By Observer R for the Saker blog
A quick search of the internet for the term “What Russia Got Wrong” yields a lot of entries. However, a quick search for the term “What America Got Wrong” yields a rather sparse list. This is understandable since the narrative in the West has been that Russia is losing in international relations. Also, the United States (US) think tanks and government studies are oriented toward analyzing Russia, as a competitor country, and not so much toward what the situation in the US is like. There are exceptions, but these are often couched in terms of the need for more money for various US military programs. It may be useful, therefore, to look at a few topics and see how the US fares.
WHAT AMERICA GOT WRONG: MILITARY
Going forward it seems past time to consider some significant deficiencies that have become evident in the American quest to remain a great or the greatest military power. Many of these elements have been brought forward recently in pubic discussions and are important considerations in terms of weapons and military force.
The US has continued to procure weapons that many critics perceive as not suited for the modern age, or that are simply obsolete. These weapons are generally very expensive and prevent funds from being shifted to better uses. The usual examples are aircraft carriers, stealth fighter planes, littoral combat ships, and so forth. Instead, the US should have switched funding and effort into hypersonic missiles, electronic warfare, air defense systems, and perhaps more advanced submarines. Thus, the US really does have a “missile gap” to contend with. The bad name that air defense got with the “Star Wars” episode under President Reagan delayed work in that area for many years. Now it appears that at least one foreign country, Russia, is considerably ahead of the US in air defense equipment.
In addition, long ago the US set up approximately 800 military bases around the world. These bases were useful in the days of gunboat diplomacy and when US hegemony required extensive preparation for military action anywhere around the globe. Then and now these bases require a lot of manpower and funding to operate, but it is not clear that they serve an essential purpose in this age. Other countries have taken up the chore of fighting pirates and bombing terrorist dens. The US effort could be greatly scaled back.
The US system for developing new weapons and producing weapons has suffered from not “getting the biggest bang for the buck.” It is often pointed out that the US spends on weapons many times what other countries do, but does not seem to get any more or better weapons as a result. Probably the entire system needs to be rethought. One option would be to go back to having the military run some of its own factories, as in the days of armories. Perhaps a bit of government ownership would provide some competition which is sorely lacking now. The politicians even require the military buy weapons it does not want—essentially giving rise to the theory that the purpose of the Defense Department is to spend a lot of money, and not necessarily to win wars.
The US is running on borrowed money and on borrowed time, as the petrodollar effect wears out. The military will need to be downsized when the crunch comes, but it does not appear that enough thought and planning is being done to prepare for that day.
There are other areas related to the military where things do not appear to be going well for the US. A number of these are elaborated upon in a book by a former acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher C. Miller. One relates to low recruitment numbers, where a controversial, but perhaps useful, fix would be to bring back universal military service. This could actually be a combination of many kinds of military and civilian public service, including a revised and expanded Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) idea.
This brings to mind another avenue to train young recruits in various skills, and also fix a gap in historical preservation: For example, the restoration of the last great steamship built in America, the SS United States. It was built as a passenger liner, but with the option of turning it into a troopship in case of war. As such, it was designed as very fire-proof and had a very fast speed. It could now be used as a training ship in all facets of operation and maintenance, with the graduates having a better resume for seeking jobs with the US Navy and Coast Guard, but also in the huge cruise ship armada sailing around the world. There are relatively few important passenger liners preserved today, this effort would save one of the high points of American engineering and manufacturing, in addition to developing a cadre of skilled workers who could also be able to take jobs related to the US infrastructure repair.
WHAT AMERICA GOT WRONG: FINANCE
This category contains a number of items that need to be reviewed. One such is the notion that each country needs to have a central bank. Overlooked is the fact that the US operated without a central bank for about 72 years. The Bank of the United States was ended in 1841 and the next central bank did not arrive until the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Now that the US has operated under a central bank system for a century, it seems part of the natural order and almost nobody questions it. The US public did question the notion vigorously back in the 19th Century. The point is that the US grew from a minor power to perhaps the largest economy in the world at the outbreak of WWI. During that period it fought the Civil War and the Spanish-American War without having a central bank. The financial panics prior to 1913 were offered as partial justification for setting up the Federal Reserve, but the Great Depression and numerous recessions have taken place since the central bank was restored. The US is currently in a “Great Bubble” situation, and the central bank does not appear to know what to do about it. The whole system is not working properly.
Another financial issue is that of fractional reserve banking. Most peoples’ eyes glaze over at the mention of this term and it is seldom discussed in economics textbooks. Essentially, fractional reserve banking is when banks loan out money that they do not have. When banks write a check to provide a loan, only a small part of the check is backed up by any sort of money on deposit in the bank. Banks can create money out of thin air, and the money is later destroyed when the loan is paid off. This arrangement was supposedly needed when agriculture was a major part of the economy and extra funds were needed at harvest time. The US has been past that situation for many years, but the fractional system contributes to rapid money growth during periods of exuberance when lots of companies want to expand or start up operations, and investors are borrowing money to play the stock market. This leads to bubbles such as the dotcom, the housing, and the “everything bubble” that we are now experiencing. The bubbles eventually burst. So the inception of central banking did not really eliminate the panics of the 19th century, if anything, it appears to have made them worse. Books have been written about the cause and cure of the problems of fractional reserve banking, but next to nothing has been done about it.
While not normally termed “finance,” the problem of monopolies is a constant irritant for most economies. The US solution was to pass various anti-trust laws, break up vast organizations, and restructure certain industries. For example, both Standard Oil and American Telephone and Telegraph were broken up into many smaller pieces. The railroads and the airlines were put under regulation. The banks were restructured into separate commercial banking and investment banking entities. Brokerage houses were also separate. However, some of this worked out, but some of it did not. The oil and phone breakup worked, but, in recent years, these industries began reorganizing into vast enterprises. The transport regulation did not work as the government could not set prices and service and still keep up with technological progress, so changes were made. The banks eventually overcame the anti-trust separation and merged commercial, investment, brokerage and credit card functions into other huge enterprises. The reforms of the 1930’s, instituted as a correction of the setup that led to the Great Depression, were done away with and the situation reverted to that of the 1920’s. Unsurprisingly, this, along with the banking defects, has led to the recent booms and excesses of the 1920’s all over again. Which will, perhaps, lead to Great Depression II.
It is also commonplace now to fault globalization for many of the ills facing the US. The loss of factories was allowed to proceed without a serious study of potential side effects. The notion that the steel workers could find new jobs immediately when the mill shut down was always fanciful. This was especially true in locations where the factory was the major employer and it was a long distance to any place with job openings. The lack of enormous factories and experienced workers can also play havoc with any military mobilization.
A final financial problem that the US has allowed to get out of hand is the national debt. Expert opinion suggests that the total national government debt should be kept below the Gross National Product (GNP). The US total is now above the GNP and getting farther ahead every year with the recurring budget deficits. This makes it more difficult each year to find a solution. Every proposed solution, in fact, is fought vigorously by one or more special interest groups and the outcome is a stalemate. No actual reform is enacted or carried out.
WHAT AMERICA GOT WRONG: TRANSPORTATION
The obvious mistakes here include letting the Interstate and Defense Highway System decay for lack of maintenance and failing to fill in the system’s missing links. The interstates were designed back in the era of President Eisenhower to match the distribution of population and economic activity at the time. That distribution has greatly changed since the 1950’s, but the highways have not kept up. For example, I-66 should have been completed from Washington, DC onward to Ohio instead of leaving large gaps of primitive roads between stretches of super-highways. There are missing links between Denver and Salt Lake City, between Denver and Dallas, and numerous other major cities.
In addition, the design of the interstates routed them into city centers instead of bypassing them. The result is that highways are overcrowded with commuters. This prevents a smooth flow of traffic between states, which was the original reason for the highways. Also, many of the routes into or through the cities were never completed. For instance, I-95 was built into Washington, DC, and then stopped, with a large gap before resuming on the other side of the city. This forces through-traffic to go around the city using the Capital Beltway, making more congestion and slower speeds, besides wasting fuel.
In this case, one potential solution could have been to build a separate super-highway located just to the west of I-95 designed to avoid both local and commuter traffic. It would have allowed free-flowing traffic between Maine and Florida, thus serving both a civilian and military purpose. Therefore this highway could have been called “Military Road Number One” (MR-1). The original interstate system under President Eisenhower was also designed to support any possible military use.
Another aspect of transportation where America missed out concerned railroads. There should have been an “Interstate Railroad System” designed and built along with the highways. Long distance trains suffer from the same problems as long distance trucking in having to go through the centers of towns. This creates slow movement of goods and increased danger when accidents happen. The news is full of stories about trains derailing inside towns and cities and consequently dumping hazardous materials into the water and air. There are also the continuous numbers of accidents at grade-crossings, which should have been eliminated on an interstate rail system.
The lack of large-scale transport manufacturing programs in the US can be seen in two cases where the US should have excelled: constructing cruise ships and building supersonic airliners. Cruise ship companies now have to order their large vessels from yards in Europe, especially from Norway, France, Germany, and Italy. These are not low-wage countries, so that is not an excuse for the lack of US shipbuilding. In addition, although the Europeans built a supersonic airliner many years ago, this was not followed up by the US. The excuse was the sonic boom problem and the apparent lack of commercial profitability. Now, with the large and increasing amount of traffic going across the oceans, it would seem desirable to have a faster means of travel. Perhaps a small amount of the money expended by the Pentagon could have been diverted to design a game-changing US plane built in the US and sold to the world’s airlines.
WHAT AMERICA GOT WRONG: CULTURE
An important factor that is seldom covered in the national security literature is that of the impact of national culture and its various aspects, especially religion and sexual rules and practices. There is relatively little discussion in public foreign policy articles as to whether religion, or lack thereof, or its form and type makes any difference in the overall extent of national power in international relations. Some of the questions relate to whether a country gains by having a religion to promote certain codes of behavior that support rules the government is simultaneously enforcing. Following that, what is the impact of having a “state religion” as a focal point to advance both church and state interests?
Both Russia and the US have at various times been “Christian” countries and both at different times have been “post-Christian” countries. Generally, and very roughly speaking, Russia, during the Soviet period was in the “post-Christian” camp, while the US was in the “Christian” camp. Then after the Soviet Union imploded, both countries switched sides. Does this make any difference? There may be two approaches to the answer: First, the Soviet Union eventually dissolved and the issue is whether culture policies may have had something to do with that ending; Second, decades ago a scholarly work on the subject of sex and culture was published by an English scholar at Oxford and Cambridge. Examining it may assist in considering the current issues related to culture. A summary of his findings is as follows, taken from the book cover:
“Originally published by Oxford Press in 1934, J. D. Unwin conducted this landmark study of 86 civilizations through 5000 years of history and found a positive correlation between the cultural achievement of a people and the sexual restraint they observe. The evidence is that human societies are free to choose either to display great energy or to enjoy sexual freedom; it appears they cannot do both for more than one generation. The whole of human history does not contain single instance of a group becoming civilized unless it has been absolutely monogamous, nor is there any example of a group retaining its culture after it has adopted less rigorous customs.”
This area of scholarly inquiry has received little attention in the major magazines dealing with international relations and national security. It would seem important to check out the Unwin study and the other aspects related to it. Are his findings still valid? To what extent did the “post-Christian” camp adherents “adopt less rigorous customs”? If they did, and the Unwin findings are still applicable, then the countries that have gone “post-Christian” will be at a disadvantage in international competition.
Culture is becoming a war, like psychological, economic, chemical, biological, legal, and other wars, between Russia and the US. This week the president of Russia gave a speech in which he excoriated the West for its attacks on Russian culture, the Russian Orthodox Church, and other churches. He specifically denounced the West’s treatment of family life and various sexual behaviors.
WHAT AMERICA GOT WRONG: HEGEMONY
The US government is currently trying to maintain, or hang onto, the extent of hegemonic control it has throughout the rest of the world. The preceding sections of this paper address many elements that are going wrong and how difficult it will be for the US to be successful. There are even more problems that are not discussed, such as healthcare and education. The government in Washington seems blind to the fact that the US is sliding into a form of isolationism. Other countries are increasingly going their own way and declining to take orders from Washington. The US is picking fights with Russia and China at the same time—oblivious to the fact that the US will lose the contest.
However, even parts of the US Establishment evidently begin to sense that all is not right, for the latest issue of Foreign Affairs published an article by Andrew J. Bacevich that contains some hard truths:
“A combination of grotesque inequality and feckless profligacy goes a long way toward explaining why such an immense and richly endowed country finds itself unable to contend with dysfunction at home and crises abroad. Military might cannot compensate for an absence of internal cohesion and governmental self-discipline. Unless the United States gets its house in order, it has little hope of exercising global leadership—much less prevailing in a mostly imaginary competition pitting democracy against autocracy.”
Soldier Secretary, Christopher C. Miller, Center Street, 2023
The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking, and the Future of the Global Economy, Mervyn King, W. W. Norton, 2016
Sex and Culture, J. D. Unwin, Oxford University Press, 1934
State of the Nation (address to the Federal Assembly), Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, February 21, 2023
The Reckoning That Wasn’t: Why America Remains Trapped by False Dreams of Hegemony, Andrew J. Bacevich, Foreign Affairs, Volume 102, Number 2, March/April 2023