The Juggler’s Dilemma

I have never taken up juggling as a hobby, because I don’t feel I have great coordination and because I tend to focus too much on one ball at a time rather than trying to get the whole system of balls working together.  Nonetheless, the concept of juggling is setting through one’s movements a repetitive pattern where the balls work in a flowing system and where others can be added as the case may be to change that pattern slightly to a different one.

Sometimes paying attention to the news, and trying to make sense in what is going on in the world, can be a lot like juggling.  Our attention can be fixated by either pointless things (whether Charlie Sheen is “winning” or not), or can be fixated one one ball (whether it is wacky Gaddafi in Libya [1] [2] or to the somewhat irrational panic over radioactive pollution coming from Japan’s troubled reactors [3] [4] to the West Coast of the United States, leading to a run on iodine) to the extent that one loses track of the greater context and the interconnectedness of numerous aspects of our alarming current world situation.

As will soon be clear, no matter where we start with, we will eventually find a great deal of interrelated concerns, so it does not really matter where we will begin (it is a very complicated picture).  Nevertheless, let us for simplicity’s stake start with Japan.  Japan recently suffered the worst earthquake in its history, which has led to its worst crisis since World War II, the threat to several nuclear reactors, and to a massive humanitarian disaster in the midst of what has been a very cold winter there.  The threat of a nuclear meltdown has led some people on the West Coast of the United States to stock up on iodine.  Yet there are a few important aspects that most people are neglecting to study.

For one, why does Japan, an area with a known risk of seismicity, have so many nuclear reactors?  As it happens, Japan has virtually no natural resources, so it is highly dependent on imported energy.  As its oil supply is drastically dependent on the Persian Gulf, it has sought to diversify its energy reserves by focusing on nuclear power, the sources of which it can get reliably from Australia and be less dependent on the Middle East (understandably so).  So the nuclear risk that Japan is now facing is a direct consequence of its entirely understandable desire to diversify its energy in a way that leaves it less vulnerable to geopolitics, a vulnerability that is extreme.

The response of the United States to the humanitarian disaster has been for the US to move its Seventh Fleet to the coast outside of Japan to help rescue civilians and provide much needed helicopters to the aid effort.  Nonetheless, those ships have to come from somewhere.  The Seventh Fleet is responsible for large parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and is also the fleet responsible for the security of South Korea [5].  Additionally, the Japanese need for quick capital after this desire may cause it to liquidate its US Treasury Bonds in order to find some ready yen to begin the process of repairing its infrastructure and getting its export machine revved up again.

So, already with just one crisis we have three potentially serious repercussions–the distraction of the United States from a tense standoff in Korea that has been looming for months [6] [7], the greater dependence of Japan on Persian Gulf oil because its nuclear industry is being weakened by natural disaster and the threat of meltdown, and the vulnerability of both Japanese and American credit ratings because of the need of Japan to liquidate the T-bills it holds as part of America’s massive foreign debt in the face of a horrific disaster.  One crisis and there are at least three balls already in the air to deal with.  And we’re just getting started.

Let us move to the Korea problem.  The last time we heard about Korea, it was in the context of a succession crisis where North Korea sought to ensure the legitimacy of its pudgy wannabe dictator by attacking a fishing village near the DMZ.  This crisis was barely averted because of the influence of the United States, Japan, and China on North and South Korea to be reasonable and avoid making moves that would make war impossible.  The distraction of the United States and the serious weakening of Japan makes that rather fragile and temporary peace more risky.  Does North Korea risk a major war because South Korea’s protectors are distracted with a massive disaster?  Maybe.  If so, does China help North Korea or let the more powerful South Korea eventually counterattack and give North Korea a beating?  Who knows?  Clearly, though, North Korea and China have an opportunity to act while there is a weakened ability to do anything about it in South Korea for the time being, though no one knows whether that opportunity will be taken.

Let us not forget either that China has not been sitting on its hand while the rest of the world has gone to pieces.  The relentless Chinese drive for natural resources has already led to potentially drastic consequences in Africa, for example, including the higher profile of Somaliland on the international stage as a result of its offshore oil deposits [8] [9] [10] and the recent vote of South Sudan for its independence [11] [12] as well as the growing threat on the African Union to abandon its principles supporting the legitimacy of its many rogue states [13].  Additionally, the growing threat of piracy off the Somali coast has forced world attention on cleaning up that bit of unfinished business from the collapse of effective government in Somalia [14] [15] [16] through both military means and the development of a better legal infrastructure in Somaliland and elsewhere.  Again we see, though, that a lot more balls are in the air than can easily be paid attention to.

In light of the fact that Somaliland recently pulled its citizens out of Libya due to threats from attacks on both sides [17] and the fact that the threat of regime change has swept over much of the Middle East [18] [19] [20], threatening the legitimacy of much of the existing political order in that part of the world, let us focus on some elements of this whole mess that might be getting neglected.  For one, Iran appears to have used the distraction of the West (the United States in particular) to play a dangerous game of supporting Shiite discontent in Bahrain as well as helping the Syrian and Hezbollah-led government in Lebanon, while striving to develop its own nuclear capabilities, a matter of considerable danger to Israel.

Additionally, the recent expansion of the European Union to both Cyprus and Malta gives European powers some definite possibilities for flexing its muscle.  The vulnerability of Italy to the loss of natural gas and oil supplies from Libya and the geographical presence of the EU just off the coast of Libya (in Malta) and the Middle East (in Cyprus) allows Europe the chance to flex its muscles.  Additionally, the embattled Saudis have the chance to flex their own muscles by supporting an ally minority Sunni government in Bahrain and allowing the recent conflicts around the Middle East to force the Sunni Arabs of the region into a greater cohesion as a result of their own need to defend their interests [21].  Lest we forget, Bahrain, the current base of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is a choke point that could block off the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf, the oil upon which Japan (and a lot of other nations) depend for their own industrial and commercial use.  This choke point has a majority Shiite population and has had corrupt Sunni leaders for more than two centuries now.  The neighboring coastal region of Saudi Arabia has lots of oil and a Shiite majority population as well.  Religion, politics, natural resources, and geopolitics are all closely intertwined.

Moving back to Libya, the United States and the rest of the world is basically begging the Europeans to take the lead on this crisis, as the United States realizes it clearly has too many commitments already, including major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan [22] in addition to its efforts to keep a lid on things in Bahrain, its involvement in Libya, its anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, and its humanitarian interests in Japan.  Additionally, the United States itself has serious budget crises of its own on the state and federal levels [23] and a long-term entitlement crisis that its people appear completely unwilling to recognize and confront [24], a crisis that Europe is already currently facing in some of its nations.  Even in our own backyard we face the possibility of conflict and war due to boundary disputes [25], something that has gone nearly totally unnoticed because of there being so many other crises going on simultaneously.

Some of the current situations are minor ones that could have been easily resolved had there been the ability to focus clear attention on them.  Unfortunately, with so much going on at the same time, little has been done about many of these issues, most of which are interconnected in some fashion with other concerns elsewhere.  With a near-total lack of knowledge about interconnections and the whole context, it is difficult to get a handle on the more decisive elements.  For example, there appear to be a few major concerns that cut across many of the problems–the combination of democracy with growing religious identity in many parts of the world, which itself heightens both internal conflicts (against corrupt dictators and/or internal minorities) as well as external ones (against imperialistic nations and ethnoreligious enemies); the decline of legitimacy of existing regimes, leading to the formation of new states (Somaliland and South Sudan), the use of wars as a way of ensuring legitimacy (as in Korea), or the threat of the popular overthrow of leaders all over the Middle East; the burden of debt and entitlement expenses to nations like Japan, the United States, and Europe, threatening their ability to act decisively against the threat of joblessness within or threats to their interests by global crises; added to this is the desire of some nations to increase their geopolitical importance by intervening in the crises of their neighbors or further flung nations (like China and Iran to give but two examples).

I have the distinct feeling that the current situation is much like that of the 1930’s, where the apparent breakdown of the international order and the rise of numerous and evil political and cultural trends eventually led to a proliferation of regional wars and finally a World War.  With so many crises going on simultaneously, though, it is hard to see how the stampede can be averted in the absence of strong leadership in the West or good leadership in the nations and institutions of the world as a whole, given we have a people prone to panics rather than self-reflection and self-examination.  It’s hard to know which of the world’s powder kegs will be the one that ignites the rest, but there are a lot of possibilities right now, and none of them look very good (Israel, Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Libya, and Korea all look very bad right now as far as possible repercussions are concerned, and who knows what else could come along to add a few more balls to juggle in the air).  If we want these things to calm down, we need some time, but perhaps we have had the time to deal with these matters already, and have already wasted it.  I suppose we shall see.


























About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in International Relations, Middle East, Musings, Somaliland and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Juggler’s Dilemma

  1. Pingback: If You Had Trust, You Would Not Fear | Edge Induced Cohesion

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