Not that I’m saddened by this development of course. (That said, if the economy slumps sharply in Q3, then a Romney win becomes entirely possible).
Not that I’m saddened by this development of course. (That said, if the economy slumps sharply in Q3, then a Romney win becomes entirely possible).
It’s been a great year! To recap, in rough chronological order, 2011 saw: The most popular post (with 562 comments and counting; granted, most of them consisting of Indians and Pakistanis flaming each other); Visualizing the Kremlin Clans (joint project with Kevin Rothrock of A Good Treaty); my National Comparisons between life in Russia, Britain, and the US; my interview with (now defunct) La Russophobe; interviews with Craig Willy and Mark Chapman; lots of non-Russia related stuff concerning the Arctic, futurism, Esperanto, and the Chinese language; possibly the most comprehensive analyses of the degree of election fraud in the Duma elections in English; TV appearances on RT and Al Jazeera; and what I hope will remain productive relationships with Al Jazeera and Inosmi. Needless to say, little if any of this would have been possible without my e-buddies and commentators, so a special shout out to all you guys. In particular, I would like to mention Alex Mercouris, who as far as I can ascertain is the guy who contributed the 20,000th comment here. I should send him a special T-shirt or something.
In previous years, my tradition was to review the previous year before launching into new predictions. I find this boring and will now forego the exercise, though in passing I will note that many of the defining traits in 2010 – the secular rise of China and of “The Rest” more generally; political dysfunction in the US; growing fissures in Europe, in contrast to Eurasian (re)integration; the rising prominence of the Arctic – have remained dominant into this year. The major new development that neither I nor practically anyone else foresaw was the so-called “Arab Spring”, as part of a pattern of increasing political stress in many other states: Occupy Wall Street and its local branches in the West; the Meetings for Fair Elections in Russia; Wukan in China and anti-corruption protests in India. I don’t disagree with TIME’s decision to nominate The Protester as its person of the year. However, as I will argue below, the nature of protest and instability is radically different in all these regions. I will finish up by reviewing the accuracy of my 2011 predictions from last year.
1. There is little doubt that Putin will comfortably win the Presidential elections in the first round. The last December VCIOM poll implies he will get about 60%. So assuming there is no major movement in political tectonics in the last three months – and there’s no evidence for thinking that may be the case, as there are tentative signs that Putin’s popularity has began to recover in the last few weeks from its post-elections nadir. Due to the energized political situation, turnout will probably be higher than than in the 2008 elections – which will benefit Putin because of his greater support among passive voters. I do think efforts will be made to crack down on fraud so as to avoid a PR and legitimacy crisis, so that its extent will fall from perhaps 5%-7% in the 2011 Duma elections to maybe 2%-3% (fraud in places like the ethnic republics are more endemic than in, say, Moscow, and will be difficult to expunge); this will counterbalance the advantage Putin will get from a higher turnout. So that’s my prediction for March: Putin wins in the first round with 60%, followed by perennially second-place Zyuganov at 15%-20%, Zhirinovsky with 10%, and Sergey Mironov, Mikhail Prokhorov and Grigory Yavlinsky with a combined 10% or so. If Prokhorov and Yavlinsky aren’t registered to participate, then Putin’s first round victory will probably be more like 65%.
2. I will also go ahead and say that I do not expect the Meetings For Fair Elections to make headway. Despite the much bigger publicity surrounding the second protest at Prospekt Sakharova, attendance there was only marginally higher than at Bolotnaya (for calculations see here). So the revolutionary momentum was barely maintained in Moscow, but flopped everywhere else in the country – as the Medvedev administration responded with what is, in retrospect, a well balanced set of concessions and subtle ridicule. Navalny, the key person holding together the disparate ideological currents swirling about in these Meetings, is not gaining ground; his potential voters are at most 1% of the Russian electorate. And there is no other person in the “non-systemic opposition” with anywhere near his political appeal. There will be further Meetings, the biggest of which – with perhaps as many as 150,000 people – will be the one immediately after Putin’s first round victory; there will be the usual (implausibly large) claims of 15-20% fraud from the usual suspects in the liberal opposition and Western media. But if the authorities do their homework – i.e. refrain from violence against peaceful protesters, and successfully reduce fraud levels (e.g. with the help of web cameras) – the movement should die away. As I pointed out in my article BRIC’s of Stability, the economic situation in Russia – featuring 4.8% GDP growth in Q3 2011 – is at the moment simply not conductive to an Occupy Wall Street movement, let alone the more violent and desperate revolts wracking parts of the Arab world.
3. Many commentators are beginning to voice the unspeakable: The possible (or inevitable) disintegration of the Eurozone. I disagree. I am almost certain that the Euro will survive as a currency this year and for that matter to 2020 too. But many other things will change. The crisis afflicting Europe is far more cultural-political than it is economic; in aggregate terms, the US, Britain and Japan are ALL fiscally worse off than the Eurozone. The main problem afflicting the latter is that it suffers from a geographic and cultural rift between the North and South that is politically unbridgeable.
The costs of debt service for Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain are all quickly becoming unsustainable. They cannot devalue, like they would have done before the Euro; nor is Germany prepared to countenance massive fiscal transfers. The result is the prospect of austerity and recession as far as the eye can see (note that all these countries also have rapidly aging populations that will exert increasing pressure on their finances into the indefinite future). Meanwhile, “core Europe” – above all, Germany – benefits as its superior competitiveness allows it to dominate European markets for manufactured goods and the coffers of its shaky banking system are replenished by Southern payments on their sovereign debt.
The only way to resolve this contradiction is through a full-fledged fiscal union, with big longterm transfers from the North to the South. However, the best the Eurocrats have been able to come up with is a stricter version of Maastricht mandating limited budget deficits and debt reduction that, in practice, translates into unenforceable demands for permanent austerity. This is not a sustainable arrangement. In Greece, the Far Left is leading the socialists in the run-up to the April elections; should they win, it is hard to see the country continuing on its present course. On the other side of the spectrum, the Fidesz Party under Viktor Orbán in Hungary appears to be mimicking United Russia in building a “managed democracy” that will ensure its dominance for at least the next decade; in the wake of its public divorce with the ECB and the IMF, it is hard to imagine how it will be able to maintain deep integration with Europe for much longer. (In general, I think the events in Hungary are very interesting and probably a harbinger of what is to come in many more European countries in the 2010′s; I am planning to make a post on this soon).
Maybe not in 2012, but in the longer term it is becoming likely that the future Europe will be multi-tier (not multi-speed). The common economic space will probably continue growing, eventually merging with the Eurasian Union now coalescing in the east. However, many countries will drop out of the Eurozone and/or deeper integration for the foreseeable future – the UK is obvious (or at least England, should Scotland separate in the next few years); so too will Italy (again, if it remains united), Greece, the Iberian peninsula, and Hungary. The “core”, that is German industrial muscle married to Benelux and France (with its far healthier demography), may in the long-term start acquiring a truly federal character with a Euro and a single fiscal policy. But specifically for 2012, I expect Greece to drop out of the Eurozone (either voluntarily, or kicked out if it starts printing Euros independently, as the former Soviet republics did with rubles as Moscow’s central control dissipated). The other PIGS may straggle through the year, but they too will follow Greece eventually.
I expect a deep recession at the European level, possibly touching on depression (more than 10% GDP decline) in some countries.
4. How will Russia’s economy fare? A lot will depend on European and global events, but arguably it is better placed than it was in 2008. That said, this time I am far more cautious about my own predictions; back then, I swallowed the rhetoric about it being an “island of stability” and got burned for it (in terms of pride, not money, thankfully). So feel free to adjust this to the downside.
So I think that, despite my bad call last time, Russia’s position really is quite a lot more stable this time round. If the Eurozone starts fraying at the margins and falls into deep recession, as I expect, then Russia will probably go down with them, but this time any collapse is unlikely to be as deep or prolonged as in 2008-2009.
5. Largely unnoticed, as of the beginning of this year, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan became a common economic space with free movement of capital, goods, and labor. Putin has also made Eurasian (re)integration one of the cornerstones of his Presidential campaign. I expect 2012 will be the year in which Ukraine joins the Eurasian common economic space. EU membership is beginning to lose its shine; despite that, Yanukovych was still rebuffed this December on the Association Agreement due to his government’s prosecution of Yulia Tymoshenko. Ukraine can only afford to pay Russia’s steep prices for gas for one year at most without IMF help, and I doubt it will be forthcoming. Russia itself is willing to sit back and play hardball. It is in this atmosphere that Ukraine will hold its parliamentary elections in October. If the Party of Regions does well, by fair means or foul, it is not impossible to imagine a scenario in which accusations of vote rigging and protests force Yanukovych to turn to Eurasia (as did Lukashenko after the 2010 elections).
6. Russia’s demography. I expect births to remain steady or fall slightly (regardless of the secular trend towards an increasing TFR, the aging of the big 1980′s female cohort is finally starting to make itself felt). Deaths will continue to fall quite rapidly, as excise taxes on vodka – the main contributor to Russia’s high mortality rates – are slated to rise sharply after the Presidential elections.
7. Obama will probably lose to the Republican candidate, who will probably be Mitt Romney. (Much as I would prefer Ron Paul over Obama, and Obama over Romney). I have an entire post and real money devoted to this, read here.
The US may well slip back towards recession if Europe tips over in a big way. I stand by my assertion that its fiscal condition is in no way sustainable, but given that the bond vigilantes are preoccupied with Europe it should be able to ride out 2012.
8. There is a 50% (!) chance of a US military confrontation with Iran. If it’s going to be any year, 2012 will be it. And I don’t say this because of the recent headlines about Iranian war games, the downing of the US drone, or the bizarre bomb plot against the Saudi ambassador in the US, but because of structural factors that I have been harping on about for several years (read the “Geopolitical Shocks” section of my Decade Forecast for more details); factors that will make 2012 a “window of opportunity” that will only be fleetingly open.
The chances of an Azeri-Armenian war rise to 15% from last year’s 10%. If there is any good time for Azerbaijan to strike, it will be in the chaotic aftermath following a US strike on Iran (though the same constraints will apply as before: Aliyev’s fears of Russian retaliation).
[Source: The Oil Drum].
9. Though I usually predict oil price trends (with great and sustained accuracy, I might add), I will not bother doing so this year. With the global situation as unstable as it is it would be a fool’s errand. Things to consider: (1) Whither Europe? (demand destruction); (2) What effect on China and the US?; (3) the genesis of sustained oil production decline (oil megaprojects are projected to sharply fall off from this year into the indefinite future); (4) The Iranian wildcard: If played, all bets are off. But I will more or less confidently predict that global oil production in 2012 will be a definite decrease on this year.
If investing, I would go into US Treasuries (short-term) and gold to hedge against the catastrophic developments; yuan exposure (longterm secular rise) and and US CDS (potential for astounding returns once SHTF). Property is looking good in Minsk, Bulgaria, and Murmansk. Any exposure to Arctic shipping or oil & gas is great; as the sea ice melts at truly prodigious rates, the returns will be amazing. I do think the Euro will survive and eventually strengthen as the weaker countries go out, but not to the extent that I would put money on it. Otherwise, I highly agree with Eric Kraus’ investment advice.
10. China will not see a hard landing. It has its debt problems, but its momentum is unparalleled. Economists have predicted about ten of its past zero collapses.
11. Solar irradiation was still near its cyclical minimum this year, but it can only rise in the next few years; together with the ever-increasing CO2 load, it will likely make for a very warm 2012. So, more broken records in 2012. Record low sea ice extent and volume. And perhaps 100 vessels will sail the Northern Sea Route this year.
12. Tunisia is the only country of the “Arab Spring” that I expect to form a more or less moderate and secular government. According to polls, 75% of Egyptians support death for apostasy and adultery; this is not an environment in which Western liberal ideas can realistically flourish. Ergo for Libya. I can’t say I have any clue as to how Syria will turn out. Things seem strange there: Russia and Israel are ostensibly unlikely, but actually logical, allies of Assad, while the US, France, the UK, and the Gulf monarchies are trying their best to topple him. These wars are waged in the shadows.
13. As mentioned in the intro, 2011 has been a year of protest. As I argued in BRIC’s of Stability, in countries like China, Russia, or Brazil they will remain relatively small and ineffectual. Despite greater scales and tensions, likewise in Europe (though Greece may be an exception); these are old societies, and besides they are relatively rich. They won’t have street revolutions. I do not think Occupy Wall Street has good prospects in the US. By acting outside the mainstream (as part of a “non-systemic opposition”, to borrow from Russian political parlance) it remains irrelevant – the weed smoking and poor sartorial choices of its members works against its attaining respectability – and municipalities across the US are moving to break up their camps with only a few squeaks of protest. (This despite the arrests of 36 journalists, a number that had it been associated with Russia would have cries of Stalinism splashed across Western op-ed pages). I say this as someone who is broadly sympathetic with OWS aims and has attended associated events in Berkeley.
The nature of protest in the Arab world is fundamentally different, harkening back to earlier and more dramatic times: Bread riots, not hipsters with iPhones; against cynical and corrupt dictators, not cynical and corrupt pseudo-democrats; featuring fundamental debates about reconciling democracy, liberalism and religion, as opposed to weird slogans like “Occupy first. Demands come later.” Meh.
14. The world will, of course, end on December 21, 2012.
1) My economic predictions were basically correct: “Today I’d repeat this, but add that the risks have heightened… The obvious loci of the next big crisis are the so-called “PIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain), and Ireland, Belgium and Hungary.”
2) Neither the Iranian war (chance: 40%) or an Azeri-Armenian war (chance: 10%) took place. If they don’t happen in 2012, their chances of happening will begin to rapidly decline.
3) Luzhkov still hasn’t been been hit with corruption charges, but merely called forth as a witness. Wrong.
Prediction of 3.5%-5.5% growth for Russia was exactly correct (estimates now converging to 4.0%-4.5%).
With headlines this December cropping up such as “End is nigh for Russia’s ‘reset’ with US“, my old intuition that US – Russia imperial rivalry couldn’t be set aside with a mere red plastic button may have been prescient: “In foreign policy, expect relations with the US to deteriorate.”
4) Pretty much correct about the US and the UK, though I didn’t predict anything drastic or unconventional for them.
5) “Oil prices should stay at around $80-120 in 2010 and production will remain roughly stable as increased demand (from China mostly) collides with geological depletion.” Totally correct, as usual.
6) China will grow about 9.4% this year, well in line with: “China will continue growing at 8-10% per year. Their housing bubble is a non-issue; with 50% of their population still rural, it isn’t even a proper bubble, since eventually all those new, deserted apartment blocs will be occupied anyway.”
7) 2011 was the warmest La Nina year on record, so in a sense thermometers did break records this year.
“Speaking of the Arctic, as its longterm ice volume continues to plummet and sea ice extent retreats, we can expect more circumpolar shipping. I wouldn’t be surprised to see up to 10 non-stop voyages along the Northern Sea Route from Europe to China, following just one by MV Nordic Barents in 2010.” If anything, I low-balled it. 34 ships made the passage this year! Sea ice cover was the second lowest on record, and sea ice volume was the lowest. So in the broad sense, absolutely correct.
“Likewise, expect the Arctic to become a major locus of investment.” This year, plans were announced to double the capacity of the Port of Murmansk by 2015.
8) Wrong on the Wikileaks prediction. The insurance file was released by The Guardian’s carelessness (whose journalists, David Leigh and Luke Harding, then proceeded to mendaciously lie about it), not by Assange. And the extradition proceedings are taking far longer than expected, though my suspicions that his case is politically motivated is reinforced by US prosecutors’ apparent pressure on Bradley Manning to implicate Assange in the theft of the State Department cables.
9) On Peter’s enthusiastic reminder, I did get my Russia Presidential predictions for 2012 wrong. Or 75% wrong, to be precise, and 20% right (those were the odds that I gave for Putin’s return back in May). I did however cover it separately on a different post, here. That said, I do not think the logic I used was fundamentally flawed; many other Kremlinologists ended up in the same boat (and most didn’t hedge like I did).
And ironically, despite my blog’s focus, to date my US predictions have been more accurate than my Russian ones. Obama to become President? Check. Republicans to win 2010 mid-terms? Check. The emergence of “a new party, a new politics”, with “the feds [facing] challenges from the far-left and the far-right”? Check (Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street). Dammit, even the prediction about falling fertility rates is panning out (to Mark Steyn’s presumed chagrin, it now equals “decadent” France’s) – though that wasn’t a particularly hard one to make, given the recession and looming economic collapse and all. Perhaps I should give up on this Russia-watching thing and just analyze the US?
Anyhow, back to Obama’s impending loss. To be fair, the title is a bit of a misnomer. I’d actually put his odds at 35% (Republicans – 65%). There really isn’t much to explain, is there? The economy sucks and is almost guaranteed to get better than worse. Output remains below peak 2007 levels. The deficit remains stubbornly high and the budget crisis will rear its head again in January 2012. Lord knows what it will become if there is another recession on the scale of the last one. Unemployment remains stuck at over 9%. Obama’s net approval rating is -12%. By the metrics I used to predict McCain’s defeat in 2008, Obama looks like he’s in deep trouble.
For what it’s worth, the InTrade prediction market is coming to the same conclusion. The latest figures created by gamblers who put their money where their mouths are give Obama a 48% chance, but as you can see since the market became high-volume in around April this year he has been trending down. (PS. Note the spike in early May, that was the Osama bin Laden assassination).
Incidentally, it was right around this time that I gambled $10 at Bodog on an Obama loss, immediately after the OBL assassination to take advantage of the cacophony of voices proclaiming Obama’s victory was now sealed. Yes, it would have played a huge rule had it happened a few days before the elections. But in May 2011? A year is an eternity in politics. New issues will cover over any lingering legacy of the OBL assassination. And that is why, with the bookies offering very favorable odds of 17/10 – and at the time, assessing Obama’s chances at only 45% – I made the bet below on Bodog.
In retrospect, with Obama’s re-election metrics continuing to decline, this was a very good bet if I say so myself. If things pan out, I will almost make back the $20 I lost betting on Medvedev as Russia’s next President.
Now a few words on the consequences (and refraining from bringing my own ideologies into this). Obama is not going to solve America’s economic problems. Nor is a Republican President. In any possible political configuration arising post-elections, raising taxes is nigh impossible – and that is the only way to alleviate the budget deficit which has been running at banana republic levels of 10% of GDP since 2009. Not cutting spending will lead to default, either outright or as is more likely by inflation (cue Argentina 2002). Both will be deleterious. Cutting spending at a time when the private sector is too over-leveraged to take up the slack will knock the legs out from the economy and likely result in a big collapse in output (cue Latvia 2008).
The fundamental problem is high oil prices, and the fact that any marginal increases in supply of this commodity that underpins all modern economies is being bid away by emerging markets that can make more productive use of them – primarily, China, with its factories and surfeit of cheap, relatively high-skilled labor (what’s the better return for a barrel of oil – the gas tank of an American SUV, or a Guangzhou factory making useful widgets?) – or the oil exporters themselves. To make the best of the current situation, the US needs long-term investments in raising its human capital (which, elite universities aside, is fairly low by developed country standards, as measured by international standardized tests) and raising energy efficiency. But these are only good in the long-term, and even here special interests are doing their best to prevent anything from being accomplished.
That is why the entire debate in the US over austerity vs. stimulus (both are suicide), or “American exceptionalism”, or the Presidential elections (given Obama’s stance on the War on Terror, Wikileaks, interventions, poker, weed, etc., to what extent to they really matter?), are all so tiring and mundane. In the face of uncompromising fiscal and energetic realities, which the US can mitigate to a degree but chooses not to, they are nothing but meaningless distractions.
Most projections of future trends in national power fail to appreciate the importance of three crucial factors: (1) the declining EROEI of energy resources (including, but not limited to, “peak oil”); (2) the importance of human capital to economic growth, especially in developing countries’ attempts to “catch up” to the advanced world; and (3) the impacts of climate change, which are projected to be more and more catastrophic with every passing year. Disregarding these trends produces predictions such as George Friedman’s (STRATFOR) argument that Mexico – a low human capital country experiencing plummeting oil production and growing water stress – will become a superpower by 2100.
Using my current estimates of Comprehensive National Power as a base (an index of power that attempts to express a nation’s economic, military, and cultural power in a single number), I will specially stress the above factors in my analysis of future global power trends. Some results will look plausible and familiar (e.g. China overtaking the US as a superpower by the 2020′s); others will appear utterly bizarre (e.g. Canada becoming a major Great Power in by the end of the century, while India and Brazil plummet back into obscurity). But they are nonetheless all plausible and even likely outcomes, derived from bringing together worlds that all too often are considered independently of each other: the economy; human capital; geopolitics; energetics; and climate change.
There may of course be unexpected discontinuities – popularized as Black Swans by Nassim Taleb – that unravel these projections (the probability of their happening increasing exponentially over time). This will be covered in greater depth below. In the meantime, bear this caveat in mind as you read the rest of the post.
[Graph shows CNP of the greatest Powers 1980-2100; the "superpower" is always at 100 and all other Great Powers are shown relative to it. Click to enlarge.]
The US is the current superpower, but China is rapidly making up ground. Its real GDP is now at $10 trillion, though according to some estimates it has already overtaken the $14.5 trillion American economy.
Some critics claim that nominal GDP is a better measure of power, even using these figures to claim that even at 10% growth it will be decades before China surpasses the US. This is a product of economic illiteracy, because it doesn’t take into account the convergence of Chinese price levels to those of developed countries (its nominal GDP has been expanding at more than 20% in the last 5 years).
There are a number of other factors that are often quoted to predict the doom of China’s rise, such as: (1) Growing regional disparities; (2) Income inequality; (3) Environmental degradation; (4) Bad loans and financial collapse, aka Japan; (5) Aging population; (6) Excessive export dependency; (7) Social unrest; (8) Authoritarian nature of its Marxist-Leninist political model.
Suffice to say that they are either common to most industrializing countries (1-3, 7); will only seriously affect it by the time its already developed (4-5); are overestimated (4, 6); or it is unclear why they should derail its economic ascent for long even if they lead to a democratizing revolution (7-8). I address all these points in detail here.
In any case, most of these are factors have yet to be realized, whereas many of the same trends undermining US power are already in evidence. You can point out the accumulating weight of China’s bad loans, but it is the Western financial system that had to be bailed out in 2008 at social expense; you can argue that the aging of China’s population will bankrupt its (minimal) social net, but it is the US that is facing a budget deficit of >10% of GDP and a national debt soaring into the stratosphere.
China is already the world’s largest manufacturing power. On current trends, it is due to overtake the US economy by the mid-2010′s (followed in nominal terms sometime in the 2020′s, as restrictions on the yuan are lifted and it appreciates). Since China produces its own military hardware, real GDP is what matters; consequently, it will take less relative effort for the PLA to match and overtake the US (especially in the crucial East Asian region and the Indian Ocean). As Paul Kennedy noted in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (of which, incidentally, the Chinese are great fans) military and political power follows naturally in the wake of economic power, whereas trying to achieve results from the opposite directions leads to the “imperial overstretch” that contributed to Soviet collapse and is now undermining American power.
Which brings us to the last point. China’s population is four times bigger than America’s, and human capital among the youngest generations is now as good as the US average. This makes its per capita convergence – and consequently, its ascent to economic primacy – almost inevitable.
But rather than assessing the situation dispassionately and preparing for a strategic retreat, the US is digging in all fronts: foreign wars, deficit spending, oil dependence, political gridlock, etc. This increases the probability that US decline will take the form of a sudden collapse, as of Argentina’s in 1999-2002, instead of fading away like the British Empire after 1945.
The cultural decline will be slower. It took Latin more than a millennium after the collapse of the Roman Empire to lose its status as a lingua franca. Needless to say, the US will still retain a great deal of power by virtue of its large population and developed economy, it will remain in second place, almost no matter what, well into the 21st century. Furthermore, it will retain its deep ties – economic, cultural, etc. – with the Anglo-Saxon world (the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and, to a lesser extent, Europe. Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the Ivy League will remain staples of global culture and technology.
However, there’s only so much power you can exercise through the English language, Google, or even Chuck Norris. For everything else there’s China – after a two hundred year break (a mere blip in its millennial history), the Middle Kingdom will have returned to its rightful place at the center of the world.
China is now roughly where South Korea was in 1990. A similar growth profile will by 2030 leave its economic power equal to 25 of today’s Koreas. Imagine that!
It’s unclear what political system China will have by then. Democratization on the Taiwanese model is not inevitable. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has studied the Soviet collapse in rigorous detail and is determined not to repeat its liberalizing mistakes. What I consider at least equally likely is an emergence of a “consultative Leninism”, in which the current NEPist model is opened up to democratic elements (e.g. competitive local elections; policy-making based on opinion polling) but under the continuing hegemony of the CCP. This could be China’s own, sovereign road to democracy.
Other possibilities are also possible, e.g. a Singaporean authoritarianism, or “managed democracy” in the style of Putin’s Russia. But short of a reversion to Maoism – which is exceedingly unlikely, given that China now has a commercial class that would strongly oppose it – it’s unclear how the widespread mantra that political change must be accompanied by a cessation of economic growth can be justified.
China’s rise will be accompanied by the flock of BRIC’s trailing in its wake: Brazil, Russia, and India. The first two will enjoy a massive resource windfall from selling their plentiful energy, mineral, and water (in the form of food) reserves to a world made increasingly ravenous by depletion elsewhere and the effects of an increasingly destructive and chaotic climate. Russia will remain a first-class Great Power, and India will join its ranks; Brazil will be the most prominent of the second-class powers, which will also include France, Canada, Germany, Japan, the UK, Turkey, and Korea.
As with China, there are many reasons cited to explain for why Russia will fail to achieve its promise, such as (1) demographic decline; (2) corruption; (3) resource-based economy; (4) crumbling infrastructure; (5) authoritarianism. All these factors are either exaggerated (1-5), typical of most middle-income countries (2, 4), or it is unclear why they are necessarily negatives at all (3, 5). But it also has great strengths. Russia combines the BRIC’s fiscal sturdiness and economic dynamism (both lacking in the West) with a GDP per capita that is almost twice that of the next richest BRIC, Brazil. Its human capital is on a par with the developed world’s, allowing for an easy convergence. Crucially, Russia is perfectly positioned for the coming age of “scarcity industrialism”, in which food, energy, and energy prices soar and global warming opens up vast regions of the country, including the Arctic, to shipping, energy production, agriculture, and habitation. Even at current growth rates of 4% per year, Russia should converge to European income levels by 2020-25 and spend the next few decades comfortably, its energy riches shielded by its nuclear umbrella.
Obviously Russia lacks the population mass, at least at this stage, to become a true superpower (even if it absorbs the other post-Soviet nations into a Eurasian union). This is not the case for India, which will overtake China to become the world’s most populous nation by 2025. But within that fast-growing population illiteracy is still rife and 47% of children remain malnourished. Though it suffers from many the usual ailments of low-income countries – creaky infrastructure, caste-based inequalities, sluggish courts and bureaucracy, etc. – it’s India’s low level of human capital that is the primary cause of its falling so far behind China (manufacturing output is an order of magnitude lower, and the poorest Chinese provinces are equal to the Indian average). Nonetheless, India has the coal to power itself, and temperatures will remain within acceptable bounds for producing stagnant grain harvests for at least the next few decades. And quantity counts. That is why India will become a first-rank Great Power, equaling Russia and approaching the US.
With its ample lands and resources (e.g. iron, oil), not to mention its successes with sugar cane-derived ethanol, Brazil is set to enjoy – much like Russia – a comfortable existence as a regional hegemon in a world of high prices for food, energy and minerals. Its military strength is paltry, but irrelevant given its distance from other Great Powers. It is also the least corrupt of the BRIC’s. However, its prospects for true superpowerdom are constrained by relatively low human capital; as its economy wasn’t distorted by a legacy of socialist mismanagement (as with China or Russia), its GDP per capita is already, more or less, “where it should be.” In the background, Canada will be getting very rich off supplying fuels and water to an increasingly parched and energy-starved US. However, for the time being its profile will remain modest.
The European Union is conspicuous by its absence. Europe is no longer united by the memory of war and the Soviet threat, and each country concerned above all for its own national interests. This is not a stable foundation for a union, and as such it will likely retreat into something like a glorified free trade area by the 2020′s. Real power will be concentrated among the big European Powers, which will carve out spheres of influence and compete with each other for neo-colonial influence: e.g. France (Maghreb); Germany (East-Central Europe); Turkey (Balkans, Azerbaijan, Arab world); the Scandinavian bloc; the Visegrad bloc. Arguably there is already evidence of this in the Anglo-French effort to oust Qaddafi. Read more here.
No European Power will have the mass to become a first-rank Great Power, though it may be (marginally) possible for France and definitely possible for coalitions of European Powers. By themselves, all the European nations will be lingering near the bottom of the CNP scale.
There is no point discussing any other country or alliance. NATO is becoming more irrelevant with each passing year. Japan is technologically advanced, but reliant on the US for its security and dependent on the same oceanic supply routes as China; as soon as the latter becomes the new regional hegemon, Japan’s effective sovereignty is history. Indonesia is similar India, but five times smaller. South Africa, Mexico, Australia, Nigeria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are all some combination of (1) too underpopulated, (2) too underdeveloped, and (3) too vulnerable to climate change.
Beyond 2050 we are getting into very foggy territory. Just think of an educated European observing the world one century ago, in 1911 – could he have predicted Germany’s utter collapse and occupation, and the rise of Russia (now known as the USSR) as a superpower along with the (vastly stronger) US superpower? And could that observer in 1951 have predicted that a China only recently consolidated under Communist control, after a century of stagnation, invasions and warlordism, would just fifty years later have overtaken a Russia that had become a basketcase?
Any number of black swans may have intervened by 2050, steering any projections wildly of course. Here are a few examples:
For the purposes of completing the scenario to 2100, I will assume that the above don’t occur. Instead, the dominant forces in previous decades – economic convergence; declining EROEI and minerals accessibility; accelerating climate change – remain constants.
By the second half the century, climate change will start to dominate over everything else. The latest projections tend to lean towards the high end of the IPCC’s 1-6C warming range for the next century (the scariest of them show that by 2300 most of the world outside the Arctic may become downright lethal during summer). Warming of 4C is the point at which agriculture starts to not only experience difficulties but outright collapse throughout most of the equator and mid-latitudes.
[Map of global drought under aggregated runs of IPCC's models. Most of the US, southern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America will be in an unprecedented mega-drought. Read more here.]
All the problems currently experienced by China and India with stagnant grain harvests will increase further, requiring very costly counter-measures. Now this is not to say that there will necessarily be mass famine and “dieoff”, as doomers like to predict. It is certainly a possibility, especially under the most severe warming scenarios, but growing food production in Russia, Canada, and even East Africa may make up the difference. In particular, China should be relatively safe, because by then it should be a developed country.
On the other hand, the Chinese state will have its hands full mitigating disaster after climate disaster. The spate of rebuilding after the flooding of New Orleans, which actually boosted US GDP, was one thing; when commercial metropolises like Shanghai are getting flooded and coastal property prices devaluing to nothing, it is economic and financial apocalypse.
What’s possible, then, is the following scenario. By the 2070′s, the Chinese state becomes so preoccupied with maintaining food stability, and the energy and mineral flows that enable industrial society in general, that the surplus resources and administrative capacity to do anything else diminish. This is not a new development in its history. For much of the 19th century, Qing China was the world’s biggest economy by GDP, even though Britain was becoming far more industrialized. This was because China was at its Malthusian limits; the population level was stable, but it was always on the edge of famine, and presided over by a government made weak by lack of taxable surpluses and unable to check the corruption and independence of its own public officials. The state was unable to defend itself, to modernize the country, or to guarantee its independence.
India is in a worse bind, and not just because it will likely remain less developed than China to that time. The Chinese, at least, have the reserve option of migrating some of their surplus population to Tibet (or East Africa, if they conquer it). India doesn’t have that, and faces the unwelcome prospect of a further flood of excess population – this time from a collapsing Pakistan (the Indus to run dry by late century, as Himalayan glaciers melt) and inundating Bangladesh.
A consequence is that states with far smaller populations and economies, but greater surplus resources – will emerge as new Great Powers. Primarily, this means Russia, but Canada would also be in this category, as will Scandinavia, Alaska, and (in one or two more centuries) whoever settles or controls Greenland. By virtue of their control over most of the world’s remaining critical resources – water (not only for food, but electricity); gas; coal; metals; whatever’s left of oil – they will wield unprecedented strategic power over the countries to the south.
Perhaps a colonial relationship will develop, in which the Arctic nations send resources and allow southern workers to farm their lands in exchange for selling off their industrial assets and eventually ceding political sovereignty. In the very long term, this will logically lead to the development of caste-based societies in Russia and Canada, as the sheer magnitude of climate refugees would mean that in any integration policy, it would be the indigenous inhabitants who would have to do most of the integrating (and hence politically impracticable).
By the end of the century – a world of two Arctic superpowers, Russia and Canada?
This is the first post in a series of three, in which I will analyze the major trends that will define the next ten years and their likely impacts on global regions. To put these forecasts into context, I must first describe the narrative through which I view the history of the post-WW2 era (the Oil Age, the Age of Hubris, or as John M. Greer aptly described it, the “age of abundance industrialism” – now on the verge of meeting its Nemesis, the waning of Pax Americana and the demise of global Western hegemony), which is dominated by the concept of “limits to growth” – the 1972 Club of Rome thesis that finite resources and pollution sinks will ensure that business-as-usual economic growth can never continue indefinitely on planet Earth.
Driven by an electro-mechanical revolution powered by a windfall of cheap oil, the world registered its highest GDP growth rates in the 1950-1973 period. The era was defined by self-confidence and a secular “myth of progress”, which reached its apogee with the 1969 moon landings. But the next decade saw the arrival of major discontinuities. American oil production peaked in 1970, and went into decline. Saudi Arabia settled into its role as the world swing producer, enabling it to inflict a severe “oil shock” on Western economies in 1973 to punish them for their support for Israel, to be followed by another in 1979 coinciding with the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The decade also saw milestones such as the publication of Limits to Growth, the ending of hyperbolic growth of the world system, and a new emphasis on conservation and sustainability (which led to significant improvements in fuel efficiency and pollution control – back then, the fruits were all low-hanging, so impressive results were not hard to achieve). Yet the first tentative steps towards sustainability were not to be followed through, as the newly-elected Reagan took office proclaiming “Morning in America!”, with its implicit promise of a return to a past with no future. It was a false dawn.
Thus began the “age of diminished expectations”. In the US, physical production by volume and real working class wages stalled in the 1970′s, and have since been on a plateau (slightly tilted up according to official statistics, slightly tilted down according to unofficial ones). The age of Mammon saw rising inequality, both within and between nations (the sole major exception being China whose ascent to world power began in the late 1970′s). As the American industrial base entered its long atrophy, its economy shifted towards construction, services, and finance, – symbolized by metastasizing suburbia – and made possible by new drilling by the oil majors in remoter areas like Alaska, the Mexican Gulf, and the North Sea, a political-security rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, the IT revolution, and the rise of multinational corporations exploiting globalizing markets and cybernetic technology in a flattening world. Sustainability went out the window; quite literally, as Carter’s solar panels were removed from the White House roof in 1986. Finally, the US harnessed its new role as the focal point of the emerging global neoliberal system to open up their economies to the world, unleashing China’s “surplus armies of labor” and the former USSR’s energy resources in the service of Pax Americana.
[Source: Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy, PNAS.]
This new era of international neoliberalism and developed country post-industrialism coincided with the genesis of humanity’s ecological overshoot of the carrying capacity of the Earth. Though the first global pollution alarm in the form of the “ozone hole” led to an impressive response involving a global agreement on the withdrawal of CFC production, the reaction to the growing specter of runaway climate change caused by man-made CO2 emissions – which is ultimately a far more serious issue – has been muted right up until 2009′s Copenhagen fiasco and today. Instead, the party continued in full blast throughout the 1990′s, for the US was too busy basking in the glow of the ostensible end-of-history triumph of “Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.
These hubristic visions of imminent utopia, of global drive-in democracy, collided with hard reality in the first decade of what was supposed to be a “new American century”. The United States is in a state of severe economic disequilibrium and has been in rapid decline relative to its competitors – a condition reminiscent of the USSR in the 1980′s. The probable decline and fall of the global order of which it is the locus will constitute the defining trend of the next decade.
What is Pax Americana? It is the liberal, internationalist, post-Cold War order, which has extended its reach throughout the whole world barring a few socialist holdovers like Cuba and North Korea. Globalization, rule of law, human rights, liberal democracy, free markets, economic growth – these are its self-defined values, which it considers to be the apex of humanity’s socio-political evolution. Its critics, from Western leftists to Third World nationalists, decry it as an exploitative, ruinous, imperialist, hypocritical, end-of-history theology, with voluminous references to the inconsistent ways in which these values are practiced by their own sponsors, or wielded as weapons against its ideological and geopolitical competitors.
But these arguments will soon become academic. As demonstrated by Robert Ayres, there is a glaring hole at the center of modern macroeconomic theory – accounts of growth neglect the vital role of “useful work” (a function of exergy and technical efficiency), whose contribution far outweighs that of labor and capital combined. Both factors have been flattening in the US in recent years, making further growth unsustainable. Furthermore, studies in systems dynamics indicate that brittle systems, with poor “shock absorbers”, can be subject to so-called “cascade collapse“, in which failures at one node produce a self-amplifying resonance that causes many other nodes to fail. If this is an accurate description of the global System, then a setback in any one sphere – be it economic, financial, geopolitical, etc – could usher in a vicious spiral into anarchic apolarity on the international stage.
Pax Americana and its neoliberal ideological superstructure rests on three pillars: cheap oil, American dollars, and the US Navy. Like the legs of a tripod, they all survive – or fall – together. And today, they are crumbling. Let us examine the forces that will be undermining these pillars in the next decade:
Contrary to the “doomer” worldview, it is almost certainly possible to sustain an industrial civilization without a drop of oil (though ceteris paribus it will be a materially poorer one, because of oil’s uniquely high EROEI). The problem is that today’s industrial system, especially in the US, is built in such a way – gas-guzzling SUV’s on asphalt roads slithering across endless vistas of soulless suburbia – that cheap oil is indispensable to making the commutes and credit flows, the jet flights and JIT production systems, function. An even bigger problem is that Hubbert’s predictions of a global oil peak are (roughly) on schedule: though delayed by the 1970′s oil shocks, it is likely that either 2008 or 2010 was the all-time peak, and oil production will now decline at an accelerating rate – even without accounting for possible discontinuities like a global credit implosion, a sudden collapse of Ghawar, the spread of revolution to Saudi Arabia, or Iranian mining of the Straits of Hormuz.
[Source: World Oil Production Forecast - Update November 2009, Oil Drum. Click to enlarge.]
The US spent prodigious sums to fight a war to open up Iraq’s oil reserves, but today its oil production is no higher than in 2000 (and hopes of massively increasing it are probably unrealistic). Russia has reconsolidated state control over its hydrocarbon deposits, discounting Western recriminations over its “resource nationalism”, and has successfully pushed back against Washington-backed “color revolutions”. Central Asia never proved to be the black gold lode of American geostrategic fantasy, and in any case it has since been closed off again by Russia. Due to their immense capital costs, environmental impact, and low energy-return-on-energy-invested (EROEI), there can be no salvation in tar sands or shale. Nor have there been any efforts at mitigation of the kind recommended in the Hirsch report. Any energy transition will be a very drawn-out process, considering the sheer scale of the infrastructure that will have to be replaced – and using continuously lower-EROEI energy sources!
As such, it can be said with a high degree of certainty that the world will soon experience a severe shortfall in liquid fuels. Because of its high degree of dependence on cheap oil, this will affect the US disproportionately, which will have to make good with demand destruction. The consequences will include major knock-on effects on consumers, who constitute the mainstay of American economic power.
The geological realities of peak oil (2005-2010), in combination with soaring demand from industrializing Asia, have led to the worst crisis since the Great Depression, with the free-fall only being checked by a dizzying panoply of monetary flooding, fiscal stimulus, and government bailouts. As if this weren’t enough, the US faces rising entitlements costs as the baby boomers start retiring, a bloated military-industrial complex, and increasing commitments to Afghanistan with no timetable in sight (where there are now more US troops than there were at the peak of the Soviet intervention).
[The US budget deficit is predicted to permanently remain in the red even under the rosiest assumptions. As of now, it is the more pessimistic scenarios that are being born out - Republican refusals to raise tax rates or cooperate on Medicare; Soviet-like rhetoric about "defense cuts" while real military spending continues rising; etc.]
Now the major reason why the US has been able to afford both guns (the US military) and butter (its double deficits) in the face of deindustrialization was by giving its many foreign investors an atrocious rate of return, which they accepted in return for America’s “alpha” – its reputation as the largest economy, sole superpower, and global financial center, in other words, the “safe haven” par excellence. It also draws immense strength from the US dollar’s role as the global reserve currency, for instance by allowing it to comfortably buy oil at $-denominated prices even when the currency is weak. But with its “imperial overstretch” (see Afghanistan), moribund financial system, and a budget deficit north of 10% of GDP and projected to remain in the red for the foreseeable future – by some measures, US debt and fiscal metrics are worse than those of the PIGS on aggregate – will this American “alpha” survive? Probably not for much longer.
The creeping monetization of US debt will destroy investor confidence that they will ever make a positive return on their US bond investment. The withdrawal of a single major investor, especially if it coincides with a geopolitical shock, could set off a “cascading collapse” as other investors scurry away from US Treasury bonds. This will leave the US incapable of generating the primary surpluses to service its negative net foreign investment position, leading either to a compound debt trap or a classic emerging market-style currency crisis. Ice or fire? Given America’s democratic system and the bipartisan consensus on fiscal profligacy, I would bet on the latter.
The collapse of what in some respects resembles an informal tributary system, channeling global (i.e. Asian) savings to the American consumer, will sound the death knell for Pax Americana. As Paul Kennedy argued in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, military power is ultimately subordinate to the economic base which supports it. The industrial base that won the Second World War and forged the American superpower has been in decline since the 1970′s – though on paper it boasted a high productivity growth rate, it masked a huge decline in the size and complexity of its “industrial ecosystem”. Mundane manufacturing, the automotive industry, and machine building have all experienced rapid decline; the heavily-subsidized aerospace and defense industries constitute the only major exceptions to this trend.
Now as long as globalization, free trade, and stability reigned, this did not portend international decline. Industrial hallowing out simply freed up workers into sectors that were more in demand, like restaurants, construction, services of all kinds, etc; and women gained many more economic opportunities. The US could get its manufactures from abroad, like Spain during its (literal) Golden Age. Furthermore, the transition from manufacturing to consumption and finance is historically not without precedents, being observed in the halcyon days of empires like Holland and Great Britain. After these former empires had established their initial industrial supremacy through mercantile means, they transitioned to free-trade regimes designed to reinforce their economic hegemony – and in so doing “kicked away the ladder” from countries trying to catch up. (The United States itself was one of the world’s most protectionist nations until the Second World War, at the end of which it accounted for half of global industrial output and drastically reduced tariff rates).
However, as pointed out above, the crumbling of two pillars of Pax Americana, cheap oil and the US dollar, makes the survival of today’s comfortable globalization highly unlikely. When the inflows of cheap credit from abroad cease; when oil flows decline due to geological, political, and geopolitical factors – the US will no longer be able to maintain its privileged position as the world’s “market dominant minority“, its overstretched armed forces will no longer have access to the lavish funding of the days of yore, and the neoliberal world order they upheld will come to an end.
Facing the twinned specter of peak oil and fiscal insolvency and supported by an atrophied industrial base, Pax Americana could in fairness be described as a “brittle system” under a growing threat of collapse. Though it may yet fade away gradually into the night, to be slowly displaced by the state-centered, neo-Westphalian, mercantile reality of “world without the West“, it is altogether possible that geopolitical shocks will make the transition far more abrupt and chaotic than expected.
Though nothing’s certain, it is possible, likely even, that the biggest shock will emanate from a confrontation between Iran and the US in the Persian Gulf. Since 2005, the hardline IRGC paramilitary / intelligence clan, whose figurehead is Ahmadinejad), has been in the ascendant in Iran. Their power was further reinforced in 2009 when the Supreme Leader Khamenei sided with the IRGC in the aftermath of the abortive “Green Revolution” spearheaded by the waning “moderate” clerical clan (headed by Rafsanjani), in response to Mousavi’s electoral loss. These internal Iranian developments occurred in tandem with the rising tensions with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US over Iran’s pursuit of an nuclear bomb, amidst the window of opportunity left open to the Islamic Republic by the US quagmire in Iraq. Iran sees the Bomb as the best guarantor of regime security by allowing it to establish a regional hegemony in the Persian Gulf region.
This is unacceptable to everyone in the region. Israel views an Iranian bomb as an existential threat; Ahmadinejad expresses the opinion of 62% of Iranians when he says the Israel state should be wiped off the map. The Jewish state is now ruled by Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who in 2007 opined: “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany, and Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs”. Not much room for compromise there. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, beset by Iranian-stoked ferment amongst their Shi’ite population and undermined by the Iran-backed al-Houthi insurrection on their Yemeni border, view the prospect of an Iranian bomb with similar trepidation. Though they will protest in public, they will be quite happy to see an Israeli-American strike on Iran; rumor has it that Saudi officials have given Israel permission to fly over their territory via backdoor diplomatic channels.
The US is hesitant. Striking Iran carries great risks. First, no matter how good and accurate your bombs are – the US has accelerated the development of a bunker-buster capable of penetrating 60m of reinforced concrete – they are only worth their weight if you know precisely where to strike. Iranian nuclear facilities are highly dispersed and concealed, making the extent of US intelligence on them uncertain. Second, Iran can mine the Strait of Hormuz and harass oil tankers with coastal shore batteries, diesel submarines, and merchant raiders. This will put at risk 20% of the global oil supply; even if the blockade proves ineffective, as predicted by most analysts, soaring insurance rates may result in oil prices spiraling into new highs due to unprecedentedly tight supplies. Third, the Islamic Republic has a panoply of retaliatory options at its disposal: a renewed Hezbollah missile barrage against Israel, increased support for Shi’ite insurgencies in the Arabian peninsula, and above all a resurgence of political violence and state instability in Iraq. As mentioned above, hopes have been pinned on Iraq to delay global peak oil by another decade. Yet it has always been a land of unfulfilled potential, its imminent oil production takeoff regularly stymied once per decade – in 1979 with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, in 1991 with the Gulf War, in 2003 with the US invasion. It would not be out of character for its oil production to plummet again in 2012, in the face of renewed internecine warfare, Iranian incursions, and mining of the Strait of Hormuz.
Given all these risks and uncertainties, it is not surprising that the US is pursuing a cautious approach, restraining Israel and pushing for “crippling” sanctions on Iran, targeting its gasoline imports. However, the latter will not achieve much, especially since Russia – which has not received the firm recognition of its sphere of influence over the post-Soviet space that it really wants from Washington – will be able to torpedo any sanctions by allowing Iran to import gasoline through its Central Asian surrogates. Israel may grow impatient and eventually jump the gun without US permission. But Iran will likely consider Israeli and US actions to have been coordinated, and will embark on its “Project Mayhem.” The US may be forced to rush in and respond unprepared to contain the fallout as best it could. Now it is true that alarmist predictions that the US Navy will be crippled by Iranian low-tech swarm attacks are largely unsubstantiated, and there is no question that the US will have no trouble in gaining full air superiority over the obsolete Iranian integrated air defense system. However, defeating Iran’s dispersed retaliatory assets in detail may be a difficult and prolonged undertaking, perhaps even requiring the military occupation of strategic Iranian regions such as Khuzestan and Kish Island.
The US finds itself caught in a Catch-22 situation. Let Iran be, and it develops a nuclear deterrent allowing it to make a bid for regional hegemony – if it is not preempted by an Israeli strike. Attack Iran, and needless to say, anything worse than the most optimistic scenarios (in which the Strait of Hormuz only remains blocked for a few days) will constitute a tremendous physical and psychological shock for Pax Americana, a shock in which all its three pillars come under strain in the form of oil supply disruptions, financial turbulence, and prolonged aeronaval operations.
In conclusion, given the inherent fragility of the neoliberal world order and the mounting stresses on it in the years ahead, stresses that could be explosively released in a major geopolitical crisis – possible in Iran, though major clashes in other hotspots like the Caucasus or the East China Sea cannot be dismissed – it is unlikely that Pax Americana will survive the decade.
Yet its collapse will not herald a global collapse and a sudden descent into the Olduvai Gorge, for Pax Americana is ultimately just a subsystem of a larger system – that of global industrialism, the System that encompasses virtually the entire world, with the sole exception of hunter-gatherer remnants in the Amazonian fastnesses and a few mystical recluses. The American empire, much like the Soviet one, will retreat from globalist pretensions, while maintaining a continental hegemony. In the meantime, powered by domestic coal and a new kind of resource tributary system – one based on bilateral deals instead of open markets – China will be well on its world-historical “great reconvergence” with the West, making it the preeminent superpower of the age of scarcity industrialism.
The geopolitics of scarcity industrialism are the topic of the next monograph in this series.
Carrying on from yesterday’s 2010 in Review, I’ll now lay out my predictions for this year and see how well last year’s stacked up to reality.
(1) Last year, I wrote: “World economy continues an anemic recovery, though there are significant risks to the downside.” Today I’d repeat this, but add that the risks have heightened. Many countries in the developed world, from Spain to the US, now run patently unsustainable fiscal policies. I don’t know when the bond vigilantes would strike (and even if I did I’d rather get rich than tell you), but sooner rather than later they will. The obvious loci of the next big crisis are the so-called “PIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain), and Ireland, Belgium and Hungary.
But obvious isn’t preordained. Iberia, at least, is covered by the EU’s €440bn rescue fund, while Italy’s 120%-of-GDP debt is counterbalanced with a 0.9 ratio of receipts to outlays (i.e. for every €1 it spends it collects €0.9 in tax). The UK has the worst budget deficit amongst the big European countries, but it’s insulated by an average debt maturity of 14 years. Japan has the most apocalyptic sovereign debt figure at 220%-of-GDP, but also has immense foreign savings. Finally, though the US appears to be in one of the worst positions all round, with an debt maturity of just 4 years, a 0.6 receipts to outlays ratio and an ideological rift that precludes a political solution, it is still buffered by the $’s status as the global reserve currency.
Which of these dominoes will fall first, and when, must remain a matter of speculation, and may ultimately be contingent on unforeseeable shocks and triggers. For instance, a damning Wikileaks expose of Bank of America? Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz in response to an Israeli strike (as I speculated here)? It’s all possible.
[Michael Pollaro's collection of budget and debt metrics. Note that on aggregate, the US is in a worse position than the faltering PIGS.]
(2) Possible wars. My analysis remains the same as last year’s, with two changes: (1) The likelihood of a US/Israeli strike against Iran rises from 25% to 40% because the Stuxnet worm can not longer be relied upon to sabotage Iranian nuclear progress, the US development of the MOP, and Obama’s domestic weakness in light of the GOP’s resurgence; (2) The chance of an Azeri-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh has risen from small to 10% in view of heightened rhetoric, skirmishes and exploding Azeri military spending.
(3) My Russia predictions. Back on October 8th, I predicted: “Within the next 3 months Luzhkov is going to get hit with corruption charges and will either go on trial or seek political asylum in the West.” Still more than three weeks to go!
Barring another catastrophic heatwave or natural disaster, Russia’s population should resume growth in 2011 (as in 2009, but probably will just miss out in 2010). The life expectancy should approach (or slightly exceed) 70 years; the total fertility rate will approach (or exceed) 1.6 children per woman; the birth rate will be in the 12.5-13.0 / 1000 and the death rate in the 13.5-14.0 / 1000 range. The justifications for these predictions should be well-known to S/O readers but for refreshers see here and here.
Consensus is that the Russian economy will growth by 3.5-5.5%. This will be lower if there is a second global financial crisis, but the results on growth are almost certain to be far less severe than in 2009 (-7.9% growth) because today’s Russia Inc. is much less dependent on foreign credit inflows. See Russia 2010: Growth but state-led recovery is bad news by Ben Aris.
In foreign policy, expect relations with the US to deteriorate, on account of the rise of hardline Russophobes amongst Republican Representatives. On the other hand, the France-German bloc – increasingly estranged from the Mediterranean South – will be more willing to engage Russia’s non-indebted, growing and expanding (see Kazakhstan & Belarus customs union) markets.
(4) US politics will be mired in domestic issues, with Republicans doing their utmost to hack away at the healthcare legislation, calling for cuts to social (but not security) spending, harassing the EPA, and perhaps even trying to shut down government around March. The joblessness of the recovery and dim economic prospects will dim Obama’s political prospects, but they may be just about rescued if the Republicans overreach themselves.
I think the ConDem coalition in the UK will last the year, albeit with a lot of acrimony and backstabbing. The Lib Dems have lost half their electoral support, the students whom they betrayed, so they’ll want to hang in with the Tories as long as possible.
(5) Oil prices should stay at around $80-120 in 2010 and production will remain roughly stable as increased demand (from China mostly) collides with geological depletion. If there is a second global economic crisis, I doubt we’ll see prices plummeting to $40 as we did in early 2009, when investors abandoned stocks and commodities for the perceived safety of bonds. But since the next big crisis will probably be a bonds crisis, the most attractive safe havens may well become commodities, and the government bonds of emerging markets (where commodity consumption is rising).
(6) China will continue growing at 8-10% per year. Their housing bubble is a non-issue; with 50% of their population still rural, it isn’t even a proper bubble, since eventually all those new, deserted apartment blocs will be occupied anyway. What is of concern is that China’s coal production – now almost 50% of global production – is close to plateauing. This is of some consequence given that coal is China’s primary energy driver.
(7) Despite NASA reporting that 2010 may be the hottest year on record, the thermometers may break limits again in 2011. That is because, despite the unprecedented temperatures – manifesting in a great Russian heatwave that destroyed 40% of its grain crops and flooding in Pakistan that displaced millions – 2010 actually correlated to the end of a minimum in solar irradiance.
Solar irradiance has a forcing effect on global temperatures, independent of the secular rise in atmospheric CO2. Based on the graph above, we can expect another peak in the next few years. Since greenhouse emissions continue unabated and are indeed joined by feedback emissions such as methane from melting Arctic permafrost, we can confidently expect several major climate events this year.
Speaking of the Arctic, as its longterm ice volume continues to plummet and sea ice extent retreats, we can expect more circumpolar shipping. I wouldn’t be surprised to see up to 10 non-stop voyages along the Northern Sea Route from Europe to China, following just one by MV Nordic Barents in 2010. Likewise, expect the Arctic to become a major locus of investment – if not in 2011, then in a few more years – as lucrative companies and ports are privatized in Arctic Russia.
(8) Wikileaks will not be “shut down”, as the Internet is too resilient. If Assange is successfully extradited to the US to face espionage or computer misuse charges – I’d give a 50% chance of that happening – then expect fireworks to go off as the “insurance file” is released.
(1) “World economy continues an anemic recovery”: mostly true, though I should have clarified that I was referring to the developed countries. Though some, like Germany, did really well.
(2) “Republicans will carry the mid-term elections in 2010, but there is a strong mood of apathy and a sense that what is really needed is a new party, a new politics“: Bingo! Republicans won – check. Social disillusionment – check Gallup. A new party, a new politics – the Tea Party.
“Rising violence in Iraq… a false quiet in Afghanistan”: Got them wrong way round.
“In the UK, Gordon Brown (New Labour) will almost certainly lose to James Cameron (Conservatives) in the mid-2010 elections”: Totally correct.*
(3) None of the wars I mentioned happened, but I didn’t necessarily expect them to, as all of them were given as probabilities.
(4) “[Russia's demography will] continue improving further in 2010 and that the year will see the first year of positive population growth since 1994 (or 2009)… Birth rate = 12.5-13.0 (reasons), Death rate = 13.5-14.0 (a reason), Net Migration = 1.5-2.0, all / 1000.”: The Great Russian Heatwave of 2010, causing 44,000 excess deaths, threw many of my predictions off kilter. For now I’m basing it all on Jan-Nov 2010 stats, as December isn’t in yet. The birth rate during this period rose from 12.4 / 1000 to 12.6 / 1000, so I got that right. Unfortunately, the death rate rose from 14.1 / 1000 to 14.4 / 1000, due to an extra 28,300 deaths; if we exclude the 44,700 excess deaths accruing to the heatwave, the death rate would have been 14.0 / 1000, and so just within predicted range. A substantial falloff in net immigration, which I didn’t expect – surely more people should have left during the recession? – means that Russia’s population growth will almost certainly dip into negative territory this year.
“Economic growth of around 3-5% of GDP sounds reasonable.”: Most estimates are now converging at around 4%, so completely correct.
“Lots of privatizations and corruption investigations as part of the Surkov clan’s struggle against the siloviki and “their” state companies.”: True for the first part; not so much for the second, as most efforts have instead been diverted to ousting the last 1990′s-vintage regional barons.
“Yushenko will almost certainly (95%+) be kicked out of the Presidency in the coming Ukrainian elections… Ukraine under Yanukovych will join Eurasec or the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union, but is yet unlikely to join the CSTO or give Russian 2nd language status.”: Correct; wrong & wrong; right & right. I still expect Ukraine to join a Eurasian common economic space. As George Friedman points out in his “geopolitical journey” (see the part “European Dreams”), the Kiev intelligentsia has little sense of national identity, and dream of a Europe whose foundations are in fact crumbling let alone considering further expansion. By far the most logical alternative for Ukraine, in the long-term, is something resembling what it has been since 1654.
In late January, 2010: “Adding up these figures, Yanukovych gets 50% of the votes, whereas Tymoshenko gets 46%… It is safer to say that Yanukovych will win with a gap wide enough that Tymoshenko will not have grounds to make a legal wrangle out of it – though that is just about possible if she’s very lucky and comes within 1-2% points of Yanukovych. But my prediction is a Yanukovych win by 5-10% points over Tymoshenko”: During the second runoffs on February 7th, Yanukovych got 48.95% and Tymoshenko got 45.47%, making a gap of 3.5%. My first, allegiance-tallying method was virtually perfectly correct (50%-46%); the one that involved factoring in opinion polls led me to miss my mark. But nonetheless, I still ended up predicting the correct result.
(5) “Oil production in 2010 will be around the same as 2009 – increased demand will collide with geological depletion to keep output stable. Oil prices in H1 will remain at 70-90$, and will rise to 90-110$ in H2″: More accurate to say $70-90 for the whole year with dips and rises, but you wouldn’t have lost money taking my advice (and that after making big bank in 2009: “…a rebound in oil prices from around 40-50$ per barrel in the first half, to 60-80$ in the second”).
(6) “No major AGW-related physical events (except for a heatwave or two), given that solar irradiation remains at an unusually long trough – expect the fireworks by 2012-15″: Well, and quite a few floods. But dead on about the “heatwave or two.”
“AGW skepticism will become more popular in the wake of Climategate“: Yes – see the Republican Party.
“China and its proxies will prevent any more significant action being taken at the next UN climate change summit in Mexico, than was “achieved” in Copenhagen”: Correct, though actually it was the entire world (save a few countries like Bolivia), not just China, that colluded in making a worthless agreement.
“By year-end the performance of the world’s top supercomputer will exceed 3 petaflop/s (repeat of 2009 prediction)”: Still not there, as the current top supercomputer, the Chinese Tianhe-1A, achieved a performance level of 2.57 petaflop/s. Next year for sure though.
(7) “China’s growth will slow from around 8% in 2009, to perhaps 5% in 2010… expect China to continue keeping a low profile as the US insists on shooting itself in the foot.” So wrong! Ouch.
* EDIT. A reader wrote in to tell me I meant David Cameron is the leader of the Tories, even though James (the film-maker) might be preferable. LOL. For me to get it wrong not once (when writing) but twice (when reading) there must have been some serious Freudian slippage going on!
Happy new year to all Sublime Oblivion readers! This blog wouldn’t be what it is without you. In fact, I’d have probably abandoned it after a month or two after a couple of posts as I did with my first blog in 2006. So please keep on reading and commenting.
BTW, the image above is of the Xue Long (雪龙) icebreaker in the Arctic. It represents the intersection of several major current trends: The multifaceted rise of China; the growing importance of the Arctic; climate change.
As usual, I will begin by reviewing the defining trends of this year (Part 1), before making predictions for the next and finishing up by reviewing the accuracy of my 2010 predictions (Part 2). The main global theme of 2010 is the continuing Rise of the Rest – led by but not limited to the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) – set against the background of the accelerating political, economic and above all institutional and soft power decline of the old Western order.
(1) China keeps getting stronger, on every facet of national power, at an exhilarating rate. A comprehensive overview is well beyond the scope of this post, but a few examples give an idea of the general picture. A country that first displayed its UAV’s in 2006, has now exhibited more than 25 different models. One of them, the WJ600 – boasting a jet engine, multiple missiles and stealth features – might even be more advanced than any US or Israeli model. Just as the year rolled to an end, leaked photos showed that the Chinese now have their own fifth-generation fighter, the Chengdu J-20. Bearing in mind that Russia also revealed its PAK FA this year (after around 25 years of development), I think it’s safe to say that the Chinese have now fully caught up with Russia in non-strategic military technology*.
However, unlike the USSR, China is not a largely one-dimensional military power. What’s far more significant is that in sector after sector it is investing massive resources into R&D and espionage to achieve qualitative near-parity with Western products (e.g. Japanese trains, German machine tools, etc) then seizing their market shares abroad through its lower labor costs. China now produces half the world’s wind turbines and solar panels, a hugely strategic sector given current energy prospects; it has the world’s most powerful supercomputer (and is now second overall to the US in supercomputing); and finally, PISA international standardized tests have confirmed that Chinese youth are now as skilled in reading, math and science as their (far richer) Western and Japanese counterparts.
One can stretch these examples almost indefinitely, but the main point is that “the rise of China” isn’t just 1980′s Japan-style hype; its tenfold larger population makes it the real deal. If you wish, dismiss it by referring to its aging problems (might be an issue by 2030) or its property bubble (when 50% of its population is still rural). But don’t be surprised by not-so-distant headlines such as “China becomes world’s biggest economy by GDP” or “RAND analysts claim PLAN has achieved military superiority in the West Pacific”.
(2) While China is its main champion, many other countries traditionally considered to be economically stagnant, politically unstable and socially backward are emerging as major regional Powers in their own right, and beginning to project global cultural influence. In its adroit PR handling of the flotilla incident, Turkey has staked out its claim to regional prominence by challenging Israel and appealing to global Muslim sentiment. Brazil and Turkey enjoyed blistering growth rates. Russia has resolved its differences with Belarus in recent weeks, and together with Kazakhstan has finalized the timetable for a customs union; with the election of Yanukovych to the Ukrainian Presidency and Ukraine’s (partial) reorientation towards Eurasia, it too may join in the next year or two. Non-Western outlets such as Russia Today and Al Jazeera are now major participants in the global media discourse along with the likes of CNN and the BBC.
(3) The ideological rift between pro-stimulus Democrats and pro-scrouging Republicans – and their mutual capture by special interests (the financial sector, the military-industrial complex, etc) – has become increasingly evident this past year. This now puts the probability of the US ever resolving its budget problems by choice, slim to begin with, at next to zero. At this point, the only realistic chance of returning to fiscal sustainability without unleashing massive social disarray is to increase taxes on the rich, cut security spending, reign in the financial and “homeland security” mafias and rule out future stimuluses (whose effects tend to be crude and non-lasting) in favor of targeted social spending. However, ideological factors preclude this (The Tragedy of Obama: “a corporatist centrist giving endless concessions to Republicans who (successfully) portray him as a radical leftist”).
(4) How not to close awning budget deficits: the UK (I regret to say that I blogged in support of the ConDem coalition). While any idiot can see that the UK is on a fiscally unsustainable path, the ways in which cuts are being made, with a sneering classism that hits the poorest and least-privileged; commercialization of state social functions; and dumping of state assets, is incredibly shorttermist, foments social disarray and undermines longterm prospects. From 2011, the UK will implement the highest university tuition fees in the world. The headlines say it all: “McDonald’s and PepsiCo to help write UK health policy”, “Students could boost marks by showing ‘corporate skills’”, etc.
(5) In Europe, the German corporatist model, the Swedish welfare state, and to a lesser extent French dirigisme, have acquired ideological supremacy over the UK and Irish neoliberal models and the bureaucratized Mediterranean states. In a low-key meeting at Deauville in October, Sarkozy appeared to agree with Merkel’s proposals that would penalize countries that require bailouts by denying them votes in EU councils and placing them under Brussels supervision. Will the Mediterranean accept these Diktats or will it fracture the EU? Is even Germany, with its own high debts and demographic problems, capable of guaranteeing them? In any case, one thing we can say for sure is that this development reinforces the trends towards a multi-speed Europe, with the power of the traditional Franco-German core reinforced further by their (relative) economic resilience.
(6) The posturing by North Korea is, as usual, a show meant to extract concessions. Not worthy of the alarmist headlines.
It appears that the main reason Israel has so far restrained itself from striking Iran – as I still think will happen, eventually – is the remarkable success of the Stuxnet worm at sabotaging its uranium enrichment processes. But in all likelihood – I give it 75% – this strike will come sometime in the next few years.
Afghanistan is as unwinnable as always, but ideological inertia and the “psychology of previous investments” conspire to keep the US there.
(7) If you want the single best example of declining US soft power, consider this: even as prominent US politicians called for the assassination of a controversial foreign journalist for “espionage” or “information terrorism” – and even better, while touting its plans for World Press Freedom Day in May 2011 (presumably Assange isn’t on the invite list) – and Britain imprisoned him on what are almost certainly politically-motivated rape charges from Sweden, the President of Ecuador offered him asylum and the Russians mooted giving him a Nobel Peace Prize. Now I certainly don’t mean this portrayal of Assange’s travails to demonstrate that countries like Russia are altruistic crusaders for transparency and journalistic freedom; to the contrary, its safeguards for leakers are not so much abysmal as non-existent. However, Wikileaks illustrates that when the Western power elite is challenged so openly, forced to go through the political version of the airport body scanners it foists on its own citizenry, all pretensions to lofty ideals such as “rule of law” are tossed out of the window**.
But Wikileaks is more than just a collection of political gossip, or revelations such as that the British train Bangladeshi death squads and US contractors traffic in children for Afghan warlords, or inspiration for national and regional leaker websites such as Indoleaks (Indonesia), Rospil (Russia) or Euroleaks (EU), or even confirmation of “radical” viewpoints such as that the political elites of most European countries take their marching orders from the State Department.
The Wikileaks Saga is a historical crossroads that will determine the future balance between privacy, freedom and security in the West. Down one road, the powers that be will clamp down on journalistic freedoms and the unrestricted Internet, and so confirm the dominance of the one-way “surveillance state”; down the other, the transparency virus unleashed by Wikileaks will destroy the effectiveness of state “authoritarian conspiracies”, leading to citizen empowerment and “universal sousveillance” (two-way surveillance). Since technological development makes increasing surveillance inevitable, and consequently serves to concentrate power in the hands of materially and legally privileged actors such as states and corporations, I think the kind of citizen sousveillance represented by Wikileaks is indispensable for preserving personal freedoms and people power in our cyberpunk future.
(8) In the hottest year on record globally, which saw a devastating heatwave in Russia and unprecedented flooding in Pakistan and Australia, AGW denialism claimed victories in the US Congressional elections and the inconsequential summit in Cancún (without verification or penalties, any targets or commitments aren’t worth the paper they’re on). The climate crisis is now so self-evident and imminently devastating that the only psychological option is to draw in the runaway train curtains and prosecute anyone who peeks out and points out the broken bridge ahead. Geoengineering it will be (attempted).
(9) On Russia, Nikitin has summarized the year with a report card. Swell job. (Apart from the bizarre Khodorkovsky apologetics – talk of teachers’ pets!).
In short. The economy is so-so: though 4% growth is respectable, it should be seen in the context of an 8% GDP decline in 2009. (On the other hand, updated Real GDP per capita calculations by the World Bank and OECD/Eurostat have indicated that Russia’s is around $20,000, higher than the previous estimate of c.$15,000. This makes it similar to Poland, Croatia or Estonia; and in overall size comparable to Germany, and far above France or the UK). Its demographic situation has remained mostly unchanged from 2009, a small rise in births being more than canceled out by a rise in death rates caused by the 44,000 excess deaths due to the heatwave. In the political realm, the biggest developments were: (1) the uneasy survival of the Reset with the US, in which Russia cooperates with the West in return for more technological access; (2) the huge $700bn rearmament program announced for the next decade; and (3) the increasing drive towards recentralization and technocratic management encapsulated by the ouster of Mintimer Shaimiev (Tatarstan) and Yuri Luzhkov (Moscow).
(10) The melting of Arctic sea ice and local warming is creating the foundations for a sustained economic boom. This year the MV Nordic Barents steamed into the record books as the first foreign flagged vessel to sail from Europe to China through the entire Northern Sea Route without stopping at any Russian harbor. With traffic through the North Sea Route expected to increase tenfold over the next decade, ports being expanded, and power and transport infrastructure built up at a furious pace, the Arctic represents the next investment El Dorado after the BRICs. Follow S/O’s sister blog Arctic Progress to stay on top of things at the top of the world!
* Of course, this isn’t to say that all Chinese military tech is now up to Russian standards. E.g. Russia is well ahead in air defense. On the other hand, China’s naval technology is now arguably better. On average, I’d say the qualitative level of conventional arms is now roughly equal.
** Just as they are with the Third World victims of Western imperialism, or its own repressed minorities in urban ghettoes, or Muslims, but when it happens to English-speaking white guys it’s far more serious.
Stay tuned for Part 2 in which I make predictions for 2011 and review those from last year. Meanwhile, please feel free to point out any major events or trends I missed out.
I was recently interviewed on Middle East geopolitics and the Iran Question by Marat Kunaev, a blogger and translator at InoForum. I would like to thank him for the opportunity to express my views on the topic and providing a possible gateway into the geopolitical commentary on Runet. I’m reprinting the interview from here, with a few very minor edits; Marat made a Russian translation here.
What do you think about the situation in the Middle East?
The mainstream media likes to make generalizations about this very diverse region. Most of these are idiotic, simplistic tropes (oil, Islam, terrorists, etc). I don’t think this is productive, so instead I’ll highlight two things that get little traction in the Western mainstream media.
First, water scarcity is the root of many of the region’s problems. The Middle East is the world’s only major region perennially incapable of feeding itself, forcing it to import “virtual water” in the form of food. One of the main causes of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is over the unfair distribution of water, which is skewed towards Israel and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. On a bigger scale, water flows are almost as important to the region’s strategic balance as the distribution of oil deposits. Control of the headwaters of the Jordan, Euphrates and Tigris rivers, coupled with the biggest economic base in the region, gives Turkey immense strategic clout. To the contrary, Egypt’s food production deficits make it potentially vulnerable, as seen in the food riots of 2008 when global grain prices spiked. The urban poor who are hardest hit tend to resent their secular authoritarian rulers and support Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, making good with Israel and seeking US protection and subsidies makes perfect sense for the Egyptian political elites: resources can be freed up from military spending towards maintaining domestic stability.
Second, the “Islamic Resurgence” is rather simplistically portrayed as single-minded opposition to the West. The real situation is a lot more complex. The movement takes a variety of guises, from the moderate Islamism of Turkey’s AKP to Al-Qaeda’s franchise-based terrorist cells to the internal clan-based conflicts of Shi’ite Iran’s “Velayat-e faqih” system. It is inaccurate to treat them as a hostile monolith. And many of their grievances do sound genuine to ordinary Muslims. For instance, even Osama bin Laden doesn’t hate the US for its “freedom”, but for its support of Arab elites that he sees as corrupt, anti-democratic and hostile to Islam — e. g., the House of Saud’s acquiescence in stationing US troops in the holy lands of Mecca and Medina to protect the oil exports whose proceeds overwhelmingly benefit influential cliques. But arguing that this interpretation has some validity to it is a sure road to a wrecked career in American mainstream journalism.
Should we wait for radical change in Afghanistan?
No. Even Ronald Reagan and Rambo were pessimistic, back in the 1980’s! Americans don’t want to stay in Afghanistan for much longer, and their finances won’t allow them to anyway. In a few years, the Afghan government will have to sink or swim without US ground forces to support it.
However, I doubt the Taleban will seize central control again. Afghanistan has $1 trillion in untapped mineral reserves, and regional giants China, India, Russia and Iran have no interest in fundamentalists blocking access to them — especially in our world of increasingly scarce, harder-to-get resources.
How real is the possibility of US or Israeli strikes on Iran?
It’s one of those things that everyone talks about all the time, but never happens: until a spark sets of the bonfire, the Big Thing happens, and acquires the tinge of inevitability as viewed in the rear-view mirror of our common history. Kind of like World War One…
I wrote about this in my post The US Strategic Dilemma and Persian Deadlock. The key players are the US, Russia and Iran (the “triangle”) and Israel (the “wildcard”). Each have diverging interests that are hard, if not impossible, to reconcile.
Iran wants nuclear weapons to secure its mountain base, acquire the capability to project influence through its proxies (e. g. Hezbollah) with impunity and become the hegemon over the oil riches of the Gulf. Russia wants to keep the US occupied in the Middle East as it rebuilds its Eurasian sphere of influence, but all things considered, it would rather Iran not get the Bomb. The US is firmly against both Iranian hegemony in the Gulf and Russian hegemony in Eurasia: however, the tools at its disposal are insufficient to prevent both (it doesn’t have the hard power to contain Russian influence within its current borders, while a strike against Iran will have severe repercussions — up to and including a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, through which pass 40% of the world’s oil exports, the commodity underpinning America’s own global hegemony). As such, the US, Russia, and Iran are locked into an uneasy, but potentially sustainable, strategic “triangle”.
However, this “triangle” is broken by the “wildcard”, Israel. While the Israelis couldn’t care less what Russia gets up to, it sees an Iran armed with nuclear weapons as an existential threat: not exclusively in a military sense — Israel has 200 nukes of its own (though Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic rantings aren’t reassuring) — but in a political and cultural one. If Iran gets the Bomb, a nuclear race will break out in the Middle East. A sense of doubt and uncertainty will seep into Israel. Hezbollah will grow bolder; the possible entrenchment of political Islam in Turkey or Egypt will create a strategic nightmare for Israel. Educated Jews will start leaving the Jewish homeland, undermining the tax base needed for increased military expenditures (e. g. on anti-ballistic missile systems), as well as the Jewish nature of the Israeli state itself. In short, a nuclearized Middle East will make Israel’s foothold in the Levant vulnerable, even untenable.
If Israel feels that the US is wavering in its commitment to prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran, then it will go it alone — perhaps with the covert agreement of states like Saudi Arabia, which aren’t much interested in seeing a hostile, nuclear-armed Shi’ite state on the other side of the Gulf either. The US will almost certainly be drawn into the fight in the aftermath — e. g. by an Iranian attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz, Iranian missile attacks on US bases in Iraq, or even false flag Israeli attacks on the US.
In my opinion, the dates of likely Israeli action are from early-2011 (when the US acquires its Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb capable of busting concrete bunkers 60m deep) to end-2012 (the date by which Iran is likely to have developed workable nuclear weapons). Otherwise, the stage is set for the eventual nuclearization of the Middle East.
Should we expect a further strengthening of sanctions against Iran?
President Medvedev said on 23 September, 2009, “sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.” What he means by this Aesopian language is that it is Russia that will be able to decide whether the results of strengthened sanctions are going to be “productive” (however you define that). Russia’s position is crucial because it is the only country with the spare refining capacity and secure trans-Caspian transport routes to successfully break any gasoline sanctions against Iran.
But even Russia’s participation will not dissuade Iran from working on the Bomb. To the contrary, it can even increase Iranian resolve if it creates the conditions for a “siege mentality” within the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, sanctions are in the interests of both the US (it would prefer accommodating with Iran to fighting it, if possible) and even Russia (to appease the US in exchange for concessions on other policy fronts). As such, sanctions are a very convenient pretext for delaying military action. But for understandable reasons, Israel is unlikely to be as patient.
What do you think are the real Russian, Indian and Chinese positions on Iran?
Though Russia might have a few more friends than just her Army and Navy, Iran certainly isn’t one of them. It’s just a lever to be used for extracting concessions from the US. At this time, supporting sanctions is good for Russia because the Americans are compromising on many spheres (e. g. on modernization, START, Georgia). However, a time may come when Russia performs volte face, e. g. if the US shows signs of reaching a reconciliation with Iran in order to refocus its energies on containing Russia, or ceases supporting Russia’s modernization drive.
China and India are both interested in cooperating with Iran to develop its hydrocarbons sector and lock in its oil and LNG exports. Both countries espouse non-Western values of “national sovereignty” and non-interference. Furthermore, India is interested in recruiting Iran as a western counterweight against its rival Pakistan. As a result, neither country has any interest whatsoever in stringently enforcing sanctions against Iran out of pure altruism.
What do you think are the positions of Georgia and Azerbaijan on military action against Iran and its aftermath?
Since Iran is in a “cold war” with Azerbaijan and supports its prime enemy Armenia, the Azeri elites would probably secretly welcome military action against Iran. Furthermore, there are twice as many Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan, and though they enjoy equal rights with Persians, it is Islam — or the system of Guardianship of the Islamic Jury — that really keeps Iran united (with help from the security apparatus). If Iran were to suffer military defeat, the regime may be discredited, and a liberal democratic one may even take its place.
In that case, centrifugal tendencies may become predominant — as in the last years of the Soviet Union — and maybe even a Greater Azerbaijan will emerge on both sides of the Caspian Sea in alliance with Turkey to the west. On the other hand, Azerbaijan can’t be too openly enthusiastic about undermining Iran because it borders Russia to the north, which is friendlier with Iran. That is why the Azeris categorically refuse to let Israeli planes fly over its airspace in a strike on Iran.
Georgia’s position is much harder to decipher, as it maintains fairly good relations with everyone except Russia — against which it is irrevocable opposed because of its liberation / occupation (cross out as you wish) of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia. Though in previous years they’d have supported Israel, their current interests aren’t clear, since the Israelis stopped delivering arms to Georgia in exchange for Russia not delivering the S-300 air defense system to Iran. I don’t think a strike against Iran by either Israel or the US will cardinally change Georgia’s situation.
What do you think about the situation in the Russian North Caucasus and the Caucasus region in general?
Russia’s North Caucasus remains bloody and unstable, but secure under Russian control. Kadyrov is the Kremlin’s vassal in Chechnya: should he turn renegade, they’ll find another baron to replace him easily enough.
I doubt there’ll be another Georgia-Russia war. Its clear that the Ossetians and Abkhazians prefer implicit Russian control to explicit Georgian rule, and Saakashvili has no chance of changing this reality by military force. On the other hand, he remains genuinely popular amongst Georgians and secure in his rule. The cold war between Russia and Georgia will continue, but it’s unlikely to turn hot again; not unless Saakashvili is a total loon and tries to replay 08/08/08.
Another war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is also unlikely. Though Azeri military spending, bolstered by its oil wealth, now exceeds the entire Armenian state budget, the latter has had fifteen years to reinforce its positions in Nagorno-Karabakh. (Furthermore, direct Azeri attacks on Armenia proper will probably provoke a Russian military response through the mutual defense provisions of the Collective Security Treaty Organization). Aliyev is a rational, calculating leader and would much rather enjoy Azerbaijan’s oil bounty than run the risk of military defeat and popular uprisings against his regime.
How would you interpret the recent Brazil-Turkey-Iran deal in the context of multipolarity?
It’s an ideological statement: the voices of formerly peripheral countries rejecting the Western consensus on nuclear rights and proposing an alternative project amongst members of the “Rest”. As such, it is a very strong endorsement of the multi-polar ideal. But in real life, the actors playing the key roles are the countries with both interests in the issue and power projection capabilities in the region: Israel, the US, Iran, and Russia. West or Rest, it doesn’t matter: only power and the will to power.
I’d like to thank Marat Kunaev for this interview. I tried to make my answers as thought-provoking as his questions, and though I might have failed in that endevour, I hope the gap is not unbridgeable.
Interviewed by Marat Kunaev.
The standard view of the American economy is one of exponential growth: even if interrupted by a recession once a decade and a Depression once every two generations (the 1890′s, the 1930′s, the 2010′s?), the engines of industry would always come back roaring again. Output per American could always be expected to increase as it has from 1790 until the present day. There has never been a decade, even during America’s two Depressions, when US GDP was lower at the end than at the beginning.
However, another point of view on the US economy can be developed by drawing on observations of factors such as median income, energy consumption and inequality. Broadly speaking, this picture is one relative stagnation from 1890-1940, and again from 1973-today, punctuated by the truly remarkable “miracle economy” of the post-war boom. Furthermore, the US is now about to transition to a new phase: economic stagnation and anarchic stasis, to be followed by oligarchic Caesarism. This first post will be, for now, just a series of observations that I believe to be inextricably linked, but lack the theoretical foundations to put on a sound footing. Feel free to skip it, as it might be hard to follow and I’m mostly writing it to get greater understanding for myself. More polished version(s) to follow.
1. Median incomes (the ones that matter to ordinary Americans) tell a radically different story from the GDP figures. As shown below, they remained at a virtual plateau from 1914 to 1940. During the WW2 mobilization, spare capacity filled up, as factories began to produce the tanks, ships, planes, jeeps and misc. that played a crucial role in the Allied victory. After the war, what might have been a new plateau from the 1940-50 base accelerated, literally driven by the automative revolution; it is during this time that the US became a suburban, oil-based civilization.
However, the oil shocks of the 1970′s threw a jackhammer into that arrangement. Since then, the only discernible rise took place in the 1990′s: a period that saw the opening up of the Chinese “reserve army of labor” and the Soviet resource base to global markets. These began creating powerful deflationary effects in the US. But things went into reverse altogether during the past “lost decade“.
The median household income in 2008 was $50,303. The median household income in 1999, expressed in 2008 dollars, was $52,748.
You’ve got to figure 2009 will see another decline in income, in which case Americans will end the decade significantly less well off than when they started it. We’re not just treading water. We’re going backwards. …
Still, the 2000s have been especially barren. Median income rose only in three years—2005, 2006 and 2007, and even at the cyclical peak in 2007 it was below the levels of 1999 and 2000.
2. More on the energy developments during the period. During 1950-70, the US enjoyed very rapid growth both in absolute energy consumption and the energy efficiency of its techno-industrial base. Therefore, the quantity of “useful work” available for exploitation by American labor and capital increased very rapidly.
But this growth moderated since the 1970′s. Given the continuing reduction in the EROEI of oil, the peaking of the net energy flowing into the US economy from coal in 1998, and the turn to costly shale gas to maintain natural gas production volumes observed within the last decade, this trend must have only strengthened in the 2000′s. Graphs are taken from Economic Growth and Cheap Oil (Robert Ayres).
The growth in the”technical efficiency” with which exergy is converted to “useful work” by the American economy has been flattening since the 1980′s (probably due to diminishing returns to investments into more efficiency: see Tainter, etc). Though Obama’s drive to increase energy efficiency is laudable, it will be hard to achieve big results given that most of the low-hanging fruit have already been picked.
If further improvements in technical efficiency are low, then the US will be going into a permanent hyper depression in the years ahead according to Ayres’ calculations. As of today, the observed results match the Low forecast.
There’s little reason for hope. The potential for squeezing more “useful work” – the single biggest factor in GDP growth – out of the current US energy base are very limited. Coal, oil and natural gas are roads to nowhere. While nuclear and renewables are far more sustainable in the long-term (for maintaining an industrial base), they need 1) several decades to be build up and 2) given the same investments in K and L generate less useful work than today’s hydrocarbons because of their low EROEI’s.
3. Another interesting thing is that the period of stagnant US median incomes is linked with rising inequality. (This explains the continued moderate growth in consumption and GDP – its just that since 1973 a very large portion of it has been accruing to the guys at the top of the pecking order).
Now in stagnant systems – e.g. overpopulated agrarian societies – this is explained (Turchin) by the fact that land, food and credit prices have a tendency to go up, benefiting the elites (landowners, financiers, etc) relative to the rest of the population. While similar processes apply to industrial societies (see Marx), its effects can be combated by the powerful redistribution mechanisms available to the modern state (that were lacking in the agrarian states of yore). Hence, despite the fact that since the 1980′s Western Europe has been on much the same vastly lower growth trajectory, inequality in states such as France and Germany has remained low.
On the other hand, the US – having progressively deregulated the financial sector and knocked down marginal tax rates – has experienced a massive increase in inequality that may now be approaching the levels of the Gilded Age.
4. Fertility rates are linked to economic conditions. One of the many explanations for the post-war baby boom in the US is that soldiers were returning home, social conservatism, etc. But none of them are very convincing as comprehensive explanations.
Instead, one may interpret the above graph as follows:
5. Preliminary speculations. The reason I’m very skeptical on the Keynesian / Krugman vs. Austrian / Tea Party “debate” is that both positions, though ostensibly opposite, are based on the same presumption: that further economic growth is still possible, if only their policy prescriptions were to be followed. (In a recent Oil Drum posting Gregor MacDonald laid out my thoughts very well in Hollow Men of Economics.
So, Krugman draws many simplistic graphs showing how growth was bigger during the (Keynesian) 1950′s-1960′s than during the (monetarist) 1980′s-2000′s, ergo, the government should throw more and more money at the economy, the deficits and debts be damned. Then there his ridiculous “invisible” bond vigilantes argument: if the US can sell debt so cheaply, why should we worry about exploding budget deficits? Only a few things wrong with this theory…
Of course, the Austrians / WSJ are no less insane. If only the rich could get more tax breaks, if only banksters and oil corporations could be coddled even more than they are already, everything would be fine and dandy and we’ll be growing our way into a Randian paradise of abundance.
Both sides UTTERLY fail to consider the vital factor of useful work to economic growth. Useful work is a function of exergy & technical efficiency. Exergy is likely to peak and go into decline within the decade, given the trends in the energy base; technical efficiency appears to have a trend of flattening out. If investors were to suspect there are no prospects for future growth, the credit system – the economic equivalent of fertilizer in agriculture – as it exists today would collapse (why give out loans if there’s little prospects they will be repaid?), and the consequent drop off in investment will lead to depreciation overtaking and the capital stock beginning to contract. Finally, while the labor force will continue to expand, its quality will not because American IQ has been flat since around the 1980′s because of the cessation of the Flynn effect. (The *only* positive, productivity enhancing trend at work is the continued informatization of the economy, which may gain a boost with the appearance of ubiquitous, specialized and highly effective AI’s by the 2020′s.)
This is not an attractive view to take, because it basically means that whatever the government does or doesn’t do, GDP decline is inevitable. But the alternatives aren’t rosy either:
Instead, it would perhaps be a better idea to craft policies in such a way as to minimize the harm done for (as I suggested in my abortive “Collapse Party” project) and at the same time make the foundations of the American state stronger.
And that’s the story of it.
If I had to bet on it, I’d say US GDP per capita will be 5-25% lower in 2020 than it is now – even though we’re in recession. (Unlike with the 1930′s Depression, there’s no abundant, very high-EROEI energy subsidy on the horizon waiting to propel the US to another level). Inequality will be no lower than today, because of the power of today’s stakeholders in the system, hence – coupled with lower output and the waning of the credit system – median incomes will be a lot lower; hence, many more people in outright destitution. The center of gravity (economy, population) shifting back to the north and east (above all the Great Lakes region) from the south and west. The Presidency will have transitioned to some kind of Caesarism, served by a clique of politically-connected oligarchs. Any imperialist adventures now confined to the Western hemisphere. The citizenry too atomized, apathetic and preoccupied with quotidian concerns to do much about it.
I appreciate your thoughts and criticisms of this post, but do note that it is not meant to be final or “serious”; more like a strange mix of relatively obscure economic concepts, lazy extrapolations and personal impressions. As I said at the beginning, I hope to refine and connect these ideas into a more rigorous and logical framework in the future.
Though there are plenty of caveats and exceptions, it is safe to generalize that predictions of what the “next war” was going to be like before 1914 were completely inaccurate. The Great War would not be the quick, clean affair typical of the wars of German unification in the 1860′s-70′s or the sensationalist literature of the antebellum period. The generals were as wrong as the general public and war nerds. France had an irrationally fervent belief in the power of the offensive and dreamed of the Russians steam-rolling over Berlin before winter, while the Germans gambled their victory on the success of the Schlieffen plan. When the war finally came, the linear tactics of previous wars floundered in the machine guns, artillery, mud, and barbed wire of trench warfare. The belligerent societies were placed under so much strain by this first industrial total war that by its end, four great monarchies would vanish off the face of Europe.
Nonetheless, there were three theorists – a Communist, a Warsaw banker, and a Russian conservative minister – who did predict the future with a remarkable, even eerie, prescience. They were Friedrich Engels, Ivan Bloch, and Pyotr Durnovo.
Way back in 1887, Friedrich Engels, the famous Communist theorist, wrote this remarkably accurate prediction of the next war.
… world war of never before seen intensity, if the system of mutual outbidding in armament, carried to the extreme, finally bears its natural fruits… eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and strip Europe bare as no swarm of locusts has ever done before. The devastations of the Third Years War condensed into three or four years and spread all over the continent: famine, epidemics, general barbarization of armies and masses, provoked by sheer desperation; utter chaos in our trade, industry and commerce, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their traditional wisdom in such a way that the crowns will roll in the gutter by the dozens and there will be nobody to pick them up; absolute impossibility to foresee how all this will end and who will be victors in that struggle; only one result was absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the creation of circumstances for the final victory of the working class.
Engels was completely right on the “total war” aspect. The number of military deaths in the war, 9.7mn, was within his predicted range. And indeed by 1918 there was a severe epidemic, the Spanish flu, and a year later the crowns of Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey were all rolling in the gutter. The working class only got their “final victory” in Russia (though they came close in Hungary, Slovakia, and Bavaria).
Ivan Bloch was a Warsaw banker, railway planner, and campaigner against Russian anti-Semitism. In 1899, he wrote a book Is War Now Impossible?, in which he argued that its costs would be such that the inevitable result would be a struggle of attrition and eventual bankruptcy and famine. His hope was that by getting people to comprehend the vast costs and uncertainties of future war, he could forestall it. Though he was unsuccessful in that goal, he did at least get the muted privilege of being almost 100% right about its nature. For instance, see this direct extract from his book.
At first there will be increased slaughter – increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue. They will try to, thinking that they are fighting under the old conditions, and they will learn such a lession that they will abandon the attempt forever. Then, instead of war fought out to the bitter end in a series of decisive battles, we shall have as a substitute a long period of continually increasing strain upon the resources of the combatants. The war, instead of being a hand-to-hand contest, in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate, in which neither army being willing to get at the other, both armies will be maintained in opposition to each other, threatening the other, but never being able to deliver a final and decisive attack… That is the future of war – not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the breakup of the whole social organization… Everybody will be entrenched in the next war. It will be a great war of entrenchments. The spade will be as indispensable to the soldier as his rifle… All wars will of necessity partake of the character of siege operations… soldiers may fight as they please; the ultimate decision is in the hand of famine… Unless you have a supreme navy, it is not worthwhile having one at all, and a navy that is not supreme is only a hostage in the hands of the Power whose fleet is supreme.
This is, of course, a pretty accurate prevision of WW1. It was a stalemate of artillery and entrenchments. The German home front collapsed in late 1918 in large part as a result of dearth resulting from being cut off from global food imports and the requisitioning of the chemical fertilizer industries for munitions production. And the Kaiserliche Marine was indeed bottled up in port for most of the war. To further demonstrate Bloch’s predictive genius, I will quote from Niall Ferguson’s summary of his book in The Pity of War.
In Is War Now Impossible? (1899), the abridged and somewhat mistitled English version of his massive six-volume study, the Warsaw financier Ivan Stanislavovich Bloch argued that, for three reasons, a major European war would be unprecedented in its scale and destructiveness. Firstly, military technology had transformed the nature of warfare in a war that ruled out swift victory for an attacker. “The day of the bayonet [was] over“; cavalry charges were too obsolete. Thanks to the increased rapidity and accuracy of rifle fire, the introduction of smokeless powder, the increased penetration of bullets and the greater range and power of the breech-loading cannon, traditional set-piece would not occur. Instead of hand-to-hand combat, men in the open would “simply fall and die without either seeing or hearing anything“. For this reason, “the next war… [would] be a great war of entrenchments“. According to Bloch’s meticulous calculations, a hundred men in a trench would be able to kill an attacking force up to four times as numerous, as the latter attempted to cross a 300-yard wide “fire zone“. Secondly, the increase in the size of European armies meant that any war would involve as many as ten million men, with fighting “spread over an enormous front”. Thus, although there would be very high rates of mortality (especially among officers), “the next war [would] be a long war“. Thirdly, and consequently, economic factors would be “the dominant and decisive elements in the matter”. War would mean:
entire dislocation of all industry and severing of all the sources of supply… the future of war [is] not fighting, but famine, not the slaying of men, but the bankruptcy of nations and the break-up of the whole social organization.
The disruption of trade would badly affect food supply in those countries reliant on imported grain and other foodstuffs. The machinery of distribution would also be disrupted. There would be colossal financial burdens, labour shortages and, finally, social instability.
He pretty much nails it! Now yes, Bloch wasn’t 100% spot on. He was slightly wrong about alliances. His was wrong in his conjecture that “the city dweller is by no means as capable of lying out at nights in damp and exposed conditions as the peasant”, which coupled with her agricultural self-sufficiency, would give Russia the advantage in a war with “more highly organized” Germany. And most of all, he was wrong in predicting that social instability and revolution would doom all the belligerent states – after all, the key war objective would only be to remain the last man standing.
While reading Secular Cycles by Turchin & Nefedov, I came across a reference to a truly, remarkably prophetic document called the Durnovo Memorandum. It was penned by Pyotr Durnovo, a member of the State Council and former Minister of the Interior in Witte’s cabinet, and presented to the Tsar in February 1914. A conservative Russian nationalist, he emphasized that it was not in Russia’s interest to fight a costly and uncertain war with fellow monarchy Germany, a war he saw as only serving to further Albion’s aims. His fears were all astoundingly prescient and eventually, tragically realized. More than anything, this discovery spurred me to write this post.
After digging around I found that Douglas Muir had already written about it in History: The Durnovo Memorandum at A Fistful of Euros. It is an excellent summary and analysis, and I recommend you go over and read it in its entirety. In this section, I will liberally quote and paraphrase Doug’s post.
Under what conditions will this clash occur and what will be its probable consequences? The fundamental groupings in a future war are self-evident: Russia, France, and England, on the one side, with Germany, Austria, and Turkey, on the other.
Italy, if she has any conception of her real interests, will not join the German side. … [Romania] will remain neutral until the scales of fortune favor one or another side. Then, animated by normal political self-interest, she will attach herself to the victors, to be rewarded at the expense of either Russia or Austria. Of the other Balkan States, Serbia and Montenegro will unquestionably join the side opposing Austria, while Bulgaria and Albania (if by that time they have not yet formed at least the embryo of a State) will take their stand against the Serbian side. Greece will in all probability remain neutral…
Both America and Japan–the former fundamentally, and the latter by virtue of her present political orientation–are hostile to Germany, and there is no reason to expect them to act on the German side. … Indeed, it is possible that America or Japan may join the anti-German side…
Right off the bat, in February 1914, Durnovo correctly sketches out the WW1 alliance system, despite that “Italy was still officially allied with Germany and Austria, Ottoman Turkey was firmly neutral, and Romania was ruled by a Hohenzollern”.
Are we prepared for so stubborn a war as the future war of the European nations will undoubtedly become? This question we must answer, without evasion, in the negative… [T]here are substantial shortcomings in the organization of our defenses.
In this regard we must note, first of all, the insufficiency of our war supplies… the supply schedules are still far from being executed, owing to the low productivity of our factories. This insufficiency of munitions is the more significant since, in the embryonic condition of our industries, we shall, during the war, have no opportunity to make up the revealed shortage by our own efforts, and the closing of the Baltic as well as the Black Sea will prevent the importation from abroad of the defense materials which we lack.
Another circumstance unfavorable to our defense is its far too great dependence, generally speaking, upon foreign industry, a fact which, in connection with the above noted interruption of more or less convenient communications with abroad, will create a series of obstacles difficult to overcome. The quantity of our heavy artillery, the importance of which was demonstrated in the Japanese War, is far too inadequate, and there are few machine guns…
The network of strategic railways is inadequate. The railways possess a rolling stock sufficient, perhaps, for normal traffic, but not commensurate with the colossal demands which will be made upon them in the event of a European war. Lastly, it should not be forgotten that the impending war will be fought among the most civilized and technically most advanced nations. Every previous war has invariably been followed by something new in the realm of military technique, but the technical backwardness of our industries does not create favorable conditions for our adoption of the new inventions. …
[A] war will necessitate expenditures which are beyond Russia’s limited financial means. We shall have to obtain credit from allied and neutral countries, but this will not be granted gratuitously. As to what will happen if the war should end disastrously for us, I do not wish to discuss now. The financial and economic consequences of defeat can be neither calculated nor foreseen, and will undoubtedly spell the total ruin of our entire national economy.
“Bang, bang, bang: too few heavy guns, not enough munitions production, inadequate rail network and rolling stock, too much reliance on imports, financial weakness. Durnovo doesn’t identify every problem Russia would have, but he’s hit about half of the top ten.” In particular, I was impressed with his negative assessment of Russia’s railways (which would break down later in the war resulting in food riots in the cities) and his gloomy perspective on the productivity and innovation potential of Russia’s military industrial complex. Obviously, he leaves out a set of other crucial factors – the administrative and political failings of the Russian state itself (the corruption and incompetence of many Russian ministers like Sukhomlinov, the personal foibles of the Tsar and the malignant influence of court lackeys, etc). Whether this omission was due to political considerations or Durnovo’s own blind-sidedness as a conservative stalwart is open to interpretation.
If the war ends in victory, the putting down of the Socialist movement will not offer any insurmountable obstacles. There will be agrarian troubles, as a result of agitation for compensating the soldiers with additional land allotments; there will be labor troubles during the transition from the probably increased wages of war time to normal schedules; and this, it is to be hoped, will be all, so long as the wave of the German social revolution has not reached us. But in the event of defeat, the possibility of which in a struggle with a foe like Germany cannot be overlooked, social revolution in its most extreme form is inevitable.
As has already been said, the trouble will start with the blaming of the Government for all disasters. In the legislative institutions a bitter campaign against the Government will begin, followed by revolutionary agitations throughout the country, with Socialist slogans, capable of arousing and rallying the masses, beginning with the division of the land and succeeded by a division of all valuables and property. The defeated army, having lost its most dependable men, and carried away by the tide of primitive peasant desire for land, will find itself too demoralized to serve as a bulwark of law and order. The legislative institutions and the intellectual opposition parties, lacking real authority in the eyes of the people, will be powerless to stem the popular tide, aroused by themselves, and Russia will be flung into hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen. …
No matter how strange it may appear at first sight, considering the extraordinary poise of the German character, Germany, likewise, is destined to suffer, in case of defeat, no lesser social upheavals. The effect of a disastrous war upon the population will be too severe not to bring to the surface destructive tendencies, now deeply hidden. … there will be a revival of the hitherto concealed separatist tendencies in southern Germany, and the hidden antagonism of Bavaria to domination by Prussia will emerge in all its intensity.
Things went, as they say, to the letter. Not only does Durnovo seriously entertain the prospect of Russia’s defeat, but he spells out its consequences with an almost eerie accuracy. The Empire was indeed wracked by social revolution, as the railway system and food supply system began to disintegrate by late 1916 and popular resentment against the government was inflamed by court scandals. The soldiers in St.-Petersburg in February 1917, many of them recently drafted peasants who did not want to fight for a regime under which they were non-propertied and disenfranchised, would join the workers demonstrating for bread instead of dispersing them. Within another year, Russia was wracked by total anarchy. Likewise, following its defeat, Germany experienced political fissures between the far right and the far left, and even saw the emergence of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. If one were very generous, Durnovo’s mention of “destructive tendencies” could even be said to have hinted at the coming of Nazism.
“Durnovo glosses over a lot, and gets some details wrong. His contempt for intellectuals and the Duma is very clear in the last part of the memo, and it leads him down a couple of dead ends. But he’s so right about so many things that picking out his errors is really quibbling. In the last hundred years of European history, I’m not aware of any document that makes so many predictions, of such importance, so correctly. And I’m astonished that it doesn’t get more attention from western historians.”
This is not to say that all European armies were infatuated with the offensive and the bayonet. In particular, certain thinkers from the elite German General Staff stand out for their prescience. They feared that rapid Franco-Russian military modernization meant Germany had to plan for a two-front war of attrition instead of a rapid, one-front campaign of annihilation. Thus Moltke the Elder foresaw that the convergence of social and technological trends would make the Prussian tradition of ‘total force applied in limited ways for limited objectives’ obsolete, or in his last Reichstag speech of 1890, that the “age of cabinet war” would have to give way to “people’s war”.
His disciple Colmar von der Goltz had expounded on these views in his influential book Das Volk in Waffen back in 1883, which advocated the mobilization of all human and material resources under firm military rule for the duration of the war. (Although, unlike Bloch or Engels he did not cover the impact on the civilian role in much detail, e.g. how to feed the population or maintain industrial production – on which total war would make unprecedented demands – under harsh conditions of blockade). Köpke , the Quartermaster of the General Staff, wrote in 1895: “Even with the most offensive spirit…nothing more can be achieved than a tedious and bloody crawling forward step by step here and there by way of an ordinary attack in siege style – in order to slowly win some advantages”.
Yet for all the brilliant foresight of a few members of the German General Staff, as a body it institutionalized the military philosophy of the past. The best proof is its fixation on the Schlieffen Plan, described by B.H. Liddell Hart as a “conception of Napoleonic boldness”, which aimed to knock out France early in the war so that Germany would not have to confront the geo-strategic horror of waging a two-front war against the Entente Cordiale. But while it may have worked a decade or two before WW1, by 1914 it suffered from a host of unwarranted assumptions that made its success highly uncertain – e.g., a lack of effective Belgian resistance, a slow Russian mobilization, the ineffectiveness of the British Expeditionary Force, and underestimation of French logistical capacities and overestimation of their own. So even an institution as brilliant as the German General Staff was trapped between the Scylla of past experience and the Charybdis of new technologies; they were just somewhat more aware of this trap than the other European armies.
What’s the point of this post? It is really a confluence of several interests – the history of World War One, history in general, and futurism. It might not challenge any existing “narrative”, but I do think it adds a bit of richness to the subject, and reinforces the theme that sometimes the “conventional wisdom” (among both masses and elites) can be very, very wrong, and only recognized as so by a few pundits coming from surprisingly varied, even opposed, ideological positions.