Tag Archives: U.S. politics

NATO expansion as a failure of empathy

This article in History News Network explains why allowing NATO to expand too much too fast after the fall of the Soviet Union may have been a crucial mistake.

By 2017 much of the former communist-ruled area of Europe—including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Albania—had joined the alliance, as had three former republics of the USSR itself (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). In 2008 NATO’s Bucharest Declaration indicated that two more former Soviet republics could at some point in the future join the organization whose original purpose was to protect its members against Soviet threats. (“NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO.  We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”)

To realize how colossally we have failed to empathize with Russian concerns about such expansion, we should imagine how we would feel if Canada and Mexico and say some states that successfully seceded (imagine Texas, Minnesota, and North Dakota) joined a Russian alliance system. Our empathy deficit has been recognized by many leading political thinkers, including some conservative statesmen.

In her The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-first Century, Georgetown’s Angela Stent approvingly quotes a German official, who accused the United States of “an empathy deficit disorder” toward Russia. In addition, Henry Kissinger (former secretary of state), Jack Matlock (Reagan appointed ambassador to Russia), and Robert Gates (secretary of defense under both George W. Bush and Obama) all have criticized a lack of U. S. empathy toward Russian concerns about NATO expansion. Typical is Gates’s comment: “Moving so quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union to incorporate so many of its formerly subjugated states into NATO was a mistake. . . . Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching.” (See here for sources of quotes.)

I think there are some important claims here as we see echos of the same lack of empathy in U.S. statements and positions toward China. We can try to understand their motives, interests, and understanding of their role in the history of the region as we engage with them. This doesn’t mean being weak, it means being smart and strategic and giving peace a chance.

 

Wikileaks and the NSA

Wikileaks has released a set of documents about NSA activities, which is covered by the Intercept. Here’s one tidbit:

The NSA, it turns out, likes to stay on top of the latest scientific developments. Writing at the end of 2004, an NSA cryptanalyst described her experience working as an intern, and using her cryptography skills, on looking for information about genetic sequencing in the signals intelligence collected by the NSA. “The ultimate goals of this project are to gain general knowledge about genetic engineering research activity by foreign entities,” she wrote, “and to identify laboratories and/or individuals who may be involved in nefarious use of genetic research.”

sovereignty

Here is a long, long post from Lawfare covering three books about the state of national sovereignty.

In these polarized times, it came as a surprise to me that the authors of three of the most interesting books on international relations of the past year agree on at least one thing. Each argues that the global order is entering a crisis that calls into question the concept of state sovereignty, a foundational principle of the international system as it has existed for nearly four centuries. In the past half-century—as globalization has interwoven the international community more densely and closely than ever, multilateral institutions have proliferated, new doctrines on human rights and counterterrorism have gained credence, and transnational threats have emerged—the definition of sovereignty has come unmoored from its traditions. These diverse authors agree that this will have consequential effects on the world, but diverge over how we reached this point and what should happen next.

The books—Rosa Brooks’ How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Richard Haass’ A World in Disarray, and David Kennedy’s A World of Struggle—could be shelved in the subgenre of international relations literature dedicated to predictions of imminent crisis.

Like I said, it’s long and it covers each of the three books. I’m going to skip to a paragraph on climate change at the end.

Even with stable but rights-abusing regimes in power, undergoverned spaces are likely to grow. This will be exacerbated by increased competition for scarce resources as climate change and demographic shifts strain water and food sources; there is a compelling argument that this already contributed to the conditions for the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Even where conflict does not occur, people will be displaced by climate change. Rising sea levels are already creating “climate refugees” emigrating from the Marshall Islands. Indeed, the flows of refugees and migrants pushed out of their homes by climate change and conflict could pose as great a challenge to sovereignty as Responsibility to Protect and U.S. counterterrorism policy. For all its merits, saving sovereignty as it has been classically understood will not turn back the clock on the diffusion of power that has weakened central governments over the past half-century, it will not end the civil wars that have expanded political vacuums, and it will not halt the creeping effects of climate change.

I probably have a somewhat naive and simplistic view of the world, but a worled baded on simple and easy-to-understand principles might be a more stable world than the one we find ourselves in now. Between the fall of the Berlin wall (1989) and at least the U.S./NATO attack on Yugoslavia (1999), it seemed like we had an international consensus that borders were going to be important and enforced by the international community, led by the UN security council. US- but not UN-led wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and the various drone strikes around the world seem to have seriously eroded that. Now Russia has crossed the borders of Georgia and Ukraine, and China is challenging Japan and other Asian nations in ares they have clearly claimed for awhile. The U.S. can act outraged but it is kind of hard to take the moral high ground.

So in my simple world, the UN Security Council would be reformed so that it represents a true consensus among the great powers, and military action violating borders would be undertaken only to punish an aggressor who has already violated a border, and only when all the great powers (minus any that is the aggressor in question). In my simplistic world, this solves the problem of balance of power because there are no alliances between great powers, only an alliance of all the great powers against whatever one has chosen to be out of line. And even the U.S. with our current economic and military might (which could arguably be at a peak or even on the wane) should think twice before standing up to the entire rest of the world.

Yes, this does leave the question of how to deal with severe human rights violations within borders. I don’t claim to have all the answers on that, but I just think it has been far too easy for great powers to claim they are attacking their neighbors for so-called “humanitarian” reasons. I would question whether military violence has ever caused less human suffering than it avoided. Certainly not in the short term.

April 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • I first heard of David Fleming, who wrote a “dictionary” that provides “deft and original analysis of how our present market-based economy is destroying the very foundations―ecological, economic, and cultural― on which it depends, and his core focus: a compelling, grounded vision for a cohesive society that might weather the consequences.”
  • Judges are relying on algorithms to inform probation, parole, and sentencing decisions.
  • I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.

a persistent unblinking stare

Blimps are making a comeback. According to The Intercept, they are being used routinely by the NSA for security and surveillance work.

In recent years, airships — or aerostats, as they are formally called — have been a source of major military investment. Between 2006 and 2015, the U.S. Army paid Raytheon some $1.8 billion to develop a massive missile-defense blimp called the JLENS, which is equipped with powerful radar that can scan in any direction 310 miles. (That’s almost the entire length of New York state.) In October 2015, the JLENS attracted national attention after one became untethered amid testing and drifted north from Maryland to Pennsylvania before it was brought back under control. In 2010, the Army commissioned another three airships — called Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicles — as part of a $517 million contract with Northrop Grumman. The company stated that the airships would “shape the future” of the military’s intelligence-gathering capabilities and provide a “persistent unblinking stare” from the sky.

The Argument Culture

In 1998, Deborah Tannen wrote a book called The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. Basically what it describes is a culture where the objective of every discussion is to win, not to seek consensus or at least come to understand the reasons for other people’s positions.

Our society has become overwhelmingly adversarial, with consequences not only in our ability to solve problems but also in our personal relationships.  The war on drugs, the battle of the sexes, politicians’ turf battles—war metaphors pervade our talk and shape our thinking, urging us to approach anything we need to accomplish as a fight between two opposing sides.

Tannen traces this tendency to the history of our educational system, and shows its roots among boys at play.  Exploring how other cultures approach opposition, and discussing the influence of electronic communication in ratcheting up the level of aggression, Tannen shows how we can move toward more constructive dialogue in our public as well our private lives.  This book will change forever how you see forces that powerfully shape our lives, and suggests new ways of reaching our goals.

An American Sickness

The New York Times has a review of a new book called An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Rosenthal thinks the health care market is different, and she sums up these differences as the “economic rules of the dysfunctional medical market.” There are 10 — some obvious (No. 9: “There’s money to be made in billing for anything and everything”); some humorous (No. 2: “A lifetime of treatment is preferable to a cure”) — but No. 10 is the big one: “Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.” To Rosenthal, that’s the answer to Scalia’s question. The health care market doesn’t work like other markets because “what the market will bear” is vastly greater than what a well-functioning market should bear. As Rosenthal describes American health care, it’s not really a market; it’s more like a protection racket — tolerated only because so many different institutions are chipping in to cover the extortionary bill and because, ultimately, it’s our lives that are on the line…

The difference between the United States and other countries isn’t the role of insurance; it’s the role of government. More specifically, it’s the way in which those who benefit from America’s dysfunctional market have mobilized to use government to protect their earnings and profits. In every country where people have access to sophisticated medical care, they must rely heavily on the clinical expertise of providers and the financial protections of insurance, which, in turn, creates the opportunity for runaway costs. But in every other rich country, the government not only provides coverage to all citizens; it also provides strong counterpressure to those who seek to use their inherent market power to raise prices or deliver lucrative but unnecessary services — typically in the form of hard limits on how much health care providers can charge.

In the United States, such counterpressure has been headed off again and again. The industry and its elected allies have happily supported giveaways to the medical sector. But anything more, they insist, will kill the market. Although this claim is in conflict with the evidence, it is consistent with the goal of maximum rewards to (and donations from) the industry. As a result, Medicare beneficiaries have prescription drug coverage (passed by Republicans in 2003), but Medicare administrators have no ability to do what every other rich country does: negotiate lower drug prices. In January, President Trump said drug companies were “getting away with murder” because they had “a lot of lobbyists and a lot of power,” insisting he would get Medicare to bargain. Should we really be surprised that the dealmaker in chief dropped the subject after meeting with pharma executives earlier this year?

At the individual level, there are really only two things I can think of to do. One is to attempt to shop around for health care. If you call your doctors office or hospital and ask for the price they charge for a particular service you are considering buying, which is how every other market works, they are likely to laugh at you. Your insurance company might actually help though. I have tried this with Blue Cross Blue Shield with limited success, but it definitely takes time and effort. The second option is to go abroad for checkups, lab work, and elective procedures. It’s not that hard to combine a vacation with a doctor or dentist visit. Insurance companies will generally cover it, because it will almost always save them money, but you definitely have to talk to them in advance. Foreign hospitals (I have experience in Singapore and Thailand) will sometimes bill U.S. insurance companies provided you have a letter form the insurance company up front. Otherwise you might have to front the cash and do the paperwork for reimbursement when you get back.

Like I said, all this takes time and effort, but there are significant savings to be had. So why aren’t third parties stepping into the vacuum to make comparison shopping and medical tourism easier for the masses?

March 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • La Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • Trump admires Andrew Jackson, who I consider a genocidal lunatic and the worst President in U.S. history.
  • Fluoridated drinking water could eventually be looked back on as a really stupid idea that damaged several generations of developing brains, like leaded gasoline. Or not…I’m not sure who to believe on the issue but caution is clearly warranted.

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new political survey says there is a chance that a majority of Americans are not bat-shit crazy. Which suggests they might not be too serious about Steve Bannon, who believes in some bat-shit crazy stuff. There are a number of apps and guides out there to help sane people pester our elected representatives when they fail to represent our interests.
  • South Korean women are projected to be the first to break the barrier of an average life expectancy of 90, with a 50% probability of this happening by 2030.
  • Advanced power strips can reduce the so-called “vampire loads” of our modern electronic devices that are never really off.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • This long NASA article first gets you excited about the possibility of life on eight new planets it has just discovered, and then throws cold water (actually, make that lethal X-rays) all over your excitement.
  • Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • CRISPR could be used to create new crops out of the wild ancestors of our current crops.

America’s worst President: “does that sound familiar?”

My vote has always been for Andrew Jackson, for two reasons. First, he destabilized the financial system, ushering in a century of unnecessary chaos. Second, he mounted a truly evil genocidal campaign against ethnic minorities. To quote Donald Trump (just slightly out of context), “does that sound familiar?”

By the way, I put Truman second for dropping the bomb. Then Lyndon Johnson, for the blood on his hands in Vietnam. I would put George W. Bush in the top 5 or so for starting two aggressive, unnecessary wars and destabilizing an entire region of the globe. If Trump manages to destroy our health care system and set climate change mitigation back by a decade, he may deserve a top 5. If there is a major war or nuclear detonation on his watch, he may still earn that #1 spot.

February 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • Russian hackers are cheating slot machines by figuring out the pattern on pseudo-random numbers they generate.
  • From a new book called Homo Deus: “For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.”