Why Doesn’t Anything Make Sense Anymore?

Often, we tend to forget that oil supply, and hence oil prices, are heavily influenced by cartels and political pressures as much (if not more so) than they are by the whims of commodity markets. The recent dip (or crash, depending on your degree of sensationalism) in oil prices seems to be an excellent example of the interconnectedness of global politics and economics, as well as the complexity of the political situation in the early 21st-century. It seems increasingly clear that the us vs. them mentality that got us through World War II and the Cold War no longer suffices, and that the survival of any one nation on the global arena depends on its ability to navigate the increasingly complex network of relations being built.

The consensus view on the recent oil price shock seems to be that it’s primarily the cause of Saudi Arabian manipulation. Specifically, the aim of this manipulation seems to be two-fold. Firstly, it is an attempt to control the effects of the shale oil boom that North Dakota is currently undergoing. It’s fundamentally a question of price elasticity of supply- Saudi Arabia knows that it has more than enough oil such that a downward shift in price will not hugely impact its coffers. The amount of extant shale oil, however, is much lower, and a price shift could affect not only shale oil revenue, but also investment in the booming shale oil industry. This apparent Saudi hostility to US interests is not new- the relationship between the Saudis and the US has always been a rather vitriolic alliance of convenience, at best; simmering hostility at worst.

The second goal of this price manipulations seems to be targeted toward Russia and Iran who, as large oil producers, effectively depend of oil revenues for balanced budgets and (broadly) functioning economies. Russia and Iran’s fingers in Syria, specifically their support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, are a threat to the Saudi’s regional dominance, and weakening these two states may well serve as a decisive shift in the conflict. This move, coming several months into a Western effort to stop the spread of ISIS, also lends some credence toward the “the Saudis are totally funding ISIS,” which has as yet gone “unproven.”

It’s fairly clear that the aim of the Saudis is a bipartite destabilization- finding the one political move they can make which would help to weaken both their neighbors to the North and their frienemies to the West. I have long been a critic of Saudi foreign policy- they have historically shown themselves to be far too willing to shake with one hand and backstab with the other. As such, the only sensible course of action given the Saudi’s latest move is to ensure that their plan backfires. Otherwise, the terrorists, quite literally, win.

The perennially unstable three-bloc system that pits the West against Russia-China-Iran against the Sunnis Middle East is inefficient, given that two of these blocs depend on the other for their energy needs, their budgetary health and their economic competitiveness. Similarly, although the Western bloc and the Russian bloc may differ in ideology, neither bloc would be opposed to a serious reigning-in of Islamic fervor around the world. Finally, while the current set up does not provide a sufficient bulwark against the rising tide of Islamism, the combined might of four of the world’s military forces might just do the job.

The problem here is that we’ve already gone down the rabbit hole far enough that the only way out, even if temporarily, is ratcheting up brinksmanship. I am fully aware that the suggestion I gave in the above paragraph is no solution at all. Fortunately, there is a genuine solution to this issue that is technically possible- to relegate energy policy to an independent, non-sovereign, international body- much as was attempted with capital policy as a result of Bretton Woods. Unfortunately, this solution is unlikely to be enacted until we’ve gone too far- human beings have a sad tendency not to see the writing on the wall. Even more unfortunately, this solution is far from perfect- nothing says “potential corruption” like “independent international body.”

Regardless of where we end up, it’s clear that “us vs them” is dead, buried and consummately rotting.

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas

Noah Smith put up an excellent post the other day about the long-standing myth (possibly started by former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) that so-called Asian values, at times, clash with democracy. We’ll ignore, for the moment, that Mr Lee’s comment led to the first major swing toward the opposition Workers’ Party in Singaporean history. We’ll also ignore that Taiwan, South Korea and Mongolia have all successfully transitioned to democracy, and that Indonesia and the Philippines have made strides toward democracy as well. Never mind that India has had democratic institutions for as long as the West has. Counter-examples are rife, and not just in Asia. The values vs democracy story is not a new one, yet it persists despite being repeatedly and definitively disproved.

Long before Mr Lee’s comment, the survival of la leyenda negra, Gen. Franco, and a revolving door system of dictatorships throughout Latin America allowed some to make a convincing case for the inherent reactionary and non-democratic nature of Latins (whoever they are.) The amazing aspect of this story was that it was used not only to denigrate the democratic capabilities of Latin Europeans and Americans, but was also espoused by reactionaries such as the Brazilian Integralists to justify maintaining their own non-democratic power. Years after democracy has established itself in Spain and continues to grow throughout Latin America, conservative thinkers and strategists still cite “yes, but” arguments as an attempt to denigrate the strides made toward democracy in these countries. It’s not difficult to imagine Rudyard Kipling espousing such arguments, nor Karl Rove. Colonialism is colonialism, not matter who you slice it, and it never works.

Sure, the narrative of history is often uncertain, unpredictable and non-monotonic. Nations and peoples often get stuck in vicious political or economic cycles as a result of poor decisions, corrupt power structures or desperation. But, growing up in a multicultural household, having lived in four countries on three different continents and visited over thirty others, I have only come across maybe ten people in the whole world who do not seek growth and expansion of their own freedoms and, more importantly, their capabilities toward autonomy and self-actualization. To suggest that such values simply do not exist in some parts of the world is nothing short of a cynical, deleterious racism couched in academic terms.

Strange Bedfellows

This article seems to be pointing to the use of triads on the part of the Chinese Communist Party in an attempt to control (or provoke, rather) pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. In a case of Morrisettian irony, it was a crackdown on criminal activity by the CCP shortly after the Chinese Revolution that drove the triads into Hong Kong in the first place.

This brings to mind Shaban the Idiot, a disruptive, avowedly anti-political street thug hired by the Shah’s regime to provoke pro-democracy protesters during Operation Ajax in 1953. Or, perhaps, Ghaddafi hiring Tuareg tribesmen, long ignored and marginalized by his own regime, to fight on his behalf during the Arab Spring. Clearly, this sort of political outsourcing is nothing new.

Leaving aside the case of the Tuareg, who (probably) reacted to an uncertain situation by throwing their lot in with the likely winner, it’s unsurprising that street thugs or organized criminals would be opportunistic. That’s sorta their MO. What is surprising is that legitimate regimes would take advantage of criminality. It almost seems as if the monopoly on violence is in this case is being extended to anyone who is politically convenient at that point. And as we’ve been seeing, throwing your support behind the wrong people at the wrong time can end in disaster.