I don’t talk about Russia much. Mostly because I don’t take it very seriously. I take its nukes very seriously, but my fears there are more about mismanagement of stockpiles than the possibility of intentional use. When it comes to Russia’s position in the world I see it as an under-funded and doomed power that is trying to do way, way too much with what little it has left. When Russia looks strong, it’s usually because the United States has done something incredibly stupid, like overthrow a democratically elected president on Russia’s periphery or destroy an Arab state.
This impression does not seem to be widely shared, so I suppose a video explaining this view is long over due. Weirdly, my excuse for finally getting this complicated map video out there is what I believe to be an unacknowledged Russian victory. We’ve been hearing about all these farcical Russian victories for half a decade, and now that there’s a real one, everybody seems to be ignoring it. Today’s video also explains why that is…
You may notice that today’s video looks a little different. I don’t know why it took this long for me to do this, but this weekend I finally signed up with Storyblocks, a company that provides stock footage. In recent years I’ve become more and more concerned with keeping my videos within the letter of copyright law. I didn’t realize until this afternoon how limiting that was. Back when I started out I just grabbed whatever from wherever, with the certain knowledge that nobody would ever come after an obscure channel in Turkey. But in 2017 I started being a lot more careful. I’m very grateful for what I’ve learned through that process and the skills I’ve built…
But man today was fun! With Storyblocks it feels like 2014 again. They’ve got a clip for most anything I want to talk about. I was aware of this flexibility as I finalized the script, and I think it allowed me to put something together that’s a little freer, and maybe even a little bit funny. Anyway, today is the most fun I’ve had editing in ages, and it’s the first of the new “long form” videos that I’m actually proud of. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did…
Does the United States do any strategic thinking at all? During the Cold War the United States was focused on defeating the Soviet Union, and everything was secondary to that. Even the insult of the explicitly anti-American Iranian revolution was largely ignored in the name of fighting the Soviets. The US government colluded in arming Iran during the 1980s after all. But for the thirty years since the cold war it really hasn’t been about focus… it’s been about finding or creating the enemies necessary to keep the defense money flowing. We’ve been going everywhere and been acting as offensively as possible to keep the world dangerous.
We have clearly reached the limits of that approach. Biden’s supposed withdrawal from Afghanistan (I’ll believe it when I see it) could be an early recognition of this. The US is still overwhelmingly powerful, but when we’re on the border of an enemy that cares infinitely more about a piece of territory than we do, like Ukraine or Iraq or Taiwan, we can’t effortlessly exert our will anymore. If we continue to act as unwisely as we have in the past two decades, we seriously risk getting caught out in a much more serious way than the Iraq disaster. The most obvious way this could happen would be if we somehow blunder into a simultaneous war with Iran and China, in two different regions. With today’s video I examine that possibility, and come to the obvious conclusion that the best thing we can do for the security of Taiwan is get back into the Iran nuclear deal. Fewer enemies mean we might be able to more effectively compete in the rivalries we maintain.
This one was a lot of fun to make. Early on in this channel’s history I played around with scripted skits a bit more, and it was fun to get back into it. I’ve long been incredulous about the way that China-US relations are covered. US media seems utterly incapable of looking at things in their proper context. It seems obvious to me that China is heading in the wrong direction, and US media loves to document that. Where most US news sources fall short, however, is in explaining why China has turned a bit nuts. There’s a very involved history of US antagonism that led us to where we are, and China’s actions, while horrific, aren’t really an effective counter to anything we have been doing. I don’t want to excuse China’s behavior, but I don’t think we should obscure the US’s part in it.
I’ve made videos covering this material before, but I thought it might be fun to do it what I hope is a more breezy and amusing scripted format. What if we re-ran the past ten years of US China relations, but with China as the more powerful party rather than the United States? Today’s video is a thought experiment, and an experimental video as well. Let me know what you think!
Trying out a new format today! Folks may have noticed that traffic has been declining a bit on the channel. I’d been wondering about this for a while, but over the holiday season I did a deeper dive, and decided to figure out why. The simple fact seem to be that YouTube’s requirements have changed. It’s true that they are less likely to point to controversial topics from small channels, but my videos are no longer algorithm friendly in a more important way as well: They’re just too short.
People may prefer short videos, I certainly do. But YouTube wants people to watch for longer. Long established YouTuber Veritasium maintains that you need to have an average watchtime of around 8 minutes for YouTube to get excited about putting your video in front of more people. Can’t get to an 8 minute watch time if most of your videos are under 8 minutes long, as mine are. So, with today’s video, I’m switching things up a bit. I’m trying to mix the produced videos with more improv-ed riffs. Let me know how you think it’s going!
It’s amazing how little investment the US has in the priorities of our allies. It’s well established that our foreign policy establishment is utterly incapable of seeing anything from the perspective of any of our “adversaries”. This would be a tremendous problem if the United States were actually in anything like a real competition with anybody. The dumbest actor in a contest rarely wins. But it’s not a contest. At this point, we’re so much more powerful than any of our opponents that it just doesn’t matter (leaving aside moral questions). What we should be doing, in this waning, but still present historical moment, is building up our position with allies, and working to stretch this sweet spot out as long as possible. We’re doing the exact opposite of that, of course.
A system that wants to stand the test of time needs to be aware of, and at least not obstruct, the wishes of smaller members of that system. As today’s video illustrates, we’re not doing that. Our oldest and strongest allies in Europe have opted to kick off the “New Cold War” by committing to an investment agreement… with China. This should be a wake up call. I doubt it will be.
This one is less about concrete ideas around India and Pakistan than it is a call to arms (or a call against arms) for everybody to learn more about the topic. The gap between the importance of this conflict and the amount of knowledge analysts, let alone the general public, have about it is vast. India and Pakistan are some of the largest countries on the planet, they have nuclear weapons, and they have the sort unsettled borders and over-powerful militaries that make further conflict more likely than not. Today’s video makes the case for making the region the channel’s next big project.
It’s amazing to me how much of the Security/geopolitics conversations happens around stuff that will never matter. The Pentagon and their pet think tanks and congresspeople are pushing the “New Cold War” with China because they know that it will keep the money rolling in. But it really doesn’t make sense. All the defense related crap we are buying will be superseded or sunk within the first month or so of an actual shooting war with China. Nobody really knows what such a war would look like, but it’s obvious to me that most of the trillions we spend on weapons will be wasted.
What I have done this week, and with last week’s video, is try to talk about areas of competition that actually matter. Diplomacy, Business, and the degree to which the rest of the world is still willing to put up with US hegemony are vastly more important factors in the resolution of this competition than almost anything that will happen in the South China sea. It’s the management of these other competition spaces that will determine whether war with China happens in the 2030s, the 2130s, or not at all. The Big Tech companies are another one of those great benefits, like the peace dividend at the end of the cold war, that we in the United States may be in the process of wasting. We should maybe spend a billion or two thinking about these companies strategically, among the trillions we’ll spend on useless weapons platforms. Today’s video is a place to start.
Today’s video hints at something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. We all know China’s great internet firewall as a source of great repression. But China’s maintenance of a separate national internet has also left it weirdly independent of the US tech giants that rule the internet everywhere else.
China has worked hard to co-opt the newest of the Tech behemoths, Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. General Motors and other foreign car companies battled for decades to build up their competitive position in China. Musk was building a massive factory in China under favorable terms before he sold his millionth (100,000th?) car. China was wise to try to get this guy on their side, but as today’s video explains, it’s unlikely to work out well for them in the long term…
I’d like to make more videos in this vein, thinking through the outside power of tech companies and what it means for geopolitics, but that depends on how this video does. If you like it, share it around…
Today’s video covers the India-China border dispute, which has gotten significantly more serious over the past 48 hours. I don’t have much to contribute to what’s happening on the ground, even the real reporters are having difficulty figuring that out. But the fact that China is embroiled in this lethal border dispute indicates a serious problem for the country.
China has missed an extraordinary opportunity. Now that I think of it, so have the Russians, the Chinese, and anybody else who has been set up as an enemy of the United States. Before this year he still had his defenders, but in June of 2020 there are few people who dispute that Donald Trump is the dumbest, weakest, and easiest to bribe president in US history. Yet after three and a half years of Trump’s time in power none of these legendarily so threatening actors have managed to do much at all to advance their interests. China, supposedly the country ready to supplant us, has managed to dig itself a massive hole geopolitically and financially. It’ almost as if we’re spending too much money on our military…