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Talk for a Ruble

Some people think the Biden Administration hasn’t said enough to deter Russia from escalating in Ukraine. Others think the Administration has said too much to deter Russia from escalating in Ukraine.

But the problem isn’t with what the Administration is saying.

The problem is that the Administration—or, more accurately, America—isn’t willing to die either to restore America’s erstwhile sole great power status or to save Ukraine.

If America isn’t willing to die for status or for Ukraine, there’s not much America can do to deter Russia from using gas, plagues, or nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Too Much Talk

Some Europeans—and Mitt Romney—argue that the Biden Administration’s flat renunciation of direct military intervention in Ukraine is a lost opportunity to deter Russia through “strategic ambiguity”. The Biden Administration ought instead not to make a promise about intervention either way, they say.

The trouble with this view is that it assumes the Russians take the Administration at its word when the Administration renounces direct intervention. But there is no reason whatsoever for Russia to do that. For there would be almost no consequences for the Administration were it to break its word.

If the Administration’s promise not to intervene is a promise to anyone, it is a promise to Russia, the very country the Administration would threaten to attack were the Administration to break its word. The threat to go to war would alienate Russia whether the Administration broke a promise to make it or not.

Of course, some Americans who hope for peace would feel betrayed by the Administration’s change of policy. But while the Administration surely would lose some antiwar voters, it is not at all clear that the Administration would lose them because the Administration broke a promise rather than because the Administration threatened war.

The Biden Administration’s promise not to intervene is what game theorist’s call “cheap talk”—talk for the cost of a ruble. It’s an incredible threat. The mere fact that the Administration has stated that it would not go to war to defend Ukraine erects no barrier whatsoever to an Administration decision to go to war to defend Ukraine.

If Russia is at all wise—and she may not be—she should not and will not take the Administration at its word when it promises not to go to war to defend Ukraine. It is a mistake to suppose that the Administration’s message is not already ambiguous. From the Russian perspective, it must be ambiguous.

It is more than passing naive for the Europeans—and Mitt Romney—to assume that the Administration would not lie, or change its mind.

Switching to “strategic ambiguity”—refusing to take a position on intervention—cannot help. A worthless promise not to intervene is as ambiguous as silence. There are no consequences for the Administration of breaking either.

Indeed, the only thing the Administration could say that would be credible, and so might affect the Russian calculus regarding escalation, would be to promise to intervene in the event that Russia gasses, infects, or nukes Ukraine.

That threat would be credible because a failure to abide by a promise of direct military support for Ukraine would call into question the Administration’s commitment to protecting any other ally, especially NATO members. And that in turn would prevent NATO from acting with resolve in its dealings with Russia.

So the cost to the Administration of breaking its promise would be catastrophic, creating an incentive for the Administration to abide by its promise, and so making its threat credible.

The Administration has not in fact promised to defend Ukraine because the Administration is not sure that it is willing to die for either of the things that going to war with Russia would do: restore America’s erstwhile position as the world’s sole great power or protect Ukraine.

But if the Administration were willing to die for status or Ukraine, then it would be advisable for the Administration to make the threat, because ambiguity about resolve to go to war, when such resolve actually exists, is dangerous. If Russia does not wish to go to war with the United States, then ambiguity might lead Russia to trigger a war that neither the United States nor Russia wants.

So strategic ambiguity is a bad idea all the way around. It gets the Administration nothing in the event that the Administration does not wish to go to war—because a worthless promise not to fight is no different than ambiguity—and could well cause a war that neither side wants in the event that the Administration does wish to go to war.

Too Little Talk

Some argue, by contrast, that the Administration ought to start “drawing red lines,” presumably by making explicit that the Administration will escalate if Russia gasses, infects, or nukes Ukraine.

But it is not clear that these people understand that this is not a question of words—what to say in a crisis—but rather of resolve. If the Administration draws red lines as a bluff, and Russia calls that bluff, then Russia will be able to destroy or seriously weaken NATO without firing a shot at any NATO member.

Indeed, that is what happened with the Obama Administration’s red line over chemical weapons in Syria. Russia called the Administration’s bluff, and the Administration failed to follow through, accepting a deal for Syria to destroy its stockpiles of chemical weapons as a face-saving device that fooled no one.

Coming after America’s failure to respond to the Russian invasions of Crimea and the Donbas, the Administration’s non-response put the last nail in the coffin of America’s sole great power status. Thanks to the Administration’s bluff, Russia was able to achieve this without having to fire a shot at the United States.

The Administration should only draw red lines if it has resolved to enforce them. In the context of the present war, that means that the Administration should draw red lines only if it is willing to go to nuclear war to defend them.

If not, then the Administration’s overall approach has, I think, been wise. The Administration has made a promise not to go to war that it does not need to keep.

And no promise to go to war that it cannot keep.

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World

Replace the Nukes

Russia has reportedly been demanding a promise of neutrality from Ukraine in exchange for a ceasefire. Ukrainian neutrality would leave Russia better off than she is currently, for at the moment Ukraine is a Western march: allied with the West without being under the West’s security umbrella. A neutral Ukraine would not be under the Western security umbrella either, but also could not act as a Western ally in military affairs.

But neutrality is not just something that a country declares.

To be neutral, a country must posses sufficient resources to defend herself against all potential attackers. If not, then, even if she declares neutrality, a threat will cause her to seek help from others, and her neutrality will disappear. Switzerland and Finland were able to be neutrals in the 20th century because they are hard to dominate. Switzerland is defended by her mountains. The Finns showed their capacity for self defense in the Winter War.

So, how to make a Ukrainian promise of neutrality credible?

Replace her nuclear weapons, and give her the means to launch them. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine had about 1,700 nuclear warheads. In 1994, she agreed to destroy them in exchange for a Russian promise “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” It is only just that, given Russia’s breach of promise, Russia should restore Ukraine to the nuclear position Ukraine once occupied.

But not only is it just, it is also good for Russia. For a nuclear Ukraine would have the resources to defend herself against all potential attackers, making her a true candidate for neutrality.

Today, Ukraine is a Western march because Ukraine needs Western help to defend herself against Russia. In exchange for that help, she must be willing to tolerate a Western military presence on her soil (indeed, she is begging for that presence). If Ukraine continues to be a Western march after the war, Russia can be certain that Ukraine would permit the West to transit through Ukrainian territory en route to attacking Russia.

But if Ukraine were to have nuclear weapons after the war, then Ukraine would no longer need the West to help her defend herself against Russia. And if Ukraine would not need the West, the likelihood that she would allow the West to transit through her territory en route to making war against Russia would be reduced. Indeed, given the potential for such an attack to spiral into a nuclear conflict, and the fact that Ukraine would then have nuclear weapons and so be a natural target of Russia in such a conflict, Ukraine would have a strong incentive to preserve her neutrality and not to permit such transit.

Nukes mean independence. And independence is a prerequisite of neutrality. If all Russia seeks from Ukraine is neutrality then it is in Russia’s interest to reward a Ukrainian promise of neutrality not just with a complete withdrawal of troops from Ukraine but with 1,700 free nuclear weapons, and the means to launch them—both at the West, and back at Russia.

If Russia won’t consider renuclearizing Ukraine, then Russia’s demand of neutrality is not sincere. Indeed, if the reports that Russia is also demanding demilitarization are correct, then what Russia really wants is to make Ukraine a Russian march—a territory through which Russia can transit at will but to which Russia need make no promises—for example, of mutual defense—in exchange for that power.

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World

European Marches

There is nothing so helpful to national defense as a borderland. In Europe, these were called marches. The fight over Ukraine is a fight for a march, and this explains why the West is reluctant to intervene militarily.

You can dig moats, build walls, and buy tanks, but none of these will raise your rivals’ costs of attacking you quite like a march.

A march puts space between you and your enemy, and so forces your enemy to cross that space to reach you, costing time and energy. The Germanic tribes maintained tracts of empty territory along the East bank of the Rhine for this purpose. Roman armies had to cover much territory before they could harm them.

But often a march gives you something even more valuable: people willing to fight and die to keep your enemy out of the march—people who aren’t yours, and whose deaths cost you nothing. People who are expendable.

But also loyal. You can send your own armies through a march unmolested. But the population will make your enemies pay for every square inch they wish to cross. A march facilitates your offense and substitutes for your defense. It is at once the least expensive and most effective form of protection available to a great power.

Post-Soviet Ukraine has long been in danger of becoming a march. After the collapse of the Soviet Union she did not join the mutual defense pact of the former Soviet states. Because that pact would have obligated Russia to come to her aid in the event of invasion by the West, it would have made her a part of Russia, in the sense that an attack on her would have been an attack on Russia. But Ukraine also did not become a part of NATO or the EU. She belonged to neither, which meant that she could become a march of either.

Russia seems to have thought that she could make a Russian march out of Ukraine. But, after 2004, or at any rate 2014, when Russia first attacked Ukraine, Ukraine became a Western march instead. She welcomed Western military aid and no doubt would have been delighted had the United States offered to station troops in her territory. But she would have, and indeed was, fighting any Russian encroachment upon her territory whether she received support from the West or not.

Thus between 2004 and 2014, the West received a windfall in the form of a march that it had obtained for free thanks to the aspirations of Ukrainians to ally themselves with the West as opposed to Russia.

The West will not intervene militarily to stop Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine because the West is better off letting Ukraine do the West’s fighting for it. That is the advantage of having a march. Why should the West give it up? If the West is not thinking this way, it is, at any rate, acting this way; its refusal to go to war to protect Ukraine is, clearly, selfish.

The alternative to having a march is exposing yourself to your enemy, which is why marches are always better if you can get them. If the West had undertaken to guarantee Ukraine’s security against Russia, then Ukraine would have become the West, and a strike by Russia at Ukraine would have been a strike directly at the Western belly, with all of the danger that entails.

The West is held together by mutual defense pacts—those between NATO members and those between European Union members. A failure to defend a member calls the entire union, and hence the existence of the West itself, into question. Unity may be difficult to muster with the threat of nuclear war hanging over the decision.

How much safer the West is in keeping its belly tucked safely behind Ukraine! The Russian invasion of Ukraine does not force the West to prove its unity or strength on the battlefield.

So when a Ukrainian says to the West: “what is the difference between sending us guns or volunteer soldiers and deploying your tanks directly against Russia?”, the West’s answer is: cost. It is far less expensive and less risky for us if you do the fighting for us.

Bleed Russia until her government collapses. Bleed her until her people lose the will to fight. Bleed her until she lacks the ability to fight. So we will never have to face her directly.

And Ukraine is compelled to respond: “nevermind; we will defend you gladly, and for free!” For Ukraine is in the terrible position occupied by nearly all marches: she fears one neighbor more than the other, and the other neighbor knows it.

What makes Ukraine a Western march and not a Russian march is that she fears Russia more than she fears war. So she has no leverage in negotiating the terms according to which she defends the West.

She cannot say to the West: “give us a share of the vast savings in blood and treasure that we confer upon you by doing your fighting for you; if you do not, we will not fight for you.” The West would know this to be a bluff. Ukraine will fight Russian aggression whether the West helps or not, and so she cannot hope to appropriate any of the benefits that her self-defense incidentally confers upon the West.

Comparison with Poland in 1939

What Ukraine would have needed in order to avoid becoming a march is what Poland thought she had in 1939: a third party to guarantee her safety.

Poland was sandwiched between Germany and Russia. Rather than become a march to either, she entered into an alliance with the West—that is, Britain and France—which undertook to guarantee her security.

If this guarantee had been credible, then if Germany had wanted Poland as a march against Russia, Germany would have had to pay Poland a pretty penny for her aid. Indeed, Germany would have had to guarantee Poland’s security, since that is what the West was already doing, meaning that Germany would not really have been able to make a march of Poland at all, at any price. And if Russia had wanted Poland as a march, Russia would have had to do the same and more, in order to outbid Germany.

In the event, however, neither Germany nor Russia considered the Western guarantee to be credible. And although the guarantee turned out to be real enough in the end, in the sense that Britain and France did declare war on Germany when Germany invaded Poland, it turned out still to be false as a practical matter, because World War Two never did save Poland. She regained her freedom from Russia only with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Despite the incredibility of the Western guarantee, Germany and Russia ought, nevertheless, to have been content to let Poland alone, acting as march to neither. For, unlike Ukraine, which fears Russia more than the West (if she fears the West at all), Poland feared both Russia and Germany and would have, and did, fight the encroachments of both. That fact of mutual animosity provided some safety to both Germany and Russia vis a vis each other—a protective buffer between two powers—even if less than the safety that would come to one from having Poland as a march against the other.

But instead Germany and Russia decided to divide Poland up between themselves, thereby exposing themselves to each other. Russia learned shortly just how unwise it is for a weaker power to expose herself directly across a border to a stronger power. And of course the dividing up triggered the Western declaration of war, which, though it could not save Poland, ultimately was Germany’s undoing.

Marchdom for Ukraine Is a Departure for the West . . .

The West’s decision to treat Ukraine as a march flies in the face of decades of Western post-Soviet policy toward the West’s borderlands with Russia. For whenever the West has had the opportunity to swallow its marches—by promising to defend them, and hence incorporating them into itself—it has.

If one starts from the north and works down the European border with Russia, one encounters, first, Finland, which was non-aligned during the Cold War, relying on the lesson in military resilience that it taught both the Soviets and the Germans during World War Two to operate as a neutral—a country that buffers both sides by being willing to fight encroachment by either, but which allies with neither and so cannot be considered a march.

When the EU adopted its mutual defense clause in 2009, Finland, which had joined the EU in 1995, stayed on in the union. She became dear to the West. Not a march—for the West now was obligated to treat her as a limb and come to her aid in the event of attack, lest the West itself shatter through a show of disunity. The West, then, had exposed itself to Russia directly across a land border, and indeed caused Russia to be exposed to the West directly across a land border.

It did not stop there. Moving south, we next encounter the Baltic states, all three of which joined both the EU and NATO in 2004, obligating the United States, and not just Europe, to come to their aid in the event of a Russian attack. Here again the West had exposed itself to Russia directly across a land border and caused Russia to be exposed to the West directly across a land border as well.

Belarus is next. She belongs to Russia’s mutual defense organization, the CSTO, which makes her dear to Russia—not a Russian march but a Russian limb. To her south, we find Ukraine, to which the West seemed willing to give NATO membership as late as 2008, but no longer, making her a Western march.

. . . Because Russia Used to Be a Middle Power

Why was the West so willing for so long to expose itself directly to Russia across its long borders with her; and why has the West now changed its mind and chosen to make Ukraine a march rather than to incorporate her via NATO membership?

The answer is that from 1991 until perhaps 2014, the West thought Russia was a middle power. She still had a vast nuclear arsenal, to be sure, and plenty of means of using it. But she seemed to have lost the mindset of a great power, just as France, Germany, Japan, and Britain had done before her.

You let your belly hang out when you think you are safe, and the West thought it was now safe. Not so safe, perhaps, as to do away with mutual defense pacts, but safe enough not to bother to create marches against Russia.

And the West could have created marches. Finland could have been made to continue to play the buffer role that she had played throughout the Cold War, by ejecting her from the European Union when the mutual defense clause was adopted, or by not adopting that clause and continuing to reserve to NATO responsibility for mutual defense. Finland’s closeness with the West might have made her accept march status; but even if she had insisted upon returning to her Cold War neutrality the West would have been much less exposed to Russia along the Russo-Finnish border than the West is now.

Each of the Baltic states would, certainly, have been willing to be a Western march. Each would have been willing to fight Russia regardless whether the West made a commitment to protect her. The Baltic states loathe Russia and fear her far more than they fear war. They will take all the Western help they can get. The West could have denied them NATO membership without losing their loyalty.

But it was only in 2014, after the West had gone belly to belly with Russia in Finland and the Baltic states, that it became clear to the West that Russia had reacquired a great power mindset, and so the West did not think to make marches of Finland or the Baltic states.

Perhaps Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia signaled the change in her mindset well enough to careful observers. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, followed by Russia’s wars in the Donbas and Syria, made it clear to the world.

The West Could Have Responded to a Resurgent Russia By Defending the West’s Status as Sole Great Power

The West could have responded in one of two ways.

First, it could have insisted upon the sole great power status that it had enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. To maintain that status, the West would have had to continue to treat Russia as a middle power, for the world’s sole great power can deal only with middle powers.

In this case, the West would have continued to pursue NATO membership for Ukraine—to demonstrate the hollowness of Russia’s attempt to reassert great power status by exposing the West’s belly to Russia. The message would have been: “go ahead, make my day.” It would have been a challenge to Russia to prove to the world that she was in fact able to go toe to toe with the world’s sole great power.

The West would have rushed troops to Ukraine in the wake of the Crimea annexation, rushed them again to the Donbas, and rushed them again to Syria, seeking to eject Russian forces in all three cases. Middle powers are not permitted international adventures without the consent of the sole great power.

This would, to be sure, have created a risk of nuclear war. But the world’s sole great power does not fear war with a middle power more than the world’s sole great power fears loss of status. To the contrary, the ultimate test of a great power—or, in this case, of a sole great power—is a willingness to go to war—to risk everything—to maintain status.

The West did not do these things, and in not doing them, the West conceded to the world that it was not the world’s sole great power anymore, but merely one among two—indeed, given China’s strength relative to Russia, necessarily three—great powers.

One should not forget the importance of that moment in 2014 when the West failed to respond to Crimea. For a quarter century before that time, the West had been the only global actor. Its status as sole great power was taken for granted. With the non-response to Crimea, that image disappeared and talk of great power competition reappeared after a decades-long hiatus.

The West in Fact Responded by Conceding Renewed Great Power Status to Russia

But even if the West had conceded its status as sole great power, it remained a great power. Its second Crimean response option was consistent with that great, but not sole-great, power status.

The West could take steps to defend itself, one great power from another, in ways familiar to students of great power competition throughout history: to put marches between itself and the enemy. The West took that option by demurring on NATO membership for Ukraine after 2014, and is continuing that policy by refusing to go to war with Russia on Ukraine’s behalf today.

The West has abandoned its policy of going belly-to-belly with Russia and is now making marches because the West has conceded Russia’s claim to renewed great power status. The West no longer sees itself as staring down a middle power but rather as erecting defenses against a great power.

Thus, it is entirely fair to say that the failure of the West to go to war to defend Ukraine is a sign of weakness. It reflects loss of sole great power status. If the West wished to maintain that status, it would have had to go to war with Russia after Crimea, and certainly, now, in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

It is entirely fair as well to question whether the West’s failure to defend Ukraine is a mistake. For there were plenty of advantages associated with being the world’s sole great power.

Most notably: security.

In a world in which any middle power seeking to adopt a great power mindset and so to raise herself to great power status were threatened with overwhelming, nuclear force by the West, one might expect such challenges from middle powers to dwindle and disappear over time. And uncontested power brings peace—to everyone except the victims of the sole great power itself (let us not forget Iraq).

Of course, threatening nuclear-armed states risks nuclear war.

But, again, great power status can be maintained only if one is willing to die for it. Russia has been able to claw back her lost great power status only by taking such risks. If they perhaps seemed small in the context of Crimea, the Donbas, and Syria, the danger Russia currently runs of defeat in Ukraine and collapse at home shows how much she has been willing to risk to reacquire her status.

To maintain its sole great power status, the West would have had to do the same. And, if the poor performance of Russian forces in Ukraine is any measure, it appears that Russia would have stood no chance against the West in a conventional fight over Crimea, the Donbas, or Syria. Unless she were willing to risk nuclear annihilation, Russia might well have withdrawn in the face of a determined foe.

Loss of Sole Great Power Status Aside, the West Is Strongly Playing a Strong Hand

It is also fair to say that, if the West is content to relinquish its status as sole great power, then the West’s failure to come to Ukraine’s aid is in the West’s interests and not a sign of weakness at all. What’s more, if Russia wrecks herself on the Ukrainian rock, she will lose her great power status and the West will gain status by default, though not a return to sole great power status given the West’s passive response to Russian intervention in Ukraine and the continued viability of China.

It is in a great power’s interest to allow her enemies to bleed themselves dry fighting in her marches. It is in the West’s interests to let others—here, the Ukrainians—do their fighting for them. Assuming, again, that the West is content to let the world see Russia as a great, rather than a middle, power.

Mearsheimer Is Wrong

This also provides a complete response to John Mearsheimer’s contention that Crimea, the Donbas, and the invasion of Ukraine are all the West’s fault. It is Mearsheimer’s contention that if the West had not come to view Russia as a middle power after the collapse of the Soviet Union and had instead treated her like a great power, then the West would not have sought to make Ukraine a NATO member and so Russia would not have felt compelled to attack Ukraine.

What Mearsheimer misses is that, given Russia’s bid to return to great power status, the only way war could have been avoided is if Ukraine had submitted to incorporation into Russia via participation in the CSTO’s mutual defense pact, a la Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus. All other outcomes are either impossible or lead to war.

But Ukraine would never have submitted to such a thing. Indeed, it is a remarkable fact that Ukraine never even joined the Commonwealth of Independent States when it formed in 1993 because she objected to the position of the CIS charter that Russia was the only legal successor state to the Soviet Union. Ukraine also never joined the CSTO’s predecessor.

Russia would also have been satisfied if Ukraine had become a Russian march. But for that to happen Ukrainians would have needed to fear the West more than they fear Russia, which Ukrainians manifestly do not. Only a war aimed at breaking the will of the Ukrainian people, such as Russia has launched now, would change this.

Russia might also have been satisfied if Ukraine had become a neutral country—non-aligned in the style of Finland during the Cold War. But neutrality is possible only if a country fears all the powers on its doorstep more or less equally. Ukraine, however, fears Russia more than the West. Given this asymmetry of fear, the natural position for Ukraine to occupy even were the West never to have offered NATO membership to her would be that of a Western march—precisely the position that Russia has proven herself willing to go to war to stop.

What Mearsheimer misses, as well, is that, from his own realist perspective, the present war in Ukraine is a victory for the West.

That is, Mearsheimer does not seem to think that the West could maintain its sole great power status. Instead, Mearsheimer sees the conflict between Russia and the West as a matter of competition between great powers. In that case, the best possible outcome for the West is to have Ukraine become a march—which she has—and then to have Russia throw herself upon that march and bleed dry, which she is doing. Even if Russia wins the war, she emerges weaker. And it is far from certain that she can win the war.

The war is a calamity for Ukraine and for humanity; but not for a West that sees itself as one of several great powers.

What is more, Mearsheimer’s view suffers from hindsight bias. It was not at all clear in 2000 or 2004 that Russia would ever regain her erstwhile great power mindset. She could very well have chosen to join the ranks of former great powers content to grow rich on international trade and follow the direction of the West.

If she did not go to war to stop the Baltic states’ incorporation into NATO in 2004 or to prevent Finland from joining the EU’s mutual defense pact in 2009, why should the West have supposed that she would go to war in 2014 to stop the incorporation of Ukraine into the West? (Well, Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was some warning, but Georgia is a small country. )

Great power status is not something that can be measured in terms of nuclear weapons, GDP, or numbers of tanks alone. It is not the case that Russia always was a great power and should have been treated accordingly throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Great power status is a mindset; a way of acting. Russia did lose it in 1991.

Russian Policy Toward Ukraine Has Been Folly

It is also fair to say that, while Russia’s policy toward Ukraine since 2014 has been wildly successful at demoting the West from the status of sole great power, it has been utter folly from the perspective of competition between great powers.

For Russia is better off going belly-to-belly with the West across the land border between Russia and Ukraine than it is facing a Western march in Ukraine. But Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas prevented NATO from swallowing Ukraine and made a march out of her instead.

A march is altogether a more dangerous thing for Russia than is having her enemy at her gates, because the enemy can attack you through a march but you cannot attack your enemy through the march. When you have your enemy at your gates, by contrast, you can attack your enemy directly.

If Ukraine had joined NATO, and Russia had only then annexed Crimea, or started trouble in the Donbas, or, indeed, launched the present total invasion of Ukraine, and the West had failed to declare war upon Russia in response, then the West would be utterly shattered. NATO’s mutual defense pact would be a dead letter and Eastern Europe would be forced to accept Russian power in the region. NATO expansion brings menace to Russia’s borders, but it also brings Western vulnerability to her borders.

Instead, Russia annexed Crimea and started trouble in the Donbas before Ukraine could become part of NATO, and so before Ukraine could expose the Western belly. And Russia’s annexation of Crimea and starting of trouble in the Donbas worked to convince the West not to expose herself to Russia, to delay NATO membership indefinitely, and to turn Ukraine into a Western march.

Now Russia’s total invasion of Ukraine strikes no blow at the West at all, but instead becomes an unparalleled opportunity for the West to bleed Russia dry. Russia’s armies are tied up in brutal fighting. Russia’s economy is wrecked. But the failure of the West to go to war with Russia does not shatter the West, because there are no Western promises to Ukraine to break. And no matter how many Ukrainian soldiers Russia kills, not a single Western soldier is harmed. This is why a march is a great power’s best defense.

And why a great power that has any wisdom at all does not undertake to invade a march.

This is also why Anders Fogh Rasmussen is quite wrong to say that if Ukraine were to forswear NATO membership in order to obtain peace from Russia then that “would de facto make Ukraine a part of Russia, like Belarus.”

On the contrary, if that were all that Ukraine were to agree to do, then that would make Ukraine a permanent Western march—the absolute worse possible outcome for Russia, although it is not clear that Russia herself is aware of this.

Of course, it would not be in the interest of Ukraine to make such a concession, because that means agreeing to suffer for the safety of the West in perpetuity. Ukraine would be much better off insisting upon and obtaining NATO membership, so that the West will guarantee her safety.

Indeed, so long as Russia is considered a great power, the only beneficiary of a Western refusal to grant Ukraine NATO membership is the West.

The Conditions Required for a Pyrrhic Victory

It is impossible for the present Russian invasion of Ukraine to become a success for Russia. The poor performance of her military is a humiliation, one that has greatly set back her ambitions to reassert her great power status, and if she loses the war—a real possibility—she will return to the ranks of the middle powers. If she wins the war she may remain a great power, but only barely; it will be a pyrrhic victory.

It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that if she prevails militarily she will be unable to hold onto Ukraine due to the depth of anti-Russian sentiment among Ukrainians. If Russia is not constrained by public opinion—and it seems that she is not—then she will be at liberty to kill any Ukrainian who resists, and so to alter Ukrainian society. History is littered with tales of conquered peoples who go on to collaborate with the invader—so long as the invader is cruel enough.

It was the conquered Mexica themselves who rebuilt Tenochtitlan for Cortes.

Once he had conquered Gaulish armies, Caesar seems to have had little difficulty controlling the Gauls. Everywhere he went, he spared those who submitted fully to Roman rule and sold the rest into slavery or put them to the sword. Having beheld the complete destruction of their world, those who remained—and they remained because they had shown a willingness to submit—became Romans.

Moreover, Russia was able to control deeply unhappy populations all across Eastern Europe during the Cold War. And Russia has succeeded at doing so more recently in quelling resistance in Chechnya, which Russia now so dominates that Chechen troops are fighting on the Russian side against Ukraine.

Russia’s indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities is not only meant to help her troops advance into them. It is also meant to prepare the Ukrainian people for submission.

If Russia is entirely successful, then she will make a Russian march of Ukraine. If she is only moderately successful—if Ukraine retains some independent spirit—then Russia will be forced to incorporate Ukraine, either because she must occupy Ukraine permanently or because she cannot expect Ukraine to fight her enemies on her behalf without tying Ukraine more closely to herself.

Russia would be better off making a march of Ukraine. But incorporating Ukraine would leave Russia better off than before the war, for now a Russian vulnerability to a Western march on the Russian-Ukrainian border would have been converted into a mutual Russian vulnerability and a European vulnerability on the Ukrainian border with NATO-member Poland.

But Russia will be no better off than if she had desisted from annexing Crimea and attacking the Donbas in 2014 and thereby allowed Ukrainian membership in NATO to become a reality. That would have created the same mutual vulnerability across a land border. True, in the event that the invasion is a success, the mutual vulnerability will exist across a land border nearly 800 miles further West. But the cost to Russia of winning is likely to be so large as to cancel out that improvement.

Russia Has So Few Marches of Her Own Because She Is Feared

A country aspiring to a return to great power status ought not expose her belly to her enemy in the way that a power that pretends to sole great power status might expose her belly to a middle power.

Russia has not, however, been able to avoid doing that in the post-Soviet years, because her weakness makes it difficult for her to maintain marches, and if you are not blessed with neutral powers to act as buffers, the next best thing to a march is to incorporate the territory. You expose yourself, but you deny the territory to your adversary.

The West has been able to maintain Ukraine as a march because Ukraine fears Russia more than she fears the West (if she fears the West at all). Russia has not been able to do the same with her satellites because they do not fear the West more than they fear Russia. If Russia tries to maintain them as marches without giving them security guarantees, then they may well defect to the West (or Russia will be forced to invade and break them, as she is trying to do with Ukraine).

As a result, Russia has been forced to go belly-to-belly with the West not only along her borders with Finland and the Baltic states, a situation foisted on her by Western decisionmaking. She has also gone belly-to-belly with the West across Belarus’s borders with the Baltic states and Poland, because she has been forced to give Belarus security guarantees in order to keep her in the fold, and so has incorporated Belarus.

Going belly-to-belly with the West along the border between Ukraine and Poland would not, therefore, be much of a departure for Russia, and, again, it is better for her than facing a Western march along her border with Ukraine.

But all this assumes that Russia can win the war. She may not.

And one hopes that she does not.

Categories
World

Embargoing the Economics

Lipsky argues if the West were to ban Russia’s energy exports, it would drive up energy prices in a way which would benefit the Russian economy rather than hurt it. He said Russia would find other buyers for its energy, such as in China, and it would have more cash coming in, not less.

Chris Isidore, Russia’s Economy is Surprisingly Tiny. Here’s Why It Matters so Much to You, CNN (Feb. 26, 2022).

This is a deeply flawed assessment of the likely effects of an energy embargo on Russia.

If an energy-embargoed Russia were only able to trade with China, then an energy-embargoed Russia would not be able to insist that China pay the world market price for natural gas.

Russia would only be able to insist that China pay the world market price if Russia could threaten to access world natural gas markets in the event that China were to refuse to pay the world market price. But, because of the embargo, Russia would not be able to make such a threat.

Instead, an energy-embargoed Russia would negotiate with China from a position of extreme weakness, just as, for example, Britain negotiated with the United States from a position of extreme weakness during World War Two.

Due to Hitler’s capture of Europe, Britain’s only real trading partner for war materiel was the United States. We insisted on prices that nearly bankrupted Britain; she rationed food until 1950 in part to pay off her debts. This despite our being an ally with interests that were more or less aligned with Britain’s.

China and Russia are, by contrast, neighboring great power aspirants that have fought with each other in living memory. China would surely insist on very low prices for the gas, or other terms designed to weaken her latent adversary or put Russia into a position of long-term dependence on her.

No, it is not any question about efficacy vis a vis Russia that counsels against an embargo. It is the suffering that it would cause to the rest of the world.

China imports 50 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, Russia exports 200 billion cubic meters per year, and global yearly imports by all countries are 960 billion cubic meters. It follows that, after accounting for the natural gas that would be freed up on the world market by Chinese purchase of discounted gas from Russia, the embargo would wipe out about 15% of global natural gas supply.

Someone is going to have to go without, and in the short run it would be Europeans, given that alternative sources of supply have already been contracted out to others. Closing airspace and lighting up buildings in blue and yellow is rather less costly.

The liberal internationalists who said that trade would bind powers together and so reduce conflict weren’t wrong.

But an important corollary is that you have to be willing to use the leverage that trade gives you. Threats only work if they are credible.

That means being willing to suffer.

Categories
World

Europia

One wonders whether a massive buildup of troops in Alaska—or the Pacific theater more generally—would not have been a more powerful deterrent given how many units Russia had to transfer from the Far East. Would Russia risk nuclear war to protect her sparsely populated eastern wastes? She would, I think, have felt compelled to maintain more conventional forces there, reducing the numbers available for Ukraine. That might also have deterred China, in case she is planning on surprising us by piggybacking Taiwan on Ukraine.

Granted, it would have been cheap talk. The United States do not, I think, fear loss of status more than they fear war these days.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization

Antitrust Preemption

The best way to regulate the tech giants is to tax the immense scarcity rents they generate. Instead of doing that, the Biden Administration has gone all-in on antitrust action, which can’t touch those scarcity rents, even if antitrust action does succeed at making tech markets more competitive, which is unlikely.

When I make this point, people tell me: “don’t worry! Taxation and antitrust action aren’t mutually exclusive. The Biden Administration is also pro-tax.”

Well, is it?

The Canadians are planning on taxing the tech giants, and instead of rushing to complement this sound policy, by imposing our own tax, the Biden Administration is threatening to retaliate if they don’t scupper their plans.

An administration, like everything else, has a budget constraint, denominated in attention as well as dollars. If it is going all-in on one thing, it’s not going all-in on another.

And to go all-in on one policy, an administration may need to reject others in order to maintain the coherence of the one it favors, which seems to be happening here. The Biden Administration is complaining that it’s unfair for Canada to single out American tech companies for taxation, something that would have less bite if America were singling them out itself.

So, please don’t tell me that yes, you agree that antitrust probably can move the needle only very slightly, if at all, but why not try it anyway?

If you’re trying it, you’re not trying the stuff that actually works.

Categories
Civilization

Not Without Precedent

A massive troop buildup followed by an ultimatum and then an invasion based on a totally absurd and completely made-up pretext, while the international community looks on in reproach and horror.

That was our invasion of Iraq in 2003.

We didn’t have a dictator to blame it on. A whopping 72% of Americans supported the war. And reelected its instigator the following year in free and fair elections.

One hopes that it doesn’t end as badly for Ukraine.

Update:

Putin “has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering,” President Biden said in a statement that called the Russian operation an “unprovoked and unjustified attack.”

“Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its Allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way. The world will hold Russia accountable,” he said.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/02/23/russia-ukraine-updates/

Well, we, too, chose a “premeditated war that [brought] a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering.” President Biden voted for it when he was a Senator.

We have never been held to account.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization

Some Goliath

I do not understand Paul Krugman here:

Yes, there’s a profit-maximizing price, but the cost to a business of charging somewhat less than its profit-maximizing price is small, because lower margins would be offset by increased sales. (To be formal about it, the losses caused by deviating from the optimal price are second-order.) This wiggle room means that corporate pricing may be strongly influenced by intangible considerations, like fear of alienating buyers. . . . Given this reality, it’s not foolish to suggest that some corporations have seen widespread inflation as an opportunity to jack up prices by more than their costs have increased without experiencing the usual backlash.

Paul Krugman, Do Democrats Have a Technocrat Problem?, N.Y. Times (Feb. 22, 2022).

I agree that corporations don’t have to worry about experiencing the usual backlash. Because they are experiencing way, way more than the usual backlash, and not just from consumers, as shown in the poll to which Krugman cites, but also from, you know, The White House.

I mean, if you asked me what the worst time ever would be to jack up prices, I would say that it’s in the middle of a global pandemic in which any price increase is going to be viewed by a surly public as price gouging.

But I guess that’s just me.

There’s something else I don’t get about this argument.

Monopoly power is the power over price that comes from artificial scarcity; it comes from firms voluntarily holding something back. But firms are producing and selling more than ever before, at least if the amount of stuff transiting through ports is any measure. Savannah, for example, was recently operating 50% above pre-pandemic levels.

How can firms be holding something back while increasing their output by anywhere near that order of magnitude?

It’s possible that they could go even further but purposefully aren’t. But we have almost no true monopolies in this country in the sense of single firms alone serving entire markets. The meatpacking market that is so concerning the Biden Administration is concentrated, but it still has four large players.

How does a group of three or four firms ramping up output to meet surging demand still manage to hold something back, especially when the true extent of demand is unknown (as it always is) and holding back by too much while other firms continue to increase supply is a recipe for a catastrophic loss of market share?

The answer is: by actually coordinating output directly with each other—forming a cartel—just as we often see firms that are trying to reduce output in response to declining demand meet to try to manage the reductions in a mutually profitable way.

But no one seems to be alleging that American industry is cartelizing. Antimonopolists want to break up large firms, not bust cartels.

It’s much more likely that the price increases are what they appear to be: driven by scarcity.

I’m also a bit confused about this:

And perhaps an even more important point, cracking down on excessive industrial concentration and market power would help reduce inflation, regardless of the role market power played in causing inflation in the first place. As an old line puts it, you don’t have to refill a flat tire through the hole.

Antitrust cases last a long time. The Department of Justice sued AT&T in 1974. The company was broken up in 1982. If inflation is still 7% in 2030, it will have become structural, and only another Saturday Night Massacre will save us.

There are plenty of good reasons to want to eliminate monopoly pricing, and industrial deconcentration is one way to do that. But reducing inflation isn’t one of those reasons. I’m all for faster antitrust enforcement, but the reality is that the courts and inflation move at very different speeds.

And that’s before we even consider that antitrust action is a one-time fix. You can only deconcentrate the economy once. But inflation is a perennial problem. Once all those antitrust cases have gotten prices down ten years from now, antitrust won’t have anything to offer in combating the next inflation, either.

Even if Krugman is right about market power and the current inflation, what being right here gets progressives is almost nothing. Here’s how Krugman puts it:

Nobody sensible would argue that opportunistic exploitation of market power is the main factor behind recent inflation. But contrary to what some people might want you to believe, economic theory by no means rules out the possibility that it may be a factor.

It cannot be ruled out that monopoly is a factor in inflation? The progressive movement I signed up for pursues policies that it knows make a difference. Like taxing the rich. Not stuff that “can’t be ruled out as being a factor.”

And Krugman is usually all about the big stuff. So why not one, but two columns now trying to defend the possibility that monopoly might matter albeit not as much as other things?

Sadly, I think that’s because antimonopolism has eaten the progressive mind over the past few years.

It’s no longer mere policy serving as a means to an end.

It’s now ideology. An end in itself.

Progressives know that Goliath must be slain, and they are going to insist on it, no matter what, even if the most that can be proven about Goliath is that he can’t be ruled out as a secondary cause of the economic problems we care about.

Some Goliath.

Categories
World

Owning the Power

But the world’s most powerful countries have rarely used force to . . . set up client states in their region.

David Leonhardt, Why Ukraine Is Different, N.Y. Times (Feb. 21, 2022).

Yes, I know that David Leonhardt is only talking about the past 80 years. But he’s still laughably, embarrassingly, pathetically, naively wrong.

Does he not realize that the government that we set up in Afghanistan was a client government? (And if we set up a client state in a place, does it not become “our region”?)

Sure, the Ghani government fell when we left last summer, but, you know, that wasn’t on purpose! We were planning to have the Ghani government—or an equally pliable replacement—as a client for a long, long time to come.

It just didn’t work out as planned, which is why that evacuation was so last-minute.

And that’s just the most obvious recent example.

Because we also invaded Iraq twenty years ago . . . and Iraq is now a client state!

Does Leonhardt really think that a government that we put into power and which we have since used military intervention to save repeatedly from falling to the Islamic State is in any position to say “no” to a serious request from us?

And what about Kuwait, which owes its existence to a bit of set-piece military fun called the First Gulf War? If President Biden—nay, an obscure undersecretary of state—picks up the phone and calls Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah to ask for something is he going to get a “no”?

Oh, and then there’s Vietnam. Let’s date American military involvement to 1961 to 1975, comfortably within Leonhardt’s 80-year time frame.

Does anyone think that South Vietnam during this period was not one of our client states, and that if we’d won the war that relationship would not have continued for a very long time?

But 80 years takes us all the way back to 1942!

Which means we also need to come to terms with the fact that we created lots and lots of client states when we won the Second World War.

We can debate whether they’re still clients today, whether they have so prospered under the sun of our love, so come to accept our global dominance, that the relationship looks more like friendship than control.

But certainly in the decades after the war they were clients.

There’s Germany, which fought against us in two world wars but has been awfully friendly (the eastern part during the Cold War aside) ever since we conquered the western bit, and within the borders of which we continue to maintain a large troop presence to this day.

And there’s Japan, which used to hate us but changed its tone after we defeated it and set up a friendly government there. We still station a ton of soldiers in Japanese territory, as well.

And then of course there is South Korea. We didn’t want that territory to fall into enemy hands, so we conquered it back from that enemy in the early 1950s and set up a friendly government there and continue to station a ton of troops there, as well. If South Korea isn’t a client now, it certainly was in, say, 1965.

I’m not saying that World War Two or the Korean War weren’t good fights (indeed, we went to war with Germany and Japan only after they declared war on us). And I’m not saying that there aren’t lots of Koreans and Japanese and Germans who are happy about their countries’ relationship with the United States.

But let’s get real.

None of these countries posed an imminent threat of invasion to the United States. (Hawaii was not a state at the time of Pearl Harbor and anyway the Japanese aim at Pearl Harbor was to destroy a fleet that it believed would be used to interfere with its conquest of Asia, not to occupy the Hawaiian Islands.)

But we conquered them because we (quite reasonably, in my view) didn’t like what they (or in the case of Korea, China) were doing in their own backyards and realized that if they got away with it our own ability to project influence into those backyards, some of which were also our backyards, would wane.

And after we conquered these countries we set up friendly governments.

And you can make the case that they are all still dependent on us, not least for security, which is the root of all power.

The United States is a great power.

Great powers are great powers because they can make other people in other countries do what they say, by military force if necessary.

We can feel good about being a great power because we think what we tell others to do is better than what other powers would tell them to do.

Or because we are better or more humane at running the world than others would be.

But, please, don’t tell me that we somehow manage to be a great power without exercising power!

What makes Ukraine different is not that it’s the first time in 80 years that one country is trying to make a client state out of another. We do that all the time. It’s that for the first time in 25 years a great power not called the United States is trying to make a client state by military force.

Ukraine is significant only because it reminds us that the brief period during which the United States was the world’s sole great power is probably over.

Categories
Antitrust Monopolization

Progressive Cologne

So here’s my suggestion: Give Biden and his people a break on their antitrust crusade. It won’t do any harm. It won’t get in the way of the big stuff, which is mostly outside Biden’s control in any case. At worst, administration officials will be using inflation as an excuse to do things they should be doing in any case. And they might even have a marginal impact on inflation itself.

Paul Krugman, Why Are Progressives Hating on Antitrust?, N.Y. Times (Jan. 18, 2022).

It probably won’t work, so let’s do it?

We need to do it for other reasons, so let’s do it for the wrong reason?

There’s a word for this: Obsession.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the piece, Krugman dismisses price controls, which are one remedy that would actually solve a few problems in the highly efficient (and hence unwise-to-break-up) industries, like meatpacking, to which he’d like to take the antitrust axe. (Not even price controls would, however, help with inflation.)

Krugman did write the introduction for a recent edition of the General Theory, but he diverges from his teacher on antitrust.

Keynes famously thought inflation, or the lack thereof, had nothing to do with competition, monopoly or any other microeconomic phenomenon, which is why he disdained both the N.R.A. and Thurman Arnold. Instead, he invented a whole new branch of economics—macroeconomics—to explain it.

But if there’s no intellectual foundation for progressive antimonopolism, why does it so appeal? As Krugman’s evocation, elsewhere in the piece, of J.F.K. talking tough to the steel industry suggests, it’s a macho thing—progressives thumping their chests at corporate America.

If that sounds a bit savage, there’s a cologne for that, too.