Geopolitical Hotspots

Aleppo, Syria

A fire provides lighting in a bombed-out apartment building in Aleppo, Syria, December 26, 2012. Photo credit: Freedom House (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Syria’s diverse coalition of rebels is gradually closing in on Damascus. The experience in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, suggests that the rebels may face a drawn-out fight for the capital city. Government loyalists in Aleppo continue to control parts of the urban area. This week, the Israeli government is charging that the Assad government has “repeatedly” used chemical weapons over the last month. Sadly, intelligence gathering in Syria is very poor right now, arguably a casualty of austerity cuts in the West.

Aden, Yemen

The photo shows part of a poor district in the city of Aden, Yemen. An estimated 20,000 refugees inhabit this district of 50,000 people. Photo credit: European Union (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Yemen faces many challenges, including dwindling oil and water supplies, trans-national terrorist activity, and a surging secessionist movement in the South. Twenty-three years after the northern and southern regions were united, at the end of the Cold War, southerners remain unsure about the wisdom of the unification. As the photo suggests, Yemen is also located near the volatile Horn of Africa region.

South China Sea Disputes

Pictured are a United States Navy supply ship and helicopter in the tense South China Sea region. Photo credit: U.S. Navy (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Even while world attention has been focused on North Korea’s provocative bluster, the maritime disputes in East and Southeast Asia still simmer. The multi-state dispute over small islands in the South China Seas is very much ongoing. China has recently announced plans to send tourists to the Paracel Islands, which are disputed with Vietnam, but administered by Beijing. This area borders the larger Spratly Islands zone, parts of which are claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Obama’s Geopolitical Pivot to the Pacific

 

Submarine near Newport News Shipyard

The Newport News Shipyard (Huntington Ingalls Industries) in Virginia is the sole manufacturer of aircraft carriers in the United States. Pictured is a Virginia-class submarine. Photo credit: U.S. Navy (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

On April 3rd, the new United States Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, delivered his first major policy speech. Though broad in its outlines, the address provided further confirmation of America’s shifting geopolitical strategy. The relative shift from the Atlantic world to the Pacific world pre-dates the Obama administration, but that shift is taking on a new dynamic in this age of fiscal austerity.

In the early post-Cold War period, the United States was still primarily focused on engaging with and securing Europe and neighboring regions, including the post-Soviet states. An overwhelming concentration of America’s overseas military assets were located in the world’s most important peninsula of peninsulas (and to a lesser extent in Northeast Asia). Over twenty years after the close of the Cold War, America has gradually been realigning its military and diplomatic resources toward the western Pacific Ocean. As U.S. defense and foreign affairs budgets stagnate or decline in the coming decade, the world’s lone superpower will face stark choices about how to utilize shrinking resources.

In his policy speech at the National Defense University, Secretary Hagel indicated that naval and air power would play more important roles as the United States continues to pivot to the Pacific. Some see this shifting of assets as an expedient decision in an era of war-weariness, following the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Others see this as the logical outgrowth of shifting to a region (East and Southeast Asia) that is ambivalent about the large-scale presence of Army and Marine units. A reliance on naval and air power will allow the United States to leave a lighter footprint in the region.

Hagel’s speech also highlighted the soaring costs associated with America’s military personnel, particularly health care costs. Downsizing the Army and the Marine Corps would ease some of this pressure related to health spending, though the military is partly suffering the same burden that the entire nation is facing with regard to out-sized spending on health care.

From a personal perspective the continued pivot to the Pacific is meaningful for my local community, Hampton Roads, Virginia. My region is home to the world’s largest naval base (Naval Station Norfolk), Langley Air Force Base (officially part of Joint Base Langley-Eustis), and other naval facilities. As well, tens of thousands of workers in my home area build and maintain aircraft carriers, submarines, and other naval vessels. Even as the “sequester” cuts are already having some impact in my home area, the longer term prospect for the local defense economy seems less dire than some American regions with ties mainly to land forces, even though some Virginia assets will likely be re-deployed toward the West coast in the coming years. The pivot to the Pacific will significantly impact both global geopolitics and local economies in the United States.

South Korea Attacked: The Chaos of Cybersecurity

At 0500 GMT on March 20, 2013, the computer networks of major South Korean banks and television broadcasters were impacted by a likely cyberattack. According to Fox News, some of the networks were still down more than seven hours after the attack began. The mass-scale attack in South Korea is only the latest event in a wider global narrative of cyberinsecurity and chaos.

Unsurprisingly, initial suspicion has fallen on North Korea. Despite its status as a critically weak or failed state, the DPRK does have threatening military capabilities, including the potential to unleash cyberattacks. Only time will tell whether the “hermit kingdom” is responsible for the March 20 attack, which disrupted commerce in South Korea and beyond.

What is very clear, though, is that many geopolitical powers – notably China and the United States – are involved in both defensive and offensive cyber operations. I previously wrote about this brave new world of cyberwar-without-end. Even as the United States is ramping down what some previously thought to be a generational fight against Islamist terrorists, cyberwar may truly be unending.

A key reason for this dynamic is the plausible deniability that states can maintain with regard to attacks. A key reason is the pronounced role that non-state actors – whether terrorist organizations, organized crime groups, or other types of hackers – frequently play in these attacks on computer networks. Both states and non-state actors are quite active in efforts to disable or compromise critical networks. And, by definition, state-sponsored cyberattacks are covert operations. States obviously have no interest in transparency with regard to when and how they are targeting their enemies.

Even if cybersecurity is gaining more attention – both in terms of public budgets and news media coverage – not everyone agrees on the true nature of these risks. Last October, then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly warned about the potential for a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” Beyond the financial sector, utility networks, transportation grids, and other infrastructure may be seriously vulnerable to hackers. Sadly, the United States, China, and other states may see no viable alternative to a cyber “arms race” coupled with ongoing attacks. Welcome to the chaos of the international cybersphere.

Black Gold: The Geopolitics of Oil

I recently read Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century, a book by Tom Bower. Readers of this blog will find the book compelling for many reasons. Even so, Bower’s blind spot on climate change is a serious problem, and still symptomatic of the views of many of the world’s political and business leaders.

Oil – published in 2009 – provides a detailed account of the Western oil majors and their interactions with governments during the 1990s and 2000s. The book profiles a number of key industry executives – notably John Browne (former head of BP), and Lee Raymond (former head of ExxonMobil) – as it paints a nuanced picture of the risks and rewards of extracting “black gold.” Too often, ordinary consumers of oil do not comprehend the challenges associated with oil extraction, transportation, and refining. Companies often drill “dry wells” in the exploration process, which bring significant risk and cost to their operations. In many cases, host governments abandon negotiated contracts, leaving companies like Shell, Chevron, BP, and ExxonMobil in precarious financial situations. At the extreme, governments nationalize resources, as has happened in Russia, Venezuela, and the Middle Eastern states before them. Indeed, after the recent wave of energy nationalism, the Western oil majors (i.e. the world’s main privately held oil companies) now control a surprisingly small fraction of the world’s petroleum reserves.

Vladimir Putin Doll

Russia, more than any other state, has been closely associated with geopolitics and energy nationalism. The main architect of Russia’s energy geopolitics is Vladimir Putin. Photo credit: monkeyatlarge (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

The most interesting geopolitical coverage in Bower’s excellent book is his discussion of Russia and the post-Soviet region. The book’s account of Russia’s wild 1990s period is stunning for its treatment of (oil) oligarchs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Potanin. As this and other cases from the book show, black gold has a way of undermining the rule of law and stimulating pervasive corruption. Bower also does an excellent job detailing the rise of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s resource nationalism. One compelling sub-theme related to Russia is the Clinton administration’s (1993-2001) aggressive efforts to channel Central Asian energy resources to the West, but not by way of Russia.

Now more than ever, the oil business is not for the faint of heart. Added to longstanding cycles of boom and bust are major geopolitical risks associated with unstable and uncooperative oil-producing states. And, critically, there is the core unresolved issue of climate change. Unfortunately, Bower mostly treats climate change as a difficult public relations issue for the oil companies. He seems to pat the companies on the back when they eventually concluded that they could not be both fossil fuel extractors and alternative energy leaders. That might be the right short-term business decision for these companies, but heavy global reliance on fossil fuels is not a wise path for our future. We must settle the climate change debate in the public arena, not in corporate boardrooms.

***  A new book by this blogger:  Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses

The Drones are Here and Geopolitics Will Never be the Same

Predator Drone

The “Predator” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is just one of many drones available for military and civilian use. This picture was taken in Cape Town, South Africa in 2010. Photo credit: Blyzz (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

“The United States launched another drone strike in Pakistan … in Yemen … and in Somalia.” These are familiar headlines in the post-September 11, 2001 world, especially under the Obama administration. Some analysts even credit these “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV) missile attacks with turning the tide in the fight against Al Qaeda. And, if Al Qaeda is fading away, governments’ use of drones is on the rise. Geopolitics will never be the same.

A recent Time magazine cover story highlighted the rapid expansion of UAVs in both national security and non-military arenas. The article, by Lev Grossman, is an even-handed assessment of the real and potential benefits and drawbacks of these flying wonders. Civil libertarians and privacy advocates are right to raise serious concerns about the rush to deploy drones in domestic airspaces. In the arena of foreign policy, the geopolitical implications of drones are also worrying. Here are some of the key concerns.

  1. Drones dramatically lower the material and political costs of war. As more countries acquire unmanned aerial vehicles, governments will have new capabilities to launch attacks on other states and their own populations. Minor provocations tied to drone strikes could rapidly escalate.
  2. Just as the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is now fond of UAVs, other governments will presumably embrace drones for covert operations. Like “cyber-warfare,” the potential growth of lethal covert operations could be very destabilizing in regions like the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and South Asia.
  3. Respect for sovereign airspace (and national sovereignty more generally) is likely to decline, particularly with respect to weak and failed states. Admittedly, there are enormous benefits associated with gathering intelligence through a robot drifting or hovering thousands of feet in the air. Even so, critics are right to worry about neo-imperial over-reach.
  4. More and more innocent civilians may suffer from these drone strikes. In Pakistan alone, U.S. drone strikes have resulted in the killing of 261 to 891 civilians (i.e. non-terrorists / non-militants) since 2004. There is huge potential for much more carnage, especially if UAVs proliferate in certain zones of instability, thereby creating uncertainty about which government or group is responsible for the attack.

With respect to drone warfare, we are now in a period somewhat analogous to the early nuclear era, before the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (1968). The United States has once again led the way in developing and deploying bold new weapons of war. As drone expert Micah Zenko argues, it is very much an open question as to whether the international community will be able to appropriately use these technologies.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and NATO’s Departure

Rural Afghanistan

It is the small, rural places of Afghanistan that will ultimately shape the country’s long-term political future. The village of Istalif is pictured. Photo credit: AfghanistanMatters (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

During his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama announced that an additional 30,000 American soldiers will be leaving Afghanistan over the next year. This announcement drew big applause in the United States, but the more significant Af-Pak news on this new year is emergent support from Pakistan. As NATO – and particularly the United States – draws down combat operations in advance of a 2014 withdrawal deadline, progress in Afghanistan will increasingly depend on internal factors in the region. Pakistan’s new supportive orientation is a welcome development, but it may not be enough to overcome the difficult internal dynamics of Afghan society.

As is well understood in South Asia, but often forgotten in the West, Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan has been driven by its fear of geopolitical encirclement. India, not Pakistan’s failed state neighbor on the West, is the essential reference point in Pakistani foreign affairs. In an effort to stymie Indian influence on its flank, Pakistan began supporting militant Islamist groups in Afghanistan during the 1990s. This support – though changed after 2001 – continued over the last decade.

It now appears, though, that Pakistan’s military – which fundamentally controls the state’s foreign policy decision making – favors a change of course. The generals now appear willing to risk greater Indian influence in Afghanistan for the opportunity to promote lasting, comprehensive peace in their war-torn neighbor. It is shocking how few news outlets in the West have seized upon this development as a watershed. It appears that war fatigue has so consumed Western publics that this news no longer sells sufficiently.

So, if NATO’s eminent withdrawal is focusing minds in Islamabad, the same may not be true in Afghanistan. Here we turn to the internal dynamics that will be decisive in determining whether the country will go beyond state failure.

To say that Afghanistan is a “failed state” is misleading. This designation suggests that Afghanistan has a tradition of successful centralized government. While its history over the last few centuries has offered brief moments of more effective governance, Afghanistan lacks a clear sense of national identity and an historical experience that unites all of its peoples and places into a common governing structure. Piles of development aid cannot easily change a political culture that primarily looks to local political institutions for collective action. Worse, the present Afghan state is highly centralized, even as it is weak and ineffective in many parts of the country. Federalism – though more appropriate for Afghanistan – is not easily implemented.

Should we therefore be pessimistic or optimistic about Afghanistan’s fate after 2014? Where we stand right now, we should be a bit more optimistic, given the improved external environment for state building. Even so, we should not be shocked if this rugged, landlocked place is still struggling mightily a decade from now.

The Geopolitics of the Keystone XL Pipeline

A tar sands site in Alberta, Canada

Petroleum extraction from “tar sands” – in Alberta Province, Canada (pictured), or elsewhere – is not “clean energy” production. Photo credit: howlmontreal (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

In the famous words of many politicians, “elections have consequences.” As U.S. President Barack Obama begins his second term in office, he will have a momentous choice to make on whether the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline – to connect Alberta’s huge tar sands deposits with the Gulf of Mexico – will move forward. And, given the recent indications of Obama’s new Secretary of State, a final decision on the pipeline’s fate is looming. There can be no doubt that a Mitt Romney administration would have quickly approved this massive infrastructure project on national security and economic grounds. Given Obama’s recent signals on climate change, though, approval of the Keystone project is in doubt.

Canada, of course, is lobbying hard for U.S. approval of the new pipeline. If connected with potential markets, the tar sands deposits in Alberta could place Canada on par with Saudi Arabia, in terms of fossil fuel exports. And as the energy geopolitics expert Michael Klare argues, the death of the Keystone XL Pipeline could be the death of the Canadian tar sands industry. That is not a minor diplomatic proposition, even among old allies.

The green coalition opposed to the pipeline is right to raise the long-term, global issues associated with climate change. For so many reasons, mobilizing action on climate change in America has been fraught with difficulties. It has now been over twenty years since the Rio Earth Summit placed a spotlight on the negative impacts of climate change. At some point – and soon – elected officials must show some true courage on these issues. Klare is right to identify the Keystone decision as a defining climate policy choice for Obama’s presidency.

So, here is a short list of other geopolitical relationships that Obama should weigh carefully in his decision:

  1. Global food security is at stake. Modestly cheaper energy prices won’t matter much if they are overwhelmed by much more expensive food, caused by climate change. Nor should we overlook the destabilizing effects of higher food prices in weak and failed states.
  2. The geopolitics of climate change is about much more than rising temperatures. One of the central risks of global climate change – already being observed – is restructured precipitation patterns. Though there has been too much hype to date about “water wars,” there are many plausible future scenarios under which states will go to war in a bid for fresh water.
  3. Climate change – barring a reversal of our present global course – is likely to lead to more civil wars and regional conflicts around the world.

Mr. Obama (and Mr. Kerry), the ball is in your court.