Vale sober understatement

I’m surprised how exercised otherwise sober people are about Russia. The fear and loathing are often deep and strong, visceral almost. The latest example (and catalyst for these reflections) is today’s leader in The Economist.

Russia’s recent conduct is often framed narrowly as the start of a new cold war with America. In fact it poses a broader threat to countries everywhere because Mr Putin has driven a tank over the existing world order.

At one level, I suppose that’s true. After 20 years of being poked and prodded, the bear turned around and bared its teeth. The west is clearly taken aback. Get the damn thing back in its cage seems to be the prevailing sentiment. The cheek of the beast.

After briefly acknowledging the Iraq snafu, our writer gets back on track.

Since then Barack Obama has tried to fashion a more collaborative approach, built on a belief that America can make common cause with other countries to confront shared problems and isolate wrongdoers. This has failed miserably in Syria but shown some signs of working with Iran.

Well, yesss . . . although a dispassionate observer might ponder the oddity of US support for radical jihadi groups in Syria and wonder how that contributes to good order. Ditto with the aborted plans to strike Syria as punishment for the Assad government’s (still disputed) chemical attacks. He might also quietly note Russia’s diplomatic intervention Continue reading

Putin’s Speech on Crimea

So far, only part of Putin’s speech of the 18th March is available in English translation. It makes for interesting reading.

As it declared independence and decided to hold a referendum, the Supreme Council of Crimea referred to the United Nations Charter, which speaks of the right of nations to self-determination. Incidentally, I would like to remind you that when Ukraine seceded from the USSR it did exactly the same thing, almost word for word. Ukraine used this right, yet the residents of Crimea are denied it. Why is that?

Moreover, the Crimean authorities referred to the well-known Kosovo precedent – a precedent our western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities. Pursuant to Article 2, Chapter 1 of the United Nations Charter, the UN International Court agreed with this approach and made the following comment in its ruling of July 22, 2010, and I quote: “No general prohibition may be inferred from the practice of the Security Council with regard to declarations of independence,” and “General international law contains no prohibition on declarations of independence.” Crystal clear, as they say.

I do not like to resort to quotes, but in this case, I cannot help it. Continue reading

Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers

The noise and drama surrounding Putin, Russia and the Ukraine obscure crucial foreign policy principles. In “Lord Salisbury’s Lessons for Great Powers”, Robert Merry takes a closer look at what they might be.

First, avoid promiscuous jingoism of the kind that Salisbury despised—and that suffuses so much American commentary and political discourse today. This kind of talk, particularly coming from national leaders, ultimately undermines any nation’s global authority.

Once embarked upon, this pernicious habit is hard to turn off. Combative political and media constituencies thrive on such melodrama and prudent voices find it ever more difficult to be heard, much less listened to.

Second, avoid geopolitical controversies and crises that don’t affect directly the nation’s true strategic interests. A corollary principle is to avoid moralistic posturing, which only breeds national hypocrisy and leads inevitably to geopolitical overextension.

As Merry points out, “any hegemonic power inevitably will encounter multiple challenges at any given time, and hence it must assess carefully, in terms of its fundamental interests, the clashes it wishes to pursue.” To do otherwise is to court eventual exhaustion and ridicule. Continue reading

The Real Origins of Realpolitik | The National Interest

WHAT THEN, would Rochau have made of all this? Going back to his original definition, it appears that much of what masquerades as modern realpolitik has strayed quite far from the original essence of the term.

The first thing to note is that he was an enemy of lazy thinking. He would have been unimpressed with those versions of realism that resemble a knee-jerk reaction that responds to idealism with a roll of the eyes and retreats to its own set of tropes and doctrines.

Realpolitik does “not entail the renunciation of individual judgement and it requires least of all an uncritical kind of submission,” he wrote. It was more “appropriate to think of it as a mere measuring and weighing and calculating of facts that need to be processed politically.” Above all, it was not a strategy itself, but a way of thinking: an “enemy of . . . self-delusion” and “the misguided pride which characterises the human mind.”

What Rochau was attempting to articulate was not a philosophical position but a new way of understanding politics and the distribution of power. “Experience has shown that treating it along abstract-scientific lines, or on the basis of principles is hardly useful,” he wrote. One had to contend “with the historical product, accepting it as it is, with an eye for its strengths and weaknesses, and to remain otherwise unconcerned with its origins and the reasons for its particular characteristics.”

via The Real Origins of Realpolitik | The National Interest.

The Fat Drug | NYTimes.com

American kids are prescribed on average about one course of antibiotics every year, often for ear and chest infections. Could these intermittent high doses affect our metabolism?

To find out, Dr. Blaser and his colleagues have spent years studying the effects of antibiotics on the growth of baby mice. In one experiment, his lab raised mice on both high-calorie food and antibiotics. “As we all know, our children’s diets have gotten a lot richer in recent decades,” he writes in a book, “Missing Microbes,” due out in April. At the same time, American children often are prescribed antibiotics. What happens when chocolate doughnuts mix with penicillin?

The results of the study were dramatic, particularly in female mice: They gained about twice as much body fat as the control-group mice who ate the same food. “For the female mice, the antibiotic exposure was the switch that converted more of those extra calories in the diet to fat, while the males grew more in terms of both muscle and fat,” Dr. Blaser writes. “The observations are consistent with the idea that the modern high-calorie diet alone is insufficient to explain the obesity epidemic and that antibiotics could be contributing.”

via The Fat Drug – NYTimes.com.

The West’s Illusions About Ukraine | The National Interest

Superb, balanced piece on the Ukraine crisis.

But perhaps not. There is a road to deescalation. It does not consist in showing Putin “who’s boss,” as the US Russophobes (a majority of the commentariat and political class) wish to do, but rather in acknowledging certain basic principles. The framework for a settlement has been set forth by Henry Kissinger, writing in The Washington Post, and Thomas E. Graham, in The National Interest. Kissinger’s contribution was especially welcome; he has retreated from the hawkish stance he adopted after 9/11. He has come, it seems, to a greater appreciation of the limits of military force: “In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public support, all of which we did not know how to end and from three of which we withdrew unilaterally. The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.”

Kissinger rebukes all the main external players: Russia must understand that it cannot coerce Ukraine into satellite status; the West must acknowledge that Ukraine is a country in which Russia takes a deep and abiding interest; the EU should understand that “its bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination of the strategic element to domestic politics in negotiating Ukraine’s relationship to Europe contributed to turning a negotiation into a crisis.” He wisely counsels against steps that look like domination: Continue reading

The Two Cultures, Then and Now | Books and Culture

In “The Two Cultures” in 1959, C.P.Snow lamented the growing, almost wilful, mutual incomprehension that divided science and the humanities. Despite an initially muted response the lecture and subsequent article became famous and even today remain the touchstone for this perennial (and occasionally tiresome) debate.

Snow also had another, more pragmatic concern; because the political elite was drawn almost entirely from the humanities, they were in his view ill suited to make best use of the stunning advances in science and technology.

As Alan Jacobs argues in “The Two Cultures, Then and Now”, this concern didn’t necessarily accord all that well with the facts.

I don’t suppose anyone today would say that the problem with our politicians is that they are too deeply immersed in humanistic learning. Even in Snow’s time and in Britain, the picture was far more complicated than he let on. When Snow delivered his Rede Lecture, the prime minister of the United Kingdom was Harold Macmillan, an Old Etonian who read classics at Oxford (and received a first-class degree); Macmillan fit to a T Snow’s picture of the “traditional culture,” But by the time Snow died in 1980, the holder of that office was Margaret Thatcher, who often said that she was less proud of being the first female prime minister than of being the first with a science degree. I suspect that Snow, a lifelong member of the Labour Party, was not especially consoled by Thatcher’s status as a chemist. Moreover, the P.M. who made Snow minister of technology and elevated him to the peerage was Harold Wilson, the most academically gifted of 20th-century British politicians, who read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford and then became a lecturer in economic history there at the ripe old age of twenty-one.

At any rate, for much of the essay Jacobs concerns himself with what seems to me far more interesting territory. The problem, as he sees it, is not so much this intermittent antagonism between the two cultures but the degree to which our current education systems cripple both. Continue reading