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A War in Asia Is Worse than Islamic Terrorism

Clifford May argues that Stratfor's Robert Kaplan is wrong to worry about Asia's brewing nationalism:

Similarly, in Asia, Kaplan sees China, Japan, and other nations “rediscovering nationalism,” undermining the notion that “we live in a post-national age.” He adds: “The disputes in Asia are not about ideology or any uplifting moral philosophy; they are about who gets to control space on the map.” True, but is the revival of such nationalistic sentiment really a crisis or even a major problem? Meanwhile, much more significant, Islamists are offering an alternative to both the old nationalist and the newer post-nationalist models.

It seems self-evident to me that Asia's disputes are considerably more worrisome. Islamists may be offering alternative models to discredited pan-Arab movements, but it doesn't mean the countries they lead (or could lead, if they take power) have much in the way of power or influence on a global scale. We know that when militant Islamist groups take power, the country in question tends to fail (see Afghanistan, Iran, etc.). Egypt's Brotherhood may offer an alternative to Taliban-style militancy, but then it will be stripped of the elements that make it dangerous to Western interests. Islamist governments of the kind May fears produce dysfunction, not global power.

The principle threat Islamism poses to the West is sporadic terrorism. There are some worst-case scenarios which could see sweeping upheaval across the Mideast that deposes the Saudi monarchy and plunges the global energy market into a major crisis. There's also the possibility that terror networks in Syria and Iraq could disrupt regional energy resources. That's clearly a danger, but one that carries the seeds of its own solution -- i.e., the more terrorism disrupts Middle East energy supplies, the faster the globe will transition away from Middle East energy. (A smart political class would be trying to head this off now, by reducing the use of oil -- not just producing more of it domestically -- but that's an argument for another day.)

Switching to Asia, the dynamics are just as combustible but the players far more important. It touches on two U.S. treaty allies, South Korea and Japan. It implicates three of the largest economies in the world (China, Japan, and the United States) as well as major maritime trade routes. The potential for conflict is rife, since unlike the Middle East where every country knows who owns what oil field (for the most part), Asia's untapped resources lie in contested waters. There's just as much history and bad blood among the major players in Asia as there is among the Mideast's various rivals (if not more), but unlike the Mideast, Asian states have advanced militaries.

So I think Kaplan has it right: we should be more concerned with Asia's brewing conflicts than Islamism.