28 December 2011
By Gwynne Dyer
Every year brings changes, but some years really are turning points: 1492, 1789, 1914, and 1989, for example. Does 2011 belong in the august company of such Really Important Years? Probably not, but it definitely qualifies for membership in the second tier of Quite Important Years.
Three big stories ran right through the year, any one of which would have qualified 2011 for membership status. The Arab Spring is an epochal event, even if democratic revolutions may fail in some countries in the end. The euro crisis threatens the European Union with collapse and confirms the shift of economic power from West to East. And the struggle to prevent disastrous climate change was abandoned for the rest of the decade.
The name, it should be noted, is the Arab Spring, not the Muslim Spring, because a majority of the world’s Muslims already live in countries that are democratic: Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and even Iran (in roughly descending order of how democratic they really are). But the Arab countries seemed remarkably impervious to democracy – until it suddenly became clear that they weren’t.
The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were not just about elections. They were revolts against the arrogance and corruption of the ruling elites, against poverty, against the reign of fear that underpinned all of those regimes. But there was and still is a genuine democratic idealism at the heart of these revolutions, and despite all the disappointments and detours that will inevitably follow, something profound has changed in the Arab world.
Similar revolutions could well succeed to other Arab countries in the coming year, but in some cases they may not even be necessary. Formerly autocratic monarchies like Jordan and Morocco are in full retreat, hoping to safeguard their privileges by granting political freedoms to the people. And the long and increasingly bloody struggle in Syria could still end in a relatively peaceful transition to democracy, not a civil war.
We should have learned not to underestimate people by now. The Arab Spring is the culmination of a wave of non-violent revolutions that started in Asia in the 1980s (Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, plus failed attempts in China and Burma). They spread to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1989-91, ended apartheid in South Africa in 1994, and brought down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 2000.
Then there was a decade-long gap, but now they’re back, and not just in the Arab world. The ruthless Burmese regime is retreating from power under relentless pressure from the pro-democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and even Vladimir Putin in Moscow must suddenly feel vulnerable as he watches the crowds come out in Russia to demand their country back. Non-violence works. It will even work in China eventually.
From the sublime to the ridiculous. The decade-old euro, which aspired to become the common currency of the European Union and even a rival to the US dollar, is in acute danger of collapse, and the efforts of European leaders to save it have been comically inept. Seventeen of the 27 countries in the EU, including all the big economies except Britain’s, use the euro, but that number may drop sharply in the next few years. It might even drop to zero.
The euro was a political project from the start, and it may also die of politics. The initial idea was that a common currency would bind the EU members closer together, but it never made any sense for low-productivity economies like Spain, Italy and Greece to use the same currency as high-performing economies like Germany.
The only way it could have worked was for the richer countries to subsidise the poorer countries forever (like the richer regions of France or Japan subsidise the poorer regions). Then, provided that there was also a powerful central bank to stop the poorer countries from borrowing too much (because they now had a strong currency, which let them borrow almost unlimited amounts of money at very low rates), the whole project might work.
The richer countries like Germany and France had no intention of subsidising the poorer ones, and they wouldn’t allow a powerful central bank either, but the project went ahead anyway. The euro might have stumbled on, amid growing difficulties, for another decade – but the international financial crisis of 2008 put an end to that.
When the tide goes out, as legendary investor Warren Buffett put it, you find out who’s been swimming naked. The European economies were as naked as jaybirds, and so the vultures began to circle (to mix a metaphor). Every month of this year has seen another “crisis summit” meeting of EU leaders, but they have produced no credible solution to the euro’s problems because the richer countries are still unwilling to subsidise the poorer ones.
There are three possible outcomes to this mess. One is that the poorer countries simply bail out of the euro and revive their old separate currencies, which would cause some serious bank crashes in Europe and collateral damage elsewhere. The second is that the euro as a whole collapses, causing severe damage to all the Western economies including the United States. The third is that the European Union itself fall apart.
Option one is almost certain to happen. Option two is getting more likely by the month. Option three is still relatively unlikely – which is just as well, given what a disunited Europe used to be like. But the sheer vulnerability of what are still technically the world’s most powerful economies is now plain for all to see.
The power shift from the old Atlantic world to the emerging economies of Asia was going to happen eventually in any case: the five centuries when the Europeans and their overseas kin were global top dogs are at an end. But the arrogant risk-taking, blind greed, and sheer ignorance that caused the crash of 2008 and its after-shocks are making the shift happen a lot faster.
And so to the really bad news. The Arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than even the pessimists feared, massive floods are devastating huge areas (Pakistan, Thailand, Australia), and sea level is rising at twice the predicted speed, but nothing will be done about it for the next ten years. That, effectively, was the decision – or rather, the non-decision – taken at the annual climate change summit in Durban in December.
It has been clear since the debacle at Copenhagen in 2009 that a global agreement to curb the warming was in grave trouble, but the deal in Durban may have been worse than no deal at all. The only existing agreement, the Kyoto Protocol of fifteen years ago, has been extended for another five years, but it only limits the emissions of the developed countries, and even they will not be required to meet any stricter targets than those they accepted in 1997.
The emerging economies, whose emissions are growing very fast, still face no restrictions at all, although China is already the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. The target date agreed for a new, more ambitious global agreement is now 2015, but they won’t even start talking about that until 2013. And even if they do make a new deal by 2015, which is far from certain, they have already agreed that it will not go into effect until 2020.
It is not the first time that short-term self-interest has triumphed over the long-term common interest, but it may be the worst time. By 2020 it will probably be impossible to prevent the rise in average global temperature from exceeding 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), which is generally agreed to be the point of no return. After that, we will probably find ourselves in a new world of runaway warming. We know it, and yet we do nothing.
Compared to these huge changes in world politics, the global economy, and climate policy, everything else that happened in 2011 was very small potatoes, but some of it was very interesting.
Three bad men died, two of them violently: North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and al-Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden. Four Latin American countries – Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Peru – elected new presidents. Five African countries – Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Zambia – achieved higher economic growth rates than Brazil (though that was partly due to higher commodity prices).
An earthquake and tsunami devastated a large area of northern Japan, and the radioactive emissions from damaged nuclear reactors – about one-tenth of what came out of Chernobyl in 1986 – caused a global mini-panic. But in the end, the only country that announced a plan to shut down its reactors was Germany. (They’ll burn coal instead. Oh, good.)
American troops finally left Iraq in December, still insisting that they had accomplished their mission, whatever it was. NATO deployed its air power to help the rebels win in Libya, but it isn’t going to Syria. And the final shuttle flight from Cape Canaveral went into orbit in July. Dr Mike Griffin, the former head of NASA, said that “the human spaceflight programme of the US will come to an end for the indefinite future” – but the Russians and the Chinese are still sending people into space, and the Indians and the Europeans are working on it.
The multi-national African “peacekeeping” force that is fighting in Somalia grew dramatically in size, although that is no guarantee of success. Sudan split into two countries. And Nigeria faced a growing terrorist threat from the Islamist “Boko Haram” sect.
The race to become the Republican presidential candidate in the United States started as farce and went straight downhill, with each “anybody but Mitt Romney” contender less plausible than the one before. It resembled the old film “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines,” about a 1910 air race from London to Paris, in which a collection of extremely weird pilots in ramshackle biplanes and triplanes took turns being briefly in the lead and then crashed and burned. So Barack Obama will probably be back in 2012.
There were widespread riots in England in August, and the “Occupy” movement spread across the United States like measles (and went away almost as quickly). They were both really about the growing gap between the rich and the poor, but they had as little visible impact on how governments do business as anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare’s televised hunger strike in India.
India probably grew faster than China this year, though the final figures are not in – and India’s economy, unlike China’s, is not threatened by the biggest housing bubble in the history of the world. That race, if it really is a race, may have an unexpected result, though we will have to wait a couple of decades to know for sure.
Oh, and the world’s population reached the seven billion mark in 2011. It passed through one billion around 1800, and was still only 2 billion in 1940. Enough said.
I’m not going to suggest which paragraphs to cut if you want a shorter piece, because papers in different continents will have different interests. But any of the last eight paragraphs can be cut (except the very last) without affecting the flow of the piece. For deeper cuts, you could drop one of the three big chunks on non-violent revolutions, the euro crisis, or the climate, though that would require some editing work.
9 April 2011
The American Civil War: What If?
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s not much as anniversaries go, but most of us won’t be around in fifty years, so we’ll have to settle for the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War. The groups who re-enact Civil War battles will therefore be out in force on Tuesday, 12 April, but does it matter to anybody else?
Not much, I hear you cry. But it’s still an intriguing question: how different would the world be now if the South had succeeded in seceding from the United States?
As it happens, we have a half-million-word answer to that question: the series of eleven “alternate history” books that American novelist Harry Turtledove has written about a world in which the Confederate States of America successfully won its independence in 1863. It ends up in 1945 with death camps in the CSA and nuclear weapons on Philadelphia and Charleston, and it is fully plausible every step of the way.
Turtledove’s instincts as an historian are impeccable because he actually is an historian, with a PhD in Byzantine history. Nothing unlikely or inexplicable happens in his books. He just tweaks the outcome of one local conflict in the1860s – and the whole of modern history unfolds very differently, but entirely credibly.
The Confederacy gets its independence in 1863 by winning the Battle of Gettysburg (that could certainly have happened), whereupon Britain and France grant it diplomatic recognition (which probably would have happened). The rest of the former United States, still twice as numerous as the Confederacy, is very bitter about its defeat, but apart for one brief clash in the 1880s, the two successor countries live side by side in peace for fifty years.
It’s the geopolitics that causes the problems. The United States, hostile to Britain and France because their recognition of the Confederacy made the division of the country permanent, aligns itself with the rising new power in Europe, the German empire. As the alliances take shape in the early 20th century, it’s Germany, Austria-Hungary and the USA versus Britain, France, Russia and the CSA.
Turtledove has a nice touch with the fine detail of daily life in a changed history. Kaiser-Wilhelm-style mustaches are popular in the USA because of the German alliance. The linguistic change that happened after the real American Civil War, when Americans stopped saying “the United States are” and began to say “the United States is,” never happens in the alternate world.
American politics is different, too. The Republican Party, blamed as much as the despised Abraham Lincoln himself for losing the war, vanishes. Lincoln ends up in the Socialist Party, which eventually emerges as the main rival to the Democratic Party. But it is the wars that really change.
When the First World War finally arrives, it is fought in North America too, with trenches from tidewater Virginia to the Mississippi river, and another set of trenches dividing Canada, part of the British empire, from the northern US. The black former slaves of the Confederacy, freed by President Robert E. Lee in the 1880s but then left to rot, rise in a Communist-backed revolt in 1915 but are ruthlessly crushed.
The US army finally conquers Canada, and in 1917 its new “barrels” (tanks) break through the Confederate trenches in Kentucky and Virginia. A revolution (though not a Communist one) takes Russia out of the war, and the US navy begins to starve Britain, which depends on Atlantic convoys for its food. The USA and Germany win the war.
The victorious powers impose harsh peace terms on the losers – territorial losses, “war guilt” reparations, and disarmament – just like they did in the real history. So politics becomes radicalised in the defeated powers, Britain, France and the Confederacy, and fascist parties gain control in all of them. The demagogue who is voted into the presidency in the CSA is rather like Hitler in his rhetoric, though his hatred is aimed not at Jews but at blacks.
The Second World War arrives on schedule, and opens with a Confederate blitzkrieg in Ohio that almost cuts the United States in half. The weight of numbers begins to swing the balance the other way after a while, but even as Confederate armies retreat, the death camps run by the Freedom Party to exterminate the South’s blacks continue to run full blast.
Both sides are also racing for nuclear weapons, and some are used in the end – but Germany and the USA have more of them than Britain and the CSA, so the victors in the First World War win again. And this time, the Confederacy is fully occupied and formally abolished, though a genuinely reunited United States will clearly not come to pass for several generations, if ever.
There. Now you know the plot, and I just saved you a month of reading. But the point is this: it could have happened like that. Indeed, it is no more bizarre than what actually did happen. Turtledove has given us a plausible depiction of a world in which the Confederacy became an independent great power, and it is even less attractive than the world we know.
So it is an important anniversary after all, you see. Even though back in 1861, it could still have gone either way.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 8. (“Turtledove’s…credibly”, and “Turtledove…change”)
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.
13 April 2010
Opportunity at Katyn
By Gwynne Dyer
First, a tragedy that almost sinks beneath the weight of a huge historical coincidence. A plane carrying the political and military elite of today’s Polish society crashes, killing everybody aboard, while bringing them to Katyn forest to commemorate the murder of a previous generation of the same elite by Stalin’s secret police in 1940.
Then the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, whose early career was spent in a later, tamer version of that same secret police force, does something remarkable. He tells one of the main Russian TV channels to show Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 film “Katyn” in prime time. It’s more than an apology. It’s a national act of penance.
And after that, the speculation starts about whether this tragedy might be the way that the two great Slavic nations, Russians and Poles, are finally reconciled.
Poland’s historic tragedy was to be located between Germany and Russia. Twice the country vanished entirely, partitioned between its more powerful neighbours – and the enduring symbol of the latter partition is the Katyn massacre of 1940.
When Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland in 1939, dividing Poland between them, 22,000 Polish officers fell into the hands of the Soviet Union. Some were professional soldiers, but most were reserve officers who in civilian life had been lawyers, doctors, university professors: the country’s intellectual elite. Stalin had them all murdered in 1940, one at a time, by a bullet in the back of the head. That’s what happened in Katyn forest.
Stalin’s aim was to “decapitate” the Polish intelligentsia and make the absorption of eastern Poland into the Soviet Union easier, but Hitler betrayed and attacked his ally in 1941. When the invading German troops reached Katyn, they found the mass graves of the Polish officers and invited international observers to examine the site. That was when the Great Lie was launched.
Moscow insisted that it was the Germans, not the Russians, who had massacred the Polish officers. The US and British governments backed the Soviet story (though they suspected it was a lie), because Stalin was now their ally in the war against Hitler. Only after 1945 did they question it.
In the Soviet Union and Communist-ruled Poland, The Lie was the only permitted version of the story until 1989. Only in 1990 did Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, finally admit that the murders were done by the Soviet secret police, but the Russian public never really had their noses rubbed in the truth.
Whereas for Poles, Katyn is the central symbol of how the country was attacked by its neighbours and then betrayed by its allies. Since it was Russians who committed the actual crime, and Russian Communists who still kept Poland in semi-colonial subjection until 1989, Russians were seen as the worst enemy of all.
So the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre this month was a fraught event. Prime Minister Putin invited his Polish equivalent, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, to attend a memorial ceremony there, but President Lech Kaczynski was not invited. Tusk would settle for a vague expression of regret, whereas Kaczynski was an old-fashioned nationalist who wanted the Russians to apologise on their knees.
Tusk came, and Putin duly expressed his sorrow for the “victims of Stalinist terror,” but he didn’t even mention the word “Poles”. Great states never really apologise, you know. Kaczynski, enraged, basically invited himself to another ceremony three days later, and brought half of Poland’s political, military and journalistic elite with him.
Putin realised that something more was required, and showed up at Katyn again to meet him. When the news came through that Kaczynski’s plane had crashed, he looked utterly stricken. Finally, the grim reality of the place and the occasion got through to him.
Now the apology was real and specific. Now Wajda’s harrowing film on Katyn, previously only seen on a specialty channel, got a prime-time broadcast on Russian TV. Now Russians finally get why the Poles don’t trust them – and most of them have responded with regret, not denial.
The wave of sympathy in Russia for Poles past and present is genuine, and they can even feel it (with some astonishment) in Poland. These moments are rare, and they don’t last long. If you want to make the future different from the past, you have to act fast.
The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, has announced that he is going to Poland for President Kaczynski’s funeral. Before he goes, he should look at one photograph.
It was taken in 1984 on the First World War battlefield of Verdun, where a quarter-million French and German soldiers died in 1916. By 1984 France and Germany were in the European Union and NATO together, but after three wars in a hundred years they were still not really friends.
Then President Francois Mitterand of France and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany went there to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the First World War. Looking out over the killing fields torn up by forty million artillery shells, they did the only thing they could. They held hands – and Franco-German relations were changed for good.
If Medvedev can find a way to do something as simple but as powerful as that, he could turn the page and start a new chapter in Russian-Polish history. Right now, people are ready for that.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 14. (“In the Soviet…enemy of all”; and “The wave…fast”)
12 June 2000
The Wicked Poles
By Gwynne Dyer
In the old Soviet Union, the future was always certain; only the past was liable to change without notice. The signal that it had changed was often the publication of a pseudo-scholarly article that denounced the “Falsifications” of the existing version of history.
Here we go again. Last week Colonel Sergei Kovalev, the director of the scientific research department at the Institute of Military History, published an article on the website of the Russian Ministry of Defence entitled “Fictions and Falsifications in Evaluating the USSR’s Role On the Eve of the Second World War.” He says it was the Poles who started the war in 1939, not the Nazis.
The British and the French were to blame too, because earlier in 1939 they guaranteed Poland’s independence if it stood up to Hitler’s demands. That gave the Poles “delusions of grandeur,” unfortunately, and misled them into rebuffing Germany’s “very modest” requests.
Germany only made two demands to Warsaw in 1939. One was the return of Danzig, a German-speaking city that had been separated from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War. The other was a German road and rail corridor across the strip of territory (the “Polish Corridor”) that gave the Poles access to the Baltic Sea, but separated eastern Germany from the rest of the country.
Kovalev is right about one thing: Hitler’s demands were reasonable enough. By 1939 almost everybody agreed that the Versailles treaty had been wrong to blame the First World War on Germany, and that the five million Germans whose lands had been handed out to neighbouring countries under that treaty had been treated unfairly. But most historians also think that Hitler’s demands were just an opening bid.
The conventional wisdom is that Hitler was determined on world conquest from the start, and that if Poland had accepted his terms in 1939 it would just have faced further demands not much later. But the conventional historians may be wrong, for Hitler also offered Poland a secret alliance against the Soviet Union when he made his demands.
Poland’s military rulers rejected the whole package, trusting in the Anglo-French guarantee to protect them. From the day that the guarantee was issued in March, 1939, they refused even to discuss it with the Germans. That may have been a mistake, for when war came in September Britain and France were unable to help them militarily, and Poland was overrun in a month.
But this hardly explains why Kovalev blames Poland for causing the war, and why the Russian Ministry of Defence put his article on its website. The reason for that, most likely, lies with their need to rewrite the history of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
That was the secret agreement of August, 1939 in which Germany and the Soviet Union carved up eastern Europe between them. The Russians got eastern Poland, all of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and parts of Romania. The Finns fought back and managed to save most of their country, but all the rest succumbed.
This deal has always been hard for the Russians to defend, especially since the Nazis attacked them two years later anyway. They usually say they were just trying to win time, but Stalin clearly fooled himself into believing that he had a real deal with the Nazis. He was recovering almost all the lands that had won their freedom from the Russian empire after the First World War (and he wasn’t interested in the opinions of the residents).
The Soviet secret police killed or deported hundreds of thousands of “politically unreliable” people in the newly conquered territories.
(Twenty thousand Polish officers who had surrendered to the Russians were murdered in Katyn forest to decapitate any resistance movement.) So it’s not surprising that some people in the Baltic states welcomed German troops as liberators in 1941, and that very few people anywhere in Eastern Europe saw Red Army troops as liberators when they came back in 1944.
This has always infuriated the Russians, who see the Red Army as heroes and liberators. Col. Kovalev’s article blaming the Poles for the war was bound to appeal to Russian patriots just as much as it would appal Poles, Estonians, and all the other Eastern Europeans who had to live for decades under the Soviet yoke.
The Polish ambassador in Moscow protested and Kovalev’s article has now been removed from the Ministry of Defence’s website, but the broader trend in Russia is clearly to rewrite history in ways that rehabilitate the Soviet past. Indeed, last month Russian President Dmitri Medvedev ordered the creation of the Commission to Counteract the Falsification of History to the Detriment of Russian Interests.
That sounds slightly less weird in Russian, but not much. And there’s now legislation before the Duma (parliament) that would outlaw any portrayal of the Red Army as invaders EVEN ON THE TERRITORY OF FORMER SOVIET REPUBLICS. Of course, Moscow could not enforce that legislation without invading (sorry, liberating) them again, so it has little practical effect, but it is indicative of the mood in the country.
Russia isn’t planning to invade anybody, but it is feeling spectacularly touchy and grumpy at the moment. So far Medvedev (and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) are managing to ride the tiger, but if they fall off they could be eaten up in a flash.______________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Kovalev…demands”)