Archive for the ‘International Relations’ Category


Evitar las Victorias sobre el Jefe

Written on November 17, 2007 by DeansTalk in International Relations, Philosophy

Fernando Fontes


Siempre he atribuido a Maquiavelo la frase: “A los príncipes les gusta ser ayudados, pero no excedidos”.

Sin embargo, la acabo de leer en “El arte de la prudencia” de Baltasar Gracián, si bien éste pudo tomarla de Maquiavelo. Lo investigaré. Reproduzco, a continuación, el aforismo nº 7 de “El arte de la prudencia” sobre cómo debemos cuidarnos en nuestra relación con los jefes.

“Evitar las victorias sobre el jefe. Toda derrota es odiosa, y si es sobre el jefe, o es necia o es fatal. Siempre fue odiada la superioridad, y más por los superiores. La cautela suele encubrir las ventajas más comunes, como disimular la belleza con el desaliño. Será fácil hallar quien quiera ceder en éxito y en carácter, pero no en inteligencia, y, mucho menos, un superior. Ellos son poderosos y quieren serlo en lo más importante. A los príncipes les gusta ser ayudados, pero no excedidos, y es mejor que el aviso tenga visos de recuerdo de lo que olvidaba, en vez de ser luz de lo que no se alcanzó. Los astros, con acierto, nos enseñan esta sutileza, pues aunque son hijos brillantes, nunca compiten con los lucimientos del sol.”

¿Estáis de acuerdo con este aforismo de Gracián? Yo, cada vez más, sí.


The Post-Modern Politician

Written on November 16, 2007 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies, International Relations

Rolf Strom-Olsen

Barack_2  There was an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times today (reprinted in Der Spiegel – no registration required), from Roger Cohen on Barack Obama, the highly charismatic rising star of the US Democratic Party and currently the most credible threat to Hillary Clinton’s run for her party’s presidential nomination. Cohen makes a good point that is too often not made by your typical naval-gazing US political commentator: the choices that Americans make next year will have a significant impact beyond the country’s borders and American needs leaders that reflect this reality. As he puts it: "American exceptionalism, as practiced by Bush, has created a longing for new American engagement." To say the world longs for a new American engagement might be rather optimistic (I think the world longs for the US to go to its room for a while so the mess can be cleaned up). But it would certainly be accurate to say that the disastrous tenure of George Bush has provided a compelling demonstration of why the world should at least be hoping for a return to competence. It goes largely unnoticed in the US that, while the level of paranoia there continues to be elevated (often with ridiculous results), the consequence of America’s action has largely been felt elsewhere: in Madrid, in London, in Bali, and in the daily unfettered violence across Iraq.

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Language & Political Identity

Written on November 9, 2007 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies, International Relations


It is mere happenstance that I was born and raised in the city of Montreal and incidentally became bilingual
in the two languages of the city, English and French. I was thus very
interested by the recent post by Rafael Puyol, whose observations struck a chord. Moreover, they coincide neatly with this week’s front page story from the US edition of the Wall Street Journal and the resulting reaction and commentary.

Quebec2As it happens, Montreal is one of very few cities in the world that has an integrated bilingual culture, by which I mean the people who live there can generally function comfortably in both main languages. The only other such metropoles that I can think of (there may be others that elude me) that share this characteristic are Barcelona (Catalan and Castilian) and Cape Town (Aafrikans, English and, perhaps, Xhosa). There are other cities, of course, where several languages are spoken such as Brussels (French/Flemish) or Ottawa (English/French) or even Miami (English/Spanish). In these latter cases, however, the co-existence of two language groups does not equate to the integrated bilingualism of a city like Barcelona or Capetown. In such places, either the two linguistic groups remain largely separate, even hostile, or else a dominant linguistic group does not share or even sympathise with the bilingualism of the minority.

Such bilingualism is very rare because we tend to separate by tongue more than anything else. It is very interesting to note, by way of example, that in insanely polyglot Switzerland there is only one city of any size where both German and French are spoken with similar ease by the population: Biel/Bienne, which happens to lie on the Franco-German boundary and thus draws its population in roughly equal measure from both language communities. Even there, language apparently remains a divisive issue.

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Rolf Strom-Olsen

The famous US film-maker Ken Burns, whose name is familiar to North American audiences thanks mostly to his ground-breaking 1990 film on the US Civil War, has perpetrated another epic documentary. Burns latest subject is more war, this time "The War"  (as the documentary is called, a depressingly ambiguous title for a European audience). But for Americans, "The War" is World War Two, a conflict that has produced a seemingly never-ending spate of nostalgic and sentimental homages to what is modestly coined (in US collective memory) as the "greatest generation." Among the more recent grandiose offerings, we have had director Steven Spielberg’s film, "Saving Private Ryan," US broadcaster Tom Brokaw’s book "The Greatest Generation" and a wildly popular television adaptation of historian Stephen Ambrose’s "Band of Brothers". Burns’ film follows in the same vein, insofar as it is an unapologetically US-centred examination of World War Two (there is not a single non-US voice in the film). But the film avoids the theatrical triumphalism of these other efforts and achieves a degree of nuance and dignity by focusing on individuals remembering what they experienced. This parochialism might turn off a non-US audience (I was watching in Canada), but in its depiction of war as a remembered event, Burns is asking a subtle question about history that lifts the film above its narrow national focus: what is the value of memory to our understanding of history?

"Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost" wrote Walt Whitman, not counting on modern filmmakers to prove the sentiment wrong. Burns’ apparently decided to make a film about The War in 1999 when he discovered that upwards of a thousand US veterans were dying every day.  That’s an impressively large number, and a sombre reminder not only of how many people actually fought in the conflict, but just how many lives were intimately affected by it. Indeed, the scope and impact of the conflict is hard for us to fathom, wherever we are. As one interviewee commented: "it was like our lives were suspended for the duration". Burns is a historian of a peculiar sort – he describes himself as an archaeologist of emotion.  As such, he asks:  how does that happen? More importantly, how does that feel?

Emotion, not cold historical analysis, is the central theme in this 15-hour outpouring. But these are not the yellow-patina memories of old snapshots, or whitewashed celebrations of heroism. I can rUs_tank_crew_tunisia_1942emember one of Burn’s interviewees, Paul Fussell, a noted historian, author and himself an infantryman in The War, commenting that when people die in war, they usually don’t die well: they die in a fusillade of agony, of mutilation and disfigurement. For Fussell, this is an important point: war is gruesome. Burns follows him lockstep; he wrenches from his subjects the horrifying carnage they witnessed. It is a mighty thing to see a kindly grandfather figure reminisce about shooting down a fellow twenty-year old, still agonising fifty years later over what he has done. War dehumanises; the philosophy of war strives to offer a simple choice to the young men and women who are called to prosecute it: them or us. But, we learn through the uneasy recollections of the now-elderly men who actually pulled the triggers and threw the grenades, not completely, nor forever and, for many, not at all. That’s an important point that most histories of conflict are not comfortable, or perhaps even capable of making.

Americans have memorialised The War as Their War. Despite the savagery unleashed by the conflict, The War is still seen in American eyes as a virtuous, even noble, enterprise. Even fifty years later, the enemy are still easy to loathe, and still comfortably fit the stereotypes which made that "us/them" trigger-impulse possible. The War earns its definitive article because, even with the passage of time, it is still imbued with an aura of epic righteousness. In American memory, liberation is pitted against Buchenwald, freedom against the Bataan Death March. Lest we fail to get the point, the film’s narration helpfully frames the question for us: anger, arrogance, bigotry, victimhood and the lust for power on one side; courage, perseverance, selflessness, faith, leadership and the hunger for freedom on the other. No points for guessing which side the Americans were on.

Clarity, particularly ideological clarity, makes an uneasy bedfellow with historical fact. But this is a different specie altogether: memory-fact. The War exists as a set of specific events and geopolitical forces. But it is also how a society remembers, or wants to remember, the conflict. It is how that conflict was (and still is being) shaped, and how it in turn shaped people’s lives. Some critics have noted the inevitable distortions (errors really) of a historical narrative that coalesce around individual memories. Pre-war America is recalled by many of the film’s subjects in idyllic terms: all sunny afternoons and cherry blossoms. Given the extraordinary deprivations of the Great Depression, this is factually absurd.

However, from a historical view that gives the curious entropy of memory its due, such recollections are a fascinating and deeply-moving testament to how cataclysmic The War must have been for a generation looking back, even for those far-removed from the theatre of war. The breadlines, unemployment, dust bowls and general misery of the 1930s were shaded by the events that follow into an American Pastoral. Accurate? Of course not, but no less true for it and, for a historian, well worth noting.

The War exists as a collective memorial in varied ways: urgently, as an epic struggle of Good against Evil, but parochially as sons sent off to fight leaving behind their families, narrowly, as small groups of men who fought more to save each other than for any greater purpose, and tragically, as lives cut short and friendships savagely ended. For the tens and tens of millions of people caught up in the immediate events, such a revelation is hardly surprising. But for those who were thousands of miles away, the fact that the War had a similarly monumental, intimate and profound impact is well-worth considering.

"The War" is not a rejoinder to the current imbroglio in Iraq and Afghanistan – its origins predate both. But it makes an implicit point about current events. Even if the triumphalism of the Allied victory in 1945 can be overstated, the larger contours of that struggle highlight the lack of focus and intent in America’s current missions. Clarity of purpose matters: its absence does not just undermine the present; it promises to despoil the memory of events for generations to come and will be an important part of how we write its history.

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