Thinking Aloud: “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary”

Oct. 31, 2014 by Darius 

I recently read John Quincy Adams: American Visionary by Fred Kaplan.  Kaplan’s work is an exhaustive, but interesting, biography of America’s sixth president.

John Quincy Adams was truly the last member of America’s founding generation.  He served at his father’s side from boyhood, spending years of his youth traveling Europe on various diplomatic missions.  In his own right, he was later appointed US ambassador to Great Britain and Russia (at a time when ambassadors were largely empowered to negotiate for the US on their own judgment).  Adams became Secretary of State under James Monroe, in which capacity he negotiated a number of important treaties with foreign powers and wrote what became known as the Monroe Doctrine.  In 1824, he was elected president in the first election to be resolved in the House of Representatives.  He was defeated in his re-election bid in 1828, the victim of the first truly “modern” campaign that featured protracted attack ads, political falsehoods, and blatant vote-buying by the henchmen of Andrew Jackson.  After his presidency, though, John Quincy Adams became the first and only former president to return to public service, serving in the House of Representatives until his death in 1848.  In the House, he emerged as the leading Congressional opponent of the expansion and protection of slavery.  He was truly a giant of his time, and his commitment to his conscience and his principles set him apart from his less illustrious colleagues.  Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and others do not come off looking good in Kaplan’s book (which reconfirmed my own opinion of Jefferson and Jackson).

John Quincy Adams makes heavy use of primary sources, most notably JQA’s personal diary, in which he recorded his life from his youth until his death.  As a book, John Quincy Adams is very long (close to 600 pages) and has its dull sections.  Nevertheless, the reader comes away with a great deal of respect for John Quincy Adams, and the book provides incomparable insight into Adams and his time.

John Quincy Adams: American Visionary would appeal to those with an interest in statecraft or American history.

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News You Really Need To See: “Fighters Are Still Flocking to Syria”

“Fighters Are Still Flocking to Syria”

The Washington Post, October 31, 2014, p.A1

“More than 1,000 foreign fighters are streaming into Syria each month, a rate that has so far been unchanged by airstrikes against the Islamic State and efforts by other countries to stem the flow of departures, according to U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials.  The magnitude of the ongoing migration suggests that the U.S.-led air campaign has neither deterred significant numbers of militants from traveling to the region nor triggered such outrage that even more are flocking to the fight because of American intervention. … The trend line established over the past year would mean that the total number of foreign fighters in Syria exceeds 16,000, and the pace eclipses that of any comparable conflict in recent decades, including the 1980s war in Afghanistan. … Although U.S. officials have not made public estimates of the rate at which foreign fighters are flowing into Syria, they have provided totals that trace a clear trajectory.  The 15,000 figure cited by the White House last month was up sharply from an estimate of 12,000 in July and 7,000 in March.”

Quickie Analysis:  Just in case anyone thought the tide has turned…. 

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Thinking Aloud: “Russia’s War, Ukraine’s History, and the West’s Options,” Part III

Oct. 30, 2014 by Darius 

[A few days ago, I attended a very interesting talk by Yale University professor Timothy Snyder entitled “Russia’s War, Ukraine’s History, and the West’s Options.”  I shared some of Snyder’s remarks on Russia’s “postmodern” approach to the truth on Tuesday, and his observations on Russia and the EU yesterday.  Today, I will wrap up with Snyder’s comments about Russia’s handling of Ukraine specifically.]

The primary Russian strategy against Ukraine is to deny the very existence of Ukraine.  Russia has tried to do this through propaganda in several ways.  First, many Russian government officials never even speak of Ukraine, instead referring to the government of Ukraine as the “Nazi Fascist junta.”  Second, Russia promotes the idea of “Novorossiya,” which harkens back to the greatest extent of the Russian empire, and subsumes Ukraine, as the logical place for Russian influence today.  Russia also routinely denies the existence of the Ukrainian nation, instead considering them wayward Russians.  Finally, Russia has promoted the idea that linguistic, not national, boundaries are the best way to define the region, and because Russia propaganda denies the existence of a Ukrainian language, linguistic boundaries render Ukraine meaningless.

According to Snyder, Russia has taken a “reverse asymmetry” approach to Ukraine.  This means that while Russia is clearly the stronger power, it has resorted to using asymmetric warfare, including not wearing uniforms, using civilians as human shields, and others.  In fact, Russia has deliberately used the tactic of partisans everywhere: get the Ukrainian army to shell Ukrainian cities in order to drum up popular support for the partisans.  The result has been a humanitarian disaster in Donetsk and Luhansk.

The point of the “reverse asymmetry” policy is to convince domestic audiences and the world that Russia is indeed the weaker side.  (The implication is that Russia is going up against not just Ukraine but the US as well.)  But there is a limit to Russia’s “reverse asymmetry” policy: the number of actual Russians killed fighting.  An overwhelming majority of Russians are opposed to fighting a war in Ukraine, but a majority also support current Russian activity there.  That means that to most Russians, their understanding of Russia’s current activity in Ukraine falls short of being a war.  This kind of reasoning only holds as long as Russian casualties are kept low or nonexistent.

According to Snyder, Ukraine’s biggest problem for the last 20, 10, and five years has all been the same: establishing rule of law.  To many Ukrainians, the EU represents the rule of law, which is why the cancellation of Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU last November was seen as a breaking point.

Snyder laid out a number of policy recommendations.  First, Ukraine should be offered prospective EU membership.  It wouldn’t be an immediate thing, but it would stimulate foreign direct investment in Ukraine, including, ironically, by Russian companies looking for an accessible foothold in the EU.  Second, the US and Europe should come forth with major humanitarian aid for Ukrainians suffering in the fighting, especially before winter sets in.  Snyder showed real concern for the fate of hundreds of thousands of people in eastern Ukraine who lack some combination of food, water, fuel, and electricity as winter approaches.  Finally, the US at least should be aware that Russian policy is aimed at Europe, not the US, and that Russia invokes the US as a way to divide Europeans.

As an interesting side note, Snyder mentioned China has won the most from the Russia-Ukraine issue: it is now easier for China to negotiate gas prices with Russia, and contracts are now more enforceable in Ukraine, a boon to Chinese business there.  In fact, China’s holds leases on 9% of fertile land in Ukraine.  But Snyder felt that in the end, Russia will tilt back towards the West and away from China.  The more Russia’s folly in Ukraine continues, though, the harder that eventual tilt will be because the Russian government will be shackled by the Russian public opinion it has created.

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News You Really Need To See: “Congo Opening Its Doors to Agrobusiness”

“Congo Opening Its Doors to Agrobusiness”

The Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2014, p.C3

“The Democratic Republic of Congo plans to lease farmland covering an area larger than France in an attempt to attract capital and technology capable of boosting jobs and food productivity in one of the world’s poorest countries.  Congo may lease as much as 640,000 square kilometers (247,100 square miles), or more than one-quarter of the central African nation, according to John Ulimwengu, an adviser to the Congolese prime minister who is organizing the project.  The land is scattered across Congo, which is rich in mineral resources, forests, cultivable soil and water, including the Congo River, Africa’s second-longest after the Nile.  The government wants investors to transform the country’s subsistence farming.  The farmland will be leased rather than sold outright in a bid to avoid future conflicts with investors who might be accused of land-grabbing.  Memories of colonial injustice abound on the African continent.  Investors from China to the United Arab Emirates and Western nations are buying African land as they search for yield and productive assets. … The government plans to initially develop 21 agribusiness parks that will provide food, employment and a market for the produce of nearby small-scale farmers, Mr. Ulimwengu said.  Infrastructure including power, water and roads will be provided by the government, which plans to sell 25-year leases to the land.  The leases may be longer if new legislation is passed.”

Quickie Analysis:  It’s hard to see Congo dodging the usual problems of land seizure, corruption, and abuse of the poor that accompany land-lease schemes in Africa.

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Thinking Aloud: “Russia’s War, Ukraine’s History, and the West’s Options,” Part II

Oct. 29, 2014 by Darius 

[A few days ago, I attended a very interesting talk by Yale University professor Timothy Snyder entitled “Russia’s War, Ukraine’s History, and the West’s Options.”  I shared some of Snyder’s remarks yesterday, on Russia’s “postmodern” approach to the truth, and I will wrap up tomorrow with Snyder’s comments about Russia’s handling of Ukraine specifically.]

According to Prof. Snyder, in the summer of 2013, Russian foreign policy was reoriented to portray the European Union, not the United States, as Russia’s primary geopolitical foe.  According to Russian foreign policy at this time, the EU was a central, institutional adversary whose existence was a threat to Russia.  Russian propaganda against the EU kicked into high gear.  The preferred line of attack has been that the EU is “decadent”—morally corrupt and inevitably doomed to fail and fall apart.

According to Snyder, though, the period from November 2013 to March 2014 can be seen as the biggest failure in Russian foreign policy since 1941.  The fundamental miscalculation was that Russia believed it could buy off and/or threaten now-deposed President Yanukovych of Ukraine.  The results: Russia lost control over a largely pliant government in Ukraine, Russia lost Ukrainian public opinion, and Russia lost its relationship with the West.  Russia’s strategic balance between the EU and China was shattered, as evidenced by the signing of an economic deal with China that didn’t actually benefit Russia.  Now, Russia can’t admit its mistake, so it must cast doubt on the entire global order to keep a small piece of Ukraine.

Snyder described Russian strategy as one of relativism.  Russia faces many absolute weaknesses.  Thus, the only way for it to increase its relative power is to weaken its neighbors.  This applies to the EU.  Altogether, the EU is vastly stronger than Russia in almost every conceivable measure.  This strength, though, depends on the EU’s cohesion.  That is why Russian foreign policy has been directed at fomenting discord and breakup of the EU.  This policy has taken many forms.  On the propaganda end, the recurring message that the EU is decadent is paired with the message that Russia is morally healthy and the defender of the “true” and Christian Europe.  The implication is that when the EU inevitably disintegrates, Russia will be left as the standard-bearer of the true Europe.  On a more substantial level, Russia actively supports right-wing populist parties across Europe, from the UK Independence Party in Britain to the Front National in France to even neo-Nazi parties in Austria.  When Russia brought in “international observers” for the Crimean referendum on leaving Ukraine and joining Russia, almost all of those international observers represented right-wing neo-Nazi groups.

Additionally, Russia has employed two propaganda ploys aimed at European audiences.  The first is that all Ukrainians are fascists.  Snyder said the Ukrainian government is regularly referred to in Russian propaganda as the “Nazi fascist junta.”  Clearly, this is designed to appeal to the European left wing.  The second is that the whole Ukraine issue is about geopolitics.  This claim is designed to convince Europeans that the issue is really the United States’s fault and isn’t either their problem or their responsibility to deal with.

In Snyder’s view, Ukraine has been on the direct receiving end of a Russian policy aimed at the EU.  This means that until Russian policy towards the rest of Europe changes, Russian policy towards Ukraine will not change.

Tomorrow, I’ll share Snyder’s comments about Russia’s policy towards Ukraine.

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News You Really Need To See: “Lithuania Offers Example of How to Break Russia’s Grip on Energy”

“Lithuania Offers Example of How to Break Russia’s Grip on Energy”

The New York Times, October 28, 2014, p.B3

“The vast ship that eased into this misty seaport early on Monday was hailed by American and European officials as the strongest signal that the stranglehold Russia has on the Baltics and their energy needs can be broken.  The vessel, the Independence, is a floating factory for converting liquefied natural gas into the burnable variety.  It represents a direct challenge to the Russian way of doing business as many other countries in the European Union have dithered over how to deal with President Vladimir V. Putin and his attempts to reassert Russian influence over parts of the former Soviet empire like Ukraine. … Lithuanian officials say they had already pushed Russia into bargaining — something it has long resisted — when Gazprom cut its gas prices by about 20 percent in May. … The first shipment of liquefied natural gas, set to arrive on Tuesday from the Norwegian company Statoil, is equivalent to 60 million cubic meters of natural gas.  Further shipments from Statoil should reach the equivalent of 540 million cubic meters annually in the next five years.  That is a fifth of Lithuania’s needs.  Lithuania says the terminal, the only operation of its kind in the region, could become a beachhead to supply most of the needs of the other two Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia, which also rely on Russia for gas. … Even so, the company managing the project, Klaipedos Nafta, the state-controlled oil terminal operator, has not yet sold the majority of the liquefied natural gas terminal’s capacity — one of the factors that raise the important question of whether the terminal makes economic as well as political sense. … Another challenge for the project would be if Gazprom dropped prices to Lithuania to the point that running the terminal became uneconomical.”

Quickie Analysis:  By some accounts, only two sectors of Russia’s economy are competitive in the international marketplace: energy and arms sales. Finding alternate suppliers of energy has been the harder nut to crack, but Lithuania clearly has an incentive to try.  Will consumers resist the allure of cheap Gazprom gas long enough to see it through, though?

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Thinking Aloud: “Russia’s War, Ukraine’s History, and the West’s Options,” Part I

Oct. 28, 2014 by Darius 

Yesterday, I attended a very interesting talk by Yale University professor Timothy Snyder entitled “Russia’s War, Ukraine’s History, and the West’s Options.”  I’ll share Snyder’s remarks more fully over the next day or two, but today I’ll share one of his incisive bits of analysis that is a preview of things to come.

According to Snyder, Russia is currently trying to push a postmodern approach to information, suggesting that there is no objective “truth” or “authority.”  Some truly Orwellian contradictions have resulted.  The following are messages that are being put forward in the Russian media and by official Russian government members at the same time.

  • There is no Ukrainian state. But it is repressive.
  • There is no Ukrainian nation. But all Ukrainians are nationalists.
  • There is no Ukrainian language. But Russians in Ukraine are being forced to speak it.
  • Russia is a great power. But Russia is a small power being pushed around by the US and Europe.
  • Russia is saving Europe from fascism. But fascism isn’t all that bad.

Snyder’s is an unusual, provocative, and thought-provoking analysis of what’s going on with Russia today, an analysis informed by having spent much of the last two years in Europe and by a close scrutiny of Russian media, propaganda, and official statements.  Stay tuned.

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