Great Leap Backward
Top Stories of the Year: #5
It’s time to count down the top five stories of the year, looking back at the big events of 2021 and reviewing and extending my coverage of them.
At #5 in my countdown is something that we can expect to be a top story of next year, too: the rising global threat from authoritarian regimes, and the inadequacy of the response so far from our political leaders.
As I noted a few days ago in Discourse—in the first installment of my new column there—”It has been a while since the American system has faced a serious challenge from a global ideological rival—much less one that enjoys the sympathy of a significant domestic faction.”
Before we get to the more powerful and ideologically influential authoritarian regimes, let’s check in with one other tyrannical regime that has gained ground this year: the Taliban.
But the Taliban is not quite in the same category as geopolitical rivals like Russia and China, because it is not really a government and Afghanistan is not really a proper modern nation-state. So Taliban rule looks more like anarchy.
“There are no rules to Taliban rule, only exceptions. Until recently, girls of all ages were going to school in Herat—and then the policy changed and many were not. The confusion is mirrored in Taliban statements, with different figures saying different things. And there is no trust. Even women who still have their jobs have little faith it will last. Meanwhile, continued reports of vendetta-style killings and beatings puncture a hole in the supposed amnesty that Taliban leaders offered to Afghans who worked for the former government. Their response has been that renegade elements are responsible and that this is not policy.
“All of this has contributed to an impression of indecision, drift and denial, amid reports of festering divisions among Taliban factions….
“UNICEF recently committed to pay teachers’ salaries, and there have been reports that the Taliban may use some of the revenues raised from customs fees to pay some civil servants. Yet for many of these key staff, such measures have come too late. They have either joined the growing exodus out of Afghanistan—contributing to a mass brain drain—or moved to other parts of the country to try to find work to support their families.
“It all adds to a sense of malaise, with an ominous feeling of worse to come.
Back at the wedding dress store, Ahmad admitted that takings were well down. ‘We can survive for longer, but it is much harder for other families,’ he said. After we had finished talking, one of his assistants came up to me. ‘Can you take me to America?’ he asked.”
This anarchy is also manifested in a spate of “extrajudicial killings.” Taliban fighters are murdering whoever they want, while the leaders do nothing to assert control.
The Biden administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan will be part of one of the stories higher up in this year’s countdown. What is important for this story is that Afghanistan set a precedent that America won’t stand by its friends and allies—and that is emboldening the world’s dictatorships to grab what they can while they can.
This includes acts of international piracy. I took stock of this on July 14.
The dictatorships are getting particularly strident and brazen right now, and this can be seen in their acts of outright lawlessness and aggression, not just domestically, but internationally.
For example, the FBI just charged four Iranian operatives in absentia in a plot to kidnap an Iranian dissident from Brooklyn and ship her back to Iran. The Iranians “researched travel routes from Ms. Alinejad’s home to a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn…. Another of the agents….researched a service offering what the government described as military-style speedboats for a self-operated maritime evacuation out of Manhattan; and maritime travel from New York to Venezuela, whose leadership has friendly relations with the Iranian government.”…
Belarus has begun reaching out to impose its tyranny on the rest of Europe, engaging in what can only be described as the state hijacking of a European airliner.
“Ryanair flight 4978 was about to begin its descent to Vilnius in Lithuania on Sunday when it suddenly changed direction after a ‘security alert,’ turning sharply east and descending towards the capital of Belarus, Minsk.
“Whether that security alert was a fabrication by the Belarus authorities is now at the heart of an incident which has sparked widespread international condemnation and raised serious questions about safety in the skies. [Update: This has since been confirmed by a Belarussian defector.] Some governments have described the incident as a state-sanctioned hijacking.
“One of the passengers on board the Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was Belarus opposition activist Raman Pratasevich, who is wanted on a variety of charges. For him the diversion was much more than an inconvenience. As soon as the plane landed, he was arrested, according to the Belarus Interior Ministry.”
This was an Irish airliner heading from Greece to Lithuania. In effect, Belarus has extended its tyranny over three free countries.
These are piratical regimes, and just as piracy threatens safe travel on the seas, so this is threatening safe travel in the skies, with Europe frantically redirecting its air routes to avoid Belarussian territory. Better yet to cut Belarus and Russia—because we all know that Lukashenko could not survive without Kremlin backing—entirely out of the international air travel system.
The benefits of the post-Cold War era of peace—even of the post-World War II era—are being eroded. Unfortunately, history suggests that the Europeans will be slow, reluctant, and far too late to respond to the danger.
That’s why we end the year with the looming threat—I would say the expectation, at this point—of a Winter War in Europe as Russia prepares for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“Welcome to Moscow, I’m Your Driver, Col. Putin”
I’ve been keeping you informed about Russia massing troops on the Ukrainian border. Here are some newer updates.
If you want to get an idea of where Vladimir Putin is coming from, check out a recent story in which Putin revealed the low point he reached in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“Putin, a former agent of the Soviet Union’s KGB security services, who has previously lamented the USSR’s fall, said the disintegration three decades ago remains a ‘tragedy’ for ‘most citizens.’…
“‘After all, what is the collapse of the Soviet Union? This is the collapse of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union,’ the Russian leader was cited as saying….
“RIA Novosti, reporting from excerpts of the documentary, said Putin had revealed that he worked occasionally as a taxi driver to boost his income. ‘Sometimes I had to earn extra money,’ Putin said. ‘I mean, earn extra money by car, as a private driver. It’s unpleasant to talk about to be honest but, unfortunately, that was the case.'”
You can tell he’s still smarting from that one. Putin had been a lieutenant-colonel in the KGB, which means he was on his way to a position of power and privilege, one of the masters of the Soviet Empire. Then to be reduced to the position of a mere lackey—well, you can see how he is still trying to get revenge for that.
But the really important phrase there is “historical Russia.” He is clinging to a deeply conservative nationalist vision of Russian imperialism, with elements of a grandiose religious mythology in which Moscow is the “Third Rome.”
Naturally, this is deeply appealing to America’s religious-nationalist conservatives. So we see Tucker Carlson, who goes on TV every night with the mission of figuring out how to be the worst person in America, going to bat for Putin and blaming Putin’s invasion on us.
“Among the many, many ironies here is the Ukraine crisis was largely created by Joe Biden’s own aides and many people like them throughout all levels of the US government….
“The Soviet Union has not existed in more than three decades; it’s part of history now. And yet NATO very much lives on, better funded than ever. It’s an army without a purpose. So at this point, NATO exists primarily to torment Vladimir Putin who, whatever his many faults, has no intention of invading Western Europe. Vladimir Putin does not want Belgium. He just wants to keep his western borders secure.”
As Garry Kasparov replies, “It sounded much more like a work of translation than anything original, because we’ve been hearing it all from Russian state TV for years.” Carlson’s biggest evasion is the implication that we don’t have to worry about Russia because “the Soviet Union has not existed in more than three decades”—yet the loss of the Soviet Empire is precisely what Putin is trying to reverse.
Putin just laid out a set of demands, and it amounts to the neutering of NATO and a policy of American passivity.
“Russia demanded on Friday that the United States and its allies halt all military activity in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in a sweeping proposal that would establish a Cold War-like security arrangement, posing a challenge to diplomatic efforts to defuse Russia’s growing military threat to Ukraine.
“The Russian proposal—immediately dismissed by NATO officials—came in the form of a draft treaty suggesting NATO should offer written guarantees that it would not expand farther east toward Russia and halt all military activities in the former Soviet republics, a vast swath of now-independent states extending from Eastern Europe to Central Asia….
“Analysts expressed concerns about the Russian demands, saying they appeared to set up any talks between Russia and the West on these ‘security guarantees’ for failure, possibly paving the way for a war in Ukraine.”
Russia is the clear aggressor here and has been ever since it launched a partial invasion of Ukraine in 2014 (and well before then). But we are the ones who are supposed to bind ourselves as if we are the dangerous ones.
On the one hand, the Biden administration is officially rejecting these demands.
“The Biden administration is eager to make it clear to Russia and the world that it is prepared to be tougher this time around, compared to 2014, when Russian forces annexed Crimea.”
If we have a US withdrawal and botched evacuation of Afghanistan, followed by another evacuation from Ukraine, look for Taiwan to be next.
Great Leap Backward
The other big story this year is what I’m calling China’s Great Leap Backward.
China’s opening up to the West—and the West’s opening up to China—was supposed to lead to pressure for even more liberalization. We were hoping to see a gradual transition of China to representative government, in the same way it had happened in nearby countries like South Korea and Taiwan.
After all, in the words of the great Locofoco leader William Leggett, free markets and representative government are “sister doctrines,” both based on equality of rights and the freedom of the individual.
Yet this theory hasn’t been turning out so well in the past decade or so. The Chinese Communist Party seemingly found a way to get the economic benefits of free markets and international trade, but without giving up its dictatorship. In fact, embracing the market economy made its dictatorship more powerful, helping it build up its military and throw around huge amounts of money to purchase the support of various interest groups, both domestically and internationally.
But the less well recognized flip side of the theory that greater economic freedom leads to greater political freedom is the idea that the attempt to maintain political control will ultimately force the regime to start cracking down on free markets, throwing away all of their benefits
That is what seems to be happening now….
China’s great illusion is the one Communism has had since the beginning. Communism was born out of the explosion of economic activity created by the Industrial Revolution. This activity was the product of capitalism, but the fantasy of the Communists was that they could re-route it toward their own ends. “What earlier century,” Marx asked in The Communist Manifesto, “had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?” So if it was “social labor” that produced all this wealth, why couldn’t the self-appointed representatives, both of society and of labor, seize it for their own ends?
Those are the deepest, earlier roots of China’s present policies. Having unleashed the productive labor of many individuals, they now want to harness that “social labor” to serve the needs of the Party.
But people’s efforts cannot be so easily re-routed in the direction desired by the state….
Certainly, the old Maoist system did not produce a Great Leap Forward the first time around, so why would anyone expect to do so now? China is making a Great Leap Backward, and we can expect concomitant results.
As for Taiwan, I point out that “if history is any guide, the Chinese regime may become more dangerous as it becomes more desperate.”
This process continues, with news of Chinese companies delisting from Western stock exchanges because the Chinese system’s corruption is so endemic that Chinese companies can’t meet Western standards of financial transparency.
China may be trying to flex its power, but Noah Smith makes a good case that Xi Jinping is not that competent and that China’s growth is faltering. The most intriguing aspect of this is China’s growing energy shortage.
Russia suffers from the same problems, only more so. Jim Pethokoukis offers some fascinating observations on the history of Russian backwardness. I particularly liked this section.
“[Science historian Loren] Graham notes that from 2005 through 2013, he visited dozens of universities and research institutes across Russia, all the while comparing the attitudes of engineers, students, and scientists there to those at MIT. Back home, he frequently heard science and engineering students talk about being the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, or at least starting a company, selling for a high price, and then starting a new one.
“Graham: ‘I can truthfully say I have never heard such an answer from a Russian student. Russian students—and working scientists and engineers—just do not think that way.’ We do not have an innovation culture—no experience, no traditions. Our scientists, they are all still Soviet in their attitudes, for them business is something dirty. Our scientific culture is practically untouched by the business entrepreneurial spirit.“
And of course I also covered the still-simmering rebellion in Cuba of young people, led by artists and musicians, shouting the slogan patria y vida in protest against the death cult of communism.
The Billionaire Space Race
Dictatorships will take advantage of our weakness whenever we present it, but they don’t own the future. Who does?
Well, we got a reminder of that this year in the form of the billionaire space race, with Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson trying to one-up each other.
The usual suspects have denounced this as a wasteful vanity project for the super-rich, though I have to say that if I were a billionaire and had more money than I could spend, I would regard this as the perfect way to waste it.
As one article notes, “Rarely has stunning human achievement been greeted with as much churlishness as when Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos managed to fly or launch themselves into space.”
As that article points out:
“[I]t’s not as though NASA has been knocking anyone’s socks off. The space shuttle was a flawed program, but since the last flight in 2011, the agency hasn’t been able to send people into space on its own, which would seem a threshold test of the space agency of the world’s leading nation.
“It has been hobbled by the political imperatives of a Congress that considers almost every government initiative a jobs program and by its flawed contracting model, as well as other inevitable government inefficiencies.
“It is private actors who have stepped into the gap, especially Musk. He is now routinely launching satellites into orbit for NASA and the military.”…
Jim Pethokoukis provides a chart showing the beginning of what we can hope will be a continued geometric decay of the cost of getting into orbit—so far, a decrease from $85,000/kg to less than $1000/kg—in a race between private-sector innovators.
More broadly, though, the first link I gave concludes that the criticism of the Billionaire Space Race “speaks of a contempt for human endeavor as such.” Similarly, David French enthuses that “We can start to dream again,” “to look up,” and to “bridge the gap between the giant government space bureaucracies of the Cold War and the next stage of human exploration into the ‘final frontier.'”
There are many practical applications for being able to get into Earth orbit—I’m waiting on Starlink once they deal with their chip shortage. There are few known practical application for being able to go beyond that. But it’s great to know that someday soon we can, and that we’re making progress toward it.”
You’ll be getting the rest of this countdown of the year’s top stories in the week leading up to Christmas, and it’s a good reminder of exactly how many links and how much analysis of breaking events The Tracinski Letter provides every year.