Wednesday, July 30, 2014

An Asymmetry of Possibilities

The folks in Stratfor have given us the best strategic analysis of the Israel/Gaza conflict that I've read in a while:

There is accordingly an asymmetry of possibilities. It is difficult to imagine any evolution, technical, political or economic, that would materially improve Israel's already dominant position, but there are many things that could weaken Israel -- some substantially. Each may appear far-fetched at the moment, but everything in the future seems far-fetched. None is inconceivable. 
It is a rule of politics and business to bargain from strength. Israel is now as strong as it is going to be. ...Israel's major problem is that circumstances always change. Predicting the military capabilities of the Arab and Islamic worlds in 50 years is difficult. Most likely, they will not be weaker than they are today, and a strong argument can be made that at least several of their constituents will be stronger. If in 50 years some or all assume a hostile posture against Israel, Israel will be in trouble.  
Time is not on Israel's side. At some point, something will likely happen to weaken its position, while it is unlikely that anything will happen to strengthen its position. 
The other thing that might happen is that the fragmentation of the sovereign nation-state as the nexus for politics, economics and war will continue and possibly accelerate - even with or without a new Caliphate as envisaged by ISIS in their map pictured above. Henry Dampier worries about the ailing ability of the nation state to wage war:
The critical competitive advantage of the state was in the field of war. Because the state was capable of fielding a large, mass army of capable fighters on short notice, it was able to overwhelm small kingdoms, republics, and city-states that were not capable of doing such a thing reliably. This competitive atmosphere was generated in Europe in part by the continual weakening of the nobility and the papacy, combined with over a century of religious warfare between Christian factions. Consolidating war-making power within fewer hands was adaptive.
But in an age of asymmetric warfare:
Owing to its decline, the nation-state now asks for more in terms of material resources while providing less. Its statistics are becoming unreliable (or perhaps just less reliable than they have been in the past). Its standards provided for trade and finance are becoming antiquated, and too expensive to reform. Its critical advantage in warfare has eroded, and many states have become reliant on private security firms to provide physical security, intelligence, and logistics whereas before they were able to rely on nationalist zeal to provide all of those services at an unusually low price.
Israel isn't the only nation-state for whom circumstances will change in the coming years and decades. Ireland's moment of maximum strength may have passed, but it isn't too late to take our future security more seriously than we do at present.

Monday, July 28, 2014

After Westphalia

With the centenary of the start of World War One upon us, many are noting the similarities and differences between then and now - especially in the context of increasingly violent conflicts in the Middle East and beyond. But to understand the present we might need to look further back - to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 - credited by many with the creation of the modern, sovereign state. Why so far back? Because in the age of ISIS, the modern, sovereign state might just be coming to an end. Here's Adrian Pabst on the subject:
The secular settlement of Westphalia is predicated on subsuming all institutions and practices under the absolute sovereignty of state coercion and market commodification. This relentless expansion of bureaucratic control and capitalist accumulation has produced an unprecedented centralisation of power and concentration of wealth, which has in turn created a twin crisis of identity and inequality. So instead of a utopia of infinite progress in the direction of democracy, what is already underway is a resurgence of populism, atavistic nationalism and fascism across large parts of Europe and elsewhere - notably, in Ukraine and in Russia. 
... Among the alternatives to the sovereign power of both national states and global markets are hybrid institutions, overlapping jurisdictions, polycentric authority and forms of multi-level government or governance, which are all marked by disperse and diffuse power structures and degrees of suzerainty that are not captured by modern paradigms of national sovereignty and balance of equal powers. This applies as much to the EU as it does to great powers and their neighbours such as Russia in relation to Ukraine, Belarus or Georgia.
Indeed, it is clear that the historically recent triumph of Liberal Democracy itself was the beneficiary of American idealism writ large as imperial ambition. But as America adjusts to the new realities of a post-Westphalian era, we can anticipate a far more fluid, less fixed world of shifting borders, alliances and power politics. ISIS is only the beginning.

As for Ireland, we might just need to get back in touch with the more atavistic, less politically correct views and ambitions of our own founding fathers if we are to find the ideas and values that will help us navigate the new global realities ahead.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

All's Well

"Not only will politics certainly disappoint us, but even were it not to, the outcome would be a relatively pitiful one. Political transformation is ‘at best’ a re-ordering of primate dominance hierarchies, which everyone knows won’t actually be for the best — or anything close to it."            Outside In
There's nothing like a holiday abroad to give you a bit of perspective on things. Like, what a lucky place Ireland is compared to the rest of the world. The news abroad was all about Gaza, The Ukraine and Iraq; back home the headlines featured culchie rock stars and skobie seagulls. Oh yes, and a Cabinet re-shuffle. Yep, we're lucky.

Still, I can't help feeling that we won't remain immune from the global tide of events indefinitely - the fact that we are one of the most open economies in the world more or less guarantees that. But even if the headlines are just that - news for a day, of little import for the future - other forces will inevitably shape Ireland's destiny.

There's one I've been reading about a lot: the growing failure of 'post-recession' economies in the developed world to create jobs and provide adequate wages for those who want them - a big problem in Spain, where I was staying. A recent episode of the BBC's Analysis discussed whether we are witnessing 'the end of the pay rise'. The conclusion is fairly optimistic - technological innovation will eventually increase productivity per worker like it did before, with some of the benefits accruing to workers in the form of higher wages (and more jobs), like it did before.

Others are less optimistic: Thomas Wells thinks the rise of the Robot Economy means we need to institute a basic minimum income. Scott Alexander has even figured out a way to pay for it: take all the money wasted on educating people who graduate to unemployment by cutting to the chase and scrapping education, using the money instead to make us all 'trustifarians'. It's a tongue-in-cheek suggestion of course (I think), though his image of folks living in mountain cabins reading Aristotle is sort of appealing, if hopelessly utopian. Of course, the problem with the 'money for not working' solution is that we are currently running that experiment in the form of long-term unemployment and it isn't working all that well for either the unemployed or wider society. There might be a future in which something like Alexander's solution works, but it won't be a democratic future.

Anyway, my conservative leanings make me more inclined to look to the past for solutions rather than to the future. Perhaps we need to 'go medieval' if we want the work-life balance to be one that works for society as a whole, and not just for individuals? The average peasant in 14th century England worked just 150 days a year on account of all the holidays, feast days and week-long celebrations of births, weddings and funerals. I've suggested before that we should have a goal in Ireland of establishing the four day week as a norm, adding bank holidays - and holy days - to the calendar over, say, a 10 year period.

I'd suggest it for consideration to our local politicians only, well, they're on holiday - again. Maybe they've worked out a solution to jobless/wageless recovery and haven't got around to sharing it with us yet?

Image cred: ZH

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