East Asia, Europe, Middle East, North America, South Asia

Adventures in the Age Dependency Ratio: A Demographic Overview of the World

2008 was as significant a year from a demographic perspective as it was from a financial one. In 2008 the world’s age dependency ratio —  the number of people who are either younger than 15 or older than 65, relative to the number of people aged 15-65 — reached its lowest point. From a peak of approximately 77 in 1967, the ratio fell to a floor of 54 in 2008, a level it has remained at every year in the decade since. This low is not likely to be surpassed. The UN predicts that the ratio will rise again during the generation ahead, albeit at a far more gradual pace.

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The age dependency ratio is a useful, though obviously imperfect, measure of economic potential. The larger a country’s dependency ratio, the heavier the economic burden (to put it crudely) its working-age population may need to bear. The country with the highest such ratio in the world, Niger, with a ratio of 112, has a burden 1.12 times as heavy as those who bear it. The country with the lowest dependency, South Korea, with a ratio of 38, has a burden that is only about a third as heavy as those who carry it. The Gulf Arab kingdoms have even lower ratios than that (the UAE’s is just 18!), but only because they have so many temporary foreign workers.

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It is not surprising that a lower dependency ratio tends to correlate somewhat with economic success. Not only is a country with fewer dependents more able to invest its time and money in increasing its productivity, but productive countries also tend to have low fertility rates, which keep dependency levels low in the short-term (though not in the long term, when low fertility rates lead to small working-age populations). As such, a low dependency ratio can be both a cause and an effect of economic growth. Even the oldest country in the world, Japan, only has a dependency ratio of 66.5, much lower than those of the young countries within Sub-Saharan Africa.

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In recent history, the correlation between economic growth and age dependency can be seen most clearly in East Asia. China’s rapid economic growth has tracked its dependency ratio’s steep fall, while Japan’s stalled economic growth has tracked its own dependency ratio’s rise. China’s dependency ratio, which is today the lowest in the world apart from South Korea (not counting city-states or the Gulf Arab monarchies), was almost twice as high a generation ago, and only fell below the US’s in 1990. That same year, Japan’s ratio fell below Germany’s to become the world’s lowest other than Singapore or Hong Kong. A rapidly aging population has since made Japan’s become by far the highest in the developed world, however. Japan’s ratio has also risen higher than those of many developing nations in recent years, even than some of the world’s poorest nations, such as Haiti.

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Outside Japan, East Asia now has the lowest dependency ratios of any region, by far. Not only China and South Korea but also Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, and even North Korea all have ratios between 38-44, the lowest in the world anywhere outside of the Persian Gulf. Indonesia’s too, at 48.5, is now lower than those of most countries in the world, while the Philippines, the major outlier in the region with a dependency ratio of 57.5, no longer has a high ratio by global standards either. This trend, however, is finally beginning to change. China’s ratio has begun to rise since 2010, prompting many to worry that the country “will become old before it becomes rich”. The dependency ratios of Vietnam, Thailand, and South Korea have also begun rising during the past several years. And Japan’s already high ratio will continue to rise quickly unless it finally decides to raise its extremely low immigration rate.

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The years 2008-2010, in addition to being when the global dependency ratio and the Chinese dependency ratio both reached their lowest levels, was also when the EU’s dependency ratio rose higher than that of the US, for the first time since 1984. The EU’s dependency burden has continued to rise relative to the US in the decade since, a fact that has perhaps contributed, at least to a minor extent, to the US’s stronger economic performance during this period. Indeed, at the risk of attributing far more significance to the age dependency ratio than is justified, I will also point out the fact that countries in Central Europe have enjoyed a much lower ratio and a much stronger economic performance than has the EU as a whole. Similarly, Canada has had the lowest dependency ratio and one of the strongest economies among rich Western nations in recent years. Ratios in Canada and Central Europe were particularly low during the financial crisis:

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Another intriguing case is Italy, which has a ratio that has been rising at fast pace since 2010, reaching the highest level in its modern history in 2017, at the same time as its economy has become perhaps the primary point of concern in European politics. A similar trend has existed throughout Southern Europe, with the ratios of Greece, Spain, and France reaching high levels in the years after 2010. Although it is actually France which has the highest dependency ratio of these countries, a result of its having a relatively large population of children, it is Italy which has their highest old age dependency ratio (population older than 65, relative to population 15-65):

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If we look at Europe as a whole, including countries in its surrounding region, we can see there is a divergence occurring between northern and southern countries. Northern countries such as Germany, Russia, and Poland, which have had some of the lowest dependency burdens in the world in recent decades, will see sharp increases in the years ahead because their largest population cohorts are approaching 65 years old and they have few teenagers approaching 15 years old. (An exception to this is Ireland, which has had a fairly high ratio because of relatively high birth rates, but is not likely to have this increase much going forward, as it has few people approaching 65). Mediterranean countries, in contrast, will have their dependency ratios rise more slowly, because they have more children or because (particularly in Spain) their largest age cohorts are now only in their forties rather than their fifties. Within the EU this is especially true of France, but it is even more true of non-EU Mediterranean countries such as Turkey and Tunisia. These countries used to have far higher ratios than the EU or Russia, but no longer do today.
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This fall in dependency in places like Turkey and North Africa is part of a greater trend, in which countries in the “global south”, particularly those outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, have recently seen their ratios fall much more quickly than countries in Europe, North America, or Northeast Asia. India’s dependency ratio, for example, fell below both the US’s and Germany’s in 2016. So did Bangladesh’s. (Pakistan’s ratio is falling too, but still remains high, around the level of Japan’s). Latin America’s is even lower; it recently became the lowest of any region, excepting East Asia. The major country that has had the most significant fall in dependency, however, is Iran:

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Of course, age dependency ratios are simplistic. They treat all people above the age of 65 and below the age of 15 as if they were the same, and all people between 15 and 65 years old as if they were the same. Yet if (for example) we were to change the upper limit of working age from 65 to 70, Japan’s dependency ratio would fall substantially as a result, because Japan’s largest age cohort today is 65-70 years old. If, on the other hand, we were to change the lowerlimit of working age from 15 to 20, many middle-income countries’ ratios would rise substantially. To address these obvious shortcomings, alternative measures of dependency have been created. Examples of these include the economic dependency ratio, health care cost age dependency ratio, pension cost dependency ratio, and prospective old age dependency ratio. For each of these measures, Canada is forecast to have the biggest increase in the decade ahead among significant OECD countries, while Italy and Britain are expected to have among the smallest increases.

A primary lesson that can be learned from the analysis of age dependency ratios is that the common “young population good, old population bad” view of countries’ economic prospects is a misleading one. In reality countries with young populations tend to remain poor, in part because the youngest countries in the world (in Sub-Saharan Africa) are much younger than the oldest countries in the world are old. It will still be a number of decades before aging populations lead Europe or North America to have a higher age dependency ratio than Sub-Saharan Africa. And even that assumes that no unexpected shifts in migration or fertility will occur.

What age dependency ratios do show is two big trends, both of which have to do with middle-income economies. The first trend is the emergence of what we might call a goldilocks belt, located between the aging populations of North America, Europe, and Northeast Asia and the youthful populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. South Asia, North Africa, and Latin America all now appear to be in the process of supplanting high-income countries in terms of having the demographic trends that are arguably most conducive to (or at least, indicative of) economic growth.

The second trend is that Northeast Asia’s dependency ratio, which has been the lowest in the world for a generation and probably played a significant role in helping the region emerge from a low-income to middle-income level, bottomed out almost a decade ago and is continuing to rise.

Taken together, these trends suggest opportunities for middle-income countries, particularly those countries located in or near to the Mediterranean and Caribbean regions, to increase their exports to developed economies, given the aging labour forces of developed economies and traditional exporters in East Asia. In contrast, these trends also suggest that there should perhaps be a greater level of caution regarding the younger, high-growth economies in East Africa, such as Ethiopia or Kenya, which have recently been among the favorites of some emerging market investors.

 

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Africa, Europe, Middle East, North America

Secession Procession

A century ago, a British Member of Parliament and geographer, Halford Mackinder, wrote one of the famous books of geopolitics, “Democratic Ideals and Reality”. The book discussed the tension between what nations want (“Democratic Ideals”) and what they often get (geographic “Reality”).

That tension seems especially topical this week. It is not everyday that the president of the United States tries to give his viewers a geography lesson, but that occured in the past few days as President Trump repeatedly told Americans that aiding Puerto Rico would be difficult because of “the big ocean” — the Atlantic — that blocks it from the rest of the country.

Puerto Rico’s ocean barrier is more than just a logistical barrier. It is also an emotional, political one. It is the main reason why many Americans do not care about the plight of Puerto Ricans in the same way as they did for the hurricane victims of Texas or Florida. It is also one of the main reasons why the US has not offered Puerto Rico statehood, despite 97 percent (of the 23 percent of its voters who participated in the referendum this past June) voting in favour of its becoming a state.

An opposite situation exists for Catalonia and for Iraqi Kurdistan, where referendums were held in the past two weeks. No big oceans separate regional capitals Barcelona or Erbil from national ones Madrid or Baghdad; the latter two of which have taken steps to prevent secession by the former.

Rather, Catalonia lies south of the high, steep Pyrenees Mountains, making it part of the Iberian peninsula along with the rest of Spain. Ditto for Iraqi Kurdistan, which lies on the Mesopotamian side of the high peaks that divide Iraq from neighbouring Kurdish regions east and north. The tensions between Democratic Ideals — over 90 percent of Catalans and Iraqi Kurds voted in favour of independence (with 43 and 73 percent voter turnout)—and geographic Realities are high.

Of course, geographic realities are not necessarily or directly decisive. Hawaii is an example of this; its Big Island is surrounded by an even Bigger Ocean than is Puerto Rico’s. Portugal is another example, Iberian but not Spanish. So too is Kuwait, which is Mesopotamian but not Iraqi.

Still, it is hard to know how much to lean toward realism or idealism in any given case. The three examples given above came about less because of ideals trumping geographic reality, but instead because of geographic reality being crushed by an even greater reality; namely, the decisions of superpowers. The US chose Hawaii in spite of its remoteness. The British Empire chose to protect Portugal from the Spanish and French in order to pursue its own political aims. And both the British and the Americans have worked, on separate occasions, to carve Kuwait out of the Mesopotamian plains to which, geographically, it belongs.

This brings us to the other, more neglected secession attempt this week, which occured in Cameroon. Historically Cameroon was a compromise between two imperial powers, Britain and France, which took it from Germany in WW1 (the same year Mackinder was writing his book). It is located in a region, West Africa, that was also split between Britain and France. An estimated 50-60 percent of people in Cameroon speak French and 20-30 percent English. Last week, arguably 17 people were killed during protests being held by some of the country’s English-speaking minority, some of whom have called for secession from Cameroon.

This is especially notable given that West Africa is the region of the world in which geographic realities were most readily ignored by the imperial powers which drew the maps of the region’s states. While today it has become popular to chastize past British and French governments for misdrawing Middle Eastern borders, the truth is that in most cases it is actually not easy to figure out alternative Middle Eastern borders that would have clearly been much better. (And some of the ones that are most obviously wrong, such as—arguably—the existence of Kuwait, are not the ones usually criticized). In West Africa, in contrast, most of the borders that were drawn are obviously wrong.

West Africa is full of states or autonomous regions that, like Kuwait, seem to be enclaves carved out from larger regions willy-nilly (examples include Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, the Angolan region of Cabinda, and, arguably, Sierra Leone). It also has states that either have or consist entirely of narrow strips of land that were created solely to make them accessable to the Europeans from the sea (examples include Gambia again, plus Togo, Benin, and both of the Congos). And it has five different large, landlocked countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and the Central African Republic).

From this we come to the final and perhaps most important aspect of the secession issue: transnational regionalism. It is regionalism that has, arguably, helped to keep Puerto Rico from becoming an Atlantic Hawaii: Puerto Rico is a part of a large region, Latin America, which the US in general is not a part of. Regionalism also plays a role in Spain, where the existence of the EU has helped to bolster independence movements like that of the Catalans, while the weakness of the EU limits those movements’ success. And regionalism plays a role in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has served as a leading force in the fight against ISIS’ transnational attempt at a Caliphate; ISIS recently having its largest city, Mosul, just 85 km away from Iraqi Kurdistan’s, Erbil.

If and when transnational regionalism is ever a success anywhere, it is likely to be in a region in which nationalism is itself most problematic. Given its terribly-drawn borders, that may turn out to be West Africa.

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Middle East

Peace and Prosperity in Israel’s Future?

In Israel’s last major war, in 1973, 0.08 percent of Israel’s population was killed. During Israel’s last serious financial crisis, in the 1970s and early 1980s, its economy faced hyperinflation. In the four decades since, Israel’s casualty rates have declined while its real income, per capita, has risen. Israeli casualty rates as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict were 0.03 percent in the 1980s, 0.004 percent in the ‘90s, 0.03 percent in the 2000s, and just 0.001 percent since 2010. Israel’s per capita income has grown from $3,500 in 1975 to $35,000 in 2015. Since the end of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, Israel has had a casualty rate of 0.0004 percent. Its economy grew at 3-4 percent annually during this time, twice the average rate of the developed world. Since mid-2015, the Israeli economy has been outgrowing the developing world’s too.

It may be that Israel will continue this success in the years and decades ahead. But it may not. Israel might instead have to face new challenges to its economy and security, which are already becoming visible from afar.

One new challenge Israel may face comes from the development of software and devices that replace human labour. Thus far, labour and technology have been Israel’s twin competitive advantages. Part of the reason that Israel’s economy and tech sector have been growing is that Israel has a labour force that is far younger than those of Europe, Northeast Asia, or the United States. Soon, however, Israel may enter a phase in which, for the tech sector to continue succeeding, it will have to create technologies that will directly undercut Israel’s labour advantage. A glimmer of this future challenge can already be seen, for example in Intel’s 15.3 billion dollar acquisition of a driverless-car technology company, Mobileye, earlier this year. It was the largest windfall in Israeli hi-tech history—yet it could also put Israeli nahagim out of work.

A second threat to the Israeli economy may be climate change. Though it is very difficult to know when, what or even whether the impacts of climate change will be, it is obvious that the Middle East is not a part of the planet one would love to be living in if and when they do occur. As many in Israel must have been thinking during the recent spell of nearly 40 degree temperatures—especially inside Gaza, where electricity has been mostly unavailable—any future warming or drying in the Middle East is a frightening prospect.

Perhaps even more importantly, it is not certain to what extent Israel’s trading partners will decide to enact carbon tariffs in the coming years. Such tariffs could put Israel in a difficult position, as Israel relies on burning fossil fuels, particularly coal, to generate its electricity. Israel has actually benefited from this of late, since fuel prices have plummeted worldwide. But with the possibility of large countries deciding to enact tariffs on carbon (or methane) emissions, these energy sources represent a risk for the Israeli economy.

A third risk to the Israeli economy also comes from its commercial relationships with foreign countries. Israelis do a lot of business in the world; particularly in Europe, where Israelis live and work in countries like Germany while French and British Jews spend tourist and investment dollars in Israel. Israel imports more goods from German-speaking countries than from the United States. Israel also increasingly does business with Asia: Israel exports roughly half as much to Chinese-speaking economies as to the United States.

Today, however, Israel’s economic relationships with both Europe and Asia are at risk, at least in the short term, because of the slow economic growth in both those continents. Europe has barely grown in the past decade outside of Germany, and continues to suffer extreme unemployment in its Mediterranean countries. China, meanwhile, which was growing at over 10 percent just a few years ago, is now growing at just 6.5 percent. And that’s the official rate: most analysts guess China’s real rate is now only 3-6 percent.

Growth in European and Asian economies could bounce back, of course. But until it does, it bodes ill for Israel.

Most worrying for Israel should be Germany, which has thus far been the major exception to Europe’s economic and unemployment crises. Germany has lately shown signs that it may finally be on the verge of succumbing to Europe’s general sluggishness. Germany is an enormously export-driven country, but the economies it exports to are either struggling or, in the case of the United States, have been talking about raising tariffs on imports of German goods. Israel could be hurt if Germany falters, as it is Israel’s largest economic partner by far apart from the US. Lots of Israelis could flow back from Berlin, needing jobs.

Germany also shares a political trend with Israel: long-lasting leaders. Merkel is now in her 12th year as Chancellor and approaching her fourth election. Netanyahu is in his 11th year in office (when counting his previous three-year stint in the ‘90s), approaching his fifth election. As Ruchir Sharma, a top investor at Morgan Stanley, argues in his recent book, The Rise and Fall of Nations, countries with leaders who stay on too long past their “best before date”, like Bibi and Angela are doing, tend to watch their markets do relatively poorly over time.  Time will soon tell whether or not Israel will conform to this rule. It already has done so once before (though perhaps coincidentally), when it struggled in the ‘70s after Labor’s long reign.

Finally, there is Israel’s security challenge. This has declined in the past generation, first because of Israel’s peace with Egypt and then because Israel’s rivals in Arabia and Iran became distracted by their own wars; notably the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the long Iraq war (1991-2017), and now of course the Syrian war (2011-2017). Israel’s smaller but nearer rivals, chiefly Hezbollah and Hamas, have also been distracted of late. Hamas’ supporters—in the Brotherhood, Damascus, and lately Qatar—have weakened. Hezbollah has become directly drawn into the civil war inside Syria. More recently still, in mid-2015, energy prices crashed, weakening Israel’s historic rivals in the Arab world, Iran, and Russia all at once.  Though it is not certain how much these events have caused Israel’s casualty rates to drop, they have possibly played a big part.

But Israel is not the only power in the Middle East that can withstand both cheap oil and crises in the Arab world. The largest economy in the region, Turkey, can also do so. Indeed, Turkey is now facing a power vacuum in every direction. To its east are the oil economies of the Gulf Arab states, Iran, and Central Asia. To its north is another oil economy, Russia, plus a divided nation in Ukraine. To its west, Greece is stuck in a Great Depression, the Balkans are divided, and the European Union has fractured politically. And to its south, Syria, Iraq, and Libya (and more distantly, Yemen) are all at war.  At some point, assuming that oil prices do not rebound, it might be presumed that Turkey will take measures to fill this vacuum.

Turkey’ government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been consolidating its own power domestically in the past two years. Erdogan’s three recent victories—in the election of 2015, the coup of 2016, and the referendum of 2017— has put him ahead of rival factions like Turkey’s secularists, Gulenists, and Kurdish parties. While Turkey’s relationship with Israel today is not too bad (they have put the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010 somewhat behind them) there is no guarantee what they will look like in the future. Turkey’s economy is now estimated to be 2.9 times larger than Israel’s, twice as large as Iran’s, 1.3 times larger Saudi Arabia’s, and even two-thirds as large as Russia’s. If oil stays cheap, Israel might soon find itself sharing the Middle East with a significant regional power for the first time since….well, since the Turks, a century ago.

Of course, this is taking a rather negative view of things. There are reasons to be hopeful about Israel’s future as well. The fact, for example,  that fewer Israelis have been killed by Palestinians since 2002 than there were in just two years from 2001-2002, bodes relatively well for Israel and Palestine both. Between this reduction in casualties and the possibility of an eventual cease-fire in Syria (even if it is gained by way of a victorious Iranian-supported regime, or a Turkish invasion of Syria), the region might even find some peace.

More broadly, if the long, slow trend towards global peace, integration, and economic convergence, which began in 1945 and has (contrary to popular wisdom) continued since, is not derailed, Israel could be an  ideal place to live. It is at the crossroads of Africa and Eurasia and of the Atlantic and Indian basins; it can speak English, Arabic, and Russian; it can attract Christian and Muslim pilgrims; and it has Jewish and Israeli connections globally. Israel could do well in a peaceful and equitable world, should such a world come to be.

On the other hand, history may not be so nice. Israel’s past forty years have been pretty decent, all things considered. But new challenges are coming. It is still not clear whether Israel will finally secure the peace and prosperity it has been labouring towards; or instead merely catch a glimpse of them from its current peak.

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Europe, Middle East, North America, South Asia

Trump and the Turks

Evaluating American-Turkish relations in light of Trump’s recent trip to the Middle East and the diplomatic isolation of Qatar, a Turkish and American ally

As Donald Trump returns from his first international tour as US president, one thing that stands out is, as usual, the difference between his and Barack Obama’s approach to diplomacy. Whereas Obama’s first Mideast destinations were Turkey and Iraq, Trump’s were Saudi Arabia and Israel, a country Obama did not even visit until his second term in office.

Trump’s trip also included stops in Brussels, Sicily, and the Vatican in Rome. Along with Saudi Arabia and Israel, these represent four of the five most significant allies of the US within the Middle East/Eastern Mediterranean region: Italy, Israel, the Saudis, and the EU.

The fifth ally, which appears to have been snubbed, is Turkey. The Turks were not honoured with a stop during Trump’s first trip to the region, as they were during Obama’s.

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Turkey failing to make it onto Trump’s travel itinerary might seem to be of little  significance, if it were not for the flurry of unpleasant events involving the Turks and Americans that have occured this same month.

First, there was the meeting of Erdogan and Trump at the White House on May 16, which lasted a mere 22 minutes and was complicated by the announcement, less than a week before the meeting, that Trump would be approving a Pentagon plan to arm the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia that the Turkish government views as a terrorist group.

That meeting was then marred also by a public brawl that occured in Washington on the  day it was held, which pitted Erdogan’s security detail against protestors who, according to the Turkish government, were supporters of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

Later in the week, Turkish military planes repeatedly violated Greek airspace—a point of friction between two NATO countries occurring directly ahead of the NATO summit that Erdogan and Trump attended in Brussels.

If this was not enough, the week also saw the Flynn/Trump/Comey affair dominate the news cycle — and the word “impeachment” bandied about in Congress for the first time —  which followed the admission by Michael Flynn a week earlier that he had previously been on a Turkish payroll.

Meanwhile, Trump has used his trip in the Arab world to endorse the idea of forming an “Arab NATO”; an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Egypt that, unlike the real NATO, would exclude the other, comparatively liberal and democratic Sunni power in the region: Turkey.

Now, just a week after Trump’s return home, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have led a move to politically isolate Qatar, the country which is Turkey’s primary ally within the Gulf region.

The Price of Oil

The root of all this unpleasantness is America’s growing concern that, if energy prices continue to stay low for a sustained period, and if Turkey’s oil-exporting neighbours like Russia, Iran, and the Gulf Arab states are weakened as a result, Turkey could become formidable enough within the region to risk cracking down on US allies — starting with the Kurds.

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Nominal GDP

Turkey has, thus far, been relatively happy to work in a cooperative fashion with the Iraqi Kurdish groups, who are America’s primary Kurdish allies in the region. Turkey imports Iraqi Kurdish oil, has fought on the same side as the Iraqi Kurds against ISIS, and uses its relationship with Iraqi Kurds to gain leverage over Iranian-allied Iraqi Shiite groups.

Regarding Kurds in Turkey and Syria, however, the US and Turkey are in disagreement. Though the US has already partially conceded the point on Kurds in Turkey — the US continues to list the PKK as a terror organization, just like Turkey does — it has nevertheless been alarmed by the Turkish government’s treatment of political parties in Turkey that are supported by many Kurds, notably the HDP.

In Syria the conflicting interests of America and Turkey are even more explicit: America is now working in conjunction with the YPG, a group Ankara views as terrorists.

At this point, because Erdogan seems to have consolidated his power domestically, with recent victories in the Turkish constitutional referendum in April, in the failed coup attempt in July 2016, and in the general election of November 2015, he may now increasingly turn his sights to areas beyond or adjacent to Turkish borders, in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey’s own Kurdish regions.

Thus, with Trump snubbing Turkey on his first foreign trip, and with the flurry of events involving Turkey and the US that have surrounded the trip, it appears that the US and Turkey may be in the process of aggressively haggling over the details of their alliance against shared rivals like ISIS, Al Qaeda, Assad, and Hezbollah. The twin issues they have to work out are how much of the burden against these Middle Eastern forces the Turks will bear, and how tough the Turks can be with Kurdish groups—notably those in Syria.

The Price of Loyalty 

Of course, we have no way of knowing how the details of these issues will be worked out, or even whether the US really will be willing to abandon the Kurdish militias to the Turks. But we can guess. Turkey seem more likely than not to accept the burden of fighting in Iraq and Syria, and the US more likely than not to abandon the Kurds in Syria and Turkey.

But (I will continue to guess) the US and its allies will extract two more conditions in return for their abandonment of the Kurds: Turkish cooperation within both Cyprus and Gaza.

In Gaza, although Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu publicly apologized for the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident, Turkey has become a key ally of the Gazans almost by default. This has been the result of the Syrian Civil War (which alienated Hamas from Assad, leading Hamas’ formal leadership to move from Damascus to Qatar in 2012), the Egyptian coup in 2013 (in which Sisi overthrew and then outlawed Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood allies), and finally the crash in oil and gas prices in 2015 (which has hurt the economy of Hamas’ newest host and benefactor, the royal family of the tiny state of  Qatar).

The US and Israel want not only that Turkey prevent another incident like the Mavi Marmara, but also that they tie Turkish and regional investment in Gaza to the condition that Hamas work to prevent a resumption of violence in the Strip. An increase in fighting between Israelis and Gazans would, among other things, imperil the tacit Israeli-Arab alliance directed against Iran and ISIS; an alliance Trump’s current visit has intended to solidify.

Israeli-Palestinian violence would also draw a gigantic amount of the world’s media attention, and would inevitably be blamed on Trump, showing his portrayal of himself as an unparalleled dealmaker to be yet another con. Indeed, at the risk of being too cynical or conspiracy-minded, I would like to point out the possibly politicized pattern of the four main Israeli-Gaza battles that have occured since Hamas began to gain control of Gaza in 2006:

The first, Israel’s Operation Autumn Cloud, ended the day before mid-term elections in the US in 2006. The second, Operation Cast Lead, ended two days before Barack Obama’s inauguration. The third, Operation Pillar of Defence, began a week after the US general election in 2012. And the fourth, Operation Protective Edge, ended two months before the 2014 mid-terms.

Whether or not this pattern was a coincidence, Trump and the Republicans obviously do not want to see a new outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence before the 2018 or 2020 elections.

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Source: The Economist

While Turkey can perhaps help to keep Gaza peaceful, it can certainly help to do so in Cyprus, where it wields decisive influence over the island’s North. Turkey is the only country to recognize Northern Cyprus, a Turkish-speaking political entity Turkey established almost single-handedly in the 1970s. Moreover, the island as a whole needs Turkish aid in facilitating both gas and water pipelines across the 80 km sea-channel that separates Cyprus from the Turkish mainland.

The Turks may feel that they can now afford to throw their historic Greek and Greek-Cypriot rivals a bone, given that the economic decimation both Greece and Cyprus have suffered in the past decade have rendered them less of a potential threat to Turkish interests. Thus they may not stop peace talks on the island from moving forward.

The US and its allies will also be happy to see reconciliation or even reunification in Cyprus, as it may help prevent another Mediterranean financial crisis or, even, help show off Trump’s deal-making.

Indeed, while a reconciliation or reunification deal in Cyprus would not directly benefit Trump very much, it could perhaps help to provide him with momentum and bona fides he will want in order to make a more exciting and significant “deal of the century”: a deal which — taking a cue from his Celebrity Apprentice co-star Dennis Rodman — will likely be in Korea.

And of course, as Trump said while in Jerusalem, about peace between Israel and Palestine: “I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all but I have a feeling we’re going to get there eventually…I hope”.

Winners and Losers 

In the end, in this scenario, the losers would be the Kurds in Syria, and perhaps also the Kurds in Turkey. The winners would be the Cypriots, and perhaps also the Israelis and Palestinians.

As for the US-Turkish relationship, more complicated years lie ahead. It may be that the relationship will ebb and flow along with expectations of the future price of oil, which will determine the perceived strength of Turkey relative to both Russia and Middle Eastern states. The US will want to deputize Turkey to contain forces like Russia, Iran, and Sunni jihadism, yet will also worry about Turkish intentions regarding smaller groups like the Kurds.

If oil prices stay low for long enough, it is likely that we will see the United States opt not just for the Trumpian move of bolstering relations between the Saudis and Israelis, but also for the more Obama-esque one of reaching out to Iran in order to win a new powerful ally for America in the region.

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Africa, Middle East

The Giving Tree: Tu Bishvat and Israeli Economics

As in most religions, there is a tradition in Judaism to relate contemporary events to scriptural tales and holidays. In the story of Chanukkah, two miracles are celebrated: the Jewish Maccabbees winning over the Syrian Greeks in spite of the Jews being heavily outnumbered, and the Jews getting a lot of light out of a little bit of oil. Many therefore see the existence and economic success of modern-day Israel as a similar miracle. The Israelis are outmanned more than 40 to 1 by the inhabitants of the Arab world, and out-oiled more than 1000 to 1. Yet Israel has managed anyway not only to survive, but also to join the  small class of 25 countries in which per capita incomes have reached above 30,000 dollars per year. For many, this is thought to be not just a secular or national miracle, but also a true, God-given one.

Such Channukah analogies tend to be drawn mainly by conservative supporters of Israel. When it comes to Purim, however, it may be that liberal Jews will have more fun this year, when they realize that Trump’s public persona seems to  be similar to that of Achashverosh. Trump, after all, appears to be a superficial, misogynistic, ostentatious and retributive insomniac, who values loyalty in his servants, public nudity in his wives, and is an ally of Jews against Persian rivals more out of happenstance rather than as a result of any moral consideration. (Trump’s Orthodox son-in-law Jared Kushner would, I guess, have to be Mordechai in this comparison; Ivanka is clearly Esther, a beautiful young woman who conceals her Judaism and is the only person at court who is able to make the king see any sense. And certainly, many liberals already believe that Steve Bannon is a modern-day Hamman).

About a month before Purim however, and about a month after Channuka, is Tu Bishvat, a more earthly and apolitical holiday than either of the two which flank it. Whereas Channukah commemorates right-wing values such as conviction, traditionalism, and militarism, and Purim left-wing values like diplomacy, feminism, and secularism, Tu Bishvat celebrates only natural, as opposed to man-made, forces. Tu’Bishvat could be a fitting metaphor not only for the fact that political truths in Israel  may lie somewhere between left and right-wing perspectives, but also for the fact that Israeli success is due more to natural forces than many realize.

With Tu Bishvat approaching this weekend, let’s take a closer look at why this may be the case.

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When I was in Hebrew school, we were frequently shown maps of the Arab world, meant to display to us just how tiny Israel’s territory is. This was meant to bolster our view of Israel as an underdog; a “start-up nation”, which had first helped to make the desert bloom and later helped to make the Nasdaq boom. Israel certainly is an underdog country in many ways, but still these maps were hugely misleading. They did not differentiate between relatively useful and relatively useless land. The Arab world owns a huge amount of beautiful but uninhabited desert or rugged mountains, but Israel enjoys the advantage in terms of the amount of arable coastal land it possesses, on a per capita basis.

The area of Israel outside of the Negev is roughly 8000 square kilometres in size, most of which is a part of the country’s Mediterranean coastal plain. 8000 square kilometres is very small, of course–only not when compared to most of Israel’s neighbours. The West Bank, which is 3.7 times smaller than Israel, is landlocked, mountainous, and most of its eastern half is desert. Gaza, which is 57 times smaller than Israel, is nearly a desert as well. Gaza receives about half the rain that most of Israel’s coastal plain does, per square foot of land, and only a third of the rainfall that many areas in the Galilee in northern Israel receive.

Lebanon, which is half as large as Israel, has a coastal plain that extends only a very short distance inland in most areas, before meeting the high mountain ranges and mountain valleys which make up most of the Lebanese terrain.

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Topography of Israel (left) and Lebanon (right)

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Yet Lebanon also shows the importance of being a coastal country, even if only a very small one. Lebanon’s per capita income is around $10,000, which is substantially higher than most other Arab countries apart from oil-rich Gulf Arab monarchies. Israel’s is an estimated $36,000; Egypt’s is just $3600.

In Syria too, the coastal plain — where lives most of the minority Alawite population from which the Al-Assad family comes — does not extend very far inland before it reaches mountain ranges. Syria’s coastline is also only  around 90 km in length from north to south; Israel’s is around 110 km long.  Eastern Syria, meanwhile, is largely a desert, so that approximately half the country’s territory is unpopulated.

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Jordan, in spite of having a remote, tiny coastline along the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba, is effectively landlocked. Most of its population lives far from Aqaba, in the relatively small part of the country that is not a desert. Jordan is separated from Israel, the West Bank, and the Mediterranean by the Jordan Valley, a steep-walled, incredibly deep canyon containing a number of the points on earth that are the furthest below sea level, through which the Jordan River flows into the salty Dead Sea.

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While the Jordan Valley is not an impenetrable barrier, its usefulness as a defensive line does help to make Israel more insulated from its neighbours than the country may seem to be. The border of Israel and the West Bank with Jordan is significantly longer than Israel’s combined borders with Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria.

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Finally there is Egypt, a country with a population twice as large as those of Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan put together. Egypt’s territory is 48 times larger than Israel’s. However, when you strip away the deserts of both countries, then Egypt’s territory is only a little more than four times larger than Israel’s. Moreover, Egypt is capital-poor in the extreme. Because it receives virtually no rainfall (see map below), its population has to live immediately next to the Nile. More than 20 percent of the Egyptian population lives five metres or less above sea level. In Israel, by contrast, only around 1 percent of the population lives five metres or less above sea level. This presents several significant challenges for Egypt, including flooding and the need to build expensive bridges and irrigation networks. Egypt remains potentially more powerful than does Israel, but not by as much as one might assume.

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There is, also, a tendency among some analysts to overestimate Israel’s economic achievements. Although Israel’s dynamic mix of intellectual ability and entrepreneurial chutzpa is rightly admired, Israel’s success in technology sectors and in launching start-up companies is sometimes wrongly confused with general economic success. For instance, Israel and Italy have basically equivalent per capita incomes, yet Israel is often considered an economic miracle whereas Italy today is seen as something of a basket-case. Israel’s per capita GDP level is pretty much boilerplate Mediterranean: Spain, southern France, and Italy are all at relatively similar levels, and even coastal cities in Turkey and Lebanon are closer to Israel in terms of their wealth levels than they are to many other areas in the Middle East.

When talking about Israel, economics, of course, is political. The Left often claims that Israel is at an unfair advantage in its relationship with Arab states, as Israel has access to capital in Europe and especially America that has empowered it. The Right, on the other hand, usually claims that if Israel’s Arab neighbours would stop being so obsessed with Israel and instead concentrate on bettering their own societies, they would not be lagging so far behind the Israelis in terms of economic development.

There may or may not be a decent amount of truth in both these claims, yet both are predictable in that they highlight the personal values each side prizes most highly in general — for the Left, equality (or, at least, equity), for the Right, competence (or, at least, conscientiousness). This tendency of each side to bring their own ethics to the debate often leads both to overlook one of the most significant and obvious, but least ethically relevant, foundations of Israel’s economic development when compared with that of its neighbours: that Israel has much more useful land than they do. With Tu’Bishvat being celebrated this week, now is the time to appreciate how the land itself has contributed to Israeli success.

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East Asia, Europe, Middle East, North America, South Asia

A Look Back At Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

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Obama was elected at a time when political anxiety in America was relatively high, particularly among Democratic voters who disliked George W. Bush’s seeming lack of sophistication. The feeling was that the US had wasted trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thus helped to ruin America’s economy and divert attention away from more serious adversaries like Russia and especially China. The economic failure was seen as being confirmed by the financial crisis, which began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers only a month or so before the election. The foreign policy failure was seen as being confirmed by, among other things, Russia’s invasion of Georgia three months before the election, followed one day later by the extravagant opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Even during the presidential lame duck period leading up to Obama’s inauguration, a number of politically or symbolically negative global events occured, including the throwing of a shoe at Bush in Iraq, the 2008-2009 Israel-Hamas War in Gaza, and the Mumbai Attacks in India.

Obama ran against Clinton in 2008 as an upstart candidate in the Democratic primary. He attacked her where she was least popular, which in foreign policy was her support for invading Iraq while in the Senate in 2002. The primary was a close one: Obama won 53 percent of the delegates but actually lost the popular vote as well as the largest state of California. As such, though it is always hard to untangle political strategy from principled belief, it does not seem so far-fetched to imagine that Obama’s campaign policy of Afghanistan being “the good war” and Iraq “the bad war” was, at least in part, devised in order to exploit Clinton’s Iraq weakness without making Obama appear to be too dovish or isolationist. We do know that Obama was not above abandoning his own principles for the sake of victory; he publicly opposed gay marriage until mid-2012, for example, when for intellectual and dispositional reasons it was obvious he was privately in support of it even at the time.

Upon coming into office, Obama formed three main foreign policy positions. One was the “pivot to Asia”, which included both the re-prioritization of Afghanistan over Iraq as well as the rhetorical move to acknowledge the 21st century as ”America’s Pacific Century” (which became the title of a widely heralded article in Foreign Affairs written by Secretary of State Clinton). While both the withdrawal from Iraq and the public assumption of a rising Asia preceded Obama’s arrival in office, he was a natural fit to promote such policies given that he never supported the invasion of Iraq (as 42 percent of the Democratic politicians in Congress had done in 2002), and given that he had personal experience in the Pacific, having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia and attended college in Los Angeles.

While Obama’s pivot to Asia was mainly rhetorical — it had to be, since the American military never left Asia in the first place and so could not truly pivot back to a region it was already in — he and Clinton did begin healing American relations with a very important Asian country, Myanmar (aka Burma), a diplomatic feat similar to the one Obama would repeat in his second term with both Cuba and Iran.

Another policy was the “Reset with Russia”, which, as with the later reset with Iran, centred around nuclear de-proliferation but was intended as a broader political reconciliation between countries. Obama was attacked heavily by Mitt Romney and Republicans in the 2012 election for having carried out this Reset, to which he and the Democrats successfully responded by ridiculing the Republicans for being “stuck in the Cold War”. This now appears tragically ironic, given how the 2016 election campaigns turned out. But Obama’s Reset with Russia was quite rational.

America needed Russia in order to effectively carry out the surge of US troops into Afghanistan between 2010 and 2014. Russia retains, among other things, a substantial amount of political influence within countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which neighbour Afghanistan—and an estimated 30-40 percent of Afghanistan’s population is either ethno-linguistically Tajik or Uzbek. The US was also more concerned with containing China than it was with containing Russia at the time, since China’s economy had not yet appeared to slow down and since Russia had not yet formally annexed Crimea or involved itself forcefully in other areas of Ukraine or in Syria.

Moreover, Obama’s Reset with Russia eventually contained a big caveat: the doubling-down of America’s growing military relationships with East European countries like Poland and Romania. Today, with US-Russian tensions having risen tremendously and with the European Union no longer seeming like a potentially potent force, these relationships seem crucial and continue to grow. At the time, they were meant to reassure countries like Poland that they were not being abandoned in the Reset, and at the same time to return the favour that some East European countries had provided when they sent lots of soldiers (relative to the size of their populations and economies, and relative to countries in continental Western Europe) to fight alongside the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among other things, this move included Obama planning missile defence system components in Poland, Romania, and Turkey. The Russians objected loudly to any missile defence program, since they did not want to see the US military presence in Eastern Europe grow. Obama responded that the Russians were being paranoid and that the defence systems were in fact intended only to block future Iranian missile capabilities. This was a ridiculous claim, given that most of the countries involved in the plan surrounded Russia. But the American media mostly ate it up, either because they did not bother to look at a map, or because most Republicans preferred to attack Obama as too weak on Russia rather than too strong on Russia, or because many Democrats did not want to question Obama in general.

While the systems would not be able to block the Russian missile arsenal if it ever came to war, they were an important symbolic gesture and another step in the growing US military alliance with states like Poland. When Obama had earlier, in 2009, backed down on the missile defence issue — announcing, on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the cancellation of missile defence in Poland and the Czech Republic, and later being caught on a hot mic in 2012 saying to Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more flexibility in missile defence planning once re-elected — Romney attacked Obama sharply for doing so. But Romney’s campaign was ridiculed for mistakingly using the name Czechoslovakia, taken as a another proof of his being trapped archaically in the Cold War. Romney was especially reproached, even by Republican Congressional leader John Boehner, for declaring Russia to be “America’s number one geopolitical foe”. (That Romney might now become Trump’s Secretary of State boggles the brain). And while Obama may have Reset with Russia early on, he has definitively broken with Putin since.

The third major policy early in Obama’s first term was an attempt at reconciliation with the Muslim world, and particularly with the Arab world, intended to reverse the negative feelings that had grown there — and that Liberals in the West had perceived to have grown there — during the Bush years. Obama was the right man for this job, given his moderate and liberal personality as well as his personal experiences in Indonesia, his middle name Hussein, his grandfather’s conversion to (Shiite) Islam, and his family in Kenya, a partially Muslim country. Obama went to Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt during parts of his first and second overseas trips as president, and gave one of his most famous speeches, A New Beginning, in Cairo, the largest city in the Arab world, at an event co-hosted by Cairo University and Al-Azhar University. Obama’s first-ever presidential television interview was with Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned, UAE-based news channel.

This “apology tour”, as Obama-bashers call it, earned him the ire of Republicans for not having stopped in Israel while in the region (though he visited the site of the Buchenwald concentration camp the day after making the Cairo speech). It also helped racist or extreme right-wingers in their attempt to portray Obama as a hidden Muslim, quasi-Muslim or, in the case of those like the shameless, shameful Donald Trump, as possibly foreign-born and therefore not a legitimate president. (This was especially shameful given that the man Obama had beaten to become president, John McCain, was actually not born in an American state, but rather in Panama’s Canal Zone). Incidentally, Shiite Muslims have a centuries-long history of publicly pretending not to be Shiite for fear of being persecuted by the majority Sunnis; this, combined with Obama’s family background, has now led some in the Arab world to accuse Obama of being a secret Shiite with an agenda to allow Shiite Iran to emerge victorious over Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies.

Of course, Obama’s outreach to the Arab public was put to the test two years later in the Arab Spring, which also centred in Cairo. Predictably for an American president, Obama chose more or less to stand by America’s main allies in the Arab world — the Egyptian military and the royal families of the Arabian Peninsula. Obama only abandoned Hosni Mubarak (a former general) during the middle of the 18-day protest in Tahrir Square, earlier only suggesting that Mubarak not run for re-election following the end of the term he was serving as Egypt’s president at the time.

In the years since, Obama has not pushed back much against Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who threw out the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Muhammad Morsi in a military coup and has since declared the Brotherhood to be an illegal terrorist group. (The Sisi government also had support from the political parties which got the second most votes in the post-Mubarak elections, namely the Saudi-backed religious Nour bloc). Similarly, Obama did not limit the Saudis from sending troops to break up Arab Spring protests in neighbouring Bahrain, a Shiite-majority state ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Maintaining the power of Bahrain’s royal family was a key issue for the Saudis, as Bahrain is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia’s remote, vast, sparsely populated, Shiite-majority Eastern Province, which is where most Saudi oil and gas is located.

Given that his support for Arabian kings and Egyptian generals was in some ways arguably an abandonment of the “Arab Street”, which Obama had previously supported rhetorically and which the Western media was going gaga over during its coverage of the Arab Spring, Obama’s war in Libya showed that he was still not entirely pro-dictator in the Arab world. This is not to say that Obama waged the war for cynical political reasons, however. The case for the Libya war was fairly straightforward: Gaddafi was an aging tyrant who had ruled for four decades, his impending death or incapacitation due to old age would have risked a war anyway given the enormously divided nature of Libyan geo-politics, and any spillover from a war in Libya was unlikely to be too large given that Libya only has six million inhabitants and is surrounded by the Sahara.

Thus, eventually, we arrive at the events of September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. Bengazhi is the largest city within a vast radius of itself, especially to the south; it was the city that was initially the centre of the anti-Gaddafi movement—the very city Obama had been aiming to protect from a massacre of Arab Spring protestors when he ordered the US military intervention in Libya. Of course, the Democrats are correct when they say that the Republicans shamelessly used Benghazi in order to try to tar the reputation of Hillary Clinton in order to win the White House in 2016. (If Trump boomerangs on the Republican Party at some point, they might finally get what they deserve for this). Republican cynicism notwithstanding, however, supporters of Obama have arguably misunderstood the Benghazi affair. It is now seen entirely, or almost entirely, as an anti-Clinton or anti-Obama stunt. To understand why this may be an incorrect view, it is important to recall how the war in Libya was interpreted between Gaddafi’s death in 2011 and the Benghazi attack ten and a half months later; a period that overlapped with most of the Obama-Romney presidential race and immediately followed Bin Laden’s death.

The Libya war was, at the time, seen as an enormous success by both the centre-left and the centre-right (and the centre-centre). The centre-right liked the war because the centre-right is hawkish. The centre-left liked the war because it was portrayed as a counter-argument to the Bush-era invasion of Iraq they so despised: Libya did not become a quagmire involving US ground troops, it was fought by a coalition that included European and Middle Eastern countries which had refused to be involved militarily in Iraq, it did not involve misleading claims about weapons of mass destruction (Gaddafi had already given Libya’s WMD program up in 2003, following the US invasion of Iraq), and it was part of a broader anti-tyranny movement, the Arab Spring. With Bin Laden too having just been killed — another feat Bush failed to achieve — Obama seemed to be moving from strength to strength. As Biden put it in the campaign: “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive”. As Clinton put it (regarding Gaddafi): we came, we saw, he died”.

Wars almost always boost a president’s popularity in the short term. Given that the US economy was still reeling from the Great Recession and thus Americans ready to vote for change (which they did eventually, with Trump), and given that the Republicans had controlled Congress since 2010 and so were able to block most of Obama’s non-military initiatives, having Libya be seen as a quagmire-free foreign policy success was a boon for Obama. Though Obama went on to crush Romney in the electoral college, his victory was in fact not a large one: Ohio, Virginia, and especially Florida were extremely close, Obama received just 51 percent of the popular vote nationwide, and the Democratic Party did not succeed in winning back control of the Senate or the House.

Not long after Gaddafi was killed, the media largely stopped paying attention to Libya. The Republicans began to pin more of their hopes on portraying the withdrawal of troops from Iraq as having been destabilizing and a sign of Democratic weakness. However the Benghazi attack, just 25 days before the election, risked showing the American public that Obama’s war in Libya — along with the various other conflicts in the Arab  or Muslim world, including Iraq — was going to be somewhat messier than it had been portrayed as. This was an “October Surprise” that terrified the Democrats, since Obama was ahead in the polls.

Obama and the Democrats, it appears (though it is difficult to be sure), tried to obscure the Libya issue by exploiting the fact that the media was at the time spending most of its attention obsessing over an offensive, low-quality movie posted on Youtube, called the Innocence of Muslims. The claim was that the video had outraged Muslims and thus spontaneously caused protests that in turn caused the Benghazi  attack — a somewhat ludicrous claim, though plausible, and maybe even accurate, given that the attack was relatively sophisticated and, more importantly, that the attack was carried out on the anniversary of 9-11 and came in the wake of months of small attacks and attempted attacks on US and Western targets in Benghazi and in post-Gaddafi Libya in general. The Obama administration was later forced to walk this  claim back — and Susan Rice was forced to give up her bid for Secretary of State because of the claim, at least ostensibly — because the Republicans would not let the issue drop. However that same Republican relentlessness arguably ended up backfiring, since most people saw that the Republicans were mainly concerned with exploiting a tragic event in order to tarnish Obama and Clinton.

(The Republicans also purposefully confused the issue because of the unpopularity of their own hawkish political ideology. The Republican stance on Libya had, in general, not been that entering Libya was a mistake, but rather that it was not forceful enough: they argued that Obama should not have “led from behind” the British, French, and Italians, and that the US should have committed more Special Forces. Yet the Republicans also knew that this stance of theirs was very unpopular among the US public, given that at the time the Iraq War was still extremely fresh in people’s minds and given that the troop surge in Afghanistan was occurring at the time. Thus, the Republicans were on the one hand worried that dwelling on Benghazi would make Americans voters realize that the Republicans were too hawkish, but on the other hand the Republicans were unwilling to pass up the opportunity to use Benghazi (and more generally, Libya) to catch Obama and Clinton in a potential lie over this potential new Middle Eastern quagmire. To square this circle, the Republicans resorted to making only vague, yet intense, accusations over the Benghazi issue. In turn, this left many Republican supporters across the United States to form their own conspiratorial versions of what exactly Obama or Clinton’s sins over Benghazi had been. Not that people needed any extra incentive to start forming conspiracy theories. In fact, maybe my whole opinion on this issue is nothing more than a conspiracy theory…)

Moving on to Syria, and specifically to Obama’s “Red Line”: it is difficult to know whether or not the US should have intervened more forcefully in Syria, and it is also difficult to know how much truth there is to Obama’s claim that he extracted significant concessions from Assad as a result of bluffing during the Red Line affair. What we do know, though, is that in spite of the fact that most Republican supporters and even many Democrats claim that Obama was either weak for not following through on the bluff or stupid for bluffing in the first place, it is in fact not at all clear that bluffing in matters of war is stupid or that failing to follow through on a bluff in the event that it is called — even despite the risk of losing credibility as a result — is a weak thing to do. Thus while Syria remains an immense tragedy and Obama’s role in it is open to debate, the certainty with which many claim that Syria will be remembered as Obama’s top mistake appears to be unfounded.

Finally, let’s talk about Obama’s position regarding Iran, which, in the long term, will possibly be considered his most significant legacy in foreign policy, the equivalent of Jimmy Carter’s reacquaintance with Anwar Sadat’s Egypt or even of Nixon’s reacquaintance with Maoist China. The Obama stance on Iran has often been misunderstood in at least one of the following three ways. One, that it is primarily about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It is not (though this is of course not to say that nukes are not a very real issue). Two, that Obama and Netanyahu were at odds over America’s stance on Iran. They were not (though this is not to say that relations between Obama and Netanyahu have been hunky-dory or that Israel is not rightfully wary about the improving US-Iranian relationship and Iranian weaponry). Three, that Obama’s policy came from a place of dovishness. In fact, it came just as much from a place of hawkishness: Iran is in some respects a crucial potential US ally.

The conflict between America and Iran began to heat up after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. This was because both invasions had created overlapping spheres of influence between US soldiers and Iranian proxies, and because both invasions had strengthened Iran’s regional influence. Iran had been enemies of both Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Saddam’s regime had been led by part of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, whereas as most of the rest of Iraq are Shiites like the Iranians or else Sunni Kurds (and Kurds are ethno-linguistically closer to Persians than to Arabs). Iran had fought a war against Iraq in the 1980s in which hundreds of thousands of its citizens were killed; the Iranians are now been interfering in Iraq in order to ensure this never happens again. The Taliban in Afghanistan, meanwhile, are predominantly composed of Sunni Pashto-speakers, yet Afghanistan also has a sizeable minority of Shiite Muslims and is more than a quarter Tajik (and Tajik is mutually intelligible with Persian). Iran had threatened to go war with the Taliban in 1998, following the group’s killing of Iranian diplomats. Apart from Pakistan, Iran is the crucial Muslim neighbour of Afghanistan. Iran’s border with Afghanistan is half as long as the enormous US-Mexican border, and even harder to build a wall across.

With Saddam’s Baathists and the Taliban out of power in cities like Baghdad and Kandahar, the Iranians were free to spread their political wings within the region, especially once the US left Iraq. To clip these wings, the US enforced sanctions on Iran and played good-cop bad-cop with the Israelis in threatening to carry out strikes against Iranian military and infrastructural targets. At one point, around 2010-2013, it was commonly expected that Israel and/or America would attack Iran imminently. This good-cop bad-cop role also served both Obama and Netanyahu quite well in their own respective domestic politics. It allowed Obama to avoid appearing to be a warmonger, and allowed Netanyahu to portray himself as firmly standing up to both the White House and the mullahs in Iran in an attempt to ensure security for the Israeli public at any cost.

Indeed, Israeli-Iranian tensions were declining even before Netanyahu’s famous speeches in New York or, later, in Washington. Hamas’s relationship with Iran weakened as a result of Iran’s backing of Assad, which Hamas was not happy with (Hamas’ leadership moved out of Syria in 2012, to Qatar). Iran’s proxy Hezzbolah, meanwhile, became too distracted with helping to prop up Assad in Syria to focus on Israel as it had in its war with Israel in 2006. Moreover, around this same period Israel’s relationship with Turkey deteriorated sharply as a result of the Gaza Flotilla incident in May 2010, and later because Turkey was angered by the coup against Muhammad Morsi of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which the Hamas movement was originally sprung. The Iran-Hamas breach over Assad, Hezzbolah’s distraction, and Israel’s growing wariness of Turkey brought a thaw between Iran and Israel. But politics is politics; for now, both countries remain boogeymen in the eyes of one another’s medias.

Many, similarly, believe Obama and Netanyahu to be hated rivals, or, at least, frenemies, when it is not at all clear that their opinions of one another are really so low as they are portrayed. Those who watch NBA basketball (as Obama does) would be familiar with the “hold me back” strategy Obama and Netanyahu arguably used against Iran in the years leading up to the signing of the US-Iranian deal on nuclear and sanctions reductions. The real breach between the US and Israel, if indeed there is to be one in the years ahead, is likelier to occur over issues like Palestine or even Pakistan (where the larger nuclear threat to Israel is located, arguably) than Iran, given Iran has a number of important shared interests with both Israel and the US.

The Obama rapprochment with Iran occured as a result of the fact that Iranian influence was curtailed by the Arab Spring, with the Saudis quelling Shiite protests in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain and, even more importantly, with large chunks of territory within Syria and Iraq being taken over by militant Sunni groups, including but not limited to ISIS and Al-Nusra. Iran is no longer in a potentially dominant position in the Middle East. As a result, Obama has in recent years has been able to have warming relations with Iran and work, in effect, alongside the Iranians in containing ISIS and in trying to have US troops withdraw from Afghanistan without sacrificing major cities to the Taliban.

While the media now gives a lot of attention to how the US and Iran share an interest in blocking ISIS, the shared US and Iranian interests that exist within Afghanistan are generally overlooked. But the US desperately wants to avoid a situation akin to when the Soviets left Afghanistan in the late 1980s—which brought civil war, the mutilation of the Afghan Prime Minister, a spillover of violence into Pakistan and between Pakistan and India, and eventually Al Qaeda’s attack on the US on 9-11.

The Republicans, who continue to try to make Obama’s deal with Iran appear to be Munich-style appeasement rather than typical presidential diplomacy, do not usually point any of this out. Instead they focus on the Iranian regime’s tyranny and religiosity. Bringing up the extremism of Iran’s government should not be an irrelevant point, of course, but still it comes across as a rather weak excuse to fault the deal, given America’s closer alliance with countries like Saudi Arabia; an alliance the Republicans have played a part in. Their response that Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, should be resisted mainly because it has the potential to become a regional power, ignores not only the fact that Iran’s position has been set back by the ongoing war in Syria, but also the fact that the US wants Iran to help it contain more plausible regional powers, namely Turkey or Russia.

The US-Russian relationship has, of course, suffered seriously in recent years as a result of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as because of the the meddling of Russia in the recent American election (assuming that either Putin or supporters of Putin were indeed behind the hacking of the DNC’s emails, as appears highly plausible). The Iranians are useful to the US in parrying Russian influence in both Central Asia and the Caucasus, in spite of the fact that Iran, Russia, and even the United States have in effect been working on the same side of the Syrian civil war at times. Iran has significant ties to a number of countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union, most notably Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Given that large Muslim populations in the Caucasus border large Muslim populations living within Russia, and given that Putin himself presided over the Second Chechen War, Iran’s position if of significance here. Reviving the stagnant energy industries in Iran and in Iran’s Shiite-majority ally Iraq also helps reduce the price of oil and, in the long-run, of natural gas, both of which Russia depends highly upon.

Turkey, meanwhile, is a country that has a far larger economy than Iran, an economy that is not at all based on oil exports and is therefore much less exposed to the recent crash in oil prices than Iran’s is. Turkey is also, unlike Iran, a country that is dominated by a single ethno-linguistic group, “the Turks”, who by comparison to Iranians inhabit a fairly compact, non-mountainous region. Partly as a result of this, Turkey is not home to numerous separatist or regionalist movements like Iran is (the PKK, in Turkey’s eastern, mountain regions, being the major exception). An estimated 75 percent of people in Turkey are “Turkish”, whereas an estimated 60 percent of people in Iran are “Persian”. Iran is also a Shiite country, setting it apart from the large Sunni majority in the Middle East and in the Muslim world in general.

In recent years, a number of areas that were once part of the Ottoman Empire have been hit hard by crises; notably Syria, Iraq, Libya, Greece, Ukraine, Cyprus, and Georgia. Turkish politics, led by Erdogan, have also become more Islamic than at any time since the empire fell in WW1. Recently, with Erdogan’s accusation that the Turkish cleric Gulen was behind the failed 2016 coup, and his demand the US extradite Gulen, Turkey’s Islamic politics may be becoming more unified and anti-American. US-Turkish ties have also become strained over America’s close ties to the Kurds in Syria and especially in Iraq. While relations between Turkey and America are still decent in spite of this, in part because the US wants Turkey to help block both Russia and Iran as well as re-establish a semblance of order within Syria and Iraq (where Turkey has troops), the writing is clearly on the wall: Turkey is more likely to be a major regional power than Iran is. Obama’s attempt at a political reengagement with Iran most likely reflected an understanding of this fact, given that Obama is a keen and “realist” policymaker, as most recent US presidents have been.

Ultimately, it is often said presidents are most important in their symbolism rather than in any specific deals they manage to hammer out. If that is correct, Obama appears to score quite well on the short roll of post-Cold War presidents. Obama has been more articulate and likely more sophisticated than George W Bush was, and also more scandal-free and likely more genuine than Bill Clinton was. Obama’s critics too tend to claim that Obama’s most notable decisions in foreign policy were of the symbolic sort, whether it be his refusal to use the term Islamic terrorism, attend funerals in solidarity with the Charlie Hedbo and kosher supermarket victims in France (two weeks before attending King Abdullah’s in Saudi Arabia), or decline the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him by starstruck Norwegians in the first year of his first term. Even those that do believe the worst of Obama, however — and there really is little reason to do so — should acknowledge he has done less harm to America’s reputation in eight years than Trump now has in the past eight months.

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Africa, Europe, Middle East

The Day After Tomorrow, in Morocco

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Amid the election victory of the intensely pro-coal, global warming denier Donald Trump, the UN’s annual Climate Change Conference is underway in Marrakech, Morocco, and is aiming to build on last year’s Paris Agreement. The conference began on November 7 and will run until the 18th.

Trump aside, getting any far-reaching climate deal done will be a herculean challenge involving unprecedented cooperation and goodwill between nations. Specifically, it will require cooperation between developed economies, which account for most greenhouse gas emissions in per capita as well as historical terms, and developing ones, which have the most urgent need for an increase in carbon emissions and carbohydrates consumption. Morocco, which is a developing, African, Muslim economy that shares the pillars of Hercules with its developed, European, Christian neighbour Spain, could therefore be among the most fitting places to accomplish such an effort.

Morocco exemplifies many of the greatest challenges as well as greatest opportunities of a world in which the use of fossil fuels is relegated to the back-burner. Using Morocco as a case study, one can explore in detail what the Day After Tomorrow could look like. Not the apocalyptic version of climate change that Hollywood has repeatedly shown us, but rather a more hopeful Day After Tomorrow: the lower-pollution world those at the conference in Marrakech are hoping to build.

On the challenge side of the ledger, Morocco is one of the poorer countries of the Arab world, and, while not an energy exporter itself, it does rely on business with and investment from the oil-rich Gulf. Moreover it is one of the largest food importers in the world (relative to GDP size), and is part of both the Arab and Saharan worlds which are similarly beholden to food imports. Given the energy-food-water nexus, which has many aspects, there is a far-reaching link between food and fuel prices. In any climate deal, countries like Morocco and regions like the Middle East must be supported in one way or another if they are to avoid economic crises due to food-price inflation and declining energy export revenues.

There is also a geopolitical and humanitarian component to this. Conflicts can be started in response to food prices: the current Syrian war may have been sparked or at least exacerbated by drought. Morocco has its own dormant food-related conflict with its gas-rich neighbour Algeria over Western Sahara, the large Moroccan-controlled former Spanish colony which holds perhaps three-quarters of global reserves of phosphate fertilizer.

In terms of opportunities in a lower-emissions world, Morocco has three factors working in its favour. First, its location at the exact crossroads of the Atlantic and Mediterranean puts it in a strong position to engage in fuel-efficient maritime trade with large markets like Europe, the Americas, and South Asia. Second, Morocco has renewable energy to harness: the Saharan sun, seaside wind (Morocco’s coast is over 1800 km long), and direct electricity-grid linkages via Spain to the hefty renewables output of Europe. Indeed, Morocco built the largest solar plant in the world this year, while Spain is the world’s fourth largest producer of wind power and tenth largest of ‘renewables’ in general. Beyond Spain, Morroco’s largest trading partner France is by far the least dependent on fossil fuels of any of the world’s biggest economies. Finally, Morocco is one of the few countries to speak three global languages pretty well: Arabic, French, and Spanish. As such it is well-placed to engage in emissions-free trading of services and media on the Internet. Morroco’s even getting decent at English now, because of tourists from the UK, US, and EU.

Morocco has, indeed, always been something of an outlier. Today, it is arguably the only country in the Middle East or North Africa that is not or does not border a failed or semi-failed state. In recent years Morocco has been one of the few places in the region where good news has not been too difficult to come by. And with Trump’s victory last night, and the end of the climate conference approaching next week, we could all use some more good news out of Morocco right now.

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