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Losing Both Elections

6 September 2020

“To lose one parent…may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness,” wrote Oscar Wilde in his play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ in 1895.

In somewhat the same spirit, British journalist Robert Fisk wrote last week “At some point in the next two months we are going to have to decide whether we absolve the American people if they re-elect Donald Trump.” Losing one election to Trump is unlucky; losing two in a row may be saying something about the national character.

Fisk has been Middle East correspondent of various British newspapers since 1976, so he was not on familiar ground when he wrote that about the United States in ‘The Independent’ last Friday. On the other hand, he was expressing a mostly unspoken but widespread attitude among all Europeans except the extreme right. Let me quote some more:

“Like all snobs, we’ve taken the view that Trump did not really represent American values – any more than the Arab dictators reflect the views of their people. We’ve hoped and prayed and fooled ourselves into believing this was only a temporary autocracy, a deviation, an old and reliable friend suffering from a serious but ultimately curable mental disease.

“Yet…I wonder how we are going to react to Americans if the Trump years become the Trump era; or if his dreadful, ambitious family transform themselves into the Trump Caliphate….if the America we felt we could always ultimately rely on – once they’ve straightened out their little Trump misadventure – turns into the nation we can never trust?”

I grew up in Canada, and Canadians, like Mexicans, while fond enough of individual Americans, are by nature mistrustful of the American state – “like sleeping with an elephant,” as Pierre Elliott Trudeau put it. If it just rolls over or wakes up cranky, you can get badly hurt.
Europeans have a different perspective.

Bob Fisk grew up in the United Kingdom, which like France remembers (most of the time) that it would have lost both world wars without American help. Even if the United States was years late to both world wars, it showed up both times in time to save the day.

And American troops stayed in Western Europe to protect it from Soviet power throughout the Cold War. Most Eastern Europeans see the United States as the instrument of their liberation from the Soviet Union, even though it did not in the end involve a hot war.

So there is still a deep well of respect and trust for the United States in Europe. Fisk is probably right that a second Trump election victory would finally poison that well, which would be a pity.

Another four years would also see him complete the destruction of the existing international order (without giving a single thought to a replacement). Trump is, as Michael Moore noted in 2016, “a wretched, ignorant, dangerous part-time clown and full-time sociopath.”

But would two terms of Trump mean the end of American democracy? Not necessarily. Not even likely. What Trump has triggered – and somebody was bound to trigger it around now, because every political niche, like every evolutionary niche, is always filled – is a final reckoning on the ‘race problem’, about 150 years after the American Civil War.

At the time of the Civil War (1861-65), black Americans accounted for around 12% of the total population, and four-fifths of them were slaves. Whites accounted for almost all the rest; only a quarter-million were Native Americans.

‘African-Americans’ still account for the same 12% share of the population today, and many of them are still victims of the same white fear, exclusion and official violence that their ancestors experienced (mainly because they were slaves) 150 years ago. But since US immigration law changed in 1965, allowing people from the entire world to immigrate, the ‘non-Hispanic white share’ of the population has dropped to only 60%.

That share will to drop to 50% by 2044, according to forecasts based on current birth rates and immigration trends. This has triggered a huge panic among working-class white Americans, who often compete for the same jobs and used to depend on their whiteness as a competitive advantage.

Trump is personally a racist, if his remarks and behaviour are any guide, but he is a cynical populist and would be exploiting white fears right now even if he really loved non-white Americans. That is why the vicious legacy of the Civil War, which ended slavery but not white privilege, is finally being dragged out into the open.

Having been so exposed, it will probably finally be extinguished – but not necessarily in time to thwart Trump’s re-election. This is not the end of the United States, nor the advent of a new Hitler either. It is a necessary evolution of American history, for which some people living elsewhere may also pay a substantial price.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“I grew…perspective”; and (“Another…sociopath”)

1918: The Turn of a Coin

On 8 August 1918, one hundred years ago on Wednesday, it finally became clear who was going to win the First World War. Nine Canadian and Australian divisions, almost 200,000 men, attacked the German trenches near Amiens, deep in France – and for the first time in the war, the German troops ran away.

By the second day of the battle the Germans were resisting fiercely again, but the German commander, General Ludendorff, called it “the black day of the German army.” After that Germany did nothing but retreat, and the armistice was signed only three months later.

Yet just a few months before, Germany nearly won the war. The Bolshevik Revolution took Russia out of the war in 1917, and Germany was able to shift half a million troops to western Europe. For the first time it had numerical superiority over the British and French troops, and the great German offensives of spring 1918 tore the old Western Front apart.

But the German offensives ran out of steam without permanently splitting the French and British armies, and the war might have ended there, in a draw. Everybody was exhausted by 1918. Half the French army had mutinied in 1917 and was still not fit for combat. British divisions were down to half their strength.

Only the Canadians and the Australians still had full-strength divisions (20-25,000 men), and they were very experienced troops by 1918. That’s why they spearheaded almost every attack in the ‘Hundred Days’ offensive that ended the war. But the real reason German morale collapsed was that 10,000 more American troops were landing in France EVERY DAY.

The inexperienced American troops didn’t play a starring role in the ‘Hundred Days’, but their presence was decisive. Everybody knew there would be 3 million American soldiers in France by the end of the year, and they’d gain combat experience fast enough. Once Germany’s last-chance offensives of spring 1918 failed, it was bound to lose the war.

That’s the real history, and the result was a catastrophic defeat for Germany and a peace treaty so harsh that it laid the foundations for the rise of Hitler and a second, even worse world war. But change only one decision, and it could all have come out very differently.

That decision was taken in January 1917. At that point there seemed no way for Germany to beat the far larger numbers of its enemies on the battlefield, and a German admiral persuaded the government to launch unrestricted submarine attacks on ships bringing supplies to Britain – including ships of neutral countries like the United States.

That would bring America into the war, of course, but the admiral promised that Britain would be starved into making peace long before any American troops reached Europe. He was wrong: Britain didn’t starve, and the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. By mid-1918 US troops were flooding into France, and the game was up.

But the first Russian revolution happened just after Germany decided on unrestricted submarine warfare. If that decision had been delayed by only two months, people in Berlin would have known that Russia was probably going to leave the war. Then they would never have taken the desperate gamble that the admiral was urging on them.

The German U-boats would never have sunk American ships, the US would have stayed out of the war – and Germany might have won in 1918.

That would have been a good thing, because Germany would not have won a huge, decisive victory. It would just have won on points: OK, our spring offensives didn’t succeed, but they came close. Our troops are standing up to your counter-offensive (no masses of American troops to demoralise them). So maybe we should all just quit and go home.

After four years and ten million deaths, that would have been hard to do, but continuing the fighting into 1919 or 1920 would have been even harder. With Russia out of the war and America never in, neither side could hope for a decisive victory. They were all terrified of having revolutions like Russia’s if the carnage went on. So stop now.

There would have been no ‘peace’ treaty like Versailles that heaped all the blame for the war on one side and made the losers pay the entire cost of it (‘reparations’). Germany would presumably have got its colonies back, but no territory would have changed hands in western Europe. And there probably would not have been a second world war.

Hitler came to power because Germany was punished so severely for a ‘war guilt’ that was really a shared responsibility. A ‘no-score draw’, by contrast, could have focussed people’s attention more sharply on the basic lunacy of an international system that fostered such wars.

By the turn of a coin we got the 20th century that’s in the history books instead. Too bad. It’s hard to think of a different 20th century that would have been worse.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The inexperienced…war”; and “After…now”)

Non-Linear

Here are two interesting facts. One is that the winter temperatures in the Arctic this year were the highest ever recorded. On two days in February, it was actually warmer at the North Pole than it was in Zurich, Switzerland. At one location in Greenland, the temperature rose to 36 degrees C higher than the usual average for that time of year.

The other interesting fact, revealed last month in two articles in ‘Nature’, one of the world’s leading scientific journals, is that the Gulf Stream is slowing down. In fact, it is now moving more slowly that at any time in the past 1,600 years (which is as far back as studies have gone). This could be very bad news for Western Europe.

The difficulty comes in figuring out what these facts mean – if they mean anything at all, and are not just random variations of an unusually extreme kind. And this is the point in the discussion at which you start to hear the climate scientists use the word ‘non-linear’ all the time.

Most people think of global warming as a smooth, gradual process. It might end up doing a lot of damage, but it will sort of creep up on you, not smack you in the face. Unfortunately, that is not how climate change has proceeded in many past cases of warming or cooling.

The change can be abrupt and quite extreme – and once it has happened, it becomes the new normal, perhaps for a very long time. Like many complex systems, the climate is non-linear: it stays the same for a long time, and then suddenly some ‘tipping point’ is reached, and the whole thing flips into a different configuration.

Now, the warming in the Arctic is not non-linear. It’s a trend that has been continuous for decades, although it has accelerated greatly in recent years: the amount of sea-ice coverage at the point of maximum freeze-up, in late March, has been far lower in 2015-18 than ever before.

Indeed, we’re almost certain to see an ice-free Arctic Ocean at the end of the summer melt season at some point in the next decade. Some of the ice will reform in the following winter, but less and less of it as the years pass. Without ice cover the water will be warmed directly by sunlight, so one day the whole ocean will be mostly ice-free year-round.

The focus of concern for the moment, however, is on what the warming is doing to the Greenland ice-cap. This ice is on land, and when it melts it raises the sea-level. More importantly for the near term may be the fact that it is putting a large volume of fresh water into the northern North Atlantic Ocean.

That may be part of what is slowing the Gulf Stream down. It’s a surface current of warm water from the tropics that travels at an average speed of six km per hour, contains as much water as there is in all the world’s rivers, and moves it all the way up to the seas between Iceland and Norway. Then the water cools off, drops to the bottom, and returns southwards as a deep-water cold current.

The Gulf Stream helps keep north-western Europe warm: England is at the same latitude as Labrador, but the average temperature is more than 10 degrees C higher. Norway, with 5 million people, is about the same latitude as southern Greenland (pop. 50,000). But the Gulf Stream has stopped entirely a number of times in the distant past, sometimes for centuries.

To be more precise, it stops going so far north: it ‘overturns’, dives to the bottom and heads back south long before it reaches the latitude of European countries like Ireland, Britain and Norway. And when it has done that in the past, the average temperature in those countries dropped by up to 10 degrees C.

There is reason to suspect that what was happening in these incidents was that a global warming trend was melting a lot of cool fresh water into the northern seas and blocking the Gulf Stream from getting so far north. So is that about to happen again? Nobody knows, but according to the latest studies the Gulf Stream has already slowed by 15% in the past 50-150 years.

When it shut down in the past it was abrupt and fast: non-linear, in other words. The 15% slowdown is not necessarily an indicator that the whole northern branch of the current is on the brink of shutting down. But then again, it might be.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“Indeed…year-round”)

What North Korea Wants

What does Kim Jon-un want? One thing: security.

He doesn’t want to conquer the world. It’s impractical: only one out of every 300 people in the world is North Korean. He doesn’t even want to conquer South Korea. It’s twice as populous as North Korea and ten times richer: eliminate the border and Kim’s regime would crumble in months. And he certainly doesn’t want to attack the United States.

King Kim III (as we would have called him a couple of centuries ago) declared last week that North Korea has now completed the task of building a nuclear deterrent to ward off a possible American attack. It will return to the task of building its economy and prosperity instead. Indeed, it will “ stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” and even shut down a nuclear weapons test site.

He’s obviously laying out his negotiating position for the summit meetings that are planned for this month with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and for next month with US President Donald Trump. He clearly wants a deal, but he has long been afraid of an American attack. There could be a deal, but only if Washington and Seoul acknowledge that his fear is real.

A little story from the Cold War. I only realised how deeply I had been affected by the propaganda I had heard all my young life when I attended my first NATO military exercise in Europe as a journalist. It was the same exercise scenario as always, with Russian tanks surging forward to overrun Western Europe and outnumbered NATO troops struggling to halt the attack.

I did know that NATO wasn’t really outnumbered. It had almost twice as many people as the Soviet Union and its allies, and at least four times the wealth. It just chose to have smaller armies because soldiers are very expensive to maintain, and relied instead on the early use of nuclear weapons. But I had never questioned the threat of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Nobody did.

Then one day, I was interviewing a senior British army officer and for some reason I asked the obvious question I had never bothered to ask before. What scenario did the Russians use when they ran their military exercises?

Oh, he said airily, their scenarios imagine that we have invaded East Germany, but after a few days they manage to turn it around and start pushing us back west. When their tanks are breaking through the Fulda Gap we use nukes to stop them, and the whole thing rapidly escalates into a general nuclear exchange.

Well, of course. Would the Russians tell their troops that they were launching a deliberate attack on the West that would end in a full-scale nuclear war? No. As the weaker side in the long confrontation, would they ever even consider doing that? Probably not. But I had never considered the fact that the Russians were afraid of us.

It had simply not occurred to me before that a country that had been invaded by everybody from Napoleon to Hitler, and had lost at least 20 million killed in the Second World War, might be obsessed about the threat of being attacked by us. We were the good guys: surely they must realise that we would never do that. But OF COURSE they didn’t.

Maybe we were ‘the good guys’ in that confrontation, in the sense that our countries were democracies and their countries were dictatorships, but in terms of threat perception and over-reaction the two sides were identical. The situation in the Korean peninsula is the same story in microcosm.

The Kim dynasty inherited a devastated country at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Its cities were levelled and at least a million people had been killed. The Chinese troops who had helped North Korea went home after the war, but the American troops stayed in South Korea. Moreover, the Americans had nuclear weapons and would not promise not to use them – and there was no peace treaty, just an armistice.

The Kims built a very big army as a partial and unsatisfactory counter-threat to US nuclear weapons, and started working on their own nukes as soon as the economy had been rebuilt to the required level. However, that big army created a threat perception in the US and South Korea as real and acute as North Korea’s own fears.

So how might you negotiate your way out of this futile and dangerous confrontation? Pyongyang won’t give up the nuclear deterrent it has worked so long and hard to build: there’s not enough trust for that. But Kim is saying that he is willing to leave it at its current small and technologically primitive level. It’s no real threat to the US in its present form.

Concentrate instead on a peace treaty that gives North Korea a sense of security at last. Demand as a quid pro quo that Pyongyang reduces its ridiculously large army to the same size as South Korea’s. And promise that once those cuts have been made, the US troops in South Korea will go home.

It might work. It’s certainly worth a try.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“I did…did”; and “It had…didn’t”)