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.

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.

Individual Limits

Nils Gilman has a great review essay in the LA Review of Books on Samuel Moyn’s Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, and it’s definitely worth your time.

In short, Moyn’s book traces the parallel development – at least from a rhetorical perspective – of “human rights” coupled with the language of “individual freedoms” associated with neoliberalism as a political project. Or, in Gilman’s words:

The book takes the form of an intervention into two huge historical debates, the first about the history of neoliberalism and the second about the history of human rights, a field whose current contours Moyn helped to define with his 2010 book The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. The puzzle he seeks to explain is: How is it that the era of neoliberalism, commonly said to have begun in the mid-to-late 1970s, coincides almost perfectly with the triumphant rise of a discourse of human rights? In other words, how can it be that an era whose ethical self-conception was rooted in a transnational movement to prevent abuses such as torture, disenfranchisement, and political imprisonment has also been an era in which national and global economies were remade in ways that have allowed wealthy capital owners to capture the large majority of economic productivity gains, creating in-country inequalities not seen since the late 19th century?

Like many books of this nature, however, where it comes up a little short is in the realm of recommendations. Which isn’t to say every accurate diagnosis requires a treatment as well – in many (if not most) cases, the remedies are obvious and what’s lacking is political will – but the proliferation of this particular vocabulary throughout the establishment is pernicious, and lends itself to certain mindsets that would likely be difficult to shift.

If individual freedoms – and mostly freedoms to, rather than freedoms from – are the essential building blocks of modernity, how then to advance a project predicated on finally meeting more than just basic needs as a matter of due course, of restoring egalitarianism to the world stage on a massive scale? As Gilman explains it, even just conceiving of a way to address this will require a tremendous shift in the realm of the imaginable:

…In a globally integrated economy, only a global-scale regulatory entity has a serious chance to tame the power of global capital. In short, if the re-autarkization of national economies, as proposed by some nationalists and populists, is to be avoided, we may wish to revisit another largely forgotten intellectual episode from the protean postwar moment of the 1940s — namely, the idea of a world government.

To propose the idea of a planetary-scale state, in a time of backlashes against globalization and surging populist nationalisms, may seem less a utopian delusion than a form of political madness. To date, as Moyn himself notes, “there has been no serious erosion of the assumption that states are on their own to fulfill the economic and social rights of their citizens. […] [I]n the neoliberal age, international law furnished no redistributive tools among states, and few activists or governments tried to build them.” But we live in a time of collapsing political limits, and many things that seemed impossible or inconceivable just a few years ago have been achieved or surpassed. Who is to say that the future may not belong to a world state? Indeed, as hard as it is to imagine how such a state might come into existence, it may be even harder to imagine how the world’s immense demographic, environmental, and political challenges can possibly be addressed without one.

The hardest part, and the one that involves the deepest uprooting of American sentiments, is getting away from the cult of individuality and rediscovering the power of collective demands. An individual right is, in many ways, no right at all; it is the right to imagine a better future without securing one; the prohibition on Anatole France’s rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges; the right to express as loudly as you like how unjust the world is – but not to actually see any remedy.

I’ll have more to say on this later, but given the radical challenges facing us (and the utter failures of incrementalism on display in the past few years), it is telling that a clear-eyed assessment of the situation leads almost inexorably to solutions that, until only the past few years, were inconceivable. The current state of international political economy requires profound change if we are all to survive.

Anyways, read Gilman’s essay (and Moyn’s book)!

The Self-Inflicted Myth of Omnipotent Russia

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One of many examples of the Russian/Soviet octopus in art, its tentacles implying a dominion it possesses anything but.

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read Keith Gessen’s terrific article on the “Russia hands” of the US foreign policy establishment, do yourself a favor and switch over to it right now.

The abiding mystery of American policy toward Russia over the past 25 years can be put this way: Each administration has come into office with a stated commitment to improving relations with its former Cold War adversary, and each has failed in remarkably similar ways. The Bill Clinton years ended with a near-catastrophic standoff over Kosovo, the George W. Bush years with the Russian bombing of Georgia and the Obama years with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the hacking operation to influence the American election.

Some Russia observers argue that this pattern of failure is a result of Russian intransigence and revisionism. But others believe that the intransigent and unchanging one in the relationship is the United States — that the country has never gotten past the idea that it “won” the Cold War and therefore needs to spread, at all costs, the American way of life.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has done a very poor job of extending anything like a hand to a fallen opponent. For all the hopeful talk of “a Marshall Plan for Russia,” all that the West seemed to offer the former Soviet Union was a path to privatization, deprivation, and the extreme enrichment of a few oligarchs, while at the same time picking off what was once considered the periphery of a millennia-old empire.

Unlike with other countries – say, China, which presents probably the most extensive security challenge to the west in the next few decades – there is a lack of nuanced discussion, or indeed even debate at all. In most quarters, Russia is an omnipotent boogeyman, “the bear awakened,” America’s arch-nemesis with whom no cooperation is possible. Even the mere suggestion that Russia and the United States might enjoy a shared interest or two is met with incredulity if not outright hostility.

Gessen does a fantastic job of comprehensively mapping the “breadth” of thought on Russia throughout the American national security apparatus, and it’s worth quoting extensively:

As in other foreign-policy sectors, the Russia hands divide less along party lines than along foreign-policy philosophies: They are either “realists” or “internationalists.” Realists tend to be cautious about American overseas commitments and deferential toward state sovereignty; internationalists tend to be more inclined to universalist ideals like democracy and human rights, even where these are forced to cross borders. But the two supposed categories are blurred by a thousand factors, not least of which being that realists don’t like being called realists, because it suggests that they have no values, and internationalists don’t like to be called internationalists, as opposed to realists, because it suggests that they have no common sense. In the end, a vast internationalist middle, consisting of neoconservative Republicans and interventionist Democrats, predominates, with tiny slices of hard realists on the right and soft realists, or “neorealists,” on the left. And there are many shades of difference among all these people.

The longtime Russia hand Stephen Sestanovich, a veteran of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, says there are two kinds of Russia hands — those who came to Russia through political science and those who came to it through literature. The literature hands, he suggests, sometimes let their emotions get the best of them, while the political-science hands, like Sestanovich, are more cool and collected. Fried, who served in every administration from Carter to Obama, also thinks there are two kinds of Russia hands, though he draws a different dividing line: There are those, like himself, who “put Russia in context, held up against the light of outside standards and consequences.” These people tend to be tough on Russia. And then there are those “who take Russia on its own terms, attractive and wonderful but subject to romanticization.” These people tend to give Russia what Fried would consider a pass.

Then there are those, like Michael Kofman, a young Kiev-born military analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Va., who say that there only appear to be two kinds of Russia hands. “There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.”

There are two kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there are six kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there is an infinite variety of Russia hands. And yet the mystery is this: After all the many different Russia hands who have served in the United States government, the country’s relations with Russia are as they have always been — bad.

And that, as Gessen goes onto say, is part of the reason US foreign policy has become so irrational and unhinged when it comes to relations with Russia – the vast majority of “Russia hands” in the establishment are hardliners who, despite a reasonably good understanding of the history and culture of Russia, insist on a broad nefariousness that makes it difficult to establish a productive working relationship. This naturally leads to a rather cloistered view of the possible, and the appropriate.

A selection of suggested alternative bear analogies.

Outside of the lone voices like Kofman and Kimmage and Charap, (and a Bartles) most within the defense and security establishment have a conception of Russia oriented solely around Moscow’s hard power capabilities and its attitude towards the United States (as opposed to any other part of the world). Some of the most valuable analysis on contemporary Russia comes from Mark Galeotti, a British academic whose primary focus is Russian organized crime, but also for whom this is a valuable lens with which to examine the country as a whole. This kind of policy tunnel vision is disastrous for any country, and doubly so for one like the United States, which devotes so many resources to the outcomes of these debates.

But to return to Sestanovich’s formulation – e.g., the cultural versus the political – I was reminded of this duality in Rachel Wiseman’s recent contribution on Joseph Brodsky and “uselessness” to The Point‘s debate on intellectualism (ironically, Wiseman in turn goes on to cite none other than Gessen himself on Brodsky, and challenges his interpretation of the latter’s poetry as mere “aesthetics instead of ethics,” rather than “aesthetics as ethics”):

When I first discovered Brodsky I was stumbling my way into a Russian major, starting with a freshman language class where we memorized lines of Pushkin before we knew how to count to ten. I signed up for more classes in the department, one after another, even though I had no idea what I could do with a B.A. in Russian besides maybe going into academia or the CIA. I was drawn, as if by the gravity of a foreign object, to the lives and works of Russian writers—Gogol, Tolstoy, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Platonov, Brodsky.

So it was for me: tales of Rurik, Novgorod, and 862, along with Chekhov and a brief overview of Cyrillic, turned into a lifelong interest with Russia (and my own dabbling in the language early on in college). And I think that that’s where part of the disconnect lies – between those who first came to Russia as a cultural-historical entity encompassing a tremendous range of literature, music, and other arts, versus those who approached it first and foremost as a political actor on the world stage locked in an ideological conflict with the United States.

I’m not saying that the Russia hawks need more Dostoevsky in their lives, but rather that it makes sense to evaluate Russia somewhere in between a completely detached relative morality and Daniel Fried’s holding them “up against the light of outside standards and consequences.” Much like the evolving historiographical approach to the American Civil War (I’m reminded here of some of Barbara Fields’ remarks in the Ken Burns documentary), in which you can evaluate morality by modern standards and actions by contextual ones. If we focus solely on the righteousness (or otherwise) of Russia’s actions, we lose the ability to understand from where they originate.

In other words, without empathy, we needlessly restrict our options.

It isn’t necessary to support Russian decisions and policies, but without a firm grasp on their origin – be it the historical quest for peripheral security, the pursuit of a unified identity, a struggle to modernize and be accepted as equal – it will be impossible to find satisfactory diplomatic outcomes. And should that continue to prove the case, should the two come to blows, the consequences are unimaginably dire. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States managed to negotiate multiple arms control treaties, the Outer Space Treaty, bans on entire weapons systems and classes of weapons systems, inspection regimes that left both vulnerable to the other.

The prospects for such seem remote today: a New START follow-on would be dead on arrival and legislators seriously discuss withdrawing from the INF Treaty, which would leave Open Skies as the sole international agreement allowing direct observation of the other party. Cooperative Threat Reduction is dead and gone, counterterror partnerships lie fallow, even climate change is (for obvious and deeply stupid reasons) a non-starter. But this, in a way, is exactly what the Russia hands have always wanted. Unbridled opposition and hostility makes their expertise necessary. An “angry bear” is a foe that they can speak to. But if the only Russia we can conceive of is one with whom we can’t treat, then that’s exactly what we’ll get. And that bodes ill for everyone.

The Numerous and Escalating Bulgarian Laws of Robotics

RO 1, the battery-operated Bulgarian toy robot. Made in Silistra c. 1970s-1980.

Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics are fairly well-known at this point. But, as Victor Petrov explains in his delightful overview of the Bulgarian Cold War-era technology industry and accompanying science fiction movement, they were far from the final three. Lyuben Dilov, a “towering” figure in Bulgarian sci-fi, wrote The Road of Icarus about an asteroid-derived generation ship, and the ethical quandaries of creating an artificial intelligence in such circumstances: “what is it to be a man when there are so many machines? Thus, Dilov invents a Fourth Law of Robotics, to supplement Asimov’s famous three, which states that ‘the robot must, in all circumstances, legitimate itself as a robot’.”

Others piled on. Nikola Kesarovski, whose short story collection was actually titled The Fifth Law of Robotics, coined the titular law in his story of the same name: “a robot must know it is a robot.” One wonders whether Ronald B. Moore and the other creators behind the Battlestar Galactica reboot were familiar with Kesarovski. Finally, Lyubomir Nikolov rounds out the canon:

In his story ‘The Hundred and First Law of Robotics’ (1989), a writer is found dead while working on his eponymous story, which states that a robot should never fall from a roof. He himself is killed by a robot who just didn’t want to learn any more laws, resulting in the final one: ‘Anyone who tries to teach a simple-minded robot a new law, must immediately be punished by being beaten on the head with the complete works of Asimov (200 volumes)’.

Hopefully, by the time we get to Law 101, we’ll have figured out how to have rendered the techno-nightmares of AI run amok nothing but – dreams.

And all of this is happening against the equally dreamlike, near-fantastical backdrop of Bulgarian modernization and informatization, as Petrov writes:

The Balkan state was, by the 1980s, the Eastern Bloc’s ‘Silicon Valley’, home to cutting-edge factories producing processors, hard discs, floppy drives and industrial robots. It was called ‘the Japan of the Balkans’, producing nearly half of all computing devices and peripherals in the Eastern Bloc…

The Bulgarians surged ahead of their socialist allies through close contacts with Japanese firms and a massive industrial espionage effort. While Bulgarian engineers signed contracts with Fujitsu, state security agents criss-crossed the United States and Europe in search of the latest embargoed electronics to buy, copy or steal. In 1977, a whole IBM factory for magnetic discs based in Portugal was bought by a cover firm and shipped off to Bulgaria; elsewhere, secrets were passed on to Bulgarians by their foreign colleagues through the simple exchange of catalogues and information at conferences and fairs. Scientists back in Bulgaria reverse-engineered, improved, tinkered; soon towns that once processed tobacco were supplying hundreds of millions of customers with computers.

Looming over all of this is the parallel Soviet effort at a socialist internet, the data juggernaut just over the horizon, out of sight. Bulgarian science fiction writes itself; phantom AI purchasers spiriting away entire factories, the detritus of post-industrialization; shadowy deals cut between equity firms, brand consultants, and the organs of state ownership; eldritch information inscribed in the pages of Oriental Trading and on AOL CDs…

Making the Left Case for NATO (or Alliances, At Least)

nato[1]

In an excellent recent piece on a Left foreign policy, Aziz Rana describes the post Cold War potential of the structure extant in NATO:

For Havel and Gorbachev after the fall of the Soviet Union, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact were outdated Cold War holdovers. The hope was to create new and inclusive multilateral regional and international institutions, premised on mutual disarmament and shared decision-making. But given their commitment to American hegemony, this was not the path that Republican and Democratic officials pursued. And as the US instead promoted privatization and the starving of state institutions in Europe and elsewhere, policies like NATO expansion funneled money yet again back into defense.

Getting to the heart of the matter, Rana asks, “can NATO in some revised form be repurposed to serve Havel’s and Gorbachev’s old hope, or does the US need new multilateral and regional arrangements?”

The question is a vital one, and finding an answer will help to determine the future of international security in a broad sense. The obvious answer is that security must be as multilateral a construct as possible. But more specifically, is NATO – or some altered version of it – the vehicle through which that can be achieved?

Many veterans of the anti-imperialist, anti-nuclear campaigns of the 1970s and 80s maintain a healthy skepticism of NATO and other institutions of its ilk, and often the reasons for that skepticism are very much justified. On the whole, building multilateral structures and institutions is a worthy project. Part of the problem, though, is that institutions are frequently more beholden to contemporary ruling regimes and ideologies, rather than a consistent worldview. Even when one swims against the current, such as the IMF’s recent (long overdue) critique of neoliberalism, that often isn’t enough to undo its own previous decisions. In other words, is NATO too much NATO to ever be reformed?

The other issue with NATO, in particular, seems to be representation – by virtue of its origins, NATO’s membership is geographically limited, and this inherently limits its broader appeal. Phenomena like NATO-African Union cooperation are a step in the right direction, but a more inclusive structure would be better – it’s hard, at this stage, to envision how this might come about without devolving into the same sort of paralysis that plagues UN peacekeeping operations and contributions, but this is a necessary prerequisite.

But in addition to addressing NATO itself, it is perhaps worth examining the utility and moral quality of alliances more generally. It seems as if the main objection to a permanent standing alliance structure – as opposed to the ad hoc, shifting alliances of pre-1815 Europe – is that having a “squad at your back” might drive unnecessary interventionism. There is undoubtedly some truth to that, but as recent history has shown, when a country is truly committed to embarking on some foolish misadventure, the choice of partners won’t dissuade it. For every Franco-German-led NATO “Je refuse,” there’s a Coalition of the Willing.

On the other hand, it might be possible to use an alliance as a constraint, if it’s structured in such a way as to only operate on an integrated basis. The 2010 Lisbon Capabilities Commitments, for instance, committed certain countries and sub-groupings of alliance members to developing particular capabilities, but if these were made almost mutually exclusive they might have a deterrent effect against adventurism. If they really specialize, so instead of say, Germany focusing on heavy lift aircraft, only Germany does heavy lift and nobody else has that capability, it becomes even more difficult to operate outside the framework of the alliance.

The broader question, of course, is the purpose of an alliance. Is it meant to counter a specific threat? To reinforce a particular set of prevalent norms? In the European example, for much of history all alliances were those of convenience, made in an attempt to enforce balance in central Europe, or to forestall the rise of a potentially dominant power, or even just to bolster one’s territorial integrity by presenting a mutually defensive front. Only in the postwar era (and some would say only since 1991) has the concept of an alliance with not just interests but ideals been an enduring one. Returning to the earlier instrumental model would require us to define not only what counts as a “threat,” but to determine whether there are enough security challenges in the world to justify some alignment against them. This is the real struggle for the left. There are threats but few of them are as realistic or dangerous as all the damage the west has done to itself and the degree to which modern neoliberal-inflected western governance has ignored anything resembling public goods or regulation.

It will be a challenge to expand the concept of collective defense and mutual idealism without falling into a McCain-esque “league of democracies” or other inherently elitist project. But determining where these lines might be drawn will be critical if it is to succeed and if its success is meant to be of universal benefit. While mutual membership an defensive umbrella is no guarantee against internecine conflict (see: Greece and Turkey), it is at the very least an important normative argument against it (see: the rest of NATO).

These are just a few preliminary thoughts, but at the end of the day, a genuinely cooperative mutual defense project, structured around an alliance, strikes me as a useful tool for dampening conflict and restraining military adventurism. How it might come about, however, and whether NATO is a vehicle for doing so, is a topic worthy of much more in-depth study.

Cognitive Perception and Augmentation

The previous issue of the New Yorker (April 2, “The Mind Issue“) is really a tremendous collection of writing. Rachel Aviv on the mysterious wanderings of Hannah Upp in a dissociative fugue, Joshua Rothman on out-of-body experiences with virtual reality, and a profile of the maddening, dreadful Scott Pruitt at the EPA are all very insightful and well-written. And a profile of philosopher (and “theoretical cognitive scientist”) Andy Clark was particularly fascinating.

Galaxy brain.

As many know, I’ve been a big fan of Charlie Stross‘s writing for years now. And so many of these essays seemed to touch on technologies that he’s written about, either conceptually or almost precisely. Rothman’s piece on VR describes the experience of inhabiting a new body in a virtual world to derive empathy with the subject. By completing a series of hand-eye-touch coordination exercises, the participant begins to physically identify with the perspective of their virtual role:

I put on a V.R. headset and looked into such a mirror to see the body of a young woman wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and ballet flats. When I moved, she moved.

“You’re going to see a number of floating spheres, and you have to touch them,” Guillermo Iruretagoyena, a software developer, said.

A few colorful balls appeared near my hands and feet, and I moved my limbs to touch them. The spheres disappeared, and new ones took their place. After I touched the new spheres, Iruretagoyena explained that the “embodiment phase” was complete—I had tricked my brain into thinking that the virtual limbs were mine. My virtual self didn’t feel particularly real. The quality of the virtual world was on a par with a nineteen-nineties video game, and when I leaned into the mirror to make eye contact with myself my face was planar and cartoonish. Like a vampire’s, my body cast no shadow.

To my right, I heard the sound of keys in a door. I turned and saw a hallway. At the end of it, a man entered, with dark hair and a beige sweater.

“You fat cow,” he said, in a low voice. “Would it hurt to put on something nice?”

He began walking toward me. I looked at myself in the mirror. “Look at me!” he shouted. He walked up to a dresser, saw my cell phone, and threw it against the wall.

I watched, merely interested. It was obvious that he was a virtual person; I was no more intimidated by him than I would be by an image on a screen. Then he got closer, and closer still, invading my personal space. In real life, I’m tall, but I found myself craning my neck to look up at him. As he loomed over me, gazing into my eyes, I leaned away and held my breath. I could sense my heart racing, my chest tightening, and sweat breaking out on my temples. I felt physically threatened, as though my actual body were in danger. “This isn’t real,” I told myself. Still, I felt afraid.

 The technology is now being used to, on a small scale, treat domestic abusers, with marked success (albeit at a small scale). But this sort of gender-bending sounds like nothing less than Stross’s Glasshouse, where in the 27th century the male-identifying protagonist is reconstituted as a late 20th century woman in the services of a social experiment, a weird interactive version of the “ancestor simulation” so often hypothesized by Nick Bostrom et al.

More revelatory – and relevant to my own everyday life – is Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of Clark. Most of this article is about a philosophical conception of intelligence and selfhood, and how rather than developing a wholly artificial intelligence with no external reference points, there’s a synthesis between mind and body in which the two have a symbiotic relationship and, perhaps, cannot exist in isolation. We are not, contra popular perception, beings whose self exists only in our single minds. Much like humanity’s adoption of tools to accomplish tasks, we augment our own brain-based computing power in various ways:

Consider a woman named Inga, who wants to go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She consults her memory, recalls that the museum is on Fifty-third Street, and off she goes. Now consider Otto, an Alzheimer’s patient. Otto carries a notebook with him everywhere, in which he writes down information that he thinks he’ll need. His memory is quite bad now, so he uses the notebook constantly, looking up facts or jotting down new ones. One day, he, too, decides to go to moma, and, knowing that his notebook contains the address, he looks it up.

Before Inga consulted her memory or Otto his notebook, neither one of them had the address “Fifty-third Street” consciously in mind; but both would have said, if asked, that they knew where the museum was—in the way that if you ask someone if she knows the time she will say yes, and then look at her watch. So what’s the difference? You might say that, whereas Inga always has access to her memory, Otto doesn’t always have access to his notebook. He doesn’t bring it into the shower, and can’t read it in the dark. But Inga doesn’t always have access to her memory, either—she doesn’t when she’s asleep, or drunk.

Andy Clark, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh, believes that there is no important difference between Inga and Otto, memory and notebook. He believes that the mind extends into the world and is regularly entangled with a whole range of devices. But this isn’t really a factual claim; clearly, you can make a case either way. No, it’s more a way of thinking about what sort of creature a human is. Clark rejects the idea that a person is complete in himself, shut in against the outside, in no need of help.

Compare that with the protagonist of the first third of Accelerando, the fast-talking augmented-computing Manfred Macx, with a body-computer “metacortex” full of assignable “agents” to handle running down a train of thought to its ultimate conclusion:

His channels are jabbering away in a corner of his head-up display, throwing compressed infobursts of filtered press releases at him. They compete for his attention, bickering and rudely waving in front of the scenery…

He speed reads a new pop-philosophy tome while he brushes his teeth, then blogs his web throughput to a public annotation server; he’s still too enervated to finish his pre-breakfast routine by posting a morning rant on his storyboard site. His brain is still fuzzy, like a scalpel blade clogged with too much blood: He needs stimulus, excitement, the burn of the new…

Manfred pauses for a moment, triggering agents to go hunt down arrest statistics, police relations, information on corpus juris, Dutch animal-cruelty laws. He isn’t sure whether to dial two-one-one on the archaic voice phone or let it ride…

The metacortex – a distributed cloud of software agents that surrounds him in netspace, borrowing CPU cycles from convenient processors (such as his robot pet) – is as much a part of Manfred as the society of mind that occupies his skull; his thoughts migrate into it, spawning new agents to research new experiences, and at night, they return to roost and share their knowledge.

While the sensory overload risks are as real as those of a Twitter feed or RSS reader today, the difference with Macx’s metacortex is how directed its activities are. Not the result of some obscure algorithm, but generated solely by his own interests and ideas. Imagine a Wikipedia session of several dozen tabs, but being able to consume them all in near-simultaneity.

I identify closely with this, not the least because of my own tendency towards distraction and idle thought, but also my reliance on notepads and Evernote alike to keep track of the world around me. I can walk into a grocery store with five things to buy and emerge with ten; only three of them will have been from my list and I’ll have forgotten there were five to begin with. The ability to offload a thought or a task to remember is vital towards freeing up “processing power” (metaphorically speaking and not in the sense of nootropics), and I can only hope that someday the prospect of multitasking across distributed mental processors becomes a reality. It’s only then, I tell myself, that I’ll be able to finish writing that book I never started. To pursue an idea all the way to its end. In short, to fulfill my – and our – full potential as thinking beings.

In the meantime, the closest I’ll come is to keep reading Stross’s excellent speculative fiction.

The Madness of Contingency

The other night, while watching Deutschland ’83, I found myself wondering what a 1990s-era Soviet Union – and Eastern Bloc, in general – might have looked like. What a world of possibility! To what extent would the same commercial energies in the west have been poured into monetizing the internet? What would growing digital interconnectivity in the world have looked like with half of it still cut off (and would that still have been the case)?

A Cold War contnuing into the 90s has ominous portents – in what new and exciting ways would have been coupling ever-advanced nuclear warheads (say, the never-built B90) with precision-enabling technologies? What shape would US infrastructure and the built environment have been in without the “Peace Dividend?” Would Martin Marietta still be around? Would a liberalized Soviet Union have helped drag the welfare state into the twenty-first century? Could it possibly have persisted as a nation, or were there insurmountable internal contradictions?

Still from the 2014 Russian TV-3 show “Chernobyl: Zone of Exclusion,” depicting a 21st-century Soviet Union.

But no, Gorbachev’s program of reform led to loosening Moscow’s control over the periphery led to velvet revolutions and Solidarność and the attempted coup and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Contemplating this sequence of events and all the other possibilities it forestalled leaves one with the same feeling of unease that follows a car crash or being on the receiving end of a chewing-out. Which isn’t to lament those lost presents, but one is left with the recognition that everything, in the end, is up to chance. Who predicted the end of the Soviet Union? Who saw these momentous events coming? And if all other alternative action was an attempt to preserve some version of the status quo, it engenders a kind of paralysis; change is coming so why do anything at all?

You could look at Hong Kong as well, and how its return to China was predicated on the fact that while Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula were ceded to the United Kingdom in perpetuity, the “New Territories” from southern Guangdong were only under a 99-year lease (99 years being thought “as good as forever” by the lead British negotiator), the 1898 Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. That measure of the eternal expired in 1997 – hence the handover that year – after the Thatcher Government determined in the 1980s that continued British sovereignty over Hong Kong unviable without the New Territories. For want of an temporal imagination, the pearl was lost.

The number of branching possibilities, of an unending sequence of slightly different parallel universes is enough to drive anyone insane. And seizing on that one lost opportunity, that minor oversight that’s led to a present crisis… I’d never discourage the study of history – or alternate history –  but dwelling on some of those wanted nails can raise impossible questions. Contemplating the infinite can take us to the edge of madness.

But accompanying this is a reason for optimism: if anything at all is possible, that includes good outcomes, so prudence calls for us to prepare to make the most of opportunities. TO seize the moment. What’s possible right now might not be so tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean a different future isn’t worh imaging. But beyond a broad vision of possibility, it’s critical to imagine the details, the causality. How do we get from here to there? Everything is unsettled; no longer does the arc of history follow some predictable trajectory – for better or worse, our destiny is ours to affect, if not define.

What might have been? What could be?