For much of the ‘Third World’ the Cold War was the Good Old Days


Nonaligned Meeting

When looking at the potential for future multi-polarity in world affairs it becomes important to consider what kind of multi-polarity is preferable and what is not. Surely, no one but the most diseased wiki-youtube edgelords of the alt right and neoreactionary movements pine for the days before World War II, where the entire planet was either exploited by rapacious colonial powers or had to live in fear from the periodic eruptions of late-comer powers with a world war or two in tow. But between the endless devastation of the first half of the Twentieth Century and the increasingly schizoid overreach of the dying post-9/11 neoliberal consensus, and the foul upswing in religious and ethnic identitarian non state actors it has unintentionally spawned, lies a far more instructive period of history to what our near future could learn from.

The Cold War, like any era, was a time filled with horrors of its own. It should never be the point of the serious historian or strategist to grow sentimental, idealistic, or above all become afflicted with that disease of critical thinking…nostalgia. But some time periods are simply more constructive for examples of this issue than others. Then, as now, the world lived under the threat of nuclear weapon armed powers. Now, perhaps as then, such enforced great power stability could give smaller and more independent countries the room to grow both diplomatically and developmentally. If they are up to the task anyway.

There were epic disasters in that time period, of course. The Khmer Rouge, the multiple attempts by outside powers to subjugate and divide Vietnam, the rule of Idi Amin in Uganda, Apartheid South Africa, Pakistan’s attempt to retain Bangladesh, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and many more. But none of that outshines the vast achievements in human economic development made across the planet in this time-achievements that would slow or even reverse with the end of the Cold War and the triumph of neoliberalism. This is because the end of the Cold War also led to a diminishing in the power of small states diplomacy for the omnipresent dictatorship of a globalized market. We see the results of this now.

In countries like America and Britain we sigh at the decadent boomers who think with hard work and gumption you can get a college degree for the price of a used car and view hoarded wealth as a sacred entitlement. We rightly condemn that generation’s war on the postwar consensus of their actually hard working forefathers for the sake of tax breaks while gutting civil society and the planet itself with no regard for future generations This effect, however, is still restricted to the victory addled Anglosphere more than the rest of the world. While North America and the North Atlantic lived off the accumulated fat of times past, and even made some gains with it, other places actually did have to build from nothing. Many succeeded.

In much of the rest of the world the destruction of the final colonial powers (Japan, Britain, France) as well as the large scale stability of the situation between the United States and the USSR and the removal of the perennial German threat saw a massive wave of development guided by various modernist visions of a future for newly independent states. Perhaps more importantly, the ability to extract aid, technical advisers, and good deals from the major powers was increased by the fact that they were in a constant state of rivalry. Egypt under Nasser was particularly adept at using diplomacy to aid development and to grow living standards, but others would soon follow suit.

When the paranoia of the immediate post-Stalin Soviet Union and post-McCarthy United States started to peter away, more and more of the astute started to realize that this too was simply more of a great power competition than any ideological battle. In addition to the loosely affiliated nations of the so-called Non-Aligned League, it became more and more possible with time to seek a more fluid status in the international realm by rejecting the thinking of binaries. France, despite its pro-western tilt, made concerted efforts to reach out and develop connections with Eastern Bloc nations, while communist Yugoslavia maintained both NATO and the Warsaw Pact at equal distance-which in turn helped it extract better aid and trade deals from both as well as boost its international position with other independent states. Technological developments too were spread not just from the defense budgets of the competing powers (a la space exploration) but also in a desire to show off what they could do and how they could be of use to the Third World. Nowhere was this more apparent than the Green Revolution in agriculture whose spread was assisted by experts being encouraged to come to other nations. While both Washington and Moscow often tried to compete with technologies and aid in a way framed as a competition between capitalism and communism, the truth was they were using their technological advantages to buy influence and allies. And this was often a net boon for many newly independent countries. This was not a company hiring a few locals as it extracts raw materials for profit. This was genuine developmental assistance.

With the end of the Cold War, this favorable conjunction for national development would also end. While new opportunities would open up to a select few who had reached a level of development strong enough to take advantage of the changes that came in the late 80s and through the 90s (mostly, and perhaps tellingly, in already partially developed post Soviet countries such as Kazakhstan and Estonia), the majority of the Third World effectively lost its bargaining power. Even leaving aside that the collapse of living standards in much of the former USSR was the largest peacetime loss of human development in recorded history, the consequences for the Third World would often be quite dire as well.

Much aid dried up almost immediately. The US lacked a need to compete with anyone. Meanwhile, the type of economic exchange between the North Atlantic plus Japan and the rest of the world moved towards a more unchecked and predatory phase. Many developmental and technological advisers were replaced by voluntourists and vulture capitalists. While trade increased, development often slowed or stopped at the same time more and more resources were extracted. While the most extreme forms of poverty has continued to reduce since 1991, the majority of the people who experience that boon are in China, a country far less tied to neoliberalism than most others. Many other successes come from nations who had already set up a path to success before ’91. Meanwhile, the countries targeted for regime change such as Libya and Syria have seen an utter collapse of living standards in systems that once two were somewhat independent and working towards developmental success. To further this, the very pioneers of the present economic order are now facing rising poverty rates, especially in rural and post-industrial areas.

In a world were all gains are temporary but can at least be made somewhat long term in the right circumstances, it behooves us to think about what opportunities could be returning to developing countries as the Chinese economy reaches out to challenge America’s. For all the various dangerous multi-polarity can bring, there could be a bounty of opportunities for the independent nations of the world…ready to open a bidding war of experts and assistance between the great powers.

Its either that or give in to nostalgia as the only refuge.


The Strategic Tricksterism of Herman Kahn

‘Better to operate with detachment, then; better to have a way but infuse it with a little humor; best to have no way at all but instead the wit constantly to make one’s way anew from the materials at hand.’

~Lewis Hyde, ‘Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art’

‘I am against fashionable thinking.’

~Herman Kahn

herman kahn

As someone who is deeply interested in the think tank world (and eventually perhaps finding employment there) I have long been fascinated by Herman Kahn. This is a field which attracts already-made celebrities, bur rarely creates them first. But with Kahn, it did. Or to put it closer to the truth, he was one of the rare disruptive personalities to make a name for himself there.

I recently finished Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi’s excellent part-biography part-Cold War think tank survey ‘The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War’ and was immediately struck by the kindred spirit painted so adeptly on her pages. I had known about Kahn before of course, but only related to his book ‘On Thermonuclear War’ and the effect it had on the popular consciousness at the time of its publication in 1961 (most obviously as the declared inspiration for the Dr. Strangelove character in the film of the same name). Seeing a personal portrait of the comical, self-deprecating man who fired off jokes about mothers learning to love their two headed babies twice as much in the event of a nuclear war, all while giving presentations to the media, the Air Force, and peace activists alike really helped flesh out Kahn’s larger than life persona better than even his controversial and potentially horrifying book on strategy.

Kahn was an early prodigy who breezed into Air Force logistics and support during World War II before devoting himself to wargaming, systems analysis, and work at the RAND Corporation. Within the organization he made a name for himself as an affable eccentric who loved to argue and play the contrarian. In some of the most establishment settings imaginable he upset norms and provided outsider insight.

All this was just prelude though. ‘On Thermonuclear War’ was coming, and popular culture was about to take note. Kahn wrote a book which somehow managed to offend everyone. Nuclear War was removed from a pedestal of ‘the final option’ to something real and almost mundane. Like a battlefield everyone lost but some lost much more than others, meaning of course that there were still winners and losers. Intercontinental exchanges of ICBMs became part numbers game and part tactical risk. It was doable, it was a real possibility, and there would still be a world left when it was all over.

Everyone lost it. The right threw a conniption because Kahn simply viewed the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. as nation-state rivals and gave no significant credence to any ideological element of the Cold War in his strategies (he had remarked in his personal life that he hated right wingers and refused to even eat dinner with them). The left by and large had a meltdown, seeing  the doomsday scenario treated in such a detached and occasionally flippant manner as the ultimate in diseased military-industrial complex thinking. The defense establishment itself worried about bad PR but had a more sedate reaction, even if Kahn personally rubbed them the wrong way with his jokes and gross inserts (he had once blurted out to officers that the military command were unthinking brutes about grand strategy and only capable of having ‘wargasms’-a term he coined and which would appear intermittently in nerd culture-most importantly to child-me in the late 90s action/strategy hybrid game ‘Wargasm.‘)

But Kahn wasn’t some mad technocrat simply crunching the numbers of people’s lives like the human resources department from hell. He was someone who saw quite simply that if at least two nations on Earth were willing to build and stockpile massive amounts of nuclear weapons than there was the obvious chance they might be used. This did not mean the world would immediately come to an end or that strategy had become obsolete. In fact, the idea that nuclear weapons could only lead to an immediate end of all things meant that they were less likely to be taken seriously as a threat both at home and abroad. Kahn took nuclear warfare seriously and many, if not most, of the establishment did not. So to get their attention he talked about a very real possibility of nuclear war in a manner deemed ‘unprofessional’. Crude jokes making light of the most dire subject matter ironically got people to take the unthinkable seriously, and thus start thinking about it. It was reported that once translations had been made, the Soviet leadership was all over the book just as much as the Pentagon was.

Since there never was a massive nuclear exchange, we may never know how good Kahn’s strategies were. But this is far less relevant compared to the discussion he started. He became target number one of the peace and anti-nuclear movements, who he was willing to meet in person. They often left discussions with him in a glow, feeling the man was both affable and respectable. No one, save one particularly vindictive book reviewer, viewed him as a threat. In the end some peace movements would even embrace his arguments, seeing them as the stark truth of the necessity of their cause laid bare in a neutral tone.

On the other side, many of his own employers were not exactly enthused with the kind of attention they were now getting. Feeling stifled by RAND after the release of his book, Kahn would go on to found The Hudson Institute, which seems to have somewhat different overall priorities today but at the time was his own personal project with some friends. It is the hallmark of the trickster, as they go along they travel constantly and upset the status quo, turning enemies into friends and friends into enemies but always leaving the world changed.

Could another international relations trickster exist (aside from this blog of course) and have such an impact from within the insider world of strategic analysis? Of course. But would they be able to get as far into the popular mind before being given the boot? One doubts it as things are now. The influx of raw talent from outside the calcified circles of the elite in past eras was caused by the mass mobilization of World War II. The perpetual defense mechanisms in place since have had no such upheavals however, and the reinforcement of tropes in thinking seems extremely strong.

But these things do tend to come in cycles. One day the tropes will fail, the complacency will shake, and outsider advice will need to be sought again. Nothing can stay the same forever.

The question is will I, this blog, and it’s mission of reinvigorating strategy from without, live to see it? And if so, where? As Kahn himself said about professional tones and overly serious working culture:

‘One does not do research in a cathedral. Awe is fine for those who come to worship or admire, but for those who come to analyze, to change, to tamper, to criticize…sometimes a colorful approach is to be preferred.’

Anyway, using the phrase ‘systems analysis’ seriously makes me think immediately of vaporwave, so have some on the house: