Rethinking international affairs: A call for a multidisciplinary approach

2012 is bound to be an exciting yet uncertain year. 

Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician Václav Havel once said:

"Society is a very mysterious animal with many faces and hidden potentialities, and... it's extremely short-sighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is its only true face.  None of us know all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events, both visible and invisible... One must be very careful about coming to any conclusions about the way we are, or what can be expected of us."


There is no other time than in ours where this should be ringing true for all our sakes, and my appeal here is to take serious consideration of the way we choose to view our world, its capabilities, its assertions and validations, but also the welts of uncertainty, indeterminism, path-dependence systems theory, the ironies and hallucinations.  It would be unfair to reject sentimentalism for its subjective unobjectivity.  We are feeling beings, after all. However, taking a step back, keeping our furious passions in check, and attempting to look at the world organically and objectively is necessary in making the hard decisions, and to keep the world's politicians and their bureaucracies from having to make suboptimal decisions in favour of pleasing their voting (or even non-voting) publics, who get riled up over the inconsequential, and don't get riled up enough over the consequential.

Political relations are, at their roots, human relations.  Alliances, fall-outs and tensions between states can happen for the same reasons that family members become estranged, people get married and divorce, friends cease to be friends, and colleagues and peers bicker and compete.  Understanding that politics is not such an obscure, illusive phenomenon, but rather an extension of human interaction, leads us to the Latin origin of the word "politics" - polity, an organized and managed society.  The factors involved leave room for everything that are a part of what we may define as major landmarks of the human experience - personalities, opinions, sentimentality, theology, competition, self-conscious and dynamic group behaviour, human rationality and irrationality, or cost and benefit, to name but a few examples.  To say that one isn't engaged in or interested in "politics" in its pure sense is simply wrong if they ever engage in the 'standard' progressions of human life.  We are all members of a polity, and we are engaged inpolitics by forming relationships, by participating in our economies, performing benign activities, expressing our ideas, and figuring out how to get ahead in our lives.  If you live, breathe, and think, you are political.  If you are a vegetable in the intensive care unit of a hospital,maybe then, you aren't political.  Understanding the way the human polity functions, therefore is just as relevant to you as the reason why your best friend sabotaged your last bid for a promotion after having your boss fired.

Flickr photo by Owen Blacker

Important leadership (presidential, legislative, and parliamentary) changes are coming in many countries, including the U.S., France, Russia, and China. There's a prospect of heightened tensions and conflict with the rise of terrorist franchises in South East Asia, the Middle East and the Maghreb, Africa, and Central Asia of all stripes and colours, which are becoming more and more sophisticated. With those, combined with a European debt crisis that could take the entire global economy down (including China, beset with many problems that can no longer accept forced postponement), we are leaving behind and reflecting on a decade that sets the tone for the next generation. 

The NATO – and more substantial U.S. (in terms of pure numbers) – withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq is creating a whole new balance of power in the Middle East, where alliances are changing and trust by U.S. allies in America's ability to assert force and stability in the region and keep rivalries in check is becoming more and more uncertain as America shifts its focus to the Asia-Pacific. 

Flickr photo by Nazzy

There is substantial talk in the mainstream media about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the imminent threat of a war with Iran and the effects it would have on regional stability in the Middle East, and on U.S. President Obama’s ability to survive the next presidential election. While people around the world are quick to lambaste Iran, the world’s diplomats know that the reality of the geopolitical circumstances call for an accommodation with Iran. While we fret over Iran possibly having the capability of deploying several nuclear warheads, Pakistan and India have about a hundred each. The ability to produce nuclear fissile material does not necessarily entail the ability to miniaturize it into a warhead that could fit into a capable delivery system.  Such things take time to develop, and the longer they take, the easier it is to develop detection capabilities and countermeasures We must also remember that what will matter in the coming decade is not whether Iran’s cleric-dominated regime will survive (yes, even the Ayatollah gets a little irked by President Ahmidinejad sometimes), but how it will play its hand for the best results from that accommodation. Despite whatever rhetoric that is becoming of the western world, military options with regards to Iran are actively superseded by the option of diplomacy combined with debilitating sanctions. Its nuclear capability is Iran’s trump card, and if the nuclear crisis with North Korea in the 1990s can be taken as a lesson learned, the combination of leaders with radical and edgy behaviour coupled with nuclear weapons can really bring home a lot of cake. Any military interdiction would spell the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, as many of the nuclear materiel facilities are located near or under the streets of heavily populated areas.

Flickr photo by jrseles

Shiite-dominated Iran already has a firm grip on the future of Iraq’s post-Baathist, Shiite-dominated regime, while the Sunnis and Kurds (who believe they have guarantees from the Americans because of their substantial investment in Kurdish oil by US companies) are nervous and bewildered at their loss of political opportunities and sense insecurity without U.S. protection.  Baghdad has already ordered the arrest of many Sunni leades, and the Shia know that resistance to Iran would be unwise.  Iran’s support of the unrest in Bahrain, in which Saudi military forces intervened, demonstrates Iran’s opportunism in a post-withdrawal Middle East. Iran, conducting a proxy war against its enemies through the financing of groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, has the Arab world (Iran is not an Arab country) on its feet. Arab countries fear Iran’s growing sphere of influence more than they hate Israel, and they would take the security ensured between the security brokered by the strength of Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia any day. Even Lebanon and Syria prefer the stability and predictability of the status quo, although they often use contemptible Israeli actions as a rallying point for their own domestic political purposes to draw attention away from domestic issues. Thinking that the U.S. truly wants Assad to fall from the throne of power in Syria is simply not taking into consideration the stability that the Alawite leader provides in regional relations (of the 87 per cent Muslim population, Sunnis account for 74 per cent, while the Shia, Alawite, Twelvers and Ismailis account for the remaining 13 per cent). The Alawites came into power in 1970, when Al-Assad's father, chief of the air force at the time, staged a coup.  Assad has maintained a reputation for being predictable with his actions. The narrow window of passage allowed by the already narrow and disadvantageously tall and currently demilitarized Golan Heights between Syria and Israel makes for easy detection of any military ground advances before reaching either of Narzareth, Hefa, or the West Bank. A predictable, though detestable, regime that falls only makes way for unrest and uncertain future diplomatic-military relations with a new regime.  

However, some of the policy makers in the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia believe that sustaining Assad may not longer be worthwhile.  Syria regards Lebanon as historically part of Syria, hosting, funding, and arming Hezbollah as an extension of its control over Lebanon.  Tehran, and now Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki has been Damascus' only friend.  So while Assad used to be viewed by the West as the devil-you-know that is much better than dealing with a devil-you-don't-know, Iraq falling substantially under Iranian influence would mean a surviving, coherent Assad regime in Syria would allow Iran's sphere of influence to extend from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea not only via Syria, but Hezbollah in Lebanon.  If Iran is capable of projecting force in a way that convinces Riyadh and Ankara that accommodation would be more wise than resistance, they would seek an acommodation with Iran as a result of the impending US withdrawal.  Israel, having had a good working relationship with Syria dealing with past problems such as their mutual animity with Yasser Arafat, were afraid of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood controlling Syria.  But now, the Iranian Shiite threat is more scary for them than the threat of a take-over by the Brotherhood.  This view suggests that Israel and its allies now desire an end to Assad to stop Iranian expansion, and to increase pressure on Iran to rethink its vulnerability

Considering the large Sunni majority in Syria, Iran stands behind its regime not because of religious creed, but for very clear and practical political purposes -- it needs all the friends it can get as the diplomatic strangleholds take their toll.

The threat of unilateral military action on the part of Israel is questionable, even with a personality like Nethanyahu at the helm. There would be no way whatsoever that Israel would go to war with Iran or bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities with bunker-buster bombs without the permission of the United States.  Neither could Iran maintain a protracted offensive assault on Israel while being able to maintain the vitality of the supply lines necessary to transit through Iraq and Jordan, whilst having the ability to handle the logistics and administration of a long-term occupation of territories -- and definitely not in its economic circumstances. It is geographically untenable, no matter how much pain both sides are capable for doling out.  Iran is better suited and oriented for defensive capabilities, and I think that this is a lesson to be learned from the Iran-Iraq war. 

Furthermore, an open-conflict with Iran would be cutting most of the world’s oil supply, which transits through the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran’s own navy ensures the security and safe passage of transport vessels through its ports. Korea and Japan, the two countries with US military facilities support its maritime force projection to not only protect both of them from North Korea (a series of attacks by North Korea would most likely start with Japan to coax them into becoming involved with a Korea that hasn't forgotten nor forgiven its history), but to also protect Taiwan, contain China, and protect commercial logistics , have no domestic oil production and thus import oil through the Strait of Hormuz (not to ignore Russian and Chinese energy horizons). America imports a massive amount of oil through the Persian Gulf as well. Any excuse for Iran to close up its ports despite its already sanctions-weary economy will cause oil prices to skyrocket around the world, and stock markets to take a nosedive worldwide, something that the world would not be able to afford to weather in the next five years at least. America’s Middle Eastern allies are watching carefully, as the Obama administration realizes that a closer relationship with Tehran is necessary if it wants to be able to see itself through economic recovery and not drag the nation into another taxpayer faitgued and funded war. This is causing America’s allies in the region to wonder exactly how committed America is to their own regional interests. Iranian extension of influence further west and support of the Assad regime in Syria puts Iran's influence at uncomfortably close proximity to Russia, looking to reconsolidate its former Soviet-era empire, and covers the remaining southern border of Turkey,  a rapidly rising power that is expected to be the tenth largest economy in the world in the next few years, and already being troubled by the Kurdish population on the Turkish periphery with Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Iran.. The only geographical areas that will separate these three countries from each other are the flat areas of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and perhaps half of Georgia. 

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