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)

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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?

Quick Thoughts on Korea

It’s wild, it’s crazy, it just might work?

I’m not going to pretend as if I have supreme confidence in the negotiating skills of President Deals, but one of the vanishingly rare points of optimism with this administration all along has been, perhaps, the chance for some faits accomplis to be revisited, for some of the baggage of old to be revisited. Not in the sense of blowing up the international order, but in rethinking some of the assumptions that have persisted in the postwar and post-Cold War era, for better or worse. I’ll avoid dignifying either of the present regimes with the title of “Muhammad” or “mountain,” but regardless, the twain shall meet.

Well, this is one of those moments. No sitting president has ever met with a North Korean head of state (Carter and Clinton did so, but in their post-presidencies). Donald Trump is perhaps not the most likely of candidates to send on such a vital mission, but you go to negotiations with the one you’ve got, particularly if he insists.

But that aside, an in-person summit represents a real opportunity to shed some of that baggage and to rethink our relationship with the Koreas and the region for decades to come. Kim is likely unserious about denuclearization – at least, that would be my own prior heading into a negotiation like this – and we’ve been equally adamant about not halting our exercise regime nor abandoning our alliance with South Korea. If we can accept these constraints, however, the room to maneuver is significant, and at the very least might lead to confidence building measures.

As Victor Cha ominously concludes in a New York Times opinion piece, this is certainly not a move without significant risk.

Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have “run out of road” on North Korea.

Given that these negotiations would be taking place at the highest levels of government, it is hard to say what comes after a failed session. Is that it?

Of course, this all concedes the idea that talks would even be productive. Cha also suggests, rightfully, that the Trump administration is probably singularly susceptible to flattery and deception on the part of North Korea. He asks what might we be willing to give up, and suggests the possibility of radical change:

A second path might be bolder, and for this reason it might be more appealing to Mr. Trump. This would put much bigger carrots on the table, including diplomatic normalization of relations and even the conclusion of a peace treaty ending the Korean War in return for denuclearization. It would be ironic if Mr. Trump, an avowed hawk on North Korea, adopted this “big bang” approach to diplomacy advocated for years by doves.

But, he says, “the unanswered question going forward is what the United States is willing to put on the table for a negotiation.” This is an open question, not in the least because Rex Tillerson will be replaced by Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, and who will presumably be playing a large role in any upcoming negotations. Pompeo is a man who, as recently as this past Sunday, “said on Fox News that the United States would offer not a single concession in negotiations with Pyongyang. ‘Make no mistake about it,’ he said.” This could very well mean that negotiations are dead on arrival. But Pompeo still has to be confirmed, and Tillerson’s lingering until 31 March, so who know what might change in that time.

Meanwhile, Jeff Lewis thinks that Trump and Kim have goals for these talks that are fundamentally at odds.

Some conservatives are worried that Trump will recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. They believe that an authoritarian North Korea will beguile Trump just as it did his erstwhile apprentice, American basketball player Dennis Rodman. They fear that Trump will be so overjoyed by the site of tens of thousands of North Koreans in a stadium holding placards that make up a picture of his face that he will, on the spot, simply recognize North Korea as a nuclear power with every right to its half of the Korean peninsula.

And of course, as he and I would agree, Lewis goes on to say that this would be a bad idea (so let’s call this a better-case scenario). But, he adds, what if that isn’t what Trump does? “What if Trump, having deluded himself into thinking he’s going to pick up Kim Jong Un’s bombs, suddenly decides that he’s been double-crossed? He could use the summit outcome to discredit diplomacy and open the pathway toward war.”

As Lewis and Cha agree, this meeting has an immense downside: it might foreclose on any possibility of avoiding a senseless war on the Korean Peninsula. But at the same time, the steady drumbeat coming from EEOB seems likely to march us in that direction anyways, and so the possibility of a real, dramatic diplomatic breakthrough must be seized upon and prepared for. The possibilities are tremendous, as are the risks.

As John Bolton’s stock rises, and his presence in the West Wing looms ever more likely, it’s more important than ever that we refresh our ways of thinking and what constitutes a “desired outcome.” Before it’s too late.

Rethinking National Security (or, What the People Want)

T. Greer has published an absolute corker of an essay on Scholar’s Stage. Intended as a call to action against the complacency and stagnation of the modern foreign policy and national security community, he points to the continued disinterest most people from across the American political spectrum hold for foreign affairs, and submits that we will never be able to meet the challenge posed by a rising China without obtaining the consent – and desire – of the public writ large.

The piece is commendable, not least for Greer’s clearheaded thinking on what it means to have a strategy in the first place:

Responding to the rise of the People’s Republic will be a challenge of a scale America has never faced before. We cannot do that, deter Pyongyang, Tehran, and Moscow, and wage war against a thousand little terrorists at the same time. We simply do not have the means. This is true in 2018. It will be really true in about fifteen years time. We must decide which contests demand our attention, forces, and funds, which can be handed off to allies, and which need to be conceded. Deciding between them all will be difficult. It will create storms of animosity among the commentariat. But it must be done. To do anything else is not serious.

Even if you don’t believe that it’s China, specifically, which poses a looming threat to the United States and the West writ large, the idea that tradeoffs are necessary is one sorely lacking from today’s modern defense discussions. So too is language that reflects what analysts truly believe. Those debates we do have are petty and trivial while ignoring core, fundamental questions: what is the national interest? What actually constitutes a threat? What can we safely table and deemphasize because we cannot emphasize everything? Phil Walter has talked about “majoring in the minors,” and that’s an apt phrase for what American foreign and security policy has been for the past 20 years: a focus on penny ante terrorism and third-rate regional countries (I hesitate to call them “powers”) at the expense of anything resembling big-picture thinking.

Dismantling the careerism and shibboleths of the defense establishment will be vital in charting a new course for the future. What we’re doing now, to the extent it can be characterized as a coherent strategy or even a singular set of goals, clearly isn’t working. We are long overdue for a major reassessment. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of my generation’s lifetime so far, and the people who advocated it should forever be unwelcome in The Discourse (and certainly never listened to if hawking an even more devastating overseas intervention). North Korea can be managed and contained without requiring military action or bellicose language.

Our endless obsession with the Middle East is equally ripe for rethinking. If we are to continue championing the appeal and righteousness of liberal democracy around the world, alliances with fundamentalist Wahhabi monarchies would seem anachronistic at best. Which vision of Islam best aligns with our own self-conceptions? And in terms of “fighting over there to avoid it here,” the threat posed by terrorism is vanishing at most. For the vast majority of the American people, requires but a reassessment of the slight personal risk before accepting it into their everyday lives, on par with the remote possibility of nuclear annihilation or a lightning strike from a vengeful god. The ISIS convert with a panel truck doesn’t worry me, but what does is the exhausted delivery driver from Queens who mistakes the gas pedal for the brakes; not the jihadi with a Kalashnikov but the disgruntled man with an Armalite.

Merely questioning the continued relevance of NATO is enough to send gasps through the national security community. And yet, it is worth considering at the very least what a European security architecture might look like if designed from scratch today. What threats might it counter? To what larger political project and integration might it contribute? What would be the geographical limits of its membership? Its operations? In short, we must evaluate what we need rather than what we have, and then try to make up the difference. This, too, is an area where the foreign policy establishment seems to be blind to alternatives and focused solely on preserving some version of the status quo. To question the existing way of things is not a radical act; it is in fact a best practice to periodically evaluate changes in the environment and adjust accordingly.

In the grand realm of national strategy, there frankly is not much from without that can pose a threat to the United States and the “American way of life,” whatever that might now consist of. Truly “existential” threats, to sidestep a semantic debate, exist solely in form of Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals, and in terms of broader geopolitical security, China looms as a true challenger in the medium term. Little else is important. And our other “adversaries” are security problems to be managed (and waited out), not solved.

Even with this handful of real challenges, what “the people” demand are peace abroad and reconstruction at home; in the NBC polling that Greer cites, far more millennials are concerned with health care and education in the United States than nebulous threats from abroad. To win them over for those issues we do deem worthy of concerted national effort, it will be necessary to prove that this country is something worth fighting for; that it is part of an international system worth preserving. That this hasn’t been self-evident in recent years is an indictment not of my generation but of the system that has failed us, a system that will have given us worse living standards than our parents. Nobody’s moving, physically or socially. Infastructure is crumbling. Even those few places worth moving to, with decent jobs and transit (though that, too, is crumbling) don’t have enough housing for those fortunate enough to be able to relocate. Segregation and institutionalized racism manifest themselves more prominently than any other point in our lifetimes. And yet we’re tasked with preserving this system?

The first priority of the national security community must be to acknowledge this. To continue blithely on as before, pretending we have still enjoy the highest living standards in the world for everyone and that this will and must be defended at all costs, is ignorant of reality and will achieve nothing.  Acknowledging that this political economy is unsustainable, and that it will require investment, sacrifice, and change of its own on the part of this entire national security community and other certain privileged sectors will be one of our greatest challenges in the years to come.

“There is no ‘new way of war’. It is not Gerasimov’s, and it is not a doctrine.”

A brilliant, self-declared “polemic against the use of the term the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ to describe a supposed dramatic turn in Russian strategic thinking.” Mark Galeotti has been writing about the Russian military for some time, and this is a particularly good takedown of all the nonsense swirling about Russia’s “new ‘hybrid war’ doctrine,” when really it is an article describing Russia’s view of Western practices.

In July 2014, I published a partial translation of Gerasimov’s article by Robert Coulsdon of RFE/RL, with my own comments and gloss, on my blog, In Moscow’s Shadows. Looking for a snappy title, I called it ‘The “Gerasimov Doctrine” and Russian Non-Linear War’. Even then, I warned in the text that it was not a doctrine as such, and that this formulation was simply a placeholder for the ideas evolving in Russian military thinking. Having made that disclaimer, I thought no more about it. Big mistake…

Putin’s Kremlin, inspired by a (largely) misguided but genuine belief that it faces Western attempts to marginalise and destabilise it, has moved onto war footing and certainly uses these means with greater enthusiasm and less restraint. However, to present them as unique in their methods, not just compared with the West, but other geopolitical players, such as China and Iran, is hard to sustain. Of course, the sad truth is that you often do not need to argue the case, if instead the assumptions and prejudices come pre-packaged in a nice neologism.

And what a neologism! ‘Doctrine’, a technical term in Russian parlance meaning a foundational strategy document, sounds alien and menacing in English. Redolent of the titles of thick thrillers sitting on airport bookshop shelves, with their predilection for names incorporating words like protocol, codex, and sanction, it immediately evokes not only threat, but a concrete plan and the kind of ruthless and disciplined state machine able to apply it. Today’s Russia is in so many ways a kleptocratic mess of feuding individuals and interests, an adhocracy rather than a militocracy, but nonetheless this is a title that can evoke Cold War stereotypes of serried ranks of soldier-drones, marching in lockstep through Red Square on their way westwards.

See Mark Galeotti, “The mythical ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and the language of threat,” Critical Studies on Security, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1080/21624887.2018.1441623. Also, Bartels is very good on this too.

In Which History Brushes the Dirt off its Shoulders and Starts Happening Again

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Never before has the English Channel seemed so oceanic.

Brexit is a dreadful portmanteau. I tried to divert myself last night coining better alternatives for other potential coming secessions, instead of “Frexit” and “Italexit” (my money’s on Fradieu and Italiciao, respectively).

But not only is the word ugly but so too the deed. Probably.

Given what our generation has grown up with – a fairly predictable march towards neoliberal consensus, general stability save the occasional earth-shattering global financial crisis, a world of solid borders and staid bureaucracy – we at least have an excuse for complacency in the absence of change. Those responsible for the referendum and the crisis that’s led us to this moment, not so much, as Adam Elkus pointed out. But it would seem that history is roaring back with a vengeance and threatening to upend the order we’ve taken for granted.

I would hope that an island’s decision to exit a common market does not throw the longest peace on the Rhine in a thousand years into jeopardy; indeed, this early on I cannot quite envision the chain of events that would lead to that (okay, well, since you asked, Brexit precipitates two to three other EU withdrawals, leading to a collapse of the European Union, returning us to a perfect Westphalian state of international anarchy, but I digress).

The mid-to-long-term effects have yet to be seen. In the short run, obviously the pound sterling has tanked (though seems to be making a slight recovery), wiping out significant economic value, and stock markets across Asia, Europe, and the United States have also opened down. This, however, seems a poor explanation for the panic breaking out online and in person, the sense of grief and loss that’s accompanied this momentous and shocking vote. Plummeting retirement accounts and weakened currency are disastrous, to be sure, but they’re hard to pinpoint as a source of raw emotion.

There’s also something unseemly about arguing that “the market” should have been given a veto over a decision of popular sovereignty. Which isn’t to say that material well-being shouldn’t be nor wasn’t a factor in yesterday’s vote, but the idea that the City of London’s reaction to a vote to leave should determine national standing in the world is rather jarring (if not entirely inaccurate even without a referendum at all).

No, what’s caused this international mood of mourning is something grander than sheer material impact. It’s the loss of an idea, that a united Europe could overcome the historical divisions and enmities that have led to so much bloodshed over the course of several millennia. To turn its back on that sectarian, internecine warfare and instead chart a common course towards a mutual future; in short, a true commonwealth.

Of course, the European Union as constituted was (and is) rife with problems of its own. It is both too unaccountable and too lacking in power. It enjoys a currency union without a fiscal one; legislative representation without political supremacy. The vote reflects general and intense (and well-deserved) dissatisfaction with the elite. There are cases to be made for exiting the EU as a positive, both from the right and the left. But they’re not wholly convincing, because whatever the “cost” or “savings,” the results of the referendum transcend a materialist analysis of Britain’s EU membership, and is the death knell of an ideal.

This a tragedy especially for the young people of Britain and Europe, who time and time again have had their desires thwarted by older voters who won’t be around long enough to live with the consequences. It happened in the US Democratic primary and to a lesser extent in Scotland; the trend was undeniable even before then. That comment from the Financial Times that’s gone viral really does summarize it well: there will still be an unaccountable elite, only with British accents instead of a European polyglot; and the freedoms to live, work, and study in Europe, to meet a future spouse there, to be exposed to the tremendous panoply of cultures that comprise modern Europe, to try and fit Britain into a larger context, into the world: all of that has been dashed by a generation that already got theirs.

So despair is the watchword of today. Of course, Parliament might choose to dishonor the results of the referendum, or there could be a second one, or the Queen could refuse her assent, or any manner of other things. At a minimum the process will take two years. But the fact that a majority of England and Wales would prefer to exist outside the European Union is a profound shift in the international order. Scotland, on the other hand, may well opt for a second independence referendum, given the significant changes since the previous one (i.e., no more EU membership). But with the price of oil having dropped significantly from its 2014 levels, the self-sustainability of that project might be more in question.

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Sinn Fein, as is their wont, has also made their announcement calling for a Northern Ireland vote to reunify Ireland, given the impending border checks and controls that would arise from a Northern Ireland outside of the EU.

The unthinkable has been set in motion and may yet be halted. But this vote should be of absolutely no comfort to anyone. We’re in uncharted waters, and the idea of European unity and a whiggish progress towards some noble and enlightened end has been thrown into stark relief. As the developed world mourns the idea of growing integration and peace, we’ve been reminded that the trend of the past few years is no happenstance, but rather that chance and contingency are once again a part of geopolitics – for better or worse.

Expect the unexpected; choppy waters ahead.

What is “Systems Analysis”?

“Systems analysis,” as a concept, can be difficult to define and pin down. For much of my life, I assumed it was some sort of generic back-office IT function (see, for instance, the hundreds of man-on-the-street “American Voices” interviews in The Onion, which describe respondents in equal measure as ‘unemployed’ or ‘systems analyst’). But given the complexities of almost, well, everything in the modern era, an understanding of the logical underpinnings of systems analysis is critical.

Essentially, single variables cannot be considered in isolation. A new weapons platform or technological development or re-basing movement must be thought of in the context of existing technology, logistics capacity, weather, enemy reaction, enabling capabilities, fixed facilities, power projection, and so on, down an otherwise infinite fractal list of factors.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/e/e4/An_image_of_Strategist_Bernard_Brodie.jpg/220px-An_image_of_Strategist_Bernard_Brodie.jpg

Dr. Bernard Brodie, RAND Corporation (Wikimedia)

But all this is a long-winded introduction to Bernard Brodie’s hypothetical systems analysis example in Strategy in the Missile Age is one of the best,  most succinct ways of describing just how complex this interplay is. Brodie, of course, had a front-row seat to this effort, as the RAND Corporation was the earliest home to a methodological approach to the field. Beginning on page 381 in the 1967 edition:

Let us consider, for example, the problem of choosing between two kinds of strategic bombers. Each represents in its design an advanced “state of the art,” but each also represents a different concept. In one, which we shall call Bomber A, the designers have sought to maximize range. They have therefore settled for a subsonic top speed in a plane of fairly large size. The designers of Bomber B, on the contrary, have been more impressed with the need for a high dash speed during that part of the sortie which involves penetration of enemy territory, and have built a smaller, shorter-ranged plane capable of a Mach 2 dash for a portion of its flight. Let us assume also that the price of the smaller plane is about two-thirds that of the larger.

Perhaps we can take both types into our inventory, but even then we should have to compare them to determine which we should get in the larger numbers. Let us then pick a certain number of specific targets in enemy territory, perhaps three hundred, and specify the destruction of these targets as the job to be accomplished. Since we know that both types can accomplish this job with complete success if properly supported and handled, our question then becomes: which type can do it for the least money?

We do not ask at this stage which type can do it more reliably, because within limits we can buy reliability with dollars, usually by providing extra units. Some performance characteristics, to be sure, will not permit themselves to be thus translated into dollars-for example, one type of plane can arrive over target somewhat sooner than the other type, and it is not easy to price the value of this advantage but we shall postpone consideration of that and similar factors until later.

Let us assume that Bomber A has a cruising range of 6,000 miles, while Bomber B is capable of only 4,000 miles. This means that Bomber A has to be refueled only on its post-strike return journey, while Bomber B probably has to be refueled once in each direction. This at once tells us something about the number of “compatible” tankers that one has to buy for each type (“compatible” referring to the performance characteristics which enable it to operate smoothly with a particular type of bomber). Up to this point Bomber B has appeared the cheaper plane, at least in terms of initial purchase price, but its greater requirement in tankers actually makes it the more expensive having regard for the whole system. In comparing dollar costs, however, it is pointless to compare merely procurement prices for the two kinds of planes; one has to compare the complete systems, that is to say, the weapons, the vehicles, and the basing, protection, maintenance, and operating costs, and one must consider these costs for each system over a suitably long period of peacetime maintenance, say five years. These considerations involve us also in questions of manpower. We are in fact pricing, over some duration of time, the whole military structure required for each type of bomber.

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A B-36 Peacemaker, B-52 Stratofortress, and B-58 Hustler from Carswell AFB, TX en route to the former’s retirement in 1958. The B-52 would long outlive the more advanced Hustler. (Wikimedia)

Now we have the problem of comparing through a process of “operations analysis,” how the two types fare in combat, especially the survival expectancy of each type of plane during penetration. In other words, we have to find out how much the greater speed (and perhaps higher altitude) of Bomber B is worth as protection. If the enemy depends mostly on interceptors, the bomber’s high speed and altitude may help a great deal; if he is depending mostly on guided missiles, they may help relatively little. Thus a great deal depends on how much we know about his present and projected defenses, including the performance characteristics of his major weapons.

If our Bomber A is relying mostly on a low altitude approach to target, which its longer range may just make possible (we are probably thinking in terms of special high efficiency fuels for wartime sorties), it may actually have a better survival expectation than its faster competitor. Also, we know that penetration capability is enhanced by increasing the numbers of bombers penetrating (again, a matter of money) or by sending decoys in lieu of extra bombers to help confuse the enemy’s radar and saturate his defenses. Perhaps we find that the faster plane would outrun the decoys, which again might tend to give it a lower penetration score than one would otherwise expect. But decoys are expensive too, in acquisition costs, basing, and maintenance, and involve additional operating problems. The faster plane may be less accurate in its bombing than the other, which again would involve a requirement for more aircraft and thus more money.

We have given just barely enough to indicate the nature of a typical though relatively simple problem in what has come to be known as “systems analysis.” The central idea is that no weapon can be considered independently of the other weapons and commodities that are used with it, that all endure through some period of time and require men to service them and to be trained in their use, that all these items involve costs, and that therefore relative costs of different systems, as considered against some common standard of function, are basic to the problem of choice between systems. Systems analysis, which brings what is modern to present-day strategic analysis, is mostly a post-World War II development.

The challenges herein are immense, which in part explains the explosion not only of defense research and development but also of the defense bureaucracy as a whole. It’s a sprawling, tangled mass that can in many ways only be understood in relation to itself. But systems analysis is at least an attempt to build that into other assumptions and considerations.

Using this technique is not only a way to compare technologies with like missions; it’s an excellent tool for use in wargame design. This too is in fact an iterative process, as the insights from a wargame itself might reveal further interrelationships, which might then be used to craft a more complex operating environment (or refine the mechanics used to select force lists), and so on ad infinitum.

Practicality aside, Brodie’s writing serves as an excellent primer to what systems analysis entails, and more broadly, to the change in strategic thought and analysis since the end of World War II.