Words are important. Last week’s video on Gibraltar inspired a lot of confusion in the comments. People didn’t seem to understand why I found the statement from the UK’s Michael Howard so offensive. So this video explains in detail. Using violent words in a time of international uncertainty can lead to violence. History shows us this.
The video was already too long, so I left out examples of how this happens. In the pre-industrial era you could see this sort of thing all the time. Lands were ruled by Kings and Nobles, with a delicate sense of honor, who would sometimes start wars over verbal insults. The Spanish Armada, the most famous example of tension between Spain and Great Britain is one example. The Spanish tried to invade Britain for a number of reasons, among them religious words, but some of them were personal. Phillip II of Spain was angry that the English Queen Elizabeth had rejected his son’s hand in marriage.
You can see the importance of the words of leaders in the run up to World War I. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 tells the tale. For decades European leaders used belligerent nationalist talk about their enemies to legitimate their rule. They found that this got out of control. Their newly moneyed and literate publics took these words to heart, and ran ahead of their rulers in their hatred of the other. World War I was started by a perfect storm of idiocy, but a lot of it started with words. When the few leaders with sense could see what was happening, they found that they were constrained by the nationalist beast they had unleashed. That beast ended up eradicating the power, and sometimes the lives of most of Europe’s royal families. It’s a great book, and an important read as we fall back into the nationalist maelstrom. I’d suggest giving it a look…
Oh Russia! As I’ve made clear, I don’t think much of the continued furor around that country’s role in the US election. But that barely scratches the surface of the silliness surrounding discussions of Russia’s geopolitical position. The US foreign policy establishment has been jawing for years about Putin’s “impending” invasion of the Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This has always been ridiculous. A year and a half ago I made a video pointing out 3 reasons why it would never happen. It has reached a pretty large audience.
Donald Trump’s election has prompted a new wave of Baltic paranoia, however. On the campaign trail, Trump spent a fair amount of time insulting our NATO allies. Some are afraid he won’t honor our commitments to the Baltics in the event of a Russian invasion. I think these fears are exaggerated. But what if they were true? If Russia had the all powerful military machine it is credited with then maybe the Baltics would be in trouble. It doesn’t. In fact, the 2017 Russian budget imposes a 25% cut on Defense spending. Even without NATO, I’m quite confident Russia wouldn’t invade Estonia. It’s just too dangerous for Putin. Washington, DC will continue pretending Russia is a real threat, rather than a skilled exploiter of situations in countries the US has already destroyed. For those of us outside the beltway however, I’ve put together another video laying out the dismal geopolitical situation facing Russia. I hope you enjoy it..
AHCA has failed! But what does this mean for Donald Trump? My suspicion is that this is what Trump and Bannon wanted all along. My roommate Ray disagrees with me strongly. We’ve decided to bet on the outcome. I think some kind of broader coverage Trumpcare plan will come out within the next six months. Ray disagrees. The loser will be forced to endure some form of social media shaming. What do you think that should be?
Everybody thinks that the Middle East is different somehow. It’s really not. The real reason it’s a mess isn’t “centuries old hatreds” or the “oil curse”. 30 years ago, much of the rest of the world was just as screwed up. The reason the Middle East is still a mess, is because it remains the subject of competition between regional and world powers. The US and Saudi Arabia against Iran, and Israel against everybody else (supposedly), has kept a “Cold War” dynamic going in the Middle East long after it has faded everywhere else.
China, the only power that may one day rival the United States, is a paid up member of the US system. “Competition” in the rest of the world is about “Trade Wars” not “War Wars”. The US has provided a good enough deal to get everyone on the same page. Donald Trump wants to end that. He has a straightforwardly mercantilist, or even mercenary way of looking at the world. As I put it in the video, he wants to replace a generous deal with “F#*K you, pay me!”. These rough edges might be in the process of being shaved off, but it’s worth looking at what would happen to the world if he got his way.
Trump’s world would be one of renewed competition between the US and regional powers on every continent. It wouldn’t be one of great power war, not during Trump’s term anyway, but it would mean more proxy wars. Likely locations are some you’ve heard of, like Ukraine and Libya, and some you might not have thought of, like Thailand and Azerbaijan. Political tussles that are worked out locally today would quickly attain an international dimension. The Cold War’s ability to turn every local issue into competition between the US and the USSR was extraordinary. In a world of renewed competition between regional powers, this dynamic would resurface. In the words of Thucydides…
“the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.
Let’s try to avoid that shall we?
I should probably explain what I’m up to with this World War 3 Series I’ve been developing over the past couple months. On one level it’s a shameless bid for views. YouTube loves World War 3. There’s a lot of stuff out there insisting that world war is imminent. One of the most annoying bits of fake news during the 2016 election was the assumption that Hillary Clinton would bring it about if she were elected. My annoyance has now transitioned to the folks who insist that Trump is going to turn the world into a cinder. The chances of that are definitely higher than they would have been under Clinton, but I think they are still pretty trivial. If we’re looking for a partner for World War III, we’ve got the same problem we’ve had since 1989. Nobody’s really interested. In the first episode in this series “Will Trump Start a War With China?” I address China’s inability to challenge us today, and Trump’s possible role in encouraging a conflict down the line. In Part two, “Is Russia Winning?” I laid out why they are pretty clearly not.
So in one sense, the point of this series is to get people to relax. But it’s not that I don’t think World War 3 is possible. In fact I think it’s inevitable. The only question in my mind is when it happens. Will it happen 50 years from now, or 500 years from now? It’s our responsibility to push that day off for as long as possible. That’s the point of this series beyond the clicks. The internet shouldn’t be talking about World War III the way it does, but it’s a good thing to think about nonetheless. We humans are violent folks. Past performance is no indicator of future results, of course, but the every year that goes by without a conflagration is a win for us. We need to think more seriously about how to keep that streak going. Which is exactly what today’s video tries to do.
Some Republicans are still celebrating Trump’s election. If they knew the history of the French Revolution they wouldn’t be. As tumultuous as the Trump transition has been, it’s going to get much worse. Believe it or not, this really is a honeymoon phase. All the norm breaking and vileness of the Trump presidency will soon be turned on the Republican Party. Trump doesn’t have any other choice if he wants to keep his base with him. Though 18th century France couldn’t be more different from the contemporary United States (debatable), the gyrations of the French Revolution provide an interesting model for what this might look like.
This video owes everything to Mike Duncan and his incredible “Revolutions” podcast. Duncan is working his way through significant revolutions of the modern era. So far he’s covered the English Civil War, and the American, French, and Hatian Revolutions. He’s currently working his way through the Latin American revolutions of the early 19th century. They come out in mostly weekly, breezy, fun and digestible half hour segments. I admire a project that goes on for years like this. He’s working his way towards his beloved Russian Revolution, though I would be surprised if he got there before the 2020s.
Duncan’s work came to my attention about a year and a half ago through his old podcast The History Of Rome. That too was a seriously ambitious project. Over 5 years or so, and 179 episodes, he covered Rome’s history from the founding of the city in the 700s BC (supposedly) to the fall of the Western Empire in 476 AD. I had had the idea that turned into my TEDx talk before finding the History of Rome, but I never would have had the confidence to speak on ancient history, even as an amateur, without this podcast. It’s great stuff. If I can steer you his way, I’ll be doing you a favor, and doing just a bit to re-pay Duncan for his work.
Swimming in history is a great thing. I’m constantly reading it, and thanks to Duncan, I hear about it every day at the gym too. What I try to do with my channel is convey that sense of history, and inject a bit of it into our discussions of politics and current events. Outside of a few issue areas (FATCA, Criminal Justice), I don’t know that much more about politics than your average Washington, DC journalist or academic. But I know a ton more about history, and I think that’s what makes my channel worth watching. Even if the audience finds the comparisons I draw ridiculous (I occasionally do too), the hope is that it’ll get people thinking in new and different ways. One of the things that makes this the best job I’ve ever had is the way that events, my reading, and my somewhat improvisational approach to the weekly topics point me in directions I would not have expected. For example, I now have enough videos on French history to make a playlist. That’s weird.
Taiwan is something we don’t talk about too much. In fact, that’s pretty much US policy, and one of the rare ones I agree with. It’s possible to see the question from the Chinese position, and from the Taiwanese position as well. In this video I do both. Please watch the video all the way through. It starts out forcefully arguing the Chinese position, then it forcefully argues the Taiwanese position. I happen to believe both things. Which is very confusing. It makes my head hurt a bit. I look forward to the comments section on this one. Maybe it’ll change my mind?
As confusing as Taiwan can be, it’s vital that we all learn more about it. It’s central to one of the more pressing issues of the Trump Presidency and the coming decades…
Also I love that my research for this video involved unearthing my once treasured collection of He-man figures. It provides an interesting window on manufacturing in the early to mid 1980s. I thought that they had all been “Made In Taiwan” but that wasn’t the case. The figures I had were manufactured in Mexico, Taiwan and Malaysia. Interestingly the most recent, and most complex figures, ca. 1985, were manufactured in Malaysia. Perhaps Taiwan was already moving on by that point. The later complexity may be down to the fact that Mattel had more money to dedicate to the line, after it had proved insanely popular. I also found a Thundercat figure, but Mumm-Ra will have to wait for another video.