Geopolitics and Geostrategy

as a formal sciences

In a couple of posts — Formal Strategy and Philosophical Logic: Work in Progress and Axioms and Postulates of Strategy — I have explicitly discussed the possibility of a formal approach to strategy. This has been a consistent theme of my writing over the past three years, even when it is not made explicit. The posts that I wrote on theoretical geopolitics can also be considered an effort in the direction of formal strategy.

There is a sense in which formal thought is antithetical to the tradition of geopolitics, which latter seeks to immerse itself in the empirical facts of how history gets made, in contradistinction to the formalist’s desire to define, categorize, and clarify the concepts employed in analysis. Yet in so far as geopolitics takes the actual topographical structure of the land as its point of analytical departure, this physical structure becomes the form upon which the geopolitician constructs the logic of his or her analysis. Geopolitical thought is formal in so far as the forms to which it conforms itself are physical, topographical forms.

Most geopoliticians, however, have no inkling of the formal dimension of their analyses, and so this formal dimension remains implicit. I have commented elsewhere that one of the most common fallacies is the conflation of the formal and the informal. In Cartesian Formalism I wrote:

One of the biggest and yet one of the least recognized blunders in philosophy (and certainly not only in philosophy) is to conflate the formal and the informal, whether we are concerned with formal and informal objects, formal and informal methods, or formal and informal ideas, etc. (I recently treated this topic on my other blog in relation to the conflation of formal and informal strategy.)

Geopolitics, geostrategy, and in fact many of the so-called “soft” sciences that do not involve extensive mathematization are among the worst offenders when it comes to the conflation of the formal and the informal, often because the practitioners of the “soft” sciences do not themselves understand the implicit principles of form to which they appeal in their theories. Instead of theoretical formalisms we get informal narratives, many of which are compelling in terms of their human interest, but are lacking when it comes to analytical clarity. These narratives are primarily derived from historical studies within the discipline, so that when this method is followed in geopolitics we get a more-or-less quantified account of topographical forms that shape action and agency, with an overlay of narrative history to string together the meaning of names, dates, and places.

There is a sense in which geography and history cannot be separated, but there is another sense in which the two are separated. Because the ecological temporality of human agency is primarily operational at the levels of micro-temporality and meso-temporality, this agency is often exercised without reference to the historical scales of the exo-temporality of larger social institutions (like societies and civilizations) and the macro-historical scales of geology and geomorphology. That is to say, human beings usually act without reference to plate tectonics, the uplift of mountains, or seafloor spreading, except when these events act over micro- and meso-time scales as in the case of earthquakes and tsunamis generated by geological events that otherwise act so slowly that we never notice them in the course of a lifetime — or even in the course of the life of a civilization.

The greatest temporal disconnect occurs between the smallest scales (micro-temporality) and the largest scales (macro-temporality), while there is less disconnect across immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality. I can employ a distinction that I recently made in a discussion of Descartes, that between strong distinctions and weak distinctions (cf. Of Distinctions Weak and Strong). Immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality are weakly distinct, while those not immediately adjacent are strongly distinct.

We have traditionally recognized the abstraction of macroscopic history that does not descend into details, but it has not been customary to recognize the abstractness of microscopic history, immersed in details, that does not also place these events in relation to a macroscopic context. In order to attain to a comprehensive perspective that can place these more limited perspectives into a coherent context, it is important to understand the limitations of our conventional conceptions of history (such as the failure to understand the abstract character of micro-history) — and, for that matter, the limitations of our conventional conceptions of geography. One of these limitations is the abstractness of either geography or history taken in isolation.

The degree of abstractness of an inquiry can be quantified by the ecological scope of that inquiry; any one division of ecological temporality (or any one division of metaphysical ecology) taken in isolation from other divisions is abstract. It is only the whole of ecology taken together that a truly concrete theory is possible. To take into account the whole of ecological temporality in a study of history is a highly concrete undertaking which is nevertheless informed by the abstract theories that constitute each individual level of ecological temporality.

Geopolitics, despite its focus on the empirical conditions of history, is a highly abstract inquiry precisely because of its nearly-exclusive focus on one kind of structure as determinative in history. As I have argued elsewhere, and repeatedly, abstract theories are valuable and have their place. Given the complexity of a concrete theory that seeks to comprehend the movements of human history around the globe, an abstract theory is a necessary condition of any understanding. Nevertheless, we need to rest in our efforts with an abstract theory based exclusively in the material conditions of history, which is the perspective of geopolitics (and, incidentally, the perspective of Marxism).

Geopolitics focuses on the seemingly obvious influences on history following from the material conditions of geography, but the “obvious” can be misleading, and it is often just as important to see what is not obvious as to explicitly take into account what is obvious. Bertrand Russell once observed, in a passage both witty and wise, that:

“It is not easy for the lay mind to realise the importance of symbolism in discussing the foundations of mathematics, and the explanation may perhaps seem strangely paradoxical. The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined. For instance, the whole of Arithmetic and Algebra has been shown to require three indefinable notions and five indemonstrable propositions. But without a symbolism it would have been very hard to find this out. It is so obvious that two and two are four, that we can hardly make ourselves sufficiently sceptical to doubt whether it can be proved. And the same holds in other cases where self-evident things are to be proved.”

Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”

Russell here expresses himself in terms of symbolism, but I think it would better to formulate this in terms of formalism. When Russell writes that, “we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious,” the new and difficult symbolism he mentions is more than mere symbolism, it is a formal theory. Russell’s point, then, is that if we formalize a body of knowledge heretofore consisting of intuitively “obvious” truths, certain relationships between truths become obvious that were not obvious prior to formalization. Another way to formulate this is to say that formalization constitutes a shift in our intuition, so that truths once intuitively obvious become inobvious, while inobvious truths because intuitive. Thus formalization is the making intuitive of previously unintuitive (or even counter-intuitive) truths.

Russell devoted a substantial portion of his career to formalizing heretofore informal bodies of knowledge, and therefore had considerable experience with the process of formalization. Since Russell practiced formalization without often explaining exactly what he was doing (the passage quoted above is a rare exception), we must look to the example of his formal thought as a model, since Russell himself offered no systematic account of the formalization of any given body of knowledge. (Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica is a tour de force comprising the order of justification of its propositions, while remaining silent about the order of discovery.)

A formal theory of time would have the same advantages for time as the theoretical virtues that Russell identified in the formalization of mathematics. In fact, Russell himself formulated a formal theory of time, in his paper “On Order in Time,” which is, in Russell’s characteristic way, reductionist and over-simplified. Since I aim to formulate a theory of time that is explicitly and consciously non-reductionist, I will make no use of Russell’s formal theory of time, though it is interesting at least to note Russell’s effort. The theory of ecological temporality that I have been formulating here is a fragment of a full formal theory of time, and as such it can offer certain insights into time that are lost in a reductionist account (as in Russell) or hidden in an informal account (as in geography and history).

As noted above, a formalized theory brings about a shift in our intuition, so that the formerly intuitive becomes unintuitive while the formerly unintuitive becomes intuitive. A shift in our intuitions about time (and history) means that a formal theory of time makes intuitive temporal relationships less obvious, while making temporal relationships that are hidden by the “buzzing, blooming world” more obvious, and therefore more amenable to analysis — perhaps for the first time.

Ecological temporality gives us a framework in which we can demonstrate the interconnectedness of strongly distinct temporalities, since the panarchy the holds between levels of an ecological system is the presumption that each level of an ecosystem impacts every other level of an ecosystem. Given the distinction between strong distinctions and weak distinctions, it would seem that adjacent ecological levels are weakly distinct and therefore have a greater impact on each other, while non-adjacent ecological levels are strongly distinct and therefore have less of an impact on each other. In an ecological theory of time, all of these principles hold in parallel, so that, for example, micro-temporality is only weakly distinct from meso-temporality, while being strongly distinct from exo-temporality. As a consequence, a disturbance in micro-temporality has a greater impact upon meso-temporality than upon exo-temporality (and vice versa), but less of an impact does not mean no impact at all.

Another virtue of formal theories, in addition to the shift in intuition that Russell identified, is that it forces us to be explicit about our assumptions and presuppositions. The implicit theory of time held by a geostrategist matters, because that geostrategist will interpret history in terms of the categories of his or her theory of time. But most geostrategists never bother to make their theory of time explicit, so that we do not know what assumptions they are making about the structure of time, hence also the structure of history.

Sometimes, in some cases, these assumptions will become so obvious that they cannot be ignored. This is especially the case with supernaturalistic and soteriological conceptions of metaphysical history that ultimately touch on everything else that an individual believes. This very obviousness makes it possible to easily identify eschatological and theological bias; what is much more insidious is the subtle assumption that is difficult to discern and which only can be elucidated with great effort.

If one comes to one’s analytical work presupposing that every moment of time possesses absolute novelty, one will likely make very different judgments than if one comes to the same work presupposing that there is nothing new under the sun. Temporal novelty means historical novelty: anything can happen; whereas, on the contrary, the essential identity of temporality over historical scales — identity for all practical purposes — means historical repetition: very little can happen.

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Note: Anglo-American political science implicitly takes geopolitics as its point of departure, but, as I have attempted to demonstrate in several posts, this tradition of mainstream geopolitics can be contrasted to a nascent movement of biopolitics. However, biopolitics too could be formulated in the manner of a theoretical biopolitics, and a theoretical biopolitics would be at risk of being as abstract as geopolitics and in need of supplementation by a more comprehensive ecological perspective.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In the Age of the Nation-State, exactly who gets to join the charmed circle of nation-states and who does not get to join this charmed circle is a question of some importance, and there is no one, single way in which the question is settled. Some nation-states were “grandfathered in” as conventionally recognized political entities when the League of Nations or the United Nations was founded. Some nation-states fought for years or for decades to gain recognition. Many political entities have remained in permanent geopolitical limbo for years or decades — like Taiwan or Palestine or Transnistria or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Turbaned Tuareg Man near Hirafok, Algeria, by Thomas J. Abercrombie

Theorists of the nation-state system (who are, more often than not, advocates who rarely acknowledge the fact that they are advocates) have proposed all kinds of criteria for what constitutes a nation-state, but we know from the above-mentioned fact that very different political entities become recognized as nation-states by very different means, and that this is an explicitly political process, that there is no essentialist way to separate the wheat from the chaff, because there is no essence of the nation-state. Self-determination is only recognized when it is imposed by force; the ethnic unity of a people is acknowledged as a legitimate basis of a nation-state only when it is convenient for existing powers and does not encroach upon their claims; territorial sovereignty is subject to routine violation at the whim of powerful or technologically advanced nation-states.

When Southern Sudan recently split away from Sudan as an independent nation-state this was widely recognized by the international community. In fact, we have several recent (and diverse) examples of changed governments that have achieved recognition, as, for example, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Not so for Azawad. The declaration of the independence of Azawad has brought more jeers than cheers.

Here are some of the statements (as they have appeared in various press reports) that have been made about the declaration of Azawad sovereignty:

● French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet: “a unilateral declaration of independence that is not recognized by African states means nothing for us.”

● President of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou: “Mali is one and indivisible.”

● African Union Commission chief Jean Ping: “firmly condemns this announcement, which is null and of no value whatsoever.”

Of course, when you carve your nation-state out of existing nation-states, this is going to be very unpopular, and it sets a precedent that no existing nation-state wants to sanction: that nation-states are divisible into legitimate states rightly claiming self-determination of a national group. If this principle were acted upon, it would result in the fissioning of most existing nation-states, because most existing nation-states, despite their claim to uniquely represent a people, in fact are multi-ethnic and multi-national political entities whose borders were established through armed conflict and are maintained in existence through force or threat of force.

Thus we see that there is a principle at stake in the matter, but it is the principle of a political Ponzi scheme: if you’ve gotten “in” early and you’ve gotten your share, you certainly aren’t about to share your share with anyone else, and certainly not with any late-comers.

The MNLA (Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad), which is the military entity behind the seizure of the territory they now identify as Azawad, has a website where they have posted a declaration of independence (in French). In their declaration of independence they have promised:

Recognition of existing borders with neighboring states and their inviolability

Full adherence to the UN Charter

The firm commitment of the MNLA to create conditions for a lasting peace, and to initiate the institutional foundations of a state based on a democratic constitution for an independent Azawad.

The MNLA is here obviously trying, despite its marginal position, to position itself as a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community. For the same reason MNLA representatives have strongly denied any links with AQIM or other trans-national Jihadist organizations. No doubt many will be skeptical, but then one must ask how responsible currently recognized nation-states have been as stakeholders in the global community. We would be justified in being skeptical both of the MNLA and the international community that rejects an independent Azawad.

I have given several reasons above to be skeptical of the international community, given its manifold hypocrisies. Why should we be skeptical of the MNLA? Well, the media is filled with reports such as I have quoted above, giving nothing but a negative evaluation of the independence of Azawad. Such assertions are of little interest in the long run. What is of significance in the long run is how a people’s way of life interacts with the conventions and institutions by which nation-states have divided up the globe among themselves.

In so far as the MNLA and their nascent political entity of Azawad represents the Tuareg people, what is essential about contemporary political developments is the way of the life of the Tuaregs, and this is a way of life that is not easily reconciled with the ideology of the nation-state. The Tuaregs are nomadic pastoralists, and they have long made the Sahel their home without much concern for the borders of nation-states. But the Tuaregs of the MNLA are political realists: they know that if they are going to win a homeland for themselves, that they must seize it through violence, and that, once established, they must conform to the norms and conditions of the nation-state, because that is the way that the world works today. It would be more accurate to carve out a Tuareg homeland that covered the traditional lands through which the Tuareg peoples moved, crossing the borders of many nation-states and with no recognition of the inviolability of such borders. But this is not possible at present.

The are (and have been) analogous dilemmas in many parts of the world. The Kurds, for example, have carved out a de facto homeland in what was Northern Iraq, but a more accurate representation of Kurdistan would include parts of Eastern Turkey, Northern Iran, and Northern Syria. This, however, is a bridge too far, so the Kurds do what they can within the context of contemporary political realities. And in many of these and similar cases, peoples reconcile themselves to the politicized borders of nation-states and learn to live within these boundaries. The same could well happen in Azawad, but the MNLA has no more of a commitment to the inviolability of borders than the international community has a commitment to self-determination, regardless of what each may say.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Coup in Mali

23 March 2012


The coup in Mali, which I wrote about yesterday in Trouble on the Periphery Comes to the Center, was discussed in The Old-Style Coup Makes a Comeback in Mali by Jennifer G. Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Coups making a comeback? by Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy magazine.

I find it interesting in both of these analyses that the writers have treated the coup as a kind of Cold War throwback, Ms. Cooke by calling it an “Old-Style Coup” and Mr. Keating by asking if coups are making a “comeback.” And this geopolitical nostalgia does not yet even take ingto account the rumors of a coup in China discussed in The Lesson Behind China’s Coup Rumors on Stratfor and Chinese coup watching on Foreign Policy and Damaging coup rumours ricochet across China on the BBC.

I‘m not sure how helpful it is to trot out Cold War analogies in a very different world in which the perennial verities of the Cold War no longer hold. A Cold War-era coup in Africa would mean a change in sponsorship of the leadership of the nation-state in question from American to Russian or from Russian to American alignment. Either the nation-state in question would stop receiving M-16s and receive AK-47s instead, or they would stop receiving AK-47s and receive M-16s instead. Of course, the writers of the above-cited pieces were careful to point out the differences from the “old-style coup” and the present coup in Mali

I have several times written about the lack of imagination displayed in socio-political thought (most recently in Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, in which I argued that the moral evolution of human beings cannot yet have stalled, as against the idea that everything has been tried). Everything about the coup in Mali points to the dangers sticking to the “tried and true” (or, if you prefer, always doing the “same old, same old”). The government of Mali, despite receiving high marks for its democratic operations, was focused on the capital and allowed the situation in the north of the country to get out of control; the coup plotters did what coup plotters always do, and the commentariat responded by contextualizing the events in Mali in terms that emphasize the non-uniqueness and non-originality of the events in Mali. In a sense the commentators are right, because both the government and the coup plotters were engaging in politics as usual, but this is not exactly the sense in which the commentators cast the coup in terms of its unoriginality.

Is is any wonder that one of the most predictable facts about history is that people will be surprised by events? Of course, history is intrinsically unpredictable, except for certain parameters, so we will always be surprised by what happens next. But there is a big difference between being surprised by the unexpected (but being prepared for the unexpected) and being surprised because one thought that one knew what was happening. Relying on familiar narratives simply because they are familiar and not because they accurately capture events is a sure way to be overtaken by events.

I predict that the Sahel will hold surprises, and that events will develop in unanticipated ways. Perhaps these developments will not constitute strategic shocks on the order of the Arab Spring, but the unpredictable developments in the Sahel will be sufficient to make world powers scramble to catch up and not be overtaken by events. Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré has yet to make a statement since the coup, though he is believed to be under the protection of loyal elements of the military (the “Red Berets”). When and where and how he reveals himself will have a significant impact on the development of the coup.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In the wake of the violent overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, members of the Gaddafi family, regime loyalists, and hired mercenaries fled Libya and scattered themselves throughout North Africa and the Sahara Desert. This is petty obviously a potential source of trouble for the places that these defeated and discontented refugees have sheltered. I wrote about this situation and its potential for destabilization of region in several posts:

The Gaddafi Diaspora

David and Goliath

Cognitive Dissonance Among the Apologists for Tyranny

The Survivor: Saif al-Islam Qadhafi

Trouble Brewing in the Desert

Several recent articles on the BBC document the trouble that has particularly come to affect Mali, where many Tuaregs who once fought for Gaddafi fled and reignited an insurgency against the Malian government:

Sand and fury: Mali’s Tuareg rebels

Mali clashes displace nearly 130,000, UN warns

Tuareg rebels make troubled return from Libya to Mali

Gaddafi’s influence in Mali’s coup

Mali soldiers loot presidential palace after coup

The trouble brewing in the desert has now claimed its first nation-state casualty: there has been a coup in Mali. Most interesting in this situation is that the government in Bamako has not been overthrown by Tuaregs or others in active insurgency, but rather by government soldiers who felt that they were not receiving the resources that they needed to combat the resurgent Tuaregs in the north of the country, far on the periphery where the Tuareg nomads know the desert and the writ of the government in Bamako is difficult to enforce.

There is reasonably detailed account of events in Mali at Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), MALI: Rebellion claims a president, that gives some background to the story.

The situation in Mali is as perfect an instance of unintended consequences as one could find. The BBC article cited above, Gaddafi’s influence in Mali’s coup, quoted Abdul Aziz Kebe of the University of Dakar in Senegal much to this effect:

“Western powers have underestimated that getting rid of Gaddafi would have severe repercussions in the Sahel region.”

There is no need to qualify this statement with “Western powers,” although Kebe may have intended to emphasize that it was Western intervention that made possible the defeat of Gaddafi. This may well be true, but we cannot prove that this is true, because the Libyan rebels may have overthrown Gaddafi without Western assistance. As a counter-factual condition this isn’t very stable ground for an argument, and neither is its implied contrary, as implied by Kebe.

The coup in Mali could yet fail. Portions of the military remain loyal to the president. But succeed or fail, the coup demonstrates that the Sahel has been destabilized by the overthrow of Gaddafi and the diaspora of his family and followers. The destabilization of the Sahel will not end with Mali, and, in any case, the trouble in Mali is only beginning.

The BBC article cited above, Tuareg rebels make troubled return from Libya to Mali , quoted Bazoum Mohammed, Foreign minister of Niger, as saying:

“We’re upset that the Malians have allowed this situation to get out of control.”

Of course the government in Niger is concerned about destabilization in the region, but they have contributed to the situation by allowing Saadi Gaddafi to speak publicly on television, announcing that he would lead a counter-revolution against the Libyan rebels.

Every actor in the region — whether state or non-state actor — has its levers to apply pressure to the situation in hopes of a result more to their liking, but since everyone is employing their levers in their own interest and without regard to the regional outcome, the result is chaos in the strictest sense of the term. No one can say what comes next in the Sahara.

Ironcially, it was Gaddafi the visionary (not Gaddafi the thuggish dictator) who saw this problem and pressed for a United States of Africa. A regional hegemon that could impose its will, or a voluntary association of states surrendering security arrangements to a binding trans-national security regime could bring peace at a cost, but neither the peace nor the cost is possible at this time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Ecclesiates' explicit denial of novelty in the world: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

Recently Strategic Forecasting has been using the loaded phrase, “new cold war.” Here is one example, from Russia and the United States: Pushing Tensions to the Limit?:

In the past few years, Russia has been relatively successful in regaining influence in many of its former Soviet states. This brought Russian power back to its broader frontiers, especially in Central Europe, where the United States has staked a dominant position. Russia is not looking to control Central Europe, but it does not want the region to be a base of U.S. power in Eurasia. Washington sees Central Europe as the new Cold War line — a position previously held by Germany — that halts Russia’s influence.

And here’s another example, from a situation report, U.K.: Iran Could Start New Cold War — Hague:

Iran’s nuclear ambitions could prompt nuclear development in the Middle East and cause a “new Cold War” that lacks safety mechanisms, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, BBC reported Feb. 18. It would cause the most serious round of nuclear proliferation with the Middle East’s destabilizing effects, Hague said, adding that Israel is urged not to strike Iran.

The latter is of special interest as it quotes British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who used the phrase in an interview with the Daily Telegraph:

“It is a crisis coming down the tracks,” he said. “Because they are clearly continuing their nuclear weapons programme… If they obtain nuclear weapons capability, then I think other nations across the Middle East will want to develop nuclear weapons.

“And so, the most serious round of nuclear proliferation since nuclear weapons were invented would have begun with all the destabilising effects in the Middle East. And the threat of a new cold war in the Middle East without necessarily all the safety mechanisms… That would be a disaster in world affairs.”

When an official at this level of government service makes this kind of public pronouncement, it is intentional. Such statements have consequences. They also have implications. One of the implications of this statement is that a new cold war would come with a new arms race, and this idea was given an independent exposition in The drift towards war with Iran by Gideon Rachman. This article in the Financial Times includes the following:

“…Saudi Arabia has made it clear that if Iran does successfully acquire a bomb, it will swiftly do the same. The Saudis are believed to have a deal with Pakistan, which is already a nuclear weapons state. The threat of a nuclear arms race loomed large in recent comments by William Hague, the British foreign secretary.”

I was very interested in this, so I wrote to Mr. Rachman to ask him what public intelligence was available for this. He was kind enough to respond, and said that he had heard as much from spooks and politicians in a couple of countries. I have no reason to do doubt this, and subsequent research revealed to me that quite a bit has been written about the relationship of Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani nuclear program. (Cf., e.g., Saudi Arabia’s nuclear arsenal-on-demand. A reader who commented on this story wrote, “The Saudis are playing a master game.”)

Thus I learned it has been widely reported that Saudi Arabia largely financed the Pakistani nuclear program with the understanding that, if they wanted a bomb of their own, this would be made available to them from the ongoing nuclear program in Pakistan, either in the form of technology transfers or even providing Saudi Arabia with a ready-made arsenal or a half dozen or so nuclear weapons “off the shelf,” as it were. The presumptive trigger for Saudi acquisition of nuclear weapons would be the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran.

The obvious scenario for a nuclear arms race centered on the Arabian Peninsula would follow from Iran publicly proclaiming its possession of nuclear weapons, followed by Saudi Arabia calling in its nuclear promissory note, and then there are the wealthy Gulf Sheikdoms who could afford a nuclear weapon if such were made available to them (even if their own technical and industrial infrastructure would not be adequate to the production of nuclear weapons). Perhaps Egypt, too, in some future democratic iteration, would want The Bomb. Egypt is often cited as the spiritual and intellectual capital of the Arab world, and it might want a geostrategic posture equal to its spiritual stature. And then there would be question of whether Iran’s militant proxies in Syria, Lebanon, or wherever sympathetic Shia populations are to be found, would be given tactical nukes.

The very idea of nuclear proliferation on this scale would certainly give a few statesmen nightmares. But would this come to pass, and, if it did come to pass, is there any reason to suppose that the nation-states of the region would be less capable to understanding or abiding by the logic of mutually assured destruction than were the US and the USSR?

It was thought at one time that a nuclear armed North Korea might be the trigger for a nuclear arms race in East Asia. This stands to reason. Both Japan and South Korea are technologically advanced nation-states with an extensive industrial plant that would be capable of producing nuclear weapons with little difficulty. Both are also wealthy, and could afford both the production of nuclear weapons and any sanctions that might result from their acquisition. With Japan and South Korea, it is not a question of capability at all, it is only a question of intent. A political change in the region could change that intent.

So far, we have not seen a nuclear arms race in East Asia, which means that there is no inevitability that, when a belligerent nation-state acquires nuclear weapons that neighboring nation-states will acquire then regardless of cost. Furthermore, the occasional engagements between North Korea and South Korea (like the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island) have been kept well below the nuclear threshold, as has been the case conflict around the world when a nuclear-armed power is involved.

It is apparently the case with India and Pakistan that, if the one had The Bomb, the other had to have The Bomb also. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously said, “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.” So far, again, in the India subcontinent, we have not seen wider proliferation, as though there were a nuclear domino effect, though certainly Abdul Qadeer Khan ran quite a personal proliferation shop for a time. Moreover, the cold war between India and Pakistan has been a well-behaved cold war like that between the US and the USSR. Conflicts have been kept well below the nuclear threshold, and everyone seems to be quite well aware of the consequences of mutually assured destruction. And in this connection we ought to observe that neither Pakistan nor India has the kind robust deterrent possessed by the US or the USSR during the cold war, with three dependable legs of a nuclear triad and for that reason an equally robust and dependable second strike capability.

It is a little disingenuous to speak of “new cold wars” and “new arms races,” since, if there is nothing new under the sun of geopolitics, there is nothing new about these most recent iterations of cold wars and arms races. Human history, if only we look at it in such a way as to appreciate it rightly, has cold wars of far greater extent than anything that happened during the twentieth century, and arms races too frequently to count.

The really interesting geostrategic questions are not whether Iran will acquire the Bomb or if there will be a nuclear arms race in the Arabian Peninsula, but whether arms races cause cold wars or cold wars cause arms races. Similarly, the questions we should be asking now should include whether the arms race/cold war dialectic issues in a stable albeit tense peace more often than it issues it all-out war between the competing parties.

We know that the First World War was preceded by an arms race focused on Dreadnaught class battleships, but more generally there was a competition among all the European powers to acquire vast military resources and a social infrastructure capable of mobilizing the military machine acquired through industrialization. In this case, the arms race/cold war dialectic did in fact issue in a catastrophic conflict that released the pent-up energies of conflict and in fact far surpassed the expectation of planners.

In the case of the arms race/cold war dialectic between the US and the USSR, this dialectic did not in fact culminate in a catastrophic conflict. Sometimes a cold war ends with a bang, and sometimes with a whimper. Are these two historical examples so diverse in terms of the historical accidents that gave rise to the particular circumstances of each that no general lessons can be drawn, or, rather, can a careful study of the essential issues involved be sufficiently isolated and abstracted that we can formulate a coherent theory that will shed light on the present and provide a rational basis for prediction of the future?

These are the true questions of geopolitics, and not the “horse race” questions of who gets what first, and the like. We learn nothing from reading headlines, even headlines of “secret deals,” and we learn little more from the reports of spies, if we are privy to such. It is the detailed record of the past that demands our attention. Here is a wealth of detail waiting to be discovered that can teach us about ourselves.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Alsalam Bank Tower under construction in Khartoum. Alsalam Bank Sudan won 'Best bank in Sudan' award for 2008 by Global Finance magazine.

It little known, little realized, and little understood in the West that during the past few years when Western governments have been attempting to put pressure on Sudan because of the events in Darfur that Sudan has not been and is not now just another basket case of an African economy. Throughout the period when it was most strongly condemned by Western governments, the Sudanese economy has continued to grow, and to grow vigorously. Some Sudanese cities are sprouting like oases in the desert, and many buildings are rising in the capital, Khartoum. Needless to say, the Sudanese government can afford its impunity vis-à-vis Western governments under these conditions.

Chinese engineers assemble steel at a construction site in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.

Chinese engineers assemble steel at a construction site in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.

Much of this growth and development has been the result of oil revenue and industries connected with the oil industry. Much of this growth, including the growth of the oil sector, is the result of China seeking energy resources and raw materials for its industries in Africa, including Sudan. There has already been a backlash in some African countries over the high profile of Chinese industrial concerns, but this has done little to slow the involvement of Chinese industry in Africa. There have been some compelling stories and pictures in the Financial Times about this development (not to mention the Korea Times).

Burj Al-Fateh Hotel

The 230 room Burj Al-Fateh Hotel in Khartoum, Sudan.

I like to imagine what it must be like for young Chinese engineers to suddenly find themselves in Africa, working on enormous projects, and in a climate and a society so different from that which they came from. Someday there will be books written about such experiences. I hope they’re taking detailed notes.

Somali factor

I was thinking about economic development in Africa today because of a fascinating article in today’s Financial Times about the Somali diaspora in Kenya. The Financial Times regularly includes extra sections devoted to particular geographical regions or topics. Today’s Financial Times came with an extra section on Kenya, and this included the article Somali factor drives up price of property.


Mogadishu street life.

We all know that Somalia has been without a functioning central government for more than a decade, and that large sections of Mogadishu are in ruins from years of war, but what we perhaps did not know was that the Somali diaspora scattered across Africa has brought its assets to other regions, and they have made a real difference in Kenya. There is a question as to the legality of this money, and we can be sure that at least some of it represents ill-gotten gains. There is in particular the charge that Somali money comes from piracy, and we know that the lawlessness of Somalia has allowed piracy to flourish in some coastal towns.

hawala diagram

A hawala version of informal value transfer systems.

But it seems that the Somalis are also active in the traditional money-lending institutions of east Africa. Because of the interest prohibition in Islamic societies, the banking business operates differently in the Muslim world, but banking services are not absent. There is a traditional form of money transfer that takes place throughout east Africa and the Arabian Peninsula by which a closely associated network of individuals, functioning almost entirely upon trust, move money from place to place for a fee with a simple phone call. This is known as the hawala system. For example, say an individual in Mombasa wants to send money to a relative in Muscat. He goes to a local hawala broker, a hawaladar, gives him the money and a commission, this broker then calls another local agent in Muscat and instructs him to give a like amount of money to the individual in question in Muscat, and the agents periodically settle up accounts. Since there is always money coming into and going out of each agent, the system continues to function with periodic adjustments.

hawala 101

Being in banking is usually profitable. We ought to recall that the renaissance banking houses of Italy made possible the financing of lavish renaissance art financed by wealthy families like the Medici, just as early modern banking houses in ultramontane Europe, like the Fuggers and the Rothchilds, financed the growth of European industry and culture north of the Alps. The Somalis, it seems, are tapped into the banking network “Middle World” (to use Tamim Ansary‘s phrase). These networks are sometimes called “Informal Value Transfer Systems” (IVTS), but they are only “informal” in so far as Western banks are not involved and such networks have no formal charter. In so far as the cultural conventions of the societies who use such networks extend, such networks are part of a formal commercial economy.

This Somali access to capital has had unintended consequences, especially for the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, where property values have been on the increase due to the influx of Somali money. The Somalis have also employed their access to capital to become among the most successful traders in east Africa, sourcing goods directly from east Asia. It is an impressive achievement for a people whose homeland has been devastated, not unlike the feat of the Jews in Western Europe in creating a wealthy diaspora community cut off from its traditional homeland. I personally find it counter-intuitive that these apparently wealthy Somali traders don’t find a way to establish order and security in Somalia, but history is like that sometimes. The only thing one can be sure of is that further unintended consequences will follow.


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