April 2020

Letter From America

My Readers, of a certain age and background, will recall Alastair Cook’s Letter From America; a regular feature of the BBC Home Service, (Radio 4 from 30/9/67), from 1946 to 2002. Wikipedia informs that there were 2869 Letters From America which primarily concerned themselves with social commentary. The longevity of the programme owed much to Cooke’s inherent charm and incisive observations but also to the fact the the USA was of fascinating interest to Brits, and many other listeners via the World Service re-broadcasts. It was unsurprising that in 1967, given the opportunity for a ‘gap year’ between school and university, it was to the USA that I was magnetically drawn; ultimately via an American Field Service Scholarship. In those days, when one had to call on the ‘Overseas Operator’ to facilitate a telephone call across the Atlantic Ocean – one which was not trivial in its expense – a journey such as mine was relatively uncommon and did indeed evoke genuine interest on both sides of The Puddle. Notwithstanding that my scholarship encompassed an ambassadorial dimension – involving presentations to The Lions & their like, media interviews and the status of being the ‘Overseas Student’ at my local high school – I believe it is fair to say that most Americans were genuinely interested in what life in Europe was like; and similarly in the other direction on my return. Sometimes the questions I was asked by Americans appeared to be somewhat naive but this only enhanced my impression that, despite a general lack of personal direct overseas experience, the USA was still very much an open, young & energetic country; one worthy of being the so-called ‘Leader Of The Free World’. Undoubtedly my then impressions of the USA were coloured by the prosperity of the country and its free-and-easy lifestyle which was in contrast to the stuffy conservatism of my own country. To be fair, I was pre-disposed to want to see the USA in such terms; a disposition which, I believe, came not only from my immature 18 year old self but also from the general stature with which the USA was generally held at those times.

I have returned to the USA many times since 1968; including 5 years spent in Massachusetts working for a student travel company. Sadly I no longer think of the USA in the same terms as I did on my first extended visit there in the late-60s; views expressed in my retrospective blog piece (see: here) where I reached the following conclusion:

Thinking about it … (my 2 early sojourns, 1967-68 & 1974-79) … in the USA now, I believe that ….. the USA could have taken any number of directions of travel and that there were ‘forks in the road’ which could have taken it another way … I was optimistic on the basis of their enthusiasm and interest and that over time and, given greater overseas contact, Americans would evolve positively. Today, I would have to say that the USA is now old enough to know better.

I have just returned from 10 days in Southern California and, delightful as it always is to see my close relatives, my visit seemed very much a Fin de Siecle experience. America appeared tired to me. Don’t get me wrong, the USA is still a country of formidable dimensions and resources; a country that runs to the complimentary tunes of logistics and consumption. But whereas, in 1968 I believed that I could perceive an open-minded ‘American Imagination’ now I could only see an inward looking nation that has nothing new to offer itself, let alone the world. Alastair Cooke’s Letters From America, which often shone light on the ‘barmier’ aspects of life that exists between the East & West Coasts, mostly presented an aspirational United States; one which had a sparkle which potentially offered a beacon of hope. Today, the USA seems dull to me and though there are still perceivable differences between the American & European continents, these differences seem small. If Alastair Cooke was writing his letters today, I truly believe he would be pointing to similarities rather than differences. Most importantly, he would be identifying how polarised the citizenry of both continents have become and how national conversations are absent having ceded place to self-serving accusations, recriminations and insults.

Letter from Ukraine

John Mearsheimer

With Russia’s forces massing on Ukraine’s borders, it was my intention to pen a piece in my March newsletter to the effect that we would be making a grave & dangerous mistake if we overlooked Putin’s perceptions of what is at stake in Ukraine. This would have contained a Health Warning as to the dangers of believing propaganda from any side, especially one’s own. As it was, Russia invaded and such an article would have been ill-timed. Another case of the aphorism afforded to Harold Macmillan: “Events, dear boy, events …”. However, such thoughts are still very relevant if we are going to find a path to sanity out from this sorry mess. You may recall that what I did write, with reference to my BA major, was that it is a grave mistake to confuse International Relations with Domestic Politics. I am indebted to my Reader from The Essex Borders, who referred me to a 2015 lecture given by John Mearsheimer, the globally-acknowledged ‘American Political Scientist and International Relations scholar’. In this lecture, (which can be seen here), Mearsheimer identifies (correctly, IMHO) the errors made by The West in 2014/15 in encouraging Western Ukraine’s aspirations while disregarding the Eastern part of the country and beyond. In this lecture he presages the events of the last 2 months with chilling accuracy. His underlying analysis accords with mine that it is a terrible error to believe that 21st century ethical norms will hold sway in an international arena that is still governed by national states who still majorly operate via the diktats of 19th/20th century notions of ‘Balance Of Power’. He further elaborates on this argument with the following assertions that:

The holy shibboleth of ‘promoting democracy’ is, in actuality, simply a self-serving cover for the promotion of national interests

East & West Ukraine were already at each other’s throat when The West used the shield of supporting an Orange Revolution in 2015 to intervene – in what was, in effect, a civil war – in order to create an outcome of its own liking

Ukraine is the Russia’s Cuba in their equivalent Munroe Doctirine

Economic sanctions will not succeed when a country feels its national security is under threat

What really sent chills up my spine, in Mearsheimer’s presentation to The University Of Chicago, was his throw-away remark that “if the USA really wanted to topple Russia, it should encourage Russia (‘a declining world power’) to invade Ukraine”. Though I would not go as far as to suggest that this is indeed what happened, I do believe that serious miscalculations by The West created the same effect. (Bringing to mind thoughts from a mid-20th century parallel universe when Japan invaded Pearl Harbour).

Undoubtedly, History will debate all the above in the fullness of time. Today the only salient issue is how to prevent what is now a proxy conflict escalating into a full-blown Third World War. To date, it appears that The West has been reacting to events and has only one, albeit opportunistic, exit plan: regime change in Russia. I say this because no consideration is being given to a scenario whereby Putin gives up in some or all degree. In fact, given the full-on deployment of Western propaganda, that is presenting Putin as the 21st century Hitler with a Constantinian agenda to create a Greater Russia, there is no realistic scope for a reset to anything that could resemble a pre-Ukraine normalcy. It is also a big mistake, IMHO, to believe that this war is ‘Putin’s’ not ‘Russia’s’ and that he is out-of-step with the vast majority of his own countrymen.

Which brings me back to my central credo: if International Relations are not the same as Domestic Relations, we need to pursue a peace that is based on those realities not on notions that form the substance of domestic debate. Please don’t misunderstand me. Russia’s full-scale of invasion is beyond the pale; a terrible miscalculation by Putin. The only way forward to a potential workable and peaceful solution will be found via the deployment of strategies that are underpinned by the realities of International Relations. My reading of such tea-leaves involves reverting to Balance Of Power fundamentals. If one assumes that 1) this is a war that Russia cannot win 2) economic strategies will not prevail and 3) there will be no regime change in Russia, then only the removal of the plank of neutral/tacit support from a supportive global power will tip the Balance Of Power in this conflict. Which brings one to China.

In the 21st century remake of The Opium Wars – well, not really but you’ll get my drift – the USA pulled out all the stops to enable China to become an economic global powerhouse and thereby a World Power. The Chinese regime currently enjoys the support of its populace on the basis of 2 decades of increasing prosperity and growth but the 24/7 surveillance of its own populace underscores an insecurity that has been ever-present in every Chinese dynasty since the year dot. A contraction, if not a collapse, of the world economy has to be of the gravest concern to Xi and his government whose original support for Putin was predicated on gaining sight as to how The West would respond, given China’s own desires for Taiwan. This was a win-win strategy. Capitulation to Putin and China’s Taiwan policy would only be better informed and strengthened. And if The West kicked back successfully China would enjoy all the benefits of a go-between position, either as honest broker or with its foot on Putin’s throat. As the proxy war descends to a stand-off/stalemate position, the world economy is kicking into reverse gear. The West needs to exploit this threat.

A commensurate part of any peace arrangements has to allow for a path to progressive re-entry of Russia into the world economy. This may prove to be the hardest part of achieving a settlement, given the unfettered outpouring from Western governments of late. Failure to bring the Ukraine War to a speedy end can only spell disaster to all parties concerned and would result in the imaginable (sic!) consequences of placing Putin in the ‘Hitler position’ of having to chose between personal capitulation or total war and on the Chinese side prompting a Taiwan adventure to divert its citizenry from the effects of an economic recession.

Letter from Rwanda

Never been there, don’t want to go there and nor should anybody, who ends up on these shores looking for asylum. It’s a disgusting idea that shames our country. We have a problem but that’s no reason to export it to a country in the centre of a continent at the other side of the equator. End of. Any sympathy and understanding for the Johnson government that The Ericle may have had post-Brexit, and at the height of the pandemic, has long gone out of the window. No more ‘better the devil-you-know’. We can see the devilry clearly and the sooner it is shown the door can not be soon enough, as far as I am concerned.

Letter from The Cycledrome

My ‘2022 in 2022’ MARCH METRICS

A pleasing month’s cycling to accompany the onset of warmer weather. It’s been good to get through the winter months and remain on track. I had hoped to cycle more miles in California, when I was there for the last 10 days of the month but as it was, I managed just one ride – a memorable one through the canyons of Carlsbad accompanied by my young cousin, Luke.

Cycled in MARCH : 14 Rides/208.24 miles

TOTAL MILES in 2022: 541.60 miles. (Ahead of target by 43.02 miles).

Number of Days cycled: 41. Average Distance per Ride: 13.21 miles.

MILES TO GO: 1480.40.

Money Raised for Macmillan Cancer so far: £1393.00. (Donations Page: here)

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3 Responses to April 2020

  1. Pat says:

    A great multi- faceted piece Eric and I am in agreement with  you and JM’s analysis both for current Ukraine conflict and the likely US et al response to the development and rise of PRC Asiatic hegemony.That response could well be military conflict..but perhaps the difficulties that Russia is now perceived to be experiencing may cause PRC to rethink  its short term ambitions to reclaim Taiwan as its rightful territory…ref Taipei post war treaties…but it’s intention to reclaim will not evaporate.

    In terms of Political Realism ,US  and allies may have to concede…who knows?

    Political Theorists give great and worthwhile attention to these issues,but on-the-ground decisions are out of their hands,for better or worse.

    Pragmatic (we hope !!?)political actors and generals intervene,not wishing to be strait -jacketed by theory.Ref Cuban missile crisis…resolution came from the two political actors, Kennedy and Khruschev, engaging with each other,as concerned players aware of their strategic as well as, I venture to suggest,their humanitarian concerns, and  possibly in contradiction with various theoretical hawk- like propositions that may have come their way.My unease lies with a fear that what essentially should  be a human decision could be transformed to an automatic response triggered by an over-reliance. on Political Theory,whether it be Realist or Idealist..both of which are susceptible to taking their eye off a core underlying reality, the dignity and worth 

    of our human lives,wherever those lives may reside.And that’s from a Political Realist☘️

    Which neatly draws me to your

    MyRwanda comments
    …The proposed plans are a crass dismissal of the human values that I have just referred to, and starkly exposes a government “leadership” bereft of common decency and wallowing  in hypocricy.I’m with you and the Archbishop of Canterbury on this one,as well….where will it all end!!?.


  2. Ericle says:

    [From: Victor]
    I always find your thoughts a fascinating read.

    Apropos the Ukraine I suspect we are in the middle of a horrible game of poker in which both sides are still testing the strength of each other’s hand before meaningful megotiations can take place. In the end Putin has to be able to save face and Zelensky to demonstrate that he has had no choice but to undertake not to join NATO and probably to concede a chunk of eastern Ukraine for incorporation into Russia, whether its populace wish it or not. To concede the latter at this stage might be taken as a sign of weakness prompting Putin to believe that “there is more meat on this bone”. Whether the Russian public care more for Putin’s imperial aggrandisement than an improvement in their living conditions made miserable by Putin’s wholly disproportionate military spending (I think I read historically circa 40% of a GDP which in the past equated to that of Spain’s), and foreign reaction to his aggression, must remain a matter for conjecture in view of Putin’s stranglehold on the media and ruthless suppression of dissent. How far this war is about merely the Ukraine is also an open question: Dimitry Medvedev was recently quoted as looking forward to a “Russian power base” that extends “from Vladivostock to Portugal”. While this remains an open question Europe must seek to reduce the spend available to the Kremlin and beef up its defences. It may well remain such while this regime or an equivalent is in power. Zbigniew Brzezinski remarked Russia can either be a democracy or an empire; it cannot be both. It is certainly not the former and has been the latter for hundreds of years. Indeed Putin asked where the tanks were when eastern Germany took its independence and has remarked that the collapse of the Russian empire in eastern Europe was the greatest catastrophe of modern times. One result of this conflict may well be to make Russia more economically dependent on China, but I doubt whether it would ever advantage the Chinese to enable Russia to seize Europe.

    A few random and probably ill-founded thoughts of my own!

  3. Joel Kaufman says:

    Your reflections are fascinating, as ever – and this ed. comes with much to ponder. In particular having spent time on the US East Coast over the same period that you were in L.A., and having visited frequently until Covid left us island-locked in Australia – our experience this time was palpably different. New York is deflated. The airports are busy but feel soulless. Airport security treatment is aggressive and unnecessarily heavy-handed. I agree that the country is inward-focussed. Trump’s vision of America has come home to roost. What a pity …

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