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 All the defense related crap we are buying will be superseded or sunk within the first month or so of an actual shooting war with China.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.
The past month of protest and progress in the United States has been inspiring. The Establishment, Fox and Democratic, has expended a ton of energy on getting people scared of things like Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, and Police Abolition slogans. They haven’t managed to slow the momentum. The failure of CHAZ has actually been helpful, getting people to focus in on the possible again. All over the country, previously impossible looking things have been happening. There is certain to be back-sliding, but excellent progress has been made…
What I would like to see, and what today’s video argues for, is a shift in focus to what US white supremacy means abroad as well as domestically. Black lives matter. But so do Yemeni lives. The Yemeni catastrophe would not be possible if the US public gave a damn about Yemeni lives. Today’s video is an attempt to get people to care.
My book, and today’s video aren’t just intended as “blame America First” whining. They are intended as the basis for a new, saner approach to US foreign policy. One of the central problems in Washington, DC for the past 30 years is that we haven’t had a goal. We’ve had a ton of resources, a ton of professionals geared towards the outside world, and no clear sense of what to do with them since the end of the Cold War. Instead all these people have pursued a variety of conflicting goals. Some of them have been noble, some have been horrible, but in combination they have produced an effect that is disorganized in the most self-interested and chaotic way. With this series I hope to suggest a better way.
The mission of US foreign policy should be to stave off war for as long as possible. We should use our extraordinary power and reach to try to make the world a less dangerous place for everyone. This would do the world a great service, but it would also serve the United States in the best possible way. As I’ve also emphasized, it’s the United States that has the most power to lose from a new world war. So we should stop seeking it out in the deserts of the Middle East and in the waters of the South China Sea. We should stop sending the instruments of death to every country in the world we can, in ever accelerating amounts. If we stopped doing these things, I think we’d find that there is still plenty for Washington, DC to do. Even beyond the much larger problems that the United States has made, the world has many fault lines that could benefit from our diplomatic attention. Imagine a world with DC think tanks that were focused on solving Nagorno-Karabakh, or opening the border between Morocco and Algeria, rather than fomenting wars? It may all sound a bit pie in the sky, but once you’ve absorbed the arguments of today’s video, how could you want to do anything else?
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 think this video is a fairly clever way to launch this epic series on the British Empire’s lessons for the world of today. One of the many things I think about when I’m doing any sort of persuasive writing is “What are the arguments against this?” It may not be apparent this week, but what today’s video does, is get out ahead of what I anticipate will be some of the most prevalent arguments against this video. The vids this week are probably more likely to piss off fans of the British Empire, But the vids on the two following Tuesdays should start annoying the “Why U No Like America” types. As with many videos, the argument here had its genesis in a facebook argument years ago. I’m glad to finally get it out there.
And no, Rambo, the symbol of rampaging 1980s hyper-patriotism, does not appear in this video. I’m hoping to capitalize on some of the magic of this video, which kicked off my Everybody’s Lying About Islam series. “Saudi Arabia Is Finished” did not feature Eddard Stark of Game of Thrones Fame, despite his being featured on the thumbnail. My guess is that pop culture reference might have had something to do with the almost 800K views that video has racked up. I am hoping Rambo can help with this one…
With this blog post, I’d like to continue to complain about something I was harping on in today’s video. In our new media era coverage of international news is just abysmal. Because it gets clicks, you can find exhaustive coverage of every new sound bite in the 2020 US presidential election. But when political earthquakes like this happen, we’re reliant on a staggeringly small range of voices. As I mentioned in the video, many of the New York Times stories written on Bolivia are actually produced in Brazil. That may be where their regional headquarters are but in previous eras there would have been actual correspondents on the ground, or at least competent local stringers that the NYT could have been able to rely upon. But instead we’ve got a guy who certainly knows more than I do, but will be writing about Brazil next week, and maybe Uruguay the week after next.
I am kind of hard on the unthinking coverage of the New York Times and the Washington Post in this video, but that doesn’t mean I am against these organizations. In fact, I think you should all subscribe to them. As biased and incomplete as the stories they tell sometimes are, without them we’d be lost. If the opponents of these resources get their way, then all we’d have to go on in Bolivia would be the reports of the Organization of American States, the US State Department, and the triumphant tweets of US senators. As bad as things are now, that would be even worse. In the 1980s the US media effectively blocked some terrible US policies in Latin America. It’s pretty clear that the media no longer has the strength or capacity to do that. That’s pretty sad.
I really like today’s video, but I think I stuck my foot in my mouth a bit at one point. I just sort of declared that Tunisia is not a “white country”. I already know I’ll be getting a ton of comments on that. There is no settled definition of “White”. Because of some historical weirdness, in the US Arabs have generally been described as white, long before Italians or Slavs were considered to be in that category. That hasn’t kept US foreign policy from being heavily focused on bombing Arabs for the past two decades.
I try to avoid using desperately inexact terminology like “white” and “Latino”. But what I was trying to get at with today’s video was the fact that certain countries are inside the charmed circle of countries that are seen as deserving of serious help and foreign aid, and some are not. Tunisia, whatever you may think of the country’s relation to “whiteness”, is not in that charmed circle. It should be.
In today’s video I made brief reference to Ilhan Omar and her supposed antisemitism. The most interesting thing about this is that most of the people pushing that story have no idea what she’s actually been accused of. The tweet from 2012, which she has apologized for, mentioned in the video, wouldn’t strike most of the world as antisemitic, but it definitely is according to US standards that I agree with. The controversies over the past few months aren’t antisemitic by any fair definition. She has simply called attention to the fact that US politicians are paid a great deal of money by organizations like AIPAC to privilege Israeli interests over US interests.
A year ago I probably would have been more skeptical of Omar, but the sad fact is that the US congress has proved their allegiance to Israel, over and over. The Omar controversy itself makes this clear, but there are much more concrete actions to point to. I don’t know much about the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanction” or “BDS” campaign against Israel. What I do know is that multiple state legislatures have imposed flagrantly unconstitutional laws that penalize US citizens that refuse to sign anti-BDS pledges. Regardless of the worth or evil of BDS as a program, that’s a straightforward limitation of the first amendment rights of US citizens in a foreign country’s favor. Before this year, I was content to chalk the anti-BDS excesses up to Evangelical Christians in red states who support Israel because they want it to die in the end times that they believe an Israeli state will bring about. The US courts have already ruled versions of these law unconstitutional, and I thought that that slow progress would deal with the issue. Unfortunately not. A bi-partisan group of legislators has mounted an anti-BDS crusade, and is trying to pass national law that allows States to discriminate on the basis of speech and association. That’s outrageous. That’s a clear example of US legislators being bought to put allegiance to Israel over the rights of US citizens. You can read more about this horror here.
Very few of the people who attack Omar have reckoned with this insanity. What’s more, they make assumptions about who she is, and what she believes. Many supposedly serious journalists attempted to pull the “Oh yeah, well why doesn’t she attack Saudi Arabia!?!?!” card. This is ridiculous because she is one of the most consistent voices in Congress against the US-Saudi destruction of Yemen. She is also a supporter of LGBT rights, something else that is ignored in the absurd attacks on her. Our government and media is trying to turn one of the most consistent and heroic opponents of US foreign policy into a racist caricature. It’s pretty awful.
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.