During the last year countless commentators have made the point that Donald Trump embodies the “paranoid style” in American politics that the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote about in his famous 1964 essay. A central feature of the style, which Hofstadter thought was “all but ineradicable”, is a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories – a tendency Trump certainly has. Moreover, with his election as president, the style seems to have a had what Hofstadter called a “consummatory triumph” in the United States – something that, he wrote, had up to that point only occurred in Germany. Thus it seems to me that we now have to rethink some of our assumptions about the differences between Europe and the United States. But what struck me reading Hofstadter’s essay now was not just the way Trump embodies the “paranoid style” but also something altogether stranger: he is in reality exactly what previous practitioners of the “paranoid style” feared.
“If you want to understand the RAF [Red Army Faction], you have to read Moby Dick”, Stefan Aust said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that was published in 2007. Herman Melville’s great American novel was an important text for the West German terrorist group, about whom I write in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz. The members of the group seemed to have imagined themselves as the crew of the Pequod, the whaling ship in the novel – though it is not clear how many of them had actually read it apart from Gudrun Ensslin, who had studied German literature. It was Ensslin who came up with the idea of giving them codenames taken from characters in the novel, which they used in correspondence with each other while they were in prison in the early 1970s. Paraphrasing Andreas Baader, one might say they saw whaling and shooting as the same thing. But what exactly does reading Moby-Dick actually tell us about the RAF?
Under Mao Zedong, China defined itself as a socialist country – albeit one with “Chinese characteristics”. But in the nearly 40 years since it began to “open up” under Deng Xiaoping in 1979, it has evolved into something much more puzzling. It has embraced capitalism to a large extent, though the state retains a relatively large role in the economy through planning and state-owned enterprises. But its political system remains authoritarian – as Richard McGregor puts in his book The Party, the Chinese state “still runs on Soviet hardware”. In fact, under Xi Jinping, it seems to be becoming more authoritarian. I wonder what George Orwell – one of my political heroes – would have made of it. It seems to me that China’s authoritarian capitalism was the exact opposite of what Orwell, who described himself as a democratic socialist, believed in.
In the previous post, I referred to the idea, attributed to Mark Twain (though I’ve never been able to find a reference), that “history rhymes”. It is meant as an alternative to the idea that history simply repeats itself. Instead, it is suggested, the patterns of history are more complex than this: there are connections between past and present but they are complex and subtle rather than direct ones. The task for analysts of the present, as the historian Charles Emmerson put it in a thoughtful essay, “is to listen for those rhymes and to calibrate our hearing to catch them.” The implication is that history is somehow like poetry. It is an intriguing idea. But if one takes it seriously, it raises lots of further questions. How, exactly, does history “rhyme”? Are there rules of what we might call “historical prosody”? If history rhymes, does it also have something like metre?
In a thought-provoking recent paper, Petri Hakkarainen asks an important question: what role should history play in foreign policy? (The paper is part of the History and Policy-Making Initiative, which was launched jointly by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the Graduate Institute in 2015.) Hakkarainen, a Finnish diplomat, argues that “we seem to be living in increasingly ahistorical times, dominated by myopic presentism” – in other words that policymaking is insufficiently informed by history. “The tendency to see arising policy challenges as one-off events, detached from the past, not only misleads us in the present but also blurs our vision ahead.” At the same time, historical analogies can also be misleading. So how can policy be informed by history without being misled by it?
Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War is a brilliant synthesis of the history of India’s struggle for independence and the history of World War II. In most versions of the story of how India finally became independent in 1947, the impact of World War II tends to be underplayed. Conversely, in most histories of World War II, India’s role in it tends to be underplayed. What Raghavan does in India’s War is to bring these two histories together. That alone makes this an important book – a contribution to an emerging global history that simultaneously connects and challenges Western narratives centred on the war and non-Western narratives centred on decolonisation. But it seems to me that India’s War is also more than that. It can be seen as a kind of pre-history of India’s post-independence foreign policy. As such, it illuminates not just the past but the present and the future.
Last month I took part in a workshop run by the Transatlantic Academy in Washington on the development of the relationship between China and Russia – and its consequences for the West. Immediately after the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea, President Vladimir Putin signed a series of trade deals with China, including a $400 billion deal to export Russian gas to China. Since then, the two countries have also agreed to “co-ordinate” the development of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt. Beyond China’s need for energy and Russia’s need to replace trade with, and investment from, Europe, the two countries also share an interest in challenging U.S. power and in creating a “multipolar world”. So should the West worry about a relationship? And if so, how should it respond?