On U.S. politics

As a German, I'm not particularly impressed by the 'threat' that countries like Iran (which didn't invade another country for centuries) pose to world peace. Even if they were, I wouldn't be much concerned because they get a lot of attention already.
It's more likely that some threat that doesn't get the attention as such is a greater risk.
This includes especially aggressive allies.

The most interesting (potential) troublemakers are therefore in my opinion the U.S., Russia, UK and Israel.
We are formally allied with two, friendly with one and in practical relations (business-like) with another.
The UK seems to be rather disenchanted with military adventures and limited in its potential, while Israel is a strictly regional troublemaker. Russia is in a phase of stagnation if not steady decline. This leaves the U.S. as most interesting potential troublemaker.

Considering the scale of activity and the ease with which I can assess sources, I've made a habit of tracking developments in U.S. politics. In part for the entertainment value and in part because I am curious about which shitty foreign policy may come next and endanger my country (in)directly.

During the last two decades, U.S. foreign policies have indirectly led to several dozen dead or abducted Germans, while Russians, Israelis and British added pretty much none. The attention seems justified for a German MilBlogger.

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Now to my analysis of U.S. politics:

The political forces of conservatism and progressivism have their rightful places in a society, for neither is flawless enough to rule a sustainable society.
The conservative political forces in the U.S. are ill-represented by the Republican party and its progressive political forces are ill-represented by the Democratic party. It's a textbook version of a simple majority rule political economics.

The fundamental divide between both parties is about the question of government-organised solidarity. Democrats want the government to support unlucky citizens institutionally (social safety net) and Republicans largely reject the same. There are more conflict points, in which the Democrats typically assume the more secular position.

This lack of consensus on the fundamental nature of government is quite typical, for the U.S. has still no consensus on topics where Germans have reached (and maintained) a consensus (with overwhelming and robust majority in favour of one option) sometime between the 1880's and the 2000's: Evolution, social insurances, secularism, the age of earth, global warming, imperial foreign policy, torture, Pigou taxes...

The current political conflicts of the U.S. are (luckily) mostly of domestic nature and seem to pose no martial threat to other nations, albeit an economic threat seems to persist.

The Republicans have a simple grand strategy; they do whatever they feel they want to do when they are ruling and they attempt to defund the Democrats' attempts to realise democratic policies whenever Democrats occupy the White House.
This explains why the traditionally pro-budget deficit Republicans now fake to be the fiscal austerity party. It's all about defunding Democratic policies.

The Republican leaders in Congress do not have the outer appearance of being tough guys (a charisma-free double chin and an orange-faced guy who often cries in public), but their tactics are very tough.
A normal political compromise is a give-and-take thing. Their idea of a compromise is to take and to promise not to take even more (by defunding) - at least for a while. This partially explains Republican extremism; it generates free bargaining chips for foul political compromises. (From a German point of view, left-wing extremism in the U.S. only earns the "extreme" rating by the fact that the right wing moved so far away from it.)
This strange idea of what constitutes a compromise extended into Republican foreign policy for the last two decades and explains much of it - especially its inability to come to a cooperative conclusion in many conflicts.

The democrats are meanwhile a faint version of social democrats, persistently disadvantaged by the fact that their political program requires funding. Their political strategies lack the Republican aggressiveness, especially the preventive aggressiveness as displayed by the Republican idea of a bipartisan compromise.

Both parties are nevertheless quite exchangeable in regard to a long list of assumptions, myths, prejudices and in their pro-big business stance. Neither is able to sustain political ideologies that run counter to powerful business lobbies.
There are thus many constants in U.S. foreign policy. The methods vary, but the beliefs are largely the same.
It's therefore not possible to tell whether a Democratic or a Republican president is more of a threat to foreign countries.
There is also an advantage in this stability; the behemoth USA is unlikely to turn on Allies or (perceived) threats suddenly and without obvious early indicators. The move against Iraq was prepared in and out of government for a decade and the more general conflict with Arab terrorists was even obvious in pop culture (C-movies) for almost as long. The U.S. portrays its targets as villains long before it strikes. This is sometimes accompanied by a scare campaign; red scare, yellow scare, Muslim scare, terror scare ...

Right now, there are some early indicators for a conflict with the PR China, but this has likely to become a broader movement before the country is ripe for open conflict. Preparing the grounds for open conflict on a more popular base will likely take another 4 to 10 years. Watch out for Hollywood villains of Chinese origin not played by Jet Li.

There have also been many early indicators for a decoupling from Europe; widespread French-bashing, "Old Europe" criticism, popular derogatory remarks on different European nationalities and the myth of a Muslim invasion or take-over of Europe are concerning.
A complete decoupling may of course create the option of open conflict between European powers and the U.S., something that hasn't extended beyond minor trade wars for generations.
A reverse of this with public diplomacy and cultural influence might help to prevent open inter-Atlantic conflict in a generation or two.

A growing population share of so-called "Hispanics" (emigrants from Latin America, many of them would be considered by Europeans to be whites) and a slight increase of relations to and cultural influence from India might be very, very early indicators for increased affinity to Latin America and India.

It may be true that the behemoth USA is astonishingly easy to manipulate with money. Lobbyism and funding of manipulative popular entertainment. Entertainment programs that fake to be news programs or fake to only fake to be news programs are such an example. Powerful lobbying businesses are ready for service to customers as well, complete with fake grass-roots movement (so-called 'astroturf' projects) and revolving door between politics and lobbyism.
There's little reason to believe that China would be more challenged to influence U.S. foreign policy than Israel, for example. You probably don't need to do much more than some lobbying, buy some shares in TV and radio stations, meet important people and finance some Hollywood movies with a suitable narrative.

Overall, Germans are not threatened by the U.S. directly (save for a huge deal of espionage and occasional abduction), but we should pay attention to staying out of a possible Sino-American open conflict and we should perceive NATO as the bond that prevents open rivalry if not open conflict between the U.S. and Continental Europe.



Military budgets - an attempt to create a sane process

I am 'annoyed' by the arguments brought forward in debates about military (don't call 'em "defense"!) budgets.

Here are some typical and outright idiotic approaches that 'some' people take:

We have x.y % GDP spending, so we can easily afford z %!
Last year we had x %, we should not reduce that!
Air force, army and navy need the same share of the budget!
The budget is full of waste, but to reduce it means to increase risks!
We are a maritime nation, so we need a huge navy!
We dreamed about a xyz ship navy for decades, so let's budget for this!
A country on the other side of earth spends x money on the military, so we need to spend x times ten money on the military!
Every department has to spend x % less this year, so has the military!
There's not enough tax revenue, so we need to spend less on the military (fuck the constant threats)!

Now let me lay out a kind of scientific approach to it, coined by knowledge about macroeconomics - especially about the concept of marginal rates:

Step One
Assess the most basic defence needs of the nation, and how much it costs to meet them.

Step Two
Make a list of proposed additional military capabilities, and assess their (neutral estimate) cost/benefit ratio.

Step Three
Look at the results from other departments, showing their proposed luxury shopping lists with attached neutral estimates of cost/benefit ratios.

Step Four
Assess the state income system and its costs (including all economical costs, not only the state's administration costs. This includes the costs caused by distortions such as legal tax evasion and tax accountants turnover).

Step Five
Now match up the most cost/benefit efficient proposals from all departments with the curve of increasing inefficiencies with increasing revenue. Spend on the most promising luxury shopping list items first, no matter which department.

At some point, to add an additional shopping list item would require the acceptance of so many economical damages from state revenue generation that it makes no sense from a national welfare point of view. Bureaucracies tend to go farther, of course.

See? I consider military budgets to be service budgets that serve the people of the nation. Expenditures on inefficient proposals hurts the national welfare and makes no sense whatsoever.
We may include the love of people for shiny fighter jets and big warships as emotional benefits in the cost/benefit assessment, but it's still subject to the analysis.

The lack of the attempt to actually optimise a budget for national welfare, instead going for various forms of bureaucratic interests and ideologies, is what annoys me.

1% GDP p.a. can be the difference between decline and prosperity if the choice is between adding it to public consumption (military) or to economic capital investment (adding to capital stock and thus to income generation over the next about 20 years).

Most -if not all- who debate on military budgets in public debate them as if those budgets were isolated. Only the basic needs can be de-coupled from other department's services. The luxury expenditures (and that's the majority in many NATO military institutions) need to compete with the services of other departments.
This isolated (and dumbed-down) discussion is the fatal flaw of most if not all debates on military budgets.



Exotic ancient weapons: (IV) Macuahuitl

The Native American civilizations have shown us how advanced "stone age" can actually be (and likely was in many part of Europe as well) - better than the few lasting traces of stone-age populations in Europe did.

The Central American populations used a quite advanced weapon with remarkable characteristics; a nightmare of a sword.
The Macuahuitl was basically a club with sharp obsidian stones as saw-like blades. A modern chainsaw is loud, but probably not much more frightening than a new Macuahuitl.

The Macuahuitl was basically a heavy, about one metre long scalpel sword - and it was wielded against warriors who had no metal armour. The club itself was already frightening, the sharpness was incredible, but the effect of a sawing motion slashing attack was certainly so brutal that we won't see a realistic Aztec battle in a movie anytime soon.

The obsidian stones lost their sharpness after some blows, of course. This did most likely require some economic and logistical effort because an army needed to be supplied with fresh stones and the means to fix them onto the wooden club (no clue how that was done).


On democracy in Germany

The basic idea and foundation of democracy is that all people share power. There's not a small group supposed to make all relevant decisions.

The basic idea and foundation of representative democracy is that these powerful people delegate some authority to a smaller group of people for practical reasons. A politician can and should spend much more time on political matters than the average adult should.

The power still flows upwards on the pyramid; its origin is in the people, and it merely gets delegated to the elected officials. A requirement for a German political party is a democratic structure.

Sadly, we've only got one political party (if any) that's really democratic. All others are oligarchic. The top dogs (about 5-20 people per party) decide on what shall be done and those who are supposed to be their source of power are mere followers; sheep.

The recent reorganisation of the FDP (liberals) leadership demonstrated this fact again, visible for anyone. The press isn't even being irritated by this oligarchic behaviour any more. A few top politicians decided who's going to be the next federal FDP minister (by constitution, that should be a chancellor's choice) and who's going to be the next FDP chairman (this is supposed to be the decision of the FDP national party conference.

This congregation of sheep has just confirmed the new party chairman. There was no other candidate. The majority in his favour was 95% - strictly reminiscent of Stalinist farce democracies and other autocratic states which generally publish such irritating results.
In the German political culture of today, journalists and commentators don't criticise this obvious oligarchic structure of a ruling political party. Instead, they comment as if such a vote was a good sign.

German politicians often complain about the lack of enthusiasm of the citizens for politics. Maybe, just maybe they should consider ending the farce democracy that's in fact an oligarchy and build a real democracy. That would be completely against the only politicians with real influence, of course; the oligarchs.



On 'successful' occupations

I think I remember two typical patterns for successful occupations in history:

(A) The occupied country has at least a similar wealth as the occupier itself.
This allows the occupiers to press enough contributions out of the suppressed to make the occupation pay for itself. France 1940-1944 is an extreme example for a 'profitable' occupation.

(B) The occupation lasts very long (generations).
Only officers, non-commissioned officers, clerks, technical specialists and elite troops are foreigners; the majority of the occupation forces are indigenous troops. This model usually exploits rifts in the occupied society (classes, religions, tribes) and recruits its indigenous troops only from one group. The European colonial powers and their colonies are a good example for this.

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Afghanistan looks very differently. It's ridiculously poor in comparison to the involved foreigners and the indigenous forces are neither under control of foreign leaders and specialists nor were they recruited from only one group.

This violation of the well-established patterns may contribute to the explanation of the failure to force central control, peace and order onto Afghanistan so far.

Sadly, neither pattern really helps a country to reduce the risk of becoming occupied. Even the melding of internal rifts wouldn't help much against a multi-year occupation by a peer country.


Australia and ASEAN

Milblogging on Australian defence policy is being dominated by discussions about military procurement and budgeting according to my personal observation.

A procurement "strategy" is no real strategy, though. It's merely an execution of a strategy (or it's aimless drifting).

Looking at Australia, I've always been confused by how it seemed to be fixated on distant Caucasian people countries for alliances. They even participated in Mediterranean WW2 an later they participated in the Vietnam War.

The current situation does not offer any major block conflict such as Allies-Axis or NATO-WP any more. Maybe it's about time Australia takes distant places less serious in its defence policy?

A good starting point for a reset would be to look at the only conceivable threat in the vicinity; Indonesia.

Australia and Indonesia, image creator: "Gunkarta"
Indonesia has about the same economic output in nominal terms, and more in purchasing power parity. Indonesia has a twice as high share of goods in its economic output (I don't think that the service sector's output is a good economic power indicator) as Australia. It's growing more rapidly and is a less mature state/economy, potentially able to mobilise a much greater share of its economic output for national projects. In short; Australia looks inferior in the long term.

This offers an opportunity to emulate Europe's recipe for national security; ally with your neighbours till all of 'em are either allies or stern neutrals.

Maybe it would be a better national security policy if Australia tries to ally with Indonesia, maybe even join ASEAN, than to be fixated on traditional alliances with distant anglophone countries?

Maybe not, but I deem this at least to be a better question than the 1000th debate about twelve submarine fantasies or the F-35 procurement.



 edit: This topic had comments, but somehow Blogger messed it up and they appear to be lost.


Exotic ancient weapons: (III) The sling

Granted, this one is not very exotic, but at least it's not well known and well-understood any more, since the bow has absorbed the sling's place as ancient ranged weapon in our memories.

The sling was used in many parts of the world, but the Rhodian and Balearic mercenaries were most feared in the ancient Mediterranean world because of their expertise in employing slings (as were the Cretes due to their bow skills and the Spartans due to their heavy infantry skills). The construction of a sling does not require much (it's a piece of natural rope with sometimes a piece of leather to fix the projectile). It could be worn as a head band, around the waist, around the neck, in pouches - everywhere. It's most probably the lightest but successful weapon ever. Its dangerousness exceeded that of most ancient Mediterranean bows, but it depended a lot on its projectiles. You could just carry the sling with yourself and pick up stones on the battlefield, but then you'd have a rather limited performance. Still nasty, but not exceptional. Using well-shaped and well-sized stones yields better results. Dedicated lead projectiles as they were used by mercenaries whenever possible were extremely deadly. Anyone who uses a sling as recreational activity today is strongly advised not to use golf balls - it's simply too dangerous.

The late Roman empire's author Vegetius advised the Roman emperor to have this cheap, lightweight weapon as standard (alternative) weapon for all soldiers - its usefulness easily exceeded the effort of carrying it and exercising with it:

Recruits are to be taught the art of throwing stones both with the hand and sling. The inhabitants of the Balearic Islands are said to have been the inventors of slings, and to have managed them with surprising dexterity, owing to the manner of bringing up their children. The children were not allowed to have their food by their mothers till they had first struck it with their sling. Soldiers, notwithstanding their defensive armor, are often more annoyed by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Stones kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without loss of blood. It is universally known the ancients employed slingers in all their engagements. There is the greater reason for instructing all troops, without exception, in this exercise, as the sling cannot be reckoned any incumbrance, and often is of the greatest service, especially when they are obliged to engage in stony places, to defend a mountain or an eminence, or to repulse an enemy at the attack of a castle or city.

The sling is probably the oldest weapon still used in modern warfare, as it's in use with Palestinians and other low combat intensity fighters (the dagger is about as old if you consider flintstone daggers). Back in ancient times, it was always a wise choice to carry a sling simply because it was no real burden at all, but quite useful at times.



Star Wars Episode 1-3 and strategy

George Lucas' Star Wars Ep. 1, 2 and 3 have been criticised for a thin and illogical story. Even years later, I still don't think I've ever seen a critique or article on these movies that was adequate. Thus I'll give it a shot myself, and be assured; it's about strategy.

The major storyline is on the surface the youth life of Anakin Skywalker, but the background story is what really drives episode 2 and 3: The forces of evil - personified by Sith Lord Darth Sidious - try to take over the somewhat democratic galactic republic (soon to be known as the "Old Republic"). Eventually, they succeed.
This success in the story was not so much based on lightsaber fencing as on an ingenious strategy. Western politicians didn't have such a brilliant strategy in decades. In fact, I don't think anyone had such a brilliant strategy in politics post-Otto von Bismarck.

The character of Ambassador,
then Chancellor, then
Emperor Palpatine source
The strategy was rested on the utter necessity of sustaining an empire once the republic was defeated. You need power to rule against the will of the people. The absence of a hostile empire or republic had left the galactic republic without a major military force, though.
Many people are nowadays used to think that such a lack of (para)military power would pose a risk against evil forces, but in fact it was the most major obstacle for a Sith empire project. Darth Sidious needed a (para)military force to control an empire. He would otherwise lose it quickly even if he got it.

As a consequence, a militarisation of the galaxy was required.

The whole war between the robot ('droid') armies and the Republic's clone soldier armies served this purpose. It was irrelevant which side won; Darth Sidious ultimately controlled both armies and both armies were 100% loyal.

This, of course, should be unsettling to all those who are so much into their profession as a soldier that they forget to ask about the point or legitimacy of a war they're emotionally invested in.
It should also be unsettling in light of the fact that in this story the outcome of the entire military conflict was irrelevant. It was irrelevant who won. All those brave and idealistic jedis who served (in this story) in the war were basically wasting their time and lives, being distracted from the real issue.

It's rare that someone devises a strategy in real life where the outcome of a conflict is irrelevant because conflict itself already accomplishes a (hidden) mission. Such cases are usually meant to weaken all participants or to make profit off their need for hardware. The ingenious (from an evil point of view) approach to devise a conflict strategy with a win-win for the strategist is kind of admirable.

Now compare this quite ingenious strategic plot to how the national leaders in the Western world with their hordes of advisers and staff members stumbled into conflicts like Iraq, Afghanistan, Somali piracy and Libya and then let's appraise the quality of the Star Wars episode 2 and 3 story again.

I'd rate Lucas much higher than Rice as national security adviser.



Security policy


National security is the requirement to maintain the survival of the state through the use of economic, military and political power and the exercise of diplomacy.

Wikipedia goes on to state that no generally accepted definition exists and lists a couple of alternative definitions.

I paid attention to this because I was repeatedly flabbergasted by responses to "national security policy" or "defence policy" topics and discussions that asserted the need for great power games in this or that region.
In my opinion, that's (stupid) foreign policy, but neither national security nor defence policy.

I consider defence policy to be the (military) subset of national security policy, and would define the latter as

National security policy is a policy to provide security without compromising sovereignty primarily and to maintain a good foreign political freedom of action secondarily.
To provide security means to minimise (net) harm done to the nation, and since war equals usually (major risk of) harm done to your nation, a successful national security policy is basically about maintaining peace
Warfare is either an indicator of failure or a result of extraordinarily bad circumstances (such as an aggressor hell-bent on war).

Great power games are not about security; they are at best about saving raw material import costs. A recurring problem of great power games is that the costs are typically higher than the benefit even in the event of success.



Defence / National Security Policy for Austria

An interesting snippet came into my sight in the process of compiling yet again a list of German Milblogs: The idea that Austria is too small for an independent security policy and thus needs to invest its political energy into influencing security in Europe instead.

(c) user "NuclearVacuum", see Wikimedia Commons
Well, Austria has the potential to defend itself against all but one (GER) of its neighbours thanks to its relative size and geography. The neighbours are indeed no problem, although the most serious episode for Austrian defence in the last two decades has been the violation of its air space by Yugoslavian combat aircraft on attack runs against Slovenian separatists sometime in the very early 90s.

Austria's ability to influence its national security with military might is nevertheless marginal. It's a raft almost without propulsion on a fast stream.

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The other approach - to influence the future of the continent - seems paradoxical, though: It requires that the tail wags the dog, and that's difficult to pull off to say the least.

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Their national security challenge is refreshingly different to the idea of national security policy or strategy cherished by anglophone sources. Austria has accomplished to be perceived as no threat by anyone, and it's enemy of no-one (a refreshing change after 1914!).

Now what's left to do for them is to avoid getting into trouble because of others' actions (especially aggressiveness).

Germany isn't at such a favourable point (any more), we're too involved in distant conflicts and have managed to needlessly irritate foreigners with deployed troops. That doesn't yield a significant problem (other than the occasional death or mutilation among said troops) so far, but it still means that we fell behind Austria in the pursuit of an efficient policy for peace and security.

Now back to Austria; how can a small country exercise influence on -at times distant- events despite the rule of thumb that small ≠ influential?

There are certain influences that are not proportional to size. The voting power in the UN General Assembly and in the EU, for example. The availability of "honest mediator" diplomats doesn't seem to be dependent on the country's size (or its foreign office's budget) either. Furthermore, international or multinational organisations often have their headquarters in a neutral and small -unimportant- country. Artists, international news organisations and philosophers aren't proportional to a countries' size either. They can exert influence and make offences against a (their) country less acceptable.

Austria could furthermore seek to identify levers in international affairs and weak spots in dangerous movements that could be exploited for great effect with little influence.

It can as well join other small powers in an effort to influence  foreign politics in Europe towards small power interests. So far foreign policy in Europe has been dominated by the larger (great) powers instead - but those larger powers cannot stay on their course if the small powers stem against it (together). Great power games might fall out of favour if small power governments do joint small power foreign policy.

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For Austria, security policy looks in my opinion like a cultural challenge and seems to create very non-mainstream demands for intelligence service and politicians. The "shall we spend these billions, shall we bomb them, shall we deploy troops there" strain of national security policy that grabs the headlines and originates in bigger countries (which nevertheless complain often about being overburdened by their national security efforts) looks brute, superficial and unsuccessful by comparison.

Isn't it strange that nevertheless many people deride the security policy of small powers in favour of the might displayed by large powers? It's like boasting that you've paid more for less.

Related: "Foreign Policy" article on Qatar.


P.S.: I still don't get how the Lisbon Treaty's collective defence obligations and Austria's supposed neutrality fit together. Austria ratified the treaty. Maybe I missed an exception paragraph?


Exotic ancient weapons: (II) Nagamaki

The Nagamaki ("long-wrapped handle", also known as Nagakami) is a medieval type of Japanese polearm (it can also be considered a sword - its handling art is more sword-like).

European medieval polearms were usually spears with axeheads (halberd), while Japanese ones were usually swords with much lengthened shafts/grips. Europeans also had the latter (glaive), but the importance of both categories was reversed.

The most important and most famous Japanese polearm is surely the Naginata, which is similar to a Katana blade on a very long shaft.
Nagamaki with scabbard
An early rival to the Naginata was the Nagamaki. Unlike the Naginata, it had about as much shaft length as blade length. At least some Nagamakis blades were furthermore straight instead of curved (still one-edged, though) and thus better usable as spears at the small expense of lesser slashing and cutting qualities.

The Nagamaki first attracted my interest because of its look, but it's also an interesting example of a weapon being optimised for a niche.

The long shaft offered some stand-off in melee, while the long blade made it easier to hit difficult targets in slashing movements. Target such as horse legs, for example - a target that was supposedly an important one for Nagamaki wielder in the 12th to 14th century. It did fit the same purpose as the Chinese Zhanmadao, a curved sword with very long blade. The Japanese also followed this path with the Nodachi. The Nagamaki apparently lost relevance when mounted combat lost relevance in Japanese warfare. ("Das Lexikon der Kampfkünste", Werner Lind).

Cost-wise, Nagamakis were more expensive than Naginatas because of the longer blade, but less expensive than the likewise rare Nodachis. Many Nagamakis were probably modified to swords with normal grip length during the 15th and 16th centuries, and it appears as if in part for this reason no extant medieval copies are known.

Two-handed weapons like this had a very different history in Europe than in East Asia.
European two-handed weapons were either spears for close-order tactics (hoplites, Landsknechte), used before body armour was commonly affordable (Germanic frame) or used after body armour became so extremely good that shields became unnecessary (halberds, glaives; late medieval age till 17th century). The European development ended in the bayonet.
The Japanese did use two-hand weapons extensively in the medieval age without fitting into these categories well. Especially the Japanese warrior-monks with their Naginatas left an impression.

Two-hand weapons (especially spears) were also most important in Chinese military history, most likely because of the threat of mounted steppe warriors.
Eventually, East Asia adopted the bayonet as well for a few decades and the northern hemisphere was finally united in regard to two-handed melee weapons. Until then, there were both similarities and differences in two-hand melee weapon development - and the Nagamaki is as far as I know without a close Western counterpart.


edit 2016:




UBL dead:

This is a great opportunity to declare victory and get out of the mess without losing (much) face.