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.

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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.

 

GOODBYE OPEN SKIES

(In response to question from Sputnik about Washington’s intention to leave the Open Skies Treaty)

The ABM Treaty and the CFE Treaty were already dead and the Trump Administration seems to be determined to kill off every remaining Cold War arms control Treaty. The Open Skies is just the latest. Russia will, of course, be blamed: it’s been “cheating“.

What’s driving this? I suspect it’s the post Cold War triumphalism that we have seen in every previous administration: We won, we’re Number One, suck it up Russia, you’re unimportant. The difference is that the Trump Administration makes no attempt to sugar-coat.

The irony of course is that the whole thing was President Eisenhower’s idea in the first place.

More of Washington’s short-term gain for long-term pain.

BLACK SWANS FLY IN

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

A black swan is slang for an unexpected event with large consequences. 2020 has brought us two so far: the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse of oil prices. Each will have potent consequences for the Imperium Americanum. And there is a nest of black cygnets maturing.

COVID-19

A new infectious disease was noticed in China at the end of last year, identified as a coronavirus in January and a pandemic was declared in March. Since then economic and social life has come to a stop in the West as governments have been convinced to declare shutdowns. Restrictions became widespread in March and April and are still in effect; while some jurisdictions lessen them, others talk about more months. It is not the purpose of this essay to wonder whether these measures were justified or effective, only to state that they happened and that the world economy will have been enfeebled for two to three months or even longer. A big black swan indeed.

The fuller effects won’t be known for some time but one result is certainly that the West’s repudiation for efficiency has taken a huge – perhaps fatal – hit. Only six months earlier, a survey confidently stated that the West – led by the USA and Britain – would do best in dealing with a pandemic. Not so: “We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken“; “The Death of American Competence“; “The coronavirus is the worst intelligence failure in US history“; “US’s global reputation hits rock-bottom over Trump’s coronavirus response“; ““The world has loved, hated and envied the US. Now, for the first time, we pity it”; “Coronavirus: EU could fail over outbreak, warns Italy’s Giuseppe Conte“; “The EU has bungled its response to coronavirus and it might never fully recover“. China can’t hold back its laughter “Chinese state media calls US a ‘primitive society,’ says ‘democracy is dying’ amid coronavirus“. Many of the American pieces, reflecting the abyssal divide in US politics, write as through it were all Trump’s fault. But it wasn’t Trump who didn’t replace PPE stocks used up eleven years ago. Whatever failures are his, the failure is not his alone. And neither are the West’s other deficiencies his doing. No one seems to have stocks of PPE – the easier and most obvious first step against the threat.

Washington deflects its failure by blaming China. But here too it’s lost its competence: here’s US Secretary of State Pompeo asserting at the same time that it’s manmade and that it isn’t:

POMPEO: Look, the best experts so far seem to think it was manmade. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point.

RADDATZ: Your — your Office of the DNI says the consensus, the scientific consensus was not manmade or genetically modified.

POMPEO: That’s right. I — I — I agree with that. Yes. I’ve — I’ve seen their analysis. I’ve seen the summary that you saw that was released publicly. I have no reason to doubt that that is accurate at this point.

To say nothing of Fauci’s money in the Wuhan lab. China may not even be the point of origin: France has just discovered a case from December and there may be a US case from November. The breathlessly reported Five-Eyes assessment blaming China is fast collapsing: “mostly based on news reports and contained no material from intelligence gathering” says one of the Eyes. Washington may lash its minions into a coffle, but the rest of the world will scorn it as a pitiful attempt to distract. There will be increased rejection of the West’s assumption of competence and veracity. And, in the West itself, more will doubt the words of “experts” (especially those from Imperial College and its professors), “authorities and “trusted media sources”.

Most of the West is still shut down but China is opening. Observers know that China is becoming the world’s top economy – the World Bank had already given it that title in PPP terms in 2013 – and COVID-19 is sure to accelerate the process by giving it a head start out of the economic slowdown. With cheap energy too.

Soft power” is a useful term that describes the appeal of a given culture to others. For many years this was a potent arrow in the America quiver – I often think of the character played by Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday as the exemplar: open, honest, honourable and modern, but content to be an example and never to take advantage of her. Propaganda, to be sure, but effective propaganda. COVID-19 shows something else: in the simplest terms China has given assistance to many countries and the “US accused of ‘modern piracy’ after diversion of masks meant for Europe“. Piffle like “The United States and President Trump are leading the global effort to combat this pandemic” or America remains the world’s leading light of humanitarian goodnessjust make it more obvious. From the EU we get word salads: reaffirms/recognises/supports/recalls. And only three months ago the West is winning“. It has be-clowned itself.

Of the downstream effects of the COVID-19 black swan, we can see at least three: great and possibly fatal damage to the assumption of American and Western competence; a widening of the economic gap with China; a further change in the world soft power balance. The “blame China” diversion (not forgetting the rest of the current Enemy Package – Russia and Iran) is childish and will earn disgust. None of these changes is to the benefit of the Imperium Americanum.

Oil

In March Riyadh, on behalf of OPEC, proposed to Moscow that they reduce oil production in order to keep prices up. Moscow refused and Riyadh started pumping. COVID-19 shutdowns collapsed demand. A month later West Texas Intermediate futures went negative and the price of a barrel of oil passed below $20.

Generally it is estimated that the US shale oil industry (about 60% of US production) needs prices of about $60 to be profitable, Saudi Arabia, despite very low pumping costs, squanders so much that it needs about $80; Russia on the other hand is profitable at $45 and has half a trillion dollars in its FOREX kitty. So, if Riyadh started a price war it is not in a strong position; Moscow, on the other hand, some say, can survive $25 a barrel for ten years. As China’s industry comes back on line, it is starting to buy oil but most of it from Russia.

The end result of this price competition in a demand crash is unknown but it is unlikely that the US shale industry will do well out of it. And, because so much of Washington’s behaviour is based on the confidence that it is oil-independent, the US will not come out of this stronger.

So two black swans are likely to leave the Imperium Americanum weaker and less influential. And, it should be said, more contemned. But there is more.

And some black cygnets

Some may remember the excitement of TV commentators about cruise missiles in the Gulf War of 1990. And a weapon that could be launched a thousand kilometres away and hit a particular floor of the building aimed at was pretty amazing. That was the first large-scale public combat use of very long-range precision weapons and for many years cruise missiles were a signature feature of US attacks and practically a monopoly. Until 2015 when Russia struck targets in Syria from otherwise insignificant small craft in the Caspian Sea. So flabbergasted was Washington by this that its first reaction was to pooh-pooh the accuracy. But they were real; many Kalibres have been launched from different platforms including submerged submarines. So, there were now two demonstrated members of the club that could, in real conditions, precisely hit a target a long distance away. In its response to the killing of Soleimani, Iran showed that it too was a member of the club. While it seems some of its missiles did go astray, most hit exactly what they were aimed at. (The US military’s opponents also took note – again – of the fact that it does not have effective air defences). And the usual reaction from Washington: downplaying at first; later we heard of the hundred-plus brain injuries. Quite an achievement for a country that has been under sanctions for decades. And Iran just joined another small club: countries that can launch a satellite on their own (again the US contemptuous dismissal: “tumbling webcam in space“).

The Trump Administration is very hostile towards Iran but no more so than most US Administrations since the departure of the Shah – himself put back into power by a US-UK coup. Probably the hottest moment of this undeclared war was in 1988, but there have been many other crises and we just had another threat from Washington. Tehran knows its on Washington’s hit list and has been preparing for decades. Missiles will be one of its principal defences. Washington would do well to reflect on Iran’s – surprising to it – membership in these two elite clubs before it makes any more threats. Little cygnets become big swans.

Another black cygnet is the Iraq parliament’s demand that US forces leave the country. Washington is consolidating its troops but they will be besieged prisoners if the country rises against them. Which sooner or later it will when the new Prime Minister forms his government. Two consequences of the neocon-dominated “New American Century” in the Middle East have been the growth of Iran’s influence and the demonstration that the US military is not the omnipotent force it thought it was. When the effort to get it out starts, Washington will have three choices: hunker down and hope it goes away, enormously reinforce its troops for a completely new war, withdraw à la Vietnam. This cygnet is growing.

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A pandemic, oil price collapse, a target country showing it has more capability than assumed, threatened expulsion from Iraq. The surprises have exposed long-time weaknesses.

It’s always the unexpected things that test things to destruction.

 

 

MAYBE KARL MARX WAS RIGHT AFTER ALL

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

Before Marx socialism was a sort of voluntary wish thing, no doubt growing out of Protestant fantasies of life in early Christianity when everything was supposedly shared. There were a few attempts at building Christian socialist communities and most of them had unhappy endings – the Munster Anabaptists’ ending especially so. Secular socialist communities – Robert Owens’ attempts for example – also came to little, albeit more peacefully.

Marx’s claim was that he made socialism scientific by which he meant that he believed he had discovered the mechanism that had driven society through history: he concluded that socialism was the inevitable next stage of evolution. He and his collaborator Engels laid out the theory in The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and Marx spent the rest of his life working out the details. Class struggle – the means of production – the triumph of the bourgeoisie in modern times – labour theory of value – surplus value – the more the bourgeoisie succeeds, the more it creates its destruction: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” It’s a complete theory of history and society. The driving force of the coming socialist period is the emmiseration of the proletariat – as the owners of the means of production squeeze more surplus value out of the workers, they become more powerful and richer while the condition of the workers becomes worse:

The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.

By the same process, more and more formerly rich capitalists are ruined and pushed into the ranks of the miserable workers (“One capitalist always kills many“) until – and the details are never really described – there are so few rich and so many poor that:

Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

The final stage doesn’t need to be especially violent: at the end point, there are so few super rich that whether they’re hanged from lampposts or pensioned off like the last emperor of China doesn’t make much difference in the great scheme of things.

Marx believed that he had discovered the laws, the processes, the machinery, that drove history and society: the way things are and will be, that must be: scientific. After Marx, socialism is no longer something to be wished for, something some rich benevolent owner might create if we asked him politely, an appeal to Christian conscience, but something that is the very mechanism of the way things are and the way they must develop. Socialism is hard-wired into history.

But, right away, there’s a contradiction: if it’s scientific, nothing you or I can do will make it come faster or slower so there’s no point in joining socialist parties: Newton’s laws of motion don’t care whether you or I create a society to proselytise for them. But if it’s important to work towards socialism – and Marx himself was closely involved in at least one effort to do so – then it’s not inevitable and, therefore, not scientific. This created two threads in Marxism – spontaneity (it is going to happen in its own time) and voluntarism (it has to be made to happen).

The scientific expectation that A leads to B and B to C came to a crisis in the late 1800s. Eduard Bernstein argued that things were not following the path that Marx had foreseen half a century before – ownership of capital was not concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, the conditions of the workers was not growing worse. In a word, political developments – the working class’s political power – were changing Marx’s laws. From this conflict of theory and observation was born the idea of what we now call social democracy. Socialists should work within the system to reduce working hours, break up monopolies, eliminate child labour, force up wages, support labour unions and so on: in Marxist terms, use political power to compel the owners to give up a significant portion of the surplus value. Social democracy could be harmonised with the idea of free enterprise by describing it as levelling the playing field. If the essence of the free market is competition, then who can disagree with the idea that labour’s demands should freely compete with capital’s in conditions where each is level; if competition in output is desirable then it is desirable in inputs as well. The mixed economy: the dynamism of the free market prevents the stagnation and bureaucracy of socialism and the power of labour prevented the crushing of the weak and the government is the enforcer of the balance.

Lenin hated Bernstein’s conclusions (“revisionism“) and in What is To Be Done? took a different course: an informed and disciplined few should drive development. And that led to the USSR and, at its flaccid end, the “developed socialism” of Brezhnev. (Parenthetical aside: Brezhnev is what Plato’s Philosopher King looks like when actual humans try it out in real time). Interesting to observe, however, that both Bernsteinism and Leninism were voluntaristic approaches: the future will be created by acts of will today. So much for scientific socialism.

The mixed economy worked pretty well for a long time and social democracies in Europe delivered high standards of living and social justice across the board. Even the USA, with its hatred of “socialism”, delivered a fine standard of living to its “proletariat” thanks to the power of labour unions and majority voting. Rather than wretchedly existing at the edge of the commodity cost of labour like the protagonists of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, a worker in the West could buy a house and support a family. Altogether, the generality could agree that a good balance had been struck and Marx’s predictions had been disproven. The collapse of the USSR and its satellites fired a nail gun into his coffin. Marxists turned into whiskery crazies shouting on street corners that it can’t have failed because it was never really tried!!!

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But that was then and this is now. What started me off on these thoughts was this headline: “The 3 Richest Americans Hold More Wealth Than Bottom 50% Of The Country, Study Finds“. That’s pretty astonishing: 3 people could buy out 160 million Americans: pay off their rents and mortgages, clear out their savings accounts, pocket their health plans, empty out their pension plans, throw their clothing into the Salvation Army box, pile their knick-knacks at the curb and cash out their tooth fillings. As to buying the other half, the only question is how many more billionaires would it take: a hundred, two hundred? How long before the three could buy up two-thirds of the population? (Last week, we’re told, one of the three added six billion to his kitty – that’s twelve of the latest Princess cruise ships or half a US aircraft carrier.) Before I heard about the big three I’d known of this study from 2014: “Researchers then concluded that U.S. policies are formed more by special interest groups than by politicians properly representing the will of the general people, including the lower-income class.” The two headlines are not, to put it mildly, unconnected.

Moving down to mere millions we learn that the “Ousted Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg left the company with stock options and other assets worth about $80 million, but did not receive severance as part of his departure from the embattled company, Boeing disclosed late Friday.” A gold-standard company, probably destroyed on his watch, and he pockets more moolah that you, I or all the readers of this piece will ever see. Meanwhile average wages haven’t changed much for 40 years in the USA. Rich getting richer, poor getting poorer.

What happened? Well, simply put, the rich grabbed hold of political power, took over the government and started to unlevel the playing field. Wherever they can exercise their power they do: executive salaries rise, university fees grow, parliamentarians grow richer, bureaucracies expand, government bailouts bail. None of this is new or unusual, of course: greed+power=more greed is an equation for all times and all places. But somewhere the West lost the countervailing forces that balanced the greed of the bosses with the greed of the unions. We see this throughout the West: super rich, enormous executive salaries, endless perqs for some; austerity for the rest. More dramatically in the USA, of course, because it is the West’s leader and its “early adopter”. Socialists and the institutions they encouraged provided a counterforce and brute power created a balance in which everybody got something. That counterforce disappeared somewhere.

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So, in a way, what Marx foresaw 170 years ago has come to happen. Much later than he expected and much differently than he expected. His theory held that the owners of the means of production – Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers – would rule the world. But of the three Americans who, we are told, can buy half the population, one is an investor, another a software developer and the third the inventor of a mail order store. Where are the means of production? Well – another irony – they were sold to China.

So the super rich in the West own intangibles;

The communists in the East own the means of production:

Not exactly what Marx expected.

And yet: three people as rich as half a country? Legislatures that do what they’re told by their paymasters? That is rather like the late stage capitalism that Marx was talking about – a few, very few, super rich and a large number of emmiserated people.

As Marx might say today, opioids are the opium of the people.

So what happens next? COVID-19 is brutally exposing the fact that these Western societies aren’t actually very efficient. Is it significant that three quarters of the COVID-19 cases are in NATO countries? Only six months ago, they were supposed to be the best prepared. Endless wars go on endlessly, debt piles up, wealth gaps grow, austerity policies grind on. The propaganda of Western exceptionalism is still strong but weaker and less convincing with every failure.

The world is changing and Karl Marx doesn’t look as out of date as he did 50 years ago.

A TINY INDICATOR OF A BIG DISRUPTION

First published Strategic Culture Foundation

Surgical masks. They cost a trivial amount of money, tens of millions can be easily and safely stored for a long time. Eleven years ago, during the H1N1 pandemic (aka “swine flu”) the Center for Disease Control released from its Strategic National Stockpile “personal protective equipment including over 39 million respiratory protection devices (masks and respirators), gowns, gloves and face shields” This amounted to 25% of the total. According to the NYT these were not replaced. Trump can’t be blamed for that one. Nor can he be blamed for the failure of Belgium to replace stocks. Nor for Canada’s unpreparedness. Nor for the world-wide shortage. Nor can China be blamed.

Incidentally, the CDC says that the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, in the twelve months after April 2009, produced “60.8 million cases (range: 43.3-89.3 million), 274,304 hospitalizations (range: 195,086-402,719), and 12,469 deaths (range: 8868-18,306) in the United States“; the CDC’s worldwide death estimate was: “151,700-575,400”. There was no worldwide lock-down for that. But the curious reaction to COVID-19 is another story and so is the explanation why there is such a huge range in estimates. My story is about the humble mask and the West’s reputation for competence.

The CDC was competent in 2009, as its account of its response to the discovery of the sickness shows. What we see today is far from competent and, in this respect, I recommend reading 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. For centuries the West has been the place where things worked, where everything was invented, from where the world was run. Yes the West had its values which had their attractiveness – and one must never forget its tremendous killing power – but a large part of its mojo came from its reputation for getting it right. They say that the West’s military omnipotence took a hit from which it never recovered when the Japanese swiftly threw European power out of the Far East; I think its reputation for competence will take a fatal hit from COVID-19.

And a very visible hit. Only six months ago the Global Health Security Index, looking at “195 countries”, “34 indicators”, “six categories” and “140 questions” rated the USA number one in ability to cope with a pandemic, giving it a score of 83.5; the UK was second with 77.9; of the top 15 all were Western except Thailand (6th) and South Korea (9th). Western competence was assumed. China, by the way, was 51st with 48.2. What we must now call a fantasy built on an undeserved reputation collapsed with the real life test of COVID-19.

Which brings me back to the humble surgical mask: never mind that mask manufacture has been outsourced to China – so has just about everything else; never mind the fact that in terms of national security a warship’s worth of surgical masks would be more useful; consider stockpiles: where are they? No country seems to have much. And today we have reports of Western countries pirating face masks and other PPE from each other: the USA from Germany and France, US federal government from US states, Czech Republic from Italy, France from the UK; supposed allies are keeping them to themselves. March’s must-steal item was toilet paper, in April it’s masks.

But that’s still not the end of the face mask story.

COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus. There are several types of coronaviruses that cause human respiratory ailments some of which are deadly, some of which are mild. Many versions of the common cold are caused by them. They mutate and can pass from animals to humans. Human-infecting variants have been studied since the 1960s.

They spread from person to person in two main ways. 1) By touch: you touch an infected doorknob, a railing, a surface, get some viruses on your hands, touch a mucous membrane – eyes, nose, mouth – the viruses get inside you and get to work taking your cells apart to make more of themselves. 2) By droplets: someone who is infected emits droplets of saliva or mucous which carry the viruses and they get into you and start replicating. Coughing and sneezing spread these infectious droplets amazing distances but breathing or speaking put them out there too. The third thing to know is that a coronavirus infection may be contagious before the sufferer has symptoms. None of this is specialised knowledge; everybody who has had a cold knows it.

So, how to defend yourself? Before answering, it should be understood that there is no 100% defence this side of complete isolation and an NBCW suit. But you can improve the odds. 10% is better than nothing, 20% better than 10% and so on. It’s a matter of reducing the chances of the infected spreading it and the uninfected getting it. If each person infects three others (R0 of 3), then a process that reduces that to two others is an enormous improvement (that one infected person in 10 days would produce, in theory, 20,000 infected at three and 500 at two; dropping it from 3 to 2.5 saves about 15K; dropping it to 2.75 is worth about 10K.) It’s about playing the odds: a small reduction in the R0 has enormous effects over time.

So, given that we knew in January that COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus and given that that was about all we knew then, what would have been the advice to best play the numbers? Not complicated: wear gloves, wash your hands, don’t touch your face and wear a covering over nose and mouth to reduce droplet emission and intake. Will this be 100% defence? No, but it will improve the odds. And, given the possibility that it might be infectious before you know you have it, then everybody should start doing this right now. This is very simple stuff: it’s not curing the disease; it’s not working out the genome of the virus; it’s not tracing the history and route of the infection; it’s not creating a vaccine – that’s complicated. Glove, wash, don’t touch and mask is simple stuff anyone can do to bring down the R0. Oh, and don’t forget that gloves and masks get dirty so keep them as clean as you can. Something is better than nothing.

So why weren’t we told to mask up right away? Lots of hand washing advice; good but that’s only half of it.

But in the last week, all of a sudden, we’re being told to mask up. Don’t have a mask? The CDC now gives you instructions on how to make improvised masks. From an old T-shirt even. A day later Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer tells us to mask up. A California county will fine you if you don’t. You can be dragged off a bus in Philadelphia if you don’t.

That’s today. But, at the WHO, it’s still yesterday: “only useful for healthcare workers and patients who test positive“. Yesterday, masks were no good: (17 February) “skip mask and wash hands“; (27 February) “And when they’re not used correctly“; (29 February) “They Might Increase Your Infection Risk“; (5 March) “If it’s a regular surgical face mask, the answer is no“; (13 March) “not the case with the viral particles“; (31 March) “homemade masks, which could be of inferior quality and essentially useless“. This piece in Reason Magazine sums up the confusion as of 1 April: “conflicting, confusing, and sometimes transparently disingenuous advice“.

So what’s different about April? It’s true that there is some suggestion that the virus is mostly transmitted through emission and that it seems to be most infectious before the symptoms appear but these were known to be possibilities in January. So why no advice to try any kind of face covering at the beginning? Not very competent.

Perhaps there’s a clue: “It can reduce the risk of some transmissions, but doesn’t take the risk to zero.” Most of the anti-masking “advice” was of that nature: proper masks, let alone home-made masks from T-shirts or coffee filters, are not a 100% protection. Bureaucracies attract and promote stupid and industrious people. “Stupid” is not really the right word, many of these people have high enough IQs, but they are “stupid” because they mistake mere activity for solving the problem. They are always terribly busy wrestling with enormous problems while the smart and lazy person, having solved the problem when it was small, has his feet on the desk. Bureaucracies like busyness and they reward it. Busybodies are often perfectionists – the smart and lazy knows that the best is the enemy of the good. Could it be that our experts heard “are masks a perfect defence?” when they should have been answering the question “can masks improve the odds?” At any event, it’s taken three months for the “experts” to understood that even if 100% is unobtainable, 75% or 50% is much better than nothing at all. Even if it’s the bottom of an old T-shirt. How many lives were lost, hospital beds filled because the “experts”, seeking 100%, achieved 0%? People start to wonder. Then there was the explanation that people were told not to mask because of the shortage of masks. Maybe so, but why not T-shirts, coffee filters and other improvisations in January? Perhaps the reason is the general death of common sense in the face of “experts”. Or perhaps the fear of being sued if someone in a home-made mask catches it anyway. But, whatever the reason, it’s not very competent.

In the COVID-19 crisis, in truth, real competence is found in places somewhat east of “the West”.

The humble surgical mask reveals that the West is no longer competent.

2020 will be the year that the West lost its mojo.

 

TWENTY YEARS LATER – WHAT PUTIN FORGOT

(First published Strategic Culture Foundation

This site has just published my assessment of what Putin (and his team) got right in the program laid out, twenty years ago, in his essay “Russia at the turn of the millennium”. I concluded that he outlined four main projects: 1) Improve the economy. 2) Re-establish central control. 3) Establish a rule of law. 4) Improve Russia’s position in the world. I assessed that he accomplished three of them triumphantly and one reasonably well.

But, re-reading the essay, I noticed something that he did not mention. A something that in the twenty years has become rather important. Here is his only mention in the essay of that thing.

Russia was and will remain a great power.. It is preconditioned by the inseparable characteristics of its geopolitical, economic and cultural existence. They determined the mentality of Russians and the policy of the government throughout the history of Russia and they cannot but do so at present. But Russian mentality should be expanded by new ideas. In the present world the might of a country as a great power is manifested more in its ability to be the leader in creating and using advanced technologies, ensuring a high level of people’s wellbeing, reliably protecting its security and upholding its national interests in the international arena, than in its military strength.

Once. That’s it. That’s the only time “military strength” is mentioned and it is mentioned disparagingly: other things – technologies, wellbeing, diplomacy – are more important in this new world of the Twenty-first Century as Putin then saw it.

There is, in fact, almost nothing in the essay about the outside world and therefore little from which to deduce Putin’s expectations of how his program would be received. At one point he writes that Russia, after the dead end of the Soviet years, “has entered the highway by which the whole of humanity is travelling”, in another that an important aim is to “integrate the Russian economy into world economic structures”. This sounds as if he either expected Russia to be welcomed into these structures or that its arrival on the highway would, at least, not be impeded.

But, in one of his first interviews to a foreign source, a German newspaper in June 2000, the outside world made it presence known in three issues – the US flouting of the ABM Treaty, US missiles in Europe and NATO expansion. A year later an interview with American reporters (JRL 20 Jun 2001) is almost completely given over to American plans to place ballistic missile defences in Europe. In short, he wasn’t at his new job very long before his daily schedule started to have a large foreign component. And, from his perspective, all problems. We see in these first interviews points that Putin will return to over and over again in the coming years. He doubts that the Bush-era ABM systems have much to do with “rogue states”; he regards the ABM Treaty as vital to nuclear stability; he objects to the expansion of NATO. But most of all, he talks of a multipolar world, or as some call it a “Westphalian” system, of sovereign countries. This, he argues, again and again, is the only route to peace and stability. These themes feature in almost every speech on foreign issues he has made since. Given weight by the knowledge that Moscow wasted 70 years on the exceptionalist, moralistic path – a dead end as he said in his millennium essay.

So if, as the essay suggests, Putin was expecting the mostly domestic task of reconstructing Russia – “the price which we have to pay for the economy we inherited from the Soviet Union” – to proceed with a benign reaction from the outside world, he was soon disabused of the notion. The West, for all its honeyed words, was taking advantage of Russia’s weakness.

In short, he forgot the saying attributed to the Emperor Alexander III thatRussia has only two allies – its Army and its Navy”.

Eventually missiles were emplaced in Europe, the ABM Treaty and two of the other keystone arms control treaties were abandoned and NATO kept expanding. And much else. By February 2007 Putin had had enough and said so in the famous Munich Conference speech. The essence of his speech – and who today can deny its prescience? – is that that “security for one is security for all”. He proclaimed the unipolar world dead – as it has become. He decried the ignoring of international law; today there isn’t even the pretence: keep their oil, Bolivia coup. He pointed out the broken promise about NATO expansion – no longer can it be denied. He never quite gives up hope: who can forget his question, referring to the mess in the Middle East caused by Washington and its minions (September 2015): “I’m urged to ask those who created this situation: do you at least realize now what you’ve done?” or (October 2016) “I address the players once again: The extremists in this case are more cunning, clever and stronger than you, and if you play these games with them, you will always lose.

So, at some point between 1999 with the millennium essay and the Munich speech of 2007, Putin realised that the reconstruction of Russia would have to proceed in a hostile atmosphere; Washington and its allies did not want a strong Russia as a partner or or even as peaceful competitor: they wanted the Russia of 1999 – poor, divided, lawless and insignificant. Or perhaps his turning point was NATO’s destruction of Libya in 2015. Or when Washington did kill the ABM Treaty in 2002. Most likely, though, it was a gradual process by which Putin and his team realised they had to look to Alexander’s allies.

And they did. They warned – Putin told the American reporters in 2001 “We are offering cooperation. If that is acceptable, we will do this with pleasure. If not, then we will act independently” – and, quietly, they did.

In March 2018 he showed the Federal Assembly and the world what the Team had been working on. A final reminder:

We proposed working together in this area [prolonging the ABM Treaty – ‘the cornerstone of the international security system’] to ease concerns and maintain the atmosphere of trust. At one point, I thought that a compromise was possible, but this was not to be. All our proposals, absolutely all of them, were rejected. And then we said that we would have to improve our modern strike systems to protect our security.

Six new super weapons: the Sarmat ICBM, Burevestnik nuclear powered cruise missile, Poseidon nuclear powered underwater cruise missile, Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched missile, Avangard hypersonic manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle and the Peresvet combat laser. He warned:

Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, weapons of short, medium or any range at all, will be considered as a nuclear attack on this country. Retaliation will be immediate, with all the attendant consequences.

He couldn’t resist adding “nobody wanted to listen to us. So listen now.” They scoffed: just virtual reality. But they’re not; US inspectors have been shown the Avangard which, with its ability to hit anywhere in less than half an hour, ends the US dream of antiballistic missile defence. The two cruise missiles present a unprecedented threat – lurking over Antarctica or in the ocean deeps for months ready to strike? A volley of Kinzhals coming in at Mach ten will obliterate any carrier group or staging harbour or base in Europe. Checkmate.

But there’s more: great advances have been made on conventional defence as well. As I argue here, the Putin Team understood that the two essentials of NATO’s war-fighting doctrine are air superiority and assured communications. They won’t have them against Russia. The First Guards Tank Army has been revived and far exceeds anything that NATO has in offensive power. NATO has been writing NSF cheques for years and Moscow has called its bluff.

So, eventually, the Putin Team did take Alexander’s advice. Russia’s army and navy and air force have probably made Russia more secure against attack than at any time since his Great Uncle entered his capital in triumph two years after Napoleon’s attack or when Marshal Zhukov accepted the enemy’s surrender in his capital four years after Hitler’s attack.

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And, as an afterword, at Munich Putin said this:

It is a world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.

Do we not see this today? The USA is tearing itself apart over imagined Russian collusion, imagined Russian electoral interference and real Ukrainian corruption. And, meanwhile, the forever wars go on and on.