« IS takes three Kurdish towns and threatens the Mosul dam | Main | VOA interview with Peter Eisner on "The Italian Letter" »

04 August 2014


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


USG is clearly out of date by at least a decade and a half, or more likely, two or more, when it comes to Russia. After all, isn't that when we supposedly "won" the Cold War? If my speculation is right and no serious Russia experts came near the loci of power in USG since then, I shudder to think how out of date our information about the rest of the world (besides Russia and its surroundings) are. Of course, this means that we know nothing of what Putin has managed to accomplish in Russia, beyond the fact that we apparently aren't supposed to like him much, or understand why he enjoys the kind of support that he apparently does.


I have some rather offbeat suggestions regarding WWI reading:

1. "The Great War and Modern Memory", by Paul Fussell
It's been a few years since I read it, but IIRC, it gives a sense of how European ideas and psychology shifted in response to the psychic traumas of WWI.

2. "All Quiet on the Western Front"
The Nazi's burned it in the 30s, as subversive. Written from a German soldier's perspective, about the trenches.

3. "The Culture of Space and Time: 1880 - 1918", by Stephen Kern (1983)
I'll comment further below and hope that my remarks are relevant to this extraordinary post. I'd describe this book as a cultural history that provides rich context for the period leading up to WWI, and has some powerful insights about causes contributing to WWI that I've not encountered elsewhere.

"Gods and Monsters", with Lynn Redgrave, Ian McKellan, and Brendan Fraser.

"The War Horse"
(I actually saw the play onstage and it was stunning; the story is moving and it underscores the fact that men were still going off to war on horseback.... to fight in trenches and find themselves up against tanks.)

(I don't know whether you have video streaming; if so, these films should be available via Netflix if you have that service.)


DH and all -

DH quotes Collingwood: "'It happened because a situation got out of hand. As it went on, the situation got more and more out of hand. When the peace treaty was signed, it was more out of hand than ever.'

The reasons behind things spiraling out of control are often attributed to the activities of diplomats, politicians, and military commanders. However, to my mind there are other more fundamental -- and worrying -- factors that ought to be included in the discussion.

Stephen Kern's "The Culture of Space and Time: 1880- 1918" covers many of the technical and cultural developments of the period leading up to WWI. The sense of space and time were being fundamentally altered -- by the telephone (1876), railroads (which required a standardized system of time), wireless, automobiles, airplanes -- all of which collapsed space and seemed to accelerate time in the decades leading up to 1914.

The shifts in perception were reflected in new forms of art: pointillism, Impressionism, Cubism (from which camouflage likely derived), jazz.

Cinema had broken time into discrete segments, and this had far-ranging implications on everything from industrial production to military planning.

Standardizing time had become a significant problem.

Kern explains that a person traveling in 1870 from DC to San
Francisco, if he set his watch at each town as he passed through, would have to set his watch over 200 times. In 1870, the US had 80 different railroad times (Philadelphia was 5 minutes behind NYC). The need to coordinate railroads and telegraph messages drove the need for a standard time; the railroads imposed Standard Time in Nov. 1883 -- a generation before the outbreak of WWI.

In 1891, German Count von Moltke appealed to the German Parliament for adoption of a standard time -- Germany had 5 time zones -- as a means to coordinate military planning. He did not foresee that the implementation of the Schlieffen Plan would occur because of a standardized system of time (as well as a strong railroad system).

The Germans had learned the value of railroads for mobilization against the French in 1870, and Moltke had ordered, "Build no more fortresses - build railways!" By the second decade of the 20th century, Germany had a solid network of railways.

By the time the first decades of the 20th century arrived, the novelties of the telephone and wireless were subverting the age-old traditions of aristocratic diplomats, who had valued face-to-face negotiations.

Instead, leading up to August 1914, the diplomats lost control of the policy process as new technologies enabled the Kaiser to phone his cousin the Czar, and threats, ultimatums, and short deadlines overtook the ability of diplomats to engage in nuanced negotiations.

News reports, memos, telegrams overtook the ability of diplomats and policy makers to do a thoughtful job, and probably also short-circuited the kinds of personal relationships that might have prevented war.

Between 23 July and 4 August 1914, there were 5 ultimatums with short timelines; each of these threatened war unless demands were made in short order. This built pressure on diplomats, while the newspapers inflamed public passions: the pressure for action increased.

The Schlieffen Plan was premised on first-action, and the Germans assumed they would win the war if they could implement their plan before their enemies could respond. Consequently, mobilization (perhaps for the first time in European history?) became the equivalent of initiating war.

The development of 'time-saving technology' seems to have precipitated a situation in which the pressure to act quickly outstripped sensible judgment. The new technologies were used to justify urgent threats, and the use of mass communication inflamed public sentiment.

In our present age of the Internet, Twitter, and 'rapid-response' ,have we have outstripped our ability to think judiciously?

Add onto this factor of compressed time, the problem of so-called leaders who behave in adolescent, almost juvenile fashion (think R2Pers, and Nuland). This kind of obnoxious behavior increases the risks of imprudent conduct.

Add onto these factors the *possibility* of a rogue operation out of Kiev, and we have a formula for disaster.

Like VV and a few others here, I am starting to live in a state of something like dread.

Cooler heads need to prevail. At present, those cooler heads seem to lie with Dempsey, and quite possibly Putin. The irony...!

David Habakkuk


I had not noted the absence of Boeing involvement until Anna-Marina and VV pointed it out. It certainly does nothing to quieten suspicions.

One thing about which I am getting more confused is whether different hypotheses about how the plane was downed entail different conclusions about what would be likely to be on the 'black boxes'.

If they do, then the question of whether we have good reason to believe that the testing at Farnborough is done in such a manner as to guarantee that there is no possibility of fraud becomes critical.

It seems to me an open question whether analysts there could be manipulable. On the one hand, it appears that analysts at Porton Down were instrumental in bringing out the truth about the Ghouta atrocity; on the other, the history of tests for polonium contamination done by Aldermaston in relation to the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko strongly suggests they were complicit in a cover-up.

Vaclav Linek

Thank you Margaret, that is a vote for Sleepwalkers. The trick now is to get started. I was aware of Macmillan's book as a competitor to Clark's, but most seem to prefer Clark's book.

Vaclav Linek

Thank you Dubhaltach, for your generous comment. You've made it a 3-way race between Guns, Sleepwalkers, and Stevenson's History. I've acquired bits and pieces picked up from odd places, e.g., I learned about anti-German sentiment in the U.S. prior to entry and "liberty cabbage" from a book on the Spanish flu, and I watched a talk online of Clark promoting his book. I actually have a copy of Guns somewhere, but thought to weigh it against the more recent books before digging in (after digging it out).

Vaclav Linek

Thank you readerOfTeaLeaves, especially for reminding me of All Quiet, which I actually read way back in school and had forgotten about! Would be worth rereading. Your first suggestion intrigues me as I read a book about the Van Gogh forgeries and life in the Weimar Republic by Modris Ecksteins, "Solar Dance", which dealt with some of the psychological impact on society of WWI. I am really not a horse person, I must say, but I could probably find a DVD of War Horse and give it a shot (no pun intended).

David Habakkuk


I would absolutely agree with everything you write.

Some tentative thoughts in response.

In relation to British imperial experience, it may be relevant that the distinctive nature of Indian society, both the religious issues involved and the critical issue of caste, facilitated imperial control over a population which was not simply 'primitive' in the way that was the case in, for instance, most of Africa.

But 'divide et impera' can only be practised on the basis of understanding. Moreover, there were clear penalties for obtuseness, as we discovered in 1857.

What is bizarre now is the combination of an unreal sense of danger relating to non-existent or grossly exaggerated threats, with a lack of any sense of danger relating to our current practice of making actually or potentially unstable areas of the world even more unstable (pushing Humpty-Dumpty off the wall, one might call it.)

As regards alien cultures, it is certainly not necessary either to agree with or to 'respect' them. What however strikes me is the apparent marginalisation of a sense of interest – which I think has catastrophic consequences for intelligence.

An example from British intelligence history may be to the point. The unit in MI6 which handled the material from Enigma relating to the Abwehr, the German intelligence service, was headed by Hugh Trevor-Roper. A classicist turned historian of early modern Europe – and a strange, feline creature – his response to the chaos of the time was to identify strongly with an eighteenth-century Enlightenment tradition.

But he made sense of the accumulating evidence about the nature of the Nazi regime through a perspective shaped by a tradition of interpretation of despotism going back through Gibbon to Tacitus, and knowledge of millenarian and apocalyptic cults in early modern Europe.

Doing so enabled him to see something which both Roosevelt and Churchill failed to grasp – that the view of the Second World War as a continuation of its predecessor, and the enemy as 'Prussianism', was at best a half-truth, and a dangerous one at best, obscuring the radical gulf in attitudes between the nihilistic millenarians of the 'Sicherheitsdienst' and the German General Staff.

One of the most fascinating counterfactuals of the war is what might have happened had Trevor-Roper's attempts to get the British to respond to the overtures from the Abwehr chief Admiral Canaris born fruit.


"Of course, this means that we know nothing of what Putin has managed to accomplish in Russia, beyond the fact that we apparently aren't supposed to like him much, or understand why he enjoys the kind of support that he apparently does."

Exactly. In the '90s, oligarchs felt no need to pay wages to workers or taxes to the government, preferring to offshore every kopek they could get their hands on. Hence, workers suffered and the government was bankrupt.

And the FreeMarketReformers were fine with this.

When Putin arrived, he offered the oligarchs a deal: Keep your swag from the '90s, but behave from this point on.

Most took him up on it. Several refused and tried to do as they had before. And when these were exiled or jailed, the Angosphere Foreign Policy Elite and Punditocracy (AFPE&P) howled with outrage at Putin 'violating their human rights'

However, the Russian people know by their own experience that they now live far better than they did while FreeMarketReformers were running the place. This is the simple reason Putin is popular with Russians. The AFPE&P say its because the Russian government dominates Russian media and propagandizes the ignorant masses. The AFPE&P lie about this, from both ignorance and malice.

David Habakkuk

Peter Brownlee,

As to Cameron, the only job he ever did before becoming an MP, apart from working for the Tory Party, was doing PR for a somewhat dodgy television company. He seems to me a rhetorician who cannot escape from the fantasy world created by his own rhetoric.

But then, is that Obama rather similar?

David Habakkuk

rkka, kao_hsien_chih

I broadly agree with rkka's last comment.

Another point may be worth bringing into the discussion. One thing that Oxford University does rather well nowadays, perhaps ironically, is mafia studies – they have two splendid Italian professors, Diego Gambetta and Federico Varese. As the latter put it in his 2011 study ‘Mafias on the Move’:

'A relatively recent body of research has shown that mafias emerge in societies that are undergoing a sudden and late transition to a market economy, lack a legal structure that reliably protects property rights or settles business disputes, and have a supply of people trained in violence who become unemployed at this specific juncture.'

An interesting feature of this work is that a great deal of it is really an application of 'rational choice' theory. Applied in the conditions of the Soviet Union in the Nineties, 'shock therapy' actually created pressing 'rational' incentives leading to extensive criminalisation.

If property rights cannot be protected by an effective state, they will be protected by private enterprise – which means mafias. And if at the same time a vast military, intelligence and internal security apparatus is being demobilised, some of its members have the strongest incentives to join mafias.

Some kind of reconstruction of the Russian state – and also of Russian patriotism – was clearly necessary if large parts of Eurasia were not to be permanently locked in a state of criminalised anarchy.

People can legitimately disagree about the merits and demerits of Putin's approaches, and the interpenetration between organised crime, supposedly 'legitimate' business and politics continues to be a massive problem.

However, any argument based upon the belief Russia was 'on the right lines' in the Yeltsin years quite patently makes it impossible to understand what the possibilities are in the country today – in particular as, precisely as rkka says, it leads to the conclusion that Putin's supporters are suffering from a massive case of 'false consciousness'.

David Habakkuk

Vaclav Linek, readerOfTeaLeaves,

Another interesting book by Modris Eksteins is 'Rites of Spring'. It deals with the relationship of Nazism to modernist culture, and covers some of the ground discussed by readerOfTeaLeaves in his fascinating comment below.

David Habakkuk



With regard to economics, I share your scepticism. One problem, as I understand it, has to do with the nature of systems. Here I am out of my depth, but it seems that part of the problem with the use of mathematics has to do with facile assumptions about the kind of systems with which economists are dealing. In many complex systems, relationships are non-linear, so that small changes in one variable can lead to major and unpredictable changes in others. Meanwhile, rather than seeking a single -- benign -- equilibrium, such systems may have multiple equilibria, or even no propensity to seek equilibrium at all.

There is I believe a great deal of mathematics to do with such systems, but whether it can be applied to economics in a manner which is more than suggestive I simply do not know.

Meanwhile, anyone who watches markets at all closely becomes aware of the role of herd behaviour. This is characteristically a complex mixture of 'rational' and 'irrational' elements, which perhaps makes it unsurprising that economists have done so little work on it.

A bizarre upshot is that we have a situation where economics as a discipline is highly mathematical, but where the theoreticians who have taken over our central banks actually spend a great deal of time in what are essentially 'information operations', one of whose prime purposes appears to be to move the 'herd' in the desired direction.

An unfortunate side effect is that it becomes very difficult to have confidence in pronouncements of those in authority, in economics as in other matters.

As to the willingness of 'herds' to be led, in economics as in other matters, and the decline of the culture of independence, this is something which is patent. Doubtless some of this has to do with the ability of representative institutions to bribe people with their own money. But this cannot be an explanation for the diminishing willingness of journalists to question official claims, even where, as with MH17, these patently do not make sense.

William R. Cumming

Reader of Tea Leaves! Thanks for tis comment! So will Social Media influence the outbreak of a new war in Europe west of the Urals? Perhaps a war already!


For those who haven't yet seen it, the Saker has a "detailed expert analysis" of the MH17 downing.

I've only read some of it so far (it's a 25 page PDF report) but it looks useful.



Re this "expert analysis", it's late here and I may be misinterpreting things but some of both his methodology and calculations on pages 6-8 seem iffy.

David Habakkuk


As a sometimes television current affairs 'hack' who benefited enormous from having spent time as a graduate trainee on the Liverpool Echo, and later spent happy hours delving into the underworlds of local politics in London and Birmingham, the last thing I would be stupid enough to do would be to contemptuous of a 'police reporter hack.' A major problem with much of the MSM today is that those producing it are no longer down-to-earth, in the way that old-style newspaper reporters commonly were.

The piece to which 'Ingolf' links below, and also if I recall right an earlier comment he posted, argues that the impression that the patterns of damage match those one would expect from cannon is unfounded. It is also not clear to me whether an Su-25 operating at the limits of its altitude range, could use a cannon effectively (as distinct from a rocket.) That said, at the moment it seems to me sensible not to rule anything out until we have unambiguous evidence.

As to the scale of the furore which may be about to break, I think you could well be right. It may still be that I, and TTG, and others on this blog sceptical about the conventional wisdom about the MH17 affair are barking up the wrong tree. But if we are not, Western governments may have backed themselves into a corner. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that if indeed elements among the Kiev authorities are responsible, it will be very difficult to suppress the fact.

David Habakkuk


'Unlike Cerberus with multiple heads, we have multiple tails'.

Absolutely. How one reconstructs some kind of foreign policy 'establishment' which can set define a foreign policy based upon a reasonably 'rational' conception of U.S. interests seems to me a $60,000 question.

In a recent lecture, Anatol Lieven said something along the lines of the uniformed military being the only significant conservative force in U.S. foreign policy. It is not a happy situation.

Vaclav Linek

I heard a recent interview of a Chinese academic who saw the tilt as an unfriendly gesture to China. He referred to the disputed islands between China and other Asian countries and said the tilt was not helpful in resolving them. On SST years ago the balance of power in the Pacific was discussed vis-a-vis, China but it doesn't seem to be under the (first few?) China threads. I couldn't even hazard a guess about the degree of willingness (to go to war) that the tilt signifies.

Vaclav Linek

First off, thank you for your post!

Historian Tim Snyder seems to be one of those believers in reversibility, saying recently that what really took the West by surprise (in the Ukraine conflict) was the empire building project of Russia. Alex Braun gave an interview on CBC

Re 5th columns, a Chinese friend told me that, in response to the devastating economic collapse of Russia in the later 1990's after being flooded with western economic advisors, every child in China was taken aside by their teacher and told how it was proof positive that the U.S. could not be trusted.

Babak Makkinejad

I think that technical and organizational advances and changes that you have enumerated do not account for World War I; they were mere enablers.

The fundamental policy mistake by all actors was the assumption of quick war - one way or another.

This assumption particularly seems to afflict war planners and policy makers in many places and times; US Civil War being a notable one.

More often than not...

Babak Makkinejad

And my view is that if you cannot afford to go to war, as the ultimate arbiter, then perhaps you need to fundamentally revise your policy postures.

David Habakkuk



What frightens me is not only the intensity of the animus against Russia, but the intolerance of Westerners who have reservations about it.

In exchanges of comments on a piece he posted back in April, the chief foreign affairs commentator of the FT, Gideon Rachman, wrote: 'Greetings from Kiev to all my readers. I must thank the Kremlin for taking out so many subscriptions to the FT.'

(See http://blogs.ft.com/the-world/2014/04/putins-partying-with-schroeder-highlights-german-and-russian-ties/?infernofullcomment=1&SID=google .)

It would certainly in no way surprise me if there are 'information operations' orchestrated by the Russian security services. However, the kind of observations which provoked these denunciations are not significantly different from those which notorious Kremlin 'trolls' like VietnamVet, walrus, confusedponderer, and myself have posted on this site.

Indeed if TTG, who as we all know has strong family roots in the Lithuanian resistance, were to post on the FT site the kind of observations he has made here, he would find himself being vociferously accused of being a kind of Kremlin 'penny-a-liner.'

As to the origins of this animus, another interesting view comes from a Cambridge (UK) academic called David Lane. It may be too rationalistic, but it is I think at least worth thinking about. In conclusion, Lane writes:

“Why Putin and his associates are regarded so disapprovingly by many politicians and journalists is because they challenge the universality of the version of capitalist globalisation and electoral democracy advocated academically, and pursued politically, by the agents of the West. ‘Sovereign democracy’ is an ideological and political challenge to the Western notion of ‘global democracy’. Putin’s policy of strengthening a form of national capitalism presents an alternative, a model which already has an affinity with China, and has a resonance with countries such as India, and Latin America. It might also appeal to others in the West seeking to retain more powers for the nation state – as a depository of democracy and economic regulation, which is widely regarded as being undermined by interests benefitting from political and economic neo-liberal globalisation.”

(See http://valdaiclub.com/politics/70060.html .)

David Habakkuk

Ishmael Zechariah,

You raise what have long seemed to me absolutely critical questions. They are ones I find quite difficult, not least because the social milieus in which my wife and I have spent our lives are to a large extent Anglo-Jewish.

A further problem is that it is difficult to know when it is, and is not, appropriate to bring very close friends and family members into discussions like this one. However, I do not think that I am betraying anyone if I say something about my family's Christmas celebrations over recent years.

Sometimes they have been spent with West Ukrainian nationalists, whose family history however encapsulates many of the tensions which – encouraged by idiots in Washington, Warsaw, and London – have led Ukraine to disaster.

At other times, we have celebrated with descendants of a collaborator of Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky, and also a descendant of a South African Jew who served in the British Army in both world wars.

I think he was underage when he volunteered for the 1914-18 war, rather than overage in its successor – these matters do get somewhat complex.

But it is difficult for me simply to denounce 'dual loyalty', because I know that there are many Jews for whom a deep commitment to Israel has coexisted with a deep loyalty to Britain. And such people have not uncommonly made a very valuable contribution to British life.

A lot more can be, and needs to be, said about all this. But, briefly, it increasingly seems to me that in looking at the current situation one needs to take into account two distinct but related elements.

There seems to be a consistent pattern, in the United States, where the empowerment of Jews has, in practice, meant the empowerment of those Jews who are happy – either through naivety, or cynicism, or some bizarre combination of the two – to buy into the delusional myths of American nationalism.

It is also important to take into account the fact that the Jewish enthusiasm for education produces over-educated idiots, as well as many people of learning and wisdom. (Contrast Richard Perle or Richard Pipes, with Stephen F. Cohen.)

Another matter of some moment has to do with the legacy of past traumas. The notion that all Jews belong to some kind of cohesive 'people', whose capital is in Jerusalem, and whose true leaders are Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni, Avigor Lieberman and other such thugs, is patent BS.

However, the legacies of the the past give thugs like these a hold on other Jews from which they commonly find it difficult to escape.


DH, thanks for the suggestion -- Rites of Spring looks very interesting.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

February 2021

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
Blog powered by Typepad