From the Comments: Power and the Rhymes of History

Over the past couple of days, Notes On Liberty‘s house conservative, Dr Delacroix, has created quite a few waves with his fanciful thoughts about punishing Russia for its bad behavior of late. (Somebody remind me again about George W Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, and then let me know if that could have possibly set a bad precedent.) Professor Amburgey’s thoughts on power are worth another look:

In general, comparing a nation state to a human being is not useful. However, comparing the leader of a nation state to a human being can be sensible. The utility depends on how much power the leader has. I think there are several nation states where leaders have acquired enough power to assume that, in general, they are the decision maker. Iran springs to mind, as does North Korea. I’m beginning to think that Russia falls into that category.

I can buy this. However, dictators cannot be dictators without also having the broad support of the populace. This is why libertarians argue that it’s better to declare war than to topple a dictator.

Elsewhere, Dr Amburgey observes:

True. However Russia is turning into a dangerous regional power with dangerous territorial ambitions. Pretending otherwise is silly.

Russia only turned dangerous after the United States spread itself too thin. Keeping our own house in order will do more for world peace and prosperity than bombing other countries indiscriminately (or having the world-renowned CIA engage in “secret” terrorism!).

NEO adds his own eloquent thoughts to the mix. In response to my observation that the Cold War is over, NEO writes:

Maybe, Brandon. But the surest way to make sure it does, or something similar in Asia, is to believe it can never happen again.

The comparison for that is the “War to end all wars” leading to the new 30 years war.

That the weakness in libertarianism, actually. The oceans aren’t nearly as effective a barrier as they were in the days of the Royal Navy controlling them for us, and unless we only want free trade in CONUS, we’d best take care of it ourselves.

Will it be the same? Nope. But it will happen. If not Putin, somebody else.

As Mark Twain observed, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Again, I think NEO’s observations tie in well with Dr Amburgey’s about the potential for rising, autocratic powers to do bad things. However, we have only ourselves to blame for their rise.

For instance:

  • Was the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq a good idea?
  • Was bombing, invading, and occupying the Balkans a good idea? (Why don’t you tell me what the Russians think…)
  • Is it smart to still be occupying Afghanistan long after Osama bin Laden’s death?
  • Is it really necessary to have tens of thousands of troops along the 38th Parallel?
  • Does bombing poor countries in the name of liberation (not liberty) solve the underlying structural problems that poor states face?
  • Does supporting dictatorships that actively oppress Islamic fundamentalists help or hurt individual liberty?

In my mind, Russia has not grown to be a mid-major power. The United States has simply been caught with its pants down. This is why you read about ideas like terrorizing Russian citizens in Kaliningrad as a way to counter Moscow’s deft calculations. I cannot think of a better signal to the world that the US is weak then a resort to state-sponsored terrorism. Can you?

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9 thoughts on “From the Comments: Power and the Rhymes of History”

  1. OK, let’s expand on this a bit.

    As for your questions, except in an academic sense, it doesn’t matter, really. It’s done. Not that we shouldn’t think about it.

    To develop my thoughts a bit. My thinking is that when we get to the point of using ground troops, declared war or not, although why not, I don’t see, is that we go there like Sherman, an almost Hobbesian campaign, “Nasty, Brutish, and Short”. One doesn’t fight a war to win friends and influence people (or at least one shouldn’t). One fights a war to win, defined as making the other guy quit, while inflicting minimal damage on one’s own people. But ground troops are rather a last resort.

    My own thinking is more of a maritime one. We’re basically a trading culture, freedom of the seas (and air) is more important to us, particularly since most of our real friends are the same. We need to control that-that’s what the navy and air force can do superlatively, or at least deny it to others. And it has the advantage that it’s only a war if everybody thinks so.

    My thinking on Kaliningrad runs like this. I can get on board with your qualms but, if we really care, we declare a maritime exclusion zone, and stop traffic in and out. If Putin really wants to fight us, he sends the Baltic fleet out, if he doesn’t he keeps his mouth shut. Frankly my first thought is to close Vladivostok as well, and maybe the Bosphorus, make him work for his gains, and we’re playing our strengths against his weakness.

    And that’s what bothers me the most about Washington, they’re predictable, nearly doctrinaire. You don’t win that way, you win by making the other guy realize you will react but, not where, or when, or how strongly.

    It’s called the OODA loop, we need to be inside his decision making cycle, so he has no idea what we’ll do while we have a pretty good idea of what he will probably try next.

  2. @Brandon
    “However, we have only ourselves to blame for their rise.”

    Your list of prior stupidity is impressive, irrefutable, and irrelevant. To quote Jacques favorite target after the 2014 elections: “What difference at this point does it make?”

    Unlike Jacques or NEO, I prefer something with official deniability that sends a clear signal.

    1. I don’t really disagree, but who, exactly. That’s the advantage of the navy, one gray ship looks a lot like anybody else’s. And we don’t necessarily have to broadcast any of this, just do it. The Russians will know, they’re smart like that.

      It doesn’t give official deniability, but it can give plausible deniability, other than a CVN, of course, but if we lose one of those, then we need to be in to win it.

  3. Very interesting comments from the both of you, thanks.

    NEO, your point about wars is a very good one, and I believe I’ve covered the libertarian view fairly well here (it basically agrees with everything you write about the subject; see also this).

    What I find most interesting is NEO’s and Terry’s response to my point about US military overstretch and how that emboldens regional, autocratic hegemons like Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Both men – despite one being a Republican and the other a Democrat – elicited the exact same response. Here, for example, is NEO:

    As for your questions, except in an academic sense, it doesn’t matter, really. It’s done.

    And here is Professor Amburgey:

    Your list of prior stupidity is impressive, irrefutable, and irrelevant. To quote Jacques favorite target after the 2014 elections: “What difference at this point does it make?”

    Libertarians often make the point, a bit hyperbolically in my opinion, that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two major American political parties, and the responses of both NEO and Terry suggest that there is some truth to this.

    My point about US military overstretch makes a HUGE difference at this point. Let me explain.

    In each instance of those big mistakes that I’ve pointed out, the US military (or its proxy, NATO) has remained indefinitely, in one form or another, in those territorial spaces.

    Introducing a conflict in the Baltic, against the world’s most powerful regional hegemon no less, will only further stretch the US military thin. This in turn will embolden autocratic regional hegemons to engage in further adventurism beyond their borders.

    In essence, a conflict in the Baltic will make the US weaker, the world economy less stable, and autocratic ideologies more attractive.

    In addition, we have to keep in mind that Crimea chose to secede from fascist state and join another one. How is this worth the blood and treasure of the West?

  4. “How is this worth the blood and treasure of the West?”

    That’s the benefit of an industrial “accident” to the Kaliningrad water supply: no blood and a trivial amount of treasure.

    1. Suppose that VEVAK – Iran’s intelligence agency – created an industrial accident in regards to Toronto’s water supply. You and I would rightly consider this state-sponsored terrorism, regardless of whether or not Tehran took any sort of official blame.

      Now suppose that the CIA created an industrial accident in regards to Kaliningrad’s water supply. I would consider this state-sponsored terrorism. You would consider this ________ (please fill in the blank).

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