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From the Winter 2015/16 Issue "Latin America On Life Support?"
By David A. Andelman
In May 2008, when I took the helm of World Policy Journal, the world was in a very different place than it is today. In terms of leadership, George W. Bush had eight months left in his final term as president. Barack Obama had all but sewed up the Democratic nomination in his battle with Hillary Clinton, and promised to present a strong challenge to the Republican ticket headed by Senator John McCain. Nicolas Sarkozy was just a year into what would turn out to be his only term as president of France. Hu Jintao was five years into his 10-year rule as president of a China, whose unparalleled growth seemed to hold no bounds.
At the same time, the United States was fully involved in two wars—Iraq and Afghanistan, with no end in sight after five years and seven years, respectively. At least 75,000 civilians had died in Iraq and 25,000 in Afghanistan. But hostilities were far from over. There was no exit plan from either conflict. At the same time, terrorism remained a looming threat, especially from an al-Qaida led by Osama bin Laden, still elusive and believed to be hiding in the vast cave system of northeastern Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, as he would be for three more years. The United States was in the process of leading the world into its most profound recession since the Great Depression.
Looking ahead today, the world is in no less perilous a spot. The United States remains at loggerheads over its place in it, just as the other major powers, such as Europe, China, and Russia, are torn by their own domestic problems and their efforts to establish a firm position in a system constantly shifting beneath their feet. The United States is again seeking a new leader who will, as did his or her predecessor, inherit wars not of his or her making and hostilities that will need calming. China has a new leader, Xi Jinping, and a number of problems of expansion and growing pains that would have been unimaginable seven years ago.
And the United States is again seeking an exit strategy, or at least a resolution, from a new war in a region that has known turmoil for a millennium or more—Mesopotamia, the land comprising Iraq, Syria, and stretches of Lebanon. Obama believes the solution is for the people to rid their lands of the plague of the so-called Islamic State—precisely the solution that King Abdullah II of Jordan suggested to me nearly two years ago. But Obama also observed, in a “60 Minutes” interview, that we’ve been involved in an apparently unending conflict in Afghanistan for 13 years. We must have patience. Certainly our foes have such attributes. So, through the prism of hindsight and with a nod to the future, what might be in store for our world going forward?
For our 25th anniversary issue of World Policy Journal in the fall of 2008, we asked a host of experts, thinkers, and doers from around the world to ponder the direction they saw the world taking in the next quarter century. Today, seven years later, it may be instructive to examine a few of these to see how truly prescient they were as we near the one-third mark of World Policy’s second quarter century.
Let’s start with Asia, less the focus of outright hostilities than the pivot of growth of our planet and the billions who live on it. “Twenty-five years from now, rather than a bipolar Asia divided between U.S. and Chinese blocs, there might grow up a cooperative Union of Asian States,” wrote the eminent diplomatic scholar, David P. Calleo, the Dean Acheson professor of European Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Today, we are part way there. Rather than a single cooperative union, however, we have potentially two. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) of 12 nations bordering on the Pacific Ocean—Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam—most pointedly excludes China. Shrewdly, China in turn has assembled its own Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which is less a trade vehicle but more directly an investment mechanism that extends to many of China’s most critical commercial partners in Europe as well as in Asia. Its membership is five times the size of the TPP—more than 60 nations, including Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, indeed 16 of the world’s largest economies, though not the United States, Canada, Mexico, or Japan. The AIIB is clearly structured as a counterweight not only to the TPP but also the existing Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both of which China sees as dominated by the United States.
The fervent hope of many, however, is that well before the quarter-century mark is reached, a way may be found toward lifting the bipolarity that these two separate, yet hardly equal, systems seem calculated to perpetuate. Sadly, today’s Chinese leadership seems ill-inclined to approach any accommodation or condominium between these two groups—perhaps less inclined than at any moment since Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai first welcomed Richard Nixon to Beijing in 1972, and opened China to a place in the modern world order. Rather, China under the tough and focused leadership of Xi Jinping, seems more inclined to seek accommodation at the fringes—cybersecurity, global warming, pledges of good faith easily taken, while difficult to enforce—as it seeks a path out of its current economic troubles and entrenched corruption that still wraps leg irons around its stride toward a more expansive future.
Mira Kamdar, now a distinguished member of the editorial board of The New York Times, explored the other pole of Asia—namely India, a kaleidoscopic democracy registering explosive growth, at least demographically, but with more of its children suffering from malnutrition than all of sub-Saharan Africa. The latest United Nations World Population Prospects Report projects that seven years from now, India will pass China to become the most populous nation on earth. This is good news and bad for each. For China, slowing population growth could provide a pause—and an opportunity to bring the interior of this vast nation into the 21st century.
For India, its extraordinary rate of growth promises to produce a middle class larger than the entire population of the United States and together with new pressure from India’s ever more politically potent and organized underclass could actually, as Kamdar puts it, “resolve its crippling problems of corruption and poor governance … delivering quality education and healthcare, housing, clean water, and sanitation to the vast majority of its citizens.” All this is a sharp contrast to China’s centrally planned autocracy.
While we are discussing demographics, it’s worth examining the case of Africa, where projections suggest the population of this continent will double, accounting for more than half of the global population growth over the next 35 years. By 2050, Nigeria alone will have surpassed the United States, vaulting from seventh to third most populous nation on earth. Clearly, this itself presents enormous challenges for the level of wealth of Africa’s people, the ability to feed, clothe, and house each of them adequately while maintaining a degree of stability and security that has so far escaped vast stretches of this continent. Of that, I am less sanguine. The pressures of plain survival can lead to violent acts that become self-perpetuating.
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE
Seven years ago, Orville Schell and Michael Zhao of the Asia Society warned about the accelerated melting of the Tibetan glaciers—sources of water for 2 billion people. This process has only accelerated since they warned these climate shifts were leading to “desertification [that] has become so serious in this region that whole sections of road are now buried under sand.” For once the glacial pack has melted, it can never to be replaced. Moreover, the entire pattern of Asian monsoons may be altered irreversibly.
Today, water is becoming the currency of choice in vast parts of the world. And, I am persuaded, in coming decades it will be this commodity—more than oil, copper, rare earths, or any other mineral—that will be the source of future controversy, even conflict. Already, Saudi and Gulf investors are taking stakes in tracts of arable land in Africa with an aim of producing food for their water-starved stretches of the Middle East. When demographics come up against investments, though, the conflicts could be unimaginable.
The scale is indeed monumental. Already, Saudi Arabia will spend more than $50 billion simply to maintain the ability to supply the 80 gallons per day that each resident of the Kingdom is projected to need. Yet water demands are also growing at more than 8 percent a year and, over the coming decade, could easily double at the same time revenues from oil are plummeting. It’s hardly surprising, then, that in 2016 the state will begin phasing out subsidies to grow wheat at home, calling on Saudi agricultural investors to move production abroad.
MIDDLE EAST REDUX
If Saudi Arabia and other drought-stricken Gulf nations must spend increasing resources to provide food and water to their people, security demands on these nations will increase. Conflicts in the Middle East are more likely over the next seven years to mirror those of the past seven and pose the principal global challenge to peace and security far beyond the region’s boundaries. There is little immediate likelihood that the conflict between Shia and Sunni that has defined much of the Islamic world since the era of the Prophet will be put to rest. But there is at least promise that many of our most deadly and noxious problems could be neutralized. The much-maligned Iranian nuclear pact is a critical first step. With a single stroke, suddenly the world has bought itself a decade, perhaps more, to find some paths toward peace.
So how does that all play out exactly? First, it’s vital to get all the parties to these conflicts around the same table. The delicate diplomatic pirouette that Obama choreographed to bring the five members of the U.N. Security Council (including both Russia and China) plus Germany into the same negotiating room with Iran must be re-mastered to bring an end to the civil war in Syria, allowing all those with a stake in restoring peace and order to that country to move toward some sort of resolution. Only with an end to the civil war can efforts be turned to neutralizing the Islamic State and ending its aspirations of bringing violence to democracies wherever they may be found.
There’s every motivation for every party involved. For the Europeans, there’s the specter of an ever-changing number of refugees arriving at their doorstep and vicious acts of terrorism in their capitals. In September, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her willingness to welcome 800,000. A month later, even the most humanitarian-minded Germans were beginning to have second thoughts. A German television correspondent asked me in October whether I had any concerns over the process of absorbing nearly a million new residents who were unable to speak their language, understand their customs, or bring the most urgently needed skills to German business and industry. Might the costs of integrating such a population not be higher than even the powerful German economic and industrial machine could support? Certainly, that’s the concern about welcoming these refugees of Syria’s civil war or Iraq’s ongoing secular conflicts into the United States, though as one French commentator, with a cocked eye, pointed out to me, “You were the ones who set all this in motion, after all, were you not?”
Then there’s the you-break-it, you-buy-it scenario. We broke Iraq. Then it cost us $1.7 trillion, plus another $490 billion in veterans benefits—costs that could, with interest, escalate to more than $6 trillion over the next decade, according to the Costs of War Project at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. But who pays for rebuilding Syria? Saudi Arabia is on the hook for Yemen, which it has largely broken all by itself, along with a token coalition of like-minded Sunni nations it assembled to beat off the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
The ultimate fear, of course, is the spread of all these conflicts beyond the immediate confines of Syria, Iraq, and remote stretches of the Arabian Peninsula. Already we are seeing the first suggestions of such a nightmare scenario: bombings in the Turkish capital of Ankara and large-scale trafficking across the Turkish-Syrian border by jihadists from across the world. In North Africa, fighters loyal to the Islamic State or various offshoots of al-Qaida and other jihadist splinter groups have turned Libya into an all but failed state, and are setting their targets now on Tunisia.
Seven years ago, we asked Mona Eltahawy, Nicolaus Mills, and François Heisbourg to examine the Middle East and Iran and suggested scenarios that might play out over the next quarter century. Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and one of Europe’s great strategic thinkers, took on Iran. He posited three scenarios.
Option A: Bomb Iran immediately, destroying its ability to produce a nuclear weapon. Then, “on February 12, 2019, the 40th anniversary of the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Tehran, a 12 kiloton nuclear device loaded in the hold of Liberian-flagged liquid natural gas (LNG) carrier exploded in Boston harbor. The combination of the nuclear detonation with a fireball produced by thousands of tons of pressurized natural gas killed some 40,000 people all but instantly. The subsequent fires and the radioactive fallout—the giant explosion occurred on a cold sunny day with a brisk northeasterly wind—snuffed out at least as many lives on the following days. The U.S. of course quickly retaliated.” Five years later, the world began moving toward general nuclear disarmament.
Option B: A “grand bargain” not unlike the agreement that would emerge in 2015, from the P-5+1 talks in Vienna—an Iran that’s renounced, at least for the present, any lust for a nuclear arsenal, a move toward a “Japanese model” of peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Option C: Do nothing, and two years later Iran would detonate a 15 kiloton nuclear weapon beneath a mountain bordering the Great Salt Desert, placing the entire Middle East and much of the world in the position of a massive new escalation in the nuclear arms race.
We are, today, closer to Option B. Seven years from now, with good faith on all sides still in tact, we will be years from the expiration of even the earliest elements of the P-5+1 accord—seven years for men and women of good faith and wisdom to resolve some of the more intractable, even deadly, problems of the region without a new nuclear power looming in the background.
As for our other prognostications, Nicolaus Mills, a Sarah Lawrence College professor and expert on the Marshall Plan of 1948 that helped Europe recover from World War II, posited a new Marshall Plan for redevelopment of the Middle East. Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian-American commentator, and author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, suggested the first Egyptian president of an Islamic background might name the first woman minister of the interior in 2033. We needed barely one year for Mohammed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, to be elected president, then for a military coup to displace him. We are still waiting for a female minister of the interior. We will likely have a long wait. If there is one constant in the Muslim world, at least for the foreseeable future, it is the persistence of second-class citizenship for women in most Islamic nations.
A NEW COLD WAR?
Throughout each of these regions and far beyond, there has been a looming threat from a resurgent Russia. Russian forces are introducing dramatic high-tech weaponry under battlefield conditions for the first time in the air and on the ground in Syria. So in October, I was asked in Montreal, as the concluding keynote speaker at the annual conference of the National Insurance Institute of Canada, the same question I’ve been asked at innumerable venues, whether I see America and Russia moving toward a new Cold War. I do not. Crimea, Ukraine, threats to the Baltic republics, all NATO members; the latest iteration of Russian fighters, American and NATO warplanes all contesting the narrow airspace over Syria; and advanced terrain-hugging Russian cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea, crossing (and occasionally falling) on Iran en route to Syria certainly pose an enormous threat to world order—the closest that military forces of the two nations with the largest nuclear arsenals have come to each other since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Earlier, there were challenges in Georgia—primarily in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Certainly, on some levels, Vladimir Putin would like in some fashion to reconstitute the Soviet Union.
But there is little motivation for an outright clash at any level. America and Russia no longer represent antithetical ideologies—communism versus capitalism—competing for the hearts and minds of the world. In many respects, Russia today is more capitalist than America. What motivates Putin, more a latter-day czar than commissar, has little to do with any return to past failures, any desire to shoulder the burden again of poor, failing republics on the fringes of his empire. The Soviet Union, by almost any standard, was an abject failure.
One weekend in the early 1980s, when Leonid Brezhnev was still doddering along in power as Soviet president, a top executive of CBS News arrived in Moscow for a visit and wound up trapped for hours in the rickety elevator at Sadovo Samotechnaya (“Sad Sam”), one of the compounds where the Soviets housed foreign journalists and news bureaus, guarded by uniformed KGB and carefully isolated from the Russian people. “I never believed again in the myth of Soviet power and invincibility,” he would tell everyone after that experience. “Any country that can’t make a toilet that works or an elevator that can reliably go up and down can hardly pose a major threat to anyone.” This was not entirely true. The Soviet state simply had a different set of priorities: missiles and tanks, in large quantities, if not state-of-the-art, and not toilets or elevators for the masses. Putin, too, trained as a late-Soviet intelligence apparatchik and learned the same lesson of priorities. But his goals today are somewhat different.
The Soviets wanted to win the hearts and minds of the world to their cause. Putin wants something far simpler, yet far more elusive—respect. Merkel understands that completely. That’s why, even at the height of the Crimean confrontation, she called him religiously, at least once a week, just to talk. He had to know, she reportedly told confidants, that there were people who respected him in the West. And he had to maintain some touch with reality, not simply the artificial universe of sycophants he’d assembled around him in the carefully curated atmosphere they all breathed. Nearly half a millennium ago, Ivan the Terrible was the first to assume the title of “Czar of All Russias,” which morphed eventually into the hereditary title “Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias.”
It was Ivan who built the magnificent St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square that Putin speeds past each time he enters and leaves the Kremlin. Legend has it that Ivan, living up to his name, ordered the eyes of the architect Postnik Yakovlev put out so that he could never design anything as beautiful again. Ivan, too, wanted respect—at any cost.
Seven years ago, rather perceptively, Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev—the same Soviet leader who went nose-to-nose with President John F. Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis—detailed her predictions of the Russian universe a quarter century hence.
Russia’s problem, Khrushcheva observed, may be found in the hearts of its people, not in their minds or pocketbooks. “The 20th century alone saw Russia move from one absolutist regime to another—absolutist monarchy, absolute anarchy, absolute dictatorship [of the proletariat], with brief romps through tyranny, totalitarianism, and some short periods of reform … Each successive leader always seeks to eliminate the past and establish himself as the only ruler capable of bringing Russia the greatness it has so deserved yet that has so eluded it.” In other words, Russia’s leaders demand, indeed need, respect, reflecting the same deeply felt need of all the people they rule.
This is why Russians traded Czar Nicholas II for Lenin, and Gorbachev and Yeltsin for Putin. Each has been, in his own way, an “Emperor of All Russias.” It is what the Russian people want—and why they will swallow whatever Putin feeds them and then ask for more. They need desperately to believe that there is one omniscient, omnipotent individual watching over them, and they are prepared to support him at all cost, even if it means believing some of the most extraordinary tales when a Russian missile downs a peaceful passenger aircraft passing above territory he desires to control in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine, for centuries, has been—far more than Georgia or Abkhazia—a core holding of the Russian empire. “After all, it was Ukraine’s break with Russia—not Georgia’s—that was perhaps the most wrenching both for those in the Kremlin nostalgic for imperial control and for ordinary Russians, who see Ukraine as the wellspring of Russian civilization,” Khrushcheva concludes, referring to “how enlightened the 10th-century empire known as ‘Kievan Rus’ had been, before it was forced to give way in the twelfth century to the despotic princes of Moscow.” In short, even back to the earliest of years of greater Russia, imperial control and respect have been deeply, if not inextricably linked.
Europe, of course, has challenges of its own, many consisting of fallout from the latest crises of these other regions—none of which was really foreseen seven years ago. The most immediate and potentially destabilizing is the wave of refugees from horrors in the Middle East and Africa. The civil war and terrorism of Syria and Iraq have the potential of emptying a large part of the population of those territories, millions of whom have already left, hundreds of thousands pitching up in a Europe moved by their plight but with scarcely the means or, in many cases, the will to respond. In Paris, the center-right French daily Le Figaro conducted a snap online poll of its readers shortly after the crisis erupted in late September and found that 56 percent of its readers believed these refugees should be turned back at the border, while the center-left daily Le Monde pointed out that most French were “very reticent” about accepting any large numbers of migrants. Such feelings have only broadened and deepened in the aftermath of November’s horrific terrorist massacre in Paris.
Europe is still struggling out of a financial and economic morass of its own that has left unemployment stagnant and hovering around 10 percent. The range is from 4.5 percent in Germany, the engine of European growth, to Spain at 22 percent and Greece, still clearly the sick man of Europe, at 25 percent. Yet Greece is where the vast bulk of these refugees are first making landfall, en route, most hope, to Germany, which itself has little interest in seeing its unemployment rate—and the resulting economic burden—increase.
As Calleo explored seven years ago in “How Europe Could Save the World,” Europe’s model of democratic government “on a continental scale” is barely a half-century old. More federal than the fully national system represented by the far older United States, Europe could be a role model for other democracies, like the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is already moving toward a single unified visa system for its seven Middle Eastern member nations. But as we discovered in a later issue of World Policy Journal, more would-be fledgling democracies or other nations restructuring their governments, have been opting for the Canadian rather than either the European or American model for their constitutions—a model that gives primacy to a Charter of Rights and Freedoms as the supreme law of the land. Part of that is the “niceness” factor. Canadians have an image in much of the world of simply being nicer than Americans—more the kind of democrats newly minted democracies might aspire toward. Europe, by contrast, is still feeling its way—too often dysfunctionally—toward some future that is still ill-defined. I suspect, as I now spend some considerable time in Europe, that the EU will succeed in defining itself quite admirably—preserving the unique character, culture, history, and texture of each of its many varied components as it serves as a refuge for the deprived and destroyed, a mediator for the troubled, and a support to forces for good.
A DIFFERENT TRAJECTORY
So we end where we have begun, with some sense of the trajectory for the next seven years, when the term of the next president of the United States, not to mention the next president of France, chancellor of Germany, or leader of China may be drawing to an end.
Some of these predictions are clear—an extrapolation from a present that provides a good sense of where the future will trend. But my fervent hope is that we may have the good sense to break with the past and move toward a different regime than the one that has failed us so often and in so many circumstances. In The Fourth World War: Diplomacy and Espionage in the Age of Terrorism, the book I wrote some 23 years ago with the Count de Marenches, the longtime head of French intelligence, we proposed an institution we called “the Decent People’s Club”—with its members being “those nations who believe in respect for the individual, for the right of all of us to live our lives as we wish, to prosper or fail according to our talents and desires, and who above all will ensure that their neighbors are left alone to fulfill their own destinies.” The rationale for our club was simple: “As the world explodes from 5 billion people today  to the more than 8 billion people it is estimated will populate our planet by the year 2025, each individual will need desperately some assurance that there can be at least a modicum of freedom from random, unpredictable violence perpetrated by fanatic dictators and drug barons alike. Our club must have a global franchise to protect human life. At issue is, fundamentally, the very survival of civilization as we know it.”
This club still remains, sadly, between the covers of an only rarely consulted volume. But my aspirations in this direction remain very much alive. That is my hope for much of the world—that we allow nations and people an opportunity to find their own way, and come to their service only when the natural order is the most deeply threatened, and then only for the common good.
* * *
With this issue, my 31st I’ve assisted as editor, I end my formal stewardship of World Policy Journal, turning over the reins to my successor, Christopher Shay, who I brought over from Hong Kong four years ago to serve as managing editor and who absorbed deeply the DNA of World Policy before decamping for a time to Al Jazeera America online. As the fifth editor in the history of World Policy Journal, he has a remarkable legacy—founding editor Sherle Schwenninger, who today directs the New American Foundation’s Economic Growth and American Strategy Programs; James Chace, who left the managing editor’s slot at Foreign Affairs to succeed Sherle and accumulated a distinguished record as founder and chair of the international affairs program at Bard College; Karl Meyer, longtime member of the editorial board of The New York Times and earlier London bureau chief of The Washington Post, who yielded his chair to your humble servant. During my years here, I tried to preserve the extraordinary legacy deeded to me, while moving our publication toward a broader audience in print and in the online world. I shall be watching with eager anticipation all that is to come.
David A. Andelman is editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and a columnist for USA Today. His latest book is A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today (Wiley 2014) with a foreword by Sir Harold Evans.
[Cartoon courtesy of Damien Glez]