Chinese Tourism “Exports”

Timothy Taylor, referencing a recent IMF report on China’s account surplus, writes that China’s trade surplus has essentially vanished, in large part due to huge increases in outbound tourism:

Clearly, one big change is that China has started running a trade deficit in services (an area where the US economy runs a trade surplus). The main reason seems to be a large increase in outbound Chinese tourism, because in trade statistics, international tourists are in effect “importing” goods produced in other countries. The IMF economists write: “China’s tourism balance, mostly on account of outbound tourism, has swung from a small surplus of around 5bn USD in 2008 to a deficit of nearly 250bn USD in 2018, driven by the increasing purchasing power of the middle class and an appreciating currency. … [T]he trend is undeniable. It is also borne out by an almost fourfold increase in the number of Chinese outbound visitors – from 46mn in 2008 to 162mn in 2018.”

The IMF report goes on to explain that China’s modest account surplus “is expected to turn into a small deficit in the medium term as the structural factors…continue to drive up imports and moderate exports.”

One artificial means of slowing the rise in imports, however, might also have domestic political benefits for Zhongnanhai. Xiaochen Su highlights recent travel restrictions to Taiwan imposed on the residents of 47 Chinese cities, and suggests that this may only be the start. It would be a true win-win for the CCP: reduce exposure to “Western liberal values” abroad while also denying countries the tourist income from Chinese visitors. As Su writes:

The Chinese government, to prevent Chinese citizens from learning unwanted Western liberal values abroad, could increasingly seek to limit the scope of Chinese outbound travel in the near future. On one hand, as is the case for Taiwan, independent travel, in which travelers have more opportunities to interact freely with locals, could be banned in favor of group travel that allows licensed and “politically correct” travel agencies to closely monitor travelers. On the other hand, the government could simply make the process of acquiring a passport more stringent, with ever higher education, income, and even professional requirements that make most of its citizens unqualified and ineligible for a passport. Using such methods, the government can better ensure that only those it wants to travel abroad can travel under circumstances that do not allow them to stray from the standard Chinese political discourse they hear at home.

So will the Chinese tourist export boom fade away? Su is right to argue that Western countries should avoid kowtowing to certain demands from Beijing in order to keep the tourists coming, given that their numbers may well be limited in the near future owing solely to domestic Chinese policy. But if travel is curtailed, will it be possible to divert the yuan that would otherwise have been spent abroad to domestic consumption? Otherwise, China’s “merely extraordinary” savings glut might head upwards once again, contributing to the ongoing global slowdown.

No Need for Ideological Kinship

Further proving the point of my last post, the protests in Hong Kong are now seeing some…interesting visitors, as reported by @HongKongHermit:

As one might expect, this generated a dozen competing narratives as to why Azov would show up in the first place: was it anti-communist solidarity? Proof that the protesters really are “Western fascists?” Some kind of “false flag” operation? Beijing’s supporters were quick to seize upon their presence to discredit the protests in general. See, for instance, the explanation as offered by Sputnik:

It’s unclear why the groups, sporting the apparel of a far-right hooligan group called “Honor” or “Gonor,” have gone to Hong Kong, but the fact that both the 2014 Ukrainian coup and the present protests in Hong Kong have enjoyed extensive support from the CIA-spawned National Endowment for Democracy may give a clue.

Few protest organization seem to have taken the bait, but demonstrations like the one full of Trump and MAGA gear are sure to attract the worst possible people attempting to prove their own bona fides. (The phenomenon extends to US politicians, too.)

https://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/191128115207-09-hong-kong-protest-1128-restricted-exlarge-169.jpg

The most pressing question, to me, though, is how Azov was able to enter Hong Kong in the first place, given previous denials of entry in Denmark and Czechia, at least. That’s the only part of this that seems as if it might have carried the tacit blessing of the CCP, and if I were trying to quietly discredit the protests, doing so through damned associations, allowing neo-Nazis and foreigners in to show their support, would be an easy way to do so.

But on th eother hand, it could just be relatively lax border controls and the attraction of right-wing moths to a flame.

The Global Crisis of Legitimacy

The main thrust of John Robb’s thesis in Brave New War – and the focus of much of his writing at Global Guerrillas – was the globalization of terrorism and the proliferation of tactics and “best practices” across borders. The same applies to nonstate movements writ large, as Branko Milanovic writes:

Revolutions of 2019, I think, presage a new breed of globalist revolutions. They are not part of the same and easily recognizable ideological pattern. They respond to local causes, but have a global element in the ability of communicate with each other (Catalan protesters imitated blockade of public infrastructure started by the Hong Kong protesters). Perhaps more importantly, they encourage each other: if Chileans are able to stand up, why not Colombians? If there is a single ideological glue to them, it is, I think, desire to have one’s voice heard. At the time of tectonic political shifts where politicians and old ideologies have lost much of their credibility, a thing which has not lost its credibility is the desire and the right to be heard and counted.

The present global crisis is one of legitimacy, of the right to be heard and to participate in the mechanisms of governance. Much of that can be attributed to political elites, and by extension capital, wanting to surrender none of their advantages, no matter the consequences. Watching from abroad at demonstrations around the world, united not in common cause so much as a common grievance, the question remains when the fires might spread here. The United States is suffering from no less a democratic deficit than many other nations but has yet to see similar outbreaks of political protest on such a scale.

I do wonder if the lack of ideological coherence across these movements will prove counterproductive or indeed, even further contribute to the sense of a worldwide crackup. The ability to adopt effective tactics without requiring adherence to a particular cause might well make some of the smaller separatist movements and other localist phenomena more viable, enabling even minor movements to achieve some measure of success (even if just recognition). But in any event, it’s clear that across the globe, governments must pay more heed to the governed, lest the widening gyre open into an abyss.

Quick Thoughts on INF

Another treaty – this time, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) – slain by John Bolton, the unilateralest man alive. It will come as no shock that I find this move misguided, executed in bad faith, and sure to have counterproductive second- and third-order effects. Bolton’s single-minded hostility to the very notion of arms control should be cause for skepticism. It is on his watch that multiple cornerstones of the late Cold War arms control regime have been dismantled.

INF withdrawal, in particular, should be condemned on two main grounds: those of principle and those of logic. U.S. intent to leave the treaty fails on both counts.

Moral/Principle

Arms control is itself almost always a net good. It brings together party-states in dialogue and discussion (itself a confidence-building measure), and when accompanied by measures like on-site inspections and periodic review committee meetings, ensures the basis for continuing conversation and face-to-face meetings. Treaties represent the culmination of a decade or more of negotiations and hard-fought compromises and should never be dismissed lightly; e.g., for anything less than a grave and imminent threat to national security. The SSC-8 decidedly does not rise to this level.

By leaving the INF, the United States concedes the moral high ground to Russia. Regardless of whether the SSC-8’s range does or does not violate the treaty, a violation is qualitatively different from a dismantling. In the eyes of allies and the world, the United States has chosen yet again to abrogate a treaty that has dampened nuclear tensions for decades, irrespective of other details. Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen have more on some of these aspects.

Furthermore, Keeping ground-launched nuclear platforms out of Europe for a generation has been a welcome development in continental affairs. The prospect of jettisoning a bulwark of allied strategic stability has surely been unwelcome (if not unexpected) in European capitals.

Practical/Logical

A subset of China hawks argue that membership in INF has placed us at a perpetual disadvantage in the Western Pacific, by virtue of constraining our own missile development while the PLA Rocket Force continues to deploy mass quantities of ballistic missiles throughout the theater.  But this argument falls flat when considered at any level deeper than “they’ve got them so we must too.”

US Territories Map

Where would such weapons be based in the region? Guam, presumably. But that faces challenges of its own. As Pranay Vaddi writes for Carnegie:

Guam is small, about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. Only a portion of that territory would be suitable for basing GBIRs. Given these space constraints, deploying GBIRs on Guam would lessen the survivability advantage that mobile missile systems usually provide by being dispersed across a vast geographic expanse (as demonstrated by China’s own mobile missile force). Additionally, the already significant U.S. military presence makes Guam an early target in any conflict with China.

So where else? Given recent debates over conventional forces in Okinawa, that can safely be ruled out, and so too other Japanese bases. Placing U.S. missiles in Taiwan or the South China Sea would so provocative a move as to preclude consideration. And once you get to Wake and beyond, you’re into ICBM range, so INF-noncompliant systems don’t provide a lot of additional capability.

All of this raises a larger issue: do we really have a capability shortfall in the Western Pacific? It’s unclear whether INF withdrawal advocates think we need IRBMs of our own to counter ships or to hold the Chinese mainland at risk, but in the case of the former, we lack the targeting kill chain to enable ballistic missile usage against moving targets (like, say, a Chinese CV). The Minuteman III uses a guidance system better-for fixed, albeit small, targets.

But it is also for this reason that U.S. precision weapons development traveled down alternative paths. Instead of a GLCM, we have the TLAM with a thousand-mile range that can be launched from submarines and surface combatants alike. The Strategic Capabilities Office – at least for now – continues to pursue new uses for existing platforms, like repurposing the SM-6 SAM into an antiship cruise missile. Between stealthy platforms, standoff munitions, and existing global strike capabilities, the United States can already – and easily – hold Chinese ships, units, and land targets at risk. Other than sheer numbers, what capabilities do new in-theater platforms have to offer?

Another argument, made in even worse faith, is the fact that the INF Treaty does not include China. This follows on the heels of unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – a plan to constrain Iranian nuclear weapons – for not addressing Iranian missile development. Perhaps an arms control regime ought to include more than the original signatories: China has the largest missile arsenal in the world and there are obvious arms-race implications for this. But this in turn would suggest Indian participation in such a regime, and thus Pakistan’s, and so on. The difficulty in achieving such a multilateral agreement is the same reason there has be no movement on multilateralizing the nuclear disarmament movement. And it is for this reason that a painstakingly negotiated accord between two countries should not be thrown away for want of a third. U.S.-Russian INF is a building block for future expansion. A treaty addressing one subject is not defunct because it doesn’t address another.

INF is worth preserving. It is worth additional discussion between both parties to it, and more immediately, a real discussion on how best to enforce arms control arrangements (this is, perhaps, the most pressing issue for the future of INF, New START and any future progress on arms control). I found Rebecca Hersman, the CSIS PONI Director, to have one of the few decent ways forward if we must leave the treaty:

  1. We should declare that while in a post-INF world the United States can test and deploy ground base and intermediate range missile systems however, it has no need or intention to do so. We have the principle, but we do not need the capabilities.

  2. We should make clear that the U.S. stands for the principle of compliance. We also believe international agreements should be judged independently on their merits and on that basis that New START should be extended.

And even more to the point, it is Russia that has violated the INF Treaty. If the treaty is to wither and die, it should be Russia who lets it – not the United States.

China and Ecuadorean Oil

In an ongoing attempt to sketch the borders of China’s challenge to the Left, some brief thoughts/quotes on Ecuador and resource extraction.

Patrick Iber in Dissent on the “Pink Tide” in Latin America:

With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clearer that the Pink Tide was made possible by a boom in the global price of commodities. That boom structured both its achievements and its limitations. Latin-American economies have long been exporters of primary products and importers of finished ones; most industrial production is destined for internal markets. In the early 2000s, rapid growth in India and China drove up the price of primary products, from oil to lithium to soybeans. This gave governments the ability to spend money on social welfare and development, satisfying—at least in part—the needs of their political bases without making fundamental structural changes to their economies or their position in the global system of trade…

Policies under Rafael Correa’s government [in Ecuador] have frequently strengthened the state while weakening organizations in civil society. Correa preferred initiatives that provided reliable support to his political project rather than ones that could advance democratic and egalitarian goals. But the organizations created by the state to compete or replace more self-organized associations have not succeeded, and they have the potential to become instruments of control and demobilization.

And from Jacobin’s Pink Tide retrospective in 2017:

In Ecuador during the boom years, this model provided crucial revenues for social spending. But in the context of an economy like Ecuador’s, which is still dominated by oligopolistic markets, these revenues were mostly transformed into private-sector profits.

They provided people with spending money, but they spent it in private-sector controlled markets. It was the private sector that truly reaped the benefits of that increased social spending.

The continuing reliance on oil revenues seems to have left it both a first and last resort to continued government financing. The main benefactor of this has been China:

Last November, Marco Calvopiña, the general manager of Ecuador’s state oil company PetroEcuador, was dispatched to China to help secure $2 billion in financing for his government. Negotiations, which included committing to sell millions of barrels of Ecuador’s oil to Chinese state-run firms through 2020, dragged on for days. Calvopiña grew anxious and threatened to leave…

Shunned by most lenders since a $3.2 billion debt default in 2008, Ecuador now relies heavily on Chinese funds, which are expected to cover 61 percent of the government’s $6.2 billion in financing needs this year. In return, China can claim as much as 90 percent of Ecuador’s oil shipments in coming years, a rare feat in today’s diversified oil market.

“This is a huge and dramatic shift,” said Rene Ortiz, a former Ecuadorean energy minister and secretary general of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. “Never before has Ecuador committed its oil to a lender.”

This is the nexus of several trends at once: fossil fuel dependence, a non-diversified resource extraction-intensive economy, a lack of internal markets sufficient to generate revenues to support a good and robust social safety net (and as the Jacobin piece makes clear, the failure to create a more vigorous political project). China is there to take advantage of it. So why is that sub-optimal?

  1. It surrenders control of its own production to China, by ensuring the diversion of its oil to them for a period of years
  2. It constrains budgets by diverting government funds to repayment for loans
  3. It further enriches speculators and enlarges the oil market as the province of traders rather than simply producers and consumers (with all the commodity disruption that portends)

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Assessment on U.S. Defense Implications of China’s Expanding Global Access cites Ecuadorean oil as one example of an “unfair” economic deal that offers some benefits but “also carr[ies] costs to host country sovereignty.” In the case of Ecuador, that might well mean constraining the ambitious welfare and social justice programs begun under Rafael Correa. It’s further proof that social programs will have to be accompanied by decarbonization, and soon.

Sanctions and Financial Warfare in the 21st Century

In July of this year, China’s first regiment of S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems was delivered by Russia and accepted into PLA service. The following month, Russia confirmed that the last 10 Su-35s of an order for 24 would arrive by the end of 2018. The deals were originally signed, respectively, in 2015 and 2014, with S-400 negotiations having started as far back as 2011.

Now, some months later, the United States has decided that sanctions are the appropriate tool to “punish” China for violating other sanctions against Russian entities including Rosboronexport, under the 2017 “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA). The Chinese CMC’s Equipment Development Department and its chief will be barred from conducting financial transactions in the United States.

Beijing, naturally, has no intention of putting an end to its weapons purchases from Moscow.

But leaving aside the inexplicable timing (and apparent ex post facto application) of such a decision, it would seem foolish on its face. Not only is the interstate arms trade something that the United States – given its position as the world’s largest arms dealer – would seem to want to leave relatively unregulated, but to try and interfere in a commerce arrangement between two Great Powers has historically not ended well for the interloper. Imposing CAATSA-related sanctions also ignores the existing Western arms embargo against China, dating back to the Tiananmen Square massacre, and which Beijing has managed to circumvent for years through various financial mechanisms and yuan-denominated transactions. Sanctions must be a limited tool in order to have effect, and applying them in this way further weakens their utility.

The possible Chinese and/or Russian countermoves are numerous: sanctions of their own against big US (and multinational) defense contractors; pricing their own arms as “loss leaders” to displace US primacy in various markets, particularly Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe; economic punishment of US client regimes (e.g., the UAE, South Korea, Egypt), etc. In fact, the latter can already be seen with China’s immediate critical reaction to the US sale of F-16 fighter equipment to Taiwan. The sale is hardly news—and consists mostly of sustainment material for existing platforms that were previously themselves protested—but the Chinese response represents the first step in an emerging economic counteroffensive; a second front in the ongoing trade wars.

Now, you might ask, might this not just be cutting off the nose to spite the face? After all, if China financially punishes Saudi Arabia or Turkey for buying American weapons, they make it so much less likely that those nations would consider turning to Chinese or Russian imports in the future. But arms sales themselves are more than purely transactional; they are potential tools of statecraft. Look at India’s attempt to “balance” between the United States and Russia: a few P-8Is and F-16s here, a few batteries of S-400s there (the latter, however, requiring a CAATSA waiver, which has so far been promised by the Pentagon but has yet to appear). Rarely does capability alone factor into a major international arms deal; see the long list of US arms deals facilitated by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency for an idea of their importance to Washington. When capabilities are the overriding reason to obtain a system, it can have geopolitical implications of its own – see Turkey’s ongoing acquisition of the S-400 for an example of exceeding the unwritten rules of acquisition.

Not only has a CAATSA waiver failed to materialize for India’s S-400s, but so too is there nothing resembling an exception to reimposed US sanctions on Iran, following the abandonment of JCPOA. This has had the potential of threatening Indian access to and “special privileges” at the Iranian port at Chah Bahar should India seek to replace its imports of Iranian oil (Chah Bahar itself a reaction to China’s development of the Pakistani Port of Gwadar). All is related; nothing in isolation.

But while it might seem, at least to the grinning faces in the Cabinet Room, that CAATSA represents a trump card (so to speak), it is in reality an unimaginative approach without any sort of backup plan. Should sanctions fail, then what? Unfortunately, the US overreliance on sanctions – as well as an insistence on mirroring rather than proportionality – has begun to generate a global financial regime wholly independent of the United States.

Nothing says that sanctions beget sanctions, or that tariffs must be exchanged tit for tat. One needn’t respond with identical measures so long as the response is proportional, unless escalation is the goal. Consider the “side-principle” rule articulated in Unrestricted Warfare:

Other means…supplement, enrich, or even replace military means, so as to achieve objectives which cannot be achieved by military force alone. This has been the most important episode of the side element’s modifying the principal element in relation to war on the basis of a conception of war … The side-principal rule is opposed to all forms of parallel placement, balance, symmetry, being all-encompassing, and smoothness, but, instead, advocates using the sword to cut the side. Only by avoiding frontal collisions, will it be possible for your sword to cut apart things without being damaged. This is the most basic grammar of victory for the ancient article of war [emphasis mine].

For instance, in reference to the ongoing trade war, Dean Baker has done an ample job illustrating that China could do far worse than simply retaliate with their own tariffs: US corporations stand to lose tens if not hundreds billions of dollars of intellectual property if the CCP were to opt out of enforcing copyright law. (Indeed, some version of this has already begun, albeit incidentally, as a thriving Chinese market in imitation/”homage” goods goes unchecked.)

Focusing on the trade war as a binary loses sight of the global picture, and as in so many other realms, the United States is no longer “indispensable” when it comes to international finance, either.

Indeed, on 25 September, the foreign ministers of Russia, China, Germany, France, and the UK (the latter three representing the EU) issued a joint statement committing them to continued adherence to JCPOA, and more importantly, to establishing a “special purpose vehicle,” a separate payments system to allow them to process transactions without touching US financial institutions. The SPV, according to Federica Mogherini, would “allow European companies to trade with Iran in accordance with EU law and could be open to other partners in the world.” Essentially, the SPV is a new means of subverting US sanctions on a multilateral basis, and should it prove successful in allowing the EU (and possibly India) to continue supporting the JCPOA and doing business with Iranian companies, could portend a future of decreasingly effective unilateral sanctions.

The rise of economic sanctions has been well-traced, and in the era of imperial presidencies, have been an easy way for Congress to reinsert itself at least somewhat into foreign policy-making. But the ensuing American way of war – airpower, special operations forces, and sanctions – has not been a productive one. Overreliance on sanctions leading to the development of a US-less financial system would be an own goal, indeed. Coupled with the rise of other shadow economies, like cryptocurrencies, dark pool trading, and alternative international settlement mechanisms (not to mention the already-challenging problem of nested shell corporations and beneficial owners), unilateral sanctions will continue to lose their effectiveness as targets increasingly find ways around them.

As Peter Harrell and Elizabeth Rosenberg argued in Foreign Policy earlier this year, “the reckless use of U.S. sanctions could speed the migration of China, Russia, and other U.S. adversaries away from U.S. markets and currency. The Trump administration needs a major new effort to understand and adapt to potential risks that threaten to reduce the power of U.S. sanctions.” No such effort was undertaken. And the migration has indeed sped up.

US grand strategy in the twenty-first century has been almost entirely counterproductive. Adversaries like Russia and China were likely to pursue alternatives to the US-dominated financial system at some point, but by multilateralizing opposition to that system (and ensuring that even our allies want an alternative) we have made our position more tenuous even sooner. The seeds the foreign policy establishment has planted over the past few decades are starting to fruit, and we will find the taste not at all to our liking.

To What End?

In the New York Times, C.J. Chivers has published an excerpt from his upcoming The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, an absolutely blistering condemnation of our present forever war in southwest Asia, told through the story of a young Army enlistee sent to Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in 2008. Disillusionment – with fruitless rebuilding, a recalcitrant populace, and an Afghan Army just trying to survive – quickly follows.

While the story is framed by Robert Soto’s enlistment, tours in Afghanistan (and Haiti, and Iraq), and eventual honorable discharge, it’s essentially a meaningless microcosm of a much larger strategic debacle. Who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake, indeed?

Chivers’s pinpoint analysis of the utter insanity associated with our continued Afghan presence leapt out. This is going to be a long pull-quote, but it’s necessary in order to capture the extent of our folly and the limitless horizon it seems to occupy:

In early October, the Afghan war will be 17 years old, a milestone that has loomed with grim inevitability as the fighting has continued without a clear exit strategy across three presidential administrations. With this anniversary, prospective recruits born after the terrorist attacks of 2001 will be old enough to enlist. And Afghanistan is not the sole enduring American campaign. The war in Iraq, which started in 2003, has resumed and continues in a different form over the border in Syria, where the American military also has settled into a string of ground outposts without articulating a plan or schedule for a way out. The United States has at various times declared success in its many campaigns — in late 2001; in the spring of 2003; in 2008; in the short-lived withdrawal from Iraq late in 2011; and in its allies’ recapture more recently of the ruins of Ramadi, Falluja, Mosul and Raqqa from the Islamic State, a terrorist organization, formed in the crucible of occupied Iraq, that did not even exist when the wars to defeat terrorism started. And still the wars grind on, with the conflict in Afghanistan on track to be a destination for American soldiers born after it began.

More than three million Americans have served in uniform in these wars. Nearly 7,000 of them have died. Tens of thousands more have been wounded. More are killed or wounded each year, in smaller numbers but often in dreary circumstances, including the fatal attack in July on Cpl. Joseph Maciel by an Afghan soldier — a member of the very forces that the United States has underwritten, trained and equipped, and yet as a matter of necessity and practice now guards itself against.

On one matter there can be no argument: The policies that sent these men and women abroad, with their emphasis on military action and their visions of reordering nations and cultures, have not succeeded. It is beyond honest dispute that the wars did not achieve what their organizers promised, no matter the party in power or the generals in command. Astonishingly expensive, strategically incoherent, sold by a shifting slate of senior officers and politicians and editorial-page hawks, the wars have continued in varied forms and under different rationales each and every year since passenger jets struck the World Trade Center in 2001. They continue today without an end in sight, reauthorized in Pentagon budgets almost as if distant war is a presumed government action.

As the costs have grown — whether measured by dollars spent, stature lost or blood shed — the wars’ architects and the commentators supporting them have often been ready with optimistic or airbrushed predictions, each pitched to the latest project or newly appointed general’s plan. According to the bullhorns and depending on the year, America’s military campaigns abroad would satisfy justice, displace tyrants, keep violence away from Western soil, spread democracy, foster development, prevent sectarian war, protect populations, reduce corruption, bolster women’s rights, decrease the international heroin trade, check the influence of extreme religious ideology, create Iraqi and Afghan security forces that would be law-abiding and competent and finally build nations that might peacefully stand on their own in a global world, all while discouraging other would-be despots and terrorists.

Aside from displacing tyrants and leading to the eventual killing of Osama bin Laden, none of this turned out as pitched. Prominent successes were short-lived. New thugs rose where old thugs fell. Corruption and lawlessness remain endemic. An uncountable tally of civilians — many times the number of those who perished in the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 — were killed. Others were wounded or driven from their homes, first by American action and then by violent social forces American action helped unleash.

The governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, each of which the United States spent hundreds of billions of dollars to build and support, are fragile, brutal and uncertain. The nations they struggle to rule harbor large contingents of irregular fighters and terrorists who have been hardened and made savvy, trained by the experience of fighting the American military machine. Much of the infrastructure the United States built with its citizens’ treasure and its troops’ labor lies abandoned. Briefly schools or outposts, many are husks, looted and desolate monuments to forgotten plans. Hundreds of thousands of weapons provided to would-be allies have vanished; an innumerable quantity are on markets or in the hands of Washington’s enemies. Billions of dollars spent creating security partners also deputized pedophiles, torturers and thieves. National police or army units that the Pentagon proclaimed essential to their countries’ futures have disbanded. The Islamic State has sponsored or encouraged terrorist attacks across much of the world — exactly the species of crime the global “war on terror” was supposed to prevent.

We’re still there. We’re still there. It takes a monumental piece like this on occasion to jolt us out of our complacency and to remind us that somehow, for some inexplicable reason, we continue to commit blood and treasure to an astrategic backwater. We don’t do empire on the cheap; we do absentee empire. Somehow, America in Afghanistan has become the imperturbable state of being, a foundational story of how we organize and employ force.

As long as we remain at war without reason or end, it is hard to take any “natsec” debate seriously. What is the point of threatening Iran or saber-rattling at North Korea (much less doubling down on tactical nuclear weapons) when we can’t even conduct an orderly withdrawal from a war that exists due solely to institutional inertia? Why argue over Pacific force postures or basing regimes in Europe or deterrence and “credibility” when the only strategy on display has been one that compels us to repeatedly bang our collective head against the adamantine wall of the Hindu Kush?

There is no compelling purpose, no strategic excuse, no reasonable explanation for our continued presence in Afghanistan. It is a mistake compounded by error exacerbated by political cowardice, and countless innocents abroad (as well as 7,000 Americans) have suffered for it. We’ve squandered the first fifth of the 21st century on deranged bloodletting and Sisyphean idiocy. Only by admitting that can we begin to stop, and to breathe, and to consolidate at home.

Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: A Review

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is one of those magisterial overviews of five centuries of world history. Paul Kennedy does a very good job and takes a quasi-Marxian approach to this, in that economics do in large part determine the trajectory of nations (e.g., a materialist explanation). The macroeconomic state of a nation – its accounts payable, its gross national product, its collective receipts – are, to Kennedy, inextricably linked to its place on the world stage. The correlation is obvious, but is the causation there?

While Kennedy admits that earlier history is not his area of expertise, he does a decent job explaining how the “East” fell behind, given the increasing insularity of Ming China and the internecine struggles in South and East Asia that consumed resources and attention. It’s not a wholly convincing explanation but other historians have done a fairly good job examining this; I am reminded mainly of Kenneth Pomeranz’s alternate history essay in Unmaking the West , “Without Coal? Colonies? Calculus?: Counterfactuals and Industrialization in Europe and China.” (One of Pomeranz’s points is that in the United Kingdom, coal deposits were mined in relatively close proximity to waterways and also the metropole; in China, much of the coal is to be found far in the northwest hinterlands, far away from a means of transportation and major population centers.) In Kennedy’s telling, it is the governance failures of China and the Mughals – and in the case of the latter, an increasingly rapacious program of taxation, offering nothing by way of return to the tax base – coupled with a lack of industrialization that can explain their relative early fall.

Kennedy has written a remarkable qualitative history based on ballpark quantitative statistics, which is an approach I can very much get behind. Relative national “incomes” in the seventeenth century, for instance, are exceedingly difficult to find data for, much less calculate (part of the reason Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was so celebrated was its painstaking collection and analysis of detailed financial records dating back centuries – one of the first times it had been done). And yet Kennedy manages to paint a convincing picture of ebbs and flows in currencies and commodities, in relative power balances and military expenditures, tracing continuities in national approaches towards almost the present day.

It is here, on the doorstep of the present, that perhaps reviewers have, with the benefit of hindsight, come to blame Kennedy for his failure of prescience. Indeed, he comes close to an accurate prediction in terms of the overall trajectory of Russia, but in the specifics (i.e., the collapse of the Soviet Union), he just misses the mark:

On the other hand, the Soviet war machine also has its own weaknesses and problems … Since the dilemmas which face the strategy-makers of the other large Powers of the globe are also being pointed out in this chapter, it is only proper to draw attention to the great variety of difficulties confronting Russia’s military-political leadership – without, however, jumpting to the opposite conclusion that the Soviet Union is therefore unlikely to ‘survive’ for very long. [Emphasis in original]

Kennedy was writing in 1987, just two years before the overthrow of Communism in much of eastern Europe, and four before the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. But despite failing to predict its collapse, he nevertheless successfully identified a downwards socioeconomic and geopolitical trajectory for Russia that has since been proven accurate. Similarly, Kennedy’s prognosis for the United States seems, especially now, to have been borne out, almost frighteningly so:

Although the United States is at present still in a class of its own economically and perhaps even militarily, it cannot avoid confronting the two great tests which challenge the longevity of every major power that occupies the ‘number one’ problem in world affairs: whether, in the military/strategical realm, it can preserve a reasonable balance between the nation’s perceived defense requirements and the means it possesses to maintain those commitments; and whether, as an intimately related point, it can preserve the technological and economic bases of its power from relative erosion in the face of the ever-shifting patterns of global production. This test of American abilities will be the greater because it…is the inheritor of a vast array of strategical commitments had been made decades earlier … In consequence, the United States now runs the risk, so familiar to historians of the rise and fall of previous Great Powers, of what roughly might be called ‘imperial overstretch’.

And though he never quite describes it as a future strategic competitor (and, to be fair, it is only in the past fifteen years that the contours of Sino-American relations have really begun to solidify), it is clear to Kennedy that the eventual rise of China is perpetually lurking in the background. “The most decisive” international fissure of the Cold War, he writes, “was the split between the USSR and Communist China,” which served to make even that era less of a totally bipolar system than is typically conceived of. China is one of five extant or emerging power centers he identifies, and sees a gradually strengthening power with some of the highest growth rates on Earth – this towards the tail end of Deng’s rule, before it really took off.

And so, what then for the United States? In keeping with his theme of “imperial overstretch,” Kennedy points out that the United States in 1987 had “roughly the same massive array of military obligations across the globe as it had a quarter-century [prior], when its shares of world GNP, manufacturing production, military spending, and armed forces personnel were so much larger.” All the military services will inevitably demand more resources and cry poverty, yes, but that is because what passes for American “statecraft” in the 21st century manages to avoid any hard decisions, any downscaling of commitments, and any meaningful reassessment of available ways and means – with an eye towards determining commensurate ends.

Here again, Kennedy is prescient: “an American polity which responds to external challenges by increasing defense expenditures and reacts to the budgetary crisis by slashing the existing social expenditures, may run the risk of provoking an eventual political backlash.” We’ve almost certainly watched that unfold in the years since 2001. In keeping with the rest of Rise and Fall, the United States is in fact headed for decline, but in a relative sense, one that is manageable if approached reasonably. This doesn’t single out the country; instead it might be seen (and is by Kennedy) as a reversion to the mean:

It may be argued that the geographical extent, population, and resources of the United States suggest that it ought to possess perhaps 16 or 18 percent of the world’s wealth and power, but because of historical and technical circumstances favorable to it, that share rose to 40 percent or more by 1945; and what we are witnessing at the moment is the early decades of the ebbing away from that extraordinarily high figure to a more ‘natural’ share.

Kennedy also offers a warning: “the task facing American statesmen over the next decades, therefore…is a need to ‘manage’ affairs to that the relative erosion of the United States’ position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies which bring merely short-term advantage but longer-term disadvantage.” This is wise counsel for the years ahead, as the unipolar moment continues to rapidly fade. But if this is the predominant challenge to the United States in the 21st century – a superpower in decline – than so far we have surely failed to meet it.

Make Do and Mend in the Royal Navy

An interesting pair of posts popped up in my reader almost simultaneously. The first is from Naval Gazing, on the logistics workup early on in the Falklands War:

In a meeting on March 31st, two days before the invasion, the Defense Secretary, John Nott, suggested that it would take five months to muster a task force … The First Sea Lord, Admiral Henry Leach, disagreed. He not only convinced Prime Minister Thatcher that it was possible to recapture the islands, but also promised that he could have a task force ready to go within a week.

This was an incredible claim. Britain had only two carriers, the WWII-vintage HMS Hermes and the new HMS Invincible. They had recently returned from a major exercise, and Hermes was in week two of a six-week stint in the yards, while Invincible’s crew was on leave. One of the two British LPDs, HMS Intrepid, was only weeks away from decommissioning, and her crew had already been dispersed throughout the fleet. All available personnel were immediately put to work, buttoning up Hermes and loading the ships due to go south.

This was a herculean task … Everything for the campaign had to be aboard before they left – food, fuel, and the thousands of items of supplies that make a modern war machine run. … The situation was so desperate that cleanup of the the pile of discarded packing material on the wharves didn’t start for two weeks … Finally, on April 5th, Hermes and Invincible cast off. Hermes’ deck was crowded with Harriers and Sea Kings as she made her way past the cheering spectators. This was not primarily for the spectacle. There was nowhere to put them belowdecks, as the hangar was being used to sort supplies, which had been coming aboard until the gangplanks were withdrawn, and the island had been cloaked in scaffolding a bare day before.

…Perhaps the most impressive case is that of RFA Stromness. She had been placed in reserve before the crisis, and on April 2nd, she was in dock, completely destored and with only a care and maintenance crew aboard. On April 7th, she sailed for Ascension, fully stored, with 358 Marines and a month’s worth of rations for 7,500 men. Much of this work, particularly at Chatham and Gibraltar, was performed by men who had already received their redundancy notices in preparation for the closure of the yards.

In other words, from near-nothingness, the Royal Navy was able to equip and sail a sizable out-of-area naval task force 5,000 miles down the Atlantic in 1982.

The other piece was from “Humphrey” of Thin Pinstriped Line, on “The Utter Pointlessness of Reserve Fleets“:

Forcing a policy of keeping ships in reserve raises difficult questions about how they are supplied, and whether to run on contracts and stores of equipment to be held in readiness to put on them. Were you to reactivate a Type 23, then there will probably be no spare parts in the chain to fit to her. When these parts include minor systems like missile launchers and fire control radars, you quickly realise that a reactivated frigate will be practically defenceless…

For the MOD keeping a reserve force of older Type 23s raises difficult questions … As the Type 23 force reduces, finding spare parts to keep them ready for sea is going to be harder and harder. Reactivating them will require spending money the MOD hasn’t got now on the off chance that they may be needed for sea later.

The problem of material becomes even more challenging when you consider how you maintain enough stocks of munitions and IT systems for a reactivation. Modern munitions are incredibly complex pieces of machinery, designed to do a very specific role and requiring a lot of time and effort to design and support them.

In the 1970s it was significantly easier to bring a ship out of reserve into service when the main armament of many of the Standby Squadron ships was usually some form of light gun (4.5” down to 20mm) and the RN still had a substantial stores depot network filled with legacy equipment, often dating back to well before WW2. For example it was a relatively easy matter to add on additional 40mm Bofors mounts that were manufactured during WW2 to ships going to the Falklands conflict.

Today modern RN does not have stores depots full of legacy weapons. The munitions stockpile does not have vast depots filled with equipment dumped and forgotten about for decades that can be pulled out in a crisis.. There are not random crates of long forgotten dusty VLS seawolf missiles lurking in the back of a tunnel in Copenacre. Modern missiles require care and maintenance, which in turn needs a complex supply chain and support contracts to keep going

Similarly, unlike in the 1960s and 70s where ships were fundamentally very similar to their WW2 era counterparts, modern vessels are built around computer networks and combat systems. These require regular maintenance and upgrading to ensure they are credible. Any ship in reserve is going to either require a lot of work to bring them up to speed and make them compatible with the rest of the Fleet, or it will be required to sail without the essential equipment able to help it fight.

Obviously technology has come a ways since the 1980s, but this seems like more of a surrender than continued development would necessarily warrant. Perhaps the difference here lies in the degree of capability the UK might potentially seek to get out of any mothballed surface combatants – while the Type 21s and County-class destroyers of the Falklands-era Royal Navy were designed with relatively rudimentary guided munitions platforms (and digital CICs), it was only their successors that were designed around VLS tubes, ASM countermeasures, and ASMs of their own.

The older ships revived for the sake of the Falklands crisis were clearly no match for the majority of modern platforms in 2018. Nevertheless, in a high-intensity conflict against a relatively low-tech adversary, it might be worth considering whether the juice is indeed never worth the squeeze, or if, in fact, some additional degree of lower-end capability is still a net and worthwhile gain. Humphrey himself looked at the Type 22 frigates on the eve of their premature scrapping and concluded that the challenges associated in preserving any ability to restore them were overwhelming.

This is, of course, a separate issue from the Royal Navy’s struggles with adequate manning, but that is even more pressing, and I’m not sure what the solution to that – is barring any significant changes to UK defense spending and indeed, overall economic performance, not to mention global threat perceptions.

An Empire, If You Can Keep It

If the Paul Kennedy school of history is accurate (and in case it isn’t obvious, I’m currently making my way through The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers), then, essentially, economic power that could correlate to military power is one of the dominant characteristics of Great Powers through the ages. As long as it remains fungible, military potential backed by a strong economy is one of the surest markers of “Great Power” status.

But what happens when the two diverge? The United Provinces of the Netherlands come to mind as a predominantly economic power that gradually waned – for all its market innovations, there were eventual limits to its naval power (and it was, of course, perpetually vulnerable by land) – and perhaps the decline of Bourbon Spain, although its regression came both in economic and military prowess. Kennedy’s point is that the key lies not in absolute measures, but in relative ones, and so while these never became “poor” countries, per se, their neighbors and other rivals managed to grow more.

Which brings us to modern Germany: a paper tiger (or, as national emblems might have it, a paper leopard). Germany’s economy is, by all accounts, in pretty good shape, and certainly better than much of the rest of the West. And yet its military is decrepit, in worse shape than even the US Navy’s 7th Fleet. As Stars and Stripes reports:

New German capability gaps have been brought to light in recent weeks, piling up on top of old ones that Berlin has failed to fix.

Among the failures: none of Germany’s submarines is operational, only four of its 128 Eurofighter jets are combat-ready and the army is short dozens of tanks and armored vehicles needed for NATO missions.

In addition, troops are short on the basics: body armor, night vision gear and cold-weather clothing.

The situation is so dire that 19 helicopter pilots from Germany’s Bundeswehr were forced to turn in their flight licenses because of a lack of training time.

The reason: not enough helicopters for the pilots to fly.

Much like Japan’s “economic miracle,” protected solely by minimal “self-defense forces,” Germany has exchanged even the prospect of hard power for economic stability. But such a situation is likely untenable. It pains me to say it, but Ross Douthat wrote a decent piece in the Times.

The third German empire is a different animal altogether. Repudiating both militarism and racist mysticism, it has been built slowly and painstakingly across three generations, in cooperation with other powers (including its old enemies the French), using a mix of democratic and bureaucratic means. Today Germany bestrides its Continent, but German power is wielded softly, indirectly, implicitly — and when the fist is required, it takes the form of fiscal ultimatums, not military bluster or racial irredentism.

But still the system is effectively imperial in many ways, with power brokers in Berlin and Brussels wielding not-exactly-democratic authority over a polyglot, multiethnic, multireligious sprawl of semi-sovereign nation-states. And thinking about the European Union this way, as a Germanic empire as well as a liberal-cosmopolitan project, is a helpful way of understanding how it might ultimately fall.

Obviously, this oversimplifies – and exaggerates – the powers that Brussels holds. But it’s true that Germany has a…unique approach to fiscal policy, one at odds with most of the rest of the EU, and which nevertheless is one that’s been imposed on the other member-states. And ironically, that’s despite its relative military weakness, not because of it (although perhaps this dynamic is less surprising within the framework of the Atlantic alliance).

In so many multiethnic empires and society, the institution bridging ethnic, racial, and religious divides tends to be the military. It’s often when those forces collapse or disintegrate that so too do the borders of a Yugoslavia or an Austria-Hungary. Perhaps, if Germany continues to subtly insist on a continental economic mastery, it would do well to rebuild its own military institutions. And as long as it continues to lead the EU, turning the Eurocorps into something resembling, well, a corps might restart the long-stalled process of integration in more than a purely fiscal sense.

Germany can and will remain European, but if Berlin wants everyone else to identify as such, too, it will have to build more multilateral institutions than merely that of financial austerity.