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Trump and Putin Change the U.S. – Russia Conversation

by John Brian Shannon

Q: What could be worse than another Cold War between the United States and Russia?

A: Nothing. There isn’t anything that could be worse than another Cold War breaking out between nuclear armed superpowers that could conceivably destroy all life on the planet many times over. At the push of a button.

Boom! In an instant we’d be blinded by a flash and our bodies would heat up to 3 million degrees within seconds and everyone on Earth would end up floating around as carbon dust at 100,000 feet before finally settling down on top of the nuclear-winter snow that would cover the entire planet for about 40-years. (Nuclear weapons experts call that snow/radioactive carbon dust mixture, ‘grey goo’)

It’s a miracle it didn’t happen during the 40-year long Cold War, but we came within seconds of such annihilation many times over the course of those perilous four decades.


What the Helsinki Meeting Represents

For some people, the meeting between America’s President Trump and Russia’s President Putin represents an opportunity to catch either president in some sort of verbal gaffe, or to capture a sound-bite and milk it for all it’s worth — while for others, a meeting between the two major nuclear powers represents the best opportunity in the 21st-century to reverse the downward spiral in relations between the two nuclear hyperpowers.

That’s what is at stake here.

Anything else (and that means everything else!) just isn’t important when you’re playing at that level.

Whether 12 or 13 Russians may or may not have interfered in the 2016 U.S. election is orders of magnitude less important than the chance of nuclear war breaking out between the nuclear superpowers.

Also orders of magnitude less important is the purported (but not proven) collusion between Trump’s people and certain Russian citizens who may, or may not be spies or some kind of fixers or operators, and also orders of magnitude less important is Hillary’s purported carelessness in using a non-government (and therefore, non-secure) server to send or receive classified emails that Russian agents (purportedly) were able to hack and read. (That’s a lot of ‘purportedly’s’ — but everyone in America is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law)

And yes, those are all very interesting stories that will probably have a long shelf life and keep reporters buzzing until a bigger story replaces them.

But let’s not get distracted by sensational headlines, nor should we be complacent and forget what’s really at stake.

The leaders of two nuclear powers met, apparently had a businesslike and friendly meeting, and important matters were discussed. That in itself was almost a miracle after the goings-on between the two superpowers over the past decade, which between them, possess over 13,300 nuclear warheads, while the rest of the declared nuclear powers in the world account for a total of 1065 nuclear weapons.

G7 comparison: Estimated Nuclear Warhead Inventories, 2018. Federation of American Scientists

Estimated Nuclear Warhead Inventories, 2018. Federation of American Scientists


Building On A Successful Helsinki Meeting

Rather than let the present momentum lapse, President Trump and President Putin must ‘strike while the iron is hot’ and schedule some arms control talks.

“If not us, who? If not now, when?” — President John F. Kennedy

In 1963, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which banned atmospheric atomic and nuclear bomb testing) was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union and in 1996 was passed by the UN General Assembly.

The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) was signed and ratified by both sides in 1972 which paved the way for SALT II in 1979 which was signed by both parties in 1979 but not ratified due to unrelenting bad press in the United States. However, both sides decided to adhere to the terms of SALT II even though it was never ratified. Which is the only reason we see near-parity in nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles between the United States and Russia today.

To keep the present momentum going, SALT II could be re-signed and ratified to pave the way for a SALT III treaty to be created — as per the original plan.

The logic of the SALT agreements is clear: The SALT I treaty limited Anti-Ballistic Missile sites and froze the number of missiles each side could possess, while SALT II established numerical equality in nuclear weapon delivery systems and also limited the number of Multiple, Independent Re-entry Vehicles (bombs) per missile, while the proposed SALT III was designed to draw down and place firm and verifiable caps on the nuclear bomb arsenals of both the United States and the Soviet Union to around 2400 each.

Before the present momentum between the two leaders fade, both men should push their respective administrations to re-commit to SALT II (as a formality) and ratify it before the end of 2018.

That would allow the necessary time to author a fresh SALT III agreement and schedule a signing ceremony for both SALT II and SALT III at the same time.

It’s not rocket science, it’s politics. But previous leaders just couldn’t get it done. Both sides have wanted to do this for almost 40-years, but (very suspiciously) something always cropped-up at the last minute to prevent forward progress on this most important of geopolitical issues.

“Things don’t happen, things are made to happen.” — President John F. Kennedy


Turning Nuclear Bombs into Electricity

At the end of the Cold War a deal was struck between the United States and Russia whereby excess nuclear bombs (remember; any number of nuclear bombs higher than 2400 for the United States and for Russia is complete overkill from a strategic defense perspective) were sold-off to nuclear power plants and used to produce many years worth of high grade, clean electricity.

The program was called the Megatons to Megawatts program and was called one of the greatest diplomatic achievements ever by Harvard’s Matthew Bunn.

The problem is that it had just begun to hit its stride when President Barack Obama cancelled the program unilaterally, and after not much fanfare (only one NPR article) M2M ended.

Assuming both superpowers want to pare-down their nuclear arsenals to 2400 each, that leaves them with 4050 bombs (United States) and 4450 (Russia) to dispose-of. That’s 8500 bombs-worth of clean nuclear power, folks! For example, that’s enough nuclear fuel to power America until the year 2100 at present rates of nuclear fuel usage.

It’s a shame that this noble program was ended long before the most amount of good could be obtained from the Megatons to Megawatts program.

Right now, President Trump could phone President Putin and offer to resume this super-successful program — and he might find a willing partner in Putin who seemed fine with M2M until it was suddenly cancelled in 2013.

Building on success is so much better than re-inventing the wheel, as the saying goes.


A Plug for the Big 5 – as Opposed to the G7

The trouble with the G7 is that the United States GDP, military, number of nuclear bombs, and balance of trade (and in many other metrics) is bigger than all the other G7 nations combined! The U.S. is just too big! It’s the proverbial elephant in the room. The other countries just can’t relate, so they overcompensate.

The recent problems between the U.S. and other G7 members at the recent Charlevoix G7 summit are systemic — the fault isn’t with any of the members. Whatsoever.

And now is as good a time as any for the United States to champion the creation of a new organization, an organization dedicated to superpowers and near-superpowers like Russia, China, Japan, and the EU. Alternatively, if one of those countries or blocs didn’t want to join, The Commonwealth of Nations bloc could join instead.

In such an organization, members would find that the problems that superpowers and near-superpowers encounter would be similar problems and that solutions might also be found to be similar. At best, the world’s major powers could work together on their common problems, while middle powers could create the middle-power ‘Next-20’ Group, or N20.

In that way, superpowers and near-superpowers would be grouped together (logical) and middle powers would be grouped together (also logical) and the previously noted systemic problems would disappear, allowing politicians to roll up their sleeves and get to work on common issues instead of struggling with one giant stuck in a group of middle powers.

Read about the astonishing differences between the U.S. and the other G7 powers here.


Geopolitical Momentum is Vital and Precious – It Must Never Be Wasted

Now that the two presidents have had their first major meeting that seemed to go very well, it’s time to capitalize on the goodwill before events sweep away those good feelings and opportunities bigger than the sky are (again) allowed to slip away!

Whether the next phone call between the two men is about restarting the highly-successful Megatons to Megawatts program, or plans to meet with President Xi Jinping to discuss the Big 5 organization, or build onto the world-changing SALT treaties — or to discuss some other plan the two presidents discussed — now is the time to build on the initial meeting success and thereby positively change the conversation between superpowers and change the entire conversation that is happening in the global media because no other, better story appears to replace all that sniping.

One of the ways leaders lead effectively is to know when it’s time to change the conversation the media is having with itself and with its viewers.

I respectfully suggest, that time is NOW.

‘Free Riders’ or ‘A New Hope’?

by John Brian Shannon | April 27, 2016

In a recent interview, President Barack Obama called some U.S. allies “free riders” in regards to perceived American largesse, but supposedly “cleared the air” while meeting with King Salman of Saudi Arabia at the April 20th Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Now that one side has ‘cleared the air’ let’s allow the other side to share their grievances publicly — except they won’t because there is danger in that for them — and also because ‘it’s just not done’ diplomatically-speaking.

FACT: From 1932 through 1973 (in almost every year) the U.S.A. purchased Saudi oil at a price lower than the cost of production.

Yes, you read that correctly. For most of 41 years, Saudi Arabia massively subsidized the American economy by selling it’s oil for lower than the cost of production. (“Otherwise, the West will lose the Cold War.”) Does everybody understand how that card was played?

I’d call that a very big debt.

(Yes, such treatment ultimately led to the Arab Oil Embargo, although events surrounding Israel were cast as the publicly-stated reason for the Embargo. ‘Those in the know’ at that time are very well aware of this and it’s an open secret among historians and the people who were present in the halls of power in that era)

FACT: During the Cold War, Saudi Arabia mounted more Cold War operations against the former Soviet Union than all other countries combined. (Let that one sink in for a moment!) Saudi Arabia’s Cold War operations against the Soviets were second only to the United States — and countless operations were joint U.S./Saudi operations.

I’d call that a very large debt.

FACT: During the massive Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, the CIA, Pakistan’s ISI, and the Saudis combined forces to evict America’s #1 enemy the former Soviet Union from Afghanistan. (See the movie, ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ which isn’t far off the truth — except it misses the point that Saudi Arabia paid for the whole effort)

The CIA provided a dazzling array of options (technical support, 3rd-rate new or refurbished weapons, realtime satellite intelligence to designated ‘advisors’ on the ground, and cover) while the ISI provided transport, shelter, fighters, and other logistical capabilities.

(In retrospect, in exchange for *being allowed* to get a reasonable price for their oil, it almost looks like Saudi Arabia was expected to shoulder the entire cost of the Soviet/Afghanistan war. Which probably removed most of whatever profits they had hoped to achieve from the new, post-Embargo oil price that the Saudis were *allowed* to charge)

Another big debt to Saudi Arabia.

FACT: “Saudi Arabia has *executed* more terrorists than the U.S. has ever *captured*.” (That was true until 2004, but it was a common refrain until then)

Yes, in Saudi Arabia, when they catch terrorists, they generally execute them with little fanfare. Good riddance!

Saudi Arabia has passed onto the United States intelligence agencies more information about terrorist individuals than any other country.

Of course, U.S. intelligence agencies and some law enforcement units are only too happy to take the credit for apprehending such terrorists, rendering them abroad, incarcerating them without trial, and then casting vague aspersions at Saudi Arabian culture for (possibly) creating them.

Which works quite well, I must say. It has kept the Saudis busy trying to dig themselves out of a contrived hole — a hole contrived by some Western intelligence agencies in order to keep the Saudis quiet about all the free riders Saudi Arabia has given the West since 1932.

I’d call that a moderate debt to the Saudis.

It’s interesting that there was little ‘Islamic terrorism’ prior to the Soviet/Afghan War. And what there had been, was tiny bits of terrorism scattered around Asia and the Middle East. (Usually it was a case of personal attacks — one warlord against another)

But there is a reason for the rise of Islamic Terrorism and we in the West, helped create it.

Instead of castigating people for being ‘free riders’ — trying to keep them ‘down’ and ‘on the defensive’ — we should be meeting every country ‘where it is’ and helping them to destroy terrorist networks and individual terrorists wherever they may be on the planet.

That’s the difference between managing a problem on the one hand and scoping out a much broader, more inclusive, and cooperative vision on the other hand — one that has an infinitely better chance of success.

Finally, terrorism didn’t suddenly just happen. We in the West helped to create it during the Soviet/Afghan War with CIA training, the ISI’s training, and Saudi money.

When our allies the brave Mujahadeen sometimes called the West’s freedom fighters returned home to places like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern nations, their particular indoctrination did not simply vanish…

A New Hope

We need a better vision — one that is at least one order of magnitude better — for dealing with what is probably going to become a widespread problem in this world, with many Western-educated young people joining such groups.

Yes, thousands of Western non-Muslims are joining ISIS and other groups — and in the future it’s likely that other groups will arise with even more tantalizing ideologies (at least to easily-swayed and ‘out-of-place’ young people) who feel they haven’t a real chance at fulfilling their potential in our world.

Every one of our young people who leaves to join such a group represents a massive failure on the part of our society.

And we will only have ourselves to blame for what comes after — whatever that may be.

Therefore, let us put our efforts into providing real opportunities for our young people, and with some urgency, create employment opportunities in the Middle East where the youth unemployment rate ranges from 29% (Saudi Arabia) to 24.8% in Egypt and worse, in rural areas.

Young people from any country with a promising future ahead of them, do not run away from their communities to join groups like ISIS. Providing the opportunity for a real future for young people is where we must put our best effort — and we can’t afford to waste a moment in support of that important goal.


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Syria: Is the answer Diplomacy or War?

by John Brian Shannon | October 31, 2015

The only good thing to come out of the Syrian situation has been the organized removal of chemical weapons from the country

No doubt, tiny numbers of chemical warheads are in the hands of extremist groups who stole them from the Syrian Army at some point over the past 30 years. And it is possible that the Syrian Army has small numbers of such weapons that they can’t presently retrieve because they are well hidden in abandoned bases or in regions of the country now controlled by ISIS or other terror groups.

Regardless, the removal of most of Syria’s chemical weapons is by far the best success story to come out of the whole Syrian situation.

Something to build on. Except that nobody has…

Which is a shame. Because had the path of (careful, quiet, but firm) diplomacy continued, we might not have ever seen a Syrian civil war. Or if we did, it would’ve amounted to a number of small skirmishes, and only that.

SCUD missile destroys neighbourhood near Aleppo, Syria.

A man at a site hit by what activists say was a SCUD missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighborhood. Photo dated February 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

State Department policy makers and Pentagon war strategists knew that going to war against Iraq in 2003 would create a huge number of refugees that would flee to neighbouring states, including Syria.

The fact that there *is* now an ISIS (or ISIL) was no surprise to them, these are eventualities in every war. Refugees will flee to countries in the region and tell their stories to the locals. Which generates anger and thoughts of revenge.

In WWII, this led to many underground groups operating (heroically) to fight their Nazi oppressors.

In the Iraq War (and since) this led to the formation of a multitude of (wrong-headed) groups being formed with names like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Levant in order to fight their perceived oppressors.

Syria was already the most fertile ground in the region to produce a cadre of anti-Western fighters and anti-Assad-regime fighters. Ergo, the rise of terror groups in Syria and a two-track war (from the point of view of the terrorists) was inevitable. One track being dedicated to the fight against the coalition that invaded Iraq and the other track dedicated to the overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad.

These things were and are utterly predictable and foreseen by the State Department and the Pentagon.

What has been lacking are policies to deal with the eventualities of the Iraq War

Due to the power vacuum that created the right conditions to enable five years of Syrian civil war, Russia, Iran, and now Iraq, cobbled together a (mostly military) response to the disaster in Syria which has some Americans angry at their news channel.

However, before a coherent Syria policy can be devised by the United States, some questions need answers:

  1. Is the United States the world’s policeman?
  2. Should the U.S. get involved in every internecine squabble in the world?
  3. Can the U.S. afford that?
  4. Is that what taxpayers are paying for?
  5. Does the U.S. belong in Syria?
  6. Does fighting Muslim terrorists only create more terrorists?
  7. And does fighting Muslim terrorists only convince them to look with renewed vigor at the U.S. as a target?

It should be a major topic of discussion by 2016 presidential candidates as the answers to those questions will determine U.S. policy in the region for the next decade (at least) and will affect everything from the economy (Iraq War $1 trillion, for one example) to (potentially) civil unrest in the U.S.A. (see: Vietnam protest movement of the 60’s and 70’s) to America’s future standing in the world.

Situations like we see in Syria are not something a president can dispatch 10 military helicopters to solve over the course of a weekend.

Indeed, Syria is in such disarray and there are so many variables there that the best U.S. policy might be complete non-involvement by the U.S. — as every other option is almost certainly worse.

Of course, there are some U.S citizens who would approve without further ado, another $1 trillion dollar war bill, another 5000 U.S. military dead, and another generation of America-haters bent on destruction of the U.S.A.

These people fall into two broad groups:

  • The do-gooders, who want peace, democracy, and freedom to one day flourish in Syria — they want to see Syria as the next Costa Rica or UAE. (Wouldn’t that be nice? Yes!)
  • The war-economy people, who think that any war is good for the overall economy and for the largest number of Americans, even though comparatively small numbers of military people may get killed or maimed in battle.

On those two broad groups, I think both camps are naive people who’ve not had the chance to travel the world and see what it is really like, nor have ever served their country in a combat role, nor have any experience in international relations. The fact that they are likely to be incredibly patriotic citizens, is a different matter altogether.

And there are the people who think the U.S. should pursue a course of non-involvement in Syria and those people too, fall into their own two groups:

  • Those who feel that the U.S. should return to being a near-isolationist nation and that the Executive and the Government should expend their efforts on the domestic economy and other domestic issues.
  • Those who feel that Syria is a no-win-situation for the U.S. and see it for the moneypit that it could represent to America.

On those two similar groups, I think that isolationism can work well in the short term. However, history shows us that after only one decade of an isolationist posture it begins to work against America’s best interests and for that reason should only be invoked for ten years per century at the most. As for U.S. involvement in Syria to continue being a no-win situation, I think there is only a remote chance to pull success out of the epic disaster that is Syria.

To summarize my view of the entire Syrian situation, let me say this; If there is a return to the long term, careful, quiet, but firm diplomacy — of a kind that worked to allow most of Syria’s chemical weapons to be removed and destroyed without firing a shot — then we might see the chances for successful U.S. involvement in Syria rise past 50 percent. Otherwise it’s a losing proposition for the U.S.A. with zero chance for a win by any metric whatsoever

But even a qualified success requires that a president have a significant mandate from voters, support within the State Department, the Pentagon, and a good relationship with the various partner nations poised to assist in the rebuilding of Syria.

Without all of that, even a U.S. president with the best of intentions has no chance of pulling a success out of the Syrian situation. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. A U.S. president who knows what to do, it’s just that not everyone is there yet.

How do I know that?

Let’s look at the building blocks that have been placed in and around Syria in recent years:

BB1: The first ‘building block’ of a successful Middle East policy for the U.S. was the removal of American combat troops from Iraq.

BB2: The second ‘building block’ was the successful program to remove chemical weapons from Syria and its success is almost unprecedented.

(Yes, Moammar Ghadaffi gave up his WMD’s and was promptly killed for his good deed — not a good precedent for similar diplomatic initiatives in the future. And yet, in spite of that terrible precedent, the Obama Administration was able to secure the Syrian chemical weapons deal. And now Bashar Al-Assad is ‘under fire’ literally and politically, for his good deed. Such obscene precedent-setting in the case of Moammar Ghadaffi and Bashar Al-Assad is not conducive to other world leaders giving up their WMD’s in the future — something many people would like to see happen within their lifetimes)

BB3: The third ‘building block’ was a successful nuclear deal with Iran.

BB4: The fourth ‘building block’ must now be a lowering of the rhetoric surrounding the Syrian situation and a return to consensus-building between all of the interested parties — and that must occur without any preconditions, save for the safety of the negotiating teams.

(Preconditions such as removal of Bashar Al-Assad from power are non-starters. Regardless of his actions, he is still the democratically-elected leader of Syria and that country is fully engulfed in civil war. Until such times as he loses an election and refuses to step down, we have no legal case to be in the country except by invitation)

BB5: The fifth ‘building block’ must be a high-level diplomatic push by all interested parties. If former President Jimmy Carter were in better health I would nominate him to lead the American team, and I suggest that the Russians would respond with their best retired diplomat to lead their team.

All other diplomatic teams too, must be led by high level retired diplomats of the highest calibre — ones that have long ago surpassed the desire for media accolades or career advancement. It’s time to ‘get it right’ it’s not the time to ‘use the present situation to get a better career posting’.

I’m only half-joking when I say that all of these diplomats should be locked away in a conference centre in Geneva or Istanbul and not let out until they have arrived at the best plan to save Syria as a viable nation-state, save the Syrian people from five more years of horror, return the Syrian economy to a steady-state and restore Syria to a place of good standing among the nations.

I believe that President Obama has been quietly ahead of everyone on all of this and has put the ‘building blocks’ in place right under everyone’s noses. His only limitations are the people he must work through in order to accomplish these things. And he has limited time, as January 20, 2017 will be his last day in office.

Those who seek confrontation with Syria, Iran, Russia (or any country) are operating at the lowest-common-denominator level (to put it politely) and have no concept whatsoever of what it takes to build a safe, prosperous, and interdependent world order (that is also) compatible with American values.

A safe, prosperous, and interdependent world order is the obvious goal for humankind. Therefore, all of our policies and actions must always be in accordance with our mission otherwise we will without doubt, fail as a species.

And that, my friends, is where we are today.