Learning the Wrong Lesson from Weimar

President Paul von Hindenburg and Chancellor Adolf Hitler of Germany en route to a May Day celebration in Berlin, May 1, 1933
President Paul von Hindenburg and Chancellor Adolf Hitler of Germany en route to a May Day celebration in Berlin, May 1, 1933 (Bundesarchiv)

Tyler Cowen argues in Politico that fascism cannot happen in America because its government is too large and too complex:

No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.”

Cowen then bases his argument on the size of government relative to the economy, citing estimates that Weimar Germany taxed and spent about a third of GDP.

I think this is misguided. Read more “Learning the Wrong Lesson from Weimar”

The Octopus in Political Cartoons

Octopuses are a popular trope in political art. They came in vogue in the 1870s, when Frederick W. Rose depicted Russia as a giant octopus lording over Eastern Europe. The sea monster was quickly given to Germany when it posed a bigger threat to peace in Europe. During the early Cold War, it was Russia’s turn again. The octopus was the perfect metaphor for spreading communism.

Here is a selection of the best and worst tentacled sea creatures. Read more “The Octopus in Political Cartoons”

How the Dutch Would Flood Their Country to Stop Invaders

Dutch soldiers conduct maneuvers on the Water Line
Dutch soldiers conduct maneuvers on the Water Line (De Spaarnestad/Wiel van der Randen)

Situated on the confluence of the Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt Rivers, there is little but water that separates the Netherlands from its more powerful neighbors.

One way the country managed to safeguard its early independence was through clever diplomacy. The Dutch allied with the English against the Spanish, with the Danes and the French against the English and with virtually all of Western Europe against the French.

When this failed, their only recourse was to retreat north of the rivers and flood the low country southeast of Amsterdam in order to protect Holland’s commercial capital from invasion.

This stopped the French in the Disaster Year of 1672, when the Dutch Republic was nearly overwhelmed by the combined forces of England, France and two German electors.

But the system failed when the French invaded again in the winter of 1794-95 and the “Water Line” had frozen. Read more “How the Dutch Would Flood Their Country to Stop Invaders”

Lines on a Map: Five Examples Worse Than Sykes-Picot

The centennial of the Sykes-Picot Agreement has flooded the better-informed parts of the Internet with everything from the depressingly familiar (blaming the treaty for all the Middle East’s problems) to the refreshingly critical. There seems to be more and more of the latter, which is heartening.

Sykes-Picot was after all not the only plan to partition the Ottoman Empire after World War I, as Middle East expert Adam Garfinkle writes in The American Interest. And blaming it, or any Western design, for imposing “artificial borders” on the region is a dangerous proposition, as the Atlantic Sentinel has argued. Taken to its logical conclusion, the idea that only borders that perfectly encompass certain ethnic groups are legitimate invites more conflict, not less.

The Middle East is not the only part of the world that can attest to that. Here are five examples where drawing lines on the map caused even bigger problems. Read more “Lines on a Map: Five Examples Worse Than Sykes-Picot”

Why the Middle East Never Went Secular

Presidents Houari Boumedienne of Algeria and Anwar Sadat of Egypt meet with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya for a conference, May 8, 1972
Presidents Houari Boumedienne of Algeria and Anwar Sadat of Egypt meet with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya for a conference, May 8, 1972 (Keystone/Getty Images)

The great struggles in the Middle East are tinged with religion: Sunni supremacists in the Islamic State, Shia supremacists in Tehran, Arabs and Jews waging war on one another over the old mandate of Palestine, to name just a few.

And yet, not so long ago, many Middle Eastern states were using the language of socialism, nationalism and even communism — “isms” that brook little competition from religion. Inconsistent, yes, but also truth of a wider trend: Once upon a time, many Arab states were actively switching their social glue from Islam to modern ideologies.

Consider the national anthem of the United Arab Emirates, whose notes were penned in 1971 and whose lyrics were written in 1996. Full of socialist and nationalist language, the anthem extols work, Arabism and the Emirati homeland. The Egyptian of 1971 cried out for Arab unity while Gaddafi’s Green Book was an odd hodgepodge of nationalism and socialism. The Palestinian Liberation Organization’s founding charter of 1964 doesn’t even mention Islam.

Algeria practiced Algerian socialism until the 1990s; the largest party today in Tunisia, Nidaa Tounes, draws heavily from secularism and socialism. Officially Arab socialist states included Mubarak’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq and Assad’s Syria. Even after a communist coup in 1971, Sudan continued to pursue socialism.

Once the United States fretted it was losing the Arab world to communism; now, hardly anyone even mutters the world “socialism.” The Middle East has taken a trajectory that seemed to aim for ideological parity with Europe to one that has gone almost entirely the opposite. Read more “Why the Middle East Never Went Secular”

Territorial Changes Shaped Polish Society

1945 map of a potential post-World War II partition of Poland
1945 map of a potential post-World War II partition of Poland (Time/Robert M. Chapin Jr.)

Poland’s historical changeability on the map of Europe has had a profound impact on its political and social composition. A century after it regained its independence, differences still exists between those parts of Poland that were annexed by Germans and those that were once part of Austria and Russia.

In the last few parliamentary and presidential elections, the political map of Poland could be drawn almost perfectly along the former borders of its occupiers. The liberal Civic Platform party won pluralities in almost all counties that were part of the German Empire until 1914. The conservative Law and Justice, by contrast, won most counties in the east. Read more “Territorial Changes Shaped Polish Society”

Oceania Has Always Been at War with Eurasia

Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders review an army parade in Moscow's Red Square, Russia, November 9, 1962
Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and other Soviet leaders review an army parade in Moscow’s Red Square, Russia, November 9, 1962 (Life/Stan Wayman)

Russia’s latest standoff with the West is already popularly seen as the beginning of another Cold War. In fact, the conflict’s origins go back much further. Geography and culture conspire to pit landpower Russia against the maritime civilizations of the West. The crisis in Ukraine has less to do with alleged promises about NATO expansion and a Russian government that needs to shore up its legitimacy; there is a certain inevitability about tension between the two sides that is unlikely to go away any time soon. Read more “Oceania Has Always Been at War with Eurasia”

Four Traditions Inform American Foreign Policy

Gerald Ford Henry Kissinger
American president Gerald Ford speaks with his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, outside the White House in Washington DC, August 16, 1974 (Thomas J. O’Halloran)

America has been ambivalent about its relations with the rest of the world since the birth of the republic. Its first president, George Washington, famously cautioned against foreign entanglements in his 1796 farewell speech. “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” he wondered.

The isolationist instinct was a core tenet of “Jeffersonian democracy,” named after the author of the American Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. It idealizes the yeoman farmer, free from corrupting city influences, as the defender of the republic and closely guards states’ rights. These republican values resonated especially in the semifeudal manorial society the Southern English Cavaliers had built in the greater Tidewater region. Read more “Four Traditions Inform American Foreign Policy”

Balancing Against Bigger Neighbors: Dutch Foreign Policy

American president Richard Nixon of the United States and King Baudouin of Belgium listen to a speech by NATO secretary general and former Dutch foreign minister Joseph Luns in Brussels, June 26, 1974
American president Richard Nixon of the United States and King Baudouin of Belgium listen to a speech by NATO secretary general and former Dutch foreign minister Joseph Luns in Brussels, June 26, 1974 (NATO)

Bordering perpetually feuding France and Germany and lacking clear natural frontiers, the Netherlands has had to carefully position itself as a nonthreatening middle power while helping to prevent any one country from menacing the whole of Western Europe.

Before America emerged as a protector in the second half of the twentieth century, the Dutch considered an alliance with Britain. Liberal and seafaring like itself, and posing no direct threat to Dutch security, such an entente seemed sensible except that it would surely have aroused German suspicions. A pact with Germany, on the other hand, would have alarmed the British and might even have convinced them to take over the Dutch colonies, as they had during the Napoleonic occupation — which would have been devastating. The Dutch East Indies provided as much as 15 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and gave the Netherlands disproportionate standing in international affairs as an imperial power.

Hence the Netherlands’ neutrality during World War I which neither the Allied nor Central Powers saw much gain in violating. With the two sides blockading each other’s trade, the neutral Dutch proved indispensable. Between 1915 and 1916, they accounted for half of Germany’s agricultural imports while oil from the Indies fueled the British Expeditionary Force. The Netherlands also provided flank cover to the Germans against an amphibious assault from the west while the British could hardly violate Dutch neutrality when they had entered the war to protect neutral Belgium.

But the country could not very well entrust its security to the goodwill of other powers that might one day calculate they stood more to gain than to lose from conquering the Netherlands. Unlike the Swiss, who could hold up in their mountains and whose territory was of little worth, the flat Netherlands could easily be invaded and was of tremendous economic and strategic value. Its fertile polders produced agricultural surpluses while the country commanded access to the Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt Rivers — which, in turn, connected Germany’s industrial Rhine-Ruhr conglomeration and the port of Antwerp with the rest of the world.

To guard their neutrality, the Dutch took a leading role in early global governance. They hosted the Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 in The Hague which set out to regulate disputes between states. The Permanent Court of Arbitration was settled in the same city which would later host the United Nations’ International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court as well. In 1919, the Netherlands was among the founding members of the League of Nations.

The central Dutch role in these early attempts at international law entrenched in the national identity an idealized perception of neutrality. Abraham Kuyper, who served as prime minister between the two Peace Conferences and was the country’s leading Calvinist theologist, proclaimed that the Netherlands fulfilled a missionary role in the world and would preserve the legal order by means of example. The Dutch began to see their country as unlike others. They had outgrown military ambitions and were concerned only with peaceful trade.

Others were not, however, and the Second World War proved a rude awakening. The German army overran the Netherlands in a single week and the occupation necessitated a rethinking of Dutch strategy.

After the war, the Dutch abandoned their neutrality and buried, at least for a while, their highminded notions of serving as a model to other nations. Instead, they anchored their diplomacy and security in the transatlantic relationship. The Dutch saw European integration — the Netherlands was one of the six founding member states of what would become the European Union — primarily as a means of securing access to markets and resisted attempts to come to a European defense policy independent of the United States.

In 1959, after Charles de Gaulle had become president of France and suggested Europe should position itself between the Soviet Union and the United States, Joseph Luns, the Netherlands’ top diplomat and later secretary general of NATO, warned that France was pushing for European integration “not because it wants the integration but because through the Europe of the Six it wants to conquer the group’s leadership.” The Dutch saw NATO’s primacy in European security, and Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1973, as a way to balance against French domination.

American president George H.W. Bush meets with Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers in The Hague, July 17, 1989
American president George H.W. Bush meets with Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers in The Hague, July 17, 1989 (Anefo/Rob Croes)

Even as the United States pressured the Netherlands into giving up its colonies in the Indies — to the point where Congress threatened to cut off Marshall Plan funds for the country’s postwar reconstruction — causing much resentment in The Hague, the Dutch saw themselves as loyal American allies throughout the Cold War. There was a broad crossparty consensus in favor of close transatlantic relations. Even cabinets that tilted toward the left largely backed American foreign policy in defiance of public opinion, from the Vietnam War to the placement of cruise missiles in the 1980s to the recent war in Afghanistan.

Only in the last few years — and after the Americans and the British accepted that a European defense policy need not weaken NATO — have Christian Democrat and progressive parties in the Netherlands warmed up to European defense cooperation. The political right still puts NATO first.

Foreign policy priorities since the turn of the century have included freedom of the seas and the promotion of human rights and peace abroad. The former is clearly in the interest of a maritime nation that depends heavily on trade. The latter stems from both a desire to prove to the Americans that the Netherlands can punch above its weight and a returned sense of mission.

Emphasis tends to shift between economic and security imperatives on the one hand and this desire to better the world on the other. When one government — typically those that include the Labor Party — leans too strongly toward the latter, the next — usually including the pro-business liberals — invariably gives priority to commercials interests which critics will say comes at the expense of developmental aid and the promotion of human rights. The Dutch characterize this recurring conflict as one between the dominee and the koopman, or between the minister and the merchant.

Some see no conflict at all. As recently as 2008, Maxime Verhagen, a Christian Democrat and then foreign minister, wrote not only of a “moral obligation” to promote human rights but argued, “Values and interests really go hand in hand.” Although he was quick to point out that the government’s constitutional requirement to “promote the development of the international legal order” — unusual in itself — surely came second to safeguarding Dutch security and prosperity. Even the dominee understands preaching only gets you so far.