What is ISIS?

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has emerged as the most terrifying and brutal of extreme jihadist groups (and that is against tough competition, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia).

Why have such extreme Islamist groups emerged in so many places in recent years?

Odd as this may sound, it is not because of the appeal of extreme Islam itself.  A study of fighters in Syria by Mironova, Mrie, and Whitt found that most fighters join ISIS and similar groups because (1) they want vengeance against the Assad regime and (2) they found from experience that the Islamist groups take the best care of their fighters — caring for the wounded, supporting them in battle.   In situations of social breakdown — which are generally NOT caused by the Islamist groups themselves, but by problems of finances, elite divisions, and popular unrest due to oppressive or arbitrary actions by the state – extremists tend to have major advantages.

This has always been the case throughout the history of revolutions: moderates are usually outflanked and outmaneuvered and out-recruited by radicals; so much so that the triumph of radicals over moderates is a staple of academic work on the trajectory of revolutions, from Crane Brinton to my own.

Why does this occur?  In situations of major social breakdown, involving violence, disorder, and the collapse of established institutions, moderates — whose main qualification was usually experience in, and command of, those now-collapsed institutions — simply do not have the resources to establish order, nor do they have the drive and discipline to start from scratch.  Instead, they often are equally concerned about how to protect what remains of their position and wealth, and are distrustful of others competing for power.

Radicals, by contrast, start fresh.  They draw on the inspiration of their ideological cause, but that is not what matters to others.  What matters is that radicals are usually willing to make sacrifices, to embrace all supporters, and to build a new community to pursue their goals.  They are the most zealous in pursuit of what people want and need in times of collapse:  local order, discipline, a supportive community, and success in attacking perceived enemies.

Radicals thus add organizational power and discipline to their ideological message.  It is the former, not the latter, that draws in followers.  Yet the ideological message cannot be neglected; as I argued in my work on revolutions, once radicals are in power, that message shapes their post-revolutionary policies.  Extremists in seeking power are often extremists in power, which makes them so dangerous.  Moreover, those who initially join radical movements for discipline and community support are often indoctrinated and become convinced supporters of the radical cause.

ISIS is not just a terrorist or jihadist group; it is a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow governments to create a new regime that it views as more socially just (the Islamic caliphate) than the secular dictators it is fighting.  It is interwoven with several other conflicts that it did not produce but that have given it the opportunity to thrive: that between Sunnis and others Iraqis for control of Iraq, a conflict that goes back to Saddam Hussein and was heightened by the US invasion and the civil war it unleashed; that between Sunnis and other Syrians for control of Syria, a conflict that goes back to the founding of the Assad dynasty and beyond; and that between Sunnis and Shias for control of the Middle East, a struggle that goes back over one thousand years but has recently been inflamed by struggles among Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Emirates for domination in the region.  ISIS feeds off of all of these conflicts, and offers its followers a way to be powerful and secure amidst chaos.

This analysis indicates a three-fold approach to dealing with ISIS.  First, military reprisals to blunt its success and undermine the feeling of invincibility it has given to its converts.  These can only come from forces at least as well-organized and disciplined.  However, at present the only such force in the region is the Kurdish peshmerga; but this is a militia without heavy arms or air power and which has no ability to project power beyond the borders of its own enclave in northern Iraq.  Thus external forces — the U.S., or NATO — must play a major role.

Second, the civil institutions that provide a power-base for moderate political organizations and their leaders must be rebuilt and given credibility.  In Syria, this cannot happen until the Assad regime falls; in Iraq this cannot happen until a post-Maliki government establishes its credibility and effectiveness.  And as long as the main support of the Iraqi government is Iran, with its policy of seeking a strongly Shia dominated and anti-Sunni regime in Iraq, no Iraqi government will gain credibility with the Sunnis of Iraq who support ISIS.  Given that the Assad regime looks unlikely to topple given its support by Russia and Iran, and that Iran is unlikely to give up its goals to shape a friendly regime next door in Iraq, the prospects for the second step remain poor. This raises a huge strategic question for the U.S. — even if military intervention stops ISIS for now, how can the second phase of putting effective moderate regimes in power that will win supporters away from ISIS be accomplished?

Third, the ongoing Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East is fueling every sort of violent group:  Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS, and others.  At some point, the global community will have to lean on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to cease their proxy wars and come to an agreement similar to that of 1648 in Europe, which ended the Thirty Years War that capped over a century of religious conflicts: every country can control its religious policy within its own borders, but agrees to stop meddling in religious conflicts in other countries and to respect other countries’ full sovereignty.  This may be a distant goal (it took nearly a century in Europe) but is vital if the region is ever to know stable peace.

In sum, America’s hasty retreat from Iraq left much unfinished business, which has now arisen in the form of the radical ISIS threat.  To contain that threat will require both a coordinated military response, and the sustained effort to create credible and legitimate government institutions that the U.S. abandoned too soon.  It may also require stronger efforts (air strikes similar to those aimed at ISIS) to undermine the Assad regime; as long as Assad remains in power radical jihadis will continue to seek vengeance for the acts he has already committed.  Once the radical threat has been defeated, then efforts can advance on moderating broader Sunni-Shia conflicts in the region and developing a general framework for peace (which would include Israel and Palestine).

This sounds costly and time-consuming.  It is; much as it took an international coalition to bring Napoleon to his Waterloo it will take an international coalition and sustained effort to bring down radical Islamist movements in the Middle East.  Yet the lesson of history is that without this effort, we will see the rise of an increasingly powerful radical jihadist revolutionary state spreading across the entire Middle East.  That is the present choice that our past choices have left us.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

To get away from the depressing news of the day, from Ukraine to Gaza, I went to see a fantasy movie with my family:  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Except it did not turn out to be a fantasy.  Rather, it was a remarkably accurate parable on the causes of current global conflicts!

In the movie, a synthetic virus escapes its test lab (a standard science-fiction premise), killing most humans but endowing apes with human-level intelligence.  The apes — many of whom escaped from labs where they had been subjects of animal testing — move to the forests of northern California, while a few hundred surviving humans nestle in San Francisco.

At first, both groups simply want to live in peace in their separate areas.  But then the humans need to enter the ape domain to restart an abandoned hydro-electric dam.  They bring guns and in a moment of misunderstanding and fear one ape is shot and wounded.  This threatens to escalate; the apes make a show of force to the humans and urge them to stay out of ape territory.   However, a courageous individual human persuades the ape leader to grant a few humans a couple of days at the dam to start work.  The small group of humans is good-hearted; they want no trouble and even help provide antibiotics to the ape leader’s mate.

Yet the humans back in SF are fearful and so start arming themselves in case the lead party in not successful and the apes return.  A scouting party of apes sees them accumulating weapons, and judges the humans to be too dangerous to be left alone.  One of the scouts — an ape who had been tortured as a lab test animal and nurses a bitter mistrust and hatred of humans — wants a war to deal with the human threat once and for all.  His desire for war is so strong that he steals a gun and uses it to shoot the ape leader from a hidden position; he then pretends to “find” the gun, claims that humans shot their leader, and rouses the apes to war.

I won’t give away what happens next.  Suffice to say that we find out that there are good-hearted humans, good-hearted apes, and spiteful humans blinded by fear and rage, and spiteful apes blinded by fear and rage.  Sadly, the forces of fear and rage carry the day.

No doubt the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Ukrainians, would like to just live in peace.   Yet on each side, there are leaders who nurse old grievances and seek to mobilize supporters by fanning their fears — Israelis are occupiers, Palestinians are terrorists, Ukrainians are fascists, Russians are imperial tyrants.   As one of the apes sums up their situation: those willing to stand up for peace are few and shunted aside, the rest follow the leader to war out of fear.

Fear and anger then fuel real acts of war: Palestinians shoot rockets at Israeli civilians,  Israel attacks Palestinian rocket launchers to halt the attacks.  But the rocket launchers have been placed near civilian homes and schools, so civilians die by the thousands, fueling hatred and support for more war (like the ape who shoots his own leader with a human weapon to create a pretext to war, Hamas invites casualties on its own civilians to win world sympathy for its cause).

The movie certainly has this right — it is impossible for a small number of well-meaning and peace-seeking individuals, even in positions of leadership, to create peace when others are working even harder to foment hatreds, create pretexts and causes for conflicts, and want to have a war because they believe they can conquer their enemies or use violence to advance their own security.

Is there any way out in the real world?  Academic research on wars suggest there are only two paths to lasting peace: a clear victory by one side, or a “hurting stalemate” in which both sides suffer so much from ongoing conflict that they consent to international mediation.

Israel/Palestine is not in either situation.  Israel cannot gain a clear victory over Hamas as long as its leaders have safe refuge in other countries, and the international community supports Palestinians’ claims.  But neither can the Palestinians hope to win against Israel.  As to a “hurting stalemate” in which both sides suffer severely, that is not happening either; Israel is fairly secure behind its walls, its occupation of Palestine, and its “Iron Dome” missile shield.   However anxious and insecure Israel may be (and legitimately so, with millions of Arabs and several states openly committed to its destruction and having experienced decades of repeated terrorist attacks), most of the suffering is on the Palestinian side.

So the current situation endures:  Israel seeks to control Palestine out of fears of attacks, while Palestine periodically attacks hoping to win sympathy from the world and pressure for Israel to loosen its grip.   Neither side, at present, has any real incentive to change course, nor any practical alternative.  So the current situation of indefinite anxiety and insecurity punctuated by periodic short and destructive open conflicts goes on, as it has gone on for many decades.

The only way to change this situation would be for outside powers to purge Palestine of terrorists and ensure Israel’s security in return for guarantees that Israel reduce its military occupation of Palestine.  This would be somewhat like the agreement that ended World War II in the Pacific, with America promising to underwrite Japan’s security in return for Japan adopting a pacifist constitution.  Given, however, that Islamic jihadists are on the march in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, and northwest and northeast Africa, with the world being unable to stop them, the chances for external dismantling of Palestinian terrorist leadership and security provision for the region are nil; that leaves Israel no choice but to manage its own security and for the current tragedy to continue.

In Ukraine, Russia would like to see a “hurting stalemate.”  Russia has shown it is willing — in its fortitude regarding sanctions — to endure pain in return for trying to cause sufficient pain in Ukraine for the regime in Kiev to have to accept a deal that would entrench Russian influence and relative autonomy in eastern Ukraine.    Ukraine, however, is pressing for victory, encircling separatist forces in Donetsk and shelling their positions.   What we do not know is how far Ukraine is willing to go to pursue a complete victory, nor how far Russia is willing to go to prevent that.

One hopes that international mediators can persuade both Ukrainian and Russian leaders that the costs of an open conflict would be so high that a face-saving settlement is preferable to the risks of continuing the military pursuit of their goals.  I fear, however, that we will see further rounds of escalation of both economic sanctions and military actions before a settlement is reached.

Go see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  It may not provide an escape from the real world — but it makes it very plain why war is such a recurrent situation, and so difficult to escape, for all humans.

 

 

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Israel and Palestine–Locked in Tragedy

It is impossible to truly say when the latest round of violence between Israel and Palestine began.  Was it when Mahmoud Abbas engineered a joint agreement with Hamas to create a unified Palestinian government, and Israel refused to deal with it, saying any government with Hamas was a terrorist organization, thus leaving no way to negotiate a peaceful settlement of Israel’s blockade?   According to the NY Times,  the new government “offered Hamas’s political adversaries a foothold in Gaza; it was formed without a single Hamas member; it retained the same Ramallah-based prime minister, deputy prime ministers, finance minister and foreign minister; and, most important, it pledged to comply with the three conditions for Western aid long demanded by America and its European allies: nonviolence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel.”  Yet Israel responded by refusing to recognize the new government and announcing 3,300 new settlements in the West Bank.  Was it when Hamas decided to continue taking in shipments of rockets from Iran and to extend its network of tunnels deep into Israeli territory?  Was it when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by rogue Hamas members in defiance of Hamas’ leaders?  Or when Israel retaliated by arresting 500 members of Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank?

However we got here, rockets are now flying from Gaza, and Hamas has refused to accept a ceasefire unless their demands are met.  Meanwhile, with unprecedented internal solidarity, Israelis are demanding actions to finally end Hamas’ ability to wreak terror in Israeli territory, whether by rockets or by tunnel-based raids.

Can Israel in fact end Hamas’ ability to harm Israelis?  That is doubtful, or will at least take longer than expected; one Israeli intelligence officer suggested it could take years of occupation of a border strip between Gaza and Israel to ensure the tunnels are destroyed and not rebuilt, and a far more intrusive blockade to ensure that no rockets or explosive materials reach Gaza (although even pipes and fertilizer can make home-made rockets capable of reaching southern Israeli towns).

At this point, Israel is brushing off claims of genocide and mass murder.  The tunnels represent a new level of offense and an existential threat to Israeli peace and security; the Israeli public and government is right in insisting they be destroyed.

There is no genocide here — Hitler rounded up Jews all across Europe on no other grounds than that they were Jews, and despite they never having threatened or  lifted a finger against Germany he ordered them to be enslaved and executed. That was genocide.  The Israelis are not rounding up Palestinians and sending them to camps for work or execution; the Israelis are not attacking people who wish them no harm.  Israel is responding to a regime that has not only called openly for the destruction of their state and the deportation of their population, they are responding to direct attacks on their people by rockets and to infiltration of their territory by tunnels for the sole purpose of making terror attacks.

When Osama bin-Laden planned an attack that killed over 3,000 Americans (the equivalent of killing 80 Israelis, in proportion to population), America responded by invading Afghanistan and pursuing a war that left tens of thousands dead and created over two million refugees.  It may have been a misguided and ultimately ineffective response, but no one claimed it was not a military response to a military threat.

Israel is killing civilians because you cannot pursue a war against an enemy that wants to destroy your state, and which is fighting an asymmetric war and basing itself in an area crowded with civilians, without civilians being killed.  That is as much a direct result of Hamas’ war-fighting strategy as it is of Israel’s response.  If Hamas had an air force and tank force capable of meeting Israel’s army in open battle then probably fewer Palestinian civilians would be killed.  But then many more Israeli civilians and soldiers would be killed, and that would be exactly what Hamas wants.

Civilian deaths and refugees are a tragedy but inescapable fact of modern warfare.  Until Hamas gives up its attacks and weapons used against Israel, (both rockets and tunnels), then both Hamas and the population that supports it and in which it shelters its activities will suffer.   The German population suffered massive bombings until Hitler was defeated and Germany surrendered; the Japanese suffered even worse bombings (both conventional fire-bombings and two nuclear blasts) until they surrendered.  Hamas will be able to stop the damage to the civilian population of Gaza any time that they surrender.  Until then, they will pay the price for having accumulated an arsenal of rockets and building a network of infiltration tunnels and choosing to use them to attack Israel, whatever their original motivation or cause.

Do the Palestinians have valid grievances against Israel and its occupation?  Of course they do — the Israeli settlements that invade their lands, and the treatment of their civilians by the settlers and the military that defends them, is wretched to the point of being intolerable.   Gaza had some support for access to food, medicines, and construction materials from Egypt before the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime; but the new Egyptian military government has tightened the blockade and wanted to undermine Hamas as well, leaving Hamas desperate to do anything to change the current situation.

However, none of that justifies rocket or terror attacks on Israel; none of that justifies spending scare resources and construction materials on building infiltration tunnels many kilometers into Israel.  West Bank Palestinians were building a case for membership in the UN, and mounting non-violent public protests against their treatment by Israel.  Those were viable strategies, although slow-moving and requiring patience.  The Hamas approach of staging terror attacks, seeking to provoke Israeli violence in order to win sympathy for the deaths of Palestinian civilians and children is a callous, cruel strategy, one that neither Israel nor the world should reward.

The unfortunate problem now is that however the current military campaign ends, Israel and Palestine are locked in an endless embrace.   The more damage that Israel does to Gaza’s infrastructure and leadership, the more likely Israel is to inherit responsibility for the population left behind.  “You break it, you own it,” warned Colin Powell regarding America’s invasion of Iraq.  That invasion was also a great initial success, with overwhelming force destroying Iraq’s ability to resist.  Yet in the longer run, America’s inability to create a stable, self-governing state from the ruins of its invasion created the even bigger problem of the Islamic Caliphate taking over eastern Syrian and Western Iraq today.   If Israel destroys Hamas by force, will the result be a Gaza warmly receptive to the West Bank leadership of Mahmoud Abbas?  Or will the result be a broken, chaotic territory providing fertile ground for ISIS or other extreme groups to mount even more desperate suicide attacks against Israel in the future?

Israel can only extricate itself from this mess by getting an international authority to take responsibility for the Israel/Gaza border and play a more active role in the administration of Gaza.  Whether that is a UN force, or a joint Turkish/Egyptian/American force, or a NATO force is less important than creating some buffer between Israel and Palestinians that will provide the former with security and the latter with peace.

Clearly, the leadership of Hamas has not been able to promote peace, or even to abide by the terms of brief cease-fires.  Replacing Hamas may be necessary to move forward; but replacing Hamas’ authority by that of Israel, or of West Bank leaders who have had no traction in Gaza, will likely only move the situation toward greater violence in the future.

Part of the Palestinians’ turn to violence has been because they believe no one in the West has been sufficiently active in supporting their cause.  Perhaps once Hamas has been disarmed or destroyed, the time will come for the West to take a more active role; not to support the Palestinians against Israel, but to enforce security for all sides.

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New World Disorder — How we Got Here

The world is in extraordinary turmoil — a violent Islamic Caliphate overturning the borders of Syria and Iraq; a war in Europe pitting Russia and pro-Russian rebels against the new regime in Ukraine; Israel invading Gaza and trading rocket exchanges with Hamas; Egypt, Libya and Yemen disrupted by the Arab uprisings; confrontations among Japan, China, Vietnam and the Philippines in the South and East China Seas; and gang wars in Central America driving thousands of young families and children across borders. Worse yet, Europe is caught up in its own internal squabbles, leaving the U.S. without the full support of its most powerful and reliable allies in dealing with these crises.

This is not what was expected when the collapse of communism ushered in a “new world order” based on universal support for liberal democracies! How did we stray so far from expectations? The answer is really quite simple. America ignored the twin lessons of World War I and II, and the more recent experiences in the Balkans, and forgot the vital importance of nationalism, the “dark side” of democracy.

The lessons of World War I and II are that ending a war and creating a durable peace are two wholly different things. At the end of World War I, the victorious allies thought that their victory had earned them the right to dictate the shape of the world to come. Imposing harsh reparations and penalties on Germany, and carving up the Ottoman Empire into French and British protectorates, the allies ignored the nationalist aspirations of Germany and various Arab and Kurdish peoples.   Yet those nationalist aspirations could not be wished away or suppressed. The result was a boomerang of German nationalism that triggered World War II, and an eruption of Arab Nationalism under Nasser and other Arab leaders in the 1950s and 1960s that kept the Middle East in turmoil for decades.

By contrast, at the end of World War II, the allies set out to craft a durable peace that would respect the aspirations of various nations. Although Germany was kept divided, West Germany was welcomed into NATO and became, along with its former enemies Britain and France, a key part of the European Union. Japan was pacified and disarmed but became part of a strong security pact with the United States. More importantly, multi-lateral institutions were established — the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, and world trade agreements – to safeguard international trade, enforce global peace and human rights agreements, and aid the development of the emerging nations. In short, enormous efforts were made to create a durable peace that constructively engaged both friends and former foes.

At the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, American faced another moment like that at the end of World War I and II. What should have happened was for America to lead an effort to create new multi-lateral institutions to ensure a post-Cold War peace.   This would have included a stronger EU leadership that was capable of giving Europe an effective foreign policy and a unified banking and currency system; an expansion of NATO to end the focus on anti-Soviet operations and instead embrace a global role promoting democracy and human rights, with NATO partners such as Japan, Australia, and New Zealand fully integrated into a new global security alliance; and rules to add membership and voting rights for newly emerging nations as they inevitably gained economic and demographic weight in a post-superpower world.

Instead, the US acted much like the victors in WWI. Under neo-conservative leaders, America assumed its victory in the Cold War gave it the right to shape the world’s future. Seeing ourselves as the “sole superpower,” we unilaterally expanded NATO up to Russia’s front porch, and believed we could reshape Afghanistan and Iraq simply by taking out their dictators and calling for democracy.

Yet in doing so, America wholly forgot the recent lesson of the Balkans: democracy has a dark side, namely nationalism, that can promote turmoil and bloodshed. When the Yugoslav dictator Josef Tito died, nationalist politicians began competing for power. After turmoil in the 1980s, the various nationalities that composed Yugoslavia began to break apart into ethno-nationalist states. However, the struggle for people and territory among those states led to war, ethnic cleansing, and revolutions. It took several years, a NATO bombing campaign, supervised negotiations, and two revolutions (in Kosovo and Serbia) to resolve the various crises in the region. Thus the lesson: overturning dictators in pursuit of democracy unleashes nationalist passions; it does not necessarily resolve them.

At the dawn of this century, the promises of Arab nationalism remained unfulfilled, and have transformed into Shia and Sunni nationalisms that are fueling current conflicts. The EU, having assumed nationalism would fade, is instead facing resurgent right-wing nationalist and anti-EU parties. In Russia and Ukraine, nationalist aspirations to overcome the humiliations of the Cold War and Russian domination, respectively, are playing out in deadly conflict. And in East Asia, the nationalisms of a booming China, declining Japan, and aspiring Vietnam and Philippines are set for further collisions.

Nationalism is a force that cannot be ignored. It can be tamed by a framework of international agreements that accord dignity and respect to the interests of diverse nations. But to ignore the power of nationalism and treat other nations with disdain is to repeat the errors of World War I.   One must hope that it is not too late for Europe, America, Japan, Australia, and other countries (Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey?) to work together to restructure and strengthen existing multi-lateral institutions to reflect current global realities. Failure to do so will leave us facing the real risk of a World War III – not the nuclear superpower war that some had feared, but a bonfire of extremist nationalism among developing nations that has already begun to sweep many parts of the globe.

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Borders and Bodies

The world has recently seen what seems like a sudden eruption of violence and disorder, from civil war in Ukraine and Iraq and Syria to Israel’s invasion of Gaza.  There is also Boko Haram attacking young men and women in Nigeria, violent militias doing as they please in Libya, renewed Taliban assaults on Kabul and in Pakistan, and attacks on the Rohinga Muslims of Burma.  Disorder and deaths continue in Mali and the Central African Republic,  overshadowed by the violence closer to Europe and in the Middle East.

What has happened?  Sadly, all of this violence was contained in embryo in the political settlements of the early and mid-20th century.

The 19th century revealed the power of aspirations for nationalism.  People everywhere began to fight back against supra-national empires.  By the mid-20th century, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the British and Dutch imperial empires were gone, replaced by dozens of newly independent states, from India, Pakistan, and Indonesia to Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.   Israel and Egypt, Algeria and Libya, Afghanistan and Burma all emerged from the shell of past imperial territories.

Yet in many, many places, the break-up of empires did not lead to the emergence of true national states, with a dominant ethno-national identity.  Instead, the great powers who dominated at the end of WWI and WWII drew up borders to suit themselves: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine were thus not national states, but multi-national entities that combined different and often antagonistic groups.   The same was true of Yugoslavia, which broke up violently into true national states in the 1990s (excepting Bosnia which still remains an unstable multi-national entity).  Today, the Russian Federation still aims to hold on to diverse national minority groups in the Caucasus (leading to the Chechnyan wars) and wishes to continue as the dominant influence in Ukraine, central Asia, and other parts of the former USSR.  Similarly China continues to incorporate Tibet and Xinjiang, where nationalist aspirations remain strong.

The inevitable result of suppressing or denying nationalist aspirations in a world based on the legitimacy of nationalism is going to be outbreaks of violence.  Whether expressed through religious extremism (as in much of the Middle East and increasingly in south Asia), tribal hatreds (as in Libya, Somalia, Sinai and Yemen), or ethno-linguistic clashes (as in Ukraine, former Yugoslavia, and much of Africa), groups who feel their identity and culture are being threatened are fighting to control their own future.

For many years, nationalist aspirations in the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia were suppressed by authoritarian regimes, backed by foreign powers (or by the superpowers themselves).  The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered a series of declines in the power and reach of authoritarian regimes; this has set off a free-for-all of both moderate and extremist nationalist and ethno-religious movements struggling to create new states.

In Syria and Iraq, it seems almost inevitable that Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds will no longer tolerate being forced to share the procrustean bed of a single state. Nor does there seem to be any future in the world’s powers trying to preserve such states.

We may be moving toward the “Kosovo” model, where even tiny communities, if they share a sense of national identity and feel oppressed by being part of a larger entity, will demand and fight for their own state, and seek international support in doing so.  Under such conditions, we can expect identity groups everywhere — from Kurds to Palestinians to Tamils and Pashtuns and Baluchis and many others to periodically take up arms and ask foreign powers to support their cause.

What is the way out of this explosion of violence?  In some cases, the answer may lie in referenda and secession.  In  other cases, autonomy or federalism may suffice.  Europe has its own experience in Northern Ireland and the Basque region of Spain where ethnic and/or religious separate movements adopted violence and terror tactics.  The lessons of these conflicts were that finding solutions takes time, and takes a two-pronged approach: fight against violence and terror with precise, proportionate force, and negotiate with political representatives to find acceptable levels of autonomy or federalism or representation.  Protection of minority rights and cultural expression is essential; all that can be negotiated is whether such protection and expression can take place within the boundaries of a larger state, or only through separation from that state.

So the violence we are seeing today should be no mystery.  Whether it is Israelis suppressing the aspirations of Palestinians (which can never be met as long as they include seeking the end of Israel), or Russia seeking to influence events in Ukraine, or Iraq’s Shia government aiming to exclude and suppress Iraq’s Sunnis, the clash between nationalist aspirations and governments seeking to overcome them has been written into the fabric of the last two centuries.  We will likely see much more conflict until national borders that accord with nationalist aims are established and respected.  Until that day, which still seems distant, the bodies will continue to pile up.

 

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One and a-half cheers for jobs

It’s always nice to get good news, and the Labor Department telling us that the U.S. economy added 288,000 jobs in June was definitely good news.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough.  It would be great if most of those additional jobs were full-time jobs at good pay. They weren’t.  Fully 275,000 new jobs in June were part-time.

Overall, we are still in VERY slow recovery mode in the US job market.  In Dec. 2007, just before the recession began, 16.9% of the employed workers were working part-time jobs(defined as under 35 hours per week).  In the pit of the recession in in February 2010, that rose to 20.1%, or almost one-fourth higher.  Today, after four  years of recovery, the fraction of employed workers working less than full-time is  (ta dah!) 19.2 %.

So we have hardly at all recovered the balance of full-time vs. part-time work that prevailed before the recession.

The same is true with regard to work-force participation.  The totals look pretty stuck: In December 2007, the percentage of working-age Americans in the labor force was 66%, which is pretty much what it had been for the preceding five years.  Since  then, labor-force participation has steadily fallen, without any sign of recovery — to 65% in 2010, 64% in 2012, and 63% in 2015.   The latest figure: 62.8% in June 2014, matches the lowest level since 2004.

Hours worked and real median wages tell a similar story of stagnation — there just doesn’t seem to be much demand for labor that would drive wages higher.

So yes, businesses hired workers — but mainly lots of part-time workers, and bosses were not working existing workers harder or increasing their wages.

We thus have to wait and see:  was this surge in hiring an effort by business and construction to make up for the production lost during the terrible, weather-dampened first quarter, when GDP fell by almost 3% at an annual rate?  If so, then hiring part-timers to push up production for a few months in order to make up lost ground in the first quarter is just going to be temporary, and we will see new hiring decline back to lower levels later in the year.  Or was this surge an indication of the much sought-for “take off velocity” in which the economy starts generating more jobs, which generates more demand, which generates more hiring, in a virtuous circle to kick up growth?

Given the lack of increase in hours and wages, and the ever lower level of labor force participation, it is hard to believe that the June surge alone is going to start that virtuous cycle of higher demand.  It will take a few more months of strong jobs data before we can be confident we are getting there.

Meanwhile, we have to wait–but let’s give one-and-a-half cheers for a job number near 300,000 per month.  If we see more like that in the months to come, I may start to abandon my pessimistic outlook and start to see true recovery.

 

 

 

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Why Winners Go Down: Economies, Firms, or States

I have spent much of my career wondering why winners go down.  Revolutions, of course, my main specialty, are the most spectacular case of winners going down.  The former rulers and dominant classes are overthrown and cast aside, much of what they had built up over decades or centuries being lost.

But there are analogous cases in other fields.  In global economics, leading economies fade and are overtaken by others.  Spain, with its glorious global empire in the 1500s, was overtaken first by the Dutch, then the British, then the Americans, over the next four centuries.  In the process, first Spain, then Holland, then Britain, went from being the richest and most powerful country in the entire world to a condition of near irrelevance in the global hierarchy.

In capitalist competition among firms, there are similarly winners who become losers.  IBM is a great survivor, as are Ford and GM, Coca-Cola and Proctor & Gamble and others.  But who now remembers such once-great iconic firms as Woolworth’s, A&P, Pan American, Kodak or Montgomery Ward?

Today, I am preparing for a lecture tour in Japan to address Japan’s future.  There —  just like in America, but much closer to their own shores — they are looking at the dynamism of China and asking about themselves:  will we be overtaken?  Are we the next “winner” in recent history to become a “loser” in the shadow of China’s spectacular rise?

In thinking about this, I am thinking in general terms about what makes once-great nations, economies, or firms turn into failures, sometimes spectacular ones.

The answer is pretty simple.  It’s as old as the story of Easter Island, or as new as the story of Kodak.  And it’s a well known story; it is just remarkable how difficult it is for people to learn from it.

The simple answer is this: the world is always changing, as new ideas and new markets and new technologies come on the scene.  Some of these are what Harvard Prof. Clayton Christenson calls “disruptive innovations,” because they have the potential to make novel and weaker competitors able to compete effectively with established dominant players.  So in order to stay on top, dominant firms or nations have to periodically re-invent themselves. Whatever advantage made the dominant firms or nations dominant will eventually lose its edge; so to stay on top, the dominant firms or nations need to find new advantages to stay ahead of emerging competitors.

Thus the Spanish advantage, based on heavily armed infantry and caravel ships, which overpowered all competitors in the 16th century, gave way to faster and more powerful warships and much better drilled and armed troops developed by the Dutch, using wealth from innovations in windmill power, commercial grain and dairy farming, cod fishing and processing, warehousing, and finance.  Then the British developed even better navies and more powerful national finance mechanisms and made a better imperial bet: grabbing the markets for Asian manufactures (in India for cotton cloth and in China for ceramics and silk), rather than the Dutch approach of taking a monopoly of spices in Indonesia (raw materials of declining value).  British efforts at creating home-manufactured substitutes for these items led to an unexpected industrial revolution that made Britain supreme.

In each case, the dynamics were similar.  The decision-making elites in the dominant nation were so successful at exploiting the advantage they had, that they couldn’t see their way toward abandoning those advantages to gamble on something else. Worse yet, during their period of global dominance, they were rich enough to afford certain inefficiencies that made their lives easier.  Thus the Spanish could afford tax privileges for their elites; the Dutch could afford to become ever more reliant on finance rather than production, even the British in the wake of their industrial revolution allowed themselves to become reliant on apprenticeships and the success of tinkerers to drive innovation rather than create a modern scientific educational and training system for its workers and industrial research (as Germany did, who soon displaced Britain as the global leader in manufacturing).   These inefficiencies in fact came to be seen, in an error only visible in hindsight, as basic rights or advantages that the elites were loathe to surrender and fought to maintain, even as they condemned their nation to growing impotence and irrelevance.

What we see here is the problem of undertaking short-term pain for long-term gain writ very large.  For an individual, making that trade-off is difficult, but possible.  But for an entire elite class, it often seems truly impossible to convince them that undergoing the pain of giving up much-enjoyed and valued privileges and wealth and easy profits and power, in order to give up current advantages that are fading and find new ones that will assure the future, is worthwhile, indeed essential to their survival.

Part of this is rooted in elite’s attitudes toward inequality.  When a nation or firm is poor or small and struggling to catch up, the inequality that matters to that nation or firm’s leader is often the gap between their country and that of the world leader.  To close that gap, they need to make sure that every person in their country, or their firm, is as productive as possible.  They invest in whatever techniques they can find to boost that performance throughout their economy or firm; in the process they often find some advantage than when honed and developed propels them to become formidable competitors and even to overtake the formerly dominant leader.

But when a nation or firm experiences rapid gains and starts to catch up to, or even overtake its competitors, its elites and leaders may grow attached to the wealth they have gained and the particular techniques and habits that accompanied it.  They become wedded to their privileges and social practices as the foundation of their elite status.  At that point, they may cease to care very much  or at all about the welfare of their ordinary workers and citizens, instead doing whatever they think will best maintain their own wealth and power.  This was the case for Spanish aristocratic army commanders; for Dutch oligarchs and financiers; French noble landlords; and British industrialists.  For a while, they can indeed maintain and grow their wealth by abusing and exploiting the ordinary soldiers, workers, and people of their society or firm; but in the longer run they will lose the enthusiasm and productivity and competitive edge of their society or firm as a whole.  Instead of being able to innovate and draw on the strength of the best workforce or most capable citizenry, they will be thrown more and more on their own devices, and then easily overtaken by firms or nations that have better prepared and empowered their people to innovate and strive to overcome others.

This was shown most clearly on the battlefields of 18th century Europe.  Over the 17th and 18th centuries, noble commanders grew ever more distant from their conscript troops; the latter fought only under duress and with little enthusiasm for any cause or loyalty to their commanders, seeking mainly to survive.  When Revolutionary France changed this equation by recruiting troops to preserve a republican regime that made them citizens, led by officers chosen and promote for merit, they overcame every army thrown at them by other still-aristocratic European monarchies.

But Japan taught the same lesson to comfortably inefficient American manufacturers in the 1970s and 1980s — by empowering workers, raising their education and human capital, Japanese manufacturing overtook American giants in regard to both cost and quality, bringing American firms in numerous industries to their knees.

America survived by restructuring its old industries (although many went bankrupt or nearly so and never regained their global domination), but mainly by pioneering in new information and computer and materials industries.  America’s great research universities, and the ease of forming new companies to exploit their discoveries, allowed America to retain its place in the world economy despite the loss of its former dominance in much traditional manufacturing, where Japan and Germany and Korea (in many high end industries) and China (in most low-end industries) took over.

But today, both Japan and America again risk fading away.  American elites have created a system of income and wealth inequality and expensive private-financed education that is gutting the state universities and making private university education unaffordable for the vast majority of the population, along with K-12 education that is, as a whole, among the worst in the developed world.  Tolerating a stagnation in wages and decay in relative human capital (recent tests of 15 and 20 year olds show that American high schoolers and college graduates rank toward the bottom of the 20 leading industrialized nation in skills), American firms will struggle to compete against firms and countries with much more capable talent.  For the last thirty years, America’s competitiveness has relied heavily on the skills of the baby-boom generation (including Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and many others) and immigrants (Sergey Brin and numerous Asian founders of high tech and financial firms).  As the baby-boomers, who were at the time the best educated population in the world, fade away, and the doors to immigrants close tighter and tighter except for the family members of existing Americans, the overwhelming advantages that America had over other nations will fade as well.

Japan has a different problem but one just as profound.  Japan still has the world’s best educated population — by all tests its high schoolers and recent college graduates have the best literacy and numeracy of all advanced nations.  Yet Japan has its inefficiencies as well that are crippling it today: a respect for the elderly that keeps control of key institutions in the hands of 70 and 80 year old leaders while it is difficult for younger people to start their own firms to compete; and a confining view of marriage that makes women choose between family and career and makes choosing a family unattractive.  The latter has resulted in drops in marriage and fertility that are causing the size of the youth and working-age populations to plummet, starving Japan’s domestic market demand and labor force.  At the same time, Japan is opposed to immigration, and severely lagging other advanced nations in English language skills, so that it is unable to draw in talent from outside its own shrinking population.  Despite the quality of its young work force, Japan is thus starving itself of the numbers of young people and families it needs to sustain its own growth.  Unless it can change these aspects of its social practices, it too will continue to fade in global competition with more dynamic societies.

The statues of Easter Island are mute testimony to what happens when elites continue to place maintenance of their own positions above the welfare and productivity of the ordinary citizens of their society, and are unable to wrench themselves out of old habits.  But history shows us that this is the norm, not the exception.  Winners become losers; that may be as true of America and Japan today as it was in so many places across the centuries past.

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