The imminent and inevitable downsizing of US foreign policy

Paul Raven @ 12-08-2010

Via Richard Gowan of the Global Dashboard gang, here’s one Michael Mandelbaum extolling the theme of his new book, Frugal Superpower. In a nutshell: The US can’t afford to sustain its “democracy-exporting” model of foreign policy unless it wants affairs at home to go from bad to worse. And that’s bad news, even for those of us who aren’t particularly keen on that foreign policy model… because, like it or not, US foreign policy contributes to global stability.

It has to operate within limits that arise from a consensus in the wider public about what is desirable and what is feasible. During the Cold War, for example, America maintained a large and costly military presence in Europe because this was widely agreed to be necessary to protect American interests by deterring a Soviet attack. The limits that govern foreign policy are not formally encoded in a foreign policy charter and are seldom even set out explicitly. They are more like customs in small-scale societies or good manners in larger ones: they are tacitly, but broadly, understood.

Because of the country’s financial constraints, those limits will be narrower than they have been for many decades. The government will still have an allowance to spend on foreign affairs, but because competing costs will rise so sharply that allowance will be smaller than in the past. Moreover, the limits to foreign policy will be drawn less on the basis of what the world needs and more by considering what the United States can–and cannot–afford.

I’m not so sure about Mandelbaum’s grim assertions that the dogs of discord will be unleashed as a result of budgetary belt-tightening; the dogs of discord are already gleefully chewing through the leash, despite the immense (and sometimes predominantly unaccounted for) recent expenditure on US interventionism overseas. And this is exactly the sort of thing the United Nations was put together to deal with, after all… maybe we could go back to, y’know, letting it do its job? I’m guessing those notorious council veto options may hamper that particular idea for a while, but still…

Tough disruptive times are on the cards for the whole planet, this much is certain; whether they’d be any less tough with the US still throwing its weight around is, in my humble opinion, still open to debate.


#WarLogs: the beginning of the end for nation-state secrecy?

Paul Raven @ 26-07-2010

Well, now I understand why I was seeing Julian Assange and Wikileaks everywhere last week. Unless you’ve been under our oft-referred-to yet hypothetical news-proof rock for the last 48 hours, you’ll be aware that The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel are busily publishing the contents of a massive batch of classified documents about the conflict in Afghanistan, which were apparently released to them by Wikileaks about a month back. It’s decidedly unpretty and embarrassing reading for the US government and other members of the “coalition of the willing”, but I think the saddest thing is how little of what’s being reported surprises me in the least. I think we all suspected it was happening that way, deep down; the only difference now is that denial and spin are weak options. The collective bluff has been called, and rather spectacularly.

As usual, I’m less interested in the leak itself than the larger implications. The next few months will be crucial in determining the shape of the political world to come, because Wikileaks have suddenly brought radical and deep transparency to the geopolitical process, and that cloak and dagger world has always thrived on the comparative ease with which it could obscure distant truths from the sight of its electorates. If Wikileaks and similar organisations cannot be squelched, and squelched quickly, dirty wars with hidden agendas are going to become much more politically risky… and it’s those wars and agendas that are the mainstay of the nation-state as power unit. I’m rather intrigued to see a pro-interventionist commentator like Thomas P M Barnett cautiously welcoming this new and uninvited transparency, even if not entirely approving of its source; either I’ve spectacularly misread his political stance – which is more than possible, I’ll grant you – or he’s seeing the same writing on the wall that I am. Other commentators seem to have been concluding that interventionism is all over bar the shouting, and that was before the leak; it’ll be interesting to watch the public approval ratings for overseas operations over the next few months.

I read somewhere (though I’ve lost the link) that Julian Assange is making a point of never sleeping in the same place two nights in a row; I suspect he’ll be spending as much time being publicly visible as possible, too, because he’s now the figurehead of something that is scaring the shit out of people whose long-term modus operandi has been the disappearing (or unvarnished assassination) of obstacles to their agendas. If they can bump him off and not get caught, the warning will have been sent: don’t lift the curtain, or the puppetmaster will rap your knuckles. If he stays free and alive, the warning goes in the other direction: we’re watching, and you can’t reliably stop us from doing so any more.That’s one hell of a responsibility to be walking around with – whatever you may think of Assange’s personal politics and motives, I think it’s safe to say the guy has solid brass balls.

It’s worth noting the language of the White House statement in response to the leak, with its talk of “threatening national security”. “National security” isn’t about the security of the nation’s population, it’s about the security of the nation-state as a political entity… and that is profoundly threatened by Wikileaks and the radical transparency it represents. This isn’t the end of the road for the nation-state, but it could well be the beginning of the end.

I can’t say I’m too sad about that, either.


Recycling the Pacific Trash Vortex into an island

Paul Raven @ 15-07-2010

I don’t know whether or not Kay Kenyon heard about this before writing her Shine anthology story “Castoff World”, but if not, the similarities are uncanny. A Dutch firm of architects have proposed a project to turn the Pacific Trash Vortex into a habitable (and indeed arable) sea-worthy island, simply by recycling in situ all the plasticky crap that’s already there [via SlashDot]:

The Pacific Ocean trash dump is twice the size of Texas, or the size of Spain combined with France.  The Pacific Vortex as it is sometimes called, is made up of four million tons of Plastic.  Cleaning it up is going to cost a lot of money and require a great deal of either scooping up the plastic and shipping it back to shore, or some sort of onsite recycling for building something like Recycled Island.

One of the three major aims of the project is to clean up the floating trash by recycling it on site.  Two, the project would create new land for sustainable habitation complete with its own food sources and energy sources.  Lastly, Recycled Island is to be a sea worthy island.

[…]

Further aspects of the island would be: the creation of “fertile ground” from compost toilets.  The island would also be non-polluting, using natural resources.  Recycled Island would be 10,000 Km2 or the size of Hawaii’s main island.  It would be self-sustaining and not dependant on other countries.  The urban housing would be designed for future climate refugees. These are very lofty goals but if carried out, Recycled Island would turn the trash into a money making enterprise rather than an economic sink hole.

Hmmm… an ideal candidate for city-state status, then. But any nation-state along the edge of the Pacific is going to be a bit uneasy about a recycled island that can move itself around at will, and which isn’t dependent on anyone for anything. Compare and contrast to The Raft from Snow Crash: with the latter, refugees want to invade, assimilate themselves; on the other hand, a self-sufficient pirate island will attract away your own malcontents, weaken your authority.

Recycled Island is a great idea from a technological perspective, but the geopolitics are too horrifying to contemplate. Think of the way Antarctica is being scrabbled over, thanks to its oil reserves; the very same economic pressures and scarcities will eventually make a huge lump of plastic floating in the sea look like a natural resource well worth exploiting. But then, that might mean invading a moving country populated entirely by people displaced by climate change… so I wouldn’t plan for your invasion being a cakewalk if they’ve decided they want to stay.


The Changing Face of the American Apocalypse: Modern Warfare and Bad Company

Jonathan McCalmont @ 31-03-2010

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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“Welcome to the Desert of The Real” announces Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus as he introduces The Matrix’s (1999) Neo to images of the charred remains of what was once human civilisation. A civilisation that has since been digitised and placed online while the real world crumbles beneath an ash grey sky. Morpheus’ drily ironic line would later be re-invented by the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek in an essay prompted by the September 11th attack upon the World Trade Center. Žižek’s point is a simple one : The 9/11 attacks destroyed not only some buildings, but also America’s conception of what the real world was really like. Since the end of the Cold War, the West had fallen into a cocoon of smugness created by the comforting belief that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all opposition to liberal democracy had simply dried up and blown away; that, as the Berlin Wall came down, Humanity found itself united in the same set of desires for elected governments, human rights and consumer goods – desires for the kind of things that the American people had. It was, as Francis Fukuyama put it, The End of History. Continue reading “The Changing Face of the American Apocalypse: Modern Warfare and Bad Company”


Near-future geopolitical flash fiction: The Free Freeways

Paul Raven @ 15-09-2009

tall shadows on Route 66Moving on neatly from Tom’s post about solar freeways, here’s another road-related story… only this one really is a story. It’s a little speculative near-future slice of geopolitical flash fiction at a blog called Quiet Babylon, and it’s about the US highways system seceding from the rest of the country:

The seeds of the secession were sewn in, of all places, Afghanistan. Amongst the unconquerable mountains was waged an eternal game of cat and mouse. Pitting patrols against insurgents and drones against IEDs, the military demonstrated that even if you couldn’t control the territory, you could keep the roads clear. Much as with flack-jackets and APCs, it was a matter of time before drone hardware trickled down into law enforcement and private security.

In the past, borders had been fixed to natural geographic or political points. If they weren’t cut along a mountain range or a coastline, they were drawn along the arbitrary geometric divisions of longitude and latitude. These conveniences for cartographers and generals were 20th century relics.

Automated smart-defences changed the rules. Borders of arbitrary complexity became possible, as demonstrated by the almost fractal Jerusalem Solution. The new question became whether a territory was worth defending. For the Freeway States, the calculation shifted to tolls, traffic levels, and ROI per mile.

It’s a fun short read; go check it out, and then browse around the rest of the site, which seems to be full of interesting stuff. When you’re done, thank Justin Pickard for the Twitter tip-off. 🙂 [image by Caveman 92223]


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