published in The Independent, 11 April 2014
We are living in increasingly interesting times. In eastern Europe, Russia seems intent on re-running the early days of the Cold War. A whole new generation is discovering the tingling of hairs on the back of the neck that you get when nuclear-armed nations start playing bad-tempered hands of poker.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world, brace yourselves for a re-enactment of the event that set the Cold War in motion – war on the Korean peninsula, as the US and South Korea tomorrow [Friday] embark on their biggest ever aerial war games. The twice-yearly Max Thunder exercise, running to 25 April, coincides with two other ongoing exercises which have already provoked the North into a new bout of missile testing.
Two weeks ago, north and south traded fire across their maritime border, and there is a strong likelihood of further escalation before the fun and games are over. Remember, although the Korean War ended more than half a century ago, the two Koreas have never signed a peace treaty, and its tempestuous young leader has torn up what frail agreements did exist, declaring that the North is in a state of war with both the US and South Korea, and warning of his intention and ability to hit targets as far away as the continental US. It would be nice to treat Kim Jong-un, as a bizarre Korean joke; nice, but unwise.
The British response to this, if reports are to be believed, is to provide the regime with episodes of Teletubbies, Dr Who and Top Gear. Efforts to persuade the BBC to launch a dedicated Korean language World Service radio service to provide this actuality-starved population with real news have so far got nowhere.
Besides earning the corporation a few extra groats, it is hard to understand what sense there could be in bombarding the North Korean population with yet more incomprehensible fantasies, this time dreamed up in W1A. What passes for news in the Democratic Republic is bizarre enough already, without help from Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po and Tinky Winky.
North Korean news has always had a credibility problem but since the accession of Kim Jong-un it has grown far, far worse, to the extent that people are looking back on the reign of his diminutive dad as a golden age of clarity and commonsense.
Of the recent alleged news stories supposedly coming out of Pyongyang, which have even a tangential connection with the truth? The report that Uncle Jang Song Thaek was torn to pieces by famished dogs turned out to be the Chinese idea of a joke. Jang’s crony O Sang-Hon has also been liquidated, but was he done in by a flamethrower, as reported by the reputable South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo? That too, was very likely no more than a gruesome rumour.
But the official news is equally weird. This week Pyongyang reported Kim Jong-Un re-election as First Chairman of the National Defence Commission. It is said that he obtained 100 per cent of the vote. Believe it if you will – the North Koreans certainly don’t. This week a defector told the Daily Telegraph, “Nowadays people believe less than 20 per cent of what is broadcast…They only use newspapers to roll their cigarettes.”
But through the fog of propaganda, rumour and baroque invention, certain facts about this rogue regime are discernible. The execution of Uncle Jang was clearly the young dictator’s bid to destroy his most serious rival for absolute power, and to prove, outside the country as well as in, that he and only he is the boss. But to the extent that this unprecedented purge exposed deep and dangerous rifts at the heart of the regime, it was evidence as much of his weakness as his ruthlessness. And that raises the most fundamental question about the North Korean regime: how will it end?
Kim Jong-un’s strategy for survival could not be clearer or cruder: terrorise and purge your enemies within, hurl threats and ill-aimed missiles at those abroad. It may appear extreme, but it is in line with the national psychology of the north, sedulously nurtured by all three Kims for 60 years: that of a plucky, uniquely virtuous country whose only hope, surrounded by vicious enemies, is to cultivate ‘juche’, self-reliance. And in the absence of reliable alternative sources of information such as the BBC World Service, the brainwashing inevitably works.
South Korea’s belligerent President Park Geun-hye, daughter of the military dictator Park Chung-hee, has decided to take Kim’s threats at face value, authorising pre-emptive military action if the army believes a missile attack from the north is imminent, authorising the military to respond without reference to political concerns.
But this approach, combined with ostentatious military exercises like the one that is about to start, play straight into Pyongyang’s hand. The underlying goal may be to weaken and even remove Kim, but the in the short run their likely effect will be to make him stronger. And if his army again responds with firepower, we will be in terrifying new territory, given President Park’s new guidelines. There is a grave danger that the result could be a full-blown military confrontation, with results that no-one could safely predict.
That seems a crazy risk to run. Kim Jong-un is the political equivalent of the late cult leader Jim Jones. Threatening him with annihilation is no way to talk him down. That’s like practically ordering him to start doling out the Cool-Aid.
The world’s biggest democratic exercise gets under way on Monday, and if the pundits are right, Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will win the Indian general election by a country mile.
For the outside world, including both the European Union and the US, Mr Modi is the man who has turbocharged the economy of Gujarat, the state he has ruled for 12 years, and who promises to do the same for the flagging Indian economy as a whole. He has also said he will take effective action against corruption.
But nobody who, like me, was in Modi’s state 12 years ago and witnessed the carnage that took the lives of hundreds of Muslims in bloody, brutal and tightly organised pogroms can suppress a shiver of horror at the thought that this man may now be about to join the world’s top table.
Those scenes were reminiscent of the tit-for-tat massacres of Hindus and Muslims during Partition, and the mass killings of Sikhs in Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That this should happen in 2002 in a relatively prosperous and educated part of the country was profoundly shocking. No-one ever succeeded in proving that Modi had ordered or encouraged the massacres. But many reporters noted the failure of police to protect Muslim communities against the mobs.
These killings were as disturbing as Germany’s Kristallnacht, and for the same reason. Hostility to Muslims is in the bloodstream of the Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindu nationalist organisations to which Modi and the BJP belong. Inspired by European Fascism and Nazism, the movement’s founding ideologist, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, prescribed radically different treatment for Hindus – children of the subcontinent’s aboriginal religion, according to the theory – and those who subscribed to other religions.
According to Golwalkar, India’s minorities were suspect. “They are born in this land,” he wrote, “but…are they grateful to this land?..Do they feel it is a duty to serve her? No! Together with the change in their faith, gone is the spirit of love and devotion for the nation.” The dominant theme of Hindu nationalism has been suspicion of and hostility towards minorities, Muslims in particular. The idea that Hindus enjoy an exclusive, mystical connection to ‘Mother India’ is central. And as Europe discovered in the 1930s, the politics of hate are terribly potent in countries gripped by poverty or mass unemployment. When politicians’ promises of prosperity ring hollow, the quest for some group to blame becomes a seductive alternative.
Narendra Modi’s roots in the Sangh Parivar go deep. The child of poor shopkeepers, he became a quasi-monastic member of the movement as a young man, swearing lifelong fealty and celibacy. He has done nothing else in his life but work for and within Hindu nationalism. His choice of Varanasi to be his constituency bore out the depth of his devotion: for pious Hindus it is the holiest city in the world, where the devout come to die so they can immediately escape the cycle of birth and death and attain liberation. This week he again forcibly reminded India of that identity by raising the question of the slaughter of cows for export to Bangladesh – always an emotive issue for Hindus, for whom cows are sacred.
But on the most toxic question for a Hindu nationalist, the treatment of minorities under BJP rule, Modi has kept silent. He has never issued an apology for the massacre that took place in Gujarat on his watch, nor risen to journalists’ demands, in his rare interviews, to go into detail about what happened. Instead he sticks to those grievances guaranteed to excite Indians of all ethnicities and religions and social classes: the faltering the economy, corruption, the need to act tough with China and Pakistan. His calling card is his reputation for firm economic management in Gujarat – despite the persistence there of a large, deeply-impoverished underclass. Whatever happened in the shadows he leaves well alone.
Mr Modi’s success in escaping from his past reminds me of the similar achievement of Italy’s former deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini. The leader of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the direct heir of Mussolini’s Fascists, and in his youth quite as committed a political extremist as Modi, he spent his first decade as a sort of parliamentary leper: no mainstream politicians would have anything to do with him. But then he gave his party a neutral new name, the National Alliance, condemned anti-semitism, visited Jeruasalem’s Wailing Wall, and in 1994 entered Silvio Berlusconi’s first coalition government. A few years later his stock had improved so dramatically that this ‘post-Fascist’ was regarded as a pillar of respectability compared to his wayward boss. In no time he was co-authoring the (doomed) EU constitution with Giscard d’Estaing.
Mr Fini’s transformation was more dramatic and arguably more heartfelt than Mr Modi’s. But both of these shrewd men have done precisely what was necessary to emerge from political no-man’s-land and take charge, while retaining their parties’ support. Modi has never accounted for the Gujarat pogroms, but instead in 2011 undertook a series of quasi-religious fasts as part of a ‘goodwill mission’ to his state’s Muslims. In intention it was very much like Fini’s visit to Israel.
They do what works; the prize is high office, and admission to the world’s top table. And in return the parties they lead – which have done little to back their leaders’ sweet words with reforming actions – gain the glittering prizes of power.
The west owes Vladimir Putin a big thank you. We were forgetting who we were and who our friends were and who they weren’t. Crimea has been a sharp nudge in the ribs.
The G8 was always a curious entity. Russia had no business being in it, its economy being so much smaller than those of the other members. It was admitted in 1998, 13 years after the group was founded, with the intention of trying to keep the big brat in order and teach him some table manners. Well that didn’t work.
It was part of the west’s programme – patronising, unrealistic and psychologically flawed as it now seems – to persuade the Russians that the collapse of the Soviet Union, the loss of their entire area of influence, the plummeting of their prestige and the arrival of NATO and the EU on the border need not be seen in a bad light, in terms of defeat, but as a precious opportunity to be seized.
This was a classic case of failing to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. Imagine if things had gone the other way. Those of us who lived through at least part of the Cold War remember not only the nuclear terror but the lively fear that, given a few false moves at the negotiating table, the logic of co-existence would collapse and Russian tanks would be at the English Channel – ready to welcome us into the expanded Soviet Union. That’s why we tolerated the nauseating logic of Mutually Assured Destruction, as the best assurance that that would never happen.
Russia, of course, feared exactly the same thing – which is why for them 1989 and all that was not a moment of liberation but the start of a long nightmare of loss. And that’s why, at the height of the Crimea crisis, a top Russian TV anchor bragged that Russia was “the only country…realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” The old bruiser was dragging himself up off the floor.
The new-old G7 may indeed, as Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in a tone of sour grapes, not have much relevance in the world in any more, but its re-constitution symbolises an important fact: the west is once again the West, and thanks to Mr Putin it is experiencing a frisson of unity such as it has not known for a long time.
It has been argued many times over the past 20 years that NATO was losing its raison d’etre, that the US had lost or would soon lose its appetite for defending its European allies, and that the end of the Cold War had moved us all onto a totally new page. That view was strengthened by a series of events that drove new wedges between western Europe and the US. Europe’s dismal failure to agree on any kind of a robust, united response to the wars in former Yugoslavia exposed it to the scorn of the US, which seized the initiative in bringing the Bosnian war to an untidy but conclusive termination. The invasion of Iraq split Europe down the middle. Most recently, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scale of NSA phone-hacking infuriated and alienated European leaders.
Some of these rows were more significant than others; in particular the neo-cons’ urge, circa 2003, to re-boot the US as an imperial power ran deeply counter to the European tendency of the previous half century. But despite these rifts, what united Europe and the US – the West – continued to be far more important than what divided it: democratic institutions, strong but not tyrannical states, a growing recognition, embodied in trans-national institutions like the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe, of how peace and inter-dependence were intimately linked, and how these placed limits on the traditional concept of sovereignty.
In his seminal essay published in 2000, The post-modern state and the world order, the British strategic thinker Robert Cooper argued that it was this willingness to accept “intrusion in areas normally within state sovereignty” in the interests of greater mutual security that defined “the post-modern element” of the modern world. “It is important to realise what an extraordinary revolution this is,” he wrote. “The normal logical behaviour of armed forces is to conceal their strength and hide their forces and equipment from potential enemies.” It was, he argued, “The shared interest of European countries in avoiding a nuclear catastrophe” which had proved “enough to overcome the normal strategic logic of hostility and suspicion.”
Europe’s memory of centuries of war and its determination not to have any more of them was at the heart of that post-modern world, and the G8 was one of the ways we tried to bring Russia on board. The fact that Russia has agreed to let an OCSE mission monitor the military situation in the Ukraine may indicate that Mr Putin still sees himself as beholden to those arrangements, but nonetheless that attempt has now failed.
The annexation of Crimea throws us back into a polarised world, and if that is a more dangerous world it has the benefit of also being a clearer and a more honest one. It is the latest in a series of apparently malign accidents that have forced the West to re-assess both its limits and its potentialities.
The chaos that has followed the interventions in Iraq and Libya have brought a welcome if belated dose of reality to neo-imperialists in Washington, London and Paris: it is now obvious to nearly everyone that it is much easier to create a failed state than to put such a state back together again.
At the same time, the Crimea crisis makes clear that what has been achieved in the former Warsaw Pact countries since the fall of the Berlin Wall is precious and fragile and cannot be taken for granted. In many of those countries, as in Ukraine, it has a long way to go; but what has been achieved is to be defended. Russia cannot be allowed to doubt that.
Last month Spain launched an extraordinary initiative: its Justice Minister announced a new law permitting all those able to demonstrate blood connections to the Sephardic Jewish community expelled in 1492 the right to return to Spain with Spanish (and therefore European) citizenship. The new version of the law, unlike the version trailed in 2012, does not require applicants to renounce their existing nationality. It has been enthusiastically received: one Israeli lawyer specialising in European citizenship applications reports around 1,000 enquiries. Spain’s Justice Ministry has received 3,000 applications so far.
In a mean and jealous world, Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon’s initiative shines like a light in the darkness. Now it’s the turn of other governments to follow his example.
Burma’s reforming government should waste no time in laying out the welcome mat for the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians thrown out by the xenophobic dictator General Ne Win in the early 1960s.
Greece should do the same for the Turks expelled after the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution, and in tandem Turkey should welcome back its ethnic Greeks. As all these communities –including Burma’s exiled ethnic Indians and Spain’s long-lost Jews – are characterised by enterprise, economic dynamism and familiarity with risk taking, such a policy would have a singularly dynamic impact on the struggling economies of the countries to which they returned.
The Sri Lankan government of President Mahendra Rajapaksa would find no surer way of convincing the world of its good intentions than by inducing the huge Tamil diaspora to pack their bags and come home. The exiled Palestinians are more of a challenge, given that their homes, towns and lands have been very substantially expropriated. But a really imaginative, path-breaking general secretary of the Chinese communist party would even now be thrashing out the minimum necessary to lure Tibetans, including of course the Dalai Lama, back to Tibet. Diasporas are a terrible menace, as the Chinese, the Sinhalese and the Israelis know to their cost. The loss of homeland does terrible things to the mind. Being wrenched away from your home is a trauma that never heals.
Of course, merely to list these cases of mass exile and to name the obvious remedy – repatriation – is to appreciate how unlikely such policies are likely to be pursued. And to be impressed all over again by Mr Ruiz-Gallardon’s political boldness in drafting his law.
Critics say that his real reason is not the marvellous culture to which the Sephardic Jews contributed in Spain’s Golden Age, not the persistent attachment of that community to “their country, their language and their traditions” as the minister put it, but the economic vitality they would bring to stagnant Spain. But if true, that does not negate the moral dimension.
But how about extending the gesture to the Muslims, booted out of Spain en masse about 100 years after the Jews?
It is argued that the cases are different: the Jews were merely persecuted, while the Muslims were conquerors and invaders whose invasion was eventually reversed. Inviting them back would be like inviting the Germans back into Poland, the Italians into Albania, the British back into Bengal.
Yet if we are talking about culture, Islam was just as much a part of the old Iberian culture as the Jews were – arguably more so.
It could be said that Mr Ruiz-Gallardon would receive scant domestic applause for throwing down the welcoming mat to people whose co-religionists brought bloody mayhem into the heart of Madrid in 2004, and whose growing presence is a nagging political issue in many parts of Europe.
But if the problem with the Muslims is that many of them in the Middle East have shown little aptitude for co-existing peacefully with other communities, Israel’s appalling treatment of Palestinians opens them to the same objection. Mr Ruiz-Gallardon’s initiative is a bright light in a nasty world. But he is going to have a debate on his hands before it’s all over.
It’s how, in a sane world, we would all choose to live. The first sentence of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital reads, “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist method of production prevails takes the form of an immense accumulation of commodities.” We know in our hearts that this state of affairs is neither healthy nor sane. We can’t take those commodities with us, their production destroys the natural world and the gross inequality of their distribution poisons the social bloodstream. But now, as ever, that is how our societies function.
In a community called New Oasis for Life they are challenging those assumptions. Members of the commune, who range from illiterate peasants to middle-class refugees from the city, have no money or private possessions, they toil in fields and orchards that are owned and worked communally and they receive what they need to survive, nothing more. “What we’re doing here is basically communism,” says the community’s founder. “People do what they can and get what they need.”
The stinging irony is that New Oasis for Life is in China’s Yunnan Province, and although its ideology is directly inspired by Marx, the authorities of the People’s Republic are doing all in their power to shut it down. Members have been beaten up by thugs from outside, water pipes and generators have been destroyed, the police have set up a monitoring post at the entrance to watch comings and goings. In December the Forestry Bureau ordered the property returned to its original state before the commune was created and fined members 168,000 renminbi (£16,000). All the community’s children have been forcibly removed and sent to state schools.
We already know from the brutal persecution of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement characterised as an “evil cult” by Beijing, that China has very limited tolerance for groups that challenge the status quo. As the New York Times reported this week, New Oasis members suspect that the real reason the authorities are trying to close them down is because politically well-connected speculators are itching to get their hands on the land – and the plausibility of that scenario is a reminder of how far China has left behind the old time communist religion of Mao and his comrades.
But the emergence of New Life is yet more proof of the strength and persistence of the communist dream that has inspired generation after generation of revolutionaries, a dream that refuses to die. Bob Crow described himself as a “communist socialist”, and his great success in building up his union owed much to his passionate political convictions. Millions of people across the Indian state of Kerala, the Italian province of Tuscany and large swathes of the former eastern bloc look back on the social and educational provisions of the communist years with keen nostalgia.
At the bonsai scale – in one trade union, one collective farm, one European province – communism’s achievements are inspiring. I remember the shock of discovering a remarkably pure strain at Kibbutz Malkiyya in Upper Galillee, where I volunteered before going to university, back before the Yom Kippur war: no wages, few private possessions, children reared communally, clothes dished out from a central store, meals eaten together. The founding kibbutzniks, intellectual refugees from eastern Europe, the walls of their simple homes adorned with prints by Miro and Klee, had found salvation. For them this really was the promised land.
Both the charm and the success of these experiments lies in their tiny scale. This is dwarf communism, and bears the same relation to Stalin’s Soviet Union as a gecko does to a dinosaur. Like Bob Crow, they are pettable, posing no threat to the established order. Communism’s economic contradictions – the idiocies produced by centralised planning and the denial of the market – are masked by the donations of outsiders. They flourish in their artificial micro-climates, when the brisk air of the real world would kill them stone dead.
Above all, they are all escapable: when they become Animal Farm-like tyrannies, you can run away. It’s much harder to escape the octopus tentacles of a communist party once it has achieved its goal of total control – as the nice communards of Yunnan are now discovering to their cost.