Archives for January 2011

Creeping Caesarism: The Enemy Belligerent Act of 2010

Authoritarianism doesn’t always come with bells, whistles and goose-steps. More typically, it develops in a series of interlocking steps – a state of emergency (“war on terror”) here, a couple of indefinite detentions and Presidential hit orders there, their eventual legal codification – that while on their own seem justifiable and even innocuous, when taken together generate a pernicuous influence on the democratic polity. Furthermore, the gradualism or “creeping normalcy” of these processes insulate the gradual amassment of powers by the power ministries from challenge and conceals it from the eyes of a largely apathetic citizenry and compliant mass media. Nonetheless, in retrospect, specific precedents and laws will stand out: say, Article 58 in the early USSR, or…

While browsing Glenn Greenwald’s blog today, I came across a bill proposed by McCain and Lieberman (both tireless promoters of the freedom agenda abroad if not at home) back in March 2010 that, if passed, may well come to be seen as the tombstone to meaningful civil rights and rule of law in the US. Welcome to the S. 3081 “Enemy Belligerent, Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act of 2010.” First, the definitions:

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Visualizing The Kremlin Clans

Can you tell your siloviki from your civiliki? MVD, FSB or GRU? The breeds of dog underneath those Churchillian carpets? If not, maybe this will help.

In August 2010, I translated the introduction to political pundit Vladimir Pribylovsky’s recent book ВЛАСТЬ-2010: 60 биографий (Power in 2010: 60 biographies). The resulting Phantom Tandem, Real Triumvirate and the Kremlin Clan Wars is a useful, if a tad obdurate, primer on “who’s who” in today’s Kremlin.

In collaboration with A Good Treaty, we have created three tables listing the biggest players in the “Kremlin clans” according to Pribylovsky (to the extent they exist: see my comments to the original translation). There have been few changes until today, January 2011. The biggest was the replacement of Sergey Bogdanchikov by Eduard Khudaynatov as President of Rosneft.

We hope that it will be of use to all Russia watchers, amateur and expert alike.

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Top 10 Most Powerful Countries In 2011

The Chinese have an interesting concept that quantifies Great Power status, called Comprehensive National Power (CNP). This index is produced by processing the economic, military and cultural factors that make countries powerful: GDP, technological development, number of tanks and ICBM’s, as well as “softer” factors such as influence on global media and international institutions. Since I’m not a think-tank, I can’t be bothered doing it “scientifically” by coming up with formulas and looking up all the hundreds of relevant stats that typically go into CNP calculations. But it’s surely possible to make rough estimates. Here they are.

1. The USA is still undoubtedly the world’s leading superpower. It has China’s (gross) economic size, matches Russia’s strategic military power, and is as technologically advanced as Japan with 2.5x its population. Meanwhile, its conventional military power, power projection capabilities and cultural influence remain globally hegemonic. But its Number One position isn’t secure. Political capture by special interests at home and “imperial overstretch” abroad has made its fiscal situation patently unsustainable. This in turn threatens its dominant military position, especially coupled with accelerating Chinese military modernization. Finally, the very globalization that underpins Pax America also users in developments that actually undermine it, e.g. the economic rise of the BRICs and the growing influence of non-Western media outlets (e.g. Al-Jazeera, Russia Today). CNP – 100.

2. China is rapidly emerging as the next global superpower, now boasting the world’s largest manufacturing sector and (arguably) the biggest economy in terms of real GDP. Furthermore, they have calculatedly taken a lead in many of the world’s most prospective and hi-tech sectors, e.g. renewable energy, hi-speed railways and supercomputers. China’s rapid military modernization has already yielded it the world’s biggest navy by warship numbers and advanced drones and stealth fighters. This is all founded on a literate, 1.3bn-strong populace driving 10% economic growth rates (and there’s no reason these should fall drastically any time soon, since average Chinese incomes have plenty of space left to catch up with the West). Now assuming unforeseen shocks such as political collapse or an abrupt peaking and decline in coal production don’t derail progress, it’s very likely China will supplant the US as the global hegemon as early as 2020. CNP – 75.

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New Year Special, Part 2: 2011 Predictions

Carrying on from yesterday’s 2010 in Review, I’ll now lay out my predictions for this year and see how well last year’s stacked up to reality.

(1) Last year, I wrote: “World economy continues an anemic recovery, though there are significant risks to the downside.” Today I’d repeat this, but add that the risks have heightened. Many countries in the developed world, from Spain to the US, now run patently unsustainable fiscal policies. I don’t know when the bond vigilantes would strike (and even if I did I’d rather get rich than tell you), but sooner rather than later they will. The obvious loci of the next big crisis are the so-called “PIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain), and Ireland, Belgium and Hungary.

But obvious isn’t preordained. Iberia, at least, is covered by the EU’s €440bn rescue fund, while Italy’s 120%-of-GDP debt is counterbalanced with a 0.9 ratio of receipts to outlays (i.e. for every €1 it spends it collects €0.9 in tax). The UK has the worst budget deficit amongst the big European countries, but it’s insulated by an average debt maturity of 14 years. Japan has the most apocalyptic sovereign debt figure at 220%-of-GDP, but also has immense foreign savings. Finally, though the US appears to be in one of the worst positions all round, with an debt maturity of just 4 years, a 0.6 receipts to outlays ratio and an ideological rift that precludes a political solution, it is still buffered by the $’s status as the global reserve currency.

Which of these dominoes will fall first, and when, must remain a matter of speculation, and may ultimately be contingent on unforeseeable shocks and triggers. For instance, a damning Wikileaks expose of Bank of America? Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz in response to an Israeli strike (as I speculated here)? It’s all possible.

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New Year Special, Part 1: 2010 in Review

Happy new year to all Sublime Oblivion readers! This blog wouldn’t be what it is without you. In fact, I’d have probably abandoned it after a month or two after a couple of posts as I did with my first blog in 2006. So please keep on reading and commenting.

BTW, the image above is of the Xue Long (雪龙) icebreaker in the Arctic. It represents the intersection of several major current trends: The multifaceted rise of China; the growing importance of the Arctic; climate change.

Year in Review: 2010

As usual, I will begin by reviewing the defining trends of this year (Part 1), before making predictions for the next and finishing up by reviewing the accuracy of my 2010 predictions (Part 2). The main global theme of 2010 is the continuing Rise of the Rest – led by but not limited to the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) – set against the background of the accelerating political, economic and above all institutional and soft power decline of the old Western order.

(1) China keeps getting stronger, on every facet of national power, at an exhilarating rate. A comprehensive overview is well beyond the scope of this post, but a few examples give an idea of the general picture. A country that first displayed its UAV’s in 2006, has now exhibited more than 25 different models. One of them, the WJ600 – boasting a jet engine, multiple missiles and stealth features – might even be more advanced than any US or Israeli model. Just as the year rolled to an end, leaked photos showed that the Chinese now have their own fifth-generation fighter, the Chengdu J-20. Bearing in mind that Russia also revealed its PAK FA this year (after around 25 years of development), I think it’s safe to say that the Chinese have now fully caught up with Russia in non-strategic military technology*.

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