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Saturday, July 8, 2017


It is a quiet Saturday morning in this Continuing Care Retirement Community, or old people’s home, as I think of it, and a good time to respond to some recent comments.  First, I note with manifest pleasure Jerry Brown’s Trumpesque expression of the blessedness of reading my blog.  All groveling gratefully accepted.  [For those incapable of detecting irony in the absence of emoticons, this was not meant seriously.]

But on to more serious matters.  Anonymous writes as follows:  “I have some disagreements with your view on Trump and Russia that I was wondering if you could address. As you have discussed on here before, Chomsky has argued that the one decent policy to come out of the Trump administration (or sentiment) is Trump's desire to have better relations with Russia. He believes this because, even if Trump's campaign coordinated with the Russians in the 2016 election, such a relationship could avert a nuclear war between the two powers.

My concern with your view is this: even if we assume that Trump himself colluded with the Russian government in 2016 to win the Presidency, and even if Trump himself is under the control of Putin (a worst-case scenario), would this treasonous act not still be somewhat desired so as to avoid the very real threat of a US-Russia war which would result in nuclear catastrophe? Yes, treason is something to be taken seriously even in the formal democracy of the United States, but if this treason resulted in us avoiding a nuclear catastrophe, shouldn't we be at least hesitant to want Trump impeached (assuming that other figures/administrations would simply take the traditional, hostile stance towards Russia)?”

This is a very interesting and rather complex comment and question.  I shall try to address it as clearly as I can. But I should say at the outset that I am hindered by an inability to make really plausible estimates of the probabilities of the various dangers Anonymous refers to.  I cannot speak for Noam, of course, but I am somewhat doubtful that he can do much better in that regard, even though he is more knowledgeable than I.

First of all, if it is true that we now face a very serious threat of an American/Russian nuclear war, and if it is also true that Trump’s stance with regard to Russia materially reduces that threat, then there is a good argument for embracing Trumps’ Russia policy, such as it may be, as a very necessary evil.  A nuclear war would be so terrible that even if the price of avoiding it were the end of the American political system as we know it, or even the end of America’s independence as a nation, that would perhaps be a price worth paying.  I am not sure everyone these days understands just how civilization-endingly terrible a nuclear war would be.  Chomsky, of course, does.

My problem with Chomsky’s point of view, and hence with Anonymous’ question, is that I have serious doubts about the first of the premises and grave doubts, bordering on disbelief, about the second.  Let me take them in turn.

Ever since nuclear weapons were invented, there has been a great risk of accidental or unintended nuclear war and some risk, less I think, that a nuclear armed nation will deliberately initiate a nuclear war.  Short of the nuclear disarmament for which I argued and worked sixty years ago, preventing accidental or unintended nuclear war requires three things:  First, that the weapons systems be stable and well-protected [in hardened silos or on nuclear submarines] so that snap decisions do not have to be made about potential threats under conditions in which mistakes are easily possible;  Second, that each adversary possesses sufficient nuclear weapons to respond with unacceptable force [unacceptable to the opponent] to even a nation-destroying first strike;  and third, that both adversaries [or all, if there are more than two] make their aims and actions unambiguously clear, so that miscalculations, misunderstandings, and battlefield confusion are reduced to an absolute minimum.  These conditions have for the most part been met during the past half century in confrontations between The Soviet Union [afterwards Russia] and America, although there have been several terrifyingly close calls, most notably the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis [in which John F. Kennedy was the principal source of the danger, in my judgment.]  They are, I believe, met today, despite such provocative actions as the placement of weaponry in Eastern Europe by the United States and the annexation of Crimea and attempted annexation of Ukraine by Russia.  [I am not really interested in, and will not discuss, whether any of these actions was, in any sense, “justified.”]  In the absence of irrational or unpredictable actions on the part of the Americans or Russians, I do not think that the danger of nuclear war is greater now than it was five, ten, or fifteen years ago.  [I leave entirely to one side the confrontation between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, which has its own terrors and dangers].

Do I know these judgment to be true?  Good God, no.  How could I?  It is my best guess, and if Chomsky says that I am wrong, well, he may be right, but then again I may be right.

It is the second premise whose dubiousness really seems manifest to me.  Trump clearly has no idea at all what he is doing, either in domestic or in international affairs.  He has nothing remotely akin to a coherent policy, strategy, or point of view regarding Russia, and I see no sign that he will acquire one.  Of one thing I am certain:  characterizing the question as one of “having better relation with Russia” is entirely the wrong way to think about these matters.  International Relations is not relationship counseling.  Avoiding a nuclear war calls not for two men to like one another, or for them to get along, or for them to have “better relations,” and as for the relationship between two countries, all such language drawn from popular talk about interpersonal relationships is utterly irrelevant.  Avoiding a nuclear war between two nations neither of which seeks to have a nuclear war requires clarity, predictability, successful and reliable channels of communication, and rationality.

Putin is, in my utterly amateurish judgment, quite capable of behaving with self-interested rationality on the basis of clear, predictable, reliable channels of communication.  Trump is not, and in my guesstimate is just as likely to react irrationally toward Putin when they are BFFs as when they are sworn enemies.

For what it is worth, I judge that Pence would be more predictable, albeit equally despicable.

For these reasons, I am dubious about Chomsky’s expressed view concerning the relationship between Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia.


s. wallerstein said...

"International Relations is not relationship counseling."

What a great sentence! It got a genuinely hearty laugh out of me on this cold depressing Saturday morning.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous poster who asked the question here.

Thank you for the detailed response, Professor. Your points are certainly compelling. I think discussions like this raise some interesting questions regarding the structure of states e.g. if Trump doesn't have a clue as to what he's actually doing, somebody or some group in some branch(es) of the federal government must be informally making these policy decisions for him. I'm sure these issues have been investigated but that goes well beyond what I know.

howie b said...

The possibility remains of Trump not quite being an entirely irrational actor, but just putting on an act in a way, playing a grand game, sticking his finger at the world. Until you rule out that likelihood your guess remains only a guess and not even an educated guess because you are a philosophy professor and not a professor of psychiatry or an FBI profiler.
Somebody knows what Trump is doing, and it is not you or me or even Chomsky, and maybe Trump or the people close to him. Or maybe not. In addition to being the ultimate black swan he is causus sui, in other words, only God really knows for sure, however much our fate lies in his hands
Your assessment remains speculative no matter how urgent and no matter how beside the point

F Lengyel said...

"The possibility remains of Trump not quite being an entirely irrational actor, but just putting on an act in a way..." This gives me an idea for another cartoon: Trump, despite carefully cultivated appearances, is in reality an astronomically intelligent individual who counts crystalline cohomology among his minor hobbies.
Here's a cartoon for the Fourth of July.

Jerry Fresia said...

Malcolm X insightfully noted more than half a century ago that if you read the newspaper everyday, you'll end up loving your enemies and hating your friends. A more modern version of that quip might be that if you get your news from the NYTs and MSNBC you'll live within the liberal bubble, not knowing diddly-squat about "our" official enemies.

To wit, check out these pieces on NK found in (can you imagine Rachel reporting thusly??) - all of which compels me to add, quoting Naomi Klein, that Trump is more a symptom of our malady and not the cause:

Jerry Brown said...

The groveling would only be truly Trumpesque if it was required for all commenters, just as it seems to be required for all Trump cabinet members. In that sense it might reasonably increase your utility over and above the groveling that Trump demands. And of course, only a professor with your sublime sense of modesty and reality would assume it wasn't intended at face value.

As to the rest of your most recent-"Trump clearly has no idea at all what he is doing, either in domestic or in international affairs. He has nothing remotely akin to a coherent policy, strategy, or point of view regarding Russia, and I see no sign that he will acquire one." Truer words have rarely been written. I will say though that what I knew of Hillary Clinton's positions on Russia and the various areas where we are in conflict with them caused me more concern about the possibilities of war with Russia than I have had in 20 years or so. But maybe I worry too much and I don't know any more than Trump or anyone else does about these things.

And the focus that the Democratic Party has taken since the election in blaming Russia for our loss and in relying on organizations such as the FBI and other National Security type spy organizations as allies has been disconcerting for me. These are not natural allies for leftish people like me. They are probably a necessary evil, but they will never be allies.

Jerry Brown said...

In any event, Tom C. has truly mastered the art of flattery as evidenced by this- "After all these years I still like watching your mind work. Sometimes, like today, your exquisite argument leads to a conclusion I hold intuitively. But I'm still dazzled by the journey."

Suitably subtle (probably too subtle for Trump) yet masterfully presented . It might even be true and the reasonable doubt only enhances the flavor of the presentation. Not even my mother ever said something so complimentary to me. You are a fortunate man Professor. (Completely deserved it goes without saying but we should say it anyways.)

decessero said...

I would posit that it is insulting Tom Cathcart to suggest he was exercising the art of flattery when he wrote those lovely words, for flattery is "excessive and insincere praise, especially that given to further one's own interests". Is it really so difficult to believe that he genuinely finds our Professor's argument exquisite and derives great pleasure watching Dr. Wolff's mind work? That he is dazzled by the journey towards a conclusion he himself holds intuitively but might not find easy to explain? for me personally, it is a joy to witness the occasional unclogged clean, honest compliment.

Jerry Brown said...

Ah decessero, the mystery is part of the mastery, and the question of intent only adds spice to the dish. It is said the true masters of the art can fool even themselves and often forget their original purposes. It is truly a wonder to behold akin only to watching another's mind at work. No insult, only praise was intended.

Tom Cathcart said...

Decessero's got it right. I didn't even see the ambiguity. Don't know what to say to the notion that I may have fooled myself!

Jerry Brown said...

Tom Cathcart, I very much hope you are a forgiving person and realize that I was spouting a bunch of BS, because I thought it might be humorous, and that there really was no insult intended. The words you wrote really are a beautiful compliment, and no doubt well deserved. I apologize for casting any uncertainty on your intentions and for dragging you into this and will try not to do so again.