This isn’t really a Russia Ukraine video. But it’s certainly been prompted by that horrific event. Washington, DC got this one right, and I got it wrong, not expecting Putin to be this stupid. But I think the exultation we’re getting from a lot of pundits today is misplaced. Some see this as a Pearl Harbor moment, hoping that it will wake the US public from its slumber, make us forget the past 20 years of imperial mismanagement, and fall in line behind the same clowns who brought us the current dismal global situation. Needless to say, that’s not my take. I do see hope here though. Russia has proven itself to be thuggish, and surprisingly weak. The situation we have now, a real fight, might finally convince Washington, DC to engage in a little prioritization. The United States is actually a very capable and impressive country. This moment could cause us to do better. In today’s video I use a similar video from British Imperial history to talk about how.
Video Transcript after the jump…
There’s no denying that the past decade or so has been humiliating for the United States. The failures seem to be coming at an accelerating rate. The 2008 financial crisis made US government and business look like a pack of greedy fools while our regime change agenda slaughtered a million people in Iraq and Syria. Just as we seemed to be emerging from those fiascos the election of a clown president made us look ridiculous and then a pandemic that should have been easy to deal with highlighted how weak all of our institutions had become, from our infantile television news, to our over privatized and nearly useless medical establishment. And now the past year has seen the quick-fire calamities of military frontiers in Afghanistan and Ukraine.
It’s easy to see all this and assume that US Empire has reached the end of its time on top. But that’s not what I see. I see an opportunity. I believe that the US world system could emerge from this period, with a less imperial edge, and better positioned to serve its own people, and benefit the world. What this era could give us, is the gift of prioritization. The realization that we can’t do everything, could help us to do many things much, much better. We’ve seen it happen before.
I am a student of the British Empire, and I find that multiple scenes from its development are useful for understanding the United States. I worry about the US experiencing a Suez Crisis, the final humiliation of an empire’s aspirations to independent action, like the one the British experienced in Egypt in 1956. I’m not alone in seeing US victory over the Soviet Union in the early 1990s as similar to British victory over France in 1815, launching a period of unquestioned supremacy. But today I want to talk about an even earlier period and the striking parallels I see to Biden’s America. I’m talking of course, about the War of American independence.
As a US citizen, I like to see the United States and its founding heroes as the main players in that drama. Some of the documents we wrote during that time ended up being very important, but in truth Washington, Jefferson and the rest were merely bit players in a wider world drama. What happened in the 1760s and the 1770s was that the British had gotten a little too full of themselves. You see, the problem was that they had won a war. That’s a real challenge for a country, more often than you’d think. And the war that they’d won had been the biggest on record.
We call it the French and Indian war in the United States, but it’s more widely known as the Seven Year’s War. It was a titanic struggle that many believe is the first that truly deserves the title of World War. Between 1756 and 1763 the British and their allies won a series of battles across the world, creating the first global system of empire. These seven years saw the beginning of Britain’s territorial empire in India, the conquest of most of French North America, the humiliation of the Spanish empire, and the destruction of yet another French Navy, all enabled by an incredibly bloody stalemate on the European continent. After a series of miraculous years, the British looked out on a world that they began to think of as their own, to do with as they wished. And in that arrogance they made a crucial mistake. They forgot their allies. In their rush to swallow France’s overseas possessions, Britain made a separate peace with France, abandoning their ally Prussia, the country that eventually unified Germany, to figure things out for itself. Prussia had lost vastly more soldiers than Britain, and got no benefit from the war. The British of the 1760s began to mistake a clever system of business and government and a series of lucky breaks for a sort of predestined, god-ordained inability to fail. They thought they could effortlessly control the whole world for all time. A lot like my country in the 1990s, in fact.
By this point, the parallels should be obvious. After the end of the Cold War, the US got cocky. We assumed we could control everything, everywhere, all the time. We started picking fights with people, not based on our interests, but based on our idea of how people should run their own countries. Our IMF WTO UAV combo has inspired vastly more tea parties than any 18th century British Stamp Act. This imperial nonsense has led to humiliation after humiliation for the United States. What to do? Well, let’s look at what the British did.
Fighting broke out in North America in 1775, and proved to be frustrating for the British. They could win big victories, but Washington and his insurgents would just retreat into the woods and keep on fighting. Things got really bad in 1778 when the French jumped in on the American side. Unlike almost every other conflict between France and Britain, London found itself without allies on the continent. Prussia sat this one out, and the Dutch even joined in against the British, for the first time in almost a century.
The British faced the horrifying prospect of a France that was free to put the majority of its resources towards a Navy and threaten not just the North American colonies, but the rest of Britain’s overseas empire as well. Britain’s insistence on being everywhere, and winning everything had now put the whole system in jeopardy.
So the British prioritized. The slave colonies they ran in the Caribbean were much more lucrative so that’s where they put their military focus, battling back the French and Spanish there. They gave up North America, and the Mediterranean island of Minorca, but by focusing on the competitions that actually mattered, they set themselves up for the next century.
And they set themselves up incredibly well. Losing North America wasn’t the end of the British World System, it was the beginning. Prioritization made the British more powerful, not less.
The United States achieved it’s independence in political terms, but it would be more than a century before we got anything like real economic independence. In the first half of the 1800s, the British got to pretend to be against slavery, while financing it, and profiting massively. Continuing financial empire in the United States gave Britain the resources it needed to build territorial and informal empire everywhere else. The British empire in the 1860s reached peaks that would have dazzled the Imperialists that lost the United States.
The past two decades have seen the US making Britain in the 1760s style mistakes. We are infinitely more powerful than they were of course. We only occasionally need military force to coerce and destroy countries. With a world financial system mostly based on computers in New York, and a few teams of lawyers in Washington, DC we have shut down the economies of Venezuela, Syria, Iran and North Korea. We occasionally send out the US Navy to hijack some Iranian ships, but those bits of old fashioned piracy are really just icing on the cake. The sun never sets on our empire of economic coercion.
Washington, DC isn’t content to hold the world in thrall with lawyers though. Our entire government is now organized around the corruption around selling weapons. So we have spent the past two decades creating progressively more elaborate and ridiculous situations in which we can use those weapons.
In the first decade of this century we partnered with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to fight terrorists that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had created and continued to fund and support. A little negotiation with Afghans in 2001 would probably have quickly given us Osama Bin Laden, but our politicians preferred to keep up the weapons sale churn for a decade, working with Saudi Arabia to spread the ideology of terror to places like Syria, before finally, reluctantly carrying out a hit on Bin Laden in his Pakistani refuge.
In Syria we partnered with Turkey and Saudi Arabia to open up space in Northern Syria for Jihadists fighting the Assad government, and then pivoted to fighting one of our proxies there when it got out of hand. Hilariously, both Republicans and Democrats love to celebrate our victory over that proxy, the Islamic State, as a big success. Oh yeah, and we only beat the Islamic State by partnering with groups the Turks see as terrorists. So we endangered our relationship with a top 20 economy and NATO’s second biggest military, to destroy an enemy that was largely created by the CIA and our Saudi allies. Big success.
Of course it’s important to remember that these lucrative but fundamentally idiotic conflicts in the Middle East were always just a side show. There are other nuclear powers in the world, with real militaries, and our policy has also been to be as aggressive against them as is humanly possible as well.
When I was born in the 1970s, we were contending with these countries over places like Vietnam and Germany. Now we are winning a dispute with China over a territory that speaks Mandarin Chinese, and we are humiliating Russia in a proxy war in a country where most people still speak Russian. I am not saying that’s a bad thing. I like Ukraine and Taiwan too. It’s just important to recognize how aggressively and successfully we have been kicking the crap out of Russia and China for 30 years now.
In the 1780s British overstretch meant that they lost the territory that became the United States. The problem we have now is not any serious threat from another power, but the damage that irresponsibly aggressive US policies have done to our world system. We won’t lose any territory, but our policies have pushed the world to the breaking point. This has implications everywhere, but can be seen most clearly in the price of oil.
We are trying to move away from dependence on oil and gas, but we are simply not there yet. Over the past decade US foreign policy has destroyed the oil industries of Iran, and Venezuela, as well as Iraq and Libya for significant periods as well. Now Russia’s savage invasion of Ukraine has provided the straw that has broken the camels back. Well actually it’s more a ton of bricks than a straw. Last week the price of a barrel of oil shot over 100 dollars for the first time in 8 years. This week it should hit 150 dollars. Will it hit 200 dollars a barrel next week?
And keep in mind that oil is just the most obvious indicator. Isolating Russia is going to break everything in the world economy. Food prices, inflation, financial markets, everything. The US needs to get ahead of this disaster by taking a step back. The old maximum problems with everyone strategy needs to end.
We aren’t going to back off China or Russia at all. Nor should we. I hate to admit it, but it appears the US war mongers were exactly right about Putin’s aggressiveness. I am pretty sure US war mongers created the Putin problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless. Russia has already lost its war in Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean it won’t go on for months or years to come. China seems to be backing Russia’s play, and it’s childish behavior during the Trump administration has convinced me they aren’t a responsible actor either. And, while Russia certainly looks a lot less intimidating in recent weeks, the fact remains that these are our only two real competitors, and confronting them is in our national interest. But all of these other fights we have been picking? They all need to end.
Middle East playtime needs to be over. We have a real fight now, we don’t need the made up ones anymore. It’s time to get the weapons salesmen out and send the diplomats in. We need to let Iran, Syria and Yemen back in to the world community and talk about reconstruction contracts instead of missile contracts. Venezuela and Cuba need to be welcomed back now too. We are in a much more serious conflict with Russia now, and no matter how important it is for Florida politics we just can’t afford to hold on to these grudges in our own hemisphere. Iran and Venezuela’s oil industries will take some time to get going again, but once they do, they will be an important part of dealing with higher prices.
Giving up on our fights with all of these little players isn’t just the right thing to do morally and financially speaking, it’s also the best way to shut down Russia diplomatically. None of these countries are formal allies with Russia, they have just been beaten into Russia’s arms by US aggression. If we try a little honey relations will improve dramatically.
To its credit, the Biden administration has already entered into talks with both Venezuela and Iran. We need these processes to go more quickly, and we need to shut down the remaining war Hawks in DC who are getting in the way. It’s important to recognize that in the current price environment, US oil and gas sanctions don’t work anyway. They are just giving China and India a discount on the black market. Why not get the benefit of lower prices and some limits on Iran’s nuclear program as well?
The US world system is at a transition point. I expect that conflict with Russia and China is about to heat up. That means it’s time to get serious, which means that it’s time to prioritize, and give up on all these stupid little fights that Washington DC loves so much. If we can learn from the British Empire and do that, then the US world system’s best days are still ahead of us.