History Department, University of Exeter
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From neoliberalism’s populist bastards to the rise of China and the fall of the ‘free trade’ myth, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Neoliberalism’s Populist Bastards
After the twin victories of Brexit and Trump in 2016, observers across the political spectrum described a face-off between populism and neoliberal globalism. Davos Man, we were told, stood shamed before the wrath of the masses. In a series of electoral defeats for the center and left, the world’s elites were reaping the fruits of the inequality and democratic disempowerment they had sown. The Economist diagnosed a “new political divide” between “open against closed” national economies, while scholars lined up to explain how the so-called inward turn was a natural and inevitable reaction to deepening chasms of wealth inequality.
This year, attendees at the World Economic Forum might have breathed a sigh of relief, believing that immediate threats to their existence had passed. Yet members of the so-called populist right in Germany and Austria entered parliament after big wins in elections at the end of last year. Their victories seemed to fit perfectly into the old storyline. Alternative für Deutschland and the Austrian Freedom Party were cast as the latest vessels of a popular resentment born of economic anxiety and the instability of mass migration. A closer look at these standard-bearers of the Right raises doubts about whether ‘pitchfork against penthouse’ captures the current political moment fully. [continue reading]
Vietnam Will Win: Winning Hearts and Minds
If there was one matter on which all Americans in South Vietnam were virtually unanimous at the turn of the 1967-68 year, it was that “pacification” was still a failure. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and his CIA-trained deputy Robert Rower could cite statistics of “Vietcong” killed by body count, miles of roads opened and bridges “secured”; acres of rice land taken out of “Vietcong” control; the fact that elections had been held; an increased number of “defectors” under the “open arms” program – and add all this up to get a total of progress. But even the most optimistic of the official U.S. propagandists admitted that victory in the decisive battle for the “hearts and minds” of the people was more remote than ever and this knowledge permeated all the end-of-the-year survey articles of the Saigon correspondents.
Even Hanson Baldwin, military editor of the New York Times, who strained facts and the indulgence of his readers to the ultimate degree to present an optimistic picture of the military situation, wrote after one of his rare visits to South Vietnam: “Most authorities agree that the job of eliminating the underground government and terrorist apparatus in South Vietnam, and of what amounts to nation-building, is just starting, that it has made very limited progress…” Baldwin tries to comfort his readers by adding that this job “now appears to be on the right track” but “none are hopeful that it can be accomplished quickly.” [continue reading]
The Real Reason Americans Don’t Care About the Costs of War
I’m in my mid-30s, which means that, after the 9/11 attacks, when this country went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq in what President George W. Bush called the “Global War on Terror,” I was still in college. I remember taking part in a couple of campus antiwar demonstrations and, while working as a waitress in 2003, being upset by customers who ordered “freedom fries,” not “French fries,” to protest France’s opposition to our war in Iraq. (As it happens, my mother is French, so it felt like a double insult.) For years, like many Americans, that was about all the thought I put into the war on terror. But one career choice led to another and today I’m co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
Now, when I go to dinner parties or take my toddler to play dates and tell my peers what I do for a living, I’ve grown used to the blank stares and vaguely approving comments (“that’s cool”) as we quickly move on to other topics. People do tend to humor me if I begin to speak passionately about the startlingly global reach of this country’s military counterterrorism activities or the massive war debt we’re so thoughtlessly piling up for our children to pay off. In terms of engagement, though, my listeners tend to be far more interested and ask far more penetrating questions about my other area of research: the policing of Brazil’s vast favelas, or slums. I don’t mean to suggest that no one cares about America’s never-ending wars, just that, 17 years after the war on terror began, it’s a topic that seems to fire relatively few of us up, much less send us into the streets, Vietnam-style, to protest. The fact is that those wars are approaching the end of their second decade and yet most of us don’t even think of ourselves as “at war.” [continue reading]
“Global 1968” on the African continent
Fifty years after student protests shook much of the Cold War world, in the “West” and in the “East,” “Global 1968” has become the catchphrase to describe these profound generational revolts. West Berlin, Paris, and Berkeley spring to mind prominently, and most memorable behind what was then the Iron Curtain were the events of the Prague Spring. For most commentators and scholars, these events in the Global North appear to have constituted “Global 1968.”
At the beginning of the anniversary year, for instance, a recent publication by a German scholar of contemporary history, Norbert Frei (2017), dubbed 1968: Youth Revolt and Global Protest made it to the front tables of major Berlin bookstores. Frei’s monograph includes chapters on Paris, and on the events in the United States, Germany, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom in “The West,” supplemented by a chapter on “Movements in the East,” which discusses protest in Prague, Poland, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Frei mentions neither the events of the “1968” revolts in Africa, nor indeed those that had taken place in any part of the Global South. What then, I am wondering, is his concept of the “global” of the revolt? [continue reading]
The Rise of China and the Fall of the ‘Free Trade’ Myth
New York Times
‘America first does not mean America alone,” President Trump declared last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This sudden burst of pragmatism from an avowed nationalist showed what a difference a year can make. Denouncing the “false song of globalism” during his presidential campaign, Trump, on his third full day in office, canceled the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade deal with Japan and 10 other countries. He then denounced Canada, Germany and South Korea for exporting more to the United States than they import. He promised to renegotiate trade pacts with Europe, Canada and Mexico and get a better deal for American workers. In Davos, however, he reached out with conciliatory words to the very free-trading and globalizing elites he has consistently maligned.
Clearly, Trump’s views on trade and globalization have evolved since his insurgent campaign. This may well be because of the rapid gains in the past year of a country he did not mention by name. In fact, Trump chose in Davos to affirm that “America is open for business” because it was in these same Alpine heights, three days before Trump was inaugurated as president, that China seized the opportunity to claim leadership of the global economy. With the United States seemingly in a protectionist crouch, China had become, despite all its problems, indispensable. “In a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility, the international community is looking to China,” Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, said last year while introducing his guest, the Chinese president and general secretary of China’s Communist Party, Xi Jinping. [continue reading]
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