The Self-Destruction of American Power

For anyone interested in escaping from “the sociology of the last five minutes”, this long essay by Fareed Zakaria about the ending of American hegemony is a great read.

Sometime in the last two years, American hegemony died. The age of U.S. dominance was a brief, heady era, about three decades marked by two moments, each a breakdown of sorts. It was born amid the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. The end, or really the beginning of the end, was another collapse, that of Iraq in 2003, and the slow unraveling since. But was the death of the United States’ extraordinary status a result of external causes, or did Washington accelerate its own demise through bad habits and bad behavior? That is a question that will be debated by historians for years to come. But at this point, we have enough time and perspective to make some preliminary observations.

As with most deaths, many factors contributed to this one. There were deep structural forces in the international system that inexorably worked against any one nation that accumulated so much power. In the American case, however, one is struck by the ways in which Washington—from an unprecedented position—mishandled its hegemony and abused its power, losing allies and emboldening enemies. And now, under the Trump administration, the United States seems to have lost interest, indeed lost faith, in the ideas and purpose that animated its international presence for three-quarters of a century.

Worth reading in full.

How Microsoft reinvented itself

This morning’s Observer column:

It may have escaped your attention, but Microsoft recently became the third company in history to reach a valuation of one trillion dollars. To which the standard reaction, I have discovered, is: “Eh? Microsoft!!!” Wasn’t that the boring old monolith fixated on desktop products and operating systems that missed out on the smartphone revolution? The company that Bill Gates used to run before he decided to devote himself full-time to giving his money away? The company whose Exchange Server is the bane of every office-worker’s daily grind? The ruthless monopolist who missed the world wide web and then set out to exterminate the one company – Netscape – that hadn’t?

Yes, that Microsoft. Given the company’s history, this is surely the greatest comeback since Lazarus. But with one difference: where Lazarus’s resurrection was (according to the New Testament) instantaneous, Microsoft’s took longer. How this happened is a story that will keep MBA students occupied for decades, but with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that it has three main strands…

Read on

Sixty years on

Today is the 60th anniversary of CP Snow’s celebrated Rede Lecture on the Two Cultures, which started an argument that sometimes rages still. Tim Harford has a nice essay marking the anniversary. Sample:

Snow was on to something important. His message was garbled, in fact, because he was on to several important things at once. The first is the challenge of collaboration. If anything, The Two Cultures understates that. Yes, the classicists need to work with the scientists, but the physicists also need to work with the biologists, the economists must work with the psychologists, and everyone has to work with the statisticians. And the need for collaboration between technical experts has grown over time because, as science advances and problems grow more complex, we increasingly live in a world of specialists.

The economist Benjamin Jones has been studying this issue by examining databases of patents and scientific papers. His data show that successful research now requires larger teams filled with more specialised researchers. Scientific and material progress demands complex collaboration.

Snow appreciated — in a way that many of us still do not — how profound that progress was. The scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould once mocked Snow’s prediction that “once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor” and that division would not last to the year 2000. “One of the worst predictions ever printed,” scoffed Gould in a book published posthumously in 2003.

Had Gould checked the numbers, he would have seen that between 1960 and 2000, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty had roughly halved, and it has continued to fall sharply since then. Snow’s 40-year forecast was more accurate than Gould’s 40 years of hindsight. Even when we fancy ourselves broadly educated, as Gould did, we may not know what we don’t know. That was one of Snow’s points.

But the deepest point of all — buried a little too deep, perhaps — is a practical problem that remains as pressing today as it was in 1959: how to reconcile technical expertise with the demands of policy and politics. In short — have we really had enough of experts?

The historian Lisa Jardine highlights this sentence in Snow’s argument: “It is the traditional culture, to an extent remarkably little diminished by the emergence of the scientific one, which manages the western world.” We didn’t decide we’d had enough of experts in 2016; we made that decision long ago.

Cambridge University Press published a nice anniversary edition of the lectures a while back, with a wonderful introductory essay by Stefan Collini.

In some ways, Snow was a sad — and sometimes a ponderous — figure. I met him once. I was writing a profile of Solly Zuckerman at the time and went to see him in his office in London (he was an official in Harold Wilson’s administration). I found him to be helpful and generous with his time.

What the Huawei debacle demonstrates

Nice Guardian column by Larry Elliott in which he focusses on an interesting (and under-discussed) aspect of the Huawei controversy: why a country (the UK) that emerged from the second world war with a technological edge in computers and electronics should require the assistance of what is still classified as an emerging economy to construct a crucial piece of national infrastructure. It’s a sign, he argues, of how diminished Britain is as a manufacturing force that the only rivals to Huawei are not the great names of the past such as Marconi and Plessey, but Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson.

The Huawei affair should help to puncture a few myths. In the early years of China’s rapid industrialisation, the UK took comfort from the fact that it was only low-cost manufacturing that was migrating east. Developed countries like Britain, it was said, would do all the clever, high-end, profitable stuff, while the Chinese would have to be content with churning out cheap toys and clothes.

It seemed highly complacent to assume that China – a country which was making technological breakthroughs while Europe was stuck in the dark ages – would be content with being an assembly plant for western consumer goods, and so it has proved. China is now one of the world leaders in artificial intelligence and solar panels. When the government wanted to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, the Chinese got the contract.

A second myth that China has well and truly busted is that all will be well provided market forces are not hampered by state interference. China has had an industrial strategy over many decades, and has stuck to it, while during the same period Britain has seen the state’s role wane and manufacturing become an ever smaller part of the economy.

Britain’s mid-20th century edge in computing, jet engines and radar was a direct consequence of putting the economy on a war footing between 1939 and 1945. What’s more, the reason the UK retains a global presence in aerospace and pharmaceuticals is that companies have been able to rely on the state – in the form of the Ministry of Defence and the NHS – being an important customer.

Interestingly, Huawei is now trying to persuade the residents of Sawston — a village just down the road from me — that they should be relaxed about the company’s plans to build a new factory on its outskirts.

The paradox that is the EU

I’ve been sorting out my files and in the process came on the transcript of an interview that one of my heroes — Ralf Dahrendorf — gave to an Italian journalist, Antonio Polito in 2003. It was published in the Journal of Democracy, Volume 14, Number 4, October 2003, p. 103. (doi). The headline over the interview is “The Challenge of Democracy”. Here’s the section that brought me up short, because it gets right to the heart of the problem of the EU. Dahrendorf says:

You are bound to know the witty remark, now no longer new, that in looking at the conditions set for the candidate countries for enlargement, we can draw only one conclusion: Were the European Union itself to ask to become an EU member, it would not be accepted. For its structure does not fit the basic criteria of political democracy that the Union imposes for the accession of, say, Poland or Hungary or Slovenia. We are facing the historical absurdity of having created something partly for the purpose of strengthening democracy, but having created it in a way that is intrinsically not democratic.

And why is it not democratic? In part the answer lies in the very origins of the project. There is little doubt that when the European Economic Community—and still earlier the European Coal and Steel Community—was planned, democracy did not constitute the prime con- cern of those who designed and built the new construction. The central issue was instead the need to set up an efficient mechanism for making decisions. The result was a typically French solution: Two categories of interests had to be reconciled, the European interest on one side, and national ones on the other. So there was a need for two institutions: one to represent the European interest, charged with putting forward pro- posals, and the other to represent national interests, charged with reaching decisions. That was how the Commission and the Council were invented. Rather a brilliant idea, but certainly not democracy. Europe was designed in such a way that the European interest could find a locus for expression in the Commission, while decisions were ultimately made in terms of national interests, which in any case were prevalent; and this was guaranteed by the Council’s role. That is why, right from the start, the unanimity rule has always operated, and failure to reach unanimity still remains a trauma.

I would add that, in my view, the Assembly (as the European Parlia- ment used to be known), which initially was made up of representatives of the national parliaments, was nothing but an afterthought in the initial project. At bottom, it was not even necessary in the original structure, and for a long time that was the way it was treated.

That’s the strange paradox of the EU. It was, from the beginning a well-intentioned, elite project. Indeed, it had to be an elite project, because the populations of the original member states would never had agreed to it — had they been consulted. (This is the ‘democratic deficit’ that Jurgen Habermas lamented in The Lure of Technocracy). And of course the attempt to retrofit the EU with democratic institutions (like the European Parliament) was always going to be ineffective (though the Parliament has gradually acquired a degree of control over the Commission). But ultimately it the Council of Ministers that holds the power, and although its members are elected via their nation-states’ various electoral systems, democratic control is heavily diluted and indirect.

Shoshana Zuboff’s new book

Today’s Observer carries a five-page feature about Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism consisting of an intro by me followed by Q&A between me and the author.

LATER Nick Carr has a perceptive review of the book in the LA Review of Books. John Thornhill also had a good long review in last Saturday’s Financial Times, sadly behind a paywall.

The news from Paris

One of my favourite books is a collection of Janet Flanner’s Letters from Paris to the New Yorker. Just found a lovely memoir by her of her early years in the city of light. It includes this lovely story:

In October, 1925, I started the biweekly “Letter from Paris” for this magazine. The only specific guidance I received from the editor, Harold Ross, was his statement that he wanted to know what the French thought was going on in France, not what I thought was going on. Since my assignment was to tell what the French thought was going on, my only obvious, complete, facile source of information was the French press. In one of my first letters, I reported on a completely new type of American theatrical entertainment that had just opened in Paris, at the Champs-Élysées Theatre. It was called “La Revue Nègre.” I wrote about it timidly and like a dullard.

As a matter of fact, it was so incomparably novel an element in French public pleasures that its star, the hitherto unknown Josephine Baker, remains to me a still fresh vision—sensual, exciting, and isolated in my memory today, almost fifty years later. She made her entry onstage entirely nude (except for a pink flamingo feather between her limbs), carried on the shoulder of a black giant. Midstage, he paused and swung her in a slow cartwheel to the stage floor, where she stood like his magnificent dark burden in an instant of complete silence. She was an unforgettable female ebony statue. A scream of salutation spread through the theatre. Within a half hour of the final curtain on opening night, the news and meaning of her arrival had spread by the grapevine through the cafés on the Champs-Élysées, where the witnesses of her triumph sat over their drinks excitedly repeating their report of what they had just seen. She had become the established new American star of Europe.

The wisdom of hindsight

Oddly elegiac essay by Joi Ito, the Director of the MIT Media Lab, who clearly is, like me, a recovering utopian:

Legacy businesses have been disintermediated by the rise of companies built around the internet which have, within a very short period, exerted dominion over the world. This is the GDE [Great Digital Event], and it reminds me of nothing so much as the GOE [Great Oxidation Event — which caused the mass extinction of anaerobic bacteria between 2 and 3 billion years ago] in its impact and implications. As our modern dinosaurs crash down around us, I sometimes wonder what kind of humans will eventually walk out of this epic transformation. Trump and the populism that’s rampaging around the world today, marked by xenophobia, racism, sexism, and rising inequality, is greatly amplified by the forces the GDE has unleashed. For someone like me who saw the power of connection build a vibrant, technologically meshed ecosystem distinguished by peace, love, and understanding, the polarization and hatred empowered by the internet today is like watching your baby turning into the little girl in The Exorcist.