Question time on the FM website. Post your questions and answers!

Summary: It’s “ask a question” time. In the comments “ask the mineshaft”:  post questions about geopolitics — and your answers to other people’s questions.  This is a community exercise, from the German “Gemeinschaft” (see Wikipedia).

Questions are especially welcome about current events and recent posts (which appear on the top of the right-side menu bar).


  1. What do you think about the results of this survey of American views about foreign affairs?
  2. What could have prevented the failure of Europe’s banks?
  3. What are the odds of a nuclear war?
  4. Democracies are rare in history. Is the modern tide of democracy peaking? What’s next?


Also:  look at the FM Twitter feed.  Hit the “follow” button and try it out!

18 thoughts on “Question time on the FM website. Post your questions and answers!”

  1. Fabius, what do you think these survey results portend for America if it accurately reflects American attitudes? I’m not sure if this counts as on topic however.

    This survey, administered by YouGov (formerly Polimetrix) from April 26 – May 2, 2012, examines public attitudes on U.S. foreign policy, especially U.S. alliances and security commitments in regions such as East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Professor Valentino constructed this poll with the help of a wide range of scholars, including historians and political scientists, who submitted questions for the survey.

    Professor Valentino developed this poll as a research instrument to facilitate new scholarship as part of research he is conducting with colleagues through the Tobin Project.

    YouGov interviewed 1056 respondents who were then matched down to a sample of 1000 to produce the final dataset. The respondents were matched on gender, age, race, education, party identification, ideology, and political interest. YouGov then weighted the matched set of survey respondents to known marginal for the general population of the United States from the 2007 American Community Survey.

    1. Thank you for posting this. The attitudes of our fellow Americans are a foundation of US foreign policy.

      I know little about polling. My impression (FWIW) is that we’re an ignorant and easily led people. Other thoughts…

      (a) Some of these answers look like display answers. For example, few people are actually independents — as they tend to vote patty-line fashion. But it sounds good.

      (b) Public policy is about choices — trade-offs, balancing risks and costs. Stating this as yes-no issues is inherently misleading (eg, #7, #18, #56 about deficits). And many of these answers look to me like breast-beating (#11-17).

      (c) And there is ignorance, as a result of skillful and intense propaganda.

      • #10 – Republican’s belief that there is a large difference between the foreign policy of Bush Jr and Obama.
      • #46 – Iran’s willingness to nuke Israel, with 90% of GOP believing Iran would do so.
      • #63 – “Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded in 2003.” 63% of GOP say yes.
      • #64 – “I have always believed President Obama was born in another country.” 56% of GOP say yes.

      (d) Some of these are interesting. #5-6, showing how few Americans have personal contact with our military. The broad agreement about #24, America’s imperial overstretch.

      (e) Most of all these questions show a high degree of militarism and bellicosity that runs throughout the answers. #2: “The United States faces greater threats to its security today than it did during the Cold War.” 60% of Democrats and 80% of the GOP agree! #35-36, about relations with China.

  2. WTF (unattended gmail)

    Given the great constants in human nature: tribalism, ignorance, greed and hunger for power, it is necessary for the Eurozone to become the rough equivalent to the United States of Europe to accomplish the central institution building necessary to prevent bank failures?

    1. Banks are vulnerable mirrors to a nation’s macro-economy. The weakness of Europe’s banks are a reflection — an inevitable effect — of the crisis, not a cause. Their crash is not even the most serious effect. The long depression of southern europe — with the north now falling into recession — is far more serious in its social (pehaps politics, too) damage than what happens to the banks.

      Investment bank research — echoed in the financial media — obsess about banks due to their parochialism and personal financial interest.

      More broadly, the euro-crisis results from the flawed structure of the european monetary union. This was known at its creation, but accepted as a worthwhile gamble. The EMU was seen as the next step, a half-way house, on the road to unification. Any crisis resulting from its structure would be growing pains.

      “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.”
      — Jean Monnet in his Memoirs (1978). He was one of the architect of the program to unite Europe (see his Wikipedia bio)

  3. Dear Fabius,

    This has been bothering me for a long time: If what has kept WWIII at bay is the threat of the use of nuclear weapons, and if a threat is basically a bluff, and if bluffs eventually get called, does this mean that nuclear war is inevitable? That is, does cum prob (use of nukes) –> 1.0?

    I’d like to know before I refinance my house.

    Thanking you in advance,

    1. This is obviously backwards, the master asking the pupil. Probably a setup for a devastating riposte. However, into the breach… This is a complex question.

      (1) What is a nuclear war?

      Most of the nuclear powers have small arsenals. They can toss a few at each other and the world will continue. The resulting “war” might not even make the top ten wars with the highest death tolls, let alone the government-caused death tolls (see Wikipedia). Or it could set a new record, esp if between India – Pakistan. Either way it will not be armageddon.

      (2) What are the odd of a nuclear war?

      We can only guess. My guess is low. We had a few close calls during the cold war. For example, the tapes of meetings during the Cuban Missile Crisis show that our military and civilian leaders were insanely eager to start an atomic war.

      That was then. Since then the enthusiasm for mutual destruction appears to have faded. Most of the examples of near-wars are IMO dubious, such as during the India-Pakistan Kargil War (see this description) and Pervez Musharraf’s In the Line of Fire: A Memoir (2006).

      (3) What about a US-Russia war?

      Ending the possibility of a world-ending war should be one of the primary policy goals of the US government. The collapse of the Soviet Union created such an opportunity. The stupidity of our leaders prevented this from being fully exploited. Both parties share the blame, but GOP opposite deserves special mention for its unique degree of insanity. The far-right has long been the pro-armageddon political faction in the US, perhaps for religious reasons. For some evidence see:

    2. Please elaborate on this:

      “Ending the possibility of a world-ending war should be one of the primary policy goals of the US government. The collapse of the Soviet Union created such an opportunity. The stupidity of our leaders prevented this from being fully exploited. ”

      I’ve long thought that biggest lost opportunity of Bush the Elder’s forgettable term was that he squandered the chance to do this after his Iraq war, when he had approval ratings in the 90’s. In my fantasy, parallel universe world, Bush goes to Congress and asks for — essentially demands — X billions to “buy” the bulk of the ex-Soviet arsenal. He also points out that with the Soviets defunct and defanged, our own arsenal is redundant, and therefore due for a massive pruning of its own.

      But imagination, the “vision thing”, was never part of the man’s portfolio, was it? Anyway, I’m curious about your thoughts on this alternative history. I don’t think the mere presence of the bloated American arsenal makes a nuclear war more likely, but is sure is a helluva waste of money.

    3. Fabius & sglover,

      Thanks — now, let me ask a related question. Van Creveld, Sir Rupert Smith, Tom Barnett and I, and perhaps the two of you, have rested our case that the era of large scale non-nuclear war involving the US is over on the belief that the possession of nuclear weapons by the major powers renders such wars impossible. Some equally distinguished observers, Doug Macgregor, for example, consider this assumption extremely risky and urge continued development, procurement, and maintenance of substantial conventional forces.

      Seems to me that Doug would be justified in only a few cases (i.e., you need a capable opponent who agrees not to go nuke):

      1. Large-scale conflict with either Russia or China that stays conventional (which van Creveld, et al., explicitly reject)
      2. Large-scale conflict with a minor nuclear power (e.g., we invade Pakistan)
      3. The rise of a country with significant conventional capability but which does not have nuclear weapons

      Am I reading this right? Are we still on safe ground in assuming that nukes are keeping WW III safely in the bottle? (For our readers who are not familiar with the defense budget, conventional forces are expensive. Just developing, buying, and operating the F-35 fighter, for example, will likely cost over $1 trillion.)

      1. “Are we still on safe ground in assuming that nukes are keeping WW III safely in the bottle?”

        Let’s takes Chet’s comment in chunks.

        (1) Agreed. No massive wars between States with nukes.
        (2) Large wars are possible where neither party has nukes. Both inside and across borders (ie, wars in the Congo have killed several million).
        (3) Small wars are possible between nuke States, so long as both sides avoid escalation (a dangerous game), …
        (4) esp where there is a asymmetry of military power (weakness incites aggression) …
        (5) so conventional disarmament is a bad idea, …
        (6) but it seems excessive (ie, insane) for the US to spend aprox the same as everybody else on the planet for military and foreign intel.

  4. Is it not the case that the dominant forms of government throughout human history have been tyranny, oligarchy, monarchy and feudalism? Have not the episodes of democracy been few and in most cases fleeting? We are, perhaps, right now at the historical high tide of democracy.

    Will the tide recede? I hope not. I fear so.

    1. Another great question!

      These things area matter of the time frame one looks at! For most of human history (5 thousand years) most societies in most places been tribes and chiefdoms (see Wikipedia). So governments are a development, an evolution — showing that history has directionality in political/social forms as well as technology.

      So that the fact that democracy has been rare in the past need not define our future.

      We can go one step further. Our form of democracy differs from that of city-states (eg, Athens, Venice) or Rome. So we have evolution in forms of democratic government, which probably has not ended with the Second American Republic (now in decline, perhaps terminal).

    2. I am not so sure that it is accurate to say that democracy has been rare in history. Democracy, etymologically and in common understanding, means government in which the people can participate as members of the “in group”, in which they have ownership and are not subjected to the whims of outsiders against whom they have no legitimate recourse. Tribes are inherently very democratic– collective decisions are reached only after extensive consultation, a leader is regarded as a first among equals and his authority is always tenuous, and even weaker parties have considerable access to redress against perceived wrongs.

      In so far as tribal organization has been the most common form of organization throughout human history and its legacy is written into our genetic code and woven into our cultural patterns, it would seem that democracy has indeed been quite common.

      Also, the tribes or tight-knit in-groups that have often dominated larger, un-democratic structures, have often displayed many democratic traits in their internal processes. So the Athenians held their citizen assemblies even as they dominated the non-citizens within their city and eventually the greater part of the rest of the Greek world; the Cardinals have always elected one of their own to be Pope; and Federal Reserve Board members now elect one of their own to be Chairman.

      I have recently been reading Anabasis by Xenophon, and the Greek world view that I am understanding from this history is somewhat different from the one we all imagined when we took high school history. For the Greeks, freedom was a state of being founded not upon docile compliance with some mystical rules of good governance, but rather upon brute strength, ornery determination, and divine favor. Peoples with enough civic spirit to maintain their cohesion, and who were sufficiently strong, clever, and fortunate, got to keep their freedom. Falling under the dominion of a stronger group of outsiders who can neither be effectively resisted nor integrated with ends freedom. Freedom also implied as a matter of course the domination of weaker peoples as tributaries and slaves.

      I also think that the councils and assemblies described among Xenophon’s 10,000 are an excellent example of quasi-tribal politics, with proud, lineage-based factions vying for honor amongst themselves; with tenuous central authority and frequent lapses in discipline; with appointed leaders, some elected, and some with a partial hereditary basis for their authority, but all fearing and deferring to the will of the masses; and the reliance in most cases on consensus rather than majority vote.


      In the primeval world, it was absolutely necessary for nearly all people to participate directly in their government, because the only government there was was them and their 50 brothers and cousins. Since then, my hypothesis is that 2 main factors have limited participation in government:

      (1) Population growth and economic integration outstrips the people’s capacity for social integration. Distinct peoples have often been thrust into close interaction with eachother before they have the opportunity to develop the necessary coordinating institutions which would allow everyone to collaborate with minimal coercion.

      (2) A people’s cohesion and fighting spirit tends to wane over time, especially under conditions of civilization. The orneriness and sense of brotherhood that allows a people to maintain its freedom tend to be perishable, especially when the people are presented with viable alternatives to vigilance and struggle– idle luxury as conquerors, or comfortable subsistence as slaves. The less zealous fall off the wagon first, then more people follow them, until the people are wholly transformed.


      As a final side note, I would say that the role of consultation and explicitly democratic sub-structures within larger despotic political structures is almost always greatly underestimated. Town councils and guilds have frequently thrived under absolute monarchies, and theoretically “absolute” monarchs usually had to negotiate with these and other interest groups to actually get anything done. This is not the same thing as freedom, but there is a democratic process occurring at some level.

      1. All interesting points. Thank you for posting.

        My comment about tribes is in concord with yours, with the distinction that tribes do not have a “government” in the sense of the term discussed here. The next stage up in size — chiefdoms — is the first with a governing class, of sorts. But not democratic (albeit with a wide variation in forms).

    3. WTF (unattended gmail account)

      Side note: some anthropologists hypothesize that altruism is dependent on war. A tribe creates internal altruism to unify against enemies.

      Are Karen Armstrong’s observations about the origins of the Axial Age (200-800BC) relevant? Armstrong seems to be saying that the tribal Pre-Axial paradigm (magic religion) had created widespread chaos and the highest levels of violence and warfare in history. To slow widespread violence, Axial cultures created new central myth structures, including contemplation and rationalism, as well as “law and order” (the Divine Feminine was marginalized as a side effect of the elevation of the “Strict Daddy” archetype).

      Democracy in cultures that were transformed by modernism (and which rejected medieval conformism), while sharing rationalism with earlier Axial cultures, is different from earlier, fleeting, forms of Axial Democracy in that Individualism and Achievement (capitalism) are the central paradigms.

      If pre-modern cultures were based on dependency (mythic conformism), and modern cultures on Independence (individualism/achievement), postmodern culture is based on interdependence.

      Where modernists wrote declarations of independence to formalize a new political paradigm (and begin “revolutions”), will postmodernists need to write a declaration of interdependence to legitimize new forms of globalized culture and politics?

      Out of Our Depth and Treading Water: Reflections on Consciousness, Culture and New Learning Technologies“, Bernie Neville, Graduate School of Education at La Trobe University – Australia, (undated, possibly late 1990s?):

      “The role of information technology … both enables and demands the dissolution of boundaries, the development of transegoic consciousness, the transcendence of rational, linear, dualistic thinking and the constraints of quantified space and time. It both enables and demands the emergence of an holistic, eco-centric, process-oriented, constructivist curriculum.”

  5. Compelling questions all, and much food for thought from other contributors to be sure.

    Speaking of governmental form, the most efficient is generally recognized to be benevolent despotism, the problem being how to ensure that this, and moreso the next, despot is actually benevolent. It may be that some sort of technology-enabled semidemocracy could achieve this. Certainly a benevolent despot would take people’s reasonable wishes into account, and respect both his constituents and opponents when they have legitimate concerns.

    It seems apparent that one of humanity’s greatest current problems is a mismatch between the speed with which technology can do things, and the operational tempo of our political and nervous systems. This may actually be the underlying cause of the death of the nation-state, where it is unable to act on the global sphere, or locally enough, in an effective and immediate way precisely because of this. The devolution of power bidirectionally that may be happening, a combination of centripetal and centrifugal forces where multinational entities and local powers are becoming the actors of choice, could be actually an evolutionary adaptation here.

    And there may be an analogy between this process and others, for example naval warfare. If it is true that the analogues of the nation-state… battle groups, battleships, aircraft carriers… are too slow, obsolete and vulnerable for effectiveness given the state of antiship missiles and so forth… the proper response would be to use submarines, fast and light coastal craft, and in the worst case nuclear missiles as an appropriate defense, or offense if absolutely needed. In other words, a strategy of bidirectional decentralization.

    The financial and derivative transaction taxes that are being contemplated, and may even be implemented in Europe, may actually solve some of the problem stated in the first sentence of paragraph 2 above. Intended to treat greed, they may succeed by curing haste. If financial institutions simply slow down due to that overhead, the results could be beneficial, by attuning the operational tempo of the markets to the much slower individual and collective humanity who are effected. Any car, of whatever construction, and however flawed, is generally rendered more safe simply by slowing down, allowing human reflexes to be more effectively employed in the interest of safety. Rather than rewiring the system, the minimal effective reform may simply consist in reducing the voltage and/or amperage.

    1. I have to admit that I’ve never seen an analogy between societies and political systems, and warships. I don’t know quite how to process it.

      It’s not clear to me that technology and the quickness of events is all that central to the difficulties of modern democracies. It has its place, sure. But much of what we’re seeing is the old contest between the mass of society, and more nimble and cohesive gesselschafts, interests. Adam Smith described the phenomenon in his own society, and I’d be surprised if he was the first person to ever note it.

    2. WTF (unattended gmail account)

      The classic analogy in integral theory is that culture/politics/religion is software (specifically the operating system), and economy/technology is the computer hardware. Hardware evolves very quickly, software evolves much more slowly. Old software functions poorly on newer hardware, causing a problem as the “coherence needs” of the new hardware are not satisfied by the old software.

      On Adam Smith: “Recovered Economic History: “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious”“, Yasha Levine, Exiled Online, 5 April 2012 — excerpt:

      “…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.”
      -— Arthur Young; 1771

      Our popular economic wisdom says that capitalism equals freedom and free societies, right? Well, if you ever suspected that the logic is full of shit, then I’d recommend checking a book called The Invention of Capitalism, written by an economic historian named Michael Perelmen, who’s been exiled to Chico State, a redneck college in rural California, for his lack of freemarket friendliness. And Perelman has been putting his time in exile to damn good use, digging deep into the works and correspondence of Adam Smith and his contemporaries to write a history of the creation of capitalism that goes beyond superficial The Wealth of Nations fairy tale and straight to the source, allowing you to read the early capitalists, economists, philosophers, clergymen and statesmen in their own words. And it ain’t pretty.

      One thing that the historical record makes obviously clear is that Adam Smith and his laissez-faire buddies were a bunch of closet-case statists, who needed brutal government policies to whip the English peasantry into a good capitalistic workforce willing to accept wage slavery.

      … “The brutal acts associated with the process of stripping the majority of the people of the means of producing for themselves might seem far removed from the laissez-faire reputation of classical political economy,” writes Perelman. “In reality, the dispossession of the majority of small-scale producers and the construction of laissez-faire are closely connected, so much so that Marx, or at least his translators, labeled this expropriation of the masses as ‘‘primitive accumulation.’’

      {Part of a series} Class War For Idiots {at the Exiled Online}

    3. WTF (unattended gmail account)


      Please correct me if wrong. In Spain, Aznar (Bush’s big amigo) put american-style predatory corporatism in the driver’s seat. Northern european banks and finance schemes moved in quickly in such a poorly regulated environment (risk shifted to the public), and caused a huge bubble.

      Europeans had sent a generation to american universities to get MBAs in the swindle.

      The “irrational exuberance” of the bubble (I remember my late father-in-law taking suitcases of cash to Andorra) was not something that was likely to be stopped by the practice of contemplation, until the bubble burst.

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