David Samuels Interviews Edward Luttwak

and what an excellent, enjoyable read this was!

I hadn’t read anything by David Samuels before, and my reading list is now considerably expanded. The reason I bring this up is because this is one of those rare interviews where you find yourself wanting to learn at least as much about the interviewer as you do about the interviewee!

But speaking of the interviewee, this is where you can learn more about Edward Luttwak. Here is an old article written by him that I am currently struggling with (and I mean that as a compliment). And here is a longish profile of Luttwak in The Guardian.

The interview was wide-ranging, detailed and I’m not sure I got all the references and implications (and don’t get me wrong, that is a wonderful thing). My notes follow.

  1. As with Mark Mobius yesterday, so with Edward Luttwak today. Travel, especially at a young age, really matters.
  2. The sociology of playing with the children of the Mafia bosses was fascinating
  3. The anticipated rolling over of the Ukrainian forces, why it didn’t happen, and the parallels with the fighting in the first world war reminded me of parts of Adam Tooze’s very long essay about the D-Day landings.
  4. Warfare 4.0 reminds me very strongly of Industry 4.0, because I understand neither of them.
  5. The art of acquiring information by looking, thinking and inferring is a valuable one in other fields too. Savor the bit about figuring out how to kill a general.
  6. “One book I’ve never written, is “The Impact of the Arrival of Nicotine and the Scientific Revolution.” A big jump in intellectual achievement that took place among Europeans, all of whom smoked. The social history of nicotine begins with the sharpening of the brain. I stopped smoking long ago but still I miss it.”
    I don’t smoke, but this reminded me of the story about mandated caffeine breaks.
  7. If you read enough Frederick Forsyth novels, you will eventually come to be familiar with two words: elint and humint. Electronic intelligence and human intelligence. Luttwak is, to put it mildly, disparaging towards elint, and it is interesting to draw parallels between this and Mark Mobius’ insistence that nothing beats traveling and seeing things for yourself.
  8. “Well, how I would like it [The Ukrainian war] to end is with a weak and contemptible compromise. I would like it to end with the Russians being offered the opportunity to have a properly supervised plebiscite in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, and may the best man win. Putin can turn around and tell the Russian people he won a great victory, the right of plebiscites for the poor Russians. If he loses the plebiscites, so be it. To have a plebiscite you have to have first a negotiation, which requires an armistice. To have an armistice you have to have a cease-fire. The moment there is a cease-fire, you lift all the sanctions, so that the Russians have a reason to respect the cease-fire. Lift them all at once. And that’s how we get out.”
  9. “In Vladivostok, there is a wonderful female scholar at the Navy University, this is the university run by the Russian Navy. She wrote an article about Chinese border policy and about active claims and dormant claims. In that article, she says that the Chinese are advancing many territorial claims against the Japanese, for the Senkakus, against the Philippines, against the Indonesians for the Natuna offshore, and for almost the whole of Arunachal state in India and part of Ladakh. Then she said, “And then there are the dormant claims that will be activated when the Chinese feel strong enough to do so.” Two of them, the most important, are the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 and the Beijing Convention of 1860, involving the transfer of the maritime provinces to Russia.”
  10. “Now, the official translation of Vladivostok into Chinese is a straight transliteration, Fúlādíwòsītuōkè, that is Vladivostok in Chinese characters. But unofficially, they use Haishenwai, which is not of course Chinese, it’s Manchurian, because the whole Chinese claim to Manchuria, Tibet, and Xinjiang is bogus because they were all under Manchu rule when the Chinese themselves were under the rule of the Manchu. It’s like Sri Lanka claiming to rule India because both were ruled by the British, and this false claim is the basis of everything there.”
    Also huh.
  11. His reasoning for why “Taiwan is off the table” is fascinating, precisely because the previous answer emphasizes Xi’s ego. Does economics trump (pun not intended) ego? Or is it the other way around?
  12. David Saul’s very long question about America is a great read, never mind the answer. And the Biden-Obama equation was an eye-opener for me.