Not a King, but the King of Beggars

A week ago I wrote that "if Putin is the world's puppet master he's not doing very well. Russia's economy has been in crisis since 2014, with no end in sight. The Kremlin has been in the doldrums for two reasons: the continued decline in oil prices and economic sanctions imposed on Moscow for its incursions into Ukraine."

Those trends continued and indeed worsened in 2017.  Despite predictions the Trump administration was eating out of Putin's hand the evidence was he would soon have his hand out unless oil prices rose and the US military buildup eased. "It is reasonable to suppose that puppetmaster Putin would prefer 1) less US oil production; 2) lower American defense spending; 3) a free hand in Syria; 4) lifting of sanctions," I wrote "but there is precious little evidence he is getting any of it. On the contrary Putin is doomed if current trends continue."

Today the headlines were dominated by news of unrest in Russia.  "Hundreds of people were arrested across Russia on Sunday as protests erupted against corruption there, according to multiple reports," reported Politico.  Although Putin may well survive the opposition's efforts to unseat him  -- what relief is in sight?  Public discontent probably reflects elite discontent that in turn is a reflection of a declining GDP.

The narrative that Russia -- a country with an economy smaller than Italy -- smaller than New York State's -- will  take over the world is less compelling than than the alternative thesis: that the tide of chaos is rising across the planet.  With the European Union weakening, the Middle East perceptibly falling apart  and African and Latin America their same old selves the danger is less that some rival empire will conquer the world than that power vacuums will spread entropy all over the planet.

If Russian unrest should get worse the danger -- as with North Korea -- is not that it will mount a land invasion of its neighbors but whether the Kremlin's arsenal can remain secure in the face of internal dissension.  Only a few weeks ago the Center for Strategic and International Studies argued it was time to build up missile defenses against limited attacks from Russia and China, that "we need to break the taboo on discussing any kind of missile defense against great powers" not because the calculus of central nuclear war has fundamentally changed but because the assumption of a world dominated by great powers may no longer be valid.

Imagine a scenario where Kim Jong Un is overthrown, or the Syrian war spreads to its neighbors.  Consider a situation where Erdogan's Turkey is riven or Putin's Russia is plunged into contention.  None of these is out of the question.  Then America would be faced not with the challenge of an organized rival, but with a global and amorphous tide of disorder.  The Obama administration's strategy of reset with Russia, grand bargains with Muslim nations, a stable partnership with the European union presumed a world that is not guaranteed to be there.

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Books:

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, Author Adam Alter, a professor of psychology and marketing at NYU, tracks the rise of behavioral addiction, and explains why so many of today's products are irresistible. He shows that their extraordinary and sometimes damaging magnetism is no accident. By reverse engineering behavioral addiction, he explains how we can harness addictive products for the good — to improve how we communicate with each other, spend and save our money, and set boundaries between work and play — and how we can mitigate their most damaging effects on our well-being, and the health and happiness of our children.

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Author Joseph J. Ellis sifts the facts shrewdly from the legends and the rumors, treading a path between vilification and hero worship in order to formulate a plausible portrait of the man who still today "hover[s] over the political scene like one of those dirigibles cruising above a crowded football stadium, flashing words of inspiration to both teams."

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. In this book, Duhigg takes the reader to the thrilling edge of scientific discoveries that explain why habits exist and how they can be changed. He presents a whole new understanding of human nature and its potential. By harnessing this new science and understanding how habits work, he believes we can transform our businesses, our communities and our lives.

Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, Authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT bring together a range of statistics, examples, and arguments to show that technological progress is accelerating, and that this trend has deep consequences for skills, wages, and jobs. They make the case that employment prospects are grim for many today not because technology has stagnated, but because we humans and our organizations aren't keeping up.

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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free

The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age

Storming the Castle, why government should get small

No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.

Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific

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