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The Fault Lines

April 28, 2014

Battle of Vyazma

For as long as competition exists between governments there will always be conflict, albeit occurring with less frequency.

If rivalries among countries aren’t resolved and old scores remain unsettled, then parts of the world are doomed to chaos. But thanks to the availability of news, mass information, and transparent government data, anticipating the crises that loom over the horizon is possible.

While peace is preferable to full-blown conflict, there are always forces–political or not, legitimate or not–who find it useful to manufacture wars. Here are the places where the limits of our international order are found. These are the fault lines eroding our best possible future.

Arctic Ice

The Arctic

After 20 years of receding ice, the Arctic Circle has become a viable shipping route. No wonder the Russians are so eager to militarize the North Pole.

Both Canada and the US, however, are concerned over having to guard their northern coasts. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian countries–Norway, Sweden, and Iceland–have taken the symbolic high ground by investing on improving access to the region.

The problem with the Arctic Circle is even if valuations of untapped oil, gas, and minerals are astronomical the resources and infrastructure needed to extract them are non-existent. Furthermore, it’s a harsh environment that’s unkind to humans and even the sturdiest maritime vessels.

Despite this, warships may soon be plying the Arctic.

Pacific Ocean

The Pacific

Two broad strategies are now unfolding in the Pacific Ocean.

First, the US is redeploying its military as part of a well-publicized and long-term pivot that hopes to contain China’s regional influence.

Second, China is building a military that can travel and fight farther away from the mainland. This offshore capability is referred to by American analysts as an “island chain” stratagem.

Caught between these two menacing forces are those countries big and small whose sovereignty is diminished as a result.


Central Asia

Today, Central Asia serves as the energy corridor that powers the Chinese economy.

Unfortunately, like the Middle East, the various -stans lumped together a quarter century ago are decrepit modern states ruled by authoritarian leaders.

In the worst case scenario where an Arab Spring type-resurgence undermines Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan–even Afghanistan–there are no contingencies available on how to contain the spread of these popular uprisings.

If it takes neighbors like Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Russia, or China to try restoring a semblance of order, their actions might trigger the opposite. Simmering rivalries could erupt and manifest themselves in long civil wars…like what’s happening in the Levant right now.

Sahara Desert

North and Central Africa

Long hailed as the epicenter of globalization and a hub for “emerging markets,” several African countries have proven this narrative problematic.

If the recent experiences of Egypt, Libya, Mali, CAR, South Sudan, and Nigeria are any indication, there are too many weak or fragile states in Africa susceptible to collapsing.

The problems of North and Central Africa–be it aridity, scarcity, or power struggles–means wealthier countries will always strive to improve the region while other less visible participants want to exploit it at the same time.

The inevitable result are minor conflagrations that make world leaders nervous.

Large Asian City

Urban Landscapes

Kyiv. Rio de Janeiro. Bangkok. Aleppo. Cairo. The Gaza Strip. Beirut. Fallujah. Baghdad. Bahrain.

Guangzhou? Lagos? Manila? Cape Town? Paris?

It’s been a widely circulated and much-cited phenomenon: More people are now living in cities than the countryside.

This has led to urban clusters with inhabitants reaching tens of millions. It doesn’t help that around the world, governments and police forces are expanding their powers to strengthen social cohesion.

The consequences are overwhelming surveillance, militarized law enforcement, untraceable illicit activity, uprisings live streamed across social media, and constant fighting between fringe groups.

The problems facing emergent megacities increases by disconcerting magnitudes once farsighted military planners convince themselves that urban warfare is the new normal.