Belmont Club

Wounded tigers

AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

Robert Kagan told a Washington Post reporter that the liberal world order was in trouble “because the jungle is starting to grow back”. He described, with a sense of poignant loss, the magnificent edifice that the Deplorables had by inattention let the seeds of nationalism overgrow.  But perhaps it not the noise of the jungle that is responsible for the present cacophony.   At least some of the frenzy rocking the West stems from the efforts of an ideology trying to hold on to its old dominance.

Wounded tigers can be dangerous.  Russia, as former president Obama famously pointed out, was objectively quite weak.  But he was wrong to dismiss it as a source of mischief, failing to realize as George Friedman pointed out that “weak powers … need to exaggerate their power”.  They, as with wounded tigers can sometimes become more volatile in decline.

Like a wealthy person coming into hard times, Russia is haunted by the memory of its former greatness.  The great armies, the “we will bury you” economy, even the Russian masses in which it once took pride are no more.  In its reduced state it “must … try to appear more powerful than it is,” Friedman wrote.  The need to keep up with growing powers drove the former superpower to run risks.  Friedman thinks its intervention in both the Ukraine and Syria were at least partly “to show that they could.”

Unfortunately even the facade of hard power is ruinously expensive.  With only 9% that of the EU’s or 12% of China’s economy available Russia will find even feints hard to maintain. Ultimately declining powers have to rely upon illusion to stay in the game.  The Kremlin is no exception, falling back on the

old Soviet strategy: using its intelligence forces in a destabilization campaign. The goal of the Russian campaign was not so much to interfere in political campaigns as to be seen as interfering. The Soviets also played this game in the 1980s, supporting various radical groups in Europe. Of course, the Soviet Union collapsed anyway. Actions taken by weak nations designed to make them appear stronger than they are always fail in the long run … but illusions are fleeting.

The Russians are delighted that they have convinced some that they control Donald Trump. Not only does this breed instability in the United States, but it gives a sense of overwhelming, if covert, Russian power. If they actually did try to control Trump, then their reputation for incompetence in such matters proceeds them, since being able to blackmail Trump had value only if it were kept secret. And the coup of the century (or several centuries) would be the biggest secret of all time. But the point was not to control Trump, but to destabilize the United States. And while it has certainly created an uproar, the fact remains that American power is intact, and so is Russian power. The balance of power has not changed.

Yet illusion has a way of biting back.  The bluff is soon called and the present tensions are the the result of pathetic imposture laid bare.  The Kremlin’s only real hope is in a reform program that will pull it out of doldrums. It cannot continue to rely on oil and guns to claim first rank in the world.  It must fix its economy and that it cannot do unless it shakes off the memory of its Soviet WW2 glory days.

In its present trap Russia risks becoming a satellite of China.  “Chinese trade with the five Central Asian states … dwarfs Russia’s …  China—not the West … broke Russia’s monopoly over Central Asia’s oil and gas exports. China’s clout continues to grow with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),  … Even if partially fulfilled, it will reduce Russia’s hold over Central Asia’s export routes.”

To a lesser but still recognizable extent the European Union faces an analogous challenge. While still powerful it is no longer the inevitable future of a decade ago.  It too has declined in relative terms against the rest of the world; it too is obsessed with the erosion of its post WW2 greatness and must go on the offensive to prove it still can roll back the challenge that French president Emmanuel Macron called a “European civil war.

“Brexit continues. … there is doubt in a number of European countries. Month after month we’re seeing views and sensibilities emerge which call into certain fundamental… There seems to be a sort of European civil war. National selfishness and egotism seems to take precedence over what brings us together.“There is a fascination with the illiberal, and that’s growing all the time. So Europe has an ever greater responsibility.”The French president said it would be “the worst possible mistake” to give up on the European social model and integration of the continent, describing nationalism as a “deadly tendency which might lead our continent into the abyss”.

But beating back the challenge of populism at great cost is hardly the answer if the problem is the obsolescence of its business model.  The liberal world order’s key institutions are more than 70 years old.  Rarely mentioned is the fact that liberalism, though its calling card lists the ideals of trade and democracy as its first and second names actually operates through the instrumentality of giant bureaucracies. It may be precisely against that nudging, cajoling, taxing, faceless apparatus that the Western revolt is largely directed against.  The idea that freedom and democracy must be purchased at the cost of an ever growing state and the loss of privacy is as difficult to accept as the proposition that the eternal fate of Russia is to remain the Soviet Union. There must be a better way.

‘Liberalism’ now risks becoming as grim faced and rusty as the old Politburo.  Hardly a day passes without some pundit being triggered by ‘creepy’ Christian chicken restaurants or some old statue.  News that more tens of thousands are being hired by social media to protect liberal values far from being reassuring are positively frightening . Mark Zuckerberg’s admission about the lack of trust in Facebook’s censors illustrates how detached the towers have become from the peasants they once commanded. “I understand where that concern is coming from because Facebook and the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place,” he said. But to understand is not always the same as to realize.

It is probably no coincidence that Russian and ‘liberal’ institutions are fighting over the control of Internet routers. “The U.K. and U.S. blamed Russian hackers for a campaign aimed at taking control of routers inside government, critical infrastructure and internet service providers, but also within small and home offices. The warning came in a joint announcement from British intelligence, the National Security Council (NSC), the DHS and the FBI on Monday.” The instruments of illusion, you will recall, are the last bastions of declining power.  If the public is not reassured it is because they suspect they are going to be spied upon someone in the end, the only question being who.

Obama’s observation Russia had become a regional power might apply to the old liberal world order also.  It is shrinking but refuses to consider that what is coming back is perhaps not “the jungle” but the harbinger of the new 21st century age whose outlines we can only dimly appreciate.  Fred Bauer at the National Review struck the right note when he counseled that to preserve the liberal world order one might have to reform it. “If the best parts of the international order are to be preserved, responsiveness might need to take the place of rigidity, and hauteur might need to give way to humility,” he wrote.

The tragedy is that as with Russia, the liberal elite are unlikely to try reform.  For the present it is noooo! and noooo! again in its perfect, haunted tower.

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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This book reveals the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty but also experience wrenching change. Professions of all kinds – from lawyers to truck drivers – will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar. Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, MIT’s Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and a new path to prosperity.

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Skin in the Game, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his new work, Taleb uses the phrase “skin in the game” to introduce a complex worldview that applies to literally all aspects of our lives. “Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will profit and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them,” he says. In his inimitable style, he pulls on everything from Antaeus the Giant to Hammurabi to Donald Trump to Seneca to the ethics of disagreement to create a jaw-dropping tapestry for understanding our world in a brand new way.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

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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
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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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