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September 2016

Movie review: "Theater of War"

TheaterOfWarI watched this DVD over the weekend and if you care about Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children, the business of war, or simply want to have a behind-the-scenes look at a first-rate production, Theater of War is the documentary for you.

(Admittedly, not everyone cares about Bertolt Brecht. Their loss. He was one of the great genius playwrights of the twentieth century who witnessed the defining tragedies of our times, in particular Nazism - he fled Germany in 1933 with his wife and their children, first to Denmark, then Sweden, then Finland and finally the United States - the Second World War - most of which he spent in exile in Los Angeles - the beginning of the hunt against Communists, which prompted his return to Europe after the war, and then of course the oppression of Eastern Germany, although he served as a poster child to the party in power, since he had returned from the mecca of capitalism).

The first-rate production in question is the 2006 staging of Mother Courage at the Public Theatre in New York City. It doesn't hurt that Meryl Streep plays the title role, although there were fewer snapshots of her process in creating the role than I expected. At least we were treated to scenes from rehearsals, which was better than nothing. But for me the true value of this documentary is in the insights it provides about Brecht, the testimony of his daughter Barbara, the stills of the original Mother Courage production in Berlin which marked the beginning of the Berliner Ensemble and where Brecht's wife, the great Helene Weigel, starred as the mother. 

As much as I admire Streep as an actress, her casting as the mother is not a perfect match (this is better explained in the New York Magazine's review of the production; put another way, it is hard for Streep at this point in her career to make a theater audience forget she is Streep, while it is easier to do in movies). For another review of the 2006 production, here is the New York Times's take on it. I thought the excerpts on DVD were far better than the reviewer implied of the whole production, but maybe it was too early for its time. Ten years later with certain wars dragging on and others having broken out, the theme of the 30-year-war resonates far more with the viewers.

I was stunned when I saw the stills by how good of a fit for the role Helene Weigel seemed to be. She directed the Berliner Ensemble after Brecht passed away in 1956 and survived him by 15 years. Magnum Photos has some great photos of hers at the height of her fame and power in East Germany. Buy the DVD for Streep and watch it for Weigel.

Samantha Power on US Diplomacy in NYRB

NYRBI am catching up on past NYRB issues and just read US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power's piece on US diplomacy: Realism and Reality in the August 18, 2016 issue of the New York Review of Books, based on a talk she gave at the American Academy in Berlin. I am still trying to make sense what I think of it so what follows will be an attempt to decide whether this was a good talk or a missed opportunity.

First, let me say that I have enormous admiration for Ambassador Power and her scholarship, in particular her biography Chasing the Flame of Sergio Vieira de Mello (the Brazilian chief of the UN Mission in Iraq, who died in a terrorist attack in 2003) as well as A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which won the Pulitzer Prize. 

The main two reasons I found the NYRB article underwhelming are: (1) I liked her message that "our national interests are increasingly affected not just by what happens between states, but also by how people are treated within states... it is precisely our self-interest that requires us to get better at improving human security in the service of national security" but then she talks about a kitchen-sink, everything-everywhere approach to diplomacy that is so far-reaching that it feels off-putting, as if Big Brother wanted to know everything going in the world directly, (2) given where she gave the talk - specifically, at an institution "whose stated mission is to foster a greater understanding and dialogue between the people of the United States and the people of Germany" (source:, the fact that she doesn't touch upon the need for collaboration between the US and other countries until the very end of her very long article, when most people will have stopped reading, and the fact that when she does mention alliances, she doesn't show a strong conviction for the unique strengths of those other countries can bring to the table, came across as perfunctory lip service to the need of alliances after a passionate plea for the US to become involved in everything everywhere. 

I think the article should have been more focused on terrorist threats to the US. For too long, countries did not pay attention to the threat of ISIS because it was so far away, until a wave of terrorist attacks rocked Belgium and France. It all seems even more remote from the US's perspective, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but if illegal immigrants are able to cross the Mexico-US border for the hope of a better life in the shadow economy, doesn't it seem reasonable that well-funded terrorist groups could do the same? In addition, US interests abroad also could be targets. That's why, if you're going to sell diplomacy to readers from a self-interest perspective, addressing instability in other countries makes a lot of sense. The place of the US at the top of world order unfortunately makes it a natural target for extremists. We live in a world where terror groups will attempt to strike. You either prepare for that or you don't - that's the choice you have. That they will make attempts is a given, and out of your hands. In that context it would be foolish not to try to prepare. It is always better to address a problem early than late.

Instead, Ambassador Power specifically uses Russia as her first and main example when she writes: "The way governments treat their own citizens matters; it matters because it can have a direct impact on international peace and security—and on our respective national security interests." The thing is, the US has many problems with Russia but the most pressing threat it faces - another terror attack - doesn't come from there. So perhaps starting with another example would have been more suitable. She also writes, among other things, that "the Russian people are denied knowledge of (and a say in) a conflict in which their government is engaged—a conflict that many Russians might well oppose, were they to know its true scale and costs." I disagree with that. I think one reason Russian President Putin has been so popular with a segment of the Russian population is because he makes them feel Russia is going to be great again, and a direct competitor to the US for the top spot in the world order, the way things were during the Cold War.

In addition, if they don't actively support the conflict, I think they are more likely to focus on other concerns such as domestic prosperity than being actively opposed to it, except for the relatives of deceased soldiers that Ambassador Power. There are a lot of good books out there about what's going on in Russia, from Putin's Kleptocracy to Fragile Empire: How Russia fell in and out of love with Vladimir Putin. I think it worrisome that Russian dissidents have been murdered out of Russia and that could have been an example mentioned by Ambassador Power, so that it's not enough to provide refuge to people fleeing their country. It is too easy to assume that Russian people would have the views that advance Ambassador Power's theory and ideas about the US's place in the world. 

I remember talking with a professor at MIT during my sabbatical who had just returned from Moscow where MIT faculty members are helping to launch the Skolkovo Research Institute in Russia, nicknamed Skoltech, and he mentioned how the Russians on the street seemed very different from, and much less miserable than, the image of them given in the US media. And maybe he didn't get the full picture during his trip or maybe he did, but the initiative raises interesting questions that diplomats would do well to reflect upon when they decide upon their policies: is it more appropriate to refuse helping Russia with that tech institute on human-rights grounds or is it better to help precisely because it may benefit everyday Russians? Ambassador Power mentioned the need to understand the impact of policies on the ground. Since she was so keen in talking about Russia, maybe she could have used that as an example.

Most people react well to feeling proud about themselves, especially when they haven't felt proud in a while, and that is also how young impoverished men are indoctrinated into becoming terrorists in third-world countries. As someone born and raised in Belgium, next door from the Netherlands (both tiny countries that have a lot in common) the shooting-down of the Malaysian Airlines plane from Amsterdam over Ukraine in July 2014 felt like my own countrymen had been murdered in mass, and the lack of immediate strong response from certain parts of the international community was one of the most disgusting and appalling displays of lack of political courage I have ever seen. (A package of tough sanctions was enacted two weeks later.) I'm not a supporter of current-day Russia. I do have an interest in Russian culture, learned Russian for 4 years in school, love Russian classical music, and read a lot about the former Eastern Europe. If Ambassador Power aims at Russia in her article, I think she has to re-think. More broadly, she should be clearer about what she wants people to gain from reading her article and the actions she wants them to take. Later in the article she touches upon the Arab Spring and the US's past practice of supporting dictators. Her focus is way too broad.    

Ambassador Power is right in finding Kissinger's approach of "staying focused on managing the relationships between nations" as lacking, but there should be a third way focused on building strong alliances. The fact that she only mentions them at the very end of her very long article suggests she doesn't strongly believe in them. Institutions that are more than ad-hoc coalitions, in particular the United Nations, with its purpose of promoting international cooperation, can get bogged down by the presence among their members of the very states that are condoning unrest, human-rights abuse and dictatorships. NATO is a military alliance built on the idea of collective defense, so that it is a more natural stakeholder when peace is already under threat.

This paralysis at the United Nations and the nature of NATO in turn make a strong argument that current alliance structures aren't well-suited for the nature of the threats today and the US needs to be very actively involved in matters outside its immediate borders. It is also worth pointing out that the impetus of the ad-hoc coalition leading to the Iraq invasion was motivated by terror attacks and in the absence of such a traumatizing event for a country that other nations would rally around it may be hard to generate the sense of urgency and political will that a large coalition would require. (I feel I'm doing Ambassador Power's job in justifying the low place she gives to coalitions in her article, but if I'm on point then she should have made her reasons clearer.)

I also thought that Ambassador Power's idea that "Diplomats need to spend more time out of the office, where they can meet people affected by the policies they debate, see their impact up close, and develop the expertise and the instinct needed to help anticipate how future decisions will be experienced and interpreted by different communities" was nice, but "building relationships not only with well-known civil society organizations, but also with groups like teachers’ associations, workers’ unions, and leaders in the business community—and not only with the vocal majorities, but with the minorities who are harder to find and hear" seemed a bit far-reaching, Uncle Sam wanting to know everything about what's going in the world, directly from the stakeholders themselves. Either we are talking about a country that has functioning institutions and thus local politicians whose mission it is to precisely develop such expertise, or we are talking about a country that does not have functioning institutions and groups like teachers' associations or workers' unions, if they exist, will not provide an accurate depiction of reality. They will be worried about spies, denunciations, empty promises and retaliations. Maybe the focus should be on trusting local partners enough to be told the truth about what is going on.

And what about thanking US personnel abroad for the important role in representing their country in the world? They're on the front lines of fighting stereotypes about Americans. They can also serve as the eyes and ears on the ground that Ambassador Power was referring to. How uplifting it would have been for them to be singled out in such an important speech for their important role in world diplomacy. Maybe Ambassador Power said those things and cut them out of the printed version. Who knows. Also, I think people who attended the talk, including non-Americans, could have been enlisted as partners in the vision of Ambassador Power regarding world diplomacy, encouraged to view world safety as something their own country - whether they are from Germany or elsewhere - should feel concerned about even beyond its own borders.  

In the end, I find the article disturbing because of the kitchen-sink quality of Ambassador Power's ideas, leaving no stone untouched in claiming US diplomacy should do everything. But it is also a touching attempt at having maximum impact in changing the world for the better. She's right to say that "What happens to people in other countries matters to the welfare of our nation and our citizens", but in those times of racial tensions and two-tiered society, I can think of other things that impact the welfare of the US and its citizens even more. Yet, speaking out about the need for far-reaching world diplomacy, even in a heavy-handed approach, is better than remaining silent.