Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Seven Precipices: An Introduction to the Emergent Violence in Brazil, the CAR, Pakistan, South Sudan, Thailand, Ukraine, and Venezuela

In a few hundred years our descendents are, I believe, going to look at the few decades following the end of the Cold War and compare them to the cataclysms of the Protestant Reformation and early Renaissance. 

A lot of good will have come from these days of chaos and insecurity, but only at the cost of much that was good before.  And lives.  So very many lives.

Set aside the disruptions of the halcyon days of the Third Wave of Democratization and shutter your eyes to the Arab Spring for a moment.  Ignore post-occupation Iraq and occupied Afghanistan.  In the dimness of our inattention, in this moment, as I type these very words, there are other threats, dark clouds threatening civil war in many nations.  But these are the places that are ill understood by Americans, places alien or poor, places we dare not notice too clearly for fear that our attention will be followed by our treasure and our sons and daughters. 

I want to talk about them, in part, because of their inherent importance and in part because people are starting to smell the smoke and hear the chants.  And, as it were, they are starting to ask questions. 

First, a plan of action:



Brazil is one of the most important nations on earth - rapidly developing, huge, a regional power, and a real contender for the postition of the number two power in the Western Hemisphere.  The international community has recognized, in a sense, this importance in recent years by bestowing upon Brazil two distinct crown jewels - the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.  Lovely, to be sure, except that Brazil isn't a developed nation, but, again, a developing nation - high income inequality and poverty rates, as well as a tremendous slum geography and highly unequal infrastructure development. Problematic on the best of days, but mix in the fact that international sporting events are obscenely expensive and provide at best questionable economic benefits and the tinder is lit.

Less than 50% of Brazilians now think they should be hosting the World Cup - 80% think that the wealth spent on building infrastructure for the games should have been directed to more appropriate developmental goals.  Thousands of poor and very poor families are being displaced to build new sports centers, hotels, and other facilities. 

Cue protests in nearly every city in Brazil and riots in several.

The Central Africal Republic


Take a nation with little strategic importance. Imagine it is ethnically incredibly diverse, having nearly 90 different ethnic groups, each of which has their own language - necessitating communication between groups be conducted principally in either a creole or the language of their former colonial rulers.  Imagine that the nation is profoundly underdeveloped.  Imagine that it is in the most unstable interstate neighborhood on Earth and that predatory no-nation's armies, like the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) ravage the people and their economy like locusts.  Imagine that it has experienced military coup after military coup, with the notable color of a three-year "empire."  Imagine that nearly 12% of people had HIV or AIDS and that most of them had no access to viral suppression methods.  Imagine that said nation had experienced ages of religious diversity but, recently, political leaders have managed to synthesize factional politics around religious identity for their own ends, resulting in the emergence of inter-religious community violence, a la Bosnia.  Imagine France, as part of its dedication to keeping a lid on emerging conflict in its former colonial possessions in Africa, attempted intervention and found things were stickier and more problematic than they'd ever imagined. 

Yes.  There will be blood.


Radical Religious Fundamentalism v.
Military-Dominated Bureaucratic Authoritarianism v.
Tribal Paternalism v. Liberalism

Pakistan is, well, complicated.  Population-wise, it is huge.  The geography is incredibly complex.  It is the crux of three civilizations - the Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Indian.  It is a focus of great power politics - bordering two (China and India), laying a stone's throw from another (Russia), still recovering from the colonial domination of a fourth (Britain) and dealing with the occupation of one of its neighbors by a fifth (the United States).  It is a member of the nuclear club yet can hardly be imagined to control its own borders.  It is riven by internal divisions, some sectarian, some political-factional (particularly the divide between military and civilian political leadership).

Pakistan has never been known for evincing any regime stability, but things have gotten even more complicated lately - why?  Well, the short version is this - certain internal actors in Pakistan have taken advantage of the American invasion of Afghanistan and the porous nature of the Afghan-Pakistani border to attempt to co-opt the displaced Taliban regime (which has always had a high dependence on Pakistan for resources and recruits) and then use them to control, de facto, large parts or even, eventually, all of Afghanistan after the Americans - nominally allies of Pakistan - withdraw.  A great idea, right? 

The problem is that, as is so often the case with radical political groups, the Taliban were anything but content to stay out of the affairs of Pakistan proper and they have turned on the hand that fed them, demanding a Taliban regime be erected in Pakistan.  The result?  An emergent insurgency that threatens to pull Pakistan into the maelstrom Afghanistan has been trying to drag itself from for decades. 
South Sudan

Ethno-National/Malthusian/Resource War

South Sudan is the newest polity that has near-universal recognition in the international system - it emerged after years of civil war between Arabic speaking northern Sudanese and non-Arabic speaking southern Sudanese.  It is also profoundly underdeveloped and deeply internally divided  - most of the provinces of South Sudan are currently experiencing some sort of conflict and virtually all of them are conducting their operations in a manner and method which would hardly be considered ethical according to international standards.  The most important conflict, however, is between the South Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM), who, formerly, were members of the South Sudan Defence Force (SSDF) and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) who have split along tribal, ethnic, and pragmatic lines over control of government apparatus, division of the receipts from oil production in particular provinces, and the security of their respective cattle herds - though the interference of the transnational (and vicious) Lord's Resistance Army in South Sudanese affairs is a a further destablizing factor as well.


Neo-Byzantine Politics

Thailand is a bit unusual - experiencing dozens of regime changes since the end of absolute monarchy but nonetheless remaining fairly socioeconomically akeel.  Yet recently it has been experiencing steadily less and less stability. I could go into detail but I'll put it simply:

(1) There is a 2006 military coup, overthrowing the Thaksin regime.
(2) In 2007 the military allows elections again and Thaksin's party wins the government.
(3) Less than a year later Thaksin flees Thailand and, after months of protests Thaksin's party is banned.
(4) Wait two years.  Now gigantic pro-Thaksin protests emerge and the Thai army responds by dispersing them, preventing a coup.
(5) Wait another year - Yingluck, sister of Thaksin, is elected to the position of Prime Minister.
(6)  Come 2013 anti-government protests begin anew - an election is finally called (under a state of emergency) in January of 2014 - the election is disrupted by protestors on a massive scale (anti-Thaksin) and around a quarter of polling places were affected significantly.  The source of the protests? Yingluck attempts to get a bill passed to pardon her brother on his corruption charges and allow him to return to Thailand.
(7) Violence is starting to raise its head in Thailand as protests shift increasingly toward riot and insurrection; the military so far has not intervened but reserves the right to do so should things deteriorate too far.


Ethno-National/Ideological/Internationally Complex

The history of Ukraine is complicated to say the very least.  It is a principally Slavic nation which has been dominated in part or in whole for most of its history by outside powers - Russia (sometimes in the guise of the Soviet Union), Prussia, Austro-Hungary, Turkic tribes, the Mongol, and Poland-Lithuania.  It is religiously somewhat diverse, but it is Ukraine's ethno-linguistic divisions which are driving the competition for control of the state and two fundamentally different visisons of that nation's political-economic future.

Rural Ukrainians and urban western Ukrainians (those who principally speak the Ukrainian language) want a liberal political-economy allied and linked to the West.  Urban eastern and Crimean Ukrainians want a Russo-centric polity, one that follows the bureaucratic-authoritarian priniciples of Putin's everything-old-is-new-again state. Finally, there are other regional minorities - notably Crimean Tatars (returned from Stalin's deportation), Bulgars, Romanians, and Hungarians - who are generally in accord with Ukrainian-speakers.   

Put simply - this looks messy from the get-go. 

Make it messier from the fact that Russia's meddling has made this a face-contest - if Putin let's Ukraine out of its sphere of influence then Russia looks like it can't keep its house in order and its domination of other parts of Eurasia, perhaps even within its own border, becomes far more problematic. 

Make it messier still by adding some realpolitik.  Take a second and look at a map of the world.  Russia is big with lots of coastlines, but not all coastlines are made equal.  Little of that vast coast is pointing in the right direction to efficiently reach markets or strategic locations either in-region or inter-regionally and much of it requires passing through minority-dominated areas, areas that, were they to rebel, could be cut off from Moscow. Not only that, but most of those ports are ice-locked for large periods of time during the winter months.  Russia therefore sees domination of Ukraine, and its portages, as essential to its interests - economic at the least, since the strategic value of the Black Sea ports is radically lower given NATO's post-Cold War domination of the Straits of Dardanelles and Bosporous (though I dare say that Russian policymakers emphasize the military at least as much).



Venezuela has been riven by class conflict for years - it is generally regarded as "the" source of the newest wave of populist, socialist bureaucratic-authoritarianism in Latin America.  The United States has been hampered in its ability to influence the situation on the ground, thanks in no small part to its own historical bungling of its image in the region - as is so often the case the US is blamed for a great deal of what is its fault and a helluva' lot besides.

Attempts by the pro-liberalism factions of Venezuela to oust the regime of the late Hugo Chavez failed repeatedly during his lifetime - but following his death last year a sense of possibility has emerged among his enemies.  The result?  Steadily swelling protests that are beginning to be spiked with violence and the emergence of armed, fortified militias - half yelling "communist," half yelling "fascist," and so far none inclined to moderation of rhetoric.


Seven states.  Five continents.  Five civilizations. 

Complicated - I'm going to need to do some serious reading, so be patient - this is worth doing right.

So, here is my plan - I will address each of these as I have the chance in the next week or so, explaining them more fully and providing research links, etc.  Any advice, wisdom, links, articles, questions, etc. are very much appreciated as we move forward. 

God save humanity from itself.


All maps courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook (online edition)

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