Meme War Does Not A Rising Power Make

russian-octopus

A Japanese take on the Russian Empire before the Russo-Japanese War.

Yes, I know, Fidel Castro died today. In many ways he was the ultimate trickster-figure of 20th Century International Relations and so it deserves mentioning on this blog. You will, no doubt, find many articles on him and his legacy today and in the near future so I feel no need to interrupt the upload of this post as it was originally conceived. Anyway:

From alleged interference in the U.S. election to  the obvious Russian preference for Donald Trump, Russia has factored more into American politics this year than at any point since the Cold War. It is kind of interesting that this is so now, as never before (excluding the Yeltsin era) has Russia been weaker compared to the United States. Sanctions imposed following the de facto invasion of Eastern Ukraine have been surprisingly effective against an economic model largely based on a few core resources and some oligarchs squatting-no doubt in track suits-upon the decaying remnants of once impressive Soviet infrastructure networks. The Democratic Party in particular seems to have absorbed fully the ghost of Joe McCarthy in its desperate attempts to fob off blame for its own abysmal performance. Whether their claims have merit or not (we simply do not yet know for sure), it is apparent that Russia is regarded as such a threat by segments of the American political class that a sane discussion on many foreign affairs is simply impossible to have with them. This also goes for many EUphoric chattering classes in the European Union, who above all fear the future of providing their own defense and having to play political hardball divorced from the Kantian platitudes they now internalize as part of their fundamental values.

Regardless of what Russia might have done in the election, and with cyber-espionage in general, I view these fears as massively exaggerated for a variety of reasons. In addition to the above-mentioned sorry state of Russia from an internal perspective, what we are really seeing here is the panic shown by people in America when they are forced to confront new and different tactics. Russia can no longer rely on ideological appeal or overwhelming conventional military power as it once did, so it has become a pioneer in two other fields, cyber warfare and faddish propaganda. It resembles less the Soviet Union than it does a type of meme-culture hipster who stays ‘ahead’ of the time by being on the avant-guard of witty if substance-free internet commentary. Kind of like an edgier version of J.K. Rowling’s twitter feed or a late night comedy show. Russia is merely the pioneer. Soon, every nation with technological capacity will be doing this. Already, the internet is a place of more disinformation than quality facts. This is why I always recommend that people stick to books, on the ground independent journalism, and academic and/or peer reviewed articles as the primary source of information in their lives. So much of the rest is really just rumor-mongering among various cliquish fads who live the postmodern dream of being able to construct their own hermetically sealed realities.

With less to lose than most powerful nations, Russia seeks to undermine consensus in established alliance networks. It cannot, however, fill the vacuum itself if successful, merely make others more insecure. Even with a chummy presidency in Trump, changing the head of the executive branch does not change America’s core interests or place at the top of the world stage. Trump will likely work with Putin in Syria-a position I have argued the U.S. should adopt for years. More dangerously, he might sell out eastern Ukraine for the sake of not caring about it/good relations with Russia. That would not be a position I would endorse as wise, but it still would not compromise fundamental U.S. interests. The real threat is the break up of the E.U., and even this would still not increase Russia’s influence in overall terms on the continent if Germany, France, and Britain (and a few likely others such as Poland) hung together in a defensive alliance. It is precisely to wound any such solidarity that Russia supports far right movements in western European nations. But, as with Trump, such people will (if victorious) inherit state apparatuses with certain interests that will prevent them from simply compromising their long term interest regarding other powers. The possible exception to this in a worst case scenario is France. Geography means France is not directly threatened by Russia and a powerful eastern ally against the center has often been the objective of historic French foreign policy. The Ottoman Empire was their ally in the renaissance and the Russians after the unification of Germany. This makes France the key to any issues of keeping western Europe stable and out of the Russian orbit, which means this is more a question for the E.U. itself than it is of Russia or America. If western nations can offer something positive rather than the simple Neo-McCarthyite rhetoric and complacent ‘stay the course’ talking points that the Democratic Party in America or the Remain campaign in Britain engaged in, the edgy hipster propaganda of Russia could actually be counteracted.

Perhaps the most important aspect of all of this, and the one most likely to somehow be *shocking news* to your average European liberal, is that Russia’s position in Europe is now no longer its sole concern. The temporary alliance of Russia and China simply cannot last forever as the Chinese make massive inroads of economic and political capital into once Russian dominated Central Asia. While Russian aid still tends to outstrip Chinese, and its military presence is very strong-particularly in Tajikistan-Chinese investments and trade have become the largest single potential factor in the region’s future. Something only likely to increase as the once bullish Kazakhstan begins to contract and Turkmenistan and Tajikistan continue to economically deteriorate. Uzbekistan, the most powerful and independent of the regional states, has long since courted China as a counter-balance to Russia. Only Kyrgyzstan seems firm in resisting Chinese expansion, something which could change. Also important is Russia’s reliance on being an arms exporter. It has no larger single-state market than India. India and China are basically guaranteed rivals due to Chinese chumminess with Pakistan and long simmering territorial disputes. Therefore, unless Moscow is willing to basically surrender many of its dominant diplomatic positions in Central Asia and weaken its relationship in India, it will simply not be able to become a hegemonic power in Europe, much less the world. Even the current (and quite clever) Moscow-Ankara detente is a short term arrangement that overlooked widely divergent objectives to the countries involved-particularly in the Caucuses.

None of this is to say that Russia has not carved out an interesting and potentially exploitable niche for itself-it certainly has. But it is one of many major powers in the world system. Its tactical innovations may be shocking to some now but as with all tactics they can be copied and refined. The overall geopolitical context from which Moscow operates remains, for now, unchanged. What we should perhaps be more concerned with is that other nation’s leadership might copy its internal method of rule by appeal to romantic nationalism, and that ball is entirely in the court of each countries’ domestic politics rather than a neckbearded self-proclaimed expert in Meme War in a St Petersburg basement. It is domestic elites seeing value in the model of the oligarch-mafia state that is the real threat, not the fact that inevitably someone was going to weaponize the internet’s habit of indulging the confirmation bias of low-information voters.

 

 

 

The World’s Biggest Feint

SilkRoadMap

‘All warfare is based on deception…Offer the enemy bait to lure him.’

~Sunzi

So you have probably heard of the recent ruling in the South China Sea. Considering the internalization of maritime and other disputes that Beijing enjoys deploying as nation-affirming red meat for the people, I would certainly not want to say this issue will be solved anytime soon. However, I would like to posit one even more interesting interpretation-that whether or not domestic pressures force a dangerous showdown in the Southwestern Pacific or not, this ecologically destructive race of island building and extending maritime claims  was originally and possibly still is nothing but a geopolitical feint of truly massive scope.

Think about it. China is a nation with an ancient history of grand strategy. Many of the best strategists in history come from there and nearly two centuries of a national dark age has knocked the former complacency of several thousand years of relative cultural success out of stasis. Surely, considering these factors, a rapidly rising world power is not yet on track to risk everything in a mad-dash naval rivalry with the United States and its allies? After all, the example of the last country to do that is China’s favorite punching bag: Japan. Only once, in the early Ming Dynasty, did it seriously see itself as a naval power rather than a land power with naval interests on the side.

While it is worth considering that shore based anti-ship missiles might have restored the advantage to the defender in naval war for the first time since before cannons on ships, we simply do not know how effectively they will actually be yet. So while retaining the caveat that China might have pushed its maritime claims into its domestic sphere so far that it might be forced to be foolishly belligerent, let me advance the potential for a wiser and probably more likely scenario.

The Chinese government wants US forces on the ready in the Pacific. Combined with America’s hubristic and unnecessary proclivity to deploy many forces to the Middle East, this leaves less for Washington to have immediately ready to act in the Indian Ocean. More importantly, the US, having abandoned Central Asia to Russia (and rightly so, as it was an unnecessary extension for a naval power) can now no longer pursue more military and political influence in said region.

During the War of Spanish Succession, the Duke of Marlborough on multiple occasions fought against the most powerful army of his day by launching multiple feints, forcing the foe to weaken critical spots in their line by redeploying forces elsewhere to meet his well broadcast attacks. This inactive backwater of the front or battlefield would then become the main focus of his attacks, overwhelming the overburdened position of the enemy. If one views what is often called as ‘The Eurasian Chessboard’ in a similar way one sees an opening for China in the west, which leads to a potential opening south.

Even if the Beijing-Islamabad axis never gets any stronger, and India remains strong enough to contain the Indian Ocean, there is plenty to be gained from inland Eurasia. And not a damn thing the U.S.-whose regional role is now to be isolated and bogged down in Afghanistan and nothing else-can do about it. In fact, Beijing benefits from Washington keeping the Taliban busy while it pursues its own objectives elsewhere in the neighborhood.

In order to shore up this economic and resource expansion on the continent, it is necessary for Beijing to keep good relations with Moscow. Russia holds this new arrangement together, keeping the northern flank intact and providing the cooperation needed to work well with local elites in the region. But Russia, with its insecurities about the Siberian frontier, remains cautious. The historically inclined inside the PRC are probably salivating at the potential for analogies for when the Han Dynasty divided the Xiongnu Empire and turned some of them into perpetual warrior proxies on their behalf.

Therefore, one suspects as Chinese interests grow in Central and possibly South Asia that tacit yet unofficial backing of Russian bellicosity in the Caucasus and Eastern Europe will in fact increase. They would never admit it openly of course, but to drive the wedge further between Russia and western Europe and the US is to keep Russia from contesting losing some relative influence in Central Asia to China. Not to mention that if very successful, this policy could also reduce the long-running de facto military hardware export dealing between Moscow and Delhi, which would further strengthen China’s position towards its giant southern rival.

Assuming this comes to pass, I actually see it as a potential positive in world affairs. A confirmed sea power and a confirmed land power with minimal ability to directly interfere in each other’s interior business and with only a few places where proxy conflict could break out. A type of Cold War lite with the appeals to ideology mercifully slim. Of course, in order to keep Moscow and Brussels sufficiently separate even in this best-case scenario major upsets will occur.

And of course it requires two very important and totally not guaranteed variables: Sober realism in both Beijing and Washington.

 

Interview

I did an interview today with a friend of mine who has a locally themed radio show. Despite the fact that the topic of my book had very little to do with the locale, we justified it by the fact that if I ever do a pseudosequel one of the case studies will in fact be very relevant to Michigan.

My more historically and Central Asian tinged interests-arguably the largest part of all of my interests-has largely gone unremarked upon in this blog so far due to the fact that I worked on both a dissertation and a book in that field and wanted to use this to show how I could branch out. Still, I might as well do some self-promotion. I promise not to make a regular habit of it.

Ever since I engineered a month in Mongolia as my graduation present to myself for getting through high school alive I have also always been really into Mongolian, Tuvan, and other regional forms of music from those locations. Throat singing is amazing, as are horse-head fiddles and other things.

But being a metal head the star band to me in this field in none other than Tengger Cavalry. One of the greatest bands of all time as far as I am concerned.