The United States Heading for a Crash

Commentary No. 386, September 15, 2014

President Barack Obama has told the United States, and in particular its Congress, that it must do something very major in the Middle East to stop disaster. The analysis of the presumed problem is extremely murky, but the patriotic drums are being turned to high pitch and almost everyone is for the moment going along. A cooler head might say that they are all flailing around in desperation about a situation that the United States has the major responsibility for creating. They don’t know what to do, so they act in panic.

The explanation is simple. The United States is in serious decline. Everything is going wrong. And in the panic, they are like a driver of a powerful automobile who has lost control of it, and doesn’t know how to slow it down. So instead it is speeding it up and heading towards a major crash. The car is turning in all directions and skidding. It is self-destructive for the driver but the crash can bring disaster to the rest of the world as well.

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Merkel and Putin: Ukrainian Diplomacy

Commentary No. 384, September 1, 2014

There is an immense amount of diplomacy going on these days concerning the quasi-civil war in Ukraine. But the only actors who really matter are Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. They are also the only two actors who are really trying to tamp down the conflict and come to some political settlement.

They are both very powerful, both very clearly focused on the real issues, and both working very hard at this difficult task. They are powerful, but not all-powerful. Each has to deal with other actors in Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere who do not want a political settlement but rather are seeking to intensify and expand the conflict, and are therefore trying to sabotage any negotiations between Merkel and Putin.

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The Caliphate vs. Everyone Else

Commentary No. 383, Aug. 15, 2014

In the endless geopolitical realignments of the Middle East, the Caliphate of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS or ISIL) seems to have frightened just about everyone else involved in Middle Eastern politics into a de facto geopolitical alliance. All of a sudden, we find Iran and the United States, the Kurds (both in Syria and Iraq) and Israel, Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, western Europe (Great Britain, France, and Germany) and Russia all pursuing in different ways the same objective: stop the Caliphate from expanding and consolidating itself.

This hasn’t yet altered significantly other loci of geopolitical conflicts such as Israel/Palestine and Ukraine, but it is sure to have an impact on them. Of course, all these actors are pursuing middle-term objectives that are quite different. Nonetheless, look at what has happened in just the first half of August.

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Hamas vs. Israel: Winning the Diplomatic Game

Commentary No. 382, August 1, 2014

There has been a great deal of violence for about a century in the geographic zone we may today call Israel/Palestine. This zone has seen a more or less continuous struggle between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers concerning the rights to occupy land. Both groups have sought juridical affirmation of their rights. Both groups have sought legitimation in competing historical narratives. Both groups have sought to solidify levels of support from their “peoples” throughout the world community. And both groups have sought to get world public opinion on their side.

The way the game has been played has evolved because of shifting geopolitical realities. In 1917, British military occupied this area, ousting the Ottoman Empire, a shift that was thereafter consecrated by obtaining a Mandate from the League of Nations for a country called Palestine. Also in 1917, the British occupying government issued what is known as the Balfour Declaration, which asserted the objective of establishing a Jewish National Home in Palestine. The term “home” is unclear and its meaning has been a subject of controversy ever since. A series of decisions in the 1920s separated the Mandate into two parts. One was Transjordan (what is now Jordan) defined as an Arab state to become eventually independent. The other was Palestine west of the Jordan, to be governed differently.

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Germany and the United States: Unprecedented Breach

Commentary No. 381, July 15, 2014

On July 10, the German government demanded the immediate departure of the head of the CIA mission in Berlin. Such demands are not unusual, even between ostensible allies. What is unusual is that it should be publicly announced, and with much fanfare. What accounts for what some are already calling an “unprecedented breach” in the very close relations after 1945 between the United States and the German Federal Republic?

It only took one day for the subject to become the occasion of two major articles, one an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times and the other a major story in Germany’s Der Spiegel. Both are pessimistic that the unprecedented breach can be swiftly, if ever, repaired.

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The Two Competing Middle-Run Scenarios for Iraq

Commentary No. 380, July 1, 2014

The worldwide attention to the growing strength of the forces led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has spawned an enormous debate about what ought to be done by all non-ISIS actors to contain what is widely perceived as a very dangerous movement. At some point however, the expansion of ISIS will reach its limits, and Iraq and the larger region will settle down into some de facto arrangement and set of boundaries. We might think of this as the middle-run scenario.

The world actors can only decide – and promote – one of the two really competing middle-run scenarios for Iraq, and they are very different indeed. One is a partition of Iraq into three autonomous ethnic states (at least de facto, possibly formally). The second is a reunified inclusive Iraqi state, based on Iraqi nationalism. These alternatives, to the extent they are openly discussed, are usually presented as an analytic debate. They are in fact a political debate.

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Jihadistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran

Commentary No. 379, June 15, 2014

A jihadist movement, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has just scored a stunning and sweeping victory by capturing Mosul, Iraq’s third city located in the north of the country. Their forces are proceeding southward towards Baghdad and have seized Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi army seems to have fallen apart, having also ceded Kirkuk to the Kurds. ISIS has also taken prisoner Turkish diplomats and truckers. It now controls effectively a large chunk of the north and west of Iraq as well as a contiguous zone in the northeast corner of Syria. Commentators have labeled this trans-border zone Jihadistan. ISIS seeks to reestablish a caliphate in as large an area as possible, one based on a particularly strict version of sharia law.

The shock and fear that the successes of this movement have inspired may lead to major geopolitical realignments in the Middle East. Geopolitics is an arena of frequent surprises, in which known antagonists suddenly reconcile themselves and transform their relation into one of what the French call frères ennemis (friendly enemies). The most famous instance in the last half-century was the trip of Richard Nixon to China to meet with Mao Zedong, a trip that fundamentally revised the alignments within the modern world-system and has underlain the China-United States relationship ever since.

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The Russian-Chinese Geopolitical Game

Commentary No. 378, June 1, 2014

Governments, politicians, and media in the “western” world seem incapable of understanding geopolitical games as played by anyone elsewhere. Their analyses of the newly proclaimed accord of Russia and China are a stunning example of this.

On May 16, Russia and China announced that they had signed a “friendship treaty” that would last “forever” but was not a military alliance. Simultaneously, they announced a gas deal, in which the two countries will build a gas pipeline to export Russian gas to China. China will lend Russia the money with which to build its share of the pipeline. It seems that Gazprom (Russia’s major gas and oil producer) made some price concessions to China, an issue that had been holding up an agreement for some time.

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