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Airbrushing Stalin and Mao’s Horrific Crimes

Image courtesy of davitydave/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by World Affairs in June 2017.

“It’s easy predicting the future,” an old Soviet joke went. “What’s difficult is predicting the past.”

There is a war going on over the interpretation of history. A search for a “correct” version of the past has been launched in a number of countries, often by embittered nationalist forces, as in Poland. But the most aggressive assault is being orchestrated by dictators like Vladimir Putin, and China’s Communist Party leadership.

There is much at stake in this revisionist enterprise. The most alarming goal is to reappraise leaders like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, to whitewash their atrocities and ensure that, at least for a domestic audience, they are presented as heroic figures whose crimes were miniscule in comparison with their achievements. Another objective is to depict the country in question as both the ultimate victim and the ultimate winner.

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Peace and War in Sino-America: Forget the Headlines and Follow the Trendlines for a Better World

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This article was originally published by Harvard International Review on 2 May 2017.

Throughout the 2016 presidential election, then candidate Donald Trump blasted China for its protectionist trade policies, currency manipulation, and several other accusations. Indeed, these accusations were not limited to Trump as China bashing is simply standard fare for anyone seeking elected office on campaign trails. Much of Trump’s campaign was however met with derision. As the election process unfolded, the derision soon turned to snickers. As the election continued, the snickers turned downright somber while he sailed past his Republican opponents Jeff Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and others who had been deemed more likely GOP nominees.

Among the intelligentsia, the mood has turned to alarm as now President Trump has set out to do exactly as he had promised during his “America First” campaign. To show his sincerity to the campaign promise of bringing jobs back to the United States, he kicked off his first day in the Oval Office by issuing an Executive Order cancelling American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It was President Barack Obama’s signature trade deal creating a free-trade zone with eleven other nations for approximately 40 percent of the world’s economy. Trump also threatened to impose a 45-percent tariff on Chinese goods if China does not “behave” accordingly.

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The Beginning(s) and End(s) of the International Order

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This article was originally published by E-International Relations on 22 May 2017.

These days, the pulse of the world’s political health is running fast. The general prognosis is terminal, the end of the international world order, as we know it. But determining what order we are on the verge of losing could do with more diagnosis, including tracking the symptoms of the disorder (and order) back to their beginnings. One of the useful roles that historians can play in this regard is to offer a longer view of what we have lost, or, at least, the international order that seems to be disappearing from view.  So bear with me as I offer a “Cook’s tour” of two centuries in search of the point where the end possibly began, in order to understand better the history of the aims—or “ends”—of international order itself.

1814?

European historians have long assumed that the early nineteenth century made “international” politics possible: In 1814, after decades of continental wars against French hegemony, a coalition led by Russia, including Sweden, Prussia, Austria, and Britain (as well as some smaller now non-existent sovereignties) emerged victorious and established what became known as the “Congress system.” At its most basic, this comprised negotiations through discussion—famously identified with the Congress of Vienna—and transnational cooperation in the interests of permanent peace. In the years that followed, ambassadorial conferences in London, and occasional conferences around the smaller towns of the European continent, became a method for managing territorial and ideological flashpoints.  Within a few years, the British foreign minister Lord Castlereagh confidently reported to his Prime Minister the practical value of this transformation of European politics:

how much solid good grows out of these Reunions, which sound so terrible at a distance. It realy [sic] appears to me to be a new discovery in the Science of European Government at once extinguishing the Cobwebs, with which Diplomacy obscures the Horizon – bringing the Whole bearing of the system into its true light, and giving to the Counsels of the great Powers the Efficiency and almost the simplicity of a Single State.[1]

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The ‘History Problem’ in Sino-Japanese Relations: What’s the Problem?

 Chinese Propaganda Poster

Courtesy Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr

This article was originally published by E-International Relations on 31 October 2016.

The so-called history problem has long been seen by academics and pundits as a key obstacle to the improvement of bilateral relations between China and Japan. In the academic literature, the problem is typically described as consisting of a number of sub-issues related primarily to Japan’s attitude towards its invasion of China in the 1930s and 1940s, an attitude that many regard as insufficiently repentant. In this literature the meaning of the history problem tends to be understood as fixed rather than as something that changes over time. Even though numerous discussions of the problem exist and many observers agree on its importance for Sino-Japanese relations, the question of how the history problem itself is understood within Japan and China has received surprisingly scant attention. This article, by contrast, argues that while the specific sub-issues viewed as being part of the problem are indeed important, currently the most fundamental and overlooked aspect of the history problem in Sino-Japanese relations is the lack of agreement on what exactly the problem is.

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The Extraordinary Life of David Galula

Morocco

Courtesy Pictoscribe/Flickr

This article was originally published by the Small Wars Journal in September 2016.

Thanks to a sequence of fortunate accidents around 2005-2006, the world discovered the intellectual legacy of David Galula (1919-1967). Since then, two books and one monograph restituted the story of his life or vast segments of it. Although some went into a fascinating level of detail, none of these, in my view, are an easy read for a non-military audience. A minimal awareness in terms of war studies is needed to really capture what they had to say. Besides, the French-speaking readership is still far from hearing about Galula. These are the two reasons why I decided to tell the story of Galula’s life – in French.

Writing a book about David Galula amounts to recounting the story of a paradox (many of them actually). On the one hand, there is a consensus on him being the founding father of counterinsurgency, a groundbreaking theory in modern military affairs. Galula was a self-made man in various aspects; born into a relatively modest environment, he rose to positions where no one expected him to, in virtue of his faith and social background. He traveled the world and exerted the full scope of his talents in a diversified career ranging from diplomat, author and secret agent to infantry officer. Many influential people liked him and very few voiced any opposition or hostility at his respect. Yet, Galula’s legacy went silent after his premature death in 1967. During forty years, neglect and bad luck buried Galula’s unorthodox and stimulating contributions to the art of war. Neither book royalties nor a military pension were enough to keep his widow from having to look for a job to make a living and raise their only child. Galula is still mostly unheard of in his home country, France.

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