Eurasia's Ongoing Crackup
Eurasia -- from Iberia to the Korean Peninsula -- faces the prospect of epochal change. These disruptions are not always in the headlines, and they obscure vast areas of stability where change is gradual rather than sudden. But at a time of rapid shifts in technology and urban demography, it is to be expected that political identities of the kind that lead to territorial adjustments will undergo transformation. And while in some cases a yearning for liberal democracy will be a driving force of upheaval, in too many cases the driving force will be exclusivist ethnic and sectarian passions anchored in specific geographies. The world's leading opinion pages are consumed by the battle of ideas, but in the early 21st century blood and territory could be more accurate indicators of postmodern geopolitics.
The combination of a transnational European Union and that union's economic decline has helped further ignite calls for Catalan and Scottish separatism from within Spain and the United Kingdom, respectively. Merely the upsurge in talk of such self-determination is serving to enfeeble the reputations of Spain and Great Britain on the world stage. While these divorces -- if they ever occur -- will likely be velvet ones, not so the territorial rearrangements taking place in the Middle East.
Whatever current maps may suggest, Libya no longer exists as a state, and neither do Syria and Iraq. Yemen is barely a state at all, and Kurdistan is long into the process of becoming one. Such dramatic cartographic changes that -- barring a world war -- usually play out over decades and centuries have occurred within the space of just a few years. Though American-led military interventions provided the catalyst for state failures in Libya and Iraq, something more essential was the cause of this epic disruption. That something was suffocating absolutisms, at once fiercely modernizing and fiercely secular, in both Syria and Iraq and, to a lesser extent, in Libya. Beneath the carapaces of such centralizing tyrannies lay an utter void of civil society. Thus, as soon as these tyrannies began to buckle the most atavistic ethnic, sectarian and tribal energies came to the fore.
Indeed, as we look at all this it becomes apparent that postmodernism does not necessarily mean a more advanced stage of universal values than modernism. Postmodernism more likely represents a retreat into lethally narrow forms of identity, buttressed by deep religiosity, that are combined with the latest in communications and bomb-making technologies. In this kind of world, optimism is fine so long as it is based on ground-level analysis, not on philosophical abstractions.
East of the Levant we have the soon-to-be-realized specter of an Afghanistan and Pakistan without the stabilizing factor of the U.S. military for the first time in 13 years. Remember that democracy is less about holding elections than about strong institutions, which Afghanistan demonstrably lacks. If Afghanistan becomes a weaker state than it currently is in the coming years, this will further erode the meaning of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border so that the border itself will eventually disappear from future maps. A state only deserves to be fully represented in an atlas if it monopolizes the use of force unto its borders; otherwise the map lies.
Central Asia remains an assemblage of states -- ruled in large measure in a Soviet style -- that are now ripe for disruption as its leaders age, domestic tensions increase, and borders remain averse to ethnic and demographic boundaries. A comparable situation holds true for the calcifying military regime in Myanmar, a country of regionally based ethnic groups in some cases with their own armies. Wherever one looks, it seems, the permanence of frontiers both internal and external cannot be taken for granted.
Meanwhile, in an age of rapidly improving electronic communications, the regime in North Korea cannot have good long-term prospects. In the 20th century, states divided into two parts -- Germany, Vietnam and Yemen -- all reunified under fast-moving, tumultuous circumstances that foreign affairs mandarins had not forecast in advance. A reunified Korean Peninsula, governed from Seoul, that will rearrange the balance of power in northeast Asia and affect the balance of power throughout East Asia simply has to be anticipated at some point.
Finally, there are the two countries that together represent the dominant geography of Eurasia: Russia and China. Both have significant areas inhabited by ethnic minorities often with higher birth rates than the dominant ethnic Russians and Han Chinese. Russia has sizable Muslim regions, primarily in the north Caucasus. As for Ukraine, who knows how mapmakers will depict it in years hence! China has ethnic Mongolians in its north, Muslim Turkic Uighurs in the west and Tibetans in its southwest. In all these cases, resentments against Moscow and Beijing run high. While Western policy elites call for more liberalization to assuage these tensions, the truth may be that it is precisely authoritarianism that is holding these vast states together. Political reform in some vaguely imagined post-Putin era -- or in a post-Communist Party era in China -- may therefore bring not more democracy but more chaos, and new cartographic arrangements. Moreover, if Russia declines in political stability more than China, large areas of Siberia and the Russian Far East are ripe for informal colonization by the much more populous Chinese, again leading to a new map.
The key thing to realize when interpreting Eurasia is how little we know about the realities on the ground rather than how much we know. An era of electronic communication leads to an illusion of knowledge rather than to knowledge itself. How many policy elites know, for instance, to what degree Yemeni chaos is affecting stability in Saudi Arabia's neighboring Asir province? Yet, were Saudi Arabia in the future to become unstable -- affecting world oil and financial markets -- Asir province might have much to do with it. How much do we really know about the situation in the populous and unstable Fergana Valley where several Central Asian countries join? Yet, the Fergana is key to the future of Central Asia. How much do we really know about ethnic militias in Myanmar or about Russia's relationship with ethnic minorities in the fragile state of Moldova? If the breakups of Libya, Syria and Iraq have taught us anything, it is about our degree of ignorance regarding local and tribal realities, not our degree of knowledge or wisdom.
Forecasting begins with geography in the 19th century sense of the word -- that is, an appreciation of landscape, cultural anthropology, natural resources, trade routes and so forth. And geography is now more important than ever. For technology has not negated geography: rather, by shrinking it, it has only made geography more precious. The more we rely on abstract principles of foreign policy and the less we rely on cultural area experts on the ground, the more Eurasia will surprise us. In other words, the more humble we are about what we do know, the less likely we are to be proved wrong.