THE WEST IS LOSING ITS SOFT POWER

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

“Soft power” is a useful concept whose invention is attributed to Joseph Nye in the 1980s. “Hard power” is easy enough to understand: it’s the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay or Marshal Zhukov in Berlin. But soft power is more subtle and seductive: in Nye’s words: “many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.” There are two commonly used ranking lists: Portland – Soft Power 30 – and Brand – Global Soft Power Index. Portland’s top ten in 2019 were France, UK, Germany, Sweden, USA, Switzerland, Canada, Japan, Australia and Netherlands. Brand’s in 2020 were USA, Germany, UK, Japan, China, France, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden and Russia. The first rating is very Eurocentric, the other includes Russia and China. Another difference is the position of the United States, but that doesn’t really make much difference to the point of my essay which is about soft power then, now and in the near future.

The Second World War brought the true flowering of the USA’s soft power; from the cargo cults of Melanesia to the cargo cults of Europe, GIs brought the dream to everyone. The USA won the war in a way that no other power did – it emerged immensely stronger and richer into a world in which its natural competitors had been impoverished. At Bretton Woods and San Francisco it shaped the new world to a degree that no other power could. And, understandably, it shaped it to its own benefit, quite convinced that it had every right to do so as the victor and exemplar of the better future. Only the USSR and its sphere grumpily disagreed.

These were the glory times of American soft power. I often think of the movie Roman Holiday in which the American reporter is civilised, polite, doesn’t take advantage of her but gives her confined life a moment of fun and freedom. The best kind of propaganda. (And, interestingly, one of the screenwriters had been blacklisted. Which gives another layer to this intensely pro-American movie, doesn’t it?)

To a friend who grew up in England before and during the Second World War, everything about the USA was exciting. That was soft power in action: bright new future. I would argue that American soft power stood on four pillars: the attractiveness and excitement of its popular culture, its reputation for efficiency, rule of law and the “American Dream”. Every American could expect that his children would be better off – better off in every respect: healthier, longer-lived, better educated, happier, richer – than he was. Some of this was image and propaganda but enough of it was true to make people believe. The wrappings of freedom, wealth and excitement made the package almost irresistible.

The USA owed a great deal of its pre-eminence to sheer luck. Sitting on immense natural resources far from enemies, almost all of its wars were wars of choice and usually wars against greatly inferior forces. But, as Stephen Walt argues, its long run of luck may be ending. “The result was a brief unipolar moment when the United States faced no serious rivals and both politicians and pundits convinced themselves that America had found the magic formula for success in an increasingly globalized world”. Walt is also dispirited about the American reputation for competence which he believes to have been severely damaged by COVID-19. One man’s opinion, to be sure, but he’s not alone. COVID-19 has greatly injured the USA’s and the West’s reputation for efficiency: no better illustration can be given than comparing the confident expectation of October 2019 that the USA and the UK could best handle a pandemic with what actually happened. A big blow to the soft power assumption that the USA and the West were the places where things functioned properly.

One of the biggest casualties has been the promise of the “American Dream”. One graph alone blows this pillar to bits. Until about 1972 wages and productivity were linked – everybody was getting richer together. Since then, the curves have diverged: productivity keeps rising, wages are flat. That’s not what was supposed to happen: the rising tide was supposed to float all boats, not just a few super yachts. The richest one percent owned six times as much as the bottom fifty percent in 1989, now it’s 15 times as much. More significantly, the 50%-90% have seen their share drop seven and a half percentage points. No, your children won’t be better off than you are; and probably not healthier or longer-lived either.

James DeLong discusses the erosion of another soft power pillar with his analysis of Amazon’s decision to deplatform Parler. His conclusion is:

a friend in the investment community likes to remind me that America has a big competitive advantage in the form of the rule of law, or “the insiders aren’t allowed to rob you blind!”. Amazon has decided to prove him wrong.

In the US, and the West in general, you are supposed to know where you are – you’re not subject to the ephemeral whims of a tyrant, as in less lawful regimes: transactions are grounded in law and transparent procedure. Perhaps DeLong is making too much out of something small here, but I don’t think he is. We’ve already seen the boasted principle of innocent until proven guilty disappear the moment Navalniy decides to accuse Putin of something; in the revenge of the present US Administration we will see more arbitrary tyranny justified by exaggerated exigencies. If 6 January was a new Pearl Harbor, extraordinary reactions will be said to be justified. But this is becoming the Western norm: where exactly is the rule of law with Meng in Canada, Sacoulis and Assange in the UK, or Butina in the USA? Will more lawfare against Trump strengthen the image of stability and rule of law?

Neither will the 2020 US election and its consequences advance the American reputation of democratic leadership. Some cheerleaders of “American leadership” like Richard N Haass are quite despondent:

No one in the world is likely to see, respect, fear, or depend on us in the same way again. If the post-American era has a start date, it is almost certainly today [6 January].

Consider the image that Biden’s inauguration sent. Rather than using the COVID excuse to plan a modest ceremony, the full panoply was undertaken. But with no supporters and with soldiers everywhere: note the motorcade pompously passing only people paid to or ordered to attend. It looked like the enthronement of a dictator after a coup. Especially now that the opposition is being censored (deplatformed, as they call it); re-labelled as “domestic terrorists“, possibly under the direction of the arch-enemy Putin; “extremists” must be removed from the US military; the Enemy in already inside Congress. Fence-in the Capitol. The soft power claim of the USA to be the citadel of freedom has taken a hit and will take more.

American movies were one of the vehicles of soft power. Consider, for example, 1939’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington in which a straightforward American, James Stewart, successfully overcomes a corrupt Washington with decency and determination. Many Americans, especially Senators, didn’t get it and railed against the movie – but Spain, Italy, Germany and the USSR understood that it was a powerfully pro-American movie and banned it. Its message was that, even corrupt, the USA is better. Frank Capra made a number of movies about ordinary Americans prevailing with their Everyman decency. A very important part of soft power broadcasting decency and freedom against a background of, to much of the rest of the world, an inconceivable prosperity enjoyed by the ordinary citizen. But in today’s Hollywood’s movies there are no more decent Americans showing the way, just comic book automatons blowing each other up. No message there and no soft power either. If, as this piece wonders, China is Hollywood’s future – it’s already the largest market – then why would you need Hollywood at all? There’s no American soft power in Godzilla vs Kong.

Popular culture, competence, justice and values and the dream of betterment may have been the pillars on which the USA’s soft power was based, but the ground upon which those stood was success. Success made the others attractive; success is the most powerful attraction. The West is losing its aura of success – endless wars, divisive politics, COVID failure, financial crises, debt. And ever more desperate attempts to hold power against ever bolder dissent. It’s just beginning. And not just the USA, the West doesn’t present well any more: protests in Amsterdam, London, Berlin; a year of gillets jaunes in France. The world is watching. Not efficient, not attractive, not law-based. Not successful.

As for success, I recommend this enumeration of China’s achievements. One after another of first or second in numerous categories. And it’s all happened in the last two or three decades. What will we see in the next two or three? That is success. That is what used to happen in the USA. But it doesn’t any more. According to numbers provided by the World Bank, the levels of extreme poverty declined significantly in the world (2000-2017), quite dramatically in China (2010-2016), significantly in Russia (2000-2010) but actually increased in the USA from 2000-2016. “Deaths of despair” are not success. Soft power will inevitable follow as other countries – probably not the West, it’s true – try to imitate China’s stunning success. To a large extent, the West is living on its capital while China is increasing its.

In retrospect, the recent Davos Forum may turn out to be an inflection moment: Putin’s speech was a blunt statement that what he foresaw at Munich in 2007 has come to pass – the patent failure of the “Washington Consensus” and unilateralism. Xi Jinpeng echoed it. Even Merkel promised neutrality between China and the USA.

Soft power is packing up and getting ready to move house: success attracts, failure repels.

THE ARCTIC OCEAN IS A RUSSIAN LAKE

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

In 2007 a Russian submersible planted a flag on the sea floor at the North Pole. This sparked a flurry of pearl-clutching in the West and idiotic concerns for Santa Claus’ safety (but keep calm, Canada will defend him!) drowning out the rational comment of Christopher Westdal,a former Canadian Ambassador to Russia:

In the Arctic, for a start, Mr. Putin is playing by the same Law of the Sea rules we endorse. The truth is that if we could have, we would have, long ago done much the same thing the Russians have just done. We were not amused, but Russia’s gambit was an entirely legitimate use of an impressive technology that we wish we had to highlight a claim.

The operative statement here is “if we could have, we would have”. The truth is that only Russia can and that means that the Arctic is essentially a Russian lake, or, if you prefer, a Russian skating rink. First of all, about 160 degrees of the circle – or 43% – is Russian, quite a bit more than Canada at 22%, Denmark/Greenland at 19% or the USA and Norway at 8% each. But it’s not just that more of it is Russian, the main point is that Russia can and the other four can’t.

Most of the Arctic is frozen most of the time and icebreaker ships are necessary. According to this list of operational icebreakers, Canada has six, the USA four, Denmark three, Norway two. Russia has more than seventy. Russia’s fleet is modern, the others are old. Russia has the only nuclear-powered icebreakers – eight in service according to Wikipedia. The Arktika is the world’s largest and most powerful icebreaker capable of operating through three metres of ice; there are three more in the works. But an even larger class is coming: four metre ice; construction began in July. Russia’s icebreaker capacity is so enormous that one of them spends its time running tourist cruises to the North Pole. None of the other Arctic countries has anything like this. The USA is planning to build more to replace its elderly fleet; Canada is “exploring options“.

The principal reason for Russia’s construction of such powerful icebreakers as the Project 10510 (aka Leader or Лидер class) is to turn the “Northern Sea Route” into a year-round useable shipping route. The route runs from Murmansk (ice-free year-round and therefore accessible to world shipping) along the top of Russia, through the Bering Straits into the Pacific Ocean – a much shorter route than anything else. At present, its potential is offset by the facts that it has very thick ice at the eastern end and that current icebreakers move slowly at their icebreaking limits. The intention is that the Leader class icebreakers will be able to move through the heavy ice at normal ship speeds (about 12 knots). All this is explained in here by John Helmer.

There are considerable geostrategic implications – this route is not just a way for Russia to earn transit fees. At present Chinese goods bound for Europe travel south, through the straits in Malaysia and Indonesia, through the Indian Ocean and on either through the Suez Canal, Mediterranean and Gibraltar or round Africa. This route has many narrow passages that can be interdicted by hostile powers; much of it is within reach of NATO. If the Northern Sea Route became routinely useable throughout the year, China would be able to more quickly and cheaply ship goods to its European markets. Using the Northern Sea Route will also put these goods far from the reach of the US Navy and its interminable “freedom of navigation” patrols. Likewise, goods coming to China – especially energy from Russia – will be out of reach of hostile powers. The Northern Sea Route, when added to the fast rail network being built by Beijing through Mackinder’s “World Island“, will be a geopolitical fact of no small significance: a response, if not checkmate, to the five-century power of Mackinder’s “world islands”. Both Beijing and Moscow routinely look farther into the future than Western capitals do and Moscow’s work in the Arctic is an example of this forward planning.

The Arctic is thought to have a great deal of natural resources, particularly petroleum. In such a large and inhospitable territory there is much to be explored but already there are many estimates: one ten-year old source estimates that 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas reserves (most in the Russian Arctic) and 13% of its oil reserves may be there. Another source reports that more than 400 onshore oil and gas fields have been discovered north of the Arctic Circle, more than two-thirds are in Russia. One of the largest Russian petroleum sources is in the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Region from which over half of Russia’s oil comes but there are many other oil and gas fields in the Russian sector. Modern technology has made it more possible than previously to tap these resources and Russia is in the forefront of the exercise: Rosneft has just begun what promises to be an enormous operation in the Taymyr peninsula,

Given the inaccessibility of the Arctic, the most efficient way to transport natural gas is to liquefy it. Norway appears to have pioneered LNG technology in cold climates with its plant at Hammerfest that started operations in 2007. Two years later Russia opened its first LNG plant in Sakhalin (52 degrees north). In 2017 another plant was opened in the Yamal Peninsula at 71 degrees north (the same latitude as Hammerfest but much colder weather). To carry this LNG to its customers a fleet of icebreaking LNG carriers has been built in South Korea; the first, the Christophe de Margerie, completing a voyage from Norway to South Korea in August 2017 without needing the support of icebreakers. As of December 2019 the fifteenth and final of the fleet had taken on board its maiden cargo at the Yamal LNG port bound for China. That was the 354th LNG cargo from the port in the first two years of its existence. Once again we see that the country that supposedly “doesn’t make anything” actually makes big plans and executes them. Work on the plant begun in July 2012, it opened for business in December 2017 in time for the appearance of its fleet of specialised ships. The owner, Novatek, is building a third LNG plant in the Yamal region. Rosneft is building its own fleet of icebreaker LNG carriers for its Arctic LNG 2 project. Meanwhile an LNG plant for Alaska has been in concept since 2014 and thus far seems to have produced nothing expect planning permission. In Canada there are “feasibility studies“.

Petroleum supplies are by no means the only natural resources in the Arctic: there are many minerals there as well. In all these areas Russia is well advanced in exploration and exploitation. For many years Russia has maintained a coal mine in Spitzbergen, the Taymyr Peninsula has large coal reserves that India is interested in, there’s a large gold mine in Chukotka and Norilsk has been a producer of nickel, copper and palladium for years. Russia’s Arctic helium production is the the subject of a breathless NYT piece. But these are just samples of what is likely there and the Northern Sea Route, when it is routinely operational, will open more areas for exploration, exploitation and transport.

The Arctic is a formidable environment and work, let alone mere survival, requires enormous amounts of energy the sources of which may be far from the sites. Moscow has an answer for that too – nuclear power stations. Specifically floating, and therefore moveable, nuclear power stations. The first of these, the Akademik Lomonosov, has been operating for more than a year in Pevek, Chukotka. A second is under construction and the current plan calls for seven in total. But, if the project succeeds – and so far so good – there will likely be more. Again, none of the other Arctic nations has anything like this, even though the USA actually pioneered the concept.

Of the five Arctic nations, only three seem to operate military bases in the true Arctic area. The USA has a number of facilities in Alaska but all of them are south of the Bering Strait but it does operate a significant air base at Thule in Greenland (76 degrees north) (Google maps). Canada operates CF Station Alert at 82 degrees north; but it is a relatively small huddle of buildings reachable only by air: (Google Maps). A naval facility is being constructed at the top of Baffin Island and is expected to become operational in 2022. This paper describes Canada’s efforts in its 22% of the Arctic and admits “Significant gaps remain between its current abilities and desired end-state, yet there has been a steady improvement in its basic skill sets”. Two of the Arctic nations – the USA and Russia – operate fleets of nuclear-powered submarines which can travel under the arctic ice but only Russia has submarines actually based in the territory at Polyarnyy in the Kola Peninsula.

By far the largest military force stationed in the Arctic is the Russian Northern Fleet. Not only does this include considerable surface and submarine elements but it fields a strong aviation component and coastal troops complete with shore defence missiles and air defence assets. To say nothing of nuclear forces – here are four Bulava ICBMs being fired from an SSBN in the White Sea. Altogether a very strong and balanced force with direct exit into the polar ocean. The Northern Fleet is continually exercised as the Russian MoD site shows. The other Arctic nations have nothing to compare: they may make occasional excursions into the Far North but only Russia is there all the time.

But where Russia really has a military presence in the Arctic are the bases that it has built. In no way can CFS Alert’s huddle of huts be compared to the amazing Trefoil base on Alexandra Land at 80 degrees north (Google maps.) It is said to be able to provide “comfortable” living for up to 150 soldiers for a year and a half. Another base, the Northern Clover base (250 troops) on Kotelny Island, is in operation, equipped and exercised. Another base is being built in Tiksi. There are at least five airbases on the Russian Arctic archipelago. And it’s not just troops and aircraft – a couple of years ago Arctic-adapted vehicles were shown in the Victory Day parade – they include air defence systems, all-terrain vehicles and armoured fighting vehicles. A version of the T-80 tank is being refurbished for Arctic service. Meanwhile, in 2013 Canada was testing a snowmobile but nothing seems to have happened with it.

The reality of Russia’s possession of its Arctic territories is met with the usual hyperventilation in the Western media “Russia sees its assertive military posture…”; “What Is Behind Russia’s Aggressive Arctic Strategy?“; “Arctic Aggression: Russia Is Better Prepared for a North Pole Conflict Than America Is: Not good“; “Meeting Russia’s Arctic Aggression“; “Putin is making a power grab for the Arctic“. And so on. “Assertive”, “aggression”, “power grab” are the words of the propagandist: what Russia is actually doing is defending and exploiting its territory. Just as we would. If we could.

In President Putin’s Arctic policy statement of March 2020:

Russia’s main national interests in the Arctic are as follows: to ensure Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; preserve the Arctic as a territory of peace and stable mutually beneficial partnership; guarantee high living standards and prosperity for the population of the Russian Arctic; develop the Russian Arctic as a strategic resource base and use it rationally to speed up national economic growth; develop the Northern Sea Route as a globally competitive national transport corridor; and to protect the Arctic environment, the primordial homeland and the traditional way of life of the indigenous minorities in the Russian Arctic.

A bit of propaganda there, but mostly cold hard national interest.

Russia has made the plans and followed through – the other Arctic nations mostly talk about it or complain.

To repeat Christopher Westdale:

“If we could have, we would have.”

THE US ELECTION IS NOT OVER

(First published at Strategic Culture Foundation

President Putin is correct not to congratulate Joe Biden on being elected. There are two reasons. The first is that the complex US election process has not finished; therefore, as Trump has not conceded, there is no “President-elect”. The second reason is that the results may be overthrown by reason of fraud. In which case, Putin will, at the end of the story, look smarter than those who rushed to congratulate Biden before the process was complete.

The hearing in the Pennsylvania Senate and the lawsuits filed in Georgia and Michigan in the last week of November were the first public appearance of the fraud arguments and their supporting evidence – although the alternate media had been on the case from the beginning. Contrary to the utterances of the news media, it was only then that the case was presented in its fullest – the previous legal actions having been only preliminary manoeuvring. The evidence for fraud falls under four heads: eyewitness accounts, improbabilities, statistical analysis and the matter of voting machines and their software. It’s difficult to make up numbers – there are relationships and patterns the fraudster may not know about: better to just make up a final percentage à la the USSR. This piece gives a summary of some of the difficulties with the published results; this piece describes some of the “statistical aberrations”.

Parenthetically, one might observe that the US government declares foreign elections to be fraudulent on a mere fraction of this evidence. Or even, as in the case of Belarus, with no proffered evidence at all: no exit polls, no blurry films; nothing at all.

There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of eyewitness accounts of strange happenings – sudden arrivals of ballots, observers kept away, counting stopped but apparently continuing in secret, suspiciously pristine postal ballots, stacks of ballots with only Biden’s name filled out, Trump votes destroyed, suspicious ballot “curing”, signature problems, backdating postal ballots, wandering USB drives, dead people voting, computer “glitches” sending Trump votes to Biden. Many of these are incorporated into affidavits in the lawsuits and may be read and judged by the public. Many eyewitness accounts, of course, can be dismissed for one valid reason or another, but there are too many now, with more appearing, for casual dismissal.

There are improbabilities in the result. Biden received fewer votes than Clinton or Obama in most areas but many more in the “battleground states”. There were striking exceptions in “down-ballot” voting: in the key states there were large differences between the votes for Biden and for the Democratic Senate candidate. There are cases of historically high – almost Soviet-level – turnouts in key precincts in the “battleground states”. There were improbably high turnouts in nursing homes and in group homes. There are many cases where more votes were cast than voters registered. It was generally a bad day for Democratic candidates: seats were lost in the House and in state legislatures but we are expected to believe that Biden won a strong victory. Despite the spectacular difference in enthusiastic crowds, we’re told that more people turned out for Biden on the day. Perhaps any one of these can be explained but can all of them?

Statistical analysis comprises the next grouping of evidence. We see that votes for Biden, most of the time, and votes for Trump, all of the time, roughly accord with the curve of Benford’s Law. But in those areas where Biden needed the votes, they do not. Violations of Benford’s Law are commonly used by forensic accountants to indicate fraud. An analysis of moving averages over time shows a settled ratio of votes for Biden with a sudden jump in the hours when counting was “stopped”. In some cases votes seem to have been processed faster than physically possible. Other analyses point to suspicious spikes of votes for Biden. A number of statisticians have been attracted to the question and their analyses suggesting fraud are appearing. Again there are too many of these pointers – all of them in the same direction – to be easily dismissed.

Finally there is the whole collection of problems with some voting machines – especially Dominion – and their associated software. The argument is that the machines and software were specifically designed to produce fraudulent results: totals can be changed, votes switched from one candidate to another, incoming vote weighted in favour of one candidate and so on. There are affidavits to this effect. US Embassy cables and previous investigations had shown problems with Dominion machines but, nonetheless, they and the associated software were widely used in 2020. There is possible foreign involvement in these important machines: many parts are made in China; affidavits claim that voting tallies were sent to other countries on the Internet and were massaged there and that passwords into the system were widely available. A computer security expert attests that “hundreds of thousands of votes” were transferred from Trump to Biden by the machines. These issues are attracting computer programmers and hackers and there are now a number of videos on the Internet showing how easily the machines can be hacked.

In summary, the argument is that the machines were programmed to rig the vote in the key states (and perhaps everywhere) by an amount that was thought to be sufficient. But the Trump vote was so much greater than anticipated that the counting had to be “halted” in the “battleground states”; in the “halted” time, ballots were manufactured to compensate. The image of a smooth red curve being overtaken by a blue stepped curve has become the logo of those who believe there were such injections.

This is now quite a large heap of accusations, witness statements and assertions: can these charges be proved in a court (leaving aside the question of whether US courts can be trusted to rule on such a partisan issue – vide General Flynn’s experience)? Or, given the provisions of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution – “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors…” – can sufficient state legislatures be convinced to select Trump-voting Electors? We will find out. But there are certainly too many things to be airily dismissed and there is nothing to suggest that either side will concede until the issue has been fought out to the end.

But, whatever is decided, half the population will be convinced that the election was stolen – indeed a Rasmussen poll in mid-November showed that nearly half the population – including 30% of Democrats! – already believes that “Democrats stole votes or destroyed pro-Trump ballots in several states to ensure that Biden would win”.

2020 has not been a good year for the United States: COVID-19 has wreaked havoc, the economic gains of the past few years have eroded, civil violence and rioting have been common. A disputed election leaving half the population thinking its candidate was cheated out of office will not make things more peaceful. Many are speaking of, if not outright civil war, severe civil strife.

And, in a condition of widespread civil strife and who knows what else, what is the future of the Imperium Americanum? Many pundits will quote Plehve’s alleged remark about the attractiveness of a “little, victorious war” to distract the population. But what little wars are there left? Afghanistan? Iraq? Hardly victorious. It is unlikely that overthrowing Maduro would be very short or, even if it were, that it would distract impassioned American rioters. A war with Iran would be neither little nor victorious. A really severe civil war would divide the US military and bring it home. The consequences of the November 2020 election, whoever winds up in the White House in January, will be long-lasting; the Imperium will have important concerns at home.

What from Moscow’s perspective? The ingathering of American resources to deal with problems in the homeland will be welcomed but the dangers of a nuclear state imploding will not. 2021 may make 2020 look like a blessed haven of stability.

AN EPITAPH FOR THE WEST

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

The United States dominated the Twentieth Century for four principal reasons. Its manufacturing capability far exceeded anyone else’s; perhaps the most dramatic illustration was its stunning production in the Second World War when it, for example, manufactured 300,000 aircraft, twice as much as the next place country. Its inventive capability was also immense: from airplanes to electricity transmission to assembly lines the USA was the inventor and, equally important, the adaptor of numerous world-changing innovations. Thirdly, unlike most of the non-Anglosphere world, it was politically stable: even under the strain of the Great Depression its political system held. Finally the “American Dream” had sufficient reality to be attractive. But what is left today of these four? Much (most?) of its manufacturing has been outsourced to China. What remains of American ingenuity? – a buttonless iPhone is not at the same level as the Apple 1. As to political stability, whoever sits in the White House at the end of January 2021 will be regarded as an interloper by half the population; that will have consequences on the street. The American dream that your children will be better off – by every measurement – than you were has collapsed: the children, crushed by unpayable debt and zero-hour contracts, hide in your basement. And as it goes with the West’s leader, so, ceteris paribus, it goes with the other Western countries. The outlook is poor, unstable and desperate.

How did it happen? There are many reasons but the principals are the usual pair: wars and spending. Too much war: during its rise to power, wars were good for the West but it doesn’t win them any more and it hasn’t lost the habit. Too much spending leading to too much debt: debt for investment is worthwhile but debt for consumption is not. It transpires that “history” has, in fact, resumed its movement.

In short, the West has lost its mojo”. “Mojo” or “magic” is an appropriate word: there certainly was a reality to Western power and authority but there was also a magical element because a significant amount of the West’s power rested on the conviction of the conquered and the awed that it could not be beaten.

There has been a loss of competence – an essential component of the mojo. I recommend Stephen Walt’s essay The Death of American Competence. As he rightly points out, one of the pillars of American power was “an image of the United States as a place where people knew how to set ambitious goals and bring them successfully to fruition.” He speculates on the reasons for the decline, suggests several, but he knows it has been a long development: “Over the past 25 years, however, the United States has done a remarkable job of squandering that invaluable reputation for responsible leadership and basic competence”.

The COVID-19 outbreak provides a sharp demonstration of the loss of mojo.

In what will probably be remembered as one of the most ironic events of the Twenty-first Century, the GHS Index in October 2019 assessed the countries of the world on their preparedness for an epidemic or pandemic. It ranked the USA and the UK as the two best prepared countries: the former with a score of 83.5/100 and the latter at 77.9/100. The world average was calculated to be 40.2/100. I think it is a pretty safe bet that no one a year later would say that either handled COVID-19 well: some might say that the two were among the worst in the world. According to at least one ranking, the USA was first and the UK fifth in deaths as of 14 November. Hardly the “best prepared”.

These kinds of rankings are very dependent on GIGO and unstated assumptions. And the cynic would not be especially surprised to see GIGO and assumptions manifesting themselves in the GHS rankings: the top fifteen contain nine NATO members and two close US allies. Who knew that geopolitical choices were so prophylactic? As to countries with – shall we say – less therapeutic alliances, China scored 48.2/100 and Russia 44.3/100. In the actual test of COVID-19, no one would suggest that Russia (216 deaths/million) or China (3/million) did worse than the USA (745/million) or the UK (740/million).

There is a lot to question about these numbers and how they are measured; consequently, they should only be considered as rough comparisons. They are drawn from the worldometer site and are, I believe, the numbers as generally reported. What’s counted as a “COVID death” varies, what’s counted as an “infection” varies; some countries (ours) are truthful and others (theirs) aren’t. So there’s room for much argument about this or that number. But, with respect to Russia and China as compared with the West, there is one clue to reality and that is the IMF projection for economic growth in 2020. Against a world fall of 4.4% China is projected to grow 1.9% and Russia to fall 4.1%. The IMF expects Russia will do better (less badly) than any in the Euro zone or G7; specifically, it projects the USA at -4.3% and the UK at -9.8%. Therefore, whatever the “real” COVID-19 numbers may be, the IMF at least assesses Russia and China to have done better (less badly) than the supposed winners of the GHS Index.

A poor result for the West and one to be meditated on. Prima facie, one would expect the USA and the UK to have handled COVID-19 much better than they did and therefore why they did so poorly requires some thought. And the same goes for many other Western countries. Given the long-time reputation and expectation of Western competence, COVID-19 has demonstrated that there needs to be some re-thinking about these assumptions.

COVID-19 revealed a lack of planning: none of these countries seems to have had a stock of PPE. In the USA destroyed stocks were not replaced. Neither were they in Belgium, Canada or the UK. There seems to have been a shortage in many other places. Not competent. How about hydroxychloroquine: is it a useful treatment or not? maybe in July; yes in July; no in July; yes in October; confused in October; yes in October; no in November; maybe in November. And so it goes: you’d think in a competent epidemiology environment there would be a pretty definitive answer – even if “only sometimes” – by now. How about face masks? In February “skip mask and wash hands“; March “If it’s a regular surgical face mask, the answer is no“; April “only useful for healthcare workers and patients who test positive“. Today, they are essential for all. Not competent. The Imperial College model… enough said. Not competent. The Gates Foundation, a strong proponent of vaccines, is a principal funder of the WHO, Dr Fauci’s organisation and the CDC. The CEO of Pfizer sold shares the day of the announcement that the company had a vaccine. Why would Fauci fund gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses in Wuhan? Conflict of interest? Coincidence? But certainly not competent.

Not competent. In the West today competence always comes second. It used to be normally first and occasionally second; now it is always second. Second to what? Second to diversity. The list of diversity categories that must be satisfied is ever-changing and ever-growing: race, language, gender, sexual preference, transgender – always expanding. And all of these categories have to be filled first. By competent people, of course. But only by whatever competency is left over after the primary demands are satisfied.

Gilbert Doctorow describes the state of affairs as it relates to Belgium in his essay which was the spark for mine:

The source of incompetence is called corruption, and corruption is built into the political system here by the ultra-sophisticated practice of power sharing that enables the two nations of Belgium, French-speakers and Dutch speakers, to spare one another’s throats and enjoy the fruits of governing without concern over competence or popular will. The problem is compounded by another ultra-progressive political principle built into the practice of governance – proportional representation, which encourages a proliferation of political parties, which in recent decades numbered already double what they had in the 1960s due to party organizations stopping at the linguistic borders. There is a constant search for a parliamentary majority through coalition building, where policy consistency goes out the window for the sake of nose-counting and finding bedfellows however ‘strange’ they may be.

He concentrates on Belgium’s “power-sharing” (a concept familiar to Canadians after years of official bilingualism). But I think his point can be expanded farther and that what he sees as peculiar to Belgium is now common throughout the West under the rubric of “diversity”.

First make sure that the ever-changing and ever-expanding diversity requirement is satisfied and then you can look for competence. This state of affairs can bumble along until reality bites and competence or the lack of it really makes a difference.

And reality, in the shape of the SARS-CoV-2, bit. I suspect that in China and Russia, to take two better performers, competency is still the common first choice.

Coincidental with this is the chaos in the US election, the signing of the RCEP and the report that two Chinese “carrier killer” missiles hit a moving target in the South China Sea.

So why has the West lost its mojo? I would propose this epitaph for the tombstone

Competence always came second

GOODBYE: HAS RUSSIA HAD ENOUGH INSULTS?

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

I have argued that Russia is not a “European country”; my argument stands on the fact that Russia and Europe had quite different histories and little contact until the Emperor Peter became a major player in European history by knocking Sweden out of the running. I have argued that, whatever they may have wished in the past, an increasing number of Russians today don’t want to be “Europeans”: they view Europe – the West – with increasing distaste and bewilderment. “Europe” is, of course, a word with many meanings: here I mean a culture/civilisation/society that, over the past half millennium, has spread around the world and now is commonly called “the West”. These days, the capital power of the West is the USA but the USA, Canada, Australia, much of South America and many of the other outposts of European settlement are children of the original European civilisation.

Russia’s relationships with the West have gone through many ups and downs – ally, for example, with Britain in 1812, 1914 and 1941, enemy in 1853, 1918, opponent during the so-called Great Game and the Cold War. Russians often see the relationship as one of ungrateful rejection: take, for example, the long-forgotten important service Russia did for the Union in 1863. In my mind this feeling stems from Russia’s unusual history as a predator fish which remembers its long time as a prey fish – its neighbours remember the first, itself the second – the prey fish feeling was, of course, strongly reinforced by the death struggle of 1941-45.

Be that as it may, since the fall of the USSR and the end of communism, Russia has been rejected by the West. After a short-lived period in the very early 1990s when there was talk of “A new era of Democracy, Peace and Unity” “a time for fulfilling the hopes and expectations our peoples have cherished for decades”, the rejection has been unmistakable, brutal and direct. NATO expansion, in whatever platitudes it was wrapped, now stands clear as what Moscow always thought it was – an anti-Russia enterprise moving military forces ever closer to Russia. Russians are quite right to see colour revolutions in their neighbourhood as moves against them. Russia is under a permanent sanctions regime – the excuse changes but the sanctions remain and Jackson–Vanik was instantly replaced by the Magnitsky Act. Washington continually adds new sanctions and ensures that its lackeys do as well. And, even though a strong argument can be made that the sanctions have benefited Russia because Moscow was smart enough to deal with them like a judo master, the fact remains that sanctions are hostile acts short of war.

So, many people wondered how much longer Moscow would keep on making offers to its “partners” and seeing them thrown back at it. Some think Putin is too soft – it’s a generally accepted estimate that about half of the 25% or so of Russians that do not approve of his performance in office do so because they think him too obliging.

Well, maybe it’s happening at last. We will take the remarks by Foreign Minister Lavrov noting that he is not a man who has ever spoken lightly or without thought: whatever he says is to be taken seriously. At Valdai he said:

we must stop considering our Western colleagues, including the EU, as a source of assessment of our behaviour that we need to follow, or measuring ourselves with the same yardstick.

And

if the EU is arrogant enough to declare, with this sense of unconditional superiority, that Russia must understand there will be no “business as usual,” well, Russia wants to understand whether there could be any business at all with the European Union under these conditions.

That’s pretty plain – Russia rejects the West’s self-awarded role of judge and will not be its liegeman. It strongly suggests that Moscow is thinking about giving up. It has, however, made one last offer – perhaps the last offer, even a test: Moscow will not deploy certain missiles if the West does not.

The Navalniy affair seems to have been the one step too many. Aleksey Navalniy is an anti-Putin activist much beloved in the West but mostly ignored by Russians: his poll rating is around the margin of error and only occasionally has he had much of an effect. In August 2020 he fell sick on an airplane which turned back and landed in Omsk where he was hospitalised. A few days later, still in a coma, he was flown to a hospital in Germany. We have only recently learned that the transfer to Germany was at Putin’s direct urging.

It is obvious that Putin didn’t poison him; to believe he did is to believe that the murderer, with the victim in his power, sent him to safety. Nonetheless it was immediately declared that Navalniy had been “poisoned” and by none other than “novichok” and, what is more, by a “a variant that the world did not know until this attack, but which is said to be more malicious and deadly than all known offshoots of the Novichok familyThe fact that he is still alive… is only due to a chain of happy circumstances.” (Those “happy circumstances” remind the cynic of the “miracle” that saved Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey and his family from the novichok smeared everywhere in their house.) Despite this especially “malicious” variant, he was out of his coma in a much shorter period than the Skripals who were not killed by the old version either. The cynic would notice that, despite being “more malicious”, this particular novichok did not need people in hazmat suits cleaning everything in sight. The poison arrived via tea; smeared on a water bottle; on his clothing. In short, a tale we have heard before: the assassins don’t try something simple like a car crash but use something that can be pinned on them; an incredibly deadly poison that is ineffective; the assassins don’t follow through; the story of how the poison got into him keeps changing and no actual chains of custody, evidence or anything else is every presented. But at least the German hospital has been allowed to keep its roof.

The European Union likes to boast about its values. Among them is this: “Everyone who has been charged shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.” But not if you’re Russia. Russia must answer questions demands UK, Europeans on OPCW, Merkel, NATO, When Russia was unable to prove innocence, the EU sanctioned Russian officials as did most of the West.

So, to recap. Navalniy falls sick, receives treatment in Russia, is moved to Germany, “novichok” is found, Russia “fails to explain”, Russia is blamed and sanctioned. No facts, no data, no believable or consistent story. Where was the “proved guilty according to law” there?

Very much of a pattern this and we’ve seen it with the Skripals, Nemtsov, MH17, Magnitskiy, Moskalenko (I wonder if anyone remembers that one? How about Patarkatsishvili?), Litvinenko, Politkovskaya – blame Putin immediately and declare him guilty when he fails to prove the negative and huff “Russia’s contempt for the international norm against chemical weapons use must stop“. Add to this NATO expansion, colour revolutions, endless accusations of submarine incursions or election interference and all the rest. Year after year after year. Even the dullest muzhik in deepest Siberia should have got the point that, as far as the West is concerned, Russia, the ever-enemy, is guilty of any charge you want to make. Russia is guilty just because it is. And anyone who asks about ducks or children can only be a Putinbot spewing fake news.

So is Moscow about to say it’s had enough? If so, it has somewhat of a problem. At the moment and for the foreseeable future, depending on how serious the civil disorder is after its election, the United States is the principal power in the world if for no other reason that it has far more destructive power than anyone else. Moscow must tread carefully here; cutting relations with Washington would cost more than it’s worth. London is probably lost to Moscow but Berlin, Paris and Rome are not necessarily lost. And, as they go, many other Europeans will follow. Therefore Moscow can hope that, in the reasonable near term, more normal relations with some of the principal European powers may be possible. Thus it would be a bad move to cut relations with them.

But, Brussels, the European Union structure, what use is that? Russia has an embassy to the EU because, they say:

The Russian Federation aims to develop close and comprehensive partnership with the European Union based on the principles of equality, mutual benefit and respect for each other’s interests.

Where’s the “close and comprehensive partnership”, where’s the “equality, mutual benefit and respect”? And the next sentence in the website is not true: “Russia and the EU enjoy intensive trade and economic relations.” No they don’t: the only entities to trade with the EU qua EU are manufacturers of office supplies, paper and red tape. Russia has trade with Germany, Italy et al – with members of the EU, not the EU itself. What’s the point?

So, if Moscow has had its fill of three decades of insults, offences and calumnies and wants to make a point, cutting relations with the EU structure would be the place to start: easy and cheap. Pull out the permanent mission and stop all doings: deal with the individual countries one by one. Brussels might even welcome the savings now that it’s lost a chunk of its budget.

WHATEVER…

In answer to a question from Sputnik about Trump’s UN address.

The United States has become a place where anything at all can be said and someone will believe it. Its elections are determined by foreign countries spending trivial amounts of money. Joe Biden is mentally capable of becoming president. Trump is to blame for COVID deaths in Democrat controlled areas. Iran must be punished because Washington broke the agreement. Guilt is known before the investigation. Science is settled. Only a conspiracy theorist would doubt the official conspiracy theory. Whatever. Anything goes. Were it not for its immense destructive power, who would care what Americans said? Blaming China for COVID makes as much sense as anything else.

AMERICANS, WAR – SLOW LEARNERS

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

Nothing short of genius can account for losing so consistently given the enormous resources available to American forces. In light of this very low level of military competence, maybe wars are not our best choice of hobby.

– Fred Reed (who probably learned this in Vietnam)

According to a popular Internet calculation, the United States of America has not been at war with somebody for only 21 years since 1776. Or maybe it’s only 17 years. Wikipedia attempts a list. It’s a long one. You’d think that a country that had been at war for that much of its existence, would be pretty good at it.

But you’d be wrong. The “greatest military in the history of the world” has doubled the USSR’s time in Afghanistan and apparently it’s unthinkable that it should not hang in for the triple. Should the President want to pull some troops out of somewhere, there will be a chorus shrieking “dangerous precedent” or losing leadership and months later nothing much will have happened.

One cannot avoid asking when did the USA last win a war. You can argue about what “win” looks like but there’s no argument about a surrender ceremony in the enemy’s capital, whether Tokyo Bay or Berlin. That is victory. Helicopters off the Embassy roof is not, pool parties in a US Embassy is not, “Black Hawk down” is not. Doubling the USSR’s record in Afghanistan is not. Restoring the status quo ante in Korea is not defeat exactly, but it’s pretty far from what MacArthur expected when he moved on the Yalu. When did the USA last win a war? And none of the post 1945 wars have been against first-class opponents.

And few of the pre-1941 wars were either. Which brings me to the point of this essay. The USA has spent much of its existence at war, but very seldom against peers. The peer wars are few: the War of Independence against Britain (but with enormous – and at Yorktown probably decisive – help from France). Britain again in 1812-1814 (but British power was mostly directed against Napoleon). Germany in 1917-1918, Germany and Japan 1941-1945.

Most American opponents have been small fry.

Take, for example, the continual wars against what the Declaration of Independence calls “the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions“. (Starting, incidentally, a long American tradition of depicting enemies as outside the law and therefore deserving of extermination.) The Indians were brave and skilful fighters but there were always too few of them. Furthermore, as every Indian warrior was a free individual, Indian forces melted away when individuals concluded that there was nothing it for them. Because there were so few warriors in a given nation, Indian war bands would not endure the sort of casualties that European soldiers did. And, always in the background, the carnage from European diseases like the smallpox epidemic of 1837 which killed tens of thousands in the western nations. Thus whatever Indian resistance survived could usually be divided, bought off, cheated away and, if it came to a fight, the individual Indian nation was generally so small and so isolated, that victory was assured. The one great attempt to unite all the western nations was Tecumseh’s. He understood that the only chance would come if the Indians, one united force, showed the Americans that they had to be taken seriously. He spent years trying to organise the nations but, in the end, the premature action of his brother Tenskwatawa led to defeat of his headquarters base in 1811. Tecumseh himself was killed two years later fighting a rear-guard action in Ontario. It is because defeats of American forces were so rare that Little Big Horn has passed into legend; but the American casualties of about 250 would have been a minor skirmish a decade earlier. And the victory led to nothing for the Indians anyway; they lost the Black Hills and were forced into reservations. Brave and spirited fighters, but, in the end, no match for industrialised numbers.

The USA fought several wars against Spain and Mexico, gaining territory as it did. Despite the occasional “last stand” like The Alamo, these were also one-sided. The Spanish-American War is the outstanding example: for about 4000 casualties (half from disease), the USA drove Spain completely out of the Americas and took the Philippines, obliterating the Spanish Fleet at Manila Bay. More easy victories over greatly outmatched adversaries.

The other group of wars the US was involved in before 1941 were the empire-gathering wars. One of the first was the take over of the independent and internationally-recognised Kingdom of Hawaii; the sugar barons organised a coup against Queen Liliuokalani with the help of troops from US warships and no shooting was necessary. Not so with the long bloody campaign in the Philippines, forgotten until President Duterte reminded the world of it. And there were many more interventions in small countries; some mentioned by Major General Smedley Butler in his famous book War is a Racket.

Minor opponents indeed.

Andrei Martyanov has argued that the US military simply has no idea what a really big war is. Its peer wars off stage (since 1812) made it stronger; its home wars were profitable thefts. It believes wars are easy, quick, profitable, successful. Self delusion in war is defeat: post 1945 US wars are failure delusionally entered into. To quote Fred Reed again:

The American military’s normal procedure is to overestimate American power, underestimate the enemy, and misunderstand the kind of war it is getting into.

The only exceptions are the Korean War – a draw at best – and trivial successes like Grenada or Panama. As I have argued elsewhere, there is something wrong with American war-fighting doctrine: no one seems to have any idea of what to do after the first few weeks and the wars degenerate into a annual succession of commanders determined not to be the one who lost; each keeping it going until he leaves. The problem is kicked down the road. Resets, three block war fantasies, winning hearts and minds, precision bombing, optimistic pieces saying “this time we’ve got it right“, surges. Imagination replaces the forthright study of warfare. Everybody on the inside knows they’re lost – “Newly released interviews on the U.S. war reveal the coordinated spin effort and dodgy metrics behind a forever war“; that’s Afghanistan, earlier the Pentagon Papers in Vietnam – but further down the road. When they finally end, the excuses begin: “you won every major battle of that war. Every single one”, Obama lost Iraq.

And always bombing. Bombing is the America way in war. Korea received nearly four times as much bomb tonnage as Japan had. On Vietnam the US dropped more than three times the tonnage that it had in the whole of the Second World War. Today’s numbers are staggering: Afghanistan received, between 2013 and 2019, 26 thousand “weapons releases“. 26,171 bombs around the world in 2016 alone. Geological bombing. Precision attacks, they say. But the reality is quite different – not all of the bombs are “smart bombs” and smart bombs are only as smart as the intelligence that directs them. The truth is that, with the enormous amount of bombs and bad intelligence directing the “smart bombs”, the end result is Raqqa – everything destroyed.

If you want a single word to summarize American war-making in this last decade and a half, I would suggest rubble… In addition, to catch the essence of such war in this century, two new words might be useful — rubblize and rubblization.

The US Army once really studied war and produced first-class studies of the Soviet performance in the Second World War. These studies served two purposes: introducing Americans who thought Patton won the war to who and what actually did and showing how the masters of the operational level of war performed. Now it’s just silliness from think tanks. A fine example of fantasy masquerading as serious thought is the “Sulwaki Corridor” industry of which this piece from the “world’s leading experts… cutting-edge research… fresh insight…” may stand as an amusing example. The “corridor” in question is the border between Lithuania and Poland. “Defending Suwalki is therefore important for NATO’s credibility and for Western cohesion” and so on. The authors expect us to believe that, in a war against NATO, Russia would have any concern about the paltry military assets in the Baltics. If Moscow really decided it had to fight NATO, it would strike with everything it had. The war would not start in the “Sulwaki Corridor” – there would be salvoes of missiles hitting targets all over Europe, the USA and Canada. The first day would see the destruction of a lot of NATO’s infrastructure: bases, ports, airfields, depots, communications. The second day would see more. (And that’s the “conventional” war.) Far from being the cockpit of war, the “Sulwaki Corridor” would be a quiet rest area. As Martyanov loves to say: too much Hollywood, too much Patton, too many academics saying what they’re paid to believe and believe to be paid. The US has no idea.

And today it’s losing its wars against lesser opponents. This essay on how the Houthis are winning – from the Jamestown Foundation, a cheerleader for American wars – could equally well be applied to Vietnam or any of the other “forever wars” of Washington.

The resiliency of the Houthis stems from their leadership’s understanding and consistent application of the algebra of insurgency.

The American way of warfare assumes unchallenged air superiority and reliable communications. What would happen if the complacent US forces meet serious integrated air defence and genuine electronic warfare capabilities? The little they have seen of Russian EW capabilities in Syria and Ukraine has made their “eyes water“; some foresee a “Waterloo” in the South China Sea. Countries on Washington’s target list know its dependence.

The fact is that, over all the years and all its wars the US has rarely had to fight anybody its own size or close to it. This has created an expectation of easy and quick victory. Knowledge of the terrible, full out, stunning destruction and superhuman efforts of a real war against powerful and determined enemies has faded away, if they ever had it. American wars, always somewhere else, have become the easy business of carpet bombing – rubblising – the enemy with little shooting back. Where there is shooting back, on the ground, after the initial quick win, it’s “forever” attrition by IED, ambush, sniping, raids as commanders come and go. The result? Random destruction from the air and forever wars on the ground.

There is of course one other time when the United States fought a first class opponent and that is when it fought itself. According to these official numbers, the US Civil War killed about 500,000 Americans. Which is about half the deaths from all of the other US wars. Of all the Americans killed in all their wars – Independence, Indians, Mexico, two world wars. Korea, Cold War, GWOT – other Americans killed about a third of them.

RUSSIANS DON’T WANT TO BE EUROPEANS

Pravda lied to us about the USSR, but it told the truth about the West.

– Contemporary Russian joke

For fifty years, secretly and openly, we wanted to live like you, but not any longer.

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

In a previous essay I argued that Russia was not a European country. It was its own thing – a civilisation-state. I used a Toynbeean argument that the history of Europe could be written without ever using the word “Russia” up until the time of Peter the Great. I expected to cause some angst given the associations that the word “European” has accumulated over the five centuries of world rule. Promotion to European status was attractive: vide Mohandas Gandhi looking quite unusual in a stiff collar and tie. Russians felt this appeal especially in the late 1800s when so many rich cultured Russians were to be found in the fashionable watering-holes of Europe that it was worth building churches for their use. The height of sophisticated table service was à la Russe. A Russian was one of Freud’s most famous patients. Russians were especially welcome in France as an ally against Germany.

The Bolshevik coup rather spoiled this trend – even if Soviet Russia became a new sort of ideal for world communists. But with the end of the USSR, the idea re-surfaced. The height of the notion that Russia had “joined” or even “re-joined” Europe was in the Gorbachev years of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, or even from Vancouver to Vladivostok. “A new era of Democracy, Peace and Unity” “a time for fulfilling the hopes and expectations our peoples have cherished for decades”. Attractive, appealing; many welcomed it. But not all: for them Russia, with or without communists, was The Enemy. Whatever Moscow was actually doing – breakup of the Warsaw Pact, collapse of the USSR, taking on the USSR’s debts, moving tanks and guns out of Europe, signing on to every declaration the West asked it to, filling its government with Western advisors – it was just biding its time and plotting revenge.

NATO has proved itself to be peaceful and the West’s CFE commitments add to that assurance. But as Russia recovers and rearms, as history suggests it will, Moscow’s imperialist urge might well rise again. Then it will be too late and ‘provocative’ to redraw the defence line. (William Safire, International Herald Tribune, 3 Oct 1995.)

Russians have no one to blame but themselves for the brutal dictatorship they built in their own country and imposed on their neighbours. (Chrystia Freeland, Financial Times, 29 May 1996.)

Caspar Weinberger issued a powerful warning that American policy makers, in their preoccupation with NATO’s expansion, may be missing the fact that Russia has a truly ominous enlargement initiative of its own – ‘dominance of the energy resources in the Caspian Sea region.’ As he observes in the attached op.ed. article which appeared on 9 May in the New York Times… ‘If Moscow succeeds, its victory could prove much more significant than the West’s success in enlarging NATO.’ (Center for Security Policy, Washington, 12 May 1997.)

As is generally known, Russia has had great difficulty adjusting to the fact that its empire, built by conquest over centuries, disappeared in 1991, depriving it of rich borderlands and nearly half its population. (Richard Pipes: “Russia’s Designs on Georgia”; http:/www.intellectualcapital.com 14 May 1998.)

There is an expansionist mentality among Russia’s ruling elite, deeply rooted in the country’s past, which makes it difficult for them to consider forming a partnership with the West. This almost permanent urge for territorial expansion has at the same time become a scourge for the Russian people, who continue to live in appalling poverty in a country rich in resources. (Jan Nowak “What NATO can do for Russia” Washington Times, 19 Apr 2000.)

Note that the quotations above date from the Yeltsin period. When he left, the whole period was re-marketed, re-polished and re-truthed into a potential golden age:

The U.S. will remember Boris Yeltsin as someone who, despite his limitations, meant well and worked to bring his country back to the family of nations, to freedom and humanity, which have been so often lacking in Russia’s tortured history.

These people won the opinion battle: rather than comity, unity, hopes and expectations, reality recorded NATO expansion, the NATO/US war in Kosova, NATO/US interventions everywhere, NATO/US colour revolutions, NATO/US meddling in Russia’s neighbours, NATO/US wars in the Middle East – the never-ending “serious security challenges” of Russia, Russia, Russia.

Russians today must wonder whether all the welcoming words and happy thoughts were just a fraud to get the tanks out of Eastern Europe. To older Russians, NATO expansion was a military alliance ever closer; to young Russians, a slamming of a door in their faces. To George Kennan, “a tragic mistake“. There’s little point in going through the three decades since the Charter of Paris: none of it happened. I’m not here interested in attempting to ascribe blame – although the importance of NATO expansion cannot be glossed over with piffle like “Just as the origins of NATO expansion were benign, so too has been its impact on Russian security” – but many Russians agree with the bittersweet joke quoted above: Pravda was lying when it said the USSR was wonderful but telling the truth when it said the West was bad.

Years of accusations that Putin kills reporters, shoots down airliners, poisons people, steals money, invades his neighbours, has too many watches, sics his dog on Merkel, gunslinger walk and so on and on: no accusation too stupid to gain eyeballs. Conclusions presented before evidence, evidence too secret to be shown, trials in camera, verdicts pre-written. 2012 “The Dictator” 2016 “Vladimir Putin will always be America’s enemy” 2017 “Inside Putin’s Campaign to Destroy U.S. Democracy” 2020 “Putin, a criminal and incompetent president, is an enemy of his own people“. The people who called Russia the once and future enemy were on the margins in the Yeltsin period, now they set the tone. You can even get Pulitzer Prizes for making up anti-Russia stories.

One accusation fades, another one appears. Rachel Maddow doesn’t apologise to her audience for all their time she wasted, nor does Hillary Clinton admit she lost the election fair and square. Nor will either apologise to Putin. Silence about the last Putindunnit fraud as we invent the new one: the riots in the USA are out of the “Russian play book“. And, when Russians aren’t met with hostility, it’s the most absurd condescension: Mercouris gives a perfect illustration of Macron trying to treat Putin like a colonial subject come to learn manners.

Well, Russians have figured it out: they weren’t welcome, they aren’t welcome and they never will be welcome. They are forever aliens. A 2014 poll shows it:

Russians’ attitudes toward the United States and President Barack Obama are extremely unfavorable and have grown sharply more negative in the last couple of years. While opinions toward the European Union also worsened, Russians increasingly view China favorably. Russians see China as an ally and the United States and the European Union as adversaries

It is unlikely, to put it mildly, that another 6 years of hysterical Russophobia will have convinced the Russian public that the West is more welcoming.

At the same time Russians – who it should be understood are well exposed to happenings in the West: lots of them travel, lots of them have Internet and can read and see what’s out there – are deciding that the West is not as attractive as they thought it was. Westerners obsess on LBGT issues but it’s far deeper than that. Russia is, by current Western standards, pretty conservative on social issues. Which is to say that it is much as the West was in the 1950s. They aren’t impressed by what they see. In 2004 only 29% thought the West was a “good model” and four years later that had dropped four points. Ten more years of riots, unemployment, police violence, wars and opioids will not have added any points.

So, as far as Russians are concerned, the West has lost most of the attractiveness that, in the USSR days, they thought it had. Rejection, blame, accusations, condescension, insult, propaganda – a fast tarnishing model.

Gordon Hahn, an astute observer, saw this a year ago. For three centuries Russia has been “on its Western journey”. Which, Hahn argues, by entangling Russia in Europe’s ever-shifting alliance patterns and wars, was not much to Russia’s advantage: “a weighty downside”. He concludes that, after the Western rejection of all Moscow’s overtures and after observing the West’s actual practice of its lofty “values”,

Putin’s Russia now rejects the post-modernist West and its neo-imperial civilizational, indeed, ‘civilizationalist’ ambitions in Russia’s neighborhood and beyond. Instead of seeking to be part of the West or defeat the Western geopolitical paradigm, it seeks along with China and, in some respects, India and several more regional powers in building an alternative global civilization to that in the post-modern West, with which Russia, China and others will merely seek to coexist.

Perhaps, one day, he concludes, Russia will turn West again but it won’t be soon. Vladislav Surkov, a man who has been in and around power in Russia for some time, thinks the same: Russia tried the East, tried the West, nowhere has it been welcome.

Russia is a west-eastern half-breed country. (Россия это западно-восточная страна-полукровка.)

We have just had Putin himself call Russia a “separate civilisation“.

I agree, it’s over. The romance has been burned out, trampled on, spat on. We return to Simonyan’s essay. She spent a year in the USA so she’s hardly ignorant of the actuality. The title says it: “Why we don’t respect the West anymore” – it should be read. I think she speaks for a lot of Russians (and many, many others in the world as well).

with all your injustice and cruelty, inquisitorial hypocrisy and lies you forced us to stop respecting you. You and your so called ‘values.’

THE DELUDED SUPERPOWER

The president has made clear that we have a tried and true practice here. We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion. If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.

Marshall Billingslea, May 2020

(First published Strategic Culture Foundation

Billingslea is President Trump’s Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control and will presumably be in charge of Washington’s team in negotiating a new START treaty.

An outstanding example of American arrogance and ignorance, to say nothing of the implication that the only actual negotiation expected will be over how loudly the negotiatees say “Yes Master”. Hardly likely to entice anyone to the table, let alone China.

The Soviet Union went down for many reasons which can be pretty well summed up under the rubric that it had exhausted its potential. Its economy was staggering, nobody believed any more, it had no real allies, it was bogged down in an endless war. Buried in there somewhere was the expense of the arms race with the USA. Billingslea evidently believes that it was that last that was the decisive blow. Believing that, he thinks that the USA can do it again.

A snappy comeback immediately pops into mind: staggering economy, loss of self confidence, allies edging away, endless wars – who’s that sound like?

But there is a bigger problem than his arrogance and that is his ignorance. Washington likes to think that its intelligence on Russia is pretty good but actually it’s pretty bad – and the proof is that it is always surprised by what Moscow does next. Intelligence is supposed to reduce surprises, not increase them.

What Billingslea is ignorant of is the difference between the Russian Federation and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. And he probably isn’t alone in this ignorance in Washington: yes they know it’s not communist any more – some of them do anyway – but that’s just the outward difference. The USSR was an exceptionalist state. As the 1977 USSR Constitution said:

the Soviet state, a new type of state, the basic instrument for defending the gains of the revolution and for building socialism and communism. Humanity thereby began the epoch-making turn from capitalist to socialism.

 

There’s a heavy cost to being an exceptionalist state – everything everywhere is your business, you are obligated to interfere all over the world, in the USSR’s case, any government that called itself socialist was entitled to assistance. The Soviet Union’s military was not just for self-defence, it was for power projection, assistance to allies and it sought full-spectrum dominance. Or, if not dominance in every imaginable sphere of warfare, at least capability. If Washington or NATO did something the USSR and the Warsaw Pact had to respond – no challenge could go unanswered. You can “spend into oblivion” a country with so expansive a self-awarded mission, especially one with a flaccid economy. And Washington tried to do so and, and I agree that the arms race made some contribution to the dissolution of the USSR and its alliance.

But Moscow has learned its lesson. Being the standard-bearer of the “bright future” brought it nothing; propping up socialist governments that deserted the moment the tanks went home brought it nothing. Exceptionalism was a bust for Russia and the Russians. It won’t do it any more. And that implies a much more modest military goal: defence. And defence is always cheaper than offence.

Moscow doesn’t have to match the US military; it just has to checkmate it.

Washington can interfere in Africa as much as it wants, Moscow doesn’t care – and if it should care, it’s demonstrated in Syria how effective a small competent and intelligently directed force can be. Washington can have all the aircraft carriers it wants; Moscow doesn’t care as long as they keep away – and if they don’t keep away, there are plenty of Kinzhals. Washington can build a space force (complete with cammo uniforms) if it wants to; Russia doesn’t have to – it just has to shoot down what attacks it. Checkmate in one defined area of the globe is much easier and much cheaper than “full spectrum dominance”.

Full spectrum dominance is the stated goal of the US military: supremacy everywhere all the time.

The cumulative effect of dominance in the air, land, maritime, and space domains and information environment, which includes cyberspace, that permits the conduct of joint operations without effective opposition or prohibitive interference.

In practice it’s unattainable; it’s like looking for the end of the rainbow: every time you get there, it’s moved somewhere else. The countermove will always be cheaper and simpler. The USA will bankrupt itself into oblivion chasing down supremacy over everything everywhere. Take, for example, China’s famous carrier killer missile. Independently manoeuvrable hypersonic powerful warhead; here’s the video. Does it exist? Does it work? Maybe it does, maybe it only works sometimes. Maybe it doesn’t work today but will tomorrow. But it certainly could work. How much would Washington have to spend to give its carrier battle groups some reasonable chance against a weapon that was fired thousands of kilometres away and is coming in at Mach 10? Certainly much less than it would cost China to fire five of them at that one carrier; only needs one hit to sink it or put it out of action. Who’s going to be spent into oblivion here?

Which brings me to the next retort to Billingslea’s silly remark. Before the US spends Russia and China into oblivion, it must first spend to catch up to them. I’ve mentioned the Chinese carrier killer, Russia also has quite a number of hypersonic weapons. Take the Kinzhal, for example. Fired from an aircraft 1500 kilometres away, it will arrive at the target in quite a bit less than 10 minutes. When will its target discover that it’s coming? If it detects it 500 kilometres out (probably pushing the Aegis way past its limits) it will have three or four minutes to react. The Russian Avangard re-entry vehicle has a speed of more than Mach 20 – that’s the distance from Moscow to Washington in well under five minutes. How do you stop that? Remember that Russia actually has these weapons whereas all the US has is a “super-duper missile“. Not forgetting the Burevestnik and Poseidon neither of which the US has, as far as is known, even in its dreams. So, Mr Billingslea, before you get the USA to the point of spending Russia and China into oblivion, you’ve got to spend a lot to catch up to where they already are today and then, when you get to where they are today, even more to get to where they will be then and still more – much more – to block anything they can dream up in all of the numerous “spectrums”. Who’s heading for oblivion now?

In conventional war the US military does not have effective air defences: this should be clear to everyone after the strikes on the Saudi oil site and the US base. US generals are always complaining about the hostile electronic warfare scene in Syria where the Russians reveal only a bit of what they can do. Russia and China have good air defence at every level and excellent EW capabilities. They do because they know that the US military depends on air attack and easy communications. They’re not going to give them these advantages in a real war, Something else for Mr Billingslea to spend a lot of money on just to get to the start state.

The US military have spent too many years bombing people who can’t shoot back, kicking in doors in the middle of the night and patrolling roads hoping there’s no IED today. Not very good practice for a real war or an arms race.

China and Russia, because they have given up exceptionalism, full spectrum dominance and all those other fantasies, only have to counter the US military and only in their home neighbourhoods. That is much cheaper and much easier. What’s really expensive, because unattainable, is chasing after the exceptionalist goal of dominance in everything, everywhere, all the time. That’s a “tried and true” road to oblivion.

They’re just laughing at him in Moscow and Beijing.

AMERICA THE TERRIFIED

 

They want to meet me not because I’m Mike from Kansas, because I represent the greatest nation in the history of civilization.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo 28 February 2020

I want everyone to be reminded that America remains the world’s leading light of humanitarian goodness as well amidst this global pandemic.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo 7 April 2020

no greater privilege and no greater honor than serving as the commander in chief of the greatest military in the history of the world.

Barack Obama January 2018

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

One of the curiosities about the United States is that, on the one hand, Americans are forever boasting about how powerful, how democratic and altogether wonderful their country is while, on the other hand, they are receptive to assertions that this mightiness and excellence is on the brink of disappearing. It’s a very peculiar state of affairs probably best left to psychiatrists to ponder. We laypeople are left wondering has there ever been so frightened a superpower. So mighty and all about to be lost.

Three years of Trump have destroyed its alliances

The United States is the principal member of NATO – “the greatest alliance the world has ever known“. Its flacks sang its praises on its 70th birthday: greatest ever said Poland’s President, essential for world peace, stronger than ever and so on. And yet, a mere three years of President Trump has put it at the gates of death if not already killed it. “The Atlantic alliance as we know it is dead“. Or perhaps not dead quite yet: “an erosion of the foundations of the political system that defines — and protects — the modern world“; “The result could be nothing less than the fracturing of the Western alliance“.

It is not my purpose to discuss whether Trump is trying to kill the alliances – indeed, I suspect that he may be. The point is the assertion, apparently to be taken with a straight face, that this 70-year old alliance, the keystone of an interlocking system of alliances and relations centred on the United States, can be fatally weakened so quickly by one man. Even if that man be President of the principal member.

Three years of Trump have destroyed its democracy

The United States in 2016 was “the greatest democracy in the world” but just a bit of Trump and it’s fading fast. “Trump is a Frankenstein’s monster of past presidents’ worst attributes” chides someone worrying that Trump will destroy the presidency (but fortunately we have “esteemed former FBI director Robert Mueller” to redress the balance). Some now-forgotten statements were evidence of candidate Trump’s anti-American values. “On Inauguration Day, the president seemed poised to destroy American democracy” and the author lists people and institutions preventing him from doing so; some haven’t worn well: James Comey (Russia!), GCHQ (Russia!), Russiagate reporters (Russia!), the intelligence community (Russia!), Susan Rice (Russia!), Adam Schiff (Russia!). In fact, a little bit of Trump has ruined lots of things: “A List Of Everything Donald Trump Has Ruined This Year, From Retweets To The Solar Eclipse“. But, as the Russia story sinks, COVID-19 rises to give Trump the chance to express his inner fascist.

The American political system is more than two centuries old; it has gone through a lot; it has had many mediocre presidents and survived them. But, apparently, Trump is just too much. Again we see the “greatest” weakened quickly and easily.

Its elections are at the mercy of foreign enemies

To many non-Americans, its electoral system – registration, voting machines, Electoral College – is pretty arcane. Especially since they learned of the epistemological problems of “hanging chads“. But to Americans it’s theirs and they’re used to it. But suddenly, it’s at jeopardy in some undefined way. Did the Russians actually change the result of the vote? No evidence that it did. Hard to say. No evidence they changed votes but they tried to interfere. No, it’s “undeniable” that they affected it. How did they affect it? Mueller showed how (another one that isn’t wearing well). By “sowing confusion” or “discord” or something. But maybe they did swing it: “targeted cyberattacks by hackers and trolls were decisive“. Somebody thinks Putin thinks they did. Anyway, Trump is his “puppet” and is doing Putin’s bidding. “Mueller Exposes Putin’s Hold Over US President Trump“.

Next time it will be worse. “Putin helped Trump in 2016. What is he planning for 2020?” “Facebook: Russian trolls are back. And they’re here to meddle with 2020“. “Putin developing fake videos to foment 2020 election chaos: ‘It’s going to destroy lives’“. But not alone, this time: “Chinese Regime Bigger Threat to US Elections Than Russia, Barr Says“. The Russian sowing machine is joined by the Chinese one. Poor Americans: duped so easily by so little – Putin weaponises everything: information, culture, vaccines and many more. How can an electorate bamboozled by Putin’s weaponisation of Pokemon Go and mesmerised by cute puppies, even though they come from the country that is “#1 in Education Rankings“, possibly be expected to exercise their franchise? Don’t ask someone in the line at Starbucks – Putin’s unwitting agents are everywhere. Childrens’ cartoons are one of his weapons to take over America minds.

American democracy, so strong, so long, so flimsy.

Freedom of speech is under attack

But saying what you like is more accepted in the United States than anywhere else, according to recent research. Americans take great pride in the First Amendment and often argue that it gives free speech greater protection than in any other democracy. The now-crumbling Russiagate nonsense spawned an entire industry warning about Russian “disinformation”. Not only were the cunning Russians creeping into our elections, but they were creeping into our brains too. Perhaps the weirdest example of how stunningly powerful Russian disinformation was supposed to be is shown in the intelligence report on the supposed Russian involvement in the election: nearly half the space was devoted to a four-year old rant about RT. RT? Its budget is a mere fraction of the West’s media outlets and there is nothing to suggest it has much of an audience. It is, in fact, Americans talking about America in America; sure it’s propaganda but it’s a tiny baby next to the BBC, CNN and so on. Nonetheless: “Deeply divided and in the grip of partisan passions, U.S. society is slipping into a quagmire of Russian disinformation in which the Putin regime will find it very easy to create reality and destroy facts.” “The Threat of Fake News to Our Democracy” “China Launches a Fake News Campaign to Blame the U.S. for Coronavirus”Cyber Warfare: The Threat From Nation States

Something has to be done about the threat – “Existential threat“. Have to stop it on social media. Discussors in the NYT suggest how. Disinterested people like the Atlantic Council must take charge to help social media use “community standards”. So goodbye to the idea of an informed citizenry free to hear all points of view; the only way to defend freedom against this mighty Russian assault is to become subjects told what they may and may not see. It is striking that in the Cold War the Soviets blocked Western media but the West didn’t bother to block the Soviets. The present reversal tells you a lot about who’s more truthful, doesn’t it?

So little old RT blew up one of the great prides of American democracy that had survived wars and all sorts of crises. And so quickly, too

Its military power is about to disappear. ra

And finally we come to the “greatest military in the history of the world” aka “the best-trained, best-equipped and strongest military the world has ever known“. The USA spends far more than any other country – about a third of the world total in fact. It has 800 (or is it a thousand?) bases around the world; operates more fleet aircraft carriers than everybody else. Never lost a war (well Vietnam but, insisted Obama, “you won every major battle of that war. Every single one.”) The USA is the “ultimate military superpower“; it believes itself capable of “full-spectrum dominance“. The United States itself is as securely protected by geography as can be imagined – barring nuclear weapons, no power can or could threaten it. It is as secure as can be.

But so weak. A little decision by an agency few have heard of means Chinese dominance of future high technology. Space cyberwarfare? You can pretty well forget about that particular “spectrum”. Its military edge has “eroded to a dangerous degree“in every domain of warfare”. “Our military is becoming outdated.Could lose, would lose against China, could lose against Iran, or Russia, the military is in crisis, “no longer clearly superior“.

And so the world’s mightiest military is consumed with fear and doubt.

*****************************

What are we outside observers to make of this alternating boasting and fearfulness?

I’m well aware of the motives. Saying that Trump is destroying everything and must be removed shows the demented state of politics of the USA; as Russiagate falls apart, they have to shout louder. Ranting about RT prevents admitting that the truthful part of the propaganda divide is on the other side. Shutting down discussion makes it easier to lie and cheat and steal. Shrieking that the USA is about to lose its military dominance is shilling for the weapons makers who pay you. All that is obvious.

But that’s not what fascinates me. A truly confident country would laugh at the suggestion that it’s on the edge of the precipice; a country that thinks it is, is not confident in itself. The “American Dream” has gone adrift in food stamps, opioids, prisons, the gig economy, super-rich. Recall Obama’s winning slogan “Hope and Change”; recall Sanders’ speeches about those left out of The Dream; recall Trump’s winning slogan: “Make America Great Again“. All these point to a gut knowledge of coming doom that cannot be eased by boasting.

The co-existence of blustering and tremulousness not only reveals an apprehension of failure but, in a country with the destructive power of the USA, it is frightening for the rest of us.