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Friday, February 5, 2016

Mapping Growth and Change



A fascinating map from the good folks at howmuch.net portrays the relative relationship of projected economic growth globally over the next decade. At first glance, the map looks cool. It is a neat way to view the world in percentage terms of growth rates. At second glance, you may start to wonder, “Ok what does this really mean?” A third glance might make you challenge the representation of growth relative to other nations in percentage terms. Take a few moments to reflect on those statistics classes you took a long time ago and think about what these data really portray. Set aside the statistical critique, and take yet another look and then notice possibilities for future trends: an EU that if unified presents a substantial balance to US economic power; an aggressive economic regional competitor to China with India; a complicated African continent lacking structural legitimacy to manage rapid growth; balance of power competition in the Middle East.  The relationship between economics and conflict has been a consistent dependency as variables go throughout the history of conflict. Therefore, looking at the map, what kinds of assessments might we consider in the context of potential Gray Zone challenges as relative economic growth indicates balancing to credible power?

The map:

The data for the map:

By way of an update, we spent the month of January doing a look at the past, present, and future. I will try to sprinkle a few bits of commentary about how Kissinger, Kaldun, Kennedy, and Gibbon saw geopolitical lessons as we dig into some biographies this month. On that note, one thing they all point to is that the in fact has changed. It is changing. Moreover, it will continue to change. The paradigms in which we study and perceive global relationships today are not sufficient to imagine how different the world will be in the coming generations. I think that is probably a natural human limitation; we cannot truly imagine the world drastically different than it is today. Nevertheless, as the map from howmuch.net shows, there are significant currents underway that will affect how states, nations, societies, and communities of people will interact, based on motivations and changing conditions. Those motivations, which are a function of agency, respond to opportunities within a given set of conditions and generate momentum proportional to the degree of that actor’s agency.

This week we have been looking at Ulysses S. Grant. If you have never opened up his memoirs, please, go get a copy and look at his thoughts. Aside from being a masterful strategist, he is an incredible writer. His life was incredibly full, and ironically full of failures.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Interesting Interests

What do we believe? Why do we believe what we believe? How do we behave based on what we believe? These are all seemingly simple questions, but in the scope of international relations, these questions are deeply rooted in conflicting yet complementary theories of how humans interact with one another. By "we" I mean our American society both collectively as a somewhat cohesive polity and representatively through our national leadership and policy making apparatus. By beliefs, I mean those things of interest that as a country, we value. Their value is important to how we want to live and how we want to live with others. This raises the next question. How do we pursue and protect those things that we value?

This is the question of international relations, and to help frame our thinking about these complicated questions are two good pieces that might seem a bit dated, but they actually shed some light on how our country is interacting with global challenges today. I would recommend reading P.H. Liotta’s piece, To Die For: National Interests and Strategic Uncertainties, which looks at how we prioritize national interests. Liotta give us a sense of how prevailing realism and liberalism theories shape our country’s thinking about the value of our interests. The balancing of realism and liberalism international theories have been and continue to be guiding ideologies that provide a constructive tension as we oscillate between administrations. Liotta’s essay seems to lean on liberalism theory yet it is inadvertently blended with realism interest-based thought.

Then, look at Benjamin Schwarz and Christopher Layne’s essay, A New Grand Strategy, from The Atlantic magazine. It is an adaptation of Layne’s 1997 essay, From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America's Future Grand Strategy, which is available with access to academic databases. They talk about two conflicting realism approaches to securing power: preponderance and offshore balancing. Although this one is a bit heavier on the academic scale, it is a good exposition of what we see taking place today. The key point to notice in these two essays is that international relations have not and do not take place in a singular plane. Every interaction between one party and another has an effect on intersecting systems writ large. Moreover, relative orders of power constantly change and new reorganizations of power arrangements continually emerge. I contend that the plane in which one perceives these interactions contains limited perspectives of overlapping relationships. In other words, relations may be shaping currents in other planes that we are not perceiving. Seeing is believing; unless, what you believe you are seeing is not what you are perceiving.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Nominal Superpower

What if the U.S. fails to perceive the potential that their superpower status is only nominally so? In other words, what if projections and calculations of how power is distributed is viewed from one plane of perception, while emerging global interactions occur on an entirely different plane? This is the beginning of a line of thought that came to mind while reading Kissinger's World Order and Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

I will try to expand this thought over the coming weeks as we take a look at a couple more books this month. But, something occurred to me while reading Gibbon's history. We analyze great empires and superpowers from the perspective that their power declined, whether in real terms or in relative terms. Many times, that was true. However, could a superpower change from being dominant along many levels - economics, military strength, values, ideas - to one in which their superpower status is only nominally so. What if that superpower status does not really matter? That would be an entirely different plane in which to perceive new and different orders of international relations.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Our Union

Regardless of opinions, biases, ignorance, or otherwise differing indifference, the President's final state of the union is a reference worth revisiting as we think about future challenges and the potential of opportunities. 

President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union Address

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Book a Week Club


Happy New Year, and get ready for one full of interesting twists, turns, and returns to the theories and discourses driving international relations. Although I gave up making New Year resolutions, I am going to venture into an ambitious reading plan. Join me this year as we enjoy a book a week. This year’s book-a-week club will set out on a structured reading plan that adds context to today’s global challenges. This reading plan is not set in stone, so it will likely evolve as things of interest pop up or as a particular subject stands out amidst the goings on of relations in 2016. My goal each week is to offer a short…very short, summary of key points or at least points that I find interesting and relevant. Here is a preview of the books we might explore. I welcome any suggestions or other recommendations that would broaden the year’s understanding of what is going on in the world.

January – Past, Present, Future

·         - World Order by Henry Kissinger
·         - History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Abridge Edition by Edward Gibbon (ambitious start to the year I know; this will only be a good academic skim)
·         - Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun
·         - ?

February – Biographies

·         - Grant’s Memoirs
·         - Kamal Atatürk
·         - George F. Kennan by John Lewis Gaddis
·         - ?

March – Theories

·         - The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
·         - ?
·         - ?
·         - ?
 
April – Political Philosophies

·         - On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present Vol. 1 by Alan Ryan
·         - Immanuel Kant
·         - Politics among Nations by Hans Morgenthau
·         - Politics and Vision by Sheldon Wolin

May – World War I

·         - The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark?
·         - ?
·         - All Quiet on the Western Front by  Erich Maria Remarque
·         - ?

June – In Practice

·         - Strategy by Lawrence Freedman
·         - The Campaigns of Napoleon by David Chandler
·         - Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger
·         - ?

July – Contemporary Thought

·         - ?
·         - ?
·         - ?
·         - ?

August – Re-reads

·         - History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
·         - ?
·         - ?
·         - ?

September – More Biographies

·         - Bismarck
·         - Eisenhower
·         - ?
·         - ?

October – More Philosophies

·         - On Politics: A History of Political Thought: From Herodotus to the Present Vol. 2 by Alan Ryan
·         - Augustine
·         - Nietzsche
·         - ?

November – War

·         - A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan
·         - ?
·         - ?
·         - ?

December – Peace

·         - Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo?
·         - ?
·         - ?
·         - ?

As you can see, there are many open possibilities. This list will change. I do not even know yet what will pique my interest, or yours. So let me know if there is something worth reading. Let’s get started.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Our Muslim Problem


I generally try to limit political commentary here. Instead, I prefer to provoke thought with glances at the past balanced with views of theory and philosophy, rather than promote a thought with opinion and conjecture. My sense in the past many months is that a current of conjecture is shaping a dangerous narrative that has many parallels in history. The negative rhetoric surrounding Islam in general and Muslims in America in particular demonstrate a disturbing banality of evil. In a previous post on this blog, which was later published on e-International Relations, I talked about the absurdity of this banality. Here is the summary of what Hannah Arendt portrays in her provocative work, Eichmann in Jerusalem a Report on the Banality of Evil:
The title holds Arendt’s thesis, as Amos Elon, suggests: that evil, at some level, exists in a banal form. However, Arendt does not actually mean that evil, of the Nazi sort, is commonplace. Rather, she clarifies her intention by suggesting instead that the horrible characteristic of evil, as demonstrated by Eichmann, is in the thoughtlessness with which he administered the Final Solution. Her point is that Eichmann and other Nazi party members were neither predisposed to commit such atrocities nor were they altogether mentally twisted. Their systematic and mechanistic approach to murder, to the extent of considering it “liquidation,” removed a human element from the act of killing, replacing it with legalistic procedure. This procedural aspect of the way Eichmann went about his job, as if he took more satisfaction in the accomplishment of process than in the outcome of those processes, defines Eichmann’s evil as banal, and, therefore, beyond thoughtful horror. One could interpret Arendt’s view of the “banality of evil” as exceeding what is “normal” evil, which is to say something inhuman and far worse than evil itself.[1]
We may ask, what is happening in America with an evolving narrative that fears Muslims? I ask, what is happening that a swelling current of people are further shaping that narrative toward hate? People are shaping it, either deep in their roots of belief, or in some banal fashion, as Arendt implies. I worry it is the latter.
There is a counter narrative to ignorant banality, and that is humanity. I want to commend an insightful and personal illustration of the human aspect surrounding this ongoing discussion. Here is a great piece – well written, thoughtful, and human – by a good friend and pastor. While he describes his experience as “My Muslim Problem,” his lessons are really a call for us to recognize that what we face within ourselves is our Muslim problem.



[1] Royo, Joseph. "Review - Eichmann in Jerusalem." e-International Relations . November 14, 2013. http://www.e-ir.info/2013/11/14/review-eichmann-in-jerusalem/ (accessed December 14, 2015).