Posts tagged ‘USSR’

National Adolescence

I have been toying with a concept I am calling national adolescence.  My emerging theory is that civilizations go through phases much like that of a human male, and the most dangerous to all around it is adolescence.  Adolescent males can do crazy, unproductive things to show off, to count coup, to bolster their ego and perceived status.  They are more prone to being violent and dangerous, to pick stupid fights to prove their alpha-maleness rather than to achieve rational goals.

Nations often go through an adolescent phase.  Sometimes it can last for decades or centuries.  Two symptoms of this phase are 1) Imperialism and over-readiness to fight and 2) monument-building and other such show-offery.

I have written a number of times about monument building, for example here.  We see it in countries trying to build record-tall buildings -- note who is doing it, they are always the nouveau riche (e.g. Dubai).  We see it in cities wanting to have light rail systems in order to be considered a real city (ie as a status project).  We see it in every Thomas Friedman column about China doing big things while we are not.  And we see it now in the fear that somehow having China sending men into space 50 years after the US and USSR did so somehow is a marker in the decline and fall of the US.

I don't buy it.  What you are seeing, what Thomas Friedman is seeing, is adolescence.  We may regret lacking as much youthful vitality, but we should not aspire to the adolescent's poor judgement.  Our sixties space program went exactly nowhere, except to let us count coup on the rest of the world and cement our status.  The Chines space program as currently configured will achieve nothing more.

PS-  The Egyptians may be a good example.  All the great Pyramids were built when the Egyptian civilization was really young.  There are a variety of reasons why pyramid building ended, but surely a maturing confidence in their civilization's greatness must be one.

Twilight Struggle

Over Christmas break, my son (home from college) and I have played a half dozen or more games of Twilight Struggle, the #1 rated game on Boardgame Geek that refights to US-USSR cold war from the 1950's to the 1980's.   There is a good reason for that ranking - it is a very enjoyable game to which he and I have become addicted.

I mentioned it before Christmas, and after playing it once made a couple of comments that I want to revise.  I had said I remembered it to be "complex."  Actually, for a wargame, the rules are quite simple (no zone of control rules, line of sight, tracing supply, movement costs over terrain, etc etc.).  Basically, each turn you play a card from your hand.  You may either take the effects of the event on the card, or you may take one of four actions using the operations points on the card (sometimes, if the event benefits your opponent, you have to take the event and the operations points).  Your goal is to gain influence over countries and regions, which in turn translates into victory points.

The cards are divided into early, mid, and late-game cards that are staged into the game.  This helps avoid anachronisms like Solidarity union forming in Poland in 1950.  It also creates a setting where the Russian has early advantages, while the US has late advantages.  This really befuddled me for a number of games as I played as Russian against my son, and lost more than I won despite the general sense in the playing community that the game (until recently revised) is a bit unbalanced in favor of the Russian.  The problem is that my play style in wargames tends to be methodical and defensive, and to win at Russia you have to open with an RTS-like rush and gain the largest possible lead before the Americans come back in the end game.  I finally routed the Americans in the last game when I finally got more aggressive.

The game's complexity comes not from a lot of rules but from three sources:

1) dealing with complexity of scoring possibilities, as while there are only a few types of actions one can take, there are a hundred locations on the map where one can take those actions.  The scoring dynamics causes focus of both players to shift around the world, sometimes in Asia, sometimes in Latin America, sometimes in Africa, etc.  The cards ensure that no region is ever "safe" (for example the combination of John Paul II's election and Solidarity can turn a strong Soviet position in Poland into a total mess.

2) getting rid of or minimizing the impact of events that benefit your opponent.  The latter adds a lot of the flavor of the game.  On average, half the event cards in your hand help you, and half help your opponent.  If a card helps you, you can take either the op points or the event, but not both.  This is sometimes a tough choice in and of itself, made more complicated by the fact that unused events get recycled and can come back later, when they might be more or less useful.  But if the card has an opponent event on it, you generally (with a few exceptions) have to take the op points AND trigger an event favorable to your opponent.  Managing the latter consumes a lot of the mental effort of the game, and really helps give the game its Cold War flavor of jumping from crisis to crisis.

3) the interaction of the cards.  Like most card-driven games, there are a near infinite number of card interactions.  This means that there are almost always certain card pairings where the resulting net effect is unclear.  We had to keep our iPad nearby locked into a web site of the game maker that includes rulings on each card.  Since the game is now 6+ years old, we never encountered a situation where a clear ruling was not available.

Anyway, we think the game absolutely deserves its #1 rating.  Highly recommended.


From the Guy Who Really Deserved His Peace Prize

Last year, Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for proposing world-wide government actions that will prevent a billion of more people form escaping poverty.  But, once upon a time, Norman Borlaug won a Peace Prize for actually helping the poor help themselves.  Here is what he is saying today.  Folks from the EU to Bono to Al Gore are standing in the way, again, of people feeding themselves by aggressively applying the technology we take for granted in America:

Yields can still be increased by 50-100% in much of the Indian sub-Continent,
Latin America, the former USSR and Eastern Europe, and by 100-200% in much of
sub-Saharan Africa, providing political stability is maintained, bureaucracies
that destroys entrepreneurial initiative are reigned in, and their researchers
and extension workers devote more energy to putting science and technology to
work at the farm level....

I now say that the world has the technology - either available or
well-advanced in the research pipeline - to feed a population of 10 billion
people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will
be permitted to use this new technology. Extremists in the environmental
movement from the rich nations seem to be doing everything they can to stop
scientific progress in its tracks. Small, but vociferous and highly effective
and well-funded, anti-science and technology groups are slowing the application
of new technology, whether it be developed from biotechnology or more
conventional methods of agricultural science. I am particularly alarmed by those
who seek to deny small-scale farmers of the Third World -and especially those in
sub-Saharan Africa - access to the improved seeds, fertilizers, and crop
protection chemicals that have allowed the affluent nations the luxury of
plentiful and inexpensive foodstuffs which, in turn, has accelerated their
economic development.

A Quick Thought Experiment

Which country has more power over us?  Is it China, who could suddenly try to sell our assets back to us at cut rate prices, thereby, uh, taking a huge financial loss for themselves to temporarily roil our markets.  Or is it Venezuela, who can (and has) simply seized all the assets in their country owned by Americans and repudiated its debts?

Not clear enough?  OK, lets go back to the cold war.  Let's say the USSR had lent our government a trillion dollars or so, thereby holding lots of dollar denominated US government debt.  Let's say they also made massive investments in US land and buildings.  Would we have said, "boy, they have us now?"  No.  I mean, hell no!  We'd have their money, they'd just hold our paper.  If the Russki's got adventurous in Afghanistan, we could just say, sorry, we are going to stop paying on all those bonds you hold until you get out.  This situation is so clear that in fact it was the USSR's strategy to do just the opposite, ie to borrow as much as possible from the west, taking western money to fund their economy while creating a threat of loan default they could use strategically.  American hawks argued that it was insane to lend to the USSR, because this gave them leverage over us.