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Don’t betray us, Barack — end the empire

The film director Oliver Stone and the historian Peter Kuznick on how the US president can learn fro

"Suddenly, a season of peace seems to be warming the world," the New York Times exulted on the last day of July 1988. Protracted and bloody wars were ending in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and Nicaragua, and between Iran and Iraq. But the most dramatic development was still to come.

In December 1988, the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, declared the cold war over. "The use or threat of force no longer can or must be an instrument of foreign policy," he said. "This applies above all to nuclear arms."

He proposed cutting offensive strategic arms in half, jointly safeguarding the environment, banning weapons in outer space, ending exploitation of the third world and cancelling third world debt payments. He called for a UN-brokered ceasefire in Afghanistan, acknowled­ging that, after nine years, the Russians had failed to defeat the Afghan insurgents despite deploying 100,000 troops.

Still, he was not finished. He held out an olive branch to the incoming administration of George H W Bush, offering a "joint effort to put an end to an era of wars".

The New York Times described Gorbachev's riveting, hour-long speech as the greatest act of statesmanship since Roosevelt and Churchill's Atlantic Charter in 1941. The Washington Post called it "a speech as remarkable as any ever delivered at the United Nations".

Gorbachev saw this as a new beginning for America, Russia and the world, but US policymakers had something very different in mind, hailing it as the triumph of the capitalist west after the long decades of the cold war.

In September 1990, Michael Mandelbaum, then director of east-west studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, rejoiced that "for the first time in 40 years we can conduct military operations in the Middle East without worrying about triggering World War III".

The US would soon test that hypothesis, beginning two decades of costly and destructive imperial overreach, particularly, but not exclusively, in the Middle East. It squandered a historic opportunity to make the world a more peaceful and just place, instead declaring itself the global hegemon. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the entire gaggle of neocons was extolling American power and beneficence. "We are an attractive empire, the one everyone wants to join," crowed the military historian Max Boot.

Buzzsaw of opposition

Fast-forward to 2008, when Barack Obama swept to office on a wave of popular euphoria, mesmerising supporters with his inspiring biography, lofty and exhilarating rhetoric, welcome rejection of unilateralism and strong opposition to the Iraq war - qualities that made him seem the antithesis of George W Bush.

Bush and his empire-building advisers - the sorriest crew ever to run this country - had saddled him and the American people with an incredible mess. After two long and disastrous wars, trillions of dollars in military spending, torture and abuse of prisoners on several continents, an economic collapse and near-depression at home, disparities between rich and poor unheard of in an advanced industrial country, government surveillance on an unprecedented scale, collapsing infrastructure and a global reputation left in tatters, the US did not look all that attractive.

Obama has taken a bad situation and, in many ways, made it worse. He got off to a good start, immediately taking steps to reverse some of Bush's most outlandish policies - pledging to end torture and close the detention facility at Guantanamo as well as the network of CIA-administered secret prisons.

But he ran into a buzzsaw of opposition from opportunistic Republicans and conservative Democrats over these and other progressive measures and has been in retreat ever since. As a result, his first two years in office have been a disappointment.

Instead of modelling himself after Gorba­chev and boldly championing deeply felt convictions and transformative policies, Obama has taken a page from the Bill (and Hillary) Clinton playbook and governed as a right-leaning centrist. While trying naively to ingratiate himself with an opposition bent solely on his defeat, he has repeatedly turned his back on those who put him in office.

Surrounding himself with Wall Street-friendly advisers and military hawks, he has sent more than 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan; bailed out Wall Street banks while paying scant attention to the plight of the poor and working class; and enacted a tepid version of health reform that, while expanding coverage, represented a boondoggle for the insurance industry. And he has continued many of Bush's civil rights abuses, secrecy obsessions and neoliberal policies that allow the continued looting of the real economy by those who are obscenely wealthy.

Obama has also endorsed a military/security budget that continues to balloon. Recent accounting by Christopher Hellman of the National Priorities Project found that the US spends over $1.2trn out of its $3trn annual budget on "national security", when all related expenses are factored in.
Still, triumphalist rhetoric abounds. "People are wondering what the future holds, at home and abroad," Hillary Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations. "So let me say it clearly: the United States can, must and will lead in this new century."

Despite such blather, the US has been relegated to the role of a supporting actor in the extraordinary democratic upheaval sweeping the Middle East. Decades of arming, training and supporting practically every "friendly" dictator in the region and the use of Egyptians as surrogate torturers have stripped the US of all moral authority.

Backbone required

Whatever good may have been done by Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009 has been outweighed by US policy, capped by the indefensible US veto of the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory as not only illegal, but an obstacle to peace. (The resolution was sponsored by at least 130 nations and supported by all 14 other members of the Security Council.)

Nor can anyone take seriously the US outrage about repressive regimes using force against their citizens after US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have directly or indirectly been responsible for the killing and maiming of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the forced emigration of millions.
Where the foreign policy establishment sees only international peril, Obama should see an opportunity - the chance to reinvent himself - to reconnect with the Barack Obama who marched against nuclear weapons while at college and then promised to abolish them in a speech he gave in Prague in April 2009.

He should look to John F Kennedy for precedent. After two nearly disastrous years in office, Kennedy underwent a stunning reversal, repudiating the reckless cold war militarism that defined his early presidency. The Kennedy who was tragically assassinated in November 1963 was looking to end not only the US invasion of Vietnam, but the cold war.

We know from Bob Woodward that during policy discussions regarding Afghanistan, Obama was often the least bellicose person in the room. He has much to learn from Kennedy's scepticism towards military advisers and intelligence officials. As Kennedy told another celebrated journalist, Ben Bradlee: "The first advice I'm going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that, just because they are military men, their opinions on military matters are worth a damn."

There are many ways in which Obama can begin overseeing the end of the American empire and the insane militarism that undergirds it. He has been urged to do so by none other than Mikhail Gorbachev, who has pressed Obama to stiffen his spine and pursue bold initiatives. "America needs perestroika right now," Gorba­chev said, "because the problems he has to deal with are not easy ones."

The former Soviet leader's solutions included restructuring the economy to eliminate the kind of unregulated free-market policies that caused the current global economic downturn and perpetuate the unconscionable gap between the world's rich and poor.

But, Gorbachev warned, the US can no longer dictate to the rest of the world: "Everyone is used to America as the shepherd that tells everyone what to do. But this period has already ended." He has condemned the Clinton and Bush administrations' dangerous militarisation of international politics and urged the US to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Obama, having wrapped himself even more tightly of late in his cocoon of Wall Street- and empire-friendly advisers, has shown no inclination to heed Gorbachev's advice. He would be wise to do so, because the older man oversaw the dismantling of the USSR in a smoother and more peaceful way than anyone believed possible, and so knows something about bringing the curtain down on a dysfunctional empire that has long overstayed its welcome.

If Obama would seize the opportunity for peace that the Bushes and Clintons seem so intent on strangling in its cradle, perhaps the vision that Gorbachev so brilliantly articulated in 1988 can finally become a reality.

Filmmaker Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick, Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, along with teacher Matt Graham, are finishing a 12-hour documentary "The Forgotten History of the United States," covering the period from 1900 to 2010. This will be premiered later this year in the United States from Showtime. Sky Television is scheduled to premiere the series in the United Kingdom.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism