Cold war

Was China’s economic boom ‘made in America’?

53 min listen

Today, the US and China are at loggerheads. There’s renewed talk of a Cold War as Washington finds various ways to cut China out of key supply chains and to block China’s economic development in areas like semiconductors and renewables. There’s trade, of course, but the imbalance in that (some $370 billion in 2022) tilts in China’s favour and only serves as another source of ammunition for America’s Sinosceptics. China, on the other hand, is also decoupling in its own way, moving fast to cut its reliance on imported technology and energy. At this moment, it seems like US-China tensions are inevitable – but look into the not so ancient

Unfinished business in Berlin: The Secret Hours, by Mick Herron, reviewed

During the summer, I noticed a new noise coming from the crowd whenever Ben Stokes or another English player bashed or stroked the ball to the boundary. It wasn’t quite the cheer you’d expect; more an ahhhh of appreciation, as you would deliver to someone who is offering a masterclass in how to win a game when it has, to all intents and purposes, already been won. By the time I was about halfway through The Secret Hours, that was the noise I was making in my head, as new twists kept unfolding. And they did keep unfolding, if twists can be said to unfold, right up until the last

Too in thrall to today’s dogmas: ITV1’s A Spy Among Friends reviewed

In 2014, Ben Macintyre presented a BBC2 documentary based on his book A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. The programme managed to shed new light on a familiar but still irresistible story by concentrating on Philby’s relationship with his old chum – and fellow Cambridge man – Nicholas Elliott. Elliott was sent in 1963 by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) to question Philby in Beirut where Philby had become the Observer’s foreign correspondent after a long and successful career betraying his countrymen to the Soviets. Elliott did elicit some sort of confession, but a few days later, Philby absconded to Moscow. So had Elliott helped with

Ukraine’s plight paints a bleak vision of Europe’s future

It is tempting to view Vladimir Putin as a Cold War relic: a former KGB officer who hasn’t got over the fall of the Soviet Union, which he called the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.’ But, as I say in the Times today, what is happening on Ukraine’s border isn’t a throwback to the Cold War. Rather, it is a preview of Europe’s future. Since Nato’s creation, European security has rested on America’s involvement. But Europe is now a secondary concern for the US; Asia and competition with China is the most important challenge facing Washington now. The horribly messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan was justified on the basis that it would

When will the Nineties revival end?

We’ve been living through a nostalgia for the 1990s that has lasted longer than the decade itself. That was back when music was cool, the only Batman movie wasn’t a fascistic fantasy of surveillance and control, and dresses over jeans looked good. Podcasts and documentary series have really dug into the decade to reinvestigate and reappraise everything that went down in those ten years. I’ve listened to a podcast that takes the top hits of the decade one by one and defends each song, I’ve watched specials on why every maligned woman of the era (Lorena Bobbitt or Tonya Harding or Monica Lewinsky) was good actually and the only bad

Russian spies and the return of the Cold War

Last week’s arrest of a security guard employed at the British embassy in Berlin, on suspicion of spying for Russia, serves as a stark reminder that the UK and its allies are in the thick of a new Cold War. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of communist regimes, it appeared that the East-West stand-off had come to an end. Nato allies breathed a collective sigh of relief and looked to new horizons, believing their principal objective had been achieved and that Russia’s days as a superpower were consigned to the history books. There can be little doubt that a second Cold War

The best Cold War thriller I’ve seen that I fully understand: The Courier reviewed

The Courier is a Cold War spy thriller and the prospect of a Cold War spy thriller always makes my heart sink. There will be agents. There will be double agents and triple agents and maybe even quadruple agents. Is he working for our side while pretending to work for the Soviets as someone pretending to be working for us? After any Le Carré adaptation, for example, I also need debriefing in a wood-panelled room filled with cigarette smoke and there is still no saying I’ll emerge any the wiser. But The Courier isn’t like that. This is a damn good, explosively tense story that focuses on the friendship that

The problem with mystery podcasts like Wind of Change

Did the US secretly write a power ballad in order to bring down the Soviet Union? That’s the question behind Wind of Change, a serial documentary that has topped the podcast charts. It’s the work of an investigative journalist called Patrick Radden Keefe who claims to have once received a tip-off, from an intelligence contact, that the song ‘Wind of Change’ — recorded by the hair metallers Scorpions — was actually a CIA campaign to encourage anti-Soviet uprisings. Now he wants to prove it. This week’s episode, the fourth of eight, takes Keefe to a collectors’ convention in Ohio in pursuit of an internet user called ‘Lance Sputnik’ who creates

Germany’s military has become a complete joke

It is not hard to think of times when German military weakness would have been lauded as good news across the rest of Europe, but perhaps not when the German minister accused of running her country’s armed forces into the ground has just been named as the next president of the European Commission. The most recent embarrassment for the Bundeswehr — the grounding of all 53 of its Tiger helicopters this month due to technical faults — is just the latest in a long series of humiliations to have sprung from Ursula von der Leyen’s spell as defence minister. A country once feared for its ruthless military efficiency has become

Let’s twist again

What’s the best way to start a six-part thriller? The answer, it seems, is to have a bloke of a certain age pottering about at home when he’s suddenly and shockingly murdered by asphyxiation. You then roll the opening credits, forget about the dead guy and introduce the main character, who’s asked to take part in some sort of mission — and agonises about whether to accept or to leave the whole series somewhat stranded. At least, this is exactly what happened in both of this week’s big new Sunday-night dramas: BBC1’s Baptiste and Channel 4’s Traitors. In Baptiste, the pre-credits murder was of an apparently harmless shell-collector in Deal

Betraying bandits

Spy stories, whether the stuff of fictional thrillers or, as in the case of Sergei Skripal, the real deal — often leave a question nagging. For all the tales of tradecraft and tension, double agents and drama, what difference did one person’s decision to spy really make? That is not the case with Oleg Gordievsky. Gordievsky’s story is remarkable because it has all the drama of a fictional tale and yet also conveys why a single person’s choices can make a difference. Gordievsky was a rising star in the KGB, but one who became disillusioned with the regime he was serving — particularly as he watched the crushing of the

Europe ‘resurgent’

When I reviewed the first volume of Sir Ian Kershaw’s wrist-breaking history of the last 100 years of Europe, To Hell and Back, in these pages exactly three years ago, I compared our continent in 1945 to a punch-drunk boxer rising from the canvas with both eyes blacked. How, I wondered, would Kershaw handle the battered old bruiser coping with a not-so-brave new world in which he was no longer the undisputed champ? The image of the wounded fighter, I think, was apt, for the red thread running through Europe in the first half of the century, as Kershaw rightly saw, was violence. States waged catastrophic war on each other

The spying game

Some of us grew up worrying about reds under the bed, which was perhaps not as foolish as all that if a report on Saturday morning’s Today programme on Radio 4 is to be believed. Amid a cacophony of weird-sounding bleeps and disembodied voices, Gordon Corera, the BBC’s security correspondent (always clear, calm and collected, no matter the brief), told us about the ‘number stations’ that proliferated in the Cold War and are now being brought back to life. Anyone can tune in to them, but only those in the know can understand what they mean, and although the source of the transmissions can be traced it’s impossible to pick

Now it can be told

Deployed in vastly exaggerated numbers, nuclear weapons were maintained in place not just by secrecy, but by banalities and lies. The atomic bomb has been, from the very beginning, both extraordinarily public and secret. Everyone knew about what was regarded as a momentous development in human history. It kept many clichés in circulation for decades — humanity as scientific giants and ethical infants; the desire for international control; the idea of moral scientists who did, or should, reject the sweet blandishments of the bomb. At the same time, insiders knew and did things which were the deepest and most troubling secrets of the deep state. For those few in the

Talking down to God

‘There is something enviable about the utter lack of inhibition with which Leonard Bernstein carries on,’ wrote the critic of the Boston Globe after the US première of Bernstein’s Third Symphony, Kaddish, in February 1964 — and looking at the forces arrayed at the Barbican, he had a point. In addition to the full LSO there was the London Symphony Chorus, a narrator, a solo soprano and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. It barely fitted on stage. And if you thought the set-up was extravagant, a glance at Bernstein’s self-written text would probably have sent you screaming from the hall. ‘Lenny’ was classical music’s original bleeding-heart superstar: the man for whom

His dark materials | 12 October 2017

In this giant, prodigiously sourced and insightful biography, John A. Farrell shows how Richard Milhous Nixon was the nightmare of the age for many Americans, even as he won years of near-adulation from many others. One can only think of Donald Trump. Nixon appealed to lower- and  lower-middle-class whites from the heartland, whose hatred of the press and the east-coast elite, and feelings of having been short-changed and despised by snobs, held steady until their hero and champion unmistakably broke the law and had to resign his second-term presidency. Nixon won a smashing re-election in 1972, even as it was apparent that the White House was awash with skulduggery. His

A blast from the past

If you had to choose one book that both typified spy fiction and celebrated what the genre was capable of doing, then John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is probably the one to go for. Published in 1963, and set within the comfortably binary framework of the Cold War, it combined moral ambiguity and an air of grim authenticity with a steady narrative pull. It also had an unforced literary distinction that made it impossible to dismiss as ‘mere’ genre fiction. Now, over half a century later, le Carré’s latest novel returns to this murky episode and proceeds to make it even more complicated and

Paradise or prison?

This daintily dress-conscious and rewardingly heavyweight novel is set mainly in a half imaginary stately home in Oxfordshire. The story begins in 1663, jumps forward to modern times and then back to 1665. On all occasions, our attention is less on the actual house, Wychwood, than on the power of nature, whatever’s left of the surrounding primeval forest, ornamental lakes-in-the-making, majestic vistas and, above all, the ‘monstrously expensive’ wall or ‘the great ring of stone’, built, or being built, around its park. Those featured include the original landscape designer Mr Norris, his silk-coated, high-heeled employer Lord Woldingham and later the silk-and-chiffon-clad Rossiters, who rule the roost in the 1960s. And

An epic for our times

Trailing rave US reviews, fan letters from Yann Martel and Khaled Hosseini and a reputation as ‘Doctor Zhivago for the 21st century’, comes this outstanding historical saga from debut novelist Sana Krasikov. It’s a dazzling and addictive piece of work from an author born in the Soviet Republic of Georgia whose family emigrated to New York when she was eight. Not only is this novel accomplished and packed with believable detail and entertaining dialogue, it also feels curiously relevant, tip-toeing around the complicated relationship between the United States and Russia during and after the Cold War. Raised in 1930s Brooklyn, Florence Fein escapes a stifling existence with a seemingly glamorous

Trump’s show of strength to Moscow

Donald Trump has not lost his capacity to surprise: few would have bet on him starting his address to Congress with praise for Black History Month. Tuesday night’s speech was the nearest Trump has come to acting like a traditional president. But one thing conspicuous by its absence was any mention of Russia. To Europeans, his Russia policy remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Four things make Trump’s approach to Moscow particularly hard to fathom. First is the fact that no one is sure who really speaks for him on foreign policy. What should Europe make of vice-president Mike Pence’s soothing words at the recent Munich