Let’s Talk about Nukes (Baby)

Homer rides the bomb

There’s been so much interesting communication surrounding North Korea’s possible H-bomb test that I decided to save it all up and cover it in one long, rambling, semi-coherent post.

You’re welcome.

Firstly, was it an H-bomb? Probably, strictly speaking, not. It should have been far bigger if it really was an H-bomb, whereas in fact, this test appears to have been slightly smaller than the previous one. There’s a good reason that most countries prefer to test their H-bombs at sea.

According to analysts, this was not the only WMD-related bit of trickery on display either. It seems that recent videos of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launches may have been strategically edited to make them look more impressive than was, in fact, the case.

In short order, the 24-hour rolling Chinese whispers media turned this into North Korea “faking video footage” and then into “North Korea ‘Hydrogen bomb’ test was FAKED using footage of old Scud missile launch, experts claim“.

Meh. These are journalists writing to a deadline. You can’t reasonably expect them to understand that a nuclear bomb is a different thing from a missile (crash course: the latter can potentially be used to transport the former), and that North Korea tested both in quick succession.

However, while we’re on the subject of maximising the intimidation factor of possibly underwhelming weapons, this is worth listening to. Some guy has converted the seismic signatures of the North Korean nuclear tests into sound files, and they’re incredibly eerie to listen to. If you need reminding why this should scare the hell out of us, have a listen.

But why did North Korea choose to test its bomb now? Well, anti-regime news outlet, the Daily NK, reckons it was to give Kim Jong Un a legitimacy boost ahead of the forthcoming WPK Party Congress, and various other writers – plus Russiahave pointed out that North Korea really has very little to lose by continuing nuclear tests, what with no other country being prepared to go upside Kim’s head with anything more than token sanctions (we’ve covered the symbolic vocabulary of international sanctions here before). However, it seems to be Andrei Lankov who has really nailed it.

Not only does he point out that any from-scratch nuclear programme requires much testing as a matter of course, (any idiot can build a bomb – here you go – building a better bomb, however, requires huge amounts of test data), but he notes:

The diplomatic damage could be easily have been neutralized, had the North Korean diplomats been ordered to be less active last year. It would make much more sense to wait for the test which, as the North Korean government knew, was coming, to weather the predictable diplomatic storm and then start sending delegations across the globe with peaceful initiatives and sweet talks of cooperation and investment. Cynically speaking, a little nuclear test would probably help to advance the message of peace, love and aid. It is always advisable first look menacing and then talk sweet. But the North Koreans did exactly the opposite.

Worse still, it seems to be a pattern, since we have seen this before. In 2011-12 North Koreans negotiated the so-called “Leap Day Agreement” with the U.S. (signed on February 29, hence the name). This agreement implied that North Korea would receive regular shipments of the U.S. aid in exchange for its willingness to refrain from nuclear tests and missile launches. From the North Korean point of view, this was a good agreement, since the American diplomats, often working against the mood which at the time prevailed in Washington, essentially agreed to pay Pyongyang for temporarily freezing its nuclear and missile program.

However, the 2012 Leap Day Agreement survived for merely a fortnight. In mid-March the North Korean government told the world that soon North Korea would launch a “satellite,” essentially testing long-range missile technology, and the agreement collapsed, leaving much bad feeling behind. Even now, four years later, all talks in the U.S. State Department about negotiating with the North are bound to be met with a reminder about the failure of the “Leap Day Agreement.” Essentially, this debacle made negotiations impossible for years to come.

Once again, had North Koreans back then decided to wait, and have a missile launch first, only to negotiate later, they would probably secure a great supply of free food for a promise (admittedly, rather shallow) not to do this again. So, it was an easily avertable problem. The only reason why it happened was the inability or unwillingness of the North Korean top leadership to coordinate the actions of the diplomats with the plans of its military-industrial complex. Had Kim Jong Un or somebody with sufficient power just bothered to order diplomats to remain quiet for some time, the 2012 debacle would not have happened.

Back then, the situation could be explained by the hectic nature of the power transition period: The negotiations and launch coincided with sudden demise of Kim Jong Il. However, this time, when similar mistake happened again, such excuses are rather difficult to make: Kim Jong Un is in control of his realm.

The conclusion is not very encouraging. It is possible that, at least in some cases, North Korea might resemble a ship without rudder – or, perhaps, a ship whose captain spends too much time entertaining his guests. This is dangerous in many regards, but let’s hope that Kim Jong Un and his advisers eventually learn from their mistakes.


(We’ve also covered the fact that North Korea’s various state organs increasingly seem to be working at cross-purposes, and speculated on the possibility of an autocracy without an autocrat before.)

This certainly seems consistent with North Korea’s post-test diplomacy, which has focused on the argument that the nuclear programme is a necessary defence against US threats. In one of his increasingly frequent interviews, Ambassador to London Hyon Hak Bong pointed out relatively mildly that “We develop nuclear weapons not to threaten the world with war but to protect our independence. We want peace, but our nation has been victimised for centuries by one invader and then another.”

Meanwhile, in an oddly touching follow-your-dreams piece in the Pyongyang Times, a local university student wrote about how the nuclear programme can be understood as a victory for juche (“self-development”).

In a rather more forthright declaration, KCNA announced that “strategic patience” had been “completely defeated” and cited Iraq and Libya as examples of the fate that awaits nations that don’t have a nuclear deterrent. And, well, the least you can say is that they’re not actually wrong…

Interestingly, China seemed to back this argument up via a Xinhua thinkpiece, which was more or less equally pissy with both sides, criticizing the US and the DPRK in roughly equal proportions.

South Korea, for its part, returned to a tried and tested riposte: blasting K-pop across the DMZ at ear-shattering volumes, this having been proven to drive the North Korean leadership into a steaming rage. This time around the hits include Apink’s “Just Let Us Love” and G-Friend’s “Me Gustas Tu”, which is rather sweet. North Korea responded by air-dropping flyers calling President Park a bitch.

The US response, by contrast, veered half-heartedly in several different directions before settling into pffft-let-the-next-guy-deal-with-it indifference.

The initial response, tweeted in the immediate aftermath is quite impressively disinterested:

Which is moderately interesting in itself. We’ve apparently reached a point at which the appropriate response to an H-bomb is ennui. Say what you like about modern civilisation, but we’ve come a long way since the 60s.

As one Twitter user commented:

With time it became apparent that something more was needed. The aforementioned additional sanctions were rolled out, to the eternal Soviet cynicism of Lankov:

In the next few weeks we will see a repeat of the same cycle we have seen so many times over the past 10 years.

The UN security council will have an urgent meeting that will introduce sanctions targeting North Korea. Such sanctions will allow politicians to explain to their voters that they are punishing a rogue regime in all ways imaginable – for instance, depriving the leadership of Hennessey cognac and Godiva chocolate. Credulous voters will agree and feel placated, but in actuality, such measures will make little if any difference.

Even if sanctions were to inflict damage on the North Korean economy – which has exceptionally low dependence on foreign trade – the only victims will be common North Koreans, who will just suffer more.

Of course, the top leadership might lose access to champagne, but in their eyes, this is a small price to pay for escaping the fates of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.


Also, one of the Guam-based B52s was given a bit of an airing, though Van Jackson pointed out that this gesture could well end up being misinterpreted:

What’s the point of perpetuating high-friction hostilities with North Korea if it just encourages North Korean provocations that chip away at the credibility of our extended deterrence commitment to South Korea? Do we actually intend to wage nuclear conflict in North Korea over a nuclear test or a small-scale act of violence along the DMZ? I don’t think so. It’s wholly incompatible with a history of risk averse policy on the Korean Peninsula, and that makes it inherently incredible.

But what if U.S. risk propensity really has changed? What if we are willing to get tough with North Korea the next time it engages in violence or does something more provocative than a nuclear test, despite a history that suggests the contrary? I’ve often advocated a more muscular approach to North Korea. If the United States is committed to firm retaliation and matching North Korean escalation move for move, the B-52 isn’t what’s going to convince North Korea of that.

One reason is that the B-52 is a routine signal that we’ve trotted out many times; it’s part of our history of backing down followed by muscle-flexing. There’s no way for North Korea to know that this time is different, which means we’re inviting a war by permitting North Korea to think we won’t retaliate even though we will. We want North Korea to interpret the B-52 as “We really mean it this time,” but they see it as “business as usual.”

Another reason the B-52 overflight fails to convey resolve is the very fact that it’s not really much of a signal at all. In Robert Jervis’s most underrated work, The Logic of Images in International Relations, he draws a crucial distinction between signals and indices:

“Signals are statements or actions…issued mainly to influence the receiver’s image of the sender…They do not contain inherent credibility…Indices are statements or actions that carry some inherent evidence that the image projected is correct because they are believed to be inextricably linked to the actor’s capabilities or intentions.”

Unless signals tie the hands of the sender through some reliable mechanism that forces it to commit, signal “receivers can be expected to at least partially discount them…” Add to this a Korea context in which U.S. nuclear signals have been part of a pattern of both hostility and irresoluteness, and you have a feckless symbol of U.S. and South Korean antipathy toward North Korea, not resolve.

Now I’ll grant that nuclear signaling with the B-52 does serve one constructive purpose: assurance of a South Korean ally that in recent years has grown to question the reliability and utility of the U.S. extended deterrence—that is, “nuclear umbrella”—commitment. The South Korean government clearly supported the B-52 deployment; it was, after all, escorted by South Korean fighters, which hasn’t always happened during past B-52 overflights.

But the B-52 is also problematic from an ally assurance perspective. Unless we plan to initiate a new program of constantly sending the B-52 to Korea—creating new indices, in effect—its deployment is too temporary to shift South Korean perceptions of U.S. reliability.


This was swiftly followed by a new OPLAN stating that in the event of war on the Korean Peninsula, the US will strike North Korean nuclear and missile bases.

US RoK oplan

Also, a plan for a joint US-RoK exercise simulating a nuclear attack on the North.

Unfortunately, all this good work was immediately undone when President Obama omitted to mention the nuclear test in his State of the Union Address. According to the White House this was to avoid giving North Korea “attention” (It being well-known that North Korea disappears if you don’t look directly at it. Always use a pinhole camera or special goggles.)

Naturally, this being Obama’s last SOTU, he wanted to end on a high note and not bring downer subjects like North Korea into the equation. The South Koreans did not see it that way, however, with the Chosun Ilbo producing a we’re-not-angry-just-disappointed op-ed entitled “Obama Speech Shows He Cares Little About N.Korea”.

Almost immediately, several opinion pieces came out hinting more or less openly that South Korea should acquire a deterrent of its own, despite this idea being so taboo that the Daily NK felt obliged to preface its own article with a trigger warning.

In the end, however, the South Korean government settled for dropping some pretty heavy hints about deploying the US-made THAAD missile defence system on its territory, an idea that China hates enough that the threat alone was apparently enough to convince it to throw its support behind additional UN sanctions.


Un qui aime et un qui se laisse aimer

So, the whole Trump-Putin bromance thing. What’s that all about?

Brokeback Mountain

No, not that.

During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s marathon annual news conference on Thursday, the controversial leader heaped praise on Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, calling the candidate “tremendous,” “very bright,” and “talented without any doubt.”

By Thursday evening, Trump had released an equally warm statement that would seem to belie the current state of affairs between Russia and the United States:

“It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.

I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”


It’s not the first time that Trump has expressed his admiration for Putin. And, counter-intuitive though it may seem, it’s a solid electoral strategy on his part. We know that people who like maverick, nationalist, right wing populist leaders are remarkably colour-blind when it comes to nationality.

What Trump is effectively saying here is “If I was President, I’d be just like Putin.”

He wouldn’t, of course, which brings us to our second point.

Why is Putin apparently willing to play along with the charade*, providing Trump with an endorsement which he knows will play extremely well with his key electorate?

Well, it could just be that he thinks Trump would be a lousy President and he’s looking forward to eight years of playing against the US on a low difficulty setting. But then, if the Obama administration has taught us anything, it’s that Hillary Clinton’s terrible at foreign policy too. Realistically, there’s little to choose between them.

However, if you’re going to have to face off against one or other of the two then Trump is by far the better bet. Why?

Because he’s predictable.

This may seem like an odd thing to say about someone whose success is based on being a wacky eccentric, but this is, in fact, what will make his foreign policy easy to anticipate and counteract.

The foreign policy of the Obama administration has been more or less impossible to predict, as the Nobel Peace Prize committee will testify. Even with benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to explain. Not because it is being designed by the mind of a subtle and devious chess grandmaster (as the Atlantic seems to believe) but because it isn’t. There’s no unifying intelligence behind it. Instead, it’s the product of thousands of wonks, pollsters, bureaucrats and diplomats all focused on their own particular bugbears and all screaming at once “YOU HAVE TO DO THIS AND YOU HAVE TO DO IT NOW.” The level of entropy in the system is such that no one, not even the individual at the top, is capable of working out the direction in which it will lurch next. Just like no computer is sufficiently powerful to predict the evolution of chaotic systems, no foreign opponent – however smart – can predict what Obama will do next, largely because neither he nor anyone else in the system knows. There’s every indication that Clinton would be exactly the same.

Trump, on the other hand, tends to ignore advice and go his own way, and outwitting one guy is far easier that outwitting total randomness.

As for which option is best for the US as a whole, I couldn’t possibly say.

*If you want an idea of how the Russian leadership really feels about Trump, try Russia Today.

Here’s the plan…

In a major personnel decision heading into his final year in office, Secretary of State John Kerry plans to appoint Chief of Staff Jon Finer to lead the Office of Policy Planning, the State Department’s in-house think tank, three administration officials told Foreign Policy.

The appointment will place Finer in direct control of a new staff tasked with offering unorthodox solutions to the secretary’s most intractable policy problems. At the same time, Finer will maintain his existing responsibilities as chief of staff, which means he will have to balance the day-to-day duties of running Foggy Bottom with the crafting of U.S. policy.

The move comes as the White House leans harder on the State Department to generate fresh ideas to resolve the civil war in Syria, a slow-burning catastrophe that has resulted in at least 250,000 deaths, millions of refugees, and the global growth of the Islamic State.

“This very much follows the Jake Sullivan model,” said a State Department official, referring to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to put her deputy chief of staff in a dual-hatted role as director of Policy Planning.


What’s interesting here is the sudden resurgence of the word “planning”.

There’s a gag in an old episode of Dad’s Army involving Captain Mainwaring attempting to teach the platoon how to make Molotov cocktails for use against German tanks. The process is a complex one involving a sort of production-chain operation in which one soldier takes responsibility for each stage – one to fill the bottles, one to insert the wick, one to light it etc. etc. At the end of the explanation, Private Walker raises a hand to ask a question: “While we’re doing all this, what’s the tank going to be doing?”

It’s interesting that just as the world is becoming a more chaotic and less US-dominated place, the Obama administration – and particularly the State Department – seems to be developing an increased faith in planning as a concept.

It seems to speak to a desperation to retain at least an illusion of control. Even during the heyday of central state planning – and even in the most thoroughly communist regimes – it went without saying that the field of defence and foreign relations would be left outside the remit of the central planners. The reason for this is obvious: both are entirely contingent upon the choices of outside actors.

Now, the Obama administration has already had a lot of trouble as a result of foreign policy plans not working out as expected, which brings us to a second anecdote.

Years ago a psychologist carried out an experiment (which I would link to if I could find it) that involved giving volunteers pictures of cancerous and non-cancerous cells and tasking them with coming up with a set of heuristics for identifying cancer. The kick in the teeth was that the pictures had, in fact, been labelled randomly. Instead of realising this or concluding that identifying cancerous cells was impossible, however, the volunteers came up with ever more complicated sets of instructions for identifying cancer as more slides were given to them. Humans, it turns out, love patterns to the extent that they’re capable of finding them even where they don’t exist, and don’t deal well with randomness.

Taking this on board, it’s hardly surprising that the State Department’s response to poor planning is more planning. By having more data, more money, more Harvard grads and more work, we can get closer to the ordered ideal that exists in our imagination. Michael Munger refers to this as “unicorn governance”:

Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of.

Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said “the State,” delete that phrase and replace it with “politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist.”

If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.

This leads to loads of fun, believe me. When someone says, “The State should be in charge of hundreds of thousands of heavily armed troops, with the authority to use that coercive power,” ask them to take out the unicorn (“the State”) and replace it with “George W. Bush.” How do you like it now?


This blog has argued in favour of embracing uncertainty before. Having a plan is a comfort, but it’s not necessarily a solution…

Michael Leunig Here's the Plan


Meanwhile, at the State Department


A few days ago I managed to extract a few gags from the badass Putin quote that turned out to be made up.

So, just to mix things up a bit, here’s a quote that sounds made up, but is in fact 100% kosher.

Today RT ran an incredulous sounding piece about Admiral John Kirby criticising Russia for not being committed to fighting ISIS. Here’s the key part:

An appeal to expand the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State came from French President Francois Hollande three days after deadly attacks in Paris a week ago. Stating that “France is at war,” Hollande called for the creation of a “large coalition,” which could unite forces with Russia “to achieve a result that has taken too long.”

The grand coalition is going to be the focus of separate talks President Hollande will have with his American and Russian counterparts in coming days. The French leader is expected to hold talks in Washington on November 24 and in Moscow on November 26.

However, the US State Department says that Russia’s involvement in the coalition would depend on Moscow’s“commitment.”

“But in order for that to work, every member of the coalition has to have the same focus on defeating ISIL, and thus far we, talking about Russia, haven’t seen that same commitment,” Kirby said, referring to Russia’s support for the Syrian President Bashar Assad. “It’s inconsistent with the goals of the coalition, which is to defeat ISIL, if you’re also propping up the Assad regime.”

Wat lady

Well it clearly makes no sense at all, so surely it must have been taken out of context, or had some caveats removed, or been messed about in some way?


In fact, if you go and double check the quote on the State Department website, you’ll find that RT has, if anything, been generous on this one:

There is a 65-member coalition fighting ISIL. That’s the coalition. And as we’ve said before, if other nations not in the coalition want to join it and to be a part of it and to focus on the fight against ISIL, well, then that’s a conversation that we’re certainly willing to have with them. But in order for that to work, every member of the coalition has to have the same focus on defeating ISIL, and thus far – you talked about Russia – we haven’t seen that same commitment. It’s inconsistent with the goals of the coalition, which is to defeat ISIL, if you’re also propping up the Assad regime and flying missions in support of the Assad regime and helping the Assad regime stay in power. It’s simply inconsistent with the core goal of the coalition itself.

Not that this sort of chutzpah has not worked for the State Dept and related organs before. In 2003 70% of Americans thought that Saddam Hussein had ties to Al Qaeda. Over half of respondents to a Harris Interactive Poll in 2006 thought that Saddam Hussein had WMDs (a figure that had actually risen since the previous year). As far as PR techniques go hammering home clearly untrue information until it is believed is not a hugely subtle one, but it worked extremely well because it hits several well-known plausibility heuristics that most human thinking seems to share: simply put, if you don’t think too hard about it, almost any story about nefarious Middle Easterners getting up to dark deeds does sound more or less like the sort of thing that happens in real life. (These have been discussed here frequently before under the headings of “everything funds terrorism” and “that’s just not what crime does“.) Moreover, the Bush administration was extremely good at it because they were happy to keep up the repetion over a long time and – perhaps even more importantly – to keep the message simple: a statement of fact rather than an argument.

When it comes to applying this technique, the Democrats are hamstrung by what should be their biggest asset: their committment to being the brainy-but-honest party. The key message that they want to put across here, that supporting Bashar Al Assad is also in some way helping ISIS, is both too complex and too subtly propounded to have the impact they are hoping for. If they had merely said over and over and over again that Assad is supporting ISIS there is every chance that a substantial proportion of the US public would have ended up believing it. The second you question such a statement, it does, of course, reveal itself to be entirely ludicrous, but a large proportion of the audience would not question it.

Making a clever logic puzzle out of it (defeating ISIS is the key objective, ergo if you are doing anything in the region except bombing ISIS you are insufficiently committed to the task) must have pleased the Ivy Leaguers of the State Department no end, but doing so also invited the audience to think about it for themselves – the one thing that anyone using the sledgehammer approach to propaganda must avoid at all costs. People given a fact may very well accept it unquestioningly. People given a chain of causality will check it for flaws.

Nailing it

New York Times nail salon protest

The grand tradition of extremely punctillious Asian protests continues

The English language press has a long tradition of poor quality reporting when it comes to anything that depends foreign language skills. From the perennial mispronunciation of Beijing, to the cheery reporting of made-up names, to the acceptance of obviously satirical stories as real.

It’s not even limited to exotic Asian languages. I have never heard an anglophone newsreader pronounce Nicholas Sarkozy’s name correctly, and he’s from a country whose language most of them studied at school and which shares a large amount of its vocabulary with English. (Hint: the stress falls on the first and third syllables, not the second.)

It’s not purely an English language phenomenon – journalists everywhere are busy people, after all, and it can be difficult to find a native speaker to check your work when you’re on a deadline. However, in many countries the mistakes will be spotted and widely ridiculed until the error is fixed and/or apologised for.

It seems as though things may be changing, however. A while back Sarah Maslin Nir published an “exposé” in the New York Times about the poor pay and conditions in nail salons, which – coincidentally – are mostly run by Asians.

However, it didn’t stop there. Richard Bernstein, a former NYT journalist, has a Chinese wife who happens to own several salons, and the claims in the articles did not sound believable to her. So Bernstein and some journalists at Reason got to work looking up the original help wanted ads upon which Nir had based a many of her claims.

Lo and behold, it turns out that the ads had been misconstrued or mistranslated. This ad:

Nail salon help wanted

Was translated as offering a salary of $40 per day. In fact, as anyone capable of reading traditional Chinese will tell you, it gives the cost of a mani/pedi at the salon in question as $40 (thus implying the availability of high tips).

This ad was quoted as offering a salary of $10 per day:

In fact, it appears to be offering a stipend of $10 per day for trainees wishing to study with qualified nail technicians after school (if you look at the magnified version, it’s not terribly clear but you can just make out “learn on the job” and “3pm onwards”).

Rather outrageously, the NYT then apparently tried to take advantage of the language barrier one more time by editing one of the salon owners’ letters it received protesting against the coverage to make it appear as though he was acknowledging the truth of Nir’s claims.

So while this may seem like another depressing incidence of a wannabe white saviour screwing things up for the people that she was aiming to help, it’s also a positive sign. Until relatively recently it’s unlikely that anyone would have gone back through the original Chinese small ads to check the truth of it. Right now there are at least three different journalists working on it (the third is Elizabeth Nolan Brown, also with Reason).

And if you want to help right these wrongs by becoming proficient in an Asian language, there’s some good news. A friend just emailed me a link to a BL-themed iPhone app for studying Japanese. Because I know I’ve never looked at a Japanese textbook without thinking “This is good, but it needs more gay porn.”

Russians not fond of economic sanctions, New York Times shocked and disappointed

Russia sanctions

A while ago I did a gag about how the Washington Post had a sad, having discovered that economic sanctions have done little to endear America or its government to the majority of Russian people.

Now the New York Times haz a sad too, having just published an article entitled “Why Russians Hate America. Again.”

I can only presume that they expected to be greeted as liberators.

Of course, there’s a serious point to this: sanctions don’t work. The idea is that the people of the sanctioned countries should think to themselves “Hmmm. The free world disapproves of our leaders’ decisions. Clearly we should get rid of them.” You know, like when your parents tell you not to see that particular boy with the tattoos and the motorbike and you immediately break off all contact with him because you know that mummy and daddy only have your best interests at heart? Like that.

So why bother with them? Well, they’re an excellent form of virtue signalling, can be used to reinforce international norms and a good placebo policy when public opinion demands that something be done but you can’t face the hassle of actually doing it.

This begins to break down, however, when:

a) The target is clearly not just embracing but rejoicing in its role as the villain of the piece and,

b) A large part of your audience doesn’t buy into either your own moral authority or the norms that you’re trying to enforce, or both, as is the case here, where pretty much the entire world outside of Europe and the US does not give two hoots about the Crimea.

Will economic sanctions continue to be a thing as we move towards a multipolar international system? Almost certainly: the fact that they don’t work hasn’t stopped them from being used widely up until now, largely thanks to the other advantages that they present, as mentioned above. However, it is likely that the way in which they are deployed will change. If you risk being laughed out of court by your targets, then states are going to have to be much more careful about how they frame their sanctions, and the results that they admit to wanting to achieve. Sanctions applied for in retalliation for some slight or perceived slight will remain a valid option; sanctions imposed for a moral or legal purpose will be much less plausible.

Hillary Clinton: #DNB?

Clinton Putin

Do not want.

U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has joked that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ability to be confident in being re-elected is attractive, but at the same time made her feelings about the Russian leader clear in a critical remark about him.

“I don’t admire very much about Mr. Putin, but the idea you can stand up and say ‘I will be your next president’? That has a certain, you know, attraction to it,” the former secretary of state joked during a question-and-answer session following her address on the Iran nuclear deal at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Sept. 9.

Russia Behind the Headlines

Sure, it was intended as a joke and a dig at Russia’s sketchy electoral practices. In fact it’s a big mistake, and say much more about Hillary and her campaign than she would probably like to acknowledge. There are two reasons for this:

  1. There are a million bored web content providers out there (they like to think of themselves as journalists, but we all know the truth) who are going to jump on the presence of “Putin” and “attractive” in one sentence and write cheeky articles, much like that one above. I’ve done this job. I know how it works.
  2. There is, in fact, only one thing preventing Clinton from announcing to the US electorate that she will be the next President: her own inability to control the narrative.  Sure, it’s lovely to be self-deprecating if you’re a retired healthcare activist and grandmother. If you’re hoping to be President, however, you need to own the discourse, something that Hillary is terrible at doing (Donald Trump – sometime tv clown and trust fund baby – is justifiably confident that debating Clinton will be “easy”). You can bitch all you like about Russian electoral irregularities, but even the most objective poll data has Putin hovering consistently around 80% – and that’s largely because of his success in controlling the political narrative. And this raises subsequent questions. When President Hillary has to negotiate tariffs and subsidies with the Chinese, will she stand up and say ‘you will accept our offer’? Or is she just going to phone up Vladimir Putin and ask him what she should do?

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

A friend of the Kimono counter-protest guy just published a long and extremely calm and reasonable blog post summing up the counter-protesters’ role in the Kimono Wednesdays fiasco. You can find it here.

In case you missed the earlier stories about this event, and that post is tl;dr, here’s the short version:

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has recently taken to holding ‘Kimono Wednesdays’ – wherein visitors get to try on a kimono like that worn by Claude Monet’s wife in La Japonaise. Every week a selection of social justice types have been turning up to protest because they feel that this is cultural appropriation, orientalist and racist.

Actual Japanese people who have heard about this have been mostly puzzled and a little sad that liberal activists should apparently be convinced that they are being victimised by all this, and feel that the unstoppable progress of the Japanese soft-power juggernaut is actually a reflection of white supremacy. One guy – Timothy Nagaoka – even started showing up in a yukata with his own sign to protest against the protest. He’s on the left in that photo. Ironically, he is the only actual Japanese person in that picture. He is not super happy about the work the activists have been doing to preserve him and his culture from unconscious American racism.

For a great deal more on this, see the blog post above.

ETA: apparently one of the SJWs is Japanese-American too, sorry about that.