like to think their relationship was more than sexual, but there is very little concrete evidence.

For an idea of role of black slaves in the American economy and culture plus two interesting references to Thomas Jefferson:

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Polls indicate the level of satisfaction with Trump is declining, but there is still a very hardcore support base and he is backed by a majority Congress who are working on their own agenda.  The Supreme Court and lesser courts have been tilted conservative.  The Republicans have survived special elections, however with a reduced majority.

Perhaps I am too much an elitist snob, but I cannot understand why his manner of speaking and behaviour doesn't turn off everyone.  Boasting, especially about the trivial as well as important things all by itself should turn off most of us.  Exaggeration is offensive.  His lies are easy to catch and are getting commoner.  Egotism does not work well with Commander in Chief.

The Russian thing.  Maybe he was just the beneficiary of Russian efforts, but the contacts that we know about are very suspicious.  He has associated with Russian mobsters.  I read many months ago and confirmed more recently that the only Republican planks asked for were to do with lifting Russian sanctions.  They show little concern for Russian efforts to undermine the American elections--perhaps they just don't care now that they won with or without their help.  Vicious false stories took away from Clinton's platform.

Trump University illustrates how he looks at the masses.  Apparently he was willing to pay about $25 million dollars to shut the complainers up.  Ordinary people are just opportunities to squeeze more money while providing little value.  He complains about a meanness in the Affordable Care Act revisions, but has demonstrated plenty of his own disinterest in the welfare of his constituents.

This was not meant to be a litany of his many misdeeds. Unless you are illiterate you have had plenty of opportunity to learn about the blatant misdeeds of the Trump administration.  It is not just that Trump is terrible by himself, but he has enabled the minions of the 1% to start dismantling and reversing strategies beneficial to the rest.  He is influenced by despicables and tries to enlist their followers  in his cause.

As a foreigner I am not impressed. He did play the electoral college rules better than Hilary, but the rules originally were set up to protect slavery and do not reflect reality today.  Too many opponents voted third party or stayed home.  Who knows what the investigations will uncover, but there was plenty of evidence before he was elected.  Enough said.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

War as explained by Gwynne Dyer

A few weeks ago I was able to listen to Gwynne at my local library   His talk inspired me to read one of his earlier books (based on a tv series), "War."

War seems like a natural part of human history.  All our history seems to revolve around wars with the winners telling the stories.  Gwynne goes beyond recorded history to start his account.

Studies done in World War II and further back to the American Civil War revealed a strange thing in that most soldiers did not fire their guns to kill.  Up until recently most soldiers were trained how to use weapons and obey orders, but little attention focused on motivating them to actually kill.  That has changed and Dyer gives the example of marine basic training.

War as we know was not natural for hunter gatherers who often kept away from contested areas and even needed other groups for intermarriage.  When conflicts occurred (sometimes a result of famine or drought) humans learned that aggressiveness paid off resulting in more resources including mating which in turn led to more aggressiveness.

When historical forces resulted in cities, conflicts became more common.  To reinforce the need to kill one early development was the phalanx, originating in Mesopotamia.  It was with soldiers lined up in rows with the back rows pushing forward.  The Romans perfected this strategy and conquered much of the known world.

Tactics didn't change much, although many elements were added.  Horses were effective and had been bred to carry heavier loads.  They could be counteracted, and even elephants as well.  The big development was with guns preceded by bows and arrows.  They killed at a distance.  A little before WW I one response to guns was trenches.  They effectively stalled forward movement.  Airplanes first used in WW I were used for reconnaissance, and bombing.

A strategy developed to cut off supplies meaning that cities and civilians would be attacked.  Previously one's fate was decided on the battlefield, but non combatants became targets.

World War II ushered in the nuclear age.  The Germans had previously used V2 rockets to inflict danger from a distance.  It was possible to kill people without being consciously aware of them as humans.  The nuclear option obviously changed ideas.  The great powers realized if they used them against other great powers it would be the end for all.  Conventional wars were generally involving lesser powers.

Dwight Eisenhower warned about the power and influence of the military industrial complex. Ammunition and weapons manufacturing have been politically powerful and naturally identify enemies to cause fear.

Dyer discusses guerrilla wars that can only succeed when there is political will behind them.  Two successful examples are Mao Tse Tung and Fidel Castro.  Terrorists do what they do because they cannot mount an army.

The book was revised in 2004, so does not cover drones or ISIL.  Gwynne has been keeping up with developments and thinks the dynamics have not changed critically.

Dyer sees some hope after a case study of baboons in Kenya using a quote from Frans de Waal., "The good news for humans is that it looks like once established peaceful conditions can be maintained.  And if baboons can do it why not us?"  It seems over twenty years ago the leaders of one baboon group, very aggressive and belligerent to females and lesser males claimed exclusivity over a dump that contained poisonous food resulting in their deaths.  Anthropologists studying the result over the years noted that the surviving baboons did not pick up the aggressiveness and belligerency of their predecessors and managed to live in peace.

The author traces the problem to the beginning of civilization.  Prior to that hunter-gatherers lived in small groups that were relatively equalitarian,  It is only when agriculture allowed humans to live in one place and to greatly increase their numbers that top down decisions became common.  This began power struggles that escalated to nation states contesting one another on a wide variety of issues.

Dyer identifies three trends that will demand global attention.  Climate change if not checked will accelerate and cross all borders.  New nations will rise in power for example China, India, Korea and Brazil questioning the old order.  And third, technology will advance beyond the nuclear threat.

Quoting: "the rising powers must be absorbed into a system that emphasizes co-operation and makes room for them, rather than one one that deals in confrontation and raw military power.  If they are obliged to play the traditional great power game of winners and losers then history will repeat itself and everyone loses."  Military concerns take attention from climate change.  Multi lateral systems must survive or we won't.

The United Nations is certainly imperfect, but it is the best tool we have.  The League of Nations was a first step, but founders afraid of being too restricted.  The United Nations was formed with a more realistic format, but still faces a long path to world wide peace.  Progress will be uneven.

Nuclear weapons still attract insecure nations and the more widespread the more likely a problem.  Still some nations have rejected including Canada, Japan, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.  A few others have pulled back such as Argentina, Brazil and more recently Libya.

There are a lot of details with many historical examples to ponder.  Dyer, even today is fairly optimistic.  The critical factor now is mass communications.  People at all levels are more aware of world news.

To be well informed about international dynamics you really should read his weekly columns and if you do not have access to the over 100 newspapers you can catch up at his website,