Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Geopolitics in 2016...........

Geopolitics in 2016

People are getting very nervous. They can't help harking back a hundred years to the mysterious lead-up of the First World War, which brought an end to the first iteration of globalism with a bang. The great nations of 1914 just seemed to get haplessly drawn into the mess, many 
are seeing similar motifs today - a general movement toward major war by way of sheer fecklessness.

At the cusp of the new year, we face a world in which geopolitical and geo-economic risks are multiplying. Most of the Middle East is ablaze, stoking speculation that a long Sunni-Shia war like Europe's Thirty Years' War between Catholics and Protestants, could be at hand. China's rise is fueling a wide range of territorial disputes in Asia and challenging America's strategic leadership in the region. And Russia's invasion of Ukraine has apparently become a semi-frozen conflict, but one that could reignite at any time.

There is also the chance of another epidemic, as outbreaks of SARS, MERS, Ebola, and other infectious diseases have shown in recent years. Cyber warfare is a looming threat as well, and nonstate actors and groups are creating conflict and chaos from the Middle East to North and Sub-Saharan Africa.


In 2015 the action between the US and Russia shifted to Syria. Our monumental blunderings in the Middle East, which included enabling the creation of ISIS, left us bereft of any coherent way to counter the barbarism and animus of radical Islam. So, our "adversary" Mr. Putin stepped in, on the premise that destabilizing what remains of the Syrian government under Mr. Assad was not such a good idea — as he explained very clearly to the UN General Assembly. It remains to be seen whether Russia will be able to pacify Syria, much of which lies in ruins now. But unlike the USA, Russia doesn't have ambivalent intentions where ISIS is concerned. We've pretended that any old freelance gang opposing Assad is our friend. Russia's aims are pretty straightforward: prop up Assad, rescue whatever governing institutions remain in Syria, and smash ISIS. In exchange they get a warm-water naval base on the Mediterranean. That's supposed to be an existential threat to the USA.

The basic regional beef there, anyway, is between the Sunni and the Shi'ite, which is to say Arabian-sponsored Islamic maniacs versus Persian-sponsored Islamic maniacs. Unfortunately, that translates into the Saudi Arabia / USA and Iran / Russia contest of wills. Throw in some big league wild-card players like Hezbollah and Israel and you have a pretty nasty mix for rising animosities. Sadly, the US can't seem to formulate a strategy that doesn't make things worse for people in the region or for the US homeland or for our allies in Europe, plagued by refugees they cannot comfortably absorb and the awful threat of terror events.

I expect in 2016 that Obama's policy will be to just get out of the way of Putin and see what happens. He doesn't have much left in his arsenal at this point. The worst thing to come out of this for Obama, really, is if Putin can succeed in pacifying Syria, America's leaders will look bad — incompetent and foolish — which is the actual case, of course. Maybe sometimes you just have suck up your mistakes. Much as Obama dislikes Hillary, I doubt he wants to upend the whole groaning Democratic Party Washington DC patronage pyramid, so he might be careful to not start World War Three during the election year. He can leave that to Hillary, should her coronation actually occur on Jan 20, 2017.

Anything might happen across the Islamic world in 2016. Every Islamic nation is grossly overpopulated and the majority are very poor. Most of them occupy territory that has been horribly degraded during the population explosion of the past hundred years, and stand to suffer hugely from climate and weather abnormalities ahead. Governments will fall and may not be replaced by anything resembling a coherent polity. Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia are all now only marginally stable. Afghanistan is hopeless. We will never control the terrain or the people who live there. But we will continue to maintain a garrison to defend Kabul, pretending that control of the capital city is enough.

And then there is the Big Kahuna: Saudi Arabia, with its dwindling oil income and growing multitude of dependant layabouts. King Salman's misadventure in Yemen's civil war has birthed another failed state and dented Saudi Arabia's resources. If the other clans of Arabia, whoever they turn out to be, overthrow Salman, they will also create an opening for ISIS-flavored non-royals to incite a multi-dimensional civil war. An upheaval in 
Saudi Arabia would surely produce profound disorder in the oil markets. The USA would get suckered into this tar-pit wrestling match. The attempt to stabilize our old "ally" with troops on the ground would probably work out about as well as our adventure next door in Iraq did. The further result will be more conflict in this broad swath of the world over remaining scarce resources, especially oil and water, along with hot war at various scales, and ever more massive movements of populations fleeing the turmoil. 

Turkey, with the second-largest military in NATO, could have been a force for stability in the Middle East, but strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can't get out of his own way. He can't decide whether he's on the side of the Islamists or the West and his attempts to play footsie with both, while piling up private booty, have left him suspect among both camps. Lately he has ventured into such misadventures as shooting down a Russian warplane and receiving stolen goods in the form of ISIS oil shipments from Syrian and Iraqi wells. He was unable to enlist NATO into joining the argument over Turkish airspace and has fatally alienated his western auditors by his actions. He's lucky that Putin didn't turn Ankara into an ashtray. The Kurds on Turkey's southern border threaten to start a civil war by asserting their own nationhood. Meanwhile, the Turkish economy is faltering again, reinforcing its longtime status as "the sick man of Europe."

Europe may turn out to be the ground zero of geopolitics in 2016.

Europe's decades as the West's delightful tourist theme park are over. The continent is back to being a dangerous free-for-all of nations, tribes, and factions, with the overlay of alien Islamic intruders making things worse. Who knows who or what will blow up next over there. 

For starters, a Greek exit from the eurozone may have been only postponed, not prevented, as pension and other structural reforms put the country on a collision course with its European creditors. "Grexit," in turn, could be the beginning of the end of the euro and monetary union.

As for terrorism, the sheer number of homegrown jihadists means that the question for Europe is not whether another attack will occur, but when and where. And repeated attacks could sharply reduce business and consumer confidence and stall Europe's fragile economic recovery.

Those who argue that the migration crisis also poses an existential threat to Europe are right. But the issue is not the million newcomers entering Europe in 2015. It is the 20 million more who are displaced, desperate, and seeking to escape violence, civil war, state failure, desertification, and economic collapse in large parts of the Middle East and Africa. If Europe is unable to find a coordinated solution to this problem and enforce a common external border, the Schengen Agreement will collapse and internal borders between the EU member states will reappear.


When it becomes obvious in 2016 that the 2015 refugee influx was not a one-off that the Eurozone could comfortably absorb, the individual nations will commence the deportations. Getting to that has been a difficult road, with the headwind of the memory of the Holocaust. But then, unlike the Jews of the 1930s, the Islamists are slaughtering concert-goers, booby-trapping subways, shooting civilians in restaurants, beheading journalists, and explicitly threatening the existence of European society. This business with Islam is different and we are now four generations past Auschwitz. Europeans may just have to get real about defending their respective and collective cultures in 2016.

2016 will be the lead-up to the French presidential election of 2017. Fran├žois Hollande has the whole of the coming year to demonstrate his weakness. But can the French stomach Marine Le Pen's demi-fascist National Front. The French right wing is not for reduced government, just for pushing people around differently. As 2016 goes on, look for good ole Sarko (Nicolas Sarkozy) to flank them both. Sarko is a bit crooked, but as strong-willed as Le Pen, and not as crazy. French voters will be fed up Hollande-style squishiness, but unready for a female Hitler. Sarko is the Devil they know and they will want him back.

The same election time-line goes for Germany. Voters there will increasingly revolt against what Mutti Merkel represents: how she jammed a million Islamic refugees down Europe's craw. They're not shopping for another Hitler, either, but they will be looking for a strong-willed someone to protect the volk against the foreign hordes, of whom they are getting fed up with. There is also the matter of Germany baby-sitting all the bankrupt nations to the south.

As 2016 unfurls, the PIIGS will spin back into financial intensive care. Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece will eventually have to face the absence of buyers for their bonds and the falsity of their low interest rates. Spain, for one, is not finished with the Catalonian secession problem. Portugal needs to return to the 18th century. The clowns in Brussels have no plan to repair the finances of Euroland beyond massive QE that cannot be endless. Whoever replaces Merkel as chancellor may be the one who senses that Germany ought to lead the way out of the Euro currency fantasy and all the awful liabilities it entails.

Great Britain is a basketcase in search of a basket to land in. It has no economy left besides the swindlers of "the City," its version of Wall Street, and that janky establishment is losing its grip as a desirable financial capital after years of sharp practice, with much of its action moving to Shanghai. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron is a catamite for the big banks. The Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn is an old-school romantic unionist Leftie in a nation with little remaining industrial workforce. Unlike France or Germany, Britain's parliamentary system can route a government on short notice. The debt implosion of 2016 and rescheduled Great Depression 2.0 will thrust UK Independence Party's Nigel Farage into the spotlight to salvage what remains of Old Blighty.

In short, the distance between what Europe needs and what Europeans want is growing, and that gap could spell deep trouble in 2016.

The big question around Asia is whether China can navigate its way out of the blind alley it's trapped in: a banking system steeped in crony corruption, bad debt everywhere, and malinvestment like unto nothing the world has ever seen before. The country is choking on excess industrial capacity just as the world enters its epic Peak Everything contraction. Can they keep on pumping out salad shooters and Han Solo dolls to a world drowning in plastic crap and too broke to buy more of it? They still have $3.4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves to theoretically bail themselves out. But that starts affecting the value of their pegged currency, and their main trading partner (us) can play endless currency war games with them to dissuade them from dumping the rest of their accumulated US treasury paper, which, of course, only pisses them off more and makes them look for surreptitious ways to fight back — which is what currency war is all about. Which is also exactly why China (with Russia and others) has started up its own Asian version of the IMF, the BRICs Development Bank, and an alternative to the SWIFT international clearing system.

Chinese economic and financial statistics are even less reliable than the overcooked sludge offered up by the US agencies, but the tanking of commodity prices worldwide tells enough of a story: China is sure not expanding as much as the good old days, if at all. It's been a great ride, but it was super-quick, and it happened just prior to the world reaching the bona fide limits to growth. China's contraction may be as quick as its rise, and if that is the case, it will be rough ride into the same vortex of contraction that everybody else is entering.


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