North America

Go East, Young Canuck!

Atlantic Canada, where lives 30 percent of the Canadian population in five of the country’s ten provinces (Quebec*, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and PEI), has had slower population and GDP growth than central or western Canada in recent times.

(*I’m including Quebec in “Atlantic Canada” here. This is for three reasons: first, Quebec is  geographically an Atlantic province; Quebec City is an Atlantic city. Second, Quebec has shared in the Atlantic trend of relatively low population and GDP growth. Third, the French-speaking area of Canada in a sense spills over into New Brunswick, where about a third of people speak French).

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Atlantic Canada’s slower growth has been the result, more or less, of four factors: climate (Quebec’s winters are cold, the Maritimes’ snowy), commodities (fossil fuels are mostly in western Canada); language (much of Atlantic Canada’s population does not speak English well), and location (Atlantic is relatively far from East Asia or the US).

Population and GDP Growth Ahead? 

I’m sorry, but I got real lazy here. So I’m just going to make pie-in-the-sky predictions, in point form:

  1. Migration and EnergyWith fossil fuel prices low today:

    — the Maritimes (apart from Newfoundland) benefit, as they tend to be the most dependent on fuel imports among Canadian provinces
    — Maritimers may move home from western Canada
    — Migrants from Romance-language developing economies and the Arab world, which depend heavily on energy and other commodity exports, may move to Quebec or to New Brunswick. This is particularly true given current politics in the US (where many do not want more immigration from Latin America), France (where many don’t want Muslim immigration), Veneuela (a country of 32 million people, in turmoil right now), Algeria, Libya, Angola, DRC, and Brazil
    — Migrants need affordable housing; Ontario and BC don’t have it, Atlantic Canada does
    — Migrants need employment; France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Belgium don’t have it
    — Demographics: whereas today most of the world’s people of prime emigrating or studying-abroad age (20-40 years old) in the world are East or South Asian, over the next decade or two the biggest growth in this category by far will be in Sub-Saharan Africa. Much of this, in turn, will be in Atlantic countries (notably Nigeria), many of which speak English or French.
    — In the Americas, the biggest relative growth in 20-40 year olds will be in Haiti (pop. 11 million)
    — Even Romania, a Romance-language country with a population of 20 million, is an oil-exporting economy

2. Trade and Technology

— Brexit: England and/or Scotland and/or Ireland may look west to its ex-colonies in the Maritimes for new trade (or travel) relationships
— Trump: the Republicans have brought some uncertainty to NAFTA, and also seem poised to help keep energy prices low by allowing the US fossil fuel boom to continue. Atlantic Canada is less dependent on trade with the US than Ontario is, and less dependent on high fuel prices than western Canada is
— New Fur Trade: Europe is looking for commodities in order to wean itself off of Russia and the Arab world, and ports in Atlantic Canada may be able to provide it with the supplies to do so. In recent decades, most Canadian trade has been along north-south lines, a result of the significant barriers that are the Rockies (especially in winter), northern Appalachians (especially in winter), and the Canadian Shield’s lakes/rock formations/Great Lake Snow-belts. New technologies, however, notably autonomous trucks (or at least, “smarter” trucks) may help to overcome these barriers, allowing for more east-west trade
— Meanwhile, trade with Asia is unlikely to grow relatively quickly like it did in recent decades, given that Asian growth is shifting more from the northeast (Japan, South Korea, coastal China), which is relatively near western Canada, to the south and west (India, Southeast Asia, inland China) which is not so easily accessible from western Canada. Western India, in fact, is several thousand km closer to Halifax by sea than eastern India is to Vancouver
— Autonomous ships, aircraft: small autonomous ships, combined with climate change, might open up new North Atlantic sea lanes (Northwest Passage, Northeast Passage). Autonomous aircraft, similarly, might help open up the aerial Northwest Passage (by air, St. John’s-to-Beijing is only 20-25 percent further from than Victoria-to-Beijing). Autonomous cargo planes, when combined with modern precision airdrop technology, may also allow the Maritimes to benefit from being located along the aerial routes between North America and Europe — not entirely unlike how, in the pre-jet age, cities like Gander benefited from these routes
— If North America is to move in a direction away from fossil fuels, it will need abundant energy alternatives, as well as abundant energy storage to support intermittent sources like solar and wind. Quebec’s hydro industry is one of the world leaders in electricity production and storage
— If robots/autonomous vehicles become common, then the amount of energy that is in demand in the wee hours of the night will skyrocket, since robots don’t need sleep. This will benefit energy production that today cannot be turned off at night, such as nuclear and (in many cases) hydropower, in contrast to gas plants or, especially, solar. Outside of China and Russia, which produce prodigous amounts of nuclear and hydro but an even more enormous amount of fossil fuels, the leaders in hydro and nuclear are Atlantic economies: Brazil, France, Scandinavia, and the eastern half of Canada
— E-commerce: in a world of globalizing digital interaction, a region bilingual in both English and a Romance language might be in a good position
— Robotic factory workers: the Maritime provinces have excellent, abundant natural harbours to use as ports, but relatively small populations and, thus, small labour forces. Robots could, pehaps, change this equation, making ports (and energy) a more decisive asset

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Source: United States Geological Survey

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3. Climate and Tourism

— driving in snow or rain, both of which Atlantic Canada gets a lot of, may become much safer and more comfortable than in the past (good, among other things, for the 35 km drive between Halifax and the Airport)
— Atlantic Canada has an enormous amount of waterfront land. With people perhaps being able to spend more time in the countryside, as a result of automation (doing jobs for people), the Internet (e-commuting), and demographics (Baby Boomers cutting down their work hours), this waterfront land could help in tourism
— with more flexibility (because of technology), people from Canada, the US, and Latin America can become snowbirds: summering in Atlantic Canada and wintering down south
— cross-country skiing boom will continue over the next ten years, as Baby Boomers enter their 60’s and 70s
—Much of Atlantic Canada is islands and peninsulas. Airplane travel, particularly with small airplanes, may become cheaper if autonomous planes really do become a reality — or if it becomes easier to become a pilot because of high-tech modern flight simulators. Traveling by boat may become easier if people get more time on their hands, if technology increases safety, and if technology can address sea-sickness

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The Liberals swept the Maritimes; the Conservatives fared most poorly in the Maritimes and Quebec

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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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North America

Presidential Beginnings and Regionalism in America

Hillary Clinton would not just have been the first female president. She would also have been the first modern Democratic candidate born in a northern state to have become president. The past four Democrats who have won presidential contests (or five, if you count Al Gore’s ambiguous election result) were not from the North.

This is counting Obama as a non-Northern politician, which may not be entirely unfair: Hawaii is the southernmost state in the US, Obama was raised by his Kansas-born mother and grandparents, and African-American society in Illinois remains recently rooted in the South. Obama himself has a bit of a southern accent that he is able to turn on or off as required. (Hillary Clinton had one too back in the early 1990’s, when she was still living in the governor’s mansion in Arkansas). Indeed, you have to go back all the way to John F Kennedy in order to break this pattern—but not to Truman before him, a Missouri-born Democrat.

In contrast, on the Republican side all the recent presidents who have won elections (in other words, all the recent Republican presidents apart from Gerald Ford, who inherited Nixon’s presidency post-impeachment) have had close ties to either California or Texas. The Bush family, though originally aristocrats hailing from New England, adopted Texas as their home, with Bush Sr. representing it in Congress for four years and Bush Jr. later serving as its governor for five years. Eisenhower too was from Texas. Reagan on the other hand was a Hollywood actor turned governor of California, while Nixon was born and raised in California and represented it in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Trump’s victory in a sense breaks this pattern (at least, if you ignore the fact that the new Celebrity Apprentice is being filmed in California). Trump will be the first New York-born Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt, and the first New York-born president of either party since Franklin Roosevelt. Trump is also the only Republican president to have ever lost the Texas primary (he got just 27 percent of the vote there; Ted Cruz got 44 percent) and was the first Republican presidential nominee to have lost the Texas primary since Ford lost it to Reagan in 1976, in an election Ford later lost to Jimmy Carter.

These patterns are telling. Most of the post-election discussions thus far have been devoted to the ethnic, rural-urban, class, age, or gender divisions that helped Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton, but this is partly a result of the fact that two of America’s other political macro-divisions — the North-South divide and the California-Texas divide — appear so obvious and are so normalized that they have been dwelt upon very little by comparison.

The North-South divide is partially obscured by the fact that there are large numbers of African-American and Hispanic voters living in most states in the South. Thus, Clinton fared worse in heartland states like Idaho, Utah, and the Dakotas than she did in southeastern states like Alabama, Georgia, or the Carolinas, even as her worst showing of all was among white Southern voters. More than 70 percent of white voters in Texas and in most of the Southeast (apart from Florida) did not vote for Clinton—a stupefying level of political unanimity for such a large region and demographic group. Nationally, by comparison, even an estimated 28 percent of white voters without a college degree voted for Clinton. Even white voters in the coal-producing states of Wyoming and West Virginia were not enticed to vote for Trump in such large proportions as Southern ones were.

Note: this is a map of poll-based projections from just before the election; it does not show the actual results of the election. I couldn’t find a map that does show the results of the election based solely on white voters

 

Trump, meanwhile, received an estimated 49 percent of white college graduates, 23 percent of non-white college graduates, and even 29 percent of Hispanic-Americans, yet in California got just 33 percent of the overall vote, less than in any other state apart from Hawaii or Vermont. In Massachusetts Trump got just 33.5 percent. In New York he got 37 percent, the first time a president failed to win his own home state since Lincoln lost Kentucky in 1864.

Still, as with that 1864 election, race proved far more divisive even than intense regionalism; Trump only won 8 percent of African-American votes. By contrast, Trump received at least 29 percent of the overall vote in every state. Only in Trump’s future home of Washington D.C. was he blown-out, getting just 4 percent of the overall vote there.

Compared to the bitter North-South divide, which dates back to America’s early years, the California-Texas divide is extremely new and emotionally far less encumbered by historical(-racial) divisions. California and Texas have not voted in unison only since 1988. They have voted in unison in 5 of the past 13 elections — twice for Reagan (a Californian), twice for the Nixon (a Californian), and once for George H W Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president prior to the election. Indeed, Texas and California also voted in unison seven out of ten times between 1952 and 1988, and fourteen out of nineteen times between 1916 and 1988. During this span California voted for the Republicans nine out of ten times, while Texas voted for the Democrats four out of ten times.

Today, however, it is already becoming difficult to believe that this ever used to occur. The growing division between California and Texas has perhaps more than anything else defined modern American politics. California and Texas are the most populous states in the country, accounting for 17 percent of the electoral college votes in the election. The next most populous state, the swing-state of Florida, has just 52 percent the population size of California and 74 percent that of Texas. Illinois, the most populous state in the Midwest and the fifth most populous state in the country, has just 33 percent the population size of California and 47 percent that of Texas. Had Texas voted for the Democrats in this past election, Hillary Clinton would have won the electoral college by a score of 270 to 268. Had Trump fared better in California, he would not have lost the popular vote.

(The division between California and Texas might also be preventing both from pursuing their shared interest of achieving structural reform in the Senate. While Democrats are outraged that Trump and George W Bush both won the presidency even after losing the popular vote, what is arguably much more troubling is that tiny states like Rhode Island and Wyoming still receive as many votes in the Senate as do giants like California and Texas. Given the difficulty of amending the structure of the Senate, such reform would require at a minimum the cooperation of Congressional representatives from Texas and California).

Past presidents also used to transcend the more deeply entrenched North-South divide on occasion. Bill Clinton did it to a certain extent when he won in states like Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Reagan did it when he swept the Northeast twice, as to a lesser extent did George H W Bush. And Carter did it when he swept the entire Southeast, even as he failed to win any of the 16 states in the lower 48 west of Texas or Minnesota.

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Carter defeats Ford in 1976; in that election the divide was east-west, not north-south

If such occurrences are impossible nowadays, we might see more elections in the future that are not too dissimilar from the recent one, with the Democrats no longer running a Southern candidate, the Republicans no longer running one from California or Texas, and both of the parties instead focusing their efforts squarely upon the Midwest, Florida, and a few other smaller states like Arizona. Perhaps, though, these divisions will not persist. Maybe a Northern Democrat will have a shot at winning states in the South next time—instead of just some Yankee showman like Trump.

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North America

Bricks, Mortar, and Wireless Headphones

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Today, at the launch of the iPhone 7, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that the phone will not have an outlet for headphones. Customers will either have to use wireless Bluetooth headphones, or else buy a special pair of headphones that is capable of plugging into the outlet for the phone’s charger.

If the wireless headphone age really is about to get underway, many unforeseen consequences are likely to accompany it in the coming years. One industry that might, perhaps, be hit very hard by wireless headphones is the movie theatre business. While on the one hand it might be the case that wireless headphones could make going to the theatre more enjoyable – you no longer have to listen to other people smack popcorn or  whisper to one another noisily – on the other hand it could lead to vastly increased competition for movie theatres, as it could allow new movie theatres to pop up in unexpected places.

Let’s quickly look at two places this competition could arise from: sports bars and brick-and-mortar retail stores.

Sports bars could be a threat to matinées. Sports bars already have lots of big screen televisions, and in some cases very big projector screens, and in many cases comfy seats as well. They also have food and drink, and operate well under capacity during the daytime. Many also have basements or back-rooms with no windows, which can be made pitch-black even in the daytime. Some may try to turn themselves basically into little movie theatres during the day.

(Sports bars could maybe also be a threat to cable tv. One reason many people have been sticking with cable tv insted of “unplugging” and just using the Internet is to watch sports. Wireless headphones could make watching sports at a sports bar a more appealing alternative than it has been up until now, however, by shutting out other noise from the bar so that fans do not have to watch the game on mute while listening to loud drunk people around them. Now if only they could do something about those filthy bar bathrooms..)

The same is true of restaurants, though they do not have as many tv’s or as big tv’s as sports bars do, and though there are many restaurants that will certainly not want people coming in to watch sports or movies. Still, it is easy to imagine some of the less fancy restaurants trying to do this to entice customers.

The big move, however, could be at brick-and-mortar stores. These stores, even for giants like Walmart, are right now under severe threat from the online retailers, led by Amazon. It may not be long before even the grocery stores are under the same threat. These stores are desperately looking for ways to get customers to come to their stores — a desperation that is only going to increase in the years ahead.

One option they may have to attract customers is to put big movie screens in their parking lots or even inside their stores. In their parking lots, these could play movies at night when the lot is mostly empty of cars, or they could become a drive-in theatre. The screens could be put inside tents that could be easy to put up and take down, in order to block out light pollution and rain, or they could be used without tents. Given that parking lots will often be empty as more people turn to online shopping, they could have lots of room to do this.

The bigger brick-and-mortar retailers could do a similar thing inside their stores as well, which would be useful when the weather is bad and would block out light pollution. At the very least, they could allow their tv departments to play movies that children could watch while their parents shop. At the most, they could basically set-up movie theatres inside their stores, making use of wireless headphones to do so. In fact, just like how they are likely to have fewer cars in their parking lots as a result of online shopping, they are also likely to have more room inside their stores, as more of their own customers buy goods from them online and then swing by the store just to pick up what they have purchased.

And maybe to watch a movie, too.

With all this in mind, I do not think I would invest in a movie theatre company stock, like CNK, right now. If on the other hand you have any ideas of why people might instead go to the theatres more in the future, I would like to hear them, so please leave a comment about it below.

 

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Europe

Satellite Geopolitics in Eastern Europe

During the past year, the primary focus of the US-Russian rivalry has centred around Iran. The United States put an end to Western sanctions against Iran, and also chose to keep American troops in Afghanistan who support, among others, many of the tens of millions of Afghans who are Shiite Muslims or who can speak Farsi (as opposed to the Taliban, who are Sunni and typically Pashto-speaking). Russia, meanwhile, intervened to aid Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who’s survival diverts Sunni attention away from Iran’s Shiite allies in Iraq.

With Russia now withdrawing some of its forces from Syria and the US hoping to do so from Afghanistan, the focus of the US-Russian rivalry could revert, perhaps, to Ukraine. By comparison to the Middle East, Ukraine has appeared to be very quiet of late.

Russia may have dialed back the conflict in Ukraine partly in order to shift the West’s focus to the Middle East. This of course has not been very difficult to accomplish, given Europe’s influx of Syrian migrants and  America’s election-season rhetoric on issues like ISIS, the conflict in Libya, and Donald Trump’s proposal to ban, for an unspecified amount of time, all Muslims from travelling to the United States.

If the US-Russian focus does move back towards Eastern Europe, one can perhaps guess the rough outlines of any geopolitical contest that may occur there.

Poland will likely be the chief ally of the United States in the region. Unlike any of the five other former satellite nations of the Soviet Union, Poland borders the Atlantic Ocean (via the Baltic Sea). This provides it access to English-speaking countries like Britain, the United States, and Canada, as well as to countries where proficiency in English as a second language has become particularly widespread, most notably in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent Germany.

Poland, indeed, tends to be relatively Atlantic-oriented. It conducts a larger percentage of its trade with economies like Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States than do any of the other ex-satellite countries in Eastern Europe. More than 10% of Poland’s modern-day labour force has worked at one time or another in Britain or Ireland, whereas Hungarians, Czechs, and Slovaks have more often gone to Germany or Austria and Romanians have more often gone to Germany, Austria, Italy, or Spain.

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1/60 Poles are living in Britain, according to this source

Poland is not an Eastern Orthodox country, like Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia and several others in the region are. Rather, its population is predominantly Roman Catholic.

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Poland also remains by far the largest “country of origin” in the United States among Eastern European nations, at a time when Americans may be becoming much more informed of their ancestry as a result of increasingly cheap gene-sequencing and genealogical services 

Much more important than Poland having Western ties, however, is that it may be the only state in Eastern Europe large enough to lead a US alliance. Poland’s GDP is estimated to be 80 percent as large as those of its fellow ex-satellites – Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia) – combined.

Among other things, this economic size has allowed Poland’s economy to become relatively self-sufficient: Poland’s imports and exports are thought to be equal in value to just 80% or so of Polish GDP, compared to 110-170% of GDP in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Lithuania (though just 75% in Romania). This could make Poland somewhat less susceptible to the whims of its (largely European) trading partners than the other countries in Eastern Europe might be, and so perhaps also a more dependable ally of the United States.

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Poland, finally, is the only one of the ex-satellites to border the northeastern Baltic region, which consists of the “Baltic states” of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad (which is situated between Poland and Lithuania), the Russian city of St Petersburg, and southern Finland.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in particular have become the object of worldwide geopolitical speculation. They are the only former members of the Soviet Union to have joined the European Union and NATO, and, along with Slovakia, Finland, Greece and Cyprus, are the only countries east of Central Europe to use the Euro in place of their national currencies. They are home to six million people, about the same number of people as live in St Petersburg.

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While Poland will probably be the foundation of American influence in Eastern Europe, Romania may become its capstone. Though Romania’s per capita income is still considerably lower than other countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Poland, its population is significantly larger than any of the other former satellites apart from Poland, as is the size of its territory.

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Romania has Western ties because its language is close to Latin, rather than being a Slavic language like Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, Serbian, or Croatian. This has resulted, among other things, in substantial Romanian diasporas having formed in Spain and especially in Italy. A Romanian living in Italy can arguably become near-fluent in Italian within just a month or two, without much difficulty.

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The Romanian Diaspora, according to Wikipedia

Crucially, Romania may also be able to exert influence in Ukraine. Romania shares a roughly 800 km frontier with the former Soviet Union (by comparison, Poland has a 900 km or so border with the former Soviet Union, Hungary and Slovakia have 70 km ones, and the Czechs and Bulgarians have none), and both Romania and Ukraine are economically oriented toward the Black Sea.

Romania and Ukraine both also surround Moldova, which is a mostly Romanian-speaking country but home to Ukrainian, Russian, and Turkic Gaguaz minority populations. This is a particularly contested region; Russia has troops stationed in Moldova’s secessionist province of Transnistria, while the Black Sea coast, which includes Ukraine’s second city Odessa (just 140 km from Romania),  is the only part of western Ukraine in which politically “pro-Russian” Ukrainians and “ethnic Russians” may still be prominent.

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Official_Russian_language_support_in_Ukraine

In response to a US-Romanian axis, Russia could attempt to press Romania from all sides by building up influence in Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary. Ukraine and Moldova are already home to Russian soldiers, while Serbia and Bulgaria are both Slavic and Orthodox countries that have historically often looked to Russia for support when fighting against their  non-Slavic, Catholic, or Muslim neighbours like Turkey, Greece, Albania, Croatia, Bosnia, Hungary, and Romania. Russia continues to have ties to Bulgaria, and especially to Serbia, in the present day.

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South of Poland, Romania is also the only place along the western frontier of the former Soviet Union in which the border with the European Union is not located entirely in the Carpathian Mountains

Hungary, however, is neither Slavic nor Orthodox. Still, Hungary would be a critical anti-Romanian ally for Russia to attempt to recruit. The large and rugged Hungarian-Romanian borderland, located in and around the region of Transylvania, has long been politically fraught. It lies on the Hungarian side of the Carpathian Mountains and is home to substantial Hungarian and Roma (who are distinct from Romanian) minority groups, yet, since roughly the end of the First World War, has mostly been part of Romania.

hungarians in romania

“Ethnic Hungarians” in Romania

Romani in Romania

Roma in Romania tend to live either in and around Transylvania or in and around the country’s capital city of Bucharest

While Romania holds the upper hand in this region, Hungary still has leverage over Romania because it controls the land and river routes that link Bucharest to markets in Austria, Germany, and northern Europe in general. Russia has been moving to form closer ties with Hungary, as Hungary’s Fidesz-led nationalist government has angered many of the other countries in the EU in recent years.

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 Hungary and Bulgaria are both potentially significant to Russia for other reasons as well. Bulgaria can give the Russians access to the Mediterranean Sea via Greece or the Balkans, without having to pass through the Turkish Straits. It is just 250 km from the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea via Bulgaria and Greece, and 600-700 km from the Black Sea to the Adriatic via Bulgaria and the Balkans.

Indeed, given Russia’s reliance on natural gas exports and Italy’s reliance on gas imports (Russia is the world’s leading gas exporter, and Italy the world’s third largest gas importer), this trans-Bulgarian route to the Adriatic is one that Russia may need to avoid recession and at the same time maintain its influence in Italy. In turn, Russia may try to use Italy to put pressure on Romania, given the relatively close connections that exist between the two Latin countries.

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Note that Poland, the Czech Republic, and especially Romania are not very dependent on Russian gas compared to Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Hungary

Russia may need Hungary, meanwhile, to resist interfering with Russia’s interests in Ukraine (there are an estimated 200,000 ethnic Hungarians living in western Ukraine), serve as a wedge between Poland and Romania, and ensure Russian access to Central European economies like Germany.

If, hypothetically, Russia were to cow western Ukraine into submission and then be shunned as a result by US allies like Poland and Romania and by German allies like the Czech Republic and Slovakia (The Czech Republic and Slovakia are deeply entrenched in the modern German trade network), Hungary could be left as the only land route linking Russia’s sphere of influence to potentially “neutral” European economies like Italy, Austria, Switzerland, or France.

EasternEuropeMap

Moreover, Hungary is the only ex-satellite state apart from Romania that borders both the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. Hungary’s leading city Budapest is just 300 km from Serbia’s capital Belgrade, 300 km from Croatia’s capital Zagreb, 380 km from Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, and 400 km from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital Sarajevo. Considering that Budapest is also only  215 km from Vienna, 160 from Bratislava, and 400 km from the outskirts of Prague, this puts seven European capital cities within a 400 km radius of Budapest. The only other EU capital which can come even close to saying the same thing for itself is Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.

Russia might ideally like to ally itself with Germany or one of Europe’s other big economies, but if the Germans are not willing to participate in such a relationship then Hungary could be the place where a tug-of-war between Russia and America, or between Russia and Germany, or between Russia and “the West”, will occur. And if Russians do successfully win Hungary as a partner, thus potentially blocking off access to Romania from Poland, the focus of the conflict might then shift to Southeastern Europe, as the Americans could seek an alternative route to Romania.

During the Cold War the Americans involved themselves in Southeastern Europe by folding both Greece and Turkey into NATO (in spite of their intense rivalry with one another), but of late US-Turkish relations have been challenged by the wars in Syria and Iraq, while Greece has been trapped in an economic crisis and so unable to pick up the slack.

During just the past few months, though, more hopeful discussions than there have been in years have taken place regarding the possibility of the Greeks and Turks in Cyprus finally reunifying. This may perhaps portend an increasing cooperation between Turkey and the West, particularly as it has occurred around the same time as Turkey’s relationship with Russia deteriorated sharply following Russia’s entrance into Syria and Turkey’s downing of a Russian military jet there.

Then again, it is also entirely plausible that American relations with Turkey will continue to decline, and that the Greek economy will not soon recover in any meaningful way, leaving the United States to look instead to countries like Italy, Bulgaria, and the Balkan states in order to form a southern pathway to Romania and the Black Sea.

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Greece’s fall has been Turkey’s rise

Of course, nothing like this scenario is guaranteed to happen. This is just a very rough outline of what a new US-Russian political confrontation in Eastern Europe might look like. Given that the past may not necessarily resemble the future, and in particular that technological developments could perhaps render some traditionally important geopolitical imperatives irrelevant – to give just one example, air power might allow countries like the United States to access their allies without possessing a land route to reach them – this outline may not end up being very prescient. Ideally, none of the ex-satellites will have to choose between looking eastward to Moscow or westward to Washington.


For a discussion of the conflict in Ukraine in particular, see The Geopolitics of Ukraine

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North America

The Eternal Question

 

…Should I buy a treadmill?

According to Statista, wholesale consumer treadmill sales in the United States have fluctuated around one billion dollars per year since 2007; they dropped to 800 million dollars in 2009 after the recession and have gradually risen back up since. There are some reasons, though, why treadmills — or, perhaps, stationary bikes, ellipticals, rowing machines?, etcetera — could still be the “next big thing”:

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1. Headphones 

Treadmills, I don’t need to tell you, are loud. As you use them, people living in the same home or apartment as you are often annoyed by both their noise and their vibrations. If you use them while watching television, you will probably have to turn the volume on the tv way up, which will bother people around you even more. You may even be bothered by the loud noise yourself; indeed if you make a habit of going on the treadmill with the tv blaring at full volume, you may damage your ears in the long run.

Wireless headphones, then, could make treadmills much more appealing. And high-quality wireless headphones are for the first time going to be widely owned within the next few years — or months.

2. Netflix 

Sorry Wolf Blitzer, I don’t want to see your face ever again. From now when I am on the treadmill I am going to watch Netflix or last night’s Raptors or Warriors game (nobody tell me who won!). Hey, that actually makes exercising sound pretty good: it’s a great excuse for me to binge on tv.

3. Televisions

The year is 1995 and I am building an exercise room in my house. I decide to put a big tv in front of the treadmill, so I spend hundreds of dollars on a large television with a big behind, then a few hundred dollars more on a cabinet set to hold this voluptuous television. Wow, this is so expensive, and takes up too much space in this room! Maybe I should just wait until 2015, when I can get a 32 inch flatscreen LCD tv for less than $300 (down from $1600 in 2005) and mount it directly on the wall.

In fact, tv’s have now become so skinny that they can be attached directly to the exercise equipment. This could potentially allow people to move their exercise equipment outdoors in some cases, taking advantage of the space and fresh air in their backyards. Combined with wearing wireless headphones so as to not annoy one’s neighbours, this could make purchasing exercise equipment more reasonable.

4. Occulus!

Is virtual reality coming at last? Recently people have begun to believe that it is. If it does become advanced and widespread, then it may require a means to simulate movement in order to create a more dynamic virtual experience. Treadmills are an obvious candidate for such a simulation. Virtual reality may benefit from treadmills, therefore, and treadmills may benefit from virtual reality. Of course this might not actually end up happening, but it is worth speculating on nonetheless.

5. Fitbit 

Fitbit, the Apple Watch, Stepcounter apps, etcetera. Devices that let you know, in real time, what a lazy bum you really are could change the exercise industry in a big way. I know that I spend too much time sitting in front of a computer or television, and have been thinking about downloading a new app that has your phone alert you whenever you have been sitting down for more than an hour at a time. (I probably won’t download it, but I have been thinking about it!).

Many people have certainly been begining to use apps that show them how many “steps” they have taken every day, and in the spirit of self-competitive self-improvement have started to walk more in order to up their scores. This could, perhaps, lead to an increase in people purchasing treadmills.

 6. Millenials 

A large share of young people continue to live at home with their parents, or else on their own in small apartments or homes (often partially supported by their parents) where they do not have much space. As the large millenial population continues to age, however, they will depart from the nest, leaving behind bedrooms that can house exercise equipment. Some millennials will also be beginning to move into larger homes, where they may begin to buy equipment too. Or maybe not.

7. Real Estate

If you live in a 750 square ft. apartment space, then a typical high-quality treadmill will take up about 5 percent of your floor space. That’s no good; you will need more space in your home before thinking seriously about spending the $3000 or more that high-quality treadmills often cost. So, will indoor space in North America become cheaper?

It might, thanks to evolutions in transport (cheaper gasoline, hi-tech cars, Uber-style carpooling, driverless trucks, e-commerce with home delivery, etc.), communications (the modern Internet), and home construction (robots helping to build homes — it’s a scary thought, but get ready for it), which could make it easier for humans to spread out across cities, across suburbs, and across the countryside than ever before. E-commerce and e-commuting may also help bring home prices down by allowing some commercial real estate to be converted into residential.

8. Delivery

Good-quality exercise equipment tend to be among the more difficult-to-transport types of consumer goods. In most cases they are heavy, bulky, awkwardly shaped (and unable to fold up) and delicate. Getting them up a flight of stairs into a spare bedroom, or up many flights of stairs into an apartment building, can be a very difficult experience — and a costly one if you are employing delivery-men. If shipping and delivery-men become cheaper, then, it could be a boon to the industry, therefore.

Both, perhaps, can be expected. Delivery-men costs may fall as a result of the price of labour in general being squeezed by the double-whammy that is automation and outsourcing. Shipping costs, meanwhile, may fall because of cheap oil (if prices do not rise back up), falling labour prices leading to falling truck driver prices, innovations in trucking (smarter trucks, self-driving trucks, etc.), and the rise of the e-commerce and home-delivery industry (led, currently, by companies like Amazon).

If, moreover, self-driving trucks really do become commonplace, it could lead to much cheaper home delivery by allowing goods to be dropped off at local storage sites near the homes overnight while there is no road traffic, and then brought to the buyer’s home during the day.

9. Home Offices

Because of the Internet, in the years ahead many more people are likely to work from home, or from offices or coworking spaces close to home. This may free up time for people to go to the gym more often, lessening their need for things like treadmills. On the other hand, it may make people more likely to exercise at home, increasing their need for things like treadmills. Will it make people more likely to buy treadmills, on balance? I am not sure, but it is a possibility worth considering.

In addition, as home office spaces continue to shrink in size as a result of getting rid of fat desktop computers, printers, scanners, computer desks with pullout keyboards, and filing cabinets, and replacing them with more versatile laptops, tablets, and flatscreen desktops, there may be more space available in the home for treadmills.

10. Seasons 

In theory, treadmills should be seasonal goods: if you live in a place like Canada then you don’t really need one during the summer when you will probably prefer to exercise outdoors instead, and if you live in a place like southern California then you may only really need one during the summer when it is boiling outside. In practice, however, the high cost of shipping and delivering treadmills has prevented seasonal home rentals of treadmills, as has the fact that many people living in hot climates still do not have air conditioning and so do not want to work out indoors in the summer. 

The continued spread of air conditioning and the ability to more cheaply deliver treadmills, therefore, could perhaps lead to a situation where more people seasonally rent treadmills. In theory, at least, this could save people money as well as space in their homes. In fact, it may just be possible that long-distance shipping will eventually become cheap enough for a treadmill to become like the opposite of migratory bird, being used in a cold climate during the winter and then being shipped south to a hot climate for the summer.

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On the other hand, there are reasons why such a treadmill “revolution” may not come to pass. But I am too lazy to discuss them right now; I think I will go for a long walk in front of Netflix instead.

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Africa, Europe, Images, North America, South America

Image of the Day – Islands of the Atlantic

As a follow up to the post about Pacific islands from last month, I decided to make another chart showing islands in the Atlantic. This chart is not as extensive as the previous one, though; it only shows islands that have populations between 100,000 and 1 million. Also, it may be missing a couple of islands, or have population statistics that are already a bit outdated, so if you spot a missing island or a population mistake please post a comment about it below. And if you have a favourite Atlantic island, I would like to hear about that as well!

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