Talking to myself about foreign policy, US politics, technology, &c.

Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Or Vodka-Fueled Disaster?

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

Russian Standard VodkaRussia is riding high on the oil money, as we’ve mentioned. But if demographics are destiny, thelong-term future’s lookin’ grim. Russia’s population growth rate is currently negative, at -.5% per year. (By comparison, America’s is positive 0.9%. Japan is considered to be in a disastrous position, and is -.13%.) (figures from the terrific CIA World Factbook) 

Despite its huge land mass, there are only 140,000,000 Russians out there – less than Bangladesh, and less than half that of the United States.

They’re also drinking themselves to death at extraordinary rate. The average Russian imbibes 20 litres of vodka a year, and beer is not even regulated as alcohol. Partly because of that, life expectancy for men is under 60 years.


Heroin abuse is dramatically up with the floodgates from Afganistan open. 1.6% of the population is a user in Russa – more than anywhere in the world apart from Mauritius (who knew) and Iran (huh). Ahead, even, of Afghanistan. (UN World Drug Report, 2008)

Given the vicious cycle of corruption and authoritarianism well under way, I doubt that things will get turned around any time soon. 

They can rebuild their moldering nuclear program given enough time and money, and obviously they are capable of stomping all over a tiny neighbor, but this ain’t a long-term peer competitor to the US. The more they growl, the more they’ll lose in the multilevel games that are international relations these days. A bully can take the little kids’ lunch money, but don’t expect him to be invited to dinner.

I still think learning Chinese was the way to go. Now there’s a long-term peer competitor. But they ain’t perfect, either.



Bear-ly tolerable?

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

Tom Friedman (the Mustache of Understanding) wrote a book aeons ago (ok, last century) called “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”. The book, and most of Friedman’s writing, gets dismissed as layman’s schlock by highbrow IR folks, along with progressives who hate him, mostly for Friedman’s early support for the Iraq war. And his ridiculous metaphors. And perhaps the fact that his writing does really well. Me, I like him ‘cuz he’s a Minnesotan.

Anyhoo. In LntOT (not to be confused with LotR) Mr. F talks about the “golden straitjacket” applied by international financial institutions, banks, and investors. No modern economy can survive without the capital, liquidity, and confidence provided by a decent investment climate. I leave the discussion of the current American disaster to the real eggheads - but  it certainly emphasizes that no modern economy can really function without these fat cats behind them.

Maybe that’s not the right turn of phrase, because it looks like the investors have indeed been leaving Russia behind them. After an already-bad summer, the main Micex index has lost another 30% since the Georgian invasion. Gobs of money have fled Russia. Increasingly, folks are getting the sense that Putin’s Medvedev’s Putin’s Russia is not, well, normal. Not-normal places are bad for investment. Not-normal places with tremendous oil teats to suckle at sound all right, until you realize that you’re either gonna get locked up or nationalized. After that, well, they mostly sound like a bully who happens to control the playground where everyone wants to ride the hydrocarbon swings.

Er, sorry. Channelling Friedman. Anyway, the point is that Russia is paying a price for this incursion, and perhaps the neoliberal market economist dovish peace-love-dope hippies will be right, and Russia will find that crime trans-border conflict does not pay. So you can hold on the panicking for the moment.

If they go for Ukraine, well, then you can panic.


The End of the Innocence

Monday, August 18th, 2008

One of my favorite parts of my grad program was being a teaching assistant for Intro to International Relations. 

The question that demonstrated the fundamental differences in the class – and was always good for an argument where I could chill out, sit back, and watch the fireworks – was simply “Will there be a World War in our lifetime?”

No way, I though to myself, drifting off as the students started calling each other impolite names. The world is so economically integrated; it would be financial armageddon. All countries pay at least lip service to liberal democracy; apart from the fringe Salafist Islamic elements, there’s no existential enemy left out there. Peace will prevail. You silly Realist students gunning for another epic conflict were simply not getting enough multi-player Counter Strike in the dorms.  It was The End of History. It’s a Small World After All. Let’s all sing Kumbaya.

And then Russia stomped all over Georgia.

A lot of people have run the analysis of the situation in the Caucasus better than I will; if you read this, I’m sure you’ve read them already.

The main takeaways for me: Territory matters. Nationalism matters. As long as there are authoritarian regimes, the whim of the president prime minster matters.

The whole international system is built of beautiful stained glass – an intricate piece of delicate art, constructed over generations, that seems substantial – but the first time a thug throws a brick through it, as ephemeral as the air. 

As the power of the United States has been sapped in Iraq and a resurgent Russia and expanding China have caught up, we’re back to the era of the Great Powers. Not two superpowers, facing each other with the prospect of worldwide destruction, but something closer to the bad old days. The unipolar moment is past – if either of those countries committed to war in their sphere of influence, America would be faced with the choice of acquiescence - or another World War.

Maybe the teacher – despite my time overseas and expensive education – was the naive one in Intro to IR.

“Russia’s not going to attack Europe”

Thursday, June 7th, 2007

From the department of Well-THAT’s-a-Relief, President Bush has reassured us that Russia will not in fact attack Europe despite largely irrelevant threats to retarget their nukes at NATO allies, irrelevant because in a crisis the missiles can be retargeted in seconds anyway.

But pause for a moment to consider what’s going on when such a comment even has to be made.

No, Russia won’t attack Europe. But this relationship has gotten pretty darn frosty. Russia’s feeling its oats with high oil prices and a weakened America, but it remains a poor, backwards giant with crumbling infrastructure, soaring TB and AIDS rates, and massive corruption. It would be best for the Kremlin to remember some of its structural weaknesses before it completely alienates all the major industrial powers.

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