Burma’s General Ne Win–A Political Biography

November 26, 2015

Book Review

General Ne Win–A Political Biography

NeWin-200Robert H Taylor, General Ne Win: A Political Biography, (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2015)

Reviewed by Frank Milne

Ne Win, the dictator of Burma from 1962 to 1988, looms large in the nation’s modern history and memory. With historic free and fair elections – the first in 25 years – having just taken place, one wonders what he would think of the country today.

As he died while under house arrest in 2002, we can’t ask Ne Win about his nation’s political transformation. However, in Robert H Taylor’s General Ne Win, we are provided with an illuminating and important study of one of Burma’s most controversial political figures.

This excellent biography addresses Ne Win’s career and his place in Burmese political movements in the 20th century. It is a thoroughly researched account of the period. There is less information about his personal life and views outside politics, as he left no collection of papers, and contemporary accounts were mostly written by those who had fallen out with him.

I served in the Australian Embassy in Burma for two separate periods (1963–65 as Second Secretary and 1982-86 as Ambassador) which book-ended the Ne Win period. The earlier period was gloomy, as the economy was dislocated by wholesale nationalisation, political opponents were jailed, political parties banned, and the press strictly controlled. Burmese officials went to ground, and contact with foreigners was restricted.

I had one opportunity to meet Ne Win at a small lunch he gave for the Australian Foreign Minister Paul Hasluck in May 1965. His conversation over lunch was genial but general, though he did not conceal his low opinion of the Burmese people’s capacity for sustained effort, and the need for a firm government hand.

Ne Win was not simply a general who staged a coup d’état as a road to power and fortune. His lifelong commitment was to the unity of Burma and its independence from foreign political or economic control. In the 1930s, well before his military career, he was politically active in the nationalist association Dobama Asiayon pursuing independence from British colonial rule. He was one of the Thirty Comrades trained by the Japanese, to form the nucleus of the Japanese-controlled Burma Independence Army. This later became the Burma Defence Army, which in 1945 turned to the allied side against the Japanese.

In the internal upheavals before and after Independence in 1948, Ne Win, now one of the senior figures in the new Burmese army, played a major part in defending U Nu’s socialist government against ethnic insurgents, and Communist rebels.

Taylor’s book provides a rigorous account of the roller coaster ride that followed.

In 1949, now supreme commander of the armed forces, Ne Win was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Home and Defence Minister, but resigned his ministerial positions in 1950 to concentrate on the armed forces.  His brief cabinet experience gave him distaste for party politicians whom he regarded as preferring self-interest above the national interest. This jaundiced view of politicians was shared by his subordinates in the Army for the next 50 years.

In 1958 a split in the ruling party led to a constitutional crisis. This was resolved in 1959 by Ne Win taking charge as caretaker prime minister to restore order before new elections.  Ne Win ensured that the army remained politically neutral, but was not prepared to let the communists come to power, when it seemed that U Nu was prepared to make concessions to win their support. His nonpartisan and technocratic government provided a period of stability, but the 1960 elections won by U Nu’s Union Party did not provide a lasting solution.

Amid growing political unrest and dissension, and concerned for the future of the Union if U Nu were to grant greater autonomy to the ethnic minorities, Ne Win took power in a sudden and largely bloodless coup in March 1962. He did not follow the policy of his previous caretaker government, but embarked on a new socialist revolution and a one party system under his leadership – The Burmese Way to Socialism.

Though he was not a Marxist, and indeed was strongly opposed to the Burmese communists, he regarded Marxist methods as a useful means of establishing the control needed to get the easy-going Burmese people to become self-reliant, develop the country and protect their own culture. He was above all concerned to protect the integrity of the Union of Burma against foreign and domestic challenges.

By 1982 Ne Win had handed over the Presidency to San Yu, though he remained a controlling presence as Party Chairman. He no longer had any contact with foreign missions. The socialist revolution was then running out of steam, and its first rigours were somewhat relaxed, but the economy was at low ebb. The ethnic insurgency rumbled on in the background, though the communists, now confined to the northern border area, now longer posed a serious threat.

In the epilogue summing up Ne Win’s career, Taylor notes that the Ne Win revolution was not bloody but it was admittedly not cost-free. On the credit side he suggests that Ne Win did create a nation with the resilience from its own resources to withstand over 20 years of economic sanctions. He succeeded in his principal foreign policy aim of keeping Burma out of external entanglements and free of foreign political and economic influences, although at the expense of opportunities foregone.

He was prepared to accept the cost of rejecting foreign loans or assistance that came with strings. He did not want Burma to be enrolled in either side in the cold war, with the risk of exposing the country to the sort of great power conflict which ravaged the countries of Indochina. He was equally suspicious of Chinese intentions and the potential for United States interference. He carried his policy of neutralism to the extent of abandoning the non-aligned movement when he considered it had abandoned its founding principles.

His economic policies were not successful. Taylor points out that many social indicators such as literacy, infant mortality and basic health care improved under Ne Win. However such improvement might well have been greater under a more pragmatic economic regime. Partly because of the insurgency, expenditure on the Armed Forces greatly exceeded the funds devoted to health and education. Whether a more flexible government might have been able to negotiate a better and less expensive settlement with the ethnic minorities without breaking up the Union is another question. But Ne Win normally preferred the stick to the carrot.

Taylor notes that by persisting in failed policies long after it became clear that they had failed, the government did less than it could have done to reverse Burma’s economic decline. He suggests that Ne Win knew the policy of Socialist autarchy had failed, but feared the alternative of re-engaging with the world economy, partly because those around him were averse to change and those he had to work with had been cut off from knowledge of the new ideas and new developments in economic theory and the sciences by the country’ self-imposed isolation.

He also feared that the Burmese people, despite cajoling and coercion, might not resist the temptations of a new foreign economic invasion. But a more productive economic policy would surely have been possible without harmful foreign entanglements, if the government had been prepared to listen to better advice.

Despite Ne Win’s genuinely patriotic intentions, the end result of his regime was to keep Burma in a time warp for over 40 years, from which it is only now starting to emerge. The consequences of his political career, make Taylor’s book a must read.

Frank Milne was Australian Ambassador to Burma from 1982-86.


The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science

November 22, 2015

NY Times Sunday Book Review

The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science

by David Leonhardt*


ChicagonomicsHe believed that government had a crucial role to play in a well-functioning economy. It should finance and run good schools, as well as build roads, bridges and parks, he argued. It should tax alcohol, sugar and tobacco, all of which impose costs on society. It should regulate businesses to protect workers. And it should tax the rich — who suffer from “indolence and vanity” — to help the poor.

Which leftist economist was this? None other than Adam Smith, the inventor of the “invisible hand” and the icon of ­laissez-faire economics today. Smith’s modern reputation is a caricature. He was a giant of the Enlightenment in large part because he was a careful and nuanced thinker. He certainly believed that a market economy was a powerful force for good. The exchange of goods and services, as he explained, could lift living standards and free 18th-century Europeans from the tight strictures of tradition and government. Yet he did not have a religious faith in the market. Smith was a classical liberal, in the European sense of the word, who emphasized the essential equality among human beings.

Lanny Ebenstein’s mission, in “Chicagonomics,” is to rescue not only Smith from his caricature but also some of Smith’s modern-day acolytes: the economists who built the so-called Chicago school of economics, chief among them Milton ­Friedman. From their home base at the University of Chicago, these economists became influential around the world. They provided much of the intellectual ballast for the free-market revolution of the late 20th century. They advised Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, became gurus to reformers in post-Communist Eastern Europe and elsewhere and inspired others in China, India and the rest of Asia.

Milton Friedman

As the list of their protégés makes clear, Friedman and his allies were politically conservative, pushing against state control of industry much as Smith had. But Ebenstein argues that the message of the Chicago school has nonetheless been perverted in recent years. Many members of the Chicago school subscribed to “classical liberalism,” in Ebenstein’s preferred term, rather than “contemporary libertarianism.” Classical liberalism manages to grasp two different ideas: The state’s economic role can — and often has — ­become too large, but that does not mean its role should be as small as possible. Indeed, the state can become marginalized to the point of undermining the larger goals that Smith, Friedman and others championed, including freedom, prosperity and equality.

Ebenstein, the son of a political scientist who taught briefly at the University of Chicago, has written 10 books on economic and political history, including biographies of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. With this book, he joins a group of detractors of modern-day American conservatism who are sympathetic to many of the ideas of conservatism but harshly critical of how it is now practiced.

“Contemporary libertarianism too often denotes cranky obscurantism, intolerance, irrelevance and, frankly, poor scholarship and the manipulation of data, although these are not always the case or unique to it,” he writes. “There is no reason to compromise on anything. They are utopians working toward and often living in a mythical land, ‘Libertania.’ ” Anyone who watched the House Republicans devour their own leaders — and prevent Congress from functioning — will recognize the description.

The radicalization and nihilism of much of modern American conservatism is worrisome for many reasons, not least the important role that actual conservatism has played in recent decades and could play today. Friedman, after all, was a deeply creative thinker who shaped numerous policy successes, as did many of his brethren. (Although, Ebenstein notes, Friedman himself tilted toward zealotry in his later years.) The rise of market economies in Asia has led to perhaps the most rapid and widespread decline in poverty in human history. Friedman also argued for the end to the military draft, for flexible currency exchange rates and for a negative income tax to combat poverty, which became the earned-income tax credit.

Dani RodrikDani Rodrik, a Harvard economics professor, has written a much less political book than Ebenstein has, titled “Economics Rules,” in which he sets out to explain the discipline to outsiders (and does a nice job). Yet in surveying the larger “rights and wrongs” of economics, to quote his subtitle, Rodrik has diagnosed the central mistake that contemporary libertarians have made: They have conflated ideas that often make sense with those that always make sense.

Some of this confusion is deliberate. By pushing for less government, regardless of the situation, contemporary libertarians act as a kind of lobbyist working on behalf of the affluent. Less government tends to mean lower taxes for the people with the most money to lose to taxes. Less government also means cuts to schools, and health-insurance and retirement programs on which the affluent do not depend.

But not all of the analytical errors of libertarianism are so cynical. Some stem from the honest intellectual mistake of confusing a good idea with the good idea. Because Rodrik’s focus is economics, he frames this mistake in terms of theoretical models, which are a central tool of both social science and natural science. Rodrik compares them, somewhat impishly, to fables, but he means the comparison as a compliment to both.

“What are economic models?” he asks. “The easiest way to understand them is as simplifications designed to show how specific mechanisms work by isolating them from other, confounding effects. A model focuses on particular causes and seeks to show how they work their effects through the system.” A fable, similarly, trades complexity and comprehensiveness for a clear but still true lesson.

The trouble comes when economists — and the rest of us — try to make such a lesson universal. Universality has its place in the physical sciences but rarely in the social sciences. “We cannot look to economics for universal explanations or prescriptions that apply regardless of context,” Rodrik writes. “The possibilities of social life are too diverse to be squeezed into unique frameworks.”

The lure of universality is not a uniquely right-wing phenomenon, of course. The left and center suffer from it, too. Liberals, for instance, can slip from believing that government is often necessary into believing that it is inherently effective — and defend public schools and anti-poverty programs that ill serve the poor. Centrists sometimes leap from the reasonable judgment that neither political party has a monopoly on the truth to the unreasonable one that the truth on any one issue lies roughly halfway between the extremes.

That last point has a particular relevance to modern American politics, and to the problems Ebenstein describes. While all political ideologies (not to mention all human beings) are susceptible to over learning a lesson, the damages from that mistake come mostly from the right half of the spectrum in the United States today. The political right has spent five years wrongly predicting hyperinflation and, in the process, kept the federal government from doing more to combat unemployment. There are similar stories about climate policy, tax policy, health care and even voting rights and voter fraud.

Reducing complex issues to their essence is unavoidable. The alternative is an often paralyzing level of detail. Rodrik cites a story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science,” about a mythical empire in which the mapmakers could not tolerate any oversimplification.

Ultimately, they created a map as large as the empire itself, which is no more useful than a map consisting of a single tiny dot — or an economic philosophy that offers only one answer, no matter the question. As Rodrik says, quoting an adage often attributed to Einstein, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

*David Leonhardt, a writer and editor at The Times, previously wrote the paper’s Economic Scene column.

A version of this review appears in print on November 22, 2015, on page BR25 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Market Correction.

Book Review: Jon Meacham’s ‘Destiny and Power

November 10, 2015

Book Review: Jon Meacham’s ‘Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush’

by Jim Kelly


ORG XMIT: S0347542918_STAFF 1-18-1999.. Former President George H. W. Bush stands next to his son, Governor George W. Bush, at the Governor's mansion in Austin, Texas on 1-18-99. [ bush41 ]

George H. W. Bush is unusual among modern American presidents in that after he left the White House in 1993 he never produced his own full-scale autobiography. True, he co-wrote a book about his administration’s foreign policy with Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, and then allowed a collection of his letters and diary excerpts to be published. But he showed no interest in writing the kind of doorstopper others have given us, nothing on the order of “RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon,” “Ronald Reagan: An American Life” or Bill Clinton’s “My Life.” Even Hillary Clinton, who may yet be president and thus get her own chance to add to the genre, has already written two thick memoirs, either of which, if you accidentally dropped it on your foot, might leave you limping.

It is a measure of Bush’s shrewdness that he cooperated so extensively with Jon Meacham on “Destiny and Power,” allowing his biographer not just access to his diaries and family members but sitting for a series of interviews from 2006 to 2015. Meacham — an executive editor at Random House, a former editor of Newsweek and the author of “American Lion,” a well-told account of Andrew Jackson’s presidency that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 — amply rewards his subject’s trust by producing a deeply empathetic, often moving book about the former president and what Bush calls the L-word, his legacy.

Book on G. W.H. Bush

How does the reader fare in this affectionate transaction between president and biographer? Surprisingly well, since Meacham’s access and lack of ideological fervor allow him to paint Bush the man in unusually subtle colors. Bush, called “41” by friends to distinguish him from his son, the 43rd president, emerges from this book as more ambitious, more anxious and far more emotional than commonly perceived. He could easily give former House Speaker John Boehner a run for his money in the Kleenex sweepstakes.

Bush, who is now 91, also comes across as an acute and often witty observer of other people’s quirks; his anecdotes of touring Asia with Bill Clinton may be the most hilarious description of 42’s charm and egotism (“He talks all the time,’’ Bush 41 notes. “He’s just shameless”) I have ever read. And thanks to Meacham’s adroit questioning, Bush drops his customary refusal to second-guess his son’s administration and offers a devastating critique of Vice- President Dick Cheney, an analysis that carries special weight since Bush himself served in that office during the Reagan years.

Raised in privilege, Bush is known to be allergic to introspection, and try as he might, Meacham unearths no “Rosebud” moment that illuminates what propelled Bush throughout his career. Perhaps it really is as simple as what Bush, in his telegraphic style, tells Meacham: “My motivation’s always been goal . . . you know, to be captain.” Pressed further, Bush is not exactly expansive: “Whatever you’re in. Be No. 1.” Bush’s father, Prescott, served as United States senator from Connecticut, but Bush did not inherit the political bug so much as the itch, as Meacham puts it, “to serve, to make his mark, to be in the game.” Despite his self-effacing style, Bush never doubted he was the best man for a job, whether it was as president of a Texas oil company, a twice-elected congressman (and failed Senate candidate) or in résumé-building positions under Nixon and Gerald Ford: United States ambassador to the United Nations, America’s envoy to China and head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Meacham’s admiration leads him to glide quickly over some of Bush’s more controversial decisions, like his nomination of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. Meacham is toughest on Bush for insisting in 1987 that he had been “not in the loop” on the Reagan administration’s arms-for-hostages deal, a lie that clearly appalls the author. But even then Meacham writes more in sorrow than anger, describing the incident as “unworthy of his essential character.”

This sympathetic approach allows Meacham to draw out Bush on the most emotional moments of his life and tell them with dramatic verve. In 1944, when he was 20, during one of the dozens of bombing missions Bush flew as a naval aviator, his plane was hit and Bush ordered his two fellow crewmen to “hit the silk!” After hours of bobbing about on a life raft in the Pacific, Bush was rescued by a submarine, but the other crewmen were never found. Decades later Bush teared up as he told Meacham, “I wondered — wonder still — whether I did all I could.”

The worst tragedy of Bush’s life was the death from leukemia at age 3 of his daughter, Robin, his second child. Neither George nor his wife, Barbara, had even heard of leukemia when their doctor in Midland, Tex., gave them the news, and what followed was months of painful treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York. George W. was 6 and Jeb less than 1, and they stayed at home in Texas with their father while Barbara remained in New York. Bush sobbed as he discussed Robin with Meacham, and admitted that the grief remained so deep that “normally I push it away, push it back.”

Bush has never been accused of eloquence, and on two occasions when he did utter memorable phrases, they backfired. The colorful description of Reagan’s tax proposals as “voodoo economics” during the 1980 Republican primary campaign nearly wrecked his chances of becoming Reagan’s running mate that year. His pledge at the 1988 Republican convention, “Read my lips: No new ­taxes,” may have helped him into the White House, but when the threat of a government shutdown two years later forced him to backtrack, the reversal cost him dearly.

Yet one time his choice of words set the course for the singular achievement of his presidency, and it was unscripted. After Saddam Hussein overran Kuwait in August 1990, the administration and its allies were at a loss on how to react. Options were still being bandied about when Bush, arriving from Camp David on a Sunday afternoon and frustrated by the diplomatic shilly-shallying, announced to reporters: “This will not stand. This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” Such an adamant statement shocked even his closest advisers. “Where’d you get that ‘This will not stand’?” Scowcroft asked. “That’s mine,” Bush replied. “That’s what I feel.”

This was Bush at his best: decisive, in charge, imbued with a mission. Can you be a born leader but not an effective president? That is the central question of the one-term Bush presidency, and Meacham tiptoes around a definitive answer. The flagging economy did not interest Bush as much as foreign policy did, and his hatred for campaigning to win a second term culminated in a disastrous ­presidential-debate performance against Clinton and Ross Perot, in which he stumbled over answers and looked at his watch. Meacham makes a persuasive case that Bush’s persistent health problems (his thyroid medication for Graves’ disease needed constant adjustment, and he had bouts of atrial fibrillation) contributed to his defeat, sapping his energy on the trail and making him snappish and cranky.

Bush took the loss hard, awash with those lifelong fears of letting down people who depended on him and of leaving a mission unaccomplished. “God, it was ghastly,” he told Meacham. “Your whole life is based on trying to accomplish stuff, and losing hurts.” But what also stung was who he lost to: a man he considered a “draft dodger” for avoiding service during the Vietnam War, an observation Meacham is too polite to say would dog Bush’s own son. So much for “duty, honor, country,” Bush wrote in his diary.

History has a way of making what happens look predictable in hindsight, but given Bush’s decisive drubbing by Clinton in 1992, it remains remarkable that eight years later George H. W. Bush would become, as Meacham puts it, “the only president since John Adams to see his son also win the ultimate prize in American politics.” Nearly all of Bush the elder’s friends thought the more studious Jeb had a better shot at the Oval Office than George W.; even James A. Baker, the secretary of state, had once jokingly described the older son as a “juvenile delinquent, damn near.”

Meacham interviewed both father and sons about the perception, and George W. is the most forthright, acknowledging he was a “cutup” and “irreverent,” uninterested in putting down roots. “It’s totally different from Jeb, who falls in love early and gets married in college and has babies early. He’s just a different kind of person.” His father is more succinct, using a barnyard epithet to dismiss “the whole idea that Jeb was the favorite one because he was more knowledgeable. . . . I thought Jeb had a better chance to win than George.” The 1994 gubernatorial elections in Texas and Florida settled the question, at least around the Bush dining room table: George W. won, surprisingly, and Jeb, just as surprisingly, lost. (Jeb would prevail in 1998 and serve eight years. Stay tuned to see if George H. W. Bush outdoes Adams on the offspring-in-the-Oval-Office front.)

Bush 43’s two-term presidency is the subject for a different book, but Meacham deftly sketches what the son learned from his father’s tenure, which included maintaining his conservative and religious base and above all projecting a vision. Meacham explores in depth how some of these lessons shaped Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, including how much he consulted his dad (more than he admitted, Meacham implies) and that contrary to some reports there was no daylight between the two men on the decision to oust Saddam Hussein militarily.

Where Meacham breaks new and startling ground is reporting how needlessly harsh Bush 41 thought the rhetoric was, including Bush 43’s characterization in 2002 of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” And for that tone Bush 41 largely blames Dick Cheney, defense secretary during his own administration and a man Bush 41 believed had grown more hawkish over time, perhaps because of the influence of his wife, Lynne, who, Bush 41 speculates, is “a lot of the éminence grise here — iron-ass, tough as nails, driving.”

Cheney “had his own empire there and marched to his own drummer,” Bush says. “The big mistake that was made was letting Cheney bring in kind of his own state department. I think they overdid that. But it’s not Cheney’s fault, it’s the president’s fault.”

Meacham shows a transcript of these remarks first to Cheney and then to Bush 43. “A small smile” crossed Cheney’s face as he read them. “Fascinating,” he said. He acknowledged that he did become more hard-line after 9/11, and insisted that the way he structured the office of the vice presidency, so unlike the way Bush did under Reagan, was because Bush 43 wanted it like that. “W. is the one who made the decisions. To the extent I was a consequential vice president is because that’s what he wanted.”

Bush 43 seems more taken aback by the comments than Cheney, insisting that his father “would never say to me, ‘Hey, you need to rein in Cheney. He’s ruining your administration.’ It would be out of character for him to do that.” It is hard to tell how stung Bush 43 is by these remarks, since he quickly adds that “in any event, I disagree with his characterization.” Yet Meacham wisely points out that by the second term Bush had clipped Cheney’s wings and become less bellicose. “Though they never spoke of it, then, Bush 41 and Bush 43 may have been more in sync all along than even they knew.”

“Destiny and Power” reflects the qualities of both subject and biographer: judicious, balanced, deliberative, with a deep appreciation of history and the personalities who shape it. If Meacham is sometimes polite to a fault, “Destiny and Power” does not suffer for it. His kinder, gentler approach succeeds in making George H. W. Bush a more sympathetic — and more complex — figure than if the former president had written his own doorstopper after all.

Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time magazine from 2001 to 2006, is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

A version of this review appears in print on November 12, 2015, on page BR12 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Patriarch. Today’s Paper





When the Facts Change: Essays by Tony Judt Review

November 3, 2015

When the Facts Change: Essays by Tony Judt Review

by Nicholas Lezard–The Guardian

Director of the Remarque Institute Tony Judt in 2002
Tony Judt


The title, as you may know, comes from John Maynard Keynes, and continues: “I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” This can be irritating when used by people who presume the high moral position but have not actually changed their minds. There are one or two big things, however, that the historian Tony Judt changed his mind about, and in this superb collection of essays, which consists mainly of substantial reviews from the New York and London Reviews of Books, we can track at least one of them.

Judt's Book

Judt used to be a Marxist Zionist, but then he changed into a social democrat, and one quite prepared to criticise Israel. In 2003 he wrote an essay for the New York Review of Books in which he said a state that founded itself on ethnic identity was an anachronism, and that “unless something changes, Israel in half a decade will be neither Jewish nor democratic”. He called for Israel to become a binational state, and consequently suffered a firestorm of denigration. Judt was himself Jewish, albeit not religiously observant. His widow, Jennifer Homans, tells in her introduction of the time he went to a bar mitzvah in New York and “was indignant and a bit offended, but mostly confused” when he arrived at the synagogue to find he was the only guest wearing a hat. “What kind of Jews were these?” he asked. This may not convince his detractors, but I find it touching nevertheless.

In 2009, a year before his death, he wrote an essay, published here for the first time, in which he abandoned his earlier idea as unworkable and possibly dangerous, coming down in favour of a two-state solution that was, he said, paraphrasing Churchill, the worst possible outcome, apart from all the others.

As for that other change of mind, the shift from Marxism to social democracy, that’s less remarkable, especially if you had been paying attention during the cold war. As wars go, it wasn’t that bad – if you were living in the west. Judt concedes this, with a penetrating eye for the realpolitik of the day, reminding us of how various crises over Berlin stopped with the building of the Wall, “when the Great Powers, whatever they said in public, heaved a private sigh of relief”. You may say that’s cynical, but it has the ring of truth.

Judt, it emerges, was unafraid of getting into a fight. He had no time for George W Bush and his administration, as several essays here attest; and, having been based in America since the late 1980s, was well placed to see what was happening on the ground, while still being able to see the wider context across the Atlantic; he was pro-European and able to translate his own doctoral thesis into French (France was a special interest of his).

There is a scathing review of Norman Davies’s 1996 Europe: A History. It’s one of those pieces where one historian has been set on another, as in a dogfight. When you read the sentence “Davies’s book displays evidence of wide reading and a real enthusiasm for its subject” you can tell that it won’t be long before the gloves come off and the knuckledusters go on, as numerous factual errors are exposed and – a nice touch this – the author under review is compared to Mr Toad (“the clever men at Oxford / know all that there is to be knowed,” etc).

Some of these essays seem very much of their time, and the ones dealing with US foreign policy under George W. Bush are particularly outraged – but Judt used his knowledge of the past to help us make sense of what’s happening now. And it is always worth reading a historian who does not have an ideological agenda but understands what it means to have one.

Book Review: Margaret Thatcher by Charles Moore

October 28, 2015

Margaret Thatcher by Charles Moore


Margaret Thatcher It is not easy to assess objectively a book of more than 800 pages about events in which one played some part oneself. This second volume of Charles Moore’s authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher is no bedside book, nor would it fit easily into a briefcase for reading on the train. Nor am I convinced that organising the chapters by theme, rather than telling the story as a series of consecutive events, makes it any easier for the reader.

On the other hand, if the prime purpose of biography is to bring its subject to life, there can be no doubt that Moore has succeeded. The book is an immensely detailed account of Thatcher’s life, as she saw it, from the summer of 1982 in the aftermath of the Falklands through to the general elections of 1983 and 1987.

During the 13 years I worked for Margaret Thatcher, I found her on the whole to be reasonably predictable, provided one remembered that she was the daughter of a grocer from middle England, a devout nonconformist Christian and a scientist by training. The scientist in her came out when she would stop a discussion on a policy issue with the words: “Gentlemen, shall we have the facts first and then the discussion.” But she would always be thinking of the moral imperative, not merely what was expedient. So she opposed economic sanctions against the old apartheid government in South Africa, despite the abuse that brought upon her, because she knew sanctions would bring poverty and violence to the very people they were supposed to help.

As a journalist, Moore observed Thatcher throughout her time as Prime Minister. Then, having been commissioned as her official biographer, he moved from watching her on the field of political battle to looking over her shoulder. He goes deep into her uncertainties: not just over her colleagues’ loyalty, but about whether they were even capable of carrying through complex legislation such as that required for the privatisation of BT.

Moore’s technique is compelling, but at times I think it leads to a loss of objectivity about the world she inhabited. The uninformed reader might come to believe that the whole of government was a sprawling battle between Thatcher and a changing cast of advisers without responsibilities on the one hand, and a deadbeat civil service and the mostly overrated ministers more concerned with their personal ambitions than their briefs, on the other.

In reality, while Thatcher was Prime Minister, government across the board went calmly on. Policies were developed, green papers were firmed up into white papers and Cabinet committees approved draft legislation without any help from the advisers clamouring for the ear of the PM.

Early on, Thatcher wisely consulted outsiders, notably business people of substance. However, as Moore’s narrative shows, those were progressively replaced by largely sycophantic individuals of little experience but great ambition who fed her insecurities and fears with tales that her colleagues were constantly plotting to bring her down.

Margaret Thatcher

Nowhere was this more clear than over the motor industry. In 1981, I had helped Keith Joseph to develop a strategy that comprised both a progressive privatisation of British Leyland and Jaguar (as opposed to a shutdown), and brought Nissan, a world-class manufacturer, to Sunderland. When I took over the Department of Trade and Industry in 1983, I returned to the task – only to be frustrated, as Thatcher took advice not from me, although it was I who had to carry it through Parliament, but from her troupe of advisers. As Moore recalls, I told her that while I would do any job in government or none, I would not carry a title and responsibility if she chose to take the advice of others who took neither. That she accepted, but it was not long before I was moved to be chairman of the Conservative Party, where I had to put up with another pack of meddlers.

For me, the best parts of this book are not about the battles Margaret Thatcher was encouraged to pick with me over the motor industry, nor the hysteria generated within the entirely successful general election campaigns of 1983 and 1987, but those in which I was not a player.

Gorbachev was taken aback by her almost flirtatious approach

Above all, I was enthralled by Moore’s account of her early meetings with Gorbachev. She was still sore with President Reagan over the Falklands and the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, which perhaps prompted her to look more closely at this rising and rather unusual Russian. She was open-minded enough to see that Gorbachev was far more realistic than others in the Kremlin about the Soviet Union’s relative weakness, and the dangers of conflict with the West. He was taken aback by her hard line alternating with an almost flirtatious approach, and by her instinct for capturing the attention of ordinary people on her visits to Russia.

Moore also captures her frustration and anger when she realised in talks with China over the future of Hong Kong that it was the Chinese who held all the trump cards.

This book should have been subtitled “Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown”. For volume three, I would suggest: “Under the Great Oak, Acorns Seldom Grow”.

Margaret Thatcher Charles Moore cover

Book Review: The Lost World: Oscillating between Hope and Despair

October 25, 2015

Foreign Policy–The Lost World: Oscillating between Hope and Despair

by L.K. Sharma


Building A Just World: Essays in Honour of Muchkund Dubey edited by Manoranjan Mohanty, Vinod C. Khanna and Biswajit Dhar with a Foreword by Boutros Boutros-Ghali; Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad; 2015; pages: 406.

Title_page_of_the_book_Building_a_Just_World_-_Essays_in_Honour_of_Muchkund_DubeyThis book is in honour of a Foreign Secretary who retired in 1991. Muchkund Dubey is remembered as an official who energised India’s economic diplomacy and fought the battles for development and disarmament that were considered crucial both by the developed North and developing South.

Some essays recall the nature of India’s engagement with the world in the recent past that now appears to be a very distant past. The nature of engagement altered due to the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a new India. It is changing further due to the present government’s policy-orientation. During his long career as a diplomat, Dubey saw governments of different hues come and go but none of them launched a political assault on the Nehruvian India of which he is a prime product.

Today the old Gods of India are being supplanted by the newly manufactured ones. Every undesirable development becomes ‘the new normal’. The sea of change has menacing waves lashing against every institution, every school of thought and every dissenting individual. The official ideology is being promoted through threats and sops. Building A Just World contains material that is no longer in vogue. In the earlier era, the President of the Indian Republic, Pranab Mukherjee, was an active political player and during his ministerial stints, he dealt with the issues of trade and development and disarmament. Thus the President represents continuity in the face of disruptive change. Naturally, he agreed to formally receive in the Rashtrapati Bhavan the first copy of the book about the concerns that dominated the yesteryears.

A recollection of the causes that seem lost could not be an occasion for celebration. It was not a wake but the function reminded the audience of the direction in which India is going. In that chandeliered hall, one recalled the Bengali film Bhooter Bhobishyot (The Future of the Past) featuring the resident ghosts of a grand Calcutta mansion who gather to discuss their future as a developer plans to demolish the building. Muchkund Dubey could lament like the Urdu poet who asks the Creator as to why he did not change him while changing his world! Meri duniya kyon badaldi, mujhko kyon badla nahin!

Any book about Dubey and his contem-poraries in the Indian Foreign Service is a timely reminder of India’s idea of the world that was based on the idea of India. The legacy of Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore inspired India’s foreign policy establishment that imbibed the spirit of universalism. India always thought about what the world should be like. Gandhi said he would not like to live in a world that is not one world. Today rampaging mobs trample on the ideal of One India. The foreign policy cannot be delinked from the domestic politics. Its practitioners are mindful of the “domestic roots of international policies”. Does a pragmatic GDP-obsessed emerging superpower set on the capitalist path mind inequity and an unjust world?

The book would have been enriched with some more material on the changing nature of India’s engagement with the world. Some contributors suggest alternative strategies which remind one of the folk saying “Budhia such kahti hai, per sunta hai kon!” (The old woman is telling the truth but who would listens to her.)

Muchkund Dubey's BookThe Rashtrapati Bhavan function was attended mostly by academics and former diplomats. Dubey recalled how Gandhi and Nehru inspired him to join the Indian Foreign Service. He highlighted the vision that marked the diplomats’ endeavour during India’s formative decades. The comments were peppered with words and phrases found in abundance in Building A Just World. These included non-alignment, South-South Coope-ration, multilateralism, Afro-Asian Solidarity, nuclear disarmament, the New Economic Order and the New Information Order.

These are yesterday’s words and phrases. The old frame of reference is lost. Today’s words are realism, democracy through military intervention, regime change, surgical strikes, financial reforms and globalisation. The WTO is more effective in reshaping the world than the United Nations. The Third World lies fractured.

The volume covers a wide range of topics clubbed under the headings: Just World Order, Peace Security and Climate Change and Social Sector. The contributors are from all over the world. There is a human interest interview with Dubey. How this Bihari Brahmin, who as a child memorised the Gita, barged into the elite Foreign Service from a non-elite background. Intellec-tually rich young candidates rooted in Indian cultural traditions were rarely admitted to the club which largely consisted of the products of a prestigious Delhi college. They came from the homes having polished period furniture, vintage wine bottles and children with perfect table manners.

Dubey adjusted himself to the sophisticated environment suffused with alcohol and protocol and went on to win admiration for his drafts-manship and diplomatic skills in international forums. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former UN Secretary General, describes Dubey as one of the most perceptive and articulate spokesmen and negotiators of the developing countries struggling for peace and development cooperation. He admires Dubey’s contributions at the UN and other domains of multilateral cooperation.

This reporter saw at these forums Muchkund Dubey fighting with vigour the unequal North-South battles related to trade and development. The experts of the North would come with their data-loaded laptops that gave them precise information about the financial consequences of the deletion or insertion of a word in the draft agreements. The Third World diplomats went by their intuition.

Some experts in the multilateral organisations were more than a match for the negotiators from the developed countries. These battles for modifying or withdrawing drafts and counter-drafts were held in an electrifying atmosphere! To get a feel of the ethos in which Dubey operated one has to read a few words by Rubens Ricupero, former Secretary-General of UNCTAD. He says the multilateral economic organisations failed to seek forgiveness for the financial crisis resulting from the terrible advice they gave countries. The UNCTAD people were not morally superior or intellectually brighter than others but what they had was “an inter-national public service ethics, a commitment to critical and independent thought, a desire to imitate the lessons left by giants such as Gunnar Myrdal and Raul Prebisch”.

In his Foreword, Boutros-Ghali makes the UN during its hey day appear as an institution of a very distant past. The decline of the UN began a long time ago but the Boutros-Ghalis and Dubeys of the world kept fighting diplomatic battles for the principles enshrined in the UN Charter.

Today that will to fight for a just world has become weaker. The so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ identifies an axis of evil and deals with it directly, curtailing the peacekeeping role of the UN. Multilaterism is in terminal decline at a time when the need for it has grown many fold due to the emergence of challenges related to the security of food, water and energy, climate change, regulation of the global financial markets and accountability of the transnational corporations.

The Foreword is full of alerts. It warns that the very nature of the world order is at stake today and it must not be left to be decided by groups and organisations created to serve a handful of countries and designed as instruments for perpetuating their domination. Most such organisations that have diminished the role of the UN are basically the clubs of major developed countries to which have been co-opted some important developing countries. They are not accountable to the vast majority of nations. Boutros-Ghali concludes with a plea for an arrangement to “hear the voice of the people within the UN”.

The volume gives little hope about a Just World. What about a just India? Has India got more fair and less unequal over the past decades? Dubey foresees widespread strife, conflicts and violence because of the persisting inequalities and social injustice. Richer class and the elite will continue to control the levers of power, he says. As to the world, it is getting more unjust. The people have come to accept Naipaul’s declaration that the world is what it is. If one wants to understand why it is so, the book has an excellent primer, titled “Hunt for Natural Resources: The Long View”, written by economist Amit Bhaduri.

Of course, this dismal view is not shared by all and the book is not titled The Shattered Dreams. Driven diplomats are not poets who feel wounded by setbacks. Former Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said at the function: “Strangely, for all the discontent and gloom expressed about the consequences of globali-sation and neo-liberal policies in the book, it left me optimistic.”He said the failure to build a just world is no reason to give up our efforts. But he did cite the difficulty that while economic power has shifted its locus, military, political and ideological power has not.

The retired diplomats at the function may have felt nostalgic about the times when the Nehruvian legacy gave India a voice dispropor-tionate to its military might or economic muscle. A broad consensus prevailed on the foreign policy issues and some ideals were largely considered non-negotiable. Today the ideas and ideals that guided the Indian foreign policy practitioners are under scrutiny by the national security establishment as well as the ruling party ideologues. Some would like to turn India into a Pakistan in order to teach a lesson to Pakistan!

The constituency of the “realists” in the diplomatic fraternity is growing to keep pace with the expanding chest size of the New Leader. It pays special attention to American big business and the NRIs. It can hardly ignore the domestic anti-Pakistan lobby gaining stridency from the aggressive election-eve rhetoric used by the political leaders to collect votes and from the ultra-nationalism that the TV channels pump into homes to collect more money.

The Dubeys of the Third World fought hard, at times managing to safeguard the interests of the developing countries. But that was a different world when India too was different. Today’s world may make Dubey more determined to fight for a just world but the changed India would surely confuse him about the battle-lines. He functioned when the young idealist Foreign Service recruits and the political establishment, driven by shared ideals, thought on the same lines. Today the former will have to guess what the latter really wants and what India stands for.

The foreign policy establishment is coping with transition that challenges the best of minds. India is in the waiting room. At times it dresses up as a superpower in the hope of being enlisted to play that role. Then come moments when it is forced to slink into a corner as a developing nation. It has left the row of those sitting on the floor and eating and is yet to be granted a place at the High Table! Today a Muchkund Dubey won’t do. “The age demands an image of its accelerated grimace. Something for the modern stage.”

The reviewer is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a free- lancer.