Michael KreponA Flock of Black Swans Comes Home to Roost

Lyric of the week:

“I was a freedom rider
When we thought the South had won
Virginia in the spring of ’61
I sat down on the Greyhound that was bound for Mississippi
My mother asked me if that ride was worth my life
And when the shots rang out I never heard the sound
But I am still around…” –“Highwomen” by The Highwomen

Verse of the week:

“The storm is not as important as the path it opens.

The mistreatment in one life

never as crucial as the clearing

it makes in your heart.” – Mark Nepo, “Fighting the Instrument”

Black swan events are like top-of-the-Richter-scale earthquakes: we know they happen, but they still come as a severe shock. We take refuge in the rareness of their occurrence. San Francisco was demolished by an earthquake in 1906, but it stands proudly today. As with severe pandemics like the 1918 Spanish flu, massive earthquakes that topple major metropolitan areas appear perhaps once a century. Unlike real-world earthquakes or floods, black swan events have global rather than region-specific consequences.

The United States has now suffered no less than three black swan events in only twenty years. And my beloved country is reeling as a result.

The unipolar moment of the United States didn’t last very long. It was truncated by overreaching and bracketed by black swan events. First came the 9/11 attacks that prompted debilitating wars without victory. The President who launched these wars lost the popular vote but was elected by one member of the Supreme Court. Just nineteen years after the Twin Towers collapsed, a second black swan event jolted the United States, causing more global aftershocks: Donald J. Trump was elevated by the Electoral College into the White House despite garnering nearly three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. A third black swan event, a novel coronavirus, arrived during the fourth year of Trump’s presidency.

The aftershocks of these black swan events have been magnified by social inequality and economic pain. Minority political rule is protected by the power of the purse by letting money talk in the name of free speech and by means of vote suppression. Selfishness among the uber-rich is now socially acceptable, except for the notable few. Trump and Rush Limbaugh tell us that it’s perfectly OK not to be thy brother’s (or sister’s) keeper. Their libertarianism means never having to say they’re sorry.

Add to this a layer of endemic racism on public display in far too many metropolitan police departments, and we have the sad spectacles provided by cell phones and body cams, followed by angry people in the streets, setting fire to other peoples’ livelihoods. I understand why this is happening, and that most are engaged in peaceful protest, but looting can extend minority political rule. And what mindless thought process results in channeling anger against CNN’s world headquarters in Atlanta? Protesters work for large causes; the self-absorbed preen before the camera.

We are, my fellow Americans, in a very deep hole, and Donald Trump is handing out shovels.

The three black swan events have taken a severe toll on arms control. The demise of four decades of accomplishment began with the pairing of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, who chafed at the constraints posed by treaties and eagerly shed these relics of the Cold War. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, even though everything that has subsequently been deployed on the ballistic missile defense front could have been blessed with a few tweaks to treaty provisions.

Putin then ditched the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in order to deploy new land-based missiles carrying multiple warheads – liquid-fueled, no less – in silos to penetrate dysfunctional U.S. missile defenses. This great leap backward has taken us away from a treaty blessed by George H.W. Bush and Dick Cheney that would have resulted in strategic stability. We’re now doubling down on prompt hard-target kill capabilities. Putin also trashed the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty because it limited his freedom of maneuver and reflected a hated post-Cold War imbalance of power.

The pairing of Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev gave is a brief respite from this downhill slide, with both agreeing to mend and extend the process of verifiable strategic arms control. But Putin reclaimed the Russian presidency in 2012, and he subsequently made sure that Ukraine wasn’t going to join NATO, while gutting the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The pairing of Putin and Trump, whom Putin campaigned for via surreptitious means, has been absolutely toxic to arms control. Trump has now exited from four arms control agreements. (Can you name the fourth?) His latest withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty was an outright gift to Putin. Trump has said that he now has added leverage during the six-month withdrawal period for Russia to fix its negligible noncompliance. Who in the world gave him that idea? The Kremlin welcomes the continued U.S. retreat from friends and allies in Europe.

Trump has one more treaty to go before wiping the slate clean of four decades of hard diplomatic achievement. More on this next week.


  1. nicholas biniairis (History)

    Before Trump made his appearance there was another black swan the bank debacle of 2007 It is this economic failure that is threatening our ability to recover from the economic consequences of corona-virus. It is also the cause behind the inequality and deep social divisions which come to roost now as racial protests and destruction. With the scraping of the Treaties we are already in a Hybrid WWIII.

  2. John Hallam (History)

    As a western australian I always knew that all swans were black. Even now I much prefer the more slender and graceful, and much less grumpy black swans of my home town, Perth, to the bigger, clumsier, and bad – tempered while swans.

    How about callin improbable events ‘white-swan events instead?

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Black or white, the swan events appear improbable. How about these for “white swan” events: NPT negotiated and ratified during Cold War; soon after Cold War ended, nearly all nations had signed it. Near the end of Cold War, Reagan and Gorbachev nearly agreed to dismantle all nuclear weapons, but settled to rid Europe of intermediate nuclear missiles. Also, the Cold War ended, reducing considerably the odds of a planet ending nuclear war.

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