Friday, February 19, 2016

The Changing International System - Consistently Inconsistent

One of the only consistencies of international political history is that the consistency of lasting international norms consistently proves to be inconsistent. What on earth does that mean? Phrased a more coherent way, the international system continually changes. To help us think a little more about that are three columns from a notable thinker, writer, and opinionist, Thomas L. Friedman.

Now, I know Friedman is a polarizing figure. Some like him. Some like his thoughts. Some abhor him. Some think his thoughts are thoughtless. Therefore, do not look at what he says strictly for the validity of the content. Rather, consider the potential for future international arrangements that look and act differently than they do today. The problem with international norms and the so-called status quo is that they are time-space dependent. In the moment of a status quo period, it is hard to imagine anything but the current normative state.
Prior to August 1914, the world never imagined that four years later, the entire international system would change, especially regarding a shift to formalized collective institutions and a reorganized Near East, what we now call the Middle East. Can we imagine an international system that looks and acts drastically different than it does today, with an E.U., the current order (or disorder) of the Middle East, prevailing regional alliances like NATO or ASEAN, etc.? The answer is probably not. The answer historically, is probably so.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Mapping Growth and Change

A fascinating map from the good folks at 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 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.