Monday, October 31, 2011

A few interesting Russia notes

Apologies for the infrequent posting of late, but sports (which I don't like anymore) and other real-life developments have intervened. Hopefully you'll see a return to regular service over the coming days and weeks. For now I just want to direct your attention to a few interesting Russia-related pieces: first off, you should definitely read this op-ed in Politico about the continued significance of Russia to U.S. national interests. It's by Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill (who, not incidentally, are promoting the release of a report they've written on the subject; it just went live in the last hour or so, and I haven't read it yet).

I tend to be skeptical about the deterministic certainty so many analysts seem to feel about the potential security consequences of demographic change around the world, but I'm not really a public health guy, and you'll be unsurprised to learn that I know very little about the subject. Like everyone else, I've seen references to the forthcoming bizzaro-Malthusian birthrate crisis in Russia and Japan and western Europe, etc etc, usually accompanied by alarmist commentary about the inevitable and compensatory rise in Muslim/Latino/Other Scary Brown People immigration.

As much as I tease, I'm a near-total ignorant on this issue, so I was eager to read Nicholas Eberstadt's essay in Foreign Affairs about Russian demographic trends. I found it to be reasonably informative if a little alarmist. (I've got to be honest: I get a chuckle out of some folks speculating about underpopulation making Russia more aggressive while others simultaneously speculate about overpopulation making China more aggressive.)

To get the other side of the story, check out Mark Adomanis's response to Eberstadt on the Forbes website. I always enjoy graphical pwnage, and Adomanis delivers it in force with a concise criticism of Eberstadt's use of statistics.

I don't have a dog in this fight, and as I've indicated above, I feel reasonaby confident that Russian public health issues will have a less significant and less predictable impact on international security than a lot of people would like to suggest.  But one of the significant shortcomings of much analysis of foreign security forces is a failure to appreciate the unique national context from which they're generated, and it's definitely worth taking a look at things like demographics when we try to understand the way these forces evolve and adapt. (I spent the last hour trying to think of a particular expression that distilled this sentiment and finally tracked it down in a Colin Gray book. He quotes Bernard Brodie as having written that "good strategy presumes good anthropology and sociology. Some of the greatest military blunders of all time have resulted from juvenile evaluations in this department.")

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