Economic crisis begins at home

Trade and tariffs are not the key drivers of growth and prosperity.

On 28 and 29 June, the G20 summit will convene for the 14th time in Osaka, Japan. This gathering of leaders from the world’s leading economies, including the EU, plus invited guests and international organisations, ought to offer an important moment for mature reflection and collective coordination regarding the future needs of the world economy at a difficult time.

Instead, however, it is likely to descend either into directly confrontational rhetoric or empty promises and vague platitudes that avoid its mission to be the ‘premier forum for international economic cooperation’. The focus could end up on more peripheral matters, such as climate change, counterterrorism, health and migration, which are perceived as being less contentious.

The G20 is no stranger to crisis. It emerged from the 1997-99 Asian Financial Crisis that led G7 finance ministers (representing almost half of world GDP) to establish a wider group in order to engage with the major emerging economies. Then, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the group was further elevated to become a forum for heads of state.

In 2019, it is the continuing dispute between the US and China over trade that appears to loom largest. But this ought not to be the main focus of the G20, either. As is well understood, trade wars are symptoms of underlying economic problems rather than their cause. Trade and tariffs are not the fundamental drivers of growth and prosperity. Rather, these derive from domestic productivity levels in the making of goods and services that are driven by investment. To trade effectively, the key is to have something worth selling in the first place.

Tariffs, regulation, barriers
Unfortunately, the protectionist measures that had hastened the advent of the Second World War, and that were dismantled subsequently through the establishment of the GATT/WTO, led to a growing proliferation of non-tariff or technical barriers to trade. Rather than invest in new industries, older ones were sustained artificially behind a chaff of regulatory standards, intellectual-property laws, state subsidies and public-procurement policies.

Accordingly, assertions that we have been living through a time marked by a so-called ‘rules-based international trading system’ fall very wide of the mark. All the evidence points to systematic attempts by the key players – and the US in particular – to subvert any supposed ‘liberal world order’, both economically and militarily.

Now, it may be, of course, that US President Donald Trump – who is certainly not the first US or other world leader to engage in such embargoes against China – understands full well that to compete internationally as a successful exporter, it is the ability to produce efficiently at home that matters more than trade deals. Some of his pronouncements have reflected as much, looking to put pressure on manufacturers, such as Harley-Davidson and Nike, to bring their production back to its origins.

But, irrespective of this, the adverse effects of Trump’s approach are evident for all to see. Many American firms have warned the US Department of Commerce that such measures hurt both businesses and consumers alike. The latter invariably bear the brunt of any related price increases.

The IMF has cut its world economic growth forecast in accordance. And anyway, many enterprises will simply relocate elsewhere, such as to Vietnam, which is not currently on the receiving end of additional duties.

A risky game

The deeper consequences, though, will take more time to become manifest. These include growing differences among the Western powers over how to handle the economic rise of the East.

This was seen recently, through the US stance towards its partners not using the Chinese firm Huawei to develop critical 5G infrastructure, despite it being the leading global player in the field. Such actions could come to damage relations with key allies, including the UK and Germany.

In this regard, the US is playing a very risky game. With its relations veering towards a potential conflict with Iran, as well as its ongoing disputes with Russia and China, the US may yet come to rue antagonising its friends as well.

Or, at the very least, it may regret making them have to choose between their relations with the US and with China. Only this week, the UK chancellor Philip Hammond launched the new Shanghai-London Stock Connect that looks set to deepen financial relations by facilitating investment between them.

This, and China’s recent decision not to pursue WTO market economy status, may also point to a growing maturity on its part in relation to such matters. Certainly, its most successful strategy in the past was always to keep a low profile on the international stage and avoid confrontation in foreign affairs, while focusing more on its domestic concerns.

Historically, it has often been extraneous circumstances that have accelerated change in world affairs more than any conscious push. The two powers that dominated each of the past two centuries – the US and UK – did so as much through the decline and imperial overreach of their predecessors as through their own efforts. That, and its underlying crisis of innovation and investment, are what the US leadership would do well to reflect upon most in Osaka.

First published on spiked, 26 June 2019.

Why the West doesn’t understand China

The Huawei debacle shows how prejudice still shapes Westerners’ view of the People’s Republic.

Of all the platitudes relating to China in recent times, one of the more facile must surely be that, ‘The prime aim of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) … is to stay in power’. Maybe those making such pronouncements should try pointing to a Western establishment that does not share this goal.

It is ironic, then, that those lambasting the lack of loyalty on display in the leaking of a decision by the normally secret UK National Security Council to allow Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to supply 5G technology to the UK, appear to yearn for precisely the coherent, centralised and confidential mode of decision-making attributed to the Chinese state.

But generalisations about Chinese politics and society are difficult to sustain. China is so vast that Cambridge economist Joan Robinson’s famous adage, ‘Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true’, surely applies to China, too. Robinson also noted how ‘The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all’ – a lesson the ruling Chinese cadre-class implicitly took on board when, during the late 1970s and 1980s, it shifted its base away from peasants and towards the market, a move justified in the name of ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’.

Given this orientation towards the market, it is misguided to start any analysis of Beijing politics, or the Huawei debate, with assertions as to the Chinese Communist Party’s roots in Marxist-Leninist ideology. The world has changed a good deal since 1917 or 1949, or even 1978.

Indeed, with the constant chatter nowadays about the forces and impact of globalisation, one might have imagined that armchair analysts would have caught up and noticed the extent to which their cherished models of China might need to change, too. Yet when the West examines China, there seems to be a failure to note the obvious – that our understanding of China is shaped not just by the nature of China today, but by the nature of the West, too. VIDEO‘The establishment uses Twitter to demonise the public’ – Brendan O’Neill vs Ash SarkarSPIKED

A confident and purposeful West, for instance, will see China in a very different way to a West that is insecure, confused or directionless. It might see China as a source of opportunities rather than a constant threat. The truth – as in many things – will lie somewhere in between. Before looking at China, then, it is essential to understand how much has changed in our own Western backyards over recent decades.

Who is in charge?

The apocryphal phrase, attributed to the former, realpolitik US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger – ‘Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?’ – contained an important truth. Through its institutional arrangements, what was to become the European Union (with five presidents, Council, Commission, Parliament, Central Bank and Eurozone Finance ministers), failed to speak with a singular voice and, accordingly, could not project itself coherently into the international domain.

The tables appeared to turn a decade ago when the European Union appointed its first foreign affairs and security policy chief, the unelected British politician, Catherine Ashton. But when then US president, Barack Obama, wanted to discuss what really mattered in European affairs at the time, such as the Euro debt crisis, he turned not to the EU, but to national leaders, like the German chancellor and French president.

More recently, with the election of Donald Trump as US president, the Washington foreign-policy establishment appears to have become less confident and coherent, too, while the post of secretary of state seems increasingly to come with a revolving door. Finally, EU officials have been able to invert the joke and ask with whom they should talk when wanting to speak to the US.

This form of political incoherence is now almost universal. Who speaks for the UK, for instance? Theresa May, the outgoing British prime minister, not only struggled with her cabinet, but lost control of the Brexit process to parliament. And parliament is, in turn, opposed to implementing the expressed will of the majority of the people it is meant to represent.

Such recent developments aside, international relations and foreign-policy analysis models have long been out of step with postwar developments. These include the emergence of a multitude of supra- and sub-national institutions of growing significance – a process that accelerated through the post-Cold War breakdown of the old, left-v-right political order, and the advent of regulatory (as opposed to redistributive) regimes, expressed through a shift in emphasis from government to multi-stakeholder governance.

China is different?

The evident assumption of much political bombast relating to China is that it has somehow evaded all of these trends. However, there is considerable scholarship examining how the Chinese state has been affected by the same processes of ‘fragmentation, decentralisation and internationalisation’ that have occurred elsewhere. Far from being ‘a unified, authoritarian regime’, clinging to its sovereignty and disrupting a ‘liberal rules-based world order’, what we see in China is a state being transformed, in its own way, by prevailing cultural and market forces.

Indeed, contrary to Western prejudice, while highly centralised in principle, China has long been, in practice, one of the most decentralised states on Earth. According to Arthur Kroeber, a Brookings Institute senior fellow and independent financial journalist, the share of governmental expenditure taking place at the subnational level in China was ‘a staggering 85 per cent’ in 2014 – that’s compared to about 25 per cent in most democracies and less than 20 per cent in non-democracies.

This level of regional and local autonomy predated the period of reform and marketisation heralded by then leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s – a process Beijing was then even less able to command or control, as it shifted from focusing on production targets to increasingly just issuing coordinating guidance. Its development since has reflected a struggle between disparate actors and agencies, although the tendency of careerist sycophants to echo any messages from the top may give an impression of order to this fragmentation.

In practice, while Chinese leaders issue simple directions – to ‘Go Out’ (1999), ‘Go West’ (2000) or to promote a ‘Chinese Dream’ (2013) – these are inherently nebulous in character. Such guidelines have largely replaced the centralised planning of the past. But, at the level of implementation, they are necessarily interpreted (or even ignored) according to the specific interests of particular regions, agencies and enterprises.

Much like a game of Go (or weiqi), Chinese strategy appears more like the framing of a domain to be filled in at a later date. But the ensuing competition between parties readily confuses any initial goals. So, for instance, what began as the One Belt One Road initiative, to redevelop the ancient Silk Road and open up a modern maritime equivalent, was rapidly repackaged as the Belt and Road Initiative, with many belts and many roads, as almost every Chinese region, in pursuit of associated funding, claimed a role in it.

The process of internationalisation cannot be centrally controlled either. It has allowed key players, such as the People’s Bank of China, to impose international regulatory discipline at home (in the same way that European leaders have used European Union rules as a cover for their own domestic objectives). National agencies, such as the coast guard, have acquired significant foreign and security policy roles that they are ill-suited to. And provincial governments have pursued their own agendas across Asia and Africa.

For the West, China’s involvement in Asia and Africa has come under considerable scrutiny, especially the activities of China’s many state-owned enterprises (SOEs) overseas. These are understood to be businesses over which the government retains significant control. But, in fact, many of these 113,000 or so entities, are not under government control. They emerged from the former production ministries of the late 1970s, operate independently, and sell their commodities on the open market.

There are far too many to command and control, so central supervision applies to just 111 of them (or 0.1 per cent). Of course, the CCP does have leverage over these SOEs through a range of financial mechanisms, the issuing of permits and licences, as well as by retaining the power to regulate, discipline and appoint to top-level positions. But there is a world of difference between having such instruments available, and exerting effective control. The actual evidence points, rather, to the inability of the state to rein in the activities of its SOEs – even when it tries to.

Indeed, when supervised at all, the CCP’s focus is on the profitability of SOEs rather than their impact on foreign policy. The drive to promote business and maintain employment levels – particularly when faced with a domestic profit squeeze and production over-capacities that are some of the real drivers of the Belt and Road Initiative – has left the Ministry of Commerce in a far stronger and more significant position than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Accordingly, what we actually see are the outcomes of complex inter-agency struggles rather than top-down directives. State policy often follows and seeks to catch up with developments rather than lead them.

Enterprises, regions and agencies, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), pursuing their own agendas, have also, on occasion – in Myanmar or the South China Sea, for instance (where actions have been described as ‘consistently inconsistent’) – had adverse impacts, triggering diplomatic incidents that have embarrassed the Beijing establishment by acting in ways contrary to its official policy, and even violating UN embargoes to which it was formally committed.

The recent re-centralisation drive, under President Xi, to streamline and curtail some of this free-wheeling behaviour, may have led to his being perceived of as more authoritarian than some of his predecessors. But it is a move that smacks equally of the dying days of the former Soviet Union, when various leaders amassed more and more titles to compensate for their dwindling power. Talk of re-centralisation may, therefore, be a sign of weakness rather than inherent strength.

Lessons from history

Officially, Huawei is not an SOE, though its activities are undoubtedly of interest to the authorities in Beijing. Now ranked 72 on the Fortune Global 500 list (though not among the top 25 businesses in China), Huawei has become the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world, employing some 188,000 people and investing over 10 per cent of annual revenue in research and development.

It has established a significant retail presence in the UK and is now angling for the more lucrative returns of government contracts to help build 5G infrastructure. This would facilitate the advent of the so-called ‘internet of things’, whereby countless devices in the real world may, one day, become interconnected.

In this regards, it is worth recalling a significant parallel from just over a hundred years ago. In the period leading up to the First World War, the British government was looking to appoint a provider of essential radio-telegraph equipment, through which it sought to maintain communications and control over its vast empire.

The main manufacturer was the Marconi Company which, while operating from within the UK, was headed by an Italian and had a considerable percentage of shareholders based overseas. Italy was also, at that time, a member of the Triple Alliance, with Germany and Austria-Hungary, of potentially hostile powers – though what seemed to exercise the parliamentary imagination somewhat more was the possibility of monopoly gains and back-handers to those involved in the awarding of an initial contract.

A committee of inquiry took nine months to acquit the ministers concerned and issued three conflicting reports on the matter. The then Liberal government also lost various by-elections as a consequence. And it also took a further 15 years for the UK to acquire a wireless system, owned by the government, but built by… Marconi.

As with the issuing of contracts for a new generation of nuclear-power stations and other critical infrastructure, such as HS2, one of the lessons may be that, unless Britain is prepared to invest for itself, then it is likely to have to engage others through outsourcing. Complaining about who these may be is unlikely to win friends or be an effective industrial strategy.

Yet again, conflicting opinions abound. On one hand, Huawei stands accused of having the potential to conduct future espionage for the Chinese government, through the installation of so-called backdoor access to data gathered through its systems. On the other, it is its supposed technological incompetence that is said to be the problem. A typical review casts endless aspersions before admitting that ‘there is no evidence’ of wrongdoing beyond ‘suspicions’.

Many suspect one of the real drivers of this debate to be the US realising that it is about a year behind in the 5G technology race with China, amplified through its ongoing trade war and security fears. After all, backdoors, and chief security officers reporting to domestic-security agencies rather than their own CEOs are hardly just a Chinese issue.

On 1 December 2018, the chief finance officer of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou – daughter of the founder and CEO, Ren Zhengfei – was arrested in Canada, accused by the US authorities (who are trying to extradite her), of misleading its banks by being in breach of US-imposed sanctions on Iran, as well as engaging in corporate theft. If these allegations are true, it would certainly not be the first time a Chinese (or indeed another nation’s) firm had acted in this way. Again, that may say more about Beijing’s inability to control things than of its having an overarching plan, though its somewhat predictable response has done little to help such impressions. The US, too, has hardly acted coherently in all this.

In the meantime, and in the aftermath of the flagrant leaks from its National Security Council (whatever the source), the UK would do well to reflect on the extent to which such behaviour has been condoned and even encouraged over recent years, as well as on how this reflects deep divisions at the highest level of government and elsewhere.

The need to maintain confidentiality is both desirable and necessary in any society – for our own privacy as much as for private enterprise, from which a healthy public domain can then ensue. But for this we may need to rediscover and celebrate a sense of national and personal sovereignty and purpose that contemporary cultural and political trends have undermined – including, at their most pointed, through contemporary criticism of and concerns about China.

First published on spiked, 27 May 2019

The pretentious nihilism of Plane Stupid

They pose as radicals, but actually are the worst kind of elitists.

That 13 supposed climate-change protesters from direct-action group Plane Stupid managed to breach security at London’s Heathrow Airport in the early hours of yesterday, chain themselves together and remain on the runway until 10am, over seven hours later, will, no doubt, be cause for considerable embarrassment in some circles.

True, the economic cost may not have been severe, due to there being flight restrictions in operation relating to take-offs prior to 6am. What’s more, the number of flights cancelled – 22 out of some 1,300 – would not have caused much more disruption than may be expected normally. But the implications of this protest, especially in relation to potentially more serious security breaches, seem evident to many.

What, runs this dominant commentary, if the individuals concerned had not been smiling, predominantly well-to-do types opposed to the planned expansion of Heathrow? What if they had been jihadists, affiliated to al-Qaeda or so-called Islamic State? What if they had been armed?

No doubt, such questions ought to be asked in certain circles. But, at the same time, we should not lose sight of the fact that many supposedly secure facilities have had their security compromised in one way or another since 9/11 – despite the vast sums expended to ensure this would not happen. If anything, such events suggest terrorism is not the main problem.

The Houses of Parliament in Westminster have been invaded on at least three occasions over recent years. Two members of campaign group Fathers 4 Justice threw flour bombs during Prime Minister’s Questions in 2004. Later that year, five supporters of the Countryside Alliance invaded the chamber.

In 2009, more than 30 Greenpeace activists climbed on to the roof of Westminster Hall, and many of them spent the night there, before being removed. Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle have suffered similar incursions from self-styled activists, as well as burglars and attention-seekers.

The incursion at Heathrow was clearly not an aberration.

What’s more, this particular type of incident – often perpetrated by self-absorbed types in pursuit of their usually limited political agendas – is not even the most significant in relation to airports and aviation security. In the intervening period, there have also been countless incursions worldwide into cargo areas by more organised criminals in pursuit of bullion and other goods.

If anything, Plane Stupid’s stunt seems to confirm the analysis of American political scientist John Mueller in his 2006 book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them. As Mueller wrote, stepping up security for passengers has done little to ensure airside security. Terrorists know this, so there must be fewer of them than we imagine.

There is one aspect, though – missed by most commentators – that we ought to pay some attention to. Those middle-class types, smiling for the photographers on the tarmac, are born of the same cultural malaise as many wannabe terrorists and fantasy Islamists. They start from an unshakeable moral certitude regarding their project and require little public support or engagement.

They have also – by-and-large – been indulged by the authorities. In the past, when the authorities were more confident of what it was they wanted for society, they would not have given any of them the time of day. Today, however, these protesters are handled with kid gloves. That is because those self-same agencies are no longer even sure of what it is they believe in.

That the Plane Stupid protesters could so blithely interrupt the plans of thousands of people – whether they were attending a loved one’s funeral in a foreign land or simply having a break – and not even trouble themselves to engage those people in a debate regarding their actions is a form of pretentious nihilism.

It is born of an age in which we no longer demand that people support their actions through reason, or build community support for their opinions. Rather, we accept that if someone feels passionately about something then that alone may condone their actions. According to some, having a grievance or being offended can explain – if not justify – someone’s rage.

Most alienated white Brits cannot readily join the ranks of those throwing a tantrum and heading off to Syria. They will have to find other forms of expression for their self-distancing disconnection from society. It may well be that terrorism is simply the more violent end of a spectrum, connecting extremists to the mainstream narcissists of groups like Plane Stupid.

By banning those they reject, our leaders reveal their own crisis

The failure to understand what tolerance really is reveals a low view of freedom and other people, and a complete absence of any purposive vision for society.

“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.’” With these words to the National Security Council, the re-elected British Prime Minister David Cameron laid out his intention to establish new powers to make it harder for people to promote so-called extremist views. His reappointed Home Secretary Theresa May had already introduced new legislation earlier in the year that mandated those in specified authorities – including schools, colleges, and universities – to take measures “to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” (a notably passive formulation).

They appear to be in good company. A supportive article in the establishment paper The Telegraph ran under the title “Britain is too tolerant of the intolerant.” And it is not just conservatives who hold such a position. Many liberals, as well as those on the old left of the political spectrum, seek to have those whose opinions they oppose banned from speaking in public. Some Muslim community leaders now see their role as “protecting our younger generation from the toxic effects of extremist propaganda,” too. Even a few academics have been arguing as much for years.

But aside from the small matter of who defines what is “extremist” – a task legal professionals will most likely relish – these individuals betray their failure to understand what tolerance really is, revealing a low view of freedom and other people, and a complete absence of any purposive vision of their own for society.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – the apocryphal phrase attributed to the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire is as good a place to start as any in elucidating these points. Tolerance, in this sense, can never be passive as Cameron suggested. It starts from disapproval, which is an active judgment. Only the non-judgmental – an attitude unfortunately encouraged by contemporary multiculturalism – are passive. And accordingly, they are not tolerant either – just indifferent, turning a blind eye to the beliefs and actions of others.

True tolerance, as Voltaire’s predecessor the English philosopher John Locke understood full well, requires ruthlessly engaging those whose opinions you disagree with, while agreeing not to censor them or resort to violence. It is an acceptance that the world is uncertain and a willingness to be open to the possibility of your own error or partiality. It needs absolute freedom of expression, both to prevent viewpoints being banned or hidden from view, and to allow all parties to better develop their own position or understanding.

This lies at the heart of what a university is. Indeed, it is why many choose to go there – to have the opportunity to put their ideas to the test (no matter how outlandish they may be), and, in turn, to test others. To deny this to the young – for fear that supposedly bad ideas may have “toxic effects” – is to view and treat them as infants. Sadly, this is a position already adopted by successive heads of the British Security Service (MI5), who have described their concerns of young adults being “vulnerable” or “groomed” into becoming terrorists.

As at least one commentator has noticed, this approach turns the war on terror into a child protection issue that draws on contemporary social fears regarding pedophiles. It presents young people as mindless sheep in need of protection. Yet, the recent actions of several youth who made their way to join the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) in Syria suggests the opposite is true. These are bright, energetic, and willful individuals in search of something to believe in, which is also necessarily an indictment of what they are provided with at home – in the West.

At home, they see politicians who have given up on the need to engage and inspire, and who would rather be seen to censor and regulate (despite the fact that many of them marched in support of free speech in solidarity with the cartoonists murdered in France earlier this year).

Similarly, universities that know the new legislation to be unnecessary and unworkable – let alone opposed to the spirit of a liberal education – will, nevertheless, introduce new procedures and audits to be seen to be in compliance with government diktat. Little wonder that those in search of a real purpose and meaning to their lives are left to look for this elsewhere.

By seeking to ban the opinions they disapprove of, our leaders implicitly reveal their weaknesses – both in failing to engage with and argue against those they so stridently reject, and, even more so, in having nothing more positive to put forward as a vision of their own. In doing so, they do not make society more tolerant, but more authoritarian – and blindly so, to boot, for what is it that they want people to be de-radicalized to?
First published by The Mark News, 5 June 2015

Lee Kuan Yew: the last of the great authoritarians

Love him or loathe him, the former Singapore leader had something his successors lack.

Lee Kuan Yew – the founding father of modern Singapore – has died aged 91. He was a controversial figure. Revered by many, despised by others, his aura became such that, in recent years, few people dared say his name in public – preferring to call him either ‘LKY’ or ‘the old man’.

Brought up under British rule, and educated in law at Cambridge, Harry Lee, as he was known then, became the figure the British could do business with (as did Gandhi in India) in the period of postwar decolonisation. His memoirs and actions revealed that he imbibed many of the racial caricatures and elitist prejudices of the British.

When he became the first prime minister of Singapore in 1959, he inherited and made full use of the Internal Security Act, which allowed for the preventative detention of individuals indefinitely without charge or trial. Accordingly, under the guise of anti-Communism, and in the shadow of the Malayan Emergency, he advocated for the internment of many of his former allies in the early 1960s. Several of whom – figures virtually unknown in the West – remained in prison until the early 1990s, for periods on a par with Nelson Mandela’s incarceration.

The fact that many of these prisoners managed to maintain their political beliefs with considerable dignity throughout their internment is a tribute to their courage. The recriminations over what exactly occurred are likely to resurface in the wake of Lee’s death. Singaporeans will re-examine their past, with accusations of historical revisionism from one side meeting considerable evidence of concealment by government, media and academic lackeys from the other.

The swamps-to-skyscrapers narrative, the idea that Lee pulled Singapore from a Third World to a First World country in the space of a single generation, is now being questioned, though developments in housing and infrastructure are still likely to be his abiding legacy. Singapore’s development was undoubtedly assisted by Western interference in both of Singapore’s neighbouring states – most barbarically in Indonesia, where more than half-a-million lost their lives during the CIA-backed anti-Communist purges of the mid-1960s. This period gave rise to the myth of Asian values, and of non-interference, which served to conceal domestic suppression.

Many foreigners may be familiar with Singapore as the ultra-clean city-state which, alongside the draconian regulation of jaywalking and chewing gum, continues to restrict freedom of expression and sexuality. But anyone who has spent time in its heartlands will know there is little enforcement of such petty rules. Police are noticeably absent on the streets. Rather, such codes have been ingrained in people’s heads. Smear campaigns against opposition parties and systematic electoral gerrymandering has meant dissent in Singapore is muted.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) – established by Lee in 1954, with a logo strangely reminiscent of that of the British Union of Fascists – has accordingly run Singapore since the late 1950s. Lee was prime minister at the time of Singapore’s merger with, and forcible ejection from, Malaysia, and remained in power until 1990. After that, he became senior minister and minister mentor, and continued to loom large in the background of Singaporean politics, even with his son at the helm, as he remains today.

Born, like many nations, in a period of great conflict, it may have been inevitable that Singapore came to be steered for so long by a leader like Lee. While many may focus on his authoritarian rule or politically incorrect views, it is likely that the greatest failing of the incredibly wilful, last-of-a-kind individual that was Lee Kuan Yew was his inability to instil the same sense of conviction in his successors. Singapore now faces being governed by largely uninspiring bureaucrats for the foreseeable future.

First published by spiked, 24 March 2015

The spy who came in from the Cold War

The Red Army toilet-raiding realities of spying certainly exhilarated Steve Gibson, but the fall of the Berlin Wall brought doubt, too.

From the end of the Second World War through to the end of the Cold War, a little-known unit of British special forces conducted spying missions behind the Iron Curtain – that is, right from the heart of Soviet-occupied East Germany.

Called the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Group Soviet Forces of Occupation in Germany, or BRIXMIS for short, it was part of an officially sanctioned exchange of observers between the Red Army and the British Army established by the victorious Allied powers and the USSR through the Robertson-Malinin agreement in 1946. Its ostensible purpose was to improve communication and relations between them.

In addition to BRIXMIS – and their French and American counterparts in the East – the Red Army also conducted similar operations through a unit in West Germany. But, diplomatic liaison and translation duties aside, the real purpose of these units soon became clear: to find out what each other was up to by heading out into those areas where they had been specifically told not to go.

My friend and former UK Defence Academy colleague Steve Gibson led many of these ‘tours’ just as the Cold War was coming to an end. Live and Let Spy is his gripping recollection of these episodes. Although originally published in 1997 as The Last Mission: Behind the Iron Curtain, it has now been republished and augmented some 15 years later with a significant additional chapter written with the hindsight gained during his subsequent academic career.

Much of the espionage involved gathering evidence about the weaponry available to the Red Army. Accordingly, it typically required lying in wait on a bridge over a railway line at three o’clock in the morning in the middle of a forest in winter. With temperatures dipping to around minus-30 degrees celsius, the objective was to photograph all the kit that passed by on a train underneath. Alternatively, they might record the rate of fire from Russian guns from the safety of their locked vehicle in the sweltering 40 degree heat of summer.

Sent back to the Defence Intelligence Staff in Whitehall, this information allowed specialists to determine troop and equipment levels, as well as whether a new bolt on a gun or aerial on a tank might allow it to fire or communicate further than previously estimated – and if so, whether this would necessitate the complete re-evaluation of NATO’s Cold War battle plans.

Of course, the operations required meticulous planning to identify suitably concealed observation posts, as well as efficient access and escape routes. This planning was usually conducted during the day. For those so disposed, there are sufficient ‘tradecraft’ details here to sustain interest. For me, however, the real gem is the lesson identified early in the book – to be as conspicuous as possible by waving at everyone.

This waving tactic disoriented many into believing that the Mercedes G-Class (Geländewagen) passing by with three individuals in army fatigues in it was legitimate. And even if observers suspected something, the fact that nearby children would invariably wave back – raising the possibility that those inside were known to them – would add further confusion or delay. Those who did smell a rat usually did so too late.

It was not just a jolly jaunt. Over the years, a number of tour personnel lost their lives or suffered serious injury through being shot at or having Russian tanks ram their vehicles. East German ‘narks’ were also always on the look-out for anyone in the wrong place and would report these to the relevant authorities. It is noted, though, that many local ‘Easties’ were keen to help the agents.

Given the challenging circumstances, selection and training were intense and severe. It required individuals who could think quickly on their feet and not just expect to follow rules. It also meant having the ability to complete advanced courses in Russian and German, photography and navigation in next to no time, and to memorise the look and sound of countless pieces of Soviet military equipment, as well as remain calm – yet sharp – when tired or provoked.

For anyone who imagines that spying is glamorous, or somehow akin to being in a Bond movie, they will be disabused by Gibson’s chapter on document-gathering from dumps (literally). It had been recognised for some time that, when they went on manoeuvres in East Germany, the Soviet forces were not supplied with any toilet paper. They would use whatever came to hand – a copy of Pravda, a letter from a loved one, or even their mission papers. And after they were done, it was then that Her Majesty’s specially trained and equipped Cold War warriors really came into their own…

The book is a tour de force of teeth-clenching tension that will keep most readers gripped from beginning to end. But while the first nine chapters retain the action-packed core of the original narrative, filled with the escapades of small teams of rather special individuals trying to find out what the Soviets were up to, the real substance – for those of a more political disposition – is a chapter titled ‘Reflections’.

As a professor of political science at the University of Warwick, Robert Aldrich, notes in the new foreword, Gibson is now clearly of the mind that ‘much of what [he] was led to believe [during the Cold War], and some of what he was told, was simply wrong!’

It is testimony to the author’s strength of character that – unlike others – he neither chose to dwell in the past nor fell prone to the ‘invention of illness’. This latter problem, he himself notes, affected many of his one-time colleagues once their personal and moral frameworks disintegrated with the end of the old, Cold War world order.

Gibson’s resolute clearsightedness is to be admired. So despite having been caught up in the exhilaration of it all as a young man, despite devoting the prime of his life to the East-West conflict, he refuses to lie to himself. ‘The Cold War’, he notes, ‘was a giant historical cul-de-sac where all enlightened efforts at producing a good society were suspended’.

Aldrich astutely summarises a key argument of Live and Let Spy: ‘while Cold War warriors fought a tyrannical and ruthless version of Communism abroad, they remained ignorant of – and lost – an ideological battle at home’. He then adds accusingly: ‘Western politicians now offer a watered-down version of the interfering, intolerant, controlling and authoritarian government that they were initially set against rather than anything freer.’

In this, he takes his lead from Gibson, who rails against the erosion of ‘moral values, community spirit and sense of purpose’ that now pervades Western political elites. They are ‘pessimistic and misanthropic’, Gibson argues, while ‘suffering from an acute lack of confidence in their own projects’. This lack of authority, this social pessimism, they now effectively impose on others through a ‘moralising intervention into every aspect of private life’. But while the description of this new period will, no doubt, connect with many, Gibson – possibly by trying to cover too much, including passing references to Aristotle, Kant and Bentham for good measure – fails to provide a convincing explanation of why this all came about.

Taking his lead from the BBC documentary film producer Adam Curtis, Gibson identifies how the computer modelling of behaviour – and even more bizarrely, of intentions – came to dominate an intelligence world increasingly devoid of purpose or principle. But, as he himself notes, the intelligence community’s embrace of behaviour modelling is just as likely to be an expression of a broader ‘loss of faith in humans’ as the driver of social processes. Today, that loss of faith – and an obsession with risk management – comes to be expressed through the failure to put eyes and ears on the ground, as Gibson’s once were (a job for which he was awarded an MBE), and thereby a failure to verify theory through practice.

In addition, this final chapter makes three significant and unique contributions to improving our understanding and application of intelligence.

Firstly, he argues that the most useful role of intelligence today is to understand the context correctly, without which ‘purpose is equally misguided’. Secondly, and drawing on his most important academic contribution, Gibson notes that, ‘the use of single-source intelligence-reporting drawn from individuals selected principally for their willingness to share secrets…is not the best way to analyse contemporary challenges’, as the illusions about Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ ably demonstrated.

Whether these new challenges are, as he suggests, those so-called non-traditional security threats, such as climate change, energy supply and food provision, is open to debate. Possibly, it is the ‘dismissal of free will’ and ‘decline into mediocrity’ that he identifies elsewhere that are the real problems. And it is these problems that have turned the essentially technical issues of climate change or food provision into all-consuming sources of uncertainty and insecurity.

Finally, and significantly for one who has made the pursuit of freedom and autonomy central to his existence, Gibson notes the loss of any sense of fun in a politically correct world without an ‘enlightened purposeful ideology around which to cohere’. (This comes from a man who knows something about fun having, in his youth, gatecrashed an international beauty pageant pretending to be Miss Austria’s personal bodyguard.)

Advocates of the ‘purposeless pragmatism’ and ‘bureaucratic regulation’ he now views as the real barrier to achieving ‘prosperity and progress for all’ would no doubt disapprove of Gibson’s youthful antics. It is unlikely, for instance, that they would appreciate the photographs of naked lovers taken from over one kilometre away that he and his colleagues once sent back to Ministry of Defence analysts to show that their equipment was working and that they were maintaining their skills. But, he notes, it is precisely intolerance towards the criticism – and in this case, the mockery – of widely held beliefs that precludes the effective determination of the truth.

Richard Aldrich concludes how ‘Gibson reflects that it takes the passage of time to recognise that one is misled by power’. For those who feel that after the fact is too late and who still hope to shape history rather than merely be carried along by it, it is only through a constantly evolving analysis of present circumstances that such historical cul-de-sacs can avoided.

This book – while not pretending to be any more than a personal memoir of some hitherto less disclosed aspects of the Cold War – serves to remind us of how far we have come since. After it all ended, Gibson concludes that ‘the somewhat hasty, undignified and testy disintegration of the Mission was intrinsically due to the absence of mission itself’.

This may well explain why – as was revealed from Kremlin minutes released some 20 years after the Berlin Wall came down – Western leaders were so keen at the time to remind the Soviet Union’s then-president, Mikhail Gorbachev, that they really did not want a re-unified Germany. Despite their pro-freedom stance and rhetoric, a unified Germany would, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, ‘undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security’.

Indeed, the Cold War may well have been the last time that Britain and the other Western powers could even pretend to have had a clear and positive sense of mission.

First published on spiked, 30 March 2012

Reconciling growing energy demand with climate change management


More than two billion people in India and China are only now emerging from a life of drudgery and abject poverty.’ A billion more across sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and other parts of Asia look set to join them over the next decades. This should be a cause for celebration. Instead, much of the contemporary discussion relating to energy needs and climate change portray these trends as a major problem.

The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen was hailed in advance as reflecting an ‘overwhelming scientific consensus’ on the assumed problem of a link between carbon emissions and climate change, as well as on what needed to be done about it. But instead of agreement there was discord between the developed and the developing nations. The former argued that the latter should monitor and restrain their growth as they view with a growing sense of alarm the possibility of every Indian and Chinese person expecting Western lifestyles. They pointed to China now being the second largest producer of carbon emissions on earth.

From the perspective of the developing countries, however, as expressed by the Indian premier, Manmohan Singh, their growth and development is to meet internal needs and demands, as well as simply to catch up with the West. Their view is that the advanced capitalist countries had the benefit of industrialising first – thereby releasing into the atmosphere the carbon that is now considered to be a problem. Accordingly, it should be for those countries to lead the way in cutting back on emissions. And anyway, in terms of per capita emissions, it is these developed Western countries that remain the single largest polluters.

It appears, then, that the debate over how to meet growing energy demands and manage climate change has reached an impasse. It is difficult to see how, within the current framework, the different perspectives of developed and developing countries can ever be reconciled or resolved.

Reconciling Growing Energy Demand with Climate Change Management, Global Change, Peace & Security, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp.271-282, June 2011

On Thailand, what would Trotsky say?

If the Thai Red Shirts want real change, they could do with reading History of the Russian Revolution.

According to some sources, recent publications circulated by the organisational arm of the Red Shirts in Thailand – the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) – ‘offer history lessons on the French and the Russian revolutions’. According to their detractors, such references to past revolutions demonstrate the republican leanings of the UDD leaders, despite the fact that the Red Shirts have been demanding free elections and the resignation of prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rather than an overthrow of the monarchy. In a country where expressing anti-monarchy views is still indictable under archaic lèse majesté laws, recently backed up by draconian Internal Security Act provisions, these are serious charges.

But the publication that both sides of the current political impasse in Thailand really could do with reading carefully is Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. In this magisterial work, Trotsky laid no claim to impartiality, but rather sought to expose ‘the actual process of the revolution’. As the insurrection in Thailand develops, considering how Trotsky’s analysis can be used as a ‘playbook’ of the way in which such events unfold is really eye-opening.

One trend that Trotsky identified was the use of ‘conspiracy’ as one of the prime accusations made by the ruling class – consciously or not – in their attempts to demobilise the masses at a time of insurrection. Members of the elite are unable to understand through their ‘police mind’ that periods of rapid change stem, not from ‘the activities of “demagogues”’, but from the precise opposite – the ‘deep conservatism’ of the masses, whose views lag chronically ‘behind new objective conditions’. As a result, the elite focuses narrowly on ‘the deliberate undertaking of the minority’, whilst ignoring ‘the spontaneous movement of the majority’. Trotsky adds: ‘Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box… But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.’

The reality on the ground in Bangkok confirms this insight. Far from threatening Thailand’s royalty, the Red Shirts maintain an overly deferential position towards the monarchy. In response to allegations of a plot to overthrow King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Red Shirt leaders have put great store behind proving otherwise by holding up portraits of the Thai King and Queen at recent rallies. Whether such displays of loyalty are merely tactical remains to be seen, but they point to the possible chronic contradictions that exist within the Red Shirt movement. The King himself did not comment on the situation during his public appearance for Coronation Day yesterday.

Two weeks ago, possibly with a view to encouraging loose talk or even stealing the moral high-ground from the Red Shirts, the Thai foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, controversially mooted the need to re-examine the role of the monarchy. As Trotsky recorded, conspiracies, apparent policy U-turns, divisions and intrigue abound, but these frequently originate from within the government camp.

Understanding how a situation changes and develops is crucial. For example, some within the media – and within the Red Shirt movement itself – have only belatedly understood that support for the deposed former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, may not have been central to developments in Thailand.

Another example is the proposal by the Election Commission – an unelected group of officials charged with managing and overseeing elections in Thailand – that the Constitutional Court be asked to dissolve the ruling party for failing to report donations and misuse of funds. This seems to have confused many, on all sides. Indeed, the Red Shirt leaders now appear to view the commission as some kind of neutral body. In reality, like many other bodies with little authority other than that vested in them by statute, the commissioners most probably had their eye on their own survival.

In a period of insurrection, there is a big difference between official power and real support, something the Thai prime minister is only now starting to learn. Three weeks ago, after the first bloody clashes in the capital, which left over 20 dead and many hundreds more injured, it looked as if the tensions within the elites might come to a head. Vejjajiva was accused by supporters of his own regime of being too weak, and he handed direct control over security matters from his defence minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, to the chief of the army, General Anupong Paochinda.

But General Paochinda’s resolve has also been called into question. He is on record as stating that the current situation is a political problem that ‘must be solved by political means’, and that he is not inclined to intervene. There followed a protracted discussion about army people being possible ‘water melons’ (green on the outside, but red at the core). Accusations have flown that Red Shirt leaders received advance warnings of army and police raids to arrest them and that they escaped, in the full glare of media publicity, as the forces charged with their capture stood idly by.

Such possibilities should hardly come as a surprise. Already in 1930 Trotsky noted: ‘If an army as a whole is a copy of society, then when society openly splits, both armies are copies of the two warring camps.’ He continued: ‘The army of the possessors contained the wormholes of isolation and decay.’ In October 1917, many in the Russian army joined the Bolsheviks, while their commanders either stood aside or pretended in their own turn to have swapped sides. Likewise, in Thailand today, it would seem as if there are many, aside from some in elite squadrons, who would be unlikely to turn on the multitude of middle-aged ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ from the north of the country and beyond, who constitute much of this new, if unlikely, fledgling red army.

Writing in a more despairing tone for a regional paper recently, Kraisak Choonhavan, the deputy leader of Vejjajiva’s incumbent Democrat Party, lambasted those in the international media who have portrayed the protests in Bangkok as some kind of ‘class struggle between rich urban elites and the poor rural mass’. His complaint was that the Red Shirt platform is ‘without a clear programme of social and political reform to follow’. He, too, could do with reading Trotsky, who wrote that ‘the masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime’.

Whether or not that ‘sharp feeling’ is constructively channelled will, of course, depend greatly on the skill and political acumen of political leaders. These, as in 1917, ‘were little known to anybody when the year began’, and indeed, a cursory glance through the list of 24 arrest warrants issued for Red Shirt leaders by the Thai authorities confirms that none has much of a profile, save for what has recently been reported about them in the media.

Trotsky also understood that the middle classes can be crucial at breaking-point periods. The middle classes in Thailand are extremely unnerved by the current situation. Like those in the media, academia, the government and the ‘international community’ who express concern about the economic impact of the protests, they are particularly ill-suited to handling the impact of uncertainty upon their immediate, narrow and privatised concerns. The finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, recently suggested that the Red Shirt protests could reduce the growth rate by two per cent if continued to the end of the year, while there has been much discussion of the supposed wider ramifications for the reputation of Thailand vis-à-vis the ‘international community’.

For the middle classes, making profit today is more vital to them than achieving democracy and freedom tomorrow – even for their own children. So much for the long-term, social view of business.

The key element now is timing. In his chapter on ‘The Art of Insurrection’, Trotsky explored the difficulties of, and political nous required for, knowing just when to initiate action. The more conscious elements of the movement would be chomping at the bit, fearing that the moment has passed, while other social layers would only just be waking up to the possibilities of the situation.

In Thailand, the media, and others, have accused the Red Shirts of overstepping the line through their recent takeover and occupation of a hospital. This was done to ensure that army forces were not in hiding there. But Weng Tojirakorn, one of the Red Shirt leaders, has now apologised for this act. In fact, it is this apology that suggests that those who earlier had organised such galvanising activities as a mass collection of blood from their supporters – to daub over the streets – may now have gone somewhat on the defensive.

The insurrection may be undone by tactical errors. For example, some Red Shirt leaders have agreed publicly to hand themselves in to the authorities on 15 May, come what may, while asking various international organisations and institutions to send observers to Bangkok. Martyrdom and handing the initiative to external busy-bodies have never been successful strategies.

Such moves have allowed the cabinet, holed-up for months in the eleventh Infantry Regiment’s barracks in the capital, to reassert a modicum of control. They have robustly declined offers of assistance from outside, despite the shrill and irrelevant voices predicting civil war and demanding mediation emanating from the likes of the International Crisis Group in Brussels and Human Rights Watch in New York.

This week, the prime minister offered to hold elections in November and to commence a process of ‘reconciliation’, so long as the protesters went home and observed a set of other conditions. The Red Shirt leaders, in turn, indicated their inclination to accept the deal, so long as a date for the dissolution of parliament was announced and the Election Commission appointed to handle the process. The ruling party have now tentatively put September forward as the date for this but, as some have pointed out, by then they may be disbanded as a party by the Constitutional Court. Such a situation would allow the possibility for any interim establishment to renege on such commitments.

This is a crucial moment for the Thai insurrection. Following Trotsky’s metaphor, it may be time for the steam to reassert its primacy over the piston. Certainly, it is now the response of the ordinary Red Shirts to the so-called ‘roadmap’, and their own leaders’ willingness to accept it, that will determine whether real change is achieved or whether Thailand continues – as the locals say – to be ‘same, same, but different’.

First published on spiked, 6 May 2010

The battle for Thailand’s soul

Far from being a ‘stage army’, the Red Shirts could potentially refresh and reinvent democracy in Thailand.

For over a year now, the political scene in Thailand has been in tumult. At the end of 2008, protesters wearing yellow shirts got international media coverage by forcing the closure of the capital city’s two airports. Now, protesters wearing red shirts occupy parts of Bangkok, demanding the resignation of the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and fresh elections.

On the evening of Saturday 3 April, the uneasy stand-off between government forces and protesters, which has lasted for a month, spilled over into violence. At the time of writing, more than 20 people, including a Japanese Reuters reporter and four Thai soldiers, have died. Many hundreds more have been injured.

So, who are the Yellow Shirts and who are the Red Shirts, what do they represent, and what significance do they have for politics in Thailand and beyond? To understand what is going on today, it is necessary first to cast a glance back at Thailand’s modern history.

Thailand is often described as the only state in South East Asia not to have been colonised by the European powers. Siam, as the country was once called, achieved this dubious distinction through shedding territory to its south and west (Malaya and Burma) to the British and to its north and east (Laos and Cambodia) to the French. Siam thereby maintained a feudal monarchy that the imperial powers felt comfortable doing business with.

A 1932 military coup, supported by civilian democrats, led to the dissolution of absolute monarchical powers, followed by an abdication in 1938. But the new, uneasy alliance also broke apart, with liberals and radicals being ousted. Indeed, the country was first renamed Thailand in 1939 as a nationalist gesture to exclude those of Chinese origin.

A brief deal with the Japanese during the Second World War returned lands lost to the British and the French. But after the war, the US ensured that the status quo ante prevailed, and used the Kingdom as a platform for launching regional anti-communist operations. This proved a recipe for constant coups and turmoil, which continued, both internally and with aggrieved neighbours, subsequent to the expulsion of US forces in the mid-1970s and until the end of the Cold War in 1989. The end of the Cold War heralded a more concerted transition to democracy.

The current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, having come to power in 1946 after the mysterious death of his brother, is now the world’s longest serving head of state. He is widely revered by the Thai people, but his age and failing health have raised issues regarding any succession to his less popular son, Vajiralongkorn.

It is within this context that Thaksin Shinawatra, a former police deputy superintendent, entered into politics in 1994. Typically, for a not-too-well-paid public servant, he started a string of failed businesses on the side before resigning his police commission in 1987. But he hit the big time in 1990, obtaining a 20-year license to deliver Thailand’s first mobile phone services. His business interests gradually grew and were spun out to various members of his family and trusted friends. Thaksin won the first of his landslide election victories in 2001, when he became prime minister of Thailand. He completed a notable full-term in office and was re-elected in 2005 on the back of the highest voter turnout in Thai history.

Thaksin is an unashamedly populist politician. He is like a cross between Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. By combining rural poverty alleviation programmes in the north of the country, where he hails from, with the first universal healthcare scheme – now so successful that medical tourism is one of Thailand’s boom sectors – his success was assured.

Thaksin is also undoubtedly a man of contradictions, promoting micro-credit schemes popular with Western liberals on the one hand, while determinedly, and some might say ruthlessly, quashing Muslim separatists in the south of the country. His draconian campaign to eradicate drugs also met with accusations of human rights abuses by various groups, leading Thaksin to denounce the United Nations, whose envoy he had invited in to assess the situation.

In 2006, while Thaksin was in New York – ironically, to speak at a UN summit – things came to a head. A fresh military coup, supported by old and new elites within the monarchy and the media – who Thaksin had continuously thwarted through reporting restrictions and through setting up various communications empires – swept Bangkok. But upon the restoration of free elections in 2008, the people had the temerity to elect the People’s Power Party, which Thaksin supported from his exile. This was a step too far for the urban elitists, and so protesters wearing yellow, in symbolic allegiance to the king, seized the airports and brought the country to a standstill.

Despite this superficially radical move, it is important to understand that those involved were entirely reactionary in their outlook. Comprised largely of urban intellectuals, and pretty much allowed to take over by the military, their view was that democracy was not for the uneducated masses from the north.

The various protests have been widely viewed merely as disruptive, as damaging Thailand’s reputation and economy. Some Thais who avow themselves as neutral to the conflicts wear pink shirts. But in fact, the protests represent a fundamental struggle that reflects, and will shape, views about popular participation in Thailand and elsewhere.

Having brought the country to a halt, the Yellow Shirts, backed by little more than a political pressure group with influential and wealthy backers – the People’s Alliance for Democracy – managed to get the pro-Thaksin government disbanded through the legal establishment. It was this silent, judicial coup that led to the current mass demonstrations by Red Shirt supporters of Thaksin.

Thaksin has been repeatedly accused of corruption and censorship. On their part, the Eton- and Oxford-educated current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and his hastily reconstituted Democrat Party, which includes some of his British-educated chums, are themselves not wholly innocent in this regard. But, far from being a battle between rural populists and urban intellectuals, the conflict has, over the past month, become about much more than that.

Accusations fly that the Red Shirt protesters in Bangkok have been bribed and corralled to act as a stage army. That may be true – the path to democracy is never clear or clean – but the fact is that they are a de facto people’s army. They have sustained over 100,000 people on the streets of Bangkok for a month, held rallies, met with the prime minister and successfully regained control of a media outlet that government forces had occupied and closed down, if only to lose control of it again.

With so many Thais taking matters into their own hands for the first time, and consciously avoiding violence, there is now an opportunity for the political agenda to move beyond Thaksin. The protesters are learning that while they were galvanised into action for the sake of the exiled Thaksin (the Thai judiciary has recently moved to seize his assets), he himself may no longer be central, or even necessary, to realising their ambitions. At the same time, some of the urban elites may lose faith in the current prime minister’s ability to keep control of the situation, leading to more draconian responses which, in turn, may fuel further violence.

What we are witnessing in Bangkok is a transformative moment. How it will end is anyone’s guess. The Red Shirts may be placated by recent official apologies. They may, after their prolonged occupations of certain key streets and government buildings, return to their northern constituencies to observe the Thai New Year this week. Such demobilisation could be dispiriting and fatal.

On the other hand, in democracy, there is strength in numbers, and the Red Shirts may grasp a sense of their own power and steer a very different course. If the protesters prevail, they could offer important lessons in the messy business of politics elsewhere.

First published on spiked, 12 April 2010

A semi-irresistible argument

It is refreshing to read Kishore Mahbubani’s unabashed defence of aspirations in the East. But his attachment to the very Western culture of fear means that his book ends on a pessimistic note after all.

‘If I were asked to name the date when my life entered the modern world, I would date it to the arrival of the flush toilet.’

This is the humble beginning of The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, in which the author, Kishore Mahbubani, extols the trappings of modern life.

Mahbubani is currently dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He served for 33 years as a diplomat for Singapore. His impressive CV includes a post as permanent secretary at the Singaporean foreign ministry, and as president of the United Nations Security Council. He was also Singapore’s ambassador to the UN.

Mahbubani continues: ‘After the flush toilet, our little home in Singapore began to acquire other conveniences: the refrigerator, the TV set, the gas cooker (which replaced the charcoal fires my mother used), and the telephone.’ It seems the television set was particularly significant for Mahbubani, as it opened his mind to visions of what the world could be like.

For Mahbuani, it is the ‘“heaven” of modernity that the vast majority of the world’s population is aspiring to enter’. In discussions around development in West, however, such aspirations seem to have been forgotten, abandoned or ignored. Yet there are plenty of people around who can still recall what the world was like before the advent of twentieth-century technologies and amenities, and who would hate to lose them. And, shamefully, there are millions who have yet to acquire them.

Few places on Earth have experienced as many dramatic changes in one generation as Singapore has. From a tourist’s point-of-view, life in a kampong (a traditional Singaporean village) may appear to have been idyllic, with human communities living ‘in harmony’ with nature. The reality – mosquitoes, dengue fever, floods, sewage and a complete absence of privacy – was quite different.

While in the West, the past is idealised as somehow more humane and natural, here in Singapore there is a distinct lack of nostalgia for the days of yesteryear. Just consider a photography contest recently launched in one of the daily papers here. ‘Remember those zinc-roofed huts we used to call home?’ the introduction reads, before asking prospective contestants to submit photographs from the past 50 years in order ‘to share with us how life here has become better’.

It is refreshing to see Mahbubani unashamedly defending the aspiration to modernity. As he points out: ‘The 88 per cent of the world’s population who live outside the West have stopped being objects of world history and have become subjects. They have decided to take control of their own destinies.’

The West has lost his optimism, the classically-educated Mahbubani complains, just at the time when the East is gaining its own sense of confidence. He notes how, in the past, the West’s own philosophers would have welcomed this vast increase of ‘goodness’ in the world. Instead, today’s Western leaders and policymakers view global development with trepidation. China in particular has consistently been singled out by Western observers as a source of great concern.

As Mahbubani notes, the West tends to miss or ignore the massive changes to the human spirit that lifting hundreds of millions out of abject poverty has instilled. Development, Mahbubani reminds us, lowers infant mortality and crime rates, whilst simultaneously improving people’s health and longevity. But more than that, ‘[w]hat all these statistics fail to capture is the transformation of the human spirit that takes place when people experience this kind of rapid economic growth’.

Between 1983 and 2003, more than half of all doctoral degrees in science and engineering awarded in the US have gone to students from China, Taiwan, India and South Korea. And by 2010, according to one of the sources Mahbubani cites, 90 per cent of all PhD-holding scientists and engineers in the world will be living in Asia.

If Europeans – who Mahbubani accuses of being smug and insecure – should find it difficult to conceive of China and other parts of Asia opening up in this way, there are also changes afoot in the Islamic world that they appear completely blind to. Apart from a few feudal regimes ‘kept in office at least in part through Western support’, it is not fundamentalism that is the ascendant force in the region, he argues. Instead, it is the drive towards modernisation – and recent events in Iran appear to confirm this.

Intriguingly, though Mahbubani is such a vocal critic of the West, the weaknesses in his own work are arguably very Western in character. He celebrates free markets at a time when they have never been so questioned. But, in reality, both Mahbubani and his detractors are out of date on this point. State monopolies (with which Mahbubani must be familiar as a Singaporean) and regulation curtailed the liberal fantasy of a ‘free’ market over a hundred years ago.

For a self-proclaimed optimist, Mahbubani also appears peculiarly prone to some of the more recent Western fears around things like terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, climate change and overpopulation. He ends up proposing that the European Union and the United Nations – those undemocratic and aloof institutions – should be emulated in Asia. No doubt, his views have been shaped through his background as a career diplomat and he probably has his heart set on a successful future for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The EU, Mahbubani suggests, has now achieved the position of having ‘zero prospect of war’. This may yet prove to be overly optimistic, but let’s accept the proposition for now and consider it along with von Clausewitz’s famous dictum that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’. It appears, then, that the reason behind this zero prospect of war may well be down to the fact that in the famously detached and elitist EU bureaucracy there is also zero prospect of politics.

Like many of his peers, Mahbubani proposes that there can be no freedom without security. That is why, ultimately, he has a rather dim view of democracy, citing an Asian-American academic who believes that for the developing world it is ‘an engine of ethnic conflagration’. As the elites, including Mahbubani himself, are busy projecting all manner of new security threats onto the world, the masses will no doubt have to wait a long time before gaining the right to express their own opinions freely.

Mahbubani’s prioritisation of security over freedom is both blinkered and contradicted by his own analysis. People do not just live their lives, they lead them. And everywhere, at all times, people have been prepared to risk it all to be free. This was also true of Mahbubani’s own parents who emigrated from Pakistan on the eve of partition. Mahbubani believes that the pillars of ‘Western wisdom’ are free markets, science and technology, the rule of law and education. Well, maybe he should also consider just how central freedom is to each of these.

Aside from a disdainful dismissal of democracy – the constant refrain in this part of the world is that the masses are not mature enough for it – The New Asian Hemisphere also suffers from too abstract a separation between politics and economics. These appear to be entirely distinct spheres for Mahbubani. Hence his recurring complaint that Western interests dominate over Western values. For Mahbubani, material, economic interests have trumped the promotion of wider societal values in the West.

There may be an element of truth to this but, more broadly, one could also point out that the West no longer truly knows its own interests, fearing both the unfettered free market and the sense of intellectual confrontation that knowing and representing an interest may involve in society. Hence the contemporary emphasis on ‘harmony’ and ‘inclusion’ that even Mahbubani buys into.

The more fundamental flaw of Mahbubani’s fascinating book is that in attempting to explain, primarily to a Western audience, what it is that the East thinks and does today, he makes sweeping statements about both the West and the East. These are caricatures, or at best vignettes, that serious analysts should steer well clear of, both in terms of regional and individual variations, as well as changes across time.

Mahbubani, for instance, benefited from a Western-style education at a time when this truly meant something. It is not so clear that his advocacy of Western education today would produce similar benefits for the next generation as, having lost its way in the world, the West has also lost sight of what education means, allowing this to be subsumed to contemporary fads, such as the need to bring economic benefit or develop policy prescriptions, as well as a reluctance to allow anyone to fail.

Despite its failings, and the transparent elitist prejudices of its author, born of his time and environment, The New Asian Hemisphere is nevertheless still worth reading for those who focus on such matters. Whether Asia really is ‘the New Modern’, as one reviewer asserts, remains to be determined. For this to be so, it will be the masses in Asia who will need to assert their vision of the future, not just their supposedly expert leaders. It is worth remembering that the American Dream was born of freedom, not security.

The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, by Kishore Mahbubani, is published by Public Affairs. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

First published on spiked, 25 September 2009