PROTECTIONISM by Brian Landers, author of EMPIRES APART

                             The first response of US legislators to the economic crisis was a whole raft of  “America First” measures. “Buy American” provisions were embedded in the various stimulus packages being proposed, all designed to ensure that only American corporations and American workers benefited from the measures. Commitments entered into with other countries, particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement, were suddenly under review. According to a New York Times article earlier this month, a Harvard university economics professor, Kenneth S Rogoff, warned ‘that the United States is in “great danger of backing away from free trade”. That, says the professor, could be a “disaster”.’

All sorts of responses are possible to a comment like that.               Advocates and opponents of globalization could tear each other apart over the idea that protectionism is synonymous with disaster and free trade with wealth-creation. But the part of the professor’s assertion that bugged me was that phrase “backing away”. How do you back away from somewhere you’ve never been? To suggest that the United States is backing away from free trade is like suggesting that Barack Obama is backing away from the Klu Klux Klan.

In Empires Apart I describe in some detail how the American and Russian economies developed in very different ways over the last two or three centuries, but one thing they had in common – neither had any time for free trade.

Britain’s American colonies grew rich behind tariff barriers and that continued after independence. America’s manufacturing might was built behind punitive tariffs – by 1913 average tariff rates on imported manufactures were zero in Britain, 13 per cent in Germany, over 20 per cent in France and a massive 44 per cent in the US.  In 1932, while the world was wallowing in depression, American import duties incredibly reached almost 60 per cent of the value of imports.

More recently a reader who booked a cruise from New York to Canada and then back to Florida complained to the travel pages of the Observer that he been made to leave the ship in Quebec City and travel overland to Montreal. The reason, it transpired, was that the US Jones Act (technically the Passenger Services Act) makes it illegal for passengers to travel from one US port to another on a non-US vessel. To avoid this protectionist legislation, foreign cruise operators have to break their voyage into separate unconnected legs, each starting or terminating outside the US.

True there have been some tariff reductions but these have in practice been easily balanced by the massive subsidies given to exporters, especially farm exporters in electorally critical states. The obscene subsidies paid to cotton farmers in the Bush home state of Texas and to rice growers in Clinton’s Arkansas have devastated third world competitors.

There are fundamental differences in what for want of a better word might be described as the political “ideologies” of Americans and Europeans. America is essentially parochial. Anyone watching US TV in the last few years must have been struck by the campaigns trying to persuade American drivers to convert to bio-fuels. But whereas in Europe the adverts would have concentrated on the benefits to the environment or on price the message on American TV was quite different: help reduce American dependence on foreign oil.

No wonder that in the latest economic crisis legislators made sure that foreigners would not benefit from their largesse – even to the point of insisting that banks receiving federal aid be banned from applying for work permits for foreign workers. US electors expect their representatives to put US interests first. In 2007 a Pew Global Attitudes Survey ranked 47 countries as varied as Bangladesh, China, Germany and Nigeria in terms of support for free trade: the US came last.

The stimulus bill passed by Congress last February contained numerous Buy American measures, with broad restrictions on buying foreign-made iron, steel and manufactured goods alongside a pious insistence that international trade agreements need to be respected. Robert Gibbs, a White House spokesman showed what the debate was really about when he claimed that: “Where we ended the right compromise that respects the [Buy American] laws that we’ve had on our books for many, many years while also ensuring that the language doesn’t create unnecessary trade disagreements.” The substance can be protectionist as long as the language is not.

To an economist, the US may seem to be backing away from free trade but to a historian the US is simply standing still.


Empires Apart: America and Russia from the Vikings to Iraq by Brian Landers

Empires ApartOne of the things I have discovered over the last few months is how little I know about the business of books.


I am a director of one of the world’s most prestigious publishers, Penguin. Before that I was with the world’s largest educational publisher, Pearson Education, and before that with W H Smith and Waterstone’s, Britain’s leading booksellers. I thought I had a pretty good idea how the industry worked.  I didn’t.


Take the role of agents. It is axiomatic at Penguin that authors need agents. Nowadays it is virtually impossible without an agent to get a major publisher interested in a new author.  Agents diligently mine their slush piles, I thought, looking for gems to polish and sell.


My Penguin colleagues have been enormously supportive and introduced me to numerous agents who were – usually – very gracious in their rejections. As one remarked candidly “If you were a celebrity Empires Apart could be a best seller, if you were a politician or academic it would sell, as it is you won’t get through the door at Waterstone’s.”


Eventually I did find a leading agent who seemed keen. I spent what seemed an enormous amount of time on things I thought he would do like competitor analysis and marketing plans before he announced he was sending my manuscript to his “reader”.


That’s when my naiveté really showed. I thought a reader would read my precious manuscript. At last a chance to receive a serious, professional review. What I received was a damning indictment that made the agent drop me like the proverbial hot potato. I read the reader’s comments with incredulity – the one thing he had clearly not done was read the book.


At the beginning of Empires Apart I mention two Viking explorers. Leif Ericson is famous for supposedly discovering America, but in fact has no real historical importance. Rurik on the other hand is completely forgotten but, I wrote, founded Russia: Rurik’s Land. I wanted to explore the way history is transformed over time and rewritten by each new generation and a few pages later I returned to Rurik. The Rurik tale I wrote was like much of Russian history, it was stirring, adventurous and almost certainly untrue. Nobody really knows where the name Russia comes from and I mentioned various other theories, all more probable than Rurik’s Land.


The agent’s anonymous reader clearly had not read very far. I was condemned for presenting the story of Rurik as if it was the undisputed truth. There were other versions of Russia’s origins commented the reader – which was exactly my point. In skimming through my manuscript the reader had made a number of similar errors, ascribing views to me that I had not expressed and the reason soon became clear: politics. The reader readily admitted he had no sympathy with the political views he presumed to colour my writing. I was he decided another conspiracy theorist.


No historical writing is value free and I wouldn’t pretend that my own is any different. The problem arises when the politics of the writer and the reader, any reader, are so far apart that rational debate becomes impossible. The incredibly detailed research in a book like Robin Ramsay’s Politics & Paranoia gets dismissed not on the quality of its analysis but on the political flavour of its conclusions.


One theme the agent’s reader found impossible to deal with in Empires Apart was my treatment of terrorism in America. I described what I thought was barbaric: an indiscriminate attack without warning by religious fundamentalists  on people going peacefully about their daily lives, an attack that caused carnage on an unprecedented scale and whose “justification” was not only totally incomprehensible to the victims but totally alien to the values of their society. I thought that was a pretty fair description of the 9/11 attacks.


It was also a pretty fair description of the events nearly four centuries earlier at Mystic, Connecticut. The native Pequot township of Missituck was surrounded before dawn on the 27th of May 1637 by a group of armed men led by Captain John Underhill, an English mercenary hired by the Puritan settlers of Boston. As the first rays of the morning sun streaked the sky Underhill’s men fell on the sleeping villagers (mainly women, children and elderly as the men were away hunting). There were only five survivors.  The Mystic Massacre contravened all the norms of what American natives considered to be civilised warfare. Its purpose was not just the ethnic cleansing of the Pequot but to terrorise any natives unwilling to recognise the superiority of the white man and his religion.


I thought a comparison between the Mystic Massacre and 9/11 was usefully thought-provoking. It graphically illustrated my thesis that one of the factors influencing the development of America’s political landscape was a strain of religious fundamentalism more akin to modern Iran than to contemporary Europe. After the massacre William Bradford, the leader of the Pilgrim Fathers and a man lauded to this day in American textbooks, gave praise for the “sweet sacrifice” of natives “frying in the fire”. One can imagine Osama Bin Laden speaking similar words after 9/11.


I can imagine that – the agent’s reader certainly could not. Such a suggestion he asserted, (in a phrase for which I must admit to having a grudging admiration), was “approaching the wild borders of Chomskystan”.


My purpose in relaying this vignette is not to get my own back on the hack who savaged my work (or at least that is not the only reason) but to illustrate how precarious writing can be. How many brilliant books lie unpublished because someone took a dislike to the opening line in a synopsis or the casual wording of the Contents page?


I eventually gave up on agents and sent my manuscript direct to publishers and was lucky enough to find two or three who read it all the way through.


Before passing on the blogging baton to Caroline Bailey, the first of Picnic’s children’s book illustrators to blog, I must therefore give heartfelt thanks to Picnic for willingness to read beyond the first page and give others the opportunity to decide whether Empires Apart is thought-provoking or conspiracy theorising.




Empires Apart: America and Russia from the Vikings to Iraq by Brian Landers

Empires ApartSome blogs are streams of consciousness ramblings that meander from subject to apparently unrelated subject. I feel like doing something like that today because three different ideas have been buzzing around my mind as possible blog topics: the Plantagenets, Gordon Brown and breakfast cereals. Not subjects with any obvious link. But bear with me.


The history of the Plantagenets which my predecessor on this blog, Guy Fraser-Sampson, is writing is exactly the sort of book I like reading. He is chronicling one of the most exciting periods in English history. In concluding his blog he compared the Plantagenet Empire to the American and Russian Empires I am writing about. The Plantagenet Empire, he said, was “Much sin but no spin, did not pretend its missiles were good for you and, of course, lasted longer”. The first two points are brilliant, but “lasted longer”? That perhaps is yet to be proved.


Alexander Solzhenitsyn described as a “naive fable” the absurd sound-bite I mentioned yesterday from Francis Fukuyama that the fall of the Iron Curtain marked “the end of history”. Solzhenitsyn was being uncharacteristically generous. The end of the Cold War may have seen the dismemberment of most of the Soviet Empire but it did nothing to dent the imperial intent which has been a feature of Russian history since Ivan the Terrible if not before. Now that intent is obvious again in the Caucuses and the rest of the world needs to decide how to respond.


Gordon Brown is quite clear. Writing in last Sunday’s Observer he points out that Russia can’t be allowed to get away with invading sovereign nations, picking and choosing which international rules to follow and acting unilaterally. The answer to all this awful stuff, he writes, is to “strengthen the transatlantic alliance”. That is we need an alliance with a United States government that invades sovereign nations, picks and chooses which international rules to follow and acts unilaterally.


The hypocrisy would be sickening were it not that Brown is not being hypocritical, he really believes that the United States is not what it is.  His is a classic example of cognitive dissonance. When facts come up that don’t fit his ideological preconceptions his mind alters the facts not the preconceptions.


I quote in Empires Apart as pure an example of cognitive dissonance as it is possible to get. In his 2004 re-election campaign President Bush proclaimed the moral superiority of free nations like the United States “Free nations are peaceful nations”, he insisted. “Free nations don’t attack each other. Free nations don’t develop weapons of mass destruction.” Coming from the leader of a nation that had just invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and whose armouries included more than half of the entire world’s stock of weapons of mass destruction these words surely exceed any absurdity Gordon Brown might utter.


But their absurdity seems to escape not just Bush and Brown, (and to complete the roll call of B-list politicians, Blair) but most of our other opinion-leaders.


Why do we so easily see actions as evil when the perpetrators are Russian but not when the same things are done by America?  That’s a question it would take far more than a blog to answer; I’m not sure Empires Apart fully answers it. But part of the answer may be that we are totally enmeshed by America’s commercial empire and its values. It is simply taken for granted that Americans are the goodies.


American corporations now seem to be a natural part of all our lives. I would argue that increasingly it is accepted that they and not the state should look after us and decide for us what is worthwhile and what is not. That may seem an extreme suggestion but let me quote an apparently innocent example.


My daughters are keen swimmers. They both recently moved up a level and received certificates and lovely cloth badges. The certificates and badges proclaim “National Swim Awards” (and isn’t “swim” rather than “swimming” an Americanism?). They also proclaim in flamboyant letters “Kellogg’s FROSTIES”. The swimming achievements of British children are being funded not by a levy on taxpayers organized by the British government but by a levy on buyers of breakfast cereals organized by a foreign corporation. (And Kellogg is a foreign corporation although I have noticed that it never uses in Britain the slogan I remember from my school days in Illinois “Kellog’s – the all-American breakfast”).


Of course it is rather a leap to suggest that an American corporation insidiously promoting its sugary pap to British school children somehow bears comparison with America invading Iraq or Russia invading Georgia, but sometimes random thoughts are not as unrelated as they seem.


When I was in primary school I remember playing a game in which we were given two or three unrelated words and then had to put them together in a single sentence. Usually the results were nonsensical but every so often somebody would produce something almost believable. Now I almost believe it really is possible to link the Plantagenets, Gordon Brown and breakfast cereals.







Empires Apart: America and Russia from the Vikings to Iraq by Brian Landers

Empires Apart The biggest difficulty for most authors is not finding inspiration but finding time. Most of us have “real” jobs that take absolute priority. Writing Empires Apart has taken me an age and there have been many months when I haven’t had time to write a single word.


In the age of the Blackberry work is always just a click away and I am one of those sad people who can’t go to bed at night without clearing my office inbox. On the other hand if inspiration does strike I can now quickly jot a note on the Blackberry and file it away for when I have time to remember that there is life beyond work. (I keep trying to remind myself that nobody ever lay on their death bed thinking “I wish I had spent more time in the office”.)


Thus this morning I was on the train looking forward to tumbling into the madding crowd at Waterloo station (sad) and thumbing through last week’s Finance Week (very, very sad) when I came across an article that dragged my thoughts away from business and made me reach for my Blackberry.


Oleg Mukhamedshin, director of capital markets at United Company RUSAL, was extolling the benefits of the economic, legal and fiscal reforms in Russia in the last decade. They had, he assured readers of Finance Week, fundamentally improved the prospects for foreign investors and allowed many “first and second tier” Russian companies to gain access to a “variety of financing products” involving debt capital and loan syndication.


The article triggered off all sorts of thoughts. Francis Fukuyama famously declared that the end of the Cold War had marked the end of history. For him America represented the highest form of society and there was nowhere further for history to go. That declaration was of course absurd but if Mukhamedshin is right Russia does seem to be turning into an American-style corporatist democracy. But of course Mukhamedshin, like Fukuyama, is not right.


In Empires Apart I argue that American democracy has been transformed by the advent of corporate power. Abstract legal entities – corporations – are deemed to have human rights like the right to free speech. Corporate executives are allowed to spend millions of dollars of their corporations’ money to promote the corporations’ political agenda (by which of course is meant the corporate executives’ private agenda) As US President Rutherford B. Hayes famously recorded in his diary in 1888 “This is a government of the people, by the people and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, for corporations”.


At first sight Russia seems to be going the same way. Its “tier one” companies are now enormous. UC Rusal is the world’s largest aluminium producer employing more than a 100,000 people on five continents. No wonder Russian corporations like UC Rusal are such important players in the global financial markets, and no wonder they occupy such powerful positions in contemporary Russia.


But Russia is not turning into an American style corporatist democracy.


The Founding Fathers created a democratic edifice in the United States which remains largely untouched – corporations didn’t change the edifice, merely its occupants. Corporate bosses moved into the corridors of power and evicted the common man (common woman had never dwelt there).


In Russia there has never been a democratic edifice nor any human rights for corporations to usurp.  Russia is becoming not a corporatist democracy but a corporatist autocracy. Far from corporations bending the forms of democracy to suit their own interests in Russia the autocrat Putin is bending the corporate form to suit his policy objectives. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Putin’s use of Gazprom, the Russian energy behemoth. Gas supplies to neighbouring countries are turned off and on and prices ratcheted up or down for reasons that everything to politics and nothing to economics. One of Putin’s objectives is clearly to start to re-establish the Russian Empire lost by Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and one of his tools in doing this is corporate power. In a way Russia is now fighting America with America’s own weapon. And that fight seems to be hotting up – or looked at another way cooling down.


Just last week President Medvedev declared that “Russia is ready for a new Cold War”.


“We don’t want a Cold War”, chorused western leaders in reply, “but if you start one ……”


I didn’t notice anyone in the media comment that there is something profoundly odd about the idea of a new Cold War. The last one was supposed to have been a battle of ideologies – Communists proclaiming universal brotherhood and solidarity with the world’s oppressed battling Anti-communists extolling free expression and free markets. Now all that claptrap has vanished. We suddenly have two empires facing each other – as in fact we always did. True Putin may be proclaiming solidarity with the poor oppressed South Ossetians and Bush may laud the plucky freedom-loving Georgians but hardly anyone imagines we are in the middle of a gigantic ideological struggle for minds and hearts. This is imperial conflict at its crudest. Fukuyama may have thought that history had ended but the empires are striking back.





Empires Apart: the American & Russian Empires from the Vikings to Iraq by Brian Landers

Empires Apart The problem with writing about history is that there are rarely neat start and end points. I decided to start Empires Apart at the Battle of Châlons in 451 but I could have chosen dozens if nor hundreds of other dates. The problem is worse if you want to bring the story up to modern times because there is always something happening right now that you feel ought to be included.


Empires Apart tells the story of the American and Russian Empires and the events in Georgia over the last few weeks obviously warrant inclusion. But how? To add a few sentences or paragraphs on to the end might make the events appear as something altogether new when the whole point is that they are merely the latest manifestations of ages old tendencies.


On the American side there is the quest to control the world’s oil supplies. Perhaps I should amend the section in my book which deals with President Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with the Saudi King in the middle of the Second World War. Roosevelt had flown to meet the king after his meeting with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta, just across the Black Sea from Georgia. The secret wartime meeting had made concrete American imperial designs in the Middle East. Roosevelt agreed to provide military assistance to the Saudi monarch in return for access to oil; the situation in Georgia today has remarkable similarities. But lots of other people are already pointing to the importance of oil in the Georgia dispute; I should try to find a less obvious angle.


From the very beginning the aggrandizement of America has been largely driven by the desire to gain resources belonging to others. But equally important, I believe, is the American conviction, going right back to the first New England Puritans, that their ideology is superior to all others. Perhaps I should approach the Georgia issue by discussing the way that American neo-conservative ideologues have infiltrated Georgian politics and got their man elected as President.


Or perhaps I should just concentrate on American opposition to Russian power and draw the obvious parallel with Hungary in 1956 when the CIA and others urged Hungarians on with promises of support that evaporated when the Russian tanks rolled in.


On the other hand I could concentrate not on American actions but on Russian: straight forward, old fashioned imperialism. Russia has regarded Georgia as part of its empire for two centuries. The dismemberment of the Russian empire at the end of the Cold War did little to change Russia’s underlying imperial ideology. Putin is clearly determined to recreate the Empire Yeltsin lost and the antics of the Georgian leaders President Bush had hoped would act as America’s proxies in the region gave him the excuse to act. Putin’s imperial policy reminds me of a phrase from an unlikely source and that I decide is the hook I am looking for.


Robert Kagan is a right wing ideologue who was part of President Reagan’s team at the time of the US invasion of the tiny island nation of Grenada. He is not a man I would normally warm to but he has written a very good book on American imperial history, although that is not a term he would be likely to use. Writing about the American purchase of Louisiana, violent conquest of Florida and opportunistic acquisition of Pacific coastline in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, Kagan noted the paradox that “American leaders had a clear vision of a continental empire” but “had no specific plans to obtain it”. Imperial expansion in the period he characterized as “determined opportunism”. It is a marvelous expression and one that seems to fit Putin perfectly.


Today’s Russian leaders are looking for opportunities to recreate their imperial sphere of influence whether in Estonia or Georgia or somewhere in between. They know what they want to do but not necessarily how, when and where the opportunities will arise. Just as America knows it wants to encircle Russia to maximize its imperial sphere of influence without knowing exactly how, when and where it will gain its next foothold.


That’s settled. I will stop this blog now and go back to my manuscript and develop the theme that the way America grew by opportunistically conquering neighbouring peoples in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is the way both America and Russia have always acted and continue to act. By doing so I will illustrate their and my determined opportunism.

Empires Apart: The American & Russian Empires from the Vikings to Iraq by Brian Landers

  “The English invented champagne in the seventeenth century.”


That was going to be the opening line of my book, Empires Apart, due to be published by Picnic on 2nd April next year. It was the only part of the introduction I did not write and rewrite over and over again as I struggled to find my narrative voice. It was a line I was proud of: whimsical, arresting, unexpected, succinct. All qualities I would value in a novel – but Empires Apart is not a novel.


Empires Apart describes the parallel histories of the Russian and American empires. It is a serious book that I would like to be taken seriously. Whimsy is not a quality readers of serious books can be expected to warm to.


Writing a book, like writing a blog, is a marvellous way of expressing yourself. I really enjoy writing. I like to play with words, push the boundaries of English grammar, jest with juxtapositions and to alliterate. I know nothing about scansion or metre but I love sentences for the sound they make in my mind as I read them to myself. If I was writing for myself all that would be fine but I like to pretend that I am writing for others. Perhaps the greatest difficulty an author faces is to constantly remember the audience. Novels can be about the author, indeed many seem to be about nothing else, but good non-fiction allows no such self-indulgence. And yet part of me still thinks that what grabs me might grab others.


The truth is that part of me is simply selfish and conceited – I want to put in the puns and quips that appeal to my sense of humour and, let’s admit it, my vanity. I like writing that the early Russian conquests led to a “steppe change” in Russian history. It amuses me to suggest that the Portuguese navigator Joäo Vaz Corte Real may have reached America first and that if his publicists had been as good as Amerigo Vespucci’s “Americans” might today be “Realists”. I enjoy the idea of starting a book on modern political history by referring to the ancient battle that took place in the fields where the champagne grapes now grow as more brutal than brut.


At the same time I feel passionate about my subject and want others to feel that passion. And I recognise that self-indulgent puns are not going to convince anyone to take me seriously. So I write at speed whatever springs to mind and then edit out the frivolous and meandering, or at least most of it. And that I hope leaves a mostly serious book on a decidedly serious theme.


The first English settlers crossed the Atlantic and the first Russian settlers crossed the Urals at the same time and I have long been fascinated by the similarities between the two nations as they expanded to the Pacific and then strove to rule the world. The two great powers that dominated most of the twentieth century, and may still dominate much of the twenty first, appear at first to have so little in common but in reality have so much. It seemed to me that here was an exciting story that deserved to be told in an exciting way, in a way that would grip the reader like a novel rather then impress as an academic thesis. But that doesn’t include whimsical introductions.


My manuscript now has an opening paragraph rather than an opening sentence, and it tries to convey what the whole book is about:


“For America the road to Iraq started on Roanoke Island when the first Englishman stepped ashore and claimed a God-given right to take everything he saw. In the four centuries since then the world has been transformed but that first colonial philosophy has changed hardly at all. The central certainty has remained: Americans are special; they are due more of the earth’s riches than other nations. How those riches are to be gained, whether through the power of the musket or the dollar, may have changed but the continuity of empire is as clear between George Washington and George Bush as between Ivan the Terrible and Joseph Stalin. America’s first President and Russia’s first Tsar spoke openly of their dreams of Empire; their twentieth century successors had the same dreams but convinced themselves that an Empire by any other name would smell more sweet”.


Who knows the editor may decide to change it once again. I will of course listen to him. I just hope he doesn’t want to change the line buried about twenty pages in: “The English invented champagne in the seventeenth century.”