Western power. What use is it?

There is ‘no need to fear Russia’, which is ‘much weaker than is commonly thought’ says economist Tim Congdon in the British weekly political magazine Standpoint. Claims that Russia is about to ‘overtake the US in power and prestige’ are ‘bizarre’, he says. While the Russian economy is the sixth largest in the world based on purchasing power parity, ‘the countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have a combined national output that is at least 15 times (and perhaps 30) Russia’s. … Russia can never outspend the West in weaponry.’ Media talk of the Russian threat, Congdon concludes, is ‘hyperbolic and overstated.’

Congdon’s article contains some typical Russia-bashing accusations. ‘When its stooge in Kiev was removed by democratic elections [???!!!], Russia ignored the niceties and just walked in’, Congdon writes. ‘Russia’s alignment with Assad in the Syrian conflict has resulted in barbarism’, he says. But his basic point is correct. Economically and militarily, Russia is much weaker than NATO. The idea that the Russian government would risk a direct military confrontation, or even seek to wage some form of ‘hybrid war’ against the West, would only make sense if Russian leaders were completely out of touch with reality. The ‘Russian threat’ is indeed exaggerated.

And yet, I think that Congdon is missing something. The Western dominance he speaks of may matter much less than he thinks. Western countries, most notably the United States, the United Kingdom, and France,  have spent the last four years trying to overthrow the government of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, and also to roll back the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). For all their enormous military and economic power, they have been remarkably unsuccessful. Assad is stronger now than at any time since the start of the Syrian civil war, and the West’s ‘moderate rebel’ allies in Syria have failed to make any significant advances into ISIS territory. By contrast, in the one year in which its air force has been operating in Syria, Russia has enabled the Syrian government to recapture Palmyra from ISIS and is on the verge of helping it recapture all of Aleppo. In short, despite its vastly inferior power, Russia has been far more successful, and could even be said to have inflicted a ‘defeat’ upon Western strategy.

More generally, Western economic and military power has proven to be useless in transforming the Middle East and Central Asia in the direction desired by policy makers. In the past 15 years, the United States and its allies have spent hundreds of billions, perhaps even trillions, of dollars waging wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan. They have absolutely nothing to show for it. The Taleban are no weaker than they were 10 years ago; Iraq is a bloody mess; Libya has descended into civil war, which has spread south into Mali; and Assad still rules in Damascus.

What this reveals is that, while raw power matters, it isn’t enough. What’s even more important is how one uses it. In recent years, the Russians have proven to be far cleverer in using their power than the West has. This may even be because their power is so comparatively limited, a fact which has forced them to think before acting. The West, by contrast, has become arrogant; its uncontested military hegemony has encouraged it to think that there are no problems it cannot fix. Its power has thus become a source of danger to itself, rather than a benefit.

Congdon challenges the idea that Russia has used its power wisely. He remarks that it may come to regret its interventions in Ukraine and Syria, which he describes as ‘barmy’. But if so (and there are some good reasons for questioning this judgment), his argument just highlights another point: the relative uselessness of military power in the modern world. Congdon complains that ‘far too many journalists are swayed by military fireworks and glorify aggressors’. It’s a complaint that could just as easily be made about the West as about Russia. We in the West outspend Russia on defence, and we have been waging war in various parts of the globe for years, but it doesn’t do any of us any good. Congdon remarks that ‘Ultimately, the dominance of “the West” … has been based on economics’. This is entirely true, but it’s a point too many of our liberal interventionists and neoconservative strategists have forgotten in their pursuit of military glory. NATO countries spend about a trillion dollars a year on defence, and yet their military endeavours have been repeatedly unsuccessful. If we spent that trillion dollars on something more productive, imagine how much better off we would be!

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9 thoughts on “Western power. What use is it?”

  1. Paul,

    Unfortunately, very many economists are ‘Fachidioten’. In the case of Congdon, this aspect is combined with a traditional rather stupid form of Russophobia found in large sections of the British élites. (As stupid as the not quite equally common Germanophobia.)

    There are too many elements to this to do the matter any kind of justice in off-the-cuff remarks. But, for what they were worth:

    1. The strength of the position of the West in 1989 was based in substantial measure on economics, but – crucially – on a moral ascendancy.

    It is not difficult to trace the history of how a very large section of the Russian ‘intelligentsia’ – both ‘dissident’ and ‘official’ were fascinated and entranced by the West back then, and of the subsequent disillusion of the rational elements among them. (The ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ do not count.)

    One can start by looking at Sergei Karaganov’s website.

    2. Military power is, and will, remain of great importance – the question is, in what ways. Of critical importance is the ability to integrate the military and non-military aspects of foreign policy.

    Although it has had its ups and downs, even in the darkest Soviet days there was a lot of professional competence in the Russian diplomatic service. Today, one has only to listen to Lavrov, or indeed Churkin, and contrast them with Kerry, or your old schoolfellow Boris Johnson, not to speak of Samantha Power, or Matthew Rycroft, to see an immense contrast in seriousness and competence.

    As to the military dimension, Russia – a land power, like Germany – developed a great ‘General Staff’ tradition.

    In Soviet times, it fell prey to the same temptation as brought ruin on Germany. In brief, this can be described as misreading Clausewitz: neglecting the fact that, in addition to the ‘Napoleonic’ strain in that great writer, there are the strands which emphasise the importance of the defensive, and – crucially – the absolute imperative of subordinating military strategy to political imperatives.

    In the First World War, the General Staff of Imperial Germany failed to heed the advice of the great German Clausewitzian, the civilian military historian Hans Delbrück, to limit their objectives in the West with the objective of retaining the possibility of a compromise peace. Their country paid dearly.

    A great Russian Clausewitzian, Aleksandr Svechin, who went in a few short months in 1917-18 from being chief of staff of the Northern Front of the Imperial Russian Army, to being chief of the All-Russian Main Staff of the new RKKA, tried, unsuccessfully, to impart the same kind of sophistication that Delbrück had advocated.

    In the arguments of the ‘Twenties, he was defeated by the – intellectually and morally vastly inferior – Tukhachevskii.

    In the course of the ‘Eighties, General-Mayor Valentin Larionov and others reintroduced the ideas of Svechin into Soviet military thinking. This was part of the basis of the Gorbachev-era ‘new thinking’.

    3. A central hope of the ‘new thinking’ – that a shift to a Svechin-style defensive posture would radically defuse tensions with the West – turned out to be tragically naïve. There never was any ‘new thinking’ on our side.

    However, if you look at, for instance, the ideas of the current Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General Valery Gerasimov, it is clear that he is thinking of military and non-military aspects of strategy in conjunction, very much in the way that both Clausewitz and Svechin regarded as all-important.

    4. As to Syria, there never was any realistic prospect that the alternative to Assad would be ‘moderate insurgents’.

    This has some ironic effects. Over on ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’, my normal ‘perch’ on the internet for more than a decade now, we are a mixed bunch, but a lot of us are, in different ways, distinctly conservative – as our host, Colonel Lang, is.

    At the time of the Russian military intervention, he, and also our correspondent Patrick Bahzad, a French military Arabist, said that they could win.

    Current developments in Aleppo have caused most of us to do the internet equivalent of cracking open the champagne.

    5. A delusion of Western élites, which makes them a danger to themselves as well as to their peoples, is that they still have the moral ascendancy they had in 1989. Accordingly, they attribute disillusion with themselves to some extraordinarily skill and Machiavellian Russian propaganda.

    This is, in large measure, nonsense. There are lot of people who actually have rather complex views, and while disagreeing with Putin on many things think he is right about others – including the fact that it is foolish to think one can treat jihadists as useful tools, and the Cold War ended a generation ago.

    This is actually a significant, and increasing, element of strength among the many weaknesses of the position of contemporary Russia.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your point about the West not understanding that it has lost its moral ascendancy is an important one. It is telling that when Kerry lectured Russia about ‘not invading countries on made up pretexts’ (or words to that effect) he obviously had no clue how this would sound to others.

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  2. I agree with the learned commenter above. I do wonder to what degree the apparent arrogance of the “West” is attributable to the anarchy of the market; i.e. the unbridled greed embodied in the military industrial complex which has no rational restraints on it. Has the U.S. economy has hitched its wagon to floundering global military dominance to the detriment of all of us.

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  3. Our military arrogance was pretty dangerous up until this past year. At the beginning of the Syrian intervention someone I know who works in Washington attended some briefing or other in which they were told that Russia has no precise munitions and it would just be some sort of carpet bombing campaign (a story that the media is still running with it seems.) But very quickly people saw that Russia’s capabilities were far beyond what we believed them to be – cruise missiles from the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas (I remember at the time The Saker pointing out that the latter implied cooperation with Iran on use of their airspace [and a subsequent fake article on a missile failing and landing in Iran]), and highly efficient work in the skies rewrote the narrative, perhaps almost as if Russia were spoonfeeding us the intel that we were negligent in gathering, or scoffed at in some other way. It’s unfortunate that some of Trump’s appointees seem to be hell-bent on continuing our perpetual war, but hopefully there’s been something of a reality check up there.

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  4. The main difference I see between the West’s use of military power and Russia’s is in the ambition of the war aim.

    Mr. Putin wages war for sharply limited objectives, with means carefully tailored to the objectives, and when he attains them, he ruthlessly stops and is not tempted by victory to escalate them.

    The West undertakes its wars in order to totally transform the societies against which it wages them. This objective is even more difficult than exterminating the people of the culture because in the end it requires that they ultimately agree to the transformation the West seek.

    Therefore, in the West’s wars their is a vast gulf between the the flagrantly unlimited nature of the West’s war aims and the very limited means they choose to employ.

    So to summarize, the Russians ‘get’ Clausewitz, and the West doesn’t. And it shows in the results of the wars the two choose to wage.

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    1. “The West undertakes its wars in order to totally transform the societies against which it wages them. This objective is even more difficult than exterminating the people of the culture because in the end it requires that they ultimately agree to the transformation the West seek.”

      That’s why Alexander Nevsky wisely chose to resist German and Swedish aggression while paying tribute to the Golden Horde.

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  5. “While the Russian economy is the sixth largest in the world based on purchasing power parity, ‘the countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have a combined national output that is at least 15 times (and perhaps 30) Russia’s. … Russia can never outspend the West in weaponry.’ Media talk of the Russian threat, Congdon concludes, is ‘hyperbolic and overstated.’”

    “- Yes, Baldrick, but size isn’t important. It’s not what you’ve got, it’s where you stick it.”
    – E. Blackadder.

    It never ceases to amaze me that both the respectable armchair mil-pol analysts (of teenager, eager to post tried and tested memes variety) and equally respectable paid professional experts engage in this kind of self-congratulating… ah, “self-pleasing”. If one to listen to them, then the very moment the dastardly Ruskis start a war with the Forces of the Light and Goodness (that’s the West and their “Allies”), then, by magicK, all armies of the warring sides would be transported on the plains of Meggiddo to duke out once and for all, who is the most Racially superior qualified on the field of battle. Without doubt, said experts say, the victory in such Final War would be by the Alliance of Goodness.

    By early September 1939 both France and Britain had between the two of them the greatest colonial empire on the planet with the (again – combined) economy dwarfing all potential enemies. They armies were victorious in the previous Great War and considered to be the epitome of the Stronkness ™. Their technological and scientific development was moving by leaps and bounds. They determined and more or less (mis)managed the World Order after the War.

    They screwed up. They did it in many, many ways, too numerous to list it here. I mean, does anyone still remember France’s valiant, event aggressive attempt to create “Little Entente” out of the freshly minted Eastern European limitrof countries, who’d serve as the potential deterrent for both the USSR and Germany? Yeah… an awful lot of good it did to them! Or, hey, how about the fact that neither UK nor France’s militaries had the purges in years prior to the new War? Surely, with the cadre of brilliant, victorious and competent officers preserved they were destined for a quick and decisive victory against Huns! What?! NO???

    Turns out the size, width (and colour – for some) doesn’t matter all that much, if you are profoundly, ah, impotent. You know which country also has yuuuuuge military budget, who spends it all the shiny toys available and then takes them to the field against technologically, economically and numerically inferior enemy? Dearies of the West – Saudi Arabia! They don’t have there Navalny-like bloggers, who spent their days posting on Twitter/FB/VK/Instagram pics of their country’s hardware (sometimes – the results of using said hardware) with copy-pasted comment – “Gee, what a waste! Better gave to the pensioners/built kindergartens”. So, having not only the blessing of the Indispensible Nation (sp, say “bye-bye” to the bad international press), all the best military tech the money could buy AND lacking any kind of internal dissent concerning its wars, the SA fucks up. Royally. They can’t defeat Houthis no matter how hard they try. They retaliate against hospitals, weddings and funerals (hmm… this does remind me of someone…) and, still cannot win. How?! HOW?!

    But, okay, let’s take a look at the dauntless juggernaut of NATO, this Frankensteinian patchwork monster made out of strays brought out from the cold by one particularly crazy Cat Lady. How much there are tanks in Estonian military? What – none? Okay, what about their Air forces. 6 trainer planes? Just for the fun of it – how big is the Estonian army? 3,500 all accounted? Why, just splendid! They have nothing to worry about – they will fend off any possible (and, as idiots in the know keep telling us – inevitable) Russian attack by their level of GDP alone!

    Well, never fret, though! Murica to the rescue of you, lilly-livered Euros! As anyone will tell you, on such a country there is no graft and corruption (only totalitarian regimes have them!), and every dive goes into muscles of the Great and… Oh,bugger!

    “The Pentagon has buried an internal study that exposed $125 billion in administrative waste in its business operations amid fears Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget, according to interviews and confidential memos obtained by The Washington Post.

    Pentagon leaders had requested the study to help make their enormous back-office bureaucracy more efficient and reinvest any savings in combat power. But after the project documented far more wasteful spending than expected, senior defense officials moved swiftly to kill it by discrediting and suppressing the results.

    The report, issued in January 2015, identified “a clear path” for the Defense Department to save $125 billion over five years. The plan would not have required layoffs of civil servants or reductions in military personnel. Instead, it would have streamlined the bureaucracy through attrition and early retirements, curtailed high-priced contractors and made better use of information technology.

    The study was produced last year by the Defense Business Board, a federal advisory panel of corporate executives, and consultants from McKinsey and Company. Based on reams of personnel and cost data, their report revealed for the first time that the Pentagon was spending almost a quarter of its $580 billion budget on overhead and core business operations such as accounting, human resources, logistics and property management.”

    Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky, during one of his recent typically flamboyant speech live on the talk-show was inaccurate, as this article shows – he claimed that the US military spends “half of their budged on the toilet paper and hot-dogs”. Not half – just 25%!

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    1. Very clever- hopefully I will remember the Blackadder quote. Your feel for English continues to amaze me- please at least tell me that you spent many years in an English speaking country. (I acknowledge that there is much fine writing at this blog.)

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      1. “please at least tell me that you spent many years in an English speaking country”

        No, I didn’t. Although, I read (and keep reading) lots of books in English, and prefer to watch movies and TV series in the original (I *can’t* stand whatever passes for the “professional translation”). And, of course, read blogs, forums and news in English.

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