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.
With today’s video I try something new. Most of my video scripts come to me more fully formed, in a rush of inspiration. With this “Avoiding the British Empire” series, I’m trying something more ambitious. The first 9 episodes of the video series are meant to work with each other, building the case, and helping viewers arrive at a picture of the world that grows with each installment. The series is meant to be greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not sure this has been entirely successful. I tend to focus on making discrete points and individually successful videos. My writing process is like that as well. This series is the first I can think of, where multiple videos started out as “Oh, I need to do this in this video”, rather than as a loose collection of thematically related issues. Many of the videos in the series predated the over-arching series structure. Today’s video did not. What do you think?
I continue to be stunned by how little attention is paid to the issues raised in this video. The petty geopolitics of the Middle East and even Eastern Europe are nothing compared to the threat of Russia’s rickety nuclear program. We managed to get along with and do deals with the Soviets, who had a system committed to our destruction, why can’t we get on with vaguely authoritarian Russia? Especially when the main thing driving Russian authoritarianism is legitimate resentment of two decades of aggressive moves against Russia by NATO.
When the next nuclear accident or dirty bomb happens, or, god forbid, the first actual piece of nuclear terrorism, it will absolutely be the result of the break down in the relationship between Russia and the US. Russia is a ramshackle place that needs our aid and cooperation to keep nuclear materials from disappearing into the black market, not an arms race. But the anti-Russia drum beat continues. At least twice since I made this video, just over two weeks ago, Trump’s willingness to work with Russia has been used as a club against him. First his suggestion that Putin be invited back to the G-7 was held against him, and now it’s his slow-walking of lethal aid to Ukraine. Whether Trump has been bribed by Russia or not, these are both pro-peace moves!
Importantly, they are also ways that we could bring Russia back to the table, and avert the next nuclear disaster. Which is vastly more important than whatever concerns we may have in Ukraine or Syria. I guess this won’t be obvious until that disaster happens. Sigh.
At the end of today’s video I allude to a very basic principle that shouldn’t need explanation, but kind of does. Put simply: Conflict is bad. It’s not always bad, of course. Competition can be tremendously helpful. It can inspire us, and help us achieve new and better things as a species. My hope is that China and the US will be goading each other on for centuries, out to Mars and beyond. But this healthy competitive process can be corrupted.
There are a number of relationships, that the US government carefully maintains, that have fallen into permanent disrepair. Healthy competition has devolved into useless dick waving contests, and pointless geopolitical chess games that kill people. The US-Iran relationship is the classic example, North Korea is another. The greatest tragedy of this decade is the fact that another relationship, between the US and Russia, has fallen into this pattern as well. Relationships can have virtuous or vicious cycles going on, and relations with all these countries are quite vicious.
I tend to blame the US for this, but it does take two to tango, and there are hardline elements in all our manufactured enemies that help to keep the vicious cycles going. And it really is a collaborative effort. Iran’s theocratic regime can’t exist without the US defense industry funded war-mongering think tanks and politicians, and vice versa. We have gotten to a deeply sad point where the only people who have trusted expertise on these issues are perpetuators of the vicious cycle with Iran. Figuring out how to unscrew those relationships is one of the missions of this channel. But it’s far better to avoid starting the disaster in the first place. It’d be really good if we could avoid getting into an Iran style vicious cycle with China. Today’s video on the Uyghurs ends with that plea.
Let me preface this by saying again that I’m not any kind of Israel expert, but I figured I should talk a bit more about the claim at the end of today’s video, that Israel has helped reduce its neighbors to smoking ruins. The question of Israel’s role in the run-up to the Iraq war is controversial, but the consensus seems to be that they were very much for Bush’s invasion, and did what they could to promote it. The current Israeli government’s almost gleeful support for the destruction of Syria is less controversial. Israel is officially neutral, but in 2017 they conceded that they had carried out around 100 airstrikes against Syrian and Hezbollah targets over the course of the war, and they have acted as a stumbling block to the peace process.
I think this is all a terrible mistake. This policy of aiding in the destruction of Iraq and Syria might have made sense during the Cold War. It would have been vicious then, but it would at least have had some justification. During that era, when they were faced with the opposition of a vastly better armed Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as the opposition of the Soviet Union, taking these sorts of actions would have been rational. Israel’s current leadership still acts as if they face this sort of existential threat. They don’t. And the world knows it. The desperately promoted threat from Iran is virtually nonexistent. The policies against Iraq and Syria that Israel supported did give Iran more power on the ground in these countries, but Israel remains free to bomb them at will in Syria. Most of Iran’s weapons systems date back to the Shah. Iran has made some limited progress with missile technology, but the use of that technology would quickly result in a complete roll-back of Iranian power in the region, and no doubt the destruction of multiple Iranian and Syrian cities by the Israeli and US air forces.
The Soviet Union is gone. Egypt and Jordan are now Israeli allies, and amazingly Saudi Arabia, if still officially hostile, is now largely seen as an Israeli ally as well. The international Palestinian terrorist threat of yore has been almost completely neutralized. It has been co-opted by the Palestinian Authority, and it has been fairly comprehensively rooted out of its old homes in Lebanon and Jordan. With the fences and walls around Gaza and the West Bank, the threat of a third Intifadah is largely meaningless. Palestinians would die in their thousands, in return for a few miles of burned Israeli farms. Netanyahu and company seem to think they are now secure enough to treat the Palestinians any way they want. This is a terrible mistake.
Despite all Israel’s protestations, the world, outside of Washington, DC, can now clearly see that it is more secure than it has ever been. All 21st century wars are media wars, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even more so than others. Netanyahu’s behavior makes it look, even to Israel’s most natural allies, like Israel is THE destabilizing element in the region. Much of Israel’s support in the world, and in the US in particular, is based on the perception that the country is a plucky underdog. Killing Palestinians by the thousand, with the support of former enemies like Egypt, while increasing security cooperation with Saudi Arabia, does not fit that image. As today’s video says, Israel’s current leadership serves the interest of US defense contractors, not the interests of Israel.
Back when I started doing this channel full time, I put out a series called “Notes From The Golden Age“. Today’s video, on the defeat of OPEC, is a long delayed addition to the series. In the six minutes of the video itself, I just laid out the facts as I understand them: The fact that OPEC did its level best to raise the price of oil, and they failed. If you want to hear more about why that is, and hear some discussion of the revolution in petroleum affairs we’ve experienced over the past five years, you could do worse than this video here.
Put briefly, oil doesn’t cost what it used to. The origin of this development is probably OPEC itself. That cartel drastically reduced the oil on the market on a couple occasions in the 1970s, driving the price through the roof. Much has, quite rightly, been made of the Shale revolution in the United States. A range of technological advances has made oil extraction easier, cheaper, and viable in places that it wasn’t before. This revolution has made US production competitive with Saudi Arabia again, and caused the plummet in prices that started in mid 2014. But the Shale revolution is only the most dramatic cause.
The plummet in oil prices is the result of a range of reactions to OPEC’s obscene market power. An under-heralded one is energy efficiency. We have finally reached a point where economic growth is decoupling from growth in petrochemical use. Some of this is renewables, but more of it is the very, very unsexy business of making cars and air conditioning units run more efficiently. Another reaction to OPEC was the broadening of the search for petroleum. Coupled with Technological advances, a staggering range of countries now produce significant amounts of oil and gas. OPEC has been beaten. They largely did it to themselves.