Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Left Out in the Cold: The Problematic Partial Inclusion of Europe’s East

Europe will always be unfinished, because it is an idea as much as a geographic expression, and a rather idealistic one at that.

The European Union and a few countries which opted not to join, like Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland, have their problems – structural economic imbalances in the EU which threaten its sustainability, nationalism on the rise, democratic regression in countries like Hungary and Romania – but overall these countries are still among the wealthiest and the freest in the world.

The geographical dilemmas of completing a Europe “whole, free, and at peace” remain, however. The peninsulas and islands jutting into the northeastern Atlantic can be pretty sure they’re part of Europe, as can anyone living anywhere near the Alps. But the seas and straits between Gibraltar and the Caucasus and the Ural Mountains are a pretty arbitrary divide. The problem of only partial inclusion in Europe has been particularly damaging for the more than 260 million citizens of the Russian Federation, Turkey, and Ukraine.

The EU has its reasons to consolidate its troubled project rather than continue to expand to new countries. However, Western Europe has a record of sending contradictory messages to the countries in the continent’s east. These include extending candidate status to Turkey in 2005, then electing Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy with their “privileged partnership” and non for Ankara; refusing to confirm the potential of future membership for Ukraine and Moldova, despite the EU treaties opening such potential to “any European State” which respects European values; expanding visa-free travel to all the Christian countries in the Balkans before any of the Muslim countries; and rhetoric from European Council President Herman Van Rompuy about European unification’s roots in Middle Ages Latin Christianity, which dismayed Bulgaria. 

With Catholic Croatia now safely in the EU, 23 years after Germany unilaterally recognized its declaration of independence, and the four Eastern Christian countries in the bloc (Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania) in not particularly good standing in the eyes of the older member states, many EU citizens would be happy to keep these borders. These are the realities of how a union of 28 disparate democracies handles the prospect of extending pooled sovereignty to some of more than a dozen countries further east. These nations are seen as less culturally similar to the older member states. Some are quite large, some quite small. They are fragile democracies at best, many fractured, several with breakaway enclaves. All are relatively poor. But ambivalence in EU capitals and mixed messages sent by Western European leaders imposes real costs and dilemmas on the democrats of Turkey, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and other countries.

Extending the hugely successful European integration project to the east was always going to be a huge challenge. There are many reasons to call Europe’s eastern neighborhood policy a great success – the EU has absorbed 11 former communist countries (12 when you include East Germany), with over 100 million people. But some clear failings are seen with the three big countries in Europe’s eastern reaches. Although Russia and Turkey have had a good 21st century in many respects, with incomes and international influence steadily rising since the year 2000, it is not surprising that both of them as well as Ukraine have seen massive protests by pro-democracy / pro-Western citizens in the last three years, which autocratic leaders attempted to crush.

Russia, with 142 million people, was always too big and proud to join the EU. But Russia is clearly a part of modern Europe in many ways – economically integrated, if mostly as a source of energy sent through pipelines and oligarch’s cash spent in London and Switzerland, a member of political groupings such as the Council of Europe and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a participant in Eurovision and UEFA soccer tournaments. However, democracy failed in Russia, damaged by the chaos of the wild 90s and then smothered in the Putin era by an elite prioritizing its personal short-term interests and willing to ignore a clear long-term downward trajectory masked by high energy prices. European companies and many leaders – above all in Germany and the City of London – tried to look past Russia’s democratic failings and corruption. But if Berlin’s “Annäherung durch Verflechtung” (rapprochement through interdependence) worked, “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade) failed. Vladimir Putin watched as NATO expanded to Russia’s borders (as was the right thing to do – the Baltics had very good cause to want NATO membership), watched the Western intervention in Kosovo (again, the right thing to do in the face of ethnic cleansing), watched the U.S. invade Iraq (a grievous mistake in which the U.S. ignored some of Putin’s better advice), and suffered a major political defeat in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Putin’s anti-Western side was stoked and he transformed from a awkward partner of the West to an adversary. Russia took actions to destabilize its neighbors whenever they tried to move closer to the EU and the United States. Those who claim that the Obama Administration’s “reset” policy was wrongheaded are unrealistic or ideologues – it was necessary to try to mend ties with Russia and progress was made on nuclear reductions, Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran, and Libya. Dmitry Medvedev was not completely a puppet as president. But in 2011 Putin announced he had decided to return to the presidency – a historic mistake for Russia – and responded to subsequent protests with greater repression. At the same time, Russia backed the Assad regime in Syria to the hilt as its killed tens of thousands of its citizens and radicalized the opposition. Washington – and importantly Berlin – have rightly responded with more vocal criticism of Putin and his regime.

Turkey, with a fast-growing population of 80 million, is about to surpass Germany on the population table. Many Europeans see it as too big, too poor, and too Muslim to join the family. Turkish membership would change the EU, and for EU citizens and leaders who follow the polls, the negatives of such a change outweighed the positives – greater diversity, stronger demographics, etc. – which required greater imagination to see. The arguments of those who saw the benefits were drowned out. Turkey’s candidacy has effectively been dead for years, buried by the hard opposition of several member states and ultimately by the subsequent actions of the increasingly dictatorial Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. For many years, Erdoğan advanced democracy in Turkey by pursuing European integration and civilian control of the military. But his uglier side has been unavoidable in the last year, as his response to the Gezi Park protestors made clear to the world that he had a purely majoritarian view of democracy and did not respect those of his countrymen who disagreed with him. Challenged by a corruption scandal, Erdoğan has responded with purges in the criminal justice system and banning Twitter. He may have substantial support, as the most recent elections again confirmed, but at this point he is clearly damaging Turkey’s democracy.

Ukraine, with 44 million people, is where the autocrats – Putin as well as Viktor Yanukovych – failed. Corruption is even worse in Ukraine than in Russia or Turkey and the country has been consistently misgoverned. Persistent Russian interference, often using its energy monopoly as weapon, has not helped. Critically, the EU has also refused to make clear whether or not Ukraine could ever become a member, limiting politicians’ appetite for reform. President Viktor Yushchenko made a mad dash for NATO membership, despite such a move (and his government) being unpopular within the country, but at the Bucharest Summit in 2008, Germany and France stopped a Bush Administration push to give Ukraine – and Georgia – a Membership Action Plan. Ukraine’s diversity gave it a more competitive and indeed chaotic political space than many of its fellow post-Soviet states, while it remained a fragile economy with terrible government finances and was walloped by the global economic crisis in 2008. In 2010, Yanukovych, rejected in the Orange Revolution, won a fair presidential election, then surprised many in the West with the aggressiveness of his monopolization of the levers of power. He also made moves which pleased Russia, like unconstitutionally extending the lease on the Black Sea Fleet’s base by 25 years. But with the EU offering an Association Agreement including a comprehensive free trade deal, Yanukovych balanced Brussels and Moscow for his own gain as long as he could. In November 2013, his time ran out, and he chose Moscow and gave impetus to the EuroMaidan protests. If he hadn’t used violence against the protests when they were relatively small and imposed draconian “dictatorship laws” in January 2014, Yanukovych might still be in power. Instead, he ended up fleeing in February after several bloody days in Kyiv and an abortive deal brokered by the EU. Ukraine swung west and an incensed Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. Now Ukraine faces major difficulties in maintaining control of its territory even without Crimea, given the activities of secessionists in the east directed and/or inspired by Moscow, while its economy remains on the brink of collapse, elections must be helped, and difficult economic reforms must be implemented.

So all three countries are severely troubled. Russia and Turkey look more autocratic than they have in decades, while Ukraine reached that point earlier in 2014 and currently remains at acute risk of state failure. All three are divided countries, their places in today’s Europe – which for people many means the EU, NATO, or both – are vexed. The reasons for this are manifold, the products of geography, history, economics, and domestic politics and foreign policy in dozens of countries. China’s economic performance over the past three decades has given autocracy a good name, while Putin’s model of so-called “sovereign democracy” has inspired imitators. The United States, leader of the free world, allowed its financial system to blow up the world economy, setting some countries back by a decade, and characteristically did nothing to deal with the root causes of the problem. Both the U.S. and the EU are distracted by internal problems, some very serious, and fatigued with foreign policy and enlargement. But Russia and Turkey heading fast in the wrong direction and Ukraine in chaos are very dangerous indeed for Europe and its allies across the Atlantic.

It is in the enlightened self-interest of Europe and the United States to help Ukraine stabilize and succeed as a less corrupt democracy in which citizens can meet their aspirations and to incentivize democratic development and European integration in Russia and Turkey. But success will require more creativity and generosity than has been in evidence in recent years. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

La grande bellezza


As I’ve been living in the States and at the moment haven’t left them for more than a year, I’ve been doing some armchair traveling, reading news and novels but above all through an addiction to foreign film. So I’ve decided to return to one of the forms in which I first published back in high school and college, and write occasional movie reviews for the penguin revolutions.

Federico Fellini would have been 94 on January 20. That happened to be the day I made it to E Street Cinema in Washington to see La grande bellezza or The Great Beauty, which had just been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Paolo Sorrentino’s film is also out on DVD with the Criterion Collection in March, a mark of distinction which first brought the film to my attention. A beautifully shot tribute to Rome and La Dolce Vita, I expected. But the film brilliantly exceeded my expectations and I would call it my favorite of 2013.

Toni Servillo plays Jep Gambardella, a journalist who is king of the social scene and celebrating his 65th birthday with hundreds of his friends in the first of the film’s grand soirées. Looking somewhat like a dapper version of Joe Biden, Jep instead has an incisive tongue which we see cut apart both a confused amateur artist he interviews and a longtime friend alike who pushes her self-regard too far in one of many rooftop cocktail circles. His novel, published decades ago, was a major literary success which he has never followed up. Now, facing mortality between the milestone birthday and news of the death o his first love, he walks out of a beautiful woman’s bed looking beyond the parties for something more. He discovers a potential soulmate in an unlikely place, but fleetingly. Some of his friends pass on from Rome. He encounters a pope-in-waiting who lovingly describes how to cook any dish that comes to his mind, but flees when asked about spiritual matters, and a Mother Teresa character who loved his novel, and seems to be the only one with answers.

There is poetry unbound in the dialogue, the characters are memorable and real even at their most exaggerated, the ensemble acting is excellent, and the beautifully shot world Sorrentino creates offers joy after surreal joy, from a botox clinic which might well (or might as well) have been one of the pieces of performance art Jep reviews for his friend’s magazine to a disappearing giraffe standing among the ruins of Caesar’s city. Sorrentino even weaves the capsized Costa Concordia into the film. La grande bellezza is a movie in which one loses track of time and is sad to see it go at the end. It’s melancholic and in places cutting, as any film about modern Italy rightly should be, but also warm and affectionate. All in all, a masterpiece, and a great beauty.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pilgrims in Alaska


I spent the summer of 2002 living in McCarthy, Alaska, a small community in the heart of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest park (and among the least-visited) in the U.S. system. A few months earlier, a pair of guys from the class above me at Bowdoin College had given a presentation on this great summer program out there, which convinced me to sign up. So I bought a tent, a good pack, and industrial strength hiking boots, and in late June I deplaned at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and walked between a giant stuffed polar bear and a giant stuffed Kodiak bear into a city conspicuously lacking pigeons (they were replaced by magpies on the telephone wires), found my hostel, wandered out for a reindeer sausage from a street vendor, browsed some kitschy shops, and tried to sleep, although I would not see a dark sky for another six weeks. In the morning a van collected me and other adventurers and took us five hours east on the highway, then another 60 miles in three hours on “the worst road in the world,” a dusty dirt construction with some washed out bits and sketchy looking bridges. Lastly, we crossed a well-built footbridge across a glacier-fed river into town and walked another mile to the Old Hardware Store, one of the main buildings in a community with a population of 28 in the most recent census, and the home of the WrangellMountain Center, in its own words “a private nonprofit institute which fosters understanding, appreciation, and stewardship of wildlands and mountain culture in Alaska through scientific and artistic inquiry in the Wrangell Mountains.” 

About 15 college kids showed up every summer for an eight-week program at the Center, which involved hiking over glaciers, forests, and serious hills (the tall mountains in the area being in the neighborhood of 16,000 feet), the study of biology and geology, and reflections on nature in a place where nature is unusually dynamic. (I got 2.25 credits in Environmental Studies and Biology for Bowdoin via San Francisco State University’s School of Extended Learning, but that was the least rewarding part of the experience). The local history also plays its part. The copper mining company town of Kennicott was five miles further beyond the bridge, next to the richest copper veins ever discovered. The rail bridge connecting the place to civilization would be destroyed every year by an unusual phenomenon known as a jökulhlaup, in which a glacier gets in the way of a river and dams it to form a lake until it doesn’t, forming a flood. But the copper made rebuilding the bridge annually well worth the effort. McCarthy the support town was where the miners could get vittles and visit brothels for trysts with girls with names like “the Beef Trust.” Eventually the copper was all extracted, though, and Kennicott became a picturesque ruin of decaying red-painted wooden buildings. McCarthy also became a ghost town that drew but a few dozen strong personalities to live there in the summer, and fewer in the winter.

The summer of 2002, however, was the first since a family with 15 children came to town. The Pilgrims were fundamentalist Christians who had bought a mining claim and associated private property in the next valley, around Bonanza Ridge and up McCarthy Creek. My fellow youngsters from Outside and I never saw the Pilgrims in two months; we were kept apart. The family patriarch, who styled himself as Papa Pilgrim, had “heard the college students sometimes camped in the nude. His own children had never been exposed to the naked human body, he said. In fact, they remained fully dressed even when they bathed, a practice that kept them from temptation and sin.” So relates longtime Anchorage Daily News reporter Tom Kizzia in his 2013 book about the Pilgrims, Pilgrim’sWilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness in the Alaska Frontier. Therefore, the students “were no longer welcome to make their annual backpacking trek up McCarthy Creek.” We did set out on the two-week circuit hike, but only after unsuccessful negotiations by our director about crossing Pilgrim land, and thus with restrictions forcing us to try to cross a (relatively) high pass. The weather ended up making this impossible, as we experienced snow in July and were camped above the Mile High Cliffs in driving rain for several days but could not be resupplied by bush plane. So we had to turn around and head back down the creek rather than make go over the ridge. At one point we were descending fairly steep terrain and found ourselves looking down on the Pilgrim compound hundreds of yards away. We heard them fire up their chainsaws. In fairness to Papa Pilgrim, I do recall several of our group running around naked on grassy hills in thick mist after a rainstorm at one point on that hike.

While the Pilgrims avoided the collegiate crowd, they had overall tried to balance homesteading in the wild with building ties in the tiny town. We’d heard that in their more social moments in McCarthy, the Pilgrims had revealed themselves to be amazing musicians, playing a joyful and authentic mountain music. This positive image came across in The Road to McCarthy, a memoir in which Pete McCarthy, a humorist from the British Isles, traces his ancestry around the globe from Morocco to Alaska (after an earlier volume tracing his ancestry through all the McCarthy’s Bars in Ireland was a big hit). Studying in London in spring 2003, I was shocked to see a photo of the tiny Alaska town where I’d spent the previous summer on the cover of a paperback, which I naturally bought and devoured.

A decade on from that fantastic summer, I still haven’t made it back to Alaska. But in the interval Papa Pilgrim continued to attract my attention with occasional appearances in the national news. He had bulldozed open a long-abandoned and completely overgrown road (I remembered walking along the road, and it was wild and hard to find in many places) through the public parkland in order to supply the family with food in the Alaskan winter. This opened up a hornet’s nest with the National Park Service, but Pilgrim had plenty of libertarian supporters on his side. They even launched an airlift to supply the family. Kizzia’s reporting at the time also revealed that Pilgrim’s real name was Robert Hale, that his father had been a college football star who went on to be the chief of the FBI’s Dallas office and a good buddy of J. Edgar Hoover, and that back in 1959, Bobby Hale had taken the daughter of John Connelly, future Texas governor and Kennedy assassination bystander/victim, as his teenage bride and run off to Florida, where she died within two months of a potentially self-inflicted gunshot wound. Later on, more of the story came out. In truth, Pilgrim was far from a good Christian. He had not only been asserting his authority as infallible law in his household, keeping his children from the world, preventing them from learning to read, and beating them frequently, but he had also been raping his eldest daughter. Finally, they rebelled and Papa Pilgrim ended up in jail. When he died not long after in 2008, member after member of his religious family stood at his open grave (in Wasilla, which “in just a few weeks… would give the world an indelible new image of post-frontier Alaska”) and “consign[ed] the newly departed to hell.”

I’ve had a barebones sketch of the true Pilgrim story for some years, but Kizzia tells the long tale skillfully and comprehensively in his book, while at a very readable length. I’m glad to know the story as fully as it can be known, a dozen years after Papa Pilgrim and sons showed up in McCarthy having driven trucks through a blizzard to find their promised land. The author visited the Pilgrims when their story was about a Christian family confronting the federal government over the highly charged Alaskan issues of land use and the taming of the frontier, dug up Papa Pilgrim’s dark past after the man himself gave the reporter some hints, and returned to the story to reveal what happened after the family lost their support in town and Hale lost control of the children he treated as his property. Pilgrim’s Wilderness is scrupulously fair to the different family members and their faith, the townspeople, and others involved in the story. Kizzia has tracked down helpful sources along the Pilgrims’ road from Texas through New Mexico to Alaska. He does a good job explaining and exploring the background issues that originally attracted attention to the Pilgrims without losing the narrative thread of his yarn. Ultimately, Tom Kizzia has contributed a strange, gripping story to the literature of true crime and the American West.

I’d also like to thank Kizzia for transporting me back to McCarthy and an Alaska more authentic than Sarah Palin and more chilling than Northern Exposure, as I read the book over the course of a week or two. I still hope to take that road to McCarthy again and return to the Wrangells in person someday. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Croatia Joins the European Union


99 years ago today, on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Austrian-controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. The killing in Sarajevo didn't really start the war in the Balkans, which had been going on for some years as Ottoman control over its over-extended empire collapsed, but it managed to spark a much larger fight across Europe and gave birth to the "short 20th Century." After that ended in 1989-1991, Yugoslavia collapsed for the second time into five and then six and seven countries, hundreds of thousands of people died, and towns were ethnically cleansed before NATO operations brought a tenuous peace. Since then, the countries of the Western Balkans have watched as their neighbors to the north, including former Yugoslav Slovenia, joined the European Union, with all the economic advantages it brings, in 2004, followed by Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.

A few years ago, some optimists in Serbia were hoping to join the EU on the centenary of the assassination. That won't happen, but on Monday, Croatia will become the Union's 28th member in the first enlargement since 2007, before I started my serious study of European political affairs. Enlargement has been Brussels' most effective foreign policy and the accession process is hugely helpful for the European countries still outside the Union. But the policy has looked moribund for a few years, between well-known blockages of candidates Turkey and Macedonia, the EU's extremely serious problems, and the lack of progress on reforms across the region. Today, things are looking up. The EU has just agreed to open accession talks with Serbia, a candidate country since 2011-12, in December or January. It will finally open talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Kosovo, a first step. Even more significantly (since those decisions were based on prior progress) Albania just had a breakthrough election with a peaceful transfer of power to former Tirana mayor Edi Rama and his Socialist Party, a needed solidification of Tirana's democratic credentials which should lead to candidate status.

Croatia will be the last new member for several years, but it must not be the last. During the break-up of Yugoslavia, newly reunified Germany made its first bold unilateral and slightly alarming foreign policy move in recognizing the Western Christian breakaway republics, Slovenia and Croatia, ahead of the rest of the EU and international community. The EU has four Orthodox countries as members, but its signalling about who can belong to Europe has often been daft, for example when it granted visa free travel to everyone in the Balkans except Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo, the three countries with Muslim pluralities. Turkey has been granted candidate status and indeed Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus are granted at least potential candidacy by the Treaty of Rome, which states "Any European State may apply to become a member of the Community." Particularly in a multi-speed European Union, which appears to be destined by developments in the euro crisis response and the Europhobia of the British public, there should be room for any geographically European country which meets the political and economic accession criteria. A revival of the accession process for Turkey is the most effective way outsiders can check the autocratic tendencies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and support the aspirations of Turks for a democracy that goes deeper than elections. An accession prospect for Ukraine is the only way in the long term to keep Kyiv from slipping into the Eurasian Union which Vladimir Putin is constructing.

Meanwhile in the Western Balkans, tiny Montenegro should lead the pack and Albania is also a relatively straightforward case, both simply need to follow the path to readiness that Croatia took, toughened after many thought Bulgaria and Romania were let in too early. Albania is already a member of NATO (which for the moment also has 28 member states, 22 in common with the EU), which has traditionally come first, Montenegro is likeliest to become NATO's 29th member. Macedonia has been stuck at the starting gate since 2005 over its stupid name dispute with Greece, and it has become more of a basket case, bingeing on the construction of monuments summoning a glorious past rather than reforming for a future in the EU; the name problem must be solved for the country to have a future that is anything but dim. Bosnia and Herzegovina has serious constitutional problems and must transform politically into a more unified state at some point, hopefully peacefully; it will not get into the EU with the present state of affairs. Serbia is the most attractive member in the Western Balkans after Croatia for the EU because of its size and transport opportunities along the Danube Valley and it is also in many ways the most ready in terms of reform; it is also the most repulsive because of its crimes in the 1990s, the persistence of an ugly nationalism, and the Kosovo problem, which has not yet been solved despite progress. Kosovo itself, hobbled by a limbo status of recognition by only half the world, is years behind Serbia in readiness, but they should only join the EU together, with Belgrade along with Madrid, Athens, Bucharest, Bratislava and Nicosia recognizing the full sovereignty of Prishtina. The Germans, thankfully, seem to understand this and they also seem to be leading Brussels' Balkan policy and doing it more responsibly these days. When all six countries have joined the EU, it will be a great accomplishment for the peoples of the region and for Europe as a whole. Until then, congratulations to Croatia.

Oh, and out in the north Atlantic, candidate country Iceland isn't going to join. The euro looks less attractive to them these days and Beijing, interested in increasing its footholds in the Arctic, is waving too much money around.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Don't Expect Big Changes in U.S. Middle East Policy, Until the Reckoning with Iran Arrives

I've got a short article giving an overview of the Obama's administration Middle East policies on Aspenia Online, the website of the Italian branch of the Aspen Institute. I wrote it before Obama's trip to Israel and Jordan. While there were some positive developments in Israel (good speech from Obama trying to keep the two-state solution on the table, the reconciliation he brokered between Israel and Turkey) and there appears to be increasing pressure for the administration to do more in Syria (and there is a bit more military aid from the U.S. to the rebels going on covertly), I think the basic points stand. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Best Picture

I've got my cinephile hat back on these days, so I appreciated how good a year 2012 was for movies. Ahead of this weekend's Oscars, I've seen 7 of the 9 Best Picture nominees, which is certainly the first time I've reached a ratio like that since they blew up the field three years ago. Living in the United States helps too. We'll do this as a countdown. There are spoilers.

Honorable Mention: I enjoyed myself at Les Miserables. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter arrived just in time to keep the movie from sinking under the weight of its melodic tragedies. But my uneducated take (on a film adaptation of a musical I hadn't seen based on a book I haven't read) boiled down to a good film adaptation of a mediocre musical based on a good book. Sacha's The Dictator was disappointing, although it had one of the best trailers of the year. Bill Murray made a good, amusing Franklin Roosevelt in Hyde Park On Hudson, Olivia Williams as Eleanor was even better, but the movie was a bit lightweight. I watch a ton of foreign films at home but I'm mostly catching up on 2011 (great films like In Darkness, Bullhead, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, A Separation, and The Turin Horse). Still I managed to see two of the national Foreign Language Film submissions, Germany's Barbara and Greece's aptly titled Unfair World. Both are worth seeing but didn't quite make my top 12. 

12. The Master. I had looked forward to Paul Thomas Anderson's latest as with few films (I've been a big fan since Magnolia), and I was ready for it not to be an expose of Scientology but a more complex piece about a man coming home from World War II. And I really enjoyed the film for the most part. Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance was the best I've seen from him. But I found Joaquin Phoenix's character hard to relate to, and the ending didn't do it for me.

11. Beasts of the Southern Wild. A cute, creative film, with a great performance from a young child actress. Don't have too much more to say.

10. Skyfall. There have been great and terrible Bond movies since GoldenEye introduced the series to me. This one wasn't the reinvention of Casino Royale, but it was very solid. In fact, I thought it might be a great conclusion to the series after 50 years. Don't think that's going to happen though.

9. Silver Linings Playbook. I tend to enjoy David O. Russell's films (see Flirting with Disaster if you haven't!).  It's pretty bizarre that this is the first movie in decades to receive acting nominations in all four categories. But it's an original and memorable romantic comedy that will probably be thought of more highly if it doesn't win too many awards. Can't begrudge Jennifer Lawrence anything though.

8. Anna Karenina. I saw this adaptation because I felt like seeing a movie one day and had already seen most of the ones I'd meant to see. Then the Russophile within me stirred and I decided to check it out. I was surprised how great it was. The director's highly stylized adaptation turns a very long Tolstoy novel into something more like a Shakespeare play (of which there are many stylized adaptation, I took a whole course on them at Bowdoin). The acting is good, but this is Joe Wright's triumph. Sadly mostly shut out in the awards.

7. The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan made a stunning follow-up to the superhero movie about terrorism which won Heath Ledger his posthumous Oscar. But because of what happened in Aurora, it won't ever be just another movie.

6. Django Unchained. I wasn't sure about seeing this, but I'm a Tarantino fan, and when I did, I quite liked it. Can't wait for the third installment of his counterfactual revengers' trilogy. 

5. Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis makes America's most beloved leader come to life as a flesh and blood, conflicted, funny, complex man. He absolutely deserves an Oscar for the performance. The movie is quite good too. But it's a bit Spielberg-by-numbers. 

4. Argo. I may have enjoyed Argo more than any other movie I saw in theaters, it's a credible Best Picture of the year. The true story is fantastic. I hoped Ben Affleck would win Best Director for summoning the atmosphere of revolutionary Tehran and the 70s. But I rank a few other ahead of it. Honestly, I saw Argo too long ago to make these judgments solidly, and it's now the heavy favorite for Best Picture, and I have trouble rooting for favorites. But the ending escape is a little too adjusted in a contrived manner, with the storyboards showing the power of movies (Hollywood loves nothing more) to get the escaping diplomats onto the plane just in time. Dramatic license allowed, but still.

3. Moonrise Kingdom. The movie most robbed by the Academy might be Wes Anderson's best yet. Troubled children run away on the coast of Maine in a storm. "What kind of bird are you?" Excellent supporting work by Edward Norton and others. I might have cast my ballot for this for Best Picture. If it was nominated. And if I had a ballot.

2. Rust and Bone. You didn't think the list would finish without a foreign language film, did you? I knew Matthias Schoenaerts from the excellent Belgian crime drama Bullhead, Marion Cotillard from small roles in several films, had heard good things about director Jacques Audiard, but it was the intense drama involving an orca that pulled me into theater for this one (I love orca drama... the 1977 film Orca, the thinking man's Jaws with Richard Harris as a guilt-ridden accidental whale-killer, Charlotte Rampling as a sexy scientist, and Will Sampson, the Indian from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next... Neko Case's "People Got A Lotta Nerve,"... no, not Free Willy). It did not disappoint. A very emotionally and physically raw romance and social realist film. Cotillard deserves Best Actress, except she already one. They do a great job vanishing her legs, completely believable. 

1. Zero Dark Thirty. The early favorite, but attacked by politicians in the press before it was released. Zero Dark Thirty's problems come from it being too potentially important a film. Osama bin Laden was snuffed only 20 months before the film hit theaters. Most of the facts are classified. The debate about whether the United States' use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" aided in the gathering of actionable intelligence that helped get bin Laden is not settled. A movie could not settle that debate. But it bothers me that in all this debate there is a conflation between whether torture is acceptable and whether torture works. Of course it will work sometimes, just as it will also give dangerously misleading information sometimes. The liberal position, which I support, is that torture is unacceptable, regardless of whether or not it ever works. The only character in the film that seriously questions torture is presidential candidate Barack Obama on a television. Zero Dark Thirty is far from a perfect film and this is one of its problems. The film leaves too much important material out for us to be comfortable. That is because Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal focus tightly on one character, the based-on-a-real-person CIA agent Maya, and her experience spending years hunting for bin Laden, doing nothing else, seeing men tortured at her command, seeing her friends killed, being shot at, and eventually triumphing. The film is uncomfortable, as it should be. It may not be as true as one would want, but how could it in 2012 with the information available? Based on reportage, the filmmakers told one story. It's not a satisfying story, it might be deeply unsettling, but the story of America's response to 9/11 and prosecution of the war on terror is indeed unsatisfying and deeply unsettling. Even if this movie is dangerous, there's enough truth in it for me to award it Best Picture. Movies shouldn't just entertain us, they should make us think. Hard. That said, I haven't fully made up my mind about the movie. Many take-downs have been published by people wiser than me, Steve Coll's is definitely worth a read. George Washington University also has a treasure trove of raw material relating to the hunt for bin Laden and the film. If I actually got to vote for the Oscars, I would read up a little more and watch the movie again before making my decision.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The EU's Nobel

The European Union won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize a few days ago, and the mockery and anger that followed were as vehement as they were predictable. For what it's worth, I'm not a big fan of giving such awards to institutions rather than individuals. But does the EU deserve such an honor as much as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007), the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005), or the United Nations (2001)? Sure.

Yes, the United States and NATO and the Cold War framework helped prevent war in Europe. But they did not guarantee the productive cooperation between former enemies and rivals which has changed the continent and made war in Western Europe unthinkable. The founding fathers of the European Community were far-sighted men, and their project of European integration helped create an enormously prosperous continent for hundreds of millions of people. Earlier hold-outs like the Sweden, Finland and Austria joined in the 1990s precisely because the European Union was a roaring success, and Europe and the EU were starting to mean the same thing in the eyes of many. For Greece, Spain, and Portugal, and then for the 10 countries of Central and Eastern Europe that joined in 2004 and 2007, and for those in the Western Balkans and further east who continue to look to the EU, it means something even more important - an anchoring in a community of democratic values for people who had lived under dictatorships in the decades after World War II, and feared its return.

So why the moaning? Yes, European governments and the bureaucrats who make the EU run don't seem as heroic as activists facing authoritarian governments or fighting for development and rights for the world's poorest. And yes, there are hordes of British and American commentators who have always hated the EU, and those keen to further debase the prize to further embarrass the controversial 2009 winner, President of-then-less-than-a-year Barack Obama. But much of the complaints are because of the timing. The committee of Norweigans have given the EU the prize when it looks like it might be in its dying throes. Or else in the birth pangs of a more integrated polity which would be constructed against the will of a Euroskeptic movement that has never been larger or noisier. The EU has utterly failed to handle its crisis of confidence, with Angela Merkel's Germany imposing austerity on the troubled states at a level that is self-defeating in terms of calming the crisis. Elections cannot fundamentally change policy in countries like Greece. Even if a "Grexit" looks less likely in the short term than it recently did, a Spanish bailout looks in the cards. Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble poo-poo any talk of a fundamental change in their policy. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi helps, but makes clear he can't save the euro by himself. Europe lives in a state of permanent economic crisis. The European Union's future is, bluntly, bleak. And the Nobel Committee is obviously hoping to spur greater Brussels and European capitals to save their union, whatever it takes.

The late Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental and political activist. She was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004. I see her as among the more interesting and more deserving of the recent award winners, and there is no doubt at all in my mind that she was morally superior to the likes of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder and Tony Blair. But on some level I wish the EU had received this award in October 2004.

In 2004, membership of the European Union increased from 15 to 25, as the countries of Central Europe "returned to Europe." That was an accomplishment worth awarding in and of itself, on top of all that the EU had done over the decades to cement Franco-German friendship and southern European democracy and to spread prosperity across the continent. The EU was also wrapped up in its constitutional debate - before it had become a constitutional crisis which was only put on ice in 2009, only to be reopened months later by the Greek debt crisis. Would such an elite recognition of an elite project have helped the "Yes" vote in France and the Netherlands in 2005? Maybe not, but one could hope. Would a European Union that had moved forward with deepening as well as widening as its shapers had always intended, currency union before true political union but ultimately requiring that as it was, have been able to avert the crisis before the wave of Euroskepticism left it half-finished? Maybe not, but one could hope.

In 2012, though, the euro looks like a half-baked idea and the European Union's consensus-based decision-making combined with angry publics and scared governments have turned the common currency into an infernal machine to undo the political gains of European integration. Thomas Risse, in his book A Community of Europeans? Transnational Identities and Public Spheres, notes that bad news about the European Union in public spheres is bad for the construction of European identity. That doesn't bode well for today's EU of headlines about bailouts and anarchy in Athens. If there's a counter-balancing "we're all in the same boat" feeling, as I believe there is, it still weaker than the feeling many appear to have that this whole European integration thing might have been a dreadful mistake.

Barack Obama actually did a great job with his Nobel acceptance speech. Selected for peace, but elected by the American people as commander in chief, he laid out an eloquent case for just war. That the troop surge in Afghanistan might have been a mistake (though not unjust) does not invalidate the correctness of Obama's argument. The European Union also needs to take this opportunity and use it to build momentum towards a solution of the crisis. The sight of Herman Van Rompuy, Jose Manuel Barroso, and Martin Schulz, of the European Council, Commission, and Parliament, squabbling over who gets to accept the award will not make the EU look good. Everyone can go to Oslo, but there should be one speaker and one damn good speech. Out of those three, Van Rompuy, as representative of the member states, who are indeed the actors which actually created the European Union, has the best case for primacy. He is the President of Europe that everyone was talking about before the quiet Belgian was actually selected. But you might find a better speaker, or a louder voice. Would Angela Merkel be appropriate? She would be if she laid out a serious, doable path forward that actually stabilizes the European Union, which she would then take to the German people in her re-election campaign over the following year. If not, maybe Schulz. He's German, and he represents both the most democratic of the European institutions, the Parliament, as well as the Social Democrats, the political party that could change Merkel's counterproductive policies if she won't change them herself.