Cold War

The Advantages and Limits of Seeing Putin As Hitler

If you’ve done your job right as a world leader, someone has, at one point, compared you to Hitler.  The comparison is super lazy; mostly, opposition groups mean to slander somebody by saying they are the Most Evil Ever, and since nearly all of us agree Hitler was bad throwing his moustache on a photo is a pretty effective way to do it.  Few leaders ever actually behave like Hitler, and to make the Hitler slur even harder to stick, no leader has ever been caught dead with that moustache since the war.  (Well, except this guy).

But every once in a while, the comparison gets more traction because a leader is acting the dick on the world stage and ends up making us think of the last time someone went land grabbing.  With Russia now in de facto control of Crimea, and with Ukraine pulling out, calling Putin a 21st century Hitler feels closer to the mark than just a few years ago.  But first, some basics.

There’s got to be a whole industry of people who make these kind of signs.

History does not repeat itself, except when it does

Okay, okay.  That does sound all zen and shit, but it makes perfect sense.

2014 will not be 1938 because, well, it’s 2014.  That means next year Putin will not follow Hitler’s timeline, find his Poland, and start World War III.  Moreover, it also means that Crimea isn’t even Putin’s Sudentanland.  You’ve got to draw a line between comparisons and understand that standing in a different time and a different place does mean your analogy that Putin = Hitler is nonsense.  Nobody but Hitler is Hitler and drawing a funny picture of a modern day leader with a swatstika on his arm just isn’t accurate.

But you can use history to understand human behavior and establish certain principles.  If the environment makes a man hungry, he will seek to eat.  This is true today, was true in 1938, and will be true in 2114.  But a man in 1938 may have chosen to eat his whole family; that doesn’t mean in 2014 the same circumstances will push a similar man to make the same choice.  Rather, the hungry man of 2014 will, if anything, look at the cannibal of 1938 and use those past decisions to inform his own.  Later on, the hungry man of 2114 will look back at 2014 and see if he too can make a better call.  It doesn’t change the underlying rule that a hungry man will seek to eat.

From history we can pull some simple lessons from the idiosyncratic decisions made in the past to apply to what’s happening today.  From Hitler’s story, we got these:

  1. Humiliated countries will seek to be less humiliated in whatever ways they can
  2. Bad economies make people more willing to take big, dumb risks, including starting wars or giving power to crazy leaders, if they think it’ll improve their situation
  3. Both conditions lead to more aggressive leaders, who will be more likely to gamble and take high-risk decisions
  4. Failure of other powers that are equal or greater in stature to counter those high-risk decisions encourage these aggressive asses to keep on being aggressive
  5. Eventually, their aggression crosses some international red line and an alliance must either destroy them or put them into a more manageable geopolitical position

These are the conditions we must be looking at when we start to say, “Putin is Hitler!”  And this is where history is useful.

Condition #1 is satisfied

Russia in the 1990s was prostrate and in tears over the loss of the Soviet Union.  It stumbled through a badly-led war in Chechnya and lost control of the republic for a few years.  Its economy crumbled and its enemies grew stronger as NATO pushed eastward.  One of its few European allies, Serbia, begged for help against NATO back then but got all of dick from a Russia that could not afford to support it.  That was a low point.

It was made worse during Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Once upon a time Saddam looked to Russia for protection.  In 2003, he got all the support Russia could muster – a UN veto.  The United States ignored it and invaded anyway.  Saddam ended up being dragged from a hole, put on trial, and executed.  To what remained of Russia’s allies, Russian protection was not terribly reassuring.

Reflected in all of this was a collapse in Russian society.  Crime shot up, birth rates dropped like a rock, and people died left and right from alcoholism, violence, and other dumb causes.

Condition #2 too is complete

Russia’s economy was in the shitter in the 1990s.  Boris Yelstein drank his way through government while the ruble crumbled.  As NATO grew in stature, Russian standards of living dropped while a handful of ex-communists got rich as fuck.  It was inevitable that Russians would elect someone who promised to reverse the country’s fortunes.  That man was Vladimir Putin.

“I feel pretty fucking cool. Do you guys feel cool, too? Let’s get our wives pregnant and reverse Russia’s demographic decline.”

And thus you got condition #3

One of Putin’s first acts was to invade Chechnya and put it back in its place.  The war was fought badly and ruthlessly, but the end result was the Russian tricolor back in Grozny and a whole lot of dead civilians.  Russian military pride was salved.  As for ordinary Russians, they could at least take solace knowing the terrorists who in the early 2000s were bombing Moscow with horrific regularity were either on the run or dead.  Putin became the aggressive leader willing to tie his reputation to military success.  This all culminated in 2008 when Georgia attacked the breakaway region of Ossetia.  What should have been a civil war almost immediately turned into an international one as Putin threw down the gauntlet and invaded Georgia.  His army won and the West did nothing.

Which leads us now to condition #4

Putin got away with his assault on Georgia and thus knew that he could avoid direct confrontation with Western powers under certain circumstances.  When he ordered forces into Crimea last month, no doubt the lessons of Georgia were all part of the discussion.  “We did it once; we can do it again,” must have been the consensus.  This time around, however, he’s taking a further step to test the limits of Western patience by actually taking over territory.

And which points us towards condition #5

In the 1930s, Europe was prepared to live with an enlarged Germany.  The red line was the conquest of Poland, which would have put Germany into an unassailable geopolitical position as the most powerful nation in Europe.  What, now, is NATO and America’s red line?  That’s up for debate.  Perhaps the alliance itself doesn’t know.

But the game is quite different from 1938 because, well, the world has nukes

In 1938, a conventional war was a disaster but not necessarily annihilation.  Today, war between NATO and Russia is just that.  Nobody has forgotten Mutually Assured Destruction.  Instead of World War III, the doomsday scenario is Cold War II.

Putin doesn’t want such a thing.  Russia has too many investments and economic stakes in Europe to get cut off in another long fight.  A second Cold War would close its access to just about every market it needs for its energy exports and leave it with only Belarus and Central Asia.  If Cold War I couldn’t have been won by a much stronger, larger, and economically competitive Soviet Union, then the reduced, energy-export-reliant Russian Federation has no chance in fuck of winning Cold War II.  If I can read Forbes, so can Putin.

Moreover, Putin has an authoritarian democracy, but a democracy nonetheless. He’s not Der Fuerher with absolute power; witness Pussy Riot and the anti-war protests last week.   Putin’s United Russia can still technically lose elections, and thus he can’t march Russia into stupid oblivion unchallenged as Hitler once did.

For Putin, disaster is condition #5 coming to fruition.  He’s read his history, too, and so he must find ways to divide both the EU and NATO against itself.  Invading and conquering all of Ukraine will cause his enemies to immediately close ranks, strengthen NATO, and start Cold War II that he’ll eventually lose.  So he’ll stop short of that.  The fact that the Crimean conquest has been bloodless helps here.  Having new killing fields in Europe once more increases the likelihood that an anti-Putin alliance forms and defeats him.

And I’m spent. If Russia tries to match America’s defense bucks, it will lose.

What’s next?  Well, more of condition #4 until condition #5 comes along

Russia has won Crimea and everyone suddenly loves Putin again.  Break this down into your local situation – if you have a friend who wants your candy bar and then throws a fit to get it, your response is key.  If you give them the bar, you encourage them to throw a fit again later on.  Putin’s been rewarded by the one thing that, for him, matters – the Russian public.  What the rest of the world does is irrelevant so long as it doesn’t start Cold War II.  You can bet that Putin will find another crisis in the next few years to exploit or, failing that, he’ll create one.  Meanwhile, he will continue to stand up for Assad to show off how strong he is and push for Russia to remain key in both North Korea and Iran’s nuclear talks.  All of this is about prestige building and will continue until he finally finds the still-unknown red line for NATO.

It is entirely possible that Putin retires from politics an old man and that he never does reach condition #5.  Truly successful leaders have done that time and time again.  Putin doesn’t have to be an idiot, but powerful forces within Russia are propelling him to be so.  George Friedman of Startfor believes that Russia won’t be able to help itself in starting a second Cold War that it eventually loses.

Geopolitics is not destiny, but it points in certain directions.  Gird yourself, kids – the 2010s just fell victim to that old Chinese curse.

China’s New Air Defense Zone (And How It All Fits Into a Pattern)

To sum up the events of the past few days: China declared an air defense zone that overlaps Japan’s as well as South Korea’s.  The United States flew a B-52 through it, just to show that it could.  The Chinese were muted in response, but analysts all over are worried about escalation.  Someone dumb could shoot down someone else and perhaps cause something bigger.

We should be worried, but not too worried.  The Senaku Islands (or Diaoyo to the Chinese) are not worth fighting a big war with multiple powers.  But they can be used by insecure leaders to try to shore up their shrinking power bases.  Unfortunately, China’s leaders are looking down that barrel right now.

China is in more trouble than it looks.  It’s economic miracle is coming to a close, and China is not a middle-class country yet that can absorb the social shock of dashed dreams.  This is a recipe for disaster.

Not everything is rosy for Chinese security

During the Cold War, China was the weaker younger brother of the Soviet Union.  No more.  Russia is now sliding into oblivion while China has gone from strength to strength.  Chinese leaders feel they now have the power to challenge the United States’ on issues of vital interest.  Unfortunately, the security problems of the Far East haven’t been sorted the way most of Europe’s have.  China’s maritime borders aren’t completely decided yet.  China’s still got several real grievances with Japan following World War II (the Japanese really haven’t helped themselves much here).

Not all one big happy family.

With China’s rising military might, it can now afford to challenge other powers in the region to alter conditions more favorable to it.  China is a modern nation-state with one major flaw – it’s borders are based upon an imperial state.  There are a variety of nations within it that, in one form or another, agitate for self-determination.  China now has more power than ever before and can afford to quell these nationalist revolts.  But they must also ensure outsiders don’t interfere.  Keeping foreigners’ eyes on relatively useless things – like the new defense zone – means they can continue to colonize their rebellious provinces with nary a peep.

Insecure autocracies are fucking scary

If prediction turns to fact and China’s economic miracle does end, everyone should be worried.  Chinese leaders won’t be able to control the economy like they used to, but their citizens – including their base – will not be forgiving.  Having lost that power, Chinese leaders will be tempted to do what all weakened governments do – distract.  Most governments do this by picking fights abroad and looking tough.  Unfortunately, all of China’s neighbors are rightly worried about Chinese ambitions, and many of them are U.S. allies under its nuclear umbrella.  So China’s options are limited unless their leadership starts to lose control to unrest.  The more unrest within China, the greater the potential China does choose a war as a way to save the regime.

But thankfully history is on our side

The only time nuclear powers ever directly fought one another was in 1969 on the Soviet-Chinese border.  But both sides refused to escalate – one, because the territory was relatively worthless and two, because they understood a nuclear exchange was out of the question.  Only a rogue general could think that attacking neighbors with nuclear weapons was a good idea, and such circumstances could only occur in a full-blown anarchic civil war, which isn’t in the cards right now.  So China won’t go to war to defend this air defense zone and certainly will avoid losing a naval war against the United States.

A new balance of power is emerging

Not worth dying over. (Source: CNN)

The U.S. sees China as a rising threat that must be contained until it can be co-opted.  Key to this strategy are the militaries of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.  All are advanced economies; one of them was once a formidable adversary.  In the next decade, they will shoulder a greater and greater burden against China, with the U.S. in support mode.  The U.S. will need to continue to thumb its nose at Chinese pretensions from time to time, understanding that such moves won’t lead to an open war, if it wants to preserve its power in the Pacific.  Its allies, after all, will need reassurance regularly that the U.S. will stick around for any fight.

Not a new Cold War, but certainly a challenge

China may slowly reform into a democratic regime (though signs of that are nearly impossible to see), and if it did, the U.S. would no longer see it as a threat to its interests.  (Democratic governments, after all, have all the incentive in the world to avoid going to war against other democracies).  But that can’t be counted on and can’t be planned for.  Instead, the U.S. will have to maintain its naval superiority against China and boost the regional navies of its allies.  It will mean the end of the post-war balance that’s kept mighty Japan on the defensive.

When great states challenge the top dog…

…things get messy and the potential for violence is high.  Nuclear weapons should keep the U.S. and China from ever fighting one another over something this simple.  But history shows that great powers that seek dominance don’t always understand the consequences of their actions.  Let’s hope that China’s learned the lesson of history.

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The Rogue State Depoliticized

(Preface: Did anybody, and I mean anybody, see this coming?  Right now, Syria’s best left untouched.  Events are moving and I’m not in the room for any of the meetings.  Will Assad give up his chemical weapons and be allowed to conventionally slaughter the rest of his country?  Time is now going to have to tell.  So we’ll take a side-step today and avoid being wrong for a few days.)

What’s in a name?  Well, if somebody, specifically the president of the United States, calls you a “rogue state,” you’d best break out an alliance with Russia if you hope to survive.  When the president says something, people can die.  That’s the power of his chosen words.

You’ve probably heard the term a bunch, especially relating to Syria, North Korea, and Iran.  But what what the hell is a “rogue state”?  The implication from the term is that’s it’s a not-so-well-behaved government going around blowing up airlines and attacking discos in Berlin.  Because that’s pretty much exactly what it means.

When states behaved badly, Mr. Reagan noticed

English: Map of Rogue States

English: Map of Rogue States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reagan liked to paint the world with a black-and-white brush. The Soviets were evil; communism was Satan’s idea; terrorism was a spawn of Hell, etc.  When Gaddafi entered the world stage as a nut job, playing around with terrorism with God knows what strategic plan in mind, Reagan referred to him as the “mad dog of the Middle East” – though technically Gaddafi was in North Africa. Gaddafi was playing into the Nasserite “Third Way” of geopolitics, trying to find some role in between Soviet and American power.

But Gaddafi was also a terrible leader, and in between his nutty Green Book and his changing the flag of Libya to the world’s simplest, he managed to piss off the United States.  This was the beginning of the idea of a “rogue state” – a country that couldn’t be trusted to play along with the international system.

The end of the Cold War played hell with Reagan’s sense of evil

To those who liked to see the world cleanly split between Soviet evil and American light, the end of the Cold War muddled matters considerably.  What to do with regimes like Saddam Hussein, who, despite losing his Soviet patron, was still a dick?  What about North Korea, or Iran?  Thankfully, Bill Clinton had the answer.  Thus, in 1994, the term “rogue state” was born.

According to Clinton, a rogue state was one that threatened world peace.  Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Serbia and, for some reason, Cuba, were all put on the list.  This was not an international index – this was a targeting order for the Pentagon.  Each of these states were non-democratic.  All but two of them were dominated by a family.  Some had strategic resources; some, not.  What mattered was their relationship to the United States in the 1990s.

Boy, that Cold War sure was something, huh?

American strategists were caught completely in the lurch by the Soviet Union’s demise.  They were in it for the long haul, not expecting their greatest enemy to vanish in a puff of dust like a mummy.  With the problem of world communism neatly solved, a new question arose – what’s the problem now?  The victory in the Cold War had proved that America’s economic system, for all its faults, was superior to the alternatives.  Underpinning that system was trade.  American military power retooled itself to put to order those bits of the world that still did not play by the global system’s rules.  Hence, you got the rogue state list – a list of states that did not trade with the United States and weren’t terribly inclined to do so.

Getting off the list was as simple as saying “I do”

Gaddafi famously was removed when he finally started playing ball with the U.S. and Western powers.  By opening up oil concessions and giving up any attempt to build weapons of mass destruction, Gaddafi actually came in from the cold and was allowed to become another Hosni Mubarak.  But of all the rogue governments, only Gaddafi chose that path – and fat good it did him.

All other rogue states have, to this point, refused to cooperate with the American-led system.  Why is that?  A large part comes from their government types.  Authoritarian regimes do well when their people are poor, ignorant, and likely to stay that way.  Free trade creates one of two things – a clique of “rich getting richer” folks at the top or an assertive middle class.  Egypt was the former; the result was a revolution.  Serbia was the latter; the result was Milosevic dying in The Hague.  No dictator ever prospered concurrently with his people.  The incentive to cooperate just isn’t there.

America’s worldwide strategic priorities mean that every rogue state must eventually be eliminated

The Green Book was published in many of the wo...

If you wanted to make yourself dumber, give up your weekend to this.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States benefits from a world that is divided and dividing (as in the case of Spain’s Catalonia or Britain’s Scotland).  But it also benefits from a world that plays by an agreed-upon set of trade rules.  In point of fact, the latter is far more important to the U.S. than the former.  As a democracy, America must guarantee a certain level of comfort for its citizens.  Its military forces deploy in attempts to open the sea lanes, defeat potential threats before they become too strong, and ensure that trade continues.  While elites do exist who dream of empire, America’s citizenry have never seen much benefit from that, which is why America was never a very good imperial power in the classic sense of the term.

Despite the chaos within both Libya and Iraq, the destruction of their former regimes have now brought them into the world trading system.  America’s overall interest in both has waned.  Should they sort themselves, America expects them to play ball – and they’ll be left alone accordingly.  Should some new Saddam come along, you can expect more confrontation as the U.S. tries to guarantee free trade in those places.

The term “rogue state” therefore doesn’t apply to the U.S.

Some people like to give the label to America.  But it’s an America-centric term.  Do you or do you not trade with the U.S.?  If the answer is yes, you’re not on the list.  This is the reason that Cuba, despite it not sponsoring terrorism or military adventures anymore, remains a “rogue state.”  And this is the reason Venezuela, despite the former president’s virulently anti-U.S. rhetoric, is not.

Over time, the U.S. will support the elimination of these regimes

All of these regimes are notable for their weaknesses.  Some of them are remnants of the Cold War itself and are just taking a longer death.  But none of them can survive forever given their structural deficiencies.  Cuba is already moving that way - we might be able to expect the end of the embargo soon (at which point Cuban cigars won’t be nearly as cool).  Syria is imploding; Sudan lost half its country; North Korea’s rusting away while rattling its dirty sabers; Iran’s cars are running out of gas.  How long can any of these regimes resist the powers of American-led globalization?  Time will tell, but certainly, not much longer.

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