Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 21, 2007

The Asian Century?

Robert D. Kaplan, in a thoughtful piece in today’s New York Times, suggests that we are living in “the Asian Century.” His argument in “Lost at Sea” is that China, India, Japan, and South Korea are modernizing their militaries, especially building “big decks” and enlarging their fleets. The United States Navy, he notes, will have to share the sea’s lanes with ships from other nations. Writes Kaplan: “The military trend that is hiding in plain sight is the loss of the Pacific Ocean as an American lake after 60 years of near-total dominance.”

Kaplan is right to highlight the growing militarization of Asia. But he’s too hasty in arguing that the continent will, therefore, dominate the 21st century. If anything, Asian militarism probably will be the reason that historians will call this era “the Second American Century.”

In the twentieth century it took two all-encompassing wars and one decades-long struggle to resolve the most pressing matters in Europe. In Asia, Japan and Russia have yet to settle their differences resulting from World War II, and the Korean War still has not been concluded by peace treaty. More important, the animosity among the great powers of Asia—China and India, India and Pakistan, and China and Japan, just to mention the most prominent of them—continues to flare. And then there is always Taiwan, essentially the unfinished Chinese civil war.

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Robert D. Kaplan, in a thoughtful piece in today’s New York Times, suggests that we are living in “the Asian Century.” His argument in “Lost at Sea” is that China, India, Japan, and South Korea are modernizing their militaries, especially building “big decks” and enlarging their fleets. The United States Navy, he notes, will have to share the sea’s lanes with ships from other nations. Writes Kaplan: “The military trend that is hiding in plain sight is the loss of the Pacific Ocean as an American lake after 60 years of near-total dominance.”

Kaplan is right to highlight the growing militarization of Asia. But he’s too hasty in arguing that the continent will, therefore, dominate the 21st century. If anything, Asian militarism probably will be the reason that historians will call this era “the Second American Century.”

In the twentieth century it took two all-encompassing wars and one decades-long struggle to resolve the most pressing matters in Europe. In Asia, Japan and Russia have yet to settle their differences resulting from World War II, and the Korean War still has not been concluded by peace treaty. More important, the animosity among the great powers of Asia—China and India, India and Pakistan, and China and Japan, just to mention the most prominent of them—continues to flare. And then there is always Taiwan, essentially the unfinished Chinese civil war.

Kaplan does note a few of today’s territorial disputes, but he ignores the more important ones, and fails to convey the intensity of any of them. Moreover, he does not refer to the military clashes and confrontations that have threatened peace this decade. Asia is an area of rising giants, failing states, and unresolved disputes, some of which have gone on for centuries. In this context, it’s unlikely that the Chinese, Indians, Japanese, and South Koreans will spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new ships and not use them in another monumental clash. We can probably look forward to decades of Asian turbulence. In many respects, Asia today is the Europe of a hundred years ago. For this and other reasons, Asians will not dominate this century.

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Mugabe Takes a Bishop

Last week, the boldest and most outspoken advocate for liberty in Zimbabwe—Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city—resigned his position because of a sex scandal. This summer, after speaking out against the Mugabe regime, Ncube incurred the dictator’s wrath; state newspaper and television stations propagated photos of Ncube with a married woman, whose husband has since filed an adultery charge against the Archbishop. As Ncube made the painful decision to step down, he nonetheless denounced the “crude machinations of a wicked regime.”

But earlier this week, seemingly hopeful news emerged from Zimbabwe, in the form of a tentative political agreement between Mugabe’s long-ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The details are sketchy at this point, but they indicate an agreement on the preconditions for free and fair elections to be held next year. Predictably, the government of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who had been tasked by the Southern African Development Community, a regional group, with bringing the parties together, applauded the breakthrough as progress toward “a lasting settlement.”

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Last week, the boldest and most outspoken advocate for liberty in Zimbabwe—Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city—resigned his position because of a sex scandal. This summer, after speaking out against the Mugabe regime, Ncube incurred the dictator’s wrath; state newspaper and television stations propagated photos of Ncube with a married woman, whose husband has since filed an adultery charge against the Archbishop. As Ncube made the painful decision to step down, he nonetheless denounced the “crude machinations of a wicked regime.”

But earlier this week, seemingly hopeful news emerged from Zimbabwe, in the form of a tentative political agreement between Mugabe’s long-ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. The details are sketchy at this point, but they indicate an agreement on the preconditions for free and fair elections to be held next year. Predictably, the government of South African President Thabo Mbeki, who had been tasked by the Southern African Development Community, a regional group, with bringing the parties together, applauded the breakthrough as progress toward “a lasting settlement.”

While it is always tempting to welcome positive news like this in Zimbabwe, good tidings usually prove elusive. The bare fact is that Robert Mugabe will never cede power. He is a totalitarian through and through, and will kill as many people—through slow starvation (as he has been doing for the past several years) or outright murder—as necessary to stay in charge. If, as in 2000, 2002, and 2005, it appears that ZANU-PF will lose at the polls, Mugabe will simply rig the vote, expel poll watchers, imprison and torture domestic opponents, and curse the West. He has done this every time even the slightest threat to his power emerged, and the world community has allowed him to get away with it for the past 27 years. While these recent negotiations may seem fruitful, the only way Zimbabwe will ever see freedom is through regime change and a subsequent, thorough de-Mugabification process.

With America’s attentions focused on the situation in Iraq, it is all too easy to forget that friends of freedom struggle in many other places across the globe, particularly in Zimbabwe. Even in the midst of this “scandal,” Pius Ncube—one of the more remarkable figures of our time—stands as testament that even in the most dire of conditions courage perseveres.

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Music in Stuttgart

For the next few weeks, I will be traveling back and forth to Stuttgart, Germany, where I am serving on the jury of a triennial lieder (classical song) competition. The contest is the brainchild of the Internationale Hugo-Wolf-Akademie, directed by the pianist and accompanist Hartmut Höll. Among his other accomplishments, Höll was the longtime accompanist in concerts and on CD’s of the legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Among the other jurors is Japanese-born mezzo-soprano Mitsuko Shirai, known as the “Maria Callas of classical song,” whose CD’s with Höll of music by Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms on the excellent small record label Capriccio are among the most exciting in recent decades. Shirai’s stark emotional expressivity and Höll’s spiky, freewheeling playing, and the way both performers yield to one another, all make for a fascinating dialogue that sets the bar high for younger contestants.

It will also be intriguing to see how the 44 piano-vocal teams from 25 countries, including China, Brazil, and Israel, fare (the finale is not until October 8, so stay tuned). Meanwhile, Stuttgart, which I last visited a decade ago, continues to grow as a bustling business town, focused on Neue Messe Stuttgart, its vast new Trade Fair Center. There is a new Mercedes Benz Museum, and next fall it will be joined by a Porsche Museum. When I was last in Stuttgart in the 1990’s, I was presented to the town’s then-mayor, a nattily attired elderly gentleman who stuck out his hand and said, “Rommel.” Turned out it was Manfred Rommel, son of the notorious “Desert Fox” Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who served as Stuttgart mayor from 1974 to 1996, during which time he showed a distinct interest in the local arts scene.

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For the next few weeks, I will be traveling back and forth to Stuttgart, Germany, where I am serving on the jury of a triennial lieder (classical song) competition. The contest is the brainchild of the Internationale Hugo-Wolf-Akademie, directed by the pianist and accompanist Hartmut Höll. Among his other accomplishments, Höll was the longtime accompanist in concerts and on CD’s of the legendary German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Among the other jurors is Japanese-born mezzo-soprano Mitsuko Shirai, known as the “Maria Callas of classical song,” whose CD’s with Höll of music by Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms on the excellent small record label Capriccio are among the most exciting in recent decades. Shirai’s stark emotional expressivity and Höll’s spiky, freewheeling playing, and the way both performers yield to one another, all make for a fascinating dialogue that sets the bar high for younger contestants.

It will also be intriguing to see how the 44 piano-vocal teams from 25 countries, including China, Brazil, and Israel, fare (the finale is not until October 8, so stay tuned). Meanwhile, Stuttgart, which I last visited a decade ago, continues to grow as a bustling business town, focused on Neue Messe Stuttgart, its vast new Trade Fair Center. There is a new Mercedes Benz Museum, and next fall it will be joined by a Porsche Museum. When I was last in Stuttgart in the 1990’s, I was presented to the town’s then-mayor, a nattily attired elderly gentleman who stuck out his hand and said, “Rommel.” Turned out it was Manfred Rommel, son of the notorious “Desert Fox” Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who served as Stuttgart mayor from 1974 to 1996, during which time he showed a distinct interest in the local arts scene.

The younger Rommel was succeeded as mayor by Wolfgang Schuster, who, if anything, is even more dedicated to celebrating the arts than was his predecessor. New York’s own Michael Bloomberg allowed Central Park to be defaced in order to promote his friend and dinner guest Christo, creator of the witless “Gates” project (an NYC architect informed me that the full extent of infrastructure damage to Central Park was never made public). By contrast, Stuttgart’s Schuster seems fully aware that he has a serious legacy to protect and promote. No Stuttgart organization pursues this goal more responsibly than the Hugo-Wolf-Akademie, which organizes concerts at local sites of historic resonance, like “Hölderlin’s tower” in nearby Tübingen, where the 18th century poet Friedrich Hölderlin spent the last decades of his life besieged by mental illness.

Not everyone in the Stuttgart region is obsessed with lieder and romantic poetry; pop culture, especially of the American variety, still conquers all in some quarters. Every local newspaper devoted extensive space to reporting the hot news that Peter Falk, TV’s world-famous Columbo, is now 80. Most kids hereabouts are more drawn to Tokio Hotel, an adrogynous boy band led by Bill Kaulitz, than anything by Schumann or Wolf, two composers featured in this year’s lieder contest. Still, Hartmut Höll and his Wolf-Akademie deserve hearty thanks for fighting the good fight for what is humane and permanent in the arts.

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“Confronting Ideas” at Columbia

Regarding Columbia University President Lee Bollinger’s invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak this coming Monday on the Columbia campus, the Columbia Spectator today reports:

David Feith, CC ’09 and editor of the Jewish affairs publication the Current, expressed his concern that there was a difference between refusing to suppress hateful speech and actively inviting and providing a platform for it. Bollinger responded that the invitation very well may serve to help controversial speakers, but that the negative is “far outweighed by the importance of confronting ideas and not shielding ourselves from the world as it is.”

And what ideas will the Columbia community confront when it hears President Ahmadinejad of Iran? Denial of the Holocaust and pleas for the destruction of Israel. As Victor Davis Hanson writes on the Corner, “This is not a matter of free speech but of common decency and the most elemental common sense.”

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Regarding Columbia University President Lee Bollinger’s invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak this coming Monday on the Columbia campus, the Columbia Spectator today reports:

David Feith, CC ’09 and editor of the Jewish affairs publication the Current, expressed his concern that there was a difference between refusing to suppress hateful speech and actively inviting and providing a platform for it. Bollinger responded that the invitation very well may serve to help controversial speakers, but that the negative is “far outweighed by the importance of confronting ideas and not shielding ourselves from the world as it is.”

And what ideas will the Columbia community confront when it hears President Ahmadinejad of Iran? Denial of the Holocaust and pleas for the destruction of Israel. As Victor Davis Hanson writes on the Corner, “This is not a matter of free speech but of common decency and the most elemental common sense.”

I would add that Bollinger’s move is also a flagrant exploitation of the notion of dialog that universities cherish. Dialog is not possible with a madman (or someone who adopts insane political positions for tactical reasons) as interlocutor. And there can be no doubt that Ahmadinejad falls into one of those two categories. Would Lee Bollinger invite the British Holocaust denier David Irving so that students could “confront ideas” about Auschwitz? What about Jean-Marie LePen, to help students “confront ideas” about racism and xenophobia?

Here are just a few of the criticisms of Bollinger’s decision. But note the absence of criticism on TNR’s the Plank or the Huffington Post. Where is the liberal outrage? Aren’t these people allegedly anti-theocracy? They are when it comes to the far milder effusions of American evangelicals. Isn’t Ahmadinejad precisely the kind of theocrat they should hate? Yet Josh Marshall, at Talking Points Memo, can’t understand why Ahmadinejad wouldn’t be allowed to go to Ground Zero, “[e]specially when free speech and letting even the obnoxious have their say are supposedly central to who we are?” If only “obnoxiousness” were the Iranian president’s primary character flaw.

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Why Try?

Pretty much every Secretary of State since the Truman administration has devoted considerable energy to brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians. None succeeded. In fact, the most recent and ambitious attempt—the Oslo Peace Accords—backfired badly. But there seems to be something about the Secretary of State’s job that forces its occupants to keep on undertaking this Sisyphean labor regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

And so now we have Condoleezza Rice regularly journeying to the Middle East to arrange another peace conference later this year. It is hard to know why she thinks the climate for a breakthrough is propitious now. Hamas, an organization devoted to Israel’s destruction, has taken control of the Gaza Strip, making it what the Israeli government rightly calls a “hostile entity.” Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (or what remains of it), is an ineffectual figurehead. Syrian President Bashar Assad is working full-time to destroy Lebanese democracy and possibly to acquire nuclear arms. He has shown no interest in negotiating peace. Instead he is working hand in glove with Iran to support Hamas and Hizballah.

Meanwhile, Israel is led by an unpopular prime minister whose toughness has been questioned and who, unlike his immediate predecessor, lacks the credibility to give away land such as the Golan Heights in a bid for “peace.”

Amid such circumstances, it is hardly surprising to see this Washington Post headline recounting Rice’s most recent trip to the Holy Land: “Rice Visit Yields No Commitments On Mideast Talks; Differences Over Agenda Remain Wide.” The only mystery here is why the Secretary of State—an intelligent woman—insists on continuing to engage in such a hopeless endeavor.

Perhaps she has been told that this is what Arab states expect, that the U.S. should go through the motions even if the chances of success are scant. But aren’t there bigger issues than Israel to engage her attention? Perhaps she should be doing more to pressure American allies such as Germany to cut off economic ties with a regime in Iran that has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

Pretty much every Secretary of State since the Truman administration has devoted considerable energy to brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians. None succeeded. In fact, the most recent and ambitious attempt—the Oslo Peace Accords—backfired badly. But there seems to be something about the Secretary of State’s job that forces its occupants to keep on undertaking this Sisyphean labor regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

And so now we have Condoleezza Rice regularly journeying to the Middle East to arrange another peace conference later this year. It is hard to know why she thinks the climate for a breakthrough is propitious now. Hamas, an organization devoted to Israel’s destruction, has taken control of the Gaza Strip, making it what the Israeli government rightly calls a “hostile entity.” Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (or what remains of it), is an ineffectual figurehead. Syrian President Bashar Assad is working full-time to destroy Lebanese democracy and possibly to acquire nuclear arms. He has shown no interest in negotiating peace. Instead he is working hand in glove with Iran to support Hamas and Hizballah.

Meanwhile, Israel is led by an unpopular prime minister whose toughness has been questioned and who, unlike his immediate predecessor, lacks the credibility to give away land such as the Golan Heights in a bid for “peace.”

Amid such circumstances, it is hardly surprising to see this Washington Post headline recounting Rice’s most recent trip to the Holy Land: “Rice Visit Yields No Commitments On Mideast Talks; Differences Over Agenda Remain Wide.” The only mystery here is why the Secretary of State—an intelligent woman—insists on continuing to engage in such a hopeless endeavor.

Perhaps she has been told that this is what Arab states expect, that the U.S. should go through the motions even if the chances of success are scant. But aren’t there bigger issues than Israel to engage her attention? Perhaps she should be doing more to pressure American allies such as Germany to cut off economic ties with a regime in Iran that has threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

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