Tag Archives: United States

The blob strikes back

Our semester starts today, with the first class in my course ‘Defence Policy and Military Affairs’. Early on, we’ll look at models of how a rational defence policy would in theory be made, and then we’ll go through each step of the policy process in more detail. Along the way, students (if they’re paying attention) should become aware that reality doesn’t fit the ideal model. Both process and outcomes can be decidedly odd.

As evidence, let’s take a look at some of the defence policy stories which popped up on my radar over the Christmas holidays.

The most recent, dating from yesterday, could be well titled ‘The Blob Strikes Back’ – the ‘Blob’ being a derogatory term for the American security establishment, an amorphous being which defies easy definition and is decidedly hard to pin down, but which exerts enormous power and which seems to be impervious to outside realities, continuing along its chosen path regardless of all the disasters it confronts, and causes, along the way. As alert readers will be aware, just before Christmas, US president Donald Trump announced that he intended to withdraw American troops from Syria. The reaction of the Blob was total outrage. Starting wars is something the American security establishment can cope with; ending them is something which causes it real difficulties. To be fair, the way Trump made his decision didn’t exactly fit with the rational policy making model. It seems like he was going to do one thing, but then spoke with Turkish president Recep Erdogan, and spontaneously decided to do something different. But that is his prerogative, and that part of the Blob which works for Trump couldn’t directly contradict him. Instead, we got what we might call ‘bureaucratic obstruction’. Officially, the policy remains in place, but the bureaucracy will enact it in such a way as to render it effectively null and void.

This became clear yesterday when National Security Advisor John Bolton declared that the US withdrawal from Syria is ‘conditional’. Bolton insisted that it depended on the final destruction of the Islamic State and on the US receiving assurances from Turkey that it would not attack America’s Kurdish allies. This means that US forces could remain in Syria for ‘months or years’. Trump – who gives the impression of being an extremely weak president, unable to hold his own against his officials – apparently caved in, declaring that he ‘never said we were doing it that quickly’. The result is that US policy is now apparently to withdraw, but also not to withdraw.

The Trump presidency would seem to be a paradigm of bizarre policy making processes – impetuous announcements from the leader followed by bureaucratic opposition, resulting in what can only be described as an incoherent mess. But it would be wrong to see this as a peculiar outcome of Trump’s unusual character. A quick look at defence policy in Canada, where I live, indicates that things aren’t much better elsewhere. The ongoing saga of Canada’s efforts to buy fighter planes is an indication. And then there was this story which appeared in the Canadian press earlier this week:

Nearly three years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to send weapons to Kurds in Iraq the armaments are still sitting in a military warehouse in Montreal. … The government went as far as arranging to have a military aircraft transport the weapons to the Kurdish region of Iraq, where Canadian special forces were to distribute them to Kurdish soldiers. … But the armaments, with an estimated value of around $10 million, got no further than the Canadian Forces Supply Depot in Montreal, where they remain. … A Department of National Defence official said no plans currently exist to distribute weapons in Iraq.

The reason for this fiasco? Before Trudeau announced that he would arm the Kurds he never bothered to check with the Iraqi government whether it was ok with that. As it turns out, the Iraqis weren’t ok with it, as they didn’t want Canada providing weapons to what they regard as a separatist force. As we used to say when I was in the army, ‘you don’t need the brains of an Archbishop’ to know that arming Kurds is somewhat incompatible with the objective of creating strong states in Iraq and Syria, likely to cause problems further down the line, and unlikely to be popular in Baghdad. As Canadian journalist David Pugliese points out, ‘ Some defence analysts warned the Canadian government and military from the beginning that providing the Kurds with weapons was a mistake.’ But I don’t think that anybody has ever suggested that Trudeau has the brains of an Archbishop. I don’t have insider information on how the government reached this decision, but it strikes me as likely that its zeal to be seen to be ‘doing something’ got in the way of rational analysis. This is defence policy as gesture politics. It’s not at all what it’s meant to be about. But it’s often what it ends up being.

Finally, we have an example of ludicrous policy making from British defence minister Gavin Williamson. For some time now, Williamson and his generals have been warning Britons about the terrible threat to their security posed by Russia. According to Williamson, Russia is ‘a bigger threat to Britain than were insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.’  According to the policy making models I show my students, in a rational world threats drive policy – you structure your defences to combat the dangers you perceive. So if Williamson really believes that Russia is the no.1 danger, his priority should be doing something about it. Instead, just after Christmas he gave a very bizarre interview to the Daily Telegraph in which he declared that he wanted to build new military bases in the Caribbean and the Far East!! Apparently, Singapore, Brunei, Montserrat and Guyana are on the shortlist.

Let’s return again to my policy planning models. In these, you’d come up with the idea of a base in  Montserrat, for instance, if when going through the process you determined that there was some vital national interest in the Montserrat area which was under threat and so required the presence of British military forces. Suffice it to say that this is not what Williamson has done. He mentions not a single reason why British security requires its military to be in Montserrat. Rather his logic is that post-Brexit:

This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world is expecting us to play. … This is our moment to be that true global player once more.

According to Williamson, foreign military bases would give the UK ‘influence’. Britons underestimate how other nations look at them, he claimed, adding that, ‘the rest of the world saw Britain standing 10 feet tall – when we actually stood six feet tall – Britons saw us standing five feet tall, not the six, and certainly not the ten.’ Williamson ‘also predicted Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Caribbean states and nations across Africa would look to the UK for “the moral leadership, the military leadership and the global leadership”.’

This really is preposterous nonsense. I know of no evidence that the world ‘is expecting’ Britain to play some enormous global role and is looking to the UK for ‘moral leadership, military leadership, and global leadership.’ This is just swagger – waving a big stick so that you can feel better about yourself. The giveaway is Williamson’s talk of feeling five feet tall when you’re actually six and others think you are ten. Simply put, his proposed military bases serve no military purpose. They’re just a means of letting Williamson feel that he’s taller than he actually is.

In all these cases – the United States, Canada, and the UK – we see utterly dysfunctional defence policy. There is a reason for this, I think. As I said above, in the ideal, rational model, the policy flows naturally out of analysis of threats. But Western states don’t actually face the sort of threats which require large-scale military establishments to keep them safe. If they were to follow the rational decision making model, they’d have to radically downsize their armed forces. But the Blob doesn’t like that. It’s wedded to the idea that military power is the measure of power. And so it goes around hunting for ways to keep the military’s profile high. Consequently, defence policy ceases to be about defence and becomes about ‘doing something’, prestige, and that extremely vague term ‘influence’. In all this, evidence that ‘doing something’ does any good, or that military activity really does bring prestige or influence is sadly absent. It should be no surprise, therefore, that so much defence policy is incoherent. We expect education policy to be about education; health policy to be about health; and so on. But for some reason, we don’t seem to worry that defence policy has so little to do with defence. Until that attitude changes, we’ll continue to get things wrong.

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False flag confession

Good stories are like London buses. You can wait ages for one to come along, and then you get two or three all at once. Yesterday, we had the result of the inquest into the death of Alexander Perepilichny. Today, among others, we have a stunner of a story out of Alabama. The former undermined conspiracy theories about a supposed campaign of international murder led by Vladimir Putin. The latter reveals a conspiracy nobody so far had even theorized about. But it turns out that it’s not Russians doing the conspiring. Instead, it’s Americans pretending to be Russians in order to create the impression that there’s a Russian conspiracy where in fact there isn’t. Confused? Don’t worry, it will soon become clear.

In general, when I see the words ‘false flag operation’, I tend to roll my eyes and wonder what crazy nonsense is about to follow. In my opinion, false flag operations are quite rare. What’s even rarer is for somebody to admit to one. But, according to the New York Times, that’s exactly what the American cyber security firm New Knowledge has done in an internal report. The name New Knowledge may not mean much to you all, but if you follow Russia-related news you are no doubt aware of two reports released by the US Senate this week which purport to show the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election via social media. New Knowledge wrote one of these. What the organization did not say in its report to the Senate, however, was that New Knowledge itself had been engaged in electoral ‘interference’ of a thoroughly dodgy kind.

In 2017, there was a special election to fill a vacant Senate seat in Alabama. The main contenders were Republic candidate Roy Moore and Democratic candidate Doug Jones, the latter of whom won by a margin of just under 22,000 votes. It now turns out that New Knowledge played a part in Jones’s victory. According to the report revealed by the New York Times, New Knowledge admits that:

We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet.

The New York Times states that this plan ‘involved a scheme to link the Moore campaign to thousands of Russian accounts that suddenly began following the Republican candidate on Twitter, a development that drew national media attention.’ These ‘Russian accounts’ were, however, nothing of the sort; they were false flags, designed to make it look as though the Russians were backing Mr Moore, thereby discrediting him and energizing his Democratic opponents. The ruse worked. American media picked up on the story that Russian social media bots were campaigning on behalf of Roy Moore, and spread the lie further. The New York Post, for instance, published an article entitled ‘Roy Moore flooded with fake Russian Twitter followers’. As it turns out, this headline was inadvertently true – the Russian Twitter followers were indeed ‘fake’, just not in the way that the Post understood it.

According to the New York Times, the false flag operation in Alabama cost about $100,000 dollars. It cites one Democratic operative as saying that it was ‘impossible that a $100,000 operation had an impact on the race’. The Alabama campaign cost about $51 million. By contrast, the 2016 presidential campaign cost around $6.4 billion. That’s 127 times as much, meaning that the equivalent to the $100,000 spent by New Knowledge in Alabama would be $12.7 million. I’ve seen various estimates as to the amount spent by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) prior to the 2016 presidential election, but none come close to $12.7 million. For instance, the IRA is said to have spent $47,000 on Facebook advertisements (compared to $81 million spent by the Clinton and Trump campaign). Add in some more money spent on Twitter and other platforms, and it’s still not a massive expenditure. Yet somehow, it’s regarded as decisive in the way that the proportionally much larger $100,000 spent on the Senate campaign was not. One may be excused a little scepticism.

To summarise, what we have here are some Americans pretending to be Russians pretending to be Americans, with the aim of smearing a political candidate with what they knew to be a false accusation. And yet we are meant to trust these same people as neutral reporters on the matter of Russian ‘meddling’ in American democracy. It strikes me that they have something of a credibility problem.

There is, of course, a lot of nonsense on social media, some of it just the outpourings of deluded individuals, and some of it the automated products of so-called ‘troll factories’. Unfortunately, the lead in combatting this (in my mind, much exaggerated) problem has been taken by highly partisan actors who are themselves less than trustworthy. New Knowledge is one example. The Integrity Initiative in the UK is another. So too are the numerous reports about Russian information warfare produced by organizations such as the Institute of Modern Russia and the Centre for European Policy Analysis, as well as the books churned out by Luke Harding, Timothy Snyder, and others, all of whom spread fear of Russian disinformation while presenting a very odd version of reality themselves. In the case of New Knowledge, they even admit to deliberately deceiving American voters. As so often, those claiming to protect us against external enemies in fact threaten us more than the alleged enemies themselves.

Arms race

One of the common justifications for the billions of dollars spent on secret intelligence is that it helps politicians make informed, and therefore better, decisions. In reality, there is little evidence that intelligence significantly informs policy making. In his book Intelligence Power in Peace and War, former head of the British Joint Intelligence Committee, Michael Herman, argues that politicians by and large do what they want to do, ignoring intelligence when it doesn’t suit them and using it when it does. Intelligence doesn’t therefore determine policy; where it does have an effect is in the execution of policy – that is to say, once politicians have decided what they want to do, intelligence does have an impact on how the policy is put into practice. To take the example of terrorism, politicians have multiple options: wage war against the terrorists; treat the issue as a criminal one; negotiate with the terrorists; seek to undermine them by addressing social and economic grievance; and the like. Intelligence plays very little role in determining which option politicians choose. But if, for instance, they choose to wage war, then it comes in very useful in identifying targets, and so on.

Research supports this conclusion in the specific case of the United States. In a 2017 article in the academic journal Intelligence and National Security entitled ‘Why Strategic Intelligence Analysis Has Limited Influence on American Foreign Policy’, Stephen Marrin argues that ‘facts do not speak for themselves. They have to be interpreted, and that requires some form of conceptual framework to organize the information and derive inferences from it.’ If the intelligence community’s analysis differs from that of politicians, then the latter are entitled to ignore it and often do. Consequently, in the United States, ‘intelligence analysis appears to have had limited influence on national security decisions.’

The point here is that one should always be a little cautious about accepting claims that major policy decisions are driven by secret intelligence. If intelligence points in a direction in which politicians really don’t want to go, history suggests that they are most unlikely to go there regardless. If they do go there, it’s because they’re inclined in that direction in the first place.

Which brings us to the Russian 9M729 missile and America’s announcement that it will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 60 days’ time if Russia does not return to compliance with the INF Treaty. This treaty prohibits missiles with a range between 500 and 5000 kilometres. The Americans claim that the 9M729 has a range within these limits, and that by developing it Russia is therefore in violation of the INF Treaty.

Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing whether the American claims are correct. They are based entirely on secret intelligence which the United States has not made public. On the one hand, it seems that the Americans are pretty confident that their intelligence is accurate. On the other hand, they’ve been wrong about stuff before. American analysts say that since Russia already has missiles with a range of just under 500 kilometres, it makes little sense for it to develop a new missile which does the same thing. The only logical explanation for the 9M729 is that it has a longer range, within that prohibited by the INF Treaty. Analysts point to Russian fears that the American anti-ballistic missile system being deployed in Eastern Europe could be used against Russia, and suggest that the 9M729 has been developed to neutralize this threat. This may be true, but an article today in the Russian online newspaper Vzglyad suggests that the Russian approach may not have been a missile with a longer range, but rather a faster missile. According to Vzglyad, the 9M729 is designed to travel at 2.5 times the speed of sound. This requires a larger rocket, and it is this, not additional fuel tanks, which explains the 9M729’s large size.

Given the total lack of publicly available information about the missile, it is impossible to determine who is telling the truth. But even if the Americans have got it right, that doesn’t explain the decision to tear up the INF Treaty. There are many ways of dealing with contentious issues like this. These might include, for instance, negotiating some mechanism for mutual inspections of the 9M729 and the American ABM system in Eastern Europe. To return to my original point, if the Americans have decided to tear up the INF Treaty, it’s not because intelligence tells them that they have to tear it up, it’s because they believe that it’s to their advantage to do so and the intelligence provides them with the opportunity to legitimize the act.

American security policy under Trump is in the hands of hardliners, most notably James Mattis and John Bolton, who seem stuck in the ‘unipolar moment’ which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as in the thinking of the post-9/11 National Security Strategy which proclaimed that the United States should acquire such overwhelming military superiority that any potential competitors would decide that it wasn’t worth the effort competing and would give up without a struggle. In short, they seem to be driven by the belief that the United States is so dominant that it has doesn’t have to fear an arms race. Arms control is thus undesirable as it constrains America from asserting its dominance. Rather than negotiating arms limitations with other countries, America can best defend itself by outspending and outbuilding potential enemies to such a degree that they are forced to submit.

This strategy, I believe, is bound to fail. America’s geopolitical challengers – primarily Russia, China, and Iran – are not about to back down. China in particular is acting with great caution, but is playing a long game, avoiding immediate confrontation but gradually building up its forces. It’s not going to stop, and will in due course become a ‘peer competitor’, no matter how much the United States tries to stop it. Russia, meanwhile, will certainly not comply with America’s ultimatum to scrap the 9M729 missile. Rather, when the USA withdraws from the INF Treaty, Russia will almost certain set about developing and deploying intermediate-range weapons systems, including not just cruise missiles (like the 9M729) but probably also ballistic missiles. The only beneficiaries will be the military industrial complexes in Russia and the United States. Everyone else will be less secure as a result.

Time to break free from America

The Chinese smartphone company ZTE employs 75,000 people and last year sold $17 bn of products. Yet, despite being a booming and profitable concern, this week ZTE shut down its operations. Why? Because the United States has ‘banned American companies from exporting technology’ to it. ZTE phones contain a number of US-made components, as well as US-designed software. Thanks to the ban, the phones can no longer be made. ZTE is out of business, and 75,000 people will lose their jobs – just like that.

The ZTE ban follows American complaints that the company had been circumventing US sanctions against Iran and North Korea. ZTE admitted this and paid a $890 million fine to the US government, but American regulators maintained that it was still not being honest about its dealings – thus the sanctions imposed against it.

Meanwhile, following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal previously agreed between the USA, Iran, and several other countries, American officials have been warning European companies that they must stop doing business with Iran. The European company Airbus had signed an agreement to sell Iran billions of euros worth of passenger aircraft. More than 10% of those aircraft, however, consists of American parts. Conseqently, the US has now prohibited Airbus from selling them to Iran because of sanctions re-imposed on Iran following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Airbus could, of course, sell the planes anyway, but it would then find itself being fined huge sums of money in the USA and, like ZTE, have its American supplies cut off.

Any other non-American companies who rely on US components or software, and who are considering doing trade with Iran are now going to have to seriously reconsider their position. European governments and the European Union are none too happy with this. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian complained that, ‘We feel that the extraterritoriality of their [American] sanction measures are unacceptable. The Europeans should not have to pay for the withdrawal from an agreement by the United States, to which they had themselves contributed.’ Meanwhile, French Finance Minister Bruno de Maire asked yesterday, ‘Do we want to be vassals who obey decisions taken by the United States while clinging to the hem of their trousers? Or do we want to say we have our economic interests?’

European politicians are now considering what measures they can take to protect themselves from American efforts to force them to comply with American sanctions policies. According to de Maire, the EU is considering various avenues. One of these, he says, involves ‘looking at Europe’s financial independence – what can we do to give Europe more financial tools allowing it to be independent from the United States?’ Connected with this is a ‘proposal is to set up a purely European finance house to oversee euro-denominated transactions with Iran’

For some time now, a number of Russians who disagree with their government’s economic policy have been complaining that by seeking to integrate Russia more and more into the world economy, the government has undermined national sovereignty and made it vulnerable to financial pressures from potential enemies, notably the United States of America. Economists such as Sergei Glazyev have for a while been urging the Kremlin to increase Russia’s financial independence by, for instance, ‘the creation of a system of exchanging information between banks, analogous to SWIFT but independent of the USA and the EU,’ the establishment of ‘our own rating agencies,’ pricing exported goods in rubles rather than dollars, and so on. For very good reasons, the Russian government has resisted going down this route. Economic autarky tends not to turn out well. Integration into the global economy has its benefits. Having said all that, it seems to me that examples like those above are going to add to the pressure not only on Russia but also on other countries around the world to go in the direction the likes of Glazyev are suggesting, albeit gradually and with caution. Looking at the fate of ZTE and Airbus, any senior manager of an international company worth his or her salt is going to have start thinking about how to reduce the company’s dependence on US suppliers. Politicians are also going to have to put more thought into how to strengthen their economic sovereignty. This is not something which is going to happen overnight, but the impulse to move in that direction must be stronger this week than last.

Some steps have already been taken. We see new financial structures outside US control beginning to emerge, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the petro-yuan. Already financial journalists are speculating that the US decision to renege on the Iranian nuclear deal will strengthen the latter. I tend to the view that such developments are an inevitable part of the global shift in economic power. As the US declines in relative economic terms, its grip on international institutions is bound to weaken. But decisions such as that concerning Iran can only accelerate this process. Very gradually, but nonetheless more and more perceptibly, other countries are going to want to distance themselves from the United States.

The Americans are like a man sinking in quicksand.: the more he struggles in an effort to get out, the faster he sinks. As their relative power declines, the Americans are fighting with all their might to retain their hegemony, striking out in sometimes rather peculiar directions. But the very act of struggling just sucks them down further. In the aftermath of Trump’s decision on Iran, the sound of the sand sucking America under can be heard louder and clearer than ever before.

Playing at war

So, the Americans, British, and French have done their bit, and fired off 100 or so missiles at Syria. After all the fears expressed by pundits that this could be the start of World War III, it’s turned out to be a bit of a nothing-burger. That’s not to downplay the symbolic significance of the Western states’ assault on Syria, in which they acted as judge, juror, and executioner while the investigation into the alleged misdemeanour was still ongoing and chemical weapons inspectors were on their way to the site of the supposed incident. But, if early reports are to be believed, nobody was killed in the attack and the physical damage is fairly minimal. The Brits fired a mere 8 missiles; the French only 12. Those are hardly significant numbers. Given that the Brits and Americans have been meddling in the war in Syria for several years now, arming and training various groups, and bombing targets on their behalf (including occasionally bombing the Syrian Arab Army), this doesn’t really constitute much by way of escalation. Tomorrow, the Syrians will brush off the dust, and things will go back to the way they were. Russia (along with Iran) will continue to back the Syrian government, and the latter’s forces will continue to advance and regain more and more territory. It is most unlikely that this assault will have any meaningful impact on the outcome of the struggle in Syria.

What stands out for me is the choice of weapons in this attack: long-range missiles. The Brits, for instance, fired their missiles from close to their airbase on Cyprus. They didn’t come close to Syria. It seems that they were afraid of Syrian and Russian air defences, and they weren’t prepared to go to the effort of suppressing them, which would have required a long and costly campaign and would have run the danger of getting them into a war with the Russians. The Russian Ministry of Defence says that its own air defences didn’t get involved but that those of the Syrian army shot down 71 of the 103 missiles fired. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (not normally noted for promoting pro-Assad propaganda) claims that 65 were shot down. The Americans are currently denying this. The truth is hard to determine. It may be that the Western allies are right to be fearful of the Syrian/Russian air defence system. Or maybe not. What is clear, though, is that they don’t seem to be willing to take the chance. They also don’t want to get too deeply involved. So, they have limited themselves to firing a few missiles in an utterly pointless manner, while making some wild claims that this would ‘set back Syrian chemical weapons programme for years.’

This is playing at war. Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of how the Americans and the Brits wage war nowadays. They can’t resist getting involved, but the outcome doesn’t matter to them enough for them to commit the resources, and make the sacrifices, required for a successful outcome. So, in Afghanistan they committed themselves enough to stir up the locals, to flood the country with money which boosted corruption and filled the coffers of the Taliban, and generally to make everything worse, but not enough to win (which would  have required a simply enormous amount of resources). In Libya, they did just enough to push the country into chaos, but not enough to put it back together again. In Syria, they’ve pumped in enough weapons and money to thoroughly mess the place up (and in the process supply a whole bunch of people who really aren’t their friends), but not enough to overthrow Assad. And so on.

Now, to be fair, it’s a sign of some intelligence that they haven’t gone any further than they have. It would have been completely disproportionate to have done so. We must welcome the fact that in attacking Syria, they limited themselves to a symbolic gesture and stayed well clear of Russian targets. As I said in my last post, achieving the objective of regime change would require enormous destruction. It’s a good thing that our leaders aren’t prepared to go that far. The problem is, though, is that if they want to succeed that’s how far they have to go. If they’re not prepared to do so, they shouldn’t get involved at all in the first place. Unfortunately, they just can’t stop themselves. Consequently, they end up playing at war, failing time after time, while causing a lot of death and destruction in the process

These endless wars allow politicians to claim that they are being ‘strong’, or more precisely fend off complaints that they are ‘weak’. But they don’t make Britain, America, or France any safer, while those at the receiving end of Western militarism suffer greatly because of it. As far as Syria and Russia are concerned, I suspect that the net result of the latest assault will be to reinforce Russian perceptions that the West is hell-bent on a policy of military and political aggression in which Syria is the front line. They will conclude that Russia must see the war in Syria through to a successful conclusion, and also that the Western states, despite all their bluster, don’t possess the will to stop it. One can therefore expect Russia to press on, and because it has the superior will, it will most likely succeed.

Asymmetrical rules

Back in September I presented a paper at a conference in Moscow on the topic of ‘Human Rights Reasoning and Double Standards in the Rules-Based Order.’ In this I pointed out that both Russia and the West claimed to be in favour of a ‘rules-based order’ and that each accused the other of breaking that order. The problem, I conjectured, derives from differing understanding of what the rules are and how they should be applied. Russia believes in a traditional, Westphalian, order in which states are equal sovereign entities. The rules apply equally to all of them, regardless of who they are or what they do. States may only take action against other states with the permission of a superior court, in other words the United Nations Security Council. Of course, Russia doesn’t 100% abide by the rules of its own model, but its preferred option remains one of legal symmetry – the same rules apply to all.

By contrast, human rights reasoning has pushed the West in an opposite direction, towards a preference for legal asymmetry. In this model, the just and the unjust, those who respect and those who don’t respect human rights, are not legally or morally equal. As I wrote in my paper, if a policeman shoots at a criminal, the criminal doesn’t then enjoy a right of self-defence and so a right to shoot at the policeman. This is because one is engaged in a just act, and the other in an unjust act. Taken to the level of international affairs, a state which is not, in the words of Canadian scholar Brian Orend, ‘minimally just’, has no right of self-defence; but a just state has a right to take action against it. Good states in this model gain rights; bad states lose them. Asymmetry is correct, and there is nothing wrong with double standards.

Having put forward this thesis in my paper, I was very interested, therefore, to see somebody apparently confirm it in today’s New York Times. In an article entitled ‘Russia isn’t the only one meddling in elections. We do it, too’, Scott Shane recounts multiple incidents in which the United States has meddled in other countries’ electoral processes and cites intelligence officials as confirming that this has happened and continues to happen. In a recent example, for instance, the USA attempted (but failed) to ensure Hamid Karzai’s defeat in the 2009 election in Afghanistan. Shane quotes former CIA director Robert Gates as calling this ‘our clumsy and failed putsch.’

What is significant about this article, though, is the unrepentant tone of those interviewed. Former CIA officer Steven L. Hall, for instance, tells Shane that the United States has ‘absolutely’ interfered in other countries’ elections and ‘I hope we keep doing it.’ And then we get onto the key point. Shane writes:

Both Mr Hall and [intelligence scholar Loch] Johnson argued [that] Russia and American interferences in elections have not been morally equivalent. American interventions have generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates challenge dictatorships, or otherwise promoting democracy. Russia has more often intervened to disrupt democracy or promote authoritarian rule, they said. Equating the two, Mr Hall says, ‘is like saying cops and bad guys are the same because they both have guns – the motivation matters.’

In the same vein, Shane cites Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Initiative as saying, ‘It’s not just apples and oranges. It’s comparing somebody who delivers lifesaving medicine to somebody who brings deadly poison.’

Putting aside the rather questionable assertion that American interventions in other countries’ affairs are ‘generally’ in support of ‘democracy’, we see here a clear example of asymmetrical thinking. In American eyes the same rules do not apply to the United States and Russia, because they are morally different. The American idea of a rules-based order is one in which the ‘good guys’ are subject to different rules to the ‘bad guys’.

One can understand the logic here. Why should the rules be written to put good and evil on an equal footing? Should they not be written to favour the former over the latter? The problem, however, is that we have no external body (barring the UN Security Council) able to determine which states are just, and so allowed to interfere in the affairs of others, and those which are unjust, and not allowed to do so (and indeed not even allowed to defend themselves). Asymmetrical rules permit anybody and everybody to declare themselves ‘just’ and their opponents ‘unjust’, and so to abrogate extra rights for themselves while denying even the most basic rights to others. Since in reality only the powerful will be able to act on this, such asymmetrical rules serve merely to enhance the power of those who already have it (which is, of course, probably why the most powerful states in the world favour them). Meanwhile, those who are at the receiving end of this logic can hardly be expected to accept it; they are likely to resist. Such an order will never be universally accepted, and so cannot be the basis for a stable international system.

Of course, an international system entirely devoid of any concept of justice is equally problematic. The rule utilitarian logic which underpins the Westphalian model of equal sovereign states can be seen as potentially callous, as it requires states to stand aside and do nothing while others behave in atrocious ways. There are perhaps some good reasons why the Western countries have moved away from it. But the chosen alternative is not obviously any better.

It is sometimes said that current East-West tensions do not constitute a ‘new Cold War’ because East and West are not ideologically divided in the way they were previously. Yet it is clear that beneath present disputes lies a fundamental philosophical disagreement about the nature of a ‘rules-based order.’ Resolving it is perhaps one of the key philosophical tasks of our time.

Russia as enemy

I have remarked on more than one occasion that Western perceptions of the Russian ‘threat’ have historically owed little to the real scale (or even existence) of that threat. Instead they have tended to be products of internal political debates within the West, with depictions of Russia as good or evil serving as tools to advance certain political agendas. Leo Strauss argued that underneath the surface meaning of any work of philosophy there is also a hidden meaning, discernible only by a select few. One could say much the same about analyses of Russia: there’s the surface story – Russian aggression, Russian disinformation, Russian collusion, and so on – but there’s also something going on under the surface which constitutes the true purpose of the analysis in question.

Quite why Russia is so often used to serve this purpose, rather than some other country, is hard to discern. I suspect that it’s because Russia is uniquely positioned both inside and outside of the West, making it a suitable ‘other’ while also being clearly connected to Western concerns in a way that a truly alien ‘other’, such as China, could not be. Regardless of the reason, depictions of Russia shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value. There’s a hidden reason why the writer is doing what he or she is doing which he is she isn’t telling you. (Which, if true, raises a whole host of questions: what’s my hidden purpose? And is there a hidden purpose to saying that there’s a hidden purpose? But for now we will put these to one side.)

What’s rare is for anybody to come straight out and admit it, which is what makes a recent article in The Washington Monthly by ‘contributing writer’ John Stoehr so remarkable. Stoehr takes the line that the Democratic Party in the United States has been far too soft in its struggles with its Republican opponents. The Democrats have tried to find common ground, and reach agreement, whereas the Republicans have regarded the Democrats as their enemies and so have waged relentless war against them. As a result, the Democrats have been trounced. To regain power, they need to start playing hardball too.

This leads Stoehr to a problem:

How can Democrats do this without abandoning what makes them a liberal party: its values, its pluralism, its privileging of liberty and justice for all, its historic goal of creating a more perfect union? How can they ask voters to vote Democrat by doing what the Republicans do?

Fortunately, Stoehr has worked out what to do about this. He writes:

These are difficult questions, but I think the Trump presidency offers a possible answer. The Democrats should do everything they can to tie the Republicans to something most sane people would agree, even if they are hopelessly polarized, is an indisputable threat to the United States—Russia.

So, here we have it. The Russian threat serves as a tool for the Democratic Party to win political points in its domestic battles with the Republicans. Stoehr continues:

I think Russia is a solution to political polarization. The Democrats should and must start using Russia as a way to break through the vicious cycle consuming the parties, Washington, and the whole country. Russia is our enemy. This is a fact. … In tying the Republicans to an enemy, the Democrats have the potential to break the Republicans. Do they stand with America or do they stand with Russia?

Stoehr cites NBC analyst John Heilemann asking Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut: ‘Is it possible that the Republican chairman of the House Intel Committee has been compromised by the Russians? Is it possible that we actually have a Russian agent running the House Intel Committee on the Republican side?’ This is quite an outrageous suggestion, for which there is, it has to be said, absolutely no evidence whatsoever. Stoehr is clear, however, that it’s the sort of smear which the Democrats ought to be spreading at every opportunity. He writes:

Murphy didn’t take the bait, which suggests to me that the Democrats are not ready to accuse the Republican Party of treasonous behavior. Perhaps it’s prudent to bide their time, to wait for the proper context. What I do know is that that context is rapidly taking shape. Pretty soon, it won’t sound extraordinary to wonder if the highest-ranking government officials have been comprised. It won’t sound outlandish to accuse the Republicans of abetting a foreign enemy. It will sound reasonable. At that point, real change can happen.

As a political strategy, I think this is dumb. If the Democrats want to take the gloves off in their fight against the Republicans, Trump has given them more than enough ammunition to do so: cuts in Medicaid, immigration policy, massive increases in defence spending, foreign policy mistakes, and so on. Instead, Stoehr wants the Democrats to double down on the Russian issue – an issue which 90% of Americans probably don’t care very much about. It’s bizarre to say the least. Nonetheless, Stoehr’s article lays bare the hidden purpose behind so many Russia-related stories. They’re a tool in an internal political struggle. They have very little to do with Russia itself.