Making sense of those Krazy Koreans

NorthKoreaTHE impression I get from the kilometric volume of analysis and commentary that followed the latest apparent nuclear test by North Korea last Thursday is that the entire world is once again completely flummoxed about how it should react this time to the misbehavior of the bizarre little hermit kingdom.

Up until now, the pattern in these kinds of episodes has always been consistent: North Korea does a provocative thing. The enlightened world led by the US imposes or at least threatens some kind of “sanctions” as punishment for the provocative thing. After a suitable interval, North Korea agrees to stop doing the provocative thing and not do it again in exchange for some small concessions, such as food aid, or having South Korea stop blaring K-pop songs and propaganda across the border with giant loudspeakers, and the situation returns to a more or less normal state. Until North Korea decides to do some other provocative thing, and then the whole cycle repeats itself.

The only difference this time is that China, who is North Korea’s only ally of any consequence, seems extraordinarily annoyed at its wayward client state. In the past, China has worked to moderate the punitive actions taken against North Korea, something it has for the most part been able to accomplish because it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This time, however, China’s rhetoric about the nuclear test was unusually harsh, and following as it does a strange incident a few weeks ago in which North Korea’s all-girl “Moranbong Band” abruptly canceled a performance in China and returned home (reportedly because their Chinese hosts were offended by a video display the band uses which feature footage of North Korean missiles), the sense is China has lost patience with its neighbor.

All that will accomplish is to make the imposition of sanctions a little smoother; unless there is a drastic change in policy on the part of China on the one hand or the US, South Korea, and their UN colleagues on the other, the pattern as it has played out in years past will simply be repeated. One would think that at some point, the unresolved state of affairs would become intolerable. It has persisted, however, for more than 60 years – ever since the Korean War ended in a stalemate – and by all appearances a solution will continue to elude political minds on both sides of the conflict for another generation or more.

In order to try to sort things out, or at least understand what is happening and why, we need to make a few assumptions that may run against the grain of conventional diplomatic thought:

  1. Kim Jong-Un knows precisely what he is doing.

One of the common viewpoints towards North Korea’s leading Kim dynasty, especially in the case of Kim Jong-Il and his son, current leader Kim Jong-Un, is that they are reckless, crazy, or both (North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung was also thought to be a dangerous nut, but not quite to the same degree as his son and grandson). That is almost certainly not the case, which becomes apparent when we consider a couple obvious factors.

First of all, North Korea is essentially a monarchy, one whose existence is justified by the complicated (and actually rather clever) political philosophy of Juche, or in very simple terms “self-reliance,” which was developed by Kim Il-Sung in the years after the foundation of North Korea, formally adopted as national policy in the mid-1950s as the country worked to recover from the devastation of the Korean War, and intensely strengthened as a set of guiding principles in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s-early 1990s. At the core of Juche thought is a rejection of Marxist-Leninist relations of production in favor of the primacy of the people’s will; this permits, or rather requires, the emergence of a “great leader” to organize and guide the people.

Since the Juche philosophy has become an actual political and legal framework, the major objective for the leader is to justify his place. One of the easiest ways to do that is to maintain a constant state of tension with real or perceived external enemies. It is no accident that the Korean War never actually ended, because it was not in Kim Il-Sung’s best interests that it should; so long as he had the lingering threat of America and its South Korean puppet state (and to a lesser extent, those other US puppets, the hated Japanese) that he could ‘lead a defense’ against, his position was that much more secure. Likewise, it is no accident that every move towards an easing of tensions between the two Koreas is shortly followed by some provocation by the North that causes the situation to deteriorate again.

To the Kim way of thinking – and there is some validity to the perspective – there is no greater defense, no greater deterrent to an external threat, than nuclear weapons, the more powerful the better. By maintaining a strong military presence surrounding North Korea, the US and its South Korean and Japanese allies are playing right into Kim’s hands.

The best evidence of who the ‘message’ of the “hydrogen bomb” (it probably wasn’t one, but we’ll get to that in a moment) was really intended for – i.e., the North Korean people, and especially the military and bureaucratic establishment whose cooperation is vital to Kim’s retaining his position – was his comments linking the downfall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi to the thwarting of Iraq’s and Libya’s nuclear ambitions. Kim is not so stupid as to be unaware that his key officers and ministers understand what a dictatorship is and realize they are serving one, and so the message is, “The strong leader who gives up his nuclear goals is weakened, and will eventually be overthrown, but I have successfully pursued that goal, and so what befell Saddam and Gaddafi won’t happen to me. So don’t screw with me.”

  1. North Korea presents virtually no significant military threat to South Korea, the US, or Japan.

A prospect that gives Western policymakers and military planners the heebie-jeebies is that North Korea, if not held in check, will escalate its actions from the long-running low-intensity conflict that it has perpetuated since the end of the Korean War to a major attack – something like an invasion in force across the border into the South, a missile attack against Japan, or a strike with either conventional or nuclear weapons against Hawaii or Alaska, which are plausibly reachable with North Korea’s current missile technology (and a lot of luck, presumably).

Although North Korean aggression has been frequent and sometimes quite serious – incidents like the seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968, the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, and the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in 2010 are among the worst – Pyongyang seems to have mastered the art of pushing its enemies to the limits of their patience without going too far. Despite having one of the world’s largest armies, the Kim regime realizes that its comparatively unsophisticated forces would not last long in the face of American firepower; the Korean War was a painful object lesson for Kim Il-Sung, and it is a lesson that his son and grandson clearly took to heart. A massive attack across the border might spring enough of a surprise to wreck Seoul and cause a huge amount of damage, but would result in the utter destruction of North Korean forces – and in any case, North Korea is watched so closely by the nervous South that any attempt to amass the forces necessary to carry out such an attack would set off alarms long before it was prepared to strike. Likewise, a stand-off attack against Japan or the United States would almost certainly provoke a brutal response that the regime might not survive.

The constant aggression carried out by North Korea is simply part of the policy of maintaining a constant state of tension in order to keep the ruling order intact; and in order for the tension to be maintained, some aggressive reaction from the other side is necessary – when it is not forthcoming on its own, North Korea simply provokes it. The aggression also serves as a sort of safety valve. The country cannot maintain such a large military and keep it inactive indefinitely, and so it occasionally allows it to see some action. But only enough to maintain a proper level of alertness and discipline – the myth of “defending the country” would be shattered and the Kim dynasty would come to a quick and unpleasant end if the military was ever put in a position to be defeated and weakened.

  1. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t a hydrogen bomb (and there’s still a possibility that it was).

The assumption that North Korea’s latest nuclear test was not the explosion of a hydrogen bomb seems to be accurate; seismic data indicated an explosion with a yield of 6-9 kilotons (some estimates say 6-15 KT), which is only one or two percent of the power of even a modest thermonuclear weapon (the common US W88 warhead, which is about as small as a legitimate hydrogen bomb can be made, has a yield of about 475 KT). Yet the North Korean announcement of the test and Kim Jong-Un’s later statement made a point of referring to it as “a hydrogen bomb.” So what’s the real story?

There are three possibilities. The first, and the easiest to believe, is that the North Koreans are simply lying, and that the bomb tested was a regular fission weapon, similar to the three previous weapons the country has tested. If that was the case, it would be a bit smaller in terms of yield than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs (which had estimated yields of 15 and 20 KT, respectively), and given what is known or surmised about North Korean technical capabilities, would probably be a fairly large, unwieldy weapon – manageable perhaps as an air-dropped bomb, but almost certainly too large and heavy to mount on a missile.

The second possibility, which is much more alarming, is that it was a boosted fission weapon. In a ‘normal’ atomic bomb, the fissile material (usually plutonium) is in the form of a hollow sphere – the shape keeps it from going critical before it’s supposed to – with a “neutron reflector” (usually a sphere of beryllium, although some other materials can work) suspended in the void at the sphere’s center. High explosives surrounding the plutonium core uniformly compress the sphere, releasing neutrons to begin the chain reaction; some of the neutrons are reflected back by the beryllium pit at the center, increasing the speed of the reaction. However, the reaction can only last while the compressed core is at critical mass; once it explosively flies apart – which takes only milliseconds – the nuclear chain reaction is ended. Thus the fission efficiency of early atomic bombs was rather low, something on the order of 20 percent or less (meaning only 20% of the core material actually underwent fission, the rest being blown away in the resulting explosion).

In a boosted weapon, a small amount of fusion fuel – typically tritium and deuterium, isotopes of hydrogen, in a gaseous form, which could account for North Korea referring to it as a “hydrogen” bomb – is placed in the void at the center of the core, replacing the “reflector.” When the implosion occurs, the early stage of fission in the plutonium core exerts enough pressure on the gaseous fuel to cause a fusion reaction, which releases a large amount of fast neutrons, speeding up the fission process and consuming the fuel much more efficiently. The fusion reaction is so small that it doesn’t really contribute much to the overall power of the bomb, but it can improve the fission efficiency by a great deal, raising it to perhaps 50%, which results in a larger explosion. The benefit of a boosted fission weapon is that a higher explosive yield can be obtained from a smaller amount of fission fuel, which means the bomb can be made smaller – small enough, perhaps, to fit on a rocket or be configured as an artillery shell. It is also not quite the large technological leap from conventional fission bombs that a true H-bomb is, requiring only the additional ability to produce and handle tritium and deuterium.

The third possibility is that it was an actual hydrogen bomb, a true thermonuclear device, which simply failed to explode properly. A hydrogen bomb is actually two bombs in one: A fission bomb (the ‘primary’), the explosion of which compresses a second bomb consisting of a heavy casing (usually of uranium, which can be made to fission, or sometimes an inert material such as lead, which reduces the yield and is a cheaper option for testing) containing the fusion fuel (usually lithium deuteride) and a hollow plutonium rod (the ‘sparkplug’). Radiation pressure from the exploding primary compresses and then heats the fuel of the secondary stage, which begins a fusion reaction that releases an enormous amount of energy.

The basic concept of a hydrogen bomb is not terribly complicated, but actually building one that works requires a degree of engineering capability and precision that most observers doubt North Korea has. Nevertheless, since the basic design is not a mystery (the configuration is called Teller-Ulam after its first inventors, physicists Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam working in the US, but it was eventually independently worked out by scientists in the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China), it is at least remotely possible North Korea attempted to build one, but that it simply “fizzled” – i.e., the atomic primary stage of the bomb, a powerful weapon of several kilotons’ yield in its own right, exploded, but failed to ignite the secondary fusion stage.

The assertion that it was a “hydrogen bomb” seems likely to be intended for the North Korean people and the military establishment, an assurance that efforts are being made to increase the strength of the country’s defenses. Whether it was a hydrogen bomb or not doesn’t really matter to the outside world – the real point is that any remaining mystery about whether or not North Korea has or is capable of producing functioning nuclear weapons is now resolved. Even if the country’s capabilities have only risen to the point of being able to manufacture relatively simple atomic bombs, a 6 to 9 KT explosion could level a medium-sized city (for reference, that explosion would be three or four times the power of the second and larger of the two explosions in this video). Whether or North Korea has tried to advance beyond that level of technology or is simply aspiring to, they have apparently gotten basic atomic weapons pretty much figured out. That presents a challenge to the US and its allies, and even China, a challenge which is much more complicated than that posed by Iraq’s or Libya’s abortive attempts to get a nuclear program off the ground, or even Iran’s much more advanced program: None of those potential ‘nuclear threats’ ever resulted in actual weapons, and as the history of disarmament efforts has demonstrated so far, it is far easier to compel a country to stop trying to build a bomb (those efforts have so far all been successful) than it is to force a country to give it up once it has actually produced it (the only country that has obliged was South Africa).

  1. China doesn’t want a collapse of the Kim regime or a unified Korea that would potentially put US troops on its border.

That first assumption is probably true – keeping in mind, of course, that trying to figure out the subtle contradictions of the Chinese mind is tricky at best – because a disorderly collapse of the Kim regime would result in an as-yet unknown outcome. As far as the worry about “millions of refugees” crossing into China, as many analysts have suggested, that concern might be overblown; one should probably presume it would be a bigger problem for South Korea than it would be for China.

The other assumption, that China would not want a US-allied, unified Korea on its border, is true so long as one presupposes that a unified Korea would look exactly like South Korea, and that China would not be able to exercise any sort of positive influence on it at a level that at least fairly matches US influence. There is no reason that any of that would necessarily be the case. For one thing, the reunification of Korea, which would spell the definitive end of the Korean War, removes the reason for the US being there.

Unlike Japan, where the continuing US military presence is ultimately the result – many generations removed – of an original US occupation, South Korea did not start out under US administration; the US presence there is a result of the war, and, it is important to remember, began under sanction of the UN. Once that sanction ends – and bear in mind, China is a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power – the US cannot unilaterally justify its continued presence; at least not at the level it is now present in South Korea. Any agreement to unify Korea would probably involve Chinese participation anyway – which it rightfully should, since the country borders China – and would almost certainly stipulate a US withdrawal. The political and economic relationship would certainly continue, but that wouldn’t present any more of a problem for the Chinese than the US relationship with any other country in the region.

All of this, however, is a moot point: Unless the US and its allies take the virtually unthinkable step to actually reach into North Korea and remove Kim Jong-Un, the Kim regime – and as a result, the current, unsatisfying status quo – will exist for at least as long as he does.





The Elephant in the Masjid

isis guysThe potentially insoluble problem of ‘Islamic extremism’ is that it is, in fact, Islamic.

THOSE who fear that the obnoxious brutality of terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is creating a growing backlash against Muslims in general routinely make the claim that the “extremist ideology” used to justify the violence is a perversion of Islam, a mere fig leaf of reason contrived to cover what is little more than a grotesque, willful sociopathy. We should not view all Muslims with fear and suspicion, so the argument goes, because of the behavior a few outside the mainstream.

In studying the background and the ideological underpinnings of ISIS, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the group – which, it should be pointed out, is just one of about 50 groups of various levels of competence and organization with similar aims – is not simply the gang of gruesome bullies “mainstream” Muslims desperately would like to convince themselves and the rest of the world they are, but as legitimately “Islamic” as any of the dozens of other variations of the faith that coexist more-or-less peacefully with the rest of the world.

In March of this year, the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution published an enlightening analysis of the ideological and political roots of ISIS1; drawing primarily from the group’s own voluminous public discussions of its dogma – whatever else ISIS is, it is not at all ambiguous about what it stands for – the study’s author Cole Bunzel summarized the group’s consistent and rigorously-followed ideology in this way:

“The Islamic State’s texts and speeches emphasize a number of doctrinal concepts. The most prominent of these stipulate: all Muslims must associate exclusively with fellow “true” Muslims and dissociate from anyone not fitting this narrow definition; failure to rule in accordance with God’s law constitutes unbelief; fighting the Islamic State is tantamount to apostasy; all Shi‘a Muslims are apostates deserving of death; and the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are traitors against Islam, among many other things. Importantly, the Islamic State anchors these concepts in traditional Salafi literature, and is more dogmatic about their application than al-Qaeda.”

The Islamic school of thought which ISIS follows is known as Jihadi-Salafism, a rigidly fundamentalist ideology that evolved from Wahhabism, the strict form of Islam practiced and applied, albeit with a few unavoidable modifications, as state law in Saudi Arabia. The ideology is not a perversion of Islam, but an extreme form of orthodoxy that strives to apply Shari’ah as literally as possible and has as its most important aim one of the bedrock ideas of all forms of Islam, the eventual return of the Caliphate, the state to unite all Muslims.

The nature of Islam as a temporal power is part of its origins; to spread his religion, the Prophet Muhammad created an expanding state, originally based on Medina in present-day Saudi Arabia, which after his death in 632 became the Caliphate. The concept of the Caliphate seems to have gone through two phases. The literal phase – the Caliphate as an actual political entity – in a practical sense lasted from 632 until the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258; it lingered on in a nominal fashion in Egypt until 1517, when the last Caliph was carried away to Istanbul after the Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Egypt. The more modern phase, which is implicit in the beliefs and practices that are common to the many variants of Islam, seems to regard the Caliphate as more of an ideal, creating space for Muslims in the rest of the world through gaining acceptance and accommodation.

The uncomfortable upshot of all this is that the rejection of the Islamic State by the majority of Muslims is necessarily equivocal. They can be properly horrified by and condemn its methods, they can refuse to accept its leaders’ claims to doctrinal legitimacy, but they cannot completely reject the basic idea – rejecting this Islamic State is dogmatically justifiable, but rejecting any Islamic State would be literal apostasy.

Because the fundamental nature of the faith too easily allows itself to be twisted into horrors like the “Islamic State,” for Muslims that means being subject to the suspicion of non-Muslims is by default unavoidable, because the only thing that reduces the risk of being subjugated by Islam, as non-Muslims would see it, is personal restraint on the part of individual Muslims. The vast majority of Muslims, to be fair, already practice that, and for the rest of us, we should be reminded to recognize and respond favorably to it. Whether it is fair to the non-Islamic world that we should have to expend that extra mental effort for the sake of someone else’s religion is debatable; since it is rather obvious religion itself – regardless of its flavor – is a concept humanity is not likely to ever be able to evolve beyond, we probably ought to resign ourselves to the permanence of the tension Mankind has contrived, and try to make the best of it.


1 Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World Analysis Paper 19, March 2015. Available from the Brookings Institution website at



Life Inside the Walls

shit(Author’s note: This is an old post that’s been floating around in my ‘drafts’ folder for a couple months, which, for lack of anything better to do this evening, I decided to finally finish up. It was originally written in early May this year.)

SOMETIME this year, if all goes well, the first major projects of an ambitious, multiyear plan to give Intramuros an extensive makeover will get underway, with the long-term objective of turning the old walled city into a proper upscale tourist and commercial district.

From the perspective of broad developmental policy the proposed gentrification of Intramuros – because that is what the plan is, even though the word and its negative connotations are carefully avoided – is for the most part a positive initiative. The district is an important part of the Philippines’ history, and is a valuable tourism resource; it also contains some of the last property open for commercial development in densely-packed Manila.

That progress, however, will come at a price. After being virtually obliterated by American bombs and artillery fire during the Battle of Manila in 1945, Intramuros was rebuilt, but in fits and starts; the result is an urban environment and character that is probably unique – a working mix of heritage and decay.

back to nature

wireThat gives Intramuros a distinctly transient, living-in-the-ruins kind of feel and makes for a fascinating neighborhood culture, one that seems almost certain to be lost if or when the grand designs for Intramuros are ever realized.

The transient nature of Intramuros is reflected in its population. The permanent population divided among Intramuros’ five barangays is only about 5,000; the daytime population of workers at government agencies and private offices, students of the four universities within the walls, seamen from the nearby port, and visitors may be as high as 10 times as many.

The majority, all but perhaps a few hundred of Intramuros’ permanent residents, are the vendors, the pedicab and calesa drivers, the canteen operators, the street sweepers, and parking attendants that hustle a living out of Intramuros’ workers, students, and visitors every day. Most live in ramshackle ‘informal housing’ tucked away in otherwise neglected property lots; perhaps as many as three or four hundred are homeless.

hivebeaterioThey are, by conventional standards, apparently poor. Living in a scratch-built, hive-like tenement or on a street corner on the hand-to-mouth proceeds of proletarian jobs is not an ideal existence, and there is, to be sure, a certain frustration that permeates the environment.

shithay buhayIntramuros, however, seems to be one place where the resourcefulness of the poor pays off especially well. Pedicab drivers can earn well over P1,000 per day, and many street vendors can count on routinely earning significantly more than minimum wage. There are relatively few squatters, and most of those were formerly homeless people who simply made their encampments semi-permanent; most residents are legitimate renters, the haphazard construction of their dwellings notwithstanding. That is not to suggest that life is easy for Intramuros’ underclass, or that everyone benefits, but on the whole it seems that the faint glimmer of hope may be just a tiny bit brighter here than in other parts of the metropolis – a difference, perhaps, between ordinary despair and crushing hopelessness.

loloTherein lies the paradox of urban renewal as it applies to Intramuros. The vision behind the reconstruction of the district leads to something the city never was. Throughout its history, Old Manila was always a gritty, crowded port town and colonial capital; yes, it had its numerous churches, and universities, and semi-monumental government buildings, but as a center of political and commercial life in the Spanish era, it attracted the downtrodden, the petty criminals, and the opportunists of both the honest and dishonest sort. There has always been a healthy proportion of seediness in Intramuros; what the district is today is, in effect, the result of letting 500 years of history in a working town run its course without applying too much in the way of comprehensive planning to it.

we deliverApplying the comprehensive planning now – with the entirely reasonable objectives of maximizing a valuable tourism resource, attracting new businesses and residents, and improving the overall economy and standard of living in the district – means applying a certain degree of artifice: If the grand design is ever realized, Intramuros will be a nice place, but it won’t be an authentic one. From a tourism perspective, at least, it is not a problem unique to Intramuros or the vision of the leaders driving the changes; authenticity is almost always contrived – think of it as the difference between putting on a little make-up and a nice blouse to greet visitors, rather than answering the door wearing eyebags and the t-shirt you slept in.

window on the world

And it’s probably not a problem that can actually be solved, not when “maintaining authenticity” means consigning a certain part of the population to permanent poverty, or low-return labor, or otherwise less-than-dignified living conditions.

When it’s gone, the disappearance of the “real” Intramuros will undoubtedly result in a net positive for most everyone concerned. But there will still be something lost, and even if that is ultimately for the better, it’s still worth remembering.

All photographs © 2015 by the author, who spends the better part of six days a week working in Intramuros, and has never gotten over being fascinated by it.


It’ll All End in Tears

tiananmen squareWhile much of the world has been looking on in admiration at the events unfolding in Hong Kong, on Friday the China People’s Daily, which is essentially an official publication of China’s ruling Communist Party, offered this stark warning: The protests are “against legal principles, and doomed to fail. There is no room to make concessions on important principles.”

In direct terms, that means the protestors’ immediate demand that Chief Executive Leung CY step down will not happen, nor will Hong Kong be granted the full democracy supposedly “promised” by Beijing when Great Britain handed the colony back to China in 1997. Those things simply will not and cannot even be considered by the Chinese government, and in fact, beyond perhaps making some very minor concessions such as not punishing the “Occupy Central” organizers and participants too harshly in the aftermath, the government cannot afford to allow any outcome that looks like a positive result.

Most news analyses of the “umbrella revolution” have pointed out, correctly, that its chances of success are slim because the Communist government needs to avoid the risk of similar protests erupting in other parts of the country, particularly in already-restive regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. But the assessments have overlooked the biggest factor: Hong Kong’s history, and the Chinese attitude towards it.

Hong Kong Island became a British colony as a result of China’s losing the First Opium War in 1839-1842; in effect, the city was a war prize. During the Second Opium War (1856-1860), British control extended into Kowloon, and in 1861, after the Convention of Peking between China and Britain, France, and Russia – one of the “unequal treaties” signed during the “Century of Humiliation,” when China’s sovereignty was progressively eroded by the Western powers and Japan – Great Britain formally took over all of Kowloon Peninsula. The Second Convention of Peking in 1898, in which Britain signed the 99-year lease for Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories, came about as a result of China’s losing the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895; the British simply took advantage of China’s weakened position to expand their foothold.

The concessions made to retain much of Hong Kong’s “uniqueness” after the handover from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 were pragmatic – necessary at the time to ensure the turnover went smoothly and happened on scheduled – but never really intended to be permanent. In effect, the Chinese perspective towards Hong Kong is the same as it is towards Taiwan: The metropolis is part of China and always has been, and sooner or later, the opportunity to take it back in proper fashion will present itself.

The “Umbrella Revolution” may very well have just provided the PRC that opportunity. And the assumption that China could not or would not put an end to the protest in an aggressive manner really has no basis in reality.

The common belief that China wouldn’t dare handle Hong Kong in the same way it handled Tiananmen Square in 1989 because of the risk that it would suffer the consequences of global opprobrium overlooks a couple critical points. China is much stronger economically and much more integrated into the global economy than it was 25 years ago, and is certainly aware that anything more than rhetorical condemnation on the part of the world’s other developed economies would be self-destructive for them. It’s not a difficult inference for the Chinese to make, because in the years since Tiananmen, the West has provided numerous demonstrations of its willingness to subordinate political ethics to economic objectives; for example, the first Gulf War, the Iraq War and the so-called “War on Terror,” and the handling of the global financial crisis.

Beijing’s ‘Plan A,’ presumably, is to achieve its objectives in Hong Kong without having to resort to violence. But the operative process is “achieving its objectives.” What is worrisome about the “Umbrella Revolution” – spooky, actually, in a way – is the way the protesting mass is similar to the one that was eventually dispersed with extreme prejudice in Tiananmen Square a quarter-century. The crowd in Hong Kong comprises people from many different sectors and of all ages, but it is dominated by youth, and does not have clear leadership, but rather is a collection of loosely-associated groups. People here and in other countries that still have an unreasonably romantic notion of democracy find the “grassroots” character of the Hong Kong protest charming, but it may be its biggest flaw, because it was exactly that kind of situation the PRC was able to exploit 25 years ago to break up the embryonic democracy movement in Beijing, and then impose tough measures to prevent its recurrence.

Go home, kids. It was a good effort and we admire your enthusiasm, but this is not going to end well if you hang around.

Another Rejection of the Divine Right of Kings

ooh fireI expected, as I think most people did, that the Supreme Court’s ruling that the controversial “Disbursement Acceleration Program” (DAP) invented by President B.S. Aquino 3.0 and his clever, soulless accountant Butch Abad would be that it was blatantly unconstitutional, but I was somewhat surprised that the vote was unanimous (13-0, with one abstention). I don’t think even The Manila Times’ ace reporter Jomar Canlas – who, thanks to having developed a carefully-cultivated, well-protected source at the Supreme Court, routinely breaks news of important rulings and other Court affairs days or weeks before they become public knowledge – saw that coming, and given the usual behavior of the Court, or more specifically, Aquino’s four sycophantic appointees Maria Lourdes Sereno, Bienvenido Reyes, Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Marvic Leonen, a 10-4 or 9-5 vote seemed like the probable spread. A vote like that would have allowed the Administration shills to stay in their boss’ good graces, particularly after their unanimous vote against the PDAF in November last year.

The decision instantly brought to mind another momentous unanimous Supreme Court decision that was made, half a world away, 40 years ago this month: The 8-0 vote of the US Supreme Court in the United States vs. Richard Nixon case, which denied a motion by the embattled US President to quash a subpoena for the infamous “Nixon tapes” issued by the US District Court in Washington, DC at the request of Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski. Those tapes, which were records of conversations held in Nixon’s White House office, were central to the rapidly-expanding Watergate case; Nixon and his attorneys, realizing as everyone else already did that those tapes contained damning evidence of the President’s personal involvement in the attempted cover-up of the Watergate burglary and a number of other crimes, worked furiously to avoid having to turn them over to investigators, citing national security concerns and in particular, “executive privilege.”

The US Supreme Court’s ruling on July 24, 1974 – which as in the present-day DAP case took an unusually long time to be issued – held that “executive privilege” was not absolute, especially not when it was being used to forestall a valid investigation and judicial process. Unable to defy the courts any longer, Nixon permitted the release of the tapes, and on August 5, the “smoking gun” was discovered: A recording of a conversation that indicated Nixon had been informed of the White House’s connection to the Watergate break-in not long after it happened, and had directed his staff to deflect the investigation. Already 09269L01.jpgfacing impeachment – the House Judiciary Committee had voted to pass an impeachment case on to the full House of Representatives even before the Supreme Court ruled on the tapes – Nixon was informed by Congressional leaders that he would in all likelihood be convicted and removed from office in a Senate trial if it came to that, so on August 9, after giving a tense yet nonetheless weirdly statesman-like address to the nation the previous evening, Nixon resigned, handing over the presidency to his Vice President of less than 10 months, Gerald R. Ford.

There are some eerie similarities between the two cases. Richard Nixon was very different from Noynoy Aquino in some fundamental ways, certainly. Working-class Nixon was a brilliant student, served as a Naval officer in World War II, and was a competent practicing attorney before entering politics, where he gained national prominence through a number of accomplishments as a Congressman, Senator, and then Vice President of Dwight Eisenhower; as President, he was noted for an energetic foreign policy that improved relations with the Soviet Union and China, he expanded environmental laws, initiated significant economic programs (which may or may not have actually been good ideas), and supported affirmative action and equal rights for women. Noynoy Aquino, on the other hand, is…Noynoy Aquino. What the two men do have in common, however, is having been enormously popular at the time of their last elections, and having the same sort of sociopathic vindictiveness, overall lack of ethical sensibilities, and unhealthy obsession with their place in history. Both men presided over Administrations that were uniquely noted for number, scale, and breadth of the scandals that occurred, but both were, at least for a while, able to prevent suspicion from falling on them personally.

When suspicions did become too great to ignore, both presidents preemptively claimed innocence in addresses to their countries on primetime television, and when that didn’t work, both had a bloc of ideological support within their respective Supreme Courts that they thought they could count on to at least ease the blow of an adverse ruling by making it less than unanimous, and therefore debatable. In Nixon’s case, three of the eight justices who voted against him were his own appointees; a fourth, William Rehnquist, recused himself from the case because he had served for a time in the office of Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell. (Nixon, incidentally, had trouble with Rehnquist’s name, and in the taped conversations that were finally turned over to the Special Prosecutor after the Supreme Court ruling, Nixon could be heard several times referring to him as “Renchburg”.)

And of course, both presidents finally pushed it too far, overestimated their own infallibility, and had a personal hand in activities they must have known were blatantly illegal; Nixon’s culpability was established by the tapes he tried so hard to keep from being heard, while Aquino’s was established by his own accountant, Abad, who threw his boss under the bus in his own testimony before the Supreme Court prior to yesterday’s ruling.

It remains to be seen whether B.S. Aquino will suffer the same fate as R.M. Nixon. Within minutes of the announcement of yesterday’s ruling, there were reports that impeachment complaints against Aquino and charges of fraud and malversation of funds against Butch Abad were being readied, but expectations that the moral turpitude of officials like the Secretary of Justice and the Ombudsman (both of whom seem to labor under the additional handicap of having no apparent legal skills) and the Philippine Legislature who would actually handle an impeachment proceeding will suddenly vanish are pretty low. After all, an impeachment on the grounds of willfully violating the Constitution to repurpose funds that mainly ended up in the hands of the legislators themselves will expose many of them as conspirators, and that is a path none will willingly tread. The effect on the country will probably be the same either way: Two more years (or more) of political paralysis, with the focus of those in power directed not towards the people’s business, but their own self-preservation. Sad to say, it’s a situation the country is probably used to by now.

Hearing Patterns in History’s Static

german war deadIn an essay written last month for the Brookings Institute (“The Rhyme of History: Lessons of the Great War”, published December 14), Margaret MacMillan, a Cambridge University history professor and one of the world’s acknowledged authorities on World War I, makes the intriguing argument that world conditions now are disturbingly similar to those that led to the outbreak of “The Great War” a century ago. Quoting Mark Twain, she observes, “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.” While MacMillan is certainly not predicting a new global conflict or necessarily suggesting the world is on a path to one, she believes we could easily stumble into another “great war” if we are not alert.

The seductive thing about history is that if you look at it long enough, you can see any pattern you expect to see, and at first pass, MacMillan’s evidence seems compelling. The century following the end of Napoleonic Wars in 1815 was characterized by the world’s first period of globalization, an extraordinary period of (relative) peace, and a move towards greater reliance on international law. This began to break down in the years leading up to the beginning of World War I, and the biggest factors were the increase in ethnic-based tensions in the Balkans and colonial competition, all of which became proxy conflicts among the Great Powers to varying degrees, and a contradictory rise in nationalism (contradictory, because it happened despite deep international trade links), mostly driven by the desire of a newly-united Germany to be “taken seriously” as a major power. The war itself, the causes of which MacMillan explores (but does not define with a great deal of confidence) in her recent book, The War That Ended the Peace, essentially boiled down to the leadership in each of the warring countries not wanting to appear weak.

Compare that to the three-quarters of a century since the end of World War II, a conflict that MacMillan largely ignores in her essay, only vaguely implying that it was the Great War’s unfinished business – a point of view that has some merit, it must be said. The world has gone through another period of relative peace, globalization, and reliance on international law and arbitration. And there are corollaries to the century-old warning signs as well. The fractious Middle East takes the place of the fractious Balkans as a potential flash point. Localism and nationalism, natural reactions to increasing global integration as states and societies feel their identities eroding, are on the rise. The US – just like the British Empire of the early 20th century – is still the world’s policeman by reputation, but is struggling against the loss of quantifiable influence, in part because of the economic burden of being a superpower, and in part because its own people are becoming more divided and disaffected. And instead of an obstreperous Germany seeking validity as a first-rate power, we now have an obstreperous China.

While there is a thread of validity through MacMillan’s thesis that cannot be completely dismissed, its glib Western-centric bias raises a number of red flags. The ‘relatively peaceful’ period since the end of the last global conflict has been anything but peaceful, and that should be a strong clue that the conventional notion of “multi-party general war” is probably outdated. The Southeast Asian conflict, for example – a protracted struggle that began immediately after the end of World War II and lasted for more than four decades (and which continues in vestigial form even today in places like the Philippines and Thailand) – cost upwards of five million lives. There have been other decades-long and costly conflicts in other parts of the world as well – East and Central Africa, Communist and then narco-insurgencies in Central and South America, the apparently insoluble enmity between India and Pakistan (including serious rebellions in both India and Sri Lanka, and a Bangladeshi war that may have killed as many as three million people), and a diffuse, globe-spanning sectarian war of terror between Islamic extremists and, well, just about anyone who isn’t an Islamic extremist.

Indeed, there is some conventional behavior among the traditional major powers; the US is a world policeman of visibly diminishing power, and countries like Russia and China do conduct their diplomacy with more than a little concern for their national prestige. But since the end of the Viet Nam conflict and in particular since the collapse of the Soviet Union, confrontation between the major powers, whether directly or through proxies, has been minimal. What is different in this age than in the pre-World War I era, and what ultimately invalidates MacMillan’s warning, is that the nature of the shared threats is much different.

Prior to World War I, the biggest threat countries like England, Germany, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, and Austria-Hungary had in common was social upheaval – it was a class-based threat to the established (and in every case except France, and to some extent recently-unified Italy, dynastic) order that was similar in every country, but was essentially domestic in scope; there was little tangible common cause across national borders – if there were, then the leaders of the nations would not, as a means of maintaining stability within their own frontiers, have been able to drag their countries into a global conflict with jingoistic appeals, which is what most of them did.

By contrast, the common threats in our modern, intimately-connected world are more ideological; class-based to a large degree, yes, but more complex and far broader in scope. No country can really count on its people “rallying around the flag” anymore, because all flags are viewed with a deep-seated suspicion; from the governments’ point of view, the risk of economic and social instability is too great. Even a scenario which, to biased Western eyes, would appear to validate MacMillan’s thesis – a belligerent China provoking a war with the US and its allies through aggression towards Japan in disputed seas – is unlikely, because a Chinese middle class growing in size, affluence, and (despite the Chinese government’s formidable efforts to control it) interaction with the rest of the world will probably not support a potential threat to its new-found way of life; the Chinese government would, probably, decide it needs to keep that part of its population content, supportive, and continuing to spend its money more than it needs the Senkaku Islands.

Probably. If there is a strong take-away in MacMillan’s essay, it is that the risk of not recognizing warning signs and acting too late or not at all to prevent calamity should not be ignored. In another sense, though, that is also a kind of indictment of comparative analyses like MacMillan’s; when we look for familiar patterns in history, we often miss the significance of trends and events in their own context, and form preconceived notions that we may very well regret. Preparing for the wrong thing to happen, after all, works out just the same as not preparing at all.