Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Ukraine: Half Measures and the Nuclear Threat

June 17, 2022

As a PSC staff lawyer, I got frustrated when an administrative law judge couldn’t make up his mind on a ruling. “It should be me up there!” I told myself. So I applied for the job and got it. I think I was a pretty good decider.

So too in life. Not one to agonize over decisions, I’ve become convinced that generally, more deliberation doesn’t make them better. And when I decide on something, I’m all in. No half measures.

America and Europe are helping Ukraine fight Russia — with a strength of commitment perhaps unexpected. Yet they’re far from doing all they can. France’s Macron says Russia should not be “humiliated.” Germany’s Scholz heralded an “historic turning point” in foreign policy, promising heavy weapons, but still agonizes in public, and Germany seems to be dragging its feet. President Biden has been at pains to say we’re not fighting Russia, nor seeking regime change.

Well, why not?

In hindsight, as soon as a Russian invasion was looming, we should have put U.S. troops and weapons into Ukraine. Following Vegetius’s ancient dictum, if you wish for peace, prepare for war. Of course Putin would have gone ballistic. But what would he have done — any worse than what he did do? While the prospect of a direct confrontation with U.S. forces might have persuaded him to back off altogether.

Now there’s fear of escalation to nuclear war. Putin threatened that. It seems to have worked, intimidating us as to what help we will or won’t give Ukraine.

So Biden ruled out a no-fly zone, and anything else that might be seen as America fighting Russia. Yet that’s certainly how Putin saw it from the start. Thus limiting ourselves to half measures, to avoid provoking Russia, seems silly squeamishness. Russia already acts maximally provoked.

And if we fear Ukraine’s success might cause Russia to go nuclear, then why help Ukraine at all? What exactly is the strategic aim? A stalemated war that drags on for years?

The Economist recently analyzed the nuclear aspect. Noting numerous ways in which what once seemed an absolute taboo on nuclear weapons use has eroded. Putin’s threat the latest and most serious breech of that taboo. As if just talking about it makes it actually more thinkable.

But two points should be borne in mind. First, Russia’s military operates under the doctrine that nuclear weapons are only a last resort against an existential threat. Ukraine clearly does not qualify, so it’s doubtful they’d permit Putin to use nukes there. And secondly, even Putin should be deterred by the unforeseeable and likely grave repercussions. Too risky even for him. His threats should be seen as bluffs.

Meantime, The Economist says those arguing for a quick accommodation with Russia to end the war “could not be more wrong.” That would not make Europe safer, it would make Russia (and other bad actors) more dangerous. Must we repeat the lessons of appeasement in 1938-39? Allowing Putin to get away with his military aggressions before 2022 surely encouraged him to up the ante in Ukraine. There are plenty of other places an emboldened Russia could invade.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao . . . Putin . . .

June 8, 2022

Hitler, Stalin, Mao. The Big Three. Greatest monsters of the 20th Century. Or GOAT? Well, Genghis Khan; Tamerlane; Ivan the Terrible; and others. But such figures lacked the scope to kill at modern industrial scale. And anyway, they’re too far back to be vivid to us like our “Big Three.”

And now Putin. Quite the achievement, breaking into those rarefied ranks.

But nobody sets out to become an historic villain. No, the ego soaks up adulation. Being treated like a god, and actually considering yourself one. Stalin’s mind is opaque to me, don’t know if he really saw himself on some epic mission (“building Communism”) or simply loved cruelty. But Hitler and Mao definitely had the grandiosity thing. Messianic to the max, believing themselves achieving Great Things, and sustained by mass idolatry.

Where does Putin fit in? A totally cynical Stalin-like self-aggrandizing opportunist? Partly, to be sure. But he also does have the messianic syndrome. Himself a victim of his own propaganda, apparently believing his murderous destruction of Ukraine fulfills some God-ordained historical destiny. Though one doubts he actually believes in God. He believes totally in himself. It comes to the same thing.

Is he a “madman,” as often said? The word can hardly fit such extreme psychological phenomenology. His success (thus far) bespeaks a certain rationality in what he’s doing. He may yet ultimately win in Ukraine, or win enough ground to claim victory, simply by refusing to quit. Some Western voices (the “peace” camp; Kissinger, Macron, others) urge giving Putin a face-saving “off-ramp.” Others (the “justice” camp) say that would only encourage him and other such villains; they must be crushed.

And rationality and morality are two different things. Though perhaps we can say such a total moral disregard necessarily bespeaks a kind of insanity. Yet of course Putin would deem his actions of the highest morality — reasoning so perverted, it too could be considered insane. Monsters never see themselves as monsters.

Stalin ruled by terror, but like with Hitler and Mao, Putin’s horror show is bolstered by a population cheering its support. Or at least much if not most of Russia’s citizenry. What are they thinking? Critical thinking it’s not. Of course they’re marinated in pervasive propaganda, painting Putin’s alternate reality (heroically fighting to “denazify” Ukraine), with all other information sources blocked. Still, it defies sense. When it’s obvious other information is stifled, and all you see is what the regime spoon-feeds you, how much brainpower does it take to realize something’s wrong with this picture? That you’re being played for fools. Worse, made complicit in atrocity.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao — so 20th Century. Now we’re in a new century, and its big monster is Putin. So far. But this century is young, with much history to unfold.

And when that history is written, with all the wisdom of hindsight, it may turn out that Putin was not, after all, the monster who damaged human civilization the most. Trump is not done yet.

Ode to Joy

May 24, 2022

My wife and I visited the Benelux countries — our much anticipated first foreign trip in 2-1/2 years. My biggest takeaway impression: a civilization whose main business is living the good life. What we strove two million years to achieve. The soundtrack playing in my head was Beethoven’s rhapsodic Ode to Joy — the European Union’s anthem.

Bastogne War Memorial

Seeing all those people out enjoying themselves, relaxing in cafes, and so forth, I realized that some experienced, as children, the Nazi occupation. We visited Luxembourg’s American military cemetery, and Bastogne’s war memorial and museum, both monuments to the horrific Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, the Germans’ last great effort to turn back the invading allies, with 76,890 U.S. casualties.

These sites evoked strong emotions. Mindful that both our fathers took part in that American effort to save civilization. And mindful that now, not so far away, dark history is repeating, Russia’s Ukraine invasion replicating so much of the Nazi nightmare. Both wars insane.

Amsterdam is a bicycle city. Sidewalks divided between bike and pedestrian lanes, and one quickly learns that’s an inviolate border. Those bikers go fast. And the streets are lined with bicycle parking areas, filled with bikes as far as the eye can see.

Our second day there we saw the Van Gogh Museum. I realized to what a degree bodily sensations were shaping my experience. The day before, we’d visited the zoo, a lot of walking; and then I’d taken a long solo walk after. My legs were sore, with lower back discomfort too. At 74 my stamina is waning. There was also a dull shoulder ache, don’t know where that came from. Meantime, the night before, I’d taken a sleeping pill — I’ve found that doing that just once on long trips combats jet lag. But it does leave me a bit woolly-headed in the morning. So at breakfast I had a coffee (very rare for me), thinking the caffeine would be salutary. Also two glasses of juice. Yet around 10 o’clock I was feeling awfully thirsty. Looking ahead, having had a big breakfast, I knew I’d eat no lunch, but decided I’d have a coke. And for the next couple hours, almost obsessively looked forward to it. Furthermore, I was much overdue for pooping. So — all that going on bodily dominated my brain activity.

When we finally got to the museum cafe, and I could sit down, that first sip of cold coke was sublime. And I was glad my wife wanted to remain there a while and write.

As to Van Gogh, I was struck less by the art than by the human story. Here was a poor schlub who enjoyed zero success, recognition, or happiness in his short life. I wondered how he’d feel if he could see this solemn temple honoring him! Posthumously, his paintings might well have been forgotten as junk; their artistic merit not actually so obvious. Perhaps it was the psychodrama of cutting off his ear that made the difference. A brilliant career move.

Outside a Brussels bookstore. No, they did not have mine!

In Brussels, our daughter popped over from London and met us for dinner. Only two hours by train! She’s living there now, wrapping up a Masters at University College London, and starting a nice job at an NGO in education development. Plus a boyfriend moving in. I’m in awe at how splendidly she’s doing (forgive the immodesty). And that my wife and I created this person.

The next day we three hiked to the Magritte Museum. Belgium’s Rene Magritte (1898-1967) was a leading surrealist painter. I’ve always found his works enigmatically compelling; in my own surrealist days (early ’70s), I copied one (“Collective Invention”) in hommage, and it still hangs above my desk.

The museum visit was also especially a pilgrimage for me because I so remembered my first date with my wife-to-be. Walking her back from the lunch, I was still undecided whether this young thing possessed sufficient substance. Then she asked me my favorite artist.

“Collective Invention”

“Magritte,” I replied. Haughtily saying to myself, “This callow little girl won’t know what I’m talking about.”

But she did. Knew all about Magritte.

And then I said to myself: “Ooooohhhhh . . . .”

Cue: Ode to Joy.

Ukraine: The War for Civilization

April 5, 2022

This is huge. Our most fundamental values are on the line. Russia must lose, and be seen to lose. No plausible pretense of victory. No ambiguity.

Ukraine is heroically bearing the brunt of the fight for us. And pretty effectively so far. Putin has a powerful tank army, but tank technology has been outstripped by tank-killing technology. Russian casualties are horrendous. Still, their military resources remain immense, amply capable of continuing destruction and slaughter. We’re just learning the extent of Russia’s outright mass murder of Ukrainian civilians.

Meantime a big chunk of Ukraine’s army is much endangered by Russian encirclement in the east near the Donbas conflict region. Russia might still wind up expanding those separatist-controlled territories, and taking Mariupol to create a land bridge to Crimea. Putin could call that a victory, albeit at ghastly cost.

We must prevent that. Doing so would be a seminal triumph for peace and democracy, boding well for the whole future of civilization. Otherwise we’re back to an ugly past with brutal wars of conquest like this the norm.

We’d thought that was finally behind us. True, we’d seen Russia’s prior villainies in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Donbas, Crimea. And Russia is not the only transgressor. But the Ukraine atrocity differs, in scale if nothing else; not dismissible as a one-off aberration. Mariupol was a city of 430,000, reduced to a terrorized remnant of maybe 100,000 struggling to survive in rubble.

So the stakes are exceedingly high. The West has risen to the challenge more strongly, with more unity, than might have been expected. Germany in particular has done a sharp U-turn, ending its longtime policy of smooging Russia.

And yet our response is still insufficient. Which The Economist calls “a reprehensible failure of strategic vision.” This fight should be given, militarily, everything we’ve got. We spent trillions building the strongest military ever — what for, if not this? But we’re squeamishly splitting hairs over what might provoke Putin. How ridiculous. His claims of provocation, to justify this war, were already a sham. And for him, this was always really a war against the West, America, the EU, and NATO. So what if we help Ukraine with less restraint?

Yet we agonize, rule out sending troops, or a no-fly zone; send anti-tank weapons but not tanks; and cavilled even at facilitating Poland’s giving Ukraine jets. And while we’ve provided lots of drones, they’re not actually our best drones, Alexander Vindman said in his latest zoom briefing. Oddly enough, the really lethal drones are a Turkish product, that Turkey is going all-out to manufacture for Ukraine.

Turkey and Poland are no poster boys for democracy. But they have reasons to hate the Russians.

I’ve written how the Putinist Russian ideology traduces human values. The Economist too recently gave a scary picture of this crazed blood-soaked cultural messianism.* Too many Russian people bray with it — eerily evocative of Nazi Germany. And for all its self-worship as against the “decadent” West, Russia and its regime are gigantically corrupt. Covering that up, says Alexei Navalny, requires quite a lot of ideology.

Which would be fed by even a partial success in Ukraine. Whereas failure would likely, eventually, move Russia “to solve its problems by reform at home rather than adventures abroad,” opines The Economist. Making this an historic opportunity to lance one of the great boils afflicting the neck of civilization. And while the risks of escalating conflict may be real, the risks to the world of a Russian success are also very real, and worth taking some risks to prevent.


Ukraine versus Russia versus the West

March 17, 2022

Issues are not usually black and white but shades of grey; not good versus evil. Not so with Russia’s Ukraine atrocity. There’s talk of the International Criminal Court investigating war crimes. Investigating? “War crimes?” The entire thing is a crime. What’s to investigate?

Putin labels it a “special military operation,” and any Russian calling it “invasion” or “war” is subject to arrest. Yet paradoxically he purports to justify doing what he denies doing on the lie that Ukraine is run by crazed Nazis. Saying it’s not a legitimate country, traditionally belonging to “Great Russia.”

That’s the real gravamen, supplying at least a pretense of appealing to human aspiration. Claiming Russian civilization’s inherent natural greatness, its consequent proper world historical status, and its strong traditional values as against the alleged corruption, decadence, and weakness of the West.

Which has supposedly humiliated Russia. This “humiliation” trope is a powerful driver in human psychology. We see it too in Muslim attitudes toward the West. And in China, carrying a big chip of truculent nationalism on its shoulder, to redress past humiliation. Though Mao harmed China far more than the West ever did. Xi Jinping’s talk of “The Chinese Dream” doesn’t mirror “The American Dream” of individual human fulfillment; Xi’s is about swaggering on the global stage. Just like Putin’s Russian greatness dream.

Russia’s “humiliation” was the loss of the cold war, of empire as the Soviet Union broke apart (many nations freed, including Ukraine), and the economic travails of the transition out of communism (which was never going to be easy). Blaming it all on a supposedly craven West rather than any failings in Russia’s national character and its inglorious record. In fact we tried to help them overcome that legacy and build back better. Though I felt we could have done more. But Putin took Russia down a different road. And if Russia was humiliated, it had only itself to blame.

Just as with “The Chinese Dream,” what is conspicuously missing from the “Russian Greatness” trope is any nod to real human values, serving people’s wellbeing not just as parts of a collective but as individuals. As with Ukraine’s resistance to Russia — they have something truly worth fighting for. What Russian Greatness ideology aims to provide instead is (at best) a form of pride, puffing people up (even if their lives are crap) as part of something (supposedly) great.

Strength is a key element, also psychologically potent. Even if not exactly believing might makes right, people are attracted by strength per se contrasted against weakness. That’s what Putin is selling. It even attracts some in the Western right devoid of actual principles, fools like Fox’s *ucker Carlson, and of course Trump. But what is the strength used for? Surely it’s a perverse sort of pride in strength when used for bombing cities and slaughtering innocents. No “greatness” there.

At least communism as an ideology purported to offer a path (however mistaken) to better lives for individual people. Putin’s Russian Greatness idea doesn’t even try.

And of course calling the West corrupt is a cruel joke. Russia itself being endemically shot through with corruption. Putin hardly pretends to battle it, kleptocracy an organizing principle of his regime. (In China too corruption is a deeply entrenched way of life.) While in fact the West is the least corrupt civilization ever — because of rule of law, which Russia lacks. A nation where people inconvenient to the regime are simply murdered calls the West “corrupt?”

Its permissiveness Putin calls decadence. This too points up the difference in mindset. We are indeed permissive — to allow as many people as possible to flourish and enjoy their lives in their own individual ways.

The “traditional values” that Russia is said to stand for are antithetical to that, repressing people, imposing upon them not values they themselves choose but rather values chosen by others (often based on totally false scripture). And Russia today is among the most repressive nations on Earth — become one big prison. Crushing, not serving, human values.

At the heart of this difference between our values (and Ukraine’s) and Russia’s (and China’s) is democracy. Nothing more fundamental, giving everyone a voice, elevating their individual human dignity. If Putin really believed Ukrainians are blood-bound brethren, he might simply have asked them. But he knew the answer. They see Russia for what it is, and voted against that — and continue doing so, with Stingers and Javelins and Molotov cocktails.

In his Wednesday speech to Congress, Ukraine’s President Zelensky proposed creating a “Union of Responsible Countries,” to combat evils like Russia’s. I’ve written similarly of a league of democracies, to do what the United Nations was conceived to do but cannot (blocked mainly by Russian and Chinese vetoes). Such a league would have the moral authority to fill that void and promote true human values throughout the world.

I attended two zoom briefings by Alexander Vindman. The National Security Council official fired by Trump for testifying truthfully in the first impeachment; now working on Ukraine issues. The big take-away is that Russia can’t win. Regarding a no-fly zone, Vindman thought it wouldn’t mean WWIII, questioning whether Russia would take the huge risks of shooting at NATO aircraft. But anyway, he said the West seems to be giving Ukraine enough weaponry to defend its skies itself. Though the fear is that Russia, otherwise stymied, would escalate to chemical or even nuclear weapons.

Ukraine should agree to whatever it takes (short of ceding territory) to give Putin a fig leaf to claim victory and withdraw. And once Russian troops are out, Ukraine should ignore that agreement. It owes Russia no good faith on anything agreed under criminal duress.

Especially after Russia violated its own 1993 commitment to honor Ukraine’s borders in exchange for giving up its nukes. If Russia remonstrates, the answer should be . . . .

Ukraine – The Nuclear Option

March 8, 2022

I’ve written about the power imbalance between good and evil. It’s because the good are constrained by moral scruples, while the evil are not. I was writing mainly about U.S. politics, but Ukraine exemplifies the principle.

This will get worse, because there is no moral restraint on the Russian side. Is Putin a madman? Maybe not exactly, but he seems messianic about restoring Russia’s greatness (even as he destroys any goodness in it; compounding the vast Ukraine crime with a spiraling crackdown against Russia’s own civil society). And Putin conflates Russia with himself, making the stakes existential for him. He will do anything — anything — to avoid losing. Hence his nuclear threat should not be dismissed as mere bluster.

Already his original plan is faltering, so he’s gone to Plan B. Russia’s invading forces have performed worse than expected, while Ukrainian defense is much stronger. So rather than overrunning and occupying cities, Plan B is to annihilate them. The morale gap between the sides being obviated by use of devastating weaponry.

And yes, that could include nuclear, if all else fails. Having gone this far, smashing through other guardrails, why would Putin stop at the nuclear taboo? He sees this as the strong against the weak; literally, might making right. Exploiting that power imbalance between good and evil. Out-crazying his opponents.

Meantime we have gone to our own version of the nuclear option — in terms of sanctions. Far beyond what anyone ever envisioned. Previous sanctions Russia could laugh at. But not these, a wrecking ball to its economy. Western nations are unexpectedly willing to take some pain to their own. Though stopping short of blocking Russia’s crucial oil sales. And even that extreme step may come soon.

Putin was not expecting sanctions so severe, just as he wasn’t expecting Ukrainians to put up such a fight. But neither factor is stopping him. Instead, pushing him to the next level, raising the stakes. Having now already paid such a big price for his Ukraine adventure, that’s all the more reason to do whatever it takes.

Meantime, it’s been a worry that Russia’s absorption of Ukraine would embolden China vis-a-vis Taiwan. Xi Jinping does share some Putinistic messianism. However, perhaps the nightmare Ukraine has become for Russia itself will deter Xi.

For us, in a way it makes sense to use economic weapons rather than the military kind. But on the other hand, we’ve spent trillions over decades building the strongest military machine in world history. For use against — what? If not this? The biggest threat to global peace, to civilization itself, in our lifetimes.

In hindsight, when we saw Russia’s massive buildup surrounding Ukraine, clearly presaging invasion, we ought to have organized a coordinated inoculation of that country with Western troops. A coalition like the one that reversed Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Yes, Putin would have gone ballistic, considering that a heinous provocation. But what would he have done? Anything worse than what he’s doing now? Which we might actually have headed off. Would Putin have invaded knowing it would mean actually battling U.S. forces? He went ahead because he saw us as weak. And by relying only on non-military means, we conveyed weakness, encouraging him.

But people in the West feel done with war, a psychology of pacifism become so pervasive that we couldn’t even really believe it when an actual war was staring us in the face. Nobody was advocating sending defensive troops into Ukraine. And that pacifism actually brought on the war. As a Roman general said, if you want peace, prepare for war.

Yet even now we’re still ruling out combat engagement. Ruling out a no-fly zone, which could have us shooting down Russian planes. The fear of escalation might be rational, except that Russia is escalating anyway. If we do shoot down their planes, what more could Putin do, that he’s not doing already? Launch attacks outside Ukraine? — which would certainly incur an equivalent military response. It’s tempting to say, bring it on. Though the nuclear threat is indeed extremely scary. But it’s hard to see how, exactly, Putin can now be deterred from using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, if that’s what it takes to enable him to claim victory — however hollow.

Maybe if we’d now declare that any nuking in Ukraine would bring the same on Russia — would that finally deter Putin? Would we have the balls to say it? To do it? Would it be moral?

Or will sane elements in the Kremlin, staring into the abyss, remove Putin, to save their own skins? Easier said than done. The personal risks of any such plotting would seem prohibitive. Those around Stalin were in constant danger from his murderous whims, but that very terror paralyzed any would-be plotters — even when Stalin lay helpless and dying. Putin too is a killer.

He pretends to justify his invasion by ridiculously calling Ukrainian leaders Nazis. Of course, it’s Putin’s own conduct resembling nothing so much as Hitler’s in WWII. After conquering Poland, he went on to subjugate most of the rest of Europe. If not stopped in Ukraine, what nations will Putin threaten next?

Our choice may eventually come down to watching that horror unfold — and with it our ideals for a better global order, which America worked so long and hard to build — versus major military engagement after all. But many Americans seem more worried about gas prices than about the fate of civilization.


March 5, 2022

My blog, “The Rational Optimist,” was started in 2008 while writing my book The Case for Rational Optimism. That now seems long ago, in far-away galaxy.

I have argued that a species capable of living in the Sahara and the Arctic could cope with climate change. But also that while we must do everything reasonably possible to curb greenhouse gas emissions, even reducing them to zero (impossible) would not stop temperatures rising. So we must also work on defensive preparations, and ways to cool the planet. Yet climate warriors seem to wage an anti-industrial jihad, fixated solely on emission reduction. Even there, nuclear power should play a big role; but many oppose that too. And the recent global climate conference, COP26, was pretty much a cop-out.

So our climate action is too little, too late, and global warming looms faster and more severe and harmful than once thought. Humanity may still be resourceful enough to cope, though at great cost. Yet there’s danger of a tipping point to runaway warming that feeds on itself. Earth’s climate has always naturally cycled through warmer and colder periods, but that could be thrown off-kilter by human activity, a significant new factor.

Venus shows what a runaway greenhouse effect can do. Reaching a permanently toasty temperature — high enough to melt metal. Something no life can survive.

Recently I listened to a 2017 public debate, by serious scholars, on “Is democracy committing suicide?” Suicide may not be quite the right word, but the proposition was that democracy does have characteristics dooming it. Those so arguing had much scary fodder to invoke. The other side said things like Brexit and Trump’s election actually show democracy working. Considering it, at least in advanced countries like America, deeply resilient, its institutions strong enough to withstand challenges.

Note was made of Trump’s ominous 2016 refusal to say he’d accept the election outcome. What if, one debater queried, in 2020 he loses but calls on his supporters to reject that result? Well, it happened. Our democracy survived — but just by the skin of its teeth.

Numerous examples tell us a democracy is just one dumb vote away from autocracy. In America it might take two. A recent poll showed Trump defeating Biden.

Our species’ entire progress, from its beginnings, has been achieved through reason. We are very smart, but not smart enough to avoid many pitfalls of irrationality. Rejecting reality is the essence of irrationality. And that’s Trumpism, rejecting the reality of the 2020 election; of his rotten character; of his party whitewashing January 6. The reality of making America not great again, but shredding what makes it great. Yet some voters are turning against Democrats because of . . . mask mandates. Returning Trump to power would slap rationality in the face.

Democracy was so ascendant in the late 20th Century because it fulfills a basic human thirst for recognition of one’s individual dignity and value, as Francis Fukuyama argued in The End of History. And its debate defenders were right that people won’t knowingly give it up — though actually polls show increasing numbers saying democracy is not that important, and they’d be fine with military rule.

Too many fall for the idea of a strongman, to fix everything. (Strongmen never do, one debater observed; instead they find scapegoats.)

And they never come in saying, “No more democracy.” Indeed, democracy has become so entrenched as a fundamental human value that even the worst regimes pretend to honor it. The world’s autocrats, after being caught flat-footed for a time by democracy’s rise, eventually perfected techniques for manipulating it — giving it the death of a thousand cuts — and then to prevent its resurrection. Thus Venezuela’s regime is impregnable despite crashing GDP by 75%; Russians cannot get rid of Putin even as he drives them to catastrophe.

The paragon is China — it too insists it’s “democratic” — taking the surveillance state to heights beyond Orwellian, making life impossible for anyone not the regime’s obedient toady. The picture of the world’s 1984 future?

Even before 2016, I kept saying America’s democracy is not ordained by God, and could not be forever sustained without a citizenry deeply internalizing its values, understanding what it’s all about. Which was already crumbling. Democracy is not just a matter of elections; more importantly it’s a culture. Of which a key aspect is pluralism — accepting people unlike you having a legitimate role, even having power. That ethos is stomped down in today’s America.

The debate questioned whether democracy is its own worst enemy, allowing people to make bad choices. But an enemy at least as dangerous is guns. However strong people’s democratic feelings may be, guns can be stronger, especially when wielded by regimes without scruples. Look at Myanmar’s army, at war with the entire populace. Too many countries have militaries that are good for nothing — nothing — except using force upon their own populations, to entrench their power and privileges. Guns and democracy don’t mix. That’s why America’s ever growing gun infatuation bodes ill.

An important basis for my 2008 optimism was the post-WWII rules-based world order, evolving into the post-cold war Pax Americana. While guns did continue wreaking havoc within countries, at least major advanced nations were no longer using them against each other. That has now changed. Russia’s monstrous crime against Ukraine is another assault on human rationality. And a huge test, whose outcome will be enormously consequential. If Russia, however bloodied, is seen to ultimately prevail, subjugating Ukraine, we’ll be living in a different and uglier world. While if Russia is bloodied and thwarted, the lesson will be salutary. So much hangs on Ukrainians’ strength and courage.

For the moment at least, those inspiring Ukrainians, and a stronger global response than expected, are antidotes to pessimism. On the other hand, it’s always depressing how many dupes will dance to a tune like Putin’s.

And it’s another weakness of democracy that a lot of people “don’t care about politics.” Thus being oblivious when the thousand cuts begin. Disengagement from politics — not having to worry about it — is actually a luxury of living in a stable democracy, under rule of law, cosseting people (as it should). Inhabitants of Myanmar don’t have that luxury.

Yet broadly speaking, it’s true that politics is not everything. Science, technology, and commerce should continue improving quality of life. And America and its people (even most Trumpers) have many great virtues of which democracy is only one. Without it maybe the rest can endure. Even under a Trump dictatorship, most of ordinary daily life might go merrily along. At least half a loaf. I’ve promised my wife we won’t move to Canada unless truly necessary.

The “yes” side won that debate. I once dreamed of living to see a news headline about the ouster of “The World’s Last Dictator.” Now I wonder if it will be the end of “The World’s Last Democracy.”

We are all Ukrainians — Humanism against the wolves

February 25, 2022

Humanist philosophy centers on humans, and our well-being. One human characteristic is tribalism. I see my tribe as humanity, a tribe I love. I love what we’ve achieved, never taking for granted how we’ve overcome nature’s limitations. People who berate us as planetary despoilers wouldn’t want to live as cavemen.

I love people as individuals, as far more good than bad. That too is our evolutionary heritage. Primordial humans who behaved well toward each other gained reproductive success, so genes for good behavior proliferated.

But that only applied within a tribe. Wariness toward other tribes is also human. Yet our ideas of tribal boundaries have been broadening, with people increasingly (like me) viewing their tribe as all humanity. And our makeup also entails a big component of human sympathy; so while people may shun other tribes in the aggregate and notionally, most behave well even toward strangers. Thus hostility toward immigrants, for example, tends to give way when people encounter actual individuals.

Humanism leads to a civic philosophy of classical (John Stuart Mill type) liberalism. Centered on the dignity and worth of every individual, thus a democratic ethos of allowing everyone to pursue the good in their own ways. Which is not only moral but also conducive to societal progress through encouraging and testing different ways of thinking.

This was the philosophy of the Enlightenment, commencing three centuries ago. It underlay the American Revolution. And in the past three-quarters of a century — with America in the vanguard — it became something of a global system — especially following the fall of Communism three decades ago. Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History, thus heralded liberal democracy and free markets as finally triumphant ideas.

A David Brooks column recaps the wave of good news. Freedom, democracy, peace and prosperity ascendant. I recall saluting 1989 as “golden” at the year-end fireworks; then my 1990s trips to a free Russia, the exhilarating apotheosis of my ideals.

And then . . .

“What the hell happened?” Brooks writes, seeing so much gone sour, in a 21st Century “so dark, regressive and dangerous.”

He looks back to America’s founders, who “had a profound respect for individual virtue, but also individual frailty.” Thus they did establish a liberal democracy, but with carefully constructed “guardrails to check popular passion and prejudice.” Brooks says they recognized that democracy is not a natural state, and we’d have to not only plant its seeds but do the work of cultivation so those seeds could flourish. And he draws a parallel in the global arena — where after WWII, America took the lead in building an order with guardrails against a natural state with the strong preying upon the weak.

Both sets of guardrails are under attack, with the better angels of our nature battling our worst. The assault within America is epitomized by January 6 and all it represents; in the global sphere, by Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine.

“Will the liberals of the world be able to hold off the wolves?” asks Brooks. “Strengthen democracy and preserve the rules based world order?” Writing shortly before the actual invasion, he was encouraged how President Biden has succeeded in rallying the collective resolve of other world leaders to push back against Russia’s depredation.

But it’s not enough. As Brooks also notes, today’s Americans are not up for such conflict if it costs us anything. We’ve announced what Putin must regard as piddling sanctions; there’s so much more we could readily do (like cutting Russia from the SWIFT international bank transfer system). And if we were really serious, how about an embargo on all trade with Russia? Was there trade with Nazi Germany during WWII? Yes, doing more would mean pain for us and our allies; our sanctions are tailored to avoiding that. But this is war. The world is burning, and all Americans seem to really care about is gas prices.

Biden has failed to draw in stark terms what’s really at stake. Many don’t see why Ukraine is our concern. The old “not the world’s policeman” chestnut is trotted out. But you wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood with no police to protect law and order. The world is our neighborhood, and America has acted responsibly as part of its police force. Keeping its wolves at bay. Now a wolf is on a rampage. No concern of ours?

“First they came for . . . .”

Today, we are all Ukrainians.

Back at home, Brooks thinks we must restore the seedbeds of our democracy which is “not natural, it is an artificial accomplishment that takes enormous work.” To “fortify the institutions that are supposed to teach the democratic skills; how to weigh evidence and commit to truth;” recognize one’s partisan blinders; respect people you disagree with; avoid conspiracy thinking and supporting demagogues.

But we’re so far off the rails it’s hard to see getting back. Yeah, we do need more civics education. But too many Americans are blind to outright evil staring them in the face. With brains so scrambled by misdirected political passion that hundreds of thousands have let themselves die from refusing vaccination. Crikey.

I started off talking about the human achievement. I’ve long felt it’s all thanks to the very smartest among us. Our big brains are a fluke of evolution, an adaptation to unique circumstances. Yet ours are really not far better than chimpanzee brains. For each species, intelligence falls along a bell curve, and the two curves greatly overlap. But ours is shifted slightly to the right, so at the thin edge, no chimpanzees equal the smartest humans. And it’s those smartest humans, building upon each other’s contributions, generation after generation, who are responsible for all progress. Otherwise we’d still be cavemen.

Tragically though, for all our smarts, we’re not quite smart enough. If that bell curve were shifted just a little more, Putin’s murderousness would not be possible; Americans would have no time for a creep like Trump.

Ukraine and the Abyss

February 21, 2022

A lot of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons were stored in Ukraine. Thus when the USSR broke up, an independent Ukraine found itself with the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to denuclearize — in return for a guarantee that its borders would be inviolate. This agreement was signed by the U.S. and Russia.

Russia now says, “That was then” — agreed by a different government — so no longer binding. That’s not how international agreements work. But even if there were no Budapest Memorandum, international law as commonly understood would still bar the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty committed by Russia.


Ukraine: Nearing September 1, 1939?

February 8, 2022

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France immediately went to war. It ended badly for Hitler and Germany. Will Putin, knowing that history, invade Ukraine? The risks of war are always huge. Sensible prudence says back off.

But why gear up for invasion and not follow through? Maybe Putin thought the threat alone would exact concessions. It hasn’t. Or he sees his manhood at stake now. Or believes his propaganda about restoring Russia’s “great” empire. He’s apparently surrounded by yes-men egging him on. May miscalculate the risks.

The supposed casus belli is concern over Ukraine someday joining NATO. Why should Russia have any say about that? And why would it threaten Russia’s security anyway? NATO is a defensive alliance. Ukraine joining would hurt Russia only if Russia actually fancies attacking Ukraine — which it still denies. But arguing such points is playing Putin’s damned game.

Actually, we should have brought Ukraine into NATO in the ’90s, as a fait accompli. Russia under Yeltsin was not our enemy. Indeed, we should have done much more then to enfold Russia itself securely into the community of decent nations.

Another thing that should have been done — after Russia’s 2014 aggression — was canceling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (not yet in operation), for delivery of Russian natural gas to Germany and Europe (bypassing, and harming, Ukraine). Giving Russia such a hold on Germany’s balls was foolish (especially after Germany rashly closed its nuclear plants).

Germany has lately been wobbly toward Russia, actually blocking some weapons for Ukraine. But President Biden yesterday, meeting with German leader Scholz, said that if Ukraine is invaded, NS2 won’t go forward. And Scholz seemed to agree.

Cutting off Europe’s Russian gas supplies would hurt both sides; costing Russia many billions. But fears about this have meantime driven up oil and gas prices — gaining Russia many billions.

Russia invading Ukraine would be a monstrous crime, a holocaust of suffering and death. And Biden has said it would change the world. Back into one ruled by the law of the jungle, where might makes right.

Fox’s Tucker Carlson defends Russia and Putin. Showing how far off the rails American “conservatism” has gone.

Conventional wisdom predicts Russia would roll over Ukraine. Part of the offensive will be cyber warfare, to cripple Ukraine’s defensive infrastructure. However, as War and Peace illuminated, what counts most in war is troop motivation and morale.

Ukrainians will be fighting for their country and its future as a modern democratic nation. That’s what Putin really fears: Ukraine as a model for what Russia could be, but isn’t. And despite Ukraine’s ancestral links with Russia, now most Ukrainians hate Russia as an enemy.

Russia’s army, on the other hand, is mostly reluctant conscripts, treated wretchedly. Morale must suck. Will they throw away their lives for Putin’s grandiosity?

We must do all we can to defeat the evil now facing us. There are things worth fighting for.

But this needn’t mean all-out war with Russia, or even sending troops to Ukraine. We must fully equip Ukraine with missiles and drones to kill tanks and shoot down planes. Make Russia pay the biggest possible price. No stinting; no squeamishness.