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


Clive said...

So much to ponder upon in that remarkable, fascinating article.

I’ll be uncharacteristically brief and succinct here, just for a start. When Hamas attacked Israel and Israel responded in Gaza, many predicted as a minimum a regional conflict developing and even a global one. This has not happened and (touch wood, fingers crossed) seems to attract little enthusiasm in the regional power brokers.

I’m not entirely sure why (although there are many obvious reasons why a broader conflict was in no-one’s interests). Which brings me to my main point: what we see and what we know in the public domain (as the article shows us from the 1950’s) is but a tiny, tiny fraction of reality.

dearieme said...

His account of US/Japan is different from accounts I've seen in the last few years which have emphasised FDR's attempts to provoke Japan into war.

He has nothing to say about the USA's lunatic efforts since The Wall fell to force Russia and China into each other's arms rather than divide them.

His suggestion about the fate of Taiwan looks pretty sensible to me: I've suggested a blockade of sorts, even using minefields - it's hard to see how the US's fleets, designed to fight in mid-ocean, could prevail in the South China Sea. Apart from the fact that their weapons are probably unsuitable there's also the likelihood that many of them will simply prove to be dud.

Add to this widespread sabotage of American infrastructure and factories by some of those nice young men who have been crossing the Mexican border and you may have a recipe for a war that the US can win - if that's the right verb - only with nuclear weapons.

Clive said...

@ dearieme 10:07

Nowhere is any reading of Japanese history (as written by the Japanese themselves) will you find any account that apportions blame or responsibility for Japan’s attack on the US and entry into the war on the US. Japan and the Japanese fully acknowledge their imperialist ambitions at the time and that nothing would dissuade them from pursuing those.

What you do get in Japan is a sometimes voiced grievance that other powers were allowed (or they allowed themselves) to conquer territory and create empires whereas as when Japan thought that was just how everyone rolled and tried to emulate, it got slapped down. But that is way short of US provoking Japan into an attack.

And did you miss in the article how Russia (in the form of the USSR) have been bezzie mates for nearly a century? Or maybe see Steve Rosenberg’s latest report from Russia where, even is Russia itself, there’s more than a little skepticism about just how limitless the friendship without limits really is? Russia needs China (now more than ever). But China doesn’t need Russia. China doesn’t do equal partnerships. It does vassals.

dearieme said...

"China doesn’t do equal partnerships. It does vassals."

Which is why it was moronic of the USA not to attempt to seduce Russia rather than repel it. The Russians must know that at some time in the future China will complain about the history of "unequal treaties" and claim territory in Asian Russia. So they should surely have been seduceable. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Clive said...

@ dearieme 11:05

The US might have been dilettante in "locking in" Russia (from a commercial or geopolitical partnership point of view -- assuming that was even possible, which is a big assumption) but Germany certainly wasn't. Germany won't be making that mistake again. At least, not in a hurry.

jim said...

Mr Zelikow seems a very busy fellow. He must have an army of scribblers and conference fixers working for him. Big business the Think Tank trade, keep it going. Whoo Whoo YeeHa. Interesting article but definitely 'a product' to be sold to an audience.

The US relies on full spectrum dominance, in space, on the seas, economically and militarily. This is not so easy now. Worse still the flow of useful new scientific discoveries has slowed and Nature is very democratic in revealing her secrets to whoever asks nicely and pays the fees.

This leaves the US with a strategy to grab all the useful looking technologies and industries for itself and attempt to block or slow down competitor nations. Pull up the ladder Elmer, I'm all right. Worse still, everyone in the world is in the same boat chasing fewer and fewer economically useful discoveries and the internet means no useful secret stays that way for long.

Does Taiwan really matter that much? We are doing our best to diversify semiconductor manufacture away from Taiwan, once that is done who cares (much) about a pineapple farm. Make a fuss for appearances sake.

I doubt we need worry much about Iran. They have oil and can do nukes, but to what purpose. Easily crushed if it steps out of line. A theocracy going nowhere.

We might look more closely at 'the spirit of the people'. The US looks very big and powerful - and it is - but the politicians look a pretty windy lot. The thought of a nuke off the Pacific coast could be quite influential. Essentially the US looks to be a paper tiger - unless clumsily pushed too far. The US empire looks to be slowly fading, they waste their powers on show business and feminist studies. For China and friends - keep working hard and wait.

Clive said...

@Jim 9:32

I agree with a lot of that, but we’re still no closer to ascertaining the answer to the question which all this poses. Yes, yes, I get that the west is rubbish. I could quite happily sit here for the next hour writing up its faults and not really be doing anything more than a summary.

But what do the authoritarian countries offer us? You, me, my mother-in-law, whoever? Life for a typical Russian in Russia is no better than for anyone in the west and, in aggregate, probably worse. China is stuck in the middle income trap and I can’t see any particular way it will extract itself from that. Governance in the west is, erm, variable, to say the least. But in the west, if you come up with a clever idea (or a lucky find), your first thought isn’t that the government is going to try to steal if from you, or, worse, see you as a threat because your better mousetrap gives you power (definitely economic and possibly social capital) and power is a monopoly they want to preserve for themselves.

And, last but by no means least, were we in Russia, China, Iran or elsewhere similar, we would simply not be having this conversation here right now, would we? No great loss, perhaps. But certainly a part of our lives which would be impoverished. How long would you, me or my mother-in-law be prepared to put up with that?

Caeser Hēméra said...

Demographics, corruption and infrastructure have their places in all this too.

For example, a few well placed explosions neatly bisects Russia due to their reliance on railways, Xi had an unpleasant surprise when it turned out his beloved Rocket Force was riddled with corruption and not quite as ready for war as he had hoped. No point having more weapons than the other side if yours don't actually work.

Both China and Russia face the West's demographic issue, and in Russia's case a worsening of it due to Ukraine.

I'd also refute Iran's belief in security from attack, Israel's response to its attack was a very pointed reminder that Western weapons can hit anywhere, anywhen, in Iran with impunity.

There are also black swan events, with Muscovites feeling the heat from conscription, the social contract between Putin and Russians has been truly shredded. No idea if that'll lead to anything or not, nobody does.

A lot of Western infrastructure is creaking, but so is a lot of China's and Russia's, even for being newer.

Russia has the complexity that most of its upper echelons have their families living in the West. No better an early warning system than them packing up and heading east...

All four of the modern "axis" have the advantages of being embedded in the West in greater depth than we are with them.

And of course there is the prospect that hesitation and de-escalatory behaviour is confused for weakness.

jim said...

The Third Option for Taiwan - Indirect Control. I have trouble thinking how this works.

Customs and Immigration controls without a blockade or a land invasion and without disrupting normal commerce. How? A floating customs post? Or require the pre-approval and inspection of all transport at some Chinese port? How do the Chinese stop aircraft and ships simply ignoring a 'diplomatic ask', give the finger and sail or fly on by.

OK, so an oil blockade, an obviously aggressive act which might provoke international resistance. Don't forget China needs oil too. Depends how hardball (and expensive) you want to get.

The Taiwanese semiconductor supplies to China might continue but not necessarily keep up with the latest world technologies. Ultimately not really worth having - better to rely on building a China-based industry.

As for Russia, I think Biden has played quite well, let Putin think the US is backing off, let Putin embolden and spend resources extending in Ukraine. Then come back with weapons strengthening Ukraine thus putting up the cost to Russia. This game can go on a while longer - but Ukrainian person-power looks like a limiting factor. Bring in the mercenaries.

What the Orange Man will do is more of a puzzle. If he gets in in November I suspect Orange will be read the gipsy's warning and behave himself.

dearieme said...

Once Orange man is in jail he will presumably be devoid of Secret Service protection, making him easier to assassinate.

Presumably his wife will likewise be unprotected, so they can bully Trump by threatening his wife.

It's Banana Republic stuff.

Nick Drew said...

The chances of Trump getting gaol time for this seem rather remote, IMHO.

We could have a supplementary Compo question!

Nick Drew said...

Jim - sorry, but I don't think you are being imaginative enough. E.g. air travel. Simply declare the whole of Taiwanese airspace to be Chinese airspace, and then instruct every airliner to land in mainland China first for a brief 'customs' stopover. Initially, they make the 'customs check' a swift and relatively notional affair.

BA says 'no'? Then (a) technically at risk of being intercepted; (b) more probably, loses all Chinese landing slots.

Of course, someone then sets up a dedicated 'hopper' airline from e.g. Manila to Taiwan. But does the Philippines want the hassle? Do the passengers want the extra cost? Does the 'hopper' airline sell many tickets when it's been told it might be shot down? The short stopover looks pretty simple by comparison (the same thing happens on all sorts of journeys one routinely makes).

Etc etc. Just one little step up from Soft Power.

Caeser Hēméra said...

Minimal chance of jail - white collar, first time offender, only nagging bit is how he tried to ignore and subvert the gag order.

They've already accounted for having the Secret Service protect him in prison, it became an issue when the manchild had to have jail time waved in front of eyes over the gag order.

It's been a testament to not alienating all the good lawyers though, a good defence would have skewered that prosecution, but when you're left with the types who use your trial to try and settle scores due to your charming personality, well, you're fucked.

jim said...

Mmm possibly. Rock & hard place if the US denies Taiwan access to the best semicon machinery.

Doubt Trump will go to jail.

Not a fun option. A chap I knew went down for GBH. Banged up with big burglar who whispered in his ear 'I can stand the pain if you can stand the smell'. Not nice.

Anonymous said...

jim - "The Taiwanese semiconductor supplies to China might continue but not necessarily keep up with the latest world technologies."

I know the etching pattern machines are Dutch, but Taiwan IS the latest world technology.

They're trying to build a plant in Texas or Arizona and having all sorts of issues.