1. AN ESSAY THAT IS A MUST READ. It was written by one of the most astute observers of international politics, author of numerous books and articles on Stratfor, that would constitute an essential reading list for the ones eager to decipher the current geopolitical trends. It's Robert Kaplan, that has lately dedicated his analyzes to Eastern Europe. Actually, Kaplan declared in Bucharest last spring that he will publish a book focusing on this region, especially its Southern part, the Republic of Moldova. The analyst asks how accurate and predictive can political science be:”How can a great episode in history be determined in advance? It seems impossible. The older I get, with the experience of three decades as a foreign correspondent behind me, the more I realize that outside of a class of brilliantly intuitive minds—including the late Samuel Huntington, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger—political science is still mainly an aspiration, and that Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories offer a much better guide to the bizarre palace maneuverings of the last Romanov czar and czarina of Russia, of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu of Romania, of Slobodan Milosevic and Mirjana Markovic of Yugoslavia, or of Zviad and Manana Gamsakhurdia of Georgia. In short, there is no scientific formula to understanding international relations. There is primarily insight, which by definition is Shakespearean.”
In this essay we find Kaplan defending his long-standing point of view that geography (and culture) determine the evolution of history: “While geography is not where analysis ends, it is where all serious analysis begins. For geopolitics is the struggle of states against the backdrop of geography. America’s geography is the most favored in the world. The United States is not only protected by two oceans and the Canadian Arctic, but it also, as the geopolitical forecasting firm Stratfor notes, has the advantage of more miles of navigable inland waterways than much of the rest of the world combined. The Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas and Tennessee River systems flow diagonally across the continent, thereby uniting the temperate zone of North America, which happens to be overwhelmingly occupied by the United States. Further enhancing the economic power of these river systems is the abundance of barrier islands and deepwater ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The commerce that feeds down to the mouth of the great Mississippi is what originally made the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea central to American power and prosperity. The result has been both a country and a continental empire. It is also a hemispheric empire. The great Dutch American strategist Nicholas Spykman explained that by gaining effective control of the Greater Caribbean at the turn of the twentieth century, the United States came to dominate the Western Hemisphere, and with that had resources to spare to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. That proved to be the essential geopolitical dynamic of the twentieth century, as the United States tipped the balance of forces in its favor in two world wars and the Cold War that followed. This all had to do with many factors, obviously, but without geography they would have been inoperable.” Basically, by asking what is the role of "fate" in the way history evolves, Kaplan introduces a new concept that can facilitate a thorough understanding of international relations - ”soft determinism”. It encapsulates both individual moral responsibility and causality – considered by the Greek stoics as opposing concepts – but also the probable unfolding of events, as a result of an option that is available to the decision maker as a result of past events (according to Raymond Aron). Trying to prove that the United States are fated to lead, Kaplan touches upon the highly relevant subject of creating a new US grand strategy as a means to maintain global leadership: “Obama has tried until recently to get America’s allies in different theaters to do the balancing for it. Get Japan to balance against China, get Saudi Arabia and Israel to balance against Iran, and get Germany to balance against Russia. This is laudable. Why not at least try to lessen the imperial burden? The problem has been that a resurgent and nationalistic Japan, which has not fully come to terms with its own World War II–era crimes, frightens others in Asia. Israel’s air force, as good as it is, is a small, tactical air force and not a big, strategic one, and thus of imperfect use against Iran. Saudi Arabia is a benighted despotism more fragile than it looks, increasingly undermined by a weaker and more decentralized monarchy, chaos in neighboring Yemen, and the deterministic forces of a rising population and a diminishing underground water table. Germany is fundamentally compromised by its addiction to Russian energy and its inherent pacifism stemming from the legacy of Nazi crimes. Delegating power to allies thus has limits, and they are severe.” The reader may also want to browse through the comments section, as there are some that criticize Kaplan for being a supporter of the 2003 Iraq invasion, an option that the author does not deny, even offering a credible justification for it in this essay. (Robert Kaplan, America Is Fated to Lead, December 22, 2014, ‘National Interest’, January-February 2015 -http://nationalinterest.org/feature/america-fated-lead-11901?page=show )
2. THE END OF THE AMERICAN PEACE? In this stage of the international state system, IR experts often strive to rank the power of the major players and thus identify regional or global trends. The debate regarding America's primacy within the system is highly relevant in this respect. If one side of the experts considers that the post-WWII American hegemony has been in a crisis beginning with 2004-2005 (see Christopher Layne, This Time It’s Real: End of Unipolarity and the Pax Americana, ‘International Studies Quarterly’, Volume 56, Issue 1, pages 203–213, March 2012; Idem, The End of Pax Americana: How Western decline became Inevitable, “The Atlantic’, April 26 2012 ; Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World, Norton paperback, 2009 ), the other side states the contrary. One of its adherents is Robert Kagan, a highly visible representative of neoconservatism that tends to dominate American foreign policy. Kagan stated that America is “Still No. 1” (“The Washington Post”, October 30, 2008 , where he wrote “Yet the evidence of American decline is weak. Yes, as Zakaria notes, the world's largest Ferris wheel is in Singapore and the largest casino in Macau. But by more serious measures of power, the United States is not in decline, not even relative to other powers. Its share of the global economy last year was about 21 percent, compared with about 23 percent in 1990, 22 percent in 1980 and 24 percent in 1960. Although the United States is suffering through a financial crisis, so is every other major economy. If the past is any guide, the adaptable American economy will be the first to come out of recession and may actually find its position in the global economy enhanced. Meanwhile, American military power is unmatched. While the Chinese and Russian militaries are both growing, America's is growing, too, and continues to outpace them technologically.”) Another systemic challenge that may change the hierarchy of the great powers is China's incredible economic growth in the last three decades.
As there is a connection between the growth of GDP and the power of a state, numerous experts have seen the fact that China has surpassed the US in terms of GDP based on purchasing power parity as an element of American decline (see „Flash -1” - December 2014). Studies from the 30s or 50s have attempted such predictions regarding the hierarchy of global power, trying to identify who will lead the system, which state has the potential of becoming a superpower or a global/regional power, which states still fit into the top 10 etc. The indicators for such studies take into account not only the demographic or economic potential, but also the political tradition of a state, its military power and elements of soft power.
Such evaluations are obviously highly subjective. Because the size of the GDP does not automatically bring global power (in such a case, China would have been by now the leader of the international system and in the process of reforming it according to its own interests). Similarly, hard power, especially nuclear weapons, does not give a state an overwhelming power that would force the opponent to submit (for example, Russia has maintained nuclear parity with the United States, but has not succeeded in convincing Kiev to adopt its own plan regarding Eastern Ukraine). Such tops of global power are important because they reveal systemic relations and the ways in which these can develop. A recent attempt to establish a hierarchy of global power belongs to Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest (January 4, 2015 ), entitled „The Seven Great Powers” . The author admits that realising such a hierarchy of the seven big powers in the system „is hard to do. Measured by the destructive capabilities of its nuclear weapons, for example, Russia is as much of a superpower as was the old Soviet Union. But it isn’t easy to turn the ability to destroy all life on earth into the power to get other countries to recognize your annexation of Crimea. The author thus concedes that his options represent “a highly subjective ranking of the G-7, the seven great powers that can rock the world. We’ve ranked them by their ability to shape both their regional environments and the international system as a whole; among all the world’s countries these are the ones with the most ability to affect global politics by their choices.”
Of course, the leader is the US. For Russell Mead “America’s place at the top of the global pecking order seems more secure at the end of 2014 than at the beginning. In 2014, American power grew despite some foreign policy errors. There is nothing unusual about that. The ultimate sources of American power – the economic dynamism of its culture, the pro-business tilt of its political system, its secure geographical location, its rich natural resource base and its profound constitutional stability – don’t depend on the whims of political leaders. Thankfully, the American system is often smarter and more capable than the people in office at any given time.”
The second biggest power in this hierarchy is Germany that “has achieved this position without nuclear weapons, without spending much money on defense and without cripplingly large bailouts for its troubled European neighbors says much for the country’s ability to benefit from the logic of events and its geographic position. Nevertheless, many in Berlin find Germany’s new geopolitical prominence unwelcome. The responsibilities that accompany German power – to deal with the internal troubles of the EU and to handle the relationship with Putin – are hefty. Wilhelmine Germany managed the tensions of its unique regional role as long as it was led by Otto von Bismarck, but even he blundered by annexing Alsace-Lorraine in 1871. In lesser hands, the German government was unable to execute the difficult balancing act to which Germany is condemned by geography.”
The third big power is China, that despite its significant achievements “punches and is likely for some time to punch well below its weight in international affairs. There are three basic reasons for the shortfall. The first is China’s regional environment. Unlike the United States, surrounded by friendly states and wide oceans, or Germany (bordered by weak states), China is in a region of strong and in many cases growing and ambitious powers. While China sees itself as a world power, regional rivals like Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, Australia and Indonesia are intent on blocking its emergence as a regional hegemon and enjoy U.S. backing in this effort”.
The next spots are occupied by Japan (4), Russia (5) and India (6). Regarding Russia, Mead writes that it “is a nation in decline, but it has not yet finished declining and it by no means reconciled to the prospect. This makes it extremely dangerous. It may be failing at some of the most important tasks of a great power, but it still has nukes; plentiful natural resources; effective (and often underrated) intel, infowar and cyber capacities; and is currently led by a tactically canny president who punches above his weight. Were these ratings a ranking of willingness to use power, Russia would come in much higher on the list; the invasion of Ukraine this year left no one under any illusions as to what Vladimir Putin will do to bolster Russia’s place in the world, and to reverse, as best he can, what he sees as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century: the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Finally, at the seventh spot we find...Saudi Arabia. For Mead , there are some relevant aspects that place Riyadh on this list: ”2014 was the second year running in which Saudi Arabia shook the world. In 2013 the Saudis helped the Egyptian military overthrow the Morsi government in a move that threw the Obama administration’s Middle East policy into thorough disarray. In 2014 the Saudis engineered an oil price collapse that upended international politics. Great power reveals itself in the accomplishment of big things; many countries with larger populations, more powerful military forces and more sophisticated technological foundations than Saudi Arabia lack the desert kingdom’s ability to revolutionize the geopolitical balance and reset the global economy.”
You can read Mead's arguments for each big power at
3. WHICH WILL BE THE WARS OF 2015? Will the conflicts started in 2014 be prolonged into 2015 ot the years to come?Will we have new wars and where? In “10 Wars to Watch In 2015”, Jean-Marie Guéhenno evaluates what lies ahead in terms of armed conflicts or crises. The author mentions that the confrontation between great powers has become almost a mundane aspect: Russia versus the United States and the EU, the Western community in general. The author stresses that ” It’s not yet zero-sum: The two nations still work together on the Iran nuclear file, the threat of foreign terrorist fighters, and, for the most part, on African peacekeeping. But Russia’s policy in its neighborhood presents a real challenge, and its relationship with the United States and Europe has grown antagonistic.” In 2014 we have seen confrontations involving major or regional powers, even though these players have acted through pawns. This was how Iran or Saudi Arabia acted, alongside the Sunni or Shia axis, that may well indicate future conflicts within the Middle East. Moreover,“competition between powerful states increasingly lends a regional or international color to civil wars, rendering their resolution more complex. Wars and instability also are becoming more geographically concentrated, spreading from parts of Libya, the Sahel, and northern Nigeria across the African Great Lakes and Horn, through Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and over to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Stabilizing the world’s most vulnerable areas should be a major, global foreign policy imperative — and not just a moral one, given that these regions often serve as a haven for terrorists and transnational criminals. “
Among the wars of 2015, the author includes: “1. Syria, Iraq, and the Islamic State “; “2. Ukraine” ; “3. South Sudan” ;… “6. Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)”; “ 7 Afghanistan”; ….”9. Libya and the Sahel”; “10. Venezuela”. What can be noticed is the fact that seven out of ten wars in 2015 are from the Arab world, most notably “Syria, Iraq and the Islamic State”, therefore the Middle East will continue to be the most volatile region of the planet. The author reaches a rather skeptical conclusion: “The picture that emerges from this survey of conflicts is grim. There is, however, one glimmer of hope — the increasing fragmentation of the world also means that there is no overarching divide. Even if the deepening crisis between Russia and the West is unsettling Europe, the last remnants of the Cold War are disappearing as Cuba and the United States normalize their relations. Many conflicts can now be dealt with on their own merits, and the growing role of regional powers — while adding complexity and, in some cases, new antagonisms — also creates opportunities for more creative diplomacy. This is no time for the ‘old powers’ to retrench, but they do have to acknowledge that successful peacemaking in 2015 will depend on working with a much broader array of countries than they have in the past.”
4. WHICH WAS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT EVENT OF 2014? Gideon Rachman writes the following on his Financial Times blog: “My annual ritual is to make a list of the five most significant events of the past year in global politics. This year is an odd one, in that it seems to me that there are only two events that stand head-and-shoulders above the others. The first is the breakdown in relations between Russia and the west, caused by the Ukraine crisis. The second is America’s return to war in the Middle East. So let’s deal with those two first and then move on to the other contenders.”
What we find quite interesting in Rachman's post is that it gives way to a debate among readers regarding other important events of 2014. For one reader ”What seems to me to be the key event of 2014 is the unraveling of the oil myth. The rise of the US as a major oil producer has created a glut. Plus, while low oil has put on hold many initiatives both in shale and in alternative energies, their companies and technologies will bristle at the bit waiting for an increase in high oil prices. Any rise in oil prices hence will be met with renewed investments in alternative, natural gas and shale. Plus, China has the largest shale reserves on the planet and while some of the developments there are now put on hold, total output is only set to grow. It's far too early to say that the era of oil is ending, but its stifling grip on world affairs and the politica power of its producers looks set to lessen. “ Another reader does not share this perspective, wondering: “Maybe, if oil price is just another weapon in the arsenal being used by the US and Saudi Arabia against Russia and Iran, the grip of oil has become deeper and even more complex? “. Meanwhile, another reader attempts to analyze current international relations: “The US and Saudis are not as close as they used to be. The Saudis and Israelis are of the opinion that the US should further isolate and confront Iran. The US itself is seeking rapprochement and is even cooperating by omission with Iran in Iraq versus IS. Second, there is acrimony between Saudi and American oil producers, the latter strongly feel that the Saudi's are out to collapse their industry. In the short term it might collapse but in the medium term the more agile companies will accrue the best workers, know-how, tech and production fields and present ever more of a challenge.Many think that the US is actively trying to reign in Russia. But Obama is not an activist president/…/His focus is almost exclusively domestic. The US & European reaction is a direct result of Putin's annexation of Crimea, but it is wholly passive. The drop in oil prices coincides so remarkably well that it seems engineered to bankrupt Putin. But it wasn't, the drop in oil prices is a result of a longer term process: slacking demand worldwide and the huge volumes that the US shale industry has added to the market. Considering that China is still ramping up production, it seems likely the glut will remain permanent throughout this year.”
Reading the comments and debate that follows is quite interesting, even though one may encounter some peculiar perspectives: “The most significant event of 2014, the one that effects us most directly and lethally, is the confirmation that not only does America have a deep state that rules unhindered and unquestioned, but that that deep state is secure and confident enough of its power to show itself in the open with a calm contempt for the "dignified" institutions and the vanishing system of democracy itself. Every democratic institution and every citizen was diminished, not by the revelation of the CIA's involvement in torture - that is neither a secret nor a recent practice - but the agency's casual deceit and disinterested lying to anyone that should question it.” Within the debate that followed, this particular reader has advanced another controversial idea: “Russia means absolutely nothing to my life or to the lives of 99.9% of Americans. Washington's neocons have decided to weaken Russia, to partition it, or even to destroy it just as they destroyed Iraq, Libya and other places. But that is their game and they are welcome to it. My concern is that they are destroying western democracy, citizenship and prosperity in the process.” The debate unfolds, in the spirit of the freedom of speech that defines Western civilization. We see even Gideon Rachman intervene in the comments section, wanting to state his option regarding Europe's systemic centrality.