Archive for the ‘diplomacy’ Category

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Commentary: A very un-Canadian Caper….

27 September 2012

(I originally wrote this on another online journaling site, but after consideration I feel that it’s worth re-posting here as well, with a few minor edits.)

I know that I shouldn’t let myself get too upset about Hollywood’s usual approach to history, because if I did then I’d likely never do anything with my time but froth at the mouth. But I feel rather strongly about this most recent bit of history that Hollywood’s taken on: the Canadian Caper, which will shortly air as the new Ben Affleck picture Argo.

It’s an exciting true-life story, I’ll admit. At the height of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, a CIA operative is given the task of rescuing six Americans who managed to escape the storming of the Tehran embassy and are hiding in the homes of two Canadian diplomats, one of whom is Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. So the CIA fakes an entire film production company, Studio Six, and gets into Iran under cover of scouting locations for a new film called Argo. When the fake film team leaves the country shortly thereafter, the six Americans (having been given Canadian passports with CIA-forged Iranian visas) leave under their cover as the film crew, reaching the safety of Switzerland before travelling back to the States. The remaining Canadian diplomats evacuate the country shortly thereafter, and when the press breaks the story of the daring ‘Canadian Caper’, Iran breaks off diplomatic relations with Canada in retribution. Lots of room for action, adventure, and dramatic tension in a story like that. It’s a nail-biting suspense flick if I ever heard one.

But now we come to Argo, the film based on these events.

According to the IMDB cast list, as best I can tell the only Canadian figure given reasonable billing is Ambassador Ken Taylor, played by Victor Garber (thankfully, Canadian himself). Taylor’s wife Pat is also included, further down the cast list. But there is no mention of John and Zena Sheardown, the Canadian immigration officer and his wife who also sheltered three of the six Americans for more than two months. No mention of either Prime Minister Joe Clark or Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald, who originally pushed through the Order in Council that issued six Canadian passports to be used for the rescue attempt. Yes, Tony Mendez and the CIA organised the actual rescue, faking the visa information and going into Iran as the exfiltration team. But for those two months, Taylor and Sheardown put themselves and their families at great personal risk to hide the fugitive Americans, living with the constant fear that someone would find out what was going on and let it slip to the hostage-takers at the American embassy. Why are the Canadians so conspicuously absent from a film about the Canadian Caper?

Granted, I understand that the film is based on Tony Mendez’s book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, which naturally focuses on the CIA’s part in the rescue of the six Americans. Unlike Canadian historian Robert Wright’s book Our Man in Tehran, which centres on Ambassador Taylor’s role during the hostage crisis, Argo plays up the successful, hands-on American action — such a contrast to the months of waiting endured by the hostages, and the shambolic failure of the Operation Eagle Claw rescue attempt. Nonetheless, by all but writing the Canadians out of the Canadian Caper, Argo suggests that Ben Affleck has taken all the wrong lessons about creating historical drama from his heavily panned role in 2001’s Pearl Harbor.

I will probably see Argo, just so I can critique it on its own merits or lack thereof rather than on what I’m seeing from the trailers and the cast list. I’m particularly interested in how the Iranians themselves are portrayed, and if even the slightest nods are given to the history of American meddling in Iran and its less-than-honourable support for the shah. But I’ll be fighting my own blood pressure the whole time.

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A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

12 January 2010

I believe this is the last of the reviews I wrote for the September 2008 issue of Political Studies Review. The next new review should be ready for posting by next week.

A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

The intent of the Blackwell Companions to History series is to provide compact collections of writings that address the most important, overarching concepts in particular historical fields and look at the changing ways in which historians have approached these concepts. In that tradition, the contributors to Blackwell’s A Companion to International History 1900–2001 have given the editors a volume of concise, well-written historiographical and interpretive essays dealing with both specific areas of interest and broader themes in twentieth century history.

The essays in this volume cover the full span of the twentieth century, looking back to the early years of the century to examine the origins of the First World War and continuing all the way through to the events of 11 September 2001. Broader themes explored include nationalism and imperialism, as well as the changes wrought on the diplomatic world by the shifting balances of power and ideological realignments of the past 100 years. The more area-specific essays look into the topics that are the staple of most any international history survey — the crisis periods of the two world wars and the Cold War, overviews of pre-war and inter-war European alliances and post-war European integration, regional studies of the roles played by Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the post-war world, and even several essays on post–Cold War politics and the effects of globalisation and terrorism. The guides to further reading, located at the end of each chapter, provide briefly annotated lists of selected books and articles for those who are interested in going deeper into a particular subject.

Many of the contributors will be familiar to those who have made a study of contemporary international history, and the quality of the contributions is uniformly excellent. In a collection of such first-rate work, it is difficult to highlight any one or two individual entries as particularly worthy of note. Overall, the Companion to International History is another welcome addition to Blackwell’s high-quality series, suitable not only for students who are just beginning to explore the complexities of international history but also for established scholars who require a handy desk reference for teaching, research, or simply for a quick refresher on major historical themes of the previous century.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 433–434.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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British Diplomacy: Foreign Secretaries Reflect, edited by Graham Ziegner

17 September 2009

I occasionally write book reviews for other journals, and often link to them on my Publications page. Now that a few of them are past the standard twelve-month embargo period for re-posting, I can add them to the entries in this book review blog and rearrange my publications list accordingly. Please feel free to follow the link given after the review to visit Political Studies Review for more articles and book reviews in all fields of political studies.

British Diplomacy: Foreign Secretaries Reflect, edited by Graham Ziegner

In 2003, a lecture series at the London School of Economics featured five politicians who had held the position of Foreign Secretary between 1977 and 1997. The lectures are compiled in Graham Ziegner’s edited volume British Diplomacy: Foreign Secretaries Reflect, along with an introduction by Professor William Wallace and a concluding chapter on New Labour’s foreign policy by Professor Christopher Hill and Oliver Todd. Apart from serving as a compilation of this noteworthy lecture series, British Diplomacy: Foreign Secretaries Reflect provides a thought-provoking collection of opinions on the diplomatic challenges faced by Foreign Secretaries in the past three decades.

In his lecture, David Owen (now Lord Owen) examines the increasingly dominant role of the Prime Minister in foreign affairs, particularly during the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and criticizes the effects of this dominance on the function of Cabinet government. Lord Carrington’s lecture explores the myriad, ongoing diplomatic problems that a Foreign Secretary must face in office, regardless of his or her party-political or personal interests. Geoffrey Howe (Lord Howe of Aberavon) takes a more personal look at the role of Foreign Secretary, analysing it in the context of his working relationship with Margaret Thatcher—a ‘marriage’, he says, ‘that deserves much more attention than the story of the divorce’ (p. 81). Douglas Hurd (Lord Hurd of Westwell) was Foreign Secretary during a time of great political upheavals in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and his lecture focuses on the future of humanitarian aid and intervention in the wake of the second Gulf War. Sir Malcom Rifkind closes the lecture series with a close, careful look at the oft-mentioned ‘special relationship’ between the United Kingdom and the United States, with reflections on what that relationship has meant in the past and may become in the future.

The additional chapters help to set the speeches in context — the introduction by outlining the changing role of a British Foreign Secretary in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the concluding chapter by examining the position of Foreign Secretary as held by the late Robin Cook and Jack Straw during Tony Blair’s premiership. Those who were unable to attend the LSE lectures (and even those who were fortunate enough to do so) will find this slim volume to be a simple, suitable collection of the speeches, unfettered by lengthy outside commentary on the relative merits of the speakers’ opinions.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 2 (May 2008): 232.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

23 June 2009

I seem to be on a roll with the Canto imprint reviews, though I think this is the last of the ones in my current queue.

The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

Traditions, to coin a simile, are rather like onions: if you make a deliberate effort to keep peeling away their numerous layers, you will be left with very little by the time you finish. Fortunately, most people are not overly concerned with peeling away the layers of traditions as long as those traditions seem relatively plausible or promote a favourable history or worldview. As a result, one common means of rapidly strengthening a shaky claim to legitimacy or solidifying a sense of group identity is to actively promote ‘traditions’ that have been developed or invented in the quite recent past. On occasion, these traditions develop into something quite different than their original inventors expected. In The Invention of Tradition, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and postcolonial African historian Terence Ranger have brought together a collection of essays about how and why different traditions are invented, what purposes these traditions have and continue to serve, and what societies can gain by taking a closer look at the origins of the traditions they cherish so highly.

The contributions in this volume take different approaches to studying the invention of tradition. Some of the essays, like Hugh Trevor-Roper’s history of Scottish Highland traditions or Prys Morgan’s account of the nineteenth-century Welsh nationalist movement, explode the myths of the supposedly ancient origins of certain traditions such as tartan kilts and eisteddfods. Both authors link the Welsh and Scottish traditions with the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, showing how groups of enthusiastic and enterprising individuals all but invented certain ceremonies and trappings out of whole cloth — quite literally, in the case of kilts. Other articles focus more on the process through which certain traditions were invented, describing how cross-cultural misunderstandings about existing traditions (such as the durbar gatherings held by India’s Mughal rulers) led to the creation of entirely new ceremonies designed to provide a sense of continuity between the old ruling classes and the new colonial ruling classes. The books also includes contributions on the effects of invented traditions, such as David Cannadine’s essay describing changing public attitudes towards the British monarchy in response to invented royal traditions like the formal Coronation ceremony and the sale of commemorative objects for royal weddings, births, and jubilees. There is quite a lot to ponder in these essays, and the authors provide plenty of sources for further exploration and follow-up.

The Invention of Tradition, for all its depth, is an undeniably Anglo-centric book. With the exception of Eric Hobsbawm’s contribution on the invention of national traditions in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Europe, all of the essays focus on either domestic (Scotland, Wales) or colonial (India, Africa) traditions of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to say whether the book would have been ‘improved’ with a little more variety in its subject matter, or whether the more narrow focus is preferable because it allows the different essays to overlap and reinforce each other. Regardless, the collected essays in The Invention of Tradition provide an informative and thought-provoking assessment of how traditions are made and perpetuated, and how they often take on lives of their own.

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Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower

17 February 2009

Another particularly good review of the following book can be found as part of the Institute of Historical Research’s collection of book reviews.

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower

On 15 August 1945, nine days after the first atomic bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima, the Japanese government unconditionally surrendered to the Allied powers and brought World War II — known to the Japanese as Daitōa Sensō, or the Greater East Asia War — to an end. For the next eight years, Japan would be occupied by the Allies, led by the United States under the supreme command of General Douglas MacArthur. As the general history goes, the occupying authorities issued various edicts and reforms to root out the oppressive militarism and fanatical emperor-worship of the war years, all in the name of bringing modern democratic ideals to Japan. The Japanese, for their part, seemed to accept the new social and political order with humble gratitude, as well as profound thanks for the victors’ benign guidance in building a democratic society on the ashes of defeat. Yet as in so many cases, this simplistic reading of historical events glosses over years of bitter political struggles and social upheaval, of little children mimicking their elders by playing ‘prostitute and GI’ and sly satirical poetry published in literary magazines and more than a few Japanese politicians committing suicide out of despair and shame. In short, the story of the occupation of Japan is seldom told from the perspective of the Japanese — an omission that John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II seeks to rectify.

Embracing Defeat begins, understandably, with the defeat, and the earth-shattering effect it had on many ordinary Japanese people who had been prepared to give their lives for the emperor and for their homeland. Japanese society had been shaken to its foundations, and people had to reinvent their lives and reevaluate their ways of thinking even as they scrabbled for enough food to stay alive. Dower describes the various subcultures that sprang up under the occupation, from the illegal trades of the prostitutes and black marketeers to the growing influence of left-wing writers and thinkers, many of whom benefited from the fact that they had spent the war in prison or exile and could not be accused of sympathising with the wartime regime. The remnants of that regime also had to come to terms with the occupying authorities, whether in the war crimes tribunals or in the painful negotiations over the status of the emperor and the shape of the country’s new constitution. Dower devotes several chapters to analysing the various battles that Japanese politicians had with the occupying authorities over the details of the reinvented political system, even as General MacArthur’s subordinates seemed to go to inordinate lengths to curtail ordinary people’s attempts to express their opinions in a more free and democratic fashion — whether through strict censorship, strike-breaking, or other curbs on popular protest against the government. Embracing Defeat includes many similar incidents where the tensions between prewar Japan and occupied Japan had to be worked out in careful compromises, and Dower’s equally careful analysis shows how these compromises shaped the Japan that emerged from defeat and sought its own place in the postwar — by that point, the Cold War — era.

Perhaps because of the wider availability of documents from the Japanese national archives and the occupation’s Tokyo headquarters, Embracing Defeat dwells on life in Tokyo and a few other major cities at the expense of a more detailed look at life across Japan. (Granted, a survey of the particular circumstances of the occupation of Okinawa would require a separate book of similar length.) The jumps between social history and political history can also seem jarring at times, even though the wealth of insightful anecdotes helps to make up for the transition problems. Overall, Embracing Defeat is both far-reaching and thoughtfully written, especially when it comes to Dower’s familiarity with the subtleties of the Japanese language. Many of his most informative passages explore how a certain word choice or English-to-Japanese paraphrasing altered the effect of a notable statement or idea, whether it involved the concept of the Japanese imperial family’s descent from the goddess Amaterasu or the politically charged nuances of possible Japanese translations for the word ‘democracy’. In a sense, Dower’s emphasis on translation and word choices is central to the main themes of Embracing Defeat — the ability of language to shape political and social thought, the reinvention of old traditions and the creation of new ones, and the complex relationships between victors and vanquished that were never absent from everyday life in occupied Japan.

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A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

3 February 2009

Yet another John Le Carré book, in my attempt to work through some of the novels that do not happen to feature George Smiley.

A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

An embassy, by its very nature, is a small outpost of one country on another country’s soil. The little community of diplomats and staff that inhabit the outpost are well prepared to close ranks at the first hint of outside trouble or threat, especially at embassies in a country with unsettled political situations — and in Cold War Europe, few countries matched this description better than the two countries of a divided Germany. With the old capital city of Berlin walled off behind the Iron Curtain, the fog-choked industrial town of Bonn became the de facto capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. Although it was jokingly called the Bundesdorf (‘Federal Village’) because of its sleepy, almost backwater milieu, Bonn soon became the home of the various embassies of West Germany’s friends and allies, a small town in which the diplomats could play their delicate and occasionally desperate games while keeping one eye to the east.

In this small town in Germany, the diplomats and support staff of the British embassy are playing a particularly desperate game at present. The Government at home is fighting to survive, and anti-British sentiment is on the rise in a popular protest movement that has the not-so-secret sympathies of the present West German leaders. The British have pinned all their hopes on successfully negotiating entry to the European Economic Community, and everyone is keen to ensure that nothing happens to sour the deal. So when a junior file clerk named Leo Harting and several exceedingly sensitive files go missing from the embassy on the same evening, the blunt but efficient Alan Turner is sent from London to track down both the files and the man. Turner rides roughshod over the embassy staff, digging into private lives and reopening buried conflicts amongst the diplomats and staff members, as he attempts to get to the bottom of Harting’s disappearance. At it happens, though, the real conflicts run much deeper than Turner could have ever suspected, and are inextricably tied to a gruesome history that both the British and the West Germans hope will never see the light of day.

A Small Town in Germany draws on John Le Carré’s own experiences working in the British embassy in Bonn, which may explain how he manages to capture the sheer claustrophobia that can sometimes accompany diplomatic life abroad. The plot, although more tortuous than some of his previous books, has many of the quintessential Le Carré features — not least of which are the female characters who seem to be incapable of maintaining a stream of consciousness without having it wind its way back to sex. (I discussed this particular problem with a few friends a short while ago; the consensus seemed to be that this sort of characterisation might have seemed rather novel or daring when Le Carré was first writing his books, but with the passage of time is has become dated to the point of reading more like cliche than originality.) All the same, many of the good characteristics of a Le Carré novel are still there, the descriptions that immerse you in the setting and the careful turns of phrase that can sketch lightly or cut deeply. As a classic Cold War espionage novel, A Small Town in Germany deftly illustrates its author’s skill in overlapping layer upon layer of personal and political motivations to keep the reader in the dark until the very end.

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The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent by William I. Hitchcock

3 September 2008

I tend to review very specialised, subject-specific books, mostly because I am often dissatisfied with a lot of the broader survey books that are out there. So when a good example of a well-written survey book lands in my reading pile, it’s that much more enjoyable to review.

The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent by William I. Hitchcock

Attempting to write a good general history book about Europe after World War II presents any number of challenges to a prospective author, the most common of which tends to be the prominence of the Cold War in that postwar history. Cold War-era histories cannot help but dwell on the roles of the superpowers, and depending on the author’s own nationality, many promising books on postwar European history end up giving the United States or the Soviet Union too much ‘screen time’ at the expense of their actual subject. A book that is able to keep the focus squarely on the European experience is worthy of note — and history professor William Hitchcock’s The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent manages this feat with alacrity.

The Struggle for Europe works hard to balance the little details and the broader themes of postwar European history, and as a rule it does not dwell too long on one subject, country, or historical figure. Both sides of the Iron Curtain are represented, and the often neglected countries of southern Europe — Spain, Portugal, and Greece — have a separate section devoted to the history of their respective transitions from right-wing authoritarianism and military governments to democratic participation in the European Union. Individuals like Margaret Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle, who can easily overwhelm historical writing by the sheer force of their presence, are prominent but kept in proportion — most often, in proportion to the amount of trouble they caused their neighbours. One of the more notable sections of the book is Hitchcock’s comprehensive coverage of events in the Warsaw Pact countries during the 1980s and 1990s, from the Solidarity strikes in Poland to the gruesome execution of Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife in Romania, which avoids treating the end of the Cold War as a fait accompli in the way that so many other Cold War history books do. This leads nicely into an overview of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian wars, as good a place as any to bring a history of postwar Europe to a close.

Hitchcock’s writing style is smooth and flowing, not exactly conversational but nonetheless free from the stiffness that might make it sound too much like a straight classroom lecture. There’s little in the way of social history or commentary on demographic and other trends, which might make the history seem a little dry for some yet manages to prevent the narrative from meandering off on random tangents. (Personally, I would have liked a little more structure to the end-notes, but I know that some readers find end-notes off-putting and Hitchcock clearly has taken this segment of his intended audience into account.) Overall, The Struggle for Europe hits all of the right points that a basic, general survey history book should have. Those who are looking to brush up on the events they lived through and never appreciated, or learned about in school and never understood, likely would find it a very useful place to begin.