1.III: Geopolitics And Current Events

 

US Presidents Bush Sr., Obama, Bush Jr., Clinton, and Carter have been key players in geopolitical dramas from the Iranian revolution to the War on Terror.

A.  From the Cold War to the War on Terror

B.  Shifting First World and Second World

C.  The Arab Spring & its Unintended Consequences

D.  Global Financial Crises

E.  Citations

A.  From the Cold War to the War On Terror

The title “geopolitical center stage” has long been held by the unlikely country of Afghanistan.  In the late 1970’s, Afghanistan’s secular, pro-Soviet government was threatened by an Islamic revolutionary movement, the mujahideen.  Soviet leader Brezhnev feared that if he did not secure Afghanistan first, the US might beat him to it.  He committed Soviet troops to routing the mujahideen.  The US, under presidents Carter and then Reagan, saw this as an opportunity to wear down the Soviets by covertly supporting the mujahideen with money and arms.  Several other nations followed the US lead.  The Soviet military got bogged down in Afghanistan for a full decade.  This quasi-covert proxy war in one obscure theater was the Soviet Union’s last futile stand against the world.

On the Afghan side, the war attracted a growing number of radicalized jihadists, who believe that lands like Afghanistan should be governed by Moslem clerics and Islamic Law, not by secular governments.  Osama bin Laden established al Qaeda in this environment.  Meanwhile, the Taliban grew out of religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the Taliban was transformed into military and terrorist training camps.  It emerged as one of the forces fighting for control over the lawless land.  The UN set up a provincial Afghan government in Kabul, but the Taliban overtook it by 1994 and declared itself the new national government.

The Afghan war was one important factor leading to the USSR’s economic ruin.  Other factors included a prolonged arms race and space race with the United States, stubborn isolationism, and the growth of industries too large for the government to manage. 1 In 1988, Soviet premier Gorbachev withdrew from Afghanistan and then announced that he would not commit any military force to intervene in Eastern European satellite states.

With the loss of Soviet protection, several eastern bloc governments quickly fell in populist revolutions.  This Autumn of Nations, 1989, is remembered mostly for the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Soon, even the great bear itself broke up, leaving Russia surrounded by independent post-Soviet nations.  Gorbachev resigned in 1991 after a failed coup attempt reduced Moscow to chaos.

After the Soviet-Afghan war, al Qaeda found itself increasingly anti-American.  Bin Laden expressed his main grievances as the United States’ ongoing support of Israel, US presence in Saudi military bases, and sometimes the US-led war in Iraq.  Animosity between al Qaeda and the US government led to an escalating pattern of violence through the next two decades, a conflict that has now grown into the War on Terror.  Al Qaeda perpetrated the notorious terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  The US and allied nations responded with a decade-long invasion of Afghanistan, removal of the Taliban, and ongoing assassinations of al Qaeda leaders.

B.  Shifting First World and Second World

The age of American / Soviet hemispheres has given way to a quadripolar globe dominated by the US, European Union, Russia, and China.  Russia can still defensibly claim “superpower” status in some regards, though it has been on the decline ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Russia has a small and aging population spread thinly over a geographical area that is still too large to manage well, especially with a central government that has never found its footing.  Russia is still a major supplier of arms, apparently with no scruples about selling to rogue nations or militant groups.  It also remains rich in resources, especially energy.

The European Union assumed its present form in 1993, with the establishment of the euro.  In many ways, the unification of Europe has been a striking success.  Collectively, Europe is now the world’s largest economy.  EU membership has traditionally been highly coveted, especially by less developed countries.  It promises the allure of subsidies, economic support, jobs, and access to major markets.    Earning EU membership requires not only geographic location in or around Europe, but also deference to the laws and institutions of the EU.  A candidate state must exhibit a stable democracy and basic human rights without rampant corruption in government. 2 These criteria have allowed the EU to grow by positive reinforcement, methodically pressuring growth, peace, and stability at its fringes.  The seven decades since World War II have, sadly enough, been the longest period of peace in the history of Western Europe. 3 The EU was recognized for this achievement with the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize.

China is the rising star among today’s nations.  The “sleeping giant” has woken up and grown tremendously in the last few decades.  It claims the world’s largest population, the largest military, and the third largest economy, which grew explosively at double-digit rates for many years.  Though the Communist Party is still in control, it began economic liberalization reforms shortly after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976.  New leader Deng Xiaoping relaxed state control over agriculture, industry, and prices.  He permitted entrepreneurs and foreign investors for the first time.  In the 1980’s, the Chinese government set aside special regions (such as Shanghai and Hong Kong) as localized capitalist principalities largely free of government intervention.  These regions have fueled China’s economic growth for the last three decades, 4 providing a valuable experiment in economic systems.  China is now described as a socialist market economy.  Scholars debate why China has been able to make this transition so much more successfully than other developing nations.  Hypotheses include the Confucian ethic or a civil incentive system that promotes local leaders based on their economic successes.

The strong-handed Chinese government still draws plenty of criticism.  It has a notoriously bad record on human rights, as well as limited economic freedom beyond its special economic zones on the coast.  The state-controlled central bank is run inefficiently and creates a drag on the economy. 5 For years, the central bank has been accused of keeping the value of Chinese currency, the yuan, artificially low.  This makes Chinese exports cheaper, bringing more cash into the country.  In the UN Security Council, China still usually votes in lockstep with Russia and against the United States, United Kingdom, and France on many key issues.

The superpowers’ chess board is the Second World.  In “Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South America, the Middle East, and East Asia,” 6 governments and corporations are settling into American, European, Russian, and Chinese zones of influence.  The superpowers compete intensely in these regions for investment opportunities, trade relations, and military alliances.  Collectively, then, these emerging nations possess enormous clout.  A striking example of quadripolar geopolitics is Ukraine.  Split allegiances to the EU and Russia have torn the country apart and created a very uneasy, militarized front.

C.  The Arab Spring and its Unintended Consequences

A movement very similar to 1989’s Autumn of Nations swept the Arab world in the 2010’s.  Revolutionary movements, originally mostly youth-driven and peaceful, put immense pressure on authoritarian regimes in poor countries.  Throughout the Arab world, a growing number of college students were graduating into a jobless economy mismanaged by corrupt authoritarian governments.  Civil rights and free speech were repressed.  Opposition groups had been forming on social networks, especially Facebook and Twitter, for years.

In December, 2010, citizens of Tunisia reached a breaking point.  They organized en masse to immobilize and impeach their government.  Much to everyone’s surprise, they were highly successful.  The government collapsed within a month of peaceful protests.  The Tunisian revolution was a flashpoint that inspired millions throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East.  In that Arab Spring of 2011, ordinary citizens caused extraordinary change.  Organized protests became commonplace, and the dictators were nervous.  The themes were all similar:  unemployment, inflation, corruption, repression, wealth inequality, and lack of opportunity.  For the most part, the protesters were not armed with anything except their sheer numbers, cameras, and worldwide support.  They knew that history was on their side.

That spring, protests spread to Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere, mostly within the 22 Arab League nations.  Egypt became the second nation to topple a dictator within a month, as Hosni Mubarak stepped down that February.  Yemen’s president Saleh abdicated by the end of the year.  By the end of 2011, some of these dictators were on trial, held accountable for crimes during their reign.

Two Arab countries, Libya and Syria, slipped into all-out civil war.  Dictators Qadaffi in Libya and Bashar al Assad in Syria took up arms against their own citizens.  In fact, the regimes used extreme measures such as missiles, airstrikes, and chemical weapons.  The Libyan conflict was the first to draw foreign intervention.  With the aid of French air support, Libyan rebels captured Qadaffi and killed him on the spot.

Leaving power vacuums, an unfortunate consequence of the Arab Spring is the re-emergence of Islamist politics and sectarian strife.  Most Arab dictators ran secular regimes and stifled religious opposition.  One of the oldest and most influential Islamist parties is the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt.  Mubarak had outlawed this party, fearing it as a potentially strong political foe.  It continued to survive, and after Mubarak’s ouster it took control of government.

Syria’s war has continued to rage on for years, twice as deadly as the rest of the Arab Spring combined.  Assad and his Ba’ath party, though nominally a secular government, are Shi’ites, a small minority in Syria.  The citizen rebels were mostly Sunni, so they attracted unwelcome support from radical groups like al Qaeda and its offshoot, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Meanwhile, Assad has terrorist special forces all his own, which have been known to rape and plunder house to house. 7 The international community stayed out of Syria until 2014, when it became clear that ISIS was attempting to take over the region.  Airstrikes against ISIS were met with deliberate murders of innocent western citizens.  ISIS is proving to be a strongly catalyzing common enemy.  Arab nations have joined the fight against ISIS.  Western nations face the dilemma of cooperating with Assad to defeat ISIS.  As of 2015, the Syrian conflict is very much ongoing and rapidly evolving.

D. Global Financial Crises

“The financial crisis” of the late ‘00s is heavily discussed in the early ‘10s, usually as an isolated event.  It is important to put it in broader context.  This was just the most recent in a series of unusual financial crises around the world.  Economists Charles Kindleberger and Robert Aliber write, “The three decades since the early 1980s have been the most tumultuous in monetary history in terms of the number, scope, and severity of financial crises.” 8

To try to encapsulate a very complex phenomenon in a nutshell, a financial crisis is a large-scale pattern of unsustainable borrowing.  It often results when there is an overabundance of money and low interest rates.  Consumers borrow heavily.  If they are borrowing for, say, real estate, home prices rise.  This attracts speculators, financiers who buy and sell real estate for short-term profit.  Unfortunately, all this activity is built on a false foundation without adding any value to the economy.  Such a bubble always reaches a climax of wanton lending, fraud, and white collar crime before it crashes.  False prices collapse, borrowers default on loans, and banks run out of money to lend.  It is a vicious cycle that gets much worse very quickly.

National governments, central banks, and insurance companies have become well equipped and willing to be lenders of last resort when banks need help with liquidity.  The recent crises have all been international.  There is no effective central bank for the world.  International crises are further complicated by the fact that they involve multiple currencies.  Only since the 1970’s, the values of different units of currency – the dollar, pound, euro, yen, etc. – have been floating independently of each other.  Each country has some control over influencing its own currency, while other factors are determined strictly by the whims of market forces.  Currency fluctuations create a whole new dimension of complexity that makes global financial crises much more difficult to manage than domestic ones.

The era of floating currencies has actually been a continuous period of one crisis precipitating another.  A sequence of crises can be traced from Latin America to Japan to Southeast Asia to the United States and then around the world.  The Japanese boom and bust was particularly interesting.  As investors took their money out of Japan in the 1980s, they took much of it to newly liberalized China.  This was the seed money for China’s campaign of growth.

This history of crises has shown that, in the age of floating currencies, exchange rates can fluctuate uncontrollably.  This can lead to large-scale cross-border money flows, which can lead to bubbles and crashes.  “A world central bank would be a more efficient lender of last resort,” write Kindleberger and Aliber, because a world bank would not have to worry about exchange rates and would have greater control over the total money supply.  However, a true world bank is not going to be politically feasible any time soon.  Each nation has a long history with its particular currency, and can use it to exert some degree of influence over the economy in its part of the world.  It is very difficult to give up this mark of national sovereignty and hand it over to a larger authority.  Yet if this analysis is true, a strong global bank could have been able to prevent or mitigate the wild financial crises of the recent past.  It is an institution worth considering for the long run, as globalism becomes increasingly comfortable for those young people who were not born in ultra-nationalistic times.

Return to Chapter 1

Continue to Section 1.IV:  The Age of AIDS

E. Citations

 

  1.  Chronicle of the 20th Century, Dorling Kindersley publisher, 1995, p. 1303.
  2. http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/the-policy/conditions-for-enlargement/index_en.htm
  3. http://www.schuman.info/
  4. Brandt, Loren et al. (2008), “China’s Great Transformation”, Cambridge university press, p. 11
  5. Perkins, Dwight et al. (2008), “Forecasting China’s growth to 2025”, China’s Great Transformation, Cambridge: Cambridge university press, p. 866.
  6. Khanna, Parag, The Second World, 2009, book summary
  7. Dettmer, Jamie, “Syrian Army Accused of Vicious, Systematic Rape,” The Daily Beast, 8/13/12, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/08/13/syrian-army-accused-of-vicious-systematic-rape.html
  8.  Kindleberger, Charles and Aliber, Robert, Manias, Panics, and Crashes, p. 278.
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