I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by noforeignpolicy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfidentleaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
We should probably be sounding the alarm just as urgently, if not more urgently, on biodiversity as we are on global warming. But while the case against global warming is so simple most children can grasp it, the case against biodiversity loss is more difficult to articulate.
A theory of mass extinctions of the past is that they have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions burning off underground fossil fuels on a massive scale. Only, not quite at the rate we are doing it now. Rapid collapse of ice cliffs is another thing that might get us.
It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.
Why do governments start wars when they kind of know that long, drawn-out wars end up being bad for all sides. A new book by Lawrence Freedman suggests it is because they think they can deliver an early knockout blow and achieve some limited objective. Technology tends to aid and abet that belief.
Freedman — an emeritus professor at King’s College London, one of Britain’s pre-eminent strategic thinkers and a former member of its official Iraq war inquiry — argues that the prognosticators often expect to limit the destructiveness of the next war through a surprise knockout blow. But they tend to overlook what happens if that first salvo doesn’t win a quick victory, underestimating the salience of demographics and economic capacity while overestimating citizens’ willingness to keep on fighting and dying in a prolonged struggle. Bloody stalemates at the front can spark revolutions, mutinies or civil wars at home…
There’s an important Asian case in point, mentioned only briefly here, that strongly supports Freedman’s warnings against delusions of knockout battles: Japan in World War II. Plotting their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese militarists hoped to win some quick victories and then negotiate peace on more favorable terms…
Today the allure of a swift victory comes packaged in new military technologies combining information with more accurate targeting from afar, killing enemies without endangering American soldiers. Freedman is unbeguiled by our current tech obsession. While studies of the evolution of warfare have often concentrated on newfangled weaponry like machine guns, nuclear submarines or artificial intelligence, he spurns the “constant temptation to believe that there were technical fixes for what were essentially political problems.”
I was musing recently about what possible motive Saudi Arabia could have for provoking war with Iran. Joschka Fischer suggests one answer:
As part of his agenda, MBS has also launched an aggressive new foreign policy, particularly toward Iran. The modernizers around MBS know that the revolution’s success will require breaking the power of Wahhabism by replacing it with Saudi nationalism. And in order to do that, they need a compelling enemy. Shia Iran, with which the Kingdom is competing for regional hegemony, is the ideal foil.
These domestic considerations help to explain why Saudi Arabia has thrown down the gauntlet and escalated tensions with Iran in recent months. Of course, from the Saudis’ perspective, they are merely picking up the gauntlet that Iran already threw down by interfering in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar, Yemen, and other countries.
So far, the battle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been limited to proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, with disastrous humanitarian consequences. Neither side, it seems, wants a direct military conflict. And yet that outcome can hardly be ruled out, given recent developments. In the Middle East, a cold war can turn hot rather quickly.
Steve Bannon describes the Middle East as on a knife’s edge. It’s clear to me the U.S. is just being lured deeper and deeper into a regional Arab-Iran conflict, with Syria at the center and maybe about to spill into Lebanon. Tying all Islamic fundamentalist-inspired violence to Iran seems to be an effective strategy for drawing the U.S. in. Russia seems happy to see the U.S. bleed even though they are bleeding too. Israel is happy to see Iran and Lebanon bleed. It is hard to envision the end game that hard liners on any of the sides are trying to achieve, other than enriching the arms industry.
Donald Trump’s proposed tax policies are based on numbers he just makes up. This is not a matter of differences of political opinion, it is a matter of made-up numbers that can be compared to actual measured numbers taken from reality. Large swaths of the public seem unaware or unconcerned about this difference. large enough swaths of the public are concerned enough, however, that we are accepting of a situation where the (very recently retired members of the) military appears to be taking a very active role in executive branch decision making.
U.S. diplomats in Cuba are being subjected to some kind of directional noise weapon, and nobody knows who is doing it or why.
It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.
Most hopeful stories:
The U.S. Democratic party could consider embracing an anti-monopoly platform. Spun the right way, this would be a pro-business policy in the sense of creating a level playing field for businesses of all sizes to compete and innovate, rather than a system that is unfairly skewed in favor of big business at the expense of small business, workers, and consumers.
Evaporation theoretically could be harnessed to produce enormous amounts of energy for human use.
Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:
A lot of the recyclables picked up at curbside in the U.S. are shipped to China for use as raw materials for manufactured goods that will be exported back to the U.S.
Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
I mused about what it would take for a metropolitan area in the U.S. to achieve statehood. It seems like a tough uphill climb but I can imagine it having benefits not just for the metro area but for the economy and country as a whole.
I’ve been reading a little about Socrates lately. There was a debate in ancient Athens, during its radical experiments with direct democracy and free speech, that a smooth-talking rhetorical style could tend to carry the day over solidly argued logic and facts. So these concerns are not new, and there probably was no golden age when groups of Americans or other human beings were a lot better at logic-based decision making than we are now. Still, what is frustrating is that any individual human being clearly is capable of logic-based decision making, and yet we are repeatedly swayed and misled by faulty logic in groups.
The insect thing is really wild. I just spent three weeks in tropical Asia and was struck by how un-buggy it was compared to past trips. Which probably has absolutely nothing to do with the peer-reviewed journal article mentioned above. My garden in Philadelphia actually was quite buggy this summer, somewhat ironically with the striped mosquito varieties that have drained significant quantities of my blood on past trips to tropical Asia.
Warontherocks.com has some suggestions on what a non-military U.S. foreign strategy could look like. Nothing earth shattering, basically it’s supporting emerging democracies and international institutions like the UN and WTO.
The intercept has a long piece on the U.S. military’s misadventures in Africa. Sometimes I wonder if there is really any geopolitical strategy, or if it is as simple as they are fighting us because we’re there, and we’re there because they’re fighting us. If this is the case, there is clearly no military solution. But if the military is making its own foreign policy and conducting diplomacy directly with foreign militaries, is it surprising that military ideas are the only ideas?
This American Historical Assocation blog talks about the dangers of so many generals being appointed to senior positions in the U.S. civilian government.
Cohen cautioned that it is normal for tension to arise in civil-military relations and that political generals have appeared at various points in American history. But he noted that the military is a far more powerful and important institution than it was prior to America’s rise to global dominance, making these tensions more serious. Like Kohn (and Whitt in her introduction to the briefing), Cohen is concerned about the growing separation of the military from civilian elites, noting, for example, that ROTC programs are far less common in our leading universities than they once were. He also worries that the high public esteem currently enjoyed by the military harbors hidden dangers. Maintaining civilian control of the military depends as much on “norms” as laws, and those norms are under assault.
These troubling trends make the generals’ prominent roles in the present administration a particular cause for concern. Kohn worried about the dearth of other agency voices to counterbalance the “troika” of Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly. Generals, he pointed out, are not diplomats or politicians, lacking their knowledge and experience. Although McMaster and the other generals probably see themselves—and are certainly seen by others—as “catastrophe insurance” for an erratic administration, they are trained to follow the orders of their commander-in-chief even if they consider those orders unwise. The irony here is that their commitment to civilian control and the chain of command limits their ability to influence or restrain the president.
Cohen agreed. He feared, for example, that the “troika” is less likely than civilian officials to resist or undermine a lawful directive by the president that they regard as reckless: going to war with North Korea was raised as an example. The only circumstance that might lead them to resign, he suggested, was if their honor was besmirched in the manner of Trump’s humiliation of Jeff Sessions. Cohen also warned of the rise of a “benign junta.” Noting that everyone in government is “the prisoner of their rolodexes,” he worried that Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly are likely to recruit fellow officers to staff junior positions, thereby expanding the military’s influence over the civilian sector.
Fueled by supercharged sea temperatures, the 2017 hurricane season was a terrible, terrible season for hurricanes devastating coastal regions of the United States. One reason is that these storms not only were powerful and hit densely populated areas, but they set records for rapid intensification. Beyond all the human suffering, one thing I find disturbing is that I feel desensitized at this point when I think back to how I felt after Hurricane Katrina. The first major city destroyed is a shock, but later you get numb to it if you are not actually there. Then finally, a remote island territory is all but wiped out in what should be shocking fashion, and the public and government response is decidedly muted. This is what the age of climate change and weapons proliferation might be like, a long, slow process of shifting baselines where the unthinkable becomes thinkable over time.
In a story that U.S. media didn’t seem to pick up, China seemed to make a statement in its official state-run media that it would defend North Korea in case of an unprovoked attack by the U.S. and its allies. John Bolton and Lindsey Graham made comments suggesting they think any number of Korean dead would be a price worth paying for an unprovoked U.S. attack. The Trump administration is openly using Nazi propaganda.
During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.
Most hopeful stories:
It’s possible that a universal basic income could save the U.S. government money by replacing less efficient assistance programs.
There are also workable proposals for a U.S. single-payer health insurance program, although this one would somewhat obviously mean the government spending more money, which it would have to collect in taxes. People would come out ahead financially if the taxes were less than the premiums they are paying now, which doesn’t seem that hard, but of course this is politically tough given the incredibly effective propaganda the finance industry has used to kill the idea for the last 50 years.
Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:
The FDA has approved formal trials of Ecstasy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
This surprising study from Boston University and University of Minnesota concludes that military families that suffered casualties in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars might have been the swing voters that put Trump over the top in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Kriner, Douglas L. and Shen, Francis X., Battlefield Casualties and Ballot Box Defeat: Did the Bush-Obama Wars Cost Clinton the White House? (June 19, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2989040
America has been at war continuously for over 15 years, but few Americans seem to notice. This is because the vast majority of citizens have no direct connection to those soldiers fighting, dying, and returning wounded from combat. Increasingly, a divide is emerging between communities whose young people are dying to defend the country, and those communities whose young people are not. In this paper we empirically explore whether this divide—the casualty gap—contributed to Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016. The data analysis presented in this working paper finds that indeed, in the 2016 election Trump was speaking to this forgotten part of America. Even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump. Our statistical model suggests that if three states key to Trump’s victory – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House. There are many implications of our findings, but none as important as what this means for Trump’s foreign policy. If Trump wants to win again in 2020, his electoral fate may well rest on the administration’s approach to the human costs of war. Trump should remain highly sensitive to American combat casualties, lest he become yet another politician who overlooks the invisible inequality of military sacrifice. More broadly, the findings suggest that politicians from both parties would do well to more directly recognize and address the needs of those communities whose young women and men are making the ultimate sacrifice for the country.
I acknowledge and am willing to believe the numbers. I am not sure I buy the conclusions these authors draw from the numbers – that communities with ties to the military will vote for candidates they think are least likely to send their children off to war. On the contrary, I would hypothesize that people in these communities might respond more strongly to patriotic rhetoric, and be more likely to support military approaches to geopolitical problems.