15 February 2022   Leave a comment

The situation in Ukraine remains tense, but I still think that Russia will not invade the country. Having said that, I also remain somewhat flummoxed by what Russian President Putin intends to accomplish by encircling Ukraine. In a speech today, US President Biden indicated that Russian forces now total around 150,000, and many of those troops are in what are regarded as forward positions indicating an intention to invade. Russian forces now ring Ukraine from the North, the East, and the South, and there are also Russian troops in the Transnistria region of Moldova to the West. The Russian Duma ([Parliament] voted to recommend that Putin recognize the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as breakaway states (the Donbas), a recommendation that Putin decided to defer. And there are reports of denial-of-service attacks on official Ukrainian websites, although the significance of those attacks has yet to be assessed.

On the other hand, the Russians announced that some of their troops will return to barracks, although it is not clear whether that decision will change the tactical situation in any way. And in a meeting between German Chancellor Scholz and Ukrainian President Zelensky, Ukrainian admission to NATO was treated only as a very distant possibility (but not the flat-out rejection of the possibility as demanded by Putin). Finally, President Putin indicated that he believed that there was still time for a negotiated settlement.

Nonetheless, US President Biden delivered a very muscular speech on the situation today. He emphasized that the US still favored diplomacy, but he offered absolutely no concessions to any of the Russian specific demands (ruling out NATO for Ukraine forever and the withdrawal of NATO forces to the countries in NATO prior to 1994). The language of the speech was decidedly aggressive: “The United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power.  An attack against one NATO country is an attack against all of us.  And the United States commitment to Article 5 is sacrosanct.” It may be the case that Biden believes that Putin is completely boxed in and has no recourse but to back down. If that is the case, then American hubris has struck again.

Posted February 15, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

10 February 2022   Leave a comment

Mekala Krishnan is my niece and she works for the McKinsey Global Institute. She is the lead author of a new study entitled “The net-zero transition: What it would cost, what it could bring?” The questions are critically important because we know that burning fossil fuels for energy is no longer a viable option for the future, yet there are no current alternatives which could satisfy the energy demands of the global economy. The policies in place today, including the Paris Agreement, lead to nothing more than a dead-end:

“At present, though, the net-zero equation remains unsolved: greenhouse gas emissions
continue unabated and are not counterbalanced by removals, nor is the world prepared
to complete the net-zero transition. Indeed, even if all net-zero commitments and national
climate pledges were fulfilled, research suggests that warming would not be held to 1.5°C
above preindustrial levels, increasing the odds of initiating the most catastrophic impacts
of climate change, including the risk of biotic feedback loops. Moreover, most of these
commitments have yet to be backed by detailed plans or executed. Nor would execution be
easy: solving the net-zero equation cannot be divorced from pursuing economic development
and inclusive growth. It would require a careful balancing of the shorter-term risks of poorly
prepared or uncoordinated action with the longer-term risks of insufficient or delayed action.
Indeed, a more disorderly transition could impair energy supply and affect energy access and
affordability, especially for lower-income households and regions. It could also have knock-on
impacts on the economy more broadly, potentially creating a backlash that would slow down
the transition.”

The best solution to his impending disaster is to substantially reduce the consumption of so many products but that solution is probably politically impossible (although it may be forced upon us). There is plenty of evidence that renewable energy sources can ultimately substitute for most fossil fuels, but that horizon remains distant for most countries in the world. Thus, the real problem is managing a transition with minimal disruption to the global economy.

The report does not downplay the costs of the transition:

“Capital spending on physical assets for energy and land-use systems in the net-zero transition between 2021 and 2050 would amount to about $275 trillion, or $9.2 trillion per year on average, an annual increase of as much as $3.5 trillion from today. To put this increase in comparative terms, the $3.5 trillion is approximately equivalent, in 2020, to half of global corporate profits, one-quarter of total tax revenue, and 7 percent of household spending. An additional $1 trillion of today’s annual spend would, moreover, need to be reallocated from high-emissions to low-emissions assets. Accounting for expected increases in spending, as incomes and populations grow, as well as for currently legislated transition policies, the required increase in spending would be lower, but still about $1 trillion.”

The proper way to think about this spending, however, is to think about the money as an investment, not as a cost. It is not as if there is much choice in the matter, at least for our grandchildren.

The report outlines all the opportunities for jobs in a net-zero world and there is no question in my mind that those jobs will more than compensate for the jobs lost in eliminating the fossil fuel industry. The difficulty arises from the asymmetry between the skills associated with each energy approach. Those who profit from the dependence on fossil fuels are not likely to be the same people who will benefit from a net-zero carbon emission energy economy. Societies should focus their attention on how to manage the disparities in benefits.

The report is very detailed and I highly recommend it for careful study. It is well-documented and clearly written. It also manages to maintain a dispassionate tone while bringing an urgent message home.

Posted February 10, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

7 February 2022   Leave a comment

David Hope and Julian Limberg of King’s College in London have published an article entitled “The economic consequences of major tax cuts for the rich” in the journal Socio-Economic Review. The authors take data from 1965 to 2015 from a number of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which is a group of mostly rich countries in the world. The article tests the proposition commonly made that tax cuts on the rich benefit everyone by boosting economic activity–the “trickle-down” theory of economic growth. Surprisingly, there are few rigorous analyses of this basic contention which permeates discussions about tax policy.

The authors find that the proposition is not empirically justified:

“Our results show that major tax cuts for the rich increase income inequality in the years following the reform…⁠. The magnitude of the effect is sizeable; on average, each major reform leads to a rise in top 1% share of pre-tax national income of over 0.7 percentage points. The results also show that economic performance, as measured by real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita and the unemployment rate is not significantly affected by major tax cuts for the rich. The estimated effects for these variables are statistically indistinguishable from zero, and this finding holds in both the short and medium run.

The time period is important because it reflects a substantial reduction in taxes on the wealthy: “Highly progressive income taxes arose in the wake of the two World Wars, with average top marginal income tax rates still standing at around 60% in the early 1980s. That decade proved to be a major turning point, however, and average rates have since fallen to under 40% (Scheve and Stasavage, 2016Kiser and Karceski, 2017). This trend was mirrored in other taxes on the wealthy and corporations, which also dropped sharply over the past half century (Hope and Limberg, 2021).”

The conclusion of the article is direct:

“In sum, this study finds that major tax cuts for the rich push up income inequality, but do not boost economic performance. It therefore provides strong evidence against the influential political–economic idea that tax cuts for the rich ‘trickle down’ to benefit the wider economy. The study also points to a number potentially fruitful avenues for future research. It remains puzzling why ‘trickle down’ ideas have been so powerful and persistent in tax policy-making in the advanced democracies despite the lack of macroeconomic benefits from cutting taxes on the rich. “

What is most interesting about this finding is that we really did not need a rigorous analysis to dispute the proposition that lower taxes on the rich would lead to greater economic growth: “Whereas global GDP per capita grew by a yearly average of almost 2.8 percent during the 1960s and 1970s, growth from the 1980s to present has virtually halved, resting at just over 1.4 percent per annum.” But perhaps the most damning aspect of the “trickle-down” theory is that it is used as a cover for higher compensation for the CEOs of large corporations: “compensation for CEOs is now 278 times greater than for ordinary workers. That’s a stratospherically larger income gap than the 20-to-1 ratio in 1965.” The more accurate way to describe the economic theories of the last fifty years is “trickle-up”, not “trickle-down”.

Posted February 7, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

5 February 2022   Leave a comment

On 3 February there was a remarkable press briefing at the US State Department. The State Department representative, Ned Price, made an opening statement alleging that Russia was developing a propaganda video which would suggest that NATO forces had attacked the separatists in eastern Ukraine. This video would be a “false-flag” operation which the Russians would then claim gives them the right to protect those separatists against “NATO-Ukrainian” forces. The press did a great job of demanding evidence that this US assertion was true, as this lengthy exchange suggests:

QUESTION: Thanks. Okay, well, that’s quite a mouthful there. So you said “actions such as these suggest otherwise” – suggest meaning that they suggest they’re not interested in talks and they’re going to go ahead with some kind of a – what action are you talking about?

MR PRICE: One, the actions I have just pointed to, the fact –

QUESTION: What action? What —

MR PRICE: The fact that Russia continues to engage in disinformation campaigns.

QUESTION: Well no, you’ve made an allegation that they might do that. Have they actually done it?

MR PRICE: What we know, Matt, is what we – what I have just said, that they have engaged in this activity, in this planning activity —

QUESTION: Well, engage in what – hold on a second. What activity?

MR PRICE: But let me – let me – because obviously this is not – this is not the first time we’ve made these reports public. You’ll remember that just a few weeks ago –

QUESTION: I’m sorry, made what report public?

MR PRICE: If you let me finish, I will tell you what report we made public.


MR PRICE: We told you a few weeks ago that we have information indicating Russia also has already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine. So that, Matt, to your question, is an action that Russia has already taken.

QUESTION: No, it’s an action that you say that they have taken, but you have shown no evidence to confirm that. And I’m going to get to the next question here, which is: What is the evidence that they – I mean, this is – like, crisis actors? Really? This is like Alex Jones territory you’re getting into now. What evidence do you have to support the idea that there is some propaganda film in the making?

MR PRICE: Matt, this is derived from information known to the U.S. Government, intelligence information that we have declassified. I think you know —

QUESTION: Okay, well, where is it? Where is this information?

MR PRICE: It is intelligence information that we have declassified.

QUESTION: Well, where is it? Where is the declassified information?

MR PRICE: I just delivered it.

QUESTION: No, you made a series of allegations and statements —

MR PRICE: Would you like us to print out the topper? Because you will see a transcript of this briefing that you can print out for yourself.

QUESTION: But that’s not evidence, Ned. That’s you saying it. That’s not evidence. I’m sorry.

MR PRICE: What would you like, Matt?

QUESTION: I would like to see some proof that you – that you can show that —

MR PRICE: Matt, you have been —

QUESTION: — that shows that the Russians are doing this.


QUESTION: Ned, I’ve been doing this for a long time, as you know.

MR PRICE: I know. That was my point. You have been doing this for quite a while.


MR PRICE: You know that when we declassify intelligence, we do so in a means —

QUESTION: That’s right. And I remember WMDs in Iraq, and I —

MR PRICE: — we do so with an eye to protecting sources and methods.

QUESTION: And I remember that Kabul was not going to fall. I remember a lot of things. So where is the declassified information other than you coming out here and saying it?

MR PRICE: Matt, I’m sorry you don’t like the format, but we have —

QUESTION: It’s not the format. It’s the content.

MR PRICE: I’m sorry you don’t like the content. I’m sorry you —

QUESTION: It’s not that I don’t like it or —

MR PRICE: I’m sorry you are doubting the information that is in the possession of the U.S. Government.


MR PRICE: What I’m telling you is that this is information that’s available to us. We are making it available to you in order – for a couple reasons. One is to attempt to deter the Russians from going ahead with this activity. Two, in the event we’re not able to do that, in the event the Russians do go ahead with this, to make it clear as day, to lay bare the fact that this has always been an attempt on the part of the Russian Federation to fabricate a pretext.

QUESTION: Yes, but you don’t have any evidence to back it up other than what you’re saying. It’s like you’re saying, “We think – we have information the Russians may do this,” but you won’t tell us what the information is. And then when you’re asked —

MR PRICE: Well, that is the idea behind deterrence, Matt. That is the idea behind deterrence.

QUESTION: When you’re asked – and when you’re asked —

MR PRICE: It is our hope that the Russians don’t go forward with this.

QUESTION: And when you’re asked what the information is, you say, “I just gave it to you.” But that’s not what —

MR PRICE: You seem not to understand —

QUESTION: That’s not the way it works.

MR PRICE: You seem not to understand the idea of deterrence.

QUESTION: No, no, no, Ned. You don’t – you seem not to understand the idea of —

MR PRICE: We are trying to deter the Russians from moving forward with this type of activity. That is why we are making it public today. If the Russians don’t go forward with this, that is not ipso facto an indication that they never had plans to do so.

QUESTION: But then it’s unprovable. I mean, my God, what is the evidence that you have that suggests that the Russians are even planning this?

MR PRICE: Matt, you —

QUESTION: I mean, I’m not saying that they’re not. But you just come out and say this and expect us just to believe it without you showing a shred of evidence that it’s actually true – other than when I ask or when anyone else asks what’s the information, you said, well, I just gave it to you, which was just you making a statement.

MR PRICE: Matt, you said yourself you’ve been in this business for quite a long time. You know that when we make information – intelligence information public we do so in a way that protects sensitive sources and methods. You also know that we do so – we declassify information – only when we’re confident in that information.

QUESTION: But Ned, you haven’t given any information.

MR PRICE: If you doubt – if you doubt the credibility of the U.S. Government, of the British Government, of other governments, and want to find solace in information that the Russians are putting out —


MR PRICE: — that is for you to do.

QUESTION: I don’t want – I’m not asking what the Russian Government is putting out. And what do you – what is that supposed to mean?

MR PRICE: Shaun.

QUESTION: Does the government have the video? Because U.S. officials are describing very specific scenes, but do they actually have a video?

MR PRICE: The fact that we are able to go into such great detail – obviously, I am not going to spell out what is in our possession, but I will leave – I will leave it to you – I will leave that to your judgment, to your imagination.

QUESTION: Ned, there are no facts that you’ve spelled out.

QUESTION: Whether they use it “in the coming days” – do you have evidence this was intended to come out in the coming days?

MR PRICE: We’ve said, Ben, for some time now that the Russians have positioned forces, they have undertaken preparations, that if Putin decides to move forward with an invasion they’re positioned to do so. They are poised to do so.

QUESTION: You just said – you said “in the coming days.” I mean, was that a timeline that you felt that this was going to happen imminently?

MR PRICE: Well, we know what they are planning for. We know the contingencies that they have engaged in. And again, these are the kinds of steps that they are poised to undertake if that decision is made. Our goal in all of this is to deter an invasion, to deter this type of activity. So we certainly hope it doesn’t take place. We are making clear what we know so that in the event it does take place it will be clear to the world what this actually was and what it was not.

QUESTION: And the pre-positioned teams, when do you suggest they were pre-positioned? Is it going back months, I mean, or was this a more recent sort of deployment?

MR PRICE: Well, this was something that we made public several weeks ago now. So several weeks ago we said that information available to us indicated that Russia had already pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct a false flag operation in eastern Ukraine.

QUESTION: Was it recent at that point? Because if they had come across just a few weeks ago, that would be a Russian aggression across the border, which you’ve warned time and time again would result in severe consequences.

MR PRICE: Ben, you know that the sort of hybrid activity that we’ve been pointing to, much of it has been going on since 2014. Obviously, we’re very attuned to any Russian aggression against Ukraine that may take place in this atmosphere given the heightened tensions.

I admire the tenacity of the press. I have vivid memories of controversies over the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in the US-Vietnam War and the weapons of mass destruction controversy in the US-Iraq War of 2003. In both cases assertions were made by the US government that subsequently turned out to be false. Mr. Price apparently has forgotten that many US citizens have memories similar to mine. It is unfortunate that the US Government continues to forget its obligation to be truthful and that such behavior only corrodes the legitimacy of government actions.

Posted February 5, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

27 January 2022   Leave a comment

Happy Birthday, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!!!

When I was much younger, I learned to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467. I found the second movement (Andante) difficult to interpret. I remember my teacher, Mr. Adelman, telling me to try to understand what Mozart was trying to say. It was the first time I began to appreciate music as story telling. It was a revelation (I was a late bloomer).

Posted January 27, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

24 January 2022   2 comments

The US and its European allies are trying to forge an effective stance to persuade Russia to draw down its estimated 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian borders. Today, the US put 8,500 troops on “active alert” pending a decision to send them to Eastern European NATO members such as Poland and the Baltic states. I hope that the alert status is simply part of a bluff to send a message to Russian President Putin that there is a possible NATO military response to any Russian invasion of Ukraine. It would be a serious mistake to send those troops in advance of any Russian military action since a premature deployment would only heighten the Russian sense of insecurity. Additionally, any actual deployment of troops should be contingent on clear Russian military action, and not in response to a cyber attack or guerilla activity by Ukrainian forces loyal to Russia.

I remain convinced that neither Russia or the US wish military action in Ukraine, but both sides are making it difficult to defuse the situation. The Russians have already scheduled military exercises with Belarus which neighbors Ukraine from the north and Belarus has very strong ties with Russia and is dependent on Russia for economic support. But the Russians have been satisfied with keeping the situation just below boil since its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and, despite the military build-up along the border, an outright invasion of Ukraine seems inconsistent with Russian military strategy. And the Russians have already encircled most of Ukraine, as the map below suggests.

The Russian demands are also simply not credible. The demands are described by The New York Times: “Russia’s central demands include a guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward or allow former Soviet states like Ukraine to join, and a withdrawal of the alliance’s forces and weaponry from all the countries, such as Poland and the Baltic republics, that joined it after 1997.” Putin is a realist and knows that the US and NATO could never agree to these demands and that an invasion of Ukraine would only bind the members of NATO tighter together.

As I suggested in the post on 2 December, Putin sincerely believes that Ukraine is historically part of Russia and the long-standing interest in Ukrainian agricultural land is a powerful incentive for close Russian ties with Ukraine. But an outright invasion of Ukraine would render Russia a pariah state for most other states in the world and the subjugation of the Ukrainian population would be extremely difficult. Alexey Muraviev makes a persuasive argument:

“Back in 2014, Russia had a better chance to invade and occupy more of Ukraine beyond Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Then, the Ukrainian military had almost no effective fighting capacity: under trained and poorly equipped, morale was at an all-time low. The majority of senior and middle ranking Ukrainian officers were the product of Soviet defence educational establishments, many with at best neutral sentiments towards Moscow, and some willing to change sides (as happened in Crimea).

“In 2022, the situation is different. The Ukrainian army has been recalibrated to confront a hostile Russia. The officer corps was cleansed of pro-Russia sympathisers. Individual and unit training as well as exercise activity intensified, with some equipment acquired. Many soldiers have gained combat experience in eastern Ukraine.

“This is not to say that the Ukrainian army could expect to repel the Russian offensive. The larger, better trained and technologically advanced Russian force would sweep through rapidly, particularly after gaining air superiority and control of the battle space. However, a military success on the ground may turn out to be a loss in the longer-term. Eight years of confrontation has transformed Ukrainian attitudes towards their eastern neighbour. The Russians are likely to encounter cool reception from locals with the majority considering Russia to be hostile.

“Based on its Crimean experience, Moscow would have to commit an astronomical amount of resources as part of the post-war reconstruction, which the Kremlin would find especially challenging, particularly in the face of promised severe sanctions. “

The more difficult situation for the US and NATO are non-military actions by Russia to undermine the Ukrainian government. The options available to Russia are numerous and calibrating effective responses is very difficult. But those difficulties should be left to the Department of State and not the Department of Defense. For now, avoiding a military conflict should be President Biden’s highest priority.

Posted January 24, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

7 January 2022   Leave a comment

A humorous take on one of the darkest days in American history.

Posted January 7, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

6 January 2022   1 comment

US President Biden delivered a speech today on the anniversary of the assault on the Capitol Building last year. It was a speech that should have been given a long time ago, but Biden has been overly scrupulous in avoiding overt political speeches in a bootless attempt to foster bipartisanship. Under most circumstances I would applaud Biden’s early strategy, but there is absolutely no evidence that most members of the Republican Party are interested in anything other than tax cuts. Indeed, there were only two Republicans present in the House of Representatives as Biden delivered the speech.

But the speech was not merely political; it was tailored to nettle the former President. Again, I really do not like personal attacks in politics, but I am clearly out of touch on that matter. And the former President made his living on personal insults so I am willing to let Karma rule in this case. I will admit that I found the barbs deeply satisfying. The best lines in the speech will endure in the annals of American politics:

“He’s not just a former president.  He’s a defeated former president — defeated by a margin of over 7 million of your votes in a full and free and fair election.”

Writing for The Guardian, David Smith penned a brilliant analysis of Biden’s approach:

“Biden could have used Thursday’s anniversary to offer olive branches, finding comfort in the traditional role as head of state as an excuse to rise above political battles of the day. His instinct may have been to be as apolitical and anodyne as a monarch.

“But this was the moment that the commander-in-chief realised the clear and present danger posed to American democracy by one of its major parties and former leader gone rogue. The alarmed voices of fellow Democrats, activists, journalists and historians about the state of emergency finally seemed to have got through to him.

“He understood that platitudes and prayers for a miraculous Kumbaya moment will no longer do. You cannot reason with extremists whose premise about a stolen election and the insurrection being the will of the people – wrapped up in the cult of Trump – is fundamentally irrational.

“You cannot debate Fox News or fascism-curious Facebook users. Instead, the threat must be looked squarely in the eye.”

I have no illusions about what effect the speech may have on members of the Republican Party, but I am long past believing that anything will change the minds of those who are unwilling to challenge the former President. President Biden said it best:

“To me, the true patriots were the more than 150 [million] Americans who peacefully expressed their vote at the ballot box, the election workers who protected the integrity of the vote, and the heroes who defended this Capitol.

“You can’t love your country only when you win.

“You can’t obey the law only when it’s convenient.

“You can’t be patriotic when you embrace and enable lies.

“Those who stormed this Capitol and those who instigated and incited and those who called on them to do so held a dagger at the throat of America — at American democracy.

“They didn’t come here out of patriotism or principle.  They came here in rage — not in service of America, but rather in service of one man.”

“My hate is general, I detest all men;
Some because they are wicked and do evil,
Others because they tolerate the wicked,
Refusing them the active vigorous scorn
Which vice should stimulate in virtuous minds.”
― Moliere, The Misanthrope

Posted January 6, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

31 December 2021   2 comments

One of the wonderful aspects of living in New England is that the region experiences four very different seasons, ranging from hot and humid summers (which I hate) to bitter cold and snowy winters (my favorite season is the fall). Recent research, published in the journal, Climate, suggests that the New England climate may lose that distinctiveness.

“New England appears to be warming faster than the world as a whole. It is clear from the research that New England has warmed past the 1.5 °C level, which the IPCC has set as a do-not-pass threshold for the world [5], and New England is close to passing the 2 °C level. Regions in the higher latitudes, such as New England, are generally warming faster than the world as a whole. It is also clear from the research that, over the past few decades, the colder temperatures (minimum temperatures and winter temperatures) are warming the fastest. This might be a reason why people in New England are not as aware, or are not as concerned, about the warming temperatures, as they would be if the hottest (maximum and summer season) temperatures were warming the fastest….

“New England’s rising temperatures are diminishing the distinct seasonality of the region by vastly reducing winter’s cold temperatures as well as increasing temperatures in all of the other seasons. The differences between the four seasons is decreasing. Rising temperatures have resulted in a change in snow cover in the winter. Every decade between 1965 and 2005, New England has lost nine snow-cover days due to less precipitation falling as snow and from the snow melting faster…”

The Boston Globe outlines the significance of the changes:

“The warming in the region already has exceeded a threshold set by the Paris Climate Accord, in which nearly 200 nations agreed to cut their emissions in an effort to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If global temperatures exceed that amount, the damage from intensifying storms, rising sea levels, droughts, forest fires, and other natural disasters is likely to be catastrophic, scientists say.

“With New England’s annual temperatures expected to rise sharply in the coming decades, the authors of the study said the region should expect major disruptions to its economy, including coastal waters that will become increasingly inhospitable to iconic species such as cod and lobster; fewer days when skiing and other winter recreation will be possible; less maple syrup and other agricultural products produced; and a range of other consequences.”

Fortunately, New England does not yet display some of the more catastrophic dimensions of climate change such as large, uncontrollable wildfires as seen in the American West or the flooding experienced in the American South and Southeast. But the trend is unmistakably clear that the New England climate is changing dramatically and it is difficult to predict what those changes might entail.

Posted December 31, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

16 December 2021   Leave a comment

Balance of Power politics is one of the most enduring patterns in international relations. Its roots go far back to Kautilya, an Indian teacher who wrote one of the first political treatise in the 4th century BCE called the Arthashastra. Few now know about Kautilya, but he introduced some of the more well-known aphorisms in world politics: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and “the friend of my enemy is my enemy” are examples of how we formulate balance of power statecraft. It is a political system motivated solely by the desire to maintain and accrete power, totally devoid of principle or morality. There are a very large number of examples of the balance of power throughout history, and the one that underpins contemporary international relations theory is the European balance of power that lasted from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (ending the Napoleonic Wars) to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

That balance of power ultimately failed, largely because it failed to accommodate the growing power of Germany which was a late comer to the balance of power game (a united Germany only became real after Bismarck’s Zollverein was completed in 1871). Great Britain, France, and Russia refused to make any concessions to the emerging great power smack dab in the middle of Europe. As German power grew, the world witnessed the construction of military alliances. One one side was the Triple Entente comprised of Great Britain, France, and Russia which was dedicated to preserving the status quo in Europe. On the Other side was the Triple Alliance, comprised of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy which was dedicated to changing the status quo which would give Germany, in the words of Bernhard von Bülow (1849-1929), who served as Reich chancellor from 1900 to 1909, a “place in the sun”.

The world is now witnessing the same dynamic. China is rapidly developing from a humiliating century at the hands of other powers only to find that those powers seem to be dedicated to preventing China’s “place in the sun”. The Chinese and the Russians are moving closer together and are forging a loose alliance with Iran and other countries to confront the US, Europe, and Japan. According to Nadia Helmy:

“And here, we find that there is an alliance already existing between (China, Iran and Russia), which seeks to make a (coalition at the United Nations to confront US sanctions and set fair standards for the use of force).  A number of other founding members of the United Nations joined the Russian-Chinese alliance, namely: (Algeria, Angola, Belarus, Bolivia, Cambodia, Cuba, Eritrea, Laos, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Syria and Venezuela). All of them are allies of China and Russia and have strong military, economic and political relations with them.

“Indications point out that (China, Russia, North Korea and Iran), as well as some other countries seek to (mobilize support for an alliance to defend the Charter of the United Nations), by addressing the use or threat of use of force, and unilateral sanctions, especially those American sanctions imposed on certain countries  away from the international community and international legitimacy.

“”These new Russian-Chinese efforts with the participation of 16 countries – in addition to Palestine – come to establish this group at the United Nations, in the face of the ‘multilateral approach’ of the US administration of President ‘Joe Biden’ with its allies to confront Chinese and Russian influence, in abandoning the unilateral approach that he was following the former President (Donald Trump), who was focused on the ‘America First’ policy.”

The Russians, Chinese, and Iran are conducting joint naval drills in the Persian Gulf. The Chinese have been cultivating a strong relationship with Iran over the last 40 years and the sanctions that the US and Europe have imposed on Iran have made it much easier for China to cooperate with Iran.

On the other side, US allies have been more active in asserting their role in Indo-Pacific affairs. For the first time in many years, the Germans are sending naval vessels into the South China Sea, contesting China’s unilateral claims of sovereignty. Great Britain has made a stronger commitment to a naval presence in the region, as reported by Reuters: “Britain said on Tuesday it would permanently deploy two warships in Asian waters after its Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and escort ships sail to Japan in September through seas where China is vying for influence with the United States and Japan.”

Japan is also stepping up its military presence in the region, particularly as Chinese rhetoric toward Taiwan continues to ratchet up. The New York Times reports that Japan is building a missile base only 200 miles from Taiwan on the island of Ishigaki.

The parallels between the alliance-building prior to World War I and the current situation are suggestive of the difficulties of adjusting to the emergence of a great power. Some IR theorists have termed this dynamic as “The Thucydides Trap” (a reference to Sparta’s reaction to the emergence of Athens as the dominant power on the Peloponnese), but those theorists need to read Thucydides more closely.

Posted December 21, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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