The next 40 years, not the next four

Eight years ago, I was in an unseasonably warm Grant Park in Chicago when Barack Obama was elected:

Grant Park, Chicago, 2008

I had visited Georgia six weeks previously, after the brief war there with Russia. This is what was left of the tiny Georgian Navy:

Georgian Navy, 2008

I then visited Aleppo, Hama, Palmyra and Damascus in Syria, 10 months after attending Obama’s inauguration in Washington DC:

Citadel, Aleppo, 2009
The Temple of Bel in October 2009. Later blown up by ISIS.
And I was on 6th Avenue in New York when Donald Trump was elected President in November 2016:

6th Avenue on Election Night 2016
As a mid 30s male from Ireland, I’ve managed to see or experience the events or aftermath of key moments that have defined my generation. None of these trips were for work — while I have been a journalist and blogger at various points — they were all vacations (sometimes mixed with some mobile journalism or social media experimentation). I guess like many people I’m just curious about the world.

My first ever visit to New York was on September 26, 2001, where I walked around the devastation wrought by terrorist attacks on 9/11, in a largely deserted lower Manhattan — still largely covered in dust and pictures of the missing.

All of those moments have defined my adult life in one way or another. But in my view one above all defines my life: and it wasn’t 9/11.

The election of Donald Trump in November is the moment that will define the rest of my life and everything that is to come. It won’t just be the next four or eight years, it will be the next forty.

The world I grew up in was a relatively simple timeline of; the Cold War; the collapse of the Soviet Union; the first Gulf War; the boom in Ireland in the 1990s along with increased EU integration (including increased globalisation and the rise of the internet); the 1990s ‘era’ ended on 9/11, followed by the second Gulf War in 2003; the global economic crash in 2008 (with Obama elected at the same time); the Arab Spring in 2011; the Russia intervention in Ukraine in 2014; and finally the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

Pretty much all of my life has been defined by the US as a global economic and military power. Whether it was the Cold War, the post-Cold War era (including the NATO intervention in Serbia), 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the crash of 2008 — all of these were within a global political order in which the US was the pre-eminent power, particular from the early 1990s onwards. Or as a capitalist power which precipitated the largest global economic collapse since 1929.

The world that I was born into in 1981 ended in November.

Indeed, I would go further. I would argue that the world my parents knew — the one from the 1950s to today, is also ending.

We are going through the largest transformation in the global political order since 1945. And it is entirely driven by the US electing Trump as their President (partly aided by Russian intervention in the election).

And Jonathan Kirshner summed it up thusly:

And so the election of Trump will come to mark the end of the international order that was built to avoid repeating the catastrophes of the first half the twentieth century, and which did so successfully — horrors that we like to imagine we have outgrown. It will not serve us well.

The upheaval that is coming will be unprecedented in my lifetime, and it’s happening just as the generation that lived and fought in the 1940s dies out.

And let’s think this through a little.

The globalised world that I saw grow in my teens in the 1990s — the evolution of internet commerce, the global trade system, goods manufactured in China and delivered to your home — is a) relatively novel b) inherently brittle and c) depends on a global political order that to date has been defined by American hegemony.

Any hint of conflict, either trade or military, will disrupt this weak system. And it will break. It will break fast. Any countries dependent on this system of trade will be affected quickly, not slowly. Knock on affects would include food production (do countries produce for domestic or international customers?), energy production (how dependent is an economy on imported energy?) and basic access to goods (how much of what you buy every day is manufactured nearby?).

And all of this is happening when energy — the driver of the global economy — is going through a transformation. The cost of producing energy is declining rapidly, thanks to the technology of renewables. Any countries that are dependent on fossil fuels for energy and revenue will be in trouble. And it so happens that one of them has thousands of nuclear weapons, and has been trying to destabilise the order (for better or worse that US-imposed global political order is) that has existed since 1945. And vested interests, such as the Exxons of this world, have a clear interest in delaying the shift to renewables as much as possible — why? Because there’s trillions of dollars still buried in the ground. Why would we shift to renewables when there’s money still buried?

There are times when people say: this time is different, and you don’t believe them.

This time is different. Within a very short period of time we will find ourselves in a completely different world, one that none of us is ready for nor indeed for which we have any frame of reference. And there will be few people still alive who have that frame of reference to teach us.

In a new world order of authoritarianism, we will need to learn fast.

Energy security

I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with an officer from a British navy ship that had docked in Cork. The subject of the conversation varied, but it tended towards military/strategic plans of Britain and the US.

What I pointedly asked was why the British had embarked on a massive navy building programme in the last 10 years, specifically the Queen Elizabeth class carriers and the Type 45 destroyer. Besides replacing older generation vessels, to me it seemed to indicate something beyond current trends in conflict (counter-terrorist Littoral ships).

Since navies have to be planned decades in advance, I often look at them to see what the possible future strategic planning of nations are.

The discussion took place just prior to the conflict in Georgia. He indicated with some frankness that the first priority was securing shipping lanes, and the chief symmetrical threat was considered to be Russia, not China. Though China was an up and coming power, its abilities in terms of blue water navy was decades away.

Discussions then ranged around a number of topics, including possible defences against super-cavitation torpedoes, possible defences by carrier groups against supersonic cruise missiles, submarine defence mechanisms (specifically against ultra quiet subs such as the German Type 212).

Then it turned to energy security. Obviously in naval terms there are very few specific regional choke points. The Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, the Straits of Hormuz and the Malacca Straits are among the most notable. Since, I argued, so much of Western energy supplies are via Hormuz, and it borders with Iran, it would seem to be a weakness in energy security.

The solution he suggested was an interesting one. Navy survey ships, he said, from both the US and Britain were concentrating their efforts almost entirely on West Africa. Angola, for example, passed Nigeria to become Africa’s leading oil producer this year, at over 2.5m barrels of oil a day. Their reserves alone are estimated at over 10 billion barrels. The US imports 7% of its oil from Angola, about three times as much as it imported from Kuwait just prior to the Gulf War in 1991.

Other West African nations are also beginning production and the EIA has a good report here. It also reports on gas availability. Equatorial Guinea and Mauritania are also new producers.

And what is the biggest advantage of this region for the West, and our energy security? All that lies between West Africa and Europe/US is the Atlantic Ocean – no choke points. And their navies to secure the shipping lanes.

Update: I meant to add that earlier this year the US reactivated its Fourth Fleet after being deactivated for 58 years. This should allow the Second Fleet operate on the eastern Atlantic, while the Fourth concentrates on the Carribean and western Atlantic.

Litvinenko killing 'had state involvement'

Mark Urban has a scoop over on his blog.

The murder of Alexander Litvinenko was carried out with the backing of the Russian state, according to Whitehall sources. A senior British security official has told Newsnight “we very strongly believe the Litvinenko case to have had some state involvement; there are very strong indications that it was a state action”.

Direct Russian government involvement in the murder of a British citizen on British soil. Uh oh.

In recent months the Director General of the Security Service, Jonathan Evans, has expressed concern about the high level of espionage operations by Russian spies under diplomatic cover. The service believes there are about 30 operating from Russian diplomatic missions in the UK. However the evidence of FSB involvement in the Litvinenko and Berezovsky cases has taken tensions between the two countries to a new level.

This could get nasty. 30 agents operating in Britain is very high, is it not?

Mugabe's millions

The ‘crackdown’ on Mugabe continues, laughably. Now he might not be able to print his zillions of dollars:

The Munich-based company that has supplied Zimbabwe with the special blank sheets to print its increasingly worthless dollar caved in to pressure on Tuesday from the German government for it to stop doing business with the African ruler.

Giesecke & Devrient — a secretive, family-owned Bavarian company that once made its money churning out worthless cash for the doomed Weimar Republic in the 1920s — has been airlifting tons of blank notes to the Zimbabwean capital Harare. The company, which has been doing business with the African nation since before Mr. Mugabe took power in 1980, is one of the few sources in the world for the specialized paper that is so important in an age when computers and laser printers have made forgery easy.

Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, phoned Karsten Ottenberg, Giesecke & Devrient’s chief executive, Tuesday to complain about the deliveries, according to a German diplomat. On Friday, Germany’s development minister denounced the company’s dealings with Zimbabwe as “terrible” and sent a fax demanding that they stop.

American Realism for a New World

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice writes an essay in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs. It is essentially a follow up to a similar essay she wrote back in 2000.

I like this bit:

The United States did not overthrow Saddam to democratize the Middle East. It did so to remove a long-standing threat to international security. But the administration was conscious of the goal of democratization in the aftermath of liberation. We discussed the question of whether we should be satisfied with the end of Saddam’s rule and the rise of another strongman to replace him. The answer was no, and it was thus avowedly U.S. policy from the outset to try to support the Iraqis in building a democratic Iraq. It is important to remember that we did not overthrow Adolf Hitler to bring democracy to Germany either. But the United States believed that only a democratic Germany could ultimately anchor a lasting peace in Europe.

Hm. That’s not the way I remember it. And as I’m reading Scott McLellan’s book What Happened at the moment, I don’t think that’s the way he recalls it either. The argument to democritise the Middle East was often times used by the administration.

Overall, Rice is extremely positive about everything, concluding:

How to describe this disposition of ours? It is realism, of a sort. But it is more than that — what I have called our uniquely American realism. This makes us an incredibly impatient nation. We live in the future, not the past. We do not linger over our own history. This has led our nation to make mistakes in the past, and we will surely make more in the future. Still, it is our impatience to improve less-than-ideal situations and to accelerate the pace of change that leads to our most enduring achievements, at home and abroad.

At the same time, ironically, our uniquely American realism also makes us deeply patient. We understand how long and trying the course of democracy is. We acknowledge our birth defect, a constitution founded on a compromise that reduced my ancestors each to three-fifths of a man. Yet we are healing old wounds and living as one American people, and this shapes our engagement with the world. We support democracy not because we think ourselves perfect but because we know ourselves to be deeply imperfect. This gives us reason to be humble in our own endeavors and patient with the endeavors of others. We know that today’s headlines are rarely the same as history’s judgments.

An international order that reflects our values is the best guarantee of our enduring national interest, and America continues to have a unique opportunity to shape this outcome. Indeed, we already see glimpses of this better world. We see it in Kuwaiti women gaining the right to vote, in a provincial council meeting in Kirkuk, and in the improbable sight of the American president standing with democratically elected leaders in front of the flags of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the future state of Palestine. Shaping that world will be the work of a generation, but we have done such work before. And if we remain confident in the power of our values, we can succeed in such work again.

I guess she has to be positive.

My reaction

Long-time readers will be aware that the Mahon Tribunal, and more specifically Bertie Ahern’s role in that tribunal, have been a bugbear of mine for some time.

Today, finally, we have the announcement that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern will resign on May 6. It is welcome news.

Mr Ahern spent much of his speech spelling out his contribution to Irish political life, and his service to the State. In the latter part he dealt with the allegations that have been his undoing. While I accept that Ahern made a contribution to the peace process, in no way does this mean that somehow he has a right to stay on in political office, nor does it excuse him from being accountable.

Cian rightly points out that it was not the media, bloggers, or even Facebook groups that led to the appalling vista of Ahern’s incredible tales and ultimate resignation. It was Ahern himself that got himself into this mess. And the only recourse, ultimately, was his resignation.

I have called for his resignation several times since his now infamous interview with Bryan Dobson in September 2006. In truth, we have spent nearly 20 months stewing over his changing stories, his incredible tales, and the sums of money involved in those tales kept growing.

As time went on it became clear that at the time he spoke to the nation on national television he had yet to tell the tribunal half of what we now know. Celia Larkin’s accounts only came to light in April 2007. Ahern changed his story in relation to the second digout during evidence in September 2007. The list goes on.

Increasingly, critics said the tribunal was no longer about the original allegation that Owen O’Callaghan gave cash to Ahern, that it had become some sort of vendetta. To some degree they are right on the former but wrong on the latter. Simply put, it was Ahern’s reaction to the tribunal’s inquiry that led directly to his resignation.

Indeed, if the Tribunal reported tomorrow and found that there were no corrupt payments it simply would not matter. Ahern’s changing positions on his own finances are what led to this result – as far as I can see he was caught up in a tangled web of his prevarications. It became less about the original allegation and more about what tribunal found – and Ahern’s response to those discoveries.

But I don’t see this as a victory for accountability. Ahern was dragged kicking and screaming to a resignation, when he really should have resigned a very long time ago. If, for example, PTSB had not found the documents that they did, Ahern would very likely still be clinging on to power, and brazening it for as long as possible – and to hell with standards or perceived standards in public life.

We have to ask ourselves what sort of society we want. One where the leader of our country spends an inordinate amount of time answering questions about vasts sums of money in his accounts, appoints friends to State jobs, takes cash from businessmen… and all the rest… or one where politicians do all of the above – but when found out resign immediately for the good of the country.

Ireland is a very long way from a democracy which is accountable to its people, and Ahern’s games around the tribunal have only served to bring the country into disrepute and to blacken the highest political office in the country.

Ahern, Taoiseach or not, has very serious matters to answer. Tribunal matters. Cash matters. Corruption matters. Criminal matters. How we deal with those matters, and how we punish wrongdoing in public office, will define our nation.

If we fall short in that regard, we all lose.

Democracy vs Democracy?

Daniel Drezner seconds the question posed by Michael Totten at Instapundit this week.

Is Totten right to say that the current war is the first example of a democracy going to war with a democracy?

Excellent discussion over at Drezner’s blog.

Incidentally I agree with Drezner on this, given that the Lebanese forces themselves have failed to engage the IDF it seems fair to say that the democratic peace proposition has not been broken.

Don't forget those other 27,000 nukes

Hans Blix is in the IHT today, talking about the nukes that actually exist, as opposed to the ones Iran might want to build.

While it’s desirable that the foreign ministers talk about Iran, they don’t seem to devote any thought to the fact that there are still some 27,000 real nuclear weapons in the United States, Russia and other states, and that many of these are on hair-trigger alert.

He then argus in favour of the US signing the comprehensive test-ban treaty. He concludes:

A U.S. ratification of the comprehensive test-ban treaty would, in all likelihood, lead other states to ratify and bring all such tests to an end, making the development of nuclear weapons more difficult. Leaving the treaty in limbo, as has been done since 1996, is to risk new weapons testing.

The second measure would be to conclude an internationally verified agreement to cut off the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons purposes.

This would close the tap everywhere for more weapons material and would be of special importance if an agreement on nuclear cooperation with the United States were to give India access to more uranium than it has at the moment.

It is positive that the U.S. has recently presented a draft cutoff agreement, but hard to understand why this agreement does not include international inspection. Do the drafters think that the recent record of national intelligence indicates that international verification is superfluous?

Surely it would put the US in a stronger position were it to take this line?

The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy

Readers might remember that I linked to a piece by Ben Shwarz in the Atlantic earlier this month, concerning a paper on the perils of US nuclear primacy. The paper Shwarz talked about is published in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

Their conclusion is worth quoting in full.

During the Cold War, MAD rendered the debate about the wisdom of nuclear primacy little more than a theoretical exercise. Now that MAD and the awkward equilibrium it maintained are about to be upset, the argument has become deadly serious. Hawks will undoubtedly see the advent of U.S. nuclear primacy as a positive development. For them, MAD was regrettable because it left the United States vulnerable to nuclear attack. With the passing of MAD, they argue, Washington will have what strategists refer to as “escalation dominance” — the ability to win a war at any level of violence — and will thus be better positioned to check the ambitions of dangerous states such as China, North Korea, and Iran. Doves, on the other hand, are fearful of a world in which the United States feels free to threaten — and perhaps even use — force in pursuit of its foreign policy goals. In their view, nuclear weapons can produce peace and stability only when all nuclear powers are equally vulnerable. Owls worry that nuclear primacy will cause destabilizing reactions on the part of other governments regardless of the United States’ intentions. They assume that Russia and China will work furiously to reduce their vulnerability by building more missiles, submarines, and bombers; putting more warheads on each weapon; keeping their nuclear forces on higher peacetime levels of alert; and adopting hair-trigger retaliatory policies. If Russia and China take these steps, owls argue, the risk of accidental, unauthorized, or even intentional nuclear war — especially during moments of crisis — may climb to levels not seen for decades.

Ultimately, the wisdom of pursuing nuclear primacy must be evaluated in the context of the United States’ foreign policy goals. The United States is now seeking to maintain its global preeminence, which the Bush administration defines as the ability to stave off the emergence of a peer competitor and prevent weaker countries from being able to challenge the United States in critical regions such as the Persian Gulf. If Washington continues to believe such preeminence is necessary for its security, then the benefits of nuclear primacy might exceed the risks. But if the United States adopts a more restrained foreign policy — for example, one premised on greater skepticism of the wisdom of forcibly exporting democracy, launching military strikes to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and aggressively checking rising challengers — then the benefits of nuclear primacy will be trumped by the dangers.