Nature has often been described in the verse “Little fish have smaller fish, upon their backs to bite ’em; / Smaller fish have lesser fish; / And so, ad infinitum.” We see in it the inevitable, albeit infinitely variable, hierarchy of the natural world.
It follows, then, that regional strategic dynamics are subordinate to, often caused by, greater global trends, even though we, as humans, tend to focus on, and react to, the issues which we feel threaten or benefit us. Of course, the strength of the trends determines some of the outcomes: strong local trends may expand to resist or overwhelm weak global or trans-regional trends. But, in essence, greater is greater. And, as the Cold War saying about “quality versus quantity” went: quantity eventually has its own quality.
So where are we today? What are the essential trends, visible now, which determine long-term outcomes?
Periods of transition between “rising powers” and “declining powers” have been described in terms of the so-called Thucydides Trap, when fear within a static or declining power (historically, Athens) of a rising power (historically, Sparta) makes war seemingly inevitable. The phenomenon today applies not only to the China-U.S. dynamic — as has been widely remarked — but to the Middle Eastern imbalance, the “north-south” imbalance, and so on.
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Accompanying this sliding vertical scale of strategic power balance is the sliding horizontal scale of population volatility and movement, characterized by the breakdown of the Westphalian nation-state concept; by so-called globalization; urbanization and hysteria-driven migration; and the peaking and imminent troughing of global population numbers. Thus do we reach the four-dimensional chess game. And we see visible the prospect of a check-mate — from Persian shah mat: the king is dead, or helpless — in the present global game. Of course we also see, then, the prospect, or nature’s necessity, for a “new game”, a new king.
It should not be surprising that these longer-duration mega-trends ultimately drive and dominate shorter-duration regional or mono-cultural trends, although the direct influence may not be immediately perceivable. And so we focus on immediate threats; we react, rather than see the broader, longer strategic terrain.
Right now, much of the world concerns itself with the threat of terrorism as the specter which dominates the question of the survival of Western civilization, or is the precursor to Islam’s “End of Battles.” However, it is worth recognizing the reality that no terrorist phenomenon has ever sustained itself for any meaningful duration — or achieved strategic outcomes — in the absence support from a nation-state or wealth society.
Does anyone, after introspection, believe that the current phenomenon of “Islamist terrorism”, including its metamorphosis into territory-holding entities such as the “Islamic State” or (briefly) Boko Haram, has not been without major state support since before even the al-Qaida movement? Does anyone believe that the leftist terrorism of the mid-Cold War period was not supported by state sponsors, ranging from the USSR and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and their allies? Does anyone believe that the Irish terrorism of that same period was not also supported by states or societal bodies (including criminal organizations)?
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There is an entire industry in the security sphere which has as its rice-bowl the study and parsing of Islamist ideology and sectarian differences. The sectarian differences do have strategic importance, but not because of the differences themselves, or the dialectic in which each social group engages, but because — as social groups — they represent the modes of social cohesion which enable populations to exist and manage their affairs in their geographic spaces and environments. This is as much a part of the survival logic — because it creates a political hierarchy — as the terroir dictate of crop rotation.
Now, and for the foreseeable couple of decades, the “Thucydides Trap” means that the world is not only in a period of potentially changing its power balance, or “correlation of forces”, it is in a period of dark uncertainty at very many levels, from global to regional to societal. That means, essentially, that most powers are weak, and therefore are cautious about behaving in a precipitous manner. Or they perceive that there is opportunity (or the imperative to act) because of the weakness of others.
This, in turn, means that sovereign governments will continue, perhaps increasingly, to use proxy forces, such as terrorist groups, to achieve strategic outcomes. In some respects, the desired strategic outcome is merely to achieve paralysis or stalemate in a geopolitical arena. But in almost every instance the guiding hand of such policy is power politics, rather than ideology or theology.
We can — and often do — spend vast amounts of our attention analyzing religious or ideological trends rather than looking at the underlying geopolitics. This is presently the case in the terrorist/insurgency jungles of the Middle East and Central Asia. The main problem is that we listen to what the operational protagonists — the “willing idiots”, as Lenin would describe them — say and believe, and insufficient time analyzing the core motives of their deep sponsors.
Ideology and theology are carrier waves, not the message. Do they motivate “willing idiots”? Without doubt. But to deal primarily with the carrier wave aspect is to be reactive and tactical; not strategic and in control of events.
Who prospers in this “greater Thucydides Trap”? Those who prize core geopolitical principles, including national and civilizational identities; those who preserve strategic self-sufficiency. Those who do what they must for the decades ahead, not what is comfortable for the present.
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