Asian Pivot Pending

By Peter Zeihan and Michael N. Nayebi-Oskoui

There are many things that geopolitics teaches us. One of the more important lessons is that personalities rarely matter. The fate of peoples and nations are largely determined by a mix of geographic features that they cannot amend, and technological trends that are damnably impersonal.

The operative word there is rarely.

There are instances where the cultural zeitgeist and the singular attributes of certain individuals intersect so elegantly that the political or cultural changes that follow emblazon themselves on history.

But we’re reaching a point within two of East Asia’s powers where it seems like the impact of personality is tipping the scales. There were two noteworthy events that took place during the past few days. The one that is getting the most attention is the ongoing National Congress of the Communist Party of China. It’s wrapped up in a story that media and policy experts love to tell: Chinese President Xi Jinping has burst onto the scene, quickly and deftly amassing authority and shaking up the Chinese Communist Party apparatus, and elevating China to global prominence. Demolishing various factions and pursuing an almost-legitimate anti-corruption plan, Xi is the very popular and surprisingly astute leader to guide China through its unavoidable economic slowdown. Part of which is true, I suppose, and part of which is just really glossy PR bullshit.

There are a few key fundamentals that are absolutely necessary to keep in mind when looking at China:

  1. China as a culture and a historical concept are ancient, but the “Chinese people” and their amalgamated histories are not the same as the “People’s Republic of China,” which is also distinct from the “Communist Party of China.” Part of the Xi myth is attempting to make those three labels synonymous in everyone’s minds. That flies in the face of millennia of Chinese history, but hey, PR has to start somewhere.
  2. The current iteration of China is predicated on many things, but chief among them are employment and a national safety net overseen by the party. In turn that employment and safety net are predicated upon Chinese access to international markets, both for resource imports and the income that comes from merchandise exports.
  3. China’s geography is atrocious. Less than one-fifth of its land is habitable. Its flood- and drought-prone north is a flat security free-for-all that has suffered nearly three millennia of incessant internal warfare. Its south is a tropical disease belt. All but one of its rivers are too moody to help with commerce. Its interior is alternatively desert, mountain, tundra, jungle – or some brutal combination thereof. A line of archipelagos parallel its coast, all but preventing military or economic interaction with the wider world.

With that in mind, it doesn’t really matter so much if Xi is an anti-corruption reformer, a savvy consolidator of power, or re-establishing a cult of personality to rival that of Mao Zedong himself (my money is on the latter for those of you keeping score). If he can’t sell his schtick to the masses, well… in a country of nearly 1.4 billion, everybody’s expendable. And so we can’t lose sight of the fact that Chinese media, international outlets – everybody – focuses on Xi’s popularity, especially among China’s urban youth. And it is this popularity (or the belief that its constant repetition confirms its veracity) that provides the political currency for Xi to act like almost every other leader in Chinese history and create a political leadership and patronage structure that entrenches his own power.

That he has certainly achieved. China’s Communist Party holds a big meeting every five years, ostensibly to cement the country’s development plans and party leadership changes. In reality the meeting serves more as a clearing house, disseminating information and decisions made well in advance. Despite all the speeches about China now being “the” world power, the real reveal was supposed to be Xi’s nomination of his successor. Tradition tells us that a Chinese premier serves for five years, nominates his successor, and China then has a five-year leadership transition period.

Xi didn’t simply nominate himself to succeed himself, he enshrined himself into the Chinese constitution so there’d be no doubt just who was in charge. The Party Congress was a Trumpian celebration of Xi. A bit much, n’est pas?

The problem Xi sees is that China’s economic success has very little to do with China… or the Communist Party… or even Xi. China as it exists today is only possible because of the global Bretton Woods economic order Washington has upheld since the end of World War II. Simply put, a land-based power with some of the longest supply chains in the world cannot exist as a manufacturing and export powerhouse unless someone with a global navy enables it. That someone has been the United States, who has guaranteed the safety and security of the goods flowing to, from, in and out of Chinese ports, and who has offered largely unfettered market access for decades. With that in place, the specifics of China’s rather horrid geography haven’t mattered. That’s enabled Beijing to employ millions and millions of people in factories to make widgets and gadgets, and employ even more to feed China’s urban factory populations and to build roads and houses, etc. etc. etc.

But the Americans are going away, and they are taking the Bretton Woods system with them. China’s current economic slowdown is nothing compared the dawning tragedy it will experience during the emerging global disorder for which Beijing is terrifyingly ill-suited. When viewed in context, I don’t see Xi’s surpassing Mao to become the most powerful leader in Chinese history as an event driven by an excess of confidence, but instead an increasingly desperate effort to completely lock down the Chinese political space before the covfefe hits the fan. China is running out of time, and Xi knows it.

So I don’t get excited or worried about China taking over the world, or even its neighborhood, as I do about Japan. While most of the world had eyes on Xi’s celebrations, Japanese voters braved a hurricane over the weekend to participate in parliamentary elections, granting incumbent Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe a commanding majority. Sure, Xi Jinping is disrupting and reshaping Chinese political corruption to better suit him, but why don’t we talk about how Shinzo Abe was able to get his anti-war, Buddhist coalition partners to support his efforts to expand the role of Japan’s military forces? It is Japan, not China, that boasts the world’s second most capable navy. It is that navy that is second only to the United States in the number of aircraft carriers floated (Japan claims those carriers are only for helicopters but that is, if you’ll forgive the repeat, just some more PR bullshit).

Nor do I understand the lack of excitement over how the Japanese, (in)famously fickle when it comes to sacking Prime Ministers, have stuck with Mr. Abe through three concurrent rounds of parliamentary elections. It’s also worth noting that Abe is the first Prime Minister since the American Occupation ended to serve non-concurrent terms, even as he seems likely to coast toward becoming the longest-serving leader in modern times. The Japanese government under Abe has attempted several painful economic reform initiatives – and the fact that Abe has remained in power to oversee more than one strategy is a testament to not only his singular staying power but the trust the Japanese people have in his vision. But perhaps most important is the shift in Japanese society toward a more nationalistic, assertive position both regionally and globally.

That will make the region decidedly sparky. Unlike the Chinese system which is based on backroom-manipulation, globe-spanning economic links, suppression of minorities and carefully-sculpted public relations, Japan is a vibrant democracy with no minorities to speak of that has relocated most of its industrial base to the territories of its foreign customers and a boasts a leader who is genuinely popular despite (because of?) his increasingly militant stances.

This shift isn’t happening in a vacuum. As North Korea increases its provocations, as China is an ever more belligerent actor in its various littoral waterways in order to stoke nationalism at home, and as the United States seeks to diminish its global presence, it’s Japan that has the correct mix of geopolitical underpinnings, unique leadership personality, and national character to pounce on the opportunities ahead.

China is still the world’s second largest economy, the biggest by population, and its domestic (d)evolutions will certainly cause international ripples. But Beijing will remain constrained by its domestic concerns as its economy remains tied to a disappearing global order it cannot hope to replicate, not even – especially not even – in its own neighborhood. But while the world has eyes on China, mine (and I imagine many of those who attended the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress) will be fixed squarely on Japan.

Revisiting Iran

By Peter Zeihan and Michael N. Nayebi-Oskoui

The White House has been strongly hinting for two weeks that President Trump is unlikely to “re-certify” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or as it’s better known, the Iran Nuclear Agreement. The emotions from across the political spectrum range from jubilation to outright hysteria though, it’s important to note, the reactions don’t fit neatly within American party lines (plenty of Democrats had to be strong-armed into supporting the deal, and more than a couple Republicans believe it is in America’s interest to stay within the accord). The reality of the matter is much more complicated, though I believe it’s safe to tell everyone to take a deep breath and calm down.

A quick and dirty discussion of the mechanics of the JCPOA are in order. Technically speaking, it’s a non-binding political agreement (remember the Paris Climate Accords?). The Iran Nuclear Deal is not a treaty. It’s a series of interconnected agreements and a complex set of verification steps and was designed to make it easy for the United States to pull out or re-apply sanctions on Iran at will. To that end, the American president has to re-certify the agreement every 90 days, as well as sign off on a series of sanctions waivers that cover periods of time from a couple of months to a year. We’ll come back to this part.

The agreement, however, was approved by Congress, and in the event that President Trump or any of his successors decide to refuse certification of the deal – essentially declining to admit that Iran is holding up its end of the bargain – Congress has 60 days to attempt to change portions of the JCPOA they disagree with or (re)apply sanctions both old and new.

That last bit about sanctions is where things get tricky, before we even get into the fact that Congress couldn’t get anything done in 60 days in a normal political season, let alone when they’re racing to hammer out a budget and attempt to forge some sort of tax reform deal. The JCPOA and the Presidential waivers cover a web of sanctions that are both those passed by Congress and those that came into effect via executive order. The latter is where Trump could snapback previous executive sanctions and apply new ones if he feels Congress isn’t taking Iran to task as much as he’d like.

There are other complicating factors here, namely the five other nations who are members of the accord (including a France that has steadfastly refused to renegotiate the terms of the deal as its companies race to access Iranian energy plays and the third largest market in the Middle East). Europe as a whole and France, Germany, and Britain in particular are loathe to re-enter a difficult and prolonged negotiations with the Iranians given all the other problems they’re dealing with (like RussiaMerkel’s declining power, and an overhaul of the socioeconomic pillars of political life…  just to name a few), and traditionally have had a much easier time dealing with Tehran than the Americans.

At the end of the day, though, not much is likely to immediately change. There is a strong argument to be made that it’s bad for America’s long-term interests to be seen as an unreliable partner to international agreements as well as further alienating EU/NATO partners, but the most likely scenario is that President Trump refuses to certify, the US Congress gets busy doing nothing, and that Iran continues trading and dealing with Europe, Russia, and China. Meanwhile, the US create a unilateral sanctions system to target Iran – perhaps with secondary sanctions to target European and Asian players who are doing business with Iran. That’d return us to the status quo ante that defined the US-Iran relationship for not only much of the Obama administration, but also the past four decades.

So… now what? If the US is serious about disengaging from the Middle East—and the relatively standoffish (in terms of the US response) American action in Libya, Syria, post-ISIS Iraq, and Yemen are goods signs that the US is indeed serious—there are few realistic options on how to contain the Middle East quagmire.

Option one is to establish a regional balance of power. This requires encouraging Turkey to be an independent actor rather than a state that is a mere adjunct of NATO (check), turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s tendency to spawn Sunni terror groups (check), and somewhat rehabilitating Iran in the international community so that it can counter the other two. That last was the Obama administration’s rationale for the nuclear deal in the first place. The advantage of this route is that the region’s various players become locked into a never-ending death struggle that so consumes them, they lack (ideally forever) the freedom to act out-of-region.

Option two – which appears to be Trump’s preference – is to anoint one of the three major players to run the region in the Americans’ stead. Those of us who remember the heady days of sword-dancing and orb-touching from President Trump’s earlier visit to Saudi Arabia will not be surprised to hear that the likely beneficiary of the Trump administration’s emerging Middle East policy is Riyadh. What’s more important is that Riyadh certainly thinks so, too. From lip service moves such as allowing women to drive, to staging a practice war against mountain-bound Shi’ite-aligned rebels in Yemen, to buying-off and/or strong-arming regional Arab competitors such as Egypt and Qatar, the Saudis are certainly trying to set themselves up as the regional powerhouse.

But Saudi Arabia is an odd choice. It is a desert country completely dependent upon oil sales, predominantly to a China that hopes to challenge US hegemony in the Pacific. It is the only of the three that is not a democracy, and shows zero interest in even considering shifting its domestic politics in a liberal direction. It’s primary foreign policy strategy is to spam out militant groups to turn its rivals’ neighborhoods into post-apocalyptic carnage zones (its hands were in the rise of al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS). Between its deliberate lack of civil society, its brittle political culture and its monochromatic economy, it simply doesn’t have any of the “normal” levers of power that would allow it to be a regional hegemon without a great deal of ongoing help.

And if it needs a great deal of ongoing help, that doesn’t really mesh with the core American desire to get out of the region.

NAFTA’s Witching Hour

We’re about halfway through the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) talks and things…have taken a turn for the worse.

Let me back up a bit. Wherever you land on the issue of trade and U.S. engagement with the broader world, there are a few key truths:

For the United States, trade has only rarely been about trade. It has instead been about security. The Americans created the global trade order at the end of WWII to bribe up an alliance to fight the Cold War. The Americans subsidized their allies, granting access to the U.S. market and safe sea lanes, and in exchange those allies gave the Americans security deference to battle the Soviets the American way.

The Cold War is long gone, but the Americans never adjusted their strategy, resulting in a steady bleed of political support for a security policy that is now three decades out of date. One result, among many, is a broadscale shift on the American Left (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) and Right (Donald Trump and Ted Cruz) towards populism, broadly discrediting the very concept of free trade. It’s understandable: why continue subsidizing the allies if the war is long since over?

So that’s the big picture. Let’s look at some of the specifics:

Most of the United States’ Eastern Hemispheric trade is wrapped up in rules run by the (U.S.-designed) World Trade Organization, which among other things provides the legal and structural baselines for trade with the European Union and China. Other pieces of the global trade portfolio are based on bilateral deals with key allies – think South Korea, Australia, Morocco, Jordan, Israel, Singapore. For the most part, economic rationale was not the driving force in any of this. The deals designed to cement strategic alliances, either as incentives to cooperate (the WTO) or as a reward for consistently loyal behavior (Australia).

With the Americans changing their internal weightings on the trade-vs-security question, all such deals are subject to re-evaluation. Since none of these deals were made with economic linkages in mind, the U.S. government never prioritized making such linkages. In percentage terms, the United States remains one of the least internationally-wired economies in the world, so the economic consequences to the United States for walking away from those deals are somewhat limited.

NAFTA has understandably gotten caught up in the anti-trade tirades, but NAFTA is notlike America’s other trade deals. It was never part of the global trade-for-security trade-off. Its primary purpose was to deepen and broaden American economic penetration throughout the North American continent. Nearly unique among America’s trade deals, NAFTA wasn’t about security. It was actually about trade. Today, roughly 30% of America’s entire trade portfolio is within NAFTA.

The result has been a complex entanglement of the economic and political fortunes of the three signatories. Manufacturing supply chains now crisscross the two international borders at multiple points in multiple industries with the deepest integration occurring in automotive, aerospace, electronics and agriculture. Regardless of what you think of the balance of such integration or how well/badly NAFTA was negotiated by the George (no W) Bush administration, an outright severing of such links would have horrific results.

  • The United States and Canada would suffer a deep recession. Texas, the state most dependent upon trade with Mexico, would be worst hit.
  • Mexico would suffer a flat-out depression. The United States is the end-destination for four-fifths of its exports.
  • Economic calamity would uproot millions of Mexicans from their jobs. One of the great NAFTA success stories is the creation of a Mexican middle class where there didn’t used to be one. Throwing these people back into destitution would trigger the greatest migration surge in Mexican history, and there is really only one place for them to go: north.
  • Ending NAFTA would enflame the North American drug war. Part of the reason why the Mexican cartels have expanded so slowly (feel free to read that again) is that NAFTA has bolstered the living standards of tens of millions of Mexicans. Deny those Mexicans the ability to earn a living by trading with the United States and Canada and the cartels will find their recruitment and bribing operations far easier. And not just on the south side of the border…

It isn’t that a NAFTA renegotiation doesn’t makes sense, it does; NAFTA is a quarter-century old. When it was implemented the Internet didn’t even exist. An update is perfectly logical. Necessary even. And since the United States is far better at all things tech-related than either Canada or Mexico, a meaningful update would certainly address things like the trade imbalance that so impassions so many of NAFTA’s US-based detractors.

But simply uprooting NAFTA would be a catastrophic mistake for the American economy. Add in Texas’ reputation as an anything-but-liberal state with 38 electoral votes, and I’ve always assumed that in time cooler heads would prevail and that NAFTA was never in any real danger.

But four things changed recently that have made me far more sanguine.

First, in Mexico the drug war is turning hot at exactly the wrong time. Violence is rising in areas very visible to the Americans, most notably tourist areas such as Cabo and Puerto Vallarta, and the border towns of Tijuana and Juarez. I expect the violence to surge in a few months in what is a quintessential example of bad timing: just as the NAFTA renegotiations are pegged to be completed, just as the new NAFTA documents will be presented to Congress for ratification, and just as the United States’ off-year Congressional elections campaigns kick off.

Populists of all stripes will be railing against free trade in general and Mexico in specific, just as record levels of gratuitous gunfire exchanges, beheadings and kidnappings just across the border populate local newscasts in San Diego, El Paso and Laredo. It will seem very attractive to many Americans to simply walk away from NAFTA altogether.

Second, Trump’s general anti-Mexican mood has put most Mexicans into a general anti-American mood. The United States is hardly the only country with inconvenient elections in 2018; Mexico’s presidential campaign is already heating up, and the full vote occurs next July. While calling an election this far out is silly, a bugaboo from Mexico’s past – one Andrés Manuel López Obrador – is polling disturbingly strongly. López Obrador is in essence the Mexican equivalent of a Trump-Sanders mashup when it comes to trade policy and bilateral relations. A López Obrador election wouldn’t simply crash NAFTA on the Mexican side of the border, López Obrador combined with Trump would sour every piece of the American-Mexican relationship. Everything from cooperation on the drug war to water rights would turn from today’s cold cooperation to pathological hostility.

Third, never forget that while Mexico and Canada are both eager to work with the United States, they view each other as the primary competitors for access to American markets and investment. That competition may well be getting more cut-throat than usual.

There are a pair of issues the Canadians have highlighted as make-or-break: tribunals and government contracting.

NAFTA’s tribunal clause manages disputes within the treaty’s competencies. Should a firm in one country feel it is being treated unfairly, it calls for a bilateral panel to adjudicate the dispute rather than suing in the court of the offending party. This keeps disputes out of often-slow and clogged courts, prevents countries from enacting protectionist measures that can fall back under the protection of their home legal system, and in general speeds and ensures the fairness of the dispute resolution. The government contracting clause is similarly straightforward: it codifies that governments cannot discriminate against non-national companies for contracts.

The Trump administration has very strong opinions on both topics: it wants the tribunals to go and it wants to be able to preference domestic companies for domestic government work (The White House calls the latter the “Buy American” provision.)

The Canadians have diametrically opposite positions. For them, the tribunal issue is a red line – both now and during the initial negotiations. They know that should disputes with the United States be remanded to U.S. courts, they’d either not have a chance or couldn’t stand the years-long appellate process. (Brian Mulroney, the Canadian prime minister during the original NAFTA negotiations, nearly closed off talks altogether over the tribunal issue.) And of course the Canadians would like for their firms to be able to keep taking cracks at servicing the U.S. government.

Which is why Canadian Foreign Minister Cristina Freeland has been playing hardball on both issues, to the point that by most reports the Mexicans are simply standing to the side while the Anglos slug it out. And by some reports it is the Canadians – not the Americans – who have stalled the talks altogether.

Which makes a sort of backwards sort of sense. While NAFTA is the issue for Mexico’s modern political and economic survival, for Canada the issue isn’t so clear. Equal access for both Canadian and Mexican manufactures to the U.S. market has cratered Canadian competitiveness; Mexican manufacturers have moved up the value-added chain quickly this past decade, while Canadian manufacturing – particularly in the Toronto region – has more or less stalled. Add in Mexico’s cheaper wage structure, and NAFTA is far more of a wash economically for the Canadians than it is for the Americans.

Yet, Canada has a separate free trade deal with the United States that pre-dates NAFTA. If NAFTA were to fail, Canada doesn’t simply have a fall-back, a tanked NAFTA would boost Canada in American markets at Mexico’s expense.

Cold. Brutal. Arguably very unCanadian. But damnably effective.

Fourth, back in Washington, NAFTA has lost its loudest cheerleader. There were never a lot of free-traders on the Trump Team, most of what few there were have already left the administration. The most prominent of the Remainers is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

The Commerce Department tends to view NAFTA from a data point of view, not a nationalistic one. A few weeks ago, Ross warned that NAFTA has not really deepened economic linkages among the NAFTA signatories, but instead has encouraged countries beyond North America to ship parts to Mexico and Canada, get a few tweaks made so that they qualify for the Made-in-NAFTA stamp, and then get shipped on to the United States. He argues that in all actuality, NAFTA has squeezed out American-made components not in favor of Mexican or Canadian components, but instead Chinese and German components. (His op-ed is here.)

If there is any truth to Ross’s concerns, then forget gut-nationalism and rabid-populism, the economic case for NAFTA suddenly looks a lot weaker. And even if all the data Ross cited is cherrypicked and/or questionable – and my left eyebrow is fully arched – anything other than full-throated praise from the Commerce Department lands NAFTA with a pretty damning problem.

Ross’s solution is to sharply update NAFTA’s rules-of-origin criteria, and hardwire a 5-year sunset provision into the agreement, forcing all three players to revisit and update NAFTA about once a president. It would be laborious, contentious and make NAFTA a political issue in all three countries All. The. Freaking. Time.

But if the emerging American position on trade is to ensure it doesn’t undermine local economies, and if the future of trade is that it can only occur with strong public support, that may well be the only way forward.

Mexico’s Next Drug War

Urban violence has been a stable feature of the news and politics mash-up of the past year or so. Whether it’s the murder rate in Chicago, or the threat of immigrants and the call for a southern border wall, or the civilizational threat of Antifa, it seems like there’s a lot out there to be spooked about.

Which makes it kind of odd that we’ve heard so little about Mexican drug violence as of late. The issue would play into hard right talking points regarding immigration, law enforcement, and The Wall™.

But, while there is certainly a lot of violence throughout Mexico still, things have quieted. The decline in violence since its peak in 2011 has been substantial and real – but it is not lasting. Violence is already very much on the rise again and Mexico is on the verge of a much more violent chapter in its drug war.

The story of these fluctuations in violence can all be told through the evolution of the Sinaloa cartel, by far the most active drug trafficking organization (DTO) in terms of smuggling and transporting activities within the United States. The cartel owes it success to a few key pillars:

  • Geography: Sinaloa has control over the Golden Triangle, a region in northwestern Mexico between the cities of Chihuahua to the north, Sinaloa on the Pacific coast, and Durango near central Mexico. The golden triangle is one of the few places in Mexico with a climate conducive to growing drug crops on a large scale. While that would be important income stream regardless, the real benefit is that all Mexico’s other DTOs are largely dependent upon transiting drugs from South America. Should something interrupt those supply chains, only the Sinaloa maintains independent sourcing. Meanwhile, the Sinaloa’s position on the coast also gives Sinaloa access to imported chemicals and other ingredients in producing synthetic drugs, which have become extremely important to cartel profits in recent years. In fact, the Sinaloa is in many ways a pioneer in pushing synthetics into the U.S. market.
  • Timing: The United States has been surprisingly successful lately in its anti-drug programs. Large-scale, domestic production of meth has all been shut down since a 2005 initiative against precursors. Marijuana began a path to legalization that has shifted a lot of production to the United States and out of the hands of cartels. Legal opioids were attacked head on, shutting down pill-mills and placing heavy restrictions on prescriptions. But this success has been ironically self-defeating. The Sinaloa was quick to take up meth production to fill the gap of lost U.S. production. And while legalization of marijuana certainly hurt the cartels, cutting into the profits of some DTOs by nearly half, it only drove Sinaloa to refocus its energies on local production of heroin.

  • Opioids: As a result, cheap heroin has flooded the markets to win back market share even as people in need of pain relief (or a fix) are willing to go to extreme measures to get now-less plentiful opioids. Complicating the picture, the Sinaloa has pioneered putting their heroin and synthetics into pill form and marketing it as counterfeit opioids, earning them a big new market across Middle America. Such heroin/opioid pills are a big reason why U.S. overdose deaths have tripled in recent years.
  • Structure and Tactics: The Mexican government began its crackdown on cartels in earnest in the mid-2000s and it has been broadly successful in carrying out a kingpin strategy. But as other cartels found their leaders picked off and their cartels fractured, the Sinaloa Cartel was able to continue uninterrupted due to its cellular structure and strategic use of intelligence. The head of the Sinaloa Cartel, known as El Chapo, was no street corner dealer. He excelled at managing the various factions within his cartel, encouraging them to experiment with new drugs (fentanyl) and new delivery mechanisms (heroin in “opioid” pill form), while discouraging them from engaging in petty crime – better to keep the Mexican government and Mexican population agnostic about Sinaloa activities. He was not afraid to play government forces off his rivals, supplying the government with both strategic and tactical intelligence on the other DTOs. And then there is simple mechanics: Mexico’s DTOs have proven so numerous and tenacious that Mexico City couldn’t possibly fight them all simultaneously. Why fight the Sinaloa if the Sinaloa is making it easier to fight the rest?
  • Border connections: By 2008, the Sinaloa Cartel was one of the most important DTOs in Mexico, but they didn’t directly control any of the border plazas. Plazas are not the quant city squares you might be thinking of, but key drug trafficking marketplaces or smuggling points. So the Sinaloa embarked on a campaign against the smaller but still powerful cartels who controlled the plazas of interest along the Northern border, most notably the Tijuana and Juarez cartels. What proceeded was the most violent chapter of the drug war to date as the Sinaloa literally fought in the streets to forcibly assimilate these cartels. It was during this Sinaloa consolidation effort that the city Juarez became the most violent city in the world.

And then, suddenly, the violent murder rate fell just as quickly as it rose.

As the other cartels faced inner-turmoil and a quickly changing market up north, El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel thrived and expanded as he gained a reputation for cutting down his allies. By 2014, Sinaloa was the major wholesaler in most American cities and Mexico had come under what came to be known as Pax-Sinaloa over a huge swath of Mexican territory. It wasn’t exactly rainbows and unicorns, but compared to the incredible violence of 2011 and 2012, Mexico was at peace. Juarez became safer than many large U.S. cities because the drugs could now flow without hinderance through the territory of a single (huge) cartel.

And this is the key point: the violence stops when someone wins.

The U.S.-Mexican Border

But that victory was short lived. Success in the plazas meant the Sinaloa could easily expand north of the border. By 2015 the Sinaloa was not just the top DTO in the world, but also the top organized crime group in the United States. El Chapo and the Sinaloa quickly became priority number one in the U.S. as opioid deaths rose to epidemic levels. El Chapo still had significant protection in Mexico, but he underestimated American interest in his removal. By 2016 El Chapo had been arrested (and escaped and re-arrested) and extradited to the United States. Bereft their leader’s sophisticated management, the Sinaloa immediately started to break down.

Which brings us to today. As the Sinaloa slides into internecine warfare, other cartels seek pieces of the Sinaloa’s empire; violence is again on the rise. The most important of these was a one-time partner of the Sinaloa known as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. Based in the southwest, the Jalisco also has important geographic advantages, primarily in their control of the two most important Pacific ports as well as the synthetic drug capital of Mexico, Guadalajara. Their leader – El Mencho – lacks El Chapo’s diplomatic and personal touches. Instead he is more paramilitarily-minded, and more than willing and able to bring heavy equipment and advanced tactics to intimidate and/or eradicate his foes. He has formed alliances with several of the groups that El Chapo once sought to cut down and is continuing to take advantage of shifts in the American drug market. The Jalisco is far more violent than the Sinaloa ever was… and the Sinaloa were f’ing brutal.

The Jalisco started by taking advantage of the collapse of the Gulf Cartel in Mexico’s east, exacerbating the violence between the Gulf’s remnants and that of the Gulf’s former enforcers, the Zetas. Of late the Jalisco has barged into core Sinaloa territory, taking them on throughout the Baja Peninsula (ergo the Cabo violence) and especially the Tijuana border plaza. They are just now starting in on Chihuahua and the Juarez plaza. And within a year – unless the incredibly reclusive El Mencho falls to the kingpin strategy – the Jalisco will likely be in Nuevo Laredo as well.

That would put all the meaningful plazas in the hands of a single group that is arguably the most violent and organized major cartel yet. Even in the unlikely event that the violence does not spill over into the American side of the border, it will be very visible to Americans at a time when American-Mexican relations are already at a generational low.

Just in time for the NAFTA renegotiations to reach a critical point…

The Next Iraq War

Trouble is (again) brewing in Iraq.

The Middle East is a wild and wacky place. The core issue is geographic: basic resources – especially water – are in short supply and resource competition breeds violence. Cultural and sectarian differences are what outsiders are often aware of, and for good reason. Out-of-region powers ranging from the British to French to Russians to Americans have been playing Persians and Turks and Arabs of various flavors against one another for centuries. First to get beneficial trading relationships with the Eastern world (think spices and silk), then to keep potentially hostile forces locked up in the sand box, and finally to get preferential access to the bounty of oil and gas resources in the area.

The Middle East boasts five major civilizational zones, four of which we’ll examine here. What sets them apart from the wastes that dominate the broader region is the simple fact that they have water. It is a basic concept, but it bears stating plainly: water enables agriculture enables populations enables cities enables education enables technology enables a military. Without water, it is damnably hard to develop into, well, anything.

  1. Anatolia (aka Asia Minor, aka Turkey). This first zone gets both the most and the most reliable rainfall. The real gem is western Anatolia – not only is this zone (relatively) wet, its mountains low, and its valleys broad, it directly abuts the Sea of Marmara: a warm temperate zone with fertile lands and excellent trade opportunities, making it among the world’s richest and most advanced regions going back to antiquity. Move further east in Asia Minor, however, and the land rises and sharpens. The Marmara region can – and often has – projected power deep into the Middle East, but it must always first negotiate its own internal rugged zones before venturing out. For the past half millennia, Anatolia has been home to the Turks.
  2. Persia (aka Iran). The second-most powerful regional geography are the Persian Highlands. Geographically an extension of eastern Anatolia, the lands are riven by dozens of minor mountain chains generating hundreds of tiny valleys with dozens of distinct cultural and linguistic communities. Like the Turks, the Persians can only venture out when they have their internal house in order. They’re getting close. It has taken the largest group – the Persians – the better part of recorded history to consolidate the messy region under their control, in part by promulgating a multi-ethnic/religious, semi-nationalist identity we know today as “Iranian”.
  3. The Levant (aka the Eastern Mediterranean shore). Whereas Persia is shot through with micro-climates and hundreds of separate identities, the Levant’s mountains are lower, its valleys bigger, and its flat lands more contiguous, meaning it has only generated a score of so peoples. It is also somewhat hived off from the other areas by mix of deserts and mountains, allowing the bigger fish in this smaller pond to carve out their own worlds. The Jews proved capable of re-creating their ancient homeland, albeit at the cost of the Palestinians who had been living there since the Old Testament was completed. A more motley crew involving Sunni, Shia, Maronite Christians and others has attempted with some success to spackle together Lebanon. The Alawites of the northern Levantine coast partnered with the Shia and Christians of the mountains to dominate the interior cities of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Damascus to run Syria – a partnership that has yet to breakdown despite the agonizing civil war.
  4. Mesopotamia (aka Iraq). In the final area it hardly ever rains at all, but it still has water courtesy of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The saddle of desert land separating the pair is so low that stone-age level irrigation technologies can turn it green. Unique among the four for its broad, unified flat lands, when Mesopotamia is able to rise it is able to rise very quickly (all the neighbors are constantly dealing with the agony of a difficult, rugged, arid geography while the lowlanders simply shift around some water and build roads through flat areas for a quick economic pick-me-up). As such Mesopotamia is the most likely region to launch invasions…but also the power that is the least defensible and most likely to get wrecked in a prolonged war.

Between the competing nationalities, ethnicities (map courtesy of the Gulf/2000 Project), religions, clans and factions, there just isn’t anything that most – much less all – of them can agree on. Or at least there wasn’t until about four years ago. That’s when the Islamic State popped up.

Istanbul, Turkey

Unlike Persia or the Levant where it rains or Mesopotamia where irrigation is easy, the lands in the Middle East’s middle are hard desert. The Euphrates does flow through the area, but the middle Euphrates’ banks are steeper than those in southern Iraq, so the “green zone” from the high point above one bank to the other is typically but a few miles. With so little usable land stretched across so much empty, in no era has controlling this narrow ribbon been worth the effort, particularly since desert raiders can easily punch anywhere into it.

Consequently, the regional powers simply leave what is today western Iraq and eastern Syria alone until some of the local crazies (or resource competitors, if you’d rather) cause sufficient problems that one of the regional powers feels moved to send the army in and burn everything to the ground. The Islamic State is merely the most recent manifestation of a problem that has plagued this area since the dawn of civilization.

IS owes not just its rapid rise, but its very existence, to the Middle East’s recent geopolitical disarray. Syria has been locked into a civil war and been unable to patrol, much less act decisively, in its eastern lands. Israel’s glee at watching the Syrian war continue to wreck its primary regional foe has prevented it from acting. After their World War I defeat, the Turks closed themselves off from the world and ceased participating in Middle Eastern affairs; they are out of practice. Iraq faced not only the U.S. occupation and its own civil war, but its Western-trained and -supplied army proved so incompetent that it had to be disbanded. Iran has had bigger fish to fry in Iraq – a country it is hoping to turn into a client state – and Syria – a regional ally it very nearly lost. Americans, gun-shy from their Iraqi occupational experiences, didn’t want to take the lead on another Middle Eastern war. (Incidentally, the only reason Americans care at all about IS is that a few idealistic Americans refused to believe that the local mass-murdering militant group known for enslaving or beheading any Christians they came across would target even secular American aid workers.)

But all this and more has recently changed.

Six years into the Syrian civil war, the Iranians (and Russians) have poured in resources sufficient to turn the tide in the government’s favor. Anti-government rebels in the country’s west have suffered a litany of defeats, freeing Damascus to push more resources against IS in the east. The Turks have recently consolidated their own internal political schisms and for the first time in a century, started venturing out again. Syria and Iraq are the first step on a broader…regional tour. The Iraqi army was re-mustered, re-trained and re-supplied, and during the past year it has made steady gains against IS in Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul. American forces did a bizarre dance of advising-but-not-fighting-but-ok-sort-of-fighting-sure-really-fighting.

One functional regional power would have been enough to roll IS up given time, but three plus some international add-ons were more than enough to decimate it. At long last, IS in its Middle East “caliphate” form is rapidly deteriorating after a two-year-long staccato of steady, significant losses. Recently their “capital” at Raqqa fell, and what little remains of the institutional core of IS-prime is itself no longer a significant geopolitical threat. It has been a long, messy, bare knuckle brawl, but it is nearly over.

Tehran, Iran

Given the cast of characters we’re talking about there was never 100% unity behind how or if or when or to what extent IS needed to be crushed, but to have folks as widely divergent as Persia and Arabia, Russia and America, Israel and Syria on the same page – however briefly – is far more than a mere historical footnote.

Now, with the unifying threat the Islamic State posed largely fading into the desert, things in the Middle East are about to get a hell of a lot uglier. No longer will everyone be putting their other beefs aside to deal with the threat of IS. Now they have to deal with each other.

The next crisis will boil up out of Iraq, a country comprised of three mutually-loathing groups:

Iraq’s Arab Shi’ites make up the bulk of the population, and have for centuries. But being the majority does not work for them. Living primarily in the southeast edge of the country near Iran, their Shi’ite beliefs have placed them at odds with the Sunni Ottoman, Hashemite and Baathist leadership that have ruled Mesopotamia since the 16th century. Proximity to Iran should have had benefits, but then again being Arab subjects of a Persian empire isn’t a great position to be in. With roots in the marshy swamplands of the southern tip of Iraq, these Arabs have long been poor, but Iraq’s Shi’ite core now rests atop most of Iraq’s superfields. After the fall of Saddam and the introduction of representative democracy thanks to the United States, Iraq’s Shi’ite Arabs (with plenty of community organizing thrown in by Iran) have the numbers and oil wealth, much to the dismay of everyone around them. As much as the Iranians want to have Shi’ites running things in Baghdad, they don’t want a wealthy, ethnically Arab oil competitor on their western flank who can challenge their regional role. Iraq’s Shi’ites have grown to resent not only their typical Sunni masters, but also Iranian attempts at puppeteering Iraqi suffering to their benefit. Iran saw this coming, and has spent decades sowing infighting and competition among Iraq’s Shi’ites – and it did so expertly.

The Sunni Arabs have a long cultural pedigree, with tribal links to Saudi Arabia and especially Jordan. Bedouin tribesmen gave their support and legitimacy to the Hashemite monarchy (a branch of which still rules in Amman). Sectarian links to distant Ottoman sultans, and tribal links to Saddam gave the sectarian minorities oversized control and the lion’s share of state oil revenues (before American-led forces bombed them twice, the Sunni triangle had excellent connectivity with Baghdad, European-built highways, good hospitals and universities even as Shi’ite Iraqis were living like 14th century peasants). Unfortunately, the Sunni live along the fringe of the broad, arid expanse of Iraq’s Western Desert. Of late their fortunes have reversed: they have no oil, their sons are wooed by an alphabet soup of militant groups, and they are vehemently opposed to any subgroup – be it Shi’ites or Kurds – dismantling what they view as an inherently Arab Iraqi state or taking their share of national oil revenues… which comes from oil fields they no longer control. In addition to having fallen the furthest, the Sunni Arabs are the smallest of the three groups. They simply cannot win at either representative democracy or open warfare, so they have learned to change the game and fight irregularly, kicking over the table. Iraq’s Sunnis are the ones who ran the Baath insurgency and the local al Qaeda chapter against the Americans, and who gave birth to the Islamic State.

Iraq’s Kurds are a subgroup of a broader community stretching from Iran through Iraq and Turkey to Syria. Like most other groups in the Middle East, the Kurds are as prone to infighting as anyone else. More in fact, as they hail from not only the steppes of northeastern Syria, and highlands of Iraq, but also the riven mountain valleys of southeastern Anatolia and northwestern Iran. Simply – if not entirely accurately – put, Iraq’s Kurds are divided between pro-Turkish and Iranian camps, and Iraqi Kurds have been slow to support Syrian Kurds in their fight against IS or Turkish Kurds in their armed resistance against Ankara (with Iranian Kurds another entity entirely). Iraq’s Kurds also have something no other Kurdish group does: control over significant oil and natural gas reserves. This infuriates Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to no end for taking the money, Iraq’s Shi’ites to no end for taking de facto political control of their territory, and gives the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil an effective bargaining chip against Baghdad. It also – so far – makes them valuable to Turkey, an oil importer.

It is the final of these three groups that perked up my attention recently. On September 25 they held an independence referendum in which some 90% of the electorate is believed to have shown up, with 93% of voters answering in the affirmative.

Pretty much everyone – including the United Nations and the United States, the two groups who have most aggressively supported Kurdish rights – have condemned the vote and called upon all parties to ignore the results.

“Why?” you might ask. And it’s not a stupid question.

The Kurds have suffered greatly at the hands of Iran, Turkey and Iraq, and their many waves of refugees haven’t exactly been welcomed in Europe with open arms despite their relatively secular approach to religion. They’ve certainly been Washington’s regional ally of choice, asking for little while supporting American efforts throughout their region with land, basing rights, tactical and strategic intelligence, and – when push has come to shove – some of the most badass fighters the region has ever produced. Of late they have done most of the heavy lifting against both the Assad regime and the Islamic State.

The problem is that the battles against IS achieved something that no other conflict in the region ever has: it gave the various factions of Kurds a singular enemy to fight, helping craft a proto-identity that might actually help the notoriously fractured ethnic group unify. And if the Kurds all agree that they are the same people, then an independence vote – regardless of obstacles – makes a lot of sense.

And that’s a problem for everyone.

It’s a problem for the Iraqi Arabs of all sectarian stripes who see Kurdish territories as theirs. It’s a problem for the Iraqi Shia who see their northern tier coming unhinged and a loss of northern oil revenues. It’s a problem for the Americans who would like nothing more than to get the hell out of the region, but who feel responsibility to their loyal Kurdish ally and would prefer to not leave them in a lurch – no matter how self-imposed that lurch is. It’s a problem for Iran and Turkey and especially Syria where local Kurdish communities have identities forged in the common anti-IS effort and who all directly border a would-be independent Iraqi Kurdistan. And it is a problem for the Iraqi Kurds, whose landlocked nature means that without the buy-in of the other regional players any independent Kurdistan would be so economically broken and dysfunctional as to make Bolivia look wildly successful.

And that’s only half the problem.

The other half is that the Islamic State was not an import – it was the noxious weed that took root in the fractures of Iraqi society. The Kurds’ push toward independence risks pushing those fractures further, and a destabilized Iraq (and yes, it can always get worse than what we see now) risks pulling its neighbors down with it. To give you an idea of just how disruptive that would be to, well, everyone in the neighborhood, the only country in the world supporting the Kurdish referendum is… Israel.

With the shiny disco ball of IS crashing down, the players of the Middle East are taking stock of each other as the lights turn back on. No longer facing a common enemy, each major player is seeking to capitalize on the weakness of their competitors. The Levant and Mesopotamia are in need of rebuilding, and Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia want to limit risks while maximizing their own strategic gains in the process. Baghdad and Damascus will protest loudly during any vivisection of their territories, but the Kurds are looking to reap the rewards of fighting on the front lines against IS. Their success against the informal forces of the Islamic State has them feeling up for a fight, though the regular armies of the regional states will not be routed as quickly. Current US/NATO support belies how little overt (if any) military support the Kurds can expect in a fight against Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran, and yet the vast majority of the population is expecting Erbil to act in accordance to the referendum, and to find some dividends on the huge amount of suffering endured by Kurdish people in their frontline fight against IS.

And never forget that should the regional powers start battling an emerging Kurdistan, the no-mans-land of western Iraq and eastern Syria will once again fall off the region’s collective radar…granting yet another breed of desert militant the perfect environment to gain strength once again.

Looking Ahead

I’m in the process of my annual reset.

From time to time it is important to take a step back from the noise and splatter of the news cycle (and oh my has there been a lot of noise and splatter this year!) and take a good deep, hard look at trends old and new to see how they are strengthening, weakening, and weaving themselves into new forms.

The big three megatrends that guide my work – the American withdrawal from global management, the steepening inversion of global age demographics, and the ever-advancing shale revolution – remain my guiding stars. Shale has slowed somewhat but that’s largely irrelevant as the U.S. and Canada combined are only a rounding error away from becoming net oil exporters. The global demographic shift is right on schedule (it is far too late in the game to magic up a fresh batch of Millennials). And the American withdrawal from the global order has obviously accelerated under the ever-thoughtful, always-restrained, humble modesty of President Donald Trump.

Lurking under the rumbling tectonic plates, however, are roughly a score of significant issues that are breaking out into the open. Some of these – like the coming European crisisthe Saudis’ beef with Qatarthe breakdown of the global Left, and all things North Korean – I’ve written about. But others, still on simmer, have yet to reshape the discussion.

They’re coming, and in about a year they will be with us.

To that end I’m putting together a three-part newsletter about what everyone will be worried about next year. These are issues that will have an outsized impact not just for the United States, but the wider world that will impact regional events for a decade to come:

  1. With the Islamic State all but wrapped up, it is time for the Middle East to embark on its next – and far more violent and far reaching – military conflict.
  2. The pause in the violence of the drug war is nearly over and what comes next will have far greater implications for both Mexico and the United States.
  3. The one trade deal that the Americans made for economic, rather than strategic, reasons is in danger. The year 2018 will be when NAFTA’s future is decided one way or another.

We’ll have more, but hopefully this trio is enough to whet everyone’s appetite for what is shaping up to be an extremely active year.