Chaotic Uncertainty

Commentary No. 457, September 15, 2017

Are you confused about what is going on in the world? So am I. So is everyone. This is the underlying and continuing reality of a chaotic world-system.

What we mean by chaos is a situation in which there are constant wild swings in the priorities of all the actors. One day, from the point of view of a given actor, things seem to be going in a way favorable to that actor. The next day the outlook looks very unfavorable.

Furthermore, there seems to be no way in which we can predict what position given actors will take on the next day. We are repeatedly surprised when actors behave in ways that we thought impossible, or at the very least unlikely. But the actors are simply trying to maximize their advantage by changing their stance on an important issue and thereby changing the alliances they will make in order to achieve that advantage.

The world-system has not always been in chaos. Quite the contrary! The modern world-system, like any system, has its rules of operation. These rules enable both outsiders and participants to assess the likely behavior of different actors. We think of this adherence to the rules of behavior as the “normal” operation of the system.

It is only when the system reaches a point in which it cannot return to a (moving) equilibrium that renews its normal operations that it enters into a structural crisis. A central feature of such a structural crisis is chaotic uncertainty.

In early September 2017, there have been three such dramatic swings in priorities and alliances. The one that has attracted most attention has been the announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump that he had reached an agreement with the Democratic leaders in Congress – Senator Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi – to enact a measure for (1) emergency relief for the disaster in Texas and neighboring states without attaching any conditions, combined with (2) raising the debt ceiling for three months.

This agreement was significant for two reasons. First, Trump had been committed not ever to deal with the Democrats. Worse, this deal was seemingly on terms the Democrats had laid down. More important still, Trump made this agreement without informing until the very last minute the Republican leadership in Congress – Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Mitch McConnell – who understandably felt blindsided by this move. Secondly, and still worse, he suspended for six months implementing the end to the DACA program that had been proclaimed by previous Pres. Barack Obama. DACA was designed by Obama to permit the so-called Dreamers to remain in the United States and Trump had promised to cancel the program on day one of his taking office.

How long this agreement will last remains to be seen. But the mere announcement of it has upset, and probably for a very long time, all confidence between Trump and the Republicans in Congress. It was certainly a wild swing.

Less noticed but very important was a proclamation by the government of Indonesia that it had changed the name of the waters immediately to its north to the North Natuna Sea. This seemingly innocuous act can be understood in terms of the history of maritime claims in the waters of east and southeast Asia. China has been asserting for some time now claims over most of these seas and building bases on islands or even rocks located in them.

Chinese claims have been contested by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, and also by the United States. Until now, Indonesia has tried to remain neutral in these disputes and even offered itself as a mediator. The act of renaming the waters north of Indonesia is however a proclamation of Indonesian rights to waters claimed by China. Not only is this a claim against China but also Indonesia taking a very “tough” stance by arguing this dispute in public. It may foreshadow an end to neutrality on the other disputes in the region. China immediately indicated her displeasure with this renaming. Indonesia is not backing down.

The third shift in alliances is less dramatic because it has been coming for some time. Nonetheless, it has now taken a dramatic form. Turkey seems to have renounced its obligations as a NATO member by arranging to purchase a Russian surface-to-air military system, one that is not “interoperable” with those of NATO allies.

This act is considered a major pivot away from long-standing Turkish relations with western Europe and the United States. From Turkey’s point of view, it is simply a response to acts by NATO members hostile to her. Still, it has implications not only for geopolitical alliances but for major economic arrangements. It is a way of relegating to the forgettable past Turkish grievances with Russia about Syria and Iran. Here too, how long this will last remains to be seen.

Wild swings are the daily bread and butter of a structural crisis. This means that we shall live in chaotic uncertainty until the structural crisis is resolved in favor of one of the two prongs of the bifurcation. If we concentrate on the presumed “meaning” of the wild and often momentary swings, we are doomed to act irrelevantly. We need to concentrate our analyses and our actions on what makes it more likely that the progressive side of the bifurcation outweighs the reactionary side in the middle-term resolution of the struggle.

Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy

Commentary No. 456, September 1, 2017

Donald Trump is approaching the end of his first year as president of the United States. By now, everyone – supporters, opponents, even indifferents – seem to agree on one thing. His pronouncements and his actions are unpredictable. He ignores precedents and behaves in ways that constantly surprise people. Supporters find this refreshing. Opponents find this terrifying.

Yet very few have remarked upon what is I think his most singular achievement. He has managed the trick of being the most unpredictable actor on the U.S. and world scene, and being at the same time the most predictable actor.

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Dilemmas of the Radical Left

Commentary No. 455, August 15, 2017

In what I call the pan-European world (North America; western, northern, and southern Europe; and Australasia), the basic electoral choice for the last century or so has been between two centrist parties, center-right versus center-left. There have been other parties further left and further right but they were essentially marginal.

In the last decade however, these so-called extreme parties have been gaining in strength. Both the radical left and the radical right have emerged as a strong force in a large number of countries. They have needed either to replace the centrist party or to take it over.

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North Korea: Outmaneuvering Everyone Else

Commentary No. 454, August 1, 2017

It is evident that North Korea is the most unpopular regime in the world today. Virtually all other regimes would do anything they could to force North Korea to change its policies, both internally and externally in the modern world-system. Yet they cannot seem to be able to do very much about North Korea’s policies – indeed, almost nothing at all.

How has this regime been able to ignore all the punitive measures the United Nations, the United States, China, Japan, and South Korea have voted, and even implemented? The basic consideration of all those hostile to the North Korean regime has been fear of what North Korea might do if pushed too far. We need however to distinguish between fear of its possible actions internally and fear of its actions externally.

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The U.S. Election in 2018: Enthusiasm Gaps

Commentary No. 453, July 15, 2017

If one looks back at the 2016 elections in the United States, there is really a quite simple explanation as to why Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. The so-called hard core of Trump’s supporters was extremely fired up by the possibility that he might win. They were enthusiasts. They campaigned vigorously. They made sure that their voters voted. They put pressure on other Republicans and Independents (and even on some Democrats) to work for Trump, even if they had reservations.

The story with Hillary Clinton was quite different. Her hard core was less hard and worked less hard for her. Many of her voters and possible voters supported her only because they were anti-Trump. There was little enthusiasm, and it showed. Even if they voted for her, they spent far less energy on mobilizing others. They put less pressure on potential voters. They were sure they would win, and could afford therefore to do less.

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Poor Donald Trump: His Unresolvable Dilemma

Commentary No. 452, July 1, 2017

You have to give Donald Trump credit for superb public relations. No matter what he does or says or what is going on anywhere in the world, he manages to remain a constant center of attention in the United States and throughout the rest of the world. People may love him or hate him, attack him or defend him, but they talk about him incessantly.

There is a joke circulating about him. An anti-Trump voter reminds us that Trump said during the electoral contest that if voters elected Hillary Clinton, they would find the United States governed by a president fighting constant criminal charges from Day One. The voter continues: Trump was right. I voted for Hillary and I find the United States governed by a president fighting constant criminal charges from Day One.

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Top Priority in the Trump Era: The Search for Office

Commentary No. 451, June 15, 2017

In the circles of family and friends in which I move, I don’t believe there is anyone who voted for Donald Trump. This is probably equally true of most middle-class professionals in the United States. Furthermore, a very large percentage of such people are obsessed with Trump and cannot wait until he ceases to be their president.

I am regularly asked to project for them how long he can survive in office. My standard answer is two days to eight years. This never satisfies those who pose the question. They cannot believe that this is a serious assessment. Those who pose the question see Trump as an “evil” person and find it difficult to believe that this view is not widely and increasingly shared by a majority of the population, even including those who voted for Trump.

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India: The In-Between Great Power

Commentary No. 450, June 1, 2017

I have the impression that, of all the “great powers” in the contemporary world-system, however one defines “great power,” India is the one that receives the least attention. I admit that this has been true of me, but it is true as well of the majority of geopolitical analysts.

Why should this be? India after all is rapidly approaching the point where it will have the world’s largest population. It is respectably high on most measures of economic strength and improving all the time. It is a nuclear power and has one of the world’s largest armed forces. It is a member of the G20 which is the imprimatur of being a great power. However, it is not a member of the G7, which is a far more restricted group and a far more important one.

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