Commentary No. 375, April 15, 2014
The United States and Iran are in the midst of difficult negotiations about the possible acquisition by Iran of nuclear weapons. The likelihood that these negotiations will result in an agreed-upon formula seems relatively low, since there are powerful forces in both countries that are strongly opposed to an accord, and are working very hard to sabotage any agreement.
The standard view in the United States and western Europe is that the issue is how to keep a presumably untrustworthy country, Iran, from acquiring weapons with which Iran might impose itself on Israel and on the Arab world generally. However, in reality this is not the issue at all. Iran is no more likely to use a nuclear weapon, if she acquired one, than any of the ten other states that already have such weapons. And Iran’s capacity to safeguard weapons against theft or sabotage is probably higher than most countries.
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Commentary No. 374, April 1, 2014
The general elections of most countries with parliamentary systems have largely functioned in the same way. They have had some regular alternation between two parties, one ostensibly left-of-center and one ostensibly right-of-center. In these systems, there has been little difference between the two main parties in terms of foreign policy and only a limited set of differences on internal politics, centering on issues of taxation and social welfare.
Commentary No. 373, Mar. 15, 2014
For the last month or so there have been formal negotiations between the United States and Iran on nuclear questions. Actually, the negotiations had been going on unofficially and secretly for over six months. Technically the group negotiating with Iran is the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). But the P5+1 is largely a cover for the key negotiator, the United States.
The Saudi regime has long been considered a pillar of political stability in the Middle East, a country that commanded respect and prudence from all its neighbors. This is no longer true, and the first ones to recognize this are those who are important internal players in the regime. Today, they feel besieged on all sides and quite fearful of the consequences of turmoil in the Middle East for the survival of the regime.
This turn-around derives from the history of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom itself is not very old. It was created in 1932 through the unification of two smaller kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, Hejaz and Nejd. It was a poor, isolated part of the world that had liberated itself from Ottoman rule during the First World War, and came then under the paracolonial aegis of Great Britain.
Ukraine has been suffering a profound internal schism for some time now, one that is threatening to become one of those ugly civil wars that are occurring in more and more countries. The boundaries of present-day Ukraine include an east-west cleavage that is linguistic, religious, economic, and cultural, each side being close to 50% of the total.
The present government (said to be dominated by the eastern half) is accused in public demonstrations by the other side of corruption and authoritarian rule. No doubt this is true, at least in part. It is not however clear that a government dominated by the western half would be less corrupt and less authoritarian. In any case, the issue is posed internally in geopolitical terms: Should Ukraine be part of the European Union, or should it knit strong ties with Russia?
Not so long ago, the pundits and the investors saw the “emerging markets” – a euphemism for China, India, Brazil, and some others – as the rescuers of the world-economy. They were the ones that would sustain growth, and therefore capital accumulation, when the United States, the European Union, and Japan were all faltering in their previous and traditional role as the mainstays of the world capitalist system.
So it is quite striking when, in the last two weeks of January, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Main St, the Financial Times (FT), Bloomberg, the New York Times (NYT) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) all sound the alarm about the “collapse” of these same emerging markets, worrying in particular about deflation, which might be “contagious.” It sounds like barely contained panic to me.
There was a time when all, or almost all, actors in the Middle East had clear positions. Other actors were able to anticipate, with a high degree of success, how this or that actor would react to any new important development. That time is gone. If we look at the civil war in Syria today, we will rapidly see that not only are there a wide range of objectives that different actors set themselves, but also that each of the actors is beset by ferocious internal debates about what position it should be taking.
Inside Syria itself, the present situation is one of a triad of basic options. There are those who, for varying reasons, essentially support keeping the present regime in power. There are those who support a so-called Salafist outcome, in which some form of Sunni shar’ia law prevails. And there are those who want neither of these outcomes, working for an outcome in which the Baath regime is ousted but a Salafist regime is not installed in its place.
The icon is dead. Long live what? The world was treated in December 2013 to a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s funeral that was incredible. The elegies were never-ending. More heads of state and government, past and present, came to pay homage than any other funeral in history. There were to be sure some dissenting voices among commentators, but really very few. There was no doubt quite a bit of hypocrisy in the celebration, but there were also expressions of genuine grief and real appreciation for an extraordinary person. It was the last hurrah for someone that South Africans called Tata Madiba.
But now what? The reality for South Africa is that, whatever role Mandela played in the struggle against apartheid, then in the (re)construction of a nation, then in the passing of political power to others, he can play these roles no more. South Africa is now on its own, for better or worse – without the special grace afforded by a living icon. What are its present internal conflicts and its present geopolitical position? And what can we expect it to be in the coming decade or two?
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