Archive for the ‘Politics / Geopolitics’ Category

American Geopolitical Imperatives: A (rough) Primer

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

[2018-01-31: The following is an incomplete rough draft of an article I’m writing to have a single place to reference whenever anyone asks me sweeping questions about what I mean by “geopolitics” and “geopolitical imperatives”. This note will be removed once it is more complete. Thanks to Joe Armstrong for convincing me that it is better to publish incomplete ideas sooner than to publishing complete ideas never.]

The word “geopolitics” has been getting thrown around a lot in the media the last two or three years but unfortunately I’ve yet to see an accurate use of the term in general media. A handful of actual geopolitical analysts occasionally get a five minute spot somewhere, but even that is rare. (Indeed, I find the terms “analysis” and “assessment” almost universally misused as well.)

Despite the term being heavily abused in the media, geopolitics is a distinct discipline with clear definition. Geopolitics is a lens for interpreting world events, a tool for separating at least a little bit of personal bias and emotion from our interpretation of the world by modeling it as a physical system where aggregate human action is constrained by geographical factors. The geography a group of humans inhabits dictates a few imperatives on the group that must be satisfied if the group is to be successful relative to other groups. This version of geopolitics is “pure” and often leaves out the social aspect of human interaction. Of course, culture can play such a huge role that I occasionally step outside of pure geopolitics and extend to socio-geopolitics, but generally speaking the “geo” part of the term is the dominant factor.

Interpreting the world from a geopolitical perspective can be emotionally painful or shocking at first. That isn’t hyperbole. It can actually be so disturbing that many people who are initially interested in “how the world really works” run screaming from the first few lessons with an experienced mentor. Your political biases will get eaten wholesale, much of what you believe to be true about the world will be overturned, your sense of personal morality will find itself under constant attack (as individual morality can never be effectively applied to large groups), many of your unconsidered assumptions may turn out to be totally false on closer examination, etc. It can be deeply disturbing, even terrifying, for people whose views are heavily shaped by ideology.

Have strong feelings about Marxism? Capitalism? Abortion? Religion? Some particularly divine or truly vile historical figure? A favorite period of history? A favorite culture? A favored artifact of technology or warfare or art? A favorite language? A favorite style of cuisine? Lifestyle? Sexual preference? Religiously informed political view?

Geopolitics will eat your babies and murder your friends before it finally turns on you and leaves you feeling that everything your moral compass was based on is a fabrication.

That is, of course, until you get reoriented and realize that none of what was destroyed mattered — because it was all mistaken models of how the world works based on limited information, the missing parts of which you filled in by projecting your personal sense of individual morality on governments, national groups, companies, tribes, periods of history where the moral compass may have pointed a totally different direction, and so on. You were imagining the world as it should be instead of how it actually is, and snapping out of that is the shocking part. You don’t have to be changed by geopolitics, nor do your views about individual right and wrong. Your views about governmental right and wrong will definitely change, though, and perhaps most importantly, you will come to realize that the publicly touted reasons for many events are exactly backwards. All of this can be at odds with personal views to which you may discover you have developed a profound emotional attachment, and letting go of emotional attachments is uncomfortable for a reason.

Cause and effect are often reversed in public discourse. Sometimes it is a deliberate trick of rhetoric, but for the most part it is just how people recall and justify events after the fact, especially when they don’t have time to really dig into the details.

Today we are going to take a closer look at that phenomenon I mentioned above: geographical imperatives and how the laws of physics and the unwritten rules of human behavior conspire to force them on groups of humans. Most nations have impossibly difficult sets of imperatives, or imperatives that are difficult to establish clear priority order for or sometimes even discover without an in-depth investigation. Sometimes a group of humans itself doesn’t even a coherent body, which obviously confuses things a bit.

I’ll hit the low hanging fruit as an exploratory exercise today and examine the most well-known case in the world: the geopolitical imperatives of the United States of America.

Maps are Important

This thing below is called a map. They are really, really important if you want to understand why governments do pretty much anything on the strategic level.


Low-res image compliments of Wikimedia Commons user Martin23230.

There are many kinds of maps. This is a simple orthographic projection of one side of the Earth that shows some of the major political boundaries and none of the terrain other than separating the always-dry bits from the always-wet bits. That’s not very useful for many kinds of analysis, but this kind of simplification is really useful for understanding relative distances at a glance.

Our emotional attachment to particular issues tends to cause some distortion in our recollection of the map and particularly our memory of adjacent nations, the exact location of major waterways, the distance between significant points, and especially the details of the terrain involved that may have a profound effect on how a strategist will interpret the map based on how difficult it is to engage in a given activity in a given area.

As an example, I can’t remember how many times people have asked me about bizarre 9/11 or Afghan War conspiracy theories, the underlying premise of the theory being that they feel certain the U.S. military could absolutely flood Afghanistan with soldiers and war matériel if the need arose by using the USAF’s tremendous fleet of cargo craft.

It is hard to illustrate the sheer scale of how wrong this is.

The USAF does not have nearly enough airplanes to lift the daily tonnage of logistical support supplies necessary to run the Afghan campaign. It is truly mind-boggling how much stuff goes into a campaign of that scale and how much logistical support the operations involved require. Is the campaign dramatically bloated for the actual impact it has? Yes, definitely, but it isn’t 10x bloated. Maybe double or triple, but not bloated by a factor of 10. To support the Afghan campaign by air would require that it be reduced by about 100 times at the very least. I forget the figures right now, but we actually ran a calculation like this a few years ago and it came out to something between 100 and 1000 times shrinkage would be required to support the campaign by air alone.

That’s a lot of shrinkage. It is clear that the (ridiculously long) list of goals of the campaign would have to be dramatically reduced to make such a shrinkage possible. (See? This discussion is already about trade-offs — a trend that will continue.)

Why so many trade-offs in the Afghan campaign? Why is this so hard?

Geography.

Afghanistan is a very high altitude, landlocked buffer zone surrounded by buffer zones. The roadways are limited, there is extremely limited internal rail support, and no ocean access at all (so no heavy shipping). The maximum lifting capacity of a C-17 is about 70 metric tons and a little less than 70 or so are available to the government at any given time (of about 200 total in the military system).

That still sounds like a lot of lifting capacity, and it is! Relatively speaking. Compare that to 10 to 20 tons of capacity in a typical shipping container multiplied by a typical capacity ranging from 5,000 to 15,000 containers per ship when you have ocean access.

But back to airplanes… even if you reduced the mission by a factor of 100 and even if you could cancel every other military operation in the world to make every plane available to support the Afghan theater — where are you going to put all those planes? There are only two airbases in Afghanistan that can handle an even partially loaded C-17, and tarmac space is extremely limited, as are repair facilities and fuel supplies. Just consider how absolutely impractical it would be for C-17’s to fly fuel, spare parts and alternate crews in for all the other C-17’s, especially given crew rest, parking space and emergency repair availability. Even supporting C-17 operations at that scale with just C-17s is problematic. (Don’t even get me started on environmental factors like the weather…)

Nope. Trying to support an entire heavy-presence military operation with air supply alone is a non-starter.

Heavy things are really hard to move, and the higher the altitude the harder that gets. That’s also why helicopters are only partially useful in Afghanistan compared to how much utility we got out of them in Iraq. (And in Iraq we had plenty of aircraft issues, not the least of which were sand eating the engines or totally obscuring the ground — issues that, once again, are dictated by geography and cannot be changed no matter how much you hope and pray and write policy papers nobody will read.)

Keep that in the back of your mind. Logistics drives just about everything, and logistics is a super hard problem humanity has not come anywhere close to solving yet (sort of like computer security…).

American Geopolitical Imperatives

The American geopolitical imperatives are, in priority order:

  1. Delegate as much political control downward as possible
  2. Make the East Coast unprofitable for European navies to attack
  3. Achieve continental integrity from East to West coast
  4. Defend the Mississippi / New Orleans outlet and the maritime passage past Cuba
  5. Enforce hegemony across the Americas
  6. Establish global naval supremacy
  7. Establish supremacy in space
  8. Maintain a balance among other powers to prevent the rise of a rival superpower

That’s it in all its cold, calculated magnificence. As lists of national imperatives go this is one of the shortest and most inherently achievable lists in the short history of geopolitical analysis. Quite remarkable, actually. In light of recent political insanity and media hyperbole please, let’s take a moment to consider what is not not that list.

No mention of race. No mention of immigration. No mention of education reforms or welfare programs or any other form of social assistance programs. No mention of slavery. No mention of “social safety nets”. No age of consent. No duty to uphold the sanctity of homosexual marriage unions within the non-CIS-but-genderqueer branch of the pony community. No requirement that the government spy on everyone. No requirement that the government not spy on anyone. No mention of monogamy or polygamy or asexuality. No mention of baby murder VS women’s health. No preference for one religion over another. No mention of FOSS vs closed source. No promotion of atheism. No stance on narcotics enforcement. No mention of net neutrality. No mandate that women get the vote. None of that stuff.

Why? Aren’t these pivotal issues? Well, not really, no. The physical laws that made this particular geography come to be do not care about any of those things. In fact, they don’t care, period. Concern for your preferences is not a rule of the universe. At this initial level of evaluation we are considering these issues in isolation of all the other stuff.

There is an order in which geopolitical study of a region must be conducted or else we will find ourselves hung up on this or that favorite issue and miss the forest for the trees. We must consider the terrain first (its shape, what is in it, what resources are available, climate, terrain, lines of drift, proximity to other key terrain, etc.), then the existing infrastructure, then the existing and demonstrated capacity of the inhabitants, then the disposition of the available resources within the area, then a similar study of the adjacent areas, then gaming out a regional set of possibilities, etc. We won’t get into a detailed analysis here (which involves using numeric techniques to try to discover at least some of the bias in our assumptions), but we will touch on each of the elements in a cursory way while assessing the imperatives discussed below. Of course, once you go through the process once you iterate over it again and again — any time you learn anything new that might be significant.

Note that I haven’t mentioned anything about the details of culture or the nature of a given nation or people. At the outset we must look at the group that inhabits a given terrain in abstract: they have no race, names, history, culture, language — nothing. We don’t know who they are yet because we aren’t considering them as actual people yet, just hypothetical inhabitants. Remember that while each issue may be very important to a given individual none of them are important from the much higher level of geopolitics.

From a strategic perspective these cultural and personal aspects are distractions, issues that only rarely become geopolitically significant by themselves. While certain cultures have proven over time to be remarkably more robust and effective than others, past success does not necessarily predict future success. The problem lies with the nature of “success” and “failure”. Most people are destined for failure. Most organizations are not very organized. One team doesn’t typically win because it is so squared away as much as their rivals are just so screwed up that it is a wonder they even stick together (and often they don’t — consider the fractures that surfaced in Libya when Qaddafi died).

There isn’t anything stopping any pack of historical losers from flipping the switch and getting organized and engaged one day. We cannot assume that just because some particular collection of people has failed in the past it can’t — perhaps as a result of a radical change in leadership or cultural mores — suddenly start to flourish, and obviously the inverse is true as well. This is a critical point to understand because economics is not a zero-sum game, failure is always an option, and generation is a lot slower and more input-intensive than destruction (which is why violence and appeasement go together so well).

Geography stays the way it is for a long time. The world of men surges and ebbs and gets all mixed around at a breathtaking pace. Our interpretation of a map is grounded in the practical aspects of the logistical capabilities and resource technologies of the day. Before the invention of the maritime clock and reliable long-range maritime navigation, maps had intensely inaccurate coastlines and bloated interiors swelled to the edge of the page, chock full of details describing and naming what could be found on land and where. The oceans were relegated to the edges and shown as bleak and frightening aquatic wastelands full of monsters and giant serpents. Today we regard such maps as cartographic oddities, laughable and charming in their blatant inaccuracies — unless you actually grab a sea map and try to use it to walk somewhere without an accurate compass in hand. The bloated and “inaccurate” interiors were so bloated and detailed because they were full of next-hill landmark data, crucial for navigating by land back in the era they were drawn.

After the advent of blue-water navigation coastlines on maps became radically more accurate an displayed interiors became less detailed which corresponded with them suddenly becoming less geopolitically significant. A radical change in resource utilization (invention of the internal combustion engine or lithium battery, for example) or a radical change in heavy logistical technology (reliable maritime navigation, advent of the cargo airplane, development of the nuclear ballistic missile submarine, or commercially viable space shipping) is the kind of technological change required to change our interpretation of geography. Those changes occur so slowly that we usually see them coming and we mark eras by them: “The Golden Age of Sail” or “The Space Age“, etc. The nature of human societies changes at a pace that is imperceptible when you are young and requires study to even catch on to, but feels blindingly fast when one’s own life is reflected upon in hindsight. In fact, this is one of the chief lessons of history. So we leave out the particulars of the type of people or their cultural details and focus instead on the facts of geography and the practicality of the technology of the era in pure geopolitical assessment and analysis, and only dig into the cultural mess when conducting socio-geopolitical assessment.

One note of warning here: communication technologies not regarded as geopolitically significant.

I can hear it now: “Why not? People can talk to each other instantly today! Since all violence begins with misunderstanding clearly communication technology will bring everyone together and produce world peace ™ and that will certainly be geopolitically significant!” Oh, where to begin.

First off, does it seem like the world is becoming more polarized or more unified now that we can all scream at each other about every little detail of our lives? Clearly, in the days of ISIS, renewed violent political agitation in the West, and an EU council that doubles down on a catastrophic immigration policy “misunderstanding” is not the root of conflict. Perhaps knowing too many unpleasant realities about the people next door is, though. It’s a tough one to figure out, really — but one we don’t have to care much about when viewing the world with an eye to geopolitics, because anger isn’t what drives nations, imperatives are.

To actually do anything anywhere you have to actually get there and that means logistics always trumps communication. In fact, even critical business decisions today still travel at the pace of a man. (And yes, that is a gendered noun. I’m really courting controversy these days!) Why did it take roughly a week between the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the collapse of the European markets? Because it took about that long for people to make a concrete assessment of the event and the logistical and military threat that was posed to the profoundly overextended Yen carry-trade in Eastern Europe. This investigation did not involve a couple of Skype calls or Tweets or whatever — it required travel and personal meetings before final decisions were rendered. You don’t simply make a trillion-dollar decision based on a segment you see on TV one day. You don’t build a strategically significant aircraft factory in France without sending people to actually see the site with the Mark 1 Model 0 eyeball and report back. All this activity hinges on logistical technology. In the past checking the situation in East Europe would have taken a month, not a week, and an American or Japanese inspecting a new factory site in France would have taken several months to a year — and it wouldn’t have mattered much whether they could have Tweeted about it the whole time or not.

Occasionally a constellation of issues does arrange itself in a special way so that they have a socio-geopolitical impact in aggregate — but evaluating this is much more subjective (meaning, subject to personal bias and therefore much less reliable), even though occasionally such analysis really is warranted. It bears mentioning that any effort at socio-geopolitical assessment (technically not “analysis”) can only be performed after a geopolitical analysis has been performed because socio-geopolitics is more complex, and the complex always leverages the underlying simpler, pure analysis.

With all that in mind, let’s run through the various imperatives and see what we find. We are only going to think through what these different imperatives mean and how they have impacted history a bit, not actually engage in an exhaustive analysis — as that would entail bringing the context of a given point in time into play. This article is already over-long for a blog post as-is.

1. Delegation of Power

The first imperative itself is unique among the others. It is the only one that implies anything about domestic politics. While it does carry some implications, an implication is not a specification.

Geography dictates that Washington must delegate political control downward as much as possible. This doesn’t tell us how a government should work or how power should be wielded domestically or whether women should get the vote or whatever other detail, but it does indicate that large central government programs will always tend to exist in opposition to American strategic interests. It doesn’t tell us anything about how that should manifest, it is simply the fact that inefficiency is part of the nature of large organizations because large organizations grow exponentially complex and complexity is the enemy of both efficient operations and effective leadership. Central administration of a territory and population as large as the United States would require an absolutely massive and profoundly complex central government — and keeping such a government running would be simply impossible.

It is important to note here that the rest of the imperatives are set in conflict with this to some degree because a central authority is clearly necessary to pursue most of the imperatives that follow. So here is the first problem any polity based in the American geography must solve: How to create a durable political structure that can endure attempts at organizational corruption over several generations while maintaining a balance between delegation of civil authority and retention of central control of military and political action internationally?

Not surprisingly, the Constitution was written in an attempt to achieve exactly this kind of balance. Hands-off domestic policy from the central government, but strict subordination of the state and local governments (and, in a time of war, resources) to the central government in international affairs. The Constitution was written to protect the first imperative and establish a system by which a central authority can be created that is capable of pursuing the rest of the imperatives. Mythos aside, the U.S. Constitution is not a document that enshrines brotherly love, freedom, state independence, or civil liberty for their own sake. It is a sober document that describes a system of government that might give the United States a shot at real world power and prevent politicians from derailing that rise to power once some minor level of temporary success had been achieved.

Why have this split between civil and international authorities? Because the American geography, while having excellent natural lines of drift for navigation and logistical operations, is incredibly diverse and inhabited by a series of populations that all arrived from somewhere else. The culture of each state will inevitably be a little different. The moral standards in each community are therefore different. Expected anchors of social loyalty are different everywhere you go. The primary focus of economic activity changes from locale to locale. And all of that is a good thing. This is the real meaning of having useful diversity. It is just way too complex to administer centrally.

The geography of the U.S. represents a Goldilocks situation geopolitically:

  • Too diverse and spread out to administer centrally
  • Too well enclosed to be easily subverted and taken apart in piecemeal
  • Too diverse and spread out to subvert with a single rhetoric
  • An abundance of natural lines of drift and navigation corridors cut across the terrain, weaving the concerns of one region with that of its neighbors — too much so for any long-term fragmentation to endure
  • An incredible abundance and diversity of various terrain, most of which have extremely high inherent economic value, situated in such a way that they are mostly mutually supportive, or if not, are located close enough to major waterways to make heavy marine traffic possible
  • All this is protected from the most potent of geopolitical rivals by inherently defensible buffers (the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans)

To understand how that is unique and what it means, let’s compare with two counterexamples: Singapore and Russia.

Singapore is small enough to administer centrally. This is, of course, a somewhat unique example, but it is a useful exercise to think carefully through why Singaporean style civil law would not work if applied uniformly across the entire United States. It is also interesting to consider how Sinagpore’s unique strategic military and economic position in the world are able to leave it with enough resource to even engage in the game of central domestic control.

Russia’s meaningful core (politically, culturally and economically) is Moscow. But the Moscow region is in such a horrible defensive position that it must capture massive buffer zones surrounding it and force them into its political orbit. This effort, of course, stands against all reason in terms of military viability and economic stability. As a result, Russia winds up being forced to behave as a centralized security state to suppress constant attempts at secession whether it wants to or not. Russia is somewhat larger than the United States, less populated, but at least as diverse as the U.S. in terms of economy and terrain. A centrally administered security state in Russia must necessarily also become a centrally administered welfare state and that is always a failed proposition over the long-term — but Moscow simply has no other choice. To feed its enormous resource needs in maintaining all that extra territory and central administration it is necessary that Russia control the Ukrainian breadbasket to force Ukrainian farmers to sell their grain against their own interests: at extreme expense up-river and over land to markets with very little profit potential instead of selling it down-river and overseas to far more lucrative markets. (This is also why the Russians can never let go of the Kerch Strait, Crimea or political proxy control of Ukraine as a whole — whenever they haven’t outright annexed Ukraine already.)

The next six American geopolitical imperatives are all quite different from the first. The second through seventh are what I call “imperatives of achievement”. They are clear goals that can be achieved and considered “complete”. This makes formulation of a strategy for achieving them and recognizing moments of special opportunity that apply to any of them much more straightforward than trying to figure out a way to accomplish either the first or the last imperative. With imperatives of achievement a glance at a map tends to make the reason both for their central importance and their order of priority clear.

It is worth mentioning that it is no surprise that the first and last of the American geopolitical imperatives are different from the ones in the middle. The first task in assessing a nation’s circumstance is to determine what system governance best suits the terrain and culture, the next step is to figure out what things that government needs to achieve to secure primacy in its part of the world, and the last task is devise a strategy for how a nation can most effectively safeguard its achievements at the lowest ongoing cost to itself. If the first imperative is out of alignment with reality then it is a useful indicator that severe misalignments or imbalances in the nation’s power structure can be found.

On the point of misalignments between the chosen political strategy and the terrain, China has been a great example of that every time its separate inner kingdoms have been united under a single body that attempts to rule over them with the same level of strict central authority which which each sub-region has been historically ruled. That is the situation right now, actually. At the very high level, China’s terrain suits a federalized, delegated style government better than an authoritarian, centralized one, and it appears indeed that China is actually closer to facing a massive economic collapse due to the influence of this misalignment rather than becoming capable of sustaining credible power projection overseas. In view of the prevailing Chinese culture throughout history, that this is a theme in Chinese history comes as no surprise. It is actually quite possible that due to changes in lifestyle and life expectations among Chinese that the next version of China may wind up looking more like the American federal model than the current centralized Chinese.

As an individual who believes that would be great for both Chinese people and the countries I have a personal interest in I can certainly hope that this is true or even believe that it should be true, but as a geopolitical thinker I am only permitted to assess this as a possibility and settle with a dispassionate “time will tell”.

It is worth mentioning here that so far no combination of political structure, culture, technology and strategy have ever come close to predicting any possibility of stable governance over the entire world at once. Until we are quite far into the spacefaring future it is simply an impossible goal. Not just improbable, actually impossible. That is why you will never encounter a set of rational geopolitical imperatives of achievement that include “establish total world political dominance”. That is the sort of fantastical thing that pan-national socialists, ethnic supremacists and Dr. Evil fantasize about, but it just isn’t in the cards for the foreseeable future. Geopolitical imperatives tend to have a natural way of petering out at some limit that is itself dictated by the geography and circumstance at hand. The limit is not always obvious, but it usually is.

2. Making the East Coast an Unfavorable Target

Making the East Coast unprofitable to attack is not the same as making the East Cost impossible to attack. The British discovered that letting go of the Americas is a lot more profitable than trying to hold on and control it directly. As long as the balance of benefits is negative Washington has nothing to worry about, even if all it controls directly is the Eastern Seaboard. As long as this is true Mexico and Canada also cease to be threats. Despite being directly adjacent, neither Mexico nor Canada has anywhere near as good a geographic base from which to support the kind of economy necessary to field a military that would pose a threat to the existence of the United States without extremely heavy support from an external sponsor. As just established, such support would not be worth the eventual outcome.

3. Coast-to-coast Territorial Integrity

With the East fully secured, the rest of the continent opens up, either to immediate takeover or to gradual colonization. It doesn’t really matter because the East is the key to meaningful control of the Mississippi Drainage Basin. Even if another power were to control the entire Louisiana Purchase, Washington could choke off its access to international waters and contain its international influence to the Gulf of Mexico at a very low cost in terms of naval investment. Using the now fully secure Eastern Seaboard to support an effort to capture and control the middle of the continent predicts an inevitable need to also control the West Coast, both as a buffer beyond the Rocky Mountains (though the Rockies do provide a nice barrier themselves) and as a way of accessing the Pacific Ocean to become an influential power in both sides of the other hemisphere.

With territorial integrity secured from coast to coast the U.S. enjoys a position no other country can match: it has the entire Pacific and Atlantic Oceans as its buffers. Typically speaking, oceanic buffers require dramatically less political maintenance than territorial buffers do.


The Mississippi River Drainage Basin, compliments of Wikimedia user Shannon1

On that note, a brief digression on the (currently explosively political) Westward Expansion is in order…

The period in which the U.S. expanded its control westward was a fascinating period, a roughly 200 year span chock full of all kinds of things people seem to forget are integral to human behavior: indigenous ancillary military operations, public/private contract military forces, imperatives being justified by invented rhetoric, corporate assassinations, anti-immigration political platforms, “No Country for Old Men” problems, Game of Thrones level intrigue, Thomas Jefferson violating his own principles of government in the interest of leapfrogging almost an entire imperative in just two strokes (the Lewis & Clark Expedition and the Louisiana Purchase), actual swashbuckling pirates mixed up in serious national efforts, etc.

Study of this period has become heavily politicized for a number of reasons, but like it or not there was simply no other way things could have gone and the world to have ended up with the United States of today. If you think a world without the United States would have been better in some way, consider what would have come of your current ideals (or if you would even exist to hold your current ideals) had the Crown, the Nazis, the Soviets, the Spanish or even the Aztecs secured hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. The geography dictates that someone would have eventually established hegemony over the Americas, and that nation would be one of an only possible three superpowers in the modern era. The U.S. doesn’t sound so awful considering the alternatives — but then again, we are not allowed to care about what should be, only what actually was and is and possibly may be.

In any case, it doesn’t matter who was in charge in the East (there is even a possibility it could have been a more autonomous European colony at the time of the expansion), projecting our biases into the past onto historical figures who could never have imagined our current political, emotional and personal biases today is a pointless exercise. None of that gets us any closer to understanding the world the way it actually was or how the version of the world that our history passed through back then became the version of the world it is right now. So stay away from that. Remain interested in history for its own sake and you might just learn more about what happened in the past and come to understand something more about yourself in the process.

4. Security of the Caribbean Routes

The enormous power of the central United States in terms of agriculture and economic output is all just wasted potential with no way to effectively recruit it if the heavy transit routes down the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers do not connect to a secure passage to the open ocean beyond the Gulf of Mexico. This is even true when it comes to shipping heavy things (or a large volume of light weight things) from the center of the United States to the coasts (particularly true before the advent of transcontinental railroads and interstate highway system), hence the central importance of the riverboat culture Mark Twain wrote about.

From the late 1700’s to today the river country has been critical to nearly everything the U.S. does that has a strategic impact.


A heat map of shipping lanes through the Caribbean. (Derived from an image by Wikimedia user Grollech.) Compare again with the map of the Mississippi Drainage Basin above to see how much of the country’s power is bottlenecked first at New Orleans and then either the northern coast or western tip of Cuba.

While the Louisiana Purchase went a long way to securing imperative #3 by acquiring the Mississippi Drainage Basin from a cash-strapped France, the importance of that achievement can never be fully realized until routes from New Orleans to the rest of the world are secured through the Caribbean.

As you can imagine from the enormous American shipping activity surrounding Cuba, strategic analysts tend to think of Cuba as a cork sitting half-way in the bottle of American commercial power. That is why the U.S. has had a seemingly weird obsession with Cuba over the last two centuries, why the Spanish American War was inevitable, why Soviets found it absolutely mandatory to screw the place up, and why even today Moscow sends high-profile air and naval missions to the island. Much like the Strait of Hormuz, the mere threat of militarizing the waters around Cuba would cause a market panic that would ripple the world over and hurt just about everybody in some way. The calculus of any spoiling naval play around Cuba comes out in whether the harm done to the attacker would be small enough relative to the harm done to the American-led system to be worth it — and the solution to that is always entirely context dependent (so far it has never been quite worth it to go totally overt against the U.S. in this region, as clearly demonstrated in the Cuban Missile Crisis).

For the most part this balance has worked out in Washington’s favor, but not to the extent that the Soviets stayed entirely away. It is no accident that Che Guevara‘s movement was sponsored by the Soviets and that Fidel Castro‘s Cuba was quickly re-evaluated by Moscow (which initially distrusted him, thinking he was a CIA plant) which was looking for a way to distract the Americans closer to their own territory. Their movement evolved, as these things tend to do, from a passionate individual fight against political oppression to a fight for the title of Supreme Oppressor — a position that cares little for preservation of liberty, freedom, equality, egalitarianism, Marxist principles, or even anti-Americanism. They were indigenous leaders useful to the cause of undermining American hegemony in order to buy the Soviets breathing room elsewhere on the globe and were reshaped that way by a vastly superior outside power. The Americans had major tank and missile forces stationed a mere 2,000km from downtown Moscow — it was unthinkable to the Soviets that they could not at least support a strategic distraction equally close to the American heartland. It would not have mattered if their political rhetoric was initially based on Communism, Anarchism or Pastafarianism; the Soviets needed to make a spoiling move in the game somewhere and indigenous leaders would have been found to run the show.

5. Dominance Over the Western Hemisphere

The Monroe Doctrine is often cited by folks who seem to have never read it or understood the context in which it was delivered. It is often mistaken for a document that mandates Washington “meddle” in South American internal affairs. This is not accurate. The Monroe Doctrine states that Washington will actively resist the efforts of non-Americans powers to meddle in South American affairs — more specifically, it is a policy of opposition to European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere, with Washington assuming the role of lead rallying defender. The doctrine was delivered first as part of a speech (part of James Monroe’s State of the Union Address in 1823), not a formal policy letter, and the speech was directed at the Russians — a mere 40 years after the founding of the United States itself.

While it formally opposed European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere, it also did not reject existing claims. It established a grandfathering of colonial claims: new claims would be resisted directly, and successful independence movements in the New World would not be interfered with.

By 1823 the United States had not established clear naval supremacy to the level required to proactively enforce the Monroe Doctrine, but Washington did have the military capacity to make European adventurism in the New World unprofitable anywhere, and more importantly to the European calculus, the budding economy of the new American nation had enough capacity to outproduce any given individual European power if fully recruited in a time of war.

With the Europeans lacking a way to subvert new American territories to create organized and sponsored overt opposition to the United States, the default hegemon of the Western Hemisphere became Washington. This is an incredibly powerful position, but, as before with the relationship between the Mississippi Drainage Basin and the shipping routes out of the Gulf of Mexico, the power inherent in this position would not be fully realized until the United States established global naval supremacy — a detail that was so far beyond the thinking and reasonable capacity of the day that it took 120 years and World War II to propel the United States into that position.

6. Global Naval Supremacy

Control of the world’s oceans gives the U.S. a number of irreplaceable and unmitigable advantages. With its primacy in the Americas assured and naval supremacy across the world’s oceans the U.S. is the most secure and insulated nation in the world in terms of military threat. Sure, another nation could attack, but no nation can possibly invade. Once the U.S. controls the “blue water”, the details of what happen across it are of no consequence to the Americans so long as no hegemon appears anywhere else.

The power of this position for a major trading nation is difficult to overstate. With the U.S. having dominance over the oceans, just sitting back and not doing anything with that control promotes not just global trade, but global trade at the good graces of the U.S. Navy. In this way Washington is able to keep it in everyone’s interest to just let the status quo continue. As time has moved on the U.S. Navy’s maritime technologies have advanced by several generations, and not only that, the U.S. Navy is one of only three navies in the world that is fully drilled (the other two being the British and Japanese). The entry cost to even trying to compete with the U.S. Navy is too high for most nations to contemplate — a situation that sounds a lot less bad to those nations when they have good reasons to assume that the ongoing U.S. Naval policy of open navigation will continue.

Naval dominance is the most critical factor in global American military dominance, and has remained so for over a half a century. (This leads into and supports the dominant American land warfare force composition and activation doctrine, but we don’t have time to get into that here. Maybe another time.)

7. Supremacy in Space

It is becoming hard to name a communications, scientific or military technology today that does not involve a satellite in some way. This is significant. If a nation’s satellite network went out for some reason quite a few things taken for granted day-to-day would suddenly be rendered inoperable. While only a few nations have the ability to reliably place large payloads in space (especially very distant or difficult to achieve orbits), several have the ability to destroy most of the things in space by causing a debris cascade (often referred to in popular press as the “Kessler Syndrome“) — even North Korea or Iran could potentially do this. These two concrete capabilities are all-or-nothing: you either get a satellite into a useful orbit or you don’t, you either kill everything in LEO or you don’t. And, obviously, killing everyone’s satellites would be considered an act of war by someone even though the act itself would wind up affecting everyone at the same time.

There is a little room, though, for a third power play in space: denial of entry or re-entry from space. The American Ballistic Missile Defense system actually has this capability, though it is normally only discussed in the context of ballistic missiles. There is little technical difference between shooting down an ICBM and shooting down a launch rocket, either on ascent, in flight, or on descent. The American BMD system creates a much more powerful and selective tool for space dominance than any other nation currently has in its arsenal: the capability to act as a gatekeeper to and from space.

Are there any scenarios where Washington might want to exercise this ability? Not in the near future, probably, because spacefaring in general is still quite new. It wouldn’t really have made much different to the ancient Greeks if the Japanese had complete dominance of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for the same reason — they had not yet reached the point that such maritime control would have been relevant.

American dominance in space is a tool that can be used to guide the future development of trade, colonization and commerce in space in much the same way that Washington’s naval dominance allows Americans to take the lead in trade, even when they are not the primary party engaged in a given industry. The trick here is making the entry cost to credible competition in space (especially militarized competition in space) too high for it to be judged worthwhile. This is why the Space Shuttle was sought, and also why it was abandoned in favor of deregulation of spaceflight and space development within the domestic United States. The first American imperative that delegates control and protects the economic and scientific capability of the U.S. is the same one that is being leveraged by the Americans today to guarantee that the most advanced space technologies still are developed there, whether or not NASA is in charge or even involved in the effort.

Dominance is in an interesting period of filtering right now, actually. Only a handful of nations could ever hope to catch up to the U.S. in terms of dominance in this area, and all but two are either mired in regional issues or will soon be bogged down in domestic ones. The E.U. is on the verge of splitting first East/West before dissolving entirely, Russia is halfway through re-establishing regional dominance (which its imperatives mandate), France, Germany and the U.K. (along with the rest of Europe) will soon be knee-deep in a domestic and cultural correction event, China is very likely to undergo either a political upheaval or a civil war once the European market closes to it temporarily (of course, whether a civil war is the same thing as a “political upheaval” is a matter of opinion in geopolitical terms), and India would likely have its efforts shut down by the Chinese were they to begin a serious manned space program before China is already well established there. The only nations that are potentially free and capable to compete directly and uninterrupted in space are Japan and the U.S. during the near- to mid-term. It is very likely that American space companies will come to dominate this area unless the Japanese decide to engage in a major space-based energy gambit — but at the moment a Japanese space gambit seems less likely than a Japanese attempt to dominant deep-space robotics.

Whatever the outcome, once the world recovers from the upcoming period of instability it is almost certain that the Americans will have established as firm a lead over spacefaring as they have over seafaring, and it is very likely that the Japanese will either be operating to a comparable standard or have chosen to take the lead in deep space construction and robotics. In a certain sense it is 1492 all over again; these issues are somewhat distant in the future and involve a number of very fast-moving and highly technical fields, but the impact on the future history of humanity is no less significant.

8. Maintain a Balance of Powers Overseas

The final imperative is a spoiling imperative: a mandate that the US prevent something from happening elsewhere instead of causing something to happen in a geographically dictated location.

As long as the Americans dominate space and the oceans the quest for achievements is at an end. At this point it is in the American interest to be relatively non-interactive with the world so long as no other regional hegemons or superpowers exist. As long as powers are relatively balanced against one another across the world, Washington’s best play is to sit back and promote trade — not because it can pull shady tricks and coerce people to do whatever it wants, but because a system of free trade is the most likely way to get nations addicted to the status quo of American naval and space supremacy, and generally raise the wealth status of everyone on the planet over time. All of this is pretty awesome, of course, but only if you belong to a nation which happens to lie across the oceans from the Americas and is satisfied with being stuck on your third or fourth imperative forever. The final three imperatives of every nation are the same, so as long as no nation expands to the point of conflicting with Washington’s 6th imperative headbutting with the U.S. can be avoided. There are a few places where this predicts Russia, Chinese and Japanese conflict with the United States, and this is indeed exactly what we see.

Of course, nations do not experience emotions, so one can never feel “satisfied”. That’s not how it works. Nations will always continue to struggle against one another, so the Americans must always be watchful but only intervene once things are getting unbalanced. That is their best play, anyway, whether or not the remain focused on that is another question entirely.

Laws Derived From Moral Panics Are Dangerous

Monday, January 29th, 2018

Politicians love morality laws.
They really love sex laws.
They really love child protection laws.
And they really really love child sex laws.

Manufactured moral panics are awesome if you are a career politician. By leveraging a moral panic you can whip people into a frenzy, warping their perception of reality to the point that the only thing that matters is whatever you made seem important. This is true even if the issue actually affects a statistically insignificant number of people. Consider the number of annual non-suicide homicide deaths involving firearms compared to the number of annual drunk driving deaths — the first number isn’t even paid attention to, as the anti-gun lobby will cite every death involving firearms regardless of circumstance, while the second number isn’t mentioned in public safety debates unless the subject is specifically drunk driving (but that’s not a hot topic now, so nobody cares). Repeated often enough, any message that induces a strong emotional response will stick and make people think the (actually rare) issue is happening to everyone all the time.

In this article I’m going to show you why moral panics, of any nature, are good for politicians and bad for you. If you think carefully about an example of a moral panic taken to its conclusion you will understand that the side effect of the moral moral panic (an inevitable national vulnerability) is far more destructive to society than the subject of the panic (one side of basic human behavior that has been generally kept in check by the another side of basic human nature since the beginning of time).

Let me revisit my first paragraph for a correction. A moral panic is not useful to politicians “even if” the issue affects an insignificant number of people in reality, it is “especially if”. The fewer people actually affected by the issue the more confident you can be that the issue will not backfire: Almost nobody will come forward to present a concrete counter argument, particularly if the issue is significantly emotional for a large enough portion of the population that people begin hiding their true thoughts on the matter in the interest of avoiding social ostracism. After all, anyone presenting a counter argument must be evil because they hold such views.

Imagine trying to bring a counter argument about the effects of cocaine use in the 1980’s at the height of the Cocaine Wars. If you came out and said “I’ve used pure cocaine as a mild stimulant in limited doses for years and it has not affected my health, made me an addict, or driven me to kill anyone. It is my own body, anyway.” You would immediately be socially ostracized and find yourself under federal investigation for what you had just said. The number of people who actually used pure cocaine at the time and were willing to admit it to support you would have been far too low to change the tide of public opinion — and good luck getting any of those people who secretly agree with you but haven’t used cocaine before to break their silence. Of course, this is exactly how cocaine was used before the drug wars started and that period of American history coincides with the greatest economic expansion and greatest increase in quality of life standards in human history. But those details wouldn’t save you because the moral panicky flavor of the issue itself would already make you seem like the Devil Hisself for having even cast doubt on the illicit status of the substance.

Remember the bizarre world of square cops Duke stepped into when he accidentally attended the narcotics enforcement convention in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Granted, he was only trading one equally bizarre world for another, but the experience was illustrative enough for Thompson to include it in his book.

Here is a clip from the movie to jog your memory, since nobody reads actual books anymore.

Age of consent laws and the problems that surround them are mostly non-issues. But they are really, really useful non-issues if you are a politician. Age of consent laws are pretty freaking new and yet the world has gotten along just fine without them so far. But how?!? Before age of consent laws it wasn’t just non-stop adolescent hedonism in the streets. People have families and enough people are non-evil enough of the time that things have generally worked out OK. The world got along just fine without drug laws until just recently also.

Consider the following:

  • There was alcohol prohibition in the U.S. until 1920, at which point America embarked on a decade-long journey of gangland violence, abuses of alcohol went from being the occasional crying shame to being a literal pathway to either extreme abuse or a life in the prison system, and the government went to war against its own citizens. Great. This doesn’t seem like it was a very big win.
  • There was no drug prohibition in the U.S. until the first nuisance tax on the distribution of marijuana in 1937. Fast forward and the U.S. is once again mired in gangland violence and the government is openly at war with its own citizens based on random chemical combinations they make at home from ordinary materials. All that plus the effect artificial scarcity of the relatively benign naturally occurring drugs has had on the market: instead of cessation of narcotic consumption, people consume profoundly more dangerous and addictive alternatives and destroy their bodies much quicker at a higher public medical cost than previously. All of this while drug use has expanded instead of declined. There is also the small detail of the civil war in Mexico that is driving people north in record numbers — a war that the lowest members of American society are funding through drug purchases and the middle-class is subsidizing through massive government outlay in the form of anti-drug operations funds. Entire agencies exist solely for the purpose of pursuing the drug war! Once again, not a big win here.
  • There were no age of consent laws until quite recently, but that didn’t matter so much in the face of strong family traditions, social taboos regarding sexual interactions, relatively strong sexual morals across all segments of society, and a strong social preference for publicly adhering to near-puritanical views on sexuality in general. Age was not the core issue, but the society had strong views on sexual propriety. Fast forward to today and in some states you can get sent to jail for having a girlfriend a few months younger than you, women are assumed to have zero capacity for thought until they turn some arbitrary number, men can have their careers destroyed by a rumor, and yet at the same time little girls are all over YouTube twerking,  incidence of early teen pregnancy is skyrocketing, and even very young girls are making a game of engaging in highly promiscuous teasing games with older boys and men. Kids are obviously having sex at a rapidly increasing rate in spite of the law, but when both partners are extremely naive about life in general the outcome is far worse than whatever was going on before.

See a trend? I’m not saying that substance abuse or sex are light-weight issues — quite the opposite — but that government intervention really seems to consistently backfire on every social issue that is normally handled by families. Education is another shining example of the Cobra Effect in action, but that deserves an article of its own some day.

The Thesis

In the current era, where almost everything valuable you own is a networked computing device, moral panics are a source of strategic technical vulnerability. In the prefacing discussion above I discussed drugs because that is a major freak-out issue for some people and child sex because it is a major freak-out for other people. I avoided diving into a discussion about terrorism not because it isn’t a similarly dangerous issue, but because we all know what happens if you are perceived to be talking about Islam (I wouldn’t want anyone to take that the wrong way, of course). I assume there is a lot of crossover between the drug-panic and child-panic demographics, and I’m pretty sure the terrorism-panic and holy-crap-invasion-by-hijra-panic demographic covered pretty much everyone (even though that second one is WrongThink), but hopefully I’ve got you upset over one issue or another by this point.

An Example

Consider Android boards. Actually consider them for a moment.

Let’s say our goal is to stop terrorists or save the children or catch the drug dealers. Based on the premise that people do nearly everything through their smartphones these days we create a regulation that mandates all phone makers provide a hardware backdoor for law-enforcement and intelligence services in every new Android board produced. This is hardly a far-fetched proposal, and in fact there are proposals to do exactly this already on the table today.

So now, in this hypothetical-but-likely world, every new Android board that is now network enabled across a huge spectrum of wireless bands, can be equipped with wired ethernet, USB, etc., contains a GPS unit, accelerometer, thermometer, microphone, camera, etc… and is backdoored at the hardware level.

“Well hurrah!” you might say. Surely with the fantastical power of these backdoors into everyone’s phones the kids are safe, drug use has totally stopped, the terrorists are automagically banished from the Mortal Plane, and flowers have sprung forth in full bloom!

Absurd hyperbole? Yes. Of course it is. Backdoors into phones will just drive criminals to do business in other ways as always. Universal backdoors in computing devices are far less useful to law enforcement and intelligence officials in practice than regulators imagine when they formulate such rules. We have many examples to draw from already, and overall it certainly appears that while backdoors are of limited utility to law enforcement, they are super useful to criminals, enemy governments, and despots.

Part of the problem of being a good guy is that having data one everybody means that you don’t have time to check the data on anybody. You’re still in target identification mode while the bad guys already have a laser-focus on a target ahead of time. As law enforcement you wind up becoming the Precrimes Division — and that’s downright spooky. Trying to profile for criminality in aggregate winds up creating magical (and highly unpredictable) categories of “unusual” behavior patterns that, while not actually criminal, can mistakenly flag a normal citizen for scrutiny. This is terrifying for a number of reasons, not least of which that it tends to force people into conformance with artificial social norms that are invented by aggregate software analysis (the way we do with adsearch results, for example) rather than actual knowledge of criminal activity.

Even if we stopped here and didn’t pursue the Android example that follows, the situation already poses a strategic economic challenge. Without room for safely breaking with prior social behaviors there is little hope of social, economic or technical innovation moving forward. The last thing Americans seem to do well is conform with a static, centrally controlled society. (A spontaneously self-orded, semi-static society, sure — but the moment you tell an American who is sitting down that he’d better remain sitting is the moment that guy will stand up just to spite you.)

Back to our warehouse full freshly minted of government-compliant Android boards…

A year goes by after the passage of the new mandate for phone backdoors without incident. Things seem static, quiet, calm, wonderful. But one thing is never static: the market. Nobody is making phones with last year’s (or even last quarter’s) boards. Time and technology have moved on and new boards are being produced, leaving the old models which have been produced-but-unsold sitting in a warehouse waiting to be sold in bulk for a few dollars a piece, rotting in their surplus obsolescence — obsolescence for the phone market, anyway.

In this world you work as a product manager at a company that needs to develop a new, “smart” building utility control unit that should first and foremost be capable of controlling the lights and thermostat, but also must be extensible — perhaps becoming a more universal facility control device: door lock awareness/control, outlet consumption tracking, etc. (and I’m actually simplifying the example as this tech is already here on the fringe now and the example is itself a bit of date).

As a project manager you have a choice:

  1. You can get a bunch of old-school hardware engineers together to develop a new device, then get systems people on developing the software to run it, and eventually go through the product testing phase and get protocol people to make it comply with other devices it might need to talk to in the future, etc.
  2. You can acquire a box full of obsolete Android boards that already have a universally understood operating system on them (Linux/Android), complete drivers, and comply with whatever communication standards you might encounter right out of the box — and can outsource or offshore hasty development of some crapware to make the thing almost sorta-kinda work. For pennies on the dollar compared to #1.

As we say in engineering, the three favorable attributes to a project are: Cheap, Fast, Accurate; pick two.

Nobody will ever opt for Option 1 these days. Option 1 is expensive and/or time consuming despite the end result being a really proper “MIT design”. Investors and executives might be willing to throw a few million dollars away on toy mobile social app development these days (seriously) but they will never authorize development of a serious engineering project that isn’t instantly gratifying unless you can somehow link a buzzword like “blockchain” or “IoT” or “cloud” or “big data” to it somehow.

So you’re left, of course, with Option 2 — and that only because you spun the product as an IoT device. Despite the tendency to marry disaster early and outsource the software bits in an Option 2 project (behold! the fateful project grenade!), some rare managers might do a really solid job of Option 2 by, for example, hiring experienced local programmers for the software instead of offshoring the development of crapware.

So what is the end result? Any customer that buys your new thermostate/control device just placed a universal computing system onto its network with the following attributes:

  • Has an out of date OS your company is never going to pay to patch
  • Is equipped with a vast array of powerful wired and wireless networking interfaces
  • Has a GPS device
  • Defaults to trying to send data back to your servers (because IoT…ugh)
  • Has a microphone
  • Has a camera
  • Has a variety of old backdoors that your government mandated be put in place just in case someone had Japanese loli cartoons on their phone however many years ago

Those backdoors are still alive and operational, and by design are impossible for you to do anything about or even detect during a normal inspection. Of course, these backdoors will eventually be figured out by or leaked to other governments and The Bad Guys (and of course, those two factions may be the same depending on context).

Elements of the hypothetical situation above are already true. The control device development process — that choice between a custom device and shortcutting by using obsolete, discount Android boards — is something I’ve seen happen several times in real projects already. The missing piece is (hopefully) the universal backdooring part. Of course, backdooring is already happening a lot (you did check some of the linked resource material in the article, right?) but the universal mandate for backdooring is not yet in place — imposing something like that would require something like a moral panic to put in place.

Final Impact

The eventual impact of these backdoors is far-reaching and unpredictable, but it is certainly dangerous and strategically risky to have backdoors of any nature in widely deployed devices. We already are seeing IoT devices (security cameras, printers, door locks, routers, fence monitoring systems, teddy bears, thermostats, coffee makers, etc.) getting cracked on the network and enlisted in DDoS botnets on a scale that dwarfs anything that one could have ever hoped to accomplish by cracking notebook and desktop computers.

The risk inherent in placing wirelessly enabled, GPS enhanced control devices into service on physical plant and industrial control and monitoring systems is absolutely impossible to overstate. It is also impossible to overstate the strength of certainty that I feel when I say that this is, generally speaking, the future of control systems. The economics are just too good once the fundamentals get worked out. Dirt cheap commodity hardware pre-equipped with an OS everyone already knows how to write code for speaking universal protocols — all out of the box.

This is happening. It will be an awesome market upset and advancement of the state of the art if it is done well. If it is inadvertently subverted by the side effects of a moral panic, however, it could easily wind up making the backbone of our infrastructure control systems strategically vulnerable to everyone from governments to criminals looking for a technical ransom payoff.

Moral panics are designed to be uncomfortable to bear, but the subject of today’s moral panics are all issues that boil down to simple moral degeneracy. These are the kinds of issues your parents set you straight on as a kid, not the kind of issues the government has any hope of influencing in a positive way. These are issues that can only ever be handled by families and neighborhoods performing their traditional role of instilling moral values in their members and enforcing those values with a combination of instruction, room-to-grow plus mistakes forgiven, wielding the natural tools of social discomfort to encourage morally conformant behavior, and acting on genuine personal concern and love that a government can never hope to replace.

Trading real families and parents for government regulators and a penal system is a bad tradeoff. Coupling that with the economic chaos that would follow The Great Infrastructure Crack might just do us in for good.

18 U.S. Code § 793 – Gathering, transmitting or losing defense information

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

Quite a few high-profile instances of leaks, breaches, infractions, cracks and “extreme carelessness in the handling of” classified information have been in the news over the last few years, and while folks like to talk a lot of fluff about whether this or that instance was truly vile or truly virtuous, I’ve never actually seen anyone reference the underlying rules regarding defense information.

So here it is: 18 U.S. Code § 793

Cornell Law has the text posted here as well.

Las Vegas shooting prediction: Most casualties were not due to gunshot wounds

Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

Looking over the data for large stampedes and crowd crush events at concerts and sporting events, and comparing this to what I know personally from a career spent mostly handling various weapons in a tactical environment, I expect that we will discover fairly soon that the vast majority of casualties during the Las Vegas shooting — both injuries and fatalities — were actually due to stampede, and not anything to do with gunshot wounds at all.

Of course, in the confusion this issue has become politicized to an absolutely ridiculous degree by various anti-gun factions, and much of the US and European media is loathe to report anything other than anti-gun statistics for the moment, so we are seeing language tailored to evoke images of hundreds of people with actual gunshot wounds and zero people with stampede injuries.

For example: “Shooter in Las Vegas [blah blah blah] over 500 wounded.” This makes the reader or listener immediately envision 500 people actually wounded, as in due to violent trauma — and deliberate violent trauma at that. Which in this case would be exclusively due to gunshot wounds. But we have never seen a breakdown of causes of bodily harm by type, and this data will take a while to assemble.

By the time we do see these stats most people will not really be interested because immigration in Europe or stubborn people in Madrid/Barcelona or NFL SJW activity or whatever else will steal the spotlight and public attention before then. In other words, people will be distracted with another issue-of-the-day by then and forget that the new factoids they see relate to a previous event they felt very strongly about at the time it occurred.

Watch for this one.

Asian Governments Making Social Moves Together

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

I expect Asian governments to manifest a low-key but characteristically firm and absolute (and often official) position against Islam. Actually, I don’t expect it, I’m watching it happen and just now recognizing a fairly uniform trend. Something is going on in Asia with regard to this, and I don’t know quite what it is, but there is no doubt that doors are closing all across Asia for Muslims in general.

I think the timing is not a coincidence — the nature of Islamic threats are changing, becoming more diffuse, and taking on a different character just as a new generation of indoctrination is beginning across the West and Asia.

  • Myanmar has found something much more compelling than mere domestic political expediency to engage in its current operations (ISIS returners, as are turning up in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, is one possibility).
  • China has begun confiscating the Koran and categorized it as a book containing extremist political sentiment.
  • Thailand is readying a firm move against the southern Muslim rebels — and at the same time ISIS returners are very effectively influencing the young generation throughout the old Pattani region.
  • Saudis and other donors are standing up madrasas throughout Malaysia and Indonesia, and the Malaysian government is both unable to stop the trend while at the same time higher-ups in Putrajaya are strangely blind to the problem while also complaining about it.
  • The Philippines is obviously on a “you’re with us or against us” path politically and socially. And a certain of portion of the younger Muslim generation today is much more willing to take that as a challenge instead of an offer to pledge fealty (or at least negotiate terms).
  • Japanese are, at least anecdotally, becoming increasingly uneasy with the idea of accepting any Muslims, even as guest workers. The striking thing there is that ten years ago (well after 9/11) the topic of religion would never have been mentioned discussing this issue socially, but now it is brought up. This change over the last year or two coincides with the first mosque in Kyoto trying to promote itself via online ads and Japanese demonstrating an instant and strong aversion to the very concept of proselytization. They are now in “wait and see” mode socially — to watch and see how things turn out in Europe.
  • South Koreans seem to be on the same page as the Japanese — the attitude toward Islam having soured considerably over the last five years or so. Once again, this is anecdotal, but the subject has come up more than once, and many South Koreans keep up with news of attacks in France, Sweden and the UK.
  • Indonesia is seeing the rise of extra-judicial Islamic enforcement gangs.
  • Malaysia is seeing a similar rise in extra-judicial Islamic enforcement gangs, but the effect is somewhat muted by considerable repression by the special police and more active engagement with the group leaders.
  • Returners, returners, returners. ISIS veterans are flooding into various part of Asia, fresh off a tour in Syria, North Africa, Iraq or Afghanistan with ISIS and keeping in touch with one another. Of course, nobody feels comfortable with that. Unlike in Europe, though, well-known jihadis are not left to their own devices and most go missing somewhere in transit — but it is clear and evident that many are still returning and building new lines of communication and influence locally.

Any one of these issues, from official government actions to simple social reactions, would be grounds for certain groups to rally large responses — Islamic groups as well as Western-based political groups with strong anti-Asian nationalist agendas (something I’ve always found very odd). But the only thing making the news is Myanmar right now, and that’s a pretty hopeless fight to try to pick in terms of political pressure. Myanmar is about as pliable as North Korea as long as China is on their side, and China is indeed on their side with regard to this detail.

I do not see a future where Asian governments will feel compelled to do anything other than increase their resistance to an increased domestic Muslim presence. I fully expect that religious questions will be incorporated on visa applications to places like China eventually (not that repression of religion is anything new there).

I have no idea how any of this is going to turn out, but I find this trend notable and the timing troubling. I don’t know exactly what is triggering this much activity just now (why not a decade ago?), but something is clearly going on. It could be the outcome of some government assessments, or simply a change in the domestic social outlook, or both — but something is going on with this. And, of course, it is impossible to say “they are wrong”. It is just what they are doing and I’m just pointing it out.

Trump on the DPRK: Exerting Maximal Regime Change Influence

Friday, August 11th, 2017

Sitting within the target zone for a North Korean retaliation causes one to contemplate a bit on the state of things. Trump has doubled down on his bellicose rhetoric of “fire and fury” over the course of the last day, and quite a few people are flipping out, as anyone could have predicted. I have received several emails and calls from friends wishing me well if things go south, expressing hopes that various cabinet personalities can reel Trump in and so on.

All of this assumes Trump is nuts. That is far from an accurate portrayal of the situation.

Washington is faced with a very tough choice right now, but one that has only one real option available: Does Washington wait until American cities sit under nuclear threat from a country with a decision making apparatus that is only a single person deep (meaning, ultimately, the strike decision is left up to personal whim and intent), or does it sacrifice non-Americans to protect Americans?

Obviously, the choice is clear: risk Americans instead of risking Americans. To think that any other nation would do any differently is to believe we exist in a parallel universe where altruism reigns, feelings are reasonable goals of achievement and love conquers all. We do not live in that universe.

Let’s be clear: the US will not allow tens of millions of Americans to sit at risk of a North Korean leader who wishes to advance an extortion game against Washington. It will avert that by risking tens of thousands of foreign lives (mostly South Koreans, but also some Japanese and possibly Chinese as well). Even though I live within the zone that might get splatted, I really can’t see any other way for things to be — and let’s remember: this is tens of millions of American lives VS a few tens of thousands of foreigners from Washington’s perspective. Not much of a choice there, even if one is a hardcore humanitarian.

So now that we have established the American calculus, and we’re not deluding ourselves into thinking that management of a nuclear-armed, globally-strike capable North Korea is part of our menu of options, what is Trump going to do about this? How about get the Chinese or Russians to do something instead? Well, that route has already been explored and exhausted. The Chinese enjoy North Korea being a useful problem regionally, so do the South Koreans to some degree, the Russians love having the DPRK act as a consistent policy spoiler for everyone involved, and even the Japanese have leveraged the existence of North Korea from time to time. It was a useful problem for pretty much everyone for quite a long time, and that’s why it has been allowed to fester for so long.

But now things have gotten serious.

The US cannot wait longer than next spring to strike. The decision on exactly when to strike is dependent on weather, mostly. If the Americans believe that the advantage leans to their side in cold weather then we will see a strike sometime between late November and early March. If the advantage would go to the Americans in warmer months then we will see a strike sometime between now and December. Expect the US to ramp up a strike capability from now until whenever and just sit on it to mask the moment of their intent. Sure, nonessential being relocated from the American garrisons in South Korea would be a telltale sign, but I don’t know if Washington would even telegraph its intent that way rather than letting the chips fall where they may. This is serious business, after all. On the other hand, Washington may evacuate nonessential personnel right away and just remove that as an indicator all together very soon. Who knows.

Back to the rhetorical bit Trump threw out the other day and then doubled down on today…

Trump is doing everything but being explicit about his threat to either glass North Korea entirely or commit to a massive conventional strike that comes very close to that. Looking at Trump’s negotiating style since the 1980’s it is very likely that he intends to do exactly that if the situation does not improve — he is not known for bluffing. He also would not have made this decision alone. China has already stated that they would defend North Korea in the event of an American strike, so by elevating it to the level of an absolute conflict Trump is essentially guaranteeing that there would not be any chance for any action to escalate to becoming a regional war because there would not be a North Korea left to defend.

That sounds crazy, but it is not. It ensures a limited scope to the conflict from the start, and that is wise.

From the North Korean perspective, though, it does one more thing: it places every single leader and peasant and their families under threat of annihilation if Pyongyang does not change course in some way. The Chinese have been trying to effect a regime change in Pyongyang unsuccessfully for a few years now. Beijing can’t do it, it is very likely that nobody outside of North Korea can short of a war. Trump’s appeal to an absolute level of violence here is an overt signal to the North Koreans that it is up to them to effect regime change or face total annihilation. There is plenty of hidden opposition to Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang — but unless they feel that Trump is more dangerous to them than their own leader they are unlikely to feel motivated to move. After all, North Korea has had spats with the West hundreds of times over the last several decades — so often that there is almost a script for this sort of thing.

Trump is going off script. He is doing so to evoke a specific survival reaction in the upper leadership in Pyongyang, specifically a reaction against Kim Jong Un. This is probably the best chance anyone has of deposing him: turning his own leadership against him. They might die if they go against Kim Jong Un. They will certainly die if they go against Trump. This is how mutinies are made from the outside. On the outside chance that it comes to an American strike Trump has already guaranteed that a Chinese retaliation would be pointless. A massive strike (nuclear or conventional) would be a huge shock to the world, but the populations of the world are already experiencing hyperbolic rhetorical shock — when the volume has been turned up to 11 for so long there isn’t really anywhere left to go.

Trump is not crazy and his staff have certainly planned out (and are constantly revising) attack plans on North Korea designed to execute a strike devastating enough to limit the scope of any follow-on actions from anyone in the region. He has since moved on to working an influence play directly aimed at the North Korean leadership. This is how the game is played. People today are not used to being forced into situations where one bad option is balanced by an even worse one. Sometimes there is no unicorn to come save the day. The world is only going to turn more harsh in the coming decade — we probably will only remember this as a side show (if we even care to remember it at all).

The Yuan: Stealing from Piers to pay 保罗

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

So, indeed the Yuan was made into a reserve currency and the link-by-failure is already being established. It is interesting, though, that the bulk of the value transfer involved is coming from the Euro, not the Dollar or Yen. Linked by the IMF formally or not, though, if either the Euro or the Yuan fail over the mid-term the other will as well. The Chinese and Eurozone economies are intimately linked already, but were linked more by success than failure until now. That the failure of either is a very real possibility is too terrifying for the financial press to discuss, I think, and it is a political landmine public figures are trying very hard to avoid mentioning. It even seems that the made-up nature of Chinese government economic estimates isn’t even in the news much these days. You would think that little detail might enter into the discussion about adding a new currency to the IMF’s reserve currency group.

There is no longer a strong relationship among basic aspects of value assignment, legal ownership, practical control (that is, “real ownership”), vested business interest in terms of the performance value of concerns, and available goods and services in either the Eurozone or Chinese markets. While there are no recipes for economic success, there are several recipes for disaster (ask an economist about this — their responses tend to be as enlightening and humorous as they are depressing on reflection). A lack of correlation between various forms of utility values and assigned values is one of the disaster recipes. There is no easy way to fix this other than a kinetic re-establishment of property rights, and that means there is nothing left to do in the current situation than hope that when they do fail, they fail cleanly. But historically there is no such thing as a clean failure (in theory, of course, all sorts of lovely solutions exist).

Dropping an anvil on the overloaded camel’s back in the Eurozone or China would be rather easy at the moment, as both economies are in precarious situations. In fact, inducing a major market collapse would be so easy right now that failure is almost certain to come as the result of a deliberate action from an external player than by mere circumstance. The more players who realize this is true the more likely such an action becomes: why let a failure happen to you when you can be the one making it happen if the event is inevitable?

In describing the European and Chinese economic situations a financial analyst friend of mine used the phrase “poised to fail” (along with a lot of depressed-looking facepalming). When someone says that to a geopolitical analyst, though, ears perk up. There is always opportunity to be found in crisis, and sometimes when crisis is inevitable the best play is to be the cause of it yourself, because then you are the only one truly prepared. Consider the economic fallout of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008. A similar performance is absolutely not out of the question, nor is having some “terrorists” conveniently demonstrate the peaceful nature of some religion all over a ship in the Strait of Malacca at a perfectly horrible moment.

2007-2010 SPY chart

Rhetoric forces us to pretend that the August invasion of Georgia did not trigger a reassessment of risk in Eastern European carry trade loans, and instead believe that the already liquidated American subprime loans acted as a magical “contagion” that unfairly crushed the Eurozone. As if the European economies were not profoundly overleveraged and primed to implode.

There really isn’t anything to do about what is going on with the Yuan, really. This course was set about 20 years ago (yes, all the way back in 1995 — after the Cold War, after the first post-Tienanmen Square Five Year Plan was in action; as China started on its “Money is Good” -> “Expansion Above All” -> “Don’t Stop the Train” -> “WTO Rules? Screw the rules, I have money!” chain of policies). The general trend will continue, as none of the players seems to have any inkling of how to change the rules of the game — and the trend is of the end of a decades-long political and financial cycle. The way these stories end is never happy.

1984-2015 Money Base chart

Anyone who thinks that events since 2008 have been business as usual and that geopolitics plays no part in this because “its just a market hiccup” is deluded.

But!

Every end is a new beginning, and that’s what is really worth focusing on. That may sound like small comfort (and it is), but if you already know things are going to get worse before they get better, then at least you won’t find yourself sleeping in a bed of broken dreams. It is too soon to tell which way this Jenga tower is going to topple, but we are nearing the end of this round of the game.

China: Yuan Will Be a Reserve Currency, Come What May

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

EDIT: Indeed, it has been made a reserve currency, or at least it looks like announcements have already been made to pave the way.

The IMF is considering adding the Yuan to the group of reserve currencies. That would put it alongside the U.S. Dollar, the Japanese Yen, the English Pound, and the Euro in terms of “officially perceived” stash-your-value-here viability. As far as actual criteria for inclusion go, the Canadian Dollar, Australian Dollar, and very likely the Russian Ruble are probably actually closer to being genuine reserve currency material than the Chinese Yuan.

But… politics.

China is much closer to a total financial collapse and internal civil disruption* than recovery and stability in its current form. Long-term, of course, China will still be right where it is and the people there will still be Chinese (but there will eventually be far fewer of them, at least for a few generations). A Chinese collapse right now would be a major disaster for everyone. The commodity markets are depressed more than they have been for several decades (in relative terms, actually, I’m not sure that we actually have a post-WWII precedent for what is happening), energy is cheap, credit is massively overleveraged, and yet people aren’t buying enough stuff to keep the wheels spinning.

What does that have to do with the Yuan becoming a reserve currency? It does three things:

  • Gives China access to an external aggregate value device to prop up the yuan if necessary (links their economy to everyone else’s by failure, similar to the way subsidies can do this within a national economy). This effect is actually more a hoped-for psychological effect on the market than a tangible superpower China is being granted by the rays of a yellow sun.
  • Makes the Yuan a necessary holding for anyone trying to carry a balanced basket of reserve currencies (temporarily spikes demand for the Yuan).
  • Promotes an impression of stability in the Yuan (well-founded or not).

Why would the West agree to this? (And I say “the West” because, let’s face it, Washington and London are pretty much the ones who will be deciding.) Because if China were to fail right now it would be a severe annoyance for the U.S. and a complete disaster for Europe and Russia. Nobody really knows what the fallout of that would be, but it wouldn’t be pretty.

The Yuan will be made a reserve currency, whether it makes sense or not, and whether it actually fits in the reserve currency club by the standards and rules the IMF itself has laid out. These are scary times and nobody has any good levers to pull to “fix the economy” so national governments and central banks are pulling at straws because there is simply nothing left to try. All the control rods have been yanked out and tossed already, or shoved in and locked tightly; all the red buttons have been mashed; all the hyperbolic rhetorical devices have been so over-used at this point that the only thing that might actually influence market participants is a frank exposition about the truth rather than more “we’ll do whatever it takes!” and other gung-ho, “it’ll work this time” and “this is the lastest of the last rounds of QE, and this time it will really be the most effectivest of effective measures… I promise!” blather.

[* China is due for two painful corrections which will likely occur together, as they are linked. The first is a political correction; China’s geography does not lend itself to a central command economy. The second is a property-claims correction; when basic goods cannot be had at any price it means the entire system is so out of whack due to government interventions that only a hard reset can fix things. This will likely take the form of a civil war, but who knows. It could be gradual decline toward state failure followed by a logical and non-violent nation-wide roundtable discussion, or even a bloodless revolution coupled with a voluntary capitulation of material holdings by the power elites. But seriously, this has never happened in history and there is no reason to expect China’s inevitable transitions to occur independently of one another, or for either to be non-violent.]

2015-2016 Energy Price Drop Will Disentangle Russia, Not Crush It

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Energy prices are dropping. Commodity prices are dropping, actually, in general. Production is slowing. People are finally realizing that China is as flimsy as government construction. The Euro is indeed linking Eurozone economies by failure instead of success, and doing so in a way that limits their market rights. The EU is inherently unstable. Cold War II is finally no longer a secret (though many folks are still oblivious to it).

Long story short: a lot of stuff is going on!

This is one of those “interesting” periods in history — the kind that Chinese proverbs use as a curse. Or, rather, we are re-entering a normal period in history, one where there are more than two poles to the world, and the Cold War alignment stresses are not purely polarized — which means more interesting plays for middle empires (like France), and a very strong possibility that empires that are currently viewed as either permanently vanquished (Japan and Thailand) or part of the new world standard (China) are likely to either find a way to rise again, or endure complete collapse prior to changing form entirely upon resurrection.

Japan might realize the space play it could make by diverting public largess toward space instead of beautifully designing dead-end mountain roads. China will very likely endure a civil war, but it could just as easily be won by the standing government which changes form after it wins as it could be reformed as a republic under a totally different political concept. France my find a way to leverage its African empire to provide an energy alternative to Germany and thereby insulate it from Moscow’s control at the same time it forces it into a subordinate relationship (winning a Napoleonic victory without fighting a war — the way the Germans thought they were “re”winning WWI without fighting a war by imposing the Euro as the new European currency under their former central bank, renamed as the ECB). The Turks may find a way to leverage their water control position over Iraq and work to put ISIS in control of Baghdad as part of a bid to force them to normalize by giving them something that can be taken away. Tehran and Washington are very likely to become close allies. etc.

The world is changing.

Many folks feel guilty pleasure at watching Russian financial numbers decline and the ruble fall as energy prices sink worldwide. Folks think “ah, this is finally it, once Russia’s economy suffers enough, Moscow will have to agree to work with Washington and stop bullying the East so much”.

Well, that last part isn’t going to happen. Not because of energy prices, anyway. There are two reasons for this: Russia doesn’t need money the same way other countries do, and in some regions alternatives to Russian energy are impossible to obtain at any price.

The first point is that Russia is a raw-materials exporter, and also maintains a considerable high-tech domestic manufacturing capability. The reason we don’t see more Russian products in the world, though, is because Russia lack much heavy shipping infrastructure. In particular, its ability to push products to ocean ports is severely limited, so it will never make sense to produce finished goods in the interior of Russia, ship them by rail or truck overland to deep water ports (across hostile political lines, no less — if you think pre-Civil War inter-state tariffs were insane within the United States, imagine what they look like in the middle of a Cold War-style mutual embargo and tariff festival), and from there to the world. China is a much easier shortcut. On the other hand, it will always make sense to ship raw materials from the interior of Ukraine or Russia (which are effectively controlled by the same political decision-makers — even more obviously now than ten years ago), because raw materials can only be had at their sources.

A big part of Russia’s power comes not from being able to throw money around, but by being able to make client states become dependent on material subsidies from Russia. If the Russian’s are subsidizing gas at a certain price in Germany, then the existing infrastructure will be built with that in mind. That lowers the difficulty of obtaining and routing that energy source. That means it lowers the cost of extending that infrastructure and thus deepening systemic dependency on that source over time. That means Russia winds up with a lever of control. As long as nothing bad happens Russia will keep the gas flowing. Once things go their way or favors are refused gas lines might “suffer breakdowns” and prices might arbitrarily increase. It doesn’t matter if the global market price for natural gas is X if that gas is physically impossible to obtain in any significant quantity when you are talking about powering an entire national economy’s energy needs. The local spot price of the gas can be whatever Russia makes up — and if Russia wants to cause pain it can simple experience a series of conveniently timed technical difficulties.

The Russians of today can, as they have for the past several waves of their history, substitute labor for capital when necessary. The methods by which this is accomplished change a bit every generation — conforming to the expectations of the peasantry (and for all practical purposes Russia is still a country of peasants and royalty). A drop in the ruble is annoying, it prevents Moscow from keeping the charade of open engagement with Western economies alive, but does not fundamentally change the power relationship between the West and East, and certainly does not change the geopolitical calculus over the long-term.

France in Syria: Still Not Here to Save the World

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Folks have been really excited about France getting into war-mode on Syria after the Paris attacks. People were even momentarily excited about Turkey’s decision to shoot down a Russian plane the other day. Now Paris and Moscow are maybe working together on hitting ISIS? While the Washington is doing the same thing?!?

Man, its like a giant peace party!

Wait… um… what? No. War is not the same thing as peace. Let’s be careful to remember that. Let’s also be careful to remember that “peace”, taken without any qualifications, is a meaningless, impossible, and downright harmful goal.

Some folks are very hopeful that France’s involvement in the Syrian conflict signals a Great Change in The Way Things Work. They hope that Paris will somehow “bring Moscow into the fold” because “now Paris understands terrorism”. Other even hope that now Paris will bring NATO together under a single purpose (other than simply being an anti-Russian alliance). Lovely hopes, but not really the way things are going to work out.

I don’t mean that Paris doesn’t understand terrorism, they totally understand it — to the point that Paris is expert at both resisting it and employing it where it makes sense. They understand it so well that they know that uniting NATO “against terrorism” would make about as much sense as uniting NATO against Middle Eastern kidnapping.

I’m not saying the French are evil, mind you, I am saying they are savvy. They get the way the game works. They have been on the ball, racking up a string of strategic victories in Africa over the last decade. They’ve re-established their “middle empire” (the “middle” being between Washington and Moscow) while Washington has been too preoccupied with chasing brown guys to notice. This indicates that while they know how to play terrorism for votes in domestic politics (they are too smart to care much about what outsiders think of them) they also know that making “terrorism” the target of a major military operation is totally ridiculous.

Terrorism is a tactic not an identity. You can’t target terrorism any more than you can target long-hand division or yoga. Terrorism is the “civil disruption” phase that a political movement goes through whenever a legitimate political course of action is not available. Consider the evolution of the PLO or Hezbollah. Unless you are over 40, you likely won’t even remember that those are the groups that were arch-terrorists before. Now they are political parties. Yasser Arafat, the PLO’s Dr. Evil himself, received a Nobel Peace Prize (not that the Peace Prize means anything). Hezbollah is a fantastically profitable global franchise operation now, only partially focused (by some measures) on imposing a political outcome in Lebanon (their purpose for existing is the subject of eternally flexible rhetoric — which means the real purpose for Hezbollah’s existence is simply the survival of Hezbollah at this point).

But what about this cooperation thing? France getting into Syria must require some coordination with Russia and the US, right? And NATO? Turkey is in NATO, the US is in NATO, France is (again, that is) in NATO… so what gives?

Coordination will be necessary to prevent more “friendly” (?) fire incidents, but its more the kind of coordination that seeks to prevent midair collisions as polits jockey for superior position against one other while they run their sorties against ground targets. Remember, Turkey just shot down a Russian plane — anyone in the sky above Syria right now is considering everything else in the sky and absolutely everyone on the ground to be a threat. Sounds weird? Well, it is. But that’s reality for you. You couldn’t make up a plot for a book more convoluted than the way the real world works.

France’s goals are still France’s goals. They are not American goals. Sure, a lot of Americans and French and non-French Europeans see things the same way for the moment — but that’s a common view held of mutually held anger at a third party than anything else. The immigration wave and xenophobia that is going to increasingly fuel will continue to drive a common view over the short term (not in the least because the nightmares fueled by fear of rampant Middle Eastern and African immigration are not without foundation, particularly when coupled with domestic population decline).

France’s goal is to maintain its middle empire and use it to force Berlin into a subordinate relationship with Paris. This goal has held steady since the creation of the Euro, and France has demonstrated an amazing amount of fortitude and clarity of direction in the realization of that goal — even more amazing considering the contentious nature of their electoral politics since the Soviet collapse. Germany being in NATO with France, being home to the ECB, being “friends” with France, etc. doesn’t really matter — the reason France and Germany have been enemies so long is still based on geography, and that still forces France and Germany to regard one another in terms of capacity instead of intent. France has the upper hand in military terms, and will the economy likely to crash the only lever Germany has (dependent entirely on imported energy) is likely to disappear, or fall under the indirect control of Paris anyway if France can create an energy alternative for Germany that isn’t Russian gas (which is why France worked to isolate Germany even more from practical alternatives by destroying Libya and demonstrating their practical ability to dominate North Africa (ENI’s gas fields) and the Mediterranean).

Russia’s goals are still Russia’s goals. Well, in Russia’s case it is even more clear that Russia’s goals are actually Moscow’s goals. That is also not going to change, and despite a lot of poorly disguised epicaricacy on behalf of Western powers, Russia’s financial problems based on dropping energy prices are actually more likely to make Russia turn into a deliberately confrontational, economically detached player than a compliant ally of the West. Russia is looking out for what its own survival in what it necessarily views a dark and dangerous world. The West world will soon find itself with even fewer levers to control Russia for the forseeable future.

So France “bringing Russia into the fold”? France “getting NATO on the same page” to lead a charge against dastardly terrorist types? Nope. That’s just as naive as hoping that Russia was either sincere about squashing ISIS or helping Assad (either goal would at least speed a non-ISIS resolution to the Syrian conflict — and life under Assad wasn’t nearly as screwed up as life in a civil war…). Syria is, for the moment, a useful problem for France. That doesn’t mean that French politicians won’t accidentally start believing their own rhetoric (the way the Americans did after the invasion of Iraq was over… whoops!), but unlike 2001, the world today is full of threats that are obviously more important than chasing brown guys. In view of the Cold War II / WWIII type issues at stake right now, if the Europeans get serious about “solving” terrorism they are much more likely to resort to historically typical European solutions such as mass deportation at spear-point, mass military impressment, mass concentration, or mass execution than believing that an air campaign is going to make anything change (well, maybe carpet bombing would have some effect…).

France is a lot more likely to play Syria partly to drive a wedge between Russia and NATO (particularly Germany and Turkey), partly to demonstrate to Russia that France is willing to deal (and has something worth dealing), partly to show Washington where the red lines are (without spoiling the relationship with AFRICOM), and partly for the domestic electoral lulz. Killing ISIS guys is always good press and all it costs (right now) is printing more money and a general disregard for collateral damage (which is, ironically, why the Americans are always going to be utterly ineffective — they are absolutely afraid to hurt anyone, and religious bad guys are very good at hiding in plain sight, right behind rows of school children). Aside from this there is a vast array of geopolitical opportunities open in Syria right now, because of how the Syrian play augments the Russian play in Armenia (to pressure Turkey and keep Georgia as an effective vassal). Syria has become an interesting stage upon which Cold War II politics is playing out — this act of it, anyway.