Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Primer on Modern History

The study of modern history is needlessly complicated. Unfortunately, most history teachers and professors spent their lives studying only a single subject or lived in only a few countries, rendering them unable to provide the context students so desperately need. I have tried below to provide a simple framework everyone should be able to agree upon. Without such a framework, historical understanding will fracture, and humanity will continue to repeat the same mistakes.
Since 1945, every single government and military has been focused on attaining or preventing others from attaining nuclear weapons. After the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending WWII, politicians and military leaders realized the existing defense/protection paradigm no longer applied. A country with the most skilled troops, superior munitions, most efficient supply chains, best hygiene (to prevent disease, which often killed more soldiers than active combat), and even superior strategy would not necessarily win as had been the case in the past. Now, only three things mattered: technology and the ability and willingness to use it. Developing brawn had given way to developing brains and gaining (accurate) information.

Military budgets increased R&D funding and began to emphasize covert operations. How could countries identify the best minds in the world and entice them to relocate? (e.g., Operation Paperclip.) When was a first strike politically acceptable? How could one determine whether a recruit would keep secrets? 

Such a shift required a mix of intrigue, psychology, persuasion, media influence, and propaganda. The intelligence communities realized they would be key players in the new paradigm and, in an era prior to CCTVs and ubiquitous technological surveillance, reliable human assets and agents would be the difference between victory and defeat. Furthermore, where soft power and persuasion would not work, assassinations and abductions would--preferably through a third party ally. (Evidence: Operation Damocles; Israel assassinating Iranian nuclear scientist Masoud Alimohammadi, Majid Shahriar, Darioush Rezaeinejad, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, and possibly Ardeshir Hassanpour, mimicking USA's strategy against Germany.) 

Such immoral tactics were not enough for military and intelligence units, which resorted to false flag operations or coups on a much wider scale. [e.g., Gulf of Tonkin, Lavon Affair/Operation Susannah, 
Operation Ajax (1953), Operation Musketeer (1956)] Whereas many experts agree the United States won WWII in large part because it entered the war later with fresher troops, more intelligence (including codebreaking), and more unity, democratic regimes now had to contend with international operations interfering with domestic governance. 

Such domestic resistance was unexpected and had the potential to upend military alliances post-WWII, which involved important economic treaties and investments. (See “most favored nation” clause, which used USA's stronger currency to tilt trade in its favor: “The American workman, by 1960, had the highest standard of living in the world, and all due to what they genteelly called ‘the most favored nation’ clause in every commercial transaction with the East.” – Philip K. Dick

The failure of Western governments to foresee strong domestic resistance to international policies led to more secrecy and a lack of transparency in the name of national security, both at home and abroad. The private security industry, not subject to invasive government oversight, had begun its ascent. British-based Securicor is one example. In 1953, it specialized in delivery and logistics, eventually making its way into the telecom (aka surveillance and data-gathering) business. Today, it is part of G4S, the world's largest security company. With 585,000 employees, G4S is the world's third largest private sector employer and the largest in Europe and Africa. (See Logan (2017) for a dystopian view of the possible evolution of private security firms.) 

Returning to the 1960s, covert operations and violations of territorial sovereignty (Operation Menu) became more accepted within governments as America realized its superior armaments were not working in Vietnam even as nuclear energy and weapons were becoming more widespread, necessitating alliances that created two camps: one pro-Soviet Union (which in practice often also meant pro-China) and the other, pro-American. Meanwhile, existing and aspiring world leaders slowly started to understand that favorable (or in the case of Vietnam, unfavorable) media coverage and asymmetrical warfare—later used by Osama bin Laden—could defeat larger powers or at least convince them to leave. Like private security firms, the general media industries--in this case, television and radio--began their steady ascent. 

Its ability to influence world affairs now seemingly in jeopardy due to increasing Chinese and Soviet influence in Asia and Eastern Europe as well as domestic turmoil, America began addressing matters under its direct control more forcefully. Namely, American police began using the same tactics as the military and intelligence communities on their own people. (Potential lesson: once the military uses a particular strategy successfully, it is only a matter of time before the civilian government deploys similar strategies.) 

Surveillance, infiltration, and financially-debilitating lawsuits were used against antiwar groups and activists from MLK to Muhammad Ali to John Lennon. The term “law and order” became a justification for a proxy war against protesters, later morphing into President Reagan’s "War on Drugs." Ironically, countervailing forces that bolstered social change came partly from the military, which had relied on greater female participation in the private workforce during war as well as soldiers of color, including but not limited to Jackie Robinson

Politicians like America's Joseph McCarthy had used the media to blacklist anyone deemed an adversarial nonconformist in the 1950s at the same time the Soviet Union and its satellite forces were blacklisting and jailing dissidents. As power-hungry politicians gained more power, propaganda against dissenters became more widespread, with police officers in some jurisdictions ordered to attack nonviolent protestors while federal agencies (J. Edgar Hoover) spied on civil rights leaders. As the lines between international and domestic operations became blurred, the Watergate scandal was a natural and inevitable result. (See The Most Dangerous Man in America (2009).) 

Were it not for the courageous work of American whistleblowers and journalists (All the President’s Men (1976)), who often ignored conservative legal advice from their own employers, secretive operations would have continued without abatement. Unfortunately, civilian resistance movements against the Eastern Establishment were not as strong as ones in the West, maintaining the East's status quo--a status quo that would later prove to be unsustainable, essentially bankrupting the Soviet Union and ending its petro-military-industrial economic model. 

In the West, where the status quo was fraying, giving rise to greater diversity, foreign powers took advantage of the superpowers’ distractions in Asia and Southeast Asia to cooperate outside designated U.S. or Soviet-led alliances, including economically, much in the same way China would later take advantage of America’s failure to “pivot to Asia” after the costly and counterproductive 2003 Iraq War. (See, for example, creation of ASEAN in 1967. Note also that long before the 2003 Iraq invasion, “mid-level” countries like Argentina and Iran were working together to resume nuclear cooperation, only to see outside events interfere with their relationships, such as the Buenos Aires 1992 embassy bombing, in which neither Argentina nor Iran strangely derived any benefit.)

In 1973, the OPEC embargo added yet another disruptor to the existing world order, namely the integrity of the oil supply chain, which formed the underlying basis of the U.S. dollar’s strength and numerous economic treaties. Post-Nixon and the cessation of active armed conflict between the West and the East, economic statecraft became the way forward, with America’s mighty Navy and more developed financial markets giving the West a clear advantage over the East. Trade, oil, weapons development, and continued control of nuclear energy would dominate international relations until the birth of the internet in the 1990s. The formal dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991 provided America with the opportunity to create what President George Bush, formerly the CIA's Director, called a “new world order” on September 11, 1990, a period lasting until September 11, 2001. America's invasion of Iraq in 2003, driven by falsified pretenses, shattered America's reputation, allowing other countries to vie for global dominance. And here we are

Bonus: another historical pattern is that when two countries enter into a treaty—whether to avoid war or after a conflict—often only one party intends on upholding the terms. The other party uses the break in tensions to disarm—both literally and figuratively—the other signatory, eventually invading the former enemy and prevailing through political chicanery.

Bonus: from Allison J. Truitt's Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City (2013): "The United States' massive military expenditures in Southeast Asia led to the collapse of its ability to maintain the dollar's fixed value relative to gold. When the US government put an end to the dollar's convertibility in 1971, it ushered in a new era of more flexible and more volatile exchange rates." 

Bonus: counterpoint from Singapore's Kishore Mahbubani's Has the West Lost It? (2018)
Bonus: if you enjoyed this post, you may also like this one: Ports, Finance, Power, and Free Trade

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