Masters of the Universe

Por estes dias can be loosely translated as “these days”, or even “as these days go by”. It  conveys a fluid notion of time, with a kind of inbuilt timelessness. The kind of notion best transmitted in a blues, played in a minor key, such as Albert King’s “As the Years Go Passing By”.

I love the way so many Jewish and African Americans chose King as a surname to replace the one on their birth certificate. From Larry to Don, by way of Freddy, B.B., and Albert. The late Albert King had an inimitable blues guitar style, and Clapton confesses he stole the riff from Por estes dias for Layla. King’s style is best described as cutting, a wonderful economy of notes, a knowledge that a few words are all you need. No blues budget deficit from our Albert, everything just nicely balanced.

Por estes dias Lisbon is under siege, cops at every intersection, bridges and flyovers blocked, NATO’s in town. They’re costing the country a fortune, both in logistics and in lost productivity. But the politicians are enjoying the limelight on CNN, the chance to promote Portugal as something other than a casualty of international debt and of its own profligacy. When I was small my parents bought Portuguese government debt, in the form of “treasury titles”, i.e. bonds. For middle class families that was often an investment given to children, since the interest paid was high and the bonds matured pretty much when the kids did. Nowadays financially it wouldn’t work, the numbers are just too big.

President Obama has brought with him to Lisbon between 800 and 1000 people, appropriately huge for a nation that accounts for 40% of the planet’s defence spending. China spends six times less, but that can be misleading because salaries in the Chinese army are many times lower. In the early 2000’s I went to a place called Simatai, on the Great Wall, in a Red Flag limousine. The driver had been in the army towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, and for him it was an opportunity to travel. In those days you needed a passport to leave your town. His army pay was one dollar a month. An E2 army private gets about 1500 dollars base pay.

China’s not in town for the summit, but it is a virtual elephant in the room. One of the items on the agenda is cyberwarfare, at which the Chinese excel. DARPA, the guys who invented the net, have a bunch of interesting programs with names like Dynamic Quarantine of Computer-based Worm Attacks.

The oriental equivalent of Air Force One. Hu Jintao's plane on the military tarmac area of Lisbon airport in early November 2010

Last April, a small Chinese company allegedly diverted internet communications from the US Senate, Secretary of Defence, NASA, and Commerce.  For 18 minutes this telecom “lapse” routed sensitive data through the servers of the Celestial Empire. The most recent cyberfun is a baby called Stuxnet: theories abound that Israeli and US spooks let it loose on the Iranian nuclear program. It apparently contains number 3735941127, which in hexadecimal code is written 0xDEADF007. Speculation is rife that it represents “Dead Foot,” i.e. airplane engine failure. Looking for a geeky start to the weekend?



NATO is right to be worried. The other worries are Afghanistan, the war-no-one-can-win, and Russia. For Afghanistan, we can expect some nice spin at the end of the weekend telling us how the mission will shortly be triumphant, and we can all go home. It’s the end of the summer vacation: the Students are back, and dilligent students they are too, painted toenails and all. The poppy is at an all time high (sorry), and  United Colors of Benetton Karzai, the best dressed man in Kabul, is here in town, flown in courtesy of the USAF.

Russia is another game altogether. Medvedev is attending the NATO summit, which a few years ago would have been literally letting the bear into the honeypot. We’re all so much more touchy-feely now, and we’re all friends, building Lego missile defence systems together. I’m not quite sure who we’re defending against, but there we are. Maybe it’s China after all, even if no one mentions it. Or Iran, if Stuxnet hasn’t worked its magic on the little Siemens PLC chips. Incidentally, the virus is estimated to have taken ten people six months to write. At five hundred bucks an hour, that’s five million dollars. Cheap by military standards, but hardly written by that wierd guy with the latte huddling in the corner at Starbucks.

Germany wants to help write this Russian chapter. The new generation Germans, freed of the complexes of the war, empowered by industrial might, and aching to play a role worthy of their much ignored importance on the world stage, are flexing their muscles.

Kissinger famously asked “when I want to talk to Europe, who do I call?” I think Angela wants to be at the other end of the phone line. I doubt this protagonism will emerge. If there’s one thing that The India Road did for me it was to help me view history in a number of different ways. Germany was Prussia until one hundred years ago, and remains a federation of different states. It doesn’t have a history comparable to nation-states like England, Spain, France, Holland, and yes, most definitely Portugal. A nation that wishes for protagonism in this arena must first establish three qualities: leadership, partnership, and generosity.

The countries mentioned above, large and small, have a history of occupation, but also intercession, a tradition of defending the weak. The US fought in Europe in two world wars. Yes, I know there is always self-interest – no country will ever be canonized. But it’s more than that. Leadership means a willingness to defend. And every time the German army has trespassed beyond its borders, it has aimed to attack.

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One Response to “Masters of the Universe”

  1. hoboduke Says:

    My nick name is “king”, but I am only a lowly duke of the hobo realm. Like your observations, and our President is often compared to Jimmy Carter, which is not fair. Jimmy did more work as President than B.O. will ever do. Jimmy was not as good a politician as B.O., and a more appropriate comparison is to Woodrow Wilson. His incompetence dragged us into WWI, and with typical gusto the USA fought like Spartans where we should never have been. He helped plant the seeds of WWII with his lack of understanding on the points you mention. His greatest delusion, was the “league of nations” as a perfect and tranquil end to wars. Right?! B.O. thinks the United Nations is the perfect place to end terrorism and war. Right?! Here we go again, with China quite likely with our former WWII ally Russia as combatants on economic warfare, and perhaps a shooting war.

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