Wednesday 29 May 2024

The geo-politics of 2024: a seriously good read

Here's a seriously good offering by a heavyweight US historian of the geopolitics of the modern age.  We all have our amateur views on this stuff: but Zelikow is a professional, giving thought-provoking inputs from a range of telling 20th century precedents and parallels that I certainly wasn't familiar with and I'm guessing few others would be, either.  There are also some very basic history lessons the whole world should be taking  ... 

The Axis powers all ... hoped America would decide to stay in its hemisphere and mind its own business. They were not sure just when or whether they should do anything that would bring the United States into the war. Though each side started from a posture of basic hostility, they had to make new choices. The United States decided to arm Germany’s enemies. And it decided not to abandon beleaguered China ... Roosevelt did try hard to find an accommodation with Japan. His efforts in the first half of 1941 were entirely fruitless ... At all times Japan was prepared to negotiate about Indochina. It was even prepared to forego the great plans for the southward advance into resource-rich British and Dutch colonies. But Japan was not prepared to yield its domination of China ... Tokyo redoubled its efforts, diplomatically and militarily. The new government decided that it would either conclude a deal by the end of November - even a temporary one - or it would go to war. In this crunch time, the United States still would not write China off. This U.S. commitment to China was not well-understood at the time or by historians now. For Roosevelt, the commitment mainly arose from his complex calculations about the war in Europe - the need to keep the Soviet Union from collapse and therefore the need to keep Japanese troops tied down in China.   It is worth recalling today, as Russia and China confront the United States, that the proximate reason for America’s entry into World War II was its determination to save those two countries from extinction.  (my emphasis)

He feeds all the historical considerations into his analysis of today's situation for America (and Russia, China, Taiwan, Japan, Iran ...).   His lengthy conclusions start thus: 

I believe the anti-American partnership has probably decided to double down. They are probably preparing in earnest for a period of major confrontation. My view on this rests on my analysis of the history presented above as well as some key assessments of Moscow, Tehran, Beijing, and - to a lesser extent - Pyongyang. Xi and Putin regard themselves as world-historical men of destiny. They believe they are capable of decisive, strategic action. Xi ranks himself with Mao and Stalin. Putin evokes the memory of Peter the Great. In China, Russia, and Iran the information and decision environments are cloistered. In China, Russia, and Iran the propaganda ministries have already been preparing their populations for a time of war, great sacrifice, and existential struggle ...  I believe that some Iranians have now stored up so much resentment and hatred that they may be desperate to do almost anything to get at Israel. The North Korean intentions seem driven, but as opaque as usual. My working hypothesis is that they are preparing for a period of conflict and that they are wondering about possible opportunities to play an important role. In each capital there are arguments for retrenchment on one side and, on the other, for more militancy. The more militant factions have likely been arguing and speculating about ways to turn over the table. Beijing’s outlook is both the most important and the most difficult to assess, since its government has visibly sought a policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the United States. I think it is most likely that Beijing has assessed that the die has been cast for a period of escalating confrontation**.

Strongly recommended.  Incidentally, given the foregoing, the idea that appeasing Putin over Ukraine makes things better, or would have if we'd done it prior to 2022, seems to me a very odd one.



**He has a very interesting view on China's most likely strategy for Taiwan

Thursday 23 May 2024

The curious, oh-so-Russian tale of General Popov (1)

Popular Popov:  a soldiers' soldier
Way down the rankings on the War in Ukraine pages is the newly-revived story of Russian General Popov, who is now being charged with 'fraud of a particularly extensive nature'.  It's alleged he sold thousands of tonnes of steel, intended for Russian fortifications against the ill-fated 2023 Ukrainian counter-offensive, to a shady metals dealer for over $1m in cash that's been found at his house.  His fall from grace happened late last summer, but at the time it seemed to do with his public complaints that troop rotations weren't being made sufficiently frequently.  No charges were brought back then, nor corruption even mentioned; he'd slid from public attention and been sent to Syria. 

Given that today's backdrop is the recent high-profile 'sideways promotion' of Defence Minister Shoigu, his replacement with an economist known for efficiency, and several other senior officials also being done for corruption of various kinds, it's easy to imagine the new charges against Popov are just part of a traditional changing-of-the guard purge that is so popular with communist and former-communist regimes: happens all the time.  Odd that he was a critic of Shoigu (so why should he go down now, as Shoigu himself falls from favour?) but hey, clearing the decks is clearing the decks.  He probably pissed off others as well.

The reaction from the Russian 'milblogger' fraternity has been very interesting: I.I.Popov is extremely popular, a "soldiers' soldier", credited (by the soldiery, at least) of being the main factor behind the crucial, successful defence of Tokmak on the Zaporizhia front last year.  Here are some typical contributions: 

  • Nothing has yet been proven, and we suspect that Ivan Ivanovich could have suffered for his statements.  It is unseemly to keep one of the heroes of our time behind bars
  • Front line soldiers were greatly demoralized by news of the removal of the "simple" and "relatable" honest General Popov. Yes, perhaps he had his flaws. But in the context of [other] commanders who sacrificed dozens of personnel for the sake of their next "Star of the Hero" medal, Popov clearly stood out for the better
  • The experienced commander, who was doted upon by his subordinates ...  
  • I know for sure that without his hands-on leadership in organizing the defensive lines [in 2023], we would hardly have been ready to meet the Armed Forces of Ukraine at the peak of their power
  • General Ivan Popov is not a thief. He is a soldier. However... we forgive thieves too. Or they don't get imprisoned at all. A soldier cannot always count on this
  • If the investigation proves his guilt, then he must suffer the punishment he deserves, but all the good he has done for the Russian army must be taken into account. He must not be allowed to be made a scapegoat. 
Etc etc.  here are several strands here.  (a) Maybe he's being fitted up (for his temerity to complain about lack of troop rotations);  (b) Maybe he did make off with some steel, but hey, everyone in his position does stuff like that - so what?  (c) Maybe he's too popular for his own good.

(a) is of course entirely possible: we may never know.  Regimes like Russia's do that kind of thing all the time.  In countries with no rule of law, everyone stands in permanent peril of being condemned on trumped-up charges, and those in power never mind reminding people of it from time to time.  I'll return to (b) - a characteristically Russian sentiment - in a second post.

(c) is also interesting: and it's not just in light of the extraordinary Prigozhin mutiny of last year.  Communist and former-communist regimes not only fear the rule of law, they fear the military as a credible alternative source of power.  As soon as WW2 ended, Stalin effectively banished the legendary - and very popular - Zhukov, the clear victor of the eastern front.  Everyone knew why.  The first thing Lenin did after the 1917 revolution was to demobilize the army (even while technically still at war with Germany!), for fear of having armed men loose on the streets.  Here's another telling recent milblog entry on the Popov case: 
A general who makes mistakes, and a popular general who makes mistakes, are two completely different matters from the point of view of 'the system'. Whether he is really guilty of what he is accused of is not so important ...

Poor old Popov.  Keep away from windows and private planes, eh? 


Tuesday 21 May 2024

The return of the 'creative' estate agents

A while ago I featured one of the more creative examples of the estate agents' art of describing properties for sale in euphemistic terms.  It was an inaccessible house in the middle of a wood that used to be a sand quarry just a mile across the suburbs from Schloss Drew.   The agent termed it "Charming Home in Very Secluded Location. Extremely Leafy Outlooks".

Well, now the same agent has another property to shift, this time even closer to the Drew residence; and the circumstances are not dissimilar as you can see from a pic I took myself.  The vocab they've reached for looks awfully similar, too.

Unique Secluded Location With Leafy Outlooks ... Large Rear Garden With Leafy Backdrop 

One hopes prospective buyers will do their own DD, because 'leafy' is not the only aspect of the backdrop.  This place is in another wood that used to be a sand quarry, where the enterprising local youth have created an elaborate BMX bike course with some fairly stiff obstacles and jumps.  When, several decades ago, I was a local councillor, this was in my patch: and the warmest applause I ever received at a public meeting was when I vowed I would ensure the Council would put a stop to the BMX-ers here.  Revisiting the site of my political triumph this week, I discovered to my amazement that, not only has the Council evidently given up the struggle now, they've even conferred an ironic blessing upon the victors by erecting a sign eschewing all responsibility for maintaining the private-enterprise course, so that anyone using it does so at their own risk!

A little deeper into the wood there is, I find, a quite enormous tree house built of railway sleepers and huge steel bolts.  By whom?  I must try to find out.  It's of a construction that had me looking all around for signs of zipwires etc, but I could find none.  Again, every indication this is an entirely freelance venture - no Council 'elf-n-safety officer would dare to be seen anywhere near it. 

"Unique location" and "leafy" it may indeed be - but I'm less sure about secluded ...   Anyone got other nice examples of the estate agents' art?


Friday 17 May 2024

Starmer and his shameless way with words

I'm not entirely sure why we bother, but it seems GE 2024 ('25?) has kicked off with Starmer's "6 first steps".  Just for completeness:

  1. Deliver economic stability:  empty.  Only on the list - at the top - as some kind of pro forma finger-crossing anti-Truss-style-meltdown incantation. 
  2. Cut NHS waiting times:  they all say that, and always have done.  Doubtless some number-juggling possibilities, otherwise it can't in practice be delivered by anything short of vast sums of money a la Blair government.
  3. Launch a new Border Security Command:  empty.  A trivial opportunity to give highly paid jobs to a handful of ex coppers etc.  Will impress nobody, & certainly not the people-smugglers.
  4. Set up Great British Energy:  empty.  Is any Green even vaguely satisfied by this as a commitment to anything they really care about?  Whatever happened to "the climate emergency is the #1 top priority for all of mankind, trumping all others" etc etc?
  5. Crack down on antisocial behaviour:  empty.  Can't be delivered.
  6. Recruit 6,500 new teachers:  empty.  There are 567,000 teachers in the UK.  Assuming an average career of 25 years, that means approx 20,000 are recruited annually in any case.  Tweak those assumptions as you like, but 6,500 is still an empty number.

Aside, then, from #1 (purely for the finance sector) the rest are empty words corresponding to polling data on popular priorities.  NHS > immigration > climate > ASB > education.

*  *  *  *

Anyhow, as literally everyone has spotted, Starmer has cheerfully reneged on everything he's ever said.  His entire strategy rests on "looking the part" = sober white man in suit.  (POCs in suits, clearly in vogue recently, don't really seem to have made much of a mark in any part of the UK, though I suppose Khan would beg to differ and he may have a point.)  Starmer's reverse-ferret word-gaming is shameless enough to impress any spin doctor anywhere, and as a complete aside, I noticed a really cute one last week.  One of his biggest faux-pas of recent times came last October when he very deliberately said Israel had the right to cut off food, water and electricity to Gaza.  Last week he had this played back to him and he "welcomed" the opportunity to remind everyone that he'd immediately corrected the misunderstanding that he could ;possibly have meant what he said: he had of course meant the right to self defence, as he'd immediately made clear.  

Except, we know that wasn't what happened.  In fact, for several days afterwards, his people were instructed to hit the airwaves with highly equivocal explanations of what he'd said that didn't in any way represent an immediate and clear correction: and well to the fore in this sophistry was Emily Thornberry.  And it was she, last week, who popped up with more of the same, because she now has a clever argument that he was right all along!  It goes like this:  he was speaking only a couple of days after 7 Oct.  Israel had just commenced anti-Hamas operations, and as a purely temporary tactical military expedient, cutting off electricity etc to your enemy is perfectly OK.  So what he said was OK, too!

Amazing.  How long will these people get any benefit of the doubt whatsoever in government?  The Left hates them deeply: the Greens soon will; and you can see why.


Thursday 9 May 2024

Where will the engineers come from?

Recently we aired the thesis that the oil & gas majors (Exxon, Shell, BP, Total, Equinor et al) have effectively given up on net zero and, with greater or lesser degrees of 'green camouflage', intend to be sure of their share of many more decades of mainstream hydrocarbon business.  Shell was Exhibit 'A'.  Now we read

Shell to close Chinese green power generation business            Decision comes amid wider Western exodus from communist country

Warm, fuzzy  ...  pic: Octopus Energy, of course! 
Their London HQ really is like that
That's interesting for another reason.  The other day I met a senior Shell bod who told me they can't recruit UK or US new-graduate engineers for love nor money.  They can't even retain the ones they've got.  Apparently, GenZ kids don't much want to be engineers anyway; and those that do, want to save the planet in some cosy, purple-Octopus manner.  I'm guessing these kids hope this all comes to pass without their being made to do Hard Sums, too. 

So: to which universities does Shell go with its recruiting campaigns these days, then?   Ans: those of the Far East, almost exclusively.  It's not just the source of underpaid care workers and nail-bar slaves, then.

The Greens hope(d) to winkle the oil & gas cos out via ESG & investment boycotts, but that doesn't seem to be working as planned.  If Green indoctrination starves them of home-nation staff, but can't prevent bright, diligent, mobile Chinese / Malay / Vietnamese / Filipino engineers from filling their ranks, a decade from now, those oil & gas companies are going to have a very odd profile.

Perhaps the Army could also recruit there, too?  The Gurkhas have always been enthusiastic recruits.  And I bet you wouldn't need to worry about all that pronoun nonsense that's infected the Armed Forces these days.


Monday 6 May 2024

Trade war with China, hmm?

"The EU has restated its readiness to launch a trade war with China over imports of cheap electric cars, steel and cheap solar and wind technology, with Ursula von der Leyen saying the bloc will “not waver” from protecting industries and jobs after a meeting with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, on his multi-day tour of Europe ...
If she's serious, the cost of (inter alia) net-zero programmes across Europe will go through the roof: and in principle at least, that's non-discretionary spending.  It'll be made all the more acute by the forthcoming Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism.  I presume it would also be the final nail in the coffin of German exports to China.  And who'd have any euros left over for Ukraine?  It's quite a bluff, if that's what it is.

If she means it, well all I can say is: assuming the UK would somehow get swept up in this rather than being a lucky beneficiary of ramped-up Chinese dumping, then not for the first time in recent years, I will be very glad of my substantial hedge against inflation.  (No, not gold - that's against Bad News.)

Incidentally, you gotta smile at the nasty conference-hall-style chair Macron gave Xi at the Élysée.  That wobbly table looks rather egalitarian, too ...   He gave Trump a much nicer time.


Thursday 2 May 2024

Trouble at t'campus: where is this going?

I was a teenager when the anti-war protests hit US universities (and Grosvenor Square) and there was one of those historically quite frequent Paris uprisings.  It all seemed fairly apocalyptic at the time, with an undercurrent of Marxism & Trotskyism and something of a 'radicalisation' of a cohort of youth.  University-educated youth, that is, which in the UK at that time was a fairly modest percentage of the whole.  Large books are written on the impact this had - which wasn't nearly as much as its instigators hoped; certainly not as radical or instantaneous as they expected, even if it might have set off some kind of decades-long Gramscian process.

When I was at the university myself in the '70s, things were still fairly 'robust'.  There were pro-IRA meetings in pubs (with the occasional actual IRA man in attendance) and a readiness to resort to occupations of buildings, street-skirmishing, fist-fights etc on a fairly frequent basis.  I recall a spectacular (and very well-organised) pitch battle between the Trots and a visiting band of National Front: a set-piece medieval contest.  The 1980s seemed to put an end to this, and a curiously placid thirty-year period has ensued where very little campus violence has happened at all**.

Well, if the USA is its usual harbinger of trends, this might all be about to end.  In America there's no mainstream political outlet for pro-Palestinian sentiment (not even Bernie Sanders), absent which something ad hoc is bound to occur.  And there's a fairly violent anti-anti reaction, seemingly from off campus.  As happened in the '60s, it falls to an out-of-touch Democrat to preside over this, so a statesmanlike resolution seems unlikely and matters will fall to the frequently less-than-impressive local authorities.  The university authorities also seem fairly clueless as to what to do.  And elections loom.

Any lessons for us?  Well, Starmer is dead set against having the 'official' Labour Party offer any sort of mainstream political outlet for pro-Palestinian sentiment; and the university authorities are fairly clueless ... so we're also in a position where revolting students - in a vastly bigger overall student population than 50-60 years ago - are left to their own devices++.  Oh, and yes, elections loom here, too.

There are many dimensions to this but one that interests me particularly is: how does it play out in the GE?  Will the malcontents all vote for Galloway's party?  The Greens?  I just can't see a political pressure-valve for pro-Palestinian students, or indeed anyone with those sympathies.  Or maybe we find there aren't so many malcontents at all.

The 'traditional' student rebel never wanted a mainstream political outlet anyway, as a matter of pride.  They wanted to hate The Man in all his besuited manifestations.  Maybe, then, they are quietly happy at their rebellious work today, and will just graduate in due course to get on with the rest of their lives.  Could be a few smashed windows in the meantime, however.  Oh, and no statesmanlike resolution from Prime Minister "DPP" Starmer, either.



** Oddly, though, the little dears are so permanently petrified (of whom?) that there are key-pad locks on every door, where once everyone came and went as they pleased.  I have various fairly regular contacts with undergraduates and sometimes over a drink they will say - it seems your generation had more fun than we do ..?   I think they are right.  It's sad.

++ I haven't been to Germany for a while but from a distance it looks like many of the same factors are at work there, too.  France?