Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

21 September 2015

Capitalism Made Simple

Why is capitalism the best system our species has yet discovered for organizing productive activity?

The short answer is that it’s supposed to be all voluntary. Anyone can start a business if her or she has money, or if he or she can interest investors in supplying it. Workers can join the business, or not, as they choose. Customers can patronize it, its competitors, or neither, as they choose.

So everyone whom a business touches has a free choice.

Free will may in fact be an illusion. But one thing is certain: people feel better, work harder and are more productive when they think they are exercising their own free will, rather than someone else’s. That’s capitalism’s basic secret. It’s freer and easier than all the other methods of human social organization our species has tried: slavery, monarchy, wage-slavery, tyranny, fascism, and Communism.

As I’ve outlined in another post, some key socio-political-economic advantages follow from this basic point. Among them are decentralization of economic activity (which separates productive activity from politics and ideology), organizational adaptability and flexibility, and the possibility (but never the certainty!) of beneficence.

Corporations marked a huge advance over nation-states in social organization because they are smaller, easier to start and wind up, and therefore far more flexible. They also work much more closely to purpose, in part because they have narrower and better-defined purposes. Finally, in their boards of directors and management structure, corporations mimic the social organization of our biological evolution—namely, small clans of thirty of fewer individuals. Not fighting your own biological evolution is always a way to make things work better.

But if capitalism is so good, why is it struggling now, almost everywhere except perhaps in Germany?

The answer is just as short. In practice, if not in theory, capitalism has strayed from its roots in voluntarism. It’s lost that loving feeling. It has become coercive. There are a number of ways this has happened, but four stand out.

First, capitalistic corporations and their owners and managers have become so powerful that they have begun to supplant government. There’s some irony in this. Corporations like the British East India Company, which explored and exploited much of America, were designed to take risky and productive economic activity outside the nation-state, so that exploration of the “New World” didn’t depend, for example, on the foresight and largesse of Queen Isabella of Spain, who financed Columbus’ voyages.

But now, rather than seeking their own freedom from state control, corporations are beginning to control and supplant the state itself. In different ways, this is so in each of the three major global powers: America (the US), China and Russia.

In America, presidential candidates of one of the two major political parties must kiss the ring of an über-rich capitalist family, the Koch Brothers, and “audition” before them for their financial support, without which a presidential run is deemed impossible under current circumstances. In China, big state-owned enterprises (SOES) and even smaller regional businesses distort economic policy through corruption and the sociopolitical risks of their failure.

In Russia, a tiny kleptocracy has monopolized the oligarchy of almost all heavy and essential industry. At the moment, Vladimir Putin sits at its apex. But what happens when he gets old and dies? It’s not hard to imagine the kleptocracy becoming independent and perhaps the real ruler(s) of Russia.

In America and Europe, big banks and insurance companies have become “too big to fail,” so government must support them even (especially!) when they do stupid things that threaten to destroy whole economies. In China, possible failure of big SOES and regional firms are thought to entail too great sociopolitical risk. In Russia, the state and big business have largely melded together in the hands of a small clique of men under Russia’s latest tsar.

So in every military or economic superpower, major capitalist enterprises have assumed extraordinary political and economic power. They no longer just do their thing and stick to their knitting. They are beginning to rule the roost.

If you doubt this, just complain about a major corporation’s injustice or billing error and see how far you get. You will find the experience akin to going hat in hand to the monarchial administration, augmented by a Kafka-esque combination of mindless software and mindless minions reading from scripts. Sure, you can sue, at least in nations like America with a still-independent judiciary. But suing is expensive, dilatory and unpleasant; it would be much more pleasant to have corporations that dealt with their customers like real people with real people.

The second way in which capitalism has become coercive is through corruption, both hard and soft. Real bribery with suitcases full of cash is not unknown in the annals of international capitalism, even today. But most of it is more subtle than that. Here we Yanks are far in the vanguard, with the bundles of cash needed (or deemed needed) to fund the propaganda machines to run for public office and the massive amounts of money needed to “lobby” government on obscure issues which the public, by and large, neither knows nor cares about. By supplying those bundles of cash, big corporations and their managers and owners now exercise a power over ordinary workers not much less than the power of feudal lords over serfs.

And corruption is far from an exclusive province of America. It’s rife in China, as evidenced by Xi Jingping’s apparently sincere—and apparently endless—efforts to diminish it. In Russia, corruption is not just a feature of government’s relationship to business but the mechanism by which that relationship works.

The third coercive feature of capitalism is deliberate suppression of competition itself, i.e., economic bullying among or by business. When business gets too big and powerful, it tends to oppress and suppress competition, not on the merits but merely for self-preservation, empire building and self-aggrandizement. Big firms acquire little ones and suppress or extinguish them; or they suppress competition from little firms by non-competitive means. One of the most egregious current examples is the coal barons’ massive PR push to discredit the science of global warming and to strangle renewable energy industries in their cradles.

There is nothing new about this phenomenon; it’s part of human nature. No less than Adam Smith made the following comment, in the same year we Yanks were winning our independence from England:
“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or in some contrivance to raise prices.”
Antitrust laws (in the US) and so-called “competition law” (elsewhere) are designed to suppress bullying and other anticompetitive behavior. But the United States lately has lagged badly in enforcing it. Anyway, without some global enforcement authority, or at least greater coordination among national and regional authorities, multinational business can easily escape the rigors of this law by going offshore, or by playing some jurisdictions off against others.

The essence of the problem is concentration of economic power. The bigger an industrial or financial empire, the greater its chance of becoming “too big to fail” and of subverting, subsuming or corrupting the coercive power of government and therefore effectively coercing other businesses and individuals. That’s why the suggestion of Bernie Sanders and Jon Huntsman, Jr. (but not Hillary, at least not yet!) to break the big banks up makes good sense. It needn’t be done by decree, as in the last century; temporary, market-based nationalization would work much better.

The fourth and final current coercive feature of capitalism is by far the most important, for it’s the most widespread and personal. Today, it has become transnational and almost universal. It’s coercion of workers by owners and managers.

In theory, workers are free to leave their jobs and seek better work at any time. In practice, that just isn’t so.

Work today is highly specialized. The more specialized and therefore more remunerative work is, the more a handful or corporate managers control entry into and success in it. We’ve now reached the point where once fully independent professionals like lawyers and doctors have, for the most part, become mere hired hands, inside such things as great multinational law firms, multinational corporations, and huge medical groups run by business managers with little or no medical training.

With the possible exception of a few “winner take all stars” in each profession, no individual worker has the power to bargain individually over salaries, wages, and working conditions. The vast majority of labor has to take or leave what corporate managers offer.

For most of a century, the answer to this clear and growing imbalance in bargaining power has been collective bargaining. Let powerless workers join together to increase their bargaining power and push for better wages and working conditions. During the last century, strong labor unions and strong laws protecting them let workers bargain with managers and owners and so made real the voluntarism that underlies capitalism in theory.

But in the last few decades, managers have defeated labor unions, and hence collective bargaining, by going global. If work can be outsourced around the globe, managers can always find poorer and hungrier workers who are willing to take a raw deal. And so they have.

During the last century, managers and owners also have refined their philosophical arguments. No longer do they speak of divine rights or the “natural order of things” that allows workers’ “betters” to rule. Instead, they phrase their arguments in the language of economic inevitability.

These arguments fall into two key categories: competition and consumption. Competition, the owners argue, requires them to pay the lowest wages and provide the most miserable working conditions that any people anywhere on the globe will accept. If they don’t do so, other owners will, and the other owners will drive them out of business with lower prices. Then oppressed workers will just lose their jobs.

So workers have no choice to accept what managers and owners give them and be grateful. There is no mention of morality or long-term consequences. (Pope Francis may have something to say about the former this week.)

The consumption argument is similar. If you, the worker, want a good life, the things and services you want must be cheap. But in order to make them cheap for you, managers and owners have to restrain wages and save on working conditions. So be happy you have low prices, even if your pay is lower, too.

But isn’t lower pay continually chasing lower prices just a race to the bottom? We might call this the “Walmart solution.”

Henry Ford had a better idea. He was probably the greatest apostle of capitalism in human history. He got credit for inventing the Model T, with its fully interchangeable machine-made parts, and an assembly line to build it efficiently. But what he really did was engineer an entirely new social order, which today we call a “consumer society.”

Rather than posit lower prices for lower pay—a vicious circle with no end in sight—Ford proposed a virtuous circle of higher pay for stable prices. At the time he engineered our consumer society, automobiles were mostly playthings for the rich and well to do. What, he asked himself, might happen if the workers who made the cars could afford to buy them, too?

Like any good engineer, Ford did an experiment. Unilaterally and without much warning, he raised the wages of workers at his car factories to the then-unheard-of level of five dollars a day.

Two things came quickly out of Ford’s unprecedented experiment. First, turnover at his plants virtually vanished. He had no trouble retaining his workers, and with them all the skills and learning they’d picked up from on-the-job training, not to mention their willing and enthusiastic cooperation.

Second, Ford’s workers, who could now afford them, began to buy the cars they made. Ford didn’t raise the prices of the cars. Instead, he made a bit less profit on each one. Yet his market had expanded from the rich and well to do to Everyman Worker. So he made it up in volume.

Voluntary wage increases made voluntary workers happier and more productive, and more able to buy stuff. So Ford made huge amounts of money, all on a voluntary basis.

In fact, Ford’s plants made so much money that they soon accumulated a cash hoard of historically unprecedented size. The hoard was so great that some of Ford’s shareholders sued to force its distribution as dividends. One of them was a man named Dodge, who wanted the money to start a rival car company.

During the trial, Ford said he wanted to keep the money in the company in order to improve technology, efficiency and the product, so as to lower the prices even more and let even more ordinary people afford cars. Yet the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Ford Motor Co. was not an “eleemosynary institution” and had a legal obligation to give excess cash to the shareholders. In one of the darkest days of capitalism, the court ruled that corporations don’t exist to make things, but to make money for shareholders.

That decision and its consequences have brought us to today. Corporations now squeeze workers by playing them off against each other globally. Their primary goal is profit, not efficiency or progress. And they justify their relentless push for lower wages and less expensive working conditions by saying these things produce lower prices.

It’s too bad that most of the B-school types who make and repeat these arguments never really learned the basic theory of calculus. Differential and integral calculus both depend on the fundamental concept of a limit—the limit that a series of numbers varying by tinier and tinier increments ultimately approaches, but never reaches.

In the case of lower wages and lower prices, the ultimate limit is obvious. In the end, workers will earn nothing and will buy nothing. Because workers vastly outnumber the managers and owners in their gated communities, there will be little or no economic activity. The end result of current owners’ “consumption” argument will be a society with little or no consumption and a very small GDP.

Ford’s better idea was to increase wages and hold prices steady or nearly so and so increase economic activity steadily. His simple notion of sharing the pie with the working stiff created our consumer society and the most prosperous and productive nation in human history.

Can government-mandated minimum wages achieve something like the same result? Probably not, for two reasons. First, the proper minimum wage changes with time and economic conditions, especially inflation. As central banks tame deflation, and as inflation begins to rear its more familiar head, minimum wages will have to be adjusted. Their adjustment will be like moving the hands on a broken watch (twice a day!) to show the correct time—hardly a solution that any competent engineer would brag about, let alone deem elegant.

More fundamentally, minimum wages are not a capitalist solution. They replace coercion by owners with coercion by government. While that “solution” may provide the greatest good for the greatest number (millions of workers), it abandons the essence of capitalism: true voluntarism in all aspects of economic activity.

In order to restore capitalism to its pristine and most effective form, we have to find some way to restore that voluntarism. In order to do that, we have to give workers more clout. So far, we humans have only found three ways: (1) collective bargaining, (2) genuine worker representation on boards of directors, as in Germany, and (3) enlightened self-interest of owners, as in Henry Ford’s case.

At the moment, each of these solutions is under siege. To begin from the end, very few business owners today are anywhere near as enlightened as Henry Ford. We live in an age of unprecedented selfishness and self-righteousness on the part of the privileged.

Moreover, business and industry are far more complex and various than in Ford’s day. It is doubtful whether, with the best good will in the world, business owners or managers could produce the same effect that Ford produced as quickly or as easily, whether working individually or together. A few managers and owners are trying, but their task is much harder today.

Worker representation on boards may work well in Germany, but it’s far from the custom here in America. More important, to make that solution work we Yanks would have to expand our conception of the purposes of corporations radically. If we and our courts continue to believe that corporations exist only to make money for shareholders, labor representation on boards will make little or no difference.

So it all comes down to collective bargaining, doesn’t it? Unions in America today are on the ropes: the percentage of workers represented by unions has been dropping steadily and is closing on ten percent. The only sphere in which unions have held their own or made a comeback is in the public sphere—principally in government and hotel and restaurant services, which can’t be outsourced.

But all is not lost. Two current trends promise to make union organizing possible again: localization and specialization.

We humans are still going through a phase of unnecessary and often counterproductive centralization. Take cars, for example. Germany and Japan are deemed to have good engineers and hard workers. So a large part of the global production of automobiles takes place in these two countries, with the cars they produce being shipped all over the world.

But does that approach really make sense? Is it efficient? The huge amount of transportation (both of ore and parts to Germany and Japan and finished cars elsewhere), lengthens the supply chain and wastes enormous amounts of energy in transportation, depleting our species’ dwindling supply of fossil fuels. Wouldn’t it be better to send the (much lighter and fewer) engineers and key workers around the world to local factories and make cars close to where they are bought and used?

Not only that. Workers have come to see that they need jobs. Through their governments, they are demanding policies that bring jobs home, not send them abroad. If workers’ needs are not met, can Smoot-Hawley and another global war be far behind? Another war like World War II, this time with nuclear weapons, would probably finish the “job” our pols started in 1962 and extinguish our species.

Here business managers and owners are ahead of the pols and of politics, especially in the US. Japanese and German car makes have built plants in the American South that employ American workers. One consequence was unintended: the non-union American South has turned into a New Detroit for car production, bankrupting the Old Detroit. But Americans now have jobs making Japanese and German cars in America for American use.

The same phenomenon is going global. Major car makers are now building plants all over the world, not just because doing so is more sensible and more efficient, but because local governments are increasingly demanding local plants and local jobs and offering tax incentives to encourage them. As plants localize, unions can organize their workers and push for wages and working conditions appropriate to the locality, including the standard of living and expectations of environmental and worker protections there.

A similar localizing trend is building in agriculture. In fact, this trend, rather than the abomination of “pay for rules,” is what appears to have stopped the TPP dead in its tracks. Negotiating partners have figured out that, rather than encourage remote, foreign production of essential foods, they can promote both food security and national security by demanding local production of at least certain important or essential foods. Local production opens the door to local organization of workers for collective bargaining.

Specialization works similarly. As production of goods and services and the distribution of goods get more complex, the work in these fields becomes more specialized, requiring greater education and training. As specialists become more essential, they can form trade guilds as specialized forms of labor unions. The last century saw this trend develop in fields as abstruse and specialized as screen acting and writing and orchestral music.

The nice thing about specialized trade guilds is their potentially small size. The more specialized the work, the smaller the guild, and the easier it is to organize and maintain it. Today’s cheap air transportation, not to mention the Internet, in theory makes possible global trade guilds representing professionals as diverse as computer programmers, integrated circuit designers, surgeons, long-haul truck drivers, industrial psychologists and robotics engineers. Some day soon, these professions may, like actors and musicians in the last century, discover that only through collective bargaining can they maintain the professional stature and standard of living that motivated their learning these professions in the first place.

So don’t count collective bargaining out yet. The kind of multi-industry, multi-job bargaining that characterized the car industry—with all its gargantuan size, empire building and consequent corruption—may be waning. The future of collective bargaining is probably smaller, more focused, more specialized and (in atomized form) more global.

At very least, this sort of micro-collective bargaining is worth a try. For collective bargaining is the only proven-effective general solution our species has ever found to keeping capitalism voluntary and therefore capitalistic. Far from betraying the owner class, labor unions in the last century save capitalism from itself, i.e., from the worst instincts of owners and managers. It still can.

So we start where we began. Capitalism is the best system for organizing productive activity that our species has ever discovered because, at least in theory, it’s entirely voluntary. But in order to keep it voluntary and therefore really capitalistic, owners and managers can’t coerce government or workers. In the last century, collective bargaining saved capitalism from its own worst instincts, kept it voluntary, and preserved and extended Henry Ford’s consumer society. Today we need to figure out how that elegant and effective solution can be propagated effectively into the twenty-first century.


08 September 2015


[For a recent essay on Putin’s putrefaction, click here. For a recent essay on how the adversary system has hobbled our Yankee culture, click here. For an essay on which of the world’s top four economies is the best exemplar, click here. I plan to update the long-out-of-date Title and Subject Index and sidebar links this week.]

We don’t use words like “repentance” anymore. We don’t use words like “shame.” They’re still in the dictionary, but they’re not in our vocabulary.

We’re too “modern.” These words are too “religious,” too “fuzzy.” We’re too technological. We’re too busy Twittering and texting to have the faintest clue what really matters in human life anymore, what really constitutes “sin.”

And so we Yanks obsess over every word uttered by the most shameless and vulgar egotist ever to run for president. Not only that. He’s winning, at least among the GOP. He wouldn’t know a sin if it comprised his own murder. He would just think he’d made a bad deal.

Trump is not alone. Repentance is unusual in human history, especially among nations. It requires a degree of human understanding, humility and empathy that has escaped most of us and continues to do so.

Cato the Elder didn’t repent Rome’s annihilation of Carthage. After years of declaring “Cartago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed!) in the Roman Senate, he was satisfied when Carthage fell. He relished Roman troops burning the city, killing or enslaving its people, tearing down its stone walls, and sowing its fields with salt.

Likewise, Japan hasn’t repented its rape of Nanking, or of the rest of Asia. Its leader mouths the usual tepid apology, then visits the Yasukuni shrine—a monument to tribalism and blind tribal loyalty, the sources of so many wars.

There are many other unrepentant conquerors. Turkey has never acknowledged its attempted genocide of Armenias. Serbs have never acknowledge their massacre of Muslim boys in Srebrenica. Russians have never repented their jackboots stomping the face of Eastern Europe and the Baltics, not to mention East Germany. Putin has never acknowledged his role in turning Syria—a whole country!—into a modern Carthage. Instead, he appears to be doubling down on his use of modern weapons to support the butcher Assad.

As for us Yanks, we have never acknowledged our own sins: making senseless war in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and poisoning Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with mines and Agent Orange. Whether our nuclear deal with Iran grows into a more general rapprochement—something resembling repentance for having subverted Iran’s democracy half a century ago and having incited Saddam’s brutal eight-year war on Iran—remains to be seen.

So when you think of what modern Germany has done since World War II and the Holocaust, it takes your breath away. Far from ignoring or denying its sins, Germany has taught them to its children. It has described them unflinchingly (and accurately!) in its textbooks and its history. And it has built durable monuments to them, so that no one will ever forget. Dachau is now a somber museum.

But repentance is not just recalling and regretting. Repentance also means trying to do better.

Germany is number one there, too. It has renounced nuclear weapons and attempts to influence international affairs by force. (Unlike Japan, it is not having second thoughts.) It has eschewed the radioactive risk of nuclear power in favor of renewable energy, which also reduces climate change. And having learned a lot about unification from knitting its own broken nation back together, it is now using its enviable financial stability and productivity to help keep Europe united, solvent, peaceful and free.

Just now, Germany is going the whole of Europe one better. Alone among all the nations of the Earth, it has agreed to take at least 800,000 refugees from Syria and the rest of the war-torn Middle East.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Didn’t Emma Lazarus’ poem of acceptance and empathy use to describe us Yanks? Now, apparently, it’s Germany. We Yanks won’t even take battered and homeless children from our relative neighbors in Central America, while Germany is takes refugees from a continent away.

In all, we Yanks have taken only about a thousand Syrians, although our population is almost four times Germany’s. For the mathematically inclined, that’s a ratio of about 3,200 in Germany’s favor.

Cynics might say that Germany killed six million in the Holocaust, so it’s still got a lot to atone for. But those six million are gone forever, notwithstanding efforts (including those in Germany itself) to keep their memory alive.

It will be a long time, if ever, before our technology gives us Resurrection. And even if it did, what would Holocaust victims make of our modern world? Would their moral sensibilities survive in it?

Most of them were observant Jews. They knew about guilt, shame and repentance. They even had a holiday for them: Yom Kippur (which, by the way, is coming up this month). They would be appalled at the utter absence of these moral constructs from modern life. They would see Trump much as they saw Hitler, and for much the same reasons. Without shame and guilt, there can be no repentance. And without empathy, there can be none of the above.

But the 800,000 that Germany has pledged to take are not memories, not symbols, not ghosts. They are real, live people, fleeing terror and absolute chaos and seeking a better life. They cry out to us from our TV screens, “Where is Lady Liberty when we most need her?” In Germany, apparently.

As it did at the dawn of the last century, before its Nazi psychosis, Germany today sits at the apex of human civilization. Among other things, it has the lowest ratio of CEO-to-average worker pay among developed nations. It lets labor participate in corporate decisions. And—perhaps as a consequence—it has a solid, growing and stable economy, with a boom in manufacturing despite all that China does or can do.

Germany is accepting penniless refugees into what today is perhaps the most modern, enviable and well-functioning society on Earth—a nation of Reason. It’s letting them in not because it has to, but because it can and it should. No wonder Syrian refugees see Germany as an earthly Paradise!

Germany’s generosity will not betray it. Although not all of them are well off, most of the Syrian refugees are middle-class and high achievers. They are well educated and relatively secular Muslims. They are fleeing because they want neither Assad’s barrel bombs descending on their children, not IS butchers beheading them for the slightest religious transgression or failure to follow orders. They want to live in a modern, sensible society based on compassion and reason, not medieval tribal brutality. Can you blame them?

At very worst, Germany will get some tasty baba ghanoush, as I did in an otherwise undistinguished Cleveland hotel restaurant. At best, aging Germany will get an infusion of young talent eager to live peaceful, productive lives to the fullest. The Arab immigrants will learn to put their verbs at the end of sentences and become useful members of German society. And they will be eternally grateful for their new starts, after the Hell they have escaped.

But Germany is not taking the Syrian refugees for what they can do for Germany. It’s taking them because it’s the right thing to do. It’s taking them because doing good is what a modern paragon of Reason does. It’s also the best kind of repentance for sins.

Would we Yanks could do as much. Maybe Pope Francis, who has taught us all a bit about humility, can teach us Yanks something about repentance, too.

Footnote: This should not be terribly surprising. During their Soviet period, many Russians regarded their nation with pride as a “third Rome,” after Rome and Constantinople. They were speaking, unfortunately, about military and political power, not moral advancement. They didn’t think much about how a two-thousand-year-old moral sensitivity, combined with modern weapons, might make our world a living Hell, or even extinguish our species. Today’s Syria illustrates the consequences of their moral neglect, especially Putin’s.


02 September 2015

The World’s Most Dangerous Man

[I hate to upstage my post on how Russia and the US could prevent small-power nuclear arms races, which you can find here. But a recent exposé of Putin’s personal corruption demands analysis while casting doubt on that post.]

The Man
The evidence
The consequences
The danger
A big chance missed
Coda: An apology to David Brooks

The Man

Who is the world’s most dangerous man? If you had asked me last week, I would have named Kim Jong Il or Bashar Al-Assad. After all, the one threatens mass murder and destruction with frequent acts of real or feigned insanity. And he has nuclear weapons and crude missiles. The other already has murdered hundreds of thousands and displaced millions in a probably futile attempt to preserve his life, obscene wealth and murderous clan.

But if you asked me today, I would name Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the latest and (we all can hope) final tsar of Russia.

What has changed? We now have more information about Putin. And it suggests that, far from being the small-d democrat and sincere economic reformer that I and others had hoped he might be, he is Russia’s new tsar. He’s terribly clever and awfully good at making people think what they want to think. But he’s a tsar without the tradition and responsibilities of monarchy, without a sense of duty or obligation to his people. He is subjecting Mother Russia to a kleptocratic Mafia of which he is the capo.

How do we know? Tuesday night PBS’s Frontline aired a credible and damning exposé of Putin’s personal history and apparent corruption of Russian business, society and government. Even more damning, the report suggests that Putin’s personal corruption began at the very start of his political career, as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg in the early nineties. It also details Putin’s protection, in turn, of the man who gave him his start, former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoliy Sobchak, and the Russian President who anointed him Russia’s leader, Boris Yeltsin. But more of this later.

Frontline is not just any TV news program. It’s undoubtedly the best and most credible purveyor of hard-hitting and insightful investigative journalism on American TV today. Among other things, it exposed our big bankers’ massive culpability for the Crash of 2008 and the role of our factory chicken farms in spawning “superbugs” by overusing antibiotics. It has a fine history of digging deep and credibly.

The evidence

How credible is Frontline’s exposé of Putin? I will mention just three points. First, it shows actual footage of a meeting among Putin and Russian oligarchs, in which the now-exiled oligarch Khodorkovsky and others suggested reigning in corrupt Russian business practices and moving toward Western-style rule of law and transparency. Shortly after that meeting, Khodorkovsky was arrested, tried for various offenses, stripped of his corporate holdings, and ultimately jailed for ten years.

Second, there is evidence, which one Western commentator called “incontrovertible,” that a least one (fortunately an abortive one) of the so-called “terrorist” bombings of Russian apartment buildings that contributed to a then-obscure Putin’s first election was planned by the FSB, successor to the KGB. In other words, the security services that spawned Putin apparently were agents provacateurs, willing to kill fellow Russians to put him in office. If so, they were much like the Nazis who burned down the Reichstag to bring Hitler to power.

Finally, and most important, Frontline recalls the four Russian journalists who were murdered, along with a former KGB agent, under suspicious circumstances. All were absolutely native Russians, with few or no foreign connections at the time, and all were after evidence of Putin’s malfeasance or corruption. (Frontline didn’t even mention the recent political murder of the progressive Boris Nemtsov, perhaps because he had been about to reveal evidence of Russia’s direct involvement in Eastern Ukraine, rather than evidence of Putin’s corruption.)

No other country, let alone a major power, has murdered so many native journalists in so short a time. Other authoritarian nations—including China, Iran and now-tyrannical Egypt—just jail them. Tyrants jail nosy journalists as a warning to them and others. They kill journalists only when they’ve already discovered stuff that might, if exposed, get the tyrants themselves killed or deposed.

Frontline’s evidence is strong enough to have convinced this blogger, an erstwhile admirer of Putin, who, while increasingly disillusioned, had been sitting on the fence regarding the specific issue of Putin’s personal corruption. The exposé is less than an hour long. Anyone who cares about Russia, geopolitics and world peace should watch it. It may be the most important investigative report that Frontline ever has aired.

It makes me feel like one of Lenin’s “useful idiots” to have sat on the fence so long. But until I viewed that report, I had seen no persuasive evidence of Putin’s corruption. Apparently he and his cronies covered their tacks adroitly, and sometimes brutally; he is nothing if not a clever and ruthless man.

Now, however, there is even evidence of an obscenely opulent, Yanukovych-style palace Putin had built for his own retirement. It is still heavily guarded, but Putin claims it has been sold to an unnamed foreign corporation, no doubt with a generous lease-back provision. Putin can’t retire to it now because an enraged Russian populace might take it and turn it into a museum of despotism like Yanukovych’s own.

The consequences

I don’t want to dwell on the evidence, which readers should judge for themselves. What I want to explore briefly in this essay is the geopolitical implications of this exposé, assuming it is true. They are both huge and horrendous.

Let’s begin with the notion that Putin is a very smart man. If he devoted his considerable intelligence to the betterment of his nation and his people, it would be possible to reason with him and to reach mutually beneficial compromises. (So it seemed to be with Russia’s useful help in negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran.) Yet if Putin’s primary goal is preserving his own wealth and power, and those of his family and cronies, compromise and reason may become much, much harder. The only way to get him out of power may be an ironclad guarantee of immunity from prosecution like the one he gave Boris Yeltsin.

Next there’s the question of foreign wars. Putin’s supporters used the so-called “terrorist” apartment bombings, which the FSB itself may have perpetrated, as a pretext for the Second Chechen War. Yet reportedly no Chechens were ever charged for of convicted of those crimes. What other wars might Putin wage or threaten to keep false patriotism strong and his popularity high and stay in control?

The worst consequences, of course, await the Russian people. A Western commentator noted [set timer to 46:16] that Russia’s median personal wealth is now $871, lower than India’s, which is over $1,000. She also notes that 110 individuals own 35% of Russia’s aggregate wealth. That’s the greatest national inequality globally, including our own.

At the end of the exposé, Frontline recounts a tale from Putin’s youth as an only child growing up in Saint Petersburg. Apparently he had an encounter with a rat in his apartment building. In it he learned the hard way that a cornered animal with nothing to lose will lunge.

So in Putin we have a leader unique on the world stage today. Along with Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe, he is pretty much in absolute control of his country. He has not just marginalized Dmitri Medvedyev; he has emasculated him. In contrast, Xi Jinping has to deal with a seven-member committee, and the Ayatollah in Iran with a very active president and a big, if low profile, private business community.

Frontline also suggests that Putin, as spook, learned well the skill of deluding and deceiving others. Apparently he has deluded or inveigled other world leaders, including our own intelligence-challenged Dubya and his poodle, Tony Blair. Even Angela Merkel only recently has given up trying to understand Putin.

Putin scammed Dubya by wearing a crucifix to a summit meeting, leading Dubya to believe he could look into Putin’s “soul.” Fortunately for us Yanks, our current President is both smarter and more skeptical. He looked at Putin’s actions, not his “soul,” and decided to impose economic sanctions as a deterrent to further mischief in Ukraine.

So Putin is a man who apparently started a minor war for the sole or primary purpose of keeping himself in power. And he is a man who, we now know, has cleverly gamed the Russian system for over twenty years to amass a personal fortune estimated at over $40 billion. He has played musical chairs with the president’s and prime minister’s offices, and he may have had journalists and others killed to keep his kleptocracy secret and himself in power.

Putin also is no doubt the most macho of any global leader, with the possible exception of Kim Jong Il. He’s a self-confessed fierce personal competitor, in skiing and judo among other sports, and he’s doesn’t like to lose. With his nuclear arsenal and his modernized army, he could be quite formidable as a cornered rat, no?

The danger

Today the world has three superpowers. Two are military superpowers: the United States and Russia. Each has a world-destroying nuclear arsenal and nation-killing nuclear submarines. Then there is an economic superpower, China, which will soon become the world’s leading economy. It’s not yet a military superpower, mostly because its leaders don’t really see the need. It’s still focusing on bringing all of its huge population—nearly a quarter of humanity—into the twenty-first century. First things first; Chinese are a practical people. But China has the potential.

Finally, there is a fourth potential superpower, the EU, but it’s not quite there yet. It’s still organizing, knitting its various economies more closely together and deciding whether to combine its politics. As the current refugee crisis so sadly illustrates, it hasn’t yet begun to develop a coherent foreign policy; and its collective military is weak, ill supplied, and disorganized.

Of these four superpowers—economic and/or military—only one has the potential to become a modern Sparta or a criminal enterprise with super power: Russia. Although great in geographic area, it’s the smallest in population (by far), the smallest in wealth (by far), and the smallest in government.

In fact, it’s possible to say that modern Russia is the closest major power, let alone superpower, to a genuine autocracy, governed by a single man for his own personal use and benefit. In contrast, China has a seven-member committee, the United States still has a (barely) working Congress, plus fifty independent state governors, and the EU has 28 sovereign nations, all of which are democratic in form, and most in substance.

Not only that. All superpowers but Russia have effective limits on supreme leaders’ terms of office. With Putin’s manipulation of the Russian Constitution and his playing of musical chairs between the presidency and premiership, he has become, in effect, president for life. Turkey’s Erdogan is trying valiantly to emulate him.

So we have a twenty-first century anomaly: a genuine autocracy—a monarchy if you will—in charge of one of the world’s four existing or nascent superpowers.

This is not entirely surprising. In all its thousand-year history, Russia has never seen much but autarchy. The Communist Period saw a touch of rule by committee, especially during its declining years, but the innocuously named “General Secretary” was always more equal than others.

As for a true market economy, Russia has never had much of that, either. It has only had a few desultory attempts to form one, both before the bloody Russian Revolution and in the period of glasnost’ and perestroika before Putin’s reign. As for personal liberty, Russia freed its surfs at about the same time as we Yanks freed our slaves; but, unlike our slaves, Russia’s surfs comprised the vast majority of Russia’s population.

Don’t take my word for it. Take Putin’s cronies’. One of Putin’s rare brave antagonists was recently told, literally, “Putin is tsar, but you are a serf.”

Why is this so dangerous? It would be one thing if Putin were a genuine, public-spirited leader concerned for Russia’s people and future, like Peter the Great. Many of us Yanks, including me, once thought that of him like that, and not without evidence.

Early in his reign, Putin made a speech before the Bundestag, in fluent German, proposing a peaceful trading zone from the Atlantic to the urals. Now he has repudiated and stanched that very flow of trade. Then there was his famous Russian telethon, throughout all of Russia’s eleven time zones, in which Putin declared poverty in Russia his greatest shame and recited a multi-point plan to address it. Now Russia is returning to poverty, as the dismal statistics quoted above reveal.

Yet there’s an even worse side to Putin: the Mafia capo. During his very first political (non-spook) job, as Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, kleptocracy reared its ugly head. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russian agriculture was in disarray, and food became scarce in the big cities. Putin prepared a daring plan to exchange Russia’s oil and minerals for food. But something funny happened. The oil and minerals disappeared to the West, but most of the food never arrived in St. Petersburg. The payment disappeared, too, to the tune of 124 million (whether dollars or rubles is not clear) [set timer at 5:20, esp. 8:38]. Later Putin’s boss Sobchak, the mayor, protected him from prosecution; and Putin, in turn, reportedly flew his Sobchak out of Russia in a private plane, while under prosecution, on the pretext of treatment for a heart attack, from which Sobchak apparently recovered quickly.

Thus Putin learned the value of personal loyalty well. After Boris Yeltsin anointed him successor, Putin’s first act as Russia’s first-ever elected president was to grant Yeltsin himself immunity from prosecution. At the time, Yeltsin had been the focus of a “massive corruption investigation.”

Personal loyalty and exchanges of favors are not unknown in the West. But an historical inflection point came in the meeting among Putin, Khodorkovsky, and other Russian oligarchs. There, Khodorkovsky (and reportedly others) proposed trying to cleanse Russia and put Russian business on a more transparent, lawful and orderly basis. Putin’s response was to jail Khodorkovsky and, through so-called “legal process,” strip him of his assets.

The message was loud and clear: whatever the purpose—even a cleaner and sounder Russia—don’t challenge the capo, the new tsar. From an economic perspective, it was a somewhat more subtle version of Saddam’s pulling his pistol and murdering his brother-in-law openly in a cabinet meeting. No oligarch or other business leader has challenged Putin since.

Governments, of course, can come and go. But Putin apparently will never go, at least quietly. His goal is no longer modernizing Russia, if it ever was. It’s personal and political survival. Putin has become Assad, the man whose destruction of an entire nation Putin has backed with his tutelage and high-tech weapons. Syria’s devastation, and the consequent waves of refugees that now trouble Europe, give us all an insight into what rats backed into corners can do.

So does the totally gratuitous devastation of Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s response to Kiev’s recent grant of substantial autonomy to Donyetsk and Luhansk will be a signal how far Putin intends to go. If the civil war in Ukraine continues or escalates, we will know that its primary purpose is not to change or heal Ukraine, or to protect the Russian-speaking minority, but to provide a political distraction and cause of false patriotism to keep Putin and his cronies in power in Moscow.

In the final analysis, Putin and his economic predations are Russia and Russians’ business. It’s their country.

But in trying to get rid of Putin, Russians have three strikes against them. First, Putin is in the process of purging all foreign help and influence, just as Stalin did during the Terror. He’s marginalizing foreign businesses, discouraging foreign investment, and making it much harder for foreign NGO’s to operate in Russia. He’s also passing vague and general “security” laws that can be used, at a moment’s notice, to expel or jail foreigners working in Russia, no matter how well-intentioned. In so doing, he’s returning Russia to its traditional xenophobia, isolation and paranoia.

Second, Russia has absolutely no tradition of getting rid of a bad (and clever!) autocrat peacefully. It’s only “success” was what may have been the world’s bloodiest and most chaotic revolution. The dissolution of the Soviet Union came at a time when Soviet leadership was collective, old, weak and losing its grip, and bravely challenged from within by visionaries like Gorbachev. None of those things applies to Putin or modern Russia.

Finally, there may be some sense in Russia’s current push for agricultural self-sufficiency, even at the cost of publicly destroying some foreign produce. Desires for food security and self-sufficiency has become a recent global trend. They’re consistent with the biological imperatives of genetic and geographical diversity, as well as the economic and political imperatives of diversification and distributed production. If they produce a vibrant privatized system of agriculture in Russia, they may ultimately be good for Russia, although they may cause food shortages and hardship in the interim.

But in reinforcing Russia’s traditional tendencies toward xenophobia, economic isolation and paranoia, food isolation, too, risks creating a modern Sparta. Such a Sparta would be run by a Mafia capo, with the type of autocratic and kleptocratic government that no modern major power today shares, armed with thousands of strategic nuclear weapons and nation-killer nuclear submarines.

A big chance missed

But those are problems for the rest of the world. For Mother Russia, the saddest thing is the big chance missed.

Here in America, it took the better part of a century to bring our own oligarchs, aka “Robber Barons,” under control for the common good. Among other things, it took our antitrust laws, their faithful prosecution over decades, the income tax, and our modern regulatory state. And curbing oligarchs is a never-ending task, as the Koch Brothers and Citizens United now remind us every day.

In his fateful meeting with Khodorkovsky and others, the oligarchs came to Putin of their own accord and offered reform. When he turned them down by turning on and jailing Khodorkovsky, Putin missed a chance that any progressive leader would have eagerly grabbed and cherished. Teddy Roosevelt, our Great American Trust-Buster, would have loved such a meeting!

Only two possible motives make sense. First, Putin might have been afraid that any attempt to reform the thoroughly corrupt system he had built would reflect on him and possibly remove him from office or worse. Second, Putin might have feared that opening Russia to real business would subject it to foreign influence and control—things at which his KGB training instinctively recoiled. Once a spook, always a spook.

Whatever the reason, in that meeting Putin missed a big chance to turn Russia into a real modern economy and to modernize it rapidly, perhaps as quickly as China and the so-called “Asian Tigers” have modernized. That was a sad day for Mother Russia and for the world.

Coda: An apology to David Brooks

This blog has a tradition of admitting error and apologizing for it. Those things not only clear the air; they are good for truth and for the soul.

So I hereby apologize to conservative pundit David Brooks for belittling his characterization of Putin as “a narcissistic autocrat.”

It was not so much the word “autocrat” that troubled me. For some time, Putin has been more firmly in command of Russia than any other modern ruler commands a major power, let alone a military superpower. What troubled me was the word “narcissistic;” it seemed inaccurate, at least when I credited Putin’s public spirit and vision.

Now, strong evidence of Putin’s corruption leaves little doubt that much of his personal motivation is narcissistic. Even his internal conception of Russia now seems narcissistic. He seems to believe that Russia’s playing by global rules and joining the global economy will somehow be bad for Russia. He has no vision of how joining the rest of the world might make Russia and its people more prosperous, happy and free. That, too, is an odd form of narcissism—a cultural narcissism.

So I willingly confess error. Putin indeed is a narcissistic autocrat. His great tactical intelligence and his superior ability to communicate and persuade mask his utter lack of vision how best to improve his nation and his people’s lot. His already-too-long reign as Russia’s current tsar may yet prove tragic for him, for Russia, and even for the world. A more successful, ever more secret Mafia does not bode a promising future for Russia.


01 September 2015

How Russia and the US Could Prevent Small-Power Nuclear Arms Races

Nuclear arms are not offensive weapons. They have never been used as such. With luck and wisdom, they never will be.

Nuclear arms have been used in warfare once only. We Yanks used them to end the Pacific part of human history’s most horrible war, and to avoid a years-long, gruesome ground invasion of Honshu. We used them against a nation (Japan) that had started the Pacific War, with its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and its unprovoked invasions of China, Korea, and most of Southeast Asia.

Since that time, no one has used a nuclear weapon in anger. Not even Pakistan or India has done so, although the two nations have been waging a seemingly perennial and largely irrational grudge match. (They came close in 1999, but wiser big powers dissuaded them.)

Why is this so? The short answer is Von Clausewitz’ principle: that war is politics by other means. When we humans go to war, we are not out to exterminate each other as we do cockroaches in our kitchens. What we are out to do is influence or perhaps dictate each other’s behavior, i.e., to change each other’s politics.

If India would only give up Kashmir, it could probably placate even Pakistan. Suddenly, the world’s worst enmity outside the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula might resolve itself. (I’m not suggesting that India should do this, only illustrating Von Clausewitz’ principle.)

The absurd notion of “total war” that was in vogue between the First and Second World wars nearly extinguished our species in October 1962. But it didn’t. We wised up. So now at least advanced nations try to wage war, if we have to, with minimal civilian casualties and “collateral damage,” using such things as ninjas and drones, i.e., far more accurate weapons. That’s a sign that we humans are beginning to understand and accept Von Clausewitz’ principle as fact, good policy, and fundamental human morality.

Nuclear weapons are “accurate” only if never used. For then they accomplish political objectives without actually harming any person or property. But if ever used again, they will be the most destructive and inaccurate weapons in human history. They will kill, maim and sicken vastly more innocent than guilty people. And those surviving—even the users—will regret their use afterwards, for as long as our species survives.

So what are nuclear weapons good for? Only one thing: deterrence . If you think another nation wants to invade or strike yours, whether with or without nuclear weapons, having a nuke is a possible guarantee of safety. You don’t have to use it; all you have to do is have it. That alone confers a degree of immunity.

That’s why everyone thinks Iran wants a nuclear weapon, although its leaders all chant, practically in chorus, “Oh, no, not we!” Iran lives in a dangerous neighborhood, within easy striking range of five nuclear powers: Israel, Pakistan, Russia, India and China. And being a young and proud nation, Iran’s Islamic Republic hardly keeps a low profile. It wages proxy wars, harasses its neighbors, talks trash about Israel, and generally acts like a regional bully.

So Iran not only makes existing nuclear powers nervous. It makes non-nuclear powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey fear the mere thought of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. At the same time, Iran’s acts and its attitude make its neighbors think of, if not actively plan, how to promote “regime change” in Iran. And that, of course, makes Iran’s leaders want nuclear weapons all the more, if only for deterrence.

The result is a vicious circle, a frenzy of nuclear paranoia throughout the Middle East. If left unchecked, and if Iran does get a nuke, it could spark a regional nuclear arms race and ultimately the first-ever real nuclear war. No one wants that; or at least no one should want that.

After two years of negotiations, the “Five Plus One” have proposed a deal to solve one small part of this puzzle: the mutual paranoia among the US, Iran, and other regional powers, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel and the US Congress are trying mightily to torpedo the deal, but they will probably fail. So one part of the paranoia might lessen soon.

But a much more general and comprehensive solution is possible. Here’s how it would work.

Alone among the nations of the Earth, Russia and the US have offensive weapons capable of annihilating a small nation like North Korea or Iran in fifteen minutes. Although Russia and the US may have defenses that might work against these weapons, no one else does. Not even China. Probably no one but China, Russia and the US will have such defenses for another twenty years, giving our species time to grow up a bit.

The weapons in question are nuclear submarines armed with multiple nuclear-tipped missiles, some of which have multiple independently-targetable nuclear warheads. Being both nuclear powered and nuclear armed, the submarines don’t need air to run or to provide life support for their crews. They can hide under water as long as their crews can stand to be confined. No nation but (perhaps) Russia and the US has any plausible way to detect or defend against these fearsome weapons. These submarines are major deterrents to a nuclear first strike and therefore pillars of our existing Pax Atomica.

It would probably be too much to ask these two rival and often disputatious powers to cooperate in becoming the world’s new policemen. But there’s a much easier and more comfortable solution than that. Suppose each major nuclear power offered its own allies a guarantee of proportionate nuclear retaliation for any nuclear first strike.

The US, for example, might offer such a guarantee to Israel, Saudia Arabia, Turkey and South Korea. Russia might offer one to Iran and North Korea. Such guarantees may exist even now, in secret; but in order to produce the best deterrent effect, they should be announced publicly as durable foreign policy.

The word “proportionate” is important here. A single Russian or US nuclear attack submarine could literally annihilate any of these small nations, or any of its likely small-power nuclear adversaries. But in keeping with our species’ wise abandonment of total war, not to mention distaste for genocide, that wouldn’t be the guarantee.

The guarantee would be a “proportionate” nuclear response. You take out my ally’s chief commercial city, I take out yours. You take out his capital, I take out yours. You nuke a big battlefield; I nuke an equivalent part of your nation and its army. Even the medieval minds that rule some of these minor powers could understand that equation. It’s basically the Code of Hammurabi, by which many such states still live, especially in the Middle East.

Would the guarantor-avenger keep its word? Would it add another legion of casualties to those that already had died or suffered?

That’s hard to tell. There might be some uncertainty. But no rational leader would take the risk. There’s always uncertainty in such matters, but you don’t gamble your capital, especially if you’re personally in it. Even if you survived in a bunker, it wouldn’t be much fun to emerge to radioactive rubble as far as the eye could see in any direction. You would miss your sycophants and your palace, not to mention your military protectors. And your surviving people would be angry, rebellious, and disinclined to kowtow anew. Even Little Kim would quake at the thought.

More to the point, who would bother to waste the money and time—and incur the risk of international opprobrium, economic sanctions and possible conventional (or even nuclear) pre-emptive strikes—to develop nukes under these circumstances? The big-power guarantee would provide plenty of deterrence for a nuclear first strike against a protected nation. And the threat of retaliation for any nuclear first strike by a protected nation—even in response to a conventional invasion—would discourage the first use, if not the development, of nukes to deter any conventional attack.

In a crisis situation, the guaranteeing power could heighten the deterrent effect of the guarantee by publicly declaring a state of military emergency and deploying all or most of its nuclear submarines. Then it could announce publicly (whether or not true) that each submarine captain had the authority to launch proportionate nuclear retaliation on his own initiative, promptly after hearing, through military or even news channels, of a nuclear first strike against the protected nation.

Wouldn’t that sort of real-time, public deterrence work? What leader would gamble his capital, chief commercial city, or a large part of this army on the mere hope that an unknown ship captain from an inimical major power would act like Vassily Aleksandrovich Arkhipov, the man who saved the world?

There is good precedent for this deterrent policy. On October 22, 1962, JFK declared the following to the world in a televised address from the White House:
“It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
That announcement came at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when our species got as close to self-extinction as it has ever come. A mere six days later, on October 28, 1962, Soviet General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev agreed to remove Soviet offensive nuclear missiles from Cuba. Secretly, but at the same time, we agreed to remove our offensive nuclear missiles from Turkey and never to invade Cuba.

The deterrent effect of a “protect your ally” policy would be even more credible than the policy JFK announced that night. Many could have doubted whether the United States would have started nuclear war with the Soviet Union to protect, say, Guatemala, when such a war would have devastated the United States. It’s far easier to believe that the United States would “discipline” a rogue, small first-user of nuclear weapons when doing so would cause no direct or immediate harm to the United States and perhaps few diplomatic or political difficulties. The same reasoning holds for Russia.

This arrangement would not duplicate the situation of poor Ukraine. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine gave up its nukes on the understanding that it would be protected against invasion. The Russians have not yet invaded Ukraine, at least not overtly. While massing troops on the border and sending in spooks, agitators and special forces, they have at least tried to maintain a patina of plausible deniability. Nevertheless, few doubt that Ukraine would be in a more enviable position today if it had not given up its nuclear weapons.

The situation posited in this essay would be entirely different. Ukraine’s antagonist is Russia, one of only two nuclear superpowers with a world-destroying, modernized arsenal of nuclear weapons, not to mention those selfsame submarines. No one anywhere, least of all in the West, wants to risk a nuclear confrontation with Russia. Been there, done that, in 1962, when we almost extinguished our species.

Both the military and geopolitical risks would be far different in any case involving a minor or nascent nuclear power. If deemed necessary, either Russia or the US could obliterate a nation like North Korea or Iran in fifteen minutes. Pakistan might take and hour or two, and perhaps more than one submarine.

Because of this real military capability, there would be no risk of military retaliation for a proportionate nuclear response to a nuclear first strike on a protected ally, especially if there were tacit agreement or acquiescence by the other nuclear superpower. If the deterring nuclear superpower had announced its policy firmly in advance, and if it had reiterated it consistently, there would be few or no geopolitical consequences. The only consequences would be moral: later recriminations by others, and perhaps even regret among more enlightened elements of the guarantor-avenger itself.

Would a small power’s leaders take the risk of proportionate nuclear retaliation solely because of the possibility of moral consequences? Very unlikely. Tyrants just don’t think that way. And even democratic leaders, pressed to extreme action by circumstances or their own miscalculations, probably wouldn’t. Think of Netanyahu under these circumstances. So a credible threat of a proportionate nuclear response would be as effective in deterring nuclear first strikes, and likely the clandestine development of nuclear weapons, as a similar threat has been in preserving our Pax Atomica for seventy years and counting, and as a much more dangerous and risky threat was in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This arrangement wouldn’t deter conventional arms races. In fact, without the nuclear deterrent, it might make them worse. But wouldn’t it be better for nations with rather primitive regimes, which might actually be tempted to use nukes, to be limited to arms races involving less destructive weapons? Surely Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would breathe easier if Iran had a really fearsome deterrent to developing or using nuclear weapons, in addition to contractual language and vigilant inspections.

Diplomatic cooperation between Russia and the US was absolutely critical to bringing the nuclear deal with Iran this far. Why not take that cooperation one step further and solve not just the problem of Iran, but the problem of any small power’s lust for nukes? And why not do it at the same time as each nuclear superpower protects its own allies from possible nuclear attack?

The Cold War between Soviet Russia and the US spawned the most fearsome weapons ever devised: fully loaded strategic nuclear submarines. These weapons are not just city killers; they are nation killers. A single submarine has the power to destroy a small nation, leaving nothing but rubble too radioactive for rebuilding, and perhaps radioactive rural survivors languishing for lack of industry and infrastructure.

So far the Cold War hasn’t done our species much good. True, it brought us the Pax Atomica, but only at the cost of a very close brush with species self-extinction. We escaped that fate by the skin of our teeth, due only to the coolness and good judgment of two Russians and one American.

Economically and politically, both sides were losers. They crippled their economies with massive overinvestment in world-destroying military arsenals, and they crippled their politics with the type of reflexive and intransigent belief in cartoon ideologies that can only come from war hysteria. The Cold War’s only real winners were other nations, including the Soviet Union’s spinoffs. They can now plot their own courses, free from military, economic and diplomatic domination and coercion to follow one or another cartoon ideology.

The chief beneficiary in this regard is China. Its meteoric economic rise is no accident; nor is its timing. The rise began with Deng Xiaoping, at time when it was clear that the Cold War was likely to end without Armageddon.

So the Cold War caused a lot of angst, paranoia and stupidity and nearly extinguished us. Wouldn’t it be nice if something positive came out of it and the residual enmity that still persists? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a “deal” that didn’t just make developing nukes a breach of contract subject to contractual sanctions, as the proposed Iran deal does? Wouldn’t it be better if a joint or parallel superpower policy provided a powerful, real deterrent—besides the inherent high cost, risk of accidents and radioactivity and environmental degradation—to any small power developing nukes or using them first?

Acting together, the two nations that almost destroyed the world half a century ago could build something lasting: a better, less dangerous global polity free of new nuclear powers. Even better, they could discourage existing minor nuclear powers, such as North Korea and maybe even Pakistan, from continuing to waste money on developing nuclear arsenals and delivery vehicles.

Israel will probably never give up its nuclear weapons, at least not until (if ever) it has a durable peace with its now hostile neighbors. But the approach suggested here would deter Israel from ever using them first, thereby motivating it to devote more effort to conventional defense, new alliances, and maybe even compromise and diplomacy.

In modern era, let alone the Nuclear Age, excessive reliance on military hardware, instead of diplomacy, empathy and humanity, would be a tragic strategic mistake. The last century is proof positive of that point. By the simple expedient of guaranteeing a proportionate nuclear response to any nuclear first strike by a minor power, the two erstwhile Cold War enemies could drive that point home globally in a very practical way.