One thing that has become clear in recent months is that a number of powerful nation-states are seeking to fill perceived vacuums and increase their ability to affect, coercively, other nations. This is called asserting a nation's "sphere of influence", and I have heard the term applied recently to Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Iran, India, and most frequently, China and Russia.
Really, though, there is only one country with a "sphere of influence", and that is the US, which can project its influence almost anywhere on the globe. The rest of them only have "nearby regions of influence"--even Russia, which, with the possible exception of Syria, really can only bully the neighbors that are contiguous to it.
So, let's start with a nation close to my heart which is, as ever in recent decades, critical, but not determinative to the outcome of current events on the surface of our sphere. We begin with its internal issues, which are often closely connected with its behavior in the world at large.
(These observations on the US are rather obvious--to me, at least.)
The Republicans in the 2014 midterm elections proved they could win the Senate without any Hispanic votes; this is good for them because they are currently ensuring they will never get any in the future. President Obama has had plenty of time to plan the immigration Executive Order he announced this week, and it seems he has used the time well: they are outfoxed, spluttering with anger, unable to counter.
Those who looked for Obama's true colors to emerge in a second term (like me, I must admit) had to wait two more years; now he really doesn't have to concern himself about electoral consequences. That being said, "Obama being Obama" will probably have a net positive effect for his party.
Following this line of thought, Obama is racing against the clock to achieve successes in Iraq and Afghanistan, so that he can leave the legacy of beating down the Taliban and ISIS, without leaving troops on the battlefield. This will help Hillary Clinton in her campaign; it is essential to avoid an antiwar schism in her party which could be fatal.
The Keystone pipeline is an issue of only symbolic importance to all participants. It's now clearly established that it's not a jobs issue, there is no current problem of high oil prices that it would help affect, it's not about energy independence (as the oil will be exported elsewhere), and, finally, the Canadian tar sands oil will be developed, when it is economical to do so (now is questionable for the oil companies), whether there is a pipeline or not (they would use rail lines to send it to ports, if necessary). I predict it will be hung up in litigation for several more years, then quietly forgotten. The alternative is that someone foolishly gives the go-ahead, which would lead to massive, possibly violent, resistance. In either case, I do not think the pipeline will ever be completed, nor do I think the tar sands will remain undeveloped for long.
All these late-stage fossil fuel sources--tar sands, dirty coal, oil shale, deep gas, undersea deposits--are best left in the ground for our grandchildren to exploit, when technologies will be far more advanced, resulting in much lower social costs. It's OK to experiment with some of these new methods (preferably in relatively uninhabited areas) and develop the techniques, but we really should be investing now in the renewable sources and slowing the drain of these irreplaceable non-renewable sources. We will still need petrochemicals for some purposes a century from now.
As for the polar bears--the poster children for charities looking to hold back climate change--we may as well face the fact that Arctic Sea ice is going away. I'd like to suggest an idea, inspired by the nests we put on poles for the raptors in some locations: we should put floating platforms, anchored in some way, out on the Arctic Sea, spaced properly to support a desired number of polar bears in their aquatic foraging. It seems like a good idea to me--let's see how the bears like it (I'm sure there would be a certain amount of pushing and shoving for space on the platforms.)
There is now a single US meta-issue: to use Tolkien's phrasing, "one issue to rule them all and in the darkness bind them". It's the failure, so far, to come up with the means or the strategy which will make the meaningful electoral/political reforms we need. Until this is addressed, the Republicans will continue to come up with tricks to hide their strategy of preventing "popular sovereignty" (a phrase from the political slavery battles of the 1800's; it means the untrammeled exercise of the people's will); elites will continue to control legislation, or the blocking of legislation; the rich will get richer, the poor poorer, the middle-class scarcer. This needs to become the central campaign issue of 2016, but it needs to be done in the right way to achieve progress.
The Democrats' biggest problem right now is the inability to distinguish between the fundamentally non-partisan nature of the meta-issue of electoral reform (as all of us will benefit from progress in democratic institutions) and their own partisan interest in it--as greater democracy will inevitably benefit the Democratic party. According to a HuffPost poll, a 53-23 majority support a Constitutional amendment (48% among Republicans) to overturn Citizens United; the trick will be getting the 22% "unsure" to weigh in for democracy, and not to forget about this ugly 2014 campaign until the next one comes up with even more waste and negativity. Even Bernie Sanders, who hardly qualifies as a Democrat, makes the mistake of seeing this as a partisan issue, differentiating between the Democratic and Republican positions on Citizens United, voter ID, and the like
The latest trick is trying to leverage the states' power to control the method of selecting their Electors to the odious Electoral College. There are two states that consistently vote Democratic for President and have a Republican governor with Republican-dominated state legislatures, Michigan and Wisconsin. Both states are candidates to go the Maine/Nebraska route and assign most of their electoral votes based on the popular vote of the individual Congressional districts, which could send half or more of the EV to the Republicans. (Florida could become another candidate before long, if the national Republican party keeps alienating the Hispanics.) This is a fairly desperate move, and its passage would reflect badly on the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan, both of whom may end up being candidates for the Presidential nomination (or, more likely, the Vice-Presidential one)--their support would indicate they recognize their inability to carry their home state in a national election. .
Of course, the Electoral College itself (the all-or-nothing voting; its separation from the popular vote) is another example, though in this case the Democrats seem to be benefiting from its un-democratic nature: if the Presidential election were decided based on the majority vote by Congressional district, for example, the Democrats' Presidential near-lock would be long gone.
The smart Democratic strategy is to assist in riling up the electorate about the deficiencies in our political process--the constant appeals for money, the dark money, the constant negative ads, gerrymandering, the Electoral College, etc.--then let the anger move forward on its own, non-partisan momentum, and reap the benefits afterwards.
Over the Horizon
As a transition, let's start with a few comments about Ebola. It has become a major problem this year in several African countries, and its containment has not yet been achieved, but the idea that it became a significant campaign issue this year in the US was beyond "D'oh"--it was malicious misinformation. There have been a handful of cases in the US, of people working in healthcare in the outbreak areas in Africa who have caught it and come back for treatment, and two healthcare workers who caught it from one of those people. That's it. It presents a serious challenge to public health, but not in the US. If there is an issue of concern outside the affected region, it was about the slow response of the formal international health agencies to the evidence that the Ebola outbreak was surging beyond levels previously seen.
I would compare Ebola to be most similar, in the nature of the course of the disease in humans, to the plague. Although Ebola is a virus, not a bacterium like the plague, they have in common several facts: outbreaks begin with the transmission from an animal to a person, they produce very acute infections with high mortality rates, they are moderately contagious, difficult but not impossible to treat, and outbreaks can be controlled by modern medicine with some basic precautions. This is not to minimize the severity of the plague, which killed a large percentage of the population of Europe in the 14th century, with serious outbreaks for centuries afterwards, but to say that, though the plague is still around, we can handle the outbreaks if we use some intelligence.
Much more dangerous in America are the continuous outbreaks of Nutballs with Guns; in some other countries, Nostalgic Jihadi Fever. I feel sad for those impressionable youths in many countries who are inspired to go, voluntarily, into the hellholes of ISIS-occupied Syria and Iraq; I should have much more sympathy still for those who live there and cannot leave, but both groups should be made aware that any illusions of tranquil, Sharia-inspired, religiously orthodox life there are impossible under a regime such as ISIS', as impossible as ISIS' dreams of world dominion. There are only two possible outcomes for those there: moderation and integration, or collective doom.
Even if Obama is successful in bringing Iraq and Afghanistan to some kind of positive result, though, there will still be huge problems for the next President to deal with: Syria--even apart from the tumor of ISIS--has no solution in sight, Iran could become a huge issue if the current nuclear talks fail, and now it looks as though the stagnant Israel-Palestine issue may be about to overheat. It's now Jerusalem, not just Gaza, or even the West Bank, which is the hot spot of the confrontation, which to me indicates the issue is heading for a climax; meanwhile, the possibility of an agreement on the "two-state solution" is ever more remote.
I come back often to the rising importance of Turkey in the 21st century whirl. Along with Russia (maybe Israel), it is the only country with ambitions to be a direct player in both Europe and in Asia. Its lengthy borders with Syria and with Iran will make it a critical component in the international efforts directed toward those countries, whether in war or in peace. Turkey is a longtime ally of the US and a critical member of NATO (it has its second-largest standing military); its role is consistently underrated. It has been a critical counterweight to Russian expansionism since the Tsarist period, and it is once again in countering the new czar, Putin. As the only significant democracy in an Islamic-majority nation in the region (a possible argument could be made for Lebanon), its behavior is an important indicator of how events are perceived by moderate Muslims there. A good example is its up-and-down relationship with Israel, a barometer of that country's ability to get along with its neighbors.
Turkey aims to join the European Community (if not the European Union); its dynamic economy could provide a boost to that somewhat stagnant (economically and demographically) group, but doing so in a way that explains the resistance: Europe fears integration with such a large Islamic population--superficially for concerns about immigration and job security, but xenophobia is just as strong a factor. In fact, Turkey's people, in terms of per capita GDP, are more wealthy than several states already in the EU.
Turkey was criticized for a lack of alacrity in springing to the US' call to arms against ISIS; it has moved forward, but its hesitancy and ambivalence are apparent. This is a complex problem for President Erdogan: Turkey is strongly opposed to the regime of Syrian President Assad, who has oppressed the country's Sunni majority (Turkey has a Sunni majority, as well), and Turkey has had to absorb milions of refugees from the Syrian Civil War. ISIS' gruesome aggression has inflamed the passions of the Kurds, who are in a life-and-death struggle in parts of Syria (read this eyewitness account of the epic Kobane battle) and in Iraq, and who have been fighting for decades for autonomy in Turkey: Erdogan has sought a middle ground between support for Kurdish separatists and pacifying his anguished Kurdish minority. And, there is the inescapable fact that any help he gives to the battle against ISIS will inevitably help Assad. At the end of the day, the help Turkey will give to contain and destroy ISIS will be conditioned on taking actions to prevent Assad's taking advantage, or it will be passive assistance.
Pivot to (East) Asia
This post is getting long, and we haven't gotten to the populous hub of the world. We hope to return soon to the broader topic and pick up some other areas: Western Europe and its doldrums, Africa, Latin America and Mexico (dealing with a climactic moment in its struggle against the narco-trafficking mobs), Canada (which recently showed us once again its greater maturity in dealing with a security crisis), South Asia, our antipodal mirror image Australia, and Antarctica.
Among our US Presidents, there have been various sportsmen: Teddy Roosevelt the big-game hunter, Gerald Ford was an All-American football player, Poppy Bush a star baseball first baseman (I think Reagan and Nixon played football, too; Dubya was a cheerleader....) I feel confident saying that our current President is the only basketball player among them, so when Obama talks about making a pivot to Asia, he actually knows what he is talking about. Keep one foot planted in the home turf, and spin body and front foot to the East....
One of the most significant developments in recent months has been the rise of Xi Jinping as the undisputed top leader in China. Unlike some of his recent predecessors, his style is less being first among many and more using his decision-making authority to focus it even more on himself. He is surely the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping.
China flexes its muscles in trying to shoulder aside the claims of Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines around disputed islands in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan. The objective appears to be economic, not territorial expansion, as control of these islands may permit offshore drilling, and China remains highly dependent on imported oil. So far, Xi has not weighed in on the Hong Kong democracy movement's challenge to Beijing's limitations on the free election of the territory's chief executive; when he does so, the matter will be settled. I would imagine he is looking for a peaceful outcome and wishes to avoid another Tienanmen-style heavy-handed one.
Japan seems to be falling back into recession yet again. Prime Minister Abe seized the moment of the announcement of a negative GDP to announce early Parliamentary elections. To be honest, I don't understand the logic, unless it's that he is so confident of winning, and then subsequently he plans to do something to upset the electorate. Like, stimulating the economy, maybe?
Finally, I want to congratulate the new President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, or as he's known, Jokowi. He seems to have the popular touch, and so a bit different from previous Indonesian heads of state, who were from rich, dynastic families or prominent military figures. Indonesia is another country whose importance to the US and to the world economy is not fully understood, a vast, multicultural population with a Muslim majority, and now a liberal democracy.
In this month of the 25th anniversary of the annus mirabilis when the Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Curtain parted, we should recognize the enormous positive changes that have occurred in our lifetime. We still have wars, famines, pestilence, and death, but the quality of life has improved for billions. My note for Thanksgiving!