The Long Game: Why the West is losing

Autocracies like China, Russia and Iran are challenging the dominance of Western democracies. Much has changed in the last two decades, fueling this emerging threat to the free world.

China & Global Trade

China joined the WTO in 2001 and disrupted global trade. Subsidy of state-owned or state-sponsored industries tilted the playing field. Manipulation of exchange rates, amassing $4 trillion of foreign reserves, helped to depress the yuan, creating a further advantage for Chinese manufacturers.

Manufacturing employment in the US shrank by more than 5.5 million jobs between 2000 and 2010.

Manufacturing Jobs USA

Europe experienced similar losses.

Manufacturing Jobs UK, France & EU

Output recovered, but through a combination of automation and offshoring labor-intensive activities, manufacturing jobs were never restored. Losses of 4 million US manufacturing jobs (23.5% of total) and an equal 4 million (10%) in the European Union appear permanent.

Manufacturing US & EU

The Global Financial Crisis

The global financial crisis (GFC) in 2008 and the recession caused soaring unemployment and further alienated blue collar workers.

Unemployment US & EU

The $700 billion bailout of the banking system (Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008), with no prosecutions of key actors, undermined trust in Federal government.

The Rise and Decline of Nations

Mancur Olson, in The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), argues that interest groups — such as cotton-farmers, steel-producers, labor unions, and banks  — tend to unite into pressure groups to influence government policy in their favor. The resulting protectionist policies hurt economic growth but their costs go unnoticed, attracting little resistance, as they are diffused throughout the economy. The benefits, on the other hand, are concentrated in the hands of a few, incentivizing further action. As these pressure groups increase in strength and number, the costs accumulate, and nations burdened by them fall into economic decline.

Olson formulated his theory after studying the rapid rise in industrial power in Germany and Japan after World War II. He concluded that their economies had benefited from the almost complete destruction of interest groups and protectionist policies as a result of the war and were able to pursue optimal strategies to rebuild their economies. The result was that their economies, unfettered by pressure groups and special interests, far outstripped those of the victors, burdened by the same inefficient, protectionist policies as before the war.

Federal government, choked by lobbyists and special interests, failed to prioritize issues facing blue collar workers: global trade, off-shoring jobs and fallout from the GFC. Formation of the Tea Party movement in 2009 created a rallying point for libertarians and conservatives — supporting small government and traditional Judeo-Christian values1 — but it also opened the door for populists like Donald Trump.

Polarization

Exponential growth of social media, combined with disinformation and fake news, has polarized communities.

In 2017, 93 percent of Americans surveyed said they receive news online, with news organization websites (36%) and social media (35%) the most common sources. Trust and confidence in mass media has declined from 53 percent in 1997 to 32 percent in 2016, according to Gallup Polls.

Politics are increasingly dominated by outrage and division, with populist candidates gaining handsomely.

Many Western governments are now formed of fragile coalitions. Greece, Italy, Germany, even the UK.  Others in Eastern Europe — Poland, Hungary, Austria, Turkey — are heading towards autocracy.

The Long Game

China has been quietly playing the long game. Massive investment in infrastructure, subsidy of key industries, controlled access to its markets, upgrading technology through forced partnerships with Western companies in exchange for access to Chinese markets, and industrial espionage have all been used to gain an advantage over competitors.

The CCP exploits divisions within and between Western governments while expanding their influence in universities, think tanks and the media. The stated aim of the CCP’s United Front Work Department is to influence Chinese diasporas in the West to accept CCP rule, endorse its legitimacy, and assist in achieving Party aims. This includes some 50 million who emigrated after 1979 or are PRC students studying abroad. Stepped up surveillance of PRC students, funding of Confucius Institutes on campuses and growing student activism has raised concerns in Australia over academic freedom and promotion of pro-Beijing views3.

Western governments seem unable to present a coordinated response. Absence of a cohesive, long-term strategy and weakened alliances make them an easy target.

Pressure Groups

Governments are also subjected to pressure from within. The latest example is pressure exerted, by US companies, on the White House to lift the ban on sales of US technology to Huawei. From the New York Times a few days ago:

Beijing has also pressured American companies. This month, the Chinese government said it would create an “unreliable entities list” to punish companies and individuals it perceived as damaging Chinese interests. The following week, China’s chief economic planning agency summoned foreign executives, including representatives from Microsoft, Dell and Apple. It warned them that cutting off sales to Chinese companies could lead to punishment and hinted that the companies should lobby the United States government to stop the bans. The stakes are high for some of the American companies, like Apple, which relies on China for many sales and for much of its production.

Short-term Outlook

The problem with most Western democracies is that they are stuck in a short-term election cycle, with special interest groups, lobbyists for hire, and populist policies targeted at winning votes in the next election. Frequent changes of government lead to a lack of continuity, ensuring that long-term vision and planning, needed to build a winning global strategy, are woefully neglected.

Autocrats like China, Russia and Iran are able to play the long game because they enjoy continuity of leadership. They do not have to concern themselves with elections and the media cycle. They own the media. And elections, if held, are a mere formality, with pre-selected candidates and pre-ordained results.

Western democracies will have to adapt if they want to remain competetive in the 21st century.

Focus on the Long-term

Switzerland is one of the few Western democracies that is capable of a long-term focus. Their unique, consensus-driven system ensures stability and continuity of government, with buy-in from all major political parties. The largest parties are all represented on the 7-member governing Federal Council. Elected by Federal Assembly (a bicameral parliament) for four-year terms on a proportional basis. There has been only one change in party representation on the Federal Council since 19592.

Cohesiveness and stability provide a huge advantage when it comes to long-term planning.

Conclusion

Regulating global trade, limiting the threat of social media, ensuring quality journalism, protecting academic freedom, guarding against influence operations by foreign powers, limiting the power of lobbyists and special interest groups — all of these require a long-term strategy. And buy-in from all sides of the political spectrum.

We need to adapt our current form of democracy, which has served us well for the last century, but is faltering under the challenges of the modern era, or risk losing it all together. Without bipartisan support for, and commitment to, long-term policies, there is little hope for building a winning strategy.

The choice is ours: a highly-regulated, autocratic system where rule of law is the first casualty; a stable form of democracy that ensures long-term continuity and planning; or continuation of the present melee, driven by emotion rather than forethought, populist leaders, frequent changes in government — and subservience to our new autocratic masters.

Footnotes:

  1. Wikipedia: Tea Party movement
  2. Current Federal Council representation is 2 Free Democratic Party (liberals), 2 Social Democratic Party (social democrats), 1 Christian Democratic People’s Party [CVP] (Christian conservatives) and 2 Swiss People’s Party [SVP] (national conservatives), reflecting 76.2% of the popular vote in 2015 Federal elections. The SVP gained one seat from the CVP in 2003.
  3. The Diplomat: China’s United Front work – Propaganda as Policy

East to West: Headed for war?

Followers of international relations can take their pick of wars at present. There is a trade war brewing between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, which could descend into a currency war with competing devaluations. We have a Russia waging a cyber war on the West, a Cold War in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, a proxy war in Yemen between Saudia Arabia and Iran, a frozen war in Georgia and Ukraine, and a hot war in Syria that threatens to escalate into a major confrontation between Russia and the West. On top of that we have Kim Jong-un trying to break into the big leagues by test-firing ICBMs over Japan. It’s a tough neighborhood.

The “peace dividend” that was supposed to follow the collapse of Communism is well and truly over. The next major ideological conflict is upon us. Democracy versus the Dictators. For the West to prevail it will have to engage in a coordinated muscular diplomacy over the next few decades. A good start would be Margaret Thatcher’s Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World (2002):

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the oval office, 1988

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the oval office, 1988

“For my part, I favour an approach to statecraft that embraces principles, as long as it is not stifled by them; and I prefer such principles to be accompanied by steel along with good intentions.

…The habit of ubiquitous interventionism, combining pinprick strikes by precision weapons with pious invocations of high principle, would lead us into endless difficulties. Interventions must be limited in number and overwhelming in their impact.

….I should therefore prefer to restrict my guidelines to the following:

Don’t believe that military interventions, no matter how morally justified, can succeed without clear military goals.

Don’t fall into the trap of imagining that the West can remake societies.

Don’t take public opinion for granted — but don’t either underrate the degree to which good people will endure sacrifices for a worthwhile cause.

Don’t allow tyrants and aggressors to get away with it

And when you fight — fight to win.’

But the West also needs to clean up its own house and correct many of the abuses to which Capitalism has been subjected over the last few decades. Martin Wolf sums up the challenges in US-China rivalry will shape the 21st century:

‘The threat is the decadence of the west, very much including the US — the prevalence of rent extraction as a way of economic life, the indifference to the fate of much of its citizenry, the corrupting role of money in politics, the indifference to the truth, and the sacrifice of long-term investment to private and public consumption….’

Bold leadership is required. To fight the wars we have to but, more importantly, to resolve conflicts by other means wherever possible. That doesn’t mean avoiding conflict by retreating from red lines. It means establishing and vigorously enforcing new rules that benefit everyone. No one wins in a war. Whether it is a trade war, a cold war or a hot war. Everyone pays a price.

‘It must be thoroughly understood that war is a necessity, and that the more readily we accept it, the less will be the ardor of our opponents….’

~ Thucydides (circa 400 BC)

Warsaw: Trump unequivocally commits to Article V | CNN

….As long as we know our history, we will know how to build our future. Americans know that a strong alliance of free, sovereign and independent nations is the best defense for our freedoms and for our interests. That is why my administration has demanded that all members of NATO finally meet their full and fair financial obligation.

As a result of this insistence, billions of dollars more have begun to pour into NATO. In fact, people are shocked. But billions and billions of dollars more are coming in from countries that, in my opinion, would not have been paying so quickly.To those who would criticize our tough stance, I would point out that the United States has demonstrated not merely with words but with its actions that we stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment. (Applause.)

Words are easy, but actions are what matters. And for its own protection — and you know this, everybody knows this, everybody has to know this — Europe must do more. Europe must demonstrate that it believes in its future by investing its money to secure that future.

That is why we applaud Poland for its decision to move forward this week on acquiring from the United States the battle-tested Patriot air and missile defense system — the best anywhere in the world. (Applause.) That is also why we salute the Polish people for being one of the NATO countries that has actually achieved the benchmark for investment in our common defense. Thank you. Thank you, Poland. I must tell you, the example you set is truly magnificent, and we applaud Poland. Thank you. (Applause.)

We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have. The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it? (Applause.)

We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive. (Applause.) If anyone forgets the critical importance of these things, let them come to one country that never has. Let them come to Poland. (Applause.) And let them come here, to Warsaw, and learn the story of the Warsaw Uprising….

Source: Trump’s speech in Warsaw (full transcript, video)

Echoes of the Past: Syria, Chemical Weapons, and Civilian Targeting

Everyone should read this as a reminder of the brutality that states may employ for political ends, whether Ethiopia (1935), Chechnya (1995), Iraq (1998) or Syria (2017). Chemical weapons such as sarin or mustard gas leave horrific injuries, but any deliberate targeting of civilians — such as bombing of hospitals and residential neighborhoods — should IMO be treated as a war crime.

Luke O’Brien is a U.S. Army officer assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground and is currently a Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Graduate Fellow at National Defense University:

…..Perhaps the most notorious example of this from recent memory, however, was the Iraqi chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988, as part of the Anfal Campaign at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. This attack struck the small Kurdish village with both conventional and chemical bombs, including sarin, just as Assad’s forces would nearly 30 years later. The first attacks used normal high-explosive bombs, which both drove civilians into basement shelters as well as broke open the villages windows and doors. These initials attacks were then followed up with chemical munitions, which quickly filled the basement shelters and killed their occupants.

Such brutality was intentional. The attacks were intended to break the back of the Kurdish peshmerga militia by depopulating its support. Commenting on the matter at the time, Iraqi Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid bragged that he would “kill [all the Kurds] with chemical weapons.” The chemical bombardment of Halabja had its desired effect, with a stream of surviving civilians abandoning the town and fleeing to nearby Iran. This use of chemical weapons, moreover, had another added benefit: driving away civilians and insurgents who had become numb to the effects of conventional weapons…..

Read more at: Echoes of the Past: Syria, Chemical Weapons, and Civilian Targeting

No Plan? No Strategy? No Problem! Syria and Trump’s Russia Policy

Michael Kofman is an Analyst at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute:

….Past American attempts at coercive diplomacy with Russia have typically lacked actual coercion, and a theory of how to gain leverage over Moscow. It will be rather startling if 59 cruise missiles turn out to be the answer to this problem. Thankfully, the previous administration tested a lot of theories that didn’t work, from empty threats at the United Nations, to disproven assumptions on what influences Russian behavior, to narratives about quagmires. It would be best for Trump’s White House not to set us on this journey, mounted on that very same broken wheel (or one just as broken in a different way).

In a contest of wills, Trump needs a plan to establish coercive credibility rather than hoping to scare the Russians with expensive fireworks. The number one mistake previous administrations made with Moscow is that, rather than deal with the Russia that is, they all imagined a Russia that suited them more, and then tried to have relations with that imaginary country.

The reality is, this administration’s only current leverage with Russia is the notion inside the Kremlin that a cooperative agenda with the United States is still possible. That’s a dubious proposition which offers the U.S. some advantages. Russia still hopes that there are carrots the United States might offer, or at the least it could get respite in the current confrontation and consolidate gains. If the administration is able to drag out this perception, rather than demonstrating that the White House is rapidly reverting to classical archetypes that Moscow anticipates, then there is an opportunity to obtain concessions.

Given that a cooperative agenda between the United States and Russia is well-nigh impossible, where does that leave us?

Source: No Plan? No Strategy? No Problem! Syria and Why Trump’s Russia Policy Is Off to a Rough Start

The Road to a Free Europe Goes Through Moscow | POLITICO

From James Kirchick, author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age:

….The West wants peace and Russia wants victory. These desires are incompatible. Those who cherish liberal democracy and wish to see it endure must accept the fact that a Russian regime is once against trying to debilitate and subvert the free world. While Russia today may not be as conventionally strong an adversary as it was during the Cold War, the threat it poses is more diffuse. Russia is as much an enemy as it was a generation ago, and we need to adopt a more hardheaded, adversarial footing and mentality to defeat it. In a globalized world where the cancerous influences of Russian money and disinformation can more easily corrupt us than when an Iron Curtain divided Europe, and where the ideological terrain is more confusing than the Cold War’s rigid bipolarity, containing Russia presents different challenges than it did a generation ago, not the least of which is maintaining Western unity against a more ambiguous adversary skilled at fighting asymmetrically. We must steel ourselves once again for a generational, ideological struggle in defense of liberal values and open societies and avoid self-inflicted wounds. Never during the Cold War, for instance, was there such a traumatic break within the Western political alliance as Britain’s departure from the European Union—nor, for that matter, did an overtly pro-Russian leader ever capture the presidency of the United States.

Source: The Road to a Free Europe Goes Through Moscow – POLITICO Magazine

How to survive the next four years

Donald Trump

We are entering a time of uncertainty.

Donald Trump started his presidency with a continuation of the confrontational approach that he exhibited throughout his campaign, with scant regard to unifying the country and governing from the middle. Instead he has signed off on two controversial oil pipelines that, while they would create jobs, have met fierce opposition and are likely to polarize the nation even further.

Subtlety is not Trump’s strong point. Expect a far more abrasive style than the Obama years.

Trump also signed off on constructing a wall along the border with Mexico. Again, this will create jobs and slow illegal immigration — two of his key campaign promises — while harming relations with the Southern neighbor.

Another key target is the trade deficit. The US has not run a trade surplus since 1975. Expect major revision of current trade agreements like NAFTA, which could further damage relations with Mexico, and a slew of actions against trading partners such as China and Japan who have used their foreign reserves in the past to maintain a trade surplus with the US. Floating exchange rates are meant to balance the flow of imports and exports on current account, minimizing trade surpluses/deficits over time. But this can be subverted by accumulating excessive foreign reserves to suppress appreciation of your home currency. Retaliation to US punitive actions is likely and could harm international trade if not carefully managed.

Apart from wars, Trump and chief strategist Steve Bannon also seem intent on provoking a war with the media, baiting the press in a recent New York Times interview:

Bannon delivered a broadside at the press…. saying, “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Bannon also said, “I want you to quote me on this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States…..”

Trump and Bannon’s strategy may be to provoke retaliation by the media. One-sided reporting would discredit the press as an objective source of criticism of the new presidency.

On top of the Trump turmoil in the US, we have Brexit which threatens to disrupt trade between the UK and European Union. If not managed carefully, this could lead to copycat actions from other EU member states.

Increasingly aggressive steps by China and Russia are another destabilizing factor — with the two nations asserting their global power against weaker neighbors. Iran is another offender, attempting to establish a crescent of influence in the Middle East against fierce opposition by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and their Sunni partners. Also, North Korea is expanding its nuclear arsenal.

We live in dangerous times.

But these may also be times of opportunity. Trump has made some solid appointments to his team who could exert a positive influence on the global outlook. And confrontation may resolve some long-festering sores on both the economic and geo-political fronts.

How are we to know? Where can we get an unbiased view of economic prospects if confrontation is high, uncertainty a given — the new President issuing random tweets in the night as the mood takes him — and a distracted media?

There are two reliable sources of information: prices and earnings. Stock prices reflect market sentiment, the waves of human emotion that dominate short- and medium-term market behavior. And earnings will either confirm or refute market sentiment in the longer term.

As Benjamin Graham wrote:

“In the short term the stock market behaves like a voting machine, but in the long term it acts like a weighing machine”.

In the short-term, stock prices may deviate from true value as future earnings and growth prospects are often unclear. But prices will adjust closer to true value as more information becomes available and views of earnings and prospects narrow over time.

We are bound to experience periods of intense volatility over the next four years as hopes and fears rise and fall. These periods represent both a threat and an opportunity. A threat if you have invested on hopes and expectations rather than on solid performance. And an opportunity if intense volatility causes prices to fall below true value.

It will pay to keep a close watch on technical signals on the major indexes. As well as earnings growth in relation to index performance.

Also, keep a close eye on long-term indicators of market risk such as the Treasury yield curve and corporate bond spreads. These often forewarn of coming reactions and will be reviewed on a regular basis in future newsletters.

Obama’s Wrong: The New Cold War’s Only Just Begun | The Daily Beast

Michael Weiss writes: “From propaganda to missile deployments, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is testing Obama’s resolve—while claiming to be America’s victim”…..

Putin has demanded, as the price for restoring at least the first frozen accord, that Washington end all sanctions against Russian officials; pay reparations for any losses sustained from those sanctions as well as retaliatory ones imposed by Russia against U.S. entities; cancel the Magnitsky Act, a landmark human rights law passed in 2012 aimed at penalizing corrupt and murderous Russian officials; reduce NATO personnel forces to levels they were as of 2000; and essentially rewrite the original radioactive disposal deal so America bears the brunt of the responsibility for it.

In response to what was, even by Putin’s standards, a risible attempt at extortion, the Russian opposition’s Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook: “He should have asked for Alaska back, eternal youth, Elon Musk and a ticket to Disneyland.”

….what a turn for Obama, who has spent the last eight years insisting that the “Cold War is over” only to spend the eve of his departure witnessing its renascence.

The response should be to talk softly and continue polishing that big stick.

Source: Barack Obama’s Wrong: The New Cold War’s Only Just Begun – The Daily Beast

Why Putin will fail | UPI.com

From Harlan Ullman:

Frozen conflicts are not in Russia’s long-term interest. Of course, while the short-term aim of preventing Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO because of contested borders is working, the long-term economic damage done to Russia will prove politically destructive. Putin certainly is riding a political tiger. However, he has no clear exit strategy for safely dismounting this dangerous beast. That is a fundamental predicament….

What should the United States do? First, common sense and not confrontation is the best means to exploit Putin’s political weaknesses. By threatening Russia, his public will rally around Putin. This does not mean granting concessions. It means being smart not petulant. It also means shifting NATO’s strategy to local defense based on a “porcupine” posture with emphasis on Stinger-like anti-air and Javelin anti-vehicle missiles all reinforced by alliance capabilities to blunt Russian cyber, propaganda, intimidation and other non-conventional forms of war.

Second, the United States needs to dial back on belligerent rhetoric. By all means plan for “full spectrum war.” But do not use a PR bullhorn to announce what is being done. Teddy Roosevelt applies — speak softly but carry a big stick….

Source: Why Russian President Vladimir Putin will fail – UPI.com

WWI: The biggest mistake in modern history | Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson argues that Britain’s decision to intervene in 1914 turned the conflict between Germany and Russia from a continental war into a global war.

Ferguson argues that the consequences of that decision by Britain in 1914 lasted 75 years, until collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. With the benefit of hindsight, and the resurgence of Russia, I would say we still live with those consequences today.