Category Archives: U.S.

Nuclear war was imminent in 1983. Who knew?

Recently declassified documents show a NATO military exercise in 1983 came close to provoking a war with the Soviet Union. Moscow misinterpreted the exercise, called “Able Archer”, as actual preparation for war and responded immediately, The Guardian writes:

“As Able Archer commenced, the Kremlin gave instructions for a dozen aircraft in East Germany and Poland to be fitted with nuclear weapons. In addition, around 70 SS-20 missiles were placed on heightened alert, while Soviet submarines carrying nuclear ballistic missiles were sent under the Arctic ice so that they could avoid detection.”

“The cabinet secretary at the time, Sir Robert Armstrong, briefed Thatcher that the Soviets’ response did not appear to be an exercise because it “took place over a major Soviet holiday, it had the form of actual military activity and alerts, not just war-gaming, and it was limited geographically to the area, central Europe, covered by the Nato exercise which the Soviet Union was monitoring”.”

The episode shows two things. First, Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric against the USSR in the early 1980s was more dangerous than we thought, as it gave Moscow reason to believe an attack was in the works. Second, it shows that the by far the most likely cause of nuclear war is accident or misunderstanding. There is nor rational reason to start a nuclear war, as long as mutual destruction is assured. But false information over an imminent attack can upend this balance from one moment to another. In the words of Peter Burt, director of the Nuclear Information Service (NIS):

“The Cold War is sometimes described as a stable ‘balance of power’ between east and west, but the Able Archer story shows that it was in fact a shockingly dangerous period when the world came to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe on more than one occasion.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe, Russia, U.S.

Is Janet Yellen the Most Powerful Woman in World History?

The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien has a bold claim: Janet Yellen, the soon-to-be Fed Chair, will be the most powerful woman ever. While Queen Victoria, Maggie Thatcher and Merkel were or are very powerful, O’Brien argues, their power was limited by their countries’ borders. Yellen, on the other hand, will determine the economic fate of a country dominating the world economy, which gives her “more control over the global economy than any other living person once she’s confirmed as Fed Chair”.

The argument sounds compelling, but I think O’Brien overestimates the Fed’s power. Sure, the Fed could do some serious damage –  as it did with some bad decisions in 1929. But Neo-Keynesian thinkers have made a pretty compelling case that monetary policy itself can only go so far, and loses much of its impact when interest rates start nearing zero. The post-2008 crisis is a case in point. The Fed’s quantitative easing may have prevented further damage, but it was unable to create significant economic growth by itself. As long as fiscal policy doesn’t play along, Janet Yellen will by no means decide the fate of the world economy.

She will be very powerful, sure. But she won’t rule half the world – as Queen Victoria did. She arguably won’t even have as much influence as Angela Merkel, who holds the keys to Europe’s economic future.

Here’s the link:

Leave a comment

Filed under Global, U.S.

Weimar’s Lesson for the Tea Party

As political analysts around the world are wondering how on earth the standoff in Washington can come to an end, perhaps the more interesting question is what the shutdown will do to U.S. democracy in the long run. Weimar Germany offers a useful lesson here.

I know this is a tough sell to Americans, who tend to see their political system as so “exceptional” that comparisons to any other country are futile. But while Weimar Germany was radically different from today’s U.S., they share one very important trait: widespread disillusionment with the democratic system. Weimar shows that an unwillingness to cooperate in parliament can go a long way towards destroying a democracy.

Just a quick note up-front: I won’t claim that Republicans and Democrats have much in common with Nazis and Communists, and I don’t think the U.S. will be ruled by a fascist dictator anytime soon.

That said, the late Weimar Republic was suffering from a severe case of bipartisan (actually sept- or octpartisan) bickering that sounds awfully familiar. Germany was more or less a functioning democracy until 1930, when a grand coalition of several democratic parties led by the social democratic SPD split up over a dispute on social-spending cuts.

From 1930 until Hitler’s victory in 1933, no government had a majority in parliament. Chancellors Brüning, Papen and Schleicher had to rule by presidential decree and parliament was dissolved four times in three years. This state of chaos was the result of the parties in parliament refusing to cooperate on any issue.

The parties of the dissolved grand coalition lost their majority in the election of September 1930, which meant that any majority government would have to include a non-democratic party. The SPD and the Communists of the KPD shared many policy priorities and could have ruled together, but the KPD had categorically ruled out any cooperation. It followed Stalin’s theory of “social fascism”, claiming the SPD was the greatest enemy of the working class – more so than the Nazis.

Similarly, Hitler’s NSDAP was unwilling to cooperate with any party that supported a parliamentary democracy Hitler derogatorily called the “system”.

Hitler’s rise had much to do with his charisma, anger at the treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression. But parliament’s dysfunction – its inability to reach decisions by majority – was crucial in making voters disillusioned with democracy.

A similar process is noticeable in today’s U.S. Multi-party coalitions are obviously not an issue here. Unlike Weimar, the two-party system guarantees there is almost always a working majority in each chamber of parliament. But the impasse between House and Senate has the same effect as the lack of majorities in Weimar: It is impossible to pass a budget through the democratic process. And like Weimar, the impasse is the result of hardliners categorically refusing to cooperate.

By hardliners, I mean the Tea Party. Much has been written about both sides being at fault, but this is clearly a crisis created by a far-right group sticking to demands everyone knows can never be met – in effect refusing to cooperate. The Tea Party is intent not on running a country, but on bringing down a democratically elected government – a goal it shares with the non-democratic parties of the Weimar Republic.

Weimar shows how dangerous this strategy is. Germans voted a fascist in power in part because they saw that democracy was no longer functioning. The longer Congress is unable to do its job, the more Americans will think their system is broken – as polls show they already do.

Americans will never vote a politician as bad as Hitler into power. His rise was the product of very unique circumstances. America’s democratic tradition is much stronger than Weimar’s, and any demagogue will still consider him- or herself a democrat.

But what U.S. voters may soon do is fall for a populist politician who offers to clean up a complicated and dysfunctional democratic system. This could be a Sarah-Palin type or a more charismatic version of Ted Cruz on the right, or it could be a left-wing populist. Weimar shows that as democracy descends into chaos, voters start to long for simple solutions and a strong hand to end the bipartisan bickering. But populism and simplistic solutions are always dangerous because they undermine the foundation of democratic governance – compromise and reason.

America’s democratic system has functioned well for over two hundred years because the people trusted and supported it. Once this trust is gone, the damage may well be permanent.

Leave a comment

Filed under U.S.

Government Shutdown? No Big Deal, Apparently

The U.S. government is heading for a shutdown, but it may not be as serious as it sounds. In WSJ’s Washington Wire blog, Damian Paletta writes that there have been 17 partial government shutdowns in the past 37 years. The longest one – in 1996 – lasted 21 days. None of these shutdowns had any major consequences.

This doesn’t mean there’s no reason to worry. With the Tea Party dominating the House, the odds of an agreement may well be slimmer than they were in the past. Here’s the link:

Leave a comment

Filed under U.S.

Misperceptions about U.S. gun violence

Most Americans think gun violence has increased, even though it has actually decreased significantly since the 1980s, The Economist writes. The magazine explains this with a rise in highly publicized mass shootings, which may give people a wrong impression of general gun-violence trends. But it’s also possible that this reflects a widespread sense that things are getting worse and America is in decline. The right tends to complain about an alleged erosion of American values and dismantling of the free market, while the left sees a growing income gap as a sign that the U.S. is getting a worse place to live in. Realizing that some things are actually getting better might do America’s political discourse good.

Here’s the link:

Leave a comment

Filed under U.S.

The Other 9/11

Today marks the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but in Chile 9/11 is associated with another event: 40 years ago today, Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected, socialist President Salvador Allende in a U.S.-backed military coup. Allende died the same day – officially a suicide, but quite possibly murder. Pinochet went on to rule the country for 17 years as a ruthless dictator who tortured and killed thousands.

September 11, 2001 led to a dramatic shift in U.S. domestic and foreign policies, as policymakers decided their country should never again be vulnerable to terrorism. But perhaps the U.S. can draw a lesson from Chile’s 9/11 as well. Backing murderous dictators may make sense at the time, but will eventually come back to haunt Washington. The U.S. support for Pinochet has done much to undermine America’s credibility abroad. Its implicit backing of Egypt’s generals – through continued military support – is bound to further erode the myth that the U.S. is a global defender of democracy.

Here’s a photo of Allende on the day of the coup:

1 Comment

Filed under U.S.

Does a History of Racism Discredit Anti-Interventionism?

Noah Berlatsky takes the longer view and notes that anti-interventionism (or isolationism) has been championed by the U.S. far right since Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, which essentially associated the Union with military intervention. Racist southerners subsequently tended to oppose interventions abroad that were meant to help non-whites. But what complicates the matter further is that foreign interventions were often driven by a similar kind of racism – the notion that other races couldn’t take care of themselves. In the end, Berlatsky finds that both isolationism and interventionism have racist roots and are therefore highly questionable. A thought-provoking piece, although the really interesting question would have been to what extent these racist traditions shape today’s discourse, for example on Syria.

Here’s the link:

Leave a comment

Filed under U.S.

Is 1942 the new 1984?

Newly released documents, analyzed in today’s Wall Street Journal, show the U.S. government struggling to deal with leaks as early as World War II. In 1942, Chicago Tribune reporter Stanley Johnston reported that the U.S. navy was informed of japanese battle plans, all but confirming the U.S. had cracked the Japanese navy’s code. The department of justice unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute Johnston for disclosing a military secret. Similarly to the current case against Bradley Manning, on trial for leaking classified government documents, the prosecutors weren’t able to prove Johnston intended to aid the enemy.

The  Johnston case shows that freedom of press is on much firmer footing today than in 1942. Back then, prosecutors were willing to not just go after those who leaked information, but also after a journalist who reported on them. Today, Glenn Greenwald – the Guardian journalist publishing Edward Snowden’s revelations –  is apparently still safe from prosecution. But there are enough pundits and politicians who want Greenwald put on trial as a traitor. Hopefully the unsuccessful case against Johnston serves as a discouragement to those who believe you can have a functioning democracy without a free press.

Here’s a link to the article:


Leave a comment

Filed under U.S.

Gopnik on self-defence laws

Great piece on Lincoln and the history behind Florida’s so-called Stand Your Ground law:

Leave a comment

Filed under U.S.

JFK and the Germans

Here’s an article I wrote on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s speech in Frankfurt:

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe, U.S.