Well, the Wikistrat International Grand Strategy Competition finished July 3rd, and in that last week our roughly 30 teams had their grand strategies (crafted in Week 3) subjected to a quartet of global shocks (crippling terror strike in Saudi Arabia, an Arab Spring 2.0 in Central Asia, a massive tsunami disaster along China’s coast, and a worldwide downing of the Internet during a technology upgrade). The teams’ assignments were to analyze the impact of the crises on their countries’ strategic interests and then evaluate their national grand strategies’ resilience in the face of these upheavals. Continuing in my role as head judge, I wanted to cite the most provocative takeaways from this last week in the competition.
1) What a game-changer the Great Game could become (Brazil 1/Institute of World Politics 2 & South Africa 1/The Interdisciplinary Center )
Think about it: the radical Salafist impulse currently struggles to remain relevant amidst the Arab Spring and the demographics in the Middle East don’t favor it over the long haul, meaning it logically migrates either southwest into Africa or northeast into Central Asia – two regions full of colonial-era fake states ripe for the sort of disintegrating civil strife that the movement feeds on. With Africa booming economically while Central Asia lags behind, odds favor the latter scenario. If and when such a wave of political instability happens (either positively or negatively), three of the five BRICS (Russia, India, China) will inevitably be sucked into the maelstrom, diverting their strategic attention and sucking up resources. So who looks stable and even more attractive (e.g., energy, minerals, agriculture) by comparison? Brazil and South Africa.
2) Does the War on Terror invariably get replaced by a War on iTerror? (China 3/School of Oriental and African Studies-U of London & United States 2/Georgetown University)
With the growth of all things Web/digital/geolocational, the world is clearly headed toward a long string of escalating crises as we work our way through all the weaknesses/vulnerabilities/dangers of the attendant networks. Likewise, as nations gear up their governmental cyber warfare capabilities, it’s natural for the long war against violent extremism to migrate more to that realm. Whatever the trigger, it’s not hard to imagine the next big conflict paradigm being a “war on iTerror,” where all the usual non-state actor and government interests/activities become as blurred as they’ve long been in the more kinetic realm. Even more so than in traditional terrorism, any efforts made to bolster a nation’s cyber security can be justified by all manner of traditional economic competitiveness reasons (not to mention the usual authoritarian desires regarding control over the domestic political landscape). Plus, it’s cheaper than nation-building in failed states and fits the West’s growing impulse to pull back and heal itself while acknowledging that some parts of the world are just destined to “burn.”
3) And when the right worldwide cyber crisis comes, does it make everybody want to work together (Y2K-after-next) or does it accelerate the balkanization of the Web? (India 3/Ohio State University, European Union 2/Oxford & United States 3/Johns Hopkins University)
When that long predicted “cyber Pearl Harbor” or “digital 9/11” finally hits (or something close enough simply earns the label), it could be a great turning point in modern globalization’s history. Do we get the big multilateral cooperation response (OSU’s WEBretton Woods System)? Or just enough great-power cooperation to set in motion similar efforts in other “global commons” (Oxford)? Or do we witness a worldwide competition among states to see which can lock down their “national Internets” more securely (Johns Hopkins)? As with the many predictive models created in anticipation of the Y2K event, much would seem to depend on how homogenous and widespread the suffering: Are we drawn together as nations or does the differential send each scrambling down its own, beggar-their-neighbor’s-network path?
4) In a world of persistent and pervasive revolutions, Iran’s stagnant version actually has a reasonably bright future, assuming the regime can keep a grip on its own people (Iran 1 / JHU @ Bologna & Iran 2/University of Cambridge)
Both Iran teams’ grand strategies were rather unabashedly aggressive regarding the nation’s quest for regional hegemony, and when subjected to the various shocks, both of them came through rather swimmingly. Yes, there is a lot wrong with Iran, and there’s plenty of reason to expect China to pick Riyadh over Tehran, leaving the latter to quasi-alliance with India over the long run. But with India seeming the safer “rising” bet – again, over the long haul, and key China-Saudi conduit Pakistan looking so fragile right now (and don’t forget the Arab Spring lapping up on Saudi peninsula), there’s plenty of reason to expect the Iranians to constitute a powerful force in all directions (e.g., Persian Gulf, Caspian, Central Asia) in the decades ahead – especially when their nuclear capability is finally locked in and recognized internationally as such.
5) Why a similarly stubborn – but far more withdrawn – North Korea might similarly hold on, despite many predictions regarding its demise. (North Korea 1/UK Defence Forum & North Korea 2/University of Sussex)
Think about it, say our two NorKo teams: so long as Pyongyang doesn’t cross Beijing’s red line, the more powerful China becomes, the less likely it feels compelled to “fix” the DPRK on the West’s timetable. Conversely, if China suffers some big, back-tracking disaster (like the one posited in Week 4), then it’s even less likely to want to acquiesce to the West’s desires – for fear of looking weak. Either way, North Korea and its $6T of mineral reserves is sitting . . . ugly all right – but stable when it comes to its primary patron.
6) An “Arab Spring 2.0” for Central Asia isn’t all that bold a prediction. After all, Central Asia is the last remaining region that’s uniformly authoritarian, so of course the next great wave of democratization happens there – eventually (Pakistan 1/Claremont Graduate University)
And oddly enough, for the Claremont team, if it comes suitably far enough down the road for Pakistan’s own stabilization process to have unfolded (i.e., a decade or more from now), then it represents a serious opportunity for the nation – especially if a joint Chinese-Pakistani effort to stabilize Afghanistan in the wake of the Western pullout succeeds. Under such scenarios, Pakistan would be well positioned to become China’s preferred model of development for the region (i.e., moderate and sustainable Islamic identity, strong military role, just democratic enough to avoid brittleness, and a deep appreciation of China’s benevolent patronage).
7) With Russia’s long southern exposure, it makes sense for Moscow to strengthen its connections to the West – er, North! (Russia 2/New York University)
It was interesting to note that all four of the vertical shocks seemed to re-emphasize the utility of Moscow’s recent – and renewed – westward turn under Dmitry Medvedev. Whether or not this shift survives the return of Vladimir Putin, over the long haul, it simply makes sense for a Russia with so many rising powers along its southern rim. If its long-time effort to recast NATO or expand it with a Eurasia-wide replacement doesn’t work, then the opening of the Arctic is probably Moscow’s best opportunity to forge a new and positive identity – the northern brand.
8) With the demography-equals-destiny dynamics well underway, and China unlikely to forever avoid an economic crisis, will that crisis’s primary historical purpose be to declare the onset of the “rising India” era? (Turkey 3/Institute of World Politics 1 & India 1/ Indian Institute of Technology)
It’s not just a parlor game notion, for that moment will eventually arrive. The better question is, How ready for it will India be? And if it’s uncomfortable with going it alone, how far should it pursue strategic alliance with fellow democracies Brazil and South Africa in anticipation of that opportunity? As a follow on, one could likewise wonder how China handles that moment – i.e., when it realizes that the Chinese Century isn’t as long as promised?
9) If the future is all about resilience and handling black-swan events, then reports of a post-American world may be greatly exaggerated. (United States 1/American Military University, United States 2/Georgetown University & United States 3/Johns Hopkins University)
There is the persistent myth that democracies respond weakly to crises while authoritarian regimes handle them with strength. Yes, more horizontal polities tend to obsess over vertical shocks (witness America’s stubborn search for the next “Pearl Harbor”), but the truth is, they handle better well as truly distributed systems. Simply put, there is no head to cut off. While vertical polities (authoritarian systems) are well equipped to run to ground the low-and-slow horizontal scenarios (e.g., hunting down every prominent member of political movement X), it’s the vertical shocks that often expose their brittleness, because how can a bunch of guys sitting around a table possibly prepare for every contingency? It’s a familiar point: democracies love to advertize their weaknesses while authoritarian regimes are great at hiding theirs – until the right crisis comes along and reveals that – yet again – the vaunted emperor has no clothes. As globalization spreads and consolidates, it still pays to bet on the distributed systems.