Tag Archives: United States

More on Afghanistan and Western Foreign Policy

In my latest piece for RT (here), I contrast the Western flight from Afghanistan with the relative calm being displayed by the Chinese and Russians. I always like to be positive and find a silver lining somewhere. In the instance of Afghanistan, the fact that the country now has peace for the first time in about 45 years is one such lining. There are some indications that the Taliban may be rather more pragmatic and interested in good governance and positive relations with their neighbours than they were when they first took power in 1996. If that is so, the Russians and Chinese may be well placed to take advantage. As I conclude:

Somewhat strangely, therefore, the rise of the Taliban provides certain opportunities for Afghanistan’s development that were not previously available. It’s far from certain that the Taliban will want to make use of these opportunities, but the Russians and Chinese seem to be willing to give it a shot. If they do, they may well reap considerable benefits.

Meanwhile, you can watch me discuss Afghanistan, NATO, and Western foreign policy with James Carden in this interview for the American Committee for US-Russia Accord.

The Not-So Strange Death of Liberal Russophobia

Sunday’s edition of the New York Times had an interesting little piece by the newspaper’s token conservative op-ed writer Ross Douthat, entitled ‘The Strange Death of Liberal Russophobia’, a by-line echoing the title of George Dangerfield’s famous 1935 book The Strange Death of Liberal England. Douthat notes that between 2016 and 2020, when Donald Trump was president of the USA, among American liberals,

[Russian president Vladimir] Putin was a figure of extraordinary menace whose tentacles extended everywhere, from Brexit to the NRA. He had hacked American democracy, placed a Manchurian candidate in the White House, sowed the internet with misinformation, placed bounties on our soldiers in Afghanistan, extended Russian power across the Middle East and threatened Eastern Europe with invasion or subversion. In this atmosphere ever rumor about Russian perfidy was pre-emptively believed, and the defense of liberal democracy required recognizing that we had been thrust into Cold War 2.0.

Douthat isn’t wrong about that. For a period of four years, Putin derangement syndrome, allied to an overarching Russophobia, became a centrepiece of the Democratic party’s identity. It was to be expected that once Joe Biden became president, US policy towards Russia would become even more hardline. But, Douthat notes, the opposite has happened:

Now comes Biden, making moves in Russia policy that are essentially conciliatory – freezing a military aid package to Ukraine, ending US sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline linking Germany to Russia, a return of ambassadors – and setting a summit that can reasonably be regarded as a modest propaganda coup for Putin.

And yet, all this – which if Trump had done it, would have led to screams of betrayal and have been seen as proof that Trump was working on behalf of the Kremlin – has passed by with nary of a squeak of protest from the same American liberals who just a short while ago were portraying Moscow as the source of all evil.

What gives?

Douthat argues that it’s a sign of ‘the wisdom of the Biden administration in recognizing that certain Trump-era hysterias within its party can be safely put to sleep.’ According to Douthat, the Russophobic lunacy was the purview of one particular part of the Democratic party – what George Packer calls ‘Smart America’ (‘which is basically meritocratic elites’). This group ‘wanted to blame all its own failures on Russian disinformation’, but it isn’t Biden’s core constituency. He therefore feels free to ignore it and to pursue an essentially Realist policy towards the Russian Federation.

There maybe something to this theory. But I suggest another – the ‘strange’ death of liberal Russophobia isn’t so ‘strange’ at all. Its rise and fall indicates that it was always a tactic more than anything else. Russia-bashing was a method chosen by elements in the Democratic party as a means of undermining Trump and so winning back power. It wasn’t in my view a very good method, and I don’t think that Biden’s victory owed much if anything to it, but it was always a method not an end in itself. That doesn’t mean that ‘Smart America’ didn’t come to believe its own Russophobic propaganda – I get a strong sense that its members repeated its claims so often that in due course they became true believers. But from Biden’s point of view, once Trump was gone, the method had served its purpose. There is no longer any reason to make a central point of Democratic rhetoric.

And so, having outlived its usefulness, it has been discarded. Or at least, one hopes it has. I’m not convinced that it’s exactly suffered a ‘death’, as Douthat put it. It’s still there, with a strong hold on parts of the liberal establishment in the USA. But it seems that at least for now, Biden is prepared to largely ignore it. In that sense, when Douthat speaks of the ‘wisdom of the Biden administration’, one has to agree.

Success Is Confrontation

Yes, you read the title correctly, “Success is confrontation.” So says one-time US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker in an article for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), one of the more reliably Russophobic think tanks in Washington. “Success is confrontation.” Think about the implications for a while.

The subject of Mr Volker’s article is the forthcoming meeting between America’s president Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Volker wants you to know how should measure the meeting’s “success”. The basic answer is that the meeting will be a success from the American point of view if it fails utterly, miserably, and totally. The worse the outcome, the better it will be.

Now, with relations between two heavily armed nuclear powers about as bad as anyone can remember, one might imagine that success would be if the leaders of the two powers found some way of patching up their difficulties, or at least reaching agreement on some minor matters of mutual interest while leaving major differences between them unresolved. But Mr Volker views things rather differently.

For you see, if the meeting between Biden and Putin ends without a major bust-up, or worse produces some minor agreements that overall contribute to “predictability and stability”, that will be a victory for Putin. And what is good for Putin must by necessity be bad for America. As Volker puts it,

It is surely not in the interests of the US, the EU, NATO, and other allies to see a summit in which Putin leaves convinced that he has blunted the United States and faces no consequences for his behavior. It would send a signal that authoritarians can get away with aggressive acts at home and abroad, and that the US and the West will not take any meaningful action to stop them. … any outcome that seems reassuring and benign on the surface actually works in Putin’s faor.

Consequently, Volker concludes that:

For the US, therefore, the best possible outcome is not one of modest agreements and a commitment to “predictability,” but one of a lack of agreement altogether. Success is confrontation.

Volker points out that Biden and Putin might discuss issues such as climate change, Iran, and Afghanistan. Is it really better that they fail to reach agreement on those issues? Whose interests would that actually serve? I damned if I have an answer. And Volker doesn’t provide one either. His view seems to be that the world can go to hell in a handcart as far as he’s concerned, if the alternative is failure to confront the evil dictator Putin. Frankly, it’s nuts.

In fact, it’s obvious that Volker doesn’t want the meeting to go ahead at all. He writes that, “an ideal scenario would have the US Administration announce tough, new sanctions against Russia and its enablers in Western Europe in advance of the Geneva summit.” Of course, were that to happen, Putin would cancel the meeting there and then. But I guess that’s the point. Volker thinks it’s wrong not only to come to agreement with the Russians but even to talk to them. To reverse-quote Churchill: In the eyes of Volker, “War, war is always better than jaw jaw.”

One can argue that one should prepare for the possibility of conflict. But the idea that one should actively prefer it to agreement on the international stage, especially when dealing with the largest country in the world, a nation endowed with some 1,500 nuclear warheads, is, in my opinion, quite staggeringly irresponsible.

Now, you might say that this is just one guy’s opinion. We can ignore it. It doesn’t mean anything. But Volker isn’t just some guy. From 2017 to 2019, he was the US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations – so in effect America’s point guy for its relationship with Ukraine and for negotiations concerning a peace settlement for that country’s civil war. On the basis of this article, one shudders to think what advice he was giving the Ukrainian government. Certainly not advice conducive to peace, I imagine. It’s more than a little scary.

So, this is more than just one man. This article is a window into the way that an influential part of the American foreign policy establishment thinks. It rejects negotiation. It regards compromise as dangerous. It openly prefers conflict. “Success is confrontation” – the worse the better. Wow!

More Bad Journalism on Russia

Having said in my last post that you shouldn’t disbelieve everything that the press tells you about Russia, I find myself returning once again to examples of bad reporting, as these seem to be rather more prevalent than the good variety. Bad journalism, though, is not all the same. It takes different forms, and some examples from this week and last prove the point.

First off is report by the BBC’s Russian correspondent Steve Rosenberg that came out yesterday, which you can watch on the BBC website. Rosenberg travelled to the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk supposedly to find answers to the question ‘In what direction is Russia heading?’, Krasnoyarsk being chosen because it’s geographically more or less slap bang in the middle of Russia.

As I note in an analysis of the report published today by RT (which you can read here), it’s not very good. Having travelled 4,000 kilometres to Krasnoyarsk, Rosenberg tells us absolutely nothing about the city itself, but limits himself to interviewing three people who tell him a bunch of things he could just as easily have heard if he’d stayed in Moscow. The whole piece is then framed, start and finish, by a statement that “Russia is heading towards a big catastrophe.” Ah yes, Russia is doomed! How many times have we heard that one?

Frankly, I can’t imagine why Rosenberg bothered going to Krasnoyarsk to do this. Having travelled that far, he could have made an effort to explore the city and tell us how things are there. But none of it. It was just another excuse to tell us that Russia is going down the plughole.

This then is one type of bad reporting: it consists of focusing on selling a given narrative rather than trying to understand and explain the object under study.

This type isn’t untrue, it’s just not very interested in anything that doesn’t fit the chosen story. The second type, by contrast, bends the truth to fit the narrative.

Continue reading More Bad Journalism on Russia

Stuck in a Cul-De-Sac, With No Way Out. Half-Speed Ahead.

In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I discuss the chaos that is American policy towards Russia. First, US president Joe Biden phones Vladimir Putin and suggests that they normalize relations and hold a summit. Then he slaps a bunch of new sanctions on Russia and expels 10 Russian diplomats. Meanwhile, in other news, 2 US warships headed towards the Black Sea, and then turned around and said that they weren’t going to go the Black Sea after all. In other words, a picture of total foreign policy confusion.

To my mind, the phone call and summit offer were something of a blip in American policy, brought upon by a sense of alarm at the possibility of war between Russia and Ukraine. This induced the Americans to try and row back a bit. The problem is that the current in the other direction is just too strong, and so they ended up even further downstream than before.

In any case, I’m not sure that the Americans actually know how to change directions. Take a look at their policies towards Cuba and Iran – they’ve been sanctioning them for decades. It hasn’t made those countries more friendly, but they keep on at it. The policy is a complete dead end, but it’s like America is a massive 18-wheeler that has entered a narrow cul-de-sac and just doesn’t have the maneuverability to get out again. All it can do is keep trying to ram through whatever is blocking the way out, smashing itself (and the obstacle) up in the process, but not getting anywhere.

By now, you’d have thought that they’d have learnt not to keep driving into cul-de-sacs. But, for some reason they keep on doing it (Venezuela is another one). It seems like there’s no learning process.

Other than backing out, the18-wheeler has only chance to escape – when it first enters the cul-de-sac, and still has forward momentum. That’s the moment when the driver needs to step on the gas and smash through the obstacle. After that, occasional little shoves from a standing start won’t do the trick, especially if somebody is busily strengthening the obstacle all the time.

It’s the same with sanctions. Academic studies suggest that if they are to succeed in coercing the targeted party, they need to be fairly comprehensive and immediate – that’s to say, you need to do a lot and do it all at once. Gradual incrementalism is doomed to failure. The target adapts and is often one step ahead, limiting his vulnerability long before you hit him.

So it is with American sanctions against Russia. The latest round will have very limited practical effect. But bit by bit, the sanctions are having the effect of cutting Russia off from America. As that happens, America loses whatever leverage it had at the start. That in turn means that each successive round of sanctions has less prospects of causing real damage than the last.

In short, it’s a dead-end, and no amount of effort to bash through the obstacle is going to work. Sooner or later, the 18-wheeler will have to back out. Judging by past experience, later is more likely than sooner. The danger is that it may be so late that by then the vehicle will have fallen entirely apart. At that point, its only hope will be that a nice new Chinese tow-truck comes along and rescues it.

Military Industrial Boondoggle

Today in my defence policy course my students and I shall be spending some time discussing defence procurement. As luck would have it, as I was munching on my morning bread and marmalade, a highly relevant article swan into view in the op-ed page of my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen, after which I then discovered a new US report on a similar topic.

The Citizen article concerns Canada’s shockingly badly managed naval shipbuilding program. Written by a former Assistant Deputy Minister of Defence, Alan Williams, the article declares that ‘Canada’s Warship Program is Sinking Fast.’ In this Williams reports that Canada’s plan to build 15 new surface combatants originally had

an estimated cost of $26 billion, with deliveries to begin in the early 2020s. Today, the forecasted costs to build these ships is far beyond that. Deliveries are to start in the early 2030s, a decade later than scheduled … [The Parliamentary Budget Office] estimates that it will cost $77.3 billion … to maintain these ships over their expected total life-cycle would amount to an additional $208 billion, for a total life-cycle cost of $286 billion. In comparison, the funds available in DND’s [Department of National Defence] budget over the next 30 years to acquire and maintain its capital goods for the army, navy and air force combined is only $240 billion. This program alone would bankrupt the department’s capital and maintenance accounts for the next 30 years.

Despite this, DND insists that, ‘It will neither entertain a new design nor undertake a new procurement process.’ Williams adds that the United States is building very similar ships for about one-third of the price of the Canadian ones, and also that DND rejected an offer by the Italian company Fincantieri to build the ships in Canada ‘at a fixed cost of $30 billion’, less than half what DND is now paying. ‘As currently planned, these ships will likely never be built. They are simply unaffordable,’ concludes Williams.

But could the government cancel such a project after throwing so much money at it? That’s where the US report comes in. Published by the American Enterprise Institute, and entitled The 2020s Tri-Service Modernization Crunch, the report mentions how the shift in priorities during the War on Terror led the USA to cancel a whole series of projects originally designed for fighting wars of a different type. You can see the details in this chart, showing cancelled projects from 2002 to 2012 alone.

Continue reading Military Industrial Boondoggle

Russia Stories Rolling Up Like London Buses

You know what they say about London buses – you wait for ages for a Number 57 to come along and then three arrive all at once. It’s a bit like that with suitable stories for this blog. You can have a long drought when it seems like there’s nothing to write about and then, wham, story after story arrives in quick succession.

Which is what it’s been like these past few days.

First, we had claims from the US State Department that Russia was trying to blacken the name of Western anti-covid vaccines in order to persuade other states to buy the Russian Sputnik V vaccine instead. Just about no evidence was provided to support this claim, beyond mention of three obscure websites that I imagine almost nobody reads. Allegedly, these websites have ‘links’ to Russian intelligence, but again no evidence was given to support that allegation. Furthermore, the State Department organization responsible for the claim has in the past made some highly dubious similar allegations against other websites (that I discussed and debunked here). Nobody should take its statements at face value. Frankly, the story is poorly-informed scaremongering.

It’s also enormously hypocritical, for next up was the disgraceful story that the United States had pressured Brazil not to accept deliveries of the Sputnik V vaccine. I really think that this is one of the outrageous things that I have read of late. After accusing the Russians of anti-vax activities, it turns out that the US government is not only involved in such activities itself but is rather proud of it. In the name of countering Russian ‘influence’, it sought to deprive Brazilians of a much-needed defence against a pandemic that has already killed a substantial part of the Brazilian population. It is quite indefensible.

Then, we had bus number 3: the publication of a new foreign policy and defence review by the British government. This listed Russia as “the most acute threat to our security,” and announced the UK’s intention to “reshape the international order,” increase military spending, and supplement its nuclear arsenal, while also declaring that, “The UK will deploy more of our armed forces overseas more often and for longer periods of time.”

I have written a piece about this for RT, which you can read here. I conclude that, “A Russian could only draw the conclusion that the United Kingdom is hell bent on an aggressive and hostile policy,” but that “Ultimately, the main loser will not be the Russians, the Chinese, or any other foreign power, but the British people themselves.” For their government’s “bizarre set of priorities”  will squander their national resources on pointless military adventurism at a time when other far more important matters should be taking precedence.

But the buses keeping rolling along. For next we have the US intelligence community making more bizarre allegations of Russian electoral interference, this time in the 2020 presidential election. And then after that, we have President Joe Biden calling Vladimir Putin a ‘killer’.

My contempt for the US intelligence community has never been greater. As a former intelligence person myself, I find myself asking, ‘Were we always this bad?’ I don’t know the answer, but in this instance, we have claims that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the 2020 election based on the actions of two guys who aren’t even Russian, but are said to be ‘proxies’, with yet again no supporting evidence provided. If I have time, I’ll write more on the topic later. Suffice to say, the reality doesn’t justify the hysterical headlines.

As for Biden’s comments, well what can one say? Didn’t he just order the bombing of Syria. Doesn’t that make him a ‘killer’ too? Politicians should avoid this sort of language. I suspect, though, that what this and the intelligence report mentioned above indicate is that Russiagate, with its allegations of Trump-Putin collusion to undermine American democracy, has done irreparable damage to US-Russia relations. One gets the impression that there is now a deep, deep hatred of Russia within the US government, a hatred that prevents any sane analysis of Russian intentions and actions, as well as of US national interests. I fear that this will last for quite a long time.

Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

Remember the claims that Vladimir Putin and the Russian government had a role in inciting the mob that broke into the Capitol building in Washington DC back in January? I wrote about this in an article a few weeks ago. No sooner had the dust settled than social media was abuzz with statements that Putin either arranged the whole thing or at the very least was celebrating what had happened. As former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes put it, “This is the day that Vladimir Putin has waited for since he had to leave East Germany as a young KGB officer at the end of the Cold War.”

The idea that Putin and the Russian state want nothing more than to see Western democracies collapse into chaos is now so widespread as to be pretty much an uncontestable truth. Everybody knows that it is so. Russian “disinformation”, election “meddling”, and all of the rest of it, are put down to Putin’s enormous fear of democracy and of the West, and his concomitant desire to undermine both.

If you have any doubts, just Google “Putin, undermine democracy.” I did, and this is what I got:

Continue reading Shock Revelation: Putin wants stability in the USA

Imperial Waste

Imperialism is a big gigantic waste of money. Let’s start with that.

A couple of news items caught my attention this week that illustrate this point, but before getting on to them, we first need to make a bit of a detour and try to determine imperialism’s roots.

It’s harder than it might seem. For instance, historians have a real problem explaining late nineteenth century imperialism, in which European powers conquered large parts of the globe, most notably in Africa. All sorts of explanations have been generated, but few stand up to a lot of scrutiny.

Particularly implausible are the theories of socialist thinkers, the most famous of which is Lenin’s Imperialism: The Last State of Capitalism. The socialists’ idea was that capitalism generates lots of surplus capital that it can’t get rid of because it is suppressing the wages of its own workers and so denying itself investment opportunities at home. Instead, capitalism exports its surplus, for which it needs colonies – thus imperialism.

The problem was that, like a lot of Lenin’s stuff, the theory was total hogwash. First, capitalist economies had no shortage of investment opportunities at home; and second, they didn’t need colonies to invest abroad. The British, for instance, invested far, far more in Latin America, which they never conquered, than in Africa, which they did.

Furthermore, imperialism was, generally speaking, loss-making. Colonies had to be defended and administered, but they tended to be economically undeveloped, and so didn’t generate much revenue. There was a reason why the Brits were so happy to let the Canadians become self-governing – they were fed up having to pay for a frozen piece of wasteland that only produced some fur and lumber.

So, imperialism doesn’t make a lot of sense from the point of view of the national interest, broadly defined. But it does make sense to certain minority interests within an imperial society. There are medals and promotions to be won by the military; there are contracts for the military industrial complex; and there’s also money to be made by all sorts of other entrepreneurs willing to hang on the imperialists’ coattails. If these people and groups have outsized political influence – through control of the media, financial support to politicians, or whatever – they can distort politicians’ and even the entire population’s understanding of the national interest. And thus the nation gets dragged into foreign endeavours that enrich and empower a few but do nothing at all for the people as a whole.

Which brings me on to this week’s new stories, both of which involve staggering waste of government money on military and imperial adventures.

Continue reading Imperial Waste

The Limited Political Value of Cultural Exchanges

In my latest article for RT, I tackle the issue of cultural exchanges. Various commentators have urged the US and European governments to make it easier for Russians to come and study there. The idea is that they will then go back and be all pro-USA and want to turn Russia into a pro-American liberal democracy. In response, I argue that cultural exchanges are a good in and of themselves, but it’s a mistake to think that they are of much value, if any, as a geopolitical tool. That’s just not how things work.

You can read the argument in full here.