Just over a year ago, complex systems theorists at the New England Complex Systems Institute warned us that if food prices continued to climb, so too would the likelihood that there would be riots across the globe. Sure enough, we’re seeing them now. The paper’s author, Yaneer Bar-Yam, charted the rise in the FAO food price index—a measure the UN uses to map the cost of food over time—and found that whenever it rose above 210, riots broke out worldwide. It happened in 2008 after the economic collapse, and again in 2011, when a Tunisian street vendor who could no longer feed his family set himself on fire in protest.
Bar-Yam built a model with the data, which then predicted that something like the Arab Spring would ensue just weeks before it did. Four days before Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation helped ignite the revolution that would spread across the region, NECSI submitted a government report that highlighted the risk that rising food prices posed to global stability. Now, the model has once again proven prescient—2013 saw the third-highest food prices on record, and that’s when the seeds for the conflicts across the world were sown.
Let me therefore propose that Ukraine is merely a convenient excuse or proxy for a larger geopolitical division that has nothing whatsoever to do with its internal schism. What haunts the Nulands of this world is not a putative “absorption” of Ukraine by Russia – an eventuality with which she could live. What haunts her and those who share her views is a geopolitical alliance of Germany/France and Russia. The nightmare of a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis has receded a little bit since its acme in 2003, when U.S. efforts to have the U.N. Security Council endorse the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 were defeated by France and Germany.
The nightmare has receded a bit but lurks there just beneath the surface, and for good reason. Such an alliance makes geopolitical sense for Germany/France and Russia. And in geopolitics, what makes sense is a constraint that insisting on ideological differences can affect very little. Geopolitical choices may be tweaked by the individuals in power, but the pressure of long-term national interests remains strong.
Why does a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis make sense? There are good reasons. One is the U.S. turn towards a Pacific-centrism replacing its long history of Atlantic-centrism. Russia’s nightmare, and Germany’s as well, is not a U.S.-China war but a U.S.-China alliance (one that would include Japan and Korea as well). Germany’s only way of diminishing this threat to its own prosperity and power is an alliance with Russia. And her policy towards Ukraine shows precisely the priority she gives to resolving European issues by including rather than excluding Russia.
But the question I have been wrestling with is this: why exactly are certain libertarians and liberals focused on certain issues – while many other libertarians and most conservatives are seemingly oblivious to them? What is the mechanism involved? What is the process or method that explains it?
Just the other evening, I think I finally began to understand what it is. It was an exchange with a liberal blogger that keyed me in on it – but, as is always the case in such matters, the final pieces only fell into place as a result of my having written and thought about many of the relevant issues over the past year.
These issues are very complex, so I will state the main point very briefly to begin with: there are two basic methods of thinking that we can often see in the way people approach any given issue. One is what we might call a contextual approach: people who use this method look at any particular issue in the overall context in which it arises, or the system in which it is embedded. Liberals are often associated with this approach. They will analyze racism or the “power differential” between women and men in terms of the entire system in which those issues arise. And in a similar manner, their proposed solutions will often be systemic solutions, aimed at eradicating what they consider to be the ultimate causes of the particular problem that concerns them.
The other fundamental approach is to focus on the basic principles involved, but with scant (or no) attention paid to the overall context in which the principles are being analyzed. In this manner, this approach treats principles like Plato’s Forms, as will become clearer shortly. I will use an example from a discussion here to illustrate the point, a discussion about certain cultural aspects related to homosexuality. I should note that, as a libertarian, I do not advocate any “special” rights for gays and lesbians; I want only those rights which everyone should have – and foremost among those is the right to be left alone by the government. For that reason, I am opposed across the board to any laws which criminalize consenting behavior between adults.