Kremlin back channels worked just fine for JFK

 Why is Donald Trump being roasted for using a key Kennedy tactic?

It is much worse than you thought. Not only have members of the president’s immediate family been secretly talking to Russia. I can also reveal that the president is a serial philanderer who is compulsively unfaithful to his wife. He suffers from severe medical problems, which he and his staff are concealing from the press. One of his mistresses is also romantically involved with a notorious gangster.

Speaking of organised crime, I understand that his campaign to get elected called on the mafia for assistance. He intends to appoint his brother to the key position of attorney-general. They plan to wiretap human rights activists.

In foreign policy the story is even worse. He is planning an invasion of a hostile country, which is almost certain to fail disastrously. He has established a confidential back channel which he intends to use in times of crisis to communicate secretly with the Kremlin. Yet he is willing to risk nuclear war. And he has no objection to the assassination of political enemies and coups against allied governments.

Yet this same president has the temerity to go to Europe and make speeches about the need to defend “western civilisation”.

The president I have just described is not, however, Donald J Trump, but John F Kennedy. This is not “what about-ism” — in other words, I am not trying to excuse the fact that President Trump’s son appears to have colluded (or at least considered colluding) with the Russian government last year. Indeed, I pointed out last October that the Kremlin connection was the biggest problem with Trump’s candidacy. I am merely pointing out that, when it comes to ethical conduct, it is far from clear which of these two presidents was worse.

As is now well known, Kennedy had numerous extramarital relationships: one was with Judith Campbell Exner, whose other lovers included the Chicago organised crime boss Sam Giancana.

“We’re a bunch of virgins,” grumbled Fred Dutton, secretary of the cabinet, “. . . and he’s like God, f****** anybody he wants to, any time he feels like it.” All this was known to the FBI director, J Edgar Hoover, as well as to Kennedy’s inner circle. But it went entirely unreported in the press.

His compulsive infidelity was only one of Kennedy’s many deceptions. Throughout his political career he concealed the severity of his medical problems (he suffered from acute back pain, hypothyroidism and Addison’s disease, for which he needed continual cortisone treatments).

As a senator, Kennedy deliberately missed the vote censuring Joseph McCarthy, who had more than once been a Kennedy house guest. He lied to his own brother about his decision to make Lyndon Johnson his running mate in 1960. His campaign may have called on mafia assistance to defeat Richard Nixon that year.

Intervening on behalf of the jailed Martin Luther King Jr had also helped Kennedy win the 1960 election, but that did not stop his brother Bobby — whom Kennedy appointed as attorney-general — authorising wiretaps on King’s phone three years later.

In foreign policy Kennedy combined callousness with recklessness. His questionable interventions ranged from an abortive invasion of Cuba to a bloody coup d’état in South Vietnam. On his watch the CIA sought to assassinate Fidel Castro using mafia hitmen. On his watch the Berlin Wall was built, the ugliest symbol of the Cold War division of the world. And on his watch the world came closer than at any other time to nuclear Armageddon.

During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy himself put the odds of disaster — meaning a thermonuclear war that could have claimed the lives of 100m Americans, more than 100m Russians and comparable millions of Europeans — at “between one out of three and even”.

How was catastrophe averted? By using a back channel to the Kremlin to cut a secret deal. Kennedy did this twice: in 1961 over Berlin and again in 1962 over Cuba. It was Bobby who took the crucial meetings with the Russians, unbeknown to key members of the administration, including the vice-president.

The reason the Russians agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba was that the Kennedy brothers secretly pledged to remove US missiles from Turkey. The details of the deal did not become public until the 1980s.

Finally, it was John F Kennedy who, according to the US ambassador in Saigon, authorised the coup that toppled and killed the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963 — a decision that irrevocably committed Washington to the ultimately disastrous war against North Vietnam.

Kennedy occupies a unique position in the American collective memory. In a Gallup poll conducted in November 2013, 74% of Americans rated him an outstanding or above-average president, compared with 61% for Ronald Reagan and 49% for Dwight Eisenhower. His reputation is not wholly a result of his assassination on November 22, 1963, greatly though that event continues to fascinate the public. He is still remembered with affection for his good looks as much as for the idealistic rhetoric of his speeches.

Yet here is one contemporary verdict on the Kennedy administration, written before the president’s death. It had “demoralised the bureaucracy and much of the military”. It had engaged in “government by improvisation and manipulation”. It had relied on “public relations gimmicks”.

It had “no respect for personal dignity” and treated people “as tools”. It had “brutalised our allies within Nato”. It was undermining the US reputation for reliability — “the most important asset any nation has”. The State Department was “a shambles, demoralised by the weakness of the secretary of state and the interference of the White House”. Its foreign policy was “essentially a house of cards”. Thus the young Henry Kissinger.

The resemblances between the two presidents are more than superficial. In particular, both were too much inclined to see politics as a family affair. So far, however, Trump has done nothing to match the skulduggery and recklessness of his fondly remembered predecessor. Perhaps Trump’s Cuban Missile Crisis is on its way in North Korea. We shall see.

What the Trump presidency has revealed most clearly is not the way the presidency has changed as an institution, but the way the American press has changed.

Or maybe not. Perhaps, if JFK had been a Republican, he would have been treated with the same ferocious animosity as DJT is treated today for much less heinous acts.

Turning Points

 2012 in review


WE yearn for turning points. Just as economists have predicted nine out of the last five recessions, so journalists have surely reported nine out of the last five revolutions. Every election is hailed as epoch-making. Every president is expected to have a new foreign policy “doctrine.” A minor redesign of a cellular phone is hailed by the devotees of the Apple cult as a “paradigm shift.”

The point about paradigm shifts, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” is that they don’t happen every other year. They are slow, because even when a new insight is right — dazzlingly right in hindsight — vested interests and other forms of inertia resist its adoption. The same is true for big political discontinuities. They just don’t happen that often.

In 2012 there were a whole bunch of elections, not only in the United States but also in France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan and Venezuela. In China a new standing committee of the Politburo was named, after a selection process so opaque as to be papal.

In countries like Egypt, Libya and Yemen, there was no mistaking the revolutionary character of the change as the misnamed Arab Spring continued its evolution into an Islamist Winter. But in other places the political changes hardly qualified as turning points. In France a jaded Left mounted one last feeble rally against economic reality. In Mexico the old regime, in the form of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, returned to power. Contrary to expectations, anti-European populists lost in Holland and the genial Mark Rutte was re-elected. In Russia, Vladimir Putin abandoned his pretense of being prime minister and returned to his real job as president. Turning points? Turn over and go back to sleep.

The great English historian A.J.P. Taylor said of the year 1848 that “German history reached its turning point and failed to turn.” This verdict could in fact be applied to most countries in most years.

History is like an oil tanker. It does not turn on a dime. Mankind sails forward through time in seas that are sometimes calm, sometimes stormy. At times it seems almost becalmed, at other times it can do 12 knots. Depending on who captains the ship, it veers sometimes to port, sometimes to starboard. When it changes direction, the turn is generally slow.

The things that change suddenly on an oil tanker are the emotions of the crew. Nine hundred and ninety-nine days out of a thousand, they obey their orders and do their work. But very occasionally there is a drama. The men mutiny and the captain is clapped in irons. Or pirates board the ship. Such events are what historians love to study and call “revolutions.” Still, the ship plows onward.

In other words, do not expect 1989 to happen every year — and don’t exaggerate how big a turning point even 1989 was. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Francis Fukuyama hailed “an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism… the Triumph of the West.”

It seemed so true. Who could forget the thrill of that night — Nov. 9, 1989 — when the Cold War ended not with Armageddon but with a street party? Yet, as I write, the People’s Republic of China is poised to overtake the United States in terms of gross domestic product (adjusted for differences in purchasing power) in 2017. If you invested in the West in 1989 you fared much worse than if you had invested in the Rest. Emerging stock markets have risen by a factor of five since 1989; the U.S. market, fourfold; Europe, less than threefold.

One attractively simple way of thinking about the world is to say that wealth, and with it power, are shifting from the West to the Rest. In that sense, the real turning point was not 1989 but 1979, the year Deng Xiaoping visited the United States and China’s economic reforms began in earnest. From that point, the “great divergence” of the West from the Rest came to an end, and the world embarked on a “great reconvergence.”

 The Six Drivers of Historical Change

But the reality is more complicated than suggested by phrases like “the post-American world.”

There are six slow-acting drivers of historical change in our time, as in most of recorded history. A common error is to focus on only one. They are:

1. Technological innovation;

2. The spread of ideas and institutions;

3. The tendency of even good political systems to degenerate;

4. Demographics;

5. Supplies of essential commodities;

6. Climate change.

The first three essentially explain why the West has lost some of its predominance. But the others remind us that, in that wonderful line often attributed to Bismarck, “a special Providence watches over children, drunkards and the United States of America.”

Measured (crudely) in terms of international patents granted by country of origin of applicant, the West no longer leads. Japan has been out in front of the United States for nearly 20 years and, in the past decade, first South Korea and then China have overtaken Germany to take the third and fourth places.

Measured (less crudely) with standardized tests of mathematical attainment at age 15, the West has also slipped. In the most recent report, published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the gap between teenagers from the Shanghai District of China and those from the United States was as big as the gap between the Americans and their Albanian contemporaries. The silver medal went to young mathematicians from Singapore, the bronze to their counterparts in Hong Kong, then came South Korea, followed by Taiwan. Proficiency at math isn’t everything, of course, but societies that teach the average student so much better than the West does are probabilistically more likely to turn raw genius (which is pretty randomly distributed through humanity) into Nobel prizes.

The third driver of change — nearly always overlooked by political scientists — is the tendency of even the best systems to degenerate as rent-seeking special interests grow on the body politic like barnacles on a ship’s hull, and civic virtue yields to human frailty. Westerners are justly proud of their various democratic systems, and Americans in particular regard their Constitution as the world’s best. Yet every comparative study of institutional quality — from the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index to the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators — tells the same depressing story. In many Western countries there has been a perceptible decline in the rule of law. Among the worst cases are South European “cradles of democracy,” Greece and Italy, which receive shockingly bad scores from the World Economic Forum. In the United States, meanwhile, the World Bank reports marked declines since 2000 in the control of corruption, regulatory quality, accountability and government effectiveness.

This “great degeneration” helps explain the slowdown in growth and productivity we have witnessed in the West in the past decade. We cannot blame it solely on the financial crisis, nor on the fact that (as the economist Robert Gordon recently argued) the information technology revolution has delivered much less than its own hype led us to expect. The world is changing not just because the Rest have got better, but also because — quite independently — the West has got worse. Indeed, much of the developed world today reminds me of what Adam Smith said about China in “The Wealth of Nations”: It has reached a “stationary” state in which growth is near zero and prosperity is enjoyed only by a corrupt bureaucratic elite.

Nevertheless, there are three important reasons why the United States is more likely to escape from this condition of stasis than Southern Europe or Japan.

First, partly because of immigration, partly because of fertility and partly because of inefficient health care, the United States is aging much less quickly than countries like Japan and Germany. By 2050, according to the United Nations, more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or over. For Germany the figure will be 31 percent. Even in China, more than a quarter of the population will be older than 64. But for the United States, the figure will be just 21 percent. China’s labor force will start to shrink in the 2020s. That will not happen in the United States.

 Beyond 2012

Secondly, unlike Europe and Japan, the United States is one of the global Big Five in terms of mineral wealth, with known reserves of fossil fuels and minerals worth at least $30 trillion — more than Australia, Saudi Arabia and China, though less than Russia. In particular, the United States is poised to profit from an energy revolution that has seen shale gas leap from 1 percent of U.S. natural gas production in 2000 to 35 percent today. American natural gas is a quarter the price of East Asian and a third the price of German. The combination of an increasingly competitive labor market and cheap energy is going to spark a remarkable recovery of U.S. manufacturing in the near future.

Finally, as the world warms and climate becomes more volatile, North America will fare better than East Asia. Natural disasters will happen, of course, as Hurricane Sandy reminded us. But there will be more on the other side of the Pacific. Good luck to Asia’s coastal megacities. They will need it.

Already things look better for the United States than for the rest of the West. The I.M.F. projects 2.3 percent growth next year, compared with 1.2 percent for Japan and 0.7 percent for the euro zone. That divergence will persist.

In America, the economic trends toward self-sufficiency and manufacturing recovery may encourage a new phenomenon: liberal isolationism, as the country reverts to its default aversion to “foreign entanglements.” By contrast, Europe and Japan will continue to languish, denying themselves the relief of higher immigration or nuclear power, stagnating under piles of debt that will become harder and harder to finance. In these stationary states, populism will take uglier forms. After more than half a century, European integration may turn into disintegration.

Meanwhile, in the mobile states of the developing (and still growing) world, there will be more bourgeois revolutions, in the classical sense of revolutions against autocracy led by aspirant middle classes. Already, according to Credit Suisse, more than 300 million Chinese adults have wealth of between $10,000 and $100,000, while close to 20 million have wealth above $100,000. These people are discovering that their hard-won private property needs to be protected by the rule of law, and that the biggest threat to that is a corrupt Communist Party, which they are increasingly able and willing to criticize in online microblogs.

In the big emerging democracies — India, Brazil, Nigeria — there is less need for a bourgeois revolution. Indeed, Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, recently declared that she wants “a middle-class Brazil.” In North Africa and the Middle East, by contrast, the bourgeois revolutions have begun. It was in Libya last year that the following graffiti was seen: “We want a constitutional role and for the president to have less authority and the four year presidential term should not be extended.” That is the authentic voice of 1848, though it remains to be seen whether Arabia will truly turn at this turning point.

The American empire-in-all-but-name is leaving the Middle Eastern stage, having dominated the region since the 1970s and — I would argue — having sparked the revolution by toppling the most vicious of the Arab dictators. Now the real contest is between those who would impose a medieval legal order on Arabia, as the ayatollahs imposed it on Persia after 1979, and those who dream of the long-awaited Islamic Reformation, which would allow Muslims to coexist in peace with modernity — not to mention with the state of Israel, modernity’s representative in the region. The choice between the Iranian and the Turkish (or Indonesian or Malaysian) models should not be hard to make. Yet the Arabs may have to endure a period of sectarian warfare before that Reformation can occur.

The hardest question to answer, as the great tanker of history slowly turns, is whether the two dominant powers of the age, America and China, will be able to maintain what Henry Kissinger has called “co-evolution,” or whether they are doomed to re-enact the rise of the Anglo-German antagonism that culminated in world war nearly a century ago. Will it be Chimerica — or what Noah Feldman has christened “Cool War”?

Or blazing hot war? The approaching centenary of 1914 is a sobering reminder that, while elections may come and elections may go, it is wars that change history’s direction most decisively. World War I did not sink the human ship, but it certainly sank the first age of globalization. Should a similar conflict occur in our time, we shall know that world history has reached a turning point. We must hope it will only turn — and not keel right over.

The Cure for Our Economy’s Stationary State

 Adam Smith knew what ails us—and he prescribed the cure.

Jesse L. Jackson Jr. has been suffering from “a mood disorder.”

He is not alone. The world economy may not be in a depression as bad as that of the early 1930s. But it’s certainly got emotional problems.

A year ago, according to Gallup, economic confidence in the United States plunged, touching bottom in late August. It then rallied, only to start sliding again with the arrival of summer. Sunshine doesn’t seem to work like it used to.

What is going on?

The answer is that much of the developed world, including the United States, is stagnating. The founder of economics, Adam Smith, had a term for this. He called it “the stationary state.” In his day it was China that looked stationary: a once “opulent” country that had simply ceased to grow. Smith blamed China’s unfavorable institutions—including its bureaucracy—for the stasis. He also noticed how the stationary state favored the super-rich and civil servants, leaving poor laborers to slide toward subsistence wages.

Now the boot is on the other foot. It is Westerners who are in the stationary state, while China is growing faster than any other major economy in the world. The World Bank expects the European economy to contract this year and the U.S. to grow by just 2 percent. China will grow as much as four times faster than that.

The mood disorder is especially bad for investors. Only seven out of 47 national stock markets around the world have posted gains in the last 12 months.

The currently voguish explanation for the slowdown is “deleveraging.” The argument is that the excessive debts the West ran up in the past 10 or 20 years are now acting as a drag on growth. Households and banks are desperately trying to reduce their debts, having gambled foolishly on ever-rising property prices. To prevent this process from generating a lethal debt deflation, governments and central banks have stepped in with fiscal and monetary stimulus. That helps for a time, but it ultimately transforms a crisis of excess private debt into a crisis of excess public debt.

Yet more is going on here than deleveraging. Consider this: the U.S. economy has created 2.6 million jobs since June 2009. In the same period, 3.1 million workers have signed up for disability benefits. Back in 1992 there was one person on disability benefits for every 36 people in employment. Now the ratio is 1 to 16. Unemployment is being concealed—and rendered permanent—in ways all too familiar to Europeans.

The stationary state is literally stationary. People claim to be disabled. And they also stay put. Traditionally around 3 percent of the U.S. population moves to a new state each year. That rate has halved since the crisis began. You can’t blame all this on deleveraging.

Question: if you want to open a lemonade stand in New York City, how long does it take to jump through the necessary bureaucratic hoops?

The answer is 65 days (including a wait of up to five weeks for your Food Protection Certificate). That’s the kind of crazy red tape that development economists like Hernando de Soto used to blame for Third World poverty.

So is there any way out of the stationary state? Smith made it clear that he thought imperial China’s sclerotic “laws and institutions” were the root of the problem. More free trade, more encouragement for small business, less bureaucracy, and less crony capitalism: these were his prescriptions. Well, we can live in hope that such policies get adopted by the next occupant of the White House.

The alternative is to escape stagnation through technological innovation. One man who seems to have declared war on stasis is Elon Musk, the South African–born engineer-entrepreneur who, in the space of just a few weeks, has celebrated both the docking of his spaceship Dragon at the International Space Station and the launch of his electric car, the Tesla Model S.

I met Musk for the first time earlier this summer and was captivated by his energy and vision. Whenever the prevailing mood of economic gloom gets me down, I remind myself that it was men like Musk who—for fully two centuries after Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations—propelled the West onward and upward simply by doing things that their contemporaries considered impossible.

It is time to shake off the “mood disorder” caused not just by excessive debt but also by excessive bureaucracy. Only entrepreneurial optimism can get us out of the stationary state—and moving again.

Henry Kissinger Coming Home to Harvard

 Niall Ferguson on Henry Kissinger Coming Home to Harvard

A successful college graduate is, as a general rule, loved by his alma mater. The more prominent he becomes, the more phone calls he receives. If he really makes the big time, there are invitations to host grand dinners, receive honorary degrees, give commencement addresses ... and of course, bestow his name on this or that chair or building (as well as on a very large check).

There are, however, a few painful exceptions to this rule. No graduate of Oxford University did more to restore Britain’s postwar economic fortunes than Margaret Thatcher. Yet in 1985 Oxford dons voted against giving the then–prime minister an honorary doctorate degree, an unprecedented snub.

There was a similar—though if anything more bitter—rift between Henry Kissinger and his alma mater, Harvard. But last week, after decades of estrangement, Kissinger returned to the university where he studied and taught. It was an emotional occasion. It was also a fascinating sign of how liberal America is changing.

Full disclosure: I am writing Henry Kissinger’s biography. I also happen to teach at Harvard, as he did between 1954 and 1969. And, having been an undergraduate at Oxford when Thatcher was denied her degree, I have long believed that universities should show respect to alums who attain high office, regardless of political disagreements.

In the 1970s and ’80s that was not a fashionable view. Back then, liberal academics took pride in repudiating their most successful conservative alumni because they disagreed with their policies. In the case of Oxford, it was Thatcher’s cuts in university funding. In the case of Harvard, it was the war in Vietnam. On May 8, 1970, shortly after U.S. forces invaded neighboring Cambodia, a deputation of Kissinger’s former colleagues—among them the economist Thomas Schelling—visited Kissinger in Washington.

Kissinger welcomed his “good friends from Harvard University.” “No,” retorted Schelling, “we’re a group of people who have completely lost confidence in the ability of the White House to conduct our foreign policy, and we have come to tell you so.” It was the beginning of a schism that would endure for 42 years.

Books like the late Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger have perpetuated the notion that the foreign policy of the Nixon administration was uniquely wicked. For liberals of a certain age, it is an article of faith that (for example) Nixon and Kissinger were personally responsible for the coup that overthrew the Chilean Marxist President Salvador Allende. So it was entirely predictable that, if Kissinger ever did return to Harvard, there would be protests against his alleged “war crimes.” That’s why it was courageous of Harvard President Drew Faust to invite him to an open discussion in the university’s Sanders Theater on April 11—and even braver of Kissinger to accept.

Sure enough, just after Kissinger had been introduced and applauded, the protest started. But what was far more extraordinary was the protest against the protest.The protester—singular—was the kind of aging hippie who always shows up at such occasions, gray hair in a ponytail. There was an almost ritualistic quality to his rant, which began: “I am making a citizen’s arrest ...” Wearily, the campus cops escorted him off the premises. Then something remarkable happened. Spontaneously, the audience gave Kissinger an ovation—a standing ovation in many cases. The remarkable thing is that most of those clapping were undergraduates.

Welcome to the new generation gap. In the question-and-answer session, the handful of nasty questions came from aging baby boomers. The attitude of the students was diametrically opposite. Many had stood in line for an hour to get in. At the end, they thronged the stage to take photographs with Kissinger and ask for his autograph.

A cynic might put this down to youthful innocence. “To them, Vietnam is just history,” I heard a faculty member mutter, “like the Civil War.” Yes and no. The 1970s are indeed history if you were born in 1992. But the generation that came of age after 9/11 has a fundamentally different attitude to war than the ponytailed protester. The Obama presidency has shown that liberals, too, must sometimes use force to uphold the nation’s security: surging in Afghanistan, helping overthrow a bad regime in Libya, killing foes (among them a U.S. citizen) with drones and hit squads.

Who knows? Maybe one day a successor to Hitchens will denounce the “war crimes” of Barack Obama. But if so, his readers will be in their 60s or older. A younger and wiser generation has welcomed Henry Kissinger back to Harvard. Now it is Oxford’s turn to grow up.

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