Happy 2017. Been a busy start to the year for me, so right to a few interesting links I read over the break. And to kick things off, two reads about Russia, because I found both to be excellent overviews.
Two Reads on Putin
Molly K. McKew on the state of U.S./Russia as we get ready for President Trump to take office:
What both administrations fail to realize is that the West is already at war, whether it wants to be or not. It may not be a war we recognize, but it is a war. This war seeks, at home and abroad, to erode our values, our democracy, and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests.
So far, Trump seems far more likely than any of his predecessors to accelerate, rather than resist, the unwinding of the postwar order. And that could be a very bad — or an unexpectedly good — thing. So far, he has chosen to act as if the West no longer matters, seemingly blind to the danger that Putin’s Russia presents to American security and American society. The question ahead of us is whether Trump will aid the Kremlin’s goals with his anti-globalist, anti-NATO rhetoric– or whether he’ll clearly see the end of the old order, grasp the nature of the war we are in, and have the vision and the confrontational spirit to win it.
The “unexpectedly good” angle is an interesting (albeit still mildly terrifying) one to think about.
The West must accept that Putin has transformed what we see as tremendous weakness into considerable strength. If Russia were a strong economy closely linked to the global system, it would have vulnerabilities to more traditional diplomacy. But in the emerging world order, it is a significant actor — and in the current Russian political landscape, no new sanctions can overcome the defensive, insular war-economy mentality that the Kremlin has built.
Yep, smart. Frustrating, but smart.
The truth is that fighting a new Cold War would be in America’s interest. Russia teaches us a very important lesson: losing an ideological war without a fight will ruin you as a nation. The fight is the American way. When we stop fighting for our ideals abroad, we stop fighting for them at home. We won the last Cold War. We will win the next one too. When it’s us against them, they were, and are, never going to be the winner. But when it’s “all against all” — a “multipolar” world with “multi-vector” policy, a state of shifting alliances and permanent instability — Russia, with a centrally controlled, tiny command structure unaccountable for its actions in any way, still has a chance for a seat at the table. They pursue the multipolar world not because it is right or just, but because it is the only world in which they can continue to matter without pushing a nuclear launch sequence.
I’m reminded of, “upset the established order and everything becomes… chaos.” Well, and, “some men just want to watch the world burn.” Thought-provoking, to say the least.
Chris Miller with a good, simple high-level overview on what exactly is going on with Vladimir Putin and the economy in Russia today:
First, to frame things:
“Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart,” Russian President Vladimir Putin famously said in 2010. But he quickly added, “Whoever wants it back has no brain.”
Speaking of the Soviet Union:
When the Soviet Union confronted this array of challenges in the mid-1980s, it promptly collapsed. But facing very similar forces today, Mr. Putin’s government has survived — even thrived. What has made the difference, above all, is Mr. Putin’s devotion to conservative fiscal and monetary policies, coupled with an authoritarian’s ability to implement austerity measures without consulting his population.
Stalin, the architect of this system, faced scant obstruction from economic interest groups, thanks to his willingness to execute “enemies of the people” by the thousands. Mr. Gorbachev was unwilling to use firing squads to provide economic incentives. Instead, he embraced fiscal loosening and promised a wave of subsidies to big industry and agriculture in exchange for their acceptance of his market reforms.
Where the Soviets suffered from an exploding budget deficit, financed by money creation, today’s Russia has pushed through an aggressive austerity program, slashing spending on social programs and pensions to balance the budget. The Bank of Russia has hiked interest rates to double-digit levels, driving inflation down to 6%, a respectable figure for an emerging market. The Kremlin’s budget deficit will be a bit more than 3% of GDP this year, even though oil — which previously provided half of government revenues — is now selling for half its price two years ago. And Russia’s government debt remains less than 20% of GDP, according to Russian government statistics. America’s public debt, by contrast, is more than 75% of GDP, according to the Federal Reserve.
Management and control through fiscal conservation (and some manipulation, of course).
And now for something completely different, here’s Naomi Campbell on the video shoot (directed by David Fincher — yes, that David Fincher):
David Fincher knew exactly what he wanted. He didn’t really give us parts, but he knew exactly which part of the song he wanted each and every one of us to sing. I was more the active one. Cindy was sultry. I don’t think any of us knew what it would become. We knew the song was a hit, but we didn’t know in any way what effect it would have in terms of videos, the way it would affect people. We were all really excited on the day it was going to be aired. They all had great premieres back in the day. They don’t have them anymore. Not that I’ve seen. MTV’s changed. Hasn’t it?
Yes, it has changed. Also note how basically everyone points out just how shy George Michael was…
My (delayed) thoughts on Rogue One.
(Originally published on Cold Takes, my newsletter.)