Advice for a New Secretary of State, Part 7

In September ’17, I wrote a  series for Rex Tillerson:

Since Tillerson’s background was not that of a professional diplomat with think-tank imprinting, there seemed an opening for new ideas. Before Part 7 was published, he was replaced by equally capable Mike Pompeo, who had national security experience. So I held Part 7 back. It now follows.

The appointees of the new administration are career professionals. The experience confers both advantage and disadvantage:

  • Long acquaintance with the levers of power and gears of bureaucracy promote smooth policy execution.
  • Institutional and cultural biases tend to impede innovation. Some of the ideas in this series remain edgily innovative.

You might wonder why Part 7 is about Russia, and not China. It was written in the shadow of a recent hot war between Ukraine and Russia.   Russia continues to complicate our approach to China for visceral reasons that elude wide understanding. In the style of good briefing material, a major point of Russian strategy comes first:

In  the creation by social media of a whole new world, that world would be incomplete without war.

Advice for a New Secretary of State, Part 7

I was tempted to remark that Russian subversion of democracies is unethical, while a counter-strategy based operant conditioning is ethically  beyond reproach. But there is always a chance that the Russians might open up a little, as during Perestroika. Rather than negate the possibility, I’d like to leave them with something to chew on. Vladimir Putin now seems a combination of a modern man with a nationalist in the historical mold. People who are combinations contain the possibility of change.

Let’s consider what forms the external image of the U.S., and circle back to Nikki Haley’s “…that is warfare.”

Between 1920 and 1950, reservoirs of romantic sympathy  in the West for Bolshevik revolution gradually faded away, replaced by a true appreciation of the horrors. Six years later, on February 2, 1956, the first official denunciation within the Soviet Union came in Khrushchev’s secret speech. This was really the first “perestroika.” But starting from the base of an historic brutality, it was only an increment. Three generations have passed since that speech, enough time for Western Europe to abandon the nationalism of conflict dating to the Treaty of Westphalia.

With three generations, the salt of Russia’s earth still have one foot in the past.  That foot threatens to drag us all back to the conflicts of centuries. This is why we are so unnerved by Russian subversion. But perhaps the Russians don’t appreciate the value of what they are trying to destroy.

Historical comparisons can be made between  human rights violations in Russia, and in the West. There  is the appearance of qualitative overlap, but this neglects the numbers. Russia had Stalin’s purges. The U.S. had racial lynching. Russia had extrajudicial capital punishment, via the infamous NKVD “troika.”  In the U.S., capital punishment is inconsistently applied, in some cases, to innocents. Neither society is perfect, but numbers tell the story.

  • While 20+ millions died in Stalin’s purges, the Tuskegee Institute documents a total of 4,733 lynchings since 1882.
  • According to  a study cited by Newsweek, U.S. miscarriage of justice in cases involving capital punishment since 1973 has been about 4.1%. Since 1973, 144 people on death row have been exonerated.
  • Estimates that date from the 1990’s of the peak Gulag population vary,  the lowest cited in Wikipedia as 4.5 million. In the U.S.,  people have gone to jail for political reasons, for participation in the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War  movements, and some as almost purely as prisoners of conscience. Let the Russians come up with a list and we’ll do numbers.
  • U.S. and Russian covert activities in the Third World during the Cold War have significant symmetry. Manipulation of print and broadcast media correspond to social media manipulations. A good picture of this is given in the books by C.I.A. plank owner Miles Copeland. This epoch was swept away by the Church Committee, the Pike Committee, and so forth. Since then, concerns illuminated by legislative and public scrutiny, and leaks, have alternated in importance with the exigencies of 9/11.
  • The Russians may compare the former U.S. dominance in Latin America, interventions there, and the general attitude of the Monroe Doctrine, to the Iron Curtain of Eastern Europe. We don’t.

The above implies varying shades of gray, with occasional marks of black. The blackest mark on our record is the Vietnam War. Can we exonerate our fathers  by saying, “We were fighting communism?” This is not to argue with you if you think we can, but the Russians, and many others, do not share the thought.

As Americans, we are free to vigorously defend the above, to be shamed,  or accept them as bygone attitudes engendered by the Soviet threat. The purpose of this recapitulation is to understand Russian attitudes, particularly of the overhang of older individuals in the Russian government.

Vladimir Putin was born in the last year of Stalin’s life. His formative years were in a society of glacial change. One would have to be truly exceptional to escape the molding of Stalin’s ghost. But by comparison, he is better than any ruler the Russians have ever had. The one thing that has been lost, which gleamed so brightly under Boris Yeltsin, is the chance  of further evolution of Russian society. The chance has been traded for stability.

Suppose that instead of multiple views spanning decades, we take snapshots of each society at various points in time, but in comparison mix up all the dates so that we are comparing snapshots from different periods, and leave out numbers.  This kind of picture combines with  personal individuality, to form the attitudes of someone who was formerly a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. With the scrambling, how is that person to know that we have changed?

This hints at why the Kremlin thinks it acceptable to engage in subversion that by our social standards is (pick your adjective) unfair, dastardly, despicable, under-handed, not gentlemanly, reprehensible, evil,  etc.  Their possible reasons:

  • It’s no better or worse than what they use for internal social control.
  • Dredging from the Bolshevik past, “The capitalists want profits, and they will hang themselves with their own ropes.” It sounds ludicrous. But even after the words have lost all meaning, the sentiment remains. The Russians themselves may not be consciously aware of the origin.
  • Pure Comintern habit. The Comintern was the international organ of communist subversion. It was dissolved in 1943, but the melody lingers on.
  • A grudge against the West. Exclusion from EEC markets, the expansion of NATO, the loss of Ukraine, can be combined in the conspiratorial mind.
  • The loss of a sphere of influence.
  • Valuation of Russians above all other people. An escape clause.
  • Fear for the security of Russia, which is not groundless but very misdirected.
  • A new Cold war, or a sense that the old one never ended. War is the escape clause that legitimizes conduct that would otherwise  be universally condemned. Perhaps Nikki Haley is right.  In  the creation by social media of a whole new world, that world would be incomplete without war.
  • All of the above. The human mind likes to take a little bit of this, and a little bit of that.

What does this imply for our characterization of people behind the threat?



COVID 2nd Wave; How Our Behavior Influences Virulence

This continues from:

and earlier posts. Since most readers are occupied with politics, this piece is sketchier than I had planned. It has an advantage: It’s easy to pass on. It is so simplified, it could figure  in mainstream media.

We’ve seen that a virus doesn’t have brains, but it acts as though it does. Most viruses mutate constantly, with random results and no particular direction, unless a mutation confers a survival advantage. Here we consider why a virus might “choose” to  be patient, or impatient, and the advantages of each.

  • Patient virus. When people to infect are scarce, or hard to infect because they wear masks, a virus wants its host (infected person) to be walking around as long as possible, giving it the best chance of infecting more people. This means the virus can’t make the host too sick, or the host will die before Thanksgiving dinner.
  • Impatient virus. If hosts are plentiful and unprotected by masks or distancing, it’s in the interest of the virus to infect as many people as quickly  possible. This requires quick production of as many new virus particles as possible, which requires severe infection. The host  (sick person) could die, but the virus doesn’t care.  This has all the advantages of torching a restaurant to collect the insurance.

Which strategy works best influences evolution of a virus to a less or more virulent form:

  • If people are careful and vigilant, the tendency is a shift towards less virulence, milder disease.
  • If people are unguarded, as was the case in army camps in the 1918 flu epidemic, the tendency is a shift towards greater virulence, more severe diseases.

Which strategy works best for COVID-19  is determined by social distancing, and mask wearing. It’s up to us.

We’re finding out that many adult Americans think like children. This was written for a child.  It’s more transparent than adherent to the AP Style Manual, or the stilted style of academe. It loses nothing, except the pretense of sophistication, of models that can’t deliver.

Try it out on friends. Maybe you can teach them something.