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The Economic Engine of America Is...The South

The Buzz

There is something strange happening in the South—it is beginning to look like the economic engine of America. The South region (defined by the Census Bureau to go as far west as Texas and Oklahoma, north to Kentucky, and east to the District of Columbia and Maryland, down to Florida and everything in between) has come to dominate nearly every economic measure. The South is where the homes are being sold, and the jobs are being created. Somehow, while few were watching, the South has become the center of US growth.

As of the end of 2013, the South makes up around 35 percent of the US economy, or $5.4 trillion using the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ State GDP tables. Not even the West with Silicon Valley contributed as much to GDP as the South. The South generated 39 percent of economic growth in 2013, not quite as strong as 2012, when 42 percent of all US growth was generated there. The South is the largest generator of both GDP and GDP growth.

In 2013, the South represented 50 percent of all housing starts—more than 50 percent of all single family homes and 45 percent of multi-family are started in the South. In 2013, 54 percent of annual new home sales occurred in the South, continuing a long rise from the middle of the 20th century (the South accounted for 36 percent of new home sales in 1963). Existing home sales are much the same story. The South has regained 70 percent of its 30 year trend in new home sales since the recession. Other regions remain well below this figure.

Though no region created enough employment to keep up with its labor force growth, the South also generates a relatively high number of jobs. The labor force pool for the South grew 10 percent over the past decade (2004 through 2013) and its employment growth, the engine of economic activity, was 9 percent.

Labor force dynamism is difficult to summarize in a singular statistic, but one useful metric is the quit rate. While the West and Northeast lag, the Midwest and the South are pushing the quit rate higher. In fact, long-term rate for the US is a 2 percent quit rate. The South is the only region above this line. The same can be said of hiring—with a 4 percent hires rate, the South is the most dynamic on the hiring side as well.

With around 120 million people, the South is the most populous region. While the populations of the Northeast and Midwest regions began to stagnate mid-century, the South and West never stopped growing their headcounts. The South grew its population 49 percent over the past two decades; representing 47 percent of US population growth—more than any other region (the West grew at a faster clip, but contributed less to population growth).

The fact that the South is where people want to live may have something to do with how far a dollar goes. In 2010, the Census Bureau released its cost of living index, and 8 of the cheapest 10 urban areas were in the South (4 were in Texas). All 10 of the most expensive cities were in the Northeast and the West with New York and California producing 4 each. As real wages have been squeezed for the past couple decades, people are searching for a place where their earnings and savings can go further.

The average new house is larger and cheaper in the South than in any other region—both average and median home prices are below the other regions. Only the Midwest is close. A slowdown in Southern housing would ripple through the country, causing overall housing starts to be negative—the South is 50 percent of the market. The health of the US economy may be more closely tied to the South than many observers care to acknowledge—especially those with a “bi-coastal” view of economic activity. In many ways, the US has become reliant on the South to drive the growth for the country—especially post financial bubble as small fluctuations in demand for housing employment creation could have ripple effects across the entirety of the US economy.

Texas is the principal driver of the Southern economy, and oil is the primary driver of Texas. Texas alone was responsible for about 50 percent of the economic growth in the South in 2013 and 2012 (45 and 55 percent respectively). And the Texas economy is contributing about 20 percent of the growth for the US. With the shale revolution showing few signs of slowing, there may be nothing to worry about in the near-term. But the South and the US are vulnerable to any slowdown in the Texas economy.

The South is cheap and capitalist—at least, relative to its counterparts in the Northeast and in the West. And sure, the South’s economic performance is being lifted by an outsized contribution from the Texas oil boom. But the South is winning jobs and population and has quietly become the economic driver for the country. The South is rising.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsEconomics RegionsUnited States

Ukraine's Dilemma: Who’d Want to be a Buffer State?

The Buzz

The recommendation that Ukraine be turned into a “buffer state” has been made several times over the past several weeks, and indeed months.  Russia has legitimate fears about the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union, the argument goes, and so in order to allay these fears—and reduce the overall level of geopolitical tension between Russia and the west—it makes sense to convert Ukraine into a permanently neutral state, one that does not belong under Russian control or western influence.

While this argument might appeal to some because it purports to eliminate the proximate cause of disagreement between Russia and the West, the idea promises to be much more difficult to implement in practice.  The problem, of course, is that Ukraine—its leaders, its people—might not want to be consigned to life as a buffer state.

Indeed, who would?  By definition, a buffer state is a political entity that exists to physically divide rival powers or blocs who do not trust themselves to live side by side with one another.  Buffer states are attractive from the perspective of rival camps because they offer strategic depth—that is, the territory of a buffer state allows each side to keep the other’s forces at arm’s length, thus giving both adversaries confidence that they would enjoy the time necessary to rally a military response to any act of aggression.  Being surrounded by buffer states is a good thing in a dangerous world.

Life in a buffer state, however, is far less rosy than life adjacent to one.  Insecurity is endemic to buffer states.  In the past, Great Powers have militarily violated the neutrality and territorial integrity of supposed buffer states when it has suited them—consider the fate of Belgium in World War I, Poland in the interwar period or Afghanistan in the nineteenth century, for example—and intrigues into the domestic politics of buffer states has been a common occurrence.  To be useful, buffer states must be unthreatening to those that create them, something that can only be ensured through constant monitoring and the threat of interference.  Iranians today harbor great resentment towards Britain and the United States for historical actions taken to keep Iran prostrate.

There are exceptions, of course.  Finland, Sweden and Austria were (it turned out, although it was not so clear at the time) relatively secure during the Cold War despite not formally aligning with either the western or eastern blocs.  Switzerland has been neutral for centuries.  Nevertheless, it is at least possible the people of Ukraine might take one look at the job description for buffer states and decide that life as a demilitarized zone is not for them.  Much better, Ukrainians might reasonably conclude, to join a powerful alliance or acquire the means of national defense that will allow their country to defend itself against a potential aggressor.  Even more likely, Ukrainians of different stripes might continue to see their country’s future in different ways, refusing to accept guarantees that neutralism is a pathway to peace and security.  A popular demand to become a buffer state is unlikely to emerge.  What then?

The implication of arguments made by Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer and others seems to be that Ukraine will have to have neutrality foisted upon it by external actors.  That, in turn, will require some serious intervention into the domestic politics of Ukraine—meddling that is likely to have unintended and unwanted consequences, as the British and U.S. experience with Iran amply demonstrates.  Even if Russia and NATO do have the clout to force a settlement upon the leaders of Ukraine’s various groups, ensuring the stability of such a settlement will require constant—and perhaps costly—maintenance.

Fidelity to balance of power logic may well mean that Ukraine should accept its fate as a neutral buffer between east and west as a noble sacrifice in the name of European security.  Yet in a world in which the principle of self-determination still matters, and given the intense distrust and insecurity felt by people on the ground in Ukraine, creating the conditions for a stable balance of power between Russia and NATO will not be straightforward.  Do not be surprised if the people of Ukraine insist upon a say in their own future.

Image: Wikicommons/Flickr/Creative Commons License. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUkraine

Obama's Burden and Rhetorical Asymmetry

Paul Pillar

President Obama has been having a rough summer, reflected in poll numbers that are as low as they have been during his presidency. Clearly a concatenation of developments overseas that appear to most Americans to be to some degree threatening accounts for much of the sour public mood and the broadsides being directed at the president and his administration for how they have responded to those developments. Go beyond the broadsides and look at specific available policy options, however, and one quickly sees that this negativity is not primarily the consequence of Mr. Obama's policies. In the public debate there is a surplus of dissatisfaction being expressed about nasty happenings abroad and a shortage of constructive ideas about what the United States can or should do differently about such happenings, much less any analysis about all the ramifications of trying to follow any conceivable alternative course. Typical of the complaining and criticizing is, for example, a Washington Post editorial the other day that bemoans what it labels as “big holes” in the administration's Middle East strategy but whose recommendation is basically, well, to do something more about regional problems such as ISIS and preferably something forceful.

Issues of Mr. Obama's style and salesmanship are partly, though only partly, to blame for the negativity. A meticulous and careful (and sometimes necessarily time-consuming) approach to policy-making is good for making good policy (and is much more likely to turn out good policy than the no-process, go-by-the-gut approach that Mr. Obama's predecessor applied to some major issues), but it doesn't sell very well. The president also hurt himself with his verbal gaffe about not yet having a strategy—a line that could have been written in the war room at the Republican National Committee.

The negativity is partly a function of the domestic political season, although only slightly so because in American politics today every season is a hyperpartisan political season. We may be seeing slightly more broadsides about foreign affairs than we otherwise would have from the president's political opponents because opponents who thought they could base an entire political campaign on berating Obamacare have had to confront increasing evidence that the Affordable Care Act is actually working rather well.

A more valid, as well as being the biggest and broadest, explanation for how this president has become a punching bag for so much of the current discourse about foreign affairs involves where history has happened to place Mr. Obama on the ever-changing American continuum of assertiveness vs. retrenchment, and where history also has placed him in this regard in the ever-changing push and pull between presidents and the American public. The historical role for some presidents has been to energize into action overseas an American public that was not especially inclined to be energized in this way. Franklin D. Roosevelt's role in the months leading up to the U.S. entry into World War II—before the attack on Pearl Harbor sealed his case—is a leading example. Mr. Obama's necessary role is in many ways the opposite: to keep a nation that is energized to do some stupid things from actually doing them.

Although the blunder of the Iraq War and fatigue with the war in Afghanistan are still reflected in poll numbers showing most of the American public disinclined to get immersed in another Middle Eastern war any time soon (and in this respect the president has been acting in accord with public preferences), two developments in particular have provided the stimulus and the energy to do more things and do more forceful things, and to express impatience with Mr. Obama for holding the anti-stupidity reins as tightly as he has. One is the Ukrainian crisis, along with all of Vladimir Putin's shenanigans, which has gotten Cold War juices flowing in the veins of people who do not stop to realize how this isn't really the Cold War any more. The other development is the dramatic rise of ISIS and its bone-chilling behavior, which has gotten post-9/11 juices flowing in many Americans who are uttering “if we don't stop them over there we will surely face them here at home” platitudes without realizing the lack of basis for such fears.

Barack Obama carries the heavy burden not only of reining in such amygdala-driven responses but of having to do so amid an asymmetric debating environment in which the side favoring doing more or doing something more forceful always has a rhetorical advantage over the side favoring restraint. This means the president gets little benefit, as a counterweight to the “do more” broadsides, either from the general public reservations about involvement in another war soon or from more specific criticisms from his left flank that he already is doing too much kinetic stuff such as drone strikes.

The rhetorical asymmetry has several bases. One is the mistaken habit of thinking of strong leadership as always involving doing more rather than doing less, and especially doing more visible and especially more forceful things. That is an unfortunately skewed view of true leadership, which does not entail that type of bias regarding action vs. restraint.

Another basis is the greater appeal of being seen to meet a threat rather than being seen to stand back in the face of a perceived threat. Careful consideration of the extent to which a perceived threat is real, or of whether a threat is dire enough to sustain severe costs in trying to counter it, or whether any specific effort to counter it may turn out to be counterproductive, always carry less weight in public debate than the simple theme of meeting and defeating a threat.

The simplicity vs. complexity distinction is in a broader sense another big part of the rhetorical asymmetry. It is why much of the criticism of President Obama is (even without being exacerbated by verbal gaffes of his own) phrased in terms of his supposedly not having a “strategy” or “organizing principle.” Having a “strategy” or being”strategic” always sounds good, no matter whether or not there is any specific substance in the minds of those who utter such terms. Stanford historian David Kennedy put this phenomenon nicely into perspective when he observed, “It's difficult virtually to the point of impossibility to have a grand strategy in a world that is so fluid and in which we no longer yield the power we once had. In a sense that is Obama's strategy, a recognition of that fact.”

The complexities do not have the rhetorical appeal but they are often what matter most in determining whether a U.S. initiative is going to be a success or a fiasco. With regard to Middle Eastern problems involving ISIS, Tom Friedman aptly described those problems as being inextricably embedded in not just one but several civil wars. U.S. involvement means taking sides in those civil wars, and that means making new enemies and eliciting more unfavorable reactions against U.S. interests.

Yet another foundation of the asymmetry that applies uniquely in the United States is the American exceptionalist tendency to view just about any significant problem in the world as a U.S. responsibility, and to believe that the United States, with the right policies, ought to be able to solve or resolve just about any problem in the world. That never actually has been the case, and certainly is not today. Kennedy notes, “There's an expectation especially since World War II that the United States and the president in particular can command events. That not true and less true today than ever.” The tendency to make world events at large a part of the incumbent U.S. president's report card is not unique to Mr. Obama, but it is worth noting that except for Libya the messes he is having to deal with are not of his own making.

Whatever good luck Barack Obama may have had earlier in his life that helped get him to the White House, it has been offset by some significant bad luck once he got there. At the beginning of his presidency he was given an awful legacy, including the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, a soaring budget deficit, and a foreign war that was not only one of the biggest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy (and responsible for much of that budget deficit, which had been a surplus at the beginning of the previous administration) but also spawned such continuing problems as ISIS. Now moving into the last quarter of his presidency he is carrying the necessary but mostly thankless burden of having to be the restrainer-in-chief.

Peter Beinart, in observing how the very emotional American public and political reaction to the gruesome killing by ISIS of two freelance journalists resembles in some respects the deep emotional reaction by the American public to the taking hostage of U.S. diplomats in Tehran in 1979, sees some similarity between the current domestic politics of U.S. foreign policy and the politics during the latter part of Jimmy Carter's administration. This is another piece of bad luck for Obama: having to deal with such emotional—and very unhelpful in trying to win support for prudent and carefully constructed policy—public reactions to still more events that are not of his own making. But as Carter himself observed, life is unfair.

Image: White House Flickr.                                                   

TopicsUnited States Iraq Ukraine RegionsEurope Middle East

Why More Immigration Is Bad for America

The Buzz

Why do we have immigration when unemployment is high? Nobody in Washington will give the honest answer. Employers want cheap labor. They benefit tremendously from legal and illegal immigration in the current slow-growth economy. We have a million legal immigrants per year, and the vast majority of them enter the labor market competing with Americans for scarce job opportunities. The result is wage depression, though there are other factors that restrict wage growth, and persistently high unemployment above the 5 percent level that most economists believe is unhealthy.

Rather than have a million legal immigrants plus more than three hundred thousand more job seekers coming over on temporary work visas year in and year out without a pause, we should ask the simple question, do we need any immigrants? The only constituency that claims there is such a need is employers. And they have essentially written U.S. immigration law for a very long time.

The primary type of immigration is for “family reunification.” That means a U.S. citizen can sponsor their immediate relatives for permanent residency and then citizenship. This sounds like a perfectly reasonable basis on which to base an immigration policy. But it makes no economic sense and has disastrous consequences. Spouses, children and parents of citizens may be unskilled, uneducated, and thus likely to become “public charges,” the bane of immigration. Economists agree that the U.S. has ample unskilled labor. (The Department of Labor, which is supposed to protect the interests of U.S. workers, has said this for more than twenty years.) But the exception is companies that rely on this labor, particularly food processors, cleaning companies and agriculture. They always want more because more means less pay. These companies could care less about public benefits, unemployment rates and rest of the pathologies that an excess of immigrants can bring. And they turn very nasty when criticized. Anyone who brings up the unemployment is a racist. Or they roll their eyes and tell you American won’t do nasty jobs. Tell that to the nation’s sewer workers who are mostly unionized, well-paid and American.

There is currently no numerical cap in the number of spouses and children that immigrants can bring over. There needs to be, and that cap must reflect economic reality, the skill level of the immigrants, the unemployment rate in the labor market where they will live, and the likelihood they will become a public charge. If it’s likely, then the sponsors should be required to sign surety bonds to reimburse the government for any welfare benefits the immigrants incur. It might seem callous to policy makers to restrict family reunification, but the current system is callous to Americans at the bottom of the labor market. The only beneficiaries are employers.

Noncitizens should not be permitted to sponsor anyone. The idea that green card holders, people in this country on a probationary basis, should be allowed to bring over their children and parents is nonsensical as an initial proposition (if they want to be with their relatives, then why are they here?), but in a tight labor market, without any justification except to employers. We currently allow this.

Our experience with Mexican immigration highlights the domination of immigration policy by employers of cheap labor. In 1907, the country was reeling from three decades of mass immigration, and Congress appointed a blue-ribbon commission to make recommendations for reform of the nearly open-border policy (only Chinese were excluded). The Dillingham Commission recommended quotas limiting immigration by country of origin—but not from Mexico. It found that they were “indolent” and “nonassimilable” but also “a source of labor to substitute for the Asiatics in the most undesirable seasonal occupations.” The demand for cheap labor carried the day.

Mexicans have been used to lower wages ever since. The government encouraged this for twenty years with the Bracero program. It only ended when Mexico complained that too many of its citizens were leaving the country, thereby raising the price of labor on that side of the border. That legitimate complaint, not the poor treatment of the Mexican braceros, ended the program in the 1960s. But there have been other guest-worker programs since then, and all are justified by the simple fact that growers don’t want to pay Americans market wages to work in the fields. Are fields worse than sewers?

Last week I spoke to an aide to a Republican Congressman who was a member of the “Gang of Eight” that tried to negotiate an immigration bill, which could pass the Republican House. This never materialized, and this particular Congressman dropped out of the group. I asked him why we need immigration when we have high unemployment. He told me it would be un-American not to allow citizens to bring their foreign spouses and children to this country. I asked if there should be any numerical limits on this type of immigration when unemployment is high. He said no. I asked if there should be any numerical limits on immigration at all, including by employers. He said labor market conditions should be considered, but the Congressman does not believe in limits. I asked how immigration helps anyone except employers. He gave me this example. Suppose someone wants to open an Indian restaurant in a rural area and needs a chef. (The example is farfetched. How much demand is there for Indian cuisine in rural areas.) The owner should be allowed to sponsor an Indian chef as an immigrant. And if he does, it creates employment, for others, waiters and busboys. I asked why the owner could not find an Indian chef in the U.S. He responded that there might be some looking for work in cities, but would they relocate to this rural community? I wondered why someone from India would relocate to that community. And then he gave me a candid response, perhaps unplanned. He said the restaurant owner might not be able to pay for an American citizen chef to take the job in the small town. So it comes down to cheap labor.

There might be a few jobs that cannot be filled by three hundred million Americans, but one has to strain to think of such a job. A labor economist I spoke to gave the example of a university in North Dakota needing a professor to teach Farsi. That sounds just like the Indian chef example, and is just as silly. Are there any Farsi-language professors in the United States? If so, how about making one of them an attractive employment package to relocate to North Dakota? Or will they be unable to find a local Persian restaurant to serve them? Then, do we need to bring over a Persian chef, and more Persians so the professor won’t be lonely? Perhaps the North Dakota University just won’t be able to entice any qualified Farsi professor to move there. That suggests there may actually be very little demand for studying Farsi in North Dakota. And there are perfectly good reasons for that, given the ethnic mix of the state. The case for an immigrant worker makes no sense.

We are the only major country in the world to confer citizenship on everyone born here even if the parents are here illegally (“birthright citizenship”). At least that is the current interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, enacted after the Civil War to prevent the southern states from denying citizenship to freed slaves. Why this should apply to the children of illegal aliens is bizarre, and, in a sense, suicidal. A nation that encourages foreigners to enter its territory illegally can hardly be considered a sovereign nation.

In 1898 the Supreme Court decided that a Chinese son of legal aliens was an American citizen by birth. Does this decision apply to people in the country illegally? The Supreme Court has never faced the question. Surely, if there is to be immigration reform, we want to close this loophole. It draws thousands of illegal immigrants to the country, and has spawned the “birth tourism” industry. But the “reform” bill passed by the Senate last year did not address it at all. The congressional aide said his boss would not support any change. I asked why not. He said tinkering with the Fourteenth Amendment was a bad idea.

In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which for the first time made it illegal to hire an illegal immigrant. But the law was to be carried out by employers. They, the beneficiaries of cheap immigrant labor, were supposed to inspect the documents tendered by job applicants and refuse to hire those whose documents looked fake. But the law also contained an “antidiscrimination” provision that made it illegal to refuse to hire on the basis of foreign appearance or accent. Many illegal immigrants look or sound foreign, just as we do when we’re abroad. That plus the natural inclination of employers to want to hire illegals gutted the law, which was not a surprise. A different provision of the same law established a new guest-worker program for agriculture.

All of this brings us back to where I started. Why do we have immigration? The single principle underlying every category in the very complex web of statutes and regulations comprising modern immigration law is that it’s good for employers. It might be nice to unite families. But that benefits only the immigrants themselves. It’s not a national policy. Cheap labor is, and every employer understands it well. They all support more immigration.

Howard W. Foster is a lawyer specializing in civil RICO cases involving the employment of illegal immigrants.

TopicsImmigrationDomestic Politics RegionsUnited StatesMexico

A Troubling "World Island" Grand Tour: A World on Fire

The Buzz

Even though President Obama did an about-face and militarily reintervened in Iraq, one still gets a sense that he does not apprehend the gravity of security events in the world. As the world’s security erodes at an alarmingly fast rate, now is a good time to step back from the liberal philosophies of international relations that capture the American worldview and the Obama administration and look anew at the world through conservative-realist lenses.

Geopolitics has fallen out of fashion in the study of international relations and foreign policy in the United States, but it is an intellectual foundation for realism. Few observers today notice the absence of geopolitical discourse save a few. A return to geopolitical analysis would help make sense of the spreading and sprawling international anarchy from which the world suffers.

One shining reference point in geopolitics is the work of British geographer Sir Halford John Mackinder, who died in 1947. When most people look at a world map, they see oceans populated by continents. But Mackinder looked at the world differently and saw Africa, Europe and Asia as a single landmass stretching from Europe through Russia, into the Middle East and over to South Asia and Asia. He called that landmass the “World Island.” Mackinder reasoned that any power that could control East Europe would command the heartland of the World Island, and, in turn, command the entire world. As distinguished military historian Lawrence Freedman reflected, “What Mackinder offered was a way of rooting the higher-level strategic discourse in the interaction between states and the enduring features of their environment.”

The World Island today is ablaze with fires of conflict. And these fires mingle and combine in today’s globalized world to an extent unprecedented in human history. Events at the western coast of the World Island impact events in the central and eastern coasts, and vice versa. The cascading effects of conflict travel across the World Island at the speed of Internet and into the minds of rivals, friends and foes.

The World Island’s coast in North Africa is on fire with political instability. Libya is torn by war between tribal militias and Egypt has resorted to an authoritarian dictatorship masquerading as a democratically elected government. Militant Islam is fueling violence beneath the Sahara, causing massive refugee flows up into northern Africa and into Europe. These refugees add to others fleeing violence and economic turmoil from the Middle East and South Asia. These increasing immigration flows are placing acute demographic pressures on European states. Refugees in the world today number some 50 million people, the greatest number of refugees since World War II.

Close to the heartland of the World Island, Russia has started a fire and Europeans are paralyzed with shock and apologetics that war has returned to Europe. While European states and NATO over the past two decades triumphantly celebrated the “winning” of the Cold War, they imprudently allowed their military prowess to disintegrate. Russia, meanwhile, nurtured its bitter, wounded pride and began rebuilding its military forces. Russia used a cunning mixture of intelligence, propaganda, duplicitous diplomacy, paramilitary, special-operations forces, threats of conventional military power and coercive economic power to conquer Crimea. Moscow is using the same toolkit—with the deadly addition of medium-range surface-to-air missiles that undoubtedly downed a Malaysian passenger aircraft—to dismantle what is left of Ukraine. Russia threatens to employ the same arsenal to intimidate (or worse) the Baltic States, and states in the World Island’s heartland. European nations are intimidated by a Russia that could retaliate against them economically with restrictions of energy supplies and investment, should they move to implement more assertive economic sanctions on Moscow.

In the center of the World Island, the Middle East is ablaze with the upending of governmental authorities and the degeneration of nation-states formed out of the post–World War I rubble. While the collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the redrawing of political maps in the Middle East, the rapid regeneration of militant Islam is redrawing states on the World Island today. Osama bin Laden was put into a body bag and his old Al Qaeda leadership has been eclipsed by a variety of metastasized militant Islamic movements located around the World Island from Boko Haram, to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to al-Shabaab and to the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), which essentially erased the border between Syria and Iraq.

ISIS, or the Islamic State as it now calls itself, has ushered in a new era of sectarian warfare between Sunni and Shia Muslims, each backed by regional rivals. Al Qaeda’s founding fathers sought the capture of a nation-state, the pinnacle of power in international politics, but they never managed to gain control over Egypt or Saudi Arabia. But what the old Al Qaeda leadership tried to do and failed, the Islamic State might yet accomplish in Syria, Iraq and beyond. What was once sub-rosa and proxy warfare is now open war between Islam’s sects, the central battle space is in Iraq, where one of the schism’s culminating moments, the Battle of Karbala, took place more than a millennium ago.

While the post–World War I borders go up in smoke, Iran is using negotiations to come out from under international sanctions while preserving its robust nuclear infrastructure. Tehran wants to eventually emerge as a nuclear-weapons state to aid its bid for regional domination over Arab Gulf states and for counterbalancing the power of the United States and Israel. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states will not stay idle and will look for their own nuclear weapons to balance Iran, not trusting the United States for security backing. The Arab Gulf States judge that Washington is much too eager to protect Iraq’s Shia and to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. The Arab Gulf states fear that at their expense, Washington and Tehran are pushing to reestablish the American-Iranian strategic partnership that was severed by the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Farther to the east along the southern coast of the World Island, South Asia is smoldering. Afghanistan looks poised to return to higher levels of violence as the Taliban grows in strength in anticipation of the eventual withdrawal of American and international forces. Across the border, the Taliban is striking Pakistani forces with increasing intensity to shame the civilian government and military and security services that for too long nurtured the Taliban fighters now setting fires in Pakistan. The Pakistanis, meanwhile, harbor conspiratorial fears of India and compensate for their conventional military inferiority by building up already-large nuclear-weapons inventories. The toxic mix of political instability, militant Islamic terrorism and insurgency raises dangers that Pakistani nuclear weapons could someday fall into the hands of Al Qaeda, the Taliban or the Islamic State.

At the eastern coast of the World Island, China is pressing its geopolitical weight against smaller neighbors. Beijing is building up its military power and is increasingly flexing it by asserting sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, intimidating Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. At the same time, China’s troublesome ally North Korea continues to erratically threaten war as it assiduously works on its ballistic-missile and nuclear-weapons programs. If China’s Pacific neighbors are jittery about Beijing’s growing military matched by increasingly belligerent nationalism, India is also taking notice and building up its military to counter China. Meanwhile, Pakistani military officers endlessly worry that India’s military modernization is aimed at them. This acute security dilemma could yet bring Pakistan and India over the brink and into nuclear war, a scenario that neither side wants, but, more alarmingly, that neither side thinks possible.

The tour of the World Island’s fires exposes the weaknesses of many liberal visions for international politics that are shared by Obama-administration officials whose minds were incubated at the Cold War’s closing. Globalization appears not to have fostered the mutual economic interdependency between states that Joseph Nye and Robert Koehane argued (in Power and Interdependency) would lessen the role of force in relations between states. Russia and China today are much more economically integrated into the global economy than they were during the Cold War. Yet, that integration has not stopped Russia from militarily occupying Ukraine’s territory. Nor has China shied away from a military buildup and “salami-slicing tactics” to broaden its sphere of influence and control in Asia at the expense of American security partners in Asia. Democracy has not triumphed and ended history in a Hegelian sense, as envisioned by Francis Fukuyama's End of History. Not all peoples of the world acknowledge Western democracy as the destiny of mankind as evident by the rise of Russian and Chinese militant nationalism and the Islamic State’s march to break nation-states and establish unity between mosque and state under Sharia Law, just as Iran has rejected Western civilization’s separation of church and state. History, to the contrary, seems to be accelerating at a breakneck pace. The world has not ignored political squabbles to exclusively pursue rational economic interests as Thomas Friedman argued in Lexus and the Olive Tree, and as painfully evidenced by another round of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Contrary to liberal hopes, the World Island is not breaking out into a Kantian democratic peace, but rather, a Hobbesian state of war in which there is a general inclination of all mankind toward a perpetual and restless desire of power that ceases only after death.

The challenge is to use American statecraft to manage and contain the World Island’s descent into a Hobbesian state of war. That daunting task is made even harder by the broad and deep perception in the world today—by friends and enemies alike—that the United States is withdrawing from its role as the World Island’s balancer of power. American statecraft played this role—sometimes by design and at other times by happenstance—under both Republican and Democratic Party presidents during the World Wars, the Cold War and post–Cold War periods.

The American duty now is to again take up the mantle of global leadership to contain the World Island’s fires. Washington will have to balance the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish parts of Iraq. America must also focus on the “bull’s eye” of the World Island where Israel and Jordan vulnerably sit. Washington must put in place a firebreak at Jordan’s borders. Should the Jordanian monarchy fall victim to the expanding Islamic State, Israel’s security would be gravely jeopardized. Washington, meanwhile, will have to resuscitate NATO’s military power and arm Ukraine and other states threatened by Russia to keep Moscow’s reach contained. Likewise, the White House will have to ensure that “redlines” in Asia are enforced—rather than abandoned, as President Obama did in Syria—with viable preparations to militarily challenge Chinese aggression and to reassure nervous Asian allies. At both the western and eastern coasts of the World Island, Germany and Japan will need to shed their pacifist post–World War II mindsets and reassert themselves as “normal powers” to work hand-in-hand with American statecraft to stop the spreading of the World Island’s fires.

Richard L. Russell is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center for the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter: @DrRLRussell.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Army/CC by 2.0

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddle EastAsia

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