Published: December 17 2010 22:06 | Last updated: December 17 2010 22:06
Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future, by Ian Morris, Profile RRP£25 768 pages
Recently, science has profoundly transformed almost every aspect of life, and as a result we look quite differently at medicine, communications, even our network of friends. But until now, the discipline of history has not been greatly affected by the advance of technical possibilities. Indeed, a great deal of historical writing in universities has denied the importance of science, economics and politics.
Ian Morris, an archaeologist and historian at Stanford University, has written the first history of the world that really makes use of what modern technology can offer to the interpretation of the historical process. The result is a path-breaking work that lays out what modern history should look like.
Morris’s story is focused around a thesis of challenge and response. Societies develop and populations move as a response to climatic change that shapes the yield of crops and the nature of disease. Regular crises, driven by disease and famine as well as war, constitute a cyclical mechanism, in which human advance stalls and prosperous societies and complex political regimes simply collapse. Such crises form the “patterns of history” and they have so far occurred at repeated intervals: 2200 BC, 1750 BC, 1200 BC, 800 BC, 540 AD, 1250 AD, or 1645 AD. Every 400 years or so, climate change and drought set off migrations and state failure.
For Morris, the breakthroughs of the first millennium BC – Confucianism, Buddhism, the Hebrew Bible, Greek philosophy – were simply a response to greater prosperity, more long-distance trade and the stronger states that regulated it. Society, in Morris’s formulation, gets the culture it needs.
Morris is especially interested in the relation of the eastern and western end of the Eurasian landmass. For most of human history, the west’s response proved more innovative; only from around 550 AD to 1776 (the year of the steam engine, of Adam Smith and of the American Declaration of Independence) was the east dominant and more prosperous.
The book tells us that we should not look back to very distant origins of the west-east divergence, nor to very recent origins, since the calculation of levels of social development show long-term continuities. Instead, we need to think of the middle-term explanation, which covers a couple of thousand years.
The thousand years of Chinese superiority were the result of a period of trade and intellectual openness that followed a political collapse. The Roman Empire and the Han Empire both fell because temperatures and rainfall were declining. In the third century, both the Roman and Chinese cities shrank, literacy declined and military power was eroded. But in the east, migration produced a move into fertile areas where new ways of growing rice allowed a rise in living standards and led to a new possibility for political advance. The last real Roman emperor, Justinian, failed because he lacked those productive paddy fields.
At this point, China grew because it was open to foreign influences and could blend them into a new synthesis. There was a Chinese Renaissance in the 11th century that preceded and paralleled the European development of the 15th. Decline set in when China’s rulers were so convinced of their superiority that they had no need to turn to foreign barbarians.
Morris’s writing is full of entertaining anecdotes as well as references to popular science and pseudoscience – but he also uses high-tech archaeological evidence that includes the analysis of pollen and other plant remains to give an indication of climatic change, and of DNA to show the migrations that occurred over tens of thousands of years. This is a history driven by close attention to every archaeological remnant, in which buried animal bones tell a story about the prosperity of the society that bred and then killed and consumed them. The latest confirmation of Morris’s thesis of constant and intense interchange between east and west is the 2010 discovery of bones, probably from a farm slave, buried in the second century AD in southern Italy; mitochondrial DNA suggested that his maternal ancestors came from east Asia.
Statistics, psychology and history might allow societies to plan the future. But then Morris shows how grim the future could be. The comforting conclusion for western readers implied in his title – that westerners are still top dogs – is dramatically undermined by the bleak last chapter. The book ends with a scary account of the likely – in his eyes, certain – impact of global warming that will lead to what he calls “global weirding”: extreme climatic occurrences, increased struggle over resources, failing states.
This entertaining and plausibly argued book in the end tells us that debates about the rise of China or the fall of the west are ultimately a side-show. Nature will bite back at human society, and we don’t yet have a psycho-history that can plan out an adequate response.
Harold James is professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University and author of ‘The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle’ (Harvard University Press)
Published: December 21 2010 22:32 | Last updated: December 21 2010 22:32
Inspiration struck Wim Ouboter one night in Zurich in 1997. Desperate for an easy way to get from home to his favourite diner, he hit upon the idea of a scooter: “It was too far to walk, trams ran infrequently in the evenings and I couldn’t be bothered to fetch my bicycle from the cellar. I wanted something light and easy that would get me there, but wouldn’t be in the way once I arrived.”
Swiss-born Mr Ouboter had first come across stumpy four-wheelers being used to whizz around a yarn factory in South Carolina owned by his Dutch father, where he worked in his early 20s. Some 15 years later, after his business epiphany back in Switzerland, he began investigating a lighter, more practical variant.
Mr Ouboter’s products will be familiar to many – they are the light aluminium scooters and kickboards that have become as popular with children as city-dwelling adults.
His company, Micro Mobility Systems, based in the pretty village of Küsnacht outside Zurich, now has annual sales “in the low double-digit million” Swiss-franc range, significantly below their peak. Mr Ouboter is unwilling to divulge precise figures – for competitive reasons that his story as an entrepreneur explains.
For what followed was a series of lessons in how the course of a start-up rarely runs smoothly, as he contended with challenges from unsatisfactory manufacturing partnerships to copycat rivals and bad publicity.
A genial 50-year-old, Mr Ouboter makes no claim to have invented the scooter or the kickboard – indeed, historical examples are scattered round his office. Casually dressed, entertaining and philosophical, he cuts an unusual figure in the buttoned-down world of Swiss business. His office above a parade of shops is cluttered and dominated by a huge, rough-hewn desk.
Dyslexia hampered his formal education, but Mr Ouboter picked up practical experience in mechanics and engineering working for his father, a textile machinery distributor, before a business course at Boston University. Once back in Switzerland, Mr Ouboter worked in banking before setting up his first company, a mechanical parts distributor. “I knew about production, finance and distribution. Scooters were a hobby on the side.”
He admits to having no formal engineering or technical training but he toyed for months with wheel sizes, wheelbases and the central platform: “For the prototype, I put a few things together and took them along to a welder.” Meanwhile, he was helped by the strong, but low-friction and more absorbent, plastics being developed for in-line skate wheels.
Importance of being flexible
Wim Ouboter’s experience as a Europe-based entrepreneur working with Asian partners to make relatively simple goods with few competitive barriers to entry taught him four straightforward but crucial lessons:
●Try to develop a partnership that goes beyond a written contract. If things go wrong, distance, culture and language mean enforcement can be difficult, if not impossible. “You can never be too careful about your choice of partner,” says Mr Ouboter.
●Maximise manufacturing flexibility. Avoid commitments to fixed volumes, and emphasise the long-term benefits to both sides of maintaining flexibility.
●Expand the product range. No matter how thorough your homework, bad news can come out of the blue and pull the carpet out from under you. So develop an alternative product to fall back on.
●Don’t rely on patents to protect you from copycats. For relatively simple products, competitors can always find a way round them.
Costs were minimal, and he had income from his main business. Mr Ouboter’s plan was to sell the scooters to Swatch Group, the Swiss watchmaker, which was diversifying into mobility via the Swatchmobile – the concept that became the tiny Smart car. Mr Ouboter had written confirmation of the group’s interest – the idea was to include a scooter with every Smart sold – but his hopes hit the brakes after a protracted redesign of the car led to loss of interest in the scooter by the vehicle’s backers.
Then, in 1998, K2, the US sports goods company, took up the kickboard, which Mr Ouboter had also been developing. K2 agreed to market the kickboard under its name, but wanted Mr Ouboter to handle production.
“I didn’t have the financing to take on manufacturing, and anyway, it was clear production would have to be in Asia on cost grounds,” he says. He reached agreement with a Taiwan company that had factories in China. They agreed to split output, with Mr Ouboter selling on to K2 – which had relieved him of cash-flow problems by promising swift payment – and the partner catering to Asian demand.
The kickboard arrangement gave Mr Ouboter the basis to proceed with the scooter, which he unveiled at an international sports goods show in 1999. Kickboards were selling strongly, but scooter sales soared. Relatively cheap, fun and practical, scooters became a craze. At its peak in 2000, production reached 80,000 units a day. “We were filling 20 containers a day and still couldn’t keep up. Eventually, we had to fly the scooters in.”
But the very popularity of the scooters, and their relative ease of manufacture, drew cut-price copycats.
Worse, an imitator caused a serious accident when a British user trapped a finger in its ill-designed collapsing mechanism. The authorities woke up: in the key market of Germany for instance, the scooters were designated toys rather than adult items, as Mr Ouboter and his rivals claimed, because the handlebars could be adjusted for children. Lacking the safety certifications needed, the market dried up.
Mr Ouboter was besieged by lawsuits from retailers and distributors seeking compensation for unsold stock. Although distribution was handled by third parties – Mr Ouboter’s aim from the start was to outsource everything possible – he became the focal point for the disaffection. To cap it all, K2 turned to a cheaper supplier for the kickboard.
“I was besieged by lawsuits and couldn’t run the company any more. I was completely burnt out,” says Mr Ouboter. Nevertheless, he persevered. “I had enough money to run away. But if you start something, you have to see it though.” In 2003, he offered Hans-Peter Bolliger, a young Micro salesman, a 20 per cent stake in return for becoming chief executive. Mr Ouboter focused on product development – and the lawsuits, one of which remains unsettled.
By 2005, he had redesigned the range for all safety standards. Turnover and morale had been buoyed in the interim by a Swiss army contract for trolleys. “It gave us something to do. And I still had a lot of wheels.”
Gradually, demand revived. Mr Ouboter found a new manufacturer and negotiated a more flexible contract that allowed smaller production runs.
He also tried to diversify altering basic features on the scooter and kickboard formats to change their characteristics. Constant innovation kept him ahead of the copycats.
Above all, Mr Ouboter learnt the value of brand identity. He pushed Micro’s Swiss origins, evoking traditional attributes like quality, clever engineering and original design to distinguish it from cheap lookalikes.
The company remains tiny, with just 15 full-time staff – but that now includes one employee based at the Chinese factory for quality control and to monitor output. Everything is still outsourced as far as possible: “We just concentrate on product development, marketing and channelling orders from distributors to the factory.” Germany, Austria and Switzerland are the biggest markets, ahead of the UK, the US and Australia.
Even after Micro’s near-death experience, he remains upbeat: “My vision remains environmentally friendly micro-mobility. And . . . as long as there are children, we can be absolutely confident for the long term.”
THE question many analysts are focused upon now is how China would use its wealth to strengthen its armed forces. The Chinese word used to describe the link between prosperity and military power has historically been fuqiang.
This compound word comes from the ancient phrase fuguo qiangbing - enriching the state and strengthening the armies. It was first used in the classic text Chronicles Of The Warring States to describe the ideas of Shang Yang and his disciples. They helped the Qin state in the 3rd century BC to overcome its six rivals and to create a centralised Qin dynasty, under its first emperor, Qin Shi-huang.
The phrase fuguo qiangbing has always been closely associated with the so-called Legalist or Realist thinkers who helped Qin. The dynasty did not last long. A century after it fell, Confucian officials were brought in to help manage the successor Han empire. These Confucians chose to be soft and turned away from explicit appeals to fuqiang.
The word fuqiang was not extolled again until the Meiji Revolution in Japan in the 19th century. Fukoku kyohei - Japanese for fuguo qiangbing - became Japan's national slogan in following the model of Western imperialism. The goals of government were modernised to seek wealth through industrialisation and power through modern armaments. The slogan has since become associated with imperial ambition.
The analogy between the German and Japanese empires and China today is an easy one to make. But it arises from a very narrow view of history, drawing its lessons only from the modern European experience.
If we believe that industrialisation determines everything, new wealth and the power it creates can only advance in one direction: that is, towards rivalry and competition for dominance. The consequences are obvious.
We know the Industrial Revolution led to Britain becoming the pre-eminent superpower for over a century, and that the Americans succeeded them. We also know that the Soviet Union tried to avoid the mistakes made by Germany and Japan. They used a different ideological means of becoming No.1, and they failed. As a result, the Anglo-American dominance of the world was further extended. It could last a long while yet.
It is easy to understand why so many who talk about China as No.2 today warn against it following the examples of either Germany, Japan or the Soviet Union. China is actually very conscious of these modern examples and has consistently proclaimed that it would never seek hegemony or chengba.
This idea of chengba comes from the Warring States period, and is another goal that Confucian thinkers have systematically rejected. I believe Chinese leaders today are intelligent enough to have learnt the obvious lessons. But as China becomes more prosperous, and when its people know less of their Confucian heritage and admire more the wealth and power of the West, how are they to convince anyone that they would never go the way of fuguo qiangbing?
China's history alone will not be sufficient for that purpose, since most of it is hard for non-Chinese people to appreciate. In any case, modern Chinese are not Confucians. On the contrary, the robust language of 20th-century Chinese revolutions, the high emotions that Chinese nationalism has aroused, are closer to what Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union sounded like.
The modern language used conveys quite a different image. Thus China seems to be locked into the prevailing strategic thinking that sees any rising power as a danger to the status quo.
For the sole superpower today, the status quo does not refer to any institution or ideology, but to its remaining the only superpower. To remain No.1 is a duty. This means not only wealth and power but also the totality of ideals that Americans believe are universal.
If rising China were no more than what Japan and Germany have become today - wealthy but without military power there would be little reason for the United States to be concerned. However, China does not appear to be content to be rich but militarily weak. Thus, American leaders would not be reassured unless and until the Chinese are prepared to settle for the current German and Japanese model.
Different models of civilisation
THE Chinese say they would like the world to be a place in which there are several civilisations, with each modernising in its own way, at its own speed. That was the world they were accustomed to when there was no insistence on a single universalism. In such a world, if any civilisation considered itself to be universal, it would not have the power to impose its world view on others.
One can see a China enjoying a No.1 position in a sort of local or regional 'league'. It does depend on how China is defined.
In the beginning, there was a 'China' centred on the shared cultures of the peoples of the middle and lower parts of the Yellow River valley. It took about 1,000 years during the Shang and Zhou dynasties - mainly the first millennium BC - for these peoples to recognise themselves as the Hua-xia of Zhongguo, quite different from those around them. That Zhongguo consisted of many states, each with its own institutions, even scripts for the languages they spoke.
Then came the Qin dynasty, which imposed a single script, a single coinage, a single set of weights and measures, and so on. The civilisation that emerged was identified as something unique. The foreign peoples on its borders were seen either as hostile and greedy for China's wealth, or friendly and willing to live peacefully with China. Being Zhongguo, in the centre, actually meant that China was the regular target of external tribes that did not share its civilisation. It was essential that China should always be strong enough to defend its borders.
China was severely tested after the Han dynasty, from the 4th century AD on, by a series of tribal invasions. These non-Chinese preferred Buddhism over Confucian and other Chinese ideas, and drove large numbers of Chinese from the north to the lands south of the Yangzi river. By the time of the Tang dynasty in the 7th century, an amalgam of peoples and cultures began to define a new period of Chinese civilisation, one that the Chinese still consider glorious. By confirming the elite's belief that China's civilisation could withstand any attack and still thrive, the elite could well have seen their China as some sort of No.1.
This faith sustained them during several centuries of division and weakness - from the declining Tang dynasty of the 9th century to the Northern and Southern Song dynasties of the 13th. These were centuries when China desperately defended itself against its enemies. In the course of that defence, China acquired a powerful self-conscious identity. It was so strong that none of the Turkic, Tungusic, Tibetan and Mongol forces that had defeated them could overcome it. Even when the Chinese became subjects in the Mongol empire, they did not lose a keen sense of their own civilisation.
Eventually, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) produced the first Han Chinese rulers for 500 years to rule over all of China, and they reaffirmed the ideals of the Han and the Tang. Fortunately, after the 17th century, the Manchu Qing dynasty did little to change the fundamentals of that civilisation.
In the light of Chinese history, what does it mean for China to be seen as No.2 now? Does it even matter, for the criteria used are not China's? But for Chinese leaders to say that, they would have to have a keen sense of China's history.
If the Chinese people were true to their history, they would understand that the meaning of China lies in the ideals of its civilisation, that China failed whenever it became closed. This was especially so when its leaders rejected change and experimentation, when they neglected the need for creativity and lost confidence in the civilisation's ability to adapt to change. Clearly the civilisation faltered during the 19th century.
New leaders like Mao Zedong then emerged, eager to replace what they had with what they barely understood. And they were prepared to do this even when ideas and institutions they borrowed from the West brought their people almost to the edge of destruction.
The past 30 years have seen a remarkable turnaround. The willingness to be open has been moderated by wariness that the Chinese should not be carried away again by the urge to copy and imitate what has been successful elsewhere. There is a new caution that the revolutionary urges of the past have brought too many unsustainable ideals that destroyed more than they constructed. Lessons have been learnt about the importance of traditions that had served the people well before. There are many in China today who appreciate that being impatient in the 20th century, as Mao was, was as dangerous as having been complacent before.
This is not the time for China to be ranked in a league with polities that are so different from it. Almost overnight, there has been the highlighting of something called the Group of 2. Almost overnight, the US and China have been coupled as if they were in some race to become the world's fastest gun or the fairest maiden. Who gains from this exercise of trying to fit China into a league defined by others who care little for its heritage?
There are many questions facing the Chinese. They need to remain cool and be neither boastful nor alarmed. For one thing, 30 years of reforms is too short a period to be more than just a beginning. For another, there is no single league for comparison. The League of Wealth and Power that has been trumpeted is a poisoned chalice. Even if China does not drink from it but merely tries to hold it in its hands, there is a real danger of self-deception. The most dangerous moment would be when China's frustrated and excitable youth, with little interest in their country's political traditions, are aroused by the idea of being just No.2. If they believed that, then China would find itself entering the bloody arena that the country's literati ancestors had spent centuries warning against. I hope that wiser heads in China will not allow that to happen.
What many are seeking now to do is to restore faith in the idea that there are several legitimate civilisations in the world and therefore many other kinds of leagues that China could try to play in. There is, after all, no reason to compete in a league that is not of your own choice. If China is true to its own civilisation, it would know that only a League for Cultural Achievement is worth the effort to compete in. Chinese civilisation has been much weakened, but this would be a league in which the Chinese people's ancient and resilient civilisation could give them some advantage.
The writer is chairman of the East Asia Institute, NUS. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.
So popular is Kentucky Fried Chicken over the festive season that the fast-food chain’s Christmas Party Barrels can be ordered up to two months in advance in Japan.
“I entered the company in around 1980 and at the time it was pretty tough because there would be these long queues outside the stores,” said Ichiro Takatsuki, a company spokesman. “Because of that over the past decade we’ve been taking orders. We started in November, but people would call and ask if we were taking orders yet, so we started earlier.”
Through one of the most successful advertising campaigns, which started in 1974, KFC Japan has made eating its chicken meals at Christmas a national custom. This happens on December 23, 24 and 25, but particularly Christmas eve. Sales for the three days are equal to half normal monthly sales, the company says.
Japan is well known for taking foreign products and ideas and adapting them to suit domestic taste, and Christmas is no exception. A highly commercialised and non-religious affair, lots of money is spent annually on decorations, dinners and gifts. KFC is arguably the biggest contributor, thanks in part to its advertising campaign.
“One of the reasons the campaign lasted so long is that the message is always the same: at Christmas you eat chicken,” said Yasuyuki Katagi, executive director at Ogilvy and Mather Japan, the advertising agency.
Lining up without an advance order, particularly on December 24, is possible but risky as the chicken is freshly fried and thus volume is limited.
On a visit to a KFC in the busy central Tokyo district of Shinjuku, staff members said that the queue will snake around the side of the building to a sushi restaurant located halfway down the next street for people to pick up their orders. In this KFC, orders are stronger than last year, and staff are expecting to produce about 7,000 chicken pieces on December 24.
Overall demand is also stronger than last year, KFC Japan says, adding that it is not possible to give specific numbers for their 1,240 restaurants.
Other fast food joints, such as Japan’s Mos Burger also try to cash in on the custom. Traditionally a burger chain, the company is currently advertising chicken for Christmas. However, people mostly seem to opt for KFC.
Yoshiaki Hirose, a Tokyo businessman, ordered his Party Barrel a couple of weeks ago. “It’s like a Christmas standard,” he said. “KFC holds a premium position [over other fast food chains], so it’s nicer for celebrating, without being overly expensive. You want to have a party with your family, save your wife from having to cook, and you can pick it up from your local shopping street on your way home from work.”
It all started in the early 1970s when KFC was new to the market, Japan’s economy was in its fast-growth stage and was absorbing and adapting appealing areas of western culture fast. It turned out to be perfect timing for KFC. According to the company, a representative of a Christian mission school had ordered chicken at a Tokyo KFC as they could not get hold of any turkey. A bright employee suggested the situation could be made into an ad campaign.
“If we’re in Tokyo [for Christmas] we definitely need to buy chicken,” Mr Katagi said.
“My daughters expect this.”
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Published: December 16 2010 21:55 | Last updated: December 16 2010 21:55
We are living through one of history’s swerves. A multipolar world has been long predicted, but has always seemed to be perched safely on the horizon. Now it has rushed quite suddenly into the present. Two centuries of western hegemony are coming to a close rather earlier than many had imagined.
The story is unfolding in dry economic statistics. Next year, just as this year, the economies of the rising states – China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and the rest – are likely to grow by 8 per cent or more. Debt-burdened advanced nations will mostly struggle to expand by more than 2 per cent. The pattern is well-established. The global divide is between slow- and fast-growing nations as much as between the rich and the rising.
The geopolitical balance is adjusting accordingly. China is asserting itself in east Asia. India is building a blue-water navy. Turkey and Brazil are seeking to translate regional power into international kudos. Indonesia is hedging between Washington and Beijing. Europe battles against irrelevance; America with a burgeoning budget deficit and political gridlock.
Predictions of the passing of US primacy are premature. For all its troubles, America remains the sole superpower – the only nation able to project power in every corner of the earth. One of the under-noticed stories of 2010 has been the return of the US to Asia. Unnerved by Beijing and the lethal unpredictability of North Korea, China’s neighbours have clamoured for protection from Uncle Sam.
The picture of US power painted by secret diplomatic cables is essentially flattering. America’s pursuit of its national interest coincides most of the time with the provision of public goods for the rest of us. Washington worries in private as much as it does in public about the impact on global security of nuclear proliferation, failing states, terrorism and regional conflicts.
The other side of the WikiLeaks coin is that the US is an inadequate superpower. The diplomatic exchanges show how its unrivalled power has left the US unable to impose its solutions in the world’s troublespots. Only this month we saw Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu wreck Barack Obama’s efforts to promote peace in the Middle East.
The world’s rising states are at a stage where they want to enjoy power without responsibility. Putting a kind interpretation on its latest muscle-flexing, China is the adolescent who has just discovered he has the physical strength of an adult. In ignoring Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to bide its time, Beijing is squandering soft power accumulated over a decade.
India wants the respect conferred by great power status, but is reluctant to give up the street credibility conferred by its old non-aligned leadership role. Delhi is also strangely incapable of confronting enmities in its own neighbourhood. Turkey wants to look east as well as west, but has yet to balance its new ambitions for Muslim leadership with its old attachment to Euro-Atlantic integration.
Europe is in bad shape. What started out as a private sector banking crisis has become a public sector debt crisis. The eurozone is under siege from the markets. The real threat is political. The economic shock of the continent’s relative decline against a rising Asia has merged with the continuing political aftershocks from the fall of the Berlin Wall two decades ago.
A united, more unapologetically nationalist Germany, has upended the European Union’s political equilibrium. The Union worked when leadership was shared by France and Germany. But Berlin now wants to call the tune. The single currency may be rescued, but I am not sure there is great enthusiasm for a German Europe. As for Britain, its fresh-faced prime minister has shown no interest in, nor aptitude for, crafting anything resembling a foreign policy.
Japan, where I have spent this week at a series of security discussions hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the US and the Tokyo Foundation, seems trapped in semi-permanent denial. Though alarmed by clashes with China in the contested East China Sea, Japan has had five prime ministers in three years. This game of political musical chairs somehow seems easier than thinking about a strategic response to the insecurities of east Asia.
Russia counts itself among the rising powers. But it is a declining state trapped in its past. For reasons of domestic politics and of attention-seeking abroad, Russian leaders continue to pretend that the enemy lies in the west. National pride, they judge, can be restored only by standing up to the US and Europe.
The real perils are closer to home – endemic corruption, demographic decay and a hollowed out petro-carbon economy. Elsewhere, the strategic challenges come from Islamist extremism and the possibility of China and India bursting their borders in Russia’s depopulated eastern territories. Russia’s long-term interests lie in closer integration with the west. Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, may grasp this. Vladimir Putin, his predecessor and likely successor, sticks with the old story.
The lazy way to describe the new geopolitical landscape is one of a contest between the west and rest – between western liberal democracies and eastern market economy autocracies. Neat as such divisions may seem, they miss the complexities. None are more determined, for example, than Russia and China to keep India from securing a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Few are more worried than India by China’s military build-up.
A more sanguine view of the re-ordered world looks to the Group of 20 nations as an instrument to forge a broader consensus about east-west and north-south co-operation. There is some cause for optimism in respect of global economic governance; far less so when it comes to security and foreign policy.
The rising nations prize state power over international rules, sovereignty over multilateralism. The transition to a new order is likely to see more rivalry and competition than co-operation. The facts of interdependence cannot be wished away but they will certainly be tested. It is going to be a bumpy ride. A pity then that much of the west seems intent on hiding under the bedcovers.
Overall, the picture of the US that emerges from WikiLeaks is positive. America’s foreign policy comes across as principled, intelligent and pragmatic. That was, perhaps, the best-kept secret of all.
America should give Assange a medal
By Gideon Rachman
Published: December 13 2010 21:51 | Last updated: December 13 2010 21:51
After two weeks of WikiLeaking, many Americans want to see Julian Assange locked up. Instead, they should give the man a medal. Of course, it is embarrassing and awkward to have all these secret diplomatic cables published. Mr Assange certainly seems to be no fan of the US. Nonetheless, he and WikiLeaks have done America a massive favour, by inadvertently debunking decades-old conspiracy theories about its foreign policy.
For the European and Latin American left, just as for the Chinese or Russian nationalist right, it has long been all but assumed that whatever the Americans say publicly about their foreign policy is simply a cover story for some sort of secret agenda. What that agenda is can vary, according to taste – the interests of a powerful company (Halliburton!), the subversion of a leftwing government, the weakening of a rival nation. But whatever the Americans’ secret agenda was held to be, they definitely had one – only the absurdly naive could believe otherwise.
The idea that something sinister is going on behind the walls of the US embassy even became a commonplace of British films and television series, whether it was the manipulation of British public opinion (The Ploughman’s Lunch), covering up nuclear misdeeds (Defence of The Realm) or just pushing their British colleagues around (Spooks).
And yet, after a fortnight of revelations, WikiLeaks has revealed that, remarkably enough, the public position taken by the US on any given issue is usually the private position as well. There are plenty of cables yet to be released – and perhaps there are some bombshells still out there. But the documents published over the past fortnight have provided very little evidence of double-dealing or bad faith in US foreign policy. Conspiracy theorists all over the world must be deeply disappointed.
The Americans say, in public, that they would like to build a strong relationship with China based on mutual interests – but that they are worried that some Chinese economic policies are damaging American workers. This turns out to be what they are saying in private, as well. In a cable predicting a more turbulent phase in US-Chinese relations, Jon Huntsman, the US ambassador, insists: “We need to find ways to keep the relationship positive,” while ensuring that American workers benefit more. Many Chinese nationalists and netizens have developed elaborate theories about American plots to thwart China’s rise. There is not a hint of this in WikiLeaks.
In public, the Americans have long said that they believe Iran is developing nuclear weapons and that this poses a threat to world peace – but that their preference is to deal with the Iranian problem peacefully. WikiLeaks confirms that this is what they are saying in private, too. Indeed, the really radical statements about Iran are made by non-Americans. It is the Saudi king who advocates a military strike on Iran. It is a senior adviser to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France who describes the Iranian government as “fascist”.
In public, the Americans make a fuss about human rights and corruption. It turns out that, if you read the cables from Kenya (for example), they also worry about these issues behind closed doors. Who do these Americans think they are – saying one thing in public, and the same thing in private?
Where WikiLeaks does reveal a gap between America’s public statements and private discussions, it tends to be because US representatives are being diplomatic rather than duplicitous. So the Americans have never said in public that they regard the Russian government as deeply corrupt, undemocratic and penetrated by organised crime. That would be needlessly confrontational and might be counter-productive – since the Russian government would portray any such comments as an insult to the motherland and a plot against Russia. However, the revelation that this is what the Americans are saying in their internal communications actually gives these accusations far more credibility than if they were aired publicly. The barely suppressed fury of Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, is testimony to just how damaging the WikiLeaks are for Moscow. The Turkish prime minister has also threatened to sue over WikiLeak allegations that he has Swiss bank accounts.
These kind of revelations have had the unexpected effect of boosting the credibility of US pronouncements in countries where they are usually deeply distrusted. So in Pakistan, we have the spectacle of newspapers printing fake WikiLeaks cables that say nasty things about the Indians.
Of course, there have been a few revelations that do not reflect well on the Americans. There is the order to US diplomats at the United Nations to hoover up personal details of UN officials, including credit card numbers. (I know that the US is short of money, but has it really come to this?) But even some of the officials who might have been spied upon do not seem terribly outraged – since they assume that espionage from all quarters is an unfortunate fact of diplomatic life.
Overall, the picture of the US that emerges from WikiLeaks is positive. America’s foreign policy comes across as principled, intelligent and pragmatic. That was, perhaps, the best-kept secret of all.
Published: December 9 2010 23:41 | Last updated: December 9 2010 23:41
By Emma Jacobs
Oh yes it is! Pamela Anderson in ‘Aladdin’, this year being staged in Liverpool
South London might be a bit chillier than Malibu but it appears to hold a certain allure for former stars of the 1990s television series Baywatch . David Hasselhoff, the 58-year-old who played lifeguard Mitch Buchannon, is appearing as Captain Hook in Peter Pan, this year’s pantomime at New Wimbledon Theatre.
Last year, the theatre drew Pamela Anderson, who wore a red swimsuit to play the Genie in Aladdin, a production that has moved this year to Liverpool’s Empire Theatre, taking Anderson with it.
Pantomimes – recastings of old children’s stories with puns, audience participation, singalongs and cross-dressing – are a long-standing staple of the British Christmas season. Appealing to everyone from grandparents to toddlers with a mix of over-the-top silliness, innuendo and topical references, they are also vitally lucrative for the country’s small and provincial theatres.
Kevin Wood, chief executive of First Family Entertainment, the production company behind Wimbledon’s Peter Pan and Liverpool’s Aladdin, among 10 others, says: “Panto is massively important for regional theatres. It means they can put on events, like contemporary dance, that wouldn’t make money.” He declines to reveal how much he pays big stars, but says “it’s hundreds of thousands of pounds”.
Susie McKenna, who has staged an independent pantomime at the Hackney Empire in east London for 12 years, including this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk, says cuts in arts funding by the coalition government, make panto even more important: “We have to count every penny.” It is a point made in the show, when the “dame” laments the cuts by the “demolition government”. By the time the Olympics arrive in 2012, he sighs, it will be reduced to a few “pit bull races on Hackney Downs”.
Yet, unlike bigger productions, Ms McKenna says, Hackney needs to ensure tickets remain affordable to locals. Tickets go for as little as £1.50 ($2.36) and the most expensive is £24.50. This means that wages are kept low, as she quips: “People don’t work for us for the money.”
Nonetheless, Hackney is lucky that some of the actors who have appeared at the theatre for a long time have become famous, and so attract audiences from outside the locality.
Nick Thomas, chairman of Qdos Entertainment Group, which stages 22 pantomimes in Britain, says big production companies have greater buying power for top TV talent, such as John Barrowman, star of Torchwood, who has done panto for five years and has just signed on for another five.
Big companies are also more efficient because they exploit economies of scale. Family First Entertainment works on a five-year cycle – the Peter Pan production at Wimbledon this year will return to the theatre five years later. “It means we can spread overheads,” says Mr Wood, whose company receives sponsorship from Robinsons, the soft drinks maker. “Costumes, props and scripts will be recycled. The script is tweaked in terms of topical references, but Cinderella always goes to the ball.”
Is panto merely a refuge for washed-up celebrities? “Actors have to be good,” says Mr Thomas. “You need to get people buying tickets this year for next year. Cash flow is important for local theatres.”
Two days after Newcastle’s panto opened, he says, it had already taken “a quarter of a million pounds in tickets for 2011’s production”. He cites the effect of Dynasty star Joan Collins, who is making her debut at the age of 77: “She wouldn’t have been hired if she wasn’t right for the show.” And she earns her money: “She is doing everything but flying in on a wire.”
Mr Wood was thrilled when Shakespearean actor Sir Ian McKellen donned a floral dress in 2004 to play Widow Twanky at the Old Vic’s Aladdin in London. Rather than upstage provincial theatres, the upscale production increased Mr Wood’s bargaining power. “After McKellen, no actor could tell me panto was beneath them,” he says.
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On Nov. 27, less than a month after one of Qantas Airways' Airbus A380s had a midair engine explosion, the airline sent its first 450-seater back into service for a Sydney-to-London flight. Despite the Nov. 4 blowout and subsequent problems with other of the fleet's A380s, one passenger was particularly eager to board this flight: Alan Joyce, Qantas' 44-year-old chief executive officer.
Joyce's flight followed a media blitz of five press briefings, at least six radio and television interviews, and a YouTube video address. In an e-mail response to questions, Joyce noted that "During crisis situations you can never communicate enough."
Hours after the Nov. 4 incident, Joyce grounded Qantas' six A380s. (The cause of the engine explosion is still being investigated by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.) His swift action and heightened visibility have helped Sydney-based Qantas retain travelers' confidence, says Robert Heath, a crisis management consultant and professor at the University of South Australia.
Investors are less assured: Qantas' stock has fallen 10.8 percent since Nov. 3 in Sydney trading, compared with a 3.2 percent decline for the benchmark S&P/ASX 200 index. Even so, UBS (UBS) analyst Simon Mitchell on Nov. 23 affirmed a buy rating on the airline, a recommendation made by 12 of the 14 analysts tracked by Bloomberg.
Joyce's management of the crisis began with a televised press conference on Nov. 4 after the A380 made an emergency landing in Singapore. The Rolls-Royce-powered aircraft touched down with the rear of an engine cover blown away from the explosion and damage to a wing and its fuselage. No one on board was hurt. Since then the carrier has used substitute planes, including Boeing (BA) 747s, to maintain services usually flown by the A380s.
In early December, a second Qantas A380 will start flying, followed by two new ones within the month. Qantas is working with Rolls-Royce Group on modifying as many as 16 engines.
The Qantas CEO's actions contrast with Toyota Motor (TM) President Akio Toyoda's handling of U.S. recalls that began last year. Toyoda didn't hold a press conference after the company announced defects with 3.8 million vehicles in September 2009. He waited more than a week to give a briefing after a separate recall in January. Instead, U.S. sales chief James E. Lentz and Executive Vice-President Shinichi Sasaki spoke for the company. The Toyota brand's share of U.S. auto sales fell to 13 percent in the first 10 months of 2010 from 15 percent in 2009. "Toyoda really should have been out in front from the beginning," says Tadashi Usui, a Tokyo-based analyst at Moody's Japan.
Joyce, Qantas' CEO since 2008, gets high marks for management from Conor McCarthy, a former colleague at Aer Lingus who is now CEO of aircraft maintenance firm Dublin Aerospace. "He gets people to raise their game," says McCarthy. "I think customers will have a lot of confidence he was making the right decisions."
Good decisions won't matter if more engine troubles crop up. A Qantas Boeing 747 returned to Singapore because of an engine fire on Nov. 5, and at least two other Qantas planes have turned back since because of trouble. While Ron Bishop, senior lecturer in aviation technology at Central Queensland University, is impressed by how Qantas has handled events, any more faults and "everybody around the world will be looking at Qantas and asking themselves questions," he says.
The bottom line: The Qantas CEO's swift damage control in the wake of an Airbus 380 midair engine blowout has impressed crisis consultants.
Published: December 9 2010 20:22 | Last updated: December 9 2010 20:22
China is in unapologetic mood. Not so long ago Beijing routinely protested its anxiety not to disturb the established international order. But a rising China has now become a risen China. Past inhibitions are being shed. Beijing looks as if it is formulating an east Asian version of America’s Monroe doctrine.
The effort to organise a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is a small part of this new assertiveness. During a few days in the Chinese capital I must have been told more than a dozen times that the democracy activist Liu Xiaobo was a common criminal. Awarding him the prize had been a calculated provocation. The Nobel committee, apparently, is no more than a pliant tool of western governments.
There is more to the change in the atmosphere than a burning resentment at the west’s admonitions about universal values. China is drawing sharper distinctions between its own and others’ national interests – something seen in its responses this year to the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Beijing has its own, genuine frustrations with the dangerously unpredictable Kim Jong-il and his country’s nuclear weapons programme. North Korean attacks on the South menace regional peace. Pyongyang’s record as a nuclear proliferator threatens global stability. But to China’s mind, the need for stability trumps all else. Beijing is not willing to see Korea reunited on South Korea’s (and America’s) terms.
My exchanges on this latest trip surprised me. I had become accustomed to being told that China had studied carefully the lessons of history. Foreign affairs experts in the Chinese capital seemed to know more about Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany than most Europeans. Collisions between rising and existing powers had been the stuff of too many wars. China’s “peaceful rise” would avoid such a calamity.
As far as I can tell, such phrases have been quietly dropped from the lexicon. They have been replaced by the frequent observation that US hegemony has come to an end; that multi-polarity is now the organising fact of international life; and that China’s strategic interests have expanded in line with its economic power. Beijing needs to protect those interests – one reason it is now building a powerful navy.
I should enter a couple of caveats here. Almost every conversation with a Chinese policymaker still starts with the domestic – with the overriding priority of sustaining economic growth and preserving the social and political order.
Foreign affairs are an extension of domestic policy. What counts is that China retains access to the oil and other natural resources needed to fuel its economy. Social stability is judged more critical than ever during the transition to a new generation of leaders in 2012.
It is also a mistake to assume that China has a monolithic worldview. There is an active debate within the party on the approach to take to the west in general and to the US in particular. Beijing, like Washington, has its hawks and doves. It also has domestic politics.
I caught sight of some of the competing currents during a fascinating event at the Party School of the Communist Party of China. The school is the Ecole Nationale of the Communist elite, headed as it is by Xi Jinping, the assumed heir to president Hu Jintao. Last week it played host to a unique discussion with a group of Europeans and Americans from the Aspen Italia Institute and the Aspen Strategy Group of the US.
One senior Chinese official told the story of a recent seminar she had attended at the school. Some of her classmates thought Washington the eternal rival, never to be trusted. Others said China’s interest resided in constructive engagement with the US. This was an argument that was not about to go away.
Elsewhere, I caught a glimpse of the differences between the People’s Liberation Army and civilian officials. One of the paradoxes of great power status is that it brings its own vulnerabilities. China’s dependence on foreign raw materials means it has more to lose. This insecurity has empowered the PLA. So has the rising nationalism transmitted from the streets across thousands of internet sites.
There were signs that Beijing might take half a step back. It has become sufficiently nervous about an escalation on the Korean peninsula to try harder to calm Pyongyang. Officials worry that the tensions threaten to cast a pall over Mr Hu’s state visit to the US next month.
They also complain that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea have been misrepresented. Though some in the PLA would wish it to be so, these waters have not been formally designated as a “core interest” comparable to China’s claims on Taiwan and Tibet.
For all such qualifications, there is a palpable sense that China is impatient to control the seas around its coastline – that it is mapping a maritime zone in which it cannot be challenged by the US.
Angry clashes with Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea, and with Vietnam and others over boundaries in the South China Sea, have coincided with the rapid build-up of the PLA’s navy. A couple of centuries ago President James Monroe asserted US primacy in the western hemisphere. Why, you can hear Beijing asking itself, should not China do the same in east Asia?
Such thoughts have seen several of China’s neighbours – Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia as well as Japan and South Korea – edge closer to the US. South Korea is promising to reward North Korean bellicosity with, well, bellicosity. Washington has been cementing a strategic relationship with India. All this, I heard Chinese officials protest, was a mark of US determination to contain China rather than a response to aggression on the part of Beijing.
I think Washington’s purpose is to constrain rather than to contain: to signal that the US is going to be around in Asia for many decades to come. What strikes me, though, is the potential for miscalculation. But then, there was never anything inevitable about a peaceful rise.