What Makes a Superpower (2)

Over the previous two centuries, we have seen the rise of three superpowers and two of them have already fallen today. What made them rise and fall? The British Empire has been discussed in Part One. Let’s now turn to the Soviet Union in Part Two.

The Soviet Union had all the pre-conditions of becoming a superpower: a huge continental country and a large population, which meant plenty of resources to project power overseas, especially to neighboring states. The rise of the Soviet Union coincided with the end of both world wars. In February 1917 toward the end of World War One, the Russian Imperial Parliament (the Duma) took over control and deposed Emperor Nicholas II. The tired Russian army failed to intervene due to setbacks in the war that saw no end in sight. Later in October of that year, Vladimir Lenin led the Bolsheviks supported by peasants, workers and soldiers in an armed resurrection that overthrew the government. This was known as the world’s first communist revolution because of the ideology of the Bolsheviks that pledged, among other things, redistribution of land to the peasants. A period of civil war ensued until the Bolsheviks and their “red” supporters finally subdued the “counter-revolutionaries”. In 1922, the Soviet Union (USSR) was established and the Bolsheviks monopolized control as the ruling Communist Party.

Although under the new communist rule, the Soviet Union remained a less-developed state compared with the West due to endless power struggles within the Communist Party, in particular, the political purges initiated by Joseph Stalin after he took over in 1924. Hitler noticed the Soviet weakness and thought that Germany could swallow the whole Soviet Union in a decisive blow. In June 1941, Germany invaded the USSR in the biggest battle of World War Two. The German invasion did not work out because the defeated Soviets withdrew thousands of miles inland and burned their crops and properties, making it very difficult for the occupiers to sustain in the conquered barren land. The particularly harsh winter of 1941 aggravated things even further for the occupiers. This bought precious time for the Soviet army to regroup and launch a counter attack. By May 1945, Soviet troops marched all the way to Berlin and occupied almost half of Germany, which later became communist East Germany (GDR). After victory in World War Two, the Soviet Union had a large army installed in each of the countries liberated from German control, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. They formed a collection of Soviet satellite states known as communist Eastern Europe. That was the Soviet Union at its peak.

The fact that countries called themselves communists in the Soviet camp did not mean that they were united. They had their own national interests to look after. Hungary revolted in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Both necessitated Soviet troops to quell the rebellion. The biggest split occurred with communist China in the mid 1960’s which almost led to an all-out war sparked by small border conflicts. Only a few countries depended on Soviet aids such as Egypt (the Aswan Dam), Syria (military hardware), Cuba (missiles and everything else), and communist insurgency groups in Africa and South America.

At the military level, the Soviet Union was able to project significant power overseas: stationing a large number of troops in Eastern Europe, attempting to install missiles in Cuba until being blockaded by the US Navy, supplying North Vietnam with war materials, and its nuclear submarines silently plying the world’s oceans. In addition, it possessed thousands of nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles in an arms race with the US. Obviously, Soviet power was basically military-nature and not much else. It was a military superpower with an empty shell because it had no viable economy to back it up. All the Soviet satellite states remained in economic stagnation and required Soviet aids to pop up their communist governments.

If one looks at other areas such as people’s standard of living, consumer goods production, and non-military technology, the Soviet Union fell behind all the developed countries of the world. You will be hard pressed to name a significant non-military product exported by the Soviet Union. While Soviet citizens lined up in the streets to buy consumer necessities, the country kept on producing large quantities of military hardware as dictated by the Communist Party. The Soviet economy remained in stagnation for a long time under communist rule because its enormous resources were being misdirected for military use. Finally in 1989, the Soviet Union imploded without a bullet being fired by its enemies. It was a system based on military force that could not sustain. The Soviet case was different from that of the British Empire. The former must spend its resources to maintain its empire by military force, while the latter managed to create a stream of revenues flowing in despite limited resources at home.

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What Makes a Superpower (1)

Over the previous two centuries, we have seen the rise of three superpowers and two of them have already fallen today. What made them rise and fall? Let’s take a look at the British Empire in Part 1, and the USSR in Part 2.

By necessity, a superpower needs to have a large landmass, a large population, and a large
modern military force that is able to project its power overseas. The island nation of Great Britain does not possess any of the above fundamental attributes. However, there exist three important factors that more than compensate for its handicaps.

First, the industrial revolution originated in Great Britain around 1760. By 1860, its industrial development had enabled the building of a colonial empire around the world in North America, the West Indies, Australia, and parts of Africa, India and Asia, hence the name of “the empire where the sun never sets”. The steam engine played a major role in empire building because it mechanized the sailboats. With big guns installed on warships powered by steam engines, the Royal Navy became a mighty weapon on the high seas. Furthermore, it could reach faraway lands to protect the British merchant fleet engaging in trade with other countries.

Second, you may think that a large number of British troops need be sent overseas to maintain the colonies. Not necessarily. The two biggest colonies, North America and Australia, were frontier lands sparsely populated by indigenous people. The other colonies might require more troops to subdue the natives. The British knew how to economize their empire building by adopting the strategy of “divide and conquer” especially in India. That means allying with some local tribes to fight against the others. Native fighting regiments were employed by the British army to supplement their numbers there. The colonies were able to sustain themselves relying on local resources. In addition, they provided a constant stream of profits in the form of raw materials and money. A medium-size country like Britain could never afford a foreign colony with a negative profit flow.

Third, the colonized natives at that time did not possess a national consciousness. For instance, a large country like India was fragmented by small kingdoms or tribes at each other’s throats. It was a perfect condition for the British conquerors to employ “divide and conquer” until the whole country finally came under British control. In fact, the British did not have sufficient manpower to rule most of its colonies which were bigger in land and population. They ruled by supporting the strongest native ruler and getting a percentage of the benefits in return.

In 1776, the United States declared independence from Britain. In 1901, Australia became independent. Note that the English settlers in these two biggest colonies rebelled against the mother country. After the Second World War, things changed dramatically largely due to the rise in national consciousness of the native people in other colonies. The people of India finally rose up in unity against British domination. India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947. This is followed later by a host of other colonies. By 1980, the British Empire could boast only a few small island colonies. In 1997, the most successful and lucrative colony of Hong Kong was handed back to China without a fight.

In conclusion, it seems that the British Colonial Empire rose and fell like a commercial project where the governing and commercial elites partnered together without much public participation. As a result, all the spoils of the colonial period went to that small segment of the British people without being shared by the general public. This is probably true with other European colonial powers like Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.

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Compassion For Others

“Survival of the fittest” neatly defines the natural selection process showing how species evolve and procreate. In the ocean, big fish eat small fish. On land, the strong bully and consume the weak. You may wonder, in this cruel world where are fairness and justice for the small and the weak?

They do exist, and are also provided by Nature. First, aging guarantees that all things must pass and be subject to renewal. When a ferocious lion passes its prime age, it will fulfill its life cycle of being consumed by other animals. Second, number compensates for size. Although the whale swallows hundreds of small fish in a gulp, the small fish won’t go extinct because they reproduce by the millions. Third, evolution guarantees adaptation and flexibility in order to survive smartly despite inherent weaknesses. Fourth, it is natural instinct for the strong members of a family to care for the young and weak as observed in the animal kingdom.

These four forces of Nature enable the natural world to maintain a delicate balance for millions of years until humans came onstage. Reining at the top of the animal kingdom, humans are increasingly disrupting the delicate balance of Nature. The tools being employed are technology and a system of laws and traditions to preserve the status quo.

Technology opens an entirely new world but carries a double edge that can do both good and evil. If applied with narrow selfishness, technology will do great harm such as environmental pollution and destruction of natural habitats. Similarly, this applies to laws and traditions in human society. Doing good means being fair and just guided by compassion. Otherwise, good cannot triumph over evil.

Among the four balancing forces mentioned above, the first two have been severely disrupted by humans. First, strength in number makes little sense in human society. Throughout history, the poor masses seldom have a chance to break out and leverage their number strength. Their big numbers are marginalized because of systemic social and economic deprivation. As a consequence, the poor are less educated, less skilled, misinformed, manipulated and exploited. In other words, they have been reduced to a disorganized subjugated mass.

Second, although aging dooms a ferocious lion, it does not doom a person’s physical assets. In human society, wealth and power routinely pass down the family line through traditions or laws. In ancient times, a dying king passed his absolute power to the crown prince. In modern days, a wealthy aging person passes his assets to the descendants. This is also a double-edge sword. The bad thing is: Ill-obtained wealth and power, and all the exploiting schemes may unfairly be made legal and permanent.

In order to maintain a natural balance, human society needs a higher standard than just “survival for the fittest” that applies to the lower layers of the animal kingdom. Human society requires fairness and justice driven by compassion, which is also provided by Nature but can easily be blinded by material lusts.

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European Colonization

Throughout human history, it’s always the few who rule the many in a pyramid structure. European colonization whose heydays lasted for around two centuries until the end of World War II presents an interesting feature — a small minority of foreigners imposing control over millions and millions of natives all around the world. Could they have done it just by brute force? Did they belong to a superior race and culture? Was it due to prevailing circumstances favorable to the Europeans? The European colonial period is a phenomenon in scale and consequence, notably — the birth of the United States; the transplant of millions of Africans to America and their enslavement; Spanish being spoken in Central and most South America; and English becoming the dominant language of today’s business world. There is no doubt that European colonization derived its technological, mercantile and military powers from the Industrial Revolution that originated in the medium-size island nation of Great Britain. However, there existed other important factors that require further investigation.

The term “gunboat diplomacy” represented only one part of the strategy for colonial success. The other part was “divide and conquer” that took advantage of the lack of cohesion among the populations in foreign lands, such as India, Egypt and China, which despite their much larger size, seemed to be encumbered by their ancient cultures when the foreigners came to conquer. Did the colonizers come in an armada ready to deliver a great punch? It was impossible due to the vast oceans and the difficulties in establishing a supply line of food, troops and weapons. In fact, they came initially as explorers and missionaries, and later in small warships carrying limited numbers of troops for the purpose of defending the small costal enclaves they occupied. Such limited expeditions could not survive on new lands unless they received sustained fresh supplies from the natives. But why did the natives want to help the foreign occupiers? Well, people do things to protect and enhance their own interests unless being inspired by something bigger than self.

Adding to the supply problems was the scanty geographic and demographic knowledge about foreign lands. When the British first came to India for instance, did they really know how big and how populous the country was? There were no satellite surveys and population census at that time. The British were very cautious because they understood the dangers they might get into if they ventured into the hinterland where the natives might be hostile. To their surprise and advantage, they discovered that size did not matter because the natives lacked cohesion and a strong national government to protect them.

At that time, the Indian subcontinent was fragmented into small kingdoms or territories ruled by kings, despots, religious heads, sect leaders, big business owners, or tribal chiefs. All the English needed was to play one group against another by supplying their collaborators with some of their modern weapons. Thus the strategy of “divide and conquer” worked until the whole subcontinent finally came under British rule, known as British Raj from 1858 until 1947 when India became independent. Due to their limited strength, the British were only capable of ruling over the rulers and elites of the fragmented territories on the subcontinent, not directly over the common people because the nation of India did not exist. They creamed off the profits and strengthened the positions of the collaborators for mutual benefits. As for the sea of natives across the entire subcontinent, the British bosses were largely invisible except in some big cities where the elites lived. Local laws and customs continued to function as long as the British could keep the profits they wanted.

Initially, British colonization was not carried out by the government but by the privately-owned East India Company engaging in the trading of tea, cotton and silk. Since the mid 1700’s, the Company gradually expanded its power from commerce to ruling a large part of the Indian subcontinent by maintaining a private army of native Indians to protect its interests besides allying with one local ruler against another. When the Indian rebellion occurred in 1857, the Company sought help from the Royal Navy. This created a strong collusion between private commerce (money) and government (the military) in the colonizing venture, which later became a profitable working model for venturing elsewhere. In 1874, the East India Company was dissolved. Its trading and administrative functions were absorbed into the Colonial government machinery. Its private army was nationalized by the British Crown.

The tradition of employing a native army continues up to this day as evidenced by the Gurkha Brigade of Nepalese soldiers serving in the British Army. When everything seemed to work perfectly, what caused the demise of the British Raj? World War II intervened. Britain became much weakened despite being a victorious power. In India, a new leader emerged by the name of Mahatma Gandhi. He led his people against British rule employing non-violence tactics such as targeting British commercial interest like salt harvesting. This struck at the heart of colonialism. Non-violence worked because the natives had the preponderance in number, galvanized and led by a strong leader. Targeting commercial interests worked because the colonizers’ objective was profits only, without which they would withdraw quickly. After the 1947 independence of India, their biggest colony, the British Empire began to crumble, so did the other European empires. A new wave of national consciousness grew in the colonized world that spelled the end of European colonialism.

The history of European colonization offers many insights into the powerful impacts of the Industrial Revolution and its uneven distribution around the world. In its wake, most ancient cultures have been disrupted and exploited by the European colonizers, some even to this day. There are obvious winners and losers. The huge material spoils of the winners seem to remain in the hands of the commercial elites without trickling down to their fellow citizens. As you can see, the living standards of the British people have not significantly increased as a consequence of more than 200 years of empire at whose zenith the sun never set. For the Europeans, the period of colonization is by no means a glorious or inspiring one, because it represents greed, bully and exploitation of the weak.

With respect to the losers, they have finally emerged out of European colonization, but many of them are still mired in under-development especially in Africa. The colonized peoples should not continue to dwell on the miseries of that period and demand compensation or aids because it won’t help. As memories fade through the passage of time, the next generation of Europeans are not likely to blame their forefathers for their exploitation of foreigners, never mind feeling guilty for their greed and the mess they have created around the world. The colonized peoples should better move on now that they have complete control of their destinies. They should focus on self-strengthening. It starts at home. It has nothing to do with foreign aids. It’s all about how to develop their own people’s talents and potentials.

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The Electric Motor

The electric motor was invented in 1832 well before the gasoline engine in 1872, but the latter has gained predominance in the transportation sector. Why? Besides being simpler, smaller and lighter, the electric motor requires no supporting systems to operate such as ignition, exhaust, cooling, camshaft and transmission. It also requires no maintenance like regular oil change and engine tune-ups. Why has the gasoline engine become so popular despite being so inefficient and dirty? There exist two big obstacles for the electric motor to overcome:

To propel the vehicle, the electric motor is fueled by electricity stored in a battery. Due to the slow advancement of its technology, the battery is large and heavy, and cannot supply enough electricity for both acceleration and range of travel. Furthermore, it takes a long time to recharge. On the other hand, the explosive development of the fossil fuel industry has produced different grades of refined gasoline that burns to propel vehicles ranging from autos to supersonic aircraft. The big advantage of gasoline lies in its being a liquid fuel lighter than water that can be stored in the vehicle’s fuel tank and conveniently refilled from a network of gasoline stations wherever one travels.

The second reason is the cost factor. Theoretically, the market guarantees winner for the product of least cost. However, the most important cost that is always ignored is the subtle costs of a polluted environment and a lower quality of health as a result. The gasoline engine wins because it provides great short-term benefits for transportation without regard for long-term environmental costs. After more than a century of dominance, the environmental costs of the gasoline engine due to its greenhouse gas emissions have finally caught up with reality known as global warming or climate change. This is a form of Mother Nature’s delayed revenge on a global scale for which there is no solution except switching to the electric motor if we don’t want to go back to horse carriages.

Can the electric motor replace the gasoline engine? Of course, the bullet train is an excellent example, backed up in recent years by the brisk acceleration of a Tesla automobile. Hybrid aircraft is in the works at Boeing and Airbus where a big passenger plane takes off and lands using jet engines while cruises on electric-powered ducted fans. The only limit is supersonic speed where the electric fans cannot physically achieve.

Given its simple design, the electric motor still offers room for delivering more power with both hardware rearrangement and software fine-tuning. Extra power can be generated by using a permanent magnet in the rotor and putting the electric windings on the stator instead. The traditional electric motor with unreliable mechanical switching featuring “brushes” is on its way out because the current in the windings can now be controlled electronically via a programmable microchip.

Most importantly, battery technology is now taking off with the invention of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Since a battery involves electrochemical reaction between two electrodes immersed in an electrolyte, advancement must occur in material science that will create better compounds to enhance the battery in the following aspects: lighter weight, stronger current, bigger storage, faster recharge and better safety. A breakthrough in battery technology will quicken the replacement of the gasoline engine. We are now in the middle of this process. Like all other scientific development, a breakthrough will come, hopefully sooner.

The other important factor is the infrastructure for recharging car batteries. It is difficult for the infrastructure to precede the electric car. Both must proceed simultaneously. Since most electric cars are now recharged in the home, many of which are solar-powered, a better infrastructure will develop as the car market expands, and vice versa. When the number of electric cars reaches a critical mass, which we may have already achieved, a self-reinforcing virtuous circle will develop in the refueling infrastructure, just like what has happened before with the gasoline car. Finally, electricity carries a magical wonder. If a breakthrough occurs in wireless recharging of automobiles while they are running on the road, we may not even need a network of recharging stations in the future. When that happens, electrics will truly surpass the gasoline cars because they don’t even have to stop for refueling.

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What Causes Job Loss?

Job loss is a problem for developed countries, especially lower-tech and lower-wage jobs. The following factors are in play for many decades now:

Developed countries derive their strength and progress from technology and automation, which unfortunately make many jobs obsolete at the same time. We have seen the disappearance of the office typists. We’ve also seen much fewer bank tellers, textile workers and auto workers. We don’t know how many cashiers and inventory clerks lost their jobs due to the invention of the barcode printed on virtually every product now. Recently, the technology that enables self-driving cars threatens to make the taxi drivers extinct.

Outsourcing to foreign lands is another factor that causes huge job losses for developed countries. This is enabled by communications technology for managing manufacturing operations overseas at lower expenses. Many companies in the developed world take advantage of outsourcing, which goes to less developed countries with a large labor force, a lower wage structure, and less stringent environmental regulations. Outsourcing brings foreign labor directly into competition with local labor. The winners are the foreigners who can perform equally or even better at lower wages, especially in the manufacturing sector. The local workers who got displaced tend to complain that foreigners are “stealing” their jobs. However, the outsourcing continues for the simple reason that it brings higher profits for the companies. Furthermore, the outsourcing will gradually raise the living standards of the foreign workers, which in turn will become a bigger consumer market. That means the outsourcing cannot stop because the finished products can be sold there besides being shipped back to the home market.

A third factor of job loss is mergers or acquisitions undertaken by big companies in developed countries. The objectives of such activities are much more complicated than the companies’ public announcements. This usually results in large numbers of workers being laid off as operations are consolidated. The laid-off workers are not only low-tech or low-wage, but also high-tech and managerial levels. The former will find it hard to find another job because of their lower skills.

In America, many people don’t want to see the real reasons for their country’s job loss. Their attitude is scapegoating foreigners and immigrants for “stealing” their jobs. Failing to see the truth means little can be done to reverse this tough situation. They don’t recognize that America’s strength depends on its technology and resourceful immigrants. Do they want to put a break on technological advancement that invariably makes part of the labor force obsolete? Do they want to reduce the number of immigrants who have historically contributed to their progress? Do they really want to bring back the obsolete jobs that are low-tech and low-wage?

The solution is clear — We must move on and stop dwelling on past glory. Since technology continues to advance worldwide, it is always a race between countries to achieve a higher level to stay competitive. Higher technology creates more jobs that can balance the obsolete jobs lost. At the same time, invest more in technical retraining for those workers that have been replaced so that they can move on to higher technology. Japan and Germany are well known for their technical expertise, fine exports and large trade surpluses. Their citizens know how to compete worldwide without having to scapegoat foreigners.

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White House Drama

Every president brings some drama to the White House due to his unique personality. This represents juicy information for the press and entertainment news (or agony) for the public. Donald Trump probably creates the most drama during his first few months in office. Too much drama will certainly distract focus from his campaign promises, none of which has been fulfilled so far, notably the repeal/replace of Obamacare, and the money to build the border wall with Mexico which Trump insisted should pay for it.

One thing that will sure continue is Trump’s daily rants on Tweeter that cannot be controlled by his Chief of Staff and other advisors. His tweets paint an accurate personality characterized by instability, thin skin, uncurious mind, and egomania thirsty for personal victory. On the other hand, his tweets show his marketing skill in whipping up support from his base of angry crowds eager to find scapegoats for their woes. Trump’s fervent supporters represent only a small minority of Americans. His election in 2016 was mainly due to Hillary Clinton’s failure to produce an inspiring message (other than branding Trump as unqualified), and to campaign hard enough in the traditionally “blue” states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Trump is not a true Republican but has managed to beat all the Republican candidates in the nomination process. As a result, the Republican Party allows itself to be hijacked and must embrace him even reluctantly. The fissure between Trump and the Party is evident as shown by Ted Cruz, the leading candidate defeated in the nomination, urging his followers to “vote their conscience” in the election. Trump’s rhetoric to “drain the swamp” in Washington also puts him at odds with the Congressional legislators. Trump and the Republicans in the US Congress are strange bedfellows sustained only by a common desire to dismantle Barrack Obama’s legacy, and to deliver more goodies to big corporations and the top 1% by employing the perennial gambit of cutting taxes to create jobs. When the government gives the rich a tax windfall, do you think they will go out to invest or buy some more expensive pleasures?

The failure of the Obamacare repeal undermines the relationships between Trump and the the Senate leaders. Trump cannot help attacking John McCain and two other Senators for voting no that torpedoed the repeal. Without the repeal of Obamacare, the chances of success for the other agendas are much reduced. Why? They count on cutting $500 billion from Obamacare’s subsidy for the poor so as to finance the tax cuts for the rich, the border wall, and national infrastructure repairs. Now that the money is nowhere to be found, they must raise the federal debt ceiling to pay for Trump’s campaign promises. This sets up a fight within the Republican Party where the vocal Conservatives are adamant against more borrowing by the federal government. Trump also directs his anger at Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, for failing to deliver the healthcare repeal vote. Their relations will be further strained come September when the Congress starts to work on the debt ceiling and the tax cuts.

The other big shoe waiting to drop is the result of the investigation undertaken by Robert Mueller, Independent Special Counsel, regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump’s anxiety about the result is shown by his tweets and his firing of FBI Director James Comey, which further deepen public suspicion about his involvement, financial or otherwise. His threat to fire Mueller if he crosses the red line (start to investigate his finances) will create more trouble than the real result of the investigation which may not even be damaging. Why is he afraid if he has nothing to hide? The threat to fire Mueller has caused Senator Dianne Feinstein to say that this might spell the end of his presidency.

White House drama has led to the resignation of Richard Nixon (Watergate), and the impeachment of Bill Clinton (the Monica Affair). With regard to Donald Trump, it will be interesting to sit back and watch the drama unfold. The story will be intriguing and complicated. It will also suck up most of the energy required to pass Trump’s legislative agenda promised to voters. In the end, the American people will suffer because nothing beneficial will be done on their behalf.

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