Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 204: What Putin wants; Weaponised interdependence; Genghis Khan and the cannon; and more...

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Ukraine: How we got here and what next

Russia's invasion of Ukraine feels like the gravest international security moment of at least the last two decades - and also one that is hard to comprehend for non-experts (like me). To try to get my head around it, I recorded a special Thoughts in Between podcast episode with Shashank Joshi, defence editor at the Economist. Shashank has a truly encyclopedic knowledge of all things international affairs and is a excellent communicator, so if you want to get up to speed with what's happening and why, I think this is 30 minutes well spent.

We recorded this on Friday morning, so - conscious that this is a fast moving situation and that we wouldn't be able to publish it until yesterday - we focused on longer term questions, above all how we got here and how it might all end. I have to say that it's a very sobering conversation. Even after 72 hours or so that have seen more positive moments for Ukraine than we could have hoped for on Friday, the situation is extremely grim. As Shashank says towards the end of this episode, it's hard to know what to wish for. Would a palace coup in Moscow actually yield a better regime? Is Russia getting bogged down in an increasingly expensive and bloody war of attrition a good thing? It's hard to know, but these may be among the better outcomes.

In our conversation, we discuss:

Ukraine and weaponised interdependence

As I say, it's an extraordinary week and the world is changing fast (Germany wants to spend big on defence! Finns want to join NATOSwitzerland and Monaco will freeze Russian assets!). In attempting to make sense of it, two favourite TiB ideas turn out to be particularly useful framworks: "the stubborn persistence of the physical" and "weaponised interdependence".

There is nothing like kinetic warfare to remind us that not everything can be virtualised. Noah Smith puts this well in a post from Thursday titled "A moment of clarity", which highlights the ways the invasion shatters many of the favourite illusions of both left and right. Smith argues that the libertarian promise of "exit" - simply opting out of politics and moving to a tax haven - is a fantasy; "the arm of the great powers is long enough to reach anywhere in the world" (It's worth noting this response by Balaji Srinivasan, one of the most prominent advocates of the "exit" strategy, but interesting even he doesn't push back very hard on Smith's core thesis)

We first talked about "weaponised interdependence" back in TiB 50, in the context of the the Bank of England refusing to let Venezuela withdraw gold and the US's use of SWIFT against Iran. We've seen both tools deployed to an extraordinary extent against Russia in the last few days. Do read Henry Farrell's thread on the topic, as well as Adam Tooze's excellent write up of the sheer scale of the economic sanctions now in effect. Is this a good idea? It's hard not to want to do everything possible, but the best cautionary note I've seen comes in this Tanner Greer essay, which argues that a "righteous reaction may be a dangerous one" (see also this thread on the dangers of weaponising SWIFT and this on China's CIPS alternative). The world is going to learn a lot in the coming weeks; I expect we will not like much of it, one way or another.

Genghis Khan, the cannon and the industrial revolution

An infrequent but favourite TiB topic is why the industrial revolution happened where and when it did (see TiB 105153170). An interesting new paper by economists David Levine and Salvatore Modica suggests an interesting answer: the invention of the cannon and the conquests of Genghis Khan. The argument is that the great economic divergence of the 18th century onwards required innovation, and innovation requires competition between "inclusive" (i.e. less rent seeking) institutions. But a balance of power between polities with inclusive institutions was for most of history unstable: powers with "extractive" institutions can divert more resources to the military, so tend to dominate inclusive states when they go head-to-head.

The paper argues that two factors are key in allowing competition between inclusive states to persist. First are powerful "outsider" actors who can interfere and prevent any one state in a region becoming hegemonic. The authors cite early modern England as an example; the English Channel meant it was able to intervene in European conflicts to maintain a balance of power while being less vulnerable to invasion itself. The second is offensive military technology becoming relatively more powerful than defensive. If extractive states can just retreat behind castle walls, they can maintain power for a long time.

This is where the cannon and Genghis Khan come in. The authors argue that in Europe, the twin conditions of powerful outsiders and strong offensive technology (i.e. the cannon) were in place by about 1400. China, they say, had these earlier, from about 1000 (and, the argument goes, in the period of the Song dynasty's rule, China was broadly in the pattern of competing inclusive institutions). However, the outmigration of the Mongols brought about by the conquests of Genghis Khan weakened the role of "outsiders" in China and allowed an extractive hegemony to develop. It's obviously a simplified story (the authors concur) but certainly one to ponder.

Quick links

  1. I want to ride my... The amazing power of bicycles.
  2. Why is China pursuing zero covid? Interesting thread with some good (and silly) hypotheses.
  3. Second order effects. What does the invasion of Ukraine mean for global freight? A surprising story.
  4. Open source intelligence? Google Maps and Russian tanks.
  5. Victory, interrupted. Russian news apparently accidentally published, then deleted, Putin's victory speech. Chilling.

BONUS: This is the most exciting philanthropic initiative I've seen for a long time; it's particularly well suited to people who want to start high-impact charities focused on the long term.

What do you think?

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford

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