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Through a glass, darkly

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

[ by Emlyn Cameron — On North Korea: a retrospective as preemptive strike ]
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Charles Cameron’s introduction: Regular readers may know my son Emlyn from previous contributions on Zenpundit [1, 2]. Here he wages a war of miniturization on the Korean fiefdom of Kim Jong-Un.

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Snow falls on Kim Jong-Il‘s funeral cortege

Reflecting on the Nuclear staring contest now ongoing between the United States and North Korea, I confront mixed feelings: Obviously one must consider different strategies and engage in a pragmatic calculus; One must consider the pros and cons, the risks and rewards, and the numerous lives which might be ended or fail ever to be lived as a consequence of any policy. It is, I need not say, a very complex issue. Worse still, it is an issue of severe import to many whose lives hang in the balance.

But I find myself grappling with a less practical question and coming away irresolute: If North Korea’s brand of surreal statism could be overthrown without bloodshed or tragedy, how would I feel? Would I be proud? Pleased? Grateful? Somehow, I can’t convince myself that I would be entirely satisfied. I feel certain that any pride, pleasure, or gratitude would be alloyed with something else. And this in spite of my knowledge that such a coup would be, well, a coup, and of the welcome it would justifiably receive.

“The bloodless anticlimax to an Orwellian police state?” I hear the likely refrain, “Terrific!”

“A peaceful end to a regime which embraced not only Stalinist propagandism, but De Facto Monarchy? Still better!” The voices continue.

“And a conclusion to tantrums and ICBM rattle throwing? Who could hope for more?” Comes the triumphal call.

And yet, I am unconvinced in the recesses of my heart. That might be strange to many people, even a tad immoral, but it’s how things stand.

In order that such a stance might make more sense, I’ll admit that I have a strange affection for the turbulent little state and its Emperor’s New Jumpsuits. This probably extends from more general conflicted feelings about overt dictatorships: I am someone who deeply loves enlightenment philosophy, and cherishes my personal freedoms. I am, all the same, a morbid person, prone to fatalism, and I harbor dark anticipations about the future of humanity. Somewhere in the middle I developed a great relish for bleak wit. For these reasons, it should come as no shock that I am a great admirer of George Orwell and a fan of his writings. Perhaps like others who count themselves among his readers, I find myself emotionally torn while reading Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm; The dystopias he presents disturb me, and yet, (in spite of my philosophical leanings) a small part of me is always tugged at by a desire to relinquish the struggle of self determination, and to escape the paradox of choice by giving in to such an oppression. The terrible certainties, even of state assigned conclusions and death, speak to some tired part in me, which recognizes strain from the ongoing alertness required of anyone who wants to be the arbiter of their own affairs.

North Korea, likewise, is a natural antagonist to the individualism I hold dear, but, perhaps because of its total conviction and flagrance in opposing my worldview, I am captivated by its iconography and insular existence. I have always been fascinated by the ludicrous spectacle, the stark imagery, and the total devotion of totalitarian nations, though I revile their premises. Having one around, therefore, leaves me in rather a strange position: I desire the grip of the North Korean state on its people broken as a matter of principle, while simultaneously fearing the death of a kind of dangerous endangered species; I am struck by the feeling that the end of the North Korean state would be a victory for my values, and the loss of one of the world’s great curiosities.

A friend recently called North Korea “an Eighth Wonder of the World”, and I agree. It is a tragic wonder, dangerous rather than glorious, but a wonder none the less.

My grandfather, a conservative philosopher, referred to himself as a “sentimental monarchist”. If a peaceful end came to the militaristic regime in North Korea, my relief would be tinged with a similar kind of sentimental loss; Something interesting would be gone, and I would feel a nostalgic pang for the missing strangeness. I fancy that I would rather keep the aggressive little power, not on a map, but on a shelf. I should like to keep it in a snow globe, I think (the state already more or less frozen as it is).

I’d like a little magnified globe, not unlike the coral paperweight in Orwell’s book, in which would be held the repressive slice of 1950’s authoritarianism: Marches and missiles behind safety glass. Occasionally, on a quiet night, I might chance to hear a soft, televised threat to my safety, or a report on bountiful rations; If I felt a stab of longing for the atmosphere of suspended aggression from my parents and grand parents age, I could go to the mantle and wind the little state up by hand (rather than by tweet) and hear a tinkling anthem that takes me back; I’d like to visit the trinket now and again and watch snow fallout from a nuclear winter after I shake it, or watch tiny jackboots and smiling, slightly condescending diplomats go about their days work. Maybe the mandatorily grateful workers would even build a cardboard city for my benefit, to give an impression of plenty. And once I had seen the last settling flakes fall, I would place it back above the fire place with a feeling of having harmlessly revisited my childhood, glad of a souvenir to solidify the bittersweet memory. After all, a snow globe can cast nothing else from the mantle to the floor, nor launch beyond its translucent border.

Then again, just because I’d have the terror held safely under glass, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t continue in earnest within.

Nationality is no object, money talks

Saturday, May 13th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — whether Russian or Chinese, European or American, the wealthiest are, d’oh, world citizens ]
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Arrangements have been made..

What’s fairly interesting here is the role the purchase of real estate plays in moving indivudals to where their money would like to go.

Sources:

  • Bloomberg, EU Passports for Sale in Sunny Cyprus Lure Rich Russians’ Cash
  • WaPo, PoliticsChina pitch by Kushner sister renews controversy over visa program
  • Ideal vs Real at State

    Friday, May 5th, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? ]
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    Sources:

  • Lowy Interpreter, Trump’s telephone diplomacy accelerates Southeast Asia’s slide
  • AP, Tillerson calls for balancing US security interests, values
  • The quote in brackets at the head of this post, totally impractical as a guide to realpolitik, is from the Gospel according to St Matthew 16.26.

    Onward, Christian Soldiers

    Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — as sung by FDR and Winston Churchill in August of 1941 ]
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    It seems only appropriate first to bring you the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers as performed by the Manchester Citadel Band and Yorkshire Chorus of the Salvation Army — Christan Soldiers and Salvation Army both having meaning that blends the military with the religious:

    As regular readers here will know, the disjunction and conjunction of the spiritual and military is a central focus of my thoughts and posts here on Zenpundit.

    **

    It may seem entirely trivial in comparison with the stunning footage that follows, but the article that brought me to think once again of the military-religious nexus was a piece from Russia’s Pravmir today, titled Bishop of the Russian Church compares Russia airbase in Syria to a monastery:

    “The situation is interesting in spiritual sense, it reminds of a big convent without Internet, television and almost without a telephone. All servicemen are involved in sport activities, they have a great demand in reading,” the hierarch said in his interview with the Pobeda radio.

    The bishop noted that the servicemen participated in pastoral conversations with great interest.

    “This informational blockade helps them refresh their conscience, in result they have a demand to talk about important spiritual moments. It impressed me much,” he confessed.

    The church official said he saw “an absolutely new face of our military forces there.”

    “Not only weapons and outfit, but their new way of thinking impressed me. It was seen in their discipline, in organization of service, which we witnessed during the week. It differed so much from all the things I saw before that I sincerely rejoiced,” the bishop said.

    That’s worth pondering, you know, as we think about Putin‘s Russia and current events in Syria..

    **

    The near-pacifist son of a World War II naval war hero in me was intrigued enough to go searching for Onward Christian Soldiers as a musical match for this article, and it was in search of an appropriate rendering of the hymn that I ran across the FDR / Churchill footage.

    I am profoundly glad it did.

    In my view today, the most riveting rendering of Onward Christian Soldiers must be the one captured on archival footage here, with Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt present on the Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales in August 1941:

    The other hymn sung in that clip is the quintessential naval hymn, Eternal Father, Strong to Save with its refrain, O hear us when we call to Thee / For those in peril on the sea..

    Strategy and Prometheus Unbound

    Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

    [Mark Safranski / “zen“]

    Senior Counselor to the President and Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon

    Steve Bannon has been very much in the news lately, as one might expect of a former Breitbart editor turned closest adviser to the President of the United States. Much of this has been political fare by friends and foes (ok, mostly foes). We have read debates about his ideological worldview, the exact nature of Bannon’s (and Breitbart’s)  ties to the sinister Alt-Right, his rank in the White House pecking order, Bannon’s vision of realignment of American politics, populism, ethnonationalism, executive orders, the books he reads and so on. Charles has already weighed in here but I am not delving into these things today.

    Less attention, though usually also accompanied by outrage, have been stories on foreign policy and national security. Nevertheless, the media gave wide play to Bannon’s comments about potential war with China, possible civilizational partnership with Putin’s Russia and most notably, Bannon being given a permanent invitation to meetings of the Principal’s Committee of the National Security Council. Most Democrats and many national security professionals believed Bannon, as a political adviser,  had no business being seated on the NSC by historical standards. While this is true, it is not a very credible argument in light of the previous administration’s decision to make a mere campaign speechwriter with no prior experience an unusually powerful Deputy National Security Adviser.

    I think the criticisms based on customary protocol arguments miss the mark by a country mile.

    We are all familiar with the ancient Greek myth of the Titan Prometheus. It was Prometheus, whose name meant “forethought”, who defied the gods to give Man the gift of fire – a gift that unleashed the immense creative powers of mankind. For this affront to the gods’ authority, Prometheus was severely punished. Zeus binds Prometheus to Mount Caucasus where an eagle tears out his liver each day. A torment Prometheus endures for ages until the coming of Hercules.

    Strategy in American national security is much like Prometheus. Potentially useful as a creative force, sometimes employed like the gift of fire as a useful tool in a small way, most often inert, bound immobile to the rock of policy as politics savagely tears out the liver of anyone posing a strategy that might prevent a foreign policy crisis from becoming a debacle. The truth is that the gods, or in this case the established political class, much prefer a predictable and orderly debacle under their stewardship than a messy win for America with unpredictable second and third order effects.

    In fairness, most of the time, stability while accruing small losses is preferable for a global hegemonic power like the United States to disruptively embarking upon large risks to its position in order to win small gains. So long as the international system is strategically designed to sustain hegemony, occasional losses can be a cost of doing business until the system or parts of it no longer appear to be working. Or until political support wanes at home.

    The objection to Bannon (aside from his politics) is that a domestic political strategist should not be involved in the NSC. David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett were not. Karl Rove wasn’t.  James Carville, Lee Atwater and innumerable other key political White House staffers never sat on the NSC. However, I don’t think Steve Bannon was invited to attend NSC Principal Committee meetings in that role. Nor was he “replacing” the DNI or CIA Director or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were not “replaced” but as customary bureaucratic constraints on policy formulation they were intentionally removed.

    I think Steve Bannon – whose prior professional efforts at a high level were all about creating and articulating a vision – is really the Trump administration’s grand strategist.

    And he’s unbound.

     

     


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