Taking the High Ground

One of the most important (but little-covered) geopolitical events of recent years is the contest over the Artic. With polar ice receding, raw materials and a vital geostrategic position is becoming available for exploitation. The Arctic Circle contains crucial minerals and gas reserves, and not surprisingly there has been a scramble to acquire those resources. According to Der Spiegel, Russia is about to unveil a plan to expand its borders by at least 150 miles and 463, 000 square miles. Russia already depends on the Arctic region for 11% of its GDP and 22% of export earnings. Expansion would likely yield more material riches.

Geopolitics is not just a matter of balance sheets, however. There is a strong element of nationalism involved that would make even Halford Mackinder blush. Der Spiegel also has a rather hilarious quote from political scientist Alexander Dugin advocating expansion:

“The purpose of our being lies in the expansion of our space. The shelf belongs to us. Polar bears live there, Russian polar bears. And penguins live there, Russian penguins.”

I hate to rain on Mr. Dugin’s parade, but there aren’t any penguins in the Arctic. That being said, some national security bigwig is probably going to use this statement as evidence of a “Penguin Gap” that needs to be corrected lest we let those Russkies gain an advantage.

Aggregating Content

Coming Anarchy has a good post on Russia News Online, a good aggregator on Russian politics and society. I’ve noticed myself turning away from traditional sources of news (newspapers, channel networks), and more towards giant aggregators organized by subject. This is both good and bad—you get everything but there’s also tunnel vision. It’s another step towards localization of media and the idea of idea of a lifestyle accessory (e.g. user-customized media).

One of my favorite new aggregators is Polymeme, a rather eclectic aggregation of science, culture, and political news. They don’t have quite a narrow focus, but manage some coherence in the agglomeration of content. On the other hand, Riskmeme tries to be an all-form security aggregator but suffers in user interface and general execution.

Another problem with online content is the difficulty in management. I kept adding to my RSS feeder until it became virtually unreadable, even with all of the sub-headers and tags I introduced. I ended up looking at other blogs’ shared feeds as guides to what was important until I started feedrinsing my Google Feedreader. This, however, was at best only a temporary solution to the problem of the data overload.

I also subscribe to listservs and email newsletters, which are a bit more low-tech (but still effective) means of keeping on top of the news.

The Inadaquency of “Failed State”

One other thing to add re: Mexico. The term “failed state” is somewhat of a misnomer for the kind of analysis that has gone into Mexico’s drug war. Mexico, like many other Latin American states, has lived with degrees of hollowness for a long amount of time. What is going on right now is just an exceptionally violent phase of this process. The “worst case” outcome that I developed in my Huffington Post op-ed is not a collapse like, say, Somalia, but a steady erosion of government authority and the growth of alternate power structures.

This ultimately neofeudal landscape (complete with a criminalized public sector) is not really a failed state as much as a hollow one. The current “truce” that may be ongoing in Sinaloa is an example of this process—the decline in violence happening not as much from state intervention but mutual agreement between cartels that bullets may be bad for business.

None of this is set is stone–it is possible for Mexico to eventually cut the violence (as in Iraq) to a livable level and/or to reach some kind of political agreement among the factions. But the conditions that spawned the criminal insurgency are structural and they will likely stay with Mexico even in the best case scenario. Mexico is not a failed state, and it’s unfortunate that there aren’t really more precise terms with the same catch-all meaning. But Mexico is progressively hollowing, and unless there is a change in strategy things will continue to degenerate.

Failing to Grasp Criminal Insurgency

The Strategist makes mincemeat of a former Bush administration official’s blog post/oped downplaying the Mexican criminal insurgency. I recommend reading this muddled op-ed in detail to see just how badly Washington fails at understanding modern irregular conflict.

The most telling statements are “There is no alliance unifying all of the narcogangs into one force that seeks to challenge and topple the Mexican state” and “The gangs have no political agenda; their main goal remains selling dope. They are not providing basic services to Mexico’s citizens, nor are they trying to create a parallel system of political order to rival the Mexican state and erode its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.” Because of this, what is going on in Mexico is not “true” insurgency.

Well, I’m sure the Mexican police officers getting mowed down by thugs with submachine guns will be very happy to know that, as will the thousands of bystanders caught in the battle between the cartels. It’s not “true” insurgency, so chin up lads!

What this op-ed misunderstands is that criminal insurgency is not aimed at overthrowing the government but carving out a space within the state where criminal groups can carry out economic transactions. The accumulation of these spaces within the state creates separate phenomena of warlordization and criminal-states.

Granted, a change of strategy by the Mexicans (and our assistance) may allow them to cut things down to a livable level–especially if it harnesses the raw anger many Mexicans feel about the deprivations inflicted on them by criminal insurgents. But Mexico is suffering from criminal insurgency and warlordization (and is certainly not the only state to do so), and closing one’s eyes to the problem is not going to make it go away!

Russia in the Age of Obama

A constant theme in this blog’s foreign affairs coverage is the myopia and failure of strong men with singular visions, such as Robert Mugabe, Kim Jung-il, and Hugo Chavez. Add Russian Vladmir Putin to the list, tdaxp persuasively argues. Russia’s gas may provide it with leverage, and it also may have gained a measure of advantage from Georgia’s foolhardy attack on South Ossetia. But it has failed to gain European support for its diplomatic initiatives, and without the cartoonish foil of Bush to position themselves against Russia is quickly finding its erratic measures to be unsustainable.

This is even clearer from the perspective of strategy in the Americas: No one is convinced, that say, a few ships on a holiday cruise in the Caribbean amounts to a strategic threat. Likewise, today’s Cuba is not the springboard of revolution it once was in the region. As much as I am ashamed to say it, Michael Moore best described Cuba as a “leftover turkey leg” from the Cold War. So Russia’s renewed relationship with Cuba is not really that big of a deal. And the long-term demographic and economic trends, as well as Russia’s decaying political system, do seem to suggest that Putin is not going to be the Peter the Great figure that he once seemed capable of becoming.

Besides the oil, Russia does have leverage over the United States in Afghanistan. Pakistan is degenerating into chaos and no longer is a reliable means of supplying the NATO forces in Afghanistan. Russia has agreed to let us use their territory to transport supplies into Afghanistan. What this presents is a choke point that can be controlled. A decline in US position and/or European failure in Afghanistan is also likely to strengthen Russia’s position–although whatever benefit it will gain will be canceled out from the instability likely to threaten Russia’s Southern strategic buffer bordering Afghanistan.

To sum it up, Moscow is on a long slide to the bottom. And unless this condition is reversed, Vladimir Putin’s legacy will be more akin to that of a Romanov in the final days of the monarchy than Peter or Catherine the Great.