The US-Japan alliance: Doing more than the bare minimum

President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida meet in Akasaka Palace, Tokyo, to discuss space cooperation, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (image credit in endnote)

Unlike the US’s alliance with its western European allies, America’s alliance with Japan has never been tested in a world war — or really, any war that has posed a direct threat to US territory. I think this makes Japan the US’s most important ally, and certainly the one worth the most effort across the board.

At the beginning of this year, I published an interview op-ed entitled “Don’t neglect Japan-U.S. friendship ‘garden’” in The Asahi Shimbun, the Japanese daily newspaper for which I work. In this article, I discussed the way both countries take the relationship for granted with Ryan Shaffer, president of the Japan-America Society of Washington D.C.

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s visit to the US last week only reinforced my beliefs that the US should be doing more than it is for the alliance. The Biden administration granted Kishida only one short morning of engagement — a breakfast at Kamala Harris’s house at the US Naval Observatory, a short meeting and joint press conference with the President in the Oval Office, and finally, a Biden-Kishida ‘working lunch’ — before Biden hopped on Marine One to fly back home to Delaware for the weekend.

The last and only other time President Biden has welcomed a Japanese leader was in April 2021, when he granted PM Suga a bizarre 20-minute burger meal seated at opposite ends of a long table. Sure, the COVID pandemic was peaking at the time, and on some level it makes sense that the two leaders stuck to a brief, distanced, mask-on meeting.

But the story is more complicated than that. At the annual US-Japan Capital Gala in September 2022 (which I attended for Asahi), NSC East Asia specialist Dr. Kurt Campbell and Japanese Ambassador Tomita Koji gave remarks on the extreme lengths to which they had to go to get Biden to sit down with Suga at all. Dozens of desperate last-minute calls, reschedulings, and insistences from the President’s aides that Biden was simply too busy to accommodate the Prime Minister, finally gave way to this meager 20-minute ‘working lunch’ in which neither leader even ate their meal.

I do not doubt that the President is a busy man, and yes, the US has dozens of allies. But how many treaty alliances does it have anywhere within operational range of East Asia? Five: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and Thailand. The ROK’s army is currently larger than Japan’s, but the country has barely 1/3 of Japan’s population and a similarly proportionate GDP. No other country on that very short list compares in operational ability. Meanwhile, the US National Defense Strategy, as released in October 2022, names China as America’s greatest threat by far — and much ink has been spilled on the “New Cold War” emerging between the US and the PRC (whether you agree with this denomination is a different question — Biden, and many others, don’t see it this way).

How does this relate to history? Grand strategy is always rooted in the past. The US has tested its other major alliances — Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia — in global wars for well over a century. Americans share a deep and common sociocultural and philosophical background with those allies.

The same cannot be said for Japan. As recently as the 1980s, the US fought a trade war with Japan that political scientists compare to the US-China trade war of the 2020s. The US and Japan have substantive ideological differences and a variety of overtly uncomfortable tension points in the relationship, paramount among which is the massive US military presence leftover in Japan. The Okinawa base is most infamous, and rightly so for the egregious crime of three US service members raping a 12-year-old Japanese girl. Other locations also contribute their share of disgrace: the Yokosuka US naval base, for example, pollutes the surrounding waters with catastrophic amounts of toxic “forever chemicals.” Regarding the latter issue: I have been working on an extended, multipart project on PFAS/PFOS (the offending “forever chemicals” at Yokosuka) contamination with my foreign correspondents since I started as a reporter at The Asahi Shimbun in early 2022. These issues loom large in the Japanese collective conscience.

And let us not forget the acts that began and ended the US-Japan war in the 1940s. Pearl Harbor remains one of the most talked-about points of US national trauma in the nation’s history, as do the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima for Japan. Nearly 80 years later, those bombs remain the only nuclear weapons ever used in combat. The implications of this are profound. Sociologist Gi-Wook Shin illustrates the lasting discomfort:

“In contrast to the moral clarity and nobility of purpose associated with the war in Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany, the path to war with Japan and its conclusion is far less clear and many Americans still feel uncomfortable talking about the use of atomic weapons – even if it was militarily necessary but morally questionable. Also, it was during the war that about 120,000 people in the U.S. of Japanese ancestry (62 percent being U.S. citizens) were incarcerated in concentration camps.”

Both countries continue to practice a “sweep it under the rug” approach, more fragile than harmonious — rather than forcing a deeper reconciliation with these difficult histories.

It was barely over a century ago when Japan joined the Euro-American-centric League of Nations (yes, the US did not formally join the League, but President Wilson and his administration helped create it) as one of the Big Five great powers. Even this apparent triumph came with its own humiliation. In the time since then, Japan’s relationship with the US and Atlantic allies has been, in short, tumultuous.

And yet, in 2023, Japan has the third-largest GDP in the world, and the second largest among democratic nations. Japan is an American friend and ally in culture, trade, politics, and — theoretically – in war. It would behoove the US not just to fulfill its obligations in the partnership, but to go out of its way to cultivate the friendship. Maybe President Biden can start by inviting Prime Minister Kishida over for dinner.

Featured image credit: Fumio Kishida and Joe Biden, May 2022.

日本語: 令和4年5月23日、岸田総理は、迎賓館赤坂離宮でアメリカ合衆国のジョセフ・バイデン大統領と首脳会談等を行いました。両首脳は、会談を行い、続いて日米宇宙協力関連展示を視察しました。その後、共同記者会見を行い、続いて拉致被害者御家族と面会しました。次に、都内でIPEF(インド太平洋経済枠組み)関連行事に出席し、夜には、非公式夕食会を行いました。
Date Taken on 23 May 2022
Author 首相官邸

This work is licensed under the Government of Japan Standard Terms of Use (Ver.2.0). The Terms of Use are compatible with the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 International. For terms of use this work, see this license page.

On video games as historiography, part 1: geopolitical diversity and homogeneity

Over the weekend, I spoke with a friend of my roommate about the blockbuster role-playing video game Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. I mentioned that Skyrim was one of the reasons I decided to study history. Below, I will reflect on my thoughts and experiences on the connections between games and the study of history.

Connecting video games and history is something I do often — as do other history enthusiasts and scholars. As I have written previously on Project Edinburgh, I grew up playing games like Fire Emblem and Age of Empires III, which introduced me — with fantasy in the former and abstraction in the latter) to the color and feeling medieval and early modern world.

In late March, I will drive (with Project Edinburgh cofounder Zach) to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, to give a presentation entitled “Europa Universalis IV: Historical grand strategy simulation games as history (and historiography),” based on a paper I wrote as a graduate student at Columbia.

Video games are a complicated tool for engaging with history. They are like maps, and in some cases such as Europa Universalis IV (EU4, for short), they are maps (Figure 1). Because they are visual, immersive, and sometimes even tactile, they have immense power to present a seductively real-feeling narrative of the past.

Figure 1: The title screen of the map-based strategy game Europa Universalis IV (source: Me, screenshot of Europa Universalis IV)

Like maps, video games represent a selective reality. Obviously, nobody playing a video game would think they are experiencing history “as it really was,” but the real connections are often made at a subconscious level. The joy of games like EU4 is precisely that they seek to give the player, in some way, an accurate experience of history. The problem is that none of us, looking at or playing the game, have the capacity to know or remind ourselves exactly where history ends and fantasy begins.

Playing thousands of hours of Europa Universalis IV, as I and many others have, may eventually instill within us some beliefs disguised as truths. For example: in the game’s map, which seeks to ‘accurately’ portray world political geography in 1444 AD, Europe is a veritable kaleidoscope of countries. Literally, as well as in its gameplay diversity, the Holy Roman Empire (central Europe) is infinitely more colorful than its contemporary Ming dynasty China (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Asia in 1444, according to Europa Universalis IV (Source: u/Not_a_Krasnal, Reddit

And it makes sense, right? Ming dynasty China was, in the 15th century, a remarkably consolidated, centralized, even authoritarian state — with an unrivaled administrative bureaucracy, and a military and economy on the cutting edge. The empire had just sent admiral Zheng He all the way across the known world to southeast Africa, well before the Europeans had made it to the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, in the Holy Roman Empire, kingdoms and duchies were feudal, decentralized, awash in local identities and rulerships, languages and governing traditions. It would be silly to represent 15th century England and contemporary Lithuania as anything but profoundly different colors on the geopolitical rainbow.

The issue, of course, is that what looks right–representations that we come to believe are realities–is not necessarily right. The Ming capital in Beijing had about as much administrative and extractive power over Sichuan and Guizhou (far southwest China) as the Austrian emperor had over his nominal subjects in Lübeck or Hamburg — that is to say, very, very little. This is not to mention the extreme sociopolitical and ethnic diversity of the Ming territories in this period, which the game erases by painting everything the same color — not terribly far off from current PRC President Xi’s own campaign of Han supremacy and suppression of minorities.

This is all not even to mention the incredibly complex, vaguely feudal system of rule practiced by Chinese dynasties throughout history but particularly prominent under the Ming and Qing: the Tusi system. The Tusi system allowed the dynastic administration to establish nominal extractive rule over far-flung territories, and created at most a distant feudal relationship between the local Tusi (translated as local chieftain) and the far-away central administration (see, for example, “The Cant of Conquest: Tusi Offices and China’s Political Incorporation of the Southwest Frontier“).

As a Ming player in EU4, you have functionally equal power over every province you own, from Hainan in the south to Shenyang near Manchuria. The faraway provinces may have more “autonomy,” an in-game province modifier, but this affects very little: in any province of your color, you can build and station troops, construct buildings, extract resources, and force-convert the people to Han culture — you could even relocate your imperial capital all the way across China to Qinghai, if you wanted!

The Holy Roman Empire in EU4, while still rife with its own inaccuracies, nevertheless captures one of the simplest truths of late-medieval and early modern Europe: centralized states did not exist. Empires, kingdoms, even duchies and counties were built on a frame of deeply fragile political agreements between autonomous or semi-autonomous ‘local chieftains.’ For example, as I have written, the Hanseatic League of German towns — perhaps the most powerful commercial organization in late medieval Europe — paid functionally no allegiance to their overlord, the Holy Roman emperor.

I wrote my application essay for my graduate studies at Columbia on the historiographical value of Europa Universalis. I am no stranger to its strengths as a way to experience and explore all the colors of history. But it also reveals, and perhaps only to the more critical eye, the difficulties of telling history: it is hard, nay, impossible to represent the kaleidoscope of culture, politics, and political geography as it really was. There are as many histories as there are people — there are as many Holy Roman Empires as there were principalities within that empire, and there were as many Chinas, Mings, Zhonguos as there were nominal subjects of the dynasty. It would serve us well to remember that, in video games and beyond.

An unfortunate history: on the January 6th committee hearings

I attended in person the 7th hearing of the House January 6th Committee on July 12, 2022, and then attended the final hearing — which was technically a business meeting, not a hearing — on December 19. Below are my reflections on the July 12 hearing, which I originally wrote for my own personal website.

My feelings here are very mixed — as a historian, I take a certain fascination in watching these historic hearings in person as they happen.

However, I also find my experience to be at best voyeuristic; I, as a journalist, was not there to provide any value. Journalists, with their twisted ethics and personal moralities, created the Trump monster themselves. Journalism as its first principle seeks to profit from spectacle, and as a tertiary concern only occasionally seeks to empower people with knowledge to make their own decisions and come to their own conclusions.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I hold no great respect for the United States government nor the general status quo in the US. January 6 is not a story of heroes (the US government) versus villains (the insurrectionists); it is a story of safe villains versus unsafe villains, respectively. It is a lesser of two evils story. I greatly respect Michael Fanone and his hundreds of fellow Capitol Police officers who were either injured or killed as a result of the events of that day, but I do not respect the US government as an institution that maintains systemic racism, violence, and abuse; as an institution maintained by such awful, slave-state systems as the Electoral College; and as an institution that thrives on the profound financial corruption of lobbying, campaign ‘donations,’ and the innumerable other forms of complete ethical bankruptcy that feeds government officials both elected and appointed.

Thus is is with great gratitude that I witnessed the January 6th Committee’s work in bringing down Trump — one of the many government corruptors-in-chief. But I reflect, with great discomfort, that what was protected here was in large part the status quo, which does not work. Trump is a criminal, and should be prosecuted as such. The People lose when Trump wins. But so do They — Black People and white People, queer and straight People, People from all walks of life (except the rich) — lose when the status quo wins.

Below, please find my full reflections on the main January 6th hearing I attended: one of a series of hearings that I believe, for all sorts of reasons good and bad, will be well remembered in American history

I left my office at 11:15 on Tuesday, July 12, and went straight to Cannon House. Cannon is the oldest congressional building on the Hill (built 1908), and I had been advised to arrive an hour before the hearing started.

I was on my way to the 7th hearing of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the US Capitol. That is about the longest committee name I have ever encountered, but I will abbreviate it from now on to its most common name, the Jan6 Committee.

I had never been to a congressional hearing before. Actually, although I grew up just across the river in Virginia, I had never been inside any of the Congress buildings, other than the Capitol once. You would barely even know these buildings housed the most prominent lawmakers in the United States, as their only noteworthy feature is their quintessentially bureaucratic sobriety.

In April, I began work as the Congress reporter at the DC bureau of The Asahi Shimbun – what my supporters graciously call the New York Times of Japan (it actually is the second or third largest newspaper in the world by paper distribution, at over 8 million total copies sold per day as of 2017). One of my primary roles has been to cover the Jan6 hearings. Until July 12, I had done so only via live-stream, but I just finished a graduate degree in history and I realized chances to be there “on the scene” do not come around too often. The previous hearings had increasingly been reminding me of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s coverage of Watergate in All the President’s Men, with all of its luscious and intimate play-by-play detail. The Watergate comparison has, of course, been made a million times already. But as Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) said in this July 12 hearing, the January 6 attack makes Watergate “look like a cub-scout meeting.”

So I arrived at Cannon House at 11:45, 15 minutes earlier than the one-hour suggestion, leaving no room for error. After a half-hour wait outside the visitor’s door (pictured below), during which Jan6 Committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson walked right by me, I received a text message from the Committee’s press chief instructing me to enter the building and meet her on the third floor. I went through the airport-style security checkpoint (they let me keep my water bottle, though) just inside the door, and rode a very packed elevator two floors up.

The visitor’s entrance to Cannon House

The hearing was to be in the ballroom-esque 390 Cannon, but before I even got close, I could already feel the buzz. The main foyer at the center of the third-floor hall overflowed with interns, reporters, camera equipment, and security — and a bunch of guys in suits. At some point, it can become really hard to tell who is who.

In her text, the press chief had told me to pick her out as the woman “wearing a blue dress by a column,” and the first woman I saw in a blue dress standing by a column kindly pointed me to the press rep, who was standing nearby in a lighter blue dress next to a different column. The press rep gave me my official January 6th hearing, Day 7, badge (pictured below), without which I could not enter 390 Cannon.

The Jan6 Committee Day 7 press badge, as it now hangs behind my desk at Asahi

No further instruction was provided and I did not know where to go to find my assigned seat. After I meandered about aimlessly for a few minutes, an older reporter overhead me asking an equally clueless security card where I was supposed to go, and directed me toward my section. Because my outlet (Asahi) has not attended the previous Jan6 hearings, the press staff told me we could not get a table seat because those are reserved for the regulars. Instead, I found my seat closer to the back, with all the other initiates. Pictured below is the sign that hung from my seat when I arrived — I kept it and will get it framed.

The sign attached to my reserved seat in 390 Cannon

The room was abuzz. The tables for the press elite overflowed with computers and cameras, and journalists from all over the world crowded around. Along with some Japanese reporters from other outlets, I saw a table reserved for BBC — and my seat was placed in the foreign media section between a TV reporter from a German outlet I did not catch the name of, and a reporter from the Swiss publication Tages Anzeiger. At the table in front of me, I could see a woman with a reserved sign next to her computer that said Die Zeit (‘The Times’).

390 Cannon about 30 minutes before the hearing’s start

After about five minutes of awkward silence, I introduced myself to the woman sitting to the right of me (unknown TV news reporter). I told her I spoke nur ein bisschen deutsch–just a little German. She had been in DC for a year and a half, and said she knew most of the German reporters in the city. She was not unfriendly, but seemed little interested in talking. There was a seat a few down from mine reserved for an NHK (Japan’s main public media outlet) reporter, but I do not think I ever saw someone sit there. Meanwhile, I could hear a gaggle of excited interns chattering in the row behind me.

The nine members of the Jan6 Committee marched into the ballroom at at around 1pm. I could barely see them beyond the sea of table reporters in front of me, but I did snap a lucky picture of all nine of them sometime before the hearing ended.

The Jan6 Nine

It turned about to be a long hearing. It was actually the longest of any of the hearings I have covered, clocking in at around three hours. But I admit I was quite enraptured, and the time passed like a dream. My primary job here was simply to listen and take notes for later use by my bureau chief, Mochizuki-san, who is the correspondent primary responsible for covering the Jan6 proceedings in my bureau.

Below are the notes recorded from Chair Thompson’s opening remarks. I am moved by his of warm, disinterested speaking style.

We settle our differences at the ballot box. Sometimes my choice prevails, sometimes yours does. When you’re on the losing side, you don’t have to be happy about it. You can protest, organize, get ready for next election. But you can’t turn violent, can’t achieve your desired outcome through force, intimidation. Dec14 2020, presidential election was officially over. By that point, many of Trump’s supporters already believed election was stolen. Trump was required to say we tried and we came up short, but he seized on the anger he’d already stoked, and urged them on. As part of his last ditched effort, he summoned a mob and spurred them to violent attack.

The proceeding hour and a half contained an onslaught of information. Some of it was delivered directly by Reps. Cheney, Raskin, and Murphy. Much of it came from clips from recorded interviews and depositions with what felt like over a dozen witnesses–ranging from Trump’s White House Counsel and Jan6 Committee star witness Pat Cipollone, to Ivanka Trump, to former Trump admin prosecutor and noted bad actor Sydney Powell (who played a key role in Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results in Georgia, Arizona, and other states). The committee played audio snippets (edited for anonymity) of a Twitter employee, who said, by early January 2021, if it [Trump] was someone else, he would have been permanently suspended a very long time ago.

On the evening of December 18, Trump held a key meeting with his closest allies, among whom were disgraced General Michael Flynn, and Powell. In that meeting, Trump tried to appoint Powell as a special counsel with the legal ability to seize voting machines. Below is an image from the hearing of an excerpt from the executive order he had drafted on that December night.

Trump’s executive order draft, which would grant Sidney Powell authority to seize voting machines

Now, please enjoy Cipollone’s reaction to the idea of seizing voting machines (from his recorded interview with the committee):

Note that Cipollone was a key Trump administration official and ally of the president, but it has come out over the last few months that he was opposed to Trump’s attempt to overturn the election. If only he had told us then what he instead waited two years to tell us now. These guys may have been the last line of defense between us and the collapse of our republic, but they make for a better Maginot Line than a firewall.

The committee showed this tweet that Trump drafted but never sent, sometime in the weeks leading up to the insurrection:

A draft of a call to arms, seen by Trump but never sent

The hearing went into a 15 minute recess around 2:30. I think I just sat in my seat in silence for the whole time, and sent a bunch of pictures to my friends and family.

When they reconvened, they marched that day’s witnesses into the room with them. Unlike all previous hearings, they had made no prior announcement of the identity of the witnesses–I amm not sure if this was for the shock factor, or for the witnesses’ own safety. I imagine that everyone who participates in these hearings–panelists and witnesses alike–have encountered major personal security concerns as a result. I know Rep. Kinzinger and his family have received numerous death threats.

Their two witnesses for this hearing were: Mr. Ayres, a man from northeast Ohio who participated in the Capitol breach and occupation on January 6, and Mr. Van Tatenhove, a former member of the Oath Keepers. They both recounted their stories in great detail. Mr. Ayres was an ‘average’ Trump supporter, and had been addicted to social media and fully bought the stolen-election narrative in the run up to January 6. He joined some buddies heading down to DC, responding to Trump’s call to arms for January 6; by mid-afternoon on that day, he had helped storm the capitol. He has since been convicted, renounced his support for Trump and the stolen-election narrative, and volunteered to speak as a witness for the committee.

Mr. Van Tatenhove had been a lead media person for the Oath Keepers (a group that played a major role in the insurrection on January 6). He had renounced his membership prior to the election, citing a conversation he had overheard among other Oath Keepers in which they said the Holocaust did not happen.

In Mr. Ayres’s testimony, he argued for the power Trump’s words and directives have on people. Mr. Ayres’s testimony served as good if anecdotal evidence that, to Trump’s supporters, Trump’s word (in tweet or press briefing or Ellipse speech) is law. I do not think any of us needed convincing of this. And, regarding these witnesses, certainly it is hard to differentiate between theatrical repentance and genuine sentiment. But if you are going to have a series of hearings on an insurrection against the federal government, I guess you might as well bring in one of the guys who was actually there.

As an aside: I feel bad for both of the witnesses. Press photographers have to be some of the most clinically antisocial people in this poor excuse for a society. I cannot imagine being such a sociopath as to excitedly shove a giant camera right in the face of some guy who just recounted his story of ruining his own life, and spend five minutes firing away with my industrial-strength flash triggering on every click. Journalists in general have a lot of questions to answer about how well they were socialized as children. Press photographers, in their behavior, have already answered all these questions, and none of the answers are good.

And then the hearing ended. The witnesses, and committee members, were escorted out of the room by security. All of us in the gallery got up, and the room was once again abuzz. I ducked out quickly to try and catch a ride back to the Asahi office before the full weight of the press corps spilled out onto the street and overwhelmed the ride-sharing bandwidth, but I ended up walking across the Capitol campus and down the main walk before hailing a car.

In the meantime, Project Edinburgh co-founder Zach sent me the pictures below. He had been watching the hearing live-stream, and snapped some lucky shots as a certain muckraker stood up and barely into view of the TV cameras at the close of the hearing.

Where’s Waldo?

Yes, it is me. I am Waldo. Black mask, spectacles, white button shirt, slightly ill fitting blue blazer, and Jan6 hearing Day 7 press badge around my neck: reporter chic

I made it back to the office with an hour left in the workday, and I pinned my badge to the cork-board behind my desk (seen earlier on). The badge was so nicely laminated I figured the Jan6 committee press team would confiscate them at the end, but they did not. It makes for a good artifact.

Thanks for reading. Never in a hundred years would I have seen myself attending a congressional hearing about an insurrection against the federal government, as a member of the press. But here we are.

On Fascism and the Unending Scourge of Anti-Semitism

The Constant Cycle of Bigotry: Introductory Remarks

Content Warning: Discussion of anti-Semitic material and violence. Please take care.

At the turn of the twentieth century, a vile anti-Semitic publication was released into the world. This book, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, itself forged in significant part from the satirical The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, contains wild fabrications, conspiracy theories, and outright lies solely intended on harming the Jewish people. Protocols’ release, originally in Russia, constituted yet another horrifying chapter in the millenia-old oppression of Jews.

For anti-Semites far and wide, this book was and remains a seminal text. Even before the advent of instant communications, these deplorable pages were translated into multiple languages and found themselves in hands on the other side of the world from their origin. In their wake, carnage followed.

Protocols was of particular interest to the American automobile pioneer Henry Ford, a notoriously anti-Semitic man whose publishing company released its own series of anti-Semitic texts based on and perpetuating that book. These texts—known as The International Jew—were of great interest to the Nazis and Adolf Hitler himself.

The Protocols text fabricates secret meetings of Jewish leaders plotting world domination through control of institutions like the media. In control of the levers of power, the malevolent Jews—so the book would have impressionable readers believe—stand in opposition of humanity. The book’s obvious intentions are chilling, as are the consequences thereof. Pogroms followed the publication of Protocols. The Holocaust, fueled by anti-Semitic convictions and ideologies that borrowed from this book, followed just a few decades later.

This is not to say, of course, that this hateful volume directly caused the atrocities that followed temporally. Its publication is to be taken together in hand with the oppression and violence that both preceded and followed it as part of a wider and long-standing hatred of Jews that has taken and continues to take many forms.

Over twelve decades have passed since the publication of Protocols, and it continues to remain destructive. Despite the best efforts of watchdogs like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) as well as those of governments, the book has enjoyed continued circulation even after the end of World War II. As with its continued circulation, so too do the anti-Semitic accusations and tropes implied within continue to proliferate.

Anti-Semitism is Not Dead

The tropes that were so virulently written in Protocols continue to affect Jewish communities today, in both covert and overt ways. Dog whistling is a current favorite among certain personalities and rhetoricians on the more extreme right, that is, using terms that invoke anti-Semitic stereotypes while maintaining plausible deniability for not directly targeting Jews.

Those who have had the misfortune of listening to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, for example, will know he frequently rails against ‘globalists’ as well as against George Soros. The frequent targeting of ‘globalists’ evokes certain lines from directly within Protocols, which frequently claims that Jews are attempting to build a global government. George Soros, of course, is a Jewish billionaire philanthropist and Holocaust survivor. This is not to say that the anti-Semitic obsession with ‘globalists’ began with Protocols; it in fact long precedes it. The ideology that today targets George Soros yesterday targeted the Rothschilds and before that still other influential Jews in history.

Sometimes, the dog whistles spill over into outright anti-Semitism and violence.

In 2018, a shooter (who will not be named here) allegedly opened fire in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, wounding several and killing 11 of those who had come for Shabbat (Sabbath) prayer. Some of those killed were Holocaust survivors. Before opening fire, the gunman allegedly shouted “all Jews must die.” It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in United States history.

The alleged gunman had a prolific online presence, one in which he frequently both covertly and overtly engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric and activities. Here let us turn to an article in Slate, which compiled several of his posts to social media, including several in which he declared a hatred for the “globalist” former President Trump[1] and not-so-subtle insinuations of Jewish people controlling migration as part of a larger plan to replace whites.[2] Both are again evocative of tropes present in Protocols.

The shooting at the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh is but one of an unimaginable number of events in which anti-Semitic rhetoric and tropes have bubbled over into actual violence. It shows that the scourge of anti-Semitism remains a very real and present threat for Jews, who live in fear of the next onslaught of violence.

The Danger of Unfettered Hate Speech and the Proliferation of Fascism

Of the many challenges that 2022 has offered, perhaps none have been so rapid, shocking, and unnerving for Jews than Ye West’s (the rapper formerly known as Kanye West) descent into virulent, outright, Nazi-supporting anti-Semitism. Perhaps the most shocking instance in this anti-Semitic Ye saga was his interview with the above-mentioned Alex Jones. Ye’s rhetoric and outright support for Nazis and Hitler managed to make even Jones appear uncomfortable. The Washington Post’s report on the interview makes note of Jones attempting to provide Ye with off-ramps for his anti-Semitism, while the rapper continued to double down.

There is no mistaking the relationship between the overt anti-Semitism and the dog whistles, as Ye has apparently engaged in both in the waning months of 2022. He has invoked the perpetual modern Jewish boogeyman George Soros as well as the salient older trope of Jewish control over societal institutions like the media; the ADL provides a good resource recapping these and other remarks.

The rhetoric that Ye espoused at the end of 2022, thankfully, has, to this point, not bubbled over into the kind of violence we saw at the Tree of Life in 2018. It has, though, had ripples; on the heels of one of his statements in October 2022, an anti-Semitic group took to an overpass overlooking a Los Angeles highway and draped a several banners, one stating “KANYE IS RIGHT ABOUT THE JEWS.” Photographs of this event show the group members delivering a Nazi salute.

We have seen time and again how virulent rhetoric and hatred spills over into overt violence—at times to catastrophic, state-sponsored scales. This is not just true of anti-Semitism, but rather of bigotry and hatred across the board; not even three decades have passed since inter-ethnic strife bubbled over into yet more twentieth century genocides in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia.

Here, let us consider The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, the twentieth century political theorist and Holocaust survivor. Origins is a lengthy, multi-dimensional volume that one cannot hope to properly discuss in a format such as this, as long-form as this piece is. We then, thus, turn briefly to her discussion on “race unity” and “race thinking,” as she evidences with examples from nineteenth and twentieth century Germany. Arendt writes of “race thinking” in Germany as aimed “to unite the people against foreign domination” and “to awaken in the people a consciousness of common origin.”[3] This comports with some basic conceptions of nationalism—a nation being those who identify as being in the ‘in-group.’

This kind of nationalism, though, is not inherently racist or anti-Semitic; it becomes so when this ‘in-group’ identifies and demonizes ‘out-groups.’ Arendt notes the basis of such an interpretation in a discussion of the development of “common origin,” or “of family ties, of tribal unity, of unmixed origin,” in Origins. In the absence of anything to stop any kind of runaway racism that one could plug into this paradigm, it is easier to see how—in this most rudimentary of interpretations—we can get from nationbuilding to outright inter-group violence.

This is, of course, a rather simplistic sociological approach that deserves far more attention than this piece can devote to it. And while I must also concede that the development of Germanness and non-Germanness will not exactly fit in with the development of racial violence elsewhere, there is still some important applicability.

In Rwanda as in the former Yugoslavia and in Germany, a group sense of animosity rooted in perceived grievances against a single other resulted in genocide. In Germany, that ‘other’ was the Jewish community and those grievances were rooted in anti-Semitic biases and tropes as well as inherited [perceived] conflicts between the in-group German nation and the Jewish ‘other.’

The weaponization of this ‘us versus them’ mentality, of course, was (and, frightening, continues to be) instrumental in the development of fascism.

Fascism: What Have We Learned?

If we take fascism as described by Robert O. Paxton, we can recognize it as having served as a political ideology aimed at altering social fabrics to transform the responsibility of a citizenry toward service to a conceptualized nation, led by individuals seeking “total control,” among other things.[4]

Let’s plug this conception into our discussion on nationalism and the ‘us versus them’ mentality. The stronger the focus on the nation, for fascists, the more salient the ‘other’ is. If the entire machinery of the state is transformed in service to the nation, then what is construed as “not the nation” becomes all the more visible in the eyes of members of the in-group.

Now, the out-group here does not necessarily have to be Jews. Early Italian fascism, for example, found supporters amongst the Jewish community. In 1934, an Italian fascist by the name of Eugenio Coselschi (and subject of my graduate research), who would rise to some level of prominence in the later-1930s in foreign policy circles, was reported in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) as having said that “fascism in principle is opposed to exclusion of any people or race from State.”[5] Fascism in Italy found targets in socialists and Bolsheviks, though it of course trended toward overt violence against Jews, particularly later on after growing closer with the Nazis. In Germany, Nazism was fueled in significant part by anti-Semitic thought, and Jews were a primary target from the beginning.

Let’s take a step back from the history and look at the bigger picture. What exactly is the relationship here between what we saw in the past versus what we see today? We see here sociological trends that show how easy it can be to develop an in-group/out-group mentality, particularly among those who already believe that a group has wronged them like today’s anti-Semites.

Unfettered hate speech, particularly coming from individuals with wider audiences larger than the entire population of Jews on this planet, is dangerous. There are very few legal and political safeguards in place to—if conditions were fertile for it—stop fascist demagogues from gaining national platforms in the United States. It is a serious and sobering thought, one that requires a few moments to digest.

What, Then, is the Answer?

In the absence of the more robust anti-Nazi and anti-racist institutions in the United States, we chiefly rely on watchdogs like the ADL to highlight and educate the public on virulent continuing ideologies like anti-Semitism. Just as they did in the twentieth century, individuals today—some holding immense platforms—still believe in and perpetuate the lies laid out in Protocols. In the past, beliefs rooted in such lies led to the deaths of millions of members of my community. In the present, these long-lasting beliefs continue to lead to violence against my community.

Something must change. In this absence, education is of paramount importance: education in history, first and foremost. Education in history is paramount, and unfortunately sometimes ignored. Organizations like Facing History and Ourselves provide excellent avenues for students to learn about bigotry and its consequences when left unfettered; my public high school offered its course and I had the opportunity to experience it first-hand in 2013. Education through programs such as these is especially important in combating the wide influence of influencers espousing anti-Semitic views who have impressionable, young audiences. A March 2019 report issued by the organization highlights the impact that their programming can have, noting that of 500+ students (from educational institutions across the U.S. and Canada) who took the course during a five year span, 77% of those surveyed indicated that the course increased their capacity to think critically about issues of racism and prejudice, while 74% of that pool indicated that the course increased their capacity to understand and feel for people who are different than them.[6]

Without some sort of barrier—like widespread education—to restrict the perpetuation of bigoted viewpoints like those held within Protocols, it is sadly not impossible to imagine the resurgence of the kind of political movements akin to fascism to take root again. It only takes one aspiring demagogue and a vocally hateful, mobilized, and willing minority of the population to find political milieus like those that fit Paxton’s descriptions.

At the same time, it only takes a community grounded in love and support for one another, invigorated by courage and aware of the atrocities of the past, to stop such scourges once and for all.

[1] President Trump, of course, represents a completely separate can of worms and cannot be taken as wholly innocent in the perpetuation of bigotry in the United States. See Ye West and avowed white nationalist visiting former President Trump at Mar-a-Lago in November 2022.

[2] Politi, Daniel. “Synagogue Shooting Suspect Robert Bowers Appears to Be Anti-Semite Who Hates Trump.” Slate, October 27, 2018.

[3] Arendt Hannah. Origins of Totalitarianism. New York, Meridian Book, Inc., 165.

[4] Paxton, Robert O. The Anatomy of Fascism. 1st ed. ed. New York: Knopf, 2004, 11. This entire section of Paxton’s book delves into what fascism is, what fascists did, and how best to put them into context. His description goes above and beyond what I can provide in as many words as I have to work with.

[5] “A List of Events in 5694,” The American Jewish Year Book 36 (1934),, 199.

[6] Facing History & Ourselves. How Do We Know It Works? Researching the Impact of Facing History and Ourselves since 1976. Evaluation Department, (Facing History & Ourselves, March 2019).


1. “A List of Events in 5694.” The American Jewish Year Book 36 (1934): 121-298.

2. “Backgrounder: Alex Jones: Five Things to Know.” Anti-Defamation League, 2020,

3. “Blog: Ye (Kanye West): What You Need to Know.” Anti-Defamation League, Updated October 31, 2022,

4. Arendt, Hannah. Origins of Totalitarianism. New York, Meridian Book, Inc.

5. “Backgrounder: Qanon.” Anti-Defamation League, 2022,

6. Bergengruen, Vera. “Germany’s Qanon-Inspired Plot Shows How Coup Conspiracies Are Going Global.” TIME, December 9, 2022.

7. Brown, August, and Anousha Sakoui. “Kanye West Assails Jews, Abortion in New Interview with Lex Fridman.” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), October 24 2022, Music.

8. Cecco, Leyland. “‘Queen of Canada’: The Rapid Rise of a Freinge Qanon Figure Sounds Alarm.” The Guardian, August 23 2022, Americas.

9. “Home Page.” Facing History & Ourselves, 2022,

10. Facing History & Ourselves. How Do We Know It Works? Researching the Impact of Facing History and Ourselves since 1976. Evaluation Department, (Facing History & Ourselves, March 2019).

11. Media Matters Staff. “In Pre-Recorded Segment, Alex Jones Calls Judge in His Trial a “Democratic Party George Soros-Funded Judge” Who “Works for George Soros”.” Media Matters for America, July 26 2022.

12. O’Connor, Ciaran. “The Spread of the “Great Reset” Conspiracy in the Netherlands.” Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Updated February 23, 2021,

13. Paxton, Robert O. The Anatomy of Fascism. 1st ed. ed. New York: Knopf, 2004.

14. Paybarah, Azi. “Kanye West Draws Fresh Denunciation for Hitler Praise in Alex Jones Interview.” The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), December 1 2022, National.

15. Politi, Daniel. “Synagogue Shooting Suspect Robert Bowers Appears to Be Anti-Semite Who Hates Trump.” Slate, October 27, 2018.

16. Rector, Kevin. “More Antisemitic Hate Seen in L.A. After Kanye West’s Hateful Rants.” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), October 23 2022, California.

17. Schwartz, Zachary P. “Fascism: Transnational Frameworks.” Webster Review of International History 2, no. 1 (2022): 2-11.

Preamble: On Fascism and the Unending Scourge of Anti-Semitism

Featured Image: Conference Center on the Via Cristoforo Colombo in EUR, Rome’s Fascist-Built District

The waning months of this year have demonstrated that bigotry, unfortunately, retains its loathsome voice here in the third decade of this 21st century. Hatred dwells still on American soil, demonstrated in flying colors by the actions of some of the most influential people in the public eye. A minority, I would argue, but a vocal one: a minority that has access to the screens of thousands upon thousands of impressionable media consumers.

I will soon submit a long-form piece titled “On Fascism and the Unending Scourge of Anti-Semitism,” which will discuss in greater detail the disturbing continuity of anti-Semitism in U.S. society as well as the neo-Nazi, neo-fascist, and far-right elements that are pushing it. It is a subject of great personal interest as well as emotion for myself, as a Jewish individual living through what appears to be an endless onslaught of horrifying posts, rhetoric, and even outright violence against my community.

It here, though, becomes useful to note that such elements and proponents of far-right ideologies in the United States are neither unique nor monolithic, as much as they would argue otherwise. Their views, furthermore, unimpeded by international boundaries thanks to the expanse of social media, have pushed their reach far and beyond impressionable American audiences. The QAnon conspiracy movement, for example, has demonstrated remarkable staying power not only in the United States but also in Germany, in the Netherlands, and in Canada. The Anti-Defamation League, a leading watchdog on extremism, describes this movement and its anti-Semitic subcurrents quite well.

The international pervasiveness of such ideologies mirrors that of other far-right ideologies throughout the twentieth century. I would here recommend Kyle Burke’s 2021 Revolutionaries for The Right for Cold War-era internationalism on the far-right. I would also invoke my own article “Fascism: Transnational Frameworks,” peer-reviewed and published in The Webster Review of International History in April 2022. This article investigates how Italian fascists sought to and effectively transnationalize their ideas in interwar Europe using a set of frameworks that most definitely deserve some attention as far-right movements continue to persist in today’s world.

Abstract follows:

Fascism, as with other far-right movements, is oftentimes seen as inherently anti-international and anti-transnational due to prevailing ultra-nationalism. While fascist movements in the interwar period can be partly characterized in this way, they also included transnational dimensions. This article examines the question of transnationalism within Italian fascism as well as the wider applicability of the uniquely Italian movement through a review of relevant literature and documents from Archivio Centrale dello Stato in Rome.


1. “Backgrounder: Qanon.” Anti-Defamation League, 2022,

2. Bergengruen, Vera. “Germany’s Qanon-Inspired Plot Shows How Coup Conspiracies Are Going Global.” TIME, December 9, 2022, 2022.

3. Burke, Kyle. 2018. Revolutionaries for the Right Anticommunist Internationalism and Paramilitary Warfare in the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

4. Cecco, Leyland. “‘Queen of Canada’: The Rapid Rise of a Freinge Qanon Figure Sounds Alarm.” The Guardian, August 23 2022, Americas.

5. “The Spread of the “Great Reset” Conspiracy in the Netherlands.” Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Updated February 23, 2021,

6. Schwartz, Zachary P. “Fascism: Transnational Frameworks.” Webster Review of International History 2, no. 1 (2022): 2-11.

Publication: Japanese “Western Learning” From Tokugawa to Meiji

I’ve been working on a couple different historical articles to be published lately, so this will a short “stand-in” post for my weekly reflections.

On Friday, my article “Against a Rupture Narrative: Japanese ‘Western Learning’ from Tokugawa to Meiji” was published in the Columbia Journal of Asia. I encourage you to read it here!

Here’s the abstract:

Throughout the 19th century, Japanese elite society simultaneously expanded its interest in affairs beyond its borders while reaffirming its distrust of foreigners and foreignness (jōi). This paper examines the variety of ways in which Japan engaged with the outside in the tumultuous 19th century.

Scholarship on 19th century Japan so often treats the Tokugawa period and the Meiji period as absolutely separate entities, between which occurred a complete shift in thought and ideology. Even scholars who argue that Sakoku was a myth still tend to leave the Meiji period well enough alone; likewise, Meiji scholars often fail to address the similarities in thought between the two periods. In terms of the ideological and scholarly currents about Japanese relationships with the exterior, the late Tokugawa period and the Meiji period were actually quite similar.

I intend to create a discourse on Japanese external relations that synthesizes a number of temporally narrow scholarly works in order to show not a rupture but a continuity in Japanese national thought throughout the 19th century— in the transition from the Tokugawa to Meiji eras, views on the outside world did not change nearly as much as most scholars have presumed. (END OF ABSTRACT)

I originally wrote this paper as an undergrad in 2016, for a class on early modern Japanese science, philosophy, and “western learning” (rangaku, literally “Dutch learning” because the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed in Japan for 250 years). I ended up discussing a lot of the same themes and writers (Aizawa Seishisai primarily) in my BA thesis, which I completed in 2017.

I think this is one of the better, higher-effort papers I wrote as an undergrad, and I thought it would be fun to bring it out again and work it into an article! The time period covered, the 19th century, is a bit out of my main interest range now that I’m more focused on the early 20th century — but I enjoyed going back and remembering where I started. And I always find interesting the dynamic of Japan building up its arsenal and administration with Euro-American technology and ideas specifically to resist Euro-American imperialism. Thanks for reading.

Those who do not learn from history…

are condemned never to repeat it.

There’s a myth that we have nothing to learn from history but how to avoid its mistakes, distilled in the famous aphorism from philosopher George Santayana. This myth is very attractive — it tells us we who know the rules can be better than our misguided and morally bereft predecessors.

This myth is a fallacy. We cannot look around us and reasonably claim we are much smarter than our predecessors. But more importantly, it’s already obvious that we all learn, and want to learn, to repeat the past. We may lie to ourselves that history was all bad and to love it is repugnant — and then we have the audacity to go home and join communal traditions, search out old music, and collect books, art, and memories. For the historians among us, we have the audacity to study history.

Despite all the untruths we tell ourselves, every single student of history loves the past in some way. Of course, it would be dangerous and anti-humanist not to; people throughout time have felt all the same happiness, love, stagnation, fury, and devastation that we do; if we refuse to understand them in this, we erase their voices.

I don’t seek to claim that we refuse to learn from the good parts. We all do, and we’re not good at hiding it. The real issue, which I believe deserves more recognition, is that many of us go around pretending to believe in the absolute bankruptcy of the past, in order to gain moral or intellectual clout.

Yes, it is clear to me that history is full of awful events and institutions: some more obvious, like slavery or genocide, and some that require the good-faith work of historians to uncover, like redlining or the dog-whistling of bigots. But it is equally clear to me, as a person and as a practitioner of history, that there are parts of the past that call to me.

This comes in many forms. For example, when I look at the books or the stereo I bought in early January 2021, part of me longs for the warmth and color and sounds of that moment in time — to lie under my electric blanket as I did then, and watch the snow fall outside the window of my tiny Cambridge apartment. I long for this despite the fact that in January 2021, I was miserable and alone. I had not seen anyone for months thanks to the pandemic, I would not see them for many months after, and I lived in constant fear of accidentally catching and transmitting that deadly virus to the immune-compromised family members with whom I stayed.

A very different example comes in the form of hearing my grandfather recount memories of his childhood. He and his family were, and still are, survivors of the German Holocaust against Jewish people. His father escaped a Vichy internment camp. His family barely escaped Europe with their lives, and some didn’t make it at all. Those who did — including my grandfather and his parents — settled in Quito, Ecuador, arriving in the country from Spain after an absurd 6,000-mile boat ride across the Atlantic and all the way around Cape Horn. When they settled in Quito, they had little money, experienced occasional tragedy, and carried the immense trauma of survivorship.

And yet, when my grandfather tells me stories of the old days, sometimes he smiles, and I do too. I love his story, passed down through the generations, of my great grandfather as a child in a Fin d’Siècle western German cafe asking for ein bier und die zeitung, bitte — “a beer and the newspaper, please” — because he’d seen his father ask for the same. We both smile when my grandfather recounts his fledgling crushes as a small child in Chateaubriand in occupied France. I truly love hearing about him borrowing vinyl records from clients of his electrical-engineer father, and listening to BBC on his jury-rigged short-wave radio.

I feel comfort in all these stories, and a drive to learn from his experiences and choices, good and bad. If I didn’t, that would only mean I wasn’t listening well enough.

We all live through the miseries of history. For some, like those who experience genocide, slavery, or systemic bigotry, these miseries become cataclysms of despair.

But do we not also live through some of history’s pleasures and frissons? No side of the past needs to erase or drown out the other: to study history is, after all, a relentless pursuit of nuance. We are all students of our own history — we can allow ourselves to enjoy the good parts, while we also hate and learn from the bad.

(Featured image: Photograph from the grounds of Edinburgh Castle)

On learning history – Aidan’s introduction

Hello! My name is Aidan. In 2022, I graduated from the MA/MSC program in international history at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, where I focused on medieval northern European commercial history and, very unrelatedly, British and American diplomacy and empire in East Asia in the early 20th century. I really just threw everything at the wall, and those are what stuck. I also studied history at the University of Chicago, where I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on British and Japanese isolationism in the 19th century. Anyway, this isn’t really supposed to be a cover letter, but where I’ve gone to school and the people I’ve met continue to be really important to me.

When I was 8 or 9, I remember showing Fire Emblem (a medieval fantasy tactics game) on my Nintendo Game Boy Advance to my grandmother, who studied medieval history at Barnard College in the 1950s. This is one of my first memories of caring about world history (to the extent that a medieval fantasy video game can be considered ‘world history’), or being aware that others around me cared about it. Ironically, I continued to have a mixed relationship with the field all the way through the end of high school. I got my worst AP exam grade in history (a 3) and got a lot of Cs and Bs on history exams generally. I did do well on research papers—in my American studies class, I wrote one research paper on taverns as political organizing points in pre-independence America, and another on barbed wire as the commodity that brought an end to the American West as the FJT “frontier” space.

But really, what always had me coming back to this field was video games and fantasy books, and I think this is quite appropriate. There is no ‘objective’ view of history, because there are as many voices and perspectives and narratives of history as there have been people. So, the study of history really isn’t so different from books and video games: it involves heroes and villains (any good academic adviser will ask you who these are in your thesis), world-building, subjective extrapolation, and a colorful imagination.

I fell in love with the academic study of history at Chicago. I took classes across nearly every historical field I could find, from the Carolingian Renaissance to the Islamicate ‘gunpowder empires’ of early modern Asia, from 19th-century European diplomacy and empire to the evolution of Greek identity over the past 3,000 years, to Japanese science and foreign learning in the 18th century, and the list goes on.

During this time, I also started playing the early modern history video game Europa Universalis IV. I ended up writing about this game for my personal statement to my graduate program, and then I wrote about it for a paper at Columbia, and now I’m giving a conference presentation on it at Virginia Tech in spring 2023.

I’m not precisely sure where I want to take my work next. My stock answer, when people ask, is that I’d like to continue studying early 20th century British and American diplomacy in East Asia. Something particularly about the period of 1894-1914 sticks with me. It’s such an absurd global twilight zone, right before the apocalypse of the 20th century, that I keep going back to.

As time goes on, I’m also becoming more interested in post-WWII Japanese and American history. I currently work as a reporter at the Japanese daily paper The Asahi Shimbun, which is a sort of stepping stone/window for me into that mid-late 20th-century world–a world so close to me and still so evident today and yet, because I was born in 1995, still infinitely far away.

My goal on Project Edinburgh is to continue exploring, and bringing humanism into history. Thanks for following along, and see you around.

The Beginning of History: Russia, Ukraine, and the Global Order

This piece first appeared in The Webster Blog (from The Webster Review of International History at the London School of Economics and Political Science) – 9 March 2022

Featured Image: Anti-War Protest in Support of Ukraine, 10 Downing St, London
Taken by author on site, February 2022

On 24 February 2022, the Russian Federation began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, promising to “de-nazify” and “de-militarize” a country (with a Jewish president, no less) that it claimed was a threat to Russian interests and to Russian-speaking communities within. This escalated an eight-year-old conflict within eastern Ukraine that had recently boiled over into Russian recognition of separatist governments within Luhansk and Donetsk. President Putin had, just days prior, made the case that Ukraine had no claim to sovereignty. 

Ukraine, of course, has full claim to sovereignty and should enjoy the freedom to chart its own future. As in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia has directly infringed upon all Ukrainians’ collective right to enjoy this sovereignty as well as to live in peace. Ukrainian society has all but come to a screeching halt in the face of the Russian invasion force, terrorized by incessant shelling and urban warfare. 

Although Ukrainian forces have, to this date, managed to resist the Russian onslaught, the situation continues to deteriorate. Hundreds of non-combatants have died, including 38 Ukrainian children (as of 6 March 2022). The continued shelling of Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol, Sumy, and others, which has leveled numerous businesses and homes, is shaking the foundations of Ukrainian society. Evidence mounts by the day that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine as a refugee crisis mounts, in which over two million people have fled the country.

Putin’s war in Ukraine is part of a broader quest for power, ongoing for most of his time in the Kremlin. Despite a weak economy largely reliant upon a single commodity (oil), he remains emboldened by the veto that Russia’s United Nations Security Council (UNSC) delegation has on top of the massive nuclear stockpile inherited from the Soviet Union. The events of the past week have captured international attention as well as NATO concern. However, NATO is as paralyzed to stop Russia from committing atrocities as the organization had been to stop the Soviet Union from its Cold War aggressions.

The war in Ukraine is a symptom of wider trends within international history that further indicates an urgent need to reform global institutions and power structures to ensure that crises like this can be prevented or stopped before becoming full-blown calamities. 

The Nineties in International Relations

Our postwar order was strong enough to hold through the Cold War and into what Francis Fukuyama once called “the end of history,” an idea and article namesake adapted in the dying days of the Soviet Union to herald the global adoption of liberal democracy. Liberal values championed by an increasingly unipolar world—led by the triumphant United States—appeared to be victorious. Soon-to-be ex-Soviet satellites democratized, reorganized, and internationalized. NATO expanded and the European Union formally came into being. The Berlin Wall fell and, soon after, so did the Soviet state. 

Not all was as peaceful as Czechoslovakia’s and Poland’s 1989 revolutions, though. The nineties also brought the collapse of federated Yugoslavia, which devolved into ethnic conflict, bloodshed, and genocide. International criminal law, no longer bound by stalwart opposition in the UNSC, was able to emerge and prosecute perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. In 1998, the Rome Statute was adopted, paving the way for the International Criminal Court’s functional beginning in 2002.

Indeed, the international political landscape of the 1990s lent no lack of plausible evidence to assert a final political victory for the liberal internationalist world. And while Fukuyama’s assessment of contemporary China underestimated the eventual political ability of the CCP to remain in place given increased market liberalization and global integration, at the time further liberalization could have been a plausible projection: especially so given the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre occurring just as his article was published. 

These projections did prove, though, to be inaccurate. History would continue. 

Putin in the World

Putin’s rise to power and ability to maintain power was not foreseeable at Fukuyama’s “end of history.” It has, however, shown that liberal democracy and the international order is not the end stage of political history. Putin’s Russia is a kleptocracy with himself in the center, supported by a billionaire class (commonly referred to as “oligarchs”) that he enriches. Political freedom is sparse and viable opponents oftentimes find themselves targets of the regime.

He has long sought to destabilize both his neighbors and members of NATO. Tales of coup attempts and political interference typify his strategy, which has normally been one of subterfuge and disinformation. 

The American intelligence community concluded that Russia was behind attempts to interfere in the U.S. 2016 presidential election, as part of a broader campaign to sow discord in the society of Russia’s main Cold War foe. President  Trump (as a candidate and then in office) showed great deference to Russia, and his own brash style only further fomented societal fissures in the United States. By 6 January 2021, political rancor spilled over into violence as Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol complex, which resulted in several casualties. The United States today is arguably as divided politically as it has ever been since its Civil War.

British intelligence has also concluded that there was likely Russian involvement in pushing disinformation in the leadup to the 2016 Brexit referendum. Regardless of whether this disinformation was effective enough to sway the vote in one direction or the other, it still occurred. Political divisions in the UK still widened. The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, which left Europe divided and arguably weakened. 

Across the European continent, Putin has engaged Russia with far-right, populist, and Eurosceptic parties and politicians that turn inward with nationalistic rhetoric that further harms the “end of history” European alliance. He has been linked with, to name a few, the Italian far-right leader of the Lega party Matteo Salvini, the French nationalist (and one-time ‘Frexit’ supporter) Marine Le Pen, and the “illiberal democrat” Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. Each has contributed to a respective turn away from either liberal democracy or from internationalism, or both, which—just like political divisions in the United States and United Kingdom—serve Putin’s goals. 

Even wackier stories still percolate about more overt interference in the global order. Also in 2016, Russia was accused of orchestrating a coup attempt in Montenegro on the eve of a vote on NATO accession, which would eventually occur early in 2017. Russia, against all NATO expansion, stood to gain from a successful coup, which did not occur.

This is not to say that Putin is behind every event that has proven to undermine NATO and its allies. He did not invent populism, Euroscepticism, and nationalism. But he did stand to gain from all that has occurred in the last few years, from divisions in the U.S. and UK to growing tensions in the European Union to restrictions on NATO expansion. Russia’s covert involvement only served to Putin’s benefit, with the added bonus of increased plausible deniability.

In all that has been going on in the U.S. and Europe, it is easy for Ukraine to get lost in the fray, when it has been a primary objective of Putin’s for years.

Russia and Ukraine

Ukraine declared independence—supported by overwhelming margins of the populace—in 1991, just two years after Fukuyama’s article. It has since maintained a complicated relationship within the global theater of international relations, moving back and forth between European and Russian influences. Revolutions in 2004 and 2014 followed by the Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea as well as the proceeding war in Donbas set the stage for the late-2021 and early-2022 events that culminated in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The 2004 Orange Revolution represented a bloodless political shockwave in Ukraine in opposition to political corruption and election rigging. Pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych’s initial win, annulled by the country’s supreme court after allegations of falsified results, was turned into a loss to Viktor Yushchenko, a more pro-European politician who had survived a dioxin poisoning under mysterious circumstances.

In 2010, Yanukovych managed to secure the presidency after defeating pro-Europe Yulia Tymoshenko in a free and fair election, only to be ejected in 2014 by a Ukrainian population angered at the former’s deference for Russia and hesitancy to sign an EU-Ukraine Association pact. The Euromaidan Revolution (or Revolution of Dignity) expelled Yanukovych from the presidency, which ended up in the hands of Petro Poroshenko, a pro-European billionaire who was in power when the Russians occupied Crimea and Russian-supported separatist movements broke out in the east of the country.

Current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former actor and comedian, took power in 2019 on an anti-corruption and pro-European platform. He has emerged as a firebrand for his country and is, right now, an international hero for his bravery and leadership in today’s crisis. 

The Return of the End of History?

The story of Ukraine as we know it is a story of a tug of war between European and Russian influences, and the national ethos of Ukraine has drifted significantly towards Europe. 

Ukraine’s continued drift towards the EU and the majority’s clear aspiration to become members of the European Union (and even NATO) is unacceptable to Putin, whose grand vision to restore Russian power relies on Ukraine’s alignment with Moscow, just as it does with Putin-aligned dictator Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.

Having undermined the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe, Putin calculated that now—when the liberal internationalist states are distracted and divided—is as good a time as ever to move forward on that plan. Had his calculations been correct, and had the Ukrainian resistance been scant and divided, perhaps Putin’s invasion would have had a more successful start. 

His calculations, though, were not correct. The invasion has galvanized a Ukrainian nation he grossly misunderstands, pushing it directly into the arms of the European Union and to NATO’s doorstep—exactly the opposite of what he wanted. European nations—even the Eurosceptic ones (and most Putin-affiliated politicians)—have largely come together in the face of Russian aggression. The United States and the United Kingdom, putting aside the partisan divides that still afflict them, have again taken leading roles in addressing the crisis and shoring up NATO defenses. 

It hasn’t been enough, though. NATO’s response is a testament to its overall resiliency, but this is not further evidence of Fukuyama’s conceptualization of the “end of history.”

The Beginning of History

Russian aggression continues still. The shelling of civilians—war crimes—continues. Most of the world is united in the face of aggression, to a point. Allied nations have levied crippling economic sanctions, more so than ever before. And while the sanctions have an important role to play in grinding the Russian war machine to a halt, they still reflect the physical powerlessness of Ukraine’s friends. 

There have been calls for the United States, which has the most powerful military of the NATO alliance, to establish a no-fly zone over the skies of Ukraine in a bid to keep Russian aircraft out of its airspace. The US and NATO have been reluctant to take such measures because they may result in physical altercations with Russian forces and a possible invocation of NATO’s collective defense provision, Article 5. In such an event, Russia (and probably Belarus, and perhaps other actors friendly to Russia/unfriendly to NATO) could find itself in a full-blown war with the entire alliance. 

We all know a full-blown war would not end well; it’s quite possible it would be a short affair involving nuclear weaponry that would quickly wipe out both sides—and with them, complex life on this planet for centuries. We here fall into a classic tenet of international relations in the nuclear age, mutually assured destruction (MAD), which has so far stopped one nation from launching such weaponry for fear that the chain of responses would simply destroy everything. 

No one can guarantee, though, that MAD will always hold.

Other than its sheer geographical size, Russia does not have very much going for it these days. It has a rather one-dimensional economy now on the verge of collapse due to mounting sanctions. It does, though, still have its nuclear weaponry, and it can continue to hold the world hostage through threats of nuclear war should they involve themselves in the current affair. It’s P-5 status at the UNSC (a permanent member holding veto power over all UNSC resolutions), inherited from the Soviet Union, further stymies any United Nations-based responses that could hold any sway. In this way Russia acts not too dissimilar from its predecessor. 

This is one of the fundamental issues of the current global order, and it is directly contributing to UN and NATO powerlessness to do anything about atrocities being committed daily by Russian forces in Ukraine. It also makes de-escalation that much harder, as Russia—despite quickly becoming an international pariah—still by UN Charter and by its nuclear status holds as much international power as does the United States, China, France, and the United Kingdom.

If this is how the “end of history” envisions global order, i.e., a perpetuation ad infinitum of a system built and concentrated amongst powers allied in 1945, then aggression, conflict, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide cannot be stopped. History since 1989 has shown time and again: a serious reconsideration of global order is required.

This reconsideration first relies upon a serious and sincere commitment to non-proliferation and full denuclearization. As long as a single nuclear weapon remains on this planet, peace cannot be assured. They are too powerful and too destructive for any one nation to hold, particularly one who uses them to scare adversaries into submission. 

The United Nations itself requires some commendation for having held up as long as it has, significantly longer than its predecessor. Its Charter, though, requires amendments. There are significant issues in concentrating the organization’s security power amongst five members that can individually torpedo any resolution. While the veto is an important piece of the UNSC, there are certainly ways it can be augmented that could mitigate usage with malicious intent, i.e., requiring multiple non-permanent members to sign off on one.

The UN Charter itself allows for amendments in Chapter XVIII, Articles 108 and 109. In frustrating irony, amendments require full agreement among the P-5 members and any one veto can end the process, and that’s that. 

It cannot hurt, though, to envision how to better perfect our international system. Perhaps one day soon there will be international consensus, forged in a realization of universal humanity or in the costly crucible of war, on doing so. For then we must be ready to act and provide these ideas. Then, perhaps, history can truly begin: of a truly global, peaceful, and united human experience.

A Concluding Prayer for Ukraine

For now, though, it is imperative to support the people of Ukraine in any way possible. Donate. Provide monetary support. Protest. Make your voice heard. May the people of Ukraine be safe and may its defenders succeed in their tough but righteous mission. May peace swiftly return to a free, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine.

Slava Ukraini.

Glory to Ukraine.

To donate, or find other ways to help the people of Ukraine, follow the links below:

BBC, Ukraine Help: 

International Rescue Committee: 

Oxfam DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal:

UNICEF, Children in Need: 

UK Government, Helping Ukraine: 


Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The December 1, 1991 Referendum/Presidential Election in Ukraine. Washington, D.C., 1992.

Dixon, Robyn. “In Long Speech, Putin Recognizes Two Ukrainian  Regions as Independent, a Potential Pretext for War.” The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), 21 February 2022, Europe.

Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?”. The National Interest, no. 16 (1989): 3-18.

Herszenhorn, David M., and Lili Bayer. “Strongmen Strut Their Stuff as Orbán Visits Putin in Russia.” POLITICO, 1 February 2022.

Hopkins, Valerie. “Indictment Tells Murky Montenegrin Coup Tale.” POLITICO, 23 May 2017.

The Kyiv Independent. Twitter post. 6 March, 2022, 11:41 a.m. GMT.

Mueller, Robert S. III. Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2017 Presidential Election. Washington, D.C., 2019.

Nardelli, Alberto. “Revealed: The Explosive Secret Recording That Shows How Russia Tried to Funnel Millions to the “European Trump”.” BuzFeed News, 10 July 2019.

Roth, Andrew, Shaun Walker, Jennifer Rankin, and Julian Borger. “Putin Signals Escalation as He Puts Russia’s Nuclear Force on High Alert.” The Guardian (London), 27 February 2022, Europe.

Ruy, Donatienne, “Did Russia Influence Brexit?,” Brexit Bits, Bobs, and Blogs, Center for Strategic & International Studies, 21 July, 2020,

Sabbagh, Dan. “Researchers Gather Evidence of Possible Russian War Crimes in Ukraine.” The Guardian (London), 2 March 2022.

Seddon, Max, and Michael Stothard. “Putin Awaits Return on Le Pen Investment.” Financial Times (London), 4 May 2017, French Politics.

Swan, Jonathan, Zachary Basu, and Sophia Cai. “Scoop: Zelensky Pushes Biden on No-Fly Zone.” Axios, 28 February 2022, World.

Timsit, Annabelle, Timothy Bella, Max Bearak, and Emily Rauhala. “In historic crisis, 2 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of Russian invasion, U.N. says.” The Washington Post (Washington, D.C.), 8 March 2022, Europe.

Troinovski, Anton. “Putin Announces a ‘Military Operation’ in Ukraine as the U.N. Security Council Pleads with Him to Pull Back.” The New York Times (New York), 23 February 2022, Europe.

United Nations. Charter of the United Nations ch. XVIII art. 108-109, Codification Division Publications: Repertory of Practice of United Nations Organs. United Nations.,Members%20of%20the%20United%20Nations%2C

Threats to attack cultural sites undermine American values

Featured Image: International Criminal Court, The Hague, The Netherlands.
Taken by author on site, 2/1/17

On January 4th, President Trump tweeted that if Iran were to retaliate in response to the recent American elimination of Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani, over 50 Iranian cultural sites would be targeted.[1] The prospective destruction of cultural history would be far more destructive than the attacks that caused them, as cultural sites represent invaluable symbols of our collective history. Cultural sites are not meant to be military targets; they are, rather, supposed to continually educate us about a human past that grows further by the day. Cultural sites are, further, recognized as important to us and are protected under international law.

If American forces were to target Iranian cultural sites, or any cultural site anywhere for that matter, they would be committing war crimes.

A great deal of my first master’s thesis focused on the successes and failures of international criminal law (ICL) and their impact on deterring further crimes prosecutable in international criminal institutions. To boil down a few central points of the thesis, the current iteration of ICL leaves much room for growth, but there have been noted successes in prosecuting war criminals on a variety of counts. Just a few years ago, the International Criminal Court (ICC) successfully convicted an individual on charges of destruction of cultural sites in Mali.

That individual’s name is Ahmed Al-Faqi Al-Mahdi. He was an officer in an Islamist militia operating in Mali that targeted sites in the ancient city of Timbuktu. Mali referred the situation taking place within its borders to the International Criminal Court, and an indictment and arrest warrant was handed down on Al-Mahdi on September 18, 2015.[2] Following his arrest in Niger, Al-Mahdi was taken to The Hague, where he was put on trial for destruction of cultural property, specifically under Article 8(2) of the Rome Statute, a section of the ICC’s governing document that outlines war crimes.[3] He was found guilty of destruction of cultural property and sentenced to 9 years imprisonment.[4]

Long enshrined in international law (much of the Rome Statute is based on previous Geneva Conventions), targeting cultural heritage is not simply just a war crime. It is prosecutable.

Now, neither Iran nor the United States are ratifiers of the Rome Statute and thus neither of the two are members of the ICC. As such, unless Iran grants it, the ICC would not have nominal jurisdiction over any crimes enumerated in the Rome Statute, including the destruction of cultural sites. This, though is not the point. This should go without saying, but a lack of jurisdiction over war crimes does not under any circumstance make war crimes acceptable.

There is also much more to worry about if the U.S. targets Iranian cultural sites. For one, it would be in violation of American law (see: Title 18 U.S. Code § 2441), which also outlines a commitment to stand against war crimes as well as harsh penalties for those who commit war crimes.[5] Additionally, consider the far-reaching consequences of this course of action.

If the U.S. targets Iranian cultural sites, three consequences are all but certain:

  1. The cycle of escalation will continue; an attack on cultural sites on Iranian soil is more than a provocation. As it represents an attack a non-military target within Iran, it could very well be labeled an act of war. At that point, further escalation and retaliations would be likely.
  2. The Iranian government would use any attacks on Iranian soil—especially those that would amount to war crimes as defined by international law—to paint the United States as a regime that commits war crimes. This would feed anger and patriotism within Iran and dramatically increase already hostile public opinion of the United States there.
  3. It would paint the United States in a horrible light. How could the United States ever bill itself as a global protector of peace and an enemy of war if it openly commits recognized war crimes? The U.S. would find itself bombarded with almost universal condemnation for its state-sponsored war crimes.

If attacks against cultural sites did escalate into a wider conflict, it is likely that the United States will have a far more difficult time building a coalition to join its side compared to when it triggered Article 5 of NATO (the attack on one as an attack on all clause) when it began the War on Terror. After all, would traditional allies of the U.S.—states that also stand for international law—condone the commission of war crimes by joining the committing party in further hostilities?

The President has since softened his tone on the threats against Iranian cultural sites in the days since the he made his initial threats.[6] In his remarks to reporters, though, he belittled the idea of refraining from using cultural sites as military targets, though, saying:

“They are allowed to kill our people. They are allowed to maim our people, they’re allowed to blow up everything that we have and there’s nothing to stop them. We are, according to various laws, supposed to be very careful with their cultural heritage. And you know what if that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law.”[7]

Donald J. Trump, Twitter, 1/7/20 from Axios: Trump walks back targeting cultural sites: “I like to obey the law”, by Zachary Basu.

This is not the way the United States, a model of the rule of law and the “shining city on a hill,” is supposed to conduct itself. To threaten to commit war crimes and even to imply that it would not be that bad if one were to do it, simply does not reflect the United States in a good image.

The quagmire that we find ourselves in in the Middle East and especially most recently in Iran is, of course, difficult. In the wake of this most recent escalation, the U.S. has run into further issues as it pertains to remaining in Iraq. Iran retaliated to the killing of Soleimani and, thankfully, there were no casualties.

The way forward out of this mess, as it is with any tough issue in international affairs, is through efficient and effective diplomacy. Only through diplomacy, dialogue, and a shared commitment to peace, prosperity, and progress can we work through this most recent crisis and break the cycle of escalation and conflict.

[1] Donald J. Trump, “Donald J. Trump on Twitter: ‘….Targeted 52 Iranian Sites (Representing the 52 American Hostages Taken by Iran Many Years Ago)…’ / Twitter,” Twitter, January 4, 2020,

[2] International Criminal Court, “Al Mahdi Case,” International Criminal Court, n.d.,

[3] Ibid; International Criminal Court, “The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court” (International Criminal Court, 2011),

[4] International Criminal Court, “Al Mahdi Case,” International Criminal Court, n.d.,

[5] “18 U.S. Code § 2441 – War Crimes”,

[6] Quint Forgey, “‘I like to Obey the Law’: Trump Backs off Threat to Target Iranian Cultural Sites,” POLITICO, January 7, 2020,

[7] Zachary Basu, “Trump Walks Back Targeting Cultural Sites: ‘I like to Obey the Law’ – Axios,” January 7, 2020,