Europe’s Dreams

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – We heard from Ursula von der Leyen, the new President of the European Commission, that she will lead a “geopolitical” Commission. So, we are led to believe that, under her leadership, there will be deep thinking and strategizing about how to effectively combine the significant European economic, business, investments and military assets so that the EU will play a leading role on the world stage. From climate change to global development, international stability and cyber warfare, expect a cohesive, proactive Europe to be assertive and forceful when it will be necessary to foster stability and sustainability.

Big numbers hide structural weakness

Nice plan. Except that it is a total fantasy. The EU does not have and will not have the tools to become a dynamic force in world affairs. Sure, on the surface some EU numbers look very impressive. the EU total population is 512 million, much larger that America. If we put together the GDP of all its 27 members (UK on its way out) we get to about $ 19 trillion, almost the same as the US. If we combine defense spending of all EU Members we have the second largest defense budget in the world. And the EU is the largest foreign aid donor. Not to mention the clout of the EU in determining competition policy standards around the world, and a lot more.

So, a global force to be reckoned with? No, not really. The sad story about the EU is that these aggregate numbers are almost meaningless, simply because the EU, as conceived and currently structured, is unable to effectively combine the resources of all its members in order to obtain real synergies. And do not expect major institutional changes any time soon.

Dreams of a Federal Europe

Sadly, s strong Europe is destined to remain an unrealized dream. Right after WWII, there were a few fervent believers in a truly integrated new Europe that would have helped to eliminate the old intra-European rivalries, while redirecting the enormous potential of various European countries towards the goal of creating a new European Federal State. The European Federalist Movement led by Altiero Spinelli, and later on the Union of European Federalists, are the manifestations of this vision. However, these organizations never gained any real traction. They were and are essentially irrelevant.

EU is not a Federation

There is a European Union, of course; but it is not a Federal State, and it will never become one. Born out of the European Coal and Steel Community created in 1952 as a French olive branch to defeated Germany, the actual European project, (officially created in 1957, with the Treaties of Rome), went through many phases. It began as a European Common Market, then it developed into the European Community, and finally into the European Union. These name changes suggest an incremental integration process. And , in truth, there is more integration.

But Europe remains at its core an inter-governmental arrangement among sovereign states. Sure enough, a number of institutions have been created and nurtured, and all the EU Members agree to enforce EU norms and regulations on a large number of issues.

However, the qualitative step of merging all the Members States with the goal of creating a vibrant, unified European Federation was never taken, and I doubt that it will ever be taken. As a result, we have a hybrid. Certainly much more than a Free Trade Area, but a lot less than a real unified state.

A set of complex structures, laws and regulations

Over time, the EU created an extremely complex set of laws, rules and regulations enforced by a bureaucracy managed by Brussels based EU governing bodies. There is also a European Parliament that looks like a legislative body, however without the full sovereign powers of national parliaments. Some key EU states gave life to the Euro, the very successful European currency. And, of course, at the top of the pyramid, there is the EU executive body, the Commission, now presided over by Ms. von der Leyen. But the Commission President is not the elected Leader of Europe. She was nominated.

The Commission is led by a functionary

Therefore Ms. von der Leyen is not an elected political leader. She is a functionary. A very important functionary, with significant prerogatives, but still a functionary. The EU Commission enforces policy. Except for clearly designated areas, the EU carries out policy. It has no real, autonomous powers to make policy for Europe without the prior consent of the Member States.

No EU armed forces, no effective foreign policy

And this is only half the story. In order to affect global geopolitics, Europe should have credible tools. A critical one is a European foreign policy supported by real European armed forces.

Well, the EU has neither. Yes, it created the embryo of a foreign policy making body with a high official, (another appointed functionary), running it. But its discretionary powers are very limited. The EU can act in world affairs as one only if and when all the key Members agree on something. And this is very difficult, to put it mildly.

And when it comes to creating the backbone –that is real European armed forces– forget about it. There is nothing; and there will be nothing, except for high level commissions, studies and debates. And this is the case for various reasons. For a true European military force to be created, you would need as a foundation a robust political agreement among all EU Members on the size, purpose and command structure of such a force. And then Members would have to agree on an appropriate level of spending and how to pay for it.

Let NATO defend Europe

Politically, this is just too complicated. Besides, most EU Members are also NATO Members. Admittedly these days NATO’s purposes, force structure and capabilities are debatable. Still, NATO has the advantage of having been around since 1949. Whatever its shortcomings, it exists; while most European countries continue to believe that they are safe under what they would like to think is a still credible US security blanket.

Dreams and wishful thinking

So, here is the picture. In Europe dreams and fantasies abound, when it comes to a new, assertive EU role in the global arena. But there are no tools and therefore no real substance when it comes to the ability to play a credible, major role in world affairs. Ms. von der Leyen may talk about geopolitical goals for her Commission; but this is another instance of wishful thinking.




Cyber War Happening Now – We Are Not Ready

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – We are at war. Aggression which one day can take devastating dimensions is targeting America on a daily basis. I am talking about cyber warfare. Unfortunately, it is very hard to label cyber war as “war”, simply because it is vastly different from the “conventional war” we are used to study, discuss and prepare for.

Intellectual obstacles

Sadly, our ability to think intelligently and proactively about this potentially fatal form of aggression is seriously hampered by our old-fashioned categories. Much to our disadvantage, when it comes to warfare, we are still prisoners of largely obsolete concepts, scenarios, international law definitions, strategies and tactics that do not allow us to fully comprehend the extent of unconventional warfare, in particular cyber war.

The UN Charter allows self-defense

All students of international law know that Article 51 of the UN Charter clearly affirms the right of self-defense that can be exercised by any UN Member, irrespective of any action that may or may not be taken by the UN Security Council to deal with that specific breach to international peace. It sounds right. Self-defense is an inherent right of all sovereign nations. Except that Article 51 specifies that self-defense is justified “if an armed attack occurs”.

Armed attacks

And here –in this narrow and quite frankly obsolete definition– is our problem. This classic definition indicates that an illegitimate war of aggression has occurred if and when there is an “armed attack”. And we know what that is. This is Pearl Harbour. This is Nazi Germany moving into Poland on September 1, 1939. We picture armies shooting their way across internationally recognized, sovereign boundaries. We know a war of aggression when we see one.

Deliberate obfuscation in semi-conventional conflicts

But today we are confronted with a vastly different universe when it comes to warfare. Even when we are dealing with quasi-conventional conflicts, in recent years the lines have been deliberately blurred by bad actors who do their best to muddy the waters, with the goal of denying responsibility for their actions.

Indeed, Crimea was taken over in 2014 not by the Russian Army but by “Green Men” whose uniforms did not have any insignia. Likewise, officially no Russian forces are taking part in the bloody conflict in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. The Iranians have proxy forces in Iraq and Syria, trained and armed by them. But they are not technically part of the Iranian Army. And we could go on and on.

When there is no armed attack

While it is not that complicated to see through these disguises in semi-conventional conflicts, when it comes to cyber operations, cyber attacks, and cyber terror, we are in uncharted waters. To start with, it is often hard to determine that there was an attack, let alone who the attacker is. Whatever they are, these actions are not “armed attacks” as defined by Article 51 of the UN Charter, and as most practitioners think about acts of aggression.

We do not recognize cyber war as war

And here is our main problem. Our weakness as a society, and I suspect this includes key policy-makers, is that we have a psychological resistance in recognizing that cyber attacks are pure “acts of war”, simply because they do not look like the conventional aggressive military operations we are used to.

Furthermore, since cyber war is relatively new, we still do not have the intellectual and technical tools to fully comprehend the extent of this threat, and how devastating large scale cyber attacks could be. Are we talking about a few cyber probes here and there? Are we talking about discreet actions of cyber theft or cyber espionage? We know about all of them. But is this really war? Yes, it is.

Prepare for the worst scenario

And it will get worse. Count on it. There will be new, stealthy and deadly tools. It would be foolish, if not criminally negligent, not to think about all this and try to prepare for the absolute worst. I mean well coordinated cyber attacks that could cripple our country, (for instance, attacks that would completely and permanently disable our national power grid), without a single shot being fired by enemy forces.

Our problem

And here is our problem. Right now we are at the very beginning of a very dangerous new era in which cyber tools are used as weapons. To date, aggressive cyber capabilities are probably still relatively modest. But they will inevitably grow, along with the growth of cyber science and the numerous new applications that will be created. And the temptation to do bad things is very strong. Hostile forces can always hope to hide behind anonymity.

We sort of know all this. But in a rather nebulous way. Most of all, there is no real sense of urgency, most likely because these acts of aggression take place in this intangible cyber space, whose dimensions and relevance are generally unknown to most of us and that would include policy-makers who do not have the sophisticated technical background that would allow them to immediately grasp the dimensions of this ominous threat.

The challenge

So, here is our challenge. How do we mobilize all relevant policy and scientific resources against a war we are already involved in that does not look at all like the wars we are used to? How do we mobilize and sustain national efforts aimed at countering invisible cyber attacks that may soon be replaced by much bigger, perhaps fatal attacks?




US Kicks Gazprom In The Shin

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – It looks like a clever Washington move. The US Government just put on notice any company involved in laying pipes underwater that they should immediately stop work on the Gazprom Nord Stream 2 pipeline designed to deliver Russian gas to Northern Germany, and beyond via the Baltic Sea. If they do not stop, they will face US sanctions. Allseas, the Dutch-Swiss company directly involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipe-laying operations, immediately signaled that it would comply, in order to avoid US sanctions. Hence the halting of the pipeline project, just as it was close to completion.

Last minute effort to stop Nord Stream 2

Well, what’s this all about? This is about the American determination to prevent the completion of this Russian pipeline, even though Germany and many other EU countries openly want it, because Washington fears that Russian dominance of the European energy markets will give Moscow a dangerous degree of influence in European affairs.

Besides, for years Washington has been pointing out that this Nord Stream 2 pipeline has the clear geopolitical goal to divert to this new pipeline Russian gas now flowing to Eastern Europe via pipelines transiting through Ukraine. Upon completion of Nord Stream 2, the same Russian gas destined to European markets will no longer go to Eastern Europe via Ukraine. It will be shipped to Europe via Nord Stream 2. This way, with implicit European complicity, Russia will isolate Ukraine, while selling the same gas to its willing European customers.

The Europeans know what’s going on

Let me stress here that the Europeans (ostensibly our Allies) know very well that this is exactly what is going on. Russia wants to hit Ukraine and figured out a clever way to prevent it from collecting the transit fees for the Russian gas passing through it on its way to Eastern Europe and beyond.

But now America, with the threat of sanctions, stopped the whole thing. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline will not be completed; and the wily Russians got a bloody nose. Well, not really.

Nord Stream 2 will be done

Sure enough, this is a major inconvenience for Gazprom and Moscow that most likely will cause a significant delay and cost overruns for the mega-project now almost completed. But there is no doubt that in the end Nord Stream 2 will be done. Notwithstanding the aggravation and the additional costs, Russia seems to have the vessels that can step in and lay the pipes, so that the project will be finished, at some point.

Only a gesture

So, what is this fracas about sanctions all about? Quite frankly, at best, this is a gesture on the part of the US. I do not see much substance here. Frankly, it is odd for Washington to try to stop our fully consenting NATO allies, who really want this energy project with roguish Russia, (up to no good in Ukraine and elsewhere), simply because we say that it is bad for them.

The reality is that via these targeted sanctions the US can certainly delay this Nord Stream 2 project; but it cannot not stop it altogether. In the meantime, Europe sees us as bullies trying to impose our own views on them, while the EU and NATO countries engaged in this venture with Russia apparently see nothing wrong in doing business with Russia, while abetting its clear design to hurt Ukraine.

No unified view on energy policies within NATO

Sadly, the problem here is not about this ill-advised pipeline aimed primarily at hurting Ukraine. The problem is that the very existence of this project, with full European participation, (the Germans in the lead), illustrates the inability to have a cohesive, unified view of what constitutes a threat to European security, and more broadly to NATO.

An empty gesture that will drive the US and Europe further apart

This clever US move to stop the work on the pipeline looks to me like an empty gesture that at best will delay completion of this energy project. However, we can rest assured that this American blatant interference in a deal freely struck between our NATO Allies and Russia will only engender more anti-American animosities in Europe, and not the necessary reappraisal of what we, as NATO Alliance, consider to be a serious threat to our security when it comes to energy, or other critical areas.




US Will Soon Be The Number One LNG Exporter

Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – Energyindepth, www.energyindepth.org recently stated that the world is witnessing a major energy supply revolution. The United States, until a few years ago destined to become a major natural gas importer, is now slated to become the world’s number one exporter of Liquefied Natural Gas, LNG.

New geopolitics of energy

The website made this point also quoting the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based group of major energy consumers: “The growth of U.S. natural gas production – led by increased shale production – has been transformative, not only domestically but globally. And it’s only the beginning. As IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol recently said:

“The second wave of the U.S. shale revolution is coming. It will see the United States account for 70 percent of the rise in global oil production and some 75 percent of the expansion in LNG trade over the next five years.  This will shake up international oil and gas trade flows, with profound implications for the geopolitics of energy.”

US as LNG exports leader

While the US is now the world leading oil producer, let us focus here on the vastly increased American LNG export capacity. New US LNG terminals have been completed, and additional ones will come on line very soon. As a result the US, already the world number three LNG exporter, (behind Qatar and Australia), in a few years will become number one.

While this is good for business, it is obvious that this new role of America as key energy supplier will have important geopolitical implications, as this surge in LNG exports is not just a temporary phenomenon. Indeed, the undeniable fact is that the world will rely on large amounts of natural gas for decades to come.

The world will continue to rely on gas

Realistically, it is clear that notwithstanding pledges to cut down the use of fossil fuels in order to combat global warming there is no way to achieve a rapid shift to non-carbon energy sources within the foreseeable future. It is just technically impossible. And it is also clear that affordable natural gas, used largely as electric power generation feed stock, is and will be the fuel of choice for many energy poor countries. Besides, it pollutes a lot less than coal. Therefore, from an environmental protection perspective, it is the least damaging among the fossil fuels.

Taking all this into account, the world will continue to rely on natural gas as feed stock for electric power generation, heating, and much more for decades.

Vast geopolitical implications

Of course, this sustained demand for gas is about new or expanding markets for the US energy business. However, it is obvious that there are and there will also be significant geopolitical implications. Indeed, US growing LNG exports will be a factor in reshaping commercial and political relations with many Asian countries and Europe.

New markets in Asia

For example, India desperately needs additional energy supplies for its energy starved population, now exceeding 1.3 billion. When it comes to electric power generation, India still largely relies on dirty coal, with horrible environmental repercussions in terms of staggering air pollution levels in most large urban areas. Switching over to natural gas is a necessity for India. The availability of increasing amounts of US LNG will make this transition away from coal a bit easier; while a new, robust energy trade will strengthen overall ties. Likewise, Japan and South Korea, traditional US allies and always net energy importers, also need gas. The opportunity to buy additional quantities of US LNG will strengthen the bonds with these two key Asian countries.

Of course, energy poor China could also be a major buyer of US LNG. But the political relationship between the US and China is bad, and not destined to improve any time soon. Therefore do not expect China to be a major buyer of US LNG. (China is focusing now on a significant increase of imported Russian gas, via new pipelines).

More LNG to Europe will counter Russian dominance

Another important market for US LNG will be Europe. All projections indicate that natural gas consumption in Europe will stay flat. However, European sources of natural gas (originating from Norway and The Netherlands), are dwindling, while much of Europe relies heavily on imported Russian natural gas supplied via a variety of pipelines, old (via Ukraine) and new (via the Baltic Sea). Some European countries see no problem in this significant energy dependence on Russia, while others feel uneasy, given the history of Russian meddling in Eastern Europe and beyond.

Given these geopolitical concerns, some European countries, most notably Poland and the Baltic States, look very favorably at the opportunity to diversify their natural gas imports by increasing US LNG purchases. For the time being, US LNG exports to Europe are modest, and so they do not shift the overall pattern of large purchases from Russia.

New flexibility

However, the very fact that several European buyers of Russian gas now have a new purchasing option –US LNG– that simply did not exist until a few years ago, gave flexibility and better bargaining power to the Europeans. As a result, Russia in many instances was forced to lower its prices, as a way to fend off US LNG competition. Going forward, as US LNG export capacity increases and the price differential between LNG and Russian piped gas shrinks, expect additional European purchases of US LNG.

Increased US influence around the world

All in all, the fact that the United States already is today –and will be even more so in the years to come– the leading, dependable exporter of liquefied natural gas, a vital, relatively clean, energy source, will increase American influence around the world, and will help strengthen political ties with key countries in Asia and in Europe.

Yankee Ingenuity

Not so bad overall, considering that this US natural gas (and oil) revolution originated out of the dogged persistence of a small band of American “frackers” who believed that oil and gas could be profitably extracted from shale formations, when all the energy experts and the big energy companies stated that it was absolutely impossible.

Three Cheers for Yankee Ingenuity!




Thanks to Fracking, No Panic in the US After The Attacks on Saudi Oil

by Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – The most astonishing consequence of the unprecedented, devastating attack on Saudi Arabia which crippled the Kingdom’s oil production and refining facilities is what did not happen, especially in the USA.

There was no panic in the US or worldwide; no skyrocketing, out of control oil prices. Yes, crude prices went up, significantly; but not in a dramatic way, if you consider that the supplies of Saudi Arabia, the leading world exporter, (along with Russia), have just been cut down by 50%! That 50% represents 5% of total world supply. In an environment where strong demand matched tight supply, this sudden shortfall would be a disaster, especially for the US, along with China the leading oil consumer. But right now world oil supplies are not stretched, notwithstanding steady demand, thanks to the US fracking revolution which added millions of barrels of oil a day to global energy markets. More on this in a moment.

Surprise but no shock

Obviously, world markets took this unexpected and sadly successful attack against well defended (we all thought) and vitally important Saudi oil facilities quite seriously. But again, there was no panic; no stock market crazy gyrations. In contrast, you can rest assured that if the very same attack on Saudi Arabia had taken place 10 or 15 years ago, the reaction would have been chaos and mayhem –especially in Washington, DC and on Wall Street. Similar shortfalls caused the oil crises of 1973-74 and 1979.

What happened in the last 15 years?

So, what is the difference between now and then? The difference is the US fracking revolution. The almost unthinkable surge in US oil and gas production made possible by the adoption of fracking technologies by many US energy companies , (a successful combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling), which began 10 to 15 years ago has given the United States millions of additional barrels of oil a day; and, as a consequence, also a much higher degree of energy self-sufficiency. Not total self-sufficiency, mind you, but close. Heavy reliance on distant (and it turns out not so reliable) oil suppliers was drastically diminished along with massive increases in domestic oil production. 

The broader impact of the US fracking
revolution

This gigantic increase in domestic oil and gas production made possible by extracting oil and gas from shale formations, coupled with increased oil imports from Canada, a friendly neighbor, have created a new scenario of quasi “Hemispheric Energy Independence”. In simple terms, North America, (Canada, USA and Mexico combined), can soon become energy self-sufficient.

Let’s be clear, we are not there yet. But we are almost there. The US still imports some OPEC oil, as well as crude from other regions of the world, but most of the oil we consume now in America is either domestically produced or imported from reliable neighbors.

Relaxed atmosphere

Hence the relatively relaxed atmosphere both in Washington and on Wall Street, in the aftermath of the attack on Saudi oil facilities, when it comes to confidence in our ability to ensure continuity of energy supplies to industry and consumers.

Notwithstanding the shockingly bad news of the brazen attacks that knocked down half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production and refining facilities, with the ensuing cuts in global supplies, there is no panic in America.

This is an incredibly important achievement. And we owe this to a multitude of small, medium and some large fracking companies that are behind this American energy revolution.

Global benefits

And the fracking revolution obviously benefits the rest of the world as well. Since America’s imports have been cut down by millions of barrels a day, there is more oil in the global market place available to all other importers. Abundant supply means lower energy prices for all, ample reserves, and (almost) guaranteed deliveries to all importers.

So, here is the story. Thanks to fracking and massively increased US oil production, even an unprecedented, catastrophic event like the attack on Saudi oil facilities can be handled without resorting to extraordinary measures such as price controls, rationing, etc.

A private sector effort

Where am I going with all this? Very simple. Fracking was not a US government program. Fracking is all about old fashioned Yankee ingenuity. The US private sector, often small energy entrepreneurs, largely unhindered by suffocating state or federal rules and restrictions, had the freedom to invest in drilling in shale –an endeavor what at the beginning seemed to most experts a perfectly crazy idea, destined to failure.

Well, the seasoned experts were wrong. After a few years of trial and error, the daring energy entrepreneurs were proven right, and America now –thanks to fracking—is in the midst of this incredible “Energy Renaissance”. This huge additional domestic production, in this moment of international bewilderment caused by the brazen attacks on Saudi oil facilities, provides precious support and reassurance to both the US economy and US national security.

Broader lesson: encourage free enterprise

So, here is the broader lesson. As a Nation, let us do all we can to encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship –in all sectors. Do not place roadblocks on the path of those who seek to create new products, new systems and new solutions. And I am not just talking about energy here. I am talking about all economic sectors.

Sure, all
economic activities have to be conducted within the boundaries of the law,
while they have to comply with all necessary safety and public health
standards. These are the common sense rules of a modern, civilized society.
But, once reassured that there is genuine compliance with the basic norms of
our nation, let people be free to do what they want to do.

In the case of fracking we see the enormous economic and now national security benefits brought about by daring spirits, ingenuity and enterprise. About other economic sectors, God only knows what new benefits commercially viable innovation may bring to us. 




America Lost Its Ill-Conceived War in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – The longest American war is finally coming to an (unhappy) end. America is negotiating its departure from Afghanistan. A draft deal sketching a time line for US troops withdrawal has been hammered by US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban.

Good news? Not really. Let’s be clear. America is not negotiating from a position of strength, after having inflicted painful losses on the Taliban, our enemy. This is not a carefully crafted peace treaty, with credible built-in conditionalities and safeguards. Whatever the wording of the final agreement, whatever euphemism you may choose to characterize this peace process, this is in essence US surrender.

Inglorious end

It is clear to all observers that America is negotiating with the Taliban from a position of extreme weakness. The other side, the Taliban, is winning on the ground, and we simply cannot take this nightmare of daily attacks followed by feeble and ineffective Afghan responses anymore.

Sadly, this is the inglorious end to a terribly ill-advised October 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, followed by an ill-conceived military occupation, and an even worse economic development strategy concocted under the assumption (bordering on lunacy) that America and its NATO Allies had the resources, the will and the skills to transform an extremely backward, war-torn Afghanistan into an at least passable modern, working democracy.  

A bad idea

Sadly, this negotiation with the Taliban is the end of the American poorly planned and poorly executed adventure in Afghanistan. The occupation of Afghanistan was and is a bad idea doggedly pursued for almost 20 years by national leaders who should have known better; or who at least, after a few years of failures, could have paused and thought the whole thing over again.

Foreign
policy mistakes unfortunately happen. But Afghanistan is much worse. This is
about hatching a completely unrealistic plan and then clinging to its failed
policies, year after year, in the vain hope that –maybe—someday things will
improve, without any evidence that anything was getting any better.

It all started after 9/11

Let’s go back to the beginning of this sad story, and that is 9/11. After it became clear that this major terror attack against the US homeland had been directed by Osama bin Laden, the founder of al Qaeda who had found sanctuary in Afghanistan, the Bush administration decided “to go get him”. However, Washington almost immediately decided also on a much bigger agenda. Indeed, the Bush administration decided that it had to punish not just the al Qaeda leadership, but also its Afghan willing hosts, that is the Taliban government.

Therefore the more narrowly focused “punitive expedition against Osama and al Qaeda” almost immediately morphed into “regime change” for Afghanistan. This rather grandiose objective was in fact an act of vainglorious superficiality. In so doing, Washington, while trying to get Osama who was hiding somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan, (without any success, by the way!), at the same time declared to the world that it needed to “fix” Afghanistan once and for all, so that in the future this sorry country would become a responsible, modern democracy, and no longer the friendly home of terrorists.

Insane policy

In
principle, this may sound nice: “Clean up
the place and engage in a make-over”
so that in the future Afghanistan will
not be used as a base for Islamic terrorists.
In practice, anybody with a brain at the time would have been able to see that
this –“fixing Afghanistan”– was a
next to impossible task.

Anybody with an even scant knowledge of decades of failure in trying to promote development in Africa and other under developed regions through large amounts of outside assistance could have pointed out that this was mission impossible.

Indeed, if promoting development in Africa is extremely challenging, it should have been clear to all top decision-makers that engaging in a development effort in an extremely poor, and completely ruined post-conflict Afghanistan would take extraordinary resources, and many, many decades.

A dauntingly
tall agenda, by the way, even assuming peace and a cooperative society willing
to buy into this rapid modernization strategy hatched and dished out by outside
experts.

Impossible goals

Again, everybody knew or should have known that at the end of 2001 Afghanistan was an incredibly backward, tribal country that lacked almost all the underpinnings necessary to even start a development agenda. And that includes: some meaningful productive activities, (no, poppy cultivation should not be on this list), at least some basic infrastructure,  a modicum of electricity generation and transmission, reasonably modern health care facilities, functioning schools, an educated middle class, a reasonably competent government. Afghanistan had almost none of that at the end of 2001. On top of that, it had suffered for years under a communist dictatorship, then it had to endure the Soviet invasion which was followed by a bloody war against the Soviets, and then civil strife followed by the medieval Taliban regime.

A record of failure

Anyway, the
whole US-led Afghanistan enterprise that began at the end of 2001 failed
–miserably. This is well documented. For instance, to this day, the US
government has no idea of what happened to billions of dollars targeted for
development in Afghanistan that simply vanished.

The biggest failure is of course the strong resurgence of the Taliban and the utter inability of the US-trained and equipped Afghan military and police to even hold their ground –let alone go after the Taliban insurgents and defeat them.

Right now, the Kabul government is unable to guarantee even a modicum of security almost anywhere in the country. The Taliban can hit almost city, including well defended targets in Kabul itself. On top of that, in the last few years, other extremists and terror groups have found fertile ground in Afghanistan. On a daily basis, there are attacks, bombs, suicide missions, and what not. And this is happening after 18 years of American and NATO military assistance, combined with gigantic development packages aimed at building a modern government, peace and new prosperity.

The negotiations with the Taliban

I guess this is why the Trump administration FINALLY decided to cut America’s losses and get the troops home. The fig leaf here are the bilateral “peace negotiations” with the Taliban. Through this charade hosted by Qatar, Washington would like to convey to the world that this is no cut and run. On the contrary, Washington will implement an orderly and careful incremental drawdown of US forces –but only if and when the Taliban will meet certain non-negotiable conditions.

The message
is: “This is no unilateral withdrawal. We
are negotiating an honorable and sound peace agreement. We Americans shall make
sure that the interests of the Afghan people are protected. We shall also make
sure that the new (and still fragile) Afghan democratic institutions will be
safeguarded and will continue to define the country long after the last
American soldier has departed”.

Of course,
this is pure fiction.

Whatever
they may say now, the Taliban leaders do not believe in either democracy or
power sharing. To believe in a well-functioning future coalition government featuring
the current Afghan leadership and the Taliban working together for the benefit
of the Afghan people is ridiculous. Which is to say that these negotiations are
only about saving face. Whatever you may want to call this process, in essence,
this is surrender. We failed –in a spectacular way– and now we are leaving an
impossible situation that cost US taxpayers hundreds of billions. No more good
money after bad.

What do we make of all this?

So, what do we make of this absurd tragedy? Sadly, the only plausible conclusion is that in the highly charged, emotional days after 9/11 our national leaders literally lost their minds. There is no doubt that the terror attack we suffered on September 11, 2001 was unprecedented in scale and loss of American lives.

But 9/11 was
not the end of the world. The notion that America, in order to prevent future
attacks and be safe, had to “redo
Afghanistan”
was megalomaniac and stupid. Going after the bad guys, the
masterminds of 9/11, was absolutely justified. But the notion that creating a
new country in Afghanistan was necessary in order to guarantee future US
security was fatally flawed.

And, by the way, let’s
not forget: even the more focused mission of capturing or killing the al Qaeda
senior leadership FAILED, TOTALLY. The US forces were there, on the ground.
Osama and his cohorts were on the run. And still we failed to capture Osama, for
more than a decade.

That said,
the Afghanistan operation was the beginning of the “War on Terror”, an ill-defined,
grandiose strategy that created what was ultimately an unreachable goal.

“War on Terror” does not mean
anything

Terrorism is not a place you can attack and conquer or a clearly identifiable enemy located in one place. Terrorism is a modus operandi that can be adopted by several small groups, or even isolated individuals all over the world. Terrorism is about dramatic violent actions that will gain a great deal of publicity.

How do you “win” this war? How can you ensure that all the bad guys, and the would-be bad guys, have been apprehended or killed? This is impossible. You can and should do your best to monitor and infiltrate terror cells. You should prevent when possible acts of terror and go after the bad guys when something bad tragically happened. But this is mostly about doing your best to manage an elusive threat using intelligence and special forces. You cannot “win” this conflict once and for all; just as police forces, even the best ones, cannot inflict a final defeat on all criminals and criminal activities.

There are more than 7 billion people on this planet. Even if the smallest fraction of this large world population engages in terror plots, you still have a problem. And yet this open ended goal –the War on Terror– became the fundamental pillar of US foreign policy under George W. Bush. America was committed to fight this global War on Terror to the very end, and we would not rest until the last terrorist had been killed or apprehended. This was and is an impractical, in fact fatuous goal.

No doubt, terrorism is serious business, to be treated seriously. And this is why we have sophisticated intelligence services and specially trained forces. But terrorism is not an existential threat that justifies making it into our number one national security priority, engaging in a global war in which the entire world, by the way, has to actively participate in order to show that they are with us.

Wrong policies continued under Obama

But here is the thing. The stupidity of that Bush administration policy did not disappear when President Bush left office. What is bizarre and unexplainable is that even though George W. Bush left the stage in January 2009, and no one talked about his War on Terror anymore, the failed Afghanistan project that was an integral part of the initial War on Terror strategy kept going, and going.

Indeed, President Obama declared that the war in Afghanistan was the good war that needed to be fought, as opposed to the bad war in Iraq that was discretionary and ill-advised. And so Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, kept going and going in Afghanistan even though he and his team should have known better. After all they were not bound to justify and continue on a flawed commitment created by the previous administration. And it took Trump, the president elected with the open pledge to end all the stupid wars started and continued by his predecessors, more than two years to finally come to grips with the need to end this madness.

Taking stock

So, here is the balance sheet. It took 18 years to finally recognize a colossal foreign policy mistake. How could America be so wrong for such a long time without any serious debate on this record of failure followed by more failure? How could this happen? I am not entirely sure. Still, as a minimum we need to recognize that there is a nefarious inertia, combined with mental laziness, enveloping the entire upper layer of the analytical and decision-making centers of this nation.

In Afghanistan, America started something big and expensive with all the wrong assumptions regarding the size and scope of the undertaking and a realistic time line to achieve the stated goals. Alright, mistakes are made.

But then, how can we justify that Washington, despite a solid record of failure in Afghanistan, kept going and going, year after year, without anybody in a position of power and responsibility pausing and asking the most elementary question: “Is this really working as intended?”

American policy-makers lost the
ability to reflect

Here is my conclusion. As a nation, notwithstanding hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year on intelligence gathering, scenario planning, and war games, not to mention the largest defense budget in the world, we seem to have lost even a modicum of self-reflection ability.

An outside observer looking into this mess might find this record of systemic failure by the leaders of the most advanced country on Earth, and the attendant epic waste of resources stemming from totally misguided policies, quite funny. But it is in fact tragic. In the end, finally getting out of Afghanistan is a good thing. But I am not sure that America’s leaders learnt any enduring lessons.




Why America is a unique country – Part 1

America is a truly unique country. But not for the most commonly held reasons: “Come to America ,so that you will have a great chance to make money and be rich”. In truth, throughout the world America is viewed (sometimes with envy, sometimes with contempt) mostly as a country of great economic opportunity for those who are willing to push forward with determination, grit, passion and sometimes heartless aggression. America is the Promised Land where making money, advancing one’s social position, and building a better future for oneself is easier than elsewhere.

The other side of the coin is that America is viewed as the country where only money and material achievement are worthwhile goals, pursued singlehandedly by most people, sometimes in a heartless and unscrupulous (and at times even illegal) manner. According to many critics, because of this narrow focus on getting rich, the Americans have created a materialistic and somewhat decadent, soulless society. Some of this, both the positives and negatives, may be true.

But this is not what America, at its core, is about.    

It is all about Freedom

Indeed, both admirers and critics of America get it wrong. They focus on outcomes –material success—and neglect to appreciate and understand what inspires people to engage in activities. In other words, they do not understand the deep drivers leading to prosperity.

The truth is that material success in America is possible because all citizens know that, thanks to the protection of individual rights guaranteed by the US Constitution, they are truly free citizens.

And individual freedom, of course, includes economic freedom, that is freedom to engage in profit-oriented enterprises. When motivated people engage in enterprises without the constant fear of arbitrary obstacles placed on their way by a tyrannical, unaccountable government, economic success, while certainly not guaranteed, is more likely.

So, here is the thing about America. The fundamental idea at the foundation of the United States of America was not and is not “Come here to America to Make Money”. The main idea was and continues to be “Come here to America to be Free”. From this perspective, prosperity (again, possible, aspired to, but not guaranteed) is a welcome outcome of a life in which the individual, being free from state-imposed coercion, has the luxury to focus his/her efforts on the pursuit of his/her passions.

“In America you have a better chance to prosper because you are truly free to pursue your own dreams. You are free because you enjoy the protection of basic Individual Rights provided by the US Constitution. As the US Government protects your Freedoms, in America you do not have to worry about a rapacious, arbitrary government interfering with your affairs, or punitive regulations and taxes that will ultimately suffocate your enterprise”.

Indeed, it was this single fundamental principle –achieving and securing Freedom for all Americans—that inspired the Revolutionary War of 1776 and subsequently the creation of the US political institutions whose primary purpose is the protection of Individual Liberty. After the Constitution of 1787 established the institutions aimed at securing and protecting political and personal Freedoms, millions of Americans, old settlers and new settlers, could peacefully unleash their personal creativity without any fear of interference by the state, confiscatory taxes or other impediments to private sector economic activities so common in Europe at that time.

Freedom to do

So, having secured “Freedom from Tyranny”, the Americans could unleash their collective “Freedom to Do”, freeing up individual creativity, (if it was and is exercised within the boundaries of the Law). And, as we know, creativity often turned into innovation and entrepreneurship. Over time, entrepreneurship and the pursuit of commercially viable innovation made millions of Americans into successful professionals, inventors and business owners. 

In a word, in America, widespread prosperity is the welcome consequence of constitutionally guaranteed Individual Freedoms. Individual Freedom is at the foundation of economic success. America became rich not because becoming rich was the declared goal; but because it upheld and protected the Freedom of its citizens.

The European intellectual roots of the American political culture

How did America come to embrace this unique notion whereby government’s primary purpose is not to get on with public administration and “get things done” but to protect individual liberties? The answer is in the enthusiastic embrace by the intellectual elites in the British Colonies in North America of the ideas elaborated by European political philosophers who belong to the intellectual current known as the “Enlightenment”.

Indeed, the XVIII Century is generally known as the “Age of Light”. Yes, this was the age of the “Enlightenment”. Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, d’Alembert and Diderot are among the mostly French and British thinkers and authors of that prolific era.

The Enlightenment started with a renewed and vigorous focus on science, the rigorous observation of nature, experiments and emphasis on physics, mathematics and geometry. Many educated people, especially in France and Britain, over time developed the firm belief that the Universe surrounding human beings is a beautiful, harmonious whole designed by a Benign Creator, according to clear mathematical principles.

From this perspective, while much about the Universe was still unknown, everything was deemed to be knowable. Provided consistent effort and a keen desire to educate oneself about the proper ways to open the secrets of the natural world, eventually everything would become clear.

This is the meaning of “Enlightenment”, literally a process leading to expanding the light of knowledge. In turn, this approach would bring the light of science-based knowledge into the world –for the benefit of all human beings. Hence the emphasis on engaging in new scientific endeavors, described in many new books aimed at the general public, and education. Most fundamentally, via education, all people, including the common man of modest means, would become enlightened. 

Rational Man

According to most of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, rationality and reason –the essential organizing principles of the physical universe– are also essential human features. If men often behave irrationally, this is due to ignorance, lack of education, or bad teachings that instill superstitions, false ideas, and bigotry.

But for all these ills there was an excellent remedy: proper, science-based education. Education inspired by rigorous science would offer precious, scientific knowledge to all human beings, this way strengthening man’s natural foundations of reasoned thinking, rationality and even handed tolerance vis a vis other humans. 

Relying on these strong philosophical foundations, the European thinkers created new –and truly revolutionary– notions about the proper foundations of a political society, including the concept of the Natural Rights of Man, while elaborating the construct of a new type of rational, organized state populated and governed mostly by reasonable, “enlightened” men. This new political society would be based on voluntary arrangements agreed to by free people –a “Social Contract” — aimed at setting up just and accountable governments.    

Well, needless to say, given the prevailing reality of mostly medieval states ruled by absolute monarchs, there was almost no chance to see any of this come to fruition within Europe.

The American elites embraced the Enlightenment

It was instead in the New World, in the British Colonies of North America, that these truly revolutionary European ideas about science, learning, knowledge, Natural Rights, Individual Freedom and self-Government found a truly dedicated audience. And therefore, a truly fertile ground.

The middle class elites of the New World seemed to be animated by a spontaneous yearning for science and learning. Many early Americans had received just some or little formal education. Still, they were keen students and avid readers of the great works of the European thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Eventually, these self-taught American Colonists came to believe that, once free of the yoke imposed on them by the oppressive and unjust British Monarchy, in this New World they could give life to a new society ruled justly through a well balanced self-government, just as theorized by their favorite Enlightenment philosophers. 

And it worked. These ideas inspired the first clashes with the British authorities and eventually the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the ultimately successful Revolutionary War which led to the end of British rule. With the notable ghastly exception of the long and bloody Civil War –a conflict between the supposedly universal principles of freedom and equality and the horrendous practice of slavery in the South– America seems to present an almost linear picture of the happy evolution of a free society that became prosperous because the citizens could freely engage in productive, money-making enterprises.

A beacon of light across the Atlantic

And this mostly benign picture, of course, inspired millions of unhappy Europeans. While there were many drivers behind the migratory waves of Europeans into America –and the pursuit of better economic opportunity was definitely a major factor–  the notion of leaving behind misery and poverty caused by political oppression, while embracing a New World ruled by benign laws that protect individual freedom, was definitely a powerful magnet which motivated millions to sail from Europe and its rather miserable conditions to America –never to come back.

And there is more. Owing to its geographic position, this New Blessed Land was conveniently separated by a vast Atlantic Ocean from the constant fracas caused by quarrelsome European states.

Indeed, this New Republic was situated in a pristine New World. It had no enemy states at its borders. (Of course, we should not forget how the American settlers over many decades essentially destroyed the Native American Nations that were pushed away by the colonists from the lands they had inhabited for centuries. The “Indians” were eventually confined into small reservations with few if any opportunities).

Which is to say that America became something like a controlled laboratory experiment. It could grow and develop without the constant worries of threats to its national security and the need to go to war to preserve it.

End of Part 1




Why Mass Shootings? Heavy Political Rhetoric, Psychopaths, and too many Weapons

WASHINGTON – The El Paso slaughter stunned America. It is human nature that when something completely out of the ordinary happens –an immense tragedy in this case—everybody wants to know “why”. And this case the simple “why” seems to be that the young man who went to the Walmart to kill as many Hispanics as he could did so because of his White Supremacist convictions. Apparently, he strongly believes that Latinos and Hispanics are alien enemies, and therefore they must be eliminated.

The hate crime narrative

Putting all
this together, this mass murder episode becomes yet another tragic episode of
violence motivated by racist hatred –another hate crime. And who is fueling
racist hatred in America these days? But, of course, as we all know, it is the
President himself, Donald Trump. Therefore, it is all finally clear.

And here is
the media-sponsored “official” narrative
that explains the roots of the tragedy and the event itself. President Trump,
with his abrasive and openly anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric, provided
cover to all those who share his beliefs and are also willing to act to enforce
his vision of a White America finally restored to its appropriate position of
primacy.

Not a good explanation

Of course,
there is a small amount of truth in this “explanation”.
National leaders should never set a bad example by over using inflammatory
language. It is very bad when they publicly and repeatedly disparage ethnic
minorities or any other segment of our society, fingering them as bad,
inferior, criminal or what have you. These messages, coming straight from the
top, are false; and they may give bad ideas to somebody.

Some psychopaths may act

That said, it
takes a psychopath to follow up with a mass shooting of complete strangers
based on the notion that “The President himself
declared that this people are bad news. The clean-up has to start somewhere,
and I may as well do my part”.
If anybody interpreted Trump’s offensive
language against Latinos as a license to get an automatic weapon and start
killing people, it means that they are mentally deranged.

Our national problem

And here is our national conundrum. Sadly, we do have an inflamed political climate –-and no doubt the President has contributed to raising the temperature. But we also have too many non diagnosed psychopaths, or at least mentally disturbed people, many of whom have unhindered access to lethal weapons.

Not to sound too simplistic, here is the thing. When you have extreme ideas that pass for normal political discourse, crazy people who may act on them, and literally millions of legal weapons in circulation, then we cannot be too surprised when one unhinged person does something really horrible. Yes, as the El Paso carnage shows us, just one person armed with a powerful weapon can create an immense human tragedy.

No easy solutions

Fixing all
this will be incredibly complicated. Changing the tone of the national
political debate is difficult enough; but not impossible. Far more complicated
is the effort to identify and place legally binding restrictions on mentally
disturbed people. Finally, limiting access to weapons will be even more
complicated, given the almost religious belief held by millions of Americans in
the absolute right to buy and carry weapons supposedly provided by the Second
Amendment to the US Constitution.

So, here is
the list. Here are the key ingredients for tragedies such as El Paso:  1) crazy ideas that demonize segments of our
society; 2) at least some deranged individuals willing to act to implement them;
3) and plenty of weapons available.

As a society,
we must face the magnitude of the problems confronting us. While it may take a
long time, we must change all this. The penalty for inaction will be more such tragedies. 




US Wants To Negotiate With The Taliban

WASHINGTON – US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford recently made an unexpected visit to Kabul, Afghanistan in order to meet with Government officials.

Negotiations with the Taliban?

What is surprising is that in the course of this visit Secretary Mattis publicly indicated that now more than ever before there seems to be a concrete possibility to engage the Taliban in serious peace negotiations.

Really? This is a good moment? And based on what? Based on the fact that our side is losing, or at the very least manifestly incapable of winning? I assume that Secretary Mattis is aware of the fact that the Afghan government, after years and years of U.S. funded training of its military and police forces, is receiving huge body blows –practically on a daily basis– from a stronger and clearly emboldened Taliban. Surely Mattis can see that the Taliban is now capable of attacking almost anywhere in the country, very often targeting government facilities within highly protected areas in Kabul itself.

In simple language, the Afghan Government is not only manifestly incapable of beating a now stronger Taliban insurgency, it is also suffering a series of humiliating (and demoralizing) setbacks.

Translation: while the fighting continues, and no decisive “battle” has taken place, victory is nowhere in sight for the Afghan Government we have been supporting for over 15 years, while the other side has redoubled its efforts, giving no sign whatsoever that it is losing its motivation to fight –for as long as it takes.

If our goal is the eventual stabilization of the country, any US security expert understands that this is not happening any time soon. Simply by continuing its campaign of almost daily attacks, the Taliban are making it very difficult, if not impossible, for the Afghan Government to stay in control and run a semi-destroyed country that is still in desperate need of basic services, capital investments, jobs and economic development.

Why negotiations when our side is losing? 

And yet, while in Kabul, the most senior US Defense Department official argues that this most perilous predicament is a really good moment to negotiate with the Taliban. This makes no sense, if our objective is victory.

Indeed, if we want to negotiate good terms for our side, then we open a dialogue with the enemy when we are winning, not when we can hardly hold on to our positions, while under a barrage of almost daily brazen attacks.

This being the case, and since what I just articulated is pretty obvious to all, there is only one explanation I can think of for this sudden optimism about negotiations withe the Taliban expressed by Secretary Mattis.

The war is lost

America has finally realized that the war in Afghanistan has been a long, horribly expensive, and ultimately hopeless endeavor. The “Vietnamization strategy” for Afghanistan whereby American forces, while stopping ground combat operations, would still provide critical assistance to the war effort through the training of Afghan forces and by providing significant air support, eventually leading to victory, turned out to be a naive fantasy.

After 17 years it is time to say it: “This is not working”. I repeat: “This is not working”. 

Cut Americas’s losses 

This being the case, once you have digested this simple (if unpleasant) reality, the time comes when you want to get out of a hopeless situation. And therefore you publicly say that this is a good moment “to negotiate”, knowing full well that the other side will interpret this for what it is: a virtual capitulation. Taliban Internal Memo: “The Americans are finally leaving. They admit that they lost the war. We won”.

Good bye 

Well, if you sit in the Afghan Government, you cannot avoid reading the proverbial writing on the wall:

“Dear Afghan friends, what we really mean by saying that this is the right  time for engaging in “peace” negotiations with the Taliban is that soon enough you will be on your own in this fight. We are done here. Belatedly, we decided to cut our losses. Good luck to you, and good-bye”.




Does America Need Nuclear Energy?

WASHINGTON – Can nuclear power come back as a cost-effective modality to generate electricity in America? Some scientists and innovators claim that the sector, challenged by prohibitively high costs of construction and fears of accidents may have a future after all, and it is called Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs. According to them, it would appear that the sweet spot for nuclear will not be in the traditional model of large scale, expensive and difficult to build power plants that will serve millions of customers. The future is in Small Modular Reactors, SMRs that can be built quickly and cheaply.

Small nuclear?

If this were indeed so, if we could indeed quickly build several SMRs at a reasonable cost, this would be a true game changer, for the nuclear power industry, for the future of electrical power generation in the U.S., and more broadly for all efforts aimed at devising a mix of electrical power generation sources that will help us drastically reduce carbon emissions, and therefore finally put a stop to global warming.

On the road to extinction

By most account, here in the U.S.,nuclear power plants are on the road to a silent and unlamented extinction. A combination of fears of accidents, uncertainties about a reliable way to dispose of all the spent fuel and then huge, in fact prohibitive, upfront construction costs for new plants created almost insurmountable policy, political, psychological and financial barriers that work against the very notion that nuclear is a viable, safe, reliable, non carbon solution to our needs for electricity.

As all this was debated here in America several years ago, the Fukushima Daiichi accident of March 11, 2011, in Japan was an additional and huge body blow to the entire nuclear power sector and the companies and policy-makers that support it.

Leaving aside all the technical analyses about the very specific circumstances that caused that major accident in Japan, (a major tsunami that flooded the plant, disabling the pumps), U.S. public opinion, or at least a big chunk of it, became even more convinced that nuclear power generation is inherently dangerous.

There are other options

Therefore, energy experts argued, as we do indeed have choices, let’s discard  nuclear power as a means to generate safe and reliable electricity. The Greens of course advocated renewables. Others focused on the emerging and promising shale gas sector. Indeed, with so much new and cheap natural gas coming on line, America could reliably generate all the affordable electricity it needs, for decades.

And so, as a result of all this skepticism regarding nuclear, while other commercially viable alternatives have been developed, we are witnessing the progressive shrinking of the U.S. nuclear power electricity generation sector. The stark reality is that no new nuclear plants are built, while old plants little by little are phased out and decommissioned.

This is a big deal. Nuclear used to provide about 20% of all electrical power generation in America, a huge percentage of the total and a large overall amount for an advanced industrial power like the U.S. that produces and consumes a great deal of electricity.

Nuclear is dangerous and too expensive 

As indicated above, for some this transformation may not be so bad. Nuclear –they argue– is dangerous, as we do not have an effective way to dispose of all the waste produced by the plants. And then there are possible accidents. May be not of the Fukushima kind. But other possible malfunctions may cause the release of harmful radiations in the atmosphere. The consequences of such events would be dire.

On top of that, the fact that nuclear is now so expensive is an additional reason for deciding to move on to other more promising technologies. If you are Green, you want to focus on solar and wind, technologies that have become much more cost-effective in recent years. If solar has become so cheap, why bother with nuclear? If you are not Green but are simply looking at cost-effective ways to generate electricity, you focus on shale gas, not exactly clean, but far better than coal when it comes to emissions.

Renewables are not enough 

Well, the advocates of SMRs argue against complete reliance on renewables as the silver bullet that will deliver enough safe and sustainable, non carbon based, power. Unless renewables become dramatically more efficient, they argue, you simply cannot install enough renewable energy sources to meet current and future power needs. As things stand today, it is impossible to build enough wind farms and solar plants to power the entire planet. And if we seriously want to progressively “decarbonize” our power generation mix, they tell us, then shale gas will not do it. Yes, it is better than coal, but it is not clean.

In the end, say the SMRs advocates, if we want green solutions, solar and wind, plus hydro power wherever it may be possible to develop it, will simply not be enough. You also need nuclear.

Small Modular Reactors to the rescue 

Here is the strong argument in favor of a new generation of SMRs. If we agree that coal is bad, and natural gas from shale only somewhat less harmful, we simply cannot focus solely on solar and wind as the means to deliver all the power we need.

Unless we assume tremendous technological breakthroughs that will substantially increase the productivity of all existing renewable technologies, while solving at the same time the huge bottle neck of the lack of energy storage systems — a problem that limits the flexibility and therefore the usefulness of solar and wind power generation–  renewables are simply not enough. Without large scale, effective storage solutions, renewables produce electricity; but not 24/7. No sun at night. No power when there is no wind.

And then there is the energy density issue. We simply cannot successfully address our planetary electrical power generation needs by building thousands upon thousands of wind farms, while covering large chunks of the Earth’s surface with solar panels. It is just not practical.

That said, if we want to drastically diminish and eventually phase out our dependence on carbon based electrical power generation, we better come up with something else that can be successfully added to the mix.

Are SMRs commercially viable?

Hence the importance of refocusing on nuclear, albeit a different type of nuclear: small, modular, cheap, and effective. Of course, all this is very interesting. Except for one basic fact. SMRs, although the object of serious studies and research, are not commercially viable at this stage. They are much more than concepts, but they are not part of the choices commercially available today to utilities and consumers. At this stage, SMRs are a hope, not a real alternative.

If this SMRs hope does not soon become reality in terms of companies that can offer safe and reliable SMRs to utilities at a competitive price, we are in a real bind. We can generate all the electricity we need; but we are and we shall be unable to seriously curtail greenhouse gases emissions. And this means that Global Warming will get worse.

This is bad news for Planet Earth.