Sunday, July 15, 2018

Battling Wits when Death is On The Line

You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders - the most famous of which is "never get involved in a land war in Asia" - but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line"!    Vizinni in The Princess Bride 1987

I don’t care for games.  I never have.  Given the choice to ride my bike, work in the garden, sit by a crackling fire, cook, do dishes, vacuum, or pretty much any other time-consuming activity or play games, I’d choose the former.  With one exception.  I love the game of Risk.  When French film director Albert Lamorisse invented La Conquête du Monde in 1957 and sold it to Parker Brothers in 1959, he had the benefit of a world war to observe the psychology of geopolitical intrigue.  The year before inventing Risk, Lamorisse won the Palme d’Or in Cannes for The Red Balloon – one of cinema’s greatest (and most depressing) short films.  In the film, a young boy pursues the meandering flight of a red helium balloon as it whimsically blows across Paris before being popped by a pack of hooligans atop a hill deflating the aspirational innocence of the young boy’s fanciful excursion.  As U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin today in Finland, I’ve reflected on the life – and untimely helicopter crash accidental death – of Lamorisse’s artistic and diversionary contributions to the last century and mused if we’re more Risk or Red Balloon this week.

If you’ve never played Risk, you wouldn’t know that controlling Asia is nigh impossible until the end game.  While of equal value, North America and Europe do not represent equivalent ease of management with North America enjoying the most point value with the least risk of attack.  And the Southern Hemisphere (South America, Africa, and Australia) only serve to fortify their Northern Hemisphere masters and offer no strategic value beyond their geographical alliance.  And if you’ve never watched The Red Balloon you wouldn’t know that bullies with stones and slingshots always ruin the innocence of whimsy.  Or, on reflection, you wouldn’t have to play the game or watch the film.  You could just look at Twitter and arrive at the same social conclusion.

Whenever Trump opens his mouth or exercises his primate-inspired opposable Twitter thumbed intellect, you can count on elites like The Atlantic to lament the end of the American century.  From CNN to The Guardian, the status quo reflex is to shudder and cringe at the arrogant, misogynist, xenophobic, totalitarian, egomaniacal ravings of the golden fleeced puppet.  But this façade of indignation serves as a diaphanous veil on the arrogance (and ignorance) embedded in the assumption of nostalgic hegemonic illusions.  There wasn’t an American century. 

Yes, I said it!  While the United States has built the myth of the 20th century being somehow its empirical zenith, the facts indict such a view as the whimsy of a school boy following a balloon blown about by the Parisian winds.  In World War I, 41 million casualties resulted from the conflict and the Central Powers’ GDP shrunk by as much as 40%.  The Allies outspent the Central Powers $147 billion to $61 billion.  In World War II, close to 3% of the world’s total population were killed with as many as 80 million people dead from conflict, disease, starvation, or other deprivation.  Germany and Japan had their manufacturing infrastructure obliterated.  Under the Potsdam Declaration, U.S. economic power was secured by treaty and expediency, not based on genuine competition.  Reinforced by the dubious Bretton Woods doctrine that “free trade would result in lasting peace”, globalization in the image of an American idealism sought to impose on the world a corporatocracy in which U.S. economic interest determined what “fair” would mean.  And for the record, “fair” meant favoritism.  If it was good for the U.S., it was free and fair.  If it harmed U.S. self-interest, it wasn’t.  So it’s no wonder that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is cursed not for its chauvinism but rather for its objective ignorance.  There’s no “again”.  The U.S. appeared to be “great” because we were playing Risk while the rest of the world was playing Go.  And, for the record, Go strategy upsets Risk every time – particularly when the world is digital in its trade!

Thirty years after Nixon leaned on China to back his unilateral default on the gold standard (August 15, 1971), China entered the World Trade Organization.  In the 17 years that have followed, China’s over 400% growth in middle class spending power has expanded market opportunities for domestic and foreign companies to be sure.  But while the U.S. was fighting Bush & Cheney “terror” phantasms, China was carefully playing Go.  Recognizing that the control of supply chains adds “suspenders” to the One Belt One Road resurgence of the Silk Road in Xi’s China, rather than engaging the Southern Hemisphere, the U.S. made the classic Risk error: namely, try to control the Ottoman Empire.  China played the right game.  The U.S. played the wrong game.  And the U.S. was playing the wrong game because it thought that it was the empire protected by the frozen landmass linking Kamchatka to Alaska and the Isthmus of Central America.  What it failed to realize is that its last chance to change games was at the reunification of Germany and the Two Plus Four Agreement in 1990 when George H.W. Bush lost the plot of the 20th Century (assuming he had any clue about the plot at all).

And for those red white and blue fans out there – remember this.  Your blue jeans, computers, satellites, drugs, fertilizers, engines, and TVs have more Nazi and Axis engineering in them than they have American ingenuity.  What we did was take the technologies of others and deploy it at unprecedented scale.  But we did it on the back of a world that we forced into IMF indebtedness and corruption.  Now that others are cleaning up their own economies, we’re finding out that the we weren’t the best.  We were just less broken so appeared to have a moment of glory.  If you took the time to look at the reparations at the end of World War II, you’d realize that we’d still be on party-line phones if it weren’t for “the enemies” of a generation ago.  Our modern illusion of wealth is based on a story that we’ve yelled so long that we believe it to be true.  But the facts unfortunately tell a different story.  We took advantage of weakness.  We were not strong.  We imposed our will on the broken.  We did not rise to excellence of character and moral leadership.  And when Trump and Putin meet today, they’re merely repeating a tired refrain from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1905 Russian fantasies.  Those didn’t last the decade and neither will Trump’s touchy feely Putin fling.


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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave