• Trump, Kim and Hanoi

    The so-called “summit” in Hanoi between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un a few days ago ended with no agreement, despite Trump’s earlier optimism that an agreement was available – the meeting was, in other words, either a non-event or possibly a second date that went horribly wrong.

    But behind the smokescreen of fantasy and bluster, what was really going on? The episode tells us a great deal about each of the participants and, in particular, about how far Trump will go to keep himself in the headlines and to distract attention from his troubles at home.

    What seems clear is that the meeting was engineered by Trump for no better reason than to serve his own electoral purposes, and was a further indication of his readiness to focus always on getting himself re-elected – which seems to be the only thing he really cares about.

    Judged in its own terms, however, the summit was a failure of “deal-making” on the part of both supposedly expert “deal-makers”. Kim’s misjudgment was in believing that he could use Trump’s appetite for flattery to enable him to slide past him a deal that totally brought an end to US sanctions against North Korea while doing little to make good Kim’s promise to denuclearise.

    Trump’s misjudgment was in believing what he wanted to believe – that he could soft-soap Kim into giving up his nuclear weapons. He appears to see in Kim a kindred spirit, someone he can admire and emulate and whose dictatorial powers he can envy and seek to replicate.

    What is alarming – though not surprising to Trump watchers and critics (among whose number I count myself) – is the President’s willingness to subordinate what could have been an important international interaction to his own domestic political ambitions.

    This smoke-and-mirrors non-drama was, of course, being played out against the backdrop of the incendiary testimony of Michael Cohen (Trump’s former personal lawyer) to a Committee of the House of Representatives as to what he knew about his former client and employer. If even a smidgeon of what Cohen said is to be believed, the judgments made by many of us about Trump’s fitness for office have been far too mild.

    Perhaps the most significant thing Cohn said in his statement came, however, when he focussed on – not Trump directly – but on the Republican members of the House. “I am now – after ten years – holding Donald Trump to account – something that you, yourselves, should have been doing,” he said.

    The point should surely have struck home. In labelling Trump “a racist, a conman, a cheat”, Cohen told us nothing we didn’t know already; he was simply adding his voice and his personal observations on the Trump he knew to many other voices.

    What has been missing from this scenario is any effective response from Trump’s Republican colleagues – any sign that they recognise the nightmare they have helped to launch on the American public and polity. By averting their gaze, and by going along with the diversionary tactic resorted to by Trump in Hanoi, they have made themselves – collectively and personally – complicit in what looks increasingly like a conspiracy against the American people.

    We do not need to regard Michael Cohen as beyond reproach – he is certainly not that – but this sounds very much like the voice of someone who has been pushed beyond what he can endure. The American public and the Republicans in Congress now need to find the courage to listen carefully to the opinions and the conclusions of someone who worked closely with Trump as a loyal henchman over many years. This evidence shows that it is not just the Hanoi “summit” that is now at risk.

    Bryan Gould
    1 March 2019





  • The Armistice Centenary

    The centenary of the Armistice that ended the First World War has rightly been celebrated around the world. The Armistice brought an end to the horrors of a war that had been so terrible that it was described in retrospect, in a triumph of optimism over experience, as “the war to end all wars.”

    The slaughter on the Western Front and the privations suffered by the combatants in other battlefields like Gallipoli were unparallelled. It was not just the casualties, the injuries and the sickness, but the nature of the warfare, and the conditions in which the soldiers fought and died, in the mud and cold of the trenches, pinned down by the relentless shelling, that caused so much public revulsion.

    There was also a public anger at the apparent lack of concern that was shown by commanding officers in sending their men to the front and to their inevitable deaths. The lives of those men seemed to matter little – they were moved and deployed as though they were pawns in a board game. The soldiers in the First World War became known – in a phrase that had first been used by the Russians about the British army in the Crimean War – as “lions led by donkeys”.

    In Flora Thompson’s Larkrise to Candleford, a wonderful memoir of growing up in poverty in rural Oxfordshire, she describes how her brothers learned to work hard and never complain, accepting their lot. When her favourite young brother, Edwin, was killed just outside Ypres in 2016, she says that, when he faced the odds, “he did not flinch”.

    The repercussions of all that pain and suffering affected millions of people around the world; little wonder that the centenary of the Armistice was acknowledged by the leaders of the countries that had been involved and the opportunity was taken to salute the sacrifices that so many ordinary people had made. All the more surprising then that one of today’s self-proclaimed American “heroes” could not brave a shower of rain in order to pay his respects to the fallen; the sacrifices they had made were hardly “fake news”.

    The attention paid to the centenary, not least through the remembrance ceremonies worldwide, but also through television programmes about the First World War and Peter Jackson’s wonderful revival of actual footage from the conflict in his recently released film “They Shall Not Grow Old” will surely have taught a new generation about the dramas and tragedies of our history. The lessons will have been reinforced by the memorial to New Zealand recently created in the French town of Le Quesnoy to acknowledge the rescuing of the town from German occupation by New Zealand troops.

    And nowhere is the attention paid to this shared history more justified than in New Zealand. Incredible as it may seem for our small country at the ends of the earth, half the globe away from the battlefields, no country made a proportionately greater sacrifice than we did.

    Nearly 10% of our tiny population (of just under one million at the time) volunteered to fight in the War. They represented 42% of all men of military age. Of that number, 60% were killed or hospitalised – 18500 died and 41000 were wounded.

    It is important for our young people, in the nature of things inclined to dismiss their forbears’ achievements as of little consequence, to understand what earlier generations sacrificed for them, our country and the world. And they should also understand that “no man (or country – not even New Zealand ) is an island unto itself”.

    In that great and all-consuming conflict of 100 years ago, we proudly took our place as a world citizen and played our part in bringing to an end that horrific and barbaric struggle. New Zealand’s standing in the world ever since – and the role we have continued to play, with an influence that belies our small size – have owed much to those brave young men from the farms and factories who went in search of an adventure but found instead a hell.

    Bryan Gould

    13 November 2018



  • They Do Things Differently There

    “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So said the English writer, L. P. Hartley, in the first sentence of his famous novel, The Go-Between.

    In the light of recent events in the United States, we might make a similar observation about the US. Despite the familiarity of so much of American culture to New Zealanders, via Hollywood and the television screen, we can hardly avoid the conclusion that they do indeed “do things differently there.”

    Do you recall the last time a new judge was appointed to the New Zealand Supreme Court? Do you even know the name of the new appointee or the nature of the process that was followed?

    Yet the appointment of a new judge to the US Supreme Court hit the headlines and kept the American nation – and the world – transfixed for weeks on end.

    It was on prime time news day after day and was surrounded by a swirl of political intrigue, allegations of sexual impropriety and public demonstrations. The President of the country was deeply involved and directly campaigned at election-style rallies to support his nominee and to discredit and mock one of the witnesses who opposed the appointment.

    Opinion polls were conducted on a daily basis to measure the degree of support or otherwise there was for the nominee and his critics. Any shifts in opinion were said to be likely to influence the outcome of the mid-term elections and, as a result, to decide which political party would control Congress, and perhaps even indicate whether Donald Trump would or could win a second term.

    The public – that is, society as a whole – was revealed to be deeply divided, not just about the nominee himself and his suitability, but about wider questions as well. On the one hand, there were those who applauded the courage of the woman who gave evidence about an alleged assault on her by the nominee and were satisfied that she should be believed. Her courage and credibility became an article of faith for large numbers who saw the episode as further evidence of the treatment suffered by many women at the hands of sexual predators.

    On the other hand, were similarly large numbers who professed to see the allegations as politically motivated – “she was paid by the Democrats to say those things” according to some Trump supporters – and who agreed with the President that men were being unfairly targeted and themselves needed protection.

    In the end, then, the controversy may have produced a victory for the nominee and for the President, who now has a Supreme Court (as his supporters wanted) with a majority in favour of conservative social attitudes – on abortion, gay marriage and women’s rights. Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment was, incidentally, the second appointment in a row, following the appointment of Judge Clarence Thomas, of a judge who holds such views but who was also, as a nominee, accused of similar sexual behaviour.

    Brett Kananaugh’s appointment was, in other words, achieved at the cost of laying bare and exacerbating the deep and visceral divisions that rack American society. A President and a process that should have tried to heal those divisions succeeded in doing the opposite.

    Yes, they do things differently there. Despite our admiration for so much that is American, we can at least be grateful that, at least in this respect, we do not model ourselves on everything they do. The Kavanaugh episode should at least teach us that highly politicised processes can be deeply damaging and that short-term political victories can sometimes be achieved at a cost that is too high to pay.

    Bryan Gould
    8 October 2018

  • #Me Too Must Become We Too

    New Zealanders who have followed reports of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court may well have experienced a sense of deja vu.

    They will have heard accounts of alleged encounters between Kavanaugh and his friends on the one hand and young women on the other hand who report being sexually assaulted by the Supreme Court nominee and his associates a number of years ago. Whatever the truth of these allegations (and let us hope that the truth can indeed be established) the ingredients of the alleged incidents are all too familiar.

    Whether Kavanaugh was or was not one of those responsible, what seems clear is that both the complainants and Kavanaugh grew up in a social milieu, both at high school and college, in which it was common practice for young men to deliberately ply young girls with alcoholic drinks at social gatherings with the intention of having sexual relations with them.

    The story will no doubt ring a bell with many New Zealand viewers and readers. It is, after all, only five years ago that the Roast Busters scandal burst upon the New Zealand scene.

    The Roast Busters story exhibited many of the same features as we now see in the allegations against Kavanaugh. There was the same involvement of young women complainants (some, in the Roast Busters case, under age) alleging that they had been offered drinks or drugs designed to render them incapable of “saying no” to sexual activity, the same male bonding and boasting on the part of a group of young men of school age, the same refusal to believe the complainants, and the same lack of action and blaming of the victims on the part of the authorities.

    In the Roast Busters case, the young complainants were apparently told by the police that, even if the offences had been committed, they had only themselves to blame – that they should not have been drinking or should not have been enticingly dressed. As with the Kavanaugh case, there was also a strong sense that the assaults were no more than a bit of “teenage mischief”. The question implicit in the public comments made in both cases was “who wasn’t involved in such situations when they were young”?

    But, while men may feel that they should not be responsible for mistakes they made as teenagers, and while behaviours may change and improve with growing maturity, attitudes rarely do.

    In the Roast Busters case, no one was ever charged and the perpetrators escaped without sanction. We are seeing in the Kavanaugh case the same sequence of events unfolding – complainants struggling to be heard, to be believed, and to have any sanctions applied against their assailants.

    What is surprising is that in two societies – the US and New Zealand – so geographically distant from each other and so culturally distinct, there are so many common features to the two stories. The assertion of male seigniorial rights by young men and the assumption that young women are simply sexual playthings, the unwillingness of the authorities to believe the complainants but their readiness to blame them, and the acceptance that such behaviour is par for the course and therefore free from blame, are apparently features of both societies – and no doubt of others as well.

    Little wonder, then, that the Prime Minister, in her speech at the United Nations, focused on the continuing issue of the denial to young women around the world of basic rights and opportunities. She effectively encapsulated her view of that issue when she said, “ ‘#Me too’ must become ‘we too’.”

    It is surprising, and sad, that some female commentators back home in New Zealand profess not to understand what the Prime Minister meant by this remark. The meaning seems very clear to me. What Jacinda Ardern is saying is that it is not just the victims but all of us, society as a whole, that must refuse to accept that sexual assaults on young women are normal and just a bit of fun.

    Young women, like everyone else, have the right to live in a society where they are free from the threat and reality of unwanted sexual advances.
    Bryan Gould
    1 October 2018


  • “Putting America First” Will Not “Make America Great Again”.

    In his successful 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump used a number of slogans which he and his supporters repeated ad nauseam. They memorably included “lock her up” and “build the wall” – but the one that seemed to resonate most effectively with American voters, and still does, was “make America great again.”

    There is nothing wrong with the sentiment, but it has proved to be something of a chimera, since Trump has fallen into the habit of linking it to another slogan which he also uses most of the time.

    As he meets world leaders at the United Nations this week, we were assured in pre-briefings that he will be be focussed on “putting America first” and that is what – to the amusement of his audience – he delivered. His declared preference for patriotism over globalism is a further sign of his lamentable inability to understand how the world really works; he does not seem to recognise the disjunction between the two slogans – that “putting America first” is not necessarily the best way to “make America great again” and might actually work against that second objective.

    If we look back now at how the global scene played out in the post-war era, it is surely clear that one of the reasons for America’s emergence as the world’s premier power was the fact that they were willing to become the leading force in the establishment of major institutions that helped to create an international world order. It was not, in other words, their pre-eminence as a military or economic power, but their readiness to use that power, in conjunction with others, in multilateral
    efforts to build peace and prosperity across the globe – not least through the Marshall Plan, so vital to Europe’s regeneration – that made America a super-power and guaranteed them a sort of moral leadership.

    Trump, however, seems unaware that US support for the United Nations and for NATO, for the World Trade Organisation and for many other multilateral attempts – like the International Criminal Court – to secure coordinated action on many of the problems facing the world, was what really “made America great.”

    Instead of embracing and reinforcing this valuable role, Trump has insisted on slamming on the brakes and going smartly into reverse. So, we have seen him tearing up the WTO rulebook, lecturing NATO on its failings and threatening to cut the US contribution to its budget, behaving similarly at the United Nations (where he has already cut or ended American funding for refugee aid – particularly in Palestine), abandoning the Paris Accord on Climate Change, unilaterally withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran and re-imposing sanctions instead, without consulting other countries (formerly regarded as America’s allies) who were parties to the same agreement.

    Trump of course has a point in that organisations like the UN and NATO have depended heavily on American financial support, but saving a few dollars – which, when spent in the past, could be regarded as the price to be paid for America’s dominant role and influence – is not necessarily the best (or any) way to “make America great again”. Trump’s disregard – perhaps even contempt – for the leadership role America has embraced so effectively in the past is completely at odds with – indeed, a specific denial of – the very elements which made America great.

    Across the board, we now see an American President who celebrates the sacrifice of American leadership of what used to be called “the western world” and gives priority to “putting America first” through saving a few dollars and impressing his “base” with his “toughness” as the mid-term elections approach.

    There can be few examples on such a broad scale of such a narrow mind failing to encompass and understand such broad and important issues – or of a major country deliberately throwing away its influence in the world. America may be many things under Trump’s leadership but “great again” is unlikely to be one of them.

    His other campaign slogans don’t look as though they will be much help either. Being “locked up” seems a more likely fate for some of Trump’s closest advisers than for Hillary Clinton, and “building the wall” is as far away and fanciful as ever.

    Bryan Gould
    24 September 2018