moments when the entire world seems to be coming apart, as if Armageddon itself
were upon us. Public attention tends to be able to handle just one
Armageddon at a time, and even though the end of the world would probably
entail more than one calamity, newspapers have room for only one alarmed
headline a day, and Twitter seems confined to one overwhelming rage attack at a
time. I am of course referring to the high-profile confrontation between the
U.S. and Iran and the much lower profile Turkish deployment to Libya.
Catastrophic though they may seem, it is prudent to consider their current
state, just a week or two after the panic, and to consider other panic-ridden
global processes. What, after all, happened to China and Brexit?
of informational flow and emotional intensity does not derive from the
underlying issue – the issues are still there. History grubs its way
forward ineluctably, but we only sometimes notice it, usually when something
happens that is both unexpected and noisy. Since humanity tends to expect
tomorrow not to be any different than yesterday, and since its attention is
drawn by noise, it assumes what was once unnoticed is now catastrophic.
the unexpected and noisy events in Turkey and between the United States and
Iran. They are significant but the frantic noise drowns out their
importance, which unfolds over years, decades and generations.
struggle to create a sphere of influence, the Shiite crescent as it is
sometimes called, is challenged by its opponents. On one side are
Iranian non-state proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. On the other side are
Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Iranians have tried to
focus the struggle on Iraq, using substantial but far from overwhelming support
among Iraqi Shiites. The United States has focused its efforts on Iran itself,
using economic sanctions to undermine the regime and to block it in Iraq.
Neither side has been successful. The sanctions have created unhappiness,
reflected in the university-based demonstrations over the downing of a
Ukrainian plane. But student uprisings rarely bring about regime change. Others
must join, and to this point, the regime is under pressure but not falling.
meanwhile, made a significant move to exert its control over the Eastern
Mediterranean and in Libya, the goal of which is strategic. The chaos of
the Middle East increasingly impinges on Turkey, yet Turkey is, second to
Israel, the major power in the region. The assertion of power to the east
changes the perception and reality and gives Ankara access to major oil
supplies, which it needs to control for national security reasons. The expectation was that its move into Libya
might create conflict with Russia. The move into the Mediterranean might create
tensions with Israel and Greece, both backed by the United States. Such
tensions have not surfaced thus far, and indeed Turkey’s control of the Eastern
Mediterranean is still in the concept development phase. What is interesting is
there seems to be something of an entente with Russia over Libya. Russia does
not want to alienate Turkey, nor does Turkey want to alienate Russia. What
happens later will happen. For now, a mistrustful bargain will do.
these events were unexpected enough and noisy enough to capture the world’s
attention. As a moment in a far longer drama, they were not trivial
events. Nor were they decisive enough to transform or endanger the world. It is
interesting to look at two other events that just a few months ago seemed
destined to endanger the world.
One was Brexit. Over three years ago, the British government
called for a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU. It was called
because it was expected the British public would dismiss the idea as unworthy
of the name. Instead, the British voted to leave. There followed a storm worthy
of a Wagnerian opera. If Britain left, it would collapse into nothingness. If
it stayed, it would collapse into nothingness. The EU would punish Europe’s
second-largest economy by isolating it. The Easter Rebellion in Ireland would
be resurrected, and on and on. Now, we are weeks away from the beginning of the
divorce, and while it is still mentioned widely, Brexit has had the venom drawn
from it. Europe needs Britain because it absorbs a vast number of exports. The
threats the EU made at the time weren’t credible, and the panic of the City
died down as the finance world considered how it might make money out of Brexit
without moving to Frankfurt. The world will change in some way, but the
fundamental reality on which Britain and its relationship to Europe rests will
not change quickly. That relationship is a weighty thing, and moving it is like
moving the Tower of London. It won’t happen quickly.
event was China. The Chinese did not welcome American exports, so the
United States became unpleasant about Chinese exports. This was seen as a new
Cold War, a struggle between two equal powers. The fact was that China was
still staggering financially from 2008. Its economy was a fraction of the size
of the American economy (measured in something other than the mythical
purchasing power parity). The Chinese economy was heavily dependent on exports,
particularly to the United States. The U.S. is not heavily dependent on
exports. Pig farmers and Apple execs were portrayed as being in agony. In fact,
trade wars are common. That was what the EU was threatening Britain with. And
China was the weak hand. It could not allow its domestic market to be swamped
by American goods, and it could not substitute for exports. It was a deadlock
with intermittent threats and announcements of something or other. We have now reached the point of
intermittent statements and discussions on obscure websites like our own.
is that geopolitical analysis lays out the broad format and direction of
events. It is easy to see noisy events outside the context of
geopolitics and therefore to vastly overstate their significance. The events
between the U.S. and Iran last week are startling only if you fail to see the
broad process underway, without which the important is overwhelmed by a mere
set of events that flow from the important but are contained in the predictable
emergence of Turkish power. The events in the Mediterranean and North Africa
are part of that. They did not occur out of nothing but out of geopolitical
necessity. The same can be said about China and Brexit. As time passes, the
event is slowly forgotten, and the gradual evolution of history is something
you get used to.
(Hungarian: Friedman György, Budapest, February 1, 1949) is
Hungarian-born U.S. geopolitical forecaster, and strategist on
international affairs. He is the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures,
an online publication that analyzes and forecasts the course of global events.