The Surprises No One Sees Coming

No one saw 9/11 or the end of the Soviet Union coming—what equivalent is coming in Obama's second term?

By SHARE
FE_130128_Berlinwall.jpg
East German border guards look through a hole in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down one segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate Saturday, November 11, 1989.

Whenever a new presidential term begins, everyone asks what surprises might the next four years bring.

Think of the Bush 41 presidency. On inauguration day 1989, how many American experts expected the Soviet Union to collapse before the next election? How many anticipated Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and our troops going to war in the Middle East? On inauguration day for President Bush 43, did anyone anticipate the 9/11 attacks at the start or the real estate bust at the end?

On the flip side of fortune, President Clinton enjoyed a technology boom in his second term that pulled the economy and the markets up with it. No one saw it coming when the man from Hope first ran or even when he ran for re-election.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Amazingly, half way through the Obama presidency, the world has offered up no surprises—good or bad—even close to those. Yes, we've had the Arab Spring, but its impact on daily life in the United States has hardly been huge. Meanwhile, despite the euro crisis, the domestic economy creeps its petty pace from day to day, despite being, to lots of media, sound and fury signifying nothing. The surprise: the economy has been so boring.

If you were taking bets today, the economy would be the hands down favorite as the source of national surprises. But I have another candidate. It comes from two articles that ran recently, one by an expert on guerrilla warfare, the other by an expert on military preparedness and global economics.

The guerrilla war expert is named Max Boot. A senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, he has written extensively and, by common consent, brilliantly on the kinds of nonconventional wars we face today. His new book, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, just came out. In it Boot discusses the proliferation of unconventional wars in our time. As he noted in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed adapted from the volume, "For a student of military history, the most astonishing fact about the current international scene is that there isn't a single conflict in which two uniformed militaries are pitted against each other."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Instead, France is battling insurgent rebels in Mali. Israel is fighting Hamas. Mexico is struggling against the drug cartels and Colombia against the FARC. A U.S.-led alliance fights the Taliban in Afghanistan. These (as Boot titled another of his volume) savage wars of peace can be found on almost every continent and killing at a rate scarcely slower than many conventional wars of the past: in Syria, 60,000; in Mexico, 50,000; hundreds of thousands in the various African civil wars. It could get far worse, as insurgencies gain access to small nuclear or chemical devices, the very prospect that had the Bush 43 White House so terrified in the months following the 9/11 attacks.

Perhaps equally dangerous, if China, for example, finds itself fighting a prolonged and frustrating war with separatists in its far west might the regime be tempted to strike out against the United States or Japan in its east, as a means of uniting the country?

It is a prospect raised by the second expert, Stanley Weiss, in an article titled "The Emerging Eastphalian International System," that appeared several weeks ago at The Huffington Post.  Weiss is an international entrepreneur. As a young man, he went mining in Mexico for manganese, a strategic mineral, and ultimately founded a global mining company. Holdings in strategic minerals led to an interest in national defense and creation of the Washington-based Business Executives for National Security. His writings on global affairs have appeared in numerous publications.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

In his piece, Weiss argues that "Before our eyes—if not yet in strategic planning—the map of the world is rearranging itself. Behind the guerrilla wars that Boot details, Weiss sees a new age of separatism. After the three and a half centuries since 1648's Peace of Westphalia, the nation-state has dominated the international scene. But now "one state after another is facing a crisis as provinces and populations seek greater autonomy or even try to break away."

The list is long and unthinkable until recently. Hardly a country of Western Europe is immune. The United Kingdom has Scotland. Belgium has Flanders; Spain the Basque country and Catalonia; Italy, Venice and Lombardy. In the old Soviet Union, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan all face separatist guerrillas who could have stepped out from Boot's pages. In Africa the same list includes Congo, Somalia, Mali, Zambia, and Niger. In Asia Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mongolia, the Philippines, and China face separatist rebellions.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Withdraw from Afghanistan Sooner?]

Weiss argues that the forces that propelled global consolidation from the 17th century to 1900 have now been slammed into reverse. The challenge for America is how to deal with what he cleverly calls this new "Eastphalian" international order.

Viewing 9/11 as our first Eastphalian surprise raises a question. Since those attacks, we have, understandably, focused on Islamicism—including in coming from the state apparatus of Iran—as the source of our most urgent dangers. But perhaps our vision is too narrow.  Perhaps, taken together, Boot and Weiss are pointing to a broader challenge that could generate far more shocks. Will major states start to come apart? Will the result be warfare spilling out of their borders? Is, indeed, the map of the world and with it the peace of the world about to come undone before our eyes?

And are we ready?

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