Thursday, May 29, 2014

Does WWI explain the Ukraine situation?

George Friedman thinks it does.  He looks at WWI, WWII and the cold war and manages to find similarities in them which he also believes apply to the Ukraine situation today.

Such vast simplifications are always popular.  They offer a shortcut to understanding.  But I think this one falls at the first hurdle.

Friedman's basic point is that nations feel threatened if they are bordered by other hostile nations.   That seems commonsense on the face of it but what defines "hostile"? We can see that Canada and Mexico do not feel threatened by the vastness of the USA on their borders because the USA is not hostile.  The USA is in fact probably the most benevolent nation the world has ever seen.  But in Europe it is not so clear. The Northern European countries, including Germany,  tended in history to be friendly with Britain. The Anglo-German defeat of Napoleon may be remembered.  But for Gneisenau, Napoleon would have won at Waterloo.

Yet in two world wars Britain and Germany fought one another.  So were Germany and Britain hostile or friendly to one-another?  From a 19th century perspective one would say friendly but from an early 20th century perspective, one would tend to say hostile.

But even there we have problems.  The German Kaiser was in fact part of the British Royal family and he spent a lot of time in their company.  He spoke perfect English and Queen Victoria died in his arms.  And after the death of the Queen, the British King, Edward VII was widely esteemed to be the only person who could calm the Kaiser down when he got angry. In a great loss for British diplomacy, however, Edward died in 1910.   And given the prominent role of the Kaiser in Germany, how can we say that Germany and Britain were hostile? They were not. They were family.   But they still fought a war.

So I think Friedman's thesis about national policy being dependant on borders is badly flawed.  One thing Britain and Germany did NOT have was a border!

What Friedman says is that after the defeat of the French at Sedan in 1870, the freshly united Germany was such a militarily powerful entity that the rest of Europe was in fear of it and German diplomacy had to deal  with the possibility that nervous neighbors would "gang up" on Germany and attack it from all sides in order to pre-empt a threat from Germany.  Friedman is not alone in that view.  None other than the German Chancellor of the day, Otto von Bismarck saw it similarly.  And Bismarck put into place two measures to deal with it.

The first was his own diplomacy.  By a bewildering series of diplomatic maneuvers, he kept everyone off balance and confused.  So nobody really knew where Germany stood and hence could not muster the clarity needed to initiate armed conflict.  So as long as Bismarck was in charge, Germany was safe.  But Bismarck resigned in 1890 and the diplomatic picture became much more stable after that.

But Bismarck's second measure remained in place and Friedman seems to have entirely overlooked its role.  Bismarck was from early on  protective of the integrity of Austria/Hungary, seeing it from early days as an important potential ally, first to Prussia and later to Germany as a whole.  And indeed it was.  It was a very large political entity on Germany's Southern border that had impressive armies at its disposal. Not all the troops concerned were of first quality but they were not alone in that and most did eventually perform quite well under Austrian leadership.

So, contrary to Friedman, Germany had no need to fear anyone.  The alliance of Germany with Austria was essentially uncrackable and no-one in their right mind would attack such powerful allies.  So Germany had no reason to anticipate war and no reason to prepare for it.  So a stable peace should have prevailed in Europe.  For over 40 years Germany had remained unthreatening and Germany had no need to feel threatened.

Unfortunately, there was someone who was NOT in his right mind.  The Russian Tsar knew fully well the close alliance between Austria and Germany but mobilized his vast armies against Austria nonetheless.  The Austrian leadership felt able to cope with that but Germany could not afford an Austrian failure so Germany mobilized too and the die was cast.

So I think it is fairly clear that a foolish Russian despot was the cause of WWI.  But to infer from that that a popular Russian leader is about to ignite a new conflagration would be reasoning of the shallowest kind.

But WHY did the Tsar mobilize?  Contrary to Friedman, it was not over any concern with his borders.  It was because of sentimental racism.  As many Russians did and still do, he saw the Serbs as racial and linguistic brethren to Russians --  and indeed they were and are. And since Austria and Serbia were in conflict, the Tsar intervened to protect little Serbia against big bully Austria.  It was a very ill-judged intervention -- leading the Tsar to lose both his throne and his life.

And once the armies were mobilized, a variety of factors ensured that there would be no turning back for any of the nations involved  -- but I have written at length on those factors elsewhere.  Borders don't come into it.

So what of Ukraine?  Mr Putin has no need to fear anyone, on his borders or not.  So what is motivating him?

It is very clear.  Russia is staring down the barrel of a demographic disaster.  The birthrate is so low that the Russian population is steadily shrinking.  So Mr Putin wants to regather all Russians into Russia to postpone the disaster.  And because he values Russian lives he has proceeded with great caution.

There was no invasion of Crimea and there has been no invasion of Western Ukraine.  Mr Putin cleverly relied on Russian sentimentality for him to be INVITED by the Crimean parliament to take them into his fold.  And he is clearly waiting for the same thing to happen in Western Ukraine.  Russia will expand but by largely peaceful means only.

The same thing happened in the Russian bits of Georgia.  They had declared their independence of Georgia and were well on their way to an engagement with Russia when the Georgians invaded and endeavoured to reassert their control.  Faced with a blocking of a peaceful constitutional evolution, Putin kicked the Georgians out by military force.  But it was not Putin who initiated the military action and the action ceased once its very limited aims had been achieved.

So let the Eastern Europeans reorganize themselves as best they can.  They will only be a threat if the West tries to meddle in the process.

Just a footnote on Crimea:  The received Western view seems to be that the independence vote in Crimea was a put-up job, a fraud, a fake.  It was not.  There were many international observers present who warranted it as fair.  See here.


Jonah Goldberg is less sanguine about Vladimir Vladimirovich

Vladimir Putin, with the aid of his vast propaganda machinery, has convinced many Russians that the interim government in Ukraine is expressly Nazi and fascist. And while there were some neo-Nazi goons among the protesters who brought down the corrupt government of Victor Yanukovich, and there are definitely ultranationalists among the coalition resisting Moscow, it's simply a transparent lie that the current government is fascist.

That hasn't stopped some left-wing writers and crackpots in the West from buying the Russian claim that the United States is in cahoots with a "fascist junta" in Ukraine.

This is a very old story. Josef Stalin championed the idea that all of his political opponents should be dubbed fascists, including many of his fellow Bolsheviks, such as Leon Trotsky (whom Stalin had assassinated), and much of the Red Army's officer corps (whom he had executed) and countless Ukrainians (whom he had liquidated). Stalin insisted that even mentioning the man-made Ukrainian famine -- i.e., Stalin-made -- was evidence you were an agent of the Nazis.

Under Stalin's "theory of social fascism," any socialist, social democratic or progressive group or party not loyal to him had to be called fascist. Hence, for a while Moscow insisted that FDR and even Norman Thomas (head of the Socialist Party of America) were fascists.

Ultimately, communist propagandists and their allied intellectuals would reflexively blame fascism for everything, regardless of the facts. That's what prompted George Orwell to remark that "the word fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.'"

It's been fascinating to watch as Putin, an ex-KGB man, revives this trope, particularly given that his own behavior is so generically fascistic. Putin is a corporatist (the economic doctrine of fascism). He's a dictatorial, charismatic leader who bends church, business, labor and media to the needs of a centralized state under a thoroughly nationalist banner. As Cathy Young writes for RealClearPolitics, Putin is nurturing his own cadres of ultra-right goons in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Of course, Russia's propaganda campaign hinges on more than the use and abuse of the "F-word." It's been lying about all manner of things, manipulating events on the ground and doctoring images on the airwaves.

It would be nice if this revival of KGB-style deceit caused some soul-searching in the West about other lies and distortions disseminated by the Soviets.

We get the word "disinformation" from the Russian "Dezinformatsiya," the name of the KGB division charged with propagating deliberate lies around the world. They were very good at it.

To be sure, we have our homegrown nuts, but the Soviets fertilized and cultivated the crop at every opportunity. Immediately after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Soviets went into overdrive nurturing "independent" writers such as former German communist Joachim Joesten. His "Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy?" was the first book on the murder, appearing before the Warren Commission issued its findings. Joesten "discovered" that Kennedy was killed by the CIA, of course.

When the Mitrokhin archives -- the files of a defector KGB librarian -- were opened in the 1990s, we learned that Joesten was funded by the KGB. These and similar efforts have distorted the way we talk about the Kennedy assassination and, subtly, our society. You could say that Oliver Stone is like the proverbial Japanese soldier who doesn't know the war is over. Stone's movie "JFK" was a natural extension of the KGB line (right down to the smear that J. Edgar Hoover was a transvestite).

In the 1980s, the Soviets deployed vast resources to propagate the lie that the U.S. created AIDS as part of a biological warfare program. In the first six months of 1987, some 40 newspapers in developing countries ran the story.

It's impossible to know how much of the anti-American narrative contains KGB DNA. Howard Zinn and I.F. Stone would not have been conservative cheerleaders even if the Soviet Union never existed. But Putin's war on the truth in Ukraine is simply the latest battle in a very old war.


Jonah's claim that Putin has been "lying about all manner of things" is lamentably unspecific


Lessons from Putin?

 We're living in a period that arguably represents the pinnacle of flash dominating substance. Saying the right things can get a politician elected to office -- or even awarded a pre-emptive Nobel Peace Prize before he can get around to reigniting the Cold War and racking up snafus in international diplomacy. A great many modern-day celebrities achieve fame by being present on television in some capacity while being shoved down the throat of the collective public through publicity efforts, rather than by using actual talent to gain access to a public platform.

But what if a politician could leverage both substance and style effectively?

If there's any politician on the international stage who has mastered the ability to approximate leadership via superficial trappings until the context arises to transition into a substantial leadership posture, it's Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the offseason, when there isn't much going on politically, he doesn't exhaust the public with needless Fidel Castro-style speeches or hyperactivity. Instead, he simply drags around a cameraman while he performs various acts of manliness, from fishing to swimming. The resulting images are sufficiently close on a psychological and visceral level to that of a strong leader, albeit in the absence of the context to really prove his meddle. In this phase, Putin is no different from the star quarterback benching his body weight in the gym during the offseason. While there are some people for whom that's sufficient, the exceptional mastery comes from being able to score a touchdown when the opportunity presents itself. It's the transition from image to action where our most charismatic leaders often fail.

When conflict materialized in Ukraine, Putin put away the photo-shoot trappings and shifted into a higher gear with decisive actions and blunt, unequivocating talk that wasn't read off a teleprompter.

Regardless of what one might think of Putin's politics, he has succeeded in exploiting human psychological tendencies -- whether domestic or international -- by transitioning seamlessly between style and substance in near-perfect accordance with context.

Until other leaders understand this inherent psychology, we in the West will continue to get a revolving door of underwhelming fops and loudmouth jerks, punctuated by the occasional political unicorn: an authentic leader who can act and speak the part.



No Evidence of a STEM Worker Shortage

New study examines government data

 While employers argue that there are not enough workers with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees, a new analysis of government data by the Center for Immigration Studies finds no evidence that a general shortage of such workers exists. Consistent with most research on the subject, the findings show that the country has more than twice as many people with STEM degrees as there are STEM jobs. Also consistent with most other research on the subject, we find only modest levels of wage growth for such workers for more than a decade. Both employment and wage data indicate STEM workers are not in short supply in the United States.

View the entire report at:

"By allowing in many more immigrants than the STEM labor market can absorb, Congress is almost certainly holding down wage growth, crowding natives out of these jobs, and reducing the incentive for Americans to undertake the challenging course work necessary for a STEM career," said Dr. Steven Camarota, the Center's Director of Research and co-author of the report. "This may be a great situation for employers, but it is hard to see how this is in the best long-term interest of the American people."

Press release


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