Five Tropes I Hope Not To See In The New Year (But We Will)

It’s harder to analyze events than to paste labels on them. Events come thick and fast, and pundits have to say something. It’s mostly pundits I’m talking about, but not entirely. History may not repeat, but it does rhyme, they say, and then they reach for one of these tropes. When the tropes are repeated again and again, they can influence policymakers. They flatten everyone’s thinking.

Here are five that I find particularly irritating.

Red Lines. Although they frequently appear in op-eds, nobody has identified these precious markers. Party A has a red line that Party B must not cross, or package of responses C will ensue. War doesn’t work this way. Most diplomacy doesn’t work this way. Each side has a number of options to choose from that depend on the situation in which a decision is made: timing, balance of interests, balance of power. The New York Times has an excellent explainer on red lines, although they couldn’t resist writing the headline as if the trope was worth considering.

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Russia’s War On Ukraine in 2023

It’s hard to see how Russia’s war on Ukraine ends. It could end today, with an edict from Vladimir Putin that the Russian military stand down and begin a withdrawal from all Ukrainian territories. Negotiation would be needed to assure safe passage back to Russia, but the shelling could end today.

It’s hard to see how the war ends because it has reversed so many of our expectations. That we had come to the end of imperial wars. That Russia was a competent military power. It would be good to make 2023 the year we recognize that much we believed no longer holds. That goes beyond the war.

Ruth Deyermond, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of War Studies in King’s College London, specializes in Russian foreign and security policy, US-Russia relations, and European security. She wrote an outstanding Twitter thread that I mostly agree with, so I’ll use it as the framework for a turn-of-the-year post on Russia’s war.

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On The Possibility Of A Ceasefire

Motivating a ceasefire is difficult. A warring party who feels they are doing well may want to continue their run, or they may want a ceasefire to consolidate their gains. A losing party may not want to allow those gains, or they may be losing so badly they have no choice.

Currently in Russia’s war against Ukraine, there are rumors that Russia wants a ceasefire. Ukraine is making gains on the ground and does not want a ceasefire. Russia may be running out of precision missiles and wants to restock or rethink.

Besides the military situation, Russia’s history of torture and killing of civilians in the occupied areas motivates Ukraine to take back as much of their territory as possible. A ceasefire would stop the battlefield killing and destruction of cities, the destruction we can see, but Russian atrocities in occupied zones would likely continue.

Then there are both sides’ conditions for a ceasefire. Russia’s seem to be that Ukraine submit to everything Russia wants before talks start. Ukraine has not put forth terms recently. It doesn’t look like there will be a ceasefire any time soon unless outside parties can intervene.

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Nuclear Protection Racket

I have disliked the phrase “nuclear blackmail” since I first saw it. What it usually describes is not blackmail. Last night I figured it out.

It’s a nuclear protection racket. The phrase is harder to shorten, so it probably won’t be picked up by the media, but I would like to see analysts recognize the difference.

Blackmail is the demand for something of value to prevent information from becoming public. Protection is the demand for something of value to prevent damage. Further, the information in blackmail is something that the person being threatened does not want to come out. This is a significant difference. In blackmail, the victim’s actions or attitudes are part of the dynamic. Protection is a bullying demand without cause.

The popular expression of protection in this case would be “Nice world you got there. Too bad if something happened to it.” And, in Putin’s case, the demand is not clear, so he’s likely to keep upping it.

Metaphors matter.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Seven Days In May

I have just finished reading Seven Days in May. This is the first time for me, and perhaps good that I can see it with fresh eyes.

It’s sometimes mentioned along with other Cold War fiction. It’s very much a product of its time, but there are resonances sixty years on.

The book was written in 1962. Before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Before John Kennedy’s assassination. Before the Civil Rights Act. The action takes place in 1972, but little is different from 1962.

There are all the superficial things of its time: cigarettes and cigars, the latter clearly used to denote masculine power; hard-wired telephones with extensions and telephone booths; typewriters, no computers; a fascination with air travel. Not so superficial is the vast power differential between men and women. There is a Black cabinet secretary, but he (of course) is quickly discarded as a part of the plot.

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What Is Putin Thinking?

Vladmir Putin started this war, and he could stop it today if he chose. What he thinks is important. He’s told us what he thinks. The way Russia is conducting the war supports what he’s said.

It’s easy to dismiss Putin’s screeds as historically inaccurate and a bizarre reading of current events. They are. But listing how they’re incorrect misses the point, which is that Putin believes these things: Ukraine was never a separate entity from Russia. Lenin and others made mistakes that separated Ukraine from its appropriate place in the scheme of things. Russia and Ukraine can never fulfil their true destiny apart from each other. Those are the central points.

Also in his belief system is that NATO, the United States, and the EU, which are lumped together as “the West,” are dedicated to undermining Russia’s proper place in the world. It’s less clear that he buys the whole long-standing Pan-Slavic myth that Russia has been specially designated by God to redeem the world. But at least Russia is a superpower that the rest of the world must recognize as such.

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Go Ahead And Bluff, They Said. They Won’t Shoot Back, They Said

A number of people want to up the ante on Vladimir Putin. He made nuclear threats, so let’s threaten him back. He won’t escalate.

They leave out a lot.

What they leave out is a serious consideration, based on Putin’s words and actions, of his likely response. Assuming that one’s own side will always take the last action is as common a misapprehension in war as the idea that an invading army will be greeted as liberators, and just as dangerous.

Some of the authors of recent articles imply or state that they are not advocating escalation, but their bottom line is that Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons must be met with similarly warlike responses. They criticize President Joe Biden for stating clearly that the United States will not meet Russia with a military response because those statements eliminate some of the steps they would like to take.

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Nukeporn

I’m finding it hard to write lately because there are so many shockingly bad takes. Twitter provides a continuing flutter of them, like this morning’s wet snowflakes, and points to worse op-eds. It’s mostly the war, but the decisions to declare the pandemic over contribute.

Dan Nexon tweeted last week that all discussions of whether NATO should have embiggened are discussions of priors. So are discussions of possible nuclear weapon use and many other things. Last week we had the no-fly zone. Yesterday got the week off to a masculine start with discussions of impotence and muscularity in US foreign policy. Mainly from old white men, and that’s consistent with my priors as well as theirs.

The question of nuclear weapons, on the battlefield or otherwise, keeps coming up. A number of disappointed (and poorly informed) people keep asking why Russia isn’t deterred from attacking Ukraine but the US is deterred from attacking Russia if nuclear weapons exist, which slides into the mistaken idea that Ukraine once had a full-up nuclear arsenal or (Russian propaganda warning) is building one now. I’ve dealt with that here.

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President Biden Restores Strategy To Politics

President Joe Biden was a senator for 36 years. He has seen horse-trading. He has seen comity with segregationists. He has seen deadlock and filibusters. He has seen bipartisanship. He has seen Newt Gingrich’s power grab. He has seen Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism.

He knows how the Senate and the House work.

One of the things he learned is that nothing happens quickly in the Senate, particularly when the margin is as close as it is now. But there are ways. Those ways are not played out in the public eye. They involve quiet talks and promises, agreement and respect. Some of these things may even be feigned. But feigning respect, for example, is itself a way of showing respect.

None of these tactics was useful in an administration devoted to one man’s whims. The old ways decayed even before that, under Gingrich’s and his successors’ scorched-earth politics. Reporters who grew up since Gingrich do not recognize that other tactics exist. They do not recognize that relationships are built and doubts sowed behind the scenes. They are accustomed to tantrums and sudden shows of power. They do not have the tools to describe the wide array of tactics Biden brings with him.

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Flying Saucers Redux

Wouldn’t it be nice if kindly space people suddenly appeared to lead us out of this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into? The New York Times thinks so.

Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, there was also a continuing saga of flying saucers, as they were called then. I was intrigued, being a kid who read science fiction and was terrified of atom bombs. As recently a year ago, on a trip to Texas, I made sure to drive through Levelland, where a famous sighting had taken place.

We’ve got an international mess right now. Creeping fascism and authoritarianism. The United States and Britain consumed with their own crazy. It would be so nice if the kindly space people would land, with their wisdom.

The space people are always kindly, never mind the counterexamples we have on earth. Read More