Friday News Roundup — November 15, 2019
Addressing Our “Technical Debt;” Analyzing Virginia’s Politics; Russia’s Strategy of Unease; Assessing NATO; plus news you may have missed
Good Friday morning from Washington, D.C., where the week’s events were dominated by the start of the public impeachment hearings. While there are some comparisons that can be made to the Nixon and Clinton impeachments, we are watching history unfold — both through the hearings themselves, as well as watching how impeachment unfolds in today’s fragmented, partisan media environment. On the international stage, we are also waiting for details and progress towards a “phase one” trade agreement with China, though neither Washington nor Beijing wants to be seen as giving up too much, too early.
In this week’s roundup, Dan looks at how the growing cost of our infrastructure inaction is compounding, while Chris digs deeper into Virginia’s off-year election results. Joshua looks at how Russia’s strategy of uncertainty is paying off, while Ethan looks at the geopolitical landscape and comments about the future of NATO. As always, we wrap with stories that you may have missed.
Paying Down Technical Debt
It is a shocking juxtaposition when one turns on the news to see that Silicon Valley — the heart of technological innovation — has been plunged into darkness due to outdated infrastructure. Since the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive inferno in California history, utilities in the Golden State have been forced to shut off transmission lines at times of high fire risk. After 153,000 acres went up in flames, killing 85 and causing $16.5 billion in damage, investigators determined that the Camp Fire had been ignited by faulty electrical transmission equipment owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E).
Facing the liability from the Camp Fire — and investigations unveiling that PG&E knew of the fire risks of its transmission equipment yet delayed repairs — the firm is undergoing a contentious bankruptcy process while California leaders explore turning the firm into a utility cooperative. Still, as the future of PG&E remains uncertain, PG&E’s CEO estimates that Californians will have to endure rolling blackouts during fire conditions for at least the next decade. Given the impact of climate change, California’s fire seasons are growing longer, drier, and windier.
In looking at the story of the California blackouts at The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal seized on the concept of “technical debt” used in software programming and information technology. As Quinn Norton describes it, “Technical debt is the shortcuts and trade-offs engineers use to get something done either cheaper or in less time, which inevitably creates the need to fix systems later, often at great cost or difficulty.”
The technical debt of a great number of decisions is now coming due, as Messrs. Madrigal and Norton point out. In many of the cases, it is a web of technical debt, as decisions about infrastructure, policies on climate, and development patterns have combined to make vulnerable communities around the world — be it bedroom communities in the California mountains or the major cities at the edge of rising seas.
Even if we set aside the impact of climate change and growing populations, we were already failing when it came to infrastructure. In this analysis from the American Society of Civil Engineers, our infrastructure shortcomings already cost each household $3,400 in lost disposable income per year, and that number is projected to rise higher.
Following infrastructure can be disheartening, as the deferred bill grows ever higher, and Washington politicians seem to deploy infrastructure plans as throw away sound-bites when asked where they just might be able to find bipartisan compromise. Therefore, it is increasingly falling on state and local governments to shoulder infrastructure burdens. Therefore, even as the infrastructure situation seems dire, there is some hope.
A local example comes to mind, as Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam have come to an agreement for both states to address the replacement and widening of the American Legion Bridge, which is the northern crossing for the Washington Beltway over the Potomac River between the suburbs of Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland. If one once said, “the Republican Governor of Maryland and the Democratic Governor of Virginia had reached an agreement on shared infrastructure spending,” there would be multiple reasons to recommend a psychological evaluation — but that is no longer the case.
In fact, the very outlandishness of that statement might be what has made it a reality. A Democratic governor in purple Virginia and a Republican governor in blue Maryland have to focus on results rather than political orthodoxy.
Questioning the Virginia Groupthink
Last week, I conducted a broad analysis of the results from 2019’s off-year elections in states such as Kentucky, Virginia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. In essence, the conclusion I drew was that Americans should not be so quick to assume that a strong Democratic performance portends another in 2020. Such an assumption may even result in a stronger Republican performance akin to assuming that Hillary Clinton would win by a wide margin in 2016 — voter apathy and complacency can lead to unexpected outcomes. Pundits and Democratic activists alike have been quick to draw similar hasty conclusions from special and off-year election results since President Trump’s inauguration.
Especially susceptible to this trend is the great Commonwealth of Virginia. As the only state to hold state legislative elections in 2019, it has been subject to endless pigeonholing from various politicos. The broad “in-the-know” consensus is that Democrats’ newfound unified control of the Old Dominion’s government spells doom for the Virginia GOP moving forward. This narrative ignores major factors that affected this year’s outcome, and that are very important to contextualizing the results from November 5th.
First, Virginia’s political history comes into play. The Democratic Party maintained unified control of the Commonwealth’s government from 1900 to 1970, and even then only the governorship became competitive. As the formerly more conservative Democratic Party moved left and the Republican Party staked out a position as the sole party for conservatives, Virginia grew redder throughout the 1990s. While the GOP performed strongly between 2000 and 2010, Democrats remained competitive statewide throughout this period. The suburbs surrounding Washington and Richmond have grown over time; suburbs are traditionally moderate areas, which has only added to Virginia’s reputation as a purple state. In sum, Virginia grew more moderate over the course of the late 20th century as its suburbs and urban areas grew. This trend held fast in 2019.
Although perhaps fairly obvious, it is worth mentioning the narrowness of the Democratic majorities won this year. The State Senate majority stands at 21 out of 40; if the current count in the House of Delegates holds after recounts, 55 Democrats will control the 100-seat chamber. This means that Democrats flipped 2 seats in the Senate and 6 in the House, hardly a momentous swing. However, the victories of Democrats against Republican incumbents or in formerly GOP-held districts still occurred, even if not at Earth-shattering levels. With this in mind, one might be tempted to conclude that ire toward President Trump fueled Democratic voters to turn out in historic numbers this year to flip control of both chambers. It would be a mistake to end the story there.
This cycle, there were 24 close races in the House of Delegates. For this analysis, “close” means that the victor won the race with approximately 55% of the vote or less. These 24 races include all 6 seats that the Democrats managed to flip; outside of the 24, many races were either uncontested or won by considerable margins consistent with past elections. The first factor worth mentioning in the 6 districts flipped by Democrats is the imbalance in campaign spending. In the 28th District, the Democratic candidate more than doubled spending by their Republican opponent in an already competitive district. He won with about 52% of the vote.
The second factor contributing to Democratic flips was redistricting. While Republicans drew Virginia’s state legislative districts following the Tea Party wave in 2010, a federal court redrew multiple districts following a ruling of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering last year. This was the first election in which the new districts took effect. In the 76th and 83rd Districts, Republican candidates outspent their Democratic rivals; however, redistricting changed each from a reliably Republican district to a heavily Democratic one. In the 91st and 94th Districts, Democrats were buoyed by vast advantages in campaign spending and court-mandated redistricting. Two years ago, the 94th district’s race was so close that it was decided by drawing names out of a bowl.
In the aforementioned 24 close races, Democratic campaigns spent nearly $700,000 on average, compared to approximately $550,000 for Republican candidates. The redistricting that took effect this year mostly transformed Republican districts it modified into considerably Democratic ones, while the blue districts it shaped shifted from a deep blue to more of a medium shade. The only flipped seat not affected by either of these conditions was the 40th district. Although it is impossible to say whether the other 5 seats may have remained in Republican hands without the presence of these advantages, it is likely (considering the narrowness of these victories) that the Democratic majority would have been reduced.
With an unpopular Republican president in office, it is no surprise that GOP candidates for lower offices are having a difficult time. What proves to be surprising in Virginia is the narrow margin of control the Democrats achieved even with the advantages of money and redistricting in their corner. As I concluded last week, Kentucky is likewise not a good measure for future elections, as (historically unpopular) Governor Matt Bevin was the exception rather than the rule there. While 2019 may have been electorally encouraging for Democrats moving into 2020, they should by no means treat it as an insurmountable blue wall for the GOP. And no, Virginia is not a blue state.
Russia’s Strategy of Psychological Unease
On a small rocky island between Finland and Estonia, Russia is quietly (or not so quietly) establishing a military presence. Gogland — in the Gulf of Finland, in the larger Baltic Sea — is minutes flying time from Helsinki and Tallinn, and now hosts five helicopter landing pads, a control tower, a weather station, a fueling facility and a maintenance depot.
Over the summer, one of Russia’s largest helicopters, the Mi-26 (NATO designation Halo) landed supplies on the island, reinforcing Russia’s presence. Gogland briefly appeared in the news in 2018: shortly before President Vladimir Putin met President Donald Trump, Russian military forces staged a mock invasion of Gogland, deploying airborne troops that were later withdrawn by helicopter.
So why is Russia deploying forces to this island? The strengthening of the Russian presence on Gogland — which prior to World War II, was part of Finland — fits within Moscow’s broader strategy of introducing psychological unease amongst its neighbors. A policy that aims not to upend the status quo or reframe the strategic environment, but rather to keep its neighbors and adversaries on edge.
This policy, if not formally defined, is an ancillary benefit to the military benefits of its activities in the region. It is also seen in a number of its policy decisions and activities throughout Europe and the Baltic region. In 2014, Russia deployed Iskander (SS-26 Stone, in NATO designation) mobile nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad. In European airspace, Russian fighters and bombers routinely fly harassing flights, necessitating the scrambling of interdiction aircraft — 780times alone in 2016, the highest since the Cold War.
Late last year, in September, Finnish military and police commandos raided the island of Sakkiluoto and 16 other properties in Western Finland believed to be linked to Russia. While the veracity of the links to Moscow is uncertain, the island had nine piers, a helipad, a camouflage netting-covered pool, and satellite-dish equipped housing to support a large number of personnel, leading to speculation that this was an undisclosed staging post for Russian special forces.
Naturally, there is a strategic and operational calculus to these activities. Deploying the Iskanders offers rapid strike capabilities. Building up on the island of Gogland offers a transit and observation post close to its second-largest city, St. Petersburg. The covert acquisition of properties in Finland and elsewhere and repurposing them as forward staging areas would serve GRU, SVR, or Spetznaz personnel well.
But the greater benefit is the simple fact that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (all NATO members), and others like Finland and Sweden (NATO allies) are put on edge, unsure of what Moscow is doing, wary of its activities in the region, and forced into a tense posture. Concurrently, it allows Moscow to push back on what it views as encirclement from NATO. Russia would view Finland or Sweden joining NATO as a further encroachment on its borders. By introducing this strategic unease, Moscow is able to communicate, indirectly (in addition to its direct and overt statements) the consequences of such an activity.
It is not in the Baltics or Scandinavia alone that this policy is carried out by Russia. The, in effect, stalemate in Donbass, eastern Ukraine further highlights this strategic unease. Were Moscow to desire it, it would surely be able to seize the territory it wants and end the “frozen conflict”. That, arguably, is not its end-state, however. By keeping the conflict simmering and preventing it from either escalating or ending, Russia is able to keep Kyiv off-balance and in a perpetual state of conflict. This prevents Ukraine from joining NATO, ties down significant attention and resources, and allows Moscow control over the thermostat controlling just how hot or cold it wants the temperature to be.
For some Russia’s policy is a mark of strategic weakness. It does not have the military strength to counter the United States and the West directly, therefore it must adopt these unconventional tactics. Its economy is roughly the size of Canada, its population is declining, and were it not for its nuclear weapons, mineral wealth, or sheer size, it would likely be much reduced player on the international stage.
This analysis gives too much credence to conventional strategic wisdom and looks at it only from a Western perspective. Yes, the aforementioned factors of economic, military, and population decline are undeniable, but such a strategy of psychological unease is allowing Russia to set the terms of the discussion, forcing the United States and West to respond on the Kremlin’s terms.
This is the linkage of ends, ways, and means in action. Hybrid warfare, information operations, and this policy of psychological unease are working toward Russia’s strategic ends: negating Western/NATO unity, preventing NATO expansion, undermining the European Union, and eroding the preponderance of American power in Europe, and elsewhere.
To be sure, this psychological unease is aided by the lack of clarity on American policy and intentions and the lack of unity of message and purpose coming out of Washington at the moment. Were the United States to have and enunciate a clearer policy or clearer commitment to its NATO obligations and partners, and aggressively identify and call out Russia’s behavior, the efficacy of Moscow’s strategy may be reduced. In the near term, however, it is necessary and appropriate to look at Russia’s end goals and see that Moscow’s policies appear to be achieving these ends.
NATO isn’t Dead…But It Needs a Facelift
Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron stated in an interview that he believed the NATO partnership was experiencing “brain death,” and attributed this decay to the unpredictability of the United States in recent international affairs decisions, specifically citing the move to withdraw most of the U.S. forces out of Syria. Further, the French leader questioned the broader commitment of the Treaty Organization to collective defense, drawing the ire of several leaders from partner European Union (EU) states.
The Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Maria Zarkhova, concurred with the remarks on her Facebook page. Of course, that is what the spokesperson for the State against which the NATO was created and aligned would say. Based on the context provided in this article thus far, there are two main questions worth exploring in this analysis:
First, NATO exists for the purpose of promoting peace and ensuring stability with its core tasks being “collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security”. Organizationally, NATO encourages continued partnerships amongst its 29-member states in the vein of Joint Military readiness exercises in preparation for Article Five defense, non-Article Five crisis response, and security cooperation. How has NATO performed against its own raison d’etre? This endeavor would appear to be alive and well, with non-U.S. members actually responding to the U.S. administrations decry on a lack of historical contributions to the collective defense.
Second, there is yet a rationale to the French President’s comments, as the creation of NATO was enacted in 1949 as a response to global threat of communism. The end of this existential threat to western democracy recently celebrated its 30th anniversary with the ideological triumph in the Berlin Wall’s dismantling. In the last 30 years, what purpose has NATO actually provided and what role will this monolith of security cooperation serve in the future?
For all intents and purposes, Russia remains a viable and credible threat to the international civil order, as analysis in this medium has alluded to in previous weeks. International extremism continues to target sovereign states with no regard for borders or treatises, and the cyber domain has emerged as the next battle space, where terror organizations and criminal syndicates have become increasingly sophisticated. Thus, a reconsideration and critical look at the role of NATO is a valid conversation to be had.
President Macron’s comments are at the very least lacking context, given that they were seemingly delivered as a side swipe at U.S. policy and less against a formal treatise whose goal is cooperation against a common adversary. It is important to note that the collective defense clause, Article Five, has only been enacted once in NATOs history — September 12, 2001, in response to the terror attacks against the United States by al Qa’ida.
Some important contextual data points as it relates to this application of Article Five — this action did not result in NATO support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the broader Global War on Terror moniker. Member states of the organization were widely split on the credibility of the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and the notion of the Hussein regime being a legitimate threat to NATO member states were touted as unreliable. This of course did not prevent actions by many of the member states in the ouster of Saddam Hussein, but this situation did not result in a NATO-led campaign like the one found in Afghanistan, a mission which has evolved and endures to this day under the Operation Resolute Support banner.
Almost as a lesson learned from that early 21st century ordeal, the threat of an extremist organization against a NATO member has led to a far more reserved participatory role by NATO. As the Islamic State rose to power following the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of international forces, Turkey felt the burden of Syrian refugees and the European continent dealt with direct violent incursions by ISIS-affiliated high-profile attacks by lone wolf entities. As the “Caliphate” expanded, NATO’s limited contribution to the anti-ISIS campaign led by the U.S. and its Arab partners amounted to little more than a handful of AWACS aircraft for the purpose of airspace command and control, and some capability-building in Iraq and Jordan.
In summary, in the 21st century, the sole activation of the Article Five clause resulted in NATO addressing a threat to a member state, generally as it was intended. That the broader strategic outcome of the mission has yet to conclude is the topic for myriad other discussions. However, the point remains — a member state was attacked by an international actor, and the collective defense strategy was employed. Using this metric, NATO appears to be at least strategically relevant and alive and well, certainly not suffering from any “brain death.”
The looming threat of the Russian Bear still hangs over a collective European enterprise — if it ever really went away — unless one does not consider excursions into Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 as threats to the continental European community. Further, agnostic of which side of the American political aisle one resides, there is little doubt in at least the attempt at interference in the U.S. election system by Russian actors; and, let us be objective, most states do this as a common principle of neorealist theory in International Relations. This denotes a continued and pressing need for the principle of preparation and the collective defense ideal against a common adversary. Entities beyond NATO are currently deeply involved in addressing the expanding and diverse threat scope that is the Russian Federation, thus the original ideology behind the creation of this enterprise should remain in place.
Additional consideration must be taken with regards to the simple geography in differing opinions within the NATO construct. As my colleague Joshua Huminski notes above in this roundup, Russia continues to encroach on sovereign borders within NATOs purview. It is precisely this form of posturing, Georgia/Crimea notwithstanding, that NATO has failed to curtail in the past despite its mandate. France, situated about as far from the red shadow as a euro-continental member can be, may well feel emboldened to criticize the treatise scope and effectiveness; but those former eastern bloc states with proximity to Russian borders profoundly feel the need for the collective defense mandate. Comments from other European leaders echo this sentiment.
Where NATO must consider its vulnerabilities and reimagine its role in the world order is within the cyber domain. The organization has made broad sweeping pledges to promote cyber security and strengthen the alliance against cyber incursion and attack, but as with most rhetoric, but NATO remains curiously mum on the 5G issue and the threat of China’s telecommunications leading manufacturer Huawei and the vulnerabilities present in the use of these devices as the world rapidly transitions to the 5G infrastructure. Make no mistake — China poses as much of a threat to the stability of the Treaty Organization as does Russian low-impact posturing on secluded islands in the Baltic sea.
Finally, an issue with further complicates the NATO dynamic, and perhaps lending credence to President Macron’s assertion, is the role of Turkey and its legitimacy as a NATO member, based on the state’s human rights record, dalliance with Russian arms sales, and sua sponte interference into Syria with the aid and support of their suspected Russian patrons. The NATO elevator pitch for a member state includes the requirements of a stable democratic governance, market economy, and assurance of basic human rights for its citizens. Turkey does not meet those criteria, yet there is no clear mechanism for removal from the NATO membership. And should an initiative to remove Turkey from the partnership occur, there is the profound risk of pushing Turkey fully into the arms of Moscow, which would be a crippling erosion of NATO capabilities in the region. Collectively, member states much engage Turkey on toeing the line on the responsibilities of a NATO member, and it needs to happen sooner than later.
NATO clearly finds itself at a crossroads of purpose and scope. The threat from Russia remains steadfast but dynamic compared to its Cold War apex, and NATO must remain committed to assurance against this adversary. China, the cyber domain, and 5G are very real and rapidly approaching issues, to which NATO has offered little or no clarity on its intent. Finally, Turkey remains a critical component in the NATO architecture, but its conduct in recent years ethically undermines the credibility of the NATO ideology and must be addressed, or the whole endeavor is at risk of fading into antiquity…which means President Macron would be entirely correct in his “brain death” diagnosis.
The views are of the author, and do not reflect the views, position, or policy of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.
News You May Have Missed
James Le Mesurier, the British founder of the Syrian search and rescue group the White Helmets was found dead in Istanbul. According to police, the cause of death was a fall from his balcony, and his murder was being investgiated as a suspected suicide. The White Helmets group has become famous during the Syrian Civil War for their fearless urban search and rescue efforts, as well as the documentation of the war’s tragic effect on civilians.
The bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual report has recommended that Chinese leader Xi Jinping be addressed as “General Secretary Xi” rather than “President Xi,” as the term president bestows a democratic legitimacy that does not exist in the People’s Republic of China. It is worth noting that Mr. Xi holds three titles, that of General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and the “Chairperson” of the People’s Republic — which is what is most often translated as “president.”
Adding to the controversy over the British Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, particularly antisemitism in Labour politics, a group of influential public figures, including author John Le Carre, historian Antony Beevor, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and others. While some lauded this as a public stance against antisemitism in the Labour grassroots, others within the party decried the signatories as closet Tories and Liberal Democrats.
Amazon has filed that it will contest the Department of Defense decision to award the 10-year, $10-billion JEDI Cloud contract to Microsoft. Amazon had been considered the front runner for the contract, competing against Oracle and Microsoft, and its appeal is likely to focus on remarks that President Trump made publicly about the contract, given that the President has also complained previously about Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s ownership of The Washington Post.
The views of authors are their own, and not that of CSPC.