Last of the White Russians

File:Wrangel Peter.jpg

Occasionally an item of news reminds us of how transient most great political dramas are, and how quickly major crises come and go.  This is rather healthy: it puts us on notice that most of the issues we care about very deeply will be forgotten fairly soon too.  This is certainly the effect of a compelling obituary notice in the New York Times (emphasis added):

BASILEVSKY–Nathalie (nee Wrangel), 99, of Cos Cob, CT. Beloved mother of Peter A. Basilevsky and the late Helen A. Basilevsky, grandmother of Alexis P. Basilevsky and Katharine H. Deering and two great-grandchildren. She died peacefully on August 9, 2013. She had a big heart, a sharp intellect and will be missed by all who knew her. Mrs. Basilevsky, born in 1913 in St. Petersburg, Russia, was the last surviving child of Lt. Gen. Baron Peter N. Wrangel and Olga M. Wrangel. She was predeceased by her husband Alexis G. Basilevsky, sister Helene Meyendorff and her brothers Peter and Alexis Wrangel. Baron Wrangel was the last Commander in Chief of the White Army in the Russian Civil War and who, after a long and valiant struggle despite his army being woefully outmanned and undersupplied, engineered the seaborne evacuation of approximately 150,000 soldiers and civilians, including 7,000 children, from the Crimea in November 1920 in the face of overwhelming advancing Bolshevik forces.

It’s worth remembering that the Russian Civil War was a close-run thing. If the White Army had been better-manned and better-supplied, we might be mourning the loss of a rare human link to a late, great White Russian (pictured above).  And “Stalin” would mean nothing to us.

Kissinger: when you don’t have a foreign policy, talk about development!

Micah Zenko of CFR has just blogged this transcript of a 1975 telephone call between Henry Kissinger and his long-time aide Winston Lord on the knotty problem of what to say about Africa in an upcoming speech:

KISSINGER: Are you redoing the African thing?

WINSTON LORD: Yes. We had versions which is in the front office and we are redoing it some more. You can look at what you have [or?] wait for what is in the typewriter now. It will not be tremendously different. We gave you a draft about two days which was bounced back.

K: It was not much.

L: We don’t have much of a policy.

K: What would be a policy?

L: That it is, I think, it is sober, restrained…

K: I don’t mind giving them what our intentions are. It is not always possible to do a hell of a lot.

L: Right. It is our lowest priority, but it cannot say that. But it is a fact of life.

K: We can say something about forthcoming aspirations.

L: You mean for development.

K: Right.

According to the full transcript, Kissinger goes on to say: “See if you can give it a little more lift without promising them much more.”  Of course, no policy-maker would ever be so cynical about development policy these days…

It’s getting clearer and clearer we’re in an inequality crisis – so why am I optimistic?


We are not living in an age of austerity. We are living in an age of brutal inequality. Millions struggle to feed themselves and their families – even in Europe. But the men who caused the financial crisis are better off now than they were the day before the crash. Five years after the collapse of Bear Stearns, the firm’s former bosses are back running Wall Street. Amazon, apparently, can’t afford to pay tax where it makes its profits, can’t afford to let its workers take too many toilet breaks, but can afford for its boss to buy the newspapers that might have criticised it. We are back to the “bauble economy”.

The 300 richest people have the same wealth as the 3 billion poorest. Zambia has become a middle income country, but the number of poor people in Zambia has increased. Russia, China and India have all seen steep rises in the gap between rich and poor. 5% of Indians own 50% of the country’s wealth. In the US, President Obama has acknowledged, “nearly all income gains of past 10 years flowed to the top 1%. This growing inequality isn’t just morally wrong; it’s bad economics.” In the UK, inequality is set to grow faster than it did in the 1980s.

There are so many reasons why rising inequality is a bad thing that it’s hard to know where to start. One reason, as Andy Sumner has demonstrated, is that “we find in our number-crunching that poverty can only be ended if inequality falls.” Another is that healthy, liveable societies depend on government action to limit inequality: “In physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal countries,” note Wilkinson and Pickett. It is also a question of voice, and power. In the words of Harry Belafonte, “The concentration of money in the hands of a small group is the most dangerous thing that happened to civilization”. Or as Jeff Sachs has noted: “Corporations write the rules, pay the politicians, sometimes illegally and sometimes, via what is called legal, which is financing their campaigns or massive lobbying. This has got completely out of control and is leading to the breakdown of modern democracy.”

So if inequality is so damaging, and if it’s getting clearer and clearer that we’re in an inequality crisis, why I am optimistic? Because we are talking about it. Because people are saying it’s a problem. Because in a counterpoint to how the neoliberals of the 70s and 80s changed the conversation from community to individualism to break the post-war consensus that had limited inequality, so now the conversation is shifting back to community. People are challenging the idea that “economic shock treatment” cures when it literally kills. They are speaking out against the profit maximisation mantra that corporations should behave in ways which we would call psychopathic in normal human interaction.

When problems are invisibilised they cannot be fixed. It is only when we look eyes wide open and say frankly that our emperors are naked and that we do not want them as our emperors any more, that we have a chance of putting things right.

In short, I am optimistic because it is getting clearer to the majority that unrestrained inequality is bad for us all. I’m not optimistic in the sense that I see change as inevitable, only in the sense that I see it as possible. It is not that now we needn’t campaign against inequality. It’s that now, when we do, we might win.


The first law of politics

From Janan Ganesh in the FT:

More than any profession, politics suffers from the myth of strategy. Its practitioners and pundits tend to attribute electoral success to a compelling “message” or “narrative” backed by a “ground game”, a media “operation” and something to do with the internet. There is almost nothing that cannot be achieved if you politic hard enough, it seems.

This is, of course, a fantasy. The first law of politics is that almost nothing matters. Voters barely notice, much less are they moved by, the events, speeches, tactics, campaigns or even strategies that are ultimately aimed at them. Elections are largely determined by a few fundamentals: the economy, the political cycle, the basic appeal of the party leaders. The role of human agency is not trivial, but it is rarely decisive either.

How the Snowden saga will end

This thoughtful post on Hacking Distributed is a must-read, arguing that the endgame on the Snowden saga will be determined by the relative strength of three forces: military / political (“whose aims are to keep social movements in check”), commerce (“this force vector consists simply of the collective economic interests of companies that fund elections … and points in the direction of making the internet a ‘pay-for-play’ environment”), and the public:

This force vector consists simply of the collective human interests of the people who use the network. It is by far the most powerful force, but has a number of shortcomings: it is slow to awaken, not technically sophisticated, and easy to derail and divide into factions over trivial concerns. But once the giant is awake, absolutely nothing can stand in its path.

What makes the public stand up and take a stance? No one knows. The Arab Spring was precipitated by a street salesman whose cart was taken away by the police, who got so depressed that he decided to put himself on fire, and before we knew it, dictators across many continents were spinning up their chopper blades. The Turkish uprising was precipitated by a couple of trees in a park. Second wave of Brazilian uprisings were over a 10 cent hike. This makes this force terrifying, because when the giant shows signs of awakening, when his eyelids flutter and he’s asking questions trying to get his bearings, it’s too late.

No apologies: the President of the UN General Assembly rocks with Bon Jovi


Vuk Jeremic, a former foreign minister of Serbia, is coming to the end of a year in the very important job of President of the UN General Assembly.  His tenure has been anything but dull.  He organized a concert which featured a Serbian choir singing a song “associated with massacres carried out in the 1990s against civilians who were under the protection of United Nations peacekeepers.”  He convened a thematic debate on criminal justice that the U.S. claimed was “trying to discredit the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.”  And last week… he went to a Bon Jovi concert. Continue reading

The case for (continuing) counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan

There’s a bit of a debate currently about whether the Coalition in Afghanistan should continue to invest in counter-narcotics work in the country. The problem – as articulated by people on the ground is that much of the work has failed. Opium production is up, American troops are no longer allowed to set foot in poppy fields let alone burn them and in a year’s time drugs won’t be high on the Afghan Government’s to do list – if it’s on it at all.  What we do next matters because it is liable to have an impact in the UK… below is a short piece I did for RUSI. Continue reading

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