The word has been tossed around during recent elections, but it means something real. History helps most to get a sense of what totalitarianism really means.
From a notable issue of the NYTBR, former Deputy Secretary of State and Russia observer Strobe Talbott writes this short summary of Russian history–where the first two-thirds captures the connection between Stalin and Hitler and adds context to a well-known historical epoch.
A hundred years ago, a malignant form of governance, both modern and barbaric, slouched towards St. Petersburg to be born. As it grew, it swept across Eurasia, enveloping the largest territorial state on the planet and cloning itself elsewhere. As the decades passed, the monstrosity was given a name: totalitarianism.
In an interview with FP’s Sarah Wildman, print editor, and Dan De Luce, chief foreign policy correspondent, Bergman explores his experiences with non-state actor diplomacy in the grey area between states and individual actors. And based on his past experience working with North Korean interlocutors, he explores strategies that would be important for any negotiation with North Korea.
For example, Bergman observes that the Koreans make three fundamental assumptions going into a negotiation:
The world is out to get us. (Consider regional history from Japan, China, South Korea, as well as the U.S.)
We are surrounded by giants. (China, Russia, and the U.S.)
We need an asymmetric three to maintain our way of life (nuclear weapons)
In PostWorld this week, he writes that one tactic to expect from the North Koreans is a feint that could shut down negotiations:
In the 1990s, when one of us, then-congressman Richardson, was an unofficial envoy, his U.S. delegation extended an offer of food aid to North Korea during one break in arms-control discussions as a gesture meant to encourage their counterparts to return to the talks. The North Koreans publicly rejected the aid, insisting that they didn’t need it, but then quietly accepted it, nonetheless. For show, they briefly reopened negotiations, but they weren’t serious. Nothing happened, and they blamed us for the impasse. A typical North Korean dodge.
Discussions could take much longer than just a one meet up between two highly visible heads of state:
In 2016, negotiating on behalf of Otto Warmbier’s family in Pyongyang, the other one of us, Mr. Bergman, received a flat “no” from the North Koreans on a proposal to bring Otto home during the official portion of a meeting. Minutes later, during an unofficial conversation, one of his counterparts casually commented: “There is a saying in my country: it takes 100 hacks to take down a tree.” The North Koreans negotiate with patience and deliberation, something Trump must take into account.
How will Trump do, the self-described master negotiator? We’ll have to wait and see–and hope for the best.
Let’s debate killer robots. (Or should we? Who is for them anyway?) Not the ICRC or Amnesty International. See the Red Cross statement from the Meeting of Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, held a few weeks ago at the UN in Geneva:
The ICRC has called on States to set limits on autonomy in weapon systems to ensure they are used in accordance with international humanitarian law (IHL) and within the bounds of what is acceptable under the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.
Apparently, more than 80 national representatives agreed, echoing groups such as the International Committee for Robot Arms Control and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots:
In the end, they emerged with a recommendation: The key U.N. body that sets norms for weapons of war should put killer robots on its agenda.
Not the strongest stuff you could hope for (e.g., treaty law or even a declaration or draft programme of action) but it is a step in the direction toward action. But in reality, it is harder to draw the line than some think, especially where the bottom line is that humans have to decide how to use the technology.
Although some argue that “autonomous weapons are coming and can save lives” as long as they are used ethically and within legal norms, Denise Garcia disagrees, writing in Foreign Affairs that
“Washington should…work to prohibit machines capable of killing on their own. Killer robots might seem like an unreasonable idea, but they could become an unacceptable reality.”
Some facts about Verdun may surprise you: Verdun was symbolically important for both sides, had been intended by Germany to be a battle of attrition and caught the French by surprise. It resulted in roughly equal and staggering casualties: 800k dead, wounded or missing with approximately 150 dead–and many unrecoverable remains.
What was the meaning of this now-defining battle of World War I? Paul Jankowski writes:
To a historian 100 years later, Verdun does yield a meaning, in a way a darkly ironic one. Neither Erich von Falkenhayn, the chief of the German General Staff, nor his French counterpart, Joseph Joffre, had ever envisaged a climactic, decisive battle at Verdun. They had attacked and defended with their eyes elsewhere on the front, and had thought of the fight initially as secondary, as ancillary to their wider strategic goals. And then it became a primary affair, self-sustaining and endless. They had aspired to control it. Instead it had controlled them. In that sense Verdun truly was iconic, the symbolic battle of the Great War of 1914-18.
History allows us to look back and create convenient categories, rightly or wrongly. One such set of bookends could include the 19th century’s run of peace and cooperation ending with the Great War in July 1914 and starting in Vienna, 1814.
Was this party in Vienna such a game changer? Some sigh with apathy–or debate the notion, but as Stephen Walt writes in ForeignPolicy.com, many rightly see this as a key turning point in global affairs:
After the Napoleonic Wars, diplomats and officials from all over Europe convened in Vienna to negotiate a peace settlement to resolve the various issues that had arisen after over two decades of war. Sure, there was a lot of hard-nosed haggling over borders and other arrangements, but historical accounts of the Congress also make it clear that the participants also engaged in months of energetic revelry, much of it of a decidedly lubricious sort. Historians who regard the Congress as a great success might argue that all this frivolity helped; those who believe the Congress left many critical issues unresolved probably think the assembled plenipotentiaries should have spent less time partying and more time on their work.
Follow this animated map of 19th century Europe through the Congress to WWI to see how events evolved in the aftermath of Napoleon and how power was maintained by the victors, with clear losers being nationalistic aspirations and French revolutionary ideals in Poland, Belgium Norway, Italy, Germany, and among Balkan Christians (Serbs, Christians, Greeks, and Bulgurs).
No less than Henry Kissinger, the realpolitik living dean of international relations cut his teeth on the Congress of Vienna, writing his dissertation on Metternich the statesman. But an exciting new book on the topic by historian Adam Zamoyski takes on Kissinger’s conclusion directly, as noted in this Guardian book review:
For those who believe that jaw-jaw is more interesting than war-war, this is an exhilarating book. Zamoyski starts with the exhausted emperor hustling back to Paris after the retreat from Moscow to try to keep French domination of Europe alive. He finishes with a demolition job on Henry Kissinger, whose doctoral thesis on the diplomat Metternich praised the Congress of Vienna for giving Europe a century of peace. Zamoyski has no time for Kissinger or his Austrian hero, Metternich.
The system that came to be called the Concert of Europe, Zamoyski writes, “imposed an orthodoxy which not only denied political existence to many nations; it enshrined a particularly stultified form of monarchical government; institutionalised social hierarchies as rigid as any that existed under the ancien régime; by excluding whole classes and nations this system nurtured envy and resentment, which flourished into socialism and aggressive nationalism.”
The headlines reveal (and will continue to show) the failures and stumbles with Geneva II. Careful and insightful reporting by Somini Sengupta this week shows exactly how “time, words, and ultimately, trust” shaped the invitation process that included the ultimate exclusion of Iran.
Even so, there are serious diplomatic efforts to end the killing–even if they fail. Behind the scenes there is an enormous amount of effort among key states such as the U.S. and Russia and the UN to find a solution to the Syrian civil war. There are many sad precedents:
What are the lessons? If there is a general one from Bosnia for the parties meeting in Switzerland, it is the need for humility. As determined as the international community may be to resolve conflict, civil war is extraordinarily resistant to outside intervention. This has three important implications.
Joe Sacco grew up in Australia where tales of victory and disaster in WWI were part of the cultural milieu–and so the few steps from artist to historical recreator don’t seem to be too much of a stretch. He makes a great effort to illustrate the horrors of war that were the first chapter amidst failed global efforts to prevent conflict on a massive scale.