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But Why Not the Maldives?

Why do we write about Romania but not Rwanda? Why don’t we cover the successes and failures of SpaceX? Director of Analysis Jacob L. Shapiro and Managing Editor Cole Altom return to talk about the things that don’t quite make it into our analytic framework. Sign up here for free updates on topics like these.

  • Last updated: February 27
  • Total word count: 5554 words

Jacob L. Shapiro: Hello everyone, welcome to another Geopolitical Futures podcast, I’m Jacob Shapiro, director of analysis. Back by popular acclaim, it is Cole Altom. How’s it going Cole?

Cole Altom: It’s going well. That’s very kind words, I don’t think it’s actually correct. But that’s fine, I spent the better part of a week researching how to talk into a microphone and not just in the general area around one so I’ve got pretty high hopes for myself this time.

JLS: Yeah well you know, you have to have high standards in order to do this.

CA: We always aim high, always, every single time. This is actually the third or fourth recording of this podcast that we’ve done. So on that note, let’s get started right? So I asked you last week and I’d like to ask you again. Maybe this turns into a recurring thing. I’d like to know at the beginning of the week, you know, what should we be looking for? What should our readers be looking for? What’s on your mind? What are the things that are going to shape the course of this week for you?

JLS: Well the first thing on our radar is definitely what on our is going on in the Middle East. Obviously we care a lot about the Middle East anyway. But between the stuff that happened with Turkey and Iran sort of facing off a little bit in Syria at the end of last week and then obviously Iran and Israel squaring off in Syria over the weekend. What direction is Syria going to take now that these outside powers are really getting more involved is going to be very interesting to watch.

CA: What exactly happened over the weekend?

JLS: Well so what happened over the weekend is that an Iranian drone apparently went into Israel airspace. The Israelis shot it down. They decided to send some fighters into Syria to knock out the place where it came from. Some Syria anti-air batteries hit one of the Israeli fighters or exploded in the shrapnel, hit the fighter, whatever the technical thing is. And that fighter actually went down in Israeli territory. The Israelis retaliated against not just Syrian targets but they specifically said Iranian targets and that sort of where it stopped for now but.

CA: How clear is the distinction when you are talking about that area of Syria? How clear is it that this is a Syrian installation and that this is an Iranian installation? Do those two things get a little blurred?

JLS: I don’t think they get blurred because I think the thing that Israel is worried about is Iran is beginning to set up more than just auxiliary helping points through Syrian forces. Iran is actually trying to set up places where they can make missiles, stationing themselves at airbases where they might be able to launch drones or even aircraft. So no I don’t think it’s you know I don’t think it’s a distinction without a difference. And besides that, you know Israel is not often public about the targets that it chooses to hit. So them coming out and saying no, no, no we hit Iranians, Iranians are here, we hit them at a base that the Russians are known to use for their own air assets, a lot of stuff going on there.

CA: Alright. What is going on in North Korea? We had a weird thing where Kim Jong-un’s sister was visiting the South. We talked about that last week. It’s a little unprecedented. We didn’t quite know what to make of it. I don’t know that I do either. I do know that it’s not always a good thing to be a member of the Kim family and be mentioned in the media. His Uncle was mentioned in the media after he came to power, he got killed. His half-brother Kim Jong-nam was mentioned in the media not that long ago. He got killed. This seems to be a little bit different though.

JLS: Well you know everyone is obsessed about her role at the Winter Olympics and the did Mike Pence smile at her, did he not smile at her? And does the U.S. seem overly rigid?

CA: So middle school.

JLS: Obviously like the Korean Peninsula is sort of stuck in this situation where South Korea and the U.S. are very publicly, they want different things. And South Korea wants a kind of negotiated settlement or some kind of basis for negotiation with North Korea and the United States is not really cool with that. We are watching those two allies try and maintain their alliance while having different views in this particular thing.

The real question here is what China is doing all of this. Because China has supported this South Korea/North Korea reconciliation and the U.S. and China have had some issues over this thing. The trouble with China is they’re about to go into their Lunar New Year holiday and that means we’re about to get sort of silence out of China’s diplomacy and policy making.

But the question that I’m asking is not about whether Pence smiled at the sister or what the sister was saying, it’s really where are U.S/China relations? What is China trying to push towards on the Korean peninsula?

And then just sort of the last thing to look at in the week ahead I mean has to be what’s going in the global economy, in particular the U.S. economy. The U.S. is going to release its CPI figures and stuff like that and if it goes up higher than people expected, you might see another sell-off in the market, I am not sure. You know we don’t really do markets and that kind of stuff. What I can say is that you know if this spike in volatility is the first sign of a recession, which we’ve talked about appearing by the end of this year, maybe coming into next year, that’s a big deal.

CA: OK great, thanks very much. One of the things in particular I wanted to ask you about, this is more for the benefit of our readers and subscribers, right? So if you looked at our content, what we published last week, it’s always interesting in my opinion. But just as interesting is some of the things we decided not to write about. So I kind of in a weird way, I want to talk about the unimportant things. I want to talk about the things we choose not to publish sometimes because I think it makes perfect sense for me and you but it might not make sense to more casual readers or casual observers.

And so I think airing this out makes a little bit of sense right now. And one of the things I usually talk about whenever somebody asks me about this, whether it’s something in my personal life or professional or otherwise, you can look at it regionally or by country, you can do it topically. I tend to focus on technology and immigration to sort of explain some of these differences.

So technology is really interesting and it’s really important and some technologies truly are transformative, right, in so far as they can carve out new places in the geopolitical landscape that we’re so fond of talking about. But those are pretty rare. They are pretty few and far between. It’s only so often we get an internet and the internal combustion engine and things like that. And those are very, very transformative and they have long-lasting effects. But that’s not always the case. So we don’t talk a whole lot about technology, right?

JLS: No we don’t talk a lot about technology unless, like you said it begins to affect things on a global level. I mean we haven’t built this out very much but when I try to think about technology, I usually try to think about what different countries are trying to do. What their national aims are.

The reason nuclear weapons came about was because different countries were researching you know the physics of the atom because they wanted to get a source of energy, right? And that was, then a war broke out and people started thinking about weapons and then you get on down the line and you know, you get nuclear weapons, which changes everything. Also because of nuclear weapons research, you get Teflon, little-known fact. All these little things come out of this.

CA: But then you also get Kim’s sister at the Olympics and whether or not Mike Pence smiled at her or not so thanks a lot of that.

JLS: But that’s a good point, if you want to think about sort of where the U.S. is putting all of its money and its research into development of technology, I mean we saw the Space-X launch, that’s a one type of thing. If you want to think about where the U.S. military is putting its research, think about the problem of trying to identify a nuclear missile site in North Korea and how to knock it out without having to put your own troops in the air, then you’ll begin to at least see the shape of what different types of technologies people are working on and then out of that you might have something. But you’re correct, the iPhone 10, you know we’re not really interested.

CA: Yeah we’re not going to be waiting in line for that one. Immigration is another really interesting one for me too.  I think it’s fair to say that sometimes we’re accused of not caring about immigration. I think that’s unfair but I understand why some people might think that. Because we don’t write about immigration all that much and when we do, we write about it in a very different way from more traditional media outlets, right? Can you explain that a little bit too?

JLS: Well look the deep sigh that you took in when you started that question kind of tells you everything you need to know. Like immigration is a highly politicized topic and it is very hard to get at the real importance of immigration when so many people are using immigration for their own political purposes. What I would say is that you know when we think about this, what you’re really trying to ask ourselves is, is there a large movement of people that is significant on geopolitical or national or international level? That type of thing we’re extremely interested in. More often than not though, it’s the political effects of this stuff that we have to track.

So people in the United States will make arguments about Mexican immigration to the United States and the stuff about illegal immigration. That’s mostly in the realm of domestic politics. Where we start caring is if well there’s a great deal of violence in Mexico, there’s also a great deal of violence right now in Central America, even the north part of South America. If that starts creating large flows of people that are trying to get into the United States across the Mexican border, you can bet that that’s going to have an effect on Mexico/U.S. negotiations over NAFTA.

If you’re tracking elections into Italy right now, you will see that migration is becoming one of the top political issues there. Now if you want to look at the facts, technically migration has been going down for the past half year but the issue is that even though it’s a relatively small number coming into Europe from the Middle East, it pales in comparison to the large numbers of people moving around after World War II. These issues become inherently political.

The United States and Germany had a little tiff back in 2013, 2014 whatever it was, when the Germans started telling the British that they need to take more immigrants and that they needed to take more migrants. There had always been a portion of the British population that cared about that issue. But it was when the Germans said no, it was part of the EU you have to do this and we are telling you what to do. That was the moment where the Brexit campaign took off.

CA: Yeah and I think you’re touching on the core of the issue. It’s not so much the symptom of the disease, it’s not about the movements of people. It’s how much of your own sovereignty do you surrender to a supranational entity like the EU and that’s the core of the debate. It’s not about tax schemes or migrations, it’s: we want our central banks to be able to operate like central banks and we don’t want Brussels telling us how to do it. That’s important, right? Like these are the things that are important, not just eh, there’s some people here.

JLS: The domestic policies of different countries and how they want to handle immigration is certainly important for those countries, I just wouldn’t tell them what they should do and I have no interest in telling them what they should do. The only time I get interested in this type of stuff is when it affects the affairs between nations or when you have a genuinely important movement of people. If you had 5 million North Korean refugees move across the border into China because of some catastrophe in North Korea, hypothetical catastrophe in North Korea, well you can be sure that you know we would have to write about that.

But you know the finer points of you know what nations, how they are gonna craft their exact immigration policies, that’s left for think tanks. And honestly, most of the time does not reach that level of the relationship between nations and affecting global events which is where we try and keep our focus in an objective way.

CA: Alright cool, thanks for humoring me. But I really only brought that up really just to parlay that into a couple “larger issues.” Again if you read our website last week and again let’s face it, everybody listening to this is hanging on our every word all the time and has memorized all of our content, right? So let’s base everything on that assumption. We published a piece last week on Macedonia, right?

JLS: Well the Former Yugoslav Republic.

CA: Oh yeah, I beg your pardon. We should build a highway called Friendship to right that wrong. My glibness aside though, tell me what’s going on in Macedonia. Tell me what’s going on in Greece. Tell me what’s going on in the Balkans. Why would a tiny country like Macedonia warrant our attention and if immigration only sometimes does and technology only sometimes does, why are we writing about this little country on a little peninsula that only has like a million or two million people on there.

JLS: Well that’s a good question so we have to start with the Balkans itself. Why do we care about the Balkans? World War I started in the Balkans, you know a member of a Serbian group assassinated the Archduke of Austria and Hungary. Austria and Hungary then gave Serbia an ultimatum, Russia backed Serbia, France backed, I mean we don’t have to go through the whole shooting match but you know the Balkans was where World War I started so as a region the Balkans generally have shown importance in the past.

This is not just historical. The Balkans is a place, sort of a meeting ground between Russia and its interests between Western Europe and whatever power was dominant in Western Europe and then also Turkey or the Ottoman Empire if you want history. And all three of these powers have competed in the Balkans at different times and because of the unique geography of the Balkans, there’s a lot of room for competition because there’s a lot of mountains and it’s not really a unified area.

CA: Yeah and the associated different ethnic groups and things like that, that are always kind of competing for power there too.

JLS: So what’s going on specifically in Macedonia is you have Greece and Macedonia have an argument about the word Macedonia. For the Greeks, Macedonia is actually part of Greece, there’s a region in Greece that is part of Macedonia and they view Macedonia as sort of culturally appropriating their own national culture. You made the joke about the Friendship Highway but this extends to things like Alexander the Great.

In Macedonia, the airport used to be called the Alexander the Great airport. There’s a highway that is the Alexander the Great highway. Greece finds this offensive and wants them to change it. And Macedonia has actually offered to change it to I forget what the airport’s going to be called now but the highway is now reportedly going to be called the Friendship Highway.

That all sounds silly but for them it’s not silly. This is actually an issue between two different groups and you know… you look like you want to say something.

CA: Well Macedonia is considering changing its name, right? It’s offering.

JLS: Well yes, Macedonia is basically offering an olive branch here and saying ok well if we put…

CA: Why?

JLS: …a qualifier here in front of it, we’ll call it Upper Macedonia or New Macedonia.

CA: New Macedonia is kind of a cool name. But I mean, why would they even consider doing that? Like the United States would never just offer to… we wouldn’t just change our names because England didn’t like it.

JLS: Well look the issue here is that a lot of these Balkan countries have wanted to become members of Western institutions like the European Union or like NATO for a long time and one of the conditions that a country like the United States has put on these countries has been like first you have to solve all of your problems between each other first and then we can talk about it. Now Greece is obviously in this club already.

But one of the things that has been tripping up Macedonia just on a very petty political basis, is this constant disagreement that it has with Greece and Greece not being willing to sign off on all this other stuff. What’s going on here is that it seems like the United States and the European Union are making a push to put this name issue to bed so that they can reach out to Macedonia and try and get Macedonia more involved in European and Western institutions.

And the reason they are doing this is because they are afraid of what Russia is up to in the Balkans. Russia views the Balkans as one of its spheres of influence. It is very closely tied to Serbia historically as we talked about, that’s sort of the reason World War I breaks out. And you even have sort of U.S. ambassadors on the ground saying look the reason we are pushing for them to solve these issues is because we see Russia messing around in this region.

I saw a quote from a U.S. ambassador who was telling I think a Greek TV station: “Look in 2016, there was all this weird stuff happening in Montenegro and that had Russian fingerprints all over it.” I actually hadn’t heard and maybe I just missed it but I hadn’t heard anyone in the U.S. actually accuse Russia of the weird coup-like stuff that was happening in Montenegro. But Montenegro was recently welcomed into NATO. So when you think about what’s going on here, this is really about a conflict at its maximal level between the United States and Russia, this is one of the places they compete.

And sort of poking its head into there and looking around and trying to figure out what it’s going to do is Turkey, which is also looking to those Muslims parts of the Balkans, which are sort of a vestige of Ottoman control of this region and trying to build closer relationships with those countries. And you actually have the Macedonian President going I think to Turkey next week. You had the Bosnian President and I think it was some high-level Bosnian official who was in Turkey last week.

So all of these countries are dancing around each other and this name issue, which may to most Western listeners seem kind of silly and which in these regions is incredibly volatile politically, actually all of this is about the U.S., Russia, Turkey, these major powers competing.

CA: Yeah and it all touches on these other things, right? We don’t need to delve too far into the conflict in the Middle East. But then it also kind of impinges on that too so you’ve got Turkey, which is interested historically throughout time in the Balkans, but to the extent that it can’t concentrate its efforts on the Balkans because it’s dealing with things on its southern border, now it’s invaded Afrin, like we’ve already talked about. So it’s just a whole lot going on here and so there you have it. That’s why we care about Macedonia so much, right?

And I want to contrast that a little bit with another small country that is being talked about a lot in the news and we have yet to write on it. That’s a deliberate decision and I want Jacob to explain to me and to you our dear listeners why that is and of course I’m talking about the Maldives.

JLS: Of course you are.

CA: Of course I am. I spent a long time just trying to figure out how to pronounce it correctly so I did not offend any of our Maldivian listeners.

JLS: Just for the record, both of us had to spend some time thinking about how to pronounce it.

CA: So it’s a tiny, little, it’s a small country off the coast of India, it’s a little island chain. It depends almost exclusively on tourism, there’s like a half a million people who live there. It’s almost a 100 percent Muslim. Well first of all, why is the entire media landscape talking about this little country all of a sudden and why are we not?

JLS: Well so what’s happening in the Maldives is that you have this president who had arrested some political dissidents and the Supreme Court of the Maldives or the justices there said that you had let go of those political dissidents and not only did he say no he then arrested some of the justices themselves. And you had the former president of the Maldives, who now lives in Sri Lanka right now, make a very public plea for India to intervene here.

Now this is actually a good example of that line that we were talking about before with immigration. You know human rights abuses or the arrest of political dissidents in the Maldives is probably extremely important. But in the grand scheme of things, in the scheme of geopolitics, it’s not really going to move the needle. The issue about the Maldives is if India actually does take up the cause.

And you have seen little blips from India, you had them announce that there’s special forces who are just on alert. You have had one or two not huge-level Indian politicians but some people come out and say no, India really should move forward with this. You even reportedly had a conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and India’s leader Narendra Modi on the phone and that apparently factored in.

Now China got wind of this and it got to the level of China’s foreign ministry saying well China does not support anybody intervening in the Maldives. We have to figure out a way to fix this problem. And the reason I think that some are pushing India to do this is because China actually has a pretty good relationship with the current President, the guy who did all those arrests in the first place. Now that all sounds kind of important right? Why we didn’t write about it is because nobody has intervened.

Everybody talks about the Maldives as one of these potential bases for China in their One Belt, One Road project. I’m much more concerned with how China is gonna get outside of the South China Sea right now. You can’t be thinking about China building bases in the Indian Ocean when it can’t even get past a potential U.S. blockade, if the U.S. wanted to hypothetically in the South China Sea.

CA: Let me, let’s go back a little bit, I was just going to ask you that, India’s interest in the Indian Ocean, pretty obvious, what is China’s interest? You touched on it a little bit but for the sake of our listenership I do want to be a little bit more deliberate about this, why does China care about the Indian Ocean? Why would it be interested in basing anything there at all? Explain those dynamics and why it’s – encirclement and why it feels trapped at certain points, all that whole thing.

JLS: So the Chinese economy has grown to the size that it has, it’s the second largest economy in the world, on the back of exports. There’s a lot of internal inconsistencies though in China, which we’ve talked about and that means that China is less dependent on exports right now. It’s actually trying to develop its consumer demand and stuff like that.

But China is also beginning to import a lot of different things not unlike Japan which has to import a lot of its raw materials. China is historically richer than Japan in that regard. But China for instance importing a lot more food these days, a lot more oil from the Middle East. That is to say China, both for exports, imports depends on these sea lanes being open. And any country that is you know does not like to depend on another country with it potentially has some strategic issues to keep those sea lanes open.

So China and the United States have diverging interests. There is no Soviet Union that still exists that brings them together with a common foe. And so China is not completely comfortable with the idea that their economy and the imports and exports that are part of that economy happen at the grace of the United States. And China is slowly, and I emphasize slowly, trying to build a naval force and military force that would allow to project outwards.

Now people look at this and say well oh my god, they’re going to try and create bases all over the place and challenge the United States. Well that’s really putting the cart in front of the horse. Like show me the Chinese building an actual modern aircraft carrier and graduating more than one or two classes of fighter pilots that know how to actually fly planes on and off carriers. And show me that they actually have the ability to carry out amphibious landings, ok then I’ll start paying attention.

But you know right now the idea that China is going to create bases and just because it leases an island in the Maldives that’s somehow going to massively increase Chinese power? That’s what the Chinese want people to think, that’s not actually what China is doing right now. If you want to see what’s really important for China right now, watch them with the Philippines, watch the type of naval maneuvers that they’re trying to develop and the technologies they’re trying to develop in their own near abroad.

You know 20, 30 years from now, if they’re still doing this type of stuff and they’ve mastered some of that you know weaponry, then maybe you can talk about a Chinese base in the Maldives, we obviously have our own internal views about how China is probably not even going to get there in the first place. But that’s why a lot of that is overwrought.

CA: What about India in all of this? I mean we don’t need to make the call right now that it’s going to intervene or not intervene. But Indian foreign policy, even in its near abroad, is it being more adventurous than it has been lately? What’s the deal there?

JLS: Look India in its, you know it’s called the subcontinent for a reason, right? And it’s basically isolated from a lot of the rest of the world. Look these areas that are around India, India is a behemoth, India is a dominant player here. It does not have to intervene in the Maldives to be the most important country in the Indian subcontinent in the Indian Ocean.

You are right though that in the last couple of years, we have seen India become more focused, more strategic than what it’s doing on the foreign and in its foreign policy realm. And a lot of that has to do with you have a very, very strong government there, which is not normal for India. India is so fractured and is usually so disjointed that it can’t really think in terms of projecting power in those ways. This government is much stronger and it is trying to project Indian power to keep itself stronger and to protect its interests.

You know, is this a litmus test for that? No, I don’t think so. The Maldives is a relatively small island. I think neither India nor China want to be involved here on any level. The last thing either one of them want to do is be seen as intervening in the affairs of a country that both many decades down the road see as potentially strategically important.

But if you’re talking about today, no I don’t think it pays for India to be involved there. China is certainly not in a position to be involved there. It’s just trying to build a long-term relationship. And unless something happens unexpected from our point of view, this is probably not that big of a deal.

CA: Ok, there you have it. Macedonia versus Maldives. (laughter) No but it is important to note that we are tracking these things. Even the things that we don’t always publish, we have a watchlist and we do sort of appraise our readers of some of the things that are blipping in our radar but nothing may come of it. And this has all made it there but at the same time, I think it’s important to know that we are watching these things, even when we don’t publish. Sometimes especially when we don’t publish.

JLS: Well one of my most influential teachers in this stuff used to say that look, you’re going to get assigned ten things throughout the course of the week and if one of them is very important, that’s actually been a very active week. A lot of times what you’re doing is you’re trying to look at all these different things happening and making sure ok well is this going to affect our forecast, is this actually going to move the needle in the world? Is this just a lot of political grandstanding and people are talking about it or is this actually going to be important?

This is a really good example because you might’ve heard about the Maldives in different Western media outlets especially now that the U.S. and India are trading phone calls and stuff like that. And you might’ve missed Macedonia and Greece just because it’s a lower-level issue. But for us when we look at what’s important, what’s actually moving the needle in global affairs, the Balkans is going to be a lot more important than the Maldives right now.

CA: Well thanks for taking the time, I appreciate it.

JLS: It’s always a pleasure.

CA: That’s our show I guess.

JLS: I think that’s our show.

CA: Alright, well tune in next week.

JLS: Alright, see you out there.