‘Decider Issues’: Or in the humanities some opinions are objectively wrong

neoliberal evolution

I pride myself on avoiding echo chambers and groupthink. I believe whether they be big media entrenched interests or small diseased hives of conspiracy theorists or cause loyalists, its not the size but the monotone that dooms ones ability to critically think. But this does not imply that I assume all opinions start equal until proven otherwise. And despite my own repeatedly demonstrated ability to evolve my views when confronted with (superior) evidence for changing them, it would be only natural if every 5-10 years I draw a line or two on issues where compromise is capitulation-because one side is just that objectively wrong.

Keeping away from obvious cases where actual scientific evidence is at play which makes drawing such lines obvious and really an exercise of the sane vs the unhinged (man made pollution’s effect on the climate, the need for evolution in science class, the scourge of anti-vaxxers, etc) and sticking straight to the humanities only, I can think of one issue last decade and one issue in this where compromise cannot and must not be made with the unhinged-lest we simply want to give up and join the postmodernists in their quest to believe any simple uninformed opinion is the final arbiter of reality.

Last decade, this issue was gay rights. It is not something I talk about much on this blog given its foreign policy focus, and it wasn’t my primary or sole issue of concern a decade ago either, but it was what I might call a ‘Decider Issue’. So named for the famous declarative statement of ‘I’m The Decider’, the then chimpanzee-in-chief, George W Bush-himself an example of a presidency that could be considered a great example of a Decider Issue in how it is interpreted.

There was no rational nor logical nor even purely blinkered individual self-interest argument against expanding legal rights for gays. There wasn’t. None. The only arguments were fear of change and utterly brain numbing religious screeds from those too foolish to put aside what should be their private culture for the public good. There were policies that mitigated harm to no demonstrable increase in harm to another-a rare in politics. Any aggreivement of enacting such policies was perceived and self-projection only, not in any way real or material. There was, quite simply, no actual compelling case for opposing gay rights. And even with a solid and successful push on many fronts and gay marriage now legal across the entire nation-the most important fights (housing and employment nondiscrimination) have yet to move beyond the state and federal employee level to the same degree as the more performative (if symbolic) marriage fight did. The fight remains, but most of the cultural side of it appears to be won. This is good. It helped immensely that when the fever seemed to break around 2006-2009 or so that an enormous amount of right wing cultural warriors from senators to ‘public policy experts’ to clergy were exposed as closet cases or with sex lives which deviated from their own stated norms in new and interesting ways. Larry Craig, Ted Haggert, George Reckers, Rick Santorum-ok, I made up that last one (but come on, you at least suspect to the same level one does Pence), the parade of humiliation and hypocrisy was like a conga line of rejects tagging on the back end of a pride parade. Their side was wrong. Debate was legitimizing them, they needed to be mocked, defeated, and crushed. This was an issue to end friendships over (and I almost never advocate doing that for political reasons).

A new such issue has arisen this decade. It is in foreign policy-something increasingly relegated to the back-burner since the anti-war movement got sidelined in the Obama years by the  visage of a respectable technocrat apparently taking it over from the frat boys of the Bush years. Because of this sidelining, this issue isn’t as clearly an obvious choice to most people-but it should be. That issue is NATO intervention in Syria. So, in a weird abstracted kind of way, Syria is the gay rights issue of today. A debate where one must draw the line of people who have a legitimate point on one side, and people who quite honestly should shut the hell up and go away on the other. I had a useful professional contact and acquaintance who was both pro rebel and said ‘if you sympathize with the Damascus government or the Turkish coup plot, defriend me now.’ Well, I did exactly that. I have no regrets. No one can learn from people so involved with their own ideology no matter its actual effects.

When I have spoken of Syria before on this blog I have largely done it by appraising the interests of each actor and how I believe that the best realistic solution (and this I have held as a consistent view since 2012 when I first got engaged with the issue) is government victory. I have never pretended to be happy agreeing so heartily with Russia (see gay rights positions, above) on an issue, and I have never used it as a generic ‘NATO is bad’ argument, which is tiresome and usually moralistic. This is geopolitics, there is no good and bad. But there is stupid and smart though. Rebel victory, (most likely just a total sectarian Balkanization of the country in effect with some kind of caliphate as the strongest faction) would be demonstrably bad for Syria and most Syrians for sure. But even speaking from the purely American standpoint-it is bad for NATO too. Already, by jumping on the regime change bandwagon but backing different mutually hostile factions, Washington and Ankara-the two biggest NATO contributors-are ready to tear their alliance apart. And for what? As it is the prolonging of the war (thanks to American arms and allies) has increased the refugee crisis which in turn increases the far right (the real threat to most trans-atlantic alliances and Russian containment in Europe). Idlib is possibly the greatest outdoor zoo of Al Qaeda the world has seen, and Iran-that great bogeyman of the west-is stronger than before.

Much like with opposition to gay rights before, a strange cavalcade of unqualified theorists and gibbering loons is swarming over the media, hoping to make a quick buck or get a signal boost from playing on the famously vulnerable heartstrings of a public addicted to quick fix media and knee jerk moralism. Samantha Power and Anne Marie Slaughter, the appropriately named duo, wax poetic about the dangers of not setting moral lines across the globe, as if the UN will collapse if we don’t scold Assad on using weapons I honestly would rather be killed by than many conventional munitions. These are simply cranks of a dying order, saying their piece before irrelevancy takes them. They are supported by legions of journalists who really are nothing but establishment cheerleaders and who imply anyone who denies America’s role as Global Ruler-Bearing Nun-Cop is either a foreign agent or dangerously unhinged.

The philosopher John Gray, writing in one of his more recent books of antihumanism, noted that one of the reasons Mesoamerican human sacrifice is so interesting is because they were societies that were really very honest about the performance of blood ritual in the maintenance of power and hierarchy. Most other societies invent elaborate charades like ‘just war theory’ or messianic prophecy and other dances around issues of ‘having to do something’ to cover up their naked thrusts for power-no matter how misguided and even self-destructive such policies can be. The worst ones even believe this rhetoric is truth, and these both humanitarian charity workers and defense contractors alike enjoy the services of the best. Seen in this context, the recent American airstrikes in Syria are a type of ritualistic bloodletting, the ceremonial reminder of international hierarchy for audiences both and home and abroad. Though I increasingly suspect their effectiveness is waning-but more abroad than at home. Much as the historical record in Mesoamerica shows that as the states began to come off their height of power, their sacrifices for public spectacle only increased until they couldn’t anymore. No one needs more reassurance that the hierarchy stands than those in decline. One fears for the future if present trends continue. Even if you change the government, the Democrats too have shown their propensity to love virtue signalling by cruise missile.

In such a situation, a firm line must be drawn. I do not simply *disagree* with those who support further or continued intervention in Syria, I despise them. They are my enemy. I wish them ill not only professionally but also personally. They have had seven years to realize the errors of their ways and if they have not done so yet, nor noticed the accurate depictions of those of us who have consistently predicted how the conflict would go, only to be ignored as the same talking heads who championed Iraq and Libya argue for another go on specious intelligence. They have chosen their camp and they are not to be reasoned out of it as they are clearly not motivated by reason. They are incapable of performing any kind of cost/benefit analysis-which is the real key to informed political views- and thus are nothing but ideologues. For any improvement to be made they must be confronted, shown to be the hollow shouters they are, and utterly disrespected at every turn. Those of us opposed to the neocons, Bolton, Kristol, Rubio, and the like, should make their opinions on these issues as loathsome and shameful in the public sphere as once happened to their forebears. This is The Decider Issues at work.

As a notable aside, Rubio is wrong on both of these Decider Issues of mine. In fact, I have generally taken the view that Rubio is always wrong on everything-and that if he has an opinion it must be wrong no matter what it is. Just as once my greatest political moment was seeing Rick Santorum’s kids cry on live tv as he lost his senate re-election, so too do I long for the day when Rubio, Power, and their ilk mope pathetically as they realize their time is over.

P.S. Considering that conservatives have lost the cultural war on gay rights issues (for now), I am far less bothered by temporary alliances with paleocons for mutual foreign policy interests than I am the general Democrat trend of allying with neocons and the Beltway War Lobby but being woke on social issues. Its easy to be ‘woke’, and often politicians do it performatively anyway. It is much harder to strike against the established moneybags of Big Defense and Gulf lobbyists. Hence the picture used for this post which might as well be the new MSNBC logo.

 

 

Some aphorisms for the bipartisan neocon establishment

All apologies to the style of Emil Cioran.
With the neocons as much in ascendancy under Trump as any other being made apparent by recent actions in Syria, some general observations:
When, ever, on an issue of strategy have these people ever been right? Aside from boosting contractor stock portfolios I mean. They have never been right, yet the horrifying thing is that I increasingly sense this is not intentional by most, but the result of true ideological faith. American Exceptionalism meets Jonestown and Waco. The last desperate gasp of a dying and discredited ideology. The death rattle of the neoliberal world view.
The fear of internal upheaval has shifted the neocon/neoliberal center (the true and most long term powerful enemy of strategists and critical thinkers) from the GOP to the DNC and the fifty disproportionately influential ‘Never Trump’ Republicans that exist in the universe that the Democrats are convinced hold the fate of the nation and whose seduction is the most pressing issue in politics today (for them). To fight this cancer, one cannot be partisan but rather entirely against both major parties. Bolton on the right, the Clintons in the center, Power on the left. If this foe is a bipartisan alliance than an alliance which is much *more* than simply bipartisan must rise to fight it. Horseshoe theory may be the most laughable and childish of liberal self-congratulatory ideas, but it may be time to consider some amount of coming together against the center on foreign policy, at least. Divisions that cannot be overcome domestically certainly can and will always exist, but so long as over-funded think tanks and media conglomerates set the discourse, temporary issue-specific alliances may bear fruit. This is the ultimate lesson of realism, after all.
The Democratic establishment knows chasing the GOP for a vanishing and ineffectual center of wine moms and dealership dads is easier than internal reform, as they are just as dependent on mega wealthy donors as their opposition and any reform threatens their coffers. Hence MSNBC becomes the Fox of last decade in war cheer-leading and misdirection. The more right the Dems can go, they think, the bigger the donor share. Therefore you will see no meaningful opposition to disastrous intervention from their power-brokers than the purely performative. Legal quibbles but no alternatives. In effect you have a party controlled by the old industries of gas, oil, and coal-and an opposition party controlled by the new industries of Silicon Valley, entertainment, and established charity. Both, however, are equally enthralled to Wall Street and defense contracting. It is therefore at those two targets, that the primary offensive must be directed.
The phrase ‘welfare queen’ dominated the hollow discourse of the euphoric 1990s, but to no people does this accusation ring more true than against the Pentagon and the private contractors that eat the fat from its haunches. And to no nation is this phrase more true than that of Israel. Even the wretched husk of Saudi Arabia, easily the most odious of American allies, pays its own way in a sense. Israel as welfare queen-now that is at least a memorable talking point.
Idealism, however, is not the solution. These problems call for a sober and realist pragmatism. To see an enemy clearly is not to rail at his morality but rather to respect his success and seek to one-up it and undo it in new and more clever ways. To learn from the parasitic infestation of neoconservatives first, in order to build up both the antibodies and the keys to their eventual extermination. Study their methods of media discourse. To understand them is to undo them. It is not in my interest, and I would argue neither in yours whoever you are, to replace them with something equally detached from reality-but rather to replace them with something objectively better in a measurable cost/benefit calculation. A return to the realism of history as managed chaos and not teleology. The end of history (of humanity) will not come about due to consensus or transcendence but through the natural and inevitable extinction of the species. Until that point, however, we could at least try to reduce the net amount of misery within achievable parameters. This would, of course, require the maturity to acknowledge that these parameters would be both variable and potentially hostile to competition. There may be many different solutions going their own way rather than one.

Bolton and the Blobocracy

Boltonized

It is so thick, yet you can still count the hairs individually.

I have to regard the first two generations of the Mongol Empire as the best run superpower in history. From diplomacy and espionage to warfare, an incredibly small band of people could grow through assimilation of other steppe tribes while also conquering much more numerous sedentary people. In the chapter on leadership in Timothy May’s ‘Mongol Art of War’ this is summarized succinctly:

‘Whereas in the rest of the medieval world military genius, or even competence, was rare, among the Mongols it was expected from every commander. Much of this resulted from how the Mongols selected their commanders and trained them in the performance of their duties. Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Mongols did not base the ability to command on lineage, although this might support one’s claim to authority. Instead, throughout his ascent to power, Chinggis Khan demonstrated an extraordinary gift for spotting talent in men, whether they were of noble birth or commoners. Merit was the key to acquiring a position of leadership in the Mongol military hierarchy , and battlefield promotions were not uncommon.’

One could also apply this summary to the Mongol use of diplomats, technicians, and the like as well. Such a system enabled one of the most rapid and successful expansions of force projection in history. Such a system, also, is the exact opposite of what the United States is currently wielding to shore up its rapidly deteriorating position as unipolar superpower. As Ibn Khaldun’s theories of history accurately predict, when a previously successful power becomes complacent it loses its bonds of solidarity and loyalty and drifts into the path of corruption for the sake of defensive and hoarding elites. The ending of social mobility in the governing elite is one of the key aspects of this decline. The lanyards of today are like the court eunuchs of many terminal Chinese dynasties of the past, albeit with a far less painful mark of their status to dangle from their person. Obama himself while president called this class ‘The Blob’, a monolithic force which, in our society, constantly advocates for interventionist war as the primary method of solving what are often minor and regional diplomatic disputes, or rivalries left over from the past which no longer have relevance to the average person. At the time this was remarked upon, that very blob proved its reality by launching numerous attempts at rebuttals, some of which are mentioned and linked to here. This is the Blobocracy, an alliance of misguided idealists, blindfolded patriots, ultra-credulous West Wing fans, foreign nations with the cash to buy lobbyists, and rapacious profit motivated defense contractors (only the last two of these factions is truly achieving its objectives).

How does this get us to the newly onboarding national security adviser John Bolton? Well, because in many ways Bolton is the ultimate creature of the establishment-even though many of them serve as his greatest detractors. He is decried by war hawks as a war hawk, but really, much like the craven Republican establishment of Paul Ryan in relation to Trump, what they really dislike is the brazen overtness and tone deafness of their own polices stated publicly by an uncouth village idiot type figure. And yet the village idiot is still spawned from the context of the village that helped to mold them.

John Bolton, who I once mentioned before in the early days of this blog-if in passing, began his illustrious career in foreign affairs by joining the National Guard to duck draft service in Vietnam. I can’t fault him for that, who would want to play Burgoyne and Cornwallis to Vo Nguyen Giap’s George Washington especially when the outcome seemed negative for the US? But it is in light of his later-life commitments to sending other young men to die in ill conceived and strategically disastrous conflicts that casts a retrospective shadow of hypocrisy on this once logical decision. Bolton proceeded to behave like many of the eager beavers DC is still host to today, rising up the partisan ranks by attaching himself to a school of thought with inside the Beltway cred. This was the neoconservative movement, a truly Guy de Lusignan-esque medley of ex-Trotskyites, defense hawks fearful of the end of the Cold War, and Lawrence of Arabia LARPers committed to the naive teleology of enlightenment progress in geopolitics and determined to do to the Middle East what had already been done to Japan and Western Europe and eager to rush out into the desert to end up with mass graves. The problem, of course, is that Japan and Western Europe had already been industrialized nation states before their reconstruction after World War II. The fact that the very nation that had failed to adequately reconstruct and reintegrate the former Confederate States of the American Civil War had really lucked out on occupations in 1945 allowed a delusional belief to fester, despite the fact that the next up to develop states were largely places that did it on their own terms. But loyalty to cause rather than ability decided (and still decides) the upper echelons of promotion in DC. It was this constant falling upwards, a common feature in the professional classes of policy wonkery, that Bolton rose to higher and higher positions.

Bolton, to his credit, did not actually believe much of the pablum about democracy promotion and ‘the end of history.’ But what he did believe, and still does believe, is the merit of constant applications of offensive force-which was the true core of underlying those other beliefs. This is an overtly realist blog and hardly one to dispute the utility of power projection, but power projection is always dangerous when it comes to military action and usually should be a last resort after much planning for contingencies. Allies, certainly, should not be alienated and wars unnecessary for the vital national interest (that should be apparent to an average citizen to be worth their support or participation) should not be pursued. The effect of Bolton’s policy positions is actually identical to, say, Bill Kristol, Dick Cheney, or Hillary Clinton, but simply with more unilateralism and less caution. The underlying effect of them, however, remains largely the same. Infamously establishment Thought Loser Shadi Hamid even recently pined that he *wished* Bolton was a neocon, largely for purely semantic and utterly virtue signalling reasons. The problem with much of this is that the cause does not matter. Looking, post-World War II at major American military interventions serving even its own narrow interest, one cannot help but see the failures far outweigh the success and even the utterly ambiguous results. The Korean War was a success measured by its original stated goals but became a disaster when hubris expanded those goals into a new war. Vietnam was an unmitigated disaster. So was Lebanon and Somalia if on a much smaller scale-and then you have everything post 9/11. This leaves the First Persian Gulf War and Kosovo as the only real wins, with the first leading to a repeat of the over-extension in hubris of Korea ( in subsequent rather than the same conflict) and the second’s benefiting any member of NATO or even the world in general extremely in doubt. American group think has a planning problem. Even if you made a case for all of these conflicts, it would be hard to say they had been planned and executed well by the Blob. And Bolton is very much the greatest cheerleader of continuing these blundering policies. Perhaps even expanding them.

Bolton maintains, to this day, that Iraq was a success. He supported the Libyan intervention and the (thankfully failed) attempt to regime change Syria. He constantly advocates for war upon Iran and North Korea. We can, of course, hope that his appointment is a canny move by Trump to create a fearsome persona making his upcoming negotiations with foreign foes easier, but such moves require a strategic thinker like Theodore Roosevelt or Richard Nixon-something that Trump so far has shown he is not. But one thing that cannot be stated is that Bolton is some crazy outlier, coming into a sensible system ready to play wrecking crew. He is in fact merely the strongest fundamentalist proponent of that very system. If the Bipartisan Consensus is a Southern Baptist convention advocating for young earth creationism on the Middle East than Bolton is merely the Westborough Baptist Church picketing across the street cutting straight to the fire and brimstone. He is exceptionally dangerous, but he is hardly an abnormality to the Blobocracy.

The Rise of the Woke Warrior Wymynne

wokewarriorwymyynne

A proper meritocracy should eliminate ethnic, sectarian, and gender discrimination in order to increase the mobility of its talent pool. In an anarchic inter-state system it should be obvious that states that follow such a reasoning will probably have a more intellectually robust policy class capable of more challenging internal discussions and thus more creative policies than its competition. This is a strong argument based not on morality but on strategic performance for the utility of what could be deemed an ‘intersectional’ approach to governing. One which I would support and could think of numerous examples in history where inclusivity in the policy classes paid real dividends. Amy Chua-of all people-even wrote a historically simplistic, if single-issue-convincing, book about this very subject called ‘Day of Empire’.

But acknowledging this should not make us blind to the usage of such policies in service of propaganda or an establishment which opens some doors while shutting others. Such is increasingly the case with the Woke Warrior Woman.

The Woke Warrior Women, or Wymynne if one is feeling extra spicy, are effectively the same lanyarded defense-nerds that have existed among the bipartisan consensus guys in American foreign policy circles. Support for military expansion and interventionism is always a net good, opposition to it is always at least misguided. American Exceptionalism is assumed to be at least somewhat true, and the agency or reasoning of foreign actors is often viewed on a scale of morality play vis-a-vis American norms and objectives. But now these types are more strongly identified as Democrats with solidly progressive chops on domestic (social) issues. Newly ‘radicalized’ by Trump and flush with the relative successes of the Obama years (fittingly, an administration that only truly succeeded on domestic social policy and reverted to Bushism on everything else), the WWW (W3?)’s believe themselves to be edgy and successful boundary pushers.

The actual effect of what they are largely doing in the present context, however, is to simply increase the size of the tent for the policies that are long since established as unchangeable and establishment-defended without actually changing any of those policies themselves. In many ways this is the cultural signifier for how the Democratic Party mainstream continues to drift to the neoconservative right. It is, in its own internal logic, a rational response in a way. If the international liberal order is no longer and inevitable end-destination of a humanity moving clearly on a linear and progressive path than perhaps this sinking ship can only be righted by taking it into battle and sinking all the other ships first. In this particular way the neocons were actually smarter than the traditional liberals-at least they recognized that their pie in the sky teleology was not reachable without hard power behind it.

Of course, rather than learn the lesson that perhaps the view of history as a universal and progressive process leading to a unified conclusion is far more faith than science (or even really humanities), it becomes easier for such people not to intellectually challenge themselves but rather just advocate more strident methods to keep their illusions going. The slipping of mainstream liberalism into neoconservative territory as reflected by the dominant wing of the Democratic Party is really a natural result of this type of flailing. They have to maintain that Iraq was bad-it is now entrenched as a partisan issue-but Syria and Libya were different because…reasons. Never mind both states were significantly better governed than Iraq ever was under Saddam or that Syria’s sectarian divisions are even more convoluted and dangerous than that of Iraq. Here come the Samantha Powers, and they know what is best! They aren’t some knuckledragging brutes, and so they can bring a different perspective!

Except that so far, they really don’t. Women, like men, are only allowed into the Beltway Consensus Club’s highest echelons if they tow that very consensus. In building a new government from scratch this may be necessary, but in an old and well established institution this can often be intellectual death. If growing the tent means the same ideological uniformity, then the tent’s actual potential for adaptability and new thinking is utterly squandered.

Madeline Albright’s enforcement of the sanctions regime on Iraq in the 90s was every bit as brutal in its effect and lack of results as the actual invasion was. Samantha Power’s complicity in aiding the Saudi intervention in Yemen is every bit of the policies she once criticized others for doing, and Gina Haspel’s running of an ‘enhanced interrogation’ black site was on the same level of support for bad policy that the once derided John Yoo used to give.  Maybe Yoo wishes he once could have played the woman card. It certainly will be used by much of the media and political classes to dismiss criticism of Trump’s new appointee to head the CIA.

What most of this, of course, is that the defense establishment has smelled the winds of change. They tried to hold the line on being somewhat conservative until the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell showed them that, given shifting norms and the youthful demographic they seek to recruit, not only could they survive by adopting social liberalism but also that they could *thrive* with it.

This is not an unwise choice. The military was in fact throwing away endless amounts of talent before. It is perfectly reasonable for them to adopt this line as they move into a world where young people with socially reactionary views on gender and sexuality become smaller and smaller…But make no mistake, the goals of this type of marketing is just as much about getting on the good graces of the public and commentariat classes as it is expanding the recruit pool. If people nod their heads in agreement at the ‘wokeness’ (performative or otherwise) in the Pentagon or among defense contractors, they might be more willing to overlook the blatant financial malfeasance that goes on in such places, the mercenary like costliness of many private allied organizations, and the normalization of endless and unnecessary warfare.

If much of the establishment continued to hold on to the socially conservative front, it might be overextended when it also tried to hold on to its more bottom line fiscal and foreign policy fronts. You can only save so many dinosaurs at one time, and social issues represent by far the least amount of sacrifice for the old guard to dispense with. The military only looks better in the public sphere when ViceVox can write up an article about how Totally Tubular it is that These Women Drone Pilots are Spreading Wokeness over the Skies of Yemen!

One the other hand, though, at least their messaging has improved from the old ‘join the marines and slay green screen dragons’ days:

 

Navigating the Beringian Age of Geopolitics

beringia

I have written numerous Eurasia geopolitics articles, North America articles, and a South American article on here so far. It was my plan to do Africa next, but instead it seems first comes one which is both Eurasia and North America together. Go figure.

Eurasia is what is often referred to as ‘The World Island’ in classical geopolitics. The closest thing our present geological era has to a supercontinent. For much of history land power was easier and cheaper to wield than sea power-though obviously this has changed since-and Eurasia, being directly connected to humanity’s birthplace of Africa and the birthplace of both agriculture and animal domestication was the location of the strongest and most technologically advanced states. Up until the rise of the United States this was almost always true, with a one off in Carthage, a possible economic Malian interlude in the Middle Ages, and Egypt really being the only periodic exception (and even then just barely as it straddled two continents). Having the majority of Earth’s population and societies, Eurasia was the natural laboratory of state formation and warfare innovation, especially connected as it was with other parts of its own massive expanse due to a plethora of natural harbors an an ‘inland sea’ of sorts in the grasslands of the Eurasian steppe that stretch from Hungary to Manchuria.

The first geopolitical thinkers to really get into this World-Island thesis were people like Halford Mackinder, who came of prominence in a time when the British were still top dogs but knew their time was running out due to the rapid rise of German, Russian, and American power. He was the first to postulate that the rapid industrialization of these powers and the expansion of their railroad networks would return the logistical and military initiative to land powers for the first time since the decline of the steppe nomads who had once been the qualitatively dominant military force in world history. It would become a British obsession, soon to be inherited also by the Americans, French, and Japanese as well, to hinder any one power from exerting this level of dominance over Eurasia, the continent-of-continents. The French would use alliances and dominance of Africa to attempt to be a secondary player in this game, the Japanese would attempt to carve out their own exclusive sphere, and the Americans would use their fortunate geography to sit around, sabotage everyone else from a distance, and then come roaring in with economic power and naval power. Russia, the second place player, had become the Eurasian colossus always feared in the form of the Soviet Union. But a rising China and a hostile Western Europe and Japan kept it safely in check and America secure. Eurasia was still too big and too diverse to become someone’s private world-island. Even in the face of the power and prestige of the largest an most mobile army the world had yet to see.

But this very falling of the dice called into question the Eurasian presumption. It was a North America, dominated by one power which also in turn dominated South America, that became the first truly global maritime power. As I wrote about on here previously, this leads to many factors to reconsider the concept of the ‘world island’: be it the very concept itself or which continent it might be. I argued that North America makes a better case if the concept is to be used.

What is clear, however, is that great power rivalry in the near future will more heavily involve North America and Eurasia as the central poles of alliance networks. This does not mean that major conflicts and powers will not arise elsewhere, but for the time being the changes that will matter most will happen on these two land masses. Their past interactions have already had a massive import on the world we live in causing spillovers across the planet, even pre-dating modern humanity when a more Eurasia-connected North America wreaked disproportionate devastation on South America.

There is nothing mystical or obscure about this. These are the continents with the largest East-West widths which enable an easier and more rapid spread of flora and fauna within climate zones, something that quite possibly helps the spread of human technology and infrastructure as well. Both have long productive coastlines, vast stretches hospitable to life but also diverse in biome, and connecting interior highways of grasslands and big navigable rivers. Due to the movement of plate tectonics and shifting sea depths due to ice ages, both continents would periodically compete and exchange life forms in evolution in more recent history than many other continental collisions. For most of history Eurasia was clearly the place to be for humans maximizing their power. The horse, a North American creature originally, would die out there before being reintroduced by the Spanish but thrive in Eurasia. Eurasia was bigger, most diverse, more connected with other places. It had the good fortune to have a larger span of dray-maritime real estate for agriculture and the most animals situated for domestication. North America lacked this critical large pack beast advantage. It was also, of course, settled by humanity significantly later than Eurasia was due to simple reason of location and distance from Africa.

The human version of the Great American Interchange would begin in 1492, though the uneven nature of it would not be apparent until the fall of the Aztec Empire to the Spanish decades later. Spanish iron, gunpowder, pack animals, and sea power would be decisive despite the fact that North America had on average even larger cities than Europe in Mesoamerica and just as-if not more diverse-agricultural crops and practices. Despite their late comparative peopling and isolation, Mesoamerica (and the Andes) had numerous inventions and highly advanced urban planning, irrigation systems, and in the Aztec and Mayan worlds specifically, written bureaucracies.

The technological disparity forged in the furnace of Eurasian state formation was an obvious advantage to the invaders, but it was not the most important one. Technology can be adopted and copied. The Spanish were few and far from home. It was the pathogens they brought from their long contact with pack animals that were truly decisive. The labor saving animals may have jump-started resource collection and travel, but for the point of the Columbian Exchange, the most important part was the diseases the Eurasians had partial immunity to that the Native Americans did not. On reading in this topic I have seen estimates of death rates due to disease anywhere from 80%-95%. It remains an open issue, but this was a far deadlier outbreak of pestilence for the western hemisphere than the Bubonic Plague ever had been in Eurasia. It also led to ridiculous myths about Native Americans being backward as many of their societies had been fatally weakened if not outright destroyed before they had ever even been seen by the newcomers. The western hemisphere had become a post-apocalyptic tableau of societal collapse. Spain had the keys to be the pre-eminent world power, the only country in that era that realistically could have equaled or surpassed Ming China.

And yet the technology was still too young. Spain squandered its gains by using pillaged gold in galleon convoys to basically drive up inflation. Its infrastructure would remain largely feudal at home and in the colonies. Meanwhile, piracy on the high seas of these easy Spanish pickings by British, French, and Dutch privateers would in fact end up benefiting those countries more at Spain’s expense. The cauldron of Eurasian competition was offshore to the oceans and outside of Europe, relocating to the Americas. By having to hack out self-sustaining colonies out of the blue these more northerly powers would end up getting more of the benefit from the new world with tobacco, cotton, furs, and timber. Native Americans north of Mesoamerica were less ‘advanced’ and lesser in numbers than those further south, but this in fact made them far more difficult to conquer. They were mobile, more open to adaptation in war, and could not be simply overrun by a specific region or city. Plus, they now had competeing powers to play off each other for weapons, horses, and supplies. For about a century, from the mid 17th to mid 18th Century, the Natives of North America would in fact be equal partners in the great power rivalry that dominated the continent. Either way, the Spanish unipolar moment in the hemisphere (and thus the potential of bringing that power home as well) was over. Even without the arrival of the new European powers, the Pueblo Indians and the Comanche had already rolled back the Spanish frontier in the north, and the Mapuche had stopped it in the southern cone of South America.

In many ways the European nations could only thrive in North America if the natives were fighting each other. But many of the natives gained when European fought as well. The Iroquois would destroy their long tong rivals, the Huron, and then go on to roll back Quebec’s frontier with their musket-armed forces. Hudson’s bay firearms-for-fur trading would empower the Blackfoot to heights previously unheard of for them, and the previously mentioned Comanche basically ran their own horseback empire in the southwest for a century at Spanish expense. This was a multipolar world. Then British naval power took Quebec and expelled the French from the continent. A defensive Spain could only play catch up as British goods and settlers flooded the continent. Unipolar domination of the Western Hemisphere, an explicit goal of William Pitt the Elder, then Prime Minister, once again looked in sight with London-rather than Madrid-its true heir. Demographics had now tipped in favor of the settlers. Europeans outnumbered Native Americans in their own continent. Despite the partial rolling back of the frontier in Pontiac’s War, Native solidarity could not survive the American Revolution and the subsequent Northwest War where the US army was born after its largest ever battlefield defeat at the hands of the Shawnee, Miami, and Lenape-but critically from the geopolitical (if not cultural) perspective, neither did Britain’s North American empire. The first independent country of the colonial era had arisen in the Americas, it would soon be followed by many others. Events in Europe were about to give the Americas a big break.

Napoleon upsetting Europe’s apple cart turned out to be the most important thing. Haiti would be the next country to fight for and gain independence. With Spain reeling from French occupation, its colonies in Central and South America would soon follow. Kicked out of North America south of Canada (aside from Caribbean Isles and Guyanas of course) and much more into India these days anyway, the British would pull a 180 degree turn after the stalemate of the War of 1812 and thoroughly support the independence of Spain’s former colonies in order to keep them out too and open the markets of these new countries to British goods. It was in this world that North America’s first diplomatic counter-blow to the dominance of Eurasian-based states would come: The Monroe Doctrine.

monroe

At the time of its formulation in the early Victorian era the United States most certainly did not have the power to enforce the claim of the doctrine, which was to oppose European re-colonization or re-establishment of spheres of influence over their former territories. Britain or France could have swept the American navy aside had they so chosen. But now Britain was the secret enforcer behind the American declaration. They weren’t going to take Latin America directly for themselves, so they would make damn sure no one else did, either. After the US-Mexico War it was obvious the U.S. was growing in power to one day enforce it on its own, however.

The doctrine had only one failure, the American Civil War. With the one great power of the western hemisphere divided against itself in a death struggle, and the secondary power of the region (Brazil) involved in a surprisingly costly war with a delusionally expansionistic Paraguay and without much of a navy, France moved in to establish a proxy-state in a weakened Mexico. Though the Mexicans would hold their own under Benito Juarez, the French would not be evicted fully until the American Civil War was over and the US army was redeployed on the border to threaten them and ship weapons directly to the Mexican forces.

The Civil War made a federation of squabbling pseudo republics into a proper nation. This nation was the empire of the west in all but name. With growing modern naval power and a final bookend of sweeping Spain from its remnants in 1898, the last vestiges of the old order had been relegated to a few isolated enclaves and Canada, itself already beginning the process of unofficially turning south. The worlds biggest economy and industrial producer now lay there, after all. Available resources and land along the wide continent were fueling a growth in power rapid beyond any previous one in recent history.

In this light of viewing the poles of conflict as geographic, it was now time for the power or North America to come to benefit from the misfortune of Eurasia. This time it would be neither disease nor technology but Eurasia’s multitude of great powers that would spell the reversal of the location of the world-island. From a large and removed scale much as multiple conflicts could be viewed as different phases in one grand struggle for mastery in America (Piracy and the Beaver Wars in the late 17th Century through the Mexican-US War), so too would the rise of new and fall of old powers in Eurasia set up a struggle for master in Eurasia which would last from 1902-1945 (the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, Russo-Japanese War, First World War, Russian Civil War, Turkish War of Independence, The Second World War). Britain sought to sure up its declining position by breaking its ‘splendid isolation’ and joining with Japan. Japan put the brakes on Russian expansion in southern Manchuria and its eventual dream target, Korea, eventually taking these things for itself and starting its own growth as a new power. This made Germany more a threat to the maritime alliance than Russia and made Russia more bellicose in its European objectives towards German allies. France, already in danger of being eclipsed, linked with with Russia and Britain to stave off this threat. The dying old empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans would hitch a ride on German power in order to reverse their decline and ensure survival. They would end up the biggest losers of all in eventual Allied victory.

The United States played an important, but not decisive role in the First World War, but it was clearly now one of the big players at the global level. Though on the surface it seemed France and Britain had gained much from the conflict, the gains were of little long term value and their overall global position had actually been weakened. The British solider and poet Siegfried Sassoon ruminated that the only nations to gain from the war he fought in was the United States and Japan. Indeed, there were now three established naval powers by treaty, Britain, the USA, and Japan. Britain was part of a triumvirate that couldn’t get along. So much for ruling the waves. Not only that, but the Russians and Turks both, whose empires had utterly collapsed in the war, successfully fought to expel Allied backed foreign intervention in their lands leading to near immediate revisions of the postwar settlements made at their expense. Turkey would become an independent republic and the Soviet Union would reclaim most of the Tsar’s collapsed domains. Both would make rapid gains in development and education that would outstrip their less fortunate semi-colonized neighbors. More importantly, until WWII, they would be tacitly allied with each for precisely this end. The first tremors of independence movements started to rock India and Ireland. The colonial powers were living on borrowed time. Japan, having yet to experience a reverse outside of the Siberian Intervention, largely continued forward with that previous era’s policies of expansion, however, putting on a collision course with the United States.

World War II would settle Eurasia’s issue. Despite the ‘Great Game’ beginning due to fears of Russian domination, that would be exactly the outcome of all of this. Russian and American domination, that is. For all the death, destruction and misery The Second World War would cause a majority of the planet and especially the eastern and western edges of Eurasia itself, The Axis Revolt, as it could be termed, served much like the American Civil War only to delay the inevitable at great cost. In fact, it aided what was coming. The Soviets broke Germany, the Americans broke the Japanese, and each fought the other Axis powers at some time or another victoriously. But before this outcome it is relevant to note that the Germans had also now broken the French, and the Japanese had broken the British. There were only two powers. The Soviet Eurasian Heartland and the United States Western Hemisphere Dominion. The world was getting smaller due to technology, but the powers only got larger. When Britain and France tried to re-insert themselves as decisive actors in the great power game with the Suez Crisis, they found only embarrassment as the Russians threatened them and the Americans scolded them and offered no support.

But despite the one sided history in Eurasia’s favor, the Cold War would show that North America finally had the leg up. Naval power did still rule over land power despite Mackinder’s fears. Eurasia was too multi-polar and divided and it was harder for the USSR to export power when their Chinese proteges (now having replaced Japan to regain their traditional place as East Asia’s most strategically relevant country) could turn to their own interests once they were strong enough to stand up to a domineering partner. There was not, yet, an equivalent of this in the America’s to complicate the United States’ position-though if there one day were it would most likely be Brazil.

It was with deftness and skill that Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger saw that world that was coming out of a simple binary. The Cold War was a power struggle, in my opinion, and the ideology that marked so much of it on both sides was largely intellectual cover for competition in the ripe proxy combat ground of the third world and newly independent former colonies. Both feared the world hegemonic goals of the other. Mix and match any number of socio-economic models with globe-spanning powers that big and strong and you would have a rivalry no matter what. So it was that two pre-eminent wingnut cold warriors of their respected countries created the conditions for bringing China in as a third pole to the rivalry, one that would send the Soviets into a conniption and, in the end, fatal death spiral of defense spending. It was this, in my opinion, that decided the Cold War more than any of Reagan’s policies, which largely took effect when the terminal decline was already taking place in Moscow. But it is worth noting that in the 60s and 70s the growth of the Soviet economy and tech sectors made many people, Kissinger included, convinced that the future was theirs more than the USA’s. China sold the new alliance to its people with much the same thinking as rhetoric. ‘The Americans will decline, the Russians are more the threat.’ In geopolitics the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Cold Warriors of the smarter varieties could see that their societies were no different from others with interests like when the Catholic French supported the Protestants in the 30 Years War against their fellow Catholics in Hapsburg Austria. Its the traditional cost benefit calculation of Cardinal Richelieu.

nixon and me

With the breakup of the USSR this proved to be the opposite. Or, more accurately, the USSR declined *first*. The United States did not gain in power in the post-Cold War era so much as have all checks on its preexisting power removed. Now Washington would call the shots directly in Eurasia in places never before imagined. China had ways to go at that point to replace Russia as the bipolar competitor, but by now its safe to say it may well reach that point in my life time. But much like how the USSR could alienate China, so too could China alienate India, or one day even Russia.

This brings us to the present, and many topics I have and will go over again and have before in other entries. So, to go full circle, the fate of geopolitics in the foreseeable future relies on events in North America and Eurasia and their interaction with each other. Right now, North America still holds an advantage, though having foolishly driven Russia into China’s arms by its own hubris, (thus counteracting Brzezinski’s grand strategic advice) its an advantage rapidly being squandered. Meanwhile, China’s One Belt One Road initiative resembles another attempt to create the internal ‘world island’ where a dominant power in Eurasia is safe from the sea-power of its foes. Having learned many lessons from Soviet and, increasingly, American failure, a concerted buildup of this inland international interior could end up being a challenge the USSR never was. Or not. Eurasia’s multipolar and divided nature still counts against it and India seems to be solidly orienting towards the oceanic world for obvious geographic reasons. Still, there is nothing so complacent as assuming the present state of sovereign nations is in any way permanent. That never has been true in the past.

Something that I could see if things changed more drastically is a Beringian World. In a Beringian World, the geopolitical alliances that matter most are a dominant power or alliance network in one continent being opposed in its own hemisphere by a defensive coalition backed by the dominant power of the other continent, which in turn is opposed by its own local coalition backed by the dominant power of the other continent. What this might look like with the present international states would be a China-backed Brazil or even Mexico (though that is less likely I think) or collection of South American states under Chinese partnership which in turn is reciprocated by a US-backed India or even eventually Russia. If China and Russia somehow stay friends permanently, this will be manifest in bringing Japan, Indonesia, and India closer together, a project which, arguably, is already underway in those countries.

Should China experience a decline or a shocking sudden state failure, however, this may reverse. If Japan and India are close together they might take up the mantle of Latin America’s revisionist states and the US will have to find no friends to balance against them. This is, of course, all very long term and hypothetical.

The point is, once Eurasian countries divided up North (and South) America for their spoils. Then North America rode a wave of Eurasia dividing itself up to become the center of political power. But now the technological disparities have largely gone from between them and the world continues to shrink bringing both new allies and new enemies. In a future Beringian World the geopolitical center of gravity might be split between both continents, which will, strategically speaking, come together as part of the same world in a way not seen since the seas were low and the Bering Strait open, when wild canines left the Americas to colonize and independently evolve all over the world.

Of course, some new exclusive resource revolutionizing technology could always finally through the ball to another region. You never know.

In the more near future don’t be surprised if you see another Nixon-goes-to-China moment except more likely with another power being the recipient of the visit and no one as smart as Nixon to do the visiting. If you see it, I encourage you to follow it as it flies away, it will be relevant if it fails or succeeds.

 

Academics vs Lanyards

Ive walked the path in both worlds and I have a disturbing revelation: Academics often have smarter and more informed conceptions of foreign policy than the lanyards who work ‘in the field’ directly.
 
This is *not* to say that academics are not often utterly deluded themselves. They are often too in love with theory and models that do not apply to the chaos and moral neutrality of reality. But in a direct comparison with an average academic in the field and an average foreign policy lanyard I have to say 9/10 the academic will come out on top. Why?
 
Because even though being an academic *often* results in being utterly consumed by an ideology or cause, its not always. Also it means constantly being challenged by colleagues who do not share the same intellectual background (unless of course one is a postmodernist who thinks everyone can magically be right ‘in their own way’). In the case of the lanyard ghoul, however, it almost always means being surrounded by utterly like minded individuals and never being challenged professionally on anything that isn’t simply topical to preexisting assumptions. Indeed, there may be social pressure not the rock the boat. It also means being ensconced inside a hive that believes itself to be post-ideological when in fact it is anything but and that therefore all criticism must be ‘extremist’ even if it is extremely factually grounded.
 
I think a good and calculating instinct with a background of being historically and geographically well informed is key, but if I couldn’t have that I would still take an absent minded professor over a self described professional ‘wonk’ who uncritically totes the main line they were basically indoctrinated with since childhood any day. Such people will be the death of us all.

‘Hostiles’: A Review of a Saga of Rogue Culture

Hostiles Pic

I have reviewed from a geopolitical perspective on this blog numerous books, at least one television show, one gaming setting, and, superficially, an entire trend of movie subgenres which as ‘The Post’ shows clearly has not gone away. But I have yet to do a review for a specific film. Well, a good one anyway. It’s time to change that. ‘Hostiles’ has earned the right to be the first. This will not really be a conventional film review of course, but more the political theory take on the movie. My personal opinion is that the film is amazing, a type of ‘Apocalypse Now’ western were the journey is more important than the destination and many conventional tropes and tackled in an unconventional way. The basic synopsis is that a woman whose family was murdered by Comanche horse thieves finds her path overlapping with a US Army mission to take a dying Cheyenne chief back to his birthplace across the country from New Mexico to Montana for public relations purposes. Along the way in the chaotic end to the frontier era this state mission meets many of the still existing non-state actors, usually with violent outcomes.

Also, Wes Studi, who played Magua in Last of the Mohicans, is the chief. As if you needed any more reason to see it.

While the message of former enemies coming together to fight new threats is hardly novel, especially in the Western genre, this movie does it particularly well. In a setting of wide open and barely populated spaces transitioning from free roaming cultures to increased property speculation and control, crime and raiding are rife. State authority is weak to nonexistent and a state of war in an officially pacified west can still persist in some places. As the Cheyenne, who are technically still US Army prisoners, must be freed to help fight the Comanche and then others as the story unfolds, formerly embittered battlefield rivals come to rely on each other to survive-and this very struggle for survival creates a new, and extremely strong alliance.

What we have in the movie is a situation of the Hobbesian state of ‘war of all against all’ which prevails outside of an internally organized society. International Relations scholars might also refer to this as similar to the ‘state of anarchy’ which reigns in foreign policy as there exist few checks on powerful states on the world-wide level. What we see in ‘Hostiles’ is this situation in microcosm which much smaller bands of people to give it a more personal touch. The very tag line of the film: ‘We are all Hostiles’ basically tells the general tone.

What becomes interesting is how the distinctions of Cheyenne and United States gradually fade to be replaced with that of the band itself. Kept together at first by necessity, the former rivals have effectively left past distinctions behind and became their own ‘tribe’, against any that threaten it. This is similar to how so many settlers from different, and often hostile, nations in Europe would eventually become early Americans (as well as Latin Americans). It also has echoes of various steppe nomad confederations in Eurasia who quite literally constructed many an ethnic group that would found new states based off of nothing but mutual enemies and a shared horseback lifestyle. The Metis culture in western Canada too was an amalgamation of French trappers and Algonquian Indians which became its own thing, as was the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy which was formed of previously warring tribes for the purpose of creating security in upstate New York and to make those tribes more capable at projecting their power outwards at other rivals. Before the threat of assimilation into Russian society appeared there was no such thing as a pan-Siberian native sentiment, but then there was one. One that in the 19th Century even included many settlers in that territory. There were also many multi-ethnic enclaves of pirates in the West Indies and the southern Indian Ocean in the age of piracy on the high seas, united only by being outcasts and renegades who would go own to develop a rogue culture of their own. Spartacus’ revolt also comes to mind, as do the early Cossacks around the Black Sea.

We may even be seeing something similar happening today in Syria. Though Syria was always regarded by the vast majority of its citizens as a sovereign and legitimate nation, the ties of loyalty between minorities and anti-salafist sunni facing a foreign backed coalition of fundamentalists and sectarians have probably only strengthened the ties of loyalty and really fostered a sense of Syrian-ness like nothing in modern history ever has before. Hence why attempts to stir up a sectarian war to bog down Iran in total state collapse in Syria have so far failed. Planners in Riyadh saw Sunni vs Shia and Alawite, but in trying to exacerbate those divisions they made sure they were really battling Syrians themselves.

Ibn Khaldun was called this ‘Assabiyya’ and I have certainly spoken of it before in other contexts. It’s the group-solidarity that many a successful new society is built on, and many an ageing society loses before its collapse.

In a world where ‘we are all hostiles’ it is worth noting that those people who fall outside of and in between major established divisions in preexisting society must band together in order to survive, and, as ever the realist that I am, the alliances may be surprising and more often than not dictated upon circumstance than any real values. The old paradigms largely become irrelevant as they are overtaken by events as it is. In the end, every society came from nowhere, after all, and will in the future be replaced by those yet to exist. Bonds of personal loyalty not of kin but of shared experience forge the links of new orders when older ones break down.

Nothing fits this more than the point in the film when the band, no having given up all pretense of being official and hierarchical, ends up in a shootout with some Ron/Rand Paul type property guardians over trespassing. At this point an American army captain is shooting at people on their own property and they are shooting at him despite the federal legality of his presence there. But what came to matter there, in the middle of nowhere and far from the institutions that set these events in motion, was the immediate group and not the official and distant loyalties.

In a time where people of all stripes are losing faith in institutions of all kinds all around the world, this is worth thinking about and appreciating as shown on the small scale in the film ‘Hostiles.’

Anyway, have a Lakota song translated into English: