Friday, April 26, 2013

The American crisis

   One of the greatest accounts of the last Atlantic crisis, or fourth turning, are the first two volumes of the diaries of Harold Nicolson, covering the years 1931-9 and 1939-45, respectively.  They were brilliantly edited and published by his son Nigel in the late 1960s and I have returned to them many times. Nicolson, like his father, was a leading figure in the British Foreign Office who left his position in 1931, when he was still in his forties.  Ironically, he did so for the reason so often cited by disgraced American officials today: to spend more time with his family.  His family by then was of a somewhat unusual kind, since he and his wife, the author Vita Sackville-West, had after the birth of their two sons both turned to homosexuality, but they were intensely devoted to one another emotionally all the same.  Until her death in the early 1960s she lived at their country house, Sissinghurst, while he worked in London as a journalist and, from 1935 through 1945, as a member of Parliament.  Meanwhile, he kept a diary filled with inside political news and gossip.

Some of the most depressing entries in the diary refer, oddly, to the winter of 1939-40, the phoney war.  Nicolson had opposed appeasement and welcomed, in a sense, the coming of the war, but in those months he felt nothing around him but paralysis and drift.  The Chamberlain government had no idea either how to mobilize the nation or win the war.  Then came the utter disaster of the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, something which, according to British naval traditions, should have been absolutely impossible.  (Air power had rendered those traditions obsolete.)  And then, coinciding with the last stages of the Norway campaign, came the German invasion of Belgium, Holland, and France, and the fall of the Chamberlain government and the advent of Winston Churchill.  At that point, as often happens in politics and life, Nicolson's mood and that of his country shifted. Like nearly everyone else the world over, he and Sackville-West anticipated a German invasion that summer, and they prepared to commit suicide rather than be captured if it occurred.  But they and their countrymen were calm and determined, and inspired by Churchill's rhetoric.

My mood today, alas, corresponds more to Nicolson's mood in that fateful winter of 1939-40.  (My new book, now with my editor, takes up the very different story of how the United States reacted beginning in the same critical month of May 1940.)  The reaction to the events of the last week, combined with various news stories, suggest to me that our political system is very close to an all-time low.  Worse, we seem to be utterly incapable of uniting to meet any of our problems.  They are certainly far less serious than those Britain and the US faced in 1940, but they are still eating away at us like a cancer.

My initial prediction about the terror attack in Boston was largely borne out.  The attackers, like Faisal Shazad, Muslim immigrants. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, at least, was inspired by Jihadist videos, and he may, like Shahzad, have received some overseas training.  He may also have been a murderer at heart.  Although it has not yet been widely reported, there is reason to believe that he and his brother may be the culprits in an unsolved triple homicide in Waltham--next door to Watertown--on September 11, 2011.  Tarmlan knew at least one of the victims, who were young men from the workout culture of which he was a part.

Of the details about Tamerlan, the warnings the Russian government gave us about him, and the responses of the FBI and CIA to them, the detail that jumped out at me was this: the watch list onto which he was placed has over half a million names on it, and he was routinely dropped after a year.  Bingo.  In the frenetic atmosphere of the last dozen years, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the CIA have not managed to develop a sensible strategy to deal with the threats we face.  Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but there are NOT half a million potential violent foreign terrorist in the United States.  I would guess that there are somewhere between 5,000 and 50,000.  But because the criteria for inclusion are clearly absurdly broad, the list is useless.  We do not have the resources to track or investigate half a million people.  If we focused on people who had returned to hotbeds of terrorism and returned, we would have a much better chance of identifying the next Faisal Shazad of Tarmlan Tsarnaev.

Equally depressing, however, is the response to the event nationally.  The authorities did a great job of studying video and identifying the criminals visually within 72 hours.   Friends of the two men filled in the blank.  The biggest hero of the story so far was the Cambridge citizen who was carjacked and had the courage to flee across Memorial Drive in Cambridge after Tamerlan had identified himself as the bomber and threatened him with a gun.  Whether fortuitously or by design, he left his cell phone in his vehicle, and that was what brought the police within range of the two brothers in Watertown within a very short time.  The second hero (see above) was my Watertown neighbor who noticed that the shrink wrap on his boat was amiss and followed Freud's rule of dream interpretation: the detail that doesn't make any sense is the one you have to focus on.

But in the wider world, all I can see is politicized shrieks from both the right and left.  Ann Coulter devotes an entire column to the immgrants who have committed multiple murders in this country.  Limbaugh (see above) cries out that this proves the Obama Administration doesn't take terrorism seriously.  But I have also encountered numerous left-wing voices complaining about the further encroachment of the police state, exemplified, would you believe, by the order to residents of Watertown and surrounding towns to keep inside their homes last Friday.   May I suggest to these self-styled protectors of our rights that when a human mad dog is on the loose, some one who has shown a willingness to kill literally anyone simply for the sake of killing, this order was the only sensible one to give.  The Founding Fathers understood that emergency circumstances might require emergency measures, and they wrote at least one of them into the Constitution.  But my contemporaries in particular are convinced that, for example, since the government wrongly interned Japanese-Americans during the Second World War, any exercise of government power is oppressive. They or their children are eventually going to have to learn the hard way the lesson the founders learned between Yorktown and the meeting of the Constitutional Convention: that too little government can be just as fatal to liberty as too much.  They are the unwitting allies of the Tea Party, both out to destroy any remaining civic authority.

And meanwhile, what passes for civic authority is collaborating in its own destruction.  Another blockbuster story runs in today's New York Times. The author, Sharon LaFraniere--who deserves a Pulitzer for it--explains how in 1997 some black farmers sued the Department of Agriculture for discriminating against their credit applications.  The individuals who brought the suit had a strong case, and the Clinton Administration decided not to fight it.  But they went much further, establishing a billion-dollar program to compensate any claimed victims of such discrimination--whether they could provide any evidence of having been deprived of a loan or not.  This predictably led to an avalanche of claims, many of them obviously fraudulent.  This is so typical of Boomer reformism that it brings tears of rage to my eyes.  When the GI generation, black and white, became concerned with racial injustice, they went into the courts, made their case, and secured their rights.  But the Boomers were so convinced of the righteousness of reparation that they could not be bothered to let the legal system--developed over hundreds of years here and in Britain--ascertain the true rights and wrongs.  The results will undermine public confidence in the system still further.

Here are some of the key paragraphs of the article:

"In 16 ZIP codes in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and North Carolina, the number of successful claimants exceeded the total number of farms operated by people of any race in 1997, the year the lawsuit was filed. Those applicants received nearly $100 million.
"In Maple Hill, a struggling town in southeastern North Carolina, the number of people paid was nearly four times the total number of farms. More than one in nine African-American adults there received checks. In Little Rock, Ark., a confidential list of payments shows, 10 members of one extended family collected a total of $500,000, and dozens of other successful claimants shared addresses, phone numbers or close family connections.
"Thirty percent of all payments, totaling $290 million, went to predominantly urban counties — a phenomenon that supporters of the settlement say reflects black farmers’ migration during the 15 years covered by the lawsuit. Only 11 percent, or $107 million, went to what the Agriculture Department classifies as “completely rural” counties.
"A fraud hot line to the Agriculture Department’s inspector general rang off the hook. The office referred 503 cases involving 2,089 individuals to the F.B.I.
"The F.B.I. opened 60 criminal investigations, a spokesman said, but prosecutors abandoned all but a few for reasons including a lack of evidence or proof of criminal intent. Former federal officials said the bar for a successful claim was so low that it was almost impossible to show criminality."

But  the process did not stop there.  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seems to be auditioning for a university presidency.  He, or people working for him, became convinced that the Department's credit bureau must have discriminated not only against black farmers, but against Hispanic, "Native American" and female farmers as well.  (These groups had filed parallel suits after the original 1997 court decision.)  Or--as an interdepartmental memo actually stated--he became concerned that the department would be accused of favoring black farmers over Hispanic, "Native American" and female farmers.  It is not clear why the feelings of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender farmers did not concern him--perhaps they are being saved for later.  Even as I speak perhaps some intrepid lawyer is preparing a suit on their behalf.  The Indian case, the article explains, was extremely weak, and the Agriculture Department would probably have been able to prove that it had not discriminated in granting loans to Indians. But instead it agreed to a settlement that gives $300 million to Indian farmers and an additional $400 million to Indian nonprofit organizations--and more than $100 million to the lawyers who brought the case. Vilsack says these steps usher in “a new chapter of civil rights at U.S.D.A.,” where “we celebrate diversity instead of discriminate against it.”

The cases of Hispanics and women are so few and so weak that no court had blessed them at all.  Only 10 women and 81 Hipanic farmers had filed claims.  But the Agriculture Department under the current Administration has, literally, solicited further claims from these groups.  "So far," writes LaFraniere, "about 1,900 Hispanics and 24,000 women have sought compensation, many in states where middlemen have built a cottage industry, promising to help win payouts for a fee."  Secretary Vilsack agreed to give it to them.

Before summing up, I would like also to note that Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, whose salary is paid out of my pocket and yours, responded to the story in the same way the Koch brothers would have:  he refused to give Sharon LaFraniere an interview.  Clearly, however, he does not seem to be suffering from an overdose of shame.

It is ironic that, less than 24 hours after posting that Rush Limbaugh had fabricated a story for political reasons, I have written a very different post--indeed, Rush will undoubtedly be reading another version of this story on the air himself within a very short time. (Drudge doesn't have it yet, but it will.)  But, that's me.  I'm doing my own small bit for my nation.  In fact, I've realized something rather profound in the last couple of days: one reason I believe so deeply in truth is that it's the only basis, ultimately, upon which a necessary minimum of national unity can be preserved.  We are in terrible trouble because both the right and left believe in their own reality, each of which excludes the other.  If I can't take on my own side, I become, to use a phrase from my youth, part of the problem, and I'm not going to do that.  I'm flabbergasted that it never occurred to Vilsack, a former Governor from a swing state, that he is handing the Republican Party a free gift of true propaganda.  He's not only hurting his country, he's hurting his party.

One of my regular readers here is a southern businessman whom I know only from cyberspace. (He will identify himself at once.)  I would describe him as a moderate Republican.  We rarely agree, but we have a lot of mutual respect.  He frequently kids me about getting too much of my news from the New York Times.  I hope that when he reads this, he will follow the link, read the whole story, and ponder that the Times hired the reporter, devoted the resources, and saved the space to get it into print--as it certainly was fit to be.






Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Limbaugh versus the truth

   I want to be the first person to break this story.

   I do not listen to Rush Limbaugh but I check his transcripts from time to time.  On Tuesday, I found this:

   "We all owe a debt to a smoker.  A guy in his house wanted to smoke a cigarette.  His wife would not let him smoke the cigarette inside.  So he went out in the backyard, and while he was smoking his cigarette he's looking at his boat.  And he said, "There's something strange about that boat."  Something didn't look right.  It was his boat, so he climbed up on his boat while he's out in the backyard smoking a cigarette, he unzips the protective winter cover that he has on his boat, and he sees the bleeding, half conscious Boston Marathon Muslim bomber.  Remember that old saying, for the want of a nail the kingdom was lost, something like that?
"This guy wants a cigarette.  We hate cigarettes.  We hate smokers.  But, if not for this guy being a smoker, if not for this guy being forced to the backyard to smoke his cigarette, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev might still be in that boat bleeding out. He might not have been caught if it hadn't been for that smoker.  Now, we don't know because the guy did get caught, and it's all downhill from there.  I just wanted to let everybody know.  "Mr. Limbaugh, you really enjoy this, don't you?  You know that everybody hates smoking and you like smoking and so you just had to --" I'm just pointing out what happened.  I'm happy the guy smoked.  Smokers do a lot of good in this country, and they're a maligned group and I just wanted to single this guy out."

Great story, right? There's just one problem. There isn't a word of truth in it.  Here is the interview David Hennebery, the man in question, gave to WCVB Channel 5 in Boston.  Since he's a neighbor of mine--we haven't met, but I live a little over two blocks away--I feel strongly.  Excerpts:

   




WATERTOWN, Mass. —David Henneberry calls himself an "incidental hero."             
The Watertown man, who found Boston Marathon bomb suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding in a boat in his backyard ending a week of terror for the region, told NewsCenter 5's Ed Harding exclusively that his one hope is to bring closure to the families of those killed and those who were wounded.

"I'm just glad," Henneberry said as he struggled to control his emotions. "I hate to use clich├ęs.  If people who were killed can get some (comfort), then I am at peace with it.  If I help these people that lost people, if I can help them in their mind, then everything is good with me here."
View a slideshow of the bombing victims | View a slideshow of Henneberry's storyHenneberry's first-person account of his discovery of Tsarnaev, 19, differs in one important way from that told by law enforcement the night of the arrest.
 It was a discovery driven by his obsession with, of all things, the shrink wrap on the boat he calls his "baby," the Slip Away II.
Like all Watertown residents, Henneberry stayed in his Franklin Street home as the hunt for Tsarnaev paralyzed much of eastern Massachusetts on Friday.  When he looked out the window at his boat at one point during the day, he noticed something was amiss.
"I put pads between the shrink wrap, and it stopped the chaffing and two of those had fallen down to the ground.  It was really windy, so I didn't think twice about it," he said.
When the "shelter-in-place" order was lifted just after 6 p.m., Henneberry said he went outside.

"Go out and get some air. I am just going to put the pads back. They were bugging me all day.  So I went out in the yard and felt the freedom that everyone is Watertown was feeling. When I pulled the strap, it was a lot looser than it usually is.  But again, the wind could have loosened things up," he said.
Despite official accounts that he saw blood on the outside of the boat, Henneberry said that is not true.
 "No indication of anything.  I know people say I saw blood on the boat, 'He saw blood on the boat.'  Not true," he said.
"I said OK, everything is fine.  There are no visible signs of blood outside the boat.  I went inside," he said.
But something was nagging at him and his obsession with his boat soon had him taking another walk into the yard. This time, he put a ladder up to the side of the boat to take a closer look.
"I got three steps up the ladder and rolled the shrink wrap.  I didn't expect to see anything, but I saw blood on the floor of the boat.  A good amount of blood," he said.
"And I said 'Wow, did I cut myself last time?' I thought.  I was in the boat a couple of weeks ago.  Then I just look over there, and there is more blood," he said.
Then he saw Tsarnaev. [End of interview excerpts.]

That's it, Rush. Would you care to identify your source? Would you care to apologize?  Would you care to give your readers a better idea of how seriously they should take what you say by owning up?  Or is making things up just part of "having more fun than anyone ought to be allowed to have," as you so charmingly put it?




Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Boston bombs

I have been travelling for the past three days. This post was drafted last Thursday morning, before the shootout and the arrests.  As it turns out, my instincts were more right than wrong.  While evidence is emerging that the bombers were also inspired by jihadis overseas, they evidently were not part of an organized group.  Had they been, I think they would have fled the country at once.  The last paragraph also seems to have been unduly alarmist, since Pakistan is not involved and the Russian government was more concerned with the two suspects--or at least one of them--than our own was.  See the other new post from this weekend, below.

Three people are dead, and dozens are injured. One can only tentatively speculate before more hard information is available, but I"m afraid this is the beginning of a new and dangerous phase in our war with radical Islam. I do not intend what follows to be inflammatory, and it may be proven wrong at any moment. It is my best estimate of the situation and as such, I am willing to post it now.
It was almost three years ago that Faizal Shazad, a Pakistani-American, tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square. He had previously traveled to Pakistan, where he had received bomb-making training that turned out, luckily, to be inadequate. His car bomb did not go off and he was quickly apprehended. He is now serving a life sentence. I was concerned at the time that other similar attempts would take place, and that sooner or later one of them would be successful. I am afraid that that has now happened in my adopted city.
No, I have no real knowledge of who did it, but I suspect a plot inspired, at least, by events in the Muslim world, even if the perpetrator(s) turn out to be US citizens. FBI agents are now analyzing the design and composition of the two bombs. The attempt was more sophisticated than the Times Square bombing in several respects. First, this time the bombers managed to detonate two bombs almost simultaneously. (They may have intended a larger delay--it has been a frequent tactic in Iraq to detonate two bombs in sequence, the second one designed to explode after responders have arrived.) And critically, this time they did not use a vehicle, which will make them much harder to identify. As I write, it is now more than 48 hours after the bombing and no one, reportedly, is in custody. By that time, Shazad, had he not been detected, would have been in Pakistan again.
I am quite disturbed by the target because I have been worrying about such a bomb for years. The crowds on the street after a major sporting event make for an ideal target, and in some circumstances a suicide truck bomber could easily kill hundreds of people as they left a stadium. In this case the bombs were apparently planted, and perhaps a surveillance camera photographed the key moment. That will not however guarantee identifying the attackers.
What if these attackers also turn out to have trained in Pakistan? What if a group declares that they have retaliated for drone strikes--what then? Are we, like the Israelis ten years ago, to enter an endless cycle of terror and retaliation? They have practiced targeted killing fof years, but without much result. The border fence seems to have protected them well, but we cannot rely upon anything similar. Fortunately very few American Muslims have turned to terror, although one who did, Nidal Hassan, killed many more people than the bombs in Copley Square.
The late Margaret Thatcher had to cope with IRA bombings. In that she kept her head. Let us hope that we can do the same.

Update--review of 42

   As some of you know, my permanent home is now in Watertown, Massachusetts.  Both my wife and I are far away from the scene this weekend, however.

    This week's post, a review of the film 42, can be read here.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Bowdoin Affair

Just ten days ago, the National Association of Scholars, which figured in a post here a couple of weeks ago, released a long report on the curriculum of Bowdoin College, in Maine, one of the leading 30 or so liberal arts colleges in the country. (Some will remember that it was one of the schools Tony Soprano visited with his daughter Meadow in a pivotal episode of the first season of the show that bore their name.) The report has ignited a remarkable firestorm, and googling Bowdoin and NAS returns 117,000 hits as of this morning. The Bowdoin campus, of course, is all agog over it, and I am reliably informed that the Williams campus, where I'm teaching right now, is too, partly because the study was funded by a Williams alumnus. Both Rush Limbaugh and the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal have weighed in, and many more media outlets will undoubtedly do so. The NAS chose to release a draft report, which you can find here. It is very long, too long for me to read it and give it a full evaluation, much less proceed to some of the fascinating comments by Bowdoin sutdents that I discovered yesterday. I am going to confine myself to a few general comments about the trends it reveals, and emphasize my own rather individual view of their political effects.

The picture of the humanities shows Bowdoin in my my opinion to be very much affected by the academic trends of the last thirty years, somewhat more so than our leading universities, where students on the whole show a more practical bent. Even at Bowdoin, however, majors like government and economics are much more popular, evidently, than history or literature. The humanities, as the report documents at length, are increasingly dominated by the study of those racial, geographical, gender and sexual groups who have fallen outside the mainstream of the development of western civilization. That is a big reason why, in my opinion, the enrollment in the Humanities has been shrinking all over the nation. When I taught in the Harvard history department, I distincly recollect that we had between 150 and 200 majors a year. In the latest year for which data are available there are 55. Meanwhile, the total number of history faculty has increased. Eventually, for reasons I shall come to, some one is going to notice that, and it will be a bad day for humanities departments.

I will be delighted if readers are moved to read the report themselves and comment on it. (There don't seem to be many professional academics among my readers--or perhaps they would rather not reveal themselves in comments.) What I am going to emphasize is the political aspects of the report, and especially of the reaction to it. The NAS has in my opinion undergone an unfortunate evolution in the twenty years since I joined. The original membership was made up of academic traditionalists who believed in research, the careful accumulation and analysis of evidence, and the presentation of unvarnished conclusions. It ranged from neoconservatives like Donald Kagan of Yale to Eugene Genovese, perhaps the most distinguished Marxist historian that the United States has ever produced, and it included a few New Dealers like myself. The membership has been shrinking because it was always relatively old. Young scholars undoubtedly got the message back in the 1990s when Stanley Fish, now of the University of Chicago, declared that no member of the NAS should be allowed to serve on a hiring or promotion committee. But it has also swung wildly to the right. The leadership has become quite favorable to religion, which has to say the least a complicated relationship to the kind of free inquiry modern universities were designed to encourage, and it is waging a campaign against the "sustainability" movement that has indeed become very powerful on campus. The report complains, largely accurately I suspect, that Bowdoin's students are more likely to hear highly critical views of western civilization that positive ones, and implies, as does much of the commentary about it, that the faculty is participating in a political movement designed to change the world in a left wing direction. That, I think, is a profound, and critical, misunderstanding.

Undoubtedly a large proportion of the humanities faculty does believe that western society is inherently patriarchal, racist, and heterosexist, but they really have no serious ambitions regarding the future of the outside world. To a remarkable extent--and this also comes out in the report--the contemporary liberal arts college sees itself as a self-contained world ruled by values of tolerance, diversity, and mutual support that it does not expect the rest of the world to hold to the same degree. The administrative staffs of those colleges, which now includes assistant deans dedicated to the presumed needs of students who can be distinguished from heterosexual white males, plays a bigger role in this process than the faculty. A single graffito including a racial or sexual slur can easily call forth at least a week of anguished meetings designed to restore the morale of the supposedly traumatized student body.

But the larger question is: what actual impact is all this having on our political life?--and there I have absolutely no doubt. It isn't helping the left at all--it is helping the right, because the philosophies behind the modern humanities make a disastrous basis for any kind of meaningful liberal or left-wing politics. Indeed, the great irony, as Camille Paglia suggested twenty years ago in her aptly named essay, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders," is that today's left wing academics are, in their own way, fully in the mainstream of American society, since they care only about themselves.

The great political changes of the twentieth century took place within the Rankean vision of the state and society that I discussed here a few months ago. Ranke, the founder of modern history, regarded the state as it emerged from early modern Europe as the embodiment of the values of society, and the mechanism through which citizens became part of something larger. While that idea of the state originally emerged from its role as the organizer of warfare, it became something else altogether during the twentieth century under the stewardship of leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, Clement Attlee in Britain, Charles de Gaulle in France, and Konrad Adenauer in West Germany, as well as many of their successors. The state became the mechanism for realizing a certain measure of economic justice, for planning the national economy, and for securing the needs of the people that the market failed to meet. And even though these tasks were performed, with rare exceptions, by white males, there was nothing about the tasks themselves or their objectives that had anything to do with race, gender, or sexual preference. Indeed, only the extraordinary success of the mid-twentieth century state in dealing with these problems--as well as the problems posed by the emergence of totalitarian states--allowed large parts of the population to start focusing on issues of race, gender, and sexual preference.

The changes in the humanities in the last forty years began largely in reaction to the Vietnam war, which was a betrayal of the nation by the state, albeit one of the kind which every state is likely to commit from time to time because of human nature. And those changes have all been designed to destroy the idea of a unified national community in favor of an idea of diversity. They have taught that states inevitably serve the interests of dominant groups. Many of the ideas of the new humanities implicitly give up on the idea of justice, since they revolve around images of eternally oppressed nonwhitemales. And that is why so many liberal young people emerge from our colleges and universities without any idea of how a renewed national community might solve our huge and growing economic problems. They know they favor gay marriage--as I do too--and they know the women among them will do just as well on the job market, such as it is, as the men, but economically and politically they are floudering in a world they do not understand. And that can only benefit, hugely, the well-organized and well-funded political groups on the right, who also reject the idea of a meaningful national community in favor of an every man (or woman) for himself jungle, a laboratory of social Darwinism. The left has been unwittingly collaborating in its own political eclipse.

In the last two presidential elections the Democratic Party has prevailed largely by appealing to women, minorities, and gays. It enjoys the overwhelming support of the young people who have gone through the current educational mill. But I wonder whether identity politics will hold that coalition together if the economy does not improve. In any case, that coalition has not been able to make a serious attack on inequality or the structural weaknesses of our economy. We no longer have much of an idea of how to do so. That--not political correctness--is the biggest failure of modern colleges and universities.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

2013 and 1941

I am not an authority on Asia and have never studied any Asian language. I am however something of an authority on the history of international politics and I am just finishing a book dealing with, among other things, the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941. The events taking place on the Korean peninsula are quite reminiscent, in certain respects, of the events of the second half of that earlier fateful year, and developments in the last week have left me with only two possible conclusions. On the one hand, I think there is a genuine possibility of around 50% that war will break out in the Korean peninsula within somewhere between a few days and a few weeks. If it does it will probably not last long, but it could easily trigger conflicts in other parts of the world. On the other hand, if it does not, we have entered into a new era of postmodern international politics among states, one that is likely to cause extreme instability.

In an attempt to begin at the beginning, I shall go back to Japanese policy during the 1930s, which culminated in the Japanese attack on the US and Britain on December 8 (Tokyo time) 1941. When the United States opened sustained western contact with the Japanese in the 1850s, Japan faced a choice. The government that took power after the Meiji restoration of 1867 decided on the one hand to integrate western models with Japanese traditions, gradually creating a popular democracy and drawing upon European military and naval expertise to modernize its forces, but on the other hand to avoid a direct confrontation with the much stronger western powers. In 1895, after winning a war against China, Tokyo allowed a coalition of Russia, Germany and France to force it to give up many of its gains. The Japanese government then concluded an alliance with the British and carefully prepared their next war, against Russia (whose own imperialism in Korea did much to trigger the conflict), which ended by establishing the Japanese firmly on the Asian mainland in Manchuria and Korea. When the First World War broke out the Japanese insisted on implementing their alliance with the British, declared war on Germany, and occupied some German island possessions in the southwest Pacific, as well as the German sphere of influence in Shantung province in China. But after the war they once again allowed the United States and the other western powers to insist upon their withdrawal from China. They also accepted limitations on the size and number of their battleships in the Washington Treaties of 1922 and committed themselves to maintain the territorial integrity of China.

Younger officers in the Japanese Army played a critical role in turning Tokyo away from this path, starting the occupation and annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the much larger war against China in 1937. By the late thirties a consensus had emerged among most of the Japanese leadership that Tokyo had to assume a dominant role in Asia and exclude the influence of the western powers, including the US (which still ruled the Philippines), the British (who ruled Malaya and Burma), the Dutch (rulers of what is now Indonesia), and the French, who controlled Indochina. When the European War broke out in 1939 and the Germans scored impressive victories over Holland and France in 1940--and seemed to be on the point of doing the same to the British--the Japanese decided that their moment had come. In the summer of 1940 their government decided on a "southward advance" into Indochina, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. In July 1941, after the world crisis escalated yet again when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union--whose Far Eastern territories the Japanese also coveted--the Cabinet decided to pursue the southern advance even at the risk of war with the United States and Britain. Two months later they scheduled the war for the first week of December. Their goal, which Japanese leaders stated in public again and again, was to make Japan the arbiter of the destinies of East Asia, excluding the influence of the west. And what is both striking and chilling, reading the historical record, is how hard it was for many westerners, from Winston Churchill to several key officials in Washington to believe that the Japanese were serious. Both Churchill and a few Americans--although not, I am now convinced, President Roosevelt--thought that stationing some western warships in the Far East would suffice to deter the Japanese, whereas in fact it both enraged them and provided them with targets of opportunity. For a year the Japanese were spectacularly successful, and for another year--1943--they pretty much held their own. In 1944 enormously superior American resources became available, and within a little more than a year they had been totally defeated.

The nations of Europe--including, I am inclined to believe now, the USSR--emerged from the Second World War with a profound skepticism about war as an instrument of national policy. With the exception of Japan, however, the nations of Asia did not. Mao Zedong won the Chinese Civil War by 1949 and was planning the invasion of Taiwan when the Korean War broke out. He intervened in that war about five months later, initially dealing a heavy blow to the American-led forces and eventually forcing a stalemate. The South Korean president Syngman Rhee was very unhappy when the US insisted upon an armistice in 1953. Mao attacked India in 1962, withdrawing after teaching the Indians a lesson. India and Pakistan fought a series of wars from the 1940s into the 1970s. Mao encouraged Ho Chi Minh (who did not need much encouragement) to escalate the Vietnam War in the mid 1960s and take on the United States, and he would have intervened in that war himself if the US had invaded the North. The Chinese attacked Vietnam in 1979, after the Vietnamese Communist regime had intervened to remove the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. And in the last two decades, while new generations of Europeans have entirely renounced nationalism--certainly in western Europe--national antagonisms among Asian nations have become more intense, even as they all became more integrated into the global economy. And critically, when Communism collapsed in Europe and Germany was reunited, no major effort to reunify Korea took place. South Korea was not interested. Now North Kora is led by the third member of the Kim dynasty, Kim Jong-un, born in 1983, thirty years after the end of the Korean War. No major Asian leader of the twentieth century, from Chiang Kai-Shek to Mao to Kim Il-Sun to Rhee to Ngo Dinh Diem to Ho Chi Minh, ever seemed to think that any western leader had anything of importance to tell him, and he is clearly no exception. He is now posing a direct challenge to international order.

Now on the one hand, I have thought for twenty years there is relatively little to fear militarily from North Korea. In the late 1990s I had a brief conversation with a retired naval officer who had had many dealings with Soviets and Chinese, and who had just visited North Korea. He was appalled by its primitive state and absolutely convinced that it could not fight a major war, the resources for which were almost totally lacking. A South Korean officer I met later said more or less the same thing: North Korea, he said, could not fight for more than a few weeks. That, of course, was before the North had tested nuclear weapons.

But on the other hand, the steps that Kim Jong-un has taken in the last few weeks would in any other era have inevitably meant war. To begin with, he denounced the armistice with South Korea and the United States, the international agreement that has kept the peace for 60 years, arrogating himself the right to attack at any time. He has now advised foreign diplomats to leave his country, and he has announced that he is ready for war. He most surely cannot, as he claims, hit the US with nuclear weapons, and that absurd claim holds out the hope that he doesn't mean any of it. But like the Egyptians in 1967--who denounced important provisions of the 1957 armistice agreement with Israel--he may have gone too far to back down. In the past North Korea has used threats to get sanctions lifted, but it's quite unlikely that there is going to be any move to do so from the American side this time. Washington seems to be convinced that we will find a way out of this mess peacefully, and expresses the hope that China will restrain North Korea. They may not however be able to do so.

Indeed, I am sad and angry to note that the whole American policy towards East Asia now seems based more on possible wars than on setting up a stable structure of peace. Neither the US nor the South Koreans, as far as I know, have a serious proposal for the reunification of Korea on the table. Worse, the American military seems much more interested in planning for a possible war with China than our civilian leaders are in solving outstanding issues with the Chinese. Although anarchy threatens a large part of the world, there is no real reason why the great powers, in Asia as in Europe, should not revive the Wilsonian vision of a world rule dby law--the vision for which we fought both world wars in the twentieth century. But I see no sustained effort to do so.

If Kim attacks South Korea conventionally, the consequences will probably be good, involving the almost immediate collapse of his regime and the reunification of Korea. But if he actually drops a nuclear weapon, the consequences will be catastrophic around the world. If a rogue state has made the neocon vision come true, the pressure for military action to make sure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon will become irresistible. Another legacy of the George W. Bush Administration, the idea of the United States as a one-man enforcer of nuclear non-proliferation, cold easily become orthodoxy with horrifying consequences.

I think regular readers will agree that I don't normally sound loud alarms on the international scene. The great problems of our current crisis are more domestic than international, in my opinion. But history tells me that we cannot afford to assume that Kim Jong-un does not mean what he is saying. And if it turns out that he does not, I hope John Kerry--a veteran of an Asian war--will take the initiative in proposing both the reunification of South Korea and the reaffirmation of a stable international order in East Asia. That region is not yet in automatic equilibrium by any means.