All posts in Geopolitical Analysis

The Coming Clash of Economic Blocs

Will China succeed in carving out a geographically large economic bloc founded on principles and structures quite different from (and challenging to) the liberal international order founded upon the principles and institutions of Bretton-Woods?

Xi Jinping Barack Obama

White House Photo/Pete Souza

With the failure of the WTO’s Doha Round to come to agreement on a global free trade regime, and with the concerted efforts by Russia, China and other BRIC countries to carve out non-Western economic spaces, the world may be breaking into blocs after all — but not precisely the civilizational blocs that Samuel P. Huntington once predicted. Rather, we may have political blocs held together by economic relationships and agreements that harmonize with the political systems that require them. There appear to be three major political-economic groups emerging.

The first is the liberal group: the countries represented in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes 12 Pacific Rim nations, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which joins together the EU and the United States. The link between the two is of course the United States, which becomes the bridge of a liberal political-economic arc extending from the eastern end of Western Europe all the way to Japan in the Pacific, and which encloses NAFTA at its center. If achieved, this arc will prove to be a powerful engine of world growth for decades.

The second bloc might really constitute a revival of the economic relationships that dominated Asia before the coming of the West, and would be decidedly authoritarian in its politics. This group would have China at its center, an outcome that Beijing is striving mightily to achieve through several initiatives: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Silk Road Economic Belt, the Maritime Silk Road, and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. This bloc, which would feature not free but managed trade, would comprise China, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Africa, and would reach into South Asia through the SCO, as well as the Middle East, which is the western end of the Silk Road. This would be a major competitor to the American-led bloc. But it is likely to be less successful for a number of reasons, not the least of which would be the serious economic problems China is now facing — problems that will not go away anytime soon. Read More →

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Retaking Ramadi: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Iraqi military

US Army Photo

Last year, the Iraqi Army suffered its most devastating defeat in the Sunni-dominated city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province approximately 55 miles west of Baghdad. After a coordinated series of suicide bomb attacks on government positions, many of the soldiers and police officers tasked with securing the city panicked and fled the area to save their own lives. The rout of thousands of Iraqi security personnel in the face of only several hundred ISIS militants brought back the bad memories of June 2014, when a similar embarrassment occurred in Mosul.

Now, eight months later, Baghdad’s troops have largely redeemed themselves, having fought their way into Ramadi, braving booby-trapped buildings, streets laced with IEDs, the intangible threat of suicide bombers, and snipers perched on rooftops. Still, like most of the battles against ISIS over the past year and a half, the Ramadi operation was a mixed bag for the security forces.

The Good

Iraqi officials clearly understood that ISIS’s hold over Ramadi stained the integrity and competence of the military and the government at large. As long as the so-called Islamic State retained control of a city of 450,000 people in the heart of the country’s largest province, the Abadi administration was cornered, having to explain away its failures and offering excuses as to why the counterattack was taking so long.

But here is the good news: Even though it took months of preparation, Prime Minister Abadi was able to retake Ramadi without assistance from the Shi’a-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs) – a band of militias theoretically under the control of the government, but in reality operating rather autonomously. The capture of Tikrit in April 2015 was the epitome of unaccountability among the PMUs. As Human Rights Watch reported:

Satellite imagery corroborated witness accounts that destruction of buildings occurred primarily after pro-government forces had routed ISIS and the Iraqi army left the area to militia control.

A similar series of abuses from the Shi’a militias in Ramadi would have dwarfed any tactical success resulting from the city’s capture. Prime Minister Abadi’s reasoning that “another Tikrit” would have been disastrous for his government’s strained relationship with Anbar’s Sunni population is a positive sign in itself. Read More →

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Six Possible Explanations for the Timing of North Korea’s Nuclear Test

Flag of North Korea

Wikimedia Commons Photo

North Korea’s claim to have carried out a nuclear test of a more advanced bomb than it previously had has not been confirmed by independent sources. The U.S. has cast doubt on North Korea’s claim that it tested a hydrogen bomb. Still, an explosion of some type was definitely set off on January 6, as claimed. It measured 5.1 on the Richter scale and occurred in the area of three previous nuclear tests.

To assess whether North Korea’s claim about its first successful “H-bomb test” is valid, it will be necessary to collect air samples of the gasses emitted by the device via reconnaissance aircraft. John Carlson, the former head of Australia’s nuclear safeguards office, speculated that North Korea carried out a low-yield “boosted explosion” in which tritium, a hydrogen isotope, underwent partial fusion.

As decision-making in North Korea is notoriously opaque, here are six possible explanations for the timing of the test:

    1. Nuclear weapons tests must continue in order to develop a miniaturized warhead for deployment on an intercontinental ballistic missile. As such, the timing of the explosion was due to North Korean scientists reaching a technical threshold that requires a test. The last such event happened in 2013.
    2. North Korean leaders, and Kim Jong-Un in particular, relish being unpredictable. When they feel international attention shift elsewhere, they resort to provocative actions. This form of brinkmanship aims to force the five other members of the Six-Party Talks (China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States) to deal with North Korea and perhaps even concede economic favors to get Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program.
    3. The nuclear test was carried out to bolster Kim Jong-Un’s status as undisputed leader on the eve of his birthday (January 8) and in advance of the May Congress of the Korean Workers’ Party (the first such congress in thirty-five years), as well as to secure future support from the military. Kim ambiguously implied in December last year that North Korea had developed a hydrogen bomb – a claim that is now apparently confirmed.
    4. The nuclear test was meant to discourage China from further pressuring Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program.
    5. Detonating such a bomb was an act of defiance to prove the U.S. policy of sanctions and isolation a failure.
    6. The test was part of developing a deterrent against the United States, as North Korea’s official statement notes that “this test is a measure for self-defense… to firmly protect the sovereignty of the country… from the ever-growing nuclear threat and blackmail by the U.S.-led hostile forces…”

These six points are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, several of them in combination could account for the timing of the test. Read More →

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Mending China’s Economic Woes: The Athens Antidote

Alexis Tsipras

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras gives a speech aboard the Chinese frigate Changbaishan at the port of Piraeus, February 19, 2015 (Greek Prime Minister’s Office)

Two of the biggest financial stories of the summer have been the remarkable downturns of the Greek and Chinese economies, with Athens experiencing yet another wave of fallout from its center-stage role in the ongoing eurozone debt crisis while Beijing’s previously unstoppable stock market recently took its biggest fall since 2007. Both countries are clearly in trouble; Greece defaulted on a $1.7 billion loan to the IMF before agreeing to a new austerity package that includes the sale of $55 billion in state assets, and China’s powerful bull market has “staggered to a halt” following an 8.5 percent hit to the Shanghai Composite Index that precipitated a sharp currency devaluation.

While these two economically distressed nations are unlikely natural partners, China is in a prime position to leverage the Greek crisis as a distraction from its own financial woes, perhaps stymying further losses in the process. By launching infrastructure projects and overseeing strategic transportation acquisitions in Greece now, policymakers in Beijing can help reposition the nation back on course for the prosperous future it has projected.

The Chinese word for crisis has often been misinterpreted as combining the symbols for danger and opportunity, but perhaps this is truly the case for China in Greece. In its search for a gateway into Europe, China will want to find the most vulnerable part of the region to make initial contact — and it just so happens that Greece’s financial collapse has made it the undisputed weakest link of the EU. In a relatively short amount of time, Beijing could transform the Hellenic Republic into a base of operations for the European mainland. Beijing’s opportunity lies in increasing access into EU markets through the crisis in Greece, providing greater availability to one of the biggest consumer blocs in the world for China’s export engine; it also presents the burgeoning Chinese consumer class with high-demand European technologies.

China has already invested significantly in the Greek port of Piraeus and taken over two of three maritime terminals, with plans underway to purchase the entire port itself. With the state asset fire sale that comes with Greece’s recent bailout package, China can continue its Greek gateway strategy by sweeping up the port of Thessaloniki, state-owned railways TrainOSE and ROSCO, and one or two of the 14 regional airports soon to be available. In doing so, China will control its own streamlined transportation system into European markets. Read More →

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Is Russia a valid threat to NATO?

Recent events concerning the Ukraine have again raised fears of a confrontation between the West and Russia. Rivalry over Eastern Europe is nothing new though and Russia has long pressed for the institutionalization of a buffer zone between it and NATO. Most importantly, Russia is not the Soviet Union and it should not be treated or perceived as such.

The Cold War was characterized by the stark delineation of two antagonistic ideological blocs comprised of capitalists and communists, which in turn were sustained and overseen by one of the two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively. However, each bloc had its own ideological dissentions too.

While the Soviet system had always had exceptions such as Yugoslavia, Albania or Cuba, it was de-Stalinization that led to the Sino-Soviet split and the emergence of an alternative communist offshoot under the leadership of China. Beijing actually competed with Moscow in sponsorship of revolutionary movements worldwide, as was seen in Biafra or Angola.

The West in turn had its own dissenting group which was loosely bound together by the weight of diplomatic isolation. Apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia, Israel and Portugal cooperated at times to make up for ambiguous support by the United States. This group often found understanding and aid in Paris, for the French too had reservations — particularly after the Suez crisis — about America’s uncompromising stance in favor of national liberations.

Yet there is a major exception to this perfect symmetry between the blocs: whereas the isolationist strain of capitalism never seriously considered approaching Moscow, Maoist China certainly had little compunction in switching sides to secure a better deal which ended in Henry Kissinger’s visit and the ensuing Sino-American rapprochement. This policy was successful in dividing the communist bloc and even stopped the expansion of Soviet influence in Asia. The question then is “why?” Read More →

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Turkey: A Torn Pivot State

The most obvious and prototypical torn country is Turkey…

Having rejected Mecca, and then being rejected by Brussels, where does Turkey look?

These two lines from Samuel Huntington’s famous Cash of Civilizations provide a window, albeit an often-foggy one, into the occasionally schizophrenic politico-cultural milieu of present day Turkey. Such schizophrenia would always have significant geopolitical implications given Turkey’s unique location straddling both Europe and Asia, however, in the wake of the Arab Spring, the magnitude of the implications increases dramatically.

A potential “Turkish Model” of balancing secular democracy and faith seemed to have a chance to earn adherents throughout the region and was largely supported by both the Bush and Obama Administrations. Of course, the giddy days following the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt has given way to bloody quagmires regionwide, from Tripoli to Damascus. And the “Turkish Model” itself has been battered as simmering tensions within Turkey itself exploded in protests and old geopolitical paradigms shifted dramatically. Today, the future of Turkey seems on one hand to be potentially brighter than at any time since the end of the Ottoman Empire and on the other, potentially grimmer than most Westerners appreciate.

I was fortunate enough to personally set foot briefly into this dynamic situation earlier this year through a U.S. State Department funded program organized by the Washington DC-based think-tank, the Atlantic Council. The trip was illuminating and seemed to validate much of what Huntington wrote twenty years ago. Read More →

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Courting a Nemesis Out of Necessity: An Israeli-Saudi Alliance

In the recent strategic simulation The Turkey–Iran–Saudi Arabia Co-Evolution — in which Wikistrat’s analysts explored competing pathways for Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis each other — Senior Analyst R. Jordan Prescott suggested that Israel and Saudi Arabia might sign a non-aggression pact to balance against their common enemy, Iran. He expands on that proposal here.

In October, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stunned international observers by turning down the opportunity to sit on the United Nations Security Council. According to the Saudi Foreign Ministry, the rejection reflected frustration with the United Nations’ ineffectiveness in “preserving world peace”. Diplomats speculated that the move actually reflected Saudi frustration with the West, especially the United States, regarding its policies toward Egypt and Syria. Now, in the wake of the recently concluded nuclear agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia is reportedly exploring alternatives to its alliance with the United States. While experts acknowledge Saudi frustration is genuine, they assert the kingdom has few viable options. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia could contravene all geopolitical calculations if it is prepared to engage a nemesis that also happens to be the region’s sole credible counterweight to Iran. Read More →

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Obama Administration Needs to Sell the Iran Deal

President Barack Obama speaks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office of the White House, September 27, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

White House Photo

By Daniel DePetris

In the eyes of the negotiators, the nuclear agreement struck in the middle of the night between the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran last month provides both parties with concessions that they have been desperately seeking since the Iranian nuclear standoff began ten years ago. For the United States and its European, Russian and Chinese allies, the accord forces Tehran to freeze progress on its nuclear program for a period of six months while negotiators try to seek a comprehensive agreement next year. Among other requirements explicitly stated in the deal, Iran will not be able to enrich uranium at the 20 percent level, construction on its plutonium reactor at Arak will be scrapped, its stock of 20 percent uranium will be diluted to a less-usable form for weapons and no new centrifuges will be installed at any of its sites.

In exchange, Tehran will receive approximately $6-7 billion of its own money that was previously frozen in foreign bank accounts. And for the duration of the agreement, the P5+1 countries have pledged not to enact more sanctions on Iran’s nuclear work.

All parties walked away from a grueling set of negotiations relatively pleased with what they ended up with. Back in Washington, however, President Barack Obama will have a very difficult time trying to persuade lawmakers and pro-Israel groups alike that the deal does enough to constrain Iran’s ability to make a nuclear weapon over the next six months.

The nuclear agreement was met in Washington with cautious optimism in some quarters and downright opposition in others. Mere hours after the P5+1-Iran negotiations successfully concluded, members of Congress from both parties took to the nation’s major television networks voicing their displeasure. Referring to agreement’s failure to prohibit Iran from enriching any uranium on its soil, Senator Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, commented that the Iranians were “spiking the football in the end zone.” Senator Charles Schumer, a vocal Obama ally and the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said he was “disappointed” that Tehran would be receiving billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for simply freezing their capability. Congressman Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, registered the same disbelief on CNN. “I don’t think you make [Iran] bargain in good faith by going squishy,” he said.

Strong words of opposition by itself do not pose much of a political headache for the Obama Administration — even if some of those words are coming from within the president’s own party. Yet unfortunately for the White House and State Department, words are being matched with concrete action in the halls of Congress. Read More →

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Mr. Rouhani, Bring Down That Electronic Wall!

By Bijan R. Kian, Guest Post

Facebook and Twitter are illegal in Iran. That doesn’t automatically block Iranians’ access to these social media outlets.  A little bird (no pun intended) told me the same cyber guardsmen who block access to certain pages on the Internet, secretly share block buster programs along with filter breaker codes and keys to their friends who in turn, share the codes and keys with their friends, and as a result, it is possible to access Facebook and Twitter in Iran.

These clever workarounds don’t make life any easier for Mr. Zarif, Iran’s new Foreign Minister (FM) in President Rouhani’s cabinet. He posts on Facebook and tweets illegally! Kayhan, the ultra right daily newspaper, attacked Mr. Zarif for having placed a post on Facebook that read “I hope there aren’t voices in sync with Israel inside.” Israel opposes premature lifting of sanctions, and what Zarif meant to convey was that Iranians who oppose reconciliation with Washington are in sync with Israel! The article reminds the FM squarely that accessing Facebook is against the law. Perhaps, it serves as a warning that the Foreign Minister could be called to court or even go to jail for illegal use of the Internet.

Mr. Rouhani himself has not been immune to Kayhan’s attacks. Another article right next to the one attacking FM Zarif, peppered Rouhani with criticism of his speech at the confirmation hearing of Mr. Sajjadi, his third nominee for the post of the Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs. Kayhan’s salvos targeted the Iranian President for saying: Iranians who went to the polls in Iran’s last presidential election said “no” to arrogance and violence and said “yes” to rationality and wisdom. The article authoritatively asked Mr. Rouhani to take his divisive statement back. Read More →

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Appraising the International System

By Moumou82 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ali Wyne

Many inventories of geopolitical truths would include variants of these two assertions: (1) bipolarity defined the period between about 1950 and 1990—a period that, at least when juxtaposed against the destruction of 1939-45, was one of tranquility; and (2) the dissolution of the Soviet Union yielded “unipolarity” and unleashed unprecedented peace and prosperity.

Given the pervasiveness of these judgments, it is illuminating to recall how contentious they once were, if not surprising. Near the end of his time as President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Henry Wriston asserted that “contemporaries [have] almost never identified the dominant elements of their own time accurately” (although one might add that those who reflect on the past often overlook crucial phenomena or succumb to facile revisionism). He elaborated:

Distinctive eras are identified and get their accepted names long after they are past, seldom or never from contemporaries. At best the concept of an age remains imprecise, and even when historians reach some agreement upon a name…the dates assigned by different scholars to its onset and its passing will vary a century or more at either end. Even when it has been named there will still be dispute as to which of its characteristics are the essential ones.

Consider the Cold War. In early 1964, when most would contend that the world was firmly bipolar, Roberto Ducci argued  that “neo-nationalism” and “neo-neutralism” were, in fact, sowing the “‘atomization’ of international society.” He went further, contending that the conditions that would be required “to have once again a bipolar world” were “obsolescent.” In mid-1973, nearly two decades before the Berlin Wall would fall, Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke of “World War II and the subsequent cold war” (emphasis mine), almost as if to suggest that the Cold War had come to an end. While he did not, of course, argue that U.S.-Soviet competition had become inconsequential, he did believe that its centrality in geopolitics had declined. To address what he regarded as the world’s principal challenges—“social fragmentation brought about by poverty” and the “collapse of the global ecosystem”—he proposed “closer American-European-Japanese cooperation.” Read More →

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