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A BRIEF COMMENTARY ON RECENT WORLD EVENTS.

December 27, 2019

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Is an old theory still alive or are we seeing the beginning of its end?

 

 

For the past two hundred years or so the countries of the power block we refer to as “The West” (primarily Western Europe and North America) and the two large empires of the East (Russia and China) have clashed over influence and control of the smaller countries along the borders of the two empires. It was sometimes referred to as “The Great Game.” At first, the conflict was mostly commercial (trade and the plundering of resources). After the Second World War, ideology was added to the mix (the extension of Democracy or the prevention of the expansion of the totalitarian form of Communism). During this period the West managed, for the most part, to resist the incursions of the East and deny it the military presence and control of the resources of the area (oil and trade) that they coveted for so long.

Until World War I, most of the conflict occurred in and around Eastern Europe, the nibbling away at the Ottoman Empire by the western powers and the Russian Empire and south and southeast Asia. As a result of the War, Russia lost most of its Eastern European buffer and watched the West effectively carve up the Ottoman Empire south of the Black Sea with client states.

In the aftermath of the war, a number of mostly right-wing political scientists, following the lead of Karl Haushofer opined on the geopolitical importance of this swath of land, an opinion Adolf Hitler took very seriously.

After World War II and the Communist takeover, this swath of land became even more significant. The Russian Empire (then The Soviet Union) recovered their eastern-European buffer and with the ascendant United States Leadership of the Western powers turned their attention to the southern buffer.

In the US government, a dispute arose as to how to best oppose Russia/China’s ideological, economic and military designs on this southern buffer. Marshall preferred forming an alliance a wall if you will, of economically independent democratic states by extending the Marshall Plan type programs into that area. The Dulles brothers preferred strong military alliances throughout the region. A mishmash of both approaches has been followed for the past 70 years providing a certain level of stability among the great powers if less so for the nations within the area.

In about 1990, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe was recovered by the West. With nibblings here and there ( Crimea, Iraq, Syria, Afganistan, the South China Sea), this more or less remained the status until 2016. I guess this area can be considered the geopolitical version of The Ring of Fire.

With the ascendency of the Trump administration, this relatively stable balance of power has changed.

In order to understand these changes, it is important to begin by exploring the motivations of Vladimir Putin in order to comprehend much of the actions and policies of the Kremlin in the past few years.

First, as is true with most revolutions, the inevitable reaction following a successful revolt often results in the reinstitution of the structures of the old regime usually with new titles (but the same slogans). In Russia, the new oligarchs, like the soviet commissars before them, have decorated their dachas and palaces like the Tsars from whom they had been taken. The old prisons have been reopened and refilled once again with the enemies of the state. The so-called secret services have been restored and given new names. As common in history little had changed but the names on the doors.

The Tsar’s rentier aristocracy was replaced by the industrial Commissars. The Commissars have now been replaced by a financial/commercial oligarchy. True, the Commissars were governmental employees at the time they acquired their wealth and power and the oligarchs are not, but like the landed aristocrats they still owe their wealth to the Tsar in the Kremlin and they cross him at their peril.

Second, Putin is not only the head of the Russian government but the chief and undoubtedly the wealthiest oligarch of them all.

Third, Putin is a Russian, a child of the Rodina, and as such the humiliation of Soviet Russia by the American commercial and military empire is a stain that any patriot would work tirelessly to remove.

Fourth, he was previously a low-level bureaucrat in the Soviet secret service (KGB) trained in espionage. As such, one would assume he is more comfortable with the strategies of subversion than those of military conquest.

Finally, he is extremely popular in Russia (and in many other areas of the world). Ninety-six percent of Russians approved of his military initiatives in Ukraine; ninety-five percent believed that America was goading Kyiv to persecute ethnic Russians in that country. Ninety-two percent believed the same situation existed in Russian enclaves in the Caucasus, Moldova, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

In brief, we have an exceedingly popular, short (he is a tiny but exceptionally athletic man), greedy, subversive nationalist with a special antipathy for the United States. (It could also be said that in the United States we now are also are governed by a subversive nationalist with a special antipathy for the United States who is moderately popular, tall, obese and unathletic.)

Initially, Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election victory of a totally unfit, ignorant and impulsive leader of the free world were, whether or not Putin had a hand in either, necessary pre-conditions for Russia to attempt to achieve their historical ambitions of creating an economic, political and physical buffer to the Rodina.

His first move to recapture the eastern European buffer had been the invasion of the Crimea. Although he was successful militarily, the response from the then unified West, made it clear that further military adventurism came with an economic and political cost to Russia too great to be ignored.

With the erosion of western unity following the two elections and the recreation of a modern version of the Boyar aristocracy in Russia, he appears to have become emboldened enough to take additional steps to restore the ancient geopolitical aspirations of Russia.

Following the publication of the above (see Part One A Brief Commentary on Recent World Events (https://josephpetrillo.wordpress.com/2019/12/14/this-and-that-from-re-thai-r-ment-by-3th-8-pepe-0008-october-2019/), a friend who at one time was a professor of history in the US Military Academy at West Point wrote to me the following:

Re our friend Vladimir:

Begin with the fact that Russia has an economy the size of Italy’s. Now he is a very clever spymaster. But he is a disaster as a leader of Russia. Compare him to the great leaders of Russia: Peter the Great and Cathrine the Great and his deficiencies are glaring. He has not created a state that can build and support new economies and crafts adapted to its 21st-century environment, as both of those leaders did. Instead, he has created a one-dimensional economy based on carbon: oil and gas. That will lead to a dead end. His military is really a 21st-century joke. It’s got shiny new planes, but very few squadrons. It’s got a navy than can barely steam out of port, and frequently has “accidents” such as an explosion that sinks a submarine. And his foreign policy is reduced to sneaky political attacks that are quickly exposed and become sick jokes such as Trump. Poor Russia!

Now China is another matter. Very smart and clever, the Chinese quietly steal the best of 20th-century technology and have created a miracle economy. But try as they might, they cannot create anything original. Why: because their leadership tries to control thought, communication among elites of all stripes and sits on a powder keg of massive poverty. They are in a difficult spot. To truly expand their economy to support a population of 1.4 billion people, they must release their creative minds to develop the next great invention. They try but have been unable to do so. Take an example: Quantum Computing. The Chinese State has spent untold billions trying to develop this fastest of all known computing capabilities and to date has not been successful. Google, Google of all enterprises, has just announced the successful development of a quantum computer that will perform in minutes calculations that would take an IBM supercomputer days if not weeks to do. Google is the ultimate of 21st-century enterprise with free-flowing thought and communication through all of its elite 21st-century minds. Now China will simply try to steal the technology, rather than try to invent it. Trump and Warren and others have a point. Cut China off from access to US technology and very carefully monitor, if not prohibit, Chinese students, etc. from our Universities.

To be continued.

For the most part, I agree with my friend. My post was not a paean to The Vertically Challenged Autocrat in the Kremlin but intended to set up a discussion on the potential geopolitical implications of Trump’s actions in Syria. As for China, again I tend to agree with most of what my friend has written. The Chinese approach to encouraging immigration by its citizens especially by setting up both small and large business particularly in South and South-east Asia in an attempt to create large and wealthy China sympathetic population in the area and the US failure to effectively counter China’s initiatives much beyond sending some warships to sail around a few small contested islands in the south-pacific are simply more evidence of America’s retreat from its long-held obsession. It might require post-Trump US administrations to re-evaluate some of the nation’s long term economic and geopolitical goals. That could be a good thing.

I tend, however, not to be too fond of Ruskin and his theory that great men make history and its modern colliery that there is no grand theory of history and historians should concern themselves only with seeking out and recording events. I tend to believe geography and demographics are destiny and not the actions of individuals whether they be clever buggers or clowns. I am more comfortable with historians like Braudel, Toynbee, and Quigley who try to find a broader rationale for events than the successes and failures of individuals. They may be out of academic fashion, but at least they try to present generalizations that can be tested — not to mention that, upon analysis and my own experience, the great men (and women) of history were most often anything but.

“…were… the great men (as) history paints them… Or were they just yesterday’s mediocrities, bloated up with centuries of stolen credit into today’s towering heroes?”
Abercrombie, Joe. A Little Hatred: 1 (The Age of Madness) (p. 440). Orbit.

Putin’s first initiative following the Crimea incursion was to attack eastern Ukraine. The West’s response with both economic sanctions and massive military aid to Ukraine was enough to convince Putin that Russian economic and military strength was inadequate to successfully nibble at the border states (the Eastern Tier and the Southern Tier) to the Russian homeland. To what I am sure was his great relief and possible assistance, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States.

Now, although I am convinced that Putin has some control over Trump and interfered in the 2016 Presidential election on his behalf, it is not necessary that that be true. It could be that Trump is either just a preternaturally brilliant strategist as his supporters believe or insufferably ignorant, incompetent and devoid of either morals or knowledge of the rudiments of history as his opponents allege.

In any event, following Brexit and the Trump election, Putin first appears to have managed to midwife the public bromance between two insecure megalomaniacs, Trump and Kim Jong-un. By providing Kim and his ego with equal billing and the American President and the opportunity to humiliate him, it solidifies to some extent Russia’s relationship with Korea placing an antagonist on China’s flank and threatening Japan America’s ally.

With the recent abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies in Syria in favor of Turkey and the replacement of American troops by Russian at previously American occupied bases, it seems to me that the two hundred year geopolitical stalemate had been shattered. The northern and eastern Asian empires in their south-Asian obsession had punctured through the 200-year imaginary but strategic barrier threatening the hydrocarbon life-line for Western Europe and leaving only India to oppose them in the area. Russia, despite the fact that it is relatively militarily and economically feeble now (or soon), will be able to dictate price and mix of hydrocarbon products available to the West.

Of course, when talking geopolitics nothing is as real, rewarding, or dire as they may appear. Britain may have gained an economic and military advantage over other nations from its control of the southern tier of the Asian continent in the nineteenth century but at what cost? It lasted less than a hundred years, produced untold misery in the southern tier and in Britain, created a few exceedingly wealthy families and ultimately reduced England to a second rate power. The United States blindly took over Britains role, ostensibly for ideological reasons, but primarily to preserve the West’s effective monopolistic power over the worlds hydrocarbon market which within 20 years or so it let slip from their absolute control to such an extent that a new ideological foe (Muslim Terrorism) needed to be invented and military adventurism re-started.

One good result may result from all this. If and when Trump’s expensive golf shoes are removed from the necks of the people of this country, the US and Europe, if they are not persuaded to abandon the hydrocarbon economy by the threat of climate change perhaps the potential loss of our stranglehold on the hydrocarbon market may persuade us and Europe to do so.

(See also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tv7mCXtPB68 and also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPk9HSLagVg)

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