Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: January, 2015

Corridors of power

As I write this, the World Economic Forum is going on up in Davos, a few miles from here. An editorialist in a local newspaper has commented that while the WEF means a big security operation, it attracts less opposition these days, and it has in fact lost its meaning. People in politics and business go there just for the informal contacts.

C.P. Snow knew all about “the corridors of power”, a phrase which he coined as the title of a novel in the 1960s. Real political power, he figured, is exercised in small groups of people who know one another and meet informally behind closed doors. The corridors of power are more important than the halls and assemblies in which it is publicly exercised.

This year the contacts in the corridors of WEF have again shown themselves to be worthwhile for the host nation in particular. Chinese premier Li Keqiang was there with a delegation. While they were in Davos, an agreement on Switzerland becoming a renminbi hub was finally signed. Switzerland’s status as a “renminbi hub“ will give commercial traders here the ability to make and clear direct trades with their Chinese counterparts in the PRC. (The renminbi is one of the top ten currencies used for payments worldwide. In the past year, it outstripped the Swiss franc in this regard.)

Another example of worthwhile wheeling and dealing in the corridors of WEF: Switzerland and France finally came to a deal on the disputed tax status of the Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg Euro-Airport.

With all this wheeling and dealing, I wonder who actually goes to the meetings where the problems of the world are so earnestly and volubly debated. It can’t be the people who are getting things done.

But then it never has been otherwise, has it? Switzerland’s impresario of the corporate sector Klaus Schwab organised this thing just so that the people who count could meet and network on the sidelines. The attempts to solve the world’s great problems were no more than an elaborate kind of window-dressing. Ever.



Soft skills and hard subjects

Singapore journalist Javanadas Devan, writing in the Straits Times a couple of years ago, commented wryly on the plans of the minister of education there to introduce a “holistic” type of education including “soft skills”. Devan noted that while soft skills were now fashionable, universities like Cambridge and LSE in England were already starting to push back against the trend, and required aspiring undergraduates to have taken more traditional “academic” subjects in their A-levels.

Devan also commented that the “soft” subjects can also be rigorous, and that the “hard” subjects can also be a source of enjoyment. This is very true. Yet he was clearly assuming that the soft subjects meant literature and the arts, and that the hard subjects meant the (natural) sciences. In this connection he referred to C.P. Snow’s old idea of the split between the “two cultures”, and was sceptical about well-meaning attempts to bridge the gap. He found that a truly holistic education should not mean a little bit of everything (and not too much of anything).

Devan is right about this, but Snow had a lot more to say on “hard subjects” in education in his collection of essays Public Affairs, which came out in 1971. He wrote: “there are some mental exercises which become effectively impossible in later life. If you don’t study hard subjects before you have graduated, you never will. And without the rigour of hard subjects, and the effect of a minority devoting themselves to them, the whole mental climate will soon become altogether too relaxing. Imagination is vital, but you breathe it in your own private air. Relevance you find for yourself if you are a human being. But intellectual rigour you don’t, unless you are disciplined beyond the limits of most men.” This, then, was something you had to be taught at school.

Snow’s definition of what counts as a hard subject? “The criterion is, if one doesn’t do such a subject between the ages of ten and twenty-one, one will not be able to make the effort again.” Rather different from Devan’s recent assumption, he included here not only mathematics and the natural sciences, but the traditional Classics (Latin and Greek).

It is not which of the “two cultures” it belongs to that makes a subject hard, but the rigour with which it is taught and learned. The classical tradition in Europe focused on that very kind of rigour. I expect that the classical traditions of Asia did too. We are the poorer without them. Even today, natural science should not be left with the monopoly of hard subjects.

A global business

The learning of English as a second language (ESL) is now a flourishing global business. Its biggest market is Asian youth, motivated by the status of English not only as an international means of communication but as a language increasingly used in Asian university education.

The British started the business and still dominate it, but the United States are very present, and Canada has joined the US, with Ireland, Australia and New Zealand also getting in on the act in recent years. These countries now have a large number of schools catering to ESL, and often feeding into universities and colleges in the same country.

Due to geographical proximity, the British traditionally attract people from Europe while the US and Canada, and now Australasia, attract people from Asia. But many young people want to be adventurous, and so you find them going to remote places. Yet they should be aware that the English-speaking world, being so far-flung, is not homogeneous. Depending on where you go to learn, you will get a different variety of spoken and even written English, and the countries will be culturally different.

Learners are usually made aware of the difference between British and American English, and make their choice. Canadian English is widely approved as a compromise: it’s like American English, but also not too far from its British origins.

Australia and New Zealand may seem a bit out of the way at the bottom of the Pacific, but this appeals to the young traveller’s sense of adventure. The English spoken in Australia and New Zealand is quite distinctive, so care should be exercised about picking up the local accent because it may not be well understood elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

In general, young Asians should appreciate that the English-speaking world is far from being a homogeneous mass. There is no neutral English.


Patriotic Europeans?

German leader Angela Merkel has been warning people about Pegida. This is a loose association of citizens demonstrating against supposed Islamic influence in Germany – in fact, Islamic influence in Europe generally. It is a populist movement, based in East Germany, and it is unclear who leads it or what it really wants apart from putting large crowds in the street.

The “Pe” part stands for “patriotic Europeans”. This is odd. There never has been a European patriotism. Leaders of European integration like Jacques Delors have always cautioned against people feeling patriotic about Europe. They associate patriotism with the destructive wars of the past. Indeed, Europe has always been a hotbed of patriotism, but the patriotism has been about one particular country and directed against another or others. The patriot was ready to kill or be killed in the defence of his country. In the past seventy years we seem to have got over that.

Yet as George Orwell pointed during the War, patriotism is the one emotion with which you can be sure to mobilize people. They may not fight for ideologies or abstract principles, but they will fight to defend their own country. This has not really changed, even though we have had peace in Europe now for several generations. If it had, we would have allowed our nation-states to wither away and formed a “United States of Europe” with a federal capital like Washington.

A politically united Europe has not happened, obviously; all we have been able to manage is the European Union. But it is also important to recognize that the EU’s capital, Brussels, is just an “empty centre”, a producer of bureaucratic regulations and never-ending mediation efforts among the member states rather than any substantive vision. As far as ideology or emotion is concerned, it is a gaping hole. Any attempts it makes at promoting pan-European spirit remain at the level of meaningless slogans and bla-bla. If a European patriotism were ever to arise, it could not be centred in Brussels.

The European patriotism inscribed on its banners by Pegida is a patriotism against something – the Islamic civilization – and indeed the fires of patriotism are always stoked by having some big bad enemy you can fight. But as George Orwell pointed out so long ago, patriotism is not necessarily aggressive or pugnacious; it can just be a pride in your own country, even if it is an unreasoning pride. Could we Europeans ever have a “soft” patriotism like that? What would it look like?

It would be a pride in the achievements of Europe, which have been contributed by the different countries in spite of the fact that for most of history they have been “Warring States” doing their best to annihilate each other. It would be pride in the reaching out to the rest of the world that was involved in the voyages of discovery – with an appropriate hanging of heads in shame about the imperialism and colonialism that followed. It would be pride in the production of ideas which changed the modern world, from the French Revolution to Communism.

It would have to avoid claims to universalism. The trouble with us Europeans is that we think our ideas apply not only to ourselves but also the rest of the world. But we are just one great civilization among several. Patriotism should have no trouble with this. The traditional patriot loves and defends the particularity of his country, without thinking that every other country should be like it. A European patriotism would need to be based on the particularity of Europe, and its particular contribution to a world it no longer leads.