Russia isn’t a superpower and won’t be one again

Russia’s war in Ukraine has been ghastly but also illuminating. It’s illuminated just how broke and dysfunctional its military is and how endemic the corruption is within it. But it’s also illuminating that the country is no longer a superpower, and likely won’t ever be one again.

There are a number of reasons for this.

First, it’s a corrupt state. If oligarchs can siphon off much of the money that would otherwise go to the state, it deprives the state of the resources it needs to be effective. This is evident in the condition of Russia’s military in the Ukraine war, where much of it equipment is breaking down. Their hardware is generally shoddy because a whole chain of people got kickbacks instead of insisting the stuff they were buying was of quality. Much of their military is corrupt too, but even if they wanted to be otherwise, senior leadership won’t allow them not to be corrupt. You succeed in Russia’s military by being a toady but remaining far enough down in the hierarchy where you won’t be held accountable.

Second, its military is badly managed. Its recruits are for the most part of low caliber and they don’t get the training they need to effectively do their jobs. There is little delegation of authority, meaning local commanders can’t adapt to changing conditions. The pay is poor too and conscripts are rarely of high quality. They also haven’t figured out how to run a military logistics chain properly. And their troops seem to lack many of the basics needed to be effective, like gas for their tanks, regular resupplies and secure phones for communications.

Most importantly, they’ve been priced out of the superpower field. This is essentially how we won the Cold War in the first place: we outspent the Soviet Union because our GDP allowed us to do it. To some extent Russia held on by being clever, such as by developing more effective tactical weapons. But with a GDP less than ten percent of the United States, they simply didn’t have the means to compete forever.

Effectively, China has replaced them as the world’s new superpower. They did it by embracing capitalism, utilizing its abundance of cheap labor and a growing highly skilled workforce that embraced education. This created double digit economic growth year over year, giving them a GDP that is now rivaling that of the United States. This also gave them the resources to expand their military, build aircraft carriers, improve their ballistic missiles and create the infrastructure needed to support a first class military.

Russia embraced corrupt capitalism after it lost the Cold War. It helped improve their dismal GDP, but not enormously. Capitalism was concentrated in assets it already had, like oil and gas, rather than in new and emerging technologies. It did not reinvest its profits in things that matter like China did: infrastructure and education. To the extent Russia can wield political power, it depends on aging technology. Its nuclear warheads are one of its biggest assets, but hardest to wield effectively.

All this is not to suggest the United States is home free. Our political polarization brings lack of unity, which adds to our own governmental dysfunction. We effectively have our own oligarchy in the United States too, and it is creating huge inequality and poverty. The Republican focus on taxes as being bad also means less investments in the future. With enough disunion, the United States can be broken apart. The same is true with many countries rife with sectarian struggles. Russia might succeed in a way through our failures. So far though we keep funding our defense establishment lavishly, and our military remains one that is highly trained and effective.

Obviously, Russia is still capable of causing a lot of conflict, misery and death. But its military mindset is still stuck in the 20th century. It can perhaps nuke Ukraine into submission, but it has forever lost the hearts and minds of its people. It can only succeed by brute force, if it can find the resources to do so, but it is doomed to eventually fail. The war has proven catastrophically unwinnable for them, and any victory would be pyrhhic at best. In the process, it is turning the country into an outlaw state, further depriving them of the resources they will need to thrive in the future.

This war, which is likely to drag on for years, will likely be seen as the biggest boondoggle of the 21st century, at least so far.

Dear Pope Francis: you are half the way there

Presumably Pope Francis is now back in Rome and settling in after a whirlwind tour of Cuba and the United States. He’s a pope who is hard to dislike, perhaps because he comes out of the Jesuits. For a pope he is also suspiciously pragmatic.

He was not shy expressing his opinions while in the United States. Mostly they gave Republicans heartburn as he preached to them on subjects they did not want to hear: that poor people had equal rights, that income inequality had to be addressed and that global climate change was a serious problem. He spoke passionately of the refugee crisis affecting mostly Europe and asked America to do its part compassionately. He complained that corporations were not working in the interests of the people as a whole.

Democrats did not wholly escape his preaching. He spoke passionately about the family, but his idea of a family looked a lot like June and Ward Cleaver’s and seemed to exclude marriage for same sex couples. Still, overall it was refreshing to hear messages from a pontiff that were truthful and people-centric. Francis is a catholic in the apostolic and universal sense of the word. He even acknowledged that those who do not believe in God could be good people simply by acting as good people.

It’s not enough to make me return to the Catholic Church. It’s a lost cause in my case, as I don’t believe Jesus was God, and I don’t believe in miracles, saints and most of the peculiar beliefs of Catholics. I’m too left-brained. But his words as well as his actions (like having dinner with homeless people and riding in the back of a Fiat instead of a limousine) convinced me he is a much different pope, beloved as few will be, and acting in the spirit of Jesus. Pope John Paul II was much loved and is even on his way to sainthood, but Pope Francis’ appeal extends significantly beyond the Catholic faithful to much of the world at large.

I really tuned into his message on climate change. He introduced a small ray of hope into a problem that looks gloomy at best and catastrophic to humans and most species on the planet at worst. Perhaps some of his grounding on the matter came from outside the church. Before becoming a priest, Francis worked as a chemist. He earned the rough equivalent of an associate of science degree in chemistry in Argentina. Francis understands enough about chemistry to know that when you introduce too much carbon dioxide into an atmosphere, with no other changes to the system then temperatures will increase and it will affect most living species. He sees the obvious costs of our industrialization and acknowledges that the earth is finite and we cannot continue to exploit the earth’s resources so unintelligently.

What he did not acknowledge was that population growth is a major driver of climate change. Without an end to population growth and probably a long-term effort to reduce the earth’s population, climate change cannot be reversed. Humans drive almost all climate change because we all put demands on the earth simply to survive. The problem is much worse in industrialized societies because with increased standards of living we want more stuff, and this consumption also feeds climate change.

It’s not enough to practice “natural family planning” as a population control solution. The Catholic Church advocates refraining from intercourse during a wife’s fertile period and abstinence as the only non-sinful ways to limit family size. The rhythm method of course is chancy at best, which leaves abstinence as the only foolproof and sinless methods of birth control for devout Catholics. It makes it virtually impossible to be both a devout Catholic and an environmentalist. If you are familiar with Catholic theology then you know that using birth control pills, IUDs and prophylactics are sinful.

If Francis truly wants to take a concrete action to address climate change then simply giving Catholics permission to use these and similar forms of birth control would be a huge step forward. Of course in many parts of the world, people are too poor to afford birth control, so also stridently arguing that governments should make birth control universally available for free to all citizens is as necessary as giving birth control devices church sanction. Among the many benefits will be a reduction in abortions. Children never conceived cannot be aborted.

China’s somewhat loosened one child per family policy was effective at limiting its population growth, but at a horrendous cost. It meant forced abortions mostly of females and arguably wreaked a lot of psychological damage. It’s not hard to envision a time when climate change becomes so pressing that something like this becomes policy in most countries. While it may be necessary to do this simply to survive as a species, such policies would be the opposite of humane.

This doesn’t have to happen. With over a billion adherents, if the Catholic Church were to change its policies on birth control then it would do a huge amount in the medium term to limit population growth and subsequent climate change. It would be a humane step forward. Francis has the power to do this today.

I am not a praying man by nature, but I pray that Pope Francis will see the light on this and very soon. Our future, and the perpetuity of the Catholic Church may depend on it.

America: An Empire In Decline

The era of the United States as the world’s superpower is ending. A new superpower is emerging: China. It is likely that when the history of the 21st century is written that it will be a century marked by the decline of the United States and the emergence of China as the world’s new superpower.

In truth our self-proclaimed superpower title is more fiction than reality. Yes, our current military and intelligence spending is unprecedented. But we still delude ourselves into thinking that we are shaping world events. Rather events are shaping our country. At best our presence in Iraq keeps the country from slipping into total anarchy and civil war. It is at least half there already. In Afghanistan the situation is somewhat better. But after three and a half years the Taliban are still a force that has not been vanquished. As our forces get stretched and are needed elsewhere, it is likely that our long-term presence in Afghanistan will be more token than a controlling element.

Terrorism is the 21st century equivalent of anti-colonialism and revolution. We have become targets because our economic empire has become too extended. Gone are the days when territory could be controlled through the strategic use of gunboats and garrisons. Revolutions against well-established powers are unlikely to be won by conventional armed forces. Consequently terrorism and insurgencies seem attractive. These new kinds of conflicts are won through attrition. Eventually one side tires enough to go home. Perseverance wins.

We will see this happen in Iraq over the next few years. In reality the war in Iraq is already lost. It is lost because you know what I know in my heart: we don’t have the stomach to fight this war indefinitely. For all of Bush’s bravado you can see the reality in declining armed forces’ recruitment rates. By embracing an all-volunteer army we have decided in effect that we will wage only elective wars. Only those who choose to fight it will put their lives at risk. Even College Republicans, meeting this weekend in Arlington, Virginia don’t seem to have the stomach for it. They are glad to support our troops by saying the right words. But they are largely unwilling to put their bodies where their mouths are. War has become somebody else’s problem. For those of us not fighting it, our part is reduced to that of cheerleader.

Sensing a lost cause and no sense of urgency, baby boomer parents are encouraging their children to go to college rather than fight America’s distant wars. Congress has repeatedly said no draft, no way, most recently right before the last election. The message is clear: like with our deficit spending and reckless tax cuts, we shall have our cake and eat it on the national security front too. This translates into armed forces, already stretched to the breaking point that must eventually break. Money alone cannot win wars. It requires both materiel and boots on the ground. Lacking either of the two it fails.

We were briefly awake after 9/11 but have gone back into our happy, delusional slumbers. It is better to slap yellow Support Our Troops stickers on the back of our SUVs than encourage Junior to enlist or even to buy hybrids. Life is good. Our X-Boxes have the latest games. And besides, there is a new Batman movie at the multiplex. In our hearts we know the war on terrorism is in shambles. Yet it provides a certain balm to not openly acknowledge the fact and to throw the onus on our dysfunctional leadership.

So others step in where we increasingly fear to tread. While we are distracted in unnecessary and unwinnable wars much more tangible threats exist that we are poorly prepared for. One exists above the 38th parallel. A madman that now seems to have acquired nuclear weapons runs North Korea. But because more troops are needed in Iraq, we shuffle some from South Korea. Our pompous behavior will not even let us engage in dialog with North Korea unless they will first agree to all our conditions. Meanwhile North Korea lobs practice missiles over the Sea of Japan and scares the bejesus out of their long time enemy, the Japanese.

But North Korea is hardly the only worrisome national security issue facing us. It turns out that North Korea may have gotten a lot of its nuclear parts from our so-called ally Pakistan. And Pakistan seems to be rife with its own internal problems that could explode into civil war. And this could place its considerable nuclear arsenal in the hands of real terrorists. Instead, we are more concerned about Iran doing the same thing. In addition there are unsecured or poorly secured nuclear stockpiles all over the remnants of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. While Iraq represents zero threat to our national security, those vulnerable nuclear stockpiles offer very real and scary threats. It is unlikely that while we have been distracted in Iraq and elsewhere that terrorists have been idle. In fact there is evidence that terrorists are hard at work trying to put together a nuclear bomb.

While our buttons keep getting pressed we are largely missing the strategic problem of an emerging Chinese superpower. Much like the British showed the Japanese how to create a modern navy, we are busy giving China many of the tools it needs to challenge our superpower status. And the Chinese have been very busy moving from an agrarian to an industrial economy. We help them build automobile plants and open Wal-Marts. This infrastructure provides the basis for sustaining their wealth and gives them the means to rapidly improve their own military. Meanwhile the Chinese are spreading their influence across East Asia and the Pacific. They are creating a de facto commonwealth where loosely aligned countries like Indonesia and Vietnam provide the oil, goods, or the labor that helps them sustain their growth rates. China is a country about the same size of the United States. With no real adversaries it is free to fully tap its abundant resources to build up an Asian version of the United States, just without our democratic principles. In the short term we love the cheap goods we get in return. In the long term we exacerbate our own superpower status.

We can hope that China will emerge as an enlightened superpower like Great Britain was. But the early readings are that this will not be the case. Their sense of nationalism and their history of warfare suggests otherwise. It is a country that seems determined to grow very quickly into both an economic and military superpower. Finding conscripts for their armies is no problem. The supplies of peasants are plentiful and military service is not necessarily an elective. It is a country where you learn to do as you are told and to subsume your individual desires when needed for the goals of the state. Despite its modern trappings it remains a dictatorship.

A nuanced approach by America over the next generation toward China might allow us to become long-term strategic partners instead of future adversaries. But that probably will not happen. It is not part of the Chinese culture to integrate their culture too much with other cultures. We lack a nuanced approach because our political system encourages short-range tactics rather than long-range strategic approaches that are broadly supported by both parties. So it is likely that China will continue to be far down our list of national security concerns. Instead, we’ll be dealing with increasingly costly brushfires caused by our complex needs from the rest of the world.

But mostly we will find it more convenient to ignore these problems. For it is always Morning in America now. We are fat, happy and easily distracted by our vices. Sometime in the next decade or two we will wake to find that we are no longer the superpower we thought we were, the Chinese are in the driving seat, and that we will be playing an increasingly poor defensive game.

Every empire has its time. Ours is drawing to an end.