Book review: Hard Choices

In Hard Choices, Clinton shares with us her experiences while she was secretary of state during the first Obama term. We learn what was going on behind the scenes in foreign policy crises, the workings of State, and Clinton’s own modus operandi. She gives blow-by-blow accounts of dealings with foreign actors, such as meditating peace negotiations between Israel, the Palestinians, and the Morsi-led government in Egypt. In these accounts, she sprinkles human touches—stories of previous visits to countries, long-standing relationships with officials around the world, or her reactions to situations.

I did not realize that Clinton inherited a State Department that was in such disarray and neglected when she became secretary of state in 2009. The Bush administration had neglected State but through much hard work and dedication, the Obama administration under the leadership of Secretary Clinton transformed State and placed diplomacy back squarely in the center stage.

(This oddly enough made me feel better about the present situation where State has been side-lined and downgraded, with career officials leaving in droves. If State had been resurrected once, perhaps it could be again.)

Clinton brought her own style—a very human and pragmatic approach to diplomacy—to her role. Traditionally power was thought of as hard (military) or soft (diplomacy). Clinton added another tool to the toolkit: smart power. “For me,” she states, “smart power meant choosing the right combination of tools—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—for each situation.” (page 33)

How she conducted herself was different too. She focused on human relationships with the leaders she met. Meetings started on the personal level before moving into business and diplomacy. Clinton—a possessor of what I would dub “smart intelligence” akin to smart power—knew that things only get done through relationships. Nurture the relationship and you build bridges for the time in the immediate or distant future that you might need to cross to get things done.

To me, her focus on relationships and the amount that she went out of her way to nurture them was spot on. It reminded me of her husband’s previous focus on the economy. (It’s the economy, stupid.) You could rephrase this motto for her to be “It’s relationships, stupid.”

And she didn’t just focus on relationships with high-ranking officials in foreign countries. When she visited countries, she made a point of arranging meetings with people of the countries where they could ask her questions and engage in a conversation with her.

Hard Choices is a good companion piece to The Secretary, a book written by a journalist who covered Secretary Clinton. The Secretary presents the perspective of a journalist who was born and raised abroad to events in the same time period as that covered in Hard Choices. Naturally, the scope of knowledge is different—Clinton gives more details and background information about events that journalists did not have access to. And sometimes perspectives are different.

Take the 2010 World’s Fair in China. In The Secretary, Kim Ghattas recounts how America was not financially supporting its presence at the fair, a shocking revelation given the opportunity the venue presented to highlight America values to the world. In the end, corporations stepped up to finance our exhibit at the fair. As one would expect, the exhibit was corporation-focused—less on projecting American values than consumerism.

In contrast, Clinton recounts how she was approached in February 2009 about America not participating in the fair—this would be seen as disrespectful by the Chinese who were hosting the world’s fair. Clinton rightfully saw the fair as an opportunity “to project American power and values in Asia.” (page 71) While the two books agreed on the importance of America participating in the world fair, they differed in their interpretation of the outcome: one seeing it as a lost opportunity that projected corporate power and the other seeing it as a saved opportunity that projected American power.

The book takes us through the major foreign policy events of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state and even recounts weaknesses and problems that foresaw events that came to pass. Clinton discusses meeting with officials in Myanmar/Burma and future problems involving the Rohingya based on past and then current problems. “The end of Burma’s story is yet to be written, and there are many challenges ahead. Ethnic strife has continued, raising alarms about new human rights abuses. In particular, spasms of mob violence against the Rohingya, an ethnic community of Muslims, rocked the country in 2013 and early 2014. The decision to expel Doctors Without Borders from the area and not to count Rohingyas in the upcoming census brought a barrage of criticism. All this threatened to undermine progress and weaken international support.” (page 125)

At times she turns a blind eye, perhaps out of diplomatic necessity, to reality. She mentions that in November 2009, President Obama was only lukewarmly received in China. As I read her description of his visit to China and his reception by the Chinese, I thought back to my time in China and experience of China as a very hierarchical society based on skin color. Quite possibly there were others things contributing to his weak reception, but racism nagged at my mind as a real possibility.

From Clinton’s descriptions in Hard Choices, I took a shine to Richard Holbrooke who was often sent to fix problems around the world. His focus was on reconciliation. Insurgencies end when those in the insurgency stop. For the insurgency to stop, you have to talk, you have to focus on diplomacy, and you have to give them the opportunity to walk away from the insurgency. In a nod to cold war spycraft, she recounts Richard as observing that “In every war of this sort, there is always a window for people who want to come in from the cold.” (page 151) I smiled as I thought of the classic movie The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

I also learned of events and incidents that I was completely ignorant of. Clinton describes the diplomacy needed in the OAS to prevent the re-admittance of Cuba. (Cuba needed to first fix the issues that led to its banishment in 1962.)

As I read about diplomacy surrounding Columbia, I realized that I hadn’t heard anything about the successes in Columbia—the last I knew of Columbia was its failed state status as a drug country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

I was surprised by a statistic concerning Mexico, reading it twice. Mexico is routinely depicted as a country bedeviled by drug-related violence. But what caught my eye was the fact that 90% of weapons used by cartels come from the US. I was stunned. 90%. Following the lapse of the 1994 ban on assault weapons in 2004, a flood of arms crossed the border. Our loose gun laws, killing us here at home, are also responsible for the drug wars killing Mexicans. We cannot be innocent bystanders to the violence and mere consumers of the drugs that fuel the violence. Since we contribute the guns (and consume the drugs), we have a responsibility to help Mexico.

Clinton walks through the Obama administration approach to Africa and describes examples of good countries such as Senegal, Liberia, Kenya, and Botswana and bad countries such as Congo with its civil war, Sudan/South Sudan with its fighting, and Somalia as a failed state.

She crystallizes the problems with China’s involvement in Africa. China’s focus in Africa is on extracting resources it needs to fuel its economic growth and appetites at home. Fair enough. But the manner is what’s troubling. China builds infrastructure in Africa, but uses its own laborers for the projects rather than local laborers. Investment is also a good opportunity to press for reforms, but China has ignored health and development challenges and human rights abuses. This is beyond unfortunate.

Clinton describes the attempt during her tenure for peace in the Middle East. She recounts the challenges with two different leaders of the divided Palestinian state: Hamas in Gaza and Fatah (led by Abbas) in the West Bank. Both have radically different approaches: violent overthrow of Israel vs. nonviolent negotiations. George Mitchell, who brokered the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, was sent to work on a peace process during a 10-month moratorium on new settlements. Alas, Clinton describes the mad dash rush at the end due to heel-dragging that unsurprisingly led to the collapse of negotiations.

Clinton was in the throes of the Arab Spring too. She spoke out in January 2011 about long-needed reforms in the Middle East. With high unemployment, poverty, and young populations, the Middle East was a powder keg ready to blow. As she spoke these words, demonstrations started in Tunisia, which kicked off the Arab Spring.

She describes the religious groups in each country in the region and the geopolitics. She urged caution about removing tyrants—a lesson one would have thought others too would have learned after Iraq. Their removal, especially in places with no organized opposition, leads to a power vacuum. (Syria, Libya, anyone?) And what enters that power vacuum may be worse. (Look at what happened to Egypt.)

I was surprised to learn about the role Oman played in the Iran nuclear deal. The Sultan ended up brokering secret talks with Iran. Clinton sets out to describe how this deal came about through a quick history lesson about our involvement in Iran and its uranium enrichment program. She does not discuss other US attempts to curtail Iran’s progress. (Stuxnet, I’m thinking of you here.) Instead, she focuses on the offer that the Sultan of Oman suggests: swap their uranium stockpile for fuel rods to power research reactors that are used to produced isotopes to diagnose and treat disease.

She describes the quagmire that is Syria and the geopolitics that shape the reality on the ground. It was not an easy situation during her tenure. If anything, it is worse now. Sanctions did not work thanks to financing Syria received from Russia and Iran. Trying to get the Russians onboard went nowhere and then the US began exploring arming rebels. (So where is Kerry’s book as the sequel on our official involvement in Syria?)

Of course, no book describing her experiences at State would be complete without information on Libya and Benghazi. As usual, she gives the history and geopolitical backgrounds as well as the current political situations. Context is everything. She gives a measured description of what happened in Benghazi based on her personal experience and information that came out during investigations. She puts human faces on the people killed: the Ambassador, an Information Management Officer, and two CIA officers. She walks through what the department did and how security and communication work.

I was struck by her low-key mention of the cause of the uprising in Benghazi—a trailer about the film Innocence of Muslims by Terry Jones, a provocateur pastor in Florida (the same guy responsible for burning the Koran, which led to killings of Americans in retaliation). The focus of the umpteen investigations, it seemed to me, was on the wrong item. The investigations ignored the consequences of religious bigotry.

After an exhaustive tour of the countries she visited and worked with on issues, she looks toward the future. What issues will impact us? Climate change, jobs, energy, use of technology by activists, and human rights.

She decries the false choice of environment vs. economy in the climate change discussion. With 40% of all people within 60 miles of a coast, climate change will have a massive impact. She describes her first-hand experience of the negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009 and how the aim was different than Kyoto. The end goal was a diplomatic agreement signed by all leaders in which all countries had skin in the game. (In contrast, the Kyoto Accords was a treaty that needed to be ratified by parliaments and placed a heavy burden only on rich countries.)

Clinton returns to the topic of China and its emerging role in the world. As China gains prominence on the world stage, many countries look at it as a model of stability and economic growth and see “state capitalism” as a viable alternative. “China had become the leading exponent of an economic model called ‘state capitalism,’ in which state-owned or state-supported companies used public money to dominate markets and advance strategic interests. State capitalism, as well as a range of new forms of protectionism involving barriers behind borders—such as unfair regulations, discrimination against foreign companies, and forced technology transfers—posed a growing threat to the ability of American businesses to compete in key markets.” (page 510) As an example of its negative impact, Clinton highlights the Corning glass company, which fought China over its practice of blocking companies, high tariffs, and stealing intellectual property. Unfortunately, our continued disarray at home (witness the debt ceiling fights that led to talks of a new reserve currency) helped fuel the allure of state capitalism.

She uses the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti to describe best practices for development. Americans erroneously think huge sums of our tax money go to foreign aid, but actually less than 1% of our budget goes towards foreign aid. Why is foreign aid important at all? Because what happens in other countries can threaten us and our strategic interests. Think of it as investing in our future. Both aid and long-term reconstruction and development are important. They are more tools in our toolkit along with diplomacy and defense. Telling countries how to use the aid we give them isn’t the answer though. Each country, each area, each situation is different. For aid and development to be successful it is best to allow country ownership as much as possible.

Clinton touches on what she calls digital diplomacy, which basically refers to training dissidents and organizers to be able to use technology to get around censorship efforts in their country. The problem, she admits, is that these tools and techniques are agnostic. Bad guys as well as good guys can use them.

Her quote of Anne-Marie Slaughter caught my eye. In her Foreign Affairs article, Slaughter explained how heterogeneous societies would benefit in an increasingly networked world—a plug for diversity and multiculturalism at a time when the US is moving in the opposite direction. We’re currently throwing out non-whites and pulling up the drawbridges.

Hard Choices ends with human rights, perhaps fitting given Clinton’s long role working for children’s and women’s rights. Women’s rights, she argues, are human rights. They are also strategic and in our national interests, despite the male officials who poo-poo talk of women’s rights. Where women are abused, not a part of the economies, and denied political participation are the “parts of the world most plagued by instability, conflict, extremism, and poverty.” (page 562) Human rights lead to stability. “History teaches us that when the rights of minorities are secure, societies are more stable and everyone benefits.” (page 575)

Hard Choices is a long but interesting read into a history of US foreign policy from 2009 to 2013. We see successes and failures, near misses and close calls. Pair it with The Secretary to see different perspectives of the same time period and events.

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Book review: Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip

“Would you drive in Beijing?” I was sitting in the passenger side of a car in Beijing driven by my Chinese coworker’s husband. No way. Things are just a bit nuts on Chinese streets where life seems to be cheap.

So it was with some amazement that I read about the American author of Country Driving so casually driving in China. He drove around Beijing, to a village on the outskirts, around Zhejiang province, and followed roads along the Great Wall to where it peters out in the West.

Hessler’s book is an entertaining and educating book about China in the early to mid 2000s. He combines descriptions of his travels with observations, encounters with locals, cultural explanations, and history lessons. As a former Sinophile and traveler, I could appreciate all of these.

The book is divided into three parts, which represent three areas of the country that he explored via car. In the first part, he rents a car in Beijing and sets out to drive to along the entire length of the Great Wall. He flaunts the rules, driving the car outside of the city, on dirt roads, and in creek beds. But the people at the rental office seem to get a kick out of his adventures. Everything that happened, every ding or dent, was met with mei wenti! (No problem!)

Hessler describes the people he encounters in villages and hitchhikers on the road. He talks to the rural peasants as well as authorities who thwart his travels. In the end, he finishes the trip. Along the way, he takes us with him to encounter different folks, their interaction with the Great Wall, and how modern life has or has not passed them by.

I walked away with a Chinese idiom that seemed to speak to me—shangao diyuan (the mountains are high, the emperor is far away). The idiom points to being far away from the capital. Neither good nor bad things reach you because you are so removed from those in power.

In the second part, Hessler drives outside of Beijing, intent on finding a rural writing spot, a place where he could escape the chaos of Beijing to write in quiet solitude. He finds a house to rent with a fellow ex-pat in China but doesn’t find the solitude he was looking for. Instead, he finds a home.

He becomes a regular fixture in the village and honorary member of a rural family. He watches rural politics in action, observes extended clan interactions, and sees the modernization of China reach this remote village. We gain insights into rural life and cultural differences through his close friendship with the Wei family.

One of his descriptions about the rapid rise of change in China struck me. His description seems applicable to the US, where people are also experiencing the disruptive, fast pace of change. As jobs have disappeared over the last decade or two, Americans have needed to adapt and change, to learn new skills. Long gone are the days of working for one or two companies. Now Americans need to have multiple careers. The effect of profound changes seems the same; just the country is different.

“Many people were searching; they longed for some kind of religious or philosophical truth, and they wanted a meaningful connection with others. They had trouble applying past experiences to current challenges. Parents and children occupied different worlds, and marriages were complicated—rarely did I know a Chinese couple who seemed happy together. It was all but impossible for people to keep their bearings in a country that changed so fast.” (pages 263-4)

The third section focuses on factory life. With the rapid modernization in China, the government invested in infrastructure—roads that went nowhere, factories that sprung up overnight, towns that were built (and stood empty, waiting for inhabitants). Hessler drives in Zhejiang province on new expressways, so new that exits for (empty) towns along the way did not yet exist.

He describes the nature of factories and development zones in China. He comes to know the bosses and workers at a particular factory that produced bra rings—the clasps used on bra straps. He became so accepted that he routinely had individual conversations with workers and managers and was present at meetings. We see inside the life of migrant factory workers from the countryside and the business culture of entrepreneurs in China.

Hessler writes in an engaging style. He weaves present-day stories with history and culture. The modern and the historical, the personal and the observed flow together into a single narrative. You cannot help but learn about modern and historical China, family life, and personal struggles. He points out the surreal such as the actor who plays and has eerily become Mao Zedong as well as the seeming normalcy of a bowling alley in a lobby hotel. As an American, he sees what would seem absurd to us but knows enough about Chinese history and culture to explain the hows and whys.

I found much that I could relate to in this book, much that I could understand, and much that I learned, building on my own experiences. There is the can-do attitude in China but also the sense of resignation in some situations. (I heard mei banfa—nothing can be done—more times than I care to remember when I was in China.)

His book though is written for the novice, the person who knows nothing about China. Country Driving is a gentle introduction to the world of China in the early and mid 2000s, a booming time for China full of unbelievable change.

Leave the driving to Hessler as you sit back and see China through his eyes.

Hoosier captive in China

I left the Dubois County Historical Museum with a few names and items I wanted to look into. Robert W. Greene was one of them.

From the museum, I learned that he was a missionary in China who was held by the Communists not long after they came to power in 1949. The museum had copies of his book, the TV show about his experiences, and the issue of Life magazine that featured him (May 19, 1952).

This Jasper native trained for the priesthood at nearby St. Meinrad. In 1937, he was ordained as a priest at the Maryknoll Seminary in New York and was promptly assigned to the mission in Guilin in the south of China, away from the war-torn areas. (China was in the throes of a civil war and had been invaded by Japan.)

In 1945, he returned to the States, but in 1947 was sent back to China, this time to Tungan in the same southern province to run a dispensary in the Maryknoll mission. WWII was long over but the civil war was in full swing. In 1949, the Communists took control of the country. The following year Father Greene’s troubles began.

In October 1950, the Communists confined him to his Maryknoll mission. After 17 months of this solitude, on April 3, 1952, he was dragged before a firing squad to be shot as a spy. Instead, he was bound and held against a wall with bayonets as he was interrogated for 8 days.

A Chinese mob gathered, including fellow parishioners and people he had helped with medicine from the dispensary. The mob was calling for his death. Greene was to be beheaded on April 13.

Instead, he was placed in a cage and paraded through three cities on the way to the border with Hong Kong. The procession to Hong Kong must have been quite a lengthy ordeal. Tungan is in Guangxi province, which does not border Hong Kong. Guangxi province borders Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong.

Greene’s harrowing experiences are chronicled in a 1955 book, Calvary in China, and a TV program, Crossroads: Calvary in China.

The Life magazine story about Father Greene, Red China’s Captured Americans, also mentions the numerous other Americans still held captive after Greene’s release: 42 imprisoned and 19 under house arrest. Three Americans had died. Phillip Cline, a diabetic who didn’t receive needed insulin, died after he was freed. Gertrude Cone died of starvation and cancer. William Wallace’s death was the worst and elicited a gasp from me. Like Cone, he died in jail; his beaten body was found hanging.

As I looked at all the photos and names of those listed in the article, I wondered at their stories. How many died in China? How many survived and made it back to the States? What did they all endure?

Greene himself lived a long life, dying in 2003 at the age of 92.

Movie review: Three Kingdoms: Resurrected Dragon (2008)

Three Kingdoms is loosely based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a 14th century Chinese classic about a chaotic time in China’s history.

Following the fall of the Han Dynasty (220 C.E.), China was divided into three kingdoms: Shu in the West, Wei in the North, and Wu in the South. These three kingdoms battled for supremacy for decades until China was “briefly” unified under the Jin Dynasty in 265.

Three Kingdoms follows the tale of Zhao Zilong who rose through the ranks to become a general in the Shu kingdom. Cao Cao, the infamous general of the Wei, appears early on as his opponent.

Slight digression: I was excited to see Cao Cao who I knew from my days of studying early China. Cao Cao was known to be everywhere at once, culminating in the idiom 说曹操,曹操到—”mention Cao Cao and he is there” (kind of “speak of the Devil!”). He relocated groups of people, such as the religious Taoist order of Celestial Master from Shu to the Wei capital in the North. By doing so, he Inadvertently helped spread this order and religious Taoism throughout all of China.

Three Kingdoms focuses on the Shu kingdom and is filled with battles and fight scenes. In fact, the film is mostly just battles. Zhao Zilong is, of course, a warrior extraordinaire. His strength seems to defy reality. He always overcomes, even when facing dozens of attackers at once.

In the end, he comes out of “retirement” decades later, insisting on leading a battle. All of the famous generals are long dead and being replaced by their offspring. Zilong has devoted 30 some odd years of military service to the kingdom of Shu. He is not about to step aside. Unfortunately, in the last battle of his career, he finds himself used as a pawn in the chess game of war.

Although he and his brother in arms Ping-An initially started fighting for peace so that they could have families, neither goal was been achieved. Zilong dies in battle, one of the many whose names lives on in legend.

Movie review: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)

How to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tiananmen? I watched a documentary about one of China’s most famous modern-day artists and social activists.

You might have heard the name of Ai Weiwei around the time of the Beijing Olympics. He helped design the Bird’s Nest, that funky structure that was the stadium for the 2008 summer games. And then he protested the Olympics. The Olympics which forced out normal Chinese from their homes when their homes were razed to tidy up China for the world’s gaze.

Artists are a little quirky. They look at reality from different perspectives. And often speak up, literally or figuratively with their art. Even Chinese artists describe Ai Weiwei as being different. More different from the typical artist.

He seems to have a fearlessness about speaking up. About confronting the authorities. Even when other artists were being thrown in prison for long sentences. Even when officials were rounding up other dissidents. Ai Weiwei continued to shock with his art and push back against the authorities.

You might say it was in his blood. His father was the famous poet Ai Qing. Although part of the Communist Party that established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, he was purged in 1957. He and his family suffered banishment to the western bits of China.

So when tragedy hit Sichuan in 2008 in the form of a massive earthquake that killed 70,000, including thousands of students in a school that collapsed, Ai Weiwei spoke up. The government wouldn’t investigate, so Ai Weiwei and volunteers did, visiting the area to collect the names of the dead.

Ai Weiwei highlighted the names of the children, their ages, sex, and date of birth on a wall in his home studio. He took photos of the area after the earthquake and posted them on his blog. He highlighted the tragedy in an exhibit in Germany, affixing thousands of backpacks—reminiscent of the hundreds of backpacks that littered the ground in Sichuan after the earthquake—in an outdoor venue. The colors of the backpacks revealed a message from a mother of a deceased girl: For seven years, she lived happily on earth.

His blog was shut down and surveillance cameras set up outside his home studio. He then turned to Twitter to continue speaking out.

He sought to testify at the trial of dissident Tan Zuoren, but was prevented from doing so by the Chengdu police. During this encounter, he was beaten by the police. A month later, while in Germany, he was hospitalized and underwent emergency surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage. Later back in China, he confronted the police again and again, submitting reports about the beating and suing the police.

In April 2011 he disappeared for 81 days. Upon his release from police custody, the conditions of his bail required that he not speak to the media. That he not hold interviews. That he not use social media. That he not travel outside Beijing. He was charged with tax evasion. After a brief respite, Ai Weiwei continued where he left off. He has not been silenced.

One person in the documentary explained, “Transparency is to Ai Weiwei what liberty was to another generation.” Perhaps, someone else surmises, Ai Weiwei was influenced while he was in the US in 1987 by the Iran-Contra hearings that were broadcast for all to see. A government on trial in the public eye. Transparency.

As for Tiananmen, he wasn’t in the country when that horror occurred. He watched it from afar in New York City, where he spent over a decade of his life. Ultimately he returned to China due to the deteriorating health of his father.

But when I wanted to know if Tiananmen was being remembered on June 4 this year, I turned to his Twitter account. And saw through tweets and retweets that Tiananmen has not been forgotten.