People who see a divine hand or the iron laws of dialectical materialism at work in human affairs bridle at the question: "What if things had turned out differently?" To EH Carr, historian of Soviet Russia, to speak of what might have happened in history, as opposed to what did happen, was just a "parlour game". To EP Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class, such counterfactual speculation was "unhistorical shit".
Other historians have confessed to being more intrigued. "The historian must constantly put himself at a point in the past at which the known factors will seem to permit different outcomes," wrote Johan Huizinga.… Seguir leyendo »
Gordon Brown would prefer Europe not to exist. If he had his way, politics would be played out in Britain, the transatlantic relationship and - his current unfortunate conceit - the world. These are the chosen stages, real or delusional, on which our prime minister moves with assurance and a politically dangerous degree of hubris.
Europe, for him, is a sideshow by comparison, a distraction and worse, because in his mind it brings only penalties, not rewards. Not only would Brown prefer not to think about Europe; he would also prefer us to pretend that he does not think about it.… Seguir leyendo »
Looking back through August 2008 eyes, many commentators now seem to treat the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia 40 years ago this week as a primarily geopolitical event. The coincidence of Russia's invasion of Georgia and the anniversary of the Czech invasion of 1968 perhaps makes it understandable that some should colour their thinking about the crushing of the Prague Spring this way. In this elision, securing their near-abroad against their empire's enemies is what tsars in Moscow always do, whether the threat du jour is from American capitalists or Georgian nationalists. The common theme, in other words, is always Russian power politics.… Seguir leyendo »
Like pensions and insurance, defence is one of those subjects to which too many people only pay attention when things go wrong. You might think, in the light of the past decade, that this would have changed. But you would be sadly mistaken.
Even today, even after Iraq, few mainstream MPs without an immediate personal or constituency interest in the subject turn up in the Commons for defence debates. Many politicians who are thoughtful about a range of domestic issues still pass by on the other side when the conversation gravitates to the military. In this they reflect the British public's preference for a quiet life.… Seguir leyendo »
Sometimes even George Bush can get it right. "This is a moving place that can't help but shake your emotions to your very foundation," said the president as he toured the skull-decked memorial to the 1994 Rwanda genocide this week. "It reminds me that we must not let these kind of actions take place."
Everyone - but everyone - who visits Rwanda comes away saying that sort of thing. And with good reason. Fourteen years after 800,000 people were murdered there in the space of 100 days, no one departs from Rwanda saying: thank God we did nothing.
As Bush observed, Rwanda is a reminder of humankind's wider moral responsibility to help those who face utmost distress and peril.… Seguir leyendo »
Perhaps there are civil servants somewhere in the depths of the European commission's Berlaymont building in Brussels who remain stubbornly more excited by the fine print of the Treaty of Lisbon than by Nicolas Sarkozy's love affair with Carla Bruni. Across the rest of Europe, though, it is no contest. The narcissistic French president and his new partner are the biggest European story of 2008 by a mile - or by 1.6 kilometres, indeed.
Yet the European political story is a good one too. While the Lisbon treaty cannot compete with the way that Bruni wears her designer jeans as a topic of conversation, it too needs our full attention.… Seguir leyendo »
Here's an inconvenient truth. Even with his Nobel peace prize, even with his Oscar and his Emmy, even with his undying status as the martyr of the 2000 election, Al Gore is not going to be the Democratic nominee for the White House in 2008, and is not going to be the next president of the United States either.To suppose that Nobel laureate Gore might now become these things is a fun reflex. It is seductive, understandable in its way and mostly well-meant. But it is also fantasy politics. Liberals are particularly susceptible to the fantasy, not least for the epic symmetry of Gore finally ousting George Bush.… Seguir leyendo »
In the pre-Iraq years, attitudes to war on both sides of the Atlantic were commonly framed by one of two radically opposed mythic experiences. A supportable war was the sort embodied in Britain's defiance of Hitler in 1940, whose lesson was that the right people would win if they stood firm against evil. An unsupportable war was encapsulated in America's rout in Saigon in 1975, whose lesson was that conflicts were more complicated in practice.
When George Bush decided to invade Iraq, he offered Americans a rerun of a 1940-style war, with himself in the role of Winston Churchill and Tony Blair as his transatlantic cheerleader.… Seguir leyendo »
Foul though they are, the failed car bombers have done the new government a huge favour. There was no terror emergency listed in Gordon Brown's long-prepared grid of July initiatives for seizing the political momentum for Labour. But the attempted bombings have provided the new prime minister with a perfect platform on which to pose as the national leader he strives to be.The moderate language in which Brown and his ministers have responded to the week's emergency has been deliberately chosen - partly with an eye on the Southall byelection - and much commented upon. Yesterday's Islamispeace full page ads in this and other newspapers spoke for an undoubted wider welcome.… Seguir leyendo »
In the Blair government there are no nuances or doubts about the French presidential run-off. We are rooting for Nicolas Sarkozy, they say, and they mean it. From Downing Street Sarkozy is seen as everything that Jacques Chirac is not. A Sarkozy victory, they believe there, would mean an end to Chirac's anti-Americanism, a short practical treaty in place of the EU constitution, and the prospect of greater flexibility on trade, regulation and the European budget. So dazzling are these prizes after the frustrations of the past that the major uncongenial aspects of a Sarkozy win - his hostility to Turkey, his protectionism and his support for the CAP - are simply ignored.… Seguir leyendo »
The historic vote for radical House of Lords reform triggers a cluster of good thoughts. First, that it was an object lesson in realistic progressive audacity; what looked risky before suddenly looks inevitable and sensible, constitutional reform's equivalent of the congestion charge. Second, that it ought to put an end - though it won't - to the ignorant claim that today's House of Commons is a supine shadow of its supposedly glorious former self. And, third, that MPs ought to show their muscle again on Wednesday by refusing to renew the Trident nuclear missile system prematurely.
Next week's Commons debate about Trident ought to be a great existential political moment - and in some respects it cannot avoid being one.… Seguir leyendo »
Across my generation, Robert Kennedy still casts a shadow like no other political leader. Through the fragile grace of his life and the hesitant magnificence of his words, he embodied what we hoped the world might become. When he died, he became the great might-have-been. And so, in our smaller, still living way, did our generation.
I have Bobby Kennedy's picture on my wall, and a book of his speeches is always within arm's length as I write. Emilio Estevez, whose film about the senator's assassination opens next week, is more passionate still. He says in a New Statesman interview that Kennedy's death marked the end of decency.… Seguir leyendo »
Most of what has been written about this week's Iraq Study Group report has concentrated on Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton's big policy critique of America's historic humiliation. And quite right too. It was a shatteringly critical verdict and it left George Bush looking more than ever out of his depth at his White House press conference on Thursday.
Less attention has been focused on an important subtext of the report. Consider this example: "The US military has a long tradition of strong partnership between the civilian leadership of the department of defence and the uniformed services. Both have long benefited from a relationship in which the civilian leadership exercises control with the advantage of fully candid professional advice, and the military serves loyally with the understanding that its advice has been heard and valued.… Seguir leyendo »
Today, as in the past, Turkey embodies transcendent political questions. Can west and east live in harmony? How can secular and religious values best coexist? Are minorities and human rights properly respected? This week Pope Benedict trod a more exemplary path through these difficult issues than some had expected. Now the European Union must do the same if it is to avoid becoming a protectionist irrelevance and, perhaps, if it is to survive at all.
In spite of all its problems, the mutual embrace between the west and Turkey is a great project of civilisation and law. Yet events are pushing both sides towards an epochal confrontation at this month's EU summit.… Seguir leyendo »