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Archive for September, 2020

Germany at Thirty

30 September 2020

I have just spent two weeks driving around Germany interviewing people (mostly climate scientists, since you ask), and I have come to the conclusion that it is the best-run – and quite possibly just the best – major country in the world right now.

Some small countries are absolute jewels, of course, but it’s easier if you’re small. Big powers fight more wars, contain more divisions, suffer nastier and more ridiculous delusions of grandeur. But if you only consider countries with more than 50 million people, then Germany today is the fairest, the least conflicted, the most peaceful, actually the nicest major country on the planet.

That wasn’t true thirty years ago, and it may not be true thirty years hence, but it’s worth noting because Saturday marks the thirtieth anniversary of the unification of Germany in 1990, just one year after the Berlin Wall came down. Compared to what happened after the first time it was unified, it has all worked out rather well.

The first unification of Germany, in 1871, was achieved by war, and led to more and much bigger wars – not entirely Germany’s fault, of course, but certainly the consequence of the sudden appearance of a highly nationalistic new great power in the heart of Europe.

After the Second World War, Germany was divided into three. The eastern third was emptied of Germans and given to Poland (in compensation for the eastern third of pre-war Poland, which was kept by the Soviet Union). The middle part, also under Soviet occupation,
became Communist-ruled ‘East Germany’, while the rest, with most of the population, became ‘West Germany’.

The ‘two Germanies’ became the cockpit of the Cold War, with huge armies of tanks ready to roll and nuclear weapons not far behind them. Many people understood that this could not go on forever, that some day the country would have to be reunited – but they were terrified by the prospect. They feared that the process of reunification might trigger a war, and they also feared a reunited Germany.

Lord Ismay, the British general who became the first secretary-general of the NATO alliance (which included West Germany), put it bluntly: “NATO exists to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” French journalist and poet François Mauriac said it more elegantly: “I love Germany so much that I’m glad there are two of them.”

If the trigger to end the East German Communist regime had been in British, French and American hands, it might never have been pulled. But it was actually in the hands of the East Germans themselves, and in 1989 they brought down their oppressors without a shot being fired. All the other Communist states of eastern Europe followed suit.

There was great joy in both parts of Germany – the street party after the Berlin Wall came down was probably the best and certainly the longest I have ever attended – but there was considerable trepidation elsewhere. However Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Soviet leader, reassured everybody by declaring that Moscow had no objection to German reunification, and the deed was done thirty years ago this week.

It has worked out very well. There are sad people and even wicked people in Germany, like everywhere else, but as a society it radiates contentment. Unflustered competence lubricated by a general tone of good-will make minor daily transactions less of an ordeal, and the strident nationalism that now disfigures so many other countries is conspicuous by its absence.

In the place of that the Germans have a dedication to the European project: like ‘Amens’ in a church, invocations of ‘Europe’ punctuate political conversations. And if you say this is a defensive reaction against Germany’s terrible history in the two generations before 1945, I would probably agree – but what’s wrong with that?

Even the economic contrast between the formerly Communist-ruled east and the rest of the country, to the great disadvantage of the former, is gradually eroding: average incomes among ‘Ossis’(easterners) are now up to almost 90% of ‘Wessi’ earnings. All the ‘coolest’ cities, the magnets that attract the young, are in the former east: Berlin, Dresden, and now Leipzig.

It’s not paradise, but when you compare it with the incompetent, belligerent populism that prevails in formally democratic countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and India, it looks pretty good. ‘Wir schaffen das” (We can manage this), said Chancellor Angela Merkel when over a million mostly Muslim refugees arrived in Germany in 2016, and four years later it looks like she was right.

‘Mutti’ (Mommy), as Germans call her, has been chancellor for half of the past thirty years, so there will be a collective holding of breath when she retires next year. But the world would be a better and safer place if there were more countries like Germany.

Plus there’s no speed limit at all on the autobahns. Where else can you drive at 160 kph and have cars whooshing past you all the time?
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 15. (“In the place…Leipzig”; and “Plus…time”)

Armenia and Azerbaijan

28 September 2020

It’s probably Azerbaijan that started the shooting in this latest round of fighting with neighbouring Armenia. Which is not to say that it’s all Azerbaijan’s fault.

The killing that started on Sunday is the biggest clash since the cease-fire of 1994: helicopters shot down, tanks blown up, and dozens of soldiers dead already. It could go the distance – the 1992-94 war cost 30,000 lives and drove a million people from their homes – or it could die down in a few days. But it won’t settle anything.

In the Caucasus, neighbouring countries can be wildly different: Azerbaijan is Shia Muslim and speaks what is really an eastern dialect of Turkish, while Armenia is Orthodox Christian and speaks a language that has no known relatives within the Indo-European family. But the two countries share a long history of oppression.

They both spent almost a century in the Russian empire, got their independence back briefly during the Revolution, and then spent another 70 years as part of the Soviet Union. When they both got their independence again in 1991, however, they almost immediately went to war.

That was Joseph Stalin’s fault. When he was Commissar of Nationality Affairs in 1918-22, he drew the borders of all the new non-Russian ‘Soviet Republics’ in the Caucasus and Central Asia according to the classic imperial principle of divide-and-rule. Every ‘republic’ included ethnic minorities from neighbouring republics, to minimise the risk that they might develop a genuine national identity.

In the case of Azerbaijan, Stalin gave it the district of Nagorno-Karabakh (‘mountainous’ Karabakh) even though that area was four-fifths Armenian in population. When the Soviet Union began crumbling 70 years later, the local minorities in both countries started fleeing to areas where they would be safely in the majority even before the war got underway.

The actual war in 1992-94 was a brutal affair involving active ethnic cleansing: 600,000 Azerbaijanis and 300,000 Armenians became refugees. On paper Armenia should have lost, for it has only 3 million people to Azerbaijan’s 9 million, but it actually won most of the battles.

When post-Soviet Russia brokered a cease-fire between the exhausted parties, Armenia wound up holding not only Nagorno-Karabakh but a large amount of other territory (now emptied of Azerbaijanis) that connected Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia proper. And that’s where the border – more precisely the cease-fire line – remains to this day.

I haven’t been near the front line since shortly after that war, so why would I claim to know that it’s Azerbaijan starting up the war again this time? Three reasons.

First, Armenia already controls all the territory it claims and more. However, in terms of international law it has no legal claim to it, and the UN Security Council has four times called for the withdrawal of Armenian troops. Why would Armenia draw further unwelcome attention to the fact that it has been illegally occupying ‘foreign’ territory for 26 years?

Secondly, Armenia is much weaker in military terms. Not only has it far fewer people but it is poor, whereas Azerbaijan has enjoyed great wealth from oil. Both countries buy most of their weapons from Russia, but in the past two decades Azerbaijan has consistently outspent Armenia on defence nine-to-one.

Finally, Azerbaijan’s ‘elected’ dictator, Ilham Aliyev, has a strong political need for a war right now, while Armenia’s new leader, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, does not.

Pashinyan came to power in 2018 in a free election, after non-violent protests forced out his long-ruling predecessor, who was trying to ‘do a Putin’. (That is to say, stay in power when he hit the two-term limit as president by moving real power to the prime minister’s office, and coming back himself as prime minister.) Armenia now has free media and a popular president.

Aliyev is fighting to prolong his family’s dynastic rule for a third generation in the face of popular protests. His father, Heydar Aliyev, was a career KGB officer who became leader of the Azerbaijan Communist Party and took over as dictator after the Soviet Union collapsed. (This happened in most of the Muslim ex-Soviet republics.)

Heydar managed to pass power to his son Ilham before he died in 2003. Ilham changed the constitution to scrap presidential term limits in 2009. In 2016 he even lowered the age limit on the presidency, to smooth the path to the throne for his then 19-year-old son.

Azerbaijan’s opposition parties, despite oppression, jail and torture, are resisting Ilham Aliyev’s tyranny, and their most effective rallying cry is Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Mobs of anti-regime demonstrators took over central Baku last week demanding action, and this mini-war is Aliyev’s attempt to placate them.

It will all die down if Armenia can hold on long enough for Russia to impose another cease-fire. Otherwise, it may get very ugly again.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“Aliyev…son”)

China, Climate and Blame

23 September 2020

China took a major stride forward on climate on Tuesday. President Xi Jinping, addressing the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, for the first time committed China to a hard target for future greenhouse gas emissions.

By 2060, he promised, his country will be carbon neutral (‘net-zero’). After that, China will put no more carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere than it takes out.

There was only scattered applause, because only one person per country could be in the General Assembly chamber due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the leaders sent recorded speeches. Still, China has never accepted a hard target of any kind in the past, so it was a welcome step.

Xi also promised that China’s CO2 emissions would actually stop rising by 2030, only ten years from now. It was especially welcome after the bombast and abuse of US President Donald Trump’s speech. (Trump will pull the United States out of the global climate agreement on 4 November if he wins, and maybe even if he loses.)

Yet joy over the news from China was hardly unconfined. Most world leaders understand that Xi’s promises, while long overdue, nevertheless mean the world will miss the goal of holding the rise in average global temperature to 1.5° Celsius.

That was the ‘aspirational’ target agreed at the Paris climate summit in 2015, but it was never very likely in reality. Average global temperature is already +1.1° higher, and to hold it to +1.5° would have required the human race to start cutting its total emissions by 7% annually this year.

In fact, emissions are still rising (not all China’s fault), and there’s no chance that they will start heading down soon (mostly China’s fault).

The United States is a mature industrial power with relatively high emissions (15% of world emissions), but they are dropping slowly despite Trump’s efforts to revive the coal industry. China is a rapidly industrialising country that already accounts for the largest share of global CO2 emissions (28%), and it is still growing them rapidly.

What Xi’s 2030 promise actually meant was that China’s emissions will go on growing for another ten years. So wave good-bye to the hope of holding the temperature rise to 1.5°, and say hello to bigger storms, more wildfires, worse droughts, and killer heatwaves in some places.

That’s now certain, but other possibilities include a largely ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer at least once in the next ten years, and perhaps the irreversible destabilisation of the West Antarctic ice sheet (major sea level rise).

Xi’s other promise – carbon neutral by 2060 – is even worse news. ‘Net-zero by 2050’ is the consensus long-term goal shared by every major country except the United States. Xi is moving China’s goal-posts down by ten years. That virtually guarantees that the world will also miss the never-exceed goal of “well below +2°”.

Going through +2° higher average global temperature means that some tropical and sub-tropical areas will become lethally hot outdoors in the summertime for weeks at a time. Famines will spread, refugees will start to move by the millions, borders will slam shut, and
wars become likely.

A torrent of glacial meltwater may disrupt ocean currents like the Gulf Stream, causing abrupt climate changes on land as well. The floods and hurricanes, droughts and wildfires will intensify. And there is a risk, real but hard to quantify, that enough tipping points will be triggered to send the global climate off on a self-sustaining and irreversible transformation to a much hotter ‘new normal’.

Xi is not really the villain of the piece. He leads a regime whose only claims on the Chinese public’s support are nationalism and rising living standards: the ideology is long dead. He’s knows that if living standards stall, nationalism alone may not be enough to save Communist rule, so he dares not slow the economic growth even to avoid a climate disaster.

But every global leader faces the same dilemma to a greater or lesser extent, and that’s why we are where we are. We understand the problem, we know how to fix it, but we can’t make our political systems move fast enough. So the human race is heading for a very hard choice ten or fifteen years from now.

It will be clear that we cannot cut our emissions enough in the remaining time to avoid going through +2°. We will have to choose between risking a potentially irreversible calamity by staying on our present course, or making perhaps equally risky technological interventions in the atmosphere to hold the heat down temporarily while we continue to work on eliminating our emissions.

Theoretical research on such technologies is already underway. As time goes on, you will be hearing a lot more about Stratospheric Aerosol Injection, Marine Cloud Brightening and the like.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 10. (“There…step”; and “That’s…rise”)

Which Non-Violent Revolutions Will Succeed?

20 September 2020

The old calculation was simple and brutal: if you want to overthrow a tyrant, you must use violence. There was an occasional exception, like Gandhi’s use of non-violent protest to gain India’s independence, but people wrote that off as being due to the fact that the British empire, being ruled by a democratic government, was too soft.

Tell that to the descendants of the tens of thousands of Irish, Kenyans, Malaysians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Egyptians, Afrikaners and sundry others who were killed for trying to leave the British empire. It would be truer to say that Ghandian non-violence obliged the British to avoid massive violence in India (and Pakistan and what eventually became Bangladesh got a free ride out on the same ticket.)

And then, after bubbling underneath for four decades with a few partial successes like the American civil rights movement, non-violent tactics exploded into a kaleidoscopic range of peaceful revolutions in the later 1980s. From south and southeast Asia (The Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh) to Iran and the Communist-ruled countries in Eastern Europe, the technique seemed unstoppable.

Peaceful protest was drowned in blood in China in 1989, but it kept notching up victories elsewhere: the Soviet Union itself, most of France’s sub-Saharan colonies, South Africa and Indonesia in the 1990s; Serbia, Philippines II, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Lebanon in the 2000s; and Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Ukraine II and Sudan in the 2010s.

But all the non-violent uprisings of the 2010-2011 ‘Arab Spring’ except Tunisia’s ended up being crushed by military coups or civil wars. And none of the current crop, in Belarus, Thailand and Algeria, are heading for a rapid or easy victory. Indeed, they might all fail. What is happening to this technique that once swept all before it?

It’s more than three decades since this new technique startled the world, and dictators are not usually fools. They see what happened to their former colleagues who got overthrown, and start working out counter-strategies that weaken the determination and cohesiveness of the protesters.

For example, all but the stupidest dictators now know that while violence can scare individuals and small groups into silence, it is almost always a mistake to use it against very large groups. It just makes them angry, and they’ll usually be back the next day in much larger numbers.

Your real objective, as a dictator, should be to trick the protesters into using violence themselves. Then the thugs who love a street-fight will rise to leadership positions in the protests while most other people withdraw, disgusted by the violence – and then you can use massive violence against the violent protesters who remain.

Dictators have also learned to block the internet and mobile phones at the first sign of protest, or to mine electronic communications between the protest organisers to stop small groups from uniting into an unstoppably big crowd. Keep that up long enough, and you may just wait them out.

Harvard politican scientist Erica Chenoweth is the go-to expert on this, and she has two very useful numbers for us. The first is that whereas non-violent movements to overthrow illegitimate regimes used to succeed half the time, now they win only one time in three. The other, more encouraging, is that if they can get 3.5% of the population out in the streets, they almost always win.

By this measure, the Belarus movement is still within reach of success. 3.5% of Belarus’s population is about 300,000 people, and the Sunday demonstrations since early August, including those in cities outside Minsk, probably come close to that figure most weekends. People are not yet bored, cowed, or in despair.

The protests in Thailand against former general and coup-leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha have not yet spread significantly beyond Bangkok, and the mostly student protesters are certainly not even 1% of the population. The movement continues to expand, but its long-term prospects are doubtful.

As for Algeria, the recent election of a new president closely linked to the last one (whom the protesters forced to resign last year) has brought the students back out into the streets in force. The Covid-19 lock-down robbed the movement of its momentum, however, and it is unlikely to regain it.

So maybe one success in three for regime change, just as Erica Chenoweth predicts. But her most important insight is that the 3.5% number probably applies to any popular protest movement, including those in democratic countries. The goals of those movements need not be limited to overthrowing dictators.

As she told the Harvard Gazette last year: “(3.5%) sounds like a really small number, but in absolute terms it’s really an impressive number of people…Can you imagine if 11.5 million (Americans) were doing something like mass non-cooperation in a sustained way for nine to 18 months? Things would be totally different in this country.”
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“Tell…ticket; and “Dictators…out”)