Grenade Fishing on the Potomac, Or: The Idiocy of George F. Will

Though hard to imagine, the Washington Post – or Pravda on the Potomac, as Eugene Ivanov quite rightly labels it – surpassed even its own sordid standards for Russia coverage, in the form of the latest op-ed from George F. Will in Potemkin Country. Time to go grenade fishing again, I guess.

America’s “progressive” president has some peculiarly retro policies. Domestically, his reactionary liberalism is exemplified by his policy of No Auto Company Left Behind, with its intimated hope that depopulated Detroit, where cattle could graze, can somehow return to something like the 1950s. Abroad, he seems to yearn for the 1970s, when the Soviet Union was rampant and coping with it supposedly depended on arms control.

I suppose turning the US into a deindustrialized failed empire and possibly post-nuclear wasteland is a great idea. Maybe not.

Actually, what was needed was not the chimera of arms control but Ronald Reagan’s renewal of the arms race that helped break the Soviet regime. The stately minuet of arms negotiations helped sustain U.S. public support for the parallel weapons spending.

The Soviet Union broke because of the internal failures of its planned economy and stymied social and national aspirations. He is right that the arms race helped tip it over, but so did many other factors such as rising social obligations, collapsing oil prices and technological stagnation. However, with the US budget deficit soaring into banana republic territory of 10%+ of GDP, conceivably for years to come, now is no time to start a new arms race – not unless George F. Will is a traitor who wants to see the US go the way of the USSR.

Significant arms agreements are generally impossible until they are unimportant. Significant agreements are those that substantially alter an adversarial dynamic between rival powers. But arms agreements never do. During the Cold War, for example, arms negotiations were another arena of great-power competition rather than an amelioration of that competition.

Since both the US and the USSR accumulated more than enough nuclear weapons to guarantee destruction of each other in a full exchange by the 1970’s, there was no point to further expansion – might as well use the resources for other purposes. Another aim was to strike up a rapport to create trust and lower the chances of an accidental nuclear war, which ever since the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) era has been a much greater risk than a planned Armageddon. No agreements on conventional forces were signed during the Cold War that I know of, and they entailed much greater expenditure than nukes.

The Soviet Union was a Third World nation with First World missiles. It had, as Russia still has, an essentially hunter-gatherer economy, based on extraction industries — oil, gas, minerals, furs. Other than vodka, for what manufactured good would you look to Russia? Caviar? It is extracted from the fish that manufacture it.

The smarmy attitude aside, the reason Russia exports few manufactured goods is that its comparative economic advantage lies in exporting hydrocarbons, which appreciates the ruble and makes its manufactured goods unattractive; currently, its industrial base is focused on import substitution, i.e. manufacturing in Russia what is currently imported. Nonetheless, it is the world’s joint-first (with the US) exporter of military hardware and is currently introducing products like the Sukhoi SuperJet which enjoy high chances of international success.

Today, in a world bristling with new threats, the president suggests addressing an old one — Russia’s nuclear arsenal. It remains potentially dangerous, particularly if a portion of it falls into nonstate hands. But what is the future of the backward and backsliding kleptocratic thugocracy that is Vladimir Putin’s Russia?

Props for “kleptocratic thugocracy” – a great new addition to the Russophobe rhetorical arsenal, though granted much less dangerous than Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Even in the 1990’s the fear of loose nukes from the Soviet Union was a largely phantom one, and now it’s just ridiculous.

Putin — ignore the human Potemkin village (Dmitry Medvedev) who currently occupies the presidential office — must be amazed and amused that America’s president wants to treat Russia as a great power. Obama should instead study pertinent demographic trends.

Nicholas Eberstadt’s essay “Drunken Nation” in the current World Affairs quarterly notes that Russia is experiencing “a relentless, unremitting, and perhaps unstoppable depopulation.” Previous episodes of depopulation — 1917-23, 1933-34, 1941-46 — were the results of civil war, Stalin’s war on the “kulaks” and collectivization of agriculture, and World War II, respectively. But today’s depopulation is occurring in normal — for Russia — social and political circumstances. Normal conditions include a subreplacement fertility rate, sharply declining enrollment rates for primary school pupils, perhaps more than 7 percent of children abandoned by their parents to orphanages or government care or life as “street children.” Furthermore, “mind-numbing, stupefying binge drinking of hard spirits” — including poisonously impure home brews — “is an accepted norm in Russia and greatly increases the danger of fatal injury through falls, traffic accidents, violent confrontations, homicide, suicide, and so on.” Male life expectancy is lower under Putin than it was a half-century ago under Khrushchev.

I refuted Eberstadt and demonstrated the bankruptcy of most current “thinking” on Russian demographic trends multiple times in this blog. First, low working-age male life expectancy is tragic but not crippling – it has no direct effect on fertility, disproportionately affects poorer, badly-educated people and partially relieves pressure on pensions. It may lower productivity, but cannot check the growth of a vital civilization – America was known as the Alcoholic Republic in the great early days of its founding.

Second, he ignores that the total fertility rate has been steadily creeping up from 1.3 children per woman in 2006, to around 1.5 as of 2008 – and there is plenty of evidence this is a sustainable trend. Similarly, no mention is made of the mortality decline from 2005 and of its ambitious health plans to 2020.

Third, Russia’s net primary school enrollment stands at 90.9%, compared with 91.6% in the US and similar figures in most eastern European nations like Lithuania (89.4%) or the Czech Republic (92.5%). That the likes of Bolivia (94.9%) and Indonesia (95.5%) claim to have significantly better numbers than any of these obviously far-better educated nations should give us an insight into the usefulness of this indicator as a gauge of human capital.

Martin Walker of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, writing in the Wilson Quarterly (“The World’s New Numbers”), notes that Russia’s declining fertility is magnified by “a phenomenon so extreme that it has given rise to an ominous new term — hypermortality.” Because of rampant HIV/AIDS, extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis, alcoholism and the deteriorating health-care system, a U.N. report says “mortality in Russia is three to five times higher for men and twice as high for women” as in other countries at a comparable stage of development. The report, Walker says, “predicts that within little more than a decade the working-age population will be shrinking by up to 1 million people annually.” Be that as it may, “Russia is suffering a demographic decline on a scale that is normally associated with the effects of a major war.”

The main concern Walker cites in The World’s New Numbers is that it would be hard to maintain economic growth in a country “whose young male work force looks set to decrease by ­half”, and as such voices a familiar argument that Russia does not belong in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) quartet of key emerging markets. Yet according to the World Bank, the proportion of the population aged 65+ will increase from 12% to 18% in Russia by 2025, and the latter figure is actually equal to Estonia’s percentage today! – whose current problems are certainly not centered around entitlements spending.

As Walker himself agrees in his article, this is “more of a labor-market challenge than a demographic crisis”. My own dependency ratio projections are far from cataclysmic. The notion of a Russian AIDS Apocalypse is a myth, because according to the international research program Knowledge for Action in HIV/AIDS in Russia, all the pessimistic models assume “the epidemic would be essentially heterosexual in nature and follow trends observed in sub-Saharan Africa”, which is “not borne out by current surveillance data from Russia” or indeed basic common sense.

According to projections by the United Nations Population Division, Russia’s population, which was around 143 million four years ago, might be as high as 136 million or as low as 121 million in 2025, and as low as 115 million in 2030.

Yet another fallacy of linear extrapolation, of which some folks never tire. In 1914, France had a population of 40mn to Germany’s 65mn, had much lower fertility rates and its General Staff looked with trepidation at the future. Today, it has a population of 61mn and is one of the few European countries with replacement-level fertility levels, whereas Germany has a population of 82m which is projected to fall to 70mn by 2050.

Marx envisioned the “withering away” of the state under mature communism. Instead, Eberstadt writes, the world may be witnessing the withering away of Russia, where Marxism was supposed to be the future that works. Russia, he writes, “has pioneered a unique new profile of mass debilitation and foreshortened life previously unknown in all of human history.”

“History,” he concludes, “offers no examples of a society that has demonstrated sustained material advance in the face of long-term population decline.” Demography is not by itself destiny, but it is more real than an arms control “process” that merely expresses the liberal hope of taming the world by wrapping it snugly in parchment.

Not only is this article profoundly ignorant and bigoted, but it also very poorly written – I’ve pretty much lost track of what George F. Will is supposed to be arguing about. Oh yeah, the arms control thing. Then again, you can’t expect much in the way of reason and logic from a global warming denier.

As for myself, I’m just happy I spent less time writing this up than my Kasparov the Bolshevik article. A popular Russian proverb has it that a fool can ask more questions than ten wise men could answer, so no wonder this is a favored strategy of Russophobes everywhere, as pointed out by Patrick Armstrong. Now if only somebody could invent the computer AI version of a grenade-launcher…


  1. On the matter of GW and the mentioned B word:

    Back in the late 1970s/early 80’s, in one segment of the PBS aired Agronsky & Company, GW kept referring to the Soviets as Russians. At one point, he said they’ve an inferior culture. Agronsky stopped him and briefly noted Russian literary and scientific achievements. In a crazed way, Will repeated his inferior culture point.

    Afterwards, I don’t recall any critical overview of that, other than what was privately expressed by some history students in my cabal.

  2. Pardon my not also mentioning the I word in the above essay. It goes hand in hand with the B one.

    To reiterate on an eariler point, it’s great to see substantively hard core media criticism that has been otherwise lacking.

  3. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Great job as usual, Anatoly!

    A short comments. Will doesn’t write often about Russia: as far as I know, the last time he touched the subject was on August 12, 2008. At least, let’s give him credit for his modesty and restraint.


  4. Anatoly, you didn’t really understand the article. It was a veiled compliment. Every time Count Potemkin is mentioned, it is always a veiled compliment. Because what is Count Potemkin famous for, besides being one of the lovers of Catherine the Great? He oversaw the development of huge newly conquered areas of Russia from scratch and turned them into its most flourishing provinces. What the foreigners enviously referred to as “Potemkin villages” were in fact real, as is well known to any serious student of history (and was even described in Wiki last time I checked).

    So what exactly is the real meaning of the adjective “Potemkin”? It is something that is so amazing you don’t want to believe it’s true, but nevertheless it is. So what do the phrases “Potemkin country” or “human Potemkin village” really tell us? They tell us that George F. Will stands completely in awe of Russia. Either that, or that he is an utter fool who tries to use historical allusions he doesn’t understand. But I’m feeling charitable, so I choose the more optimistic (for George F. Will) interpretation.

  5. Fedia, great point! Thanks. This is certainly something worth keeping in mind when arguing with Russophobes.

    PS. Though not exactly generous to Russia, he’s not even right about the caviar. Caspian sturgeon stocks are close to depletion, with peak caviar having been reached around 1980. 😉

  6. Over the years, it seems that whenever Will writes or comments (on TV) about Russia, it’s with all of the misinformed negatives imaginable.

  7. I just thought of another Will moment having to do when the wars of the last decade in former Yugoslavia broke out.

    As he stated, his solution was to bring back the Hapsburg Empire (seemingly meant in a half serious, nut serious enough way).

    Never mind how its policies in Bosnia escalated tensions.

    I sense that GW has his own version of a “culture war.” There’re others out there who seem to take a similar route.