Tuesday 15 March, 2022

A picture for our time.

Farewell, painted by August Macke in 1914.

Quote of the Day

”Every country has its own mafia. Putin’s Russia is the first where the mafia has its own country.”

  • Garry Kasparov

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan | Visions of Johanna


A bootleg recording of a wonderful song. Written during a black-out in New York while he was dating Joan Baez but was falling in love with his first wife Sara. “Visions of Johanna” is one of Dylan’s most enigmatic and loved songs. The message? He misses Johanna. Lyrics here.

Long Read of the Day

Time for a Diplomatic Revolution

by Noah Smith

Really thoughtful essay by Noah Smith. The basic message is that Cold War 2 is here, and the U.S. needs all the allies we can get.

By way of a preamble, Smith writes:

I’m taking a brief break from posting about economics to offer some ideas on geopolitics and international relations. I’m not any kind of an expert on these things, so as always, take what I have to say with a grain of salt. But remember that lots of other people confidently writing about these subjects make no such disclaimers when they offer their opinions.

What I like about the essay is the way a non-specialist in the history of international relations goes about pondering our current moment.

In late 1940, Nazi Germany had conquered France and was allied with Japan, while the USSR had helped Hitler devour Poland. The U.S. was neutral, still hobbled by isolationism. It looked as if totalitarian powers would dominate the globe. But a year later, when Hitler turned on Stalin and Stalin allied with the U.S., the tables were entirely turned — the Allies now had a coalition that could beat the fascist powers.

In the Cold War, too, alliances played a role. When the USSR and China were communist allies during the Korean War, it was all the U.S. could do to hold them at bay; after the Sino-Soviet Split, the USSR had to worry about attack from China. The U.S. was able to exploit this by arranging a de facto alliance with China against the Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s. The Soviets probably would have lost the Cold War anyway, but the U.S.-China rapprochement probably hastened the end.

Now we find ourselves at another dangerous, potentially pivotal moment in history.

“Pragmatism in the defence of liberty is no vice”. And the ambiguities thereof. The best is always the enemy of the good.

Time to think about the unthinkable?

We liberals have spent the last two decades being continually surprised and horrified by the ‘unthinkable’ things that have happened. It was unthinkable that the deregulated and globalised financial system would very nearly bring the world to its knees — that ATM machines wouldn’t dispense cash on a Monday morning. It was unthinkable that the criminals who presided over this catastrophe would not go to gaol. It was unthinkable that the costs of bailing out these criminals would be imposed on ordinary citizens. It was unthinkable that the UK would vote to leave the EU. It was unthinkable that the US would elect a crooked narcissist as its President. It was unthinkable that there would be a land war ever again in Europe.

And here we are. You’d have thought that by now we’d have wised up.

We haven’t, I think, which is really worrying because now there is one more unthinkable that we really need to think about — the thought that there might be a nuclear exchange in Europe.

Up to now we have been dismissing Putin’s putting his nuclear forces on a heightened state of readiness as the sabre-rattling of a madman, or the intimidatory bluff of a brutal gambler. I don’t see it that way, I’m afraid.

Nor does David Holloway, Professor of International History at Stanford. His books include Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956 (Yale University Press, 1994) and The Soviet Union and the Arms Race (1983). An essay of his in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists suggested that he might be someone who is indeed thinking about the unthinkable. Here’s the money quote:

On February 24—the day Putin invaded Ukraine—he warned that Russia would respond immediately to those who stood in its way, with consequences that “will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” On February 27, he publicly ordered his minister of defense and chief of the general staff to transfer Russia’s “deterrence forces” to “special combat readiness.” Putin’s aim was evidently to deter outside intervention and to signal Russia’s determination to achieve its goals.

But another, more troubling, aspect to Putin’s recent comments has received little or no attention. It has to do with the circumstances under which Russia might use nuclear weapons.

In June 2020, Putin signed a decree—the Basic Principles of the Russian Federation’s State Policy in the Domain of Nuclear Deterrence—that specifies two conditions under which Russia would use nuclear weapons. The first is unsurprising: “The Russian Federation retains the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies…” But that sentence ends with an unusual statement: “… and also in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is put under threat” [emphasis added].

In his February 24 speech, Putin echoed that unusual language to describe his Ukraine invasion. The United States, he claimed, was creating a hostile “anti-Russia” next to Russia and in Russia’s historic land. “For the United States and its allies, it is a policy of containing Russia, with obvious geopolitical dividends,” he said. “For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation. This is not an exaggeration; this is a fact. It is not only a very real threat to our interests but to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty” [emphasis added]. Putin has defined the current situation as one in which, in line with the principles of its deterrence policy, Russia retains the right to use nuclear weapons.

That’s the ‘unthinkable’ that we should be thinking about now. The concept of “de-escalation” embedded in current Russian military doctrine says that if Russia were faced with a large-scale conventional attack that exceeded its capacity for defence, it might respond with a limited nuclear strike, i.e. so-called ‘tactical’ nukes, or maybe neutron bombs.

And if that were to happen, what would NATO’s response be? Hopefully someone is thinking about that unthinkable back at Ramstein.

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