This one almost ended up as another channel trailer. I initially produced a video making fun of the Thucydides Trap when it was first publicized in the Atlantic over five years ago. I thought it was a profoundly silly concept from the start. Unfortunately, it’s become a phenomenon. Just go to Google News and type in “Thucydides Trap” and you’ll find that it is mentioned at least weekly in one article on US-China relations or another. This misuse of the concept is quite sad, because Thucydides actually does have a very useful story to tell policy-makers in the United States. In today’s video, I lay out that story, and use it as the foundation for my pitch for the third of three options for this channel’s next new project. You now have the all the information you need to vote!
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.
One of the best things about doing commentary on YouTube is the feedback. Tuesday’s video is the second installment of my series on Algeria. It covers a lot of the same territory as my first video on Algeria, which was mostly just an appreciation of the country’s amazing history. But by posting that first video, I got a ton of comments that helped to guide some reading on my part, that helped me form more confirmed opinions on the country and its history. Tuesday’s video has gotten some very flattering appreciation. A handful of Algerian commentators have pointed out that my coverage is worlds better than any other English language source. This is less a celebration of my work than an indication of how bad US coverage of the country is more generally. I read two books, one of which I don’t find particularly trustworthy, and read about 1,000 YouTube comments, half of which were one sentence critiques of my figures and my neglect of the Berber population. With just that, I was able to do a better job talking about the country than almost any English language journalist. I’m kind of proud of that, but it’s also pretty sad.
All that said, while I’ve gotten a few very positive comments on this video, I’ve gotten many more that are pretty negative. Now that I’m diving deeper into the politics of the country, and making opinions, I’ve triggered a negative reaction. But I take heart from the fact that most of what people are complaining about is my read on the politics of the moment, and what people think of the current president. Nobody is complaining about my take on the history leading up to this year anymore. And with my next video on Algeria, probably a year or so from now, I’ll be able to incorporate criticisms of others. Iterative analysis. I like it.
The story I’m telling in today’s video is a bit reductive. It must seem crazy, or even a little racist to try to boil all of history down to the actions and power of two Atlantic empires, the British and the American. I am aware that this vision of history is easy to argue against. But as weird as it is, I think it’s definitely saner than the standard view. The 19th and the second half of the 20th centuries are often described as if they were stable systems, governed by agreement, or at least peaceful competition between great powers. The longer I look at these issues, the more convinced I become that that’s not really what’s going on. The stability in both systems was underpinned by hegemonic power. British in the 19th, American in the 20th. The implications of this are rather grim. Looking at history this way doesn’t flatter the British or the Americans, it heaps guilt on them. That’s why British and US propagandists are so obsessed with the idea of competition.
With today’s video I tie together the past month or so of production, and explain why it is that I’m so interested in North Africa. Arab democracy, human rights, human progress, all of that is lovely. But today I focus on a much more simple, dollars and cents issue: Every month the Atlantic economy is mired in war and destruction in North Africa, is a month where the Pacific Economy surpasses it. The disaster in Libya is contributing to economic stagnation in Europe and the Eastern United States. There are very self interested reasons to promote peace.
I really enjoy the way that this one connects the North Africa region together, and then connects it to the implications for the world as a whole. I don’t think enough media does that. Let me know what you think!
I think I may need to do a series about “Bab el Mandeb-ia”. This crucial strait between Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti has enormous potential. It’s the choke point of one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes. But unlike Panama, or Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the countries surrounding the “gate of tears” seem to have received a curse rather than a blessing. There is so much packed into this region. Tiny countries like Djibouti and behemoths like Ethiopia, Christians, Muslims and Jews, the world’s richest countries and some of the poorest, long-standing US interests, and brand new Chinese bases, this strait has everything.
If the Bab el Mandeb is mentioned in the context of US geopolitics it’s usually looked at as a threat. Some insurgent group or US rival could capture the strait and cause great damage. This possibility exists, but it’s far more interesting to look at the potential. Places like Panama, the mouth of the Baltic sea, and even, to a lesser extent, the straits of Malacca, exist in a much more homogenous cultural context than the countries surrounding the Bab el Mandeb. There is a culture unifying “Bab el Mandeb-ia” but it’s been torn apart by centuries of abusive empires, ideological strife, and general impoverishment. If some of the trends I talk about in today’s video come to fruition, we could see one of the world’s most impressive places return to prominence. That would be a fantastic thing to watch.
So let’s talk about King Abdullah Economic City. In today’s video, I may give the impression that it doesn’t exist. It totally does! It was established in 2005, and much like NEOM, the mega city the Saudis are currently pushing, it was supposed to revolutionize everything!!! 13 years later only about 15% of the 100 billion dollar city has been built. The other three cities that were meant to be built at the same time are somewhere between 30% and 0% completed. Theirwikipediapages make for some depressing reading. Depressingly familiar reading.
The objective of SAGIA’s “10 x 10” program, which ran from 2005 to 2010, was to place Saudi Arabia among the world’s top ten competitive investment destinations by 2010.
Launched in 2006, the Economic Cities program was designed to drive toward greater competitiveness, job creation, and economic diversification.
In developing economic cities, over a thousand of the world’s free zones were surveyed. The sixty deemed most successful were studied to determine key success factors. The objectives of the Economic Cities were to promote regional development, achieve economic diversification, create jobs, and enhance competitiveness in Saudi Arabia. Four new cities were identified and thus developed: King Abdullah Economic City, Jazan Economic City, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Mousaed Economic City, and the Knowledge Economic City, Medina.
When you read some of this 15 year old public relations copy, you realize just how familiar it all is. It’s the same thing as Vision 2030, but it’s Vision 2010. It’s all very sad. Back in King Abdullah’s time it was possible to imagine that Saudi Arabia could pull it off. Their oil was still one of the most valuable commodities in the world. An Aramco IPO back then would have yielded hundreds of billions of dollars. Instead the economic cities plans just sort of fizzled out during the extraordinary expenditures the government made to bribe the populace out of an Arab Spring. After Abdullah died in 2015, the focus shifted to new projects.
A sensible ruler ca. 2015 would have recommitted to all the plans Abdullah had made, and brought them to fruition. It would have made a lot of sense. But that wasn’t ambitious enough for King Salman, and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman. They are diverting scarcer and scarcer funds to all of their new cities, and losing investments in foreign companies. They’ve gotten a lot of uncritical support in the Western Press, but that’s because they are paying for it. So yes, the King Abdullah Economic city exists, as a shell of what it could be. The bottom third is the only section of this BBC article on King Abdullah Economic City that is worth reading. After repeating the standard public relations texts, it lays out what a disappointment the project has been. NEOM might get there too. But it won’t ever become what was promised. Today’s video lays out why.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression of British Afghanistan policy here. In today’s video I point out that US Afghanistan policy is infinitely dumber than British Afghanistan policy, and that’s very true. But British Afghanistan policy was pretty dumb as well. What they did better was run a leaner and more effective occupation. They’d go in every few decades, kill some folks, and then bribe the folks who were left to not deviate from British policy too much. They had learned early on, in the First Anglo-Afghan War from 1839-1842, how little profit, and how much cost Afghanistan could produce. They had attempted to occupy the place with British and Indian forces, and managed to lose their entire army, with the sole exception of William Brydon, the fellow who graces this video’s thumbnail. So the British Empire wised up, tactically anyway.
What was dumb about British policy is the fact that they were there in the first place. Afghanistan, and much of modern Pakistan were only added to the British Empire out of fear. British leaders, and much of the British public were obsessed with an enemy that didn’t pose much of a real threat. The Russian Tsar was supposedly going to sweep out of the steppes and threaten Britain’s lucrative colonies along the Asian coasts. This was always a ridiculous proposition. British India had more railroads than all of the Russian Empire combined up until the 20th century. In the 19th century the Russians had put together a very large, and largely empty empire across the top of Asia. If they had tried their hand at Afghanistan or the Punjab they would have gotten their heads handed to them even more quickly than the British had. Even this was unlikely, because the Russians probably lacked the capacity to get a full 19th century army into the area anyway. But the British fell prey to irrational fears, and ended up taking on a whole lot of lands and responsibilities they had no real use for. Which ended up destroying their empire.
I probably don’t have to emphasize the obvious parallels between what the British did in Afghanistan, and what the US is doing in the Middle East out of fear of Iran today. Both of these policies are idiotic. So while the British may have done a better job managing Afghanistan, the fact that they were there at all means that there is little more to admire about British Afghanistan policy than there is in US Afghanistan policy.
US immigration history is hilarious. And also more than a bit tragic. New groups arrive. A new set of yahoos comes out of the woodwork, spouting the same hogwash as similar defenders of “Real America”, decades or even centuries before. Rinse, Repeat. Today’s video on Columbus Day peels those layers back a bit. 100 years ago, US bigots weren’t worried about Muslims or Mexicans, it was the Italians, and to a lesser extent the Slavs and the Jews. If you look back at this earlier era of bigotry, the arguments are almost exactly the same. The fear of change, “being swamped by multitudes” and having our culture changed never fades away. It’s never been justified either.
We’re in a weird panic transition moment in the United States today. Both of the great “threats” hyped by our modern morons, “Islamic Terrorism”, and the “Mexican Invasion” are fading away. As I predicted years ago, lower oil prices mean that there is less Gulf money for extremism. Also, Muslim countries outside of the gulf are getting rich enough to liberate themselves from the Saudi-CIA corruption of their versions of Islam. As I have also talked about at great length, migration from Mexico is basically done, and the few tens of thousands coming from Central America will never amount to the same sorts of numbers. Affirmative Action may keep the idea of a distinct Latin identity a little stronger than Italian-American distinctiveness, but in practical terms, the distinct group of Mexican migrants is already assimilating away.
The entrepreneurs that profit off of these old bigotries are still profiting, from YouTube to the White House. These panics are always strongest after the phenomena in question have passed, but savvier operators can already see them fading away. The Pentagon has now abandoned “terrorism” as a threat and they are now trying to push “great power rivalry” though that doesn’t really exist yet either. Forward Thinkers!
I don’t know who the next group to be panicked about will be. My hunch is that it will probably be Africans, as that continent is the only one that will be offering surplus population in the decades to come. Perhaps it will be Chinese or Indians, as the rising wealth of those countries, or perhaps a crisis in one of them leads to more migrants. We can be sure, however that there will be a new group for morons to panic about. This is profoundly sad of course, but it’s also a bit reassuring. We’ve seen these waves of bigotry before, and they’ve receded before. There is nothing new under the sun.
I feel like markets and economics have been an underpinning of what I’ve been talking about for quite some time now. It’s been a troubling thing for me. There’s always a lot of certainty when these issues come up in political discussions, but usually almost nothing backing up that certainty. The conditions we’re looking at are always changing, and the theories that people gravitate to are some of the least proven imaginable. Economics has pretensions to being a science. But the variables are immense, and there’s really only one result.
We have one world economy, and its performance at any given time is the only thing that we have to point to, to see whether our theories are working. There is no control group. Most of the figures we rely on to measure what’s going on are little better than rough estimates, and the political consensus rarely lasts a decade. I have high hopes for the profession of economics. People are doing amazing work in the field, and the move onto the internet that our species is currently undergoing provides the possibility of real measurement (and Orwellian nightmares). I’m confident that the future is bright, but I think we all need a lot more humility in talking about the economy. Which is why I made today’s video, and why I’ll be adding to the series in the coming weeks…