Why still violence?

A few years ago, Steven Pinker published, to much acclaim, a book arguing that violence in the world was on a marked downward trajectory, and that we failed to appreciate how peaceful and stable our lives had become.

Yet today, as we are confronted by the extreme violence of ISIS, and the more conventional though still terrible conflict in the Ukraine, we might ask what is driving this violence?

No doubt there have been several positive factors reducing the death toll of conflicts.  Most important is probably the globalization and digitization of wealth and wealth creation.  These have made conflicts over land and resources — the major issue over which nations fought wars — much less relevant to anyone’s prosperity.  Indeed, given the easy flight of capital and skilled workers, and the much greater contribution of these factors to economic growth than mere territory or resources, wars are almost always counterproductive today, from the viewpoint of seeking to increase economic wealth.

So why does violent conflict continue?  This is NOT, as famously suggested by Samuel Huntington, due to a clash of civilizations: the biggest death tolls today are from conflicts within the Muslim world, and within the Russian Orthodox world.  Instead, local violent conflicts are driven by three main forces.

One is a revival of religion as the prime factor of personal and social identity, including a revival of millenarian beliefs; these have led to fierce sectarian battles among religious sects for control of lives and territory in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Nigeria. This is largely Sunni vs. Shi’a but also involves fights against other religions and sects, e.g. Muslim vs. Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Bahai, and others.

Second, also driven by the revival of religion as a primary identity, is the conflict between the ideal of organizing society primarily on the basis of religious belief and holy writ vs. the ideal of society as secular and individualist, with religion limited to voluntary and private or communal activities that do not impinge on society’s primary legal/organizational framework.   In Europe and North America, this conflict has played out mostly peacefully in agitation over abortion and gay marriage.  But in Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Egypt the conflicts between authorities seeking to preserve a secular government and those determined to impose religion on social order have spawned violence and terrorism.

This force also fuels terrorism within Europe, as those committed to religious primacy (mainly jihadists) attack those who exemplify secular freedom (e.g. Charlie Hebdo).

The third factor producing rising violence is the conflict within the few remaining multi-national empires between imperial control and repressed nationalism.   In and on the borders of the Russian Federation, this involves conflict between the Russian state and Chechens, Dagestanis, and now most notably Ukrainians.   In China the conflict is with the populations of Xinjiang and Tibet. In Sudan the fight was at first between southern and northern Sudanese, but now fuels civil war within South Sudan.   In Israel, the conflict between Muslims and Jews is really much more about repressed Palestinian nationalism, as there are Arab and Muslim citizens of Israel who accept the Israeli state, which Christian Palestinians fight against Israeli control of their lands, although after several decades religious conflict has now so infused the nationalist struggle that in Hamas they are inseparable.

Intra-religious, secular-religious, and nationalist conflicts have been important drivers of violence in human societies for millennia; with the fading of cold war ideological conflicts, and the reduced importance of conflict over land or resources in an increasingly globalized, digital economy, it should not be surprising that these older sources of conflict should return.

Unfortunately, unlike economic battles, these struggles are less easily resolved by compromise or sharing of material goods.  As long as believers find the rules and practices of unbelievers to be an existential threat to the dignity of their lives, we will see terror and violence continue.  And as long as those who feel themselves belonging to one nation believe their aspirations for a better life are being blocked by leaders of another, nationalist strife will reappear.

The best way out is for those who live in secular free societies to demonstrate that the material prosperity and tolerance of those societies works best for ALL who live there, and for such societies to be a compelling model that will attract people away from the extremist believers.  Muslims in Detroit and Melbourne and Pune do not turn to terrorism because they are, for the most part, well-integrated into society and free to enjoy their beliefs AND enjoy above average living standards in their societies.  Muslims in other societies, where they are disproportionately poor and in prison and live in segregated enclaves, whether in Paris or northern Nigeria or southern Thailand, are much more likely to express themselves in violence against those who they feel have wronged them.  The same is true for nationalist minorities in larger nations — whether Scots in Britain or French-speakers in Canada or Kosovars in Serbia — they either need to feel their success is not obstructed by the larger society in which they live, or like Kosovo they will seek to break free.

In the end, freedom and justice is what most people want, just as much as basic security and a chance at a better future.  Sadly, there are still many parts of the world where people have to choose.  And when they feel any of these core needs are being denied to them, they will eventually protest or fight, and they and others will pay the price.


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The Illusion of Peace in Ukraine

No doubt some kind of agreement in Ukraine is desirable simply to stop the slaughter.  As PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk observed, even a bad agreement that saves lives is better than on agreement.

But the agreement reached last week is  mainly an agreement to recognize and accept Russia’s gains, and enable Russia to meet its goals.  Those goals are to create a frozen conflict and permanent weakening of Ukraine that will prevent its closer alliance with the EU and NATO.

Russia gained de facto recognition that its proxies control most of the Donbass and will remain secure in that control; yet the costs of public services and payrolls in that region were shifted back to Ukraine.  Moreover, the border between Russia and the Donbass will remain under Russian control at least through the end of 2015, assuring that Russian can send whatever troops, weapons and other support necessary to keep its proxies in control across the border without hindrance.

Ukraine did not gain nothing — it gained a temporary peace with heavy weapons supposedly silenced then drawn back from the front lines; and more important yet it gained a $17.5 billion bail-out fund from the IMF, which was unlikely to arrive if Ukraine was still actively embroiled in a losing military campaign.  Still, on balance this is simply a surrender and a clear Russian victory.

Why did European leaders accept this deal?  And why were plans being mooted to send heavier and more lethal arms to Ukraine to defend itself against the Russian-backed rebels?  The answer is simple — Europe and NATO have no stomach for war and did not want to risk an escalated conflict that might have seen the rebels take Mariupol or push further into eastern Ukraine.    European leaders believed that no matter what military resources they put into Ukraine, Putin would easily match or exceed them, so there was no way to use force to dislodge the rebels from their positions; sanctions were not serving to dissuade Putin from aggression; and they raised the warning that Putin cared so deeply about Ukraine that he might even use tactical nuclear weapons if an all-out NATO assisted assault was staged on rebel positions (Russian generals had in fact raised this possibility).

On the face of it, this is absurd.  NATO always relied on nuclear deterrence to dissuade the USSR from using nuclear weapons in numerous proxy wars during the cold war — why should that fail now when Russia is much weaker than the Soviet Union was during the cold war?  Russia’s economy is about one-fifth the size of that of Britain, Germany and France combined — never mind the rest of Europe.  Yet in a vital conflict right on its borders, Europe, worn out over debt issues and fearful of the turmoil on its borders in the Middle East, wanted nothing to do with another war.

Let us say that NATO got serious, and — as in Libya –used its cruise missiles and air power to destroy the heavy arms of the Russian-backed rebels.  What would Russia do?  Bomb Kiev?  Send in thousands of its own troops?   Use nuclear weapons (against whom)?  Putin’s entire domestic strategy depends on his portraying Russian efforts as purely defensive and humanitarian efforts to protect helpless Ukrainians from the fascist Kiev/U.S. aggression.   Any major offensive escalation by Russia would destroy that myth.  Yet Europe would not risk having to deal with that escalation, and so gave Putin everything he wanted without forcing him to take that chance.

The best course now for Ukraine is to try and keep the peace, unify its western and central regions, and use the IMF funds to rebuild its shattered economy.  Georgia has managed to rebuild and even thrive despite losing Abkhazia and South Ossetia to a remarkably similar campaign by Russia.  Ukraine has little choice but to try and do the same.

What should be more worrying for Europe is that President Putin, whose weakening economy makes him more reliant on nationalist victories abroad to keep his support strong, has learned the lessons from both Georgia and Ukraine that creating facts on the ground is an effective way to change realities in the face of a weak Europe.  If I were living in Transdniestria or Moldova, I would expect more changes at some point in the future.

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Addressing Inequality

The  Davos show is beginning this week.  I am not going, but I am in Zurich and close enough to see the ads for ever-bigger and better private planes to take the elites to elite places.  All of this against a background of calls for inequality.

The problem with addressing inequality is that the rich have convinced themselves that they have fairly earned and fully deserve every penny in their off-shore tax-haven bank accounts, and governments (the enemy, socialist, communist) have no right to raise taxes or change loopholes and rules that strongly favor the continued accumulation of wealth by those who already have most of it.

Famed French economist Thomas Piketty has argued that it is a natural law that the rate of return on capital will exceed overall economic growth rates; as long as that is true those who own capital will get richer compared to those who do not.  Hence his only solutions to inequality are to tax the wealth that the rich accumulate, or wait for wars or depressions to destroy that accumulated wealth.

That is a bleak view and wholly unnecessary.  One can easily reduce the rate of after-tax returns on capital (which are what matter for accumulation) by legislation.  Progressive income taxes PLUS high estate taxes did the trick for decades in the US.  High pre-tax incomes were readily allowed, but strongly progressive taxes meant that  the higher the additional income the smaller the net gain, which disincentivized the pursuit of astronomical incomes.  Simply going back to the tax structure of the 1970s, or even early 1980s, would reduce the extreme inequality from high CEO and financial sector earnings.  Then a high estate tax will block the inter-generational transmission of inequality.

Even simpler would be to knock out some of the strange quirks in the tax system that actually enhance the after-tax return to capital.  One is the step-up valuations of assets at death, which saves the very rich billions in taxes for no sensible reason (shouldn’t all capital gains be taxed at the same rate?  Why give an exemption to capital gains that happen to have not been realized at the time of one’s passing?)  Another is the preferential tax treatment given to capital gains, which are taxed at a substantially lower rate than wage earnings.  If it is the case, as Piketty argues, that returns on capital tend to be higher than the growth of wages (which are linked to the growth of the overall economy), then to put a much higher marginal tax on wages as well is to create a double-whammy against wage earners, and guarantee an escalation of inequality.

All of this is straightforward and much discussed.  But there are other approaches to inequality that do not rest so much on trying to equalize incomes and are far more effective.

It doesn’t matter much to the opportunity and life chances of a child  whether their parents eat chicken or beef, whether they drive a Porsche or a Chevrolet, and whether they have antique furniture or shop at IKEA.   What does matter is whether that child has an adequate diet of protein and micro-nutrients; fresh air and space to play; access to information; quality preschool and formal education; and medical care to address illnesses and injuries and issues of sight, hearing, or emotional problems.

So what if we let differences in income continue to determine what kind of cuisine, car, and furniture people have.  But for things that are really important for child development and opportunity, we should take those things out of the realm where income has a major effect differentiating access.  That is, they should be treated like public goods (like police protection and roads) and provided by public authorities — but with more attention to high and uniform levels of quality in their provision than is often the case today.

Of course, the question will be raised — how to pay for those public goods?  The answer can be taxes that do not focus mainly on income.  They could be provided by taxes on spending — value-added taxes, luxury taxes (on yachts, and cars and homes above a certain capital value), liquor and cigarette taxes, hotel and travel taxes, etc.   No one is forced to pay such taxes; they are voluntarily occurred by choices to consume certain goods and services or at a certain level.  But they can provide the means to make opportunity-goods available to everyone, and thus avoid the most noxious effects of inequality — that severe inequality closes the doors to future opportunity.

So don’t worry about differences in income inequality – just make them less relevant!

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ISIS in Paris

Take a pleasant farm and field. Introduce a flow of water from diverse sources. If the water mixes into the soil and feeds the mix of crops, the result is greater prosperity. But if the water pools in stagnant, non-circulating ponds it feeds disease and pests. If travelers going back and forth between the farm and foreign places bring back weeds that take root in the ponds and spread, the entire farm can be ruined.

Something like this has been happening in Europe over the last few decades. From 1970, Europe – which had for four centuries been a vigorous exporter of people around the world – became an importer of people from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Immigration has generally been healthy for societies: new ambitious people entered America, Australia, Argentina, and Canada and created a quilt-work of different faiths and ethnicities. But in each of these cases, the immigrants were encouraged (or demanded) to assimilate. They were asked to learn the language, conform to the laws, attend the schools, and work alongside prior generations of immigrants, natives and mixed native-immigrant communities. They might keep their own weekend schools to transmit their historic cultures, cluster in certain neighborhoods, and enrich the local social scene with their own ethnic and religious festivals (what could be more American than St. Patrick’s Day?). But they aimed above all to succeed in the greater society, and their success was welcomed if they made the grade.

Like Frank Sinatra – the child of Italian immigrants from New Jersey – who told us that if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere, immigrants aimed to blend in and take leading roles in entertainment, by founding their own businesses, and in the professions (breaking down the barriers to high-level corporate offices took longer).

Yet most Europeans and European leaders never viewed the immigrant workers from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East as valuable newcomers who, if required to adopt the manners and values of Europeans, could enrich and fully join their societies. They preferred to think of them as “guest workers” who would do their tasks and then return home, or as “multi-cultural” adjuncts to mainstream European societies who would cluster in their own ponds and remain separate, following their own culture’s rules and dictates rather than giving them up in order to blend into their new European homes.

Allowed to fester in stagnant pools with weaker services and education and limited employment opportunities, and few links to the broader society, the immigrant communities became filled with resentment and anger, especially among the younger, native born generations. Neither immigrants with a strong work ethic grateful to leave the dangers of their homeland, nor true natives with all the opportunities and full embrace of the society of their birth, the 2nd and 3rd generations born into the segregated pools of immigrant communities were in a position of fraught identity conflicts and economic anxieties – ripe territory for the invasion of radical messages promoting anti-Western attitudes and siren calls to join the fight to redeem and counter historical and current humiliations.

These frustrations broke out in recurrent racial and immigrant riots in Europe, from Brixton in England to the banlieues of Paris. But now add to this existing mix a new flag-bearer in the Middle East, a dramatic, media-savvy, and powerful new organization at war with the West and urging loyal Islamic youth to join their battle both in the Middle East and in Europe. How could the rise of such a group – first al-Qaeda and then, even more powerful and successful the Islamic State (ISIS) – not increase the intensity of violence and conflict between Muslim youth and Europe?

When the Arab revolts broke out in the Middle East in 2010, Western nations had an opportunity to vigorously support moderate elements in the inevitable revolutionary struggle of moderates vs radicals, or to stand back and let the revolutionary dramas play themselves out.

Of course, it did not take much knowledge of revolutionary history to know the outcome of the latter course: revolutions typically descend into civil war and the triumph of authoritarian and radical regimes. Only in older societies, with some prior experience of democracy, and strong links to outside democratic powers, are revolutions against authoritarian rule likely to lead to democratic outcomes. From Libya to Syria to Yemen, these conditions were generally lacking in the Middle East and North Africa, so in the absence of strong external support for moderates and efforts to isolate and extinguish extreme radical groups, dangerous outcomes were likely.

Yet as revolutions descended into civil wars and extremist groups like al-Qaeda spread and morphed and multiplied, Western powers did little. Perhaps believing that Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan had led nowhere (in entirely different conditions, as in Afghanistan the West entered a state already at war with the Soviets, and in Iraq the West itself overturned a stable dictatorship), no powers were willing to stay involved in trying to shift the balance in the 2010-11 revolutions. Perhaps they also believed that jihadism and violence in the Middle East would stay in the Middle East, ignoring the ease with which radical ideology has spread across borders throughout history, or the potential for easy and powerful linkages between the radical jihadists of the Middle East and the pools of anxious and radical youths that had developed in Europe.

The horrors and foolishness of this approach are now evident in the blood on the streets of Paris, traceable directly to the influence of ISIS. It will be a long struggle to change this situation; we have likely set up a decade or more of danger and struggle in European capitals and several decades of struggle in the Middle East.

It is important to immediately work to overcome the isolation of immigrant communities in Europe. The deal that Europe offers should be the same offered to immigrant communities (including Europeans) when they settle in countries of immigration such as America or Canada – you – or your children – can obtain full membership in the society including citizenship provided you accept the values and practices of your new society; but if you are unwilling to accept them you should go home.

In the Middle East there must now be a struggle that transcends the Sunni-Shi’a conflicts that have dominated for centuries; instead the battle must be between the forces of civilized order and the forces of barbarous disorder. The leaders of Iran and Saudi Arabia need to make clear on which side they want to be counted, and only if it is the former should they be admitted to full trade and relations with the rest of the world.

Several decades from now, our children will wonder at how our generation could have been so blind to the risks of climate change and simply kept polluting the skies. They will also wonder how our generation could have been so blind to the risks of unassimilated immigrant communities, and of conducting wars against jihadis in the Middle East with half-hearted and poorly planned overseas efforts combined with unchecked torture and surveillance at home.

It is not too late to change course, but the first step is to understand why the course taken in the past decades was so wrong.

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Hope as we move toward the New Year

It would not take much for 2015 to be a better year than 2014.  2014 was marked by a major outbreak of Ebola, war between Russia and Ukraine, renewed active war in Gaza, civil war in South Sudan, the rise of the remarkably brutal Islamic State, surprising new strength for radical right-wing parties in the European parliament, rising authoritarianism in Turkey and Hungary and a military coup in Thailand, frightening large-scale terror attacks in Nigeria and Pakistan, and even the mysterious disappearance of not one but two civilian airliners over south Asia — all against a backdrop of rising economic inequality in both rich and poor nations and economic stagnation for much of Europe, Japan, and the U.S.

Fortunately, there are signs on the horizon of positive trends, just beginning in late 2014, that may carry over into 2015 and indeed make it a better year.

First, the U.S. economy looks to finally be regaining true strength.  For the first few years of recovery, up through 2013, the U.S. saw weak growth (generally 2%), no gains in wages, and reductions in the unemployment rate coming mainly from withdrawals from the workforce.  But in the second half of 2014, we saw real gains in jobs, some increases in wages, and much stronger growth (probably 4% for the 3rd and 4th quarter, although a lot of that increase was in health care spending, so we will have to see if that is sustained, which would NOT be ideal).

Second, the world economy will continue to gain from low oil prices.  The explosive gains in US production of oil and gas from shale finally shattered the high price plateau for fossil fuels, and there is no reason to think high prices will suddenly return.  This will cause pain to Russia, Iran, Nigeria,Venezuela, and other regimes that have relied on oil revenues to float their governments; but for most countries and peoples it is an economic gift.

Third, the global middle class continues to grow, and with it, demands for accountable and more effective government.  In the short run, this can appear disruptive, with protests in places as diverse as Taiwan and Hong Kong, Ukraine, Bosnia, Turkey, Thailand, Brazil, Venezuela; but in the long run these peaceful protests should bring about more open and responsive governance.

Finally, technology continues to run wild.  I don’t mean the sky-high valuations of such speculative disrupters as Uber, Snapchat, Instagram, AirBnB, and others, or the growth of Facebook and Twitter as necessary tools of communication in daily life.  I mean the continued progress of stem-cell research, 3-D printing, solar and wind energy, battery storage, robotics, and other technologies that so far have not contributed significantly to GDP or quality of life, but may be just on the verge of doing so.  Perhaps in 2015 we will see some energy, or life-saving medical, or manufacturing breakthrough (I do NOT mean curved TVs) that will transform our lives.

It is also possible we will see some global political good news too.  India and Brazil, two potential powerhouses for the world economy, completed elections that should lead to reforms that will support renewed growth.  Iran and the U.S. may complete negotiations that will limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities and restore its relations with the world.  China appears determined to root out corruption at home but also to improve relations with its neighbors.  And Tunisia continues to make progress toward consolidating its democracy, showing that the Arab Revolts of 2011, for all their tragedies, were not a total loss.

Maybe we will even solve those airline mysteries!

Here in the U.S. we hope that the recent wave of protests regarding racially-biased police excesses will bring better training, transparency, and oversight of policing, and that these protests, as so often in America, will herald an improvement in our democracy.  The alternative to grid-lock in Washington looks increasingly like better and more responsive local government, and that is what these protests should bring.

So let’s hope for a better year next year.  Doomsayers (of which I am sometimes one) will worry about a stock market crash, an eruption of greater war in Ukraine, a disruptive collapse of authority in Russia or Nigeria, and an expansion of IS or other wars in the Middle East.  So 2015 could be even worse than 2014.  But let us hope for all of our sakes that the positive outweighs the negative in the coming year.  The world deserves a break!

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Why the fight against IS is not going well

When a radical revolutionary group with a threatening ideology seized a strategically important region, a war-weary United States agreed to limited participation in an allied effort to dislodge the radicals and recover the lost territory, providing several thousand troops and supplies.  British, Canadian, Australian, French and Japanese troops joined the effort, as did smaller forces from Italy, Poland, Greece, and other nations neighboring the lost region.  But after five years of fighting, the cause was lost, and the radicals consolidated their control and posed a threat to Western interests for most of the following seventy years.

The years were 1918-22, the territory was the Russian Empire, and the revolutionary group was the Bolshevik (later Communist) Party.  Although the Bolsheviks seemed near exhaustion from fighting their own civil war against Russian conservative forces, while the allied forces had just emerged from triumph in World War I, it was the Bolsheviks who triumphed.  They won because of their far greater determination and cohesion and ideological support against allies forces that were hamstrung by divided objectives, little desire to continue fighting after years of draining war, and lack of public support at home.

The situation in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East today is remarkably similar.  While forces in the front-line countries of Syria and Iraq may be capable of defending rumps of their territory, and trading tactical wins and losses with IS, they are in no way capable of mounting the major sustained offensive operations that would be necessary to completely defeat IS and recover the territories this radical group has taken over.  For that, an allied force including the United States, Turkey, Iran and other more powerful nations – including European countries and the Gulf nations – is needed.   Only a multi-pronged offensive effort with strong air and ground forces in coordination, likely drawing on Iraqi forces backed by Iranian arms, troops, and expertise from the east, Kurdish forces backed by Turkish arms, troops, and expertise from the north, and Sunni Syrian forces backed by Gulf money and armaments from the west, can grind down the resourceful and well-equipped forces of IS.

Yet the prospects for such a coalition to act remain dim.  The U.S. and its European allies are exhausted from the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; already suffering from long recessions and vast spending on overseas military expeditions, their publics show little enthusiasm for a renewed fight in the Middle East, even against an enemy as frightful as IS.  Moreover, as in 1918, the key allies are divided on their objectives:  Iran will only support a campaign against ISIS that promises to maintain Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad’s authority; Turkey and Saudi Arabia will only support a campaign that promises to remove Assad from power.  The United States has therefore tried to mount a campaign against IS with no explicit strategy for Assad’s future.  But the result has only been to gain tepid support from any key potential allies.  Disagreements over Syria strategy do not end there, but as the sudden resignation of US secretary of state Chuck Hagel suggests, extend deep within America’s leadership.

By contrast, support for IS is growing both locally and internationally.  Just as the Bolsheviks used the fact of western intervention in Russia’s revolution to argue that their enemies were backed by Western capital bent on exploiting hapless Russians, so ISIS argues to Sunnis in Syria and Iraq and across the world that Western infidels are trying to undermine and oppress their religion.  Not only have Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria — who have been shunted out of power by Shi’a leaders in those countries – enthusiastically rallied to IS’s banner, so too have disgruntled Sunni individuals and radical groups in other countries, including Europeans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Tunisians, Chechens, and others.  Indeed, anywhere that Sunni Muslims feel oppressed or excluded by their society, IS’s program to build a powerful, defiant Sunni state in the Islamic heartland has massive appeal.   IS can bide its time and recover from a few tactical reversals; whether it loses Kobani or succeeds in capturing Ramadi are local issues.  In the long run, IS will be gathering its forces and seeking to increase its funding and arms for the days that can march on Baghdad, mount terror attacks on Western nations and their Middle Eastern allies (including Turkey and Saudi Arabia), and undermine what it sees as the apostate state of Iran.

Can anything be done to overcome the divisions among the potential allied coalition?  It will be immensely difficult.  Most analysts believe that Bashar al-Assad is content to leave IS in control of parts of Syria as long as he controls the key Damascus-Aleppo corridor and the coast; meanwhile Assad’s brutality and US bombing are driving more Syrians to support IS as the best hope of gaining security from Assad’s reach.   Thus the only way to bring Syria’s powerful armed forces into the fight against IS is to remove Assad from power.  There lies the hub of a deal:  Syria’s military and elites could be promised that if they replace Assad they will be fully supported in their efforts to recover all of Syria.  Yet they would have to agree to an inclusive regime that respects and incorporates the Sunni majority in that country, not just a revived Alawite oligarchy.  Similarly, Iran would have to accept Assad’s departure and promise to support a regime in Iraq that respects and incorporates the Sunnis of that country; something it has notably failed to do in the last decade.  Finally, Russia would have to be assured that its strategic agreements and naval base at Tartus in Syria would be maintained by a new Syrian regime; otherwise Russia will act as spoiler and supply Assad with sufficient weapons and other support to maintain his rule.

In 1918-1920, the allies in Russia won many local victories against the Bolsheviks, defeating them in Estonia, Odessa, and Siberia.   Yet due to divisions among the various allied forces and lack of resolve at home, as well as lack of support from Russians who remained committed to the Bolshevik cause and the weakness of the Russian conservative White armies, the allied forces never were able to follow-up those local victories with a successful drive into the heart of Bolshevik power.  The Bolsheviks maintained control of Petersburg, Moscow, and most of European Russia, and waited out the declining Allied resolve.  In the 1920s, one ally after another decided to withdraw their expeditionary forces from Russia, leaving the Bolsheviks in control to build up their state over the following decades.

Something similar seems the most likely outcome in today’s Middle East.  The divisions among potential allies abroad, and lack of resolve and public support at home, will likely doom efforts to overcome the more committed, cohesive, and determined forces of the Islamic State.   In the mélange of jihadist forces that contended for power in the wake of collapsing authority in Syria, the IS was initially dismissed as just another terrorist group.  Much the same underestimation was made of the Bolsheviks in 1917-1918; among the Mensheviks, Kadets, Socialists, Octobrists, Progressives, and other anti-Tsarist parties the Bolsheviks hardly seemed the main threat until they took over the government in a coup.

The Islamic State should not be taken lightly; it has gone from just another terrorist group to leadership of a region stretching from the outskirts of Aleppo to Mosul to the outskirts of Baghdad (an area larger than Lebanon or Israel) with a population of over two million, tens of thousands of armed fighters and financial resources in the billions of dollars.  It has displaced Al-Qaeda as the leading force of Islamic opposition against the West, and seems to draw new supporters and allies among jihadist groups every week.   Against this powerful and committed adversary, neighboring nations and distant America have been able to mount only isolated, sporadic attacks.  Such limited, half-hearted actions cannot succeed in destroying the Islamic State.  It appears we shall have to get used to having yet another major source of terrorism and war in the region for many years to come.

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What China Wants

Last week’s APEC meeting in Beijing shed new light on China’s relationship with America and the world. It has become increasing clear what China wants. China seeks a role in Asia comparable to the role that America has enjoyed with regard to Europe; as the unquestioned (but not always followed) leader of an alliance that seeks to protect their region from outside pressures and influences.

As with the U.S. and Europe, China will continue to seek strong economic ties outside the alliance where those are helpful, but for security it wants clear leadership and support from other countries in Asia for China’s goals of greater economic and military power. China does not simply view the U.S. as a hegemon that it wants to supplant, but as a country whose days as global hegemon are over. In Beijing’s view, Washington should make way for other, equal powers, to have leadership over some areas of the globe.

In fact, I think China will find its relationship with other Asian countries more like America’s relationship with Latin America – that is, other Asian countries will view Chinese power with a mixture of admiration and suspicion, and will foster their own nationalism and resistance to China’s hegemony even while seeking advantages from allying with China on certain issues.

Overall, China’s rise to greater regional power and America’s loss of global hegemon status are inevitable. America’s dominance was a result of victories in WWII and the Cold War that left other powers weak. But with China’s rise – now with over four times the population and an economy of equal size (in PPP terms) to the U.S. – it is inevitable that a more balanced arrangement of global power should arise. The only real question is whether that transition will lead to more cooperation between a China and U.S. who increasingly share responsibility for major global issues, or to conflict.

There is a major risk that China and America become rivals, fighting proxy wars or even direct skirmishes over Chinese control of archipelagos in the western Pacific, and over Chinese conflicts with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, or other countries. Yet that seems to me the less likely outcome. In fact, China and America share so many interests – in a stable global economy, in free and open sea lanes for transit of raw materials and manufactures, in maintaining peace in the Asia-Pacific region, and in coping with global environmental threats – that cooperation for the most part is more likely.

Last week’s agreement between China and the U.S. on goals to reduce carbon emissions is an excellent example of that cooperation.  At the same, last week showed how differences could be handled.  On human rights, one of the most contentious issues, Chinese President Xi Jinping claimed that China was making progress, although that progress was not yet complete; while President Obama had to make public declarations that the U.S. is not involved in fomenting unrest in Hong Kong.

On the whole, last week’s meeting should reassure those who have been forecasting an inevitable war between a rising China and a declining U.S.  The nature of the relationship will change, but that is good; the world is changing fast and the relationship between the U.S. and China needs to develop and mature to keep abreast of those changes. Judging from last week, that process is moving forward nicely.

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