May 09, 2008

The realm of prophecy and prediction is a notoriously dangerous territory in which to venture if one takes things too seriously, but I hope you will forgive a light little wander into that domain. The question at hand is the rise and fall of nations. The period since the collapse of European Communism from 1989 to 1991 has witnessed a great deal of instability, transition, and change, and it helps to step back from the precipice of turbulence to sit and have a look at things and ponder where they might be headed. I offer here a few thoughts and suggestions as to the way I believe things might very well turn out. What follows are merely free thoughts, mental meanderings certainly open to (and indeed begging for) open and intelligent criticism.

First, how did we get where we are? The tripple whammy of depression, world war, and cold war changed the United States indelibly. With little regard for the Constitution, our government had been re-engineered to be on a permanent war footing. While the wars shifted, the footing remained nonetheless. The first war was Roosevelt’s battle against the Great Depression, which was an utter failure. The second was the World War, in which we managed to defeat not only our enemies Germany and Japan but also our ally, Great Britain, plunging her into debt and ordering her to dismantle her empire. The third war was the Cold War against our former ally the Soviet Union.

With the collapse of the Soviet sphere, the United States government was uncertain which of the many paths ahead it should choose. Simply calming down and letting America (and the world) get on with its own business may seem like the obvious answer to ordinary Joe Bloggs, but that was probably not even considered by our overlords in Washington (the mentality there by now forbids even entertaining the idea of being an ordinary country with ordinary problems). The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was a not-terribly-subtle hint that fundamentalist Islam was willing to step up and have a go at us, but Clinton-era Washington didn’t seem terribly interested in the fight, thinking the Islamists were an irritating fly that required nothing more than the occasional swat of the hand to make go away again.

So having won the Cold War and finding itself with nothing better to do, America decided it’d have a go at the Cold War all over again. And what a breeze it was! With an amusingly (for Americans) or embarrassingly (for Russians) drunkard at the helm of the Russian ship of state, it was just too easy to expand NATO willy-nilly, stick a few Western bases on Russia’s doorstep, and persuade a few countries to stray from the traditionally Russian sphere of influence.

But the combination of the stabilization of Russia under Putin and the second, successful attack against the World Trade Center changed Washington’s little walk in the park. September 11th required an immediate and large-scale military response against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but was later coupled with the somewhat opportunistic adventure in enforcing universal (i.e. American) values in Iraq. (An interesting question is whether or not the U.S. would still be in dire straits had Washington only invaded Afghanistan and not Iraq as well.)

Billions of dollars later, confidence in the American dollar has taken a big hit, the price of oil has skyrocketed (ditto wheat and therefore food), and BearStearns came close to levelling the intricate house of cards known as Wall Street. The immediate effect of Russia’s stabilization (taking our economic woes into account as well) has been the humiliating defeat of Washington’s plans for the continued expansion of NATO, the Cold War hangover that just refused to go away.

So that is, roughly, where we find ourselves now. What of the future? It seems plain to me that China and the U.S. will draw nearer and nearer. China has purchased America’s debt (remember America controlled Great Britain’s debt in 1945) and the two countries have become economically interdependent. 1918-1945 saw the shift of political power from Whitehall to Washington and economic power from the City of London to Wall Street. Are we slowly witnessing a similar shift, from Washington to Beijing and from New York to Shanghai?

China has been yearning to transform its maritime force into a blue-water navy capable of projecting Chinese power. But the ultimately necessary component of a powerful navy is an aircraft carrier and China, despite having purchased the never-completed Soviet carrier Varyag (ostensibly for “turning into a casino”), China does not yet have an operating aircraft carrier. (A quick question: which countries currently maintain aircraft carriers? The U.S., U.K., Russia, France, Spain, Italy, India, Brazil, and Thailand.)

Perhaps China will be content to control the U.S. behind the scenes and use it as its proxy military force. Or perhaps China will offer to cancel America’s debt for a pair of carriers. (We do have eleven supercarriers, after all. Eleven.)

An increasing closeness between the waxing People’s Republic of China and the waning United States might cause distinct discomfort in the capitals of Japan and South Korea. Something for someone who knows more about Asia than I to ponder.

Iran seems to be the big winner in the Middle East today. Iraq has been handed to it on a platter unintentionally by the bumbling, bumptious United States (who have also been courteous enough to fight Iran’s other major enemies, al-Qaeda and the Taliban). While Iran may seem to be in the ascendant, the fact nonetheless remains that it is Shia while the rest of the Muslim world is Sunni, and this will ultimately prevent it from ever being the Number One Nation in Islam.

The recent dramatic cuts to the Royal Navy can be interpreted as an invitation for Argentina to bide its time and wait for the right moment to seize the Falklands once more. Outsiders may think this prediction farcical, but they underestimate the level of Argentine nationalism. I was quite surprised during the brief part of my schooling spent in Argentina to discover that a great majority of Argentines still think the Falklands are theirs by right. Our geography textbooks even had farcical little maps depicting “los Malvinas” with all the main features denominated with invented Spanish names. (Port Stanley is boringly rechristened “Puerto Argentino”, while the humble Pebble Island is given the much more grand and royal name of “Isla Borbón”).

It would be convenient for whatever government succeeds New Labour to simply claim that the Blair/Brown cuts were so extensive as to be “irreversible”, an Argentine seizure can be presented as a fait accompli, and London could very well wash its hands of the Falklands while offering all the Falklanders a plane ticket to Heathrow should they want one. However, for Argentina to seize the archipelago again would require strengthening its armed forces, and strengthening the Argentine Armed Forces in effect means creating an alternative power source to the civilian government. Only an unpopular government would consider invading the Falklands, and an unpopular government would be unwise to strengthen the military, given that they might take advantage of such an opportunity to turn out an unpopular government and thereby increase their own popularity. Still, were the right factors (or rather the wrong factors) in place, it is a distinct possibility.

The big question, however, is what will happen to Europe. There seem far too many possibilities to consider today, so I am afraid I must leave them for another day or another blogger.


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