I can’t seem to find it, but I believe it was Keynes who has this wonderful quote on the fact that so much of the world around us is shaped by the ideas of long-dead thinkers who nobody actually reads and whose names have been largely forgotten. Today’s video is about one of those thinkers, Halford Mackinder. He’s not a household name, but he creeps around the margins of any large history book you will read, and he still inspires a lot of bad foreign and domestic policy in countries all over the world. His “World Island” or “Heartland” thesis is part of the list of justifications people will offer for interventionist US foreign policy. But Mackinder’s influence always remains somewhat subterranean. Because it kind of has to. Because his ideas are crap.
If you actually read one of Mackinder’s books, which I did, his ideas sound more like a half-assed dungeons and dragons game than a serious theory of history and politics. And when you dive in and examine his assumptions about the upcoming 20th century, you realize they were all wrong. His idea of looking at geopolitics as a whole is rightly influential. His actual ideas about geopolitics and their future are frankly laughable. It’s amazing how influential you can get if you give a veneer of respectability to the paranoid visions of militarists. Today’s video demolishes Mackinder’s ideas.
Foreign Aid is a ridiculously complex topic. I really enjoyed diving into it in today’s video. I’m afraid I probably oversimplified things, but I’m excited to learn more about this topic for future videos. The first thing I noticed about foreign aid, is that contrary to the way we talk about it in US politics, very, very little money goes into this. The exception, from the US perspective, is aid that we give to countries who turn around and use most of the money to buy US weapons. Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, our three largest recipients, are all examples of this. Countries we have destroyed, like Iraq and Afghanistan also get a lot of money, for obvious reasons. As this video illustrates, foreign aid is mostly used for short term political uses, not to pursue larger humanitarian goals.
There certainly are really great things that foreign aid has done. Helping to stamp out AIDS and other diseases in Africa is one great thing we do. But a lot of that is private charity, and all of those efforts combined are chicken feed compared to the military related aid that the US shovels down the throats of multiple countries. The EU structural funds, one of the topics of today’s video, are an example of enlightened self interest. The rich European countries know that the best way to ensure a peaceful continent, and avoid having to have much military spending, is to fire hose money into the poorer countries in the continent. I wish the US did more of this. If the cost of a single aircraft carrier was spent on aid to Tunisia, we could really transform the region, and the world, for the better. It’s a shame we don’t do that.
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.