My answer to a question from Sputnik on Biden’s departure date from Afghanistan.

(Published here. I’m constantly fascinated by this “former diplomat stuff”. Yes I was a diplomat at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow from 1993 to 1996. That amounts to about 10 percent of my career. I held the rank of Counsellor which is a medium-senior rank. I was not the only one at that rank among the 50 or so Canadians there. I was never Charge d’Affaires which is the term for someone standing in in the absence of the Ambassador. And it is highly unlikely, as someone seconded to the Embassy from another Department (National Defence in my case), that I ever would have been. At the rate Sputnik retroactively promotes me — and I have many times asked them not to — I will soon be the longest-serving and most senior Ambassador in Canadian, or Galactic history. I much prefer “Former Analyst” or something like that.)

Well, the first fact is that Taliban has won. The second is that Taliban is not al Qaeda. It’s an Afghan phenomenon that has been radicalised thanks to 40 years of war.

Moscow and Beijing would probably have been happier with the Americans soaking up any jihadist hostility but they knew this was coming and are prepared. There’s a market for reconstruction there and they, especially China, will be able to take advantage of it.

For me the question is what happens between the Trump departure date and the Biden date: that’s about six months in which Washington can decide that the time is not quite yet right to leave or try and persuade NATO allies to stay. I would expect Taliban to hasten their departure; as we see in Iraq, US/NATO forces have supply lines that can easily be attacked.

It’s clearly a defeat for the US, whatever pitiful attempts are made to spin it in Washington: everyone knows that, once again, the Afghans have seen off a mighty empire. Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran will be heartened. 


First published Strategic Culture Foundation

Einstein is said to have observed that insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting a different result. What a perfect description for US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan is not enough: keep doing it. Sanctions on Russia haven’t made any difference, keep doing them. Beijing is not the least deterred by “freedom of navigation” cruises, keep doing them. Iran won’t bend to Washington’s will, keep doing the same thing.

One of the ur-neocons figured out what the problem is. Even if he didn’t realise he had: “Robert Kagan Diagnosed America’s Biggest Problem: Americans Who Don’t Want To Run the World“. What’s interesting about Kagan’s piece, actually, is the tinge of depression that runs through it – he’s actually at one of the stages of grief. When the PNAC project was announced in 1997, it was very confident indeed: its founding document – also by Kagan – Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy – laid it out

What should that role be? Benevolent global hegemony. Having defeated the “evil empire,” the United States enjoys strategic and ideological predominance. The first objective of U.S. foreign policy should be to preserve and enhance that predominance by strengthening America’s security, supporting its friends, advancing its interests, and standing up for its principles around the world.

The enormous web of the global economic system, with the United States at the center, combined with the pervasive influence of American ideas and culture, allowed Americans to wield influence in many other ways of which they were entirely unconscious.

And so on. The US was powerful enough to do it; it could do it; it should do it: the ruler of the world – all-benevolent and all-powerful. This was the flavour of the time: History had stopped moving, the liberal order was the future, everybody knew it. Washington “stood taller and saw farther“. It was the indispensable nation.

Kagan’s piece this year – no doubt penned to celebrate the departure of Trump and the return of his wife to power – was titled A Superpower, Like It or Not. The title itself gives a hint of doubt – no longer a proud assertion, it’s a defiance.

The only hope for preserving liberalism at home and abroad is the maintenance of a world order conducive to liberalism, and the only power capable of upholding such an order is the United States.

Two decades earlier it was the promise of a better world, now it’s the fear of a worse. Obviously so – not that Kagan sees it this way – but obviously nonetheless: the past two decades have not been successful for the project. Kagan’s unacknowledged fear of the worse is hammered home again and again:

The time has come to tell Americans that there is no escape from global responsibility… the task of maintaining a world order is unending and fraught with costs but preferable to the alternative.

The US is sitting on a dragon and it daren’t get off or the dragon will kill it. But because it can’t kill the dragon, it must sit on it forever: no escape. And dragon’s eggs are hatching out all around: think how much bigger the Russian, Chinese and Iranian dragons are today than they were a quarter-century ago when Kagan & Co so confidently started PNAC; think how bigger they’ll be in another.

A dispiriting state of affairs – not that Kagan is capable of perceiving it. Past failures – like the Iraq war – are brushed off as “relatively low cost” because their failure cannot be admitted: the wars must trudge on. And what’s Kagan’s advice to his fellow Americans? They must get used to shipping their children off to the forever wars because the alternative is worse. No “benevolent global hegemony” now, just sitting on dragons forever. A very gloomy outlook indeed. Doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different outcome.

Take Russia, for example. I’ve written elsewhere about the American obsession with Putin, its complete ignorance of what’s happening in Russia. Russia and China are listed routinely as Washington greatest enemies/opponents and Russia has been on that list for a long time. NATO has expanded, Russia has been accused, Russia has been sanctioned. But Russia is still there and more powerful than ever – quite a large dragon now. To say nothing of China, a mighty dragon indeed. Here’s their latest piece of wishful thinking – separate Moscow and Beijing, maybe they can bribe Moscow by letting it have Ukraine. Andrei Martyanov eviscerates this bird-brained attempt to emulate Kissinger and Nixon.

Can one venture the thought that the Kagan/PNAC strategy of hegemonic aspirations based on military power isn’t working very well and that US auctoritas is receding? From another ur-neocon source, the Atlantic Council, two writers dare to suggest that Washington should change the way it deals with Moscow: “a reality check” they call it. A minor change; well hardly any change, really. No attempt to use their supposed better vision to ascertain Moscow’s view of things, or try to envision what Moscow might want, no discussion of what Moscow regards as its grievances; no, none of that:

Instead, the Biden administration should seek to build a less aspirational policy toward Russia, minimize the use of sanctions, and look for incentives that might induce Moscow to take steps in line with US interests.

Different means, same ends. Russia is still bad, “human rights” are something from the US Patent Office. (Obviously the authors haven’t seen the video about police violence that Moscow is passing around.) Again the tedious assumption of superiority – indispensability – only a dim realisation that lecturing all the time isn’t working and an occasional carrot should be added to the mix. But Moscow still has to be pushed into line.

But even this milquetoast suggestion outraged twenty-two of their colleagues who issued a rebuff: “misses the mark… premised on a false assumption … disagree with its arguments and values and we disassociate ourselves from the report”. Absolutely no reason to change anything, keep doing the same thing; bound to be a different result this time. Let’s try sanctions again on the latest excuse; didn’t work before, maybe they will this time. But the more sanctions, the stronger Russia gets: as an analogy, think of sanctions on Russia as similar to the over-use of antibiotics – Russia is becoming immune.

Has there ever been a subject on which people have been so wrong for so long as Russia? How many times have they said Putin’s finished? Remember when cheese was going to bring him down? Always a terminal economic crisis. A year ago they were sure COVID would do it. A US general is in Ukraine and Kiev’s heavy weapons are moving east but, no, it’s Putin who, for ego reasons – and his “failing” economy – wants the war. Why do they keep doing it? Well, it’s easy money – Putin (did we tell you he was in the KGB?) wants to expand Russia and rule forever; therefore, he’s about to invade somebody. He doesn’t, no problem, our timely warning scared him off; we’ll change the date and regurgitate it next year. In the meantime his despotic rule trembles because of some-triviality-of-the-moment. These pieces write themselves: the anti-Russia business is the easiest scam ever. And there’s the difficulty of admitting you’re wrong: how can somebody like Kagan, such a triumphantasiser back then, admit that it’s all turned to dust and worse, turned to dust because they took his advice? Much better to press on – it’s not as if anybody in the lügenpresse will call him out or deny him space. Finally, these people are locked in psychological projection: because they can only envisage military expansion, they assume the other guy is equally obsessed and so they must expand to counter his expansion. They suspect everybody of suspecting them. Their hostility sees hostility everywhere. Their belligerence finds belligerence. The hyperpower is forever compelled to respond to lesser powers. They look outside, see themselves and fear; in their mental universe the USA is arrogantly strong and fearfully weak at the same time.

Their learning curve is absolutely flat – the USA must expand into the South China Sea to stop Chinese expansion, expand up to the borders of Russia to stop Russian expansion, expand into the gulf to stop Iranian expansion, expand into Africa because someone else might want to expand there. All of it wrapped in sickening protestations of innocence – read any State Department briefing on Venezuela – like this one from 25 February:

international champions standing up for democracy… human rights… calling for a return to democracy… accountability for these human rights abuses… millions of Venezuelans are suffering.. support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people.

In their minds the USA has to move far away from its borders to defend itself; they cannot comprehend that other powers see Americans at their borders as aggression. The mighty USA is the blameless victim of other countries’ suspicions. Anyone who dares suggest trying something else is de-platformed, scorned and calumniated – we must keep failing because we cannot succeed. It’s repeated by all the West’s rulers: the walking dead.

There’s a historical curiosity here. Five hundred years ago Columbus had an idea that you could sail west to China, and he hawked it around the capitals of Europe looking for someone to bankroll him. He was wrong, as all educated people knew: China was to the west all right, but any ship would have run out of food and water and all the crew died of scurvy long before it travelled 180 degrees of latitude. Finally he found a backer, discovered the Americas (going to his death certain it was China) and all else followed. About fifty years earlier, the Chinese sailor Zheng He made enormous voyages of discovery. But the new Emperor wasn’t interested and that was that. One of the strengths of Europe in those days was its diversity – Columbus failed to sell his idea to Portugal, Genoa, Venice, England but, finally, Spain took the bet. Of the many fish in the European pond, he needed to catch only one. China, centrally ruled, had only one and his no was final.

In the West, and especially the USA, today, we observe an inability to imagine, understand, come to terms with or tolerate difference. The “diversity” being pushed today all over the West is the pseudo-diversity of different faces with the same approved thought. Today it’s the West that insists on the uniformity of the so-called Rules-Based International Order (the West makes the rules and gives the orders) while it’s China that calls for “seeking harmony without uniformity“.

The Kagans dimly perceive that things haven’t gone quite the way they were supposed to but they have no idea of what to do except more of the same. Zombies.


First published Strategic Culture Foundation

We sleep soundly in our beds, because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence on those who would harm us.

George Orwell

NATO contemplates Kaliningrad: “We think through those plans all the time, and… if that would ever come to fruition, we’d be ready to execute.” It would be “a multi-domain, very timely and effective capability”. “The best Polish military units, numbering 30,000 soldiers, should take part in the quick offensive“. Multi-domain, best Polish; in the imaginations of the strategists of Laputa, the Russians passively await the blow. But now we must leave the empyrean realms of pure thought and float down to earth; there we find that “The largest headquarters military exercises Winter 2020 in Poland ended with the complete defeat of Polish troops: on the fifth day of the virtual conflict, the enemy reached the banks of the Vistula and surrounded Warsaw“.

Moscow has just told us (in the guise of a “suggestion” from two scientists) what it would do while NATO was polishing its multi-domains. Andrei Martyanov summarises it. Russia knows that US/NATO attacks start with a heavy air bombardment. And very effective it is too. Against Iraq or Libya which had poorly-coordinated, poorly-maintained, obsolete air defence systems. Or against Afghanistan which had none at all. Went well until the Serbs sent the F-117 into premature obsolescence. But Russia has excellent air defences. But more to the point, which is what our two professors are talking about, it has a host of highly effective missiles, many of them hypersonic and it knows where to aim them.

In order to disrupt the bombardment and frustrate ground-based operations, the analysts say, Russia should launch a colossal counter or pre-emptive strike to wipe out enemy hardware. This could be achieved, they argue, with the combined use of drones, missiles, cyber warfare and new weaponry, destroying Western equipment before it can even get airborne.

As soon as Moscow decided that a real war was inevitable, there would be a rain of hypersonic missiles which would swiftly overwhelm NATO’s mediocre air defences and destroy airfields, aircraft hangars, ammunition dumps, logistics and C3I facilities. And the Defence Minister has just ordered more of them. The “Sulwaki Corridor” would be the quietest place in Europe. Russians, through their brutal experience, know Orwell is correct: war is about destruction and killing.

In the West, however, other matters predominate. An American Rear Admiral heads a group to “have a deeper inclusion and diversity conversation in our Navy“; it will “acknowledge all lived experiences and intersectional identities of every Sailor in the Navy“. The German Army is far ahead as are many Western militaries. “America is stronger around the world when it is inclusive“. “Diversity, inclusion and respect are at the heart of the British Army’s values and ethos“. Diversity makes the Canadian Armed Forces stronger. NATO has “mainstreamed” “gender balance and diversity“.

Is transgenderism a “mental disorder” with very high suicide risk as at least one credentialed psychiatrist says, or is it a perfectly normal position on a flexible spectrum as many other credentialed psychiatrists say? Whatever, let’s try it out in the military and see what happens. Women have gradually moved to full combat roles in the US military. And, no matter how one might want to play with the meaning of the word “stronger”, men are physically stronger than women. And the infantry have to carry heavy loads: one of the more famous efforts was the Royal Marines’ “yomp” in the Falklands – 90 kilometres, three days, average load 36 kilograms. It is said that modern soldiers in the British Army are loaded down with even more. Perhaps weight itself should be made gender-neutral: “The Army Combat Fitness Test, ordered gender-neutral three years ago, is under evaluation by the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command“.

Western militaries are lab rats for the latest woke diktats. But there are consequences: “Overall, 11 percent of female service personnel scheduled to ship out were not able to in the previous year because of a pregnancy.” “Research suggests that veterans who identify as members of marginalized populations (e.g., women and racial/ethnic minority groups) carry far greater risk for developing PTSD.” “Sexual violence remains pervasive. In 2018, 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted or raped including 13,000 women and 7,500 men. The rate of sexual assault and rape jumped by almost 40% from 2016 to 2018, and for women veterans, the rate increased by over 50% to the highest level since 2006.” Meditate on the corrosive effect on morale and trust of this: “Of women who reported a penetrative sexual assault, 59% were assaulted by someone with a higher rank than them, and 24% were assaulted by someone in their chain of command.” At some point, the US military will no longer have the levels of trust, cohesion, morale and readiness that distinguish a real fighting force from a parade army.

Lots of money spent, little to show for it. Weapons seem to have been designed to produce cost over-runs, not victories. The US Navy’s latest aircraft carrier, long over due and over budget still has “problems getting jets off the deck and issues with the landing systems“; problems indeed for an aircraft carrier. “[T]he F-35 currently has 871 software and hardware ‘deficiencies’.” The years-long and stunningly expensive super destroyer program has fizzled out: three built without the weapon they were originally designed around. Brand-new military equipment unuseable in Germany. Engine troubles in the UK’s new warships. AEGIS ships that don’t know where they are: HNoMS Helge Ingstad, USS Lake Champlain, USS John McCain, USS Fitzgerald; or maybe it’s only bad seamanship. German aircraft not ready. USAF bombers ageing out. Cost over-runs in Germany. USAF training ranges inadequate. A third of the RAF’s fighters unfit to fly. F-35 not very ready. Crumbling skin on F-22. NATO air defence is inadequate (vide this). “Only five of the U.S. Army’s 15 armored brigade combat teams are maintained at full readiness levels“. Where is the money going? Into woke projects like tanks with solar power? (Bit of a heat signature, but more money can be squandered fixing that.)

The experience of fighting “forever wars” – two decades of bombing and shooting from safe distances, kicking in doors and hoping there are no IEDs on patrols – have sapped preparation for a real war against first-class enemies. The truth is that Western militaries have been fighting – unsuccessfully – against minor enemies. They strike from secure bases confident in air supremacy and assured communications. (Can the Russians spoof GPS signals? What will that do to all the systems relying on GPS?) NATO is not winning against determined poorly-armed enemies; what makes it think it’s ready for determined well-armed enemies? And who wants to join a losing army? No wonder only one British infantry battalion is fully staffed.

The “forever wars” have enormous morale effects. In 2019 the US Army asked “how has serving impacted you?” and got back a host of answers about suicide and PTSD. The US military now publishes an annual suicide report: about 700 members and family a year. But, it says, deployment doesn’t increase the risk; no, that comes afterwards: over 6000 US veterans commit suicide every year. There are similar results in allied forces: German and British. Not surprising really: wars that last for generations without visible success are bad for morale: “For Afghanistan, 58 percent of veterans said that fight was not worthwhile“. NATO has already spent twice as long in Afghanistan as the USSR did and there isn’t anything to suggest it will be leaving: despite the agreement to be out by 1 May 2021, “no decision”. Meanwhile, NATO wants more troops in Iraq. Can’t end them, can’t win them. But NATO keeps looking for more: add China to the list.

Given skilful diplomacy and policies that didn’t threaten neighbours these things wouldn’t matter very much. Your inclusive and intersectional army would give good parades and your air force noisy flypasts, your navy could glisten at the dock. But the USA and NATO are not such: they believe they should be everywhere, interfere everywhere and enforce everywhere.

NATO is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes. If diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military power to undertake crisis-management operations… in cooperation with other countries and international organisations.

Has NATO ever solved any dispute, anywhere, any time with anything but bombs and threats? Certainly not since the USSR went down: bombs in the Balkans (22 years), Afghanistan (20 years), Iraq (19 years), Syria (9 years), Libya destroyed, run out of Somalia. Its principal member has 800 military bases in 70 countries. Here is the famous meme that Russia must want war because it puts its country close to our bases. (Not just a meme, actually, NATO complains about “provocative military activities near NATO’s borders“; or, as others might say, “inside Russia”.) Iran, a country that last attacked somebody in 1795, also. The British Navy joins the US Navy in “freedom of navigation” cruises in the South China Sea. Both navies would suffer from shortages in a real war. Maybe better to stay at home and let Beijing worry about freedom of navigation to and from China. Not content with the fact that the USA has no competent icebreakers, Washington is contemplating FON cruises in the Russian Arctic. The US regularly flies B-52s near countries it wants to overawe – “sending a message” they call it. Some message – 31 were lost in Vietnam. Or was it 34? At any event, given that it’s spent years thinking about what to do if the USAF comes, it’s unlikely that Tehran sees two B-52s as anything other than a derisory provocation.

Some US generals get it – World War II loss rates. Maybe even most generals get it, but they’re not making the decisions. People who call it “the greatest military in the history of the world” (Obama) “best trained, best equipped, and strongest military the world has ever known” (Hillary Clinton) with the “greatest weapons” (Trump) part of “the most powerful military alliance ever assembled“, “America’s forward operating base for democracy” do. And, just as if the last twenty years had not been a record of overextended failures, here’s a cheerleader calling for more of the same: A Superpower, Like It or Not.

NATO isn’t a paper tiger, it’s a paper pussycat. Lab rats in the latest woke experiment; bad morale and fading cohesion; low readiness levels; exhausted by forever wars; expensive weapons that don’t work; pawns in the fantasies of belligerent braggarts: that’s a recipe for catastrophe.

NATO would be severely defeated in a war with Russia or China and probably with Iran. If it can’t secure Afghanistan or Iraq after two decades, if it takes 226 days to overthrow Qaddafi, 79 days in Kosovo, what makes it think it can casually provoke countries that know they’re on the hit list and have been preparing for two decades? Do the Polish players in Winter 2020 still think it will be “timely and effective“?


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.


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.”


(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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.