Thursday, February 27, 2014

These Days It's All a Giant Crap Shoot

Who's got the wheel?  These days the answer is all too often, no one.  And with that comes a decline in predictability and a frightening rise in the volatility of chaos.  There's a feeling today that we're more likely to unwittingly back into a war than to consciously start one.

The Ukraine is an example of unpredictable change.  What begins as a protest morphs into an outright rebellion that topples an unpopular regime.  We saw that in Tahrir Square.  We saw that in Kiev.  The Chinese moved quickly and in force to ensure it didn't happen in Tianamen Square.  Chris Hedges, who foresees eventual revolt sweeping his own United States, has written that these uprisings are unpredictable, they follow no one's timetable.  They occur chaotically.

Ukraine's crisis, which went from a simple protest to the weekend's regime change and perhaps a full-blown civil war in months to come, once again highlights humans' inability to assess the potential evolution of events from the ordinary to revolutionary sea-changes.

No one would have predicted that a fruit-seller's self-immolation in Tunisia would eventually send Egypt to the brink of economic and political disaster, but that is exactly what happened.

The most recent example is Ukraine, where what became a full political crisis started as a student protest against the rejection of a free-trade pact with the European Union in favor of an opaque and vague agreement with Russia. When the government treated students savagely, a broader protest ensued - albeit still a peaceful one. Perhaps the biggest mistake made by the protesters was to copy the Egyptian example of Tahrir Square, by occupying the main square in Kiev, the Independence Square.

Failing to remove the protesters from the square and deeply aware of the most recent history of events leading up to the dismissal of the Mubarak government in Egypt, the government of Ukraine then went on an offensive with changes of laws and a refusal to negotiate. These excuses in hand, the government was then able to use the army to brutally quell dissent, leading to the deaths of scores of people. This was, in effect, a recurrence of the 1989 June 4 "incident" in Beijing.

The two sides thus both had history on their side - the protesters dreaming of the Tahrir Square revolt that brought a regime change in Egypt and the government imagining the events of 25 years ago in Beijing as a guide to survival. Both sides basically failed - many protesters lost lives unexpectedly as instead of an army refusing to shoot civilians they confronted something different; and the government after having murdered its own citizens ended up failing anyway.

A subject that seems to pop up quite a bit in recent months for some reason is the prospect of a nuclear confrontation.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was the subject of a special edition of Aviation Week published, ironically, on 11 November last.  Forget Iran.  The focus was on the nuclear brinksmanship underway between the United States and Russia as their old pacts begin to crumble in the wake of rearmament.  The conclusion from reading these articles was that we're probably not more than a few miscalculations away from re-igniting the Cold War.

Writing in Asia Times, Peter Weiss considers how the major nuclear powers, particularly the U.S. and Russia, seem to be simultaneously pursuing and withdrawing from solutions in a fashion that defeats both predictability and coherence.

If psychosis is a loss of contact with reality, the current status of nuclear disarmament can best be described as psychotic. On the one hand, the nuclear issue is beginning to creep out from under the rug where it has lain dormant for several decades. On the other hand, the commitment of the nuclear weapon states to a nuclear weapons-free world is honored more in the breach than in the observance.

Psychotic?  Perhaps.  Schizophrenic?  More likely. It's not that either side is doing anything truly alarming at the moment.  It's that they could either of their own actions or in their perception of what's going on with the other side.

History has shown that it's always a dangerous time when countries transition through a realignment of global hegemony.   Britain, thanks to a benevolent America, continued to display the swagger associated with a major world power long after it had declined to the second rank.  Look at the roster of permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the countries that each hold a veto over pretty much anything the community of nations might see fit to do.  You're looking at a snapshot of the world as it stood after Berlin had been reduced to rubble and Europe had been cleaved by an Iron Curtain.  That alignment isn't really valid any more and plenty of nations are speaking out.

The agents of change tend to have a hard time overcoming the inertia of the status quo and, like tectonic plates, that can allow violent, seismic tensions to build to dangerous levels.  It's sort of like living on Vancouver Island.  We know the big one's coming and we know it's going to be massive.  We also know it'll show up sometime between my next cup of coffee and a hundred years from now.

No one can control an earthquake.  No one can stop it.  We can, however, save the world from a geopolitical seismic event and a global tsunami of military mayhem.  To do that we need to purge our psychotic ways and put our world and community of nations on a rational, cooperative path.  We have an awful lot of work to do.


Owen Gray said...

As Barbara Tuchman noted fifty years ago, Mound, it's easy to back into a war.

The Mound of Sound said...

Take it away, Franz Ferdinand.