There has been an awful lot of noise and blowing wind of late across all forms of social media about an impending WWIII between the United States and Russia, most of which involves further involvement and an intensified escalation within Syria. With the US airstrikes (alongside its allied partners, the UK and France) on Friday night (American time), that crescendo is no doubt going to hit an all-time high of anticipation. To that I offer one small contrary warning: don’t hold your breath for the mushroom clouds just yet. There is still too much evidence of designed respectful interaction between the United States and Russia to even begin to suspect a major physical confrontation directly between the two will take place. And this includes last night’s airstrikes.
While there is no doubt that current relations between America and Russia are not exactly glowing and positive, there are also numerous examples of restraint to show that both sides do not wish to pursue a war with each other. In some cases, the very evidence that has put people all over the world in a frothy orgasm of Cold War bloodlust is actually the evidence people should be noting for why war is unlikely. Consider the following incidents/initiatives that have taken place over the past few years and consider how often any one of them could have resulted in war and other serious military repercussions between adversaries:
- Russia supporting with its own military presence the Crimean secession referendum
- American retaliatory sanctions for said support, resulting in the Russian ruble losing literally half of its value, significantly damaging the earning and consuming power of regular Russians
- Russian retaliatory initiatives for those sanctions, most notably the alleged hacking of the 2016 American Presidential election
- The Magnitskii Act (followed up with still more sanctions just last week), which is basically a form of punishment by hubris: America blacklisting influential friends of Putin (oligarchs) from having access to enter America
- The closing of diplomatic offices in both Russia and America, with further escalation to a tit-for-tat diplomat rejection plan where both countries keep kicking each other’s diplomats out of their respective countries.
- One country accuses the other of overlooking chemical gas attacks against the Syrian people
- One country accuses the other of fabricating chemical gas attacks against the Syrian people
- Rumors of a ‘pee tape’ morally compromising the President of the United States while on an earlier visit to Russia
- Rumors of secretly going after to freeze and/or steal billions of dollars President Putin supposedly has stashed all over the globe
- And, of course, the biggest one of all: both sides intervening in another country’s internal civil war but on opposite sides of the conflict
This is a fairly impressive list of disagreement, discord, conflict, and outright aggression. There have been wars breaking out all over the globe for far fewer incidents and over far less intense accusations and maneuvers. This is why so many today are obsessing over the so-called New Cold War. In fact, the opposite is reality: we should not be welcoming the New Cold War. We should be welcoming the New FAKE Cold War. All of the reasons given above should have been reason enough for kinetic confrontation between the two countries. And yet no direct military conflict has arisen. The United States has now done ‘surprise’ airstrikes in Syria not once but twice. And, “miraculously,” no significant, if at all, formal uniformed Russian military presence has been killed in either of those airstrikes. When the White House goes before the press conference microphones to thank its allies for their cooperation and assistance, the unrecognized reality is that one of those allies is de facto Russia: the two sides have clearly collaborated at least in terms of communication before the airstrikes to ensure that only the proper Syrian military targets are hit and the formal Russian military presence has time to evacuate the direct area. This, of course, is bad news for any and all Syrians: basically, what both countries have been saying throughout the entire civil war is that it is just fine to spill Syrian blood as long as American and Russian blood is not spilled with it. This is the feather pillow of proxy wars. At least when it comes to Americans and Russians. Again, no comment on how much it has been a sledgehammer for both Syrian sides within Syria.
The problem with the analysis ongoing about Russian-American relations is that it is ultimately guilty of that egregious academic sin: a lack of falsifiability. We teach our young doctoral students that whenever any serious investigation is begun, they must ensure that their project has the chance of actually being wrong. This principle of falsifiability is built into our projects and our brains so as to ensure we do not bias or project our desired results into our findings. Given the complex, ambiguous, and competing alternatives nature of global security and war, it is easy to see why this is so important: it is mind-bogglingly easy to ‘get the results you want’ if you are determined to see an issue in one particular way. Finding the data and interpreting the evidence is rather simple. The problem is that the analyst must strive to not ignore competing evidence and alternative explanations that muddy the waters for the desired outcome. This is what has been happening for nearly three years (at least) when it comes to how we analyze Russian-American relations. The very data that so many media outlets and presumed Russian experts in the West use as ‘proof’ for an undeniable New Cold War is just as easily positioned to show how two countries have chosen to NOT go to war with one another and NOT confront one another physically when they easily could have and many other countries in the same position would have. Instead of proven bad news, it is just as easily argued as proof of good news.
Interpretation. This is the essence of our business in global affairs, international security, and intelligence. Right now, we are violating some of our core research principles in order to maintain a single desired analytical outcome. Perhaps most disturbingly, the desired outcome in this case is the more dangerous one, the more violent one, and the more irresponsible one. Perhaps it is odd to say, but at the moment it seems the people we all have to thank for avoiding the precipice of real war are not our intellectuals and scholars, but the leaders of the two countries that everyone keeps trying to say are hell-bent on destroying each other. Welcome to the odd logic of the New Fake Cold War the curious reality of feather pillow proxy wars.
Flip-Flops and Foreign Policy: How American Tourist Behavior Hinders U.S. National Security
Dear American tourist,
When you are in great European cathedrals, palaces, and important historical sites, would it be possible for you to leave your flip-flops at home? Your shorts and T-shirts could stay as well. If you can afford to bring you and your family to a European palace, I am assuming you could also afford close-toed shoes and proper pants. I do not expect you to be fluent in German, or French. However, it is not too much to ask for you learn how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the native language. You are not at home: please reflect that you are in a different country, attempt to assimilate, and show a modicum of respect for where you are – it is in your national interest to do so.
Recently, in Vienna, Austria – one of the global centers of high culture, music, and art – I dined at the famous Belvedere Palace’s bistro. During the middle of my meal, a family sat down at the table next to me, with the telltale signs of coming from the United States. All four were wearing flip-flops, they spoke two decibels higher than anyone else at the restaurant, and all were wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Not used to Viennese cuisine, at one point the mother exclaimed loudly, “I believe this gazpacho has turned!” I am guessing many readers have had a similar experience while traveling abroad, as this is sadly not a unique encounter with American tourists. This overall attitude can easily make locals feel annoyed and insulted. While seemingly harmless, these types of interactions can leave a lasting impression about the United States and hurt U.S. diplomacy.
It is important for tourists to realize that they do not come as individuals. Rather, they are seen as “Americans.” As a former American diplomat, it is exhausting and hard to explain the unmeasurable time-consuming task public diplomacy programs spend in combating negative stereotypes of the United States. Beyond showing respect for other nations in places such as Europe, these programs aim to explain to predominately Muslim nations that Americans do not hate Muslims, that our streets are not lined with gold, and that Americans value ethnic and cultural diversity. These efforts in diplomacy work to strengthen ties with would-be skeptical trade partners, and enable carrying out critical U.S. security interests. A nation must build trust to create allies. Currently, the U.S. is in an existential crisis regarding our national values. As tourists are informal representatives of our nation, they can help, or jeopardize, the complex project of American diplomacy in communicating who we are as a people.
When one is dressed properly, as I always do while traveling, one earns respect from locals. I take great pride when I am asked for directions, or locals start conversations with me in German, Swedish, or French, etc. It is a small victory when they realize that I too am an American, but present myself differently than the cafe neighbors I referenced above. It does not matter what you look like, your heritage, or ethnicity. It matters how you present yourself while traveling abroad. There is a universal quality that results in responding back positively when one feels respected. No matter the country, I work hard to give a different impression: that of an American who values local customs and mores. When American tourists show blatant disregard for the country they are visiting, at best it leads to annoyance, at worst, anger and a lasting ill-impression of whom we are as a people.
I recognize that this is a negative generalization of American tourists. Different, but similarly harmful norms can be seen from Australian, English, or German tourists, to name a few examples. Their behavior abroad can also hurt their counties’ national image. Also, it is important to recognize the many tourists – from America and beyond – that come to foreign countries and assimilate beautifully. Thus, tourists are like a toupee; you only see the bad ones.
Scholars such as Jonathan Mercer demonstrate how important reputation is for international relations. Mercer and others argue that countries sign trade agreements, enter into peace deals, and trust the lasting impact of an international negotiation, largely based upon a countries’ reputation. While I recognize that it is not the foreign minister or secretary of state one is interacting with in a café, but rather likely a nice family from Florida, California, or North Carolina. Still, it is not necessarily high level people who carry out the lion-share of trade deals between the United States and foreign countries. It is small and large business partnerships on either side of the Atlantic. These interactions matter: they impact how, and to what extent, foreigners are willing to negotiate, trade, and make security partnerships with the United States.
While encounters like this are frustratingly common in tourist sites across Europe, many do not realize how much it hurts American public diplomacy. Diplomats spend years learning languages. Beyond language, they immerse themselves in local customs. There is a reason for this: understanding other cultures and languages importantly enables foreigners to understand us. It is a way to bridge cultures, discard stereotypes, and defeat ignorance about the fascinating and important peoples that are beyond our borders. When Americans show disregard for host nations and peoples, it makes our diplomatic efforts to build long-lasting bridges and permanent connections – whether for business, security, values, or broader international relations – monumentally more complex and difficult.
When traveling abroad, why not show locals great things about American culture? For example, our strong value of customer service, world class technology, or our ability to make connections and meet strangers openly? There is a plethora of wonderful things about American society that becomes hidden behind distracting Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops. Therefore, leaving your cut-offs at home and learning a few words of the native language is in your country’s national interest. It will help foreigners you meet feel respected and valued. It is in all of our interests to communicate attitudes that inspire people to want to create partnerships with us across the Atlantic.
-  U.S. Department of State. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs https://www.state.gov/r/ Accessed on July 3, 2018.
-  Mercer, Jonathan 1997.Reputation And International Politics. Cornell University Press | Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, New York.
Trump’s and Putin’s Responses to Mueller’s Russiagate Indictments
In the July 16th joint press conference between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the question arose of U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officials for allegedly having engineered the theft of computer files from the Democratic National Committee and from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Here is that part of the press conference, in a question that was addressed to both Presidents (and I boldface here the key end part of Putin’s presentation, and then I proceed to link to two articles which link to the evidence — the actual documents — that Putin is referring to in his response):
REPORTER (Jeff Mason from Reuters): For President Putin if I could follow up as well. Why should Americans and why should President Trump believe your statement that Russia did not intervene in the 2016 election given the evidence that US Intelligence agencies have provided? Will you consider extraditing the 12 Russian officials that were indicted last week by a US Grand jury.
TRUMP: Well I’m going to let the president [meaning Putin] answer the second part of that question.
As you know, the concept of that came up perhaps a little before, but it came out as a reason why the Democrats lost an election, which frankly, they should have been able to win, because the electoral college is much more advantageous for Democrats, as you know, than it is to Republicans.
[That allegation from Trump is unsupported, and could well be false.] We won the electoral college by a lot. 306 to 223, I believe. [It was actually 304 to 227.] That was a well-fought battle. We did a great job.
Frankly, I’m going to let the president speak to the second part of your question. But, just to say it one time again and I say it all the time, there was no collusion. I didn’t know the president. There was nobody to collude with. There was no collusion with the campaign. Every time you hear all of these 12 and 14 — it’s stuff that has nothing to do — and frankly, they admit, these are not people involved in the campaign. But to the average reader out there, they are saying, well maybe that does. It doesn’t. Even the people involved, some perhaps told mis-stories. In one case the FBI said there was no lie. There was no lie. Somebody else said there was. We ran a brilliant campaign. And that’s why I’m president. Thank you.
PUTIN: As to who is to be believed, who is not to be believed: you can trust no one. Where did you get this idea that President Trump trusts me or I trust him? He defends the interests of the United States of America and I do defend the interests of the Russian Federation. We do have interests that are common. We are looking for points of contact.
There are issues where our postures diverge and we are looking for ways to reconcile our differences, how to make our effort more meaningful. We should not proceed from the immediate political interests that guide certain political powers in our countries. We should be guided by facts. Could you name a single fact that would definitively prove the collusion? This is utter nonsense — just like the president recently mentioned. Yes, the public at large in the United States had a certain perceived opinion of the candidates during the campaign. But there’s nothing particularly extraordinary about it. That’s the normal thing.
President Trump, when he was a candidate, he mentioned the need to restore the Russia/US relationship, and it’s clear that certain parts of American society felt sympathetic about it and different people could express their sympathy in different ways. Isn’t that natural? Isn’t it natural to be sympathetic towards a person who is willing to restore the relationship with our country, who wants to work with us?
We heard the accusations about it. As far as I know, this company hired American lawyers and the accusations doesn’t have a fighting chance in the American courts. There’s no evidence when it comes to the actual facts. So we have to be guided by facts, not by rumors.
Now, let’s get back to the issue of this 12 alleged intelligence officers of Russia. I don’t know the full extent of the situation. But President Trump mentioned this issue. I will look into it.
So far, I can say the following. Things that are off the top of my head. We have an existing agreement between the United States of America and the Russian Federation, an existing treaty that dates back to 1999. The mutual assistance on criminal cases. This treaty is in full effect. It works quite efficiently. On average, we initiate about 100, 150 criminal cases upon request from foreign states.
For instance, the last year, there was one extradition case upon the request sent by the United States. This treaty has specific legal procedures we can offer. The appropriate commission headed by Special Attorney Mueller, he can use this treaty as a solid foundation and send a formal, official request to us so that we could interrogate, hold questioning of these individuals who he believes are privy to some crimes. Our enforcement are perfectly able to do this questioning and send the appropriate materials to the United States. Moreover, we can meet you halfway. We can make another step. We can actually permit representatives of the United States, including the members of this very commission headed by Mr. Mueller, we can let them into the country. They can be present at questioning.
In this case, there’s another condition. This kind of effort should be mutual one. Then we would expect that the Americans would reciprocate. They would question officials, including the officers of law enforcement and intelligence services of the United States whom we believe have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia. And we have to request the presence of our law enforcement.
For instance, we can bring up Mr. Browder in this particular case. Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes. Neither in Russia nor in the United States. Yet, the money escapes the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.
[He presents no evidence to back up that $400 million claim.] Well, that’s their personal case. It might have been legal, the contribution itself. But the way the money was earned was illegal. We have solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers guided these transactions. [This allegation, too, is merely an unsupported assertion here.] So we have an interest of questioning them. That could be a first step. We can also extend it. There are many options. They all can be found in an appropriate legal framework.
REPORTER (Jeff Mason from Reuters): Did you direct any of your officials to help him [Trump] do that [find those ‘options’]?
PUTIN: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the US/Russia relationship back to normal.
The evidence regarding that entire matter, of Bill Browder and the Magnitsky Act, can be seen in the links and the other evidences that are presented in two articles that I published on that very subject, earlier this year. One, titled “Private Investigations Find America’s Magnitsky Act to Be Based on Frauds”, summarizes the independently done private investigations into the evidence that is publicly available online regarding Bill Browder and the Magnitsky Act. The Magnitsky Act was the basis for the first set of economic sanctions against Russia, and were instituted in 2012; so, this concerns the start of the restoration of the Cold War (without the communism etc. that were allegedly the basis of Cold War I). The other article, “Russiagate-Trump Gets Solved by Giant of American Investigative Journalism”, provides further details in the evidence, and connects both the Magnitsky Act and Bill Browder to the reason why, on 9 June 2016, the Russian lawyer Nataliya Veselnitskaya, met privately at Trump Tower, with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner — the reason was specifically in order to inform them about the documentation on this case, so that Trump, if elected, would be aware of the contents of those documents. She had used the promise of dirt on Hillary so as to enable Trump, who effectively became the Republican nominee on 26 May 2016, to learn about the actual documents in this crucial case.
The Russian government has been legally pursuing Mr. Browder, for years, on charges that he evaded paying $232 million taxes that were due to the Russian government. These private investigations into this matter — regarding whether or not the Magnitsky Act was based on fraudulent grounds — have all found that Mr. Browder has clearly falsified and misrepresented the actual documents, which are linked to in those two articles I wrote. These might be the very same documents that she was presenting on June 9th.
So: this is a matter of importance not only to the validity (or not) of the Magnitsky Act economic sanctions against Russia, but to the Russiagate accusations regarding U.S. President Donald Trump. In my two articles, the general public can click right through to the evidence on the Magnitsky case.
Delusions of U.S. Hegemony In A Multi-Polar World: Trump Visits Europe
To say that US foreign policy is delusional is not an exaggeration. It seeks political hegemony and a relationship with China and Russia akin to what it has had with Japan and Germany, that is, go ahead and develop in the economic sphere but don’t try to flex political or military muscle.
There are at least two problems with this scenario: China is now the world’s largest economy on a purchasing power parity basis, and the Russians have the nuclear capacity to make a wasteland out of the US. Russian weapons systems can also be superior.
Take the S-400 in comparison with the US Patriot missile defense system — the purpose of these surface-to-air systems is to shoot down incoming missiles or aircraft. The S-400 has a more powerful radar, double the range, is faster (Mach 6 vs Mach 5), takes five minutes to set up against one hour for the Patriot, and is cheaper. China has just bought 32 launchers and is expected to buy more, thereby challenging Japan, Taiwan (which it claims) and other neighbors for control of the skies, as it is doing over the seas bordering itself. NATO member Turkey has recently signed a purchase deal, and Iran wants to, as does Qatar after its recent spat with Saudi Arabia. If Russia supplies Iran, any attack planned by the US or Israel would prove to be very costly and politically infeasible.
In our world of instant and continuous news feeds, one can imagine a bemused Vladimir Putin listening to Trump exhorting NATO members to increase contributions to NATO — an organization designed to counter the Russian threat — specifically castigating Germany’s Angela Merkel for being beholden to Russia with her country’s reliance on Russian natural gas.
Early next week he meets Mr. Putin in Helsinki, fresh from his soft power World Cup triumph as the world beat a path to Russia. What does Mr. Trump tell the leader of the world’s largest country covering eleven time zones? US political hegemony is a non-starter.
Europeans clearly want access to China, its labor, its markets, even finance, and with it comes Russia and their numerous initiatives together including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIE) their answer to the US-sponsored World Bank. That Britain joined AIIB contrary to US wishes is a clear sign of China rising as the US declines comparatively; Britain, having faced up to the US, was followed by a rush of European countries.
Russia wants sanctions lifted. What does the US want? Crimea is a non-starter. Help with Iran? For the Russians, it has become an important ally both with regard to Syria and as a Mideast power in its own right. Mr. Trump’s instincts are right. But what he achieves is another matter. Childish petulance accompanied by a different story for different leaders would leave an observer with little optimism.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump manufactures and markets his own reality; this time on his popularity (‘I think they like me a lot in the UK’) despite avoiding roads and traveling by helicopter when possible during his pared down UK visit. Hordes of demonstrators undeterred have a giant parade balloon several stories high of a bloated child with the trademark blonde hair. It is one the largest demonstrations ever outside the US against a sitting president.
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