Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pawns in a Global Game of Chess

A major realization that has occurred as a result of this Russo-Georgian conflict/war is that regardless of which side one takes in support of one entity and condemnation of the other, one thing that becomes very clear is that a small nation stands virtually no chance of success without using larger allies as a crutch. We don't have to strain at the modern political landscape on our planet to understand just how empires and large states can use smaller sovereign nations to become pawns in the global game of chess. Throughout history, large empires such as the Greeks, Persians, Romans, Mongols, Arabs, Turks, and those existing in recent years like the Axis Powers of the Third Reich, or even the Soviet Union, all use small vassal states as either buffers to retain regional control and isolation, or as expansionist entities meant to increase global control of resources and assets. During the expansion phase of the Roman Empire, Rome found itself at odds with another regional power in the Mediterranean, known as Carthage. The entity that retained control over the shipping routes and ports of the Mediterranean would become the most powerful empire in the world. After numerous conflicts, and three bitter wars, Rome gained control over all the former Carthaginian territory in the South and East Mediterranean. What was once a region of competing states became an entity that controlled the destiny of the whole Mediterranean. The eventual success of the Romans, however, at the start of the First Century, would not have been possible had the Romans not sought allies in the Mediterranean who were tired of the tax policies and limited protection of Carthage. Having retained these allies, Rome found it easier to control the region once Carthage was out of the picture. As the Roman Empire expanded to its greatest extent (around 115 CE), they found their expansion checked by the arguably equally powerful Persian Empire. The Persians were much more powerful than the Carthaginians, and Rome was forced to acknowledge that there was no way the Empire could extend any further East. In order to protect itself against the Persian menace, and insure that territorial integrity of the Eastern region, Rome signed a treaty with Persia to retain Armenia, and the Mesopotamian regions as buffer states. These countries were given Persian rulers, who happened to pay tribute to Rome. Yet, the situation was not ideal, and the extent that Rome and Persia tried to underhandedly exploit the Buffer States was frequent and increasingly more meddlesome. The states in question also recognized the power they possessed in having both Empires vying for control, even though officially speaking of truce. Armenia, as an example, constantly attempted to use its power to control its own destiny, often trying to instigate the Persians or Romans, depending on the entity they felt was more capable of defending its interests. Often times, different princes, in what amounted to feudal-like regions, would take opposite sides in support of a given empire. Sometimes, this strategy would work, and Armenia would be rewarded by a reduction in taxes, or even autonomy. Other times, this would result in a bitter war between the Empires with Armenia becoming a battlefield.

With just one example from global history in mind, we can now look at the current Russo-Georgian conflict with an enlightened perspective and a window into understanding the perpetuation of history due to the human condition. The current expansionist policies of Russia can be likened to the growing power of the Roman Empire. In Russia's case, its influence was far greater and extended to a larger area during the height of the Soviet Union. Under the guise of Communism/Socialism, the Soviets had extended their control from East Germany to China and most of South-East Asia. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's influence was considerably reduced on the world stage. Yet, the last 15 years have seen Russia making a resounding comeback, partly due to the price of oil providing rapid economic growth, and also to the strengthening partnership with Europe and Asia. As Russia's economic situation has improved, they have realized that as they were going through countless hardships and post-communist changes, NATO, with a significant United States control was slowly marching towards Russia's back door. Ultimately, the need for oil and regional control of the Middle East by the West eventually sent alarm bells in Moscow. Without exercising any control and influence, Russia would lose out on many lucrative resources and opportunities for future economic growth. This lead to closer ties with Iran, and an attempt at rekindling strategic partnerships with many of the former Soviet Republics. Yet, with the Western Democratic reform movements that swept through Ukraine and Georgia, Russia become painfully aware of the need for regional influence and a reanimation of their global inspirations.

As is frequently said, the death of the Soviet Union lead Russia into Hibernation, but the sleeping bear is awakening and hungry. Diving deeper in this analogy, having slept off the winter, the bear now sees his territory brimming with hungry bears, particularly one that seems intent on limiting his movement. He knows that even in his limited area, he has resources that the other bears covet. In Russia's case, Georgia is the geographic boundary that Russia must retain control to continue on its prosperous rout. Having allied itself with Iran and Armenia, Russia needs to maintain expansion in Georgia to retain regional control of the Caucuses and thus the bridge to extend into Iran. At the moment however, control of Georgia is in the hands of the West, and thanks in large part to the East-West Baku-Ceyhan pipeline (see previous post here), the West cannot lose influence in the region. Since Georgia is so critical to the interests of both Russia and the West, it has become a buffer state like Armenia used to be under the Roman and Persian Empires (also happens to be just north of it as well). The Russians, knowing they have little direct control in Georgia proper, decided to extend their helping hand to the small semi-autonomous states within Georgia that border Russia. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, being the lesser pawns in the game, decided that siding with Russia would help maintain their independence (they should have talked to the Chechens) far more effectively than allowing Georgia to control their destiny. Moreover, both provinces feel as though they have economically more to gain when Russia exerts power and influence in the region. As for Armenia, it recognizes that siding with the Russians may be fraught with danger, but the chance for economic improvement and geopolical stability is a difficult proposition to discard. Knowing they have a hostile neighbor to their east (Azerbaijan) and a much stronger and, in their eyes, malevolent neighbor to the West (Turkey) they feel the necessity to maintain a strategic partnership with a near-by power whose strength is much greater then both their neighbors'. The partnership with Russia isn't just unilateral however. Russia in turn exploits Armenia knowing that they have an ally in the region completely dependent on them. This dependence on Russia provides Armenia with some feelings of importance. Yet, if history is any indication, the perceived power that small nations have is as illusory as unicorns and rainbow gold. As soon as the nature of the situation changes, or the economics shift, those small nations that hold so tightly to those in power will be readily discarded. As with Georgia's current crisis, the expectation that the West would come to Georgia's aid militarily must have been tempting but as it turns out, the West can only attempt to verbally intimidate Russia. Russia has fuel control over the West, and no amount of barking will amount to significant changes. The West, especially the United States in recent years, have continuously promised more then they could deliver to pawns all around the world. When the Kurds were promised greater freedom, and delivered on their insurrection against Saddam Hussein, the West, enjoying the oil riches, allowed the Kurds to suffer the consequences with little sympathy. Even now, the West exploits the Kurds, while concurrently manipulating Iraqi and Turkish politics to prevent the Kurds from gaining greater autonomy. We talk of the importance of territorial integrity, yet, find ourselves supporting Taiwan's calls for independence and allowing bases in countries that in some cases are completely hostile (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for example). Yet, this is how the work of empires is done. Through hypocrisy and the perpetuation of disingenuous ideals, the powerful forces of the world manipulate the game of world politics through sheer audacity and people's stupidity.

Considering the Chess analogy, many of the small nations in the world, already described as pawns, can be readily sacrificed as long as the game proceeds to it's conclusive end (checkmate occurs when on nation controls the resources of the whole world). There are some people who feel as though there is a world order that controls the nature of the game and seems almost omnipotent in its actions. Yet, that would be like assuming that the purpose of chess is to discard all the pieces and allow only the Queen and Rooks to remain in the game protecting one's King and attempting to attack the other's. The world is a lot more complex, and the outcome of the future as variable as the strategy and movement from one chess game to another. It should further be noted that the pawns are not always useless and can at times help protect the King and other times, hinder an escape. Similarly, many of the small nations of the world rely on their importance towards controlling regional affairs, and if the situation is favorable and remains constant, then they are rewarded, but if there's a negative turn in their position, they are the first to suffer the consequences of discord and strife. Those of us who come from areas of the world that are constantly changing hands, grow to become both cynical at the prospects, or idealistic towards a final change for the better. Yet, economics and the human condition will generally collude to prevent the lesser nations from attaining degrees of freedom and independence outside the protection of the much larger empires. Ultimately, the illusion we harbor at having freedom of choice, and control over our destinies is just that, a complete and total illusion. We are prey to the whims of both nature and human nature. But the one ray of hope from attaining this view is that although our destinies aren't under our direct control, we can investigate our position and be true to ourselves. We can allow our minds to probe our place in the fabric of society, and although disconcerting at times, how many creatures on this planet have that ability? How many people can truly say that conflict and warfare in the world have shown them that although we're at the mercy of forces greater than us, we can maintain degrees of freedom and expression in our thoughts and our daily actions? For all we know, an asteroid can collide with Earth and lead to our extinction. Would all the wars that we fight, and all the petty skirmishes over economic resources matter? Sadly, those who have the luxury to realize such things also happen to generally live in places of peace and stability.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Georgia-Russia Conflict Explained

Ultimately, this conflict comes down to territorial integrity and whether a sovereign nation has the right to uphold it when separatists within the internationally recognized boundaries declare de-facto independence.

In Georgia's case, the country that we know of as Georgia is actually a commonwealth of a number of republics. Recently, because of the geopolitical games to control the region, Georgia has been fighting an internal conflict between ethno-linguistic groups that want to remain allied with Russia, and others that prefer to ally with NATO and the West. During this conflict, both the United States and Russia have sent special forces to control the region. Georgia is vital to both Russian and NATO (read US) interests. At the moment, Georgia is being used as a corridor to transport oil from the Caspian Sea port of Baku in Azerbaijan, to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan for consumption in the West. Similarly, Georgia is vital to Russia's strategic interests with Iran. Armenia, sharing the southern border of Georgia is pro-Russian (although there's a heavy opposition that wishes to break those ties and move closer to NATO) and has a north-south fuel corridor with Iran. By gaining control over Georgia, Russia can link itself to Iran through rail, energy supply, and various other economic resources. Similarly, by limiting Russia's role, NATO and the West can maintain a strong East-West corridor, thereby checking Russia's regional influence. At its heart though, this region of the world has seen its fare share of conflict between superpowers. When the Roman and Persian empires fought to a stalemate, it was Armenia and Georgia that were frequently used as buffer states. When the Turks and Byzantine were at odds, it was again the same region that was critical for power and control.

The modern problem also stems from the borders of Georgia being drawn up by Stalinist policy. In essence, the Caucuses is a very culturally heterogenous region, with various ethno-linguistic groups vying for political independence. As many remember from the wars in Chechnya and to a lesser extent Daghestan in Russia, as well as these current conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, the region is highly volatile and prone to constant dissatisfaction. As an Armenian, I can attest to similar problems when the Armenian province of Nagorno-Karabagh in Azerbaijan tried to break away and assert their political independence. Ultimately, it lead to a still-ongoing conflict and although the region is under Armenian control, the political situation is highly charged. Any regional conflict like this in Georgia can easily escalate into a larger conflict with these other republics.

One thing that must be understood is that the media is going to maintain bias towards NATO and the West. The actual spark of this conflict was Georgia's surprise attack on South Ossetia's capital, thinking the world would be distracted, and the expectation of Russia's excessive response. The thinking in Georgia was that with Russia's severe aggression against its vital interests, the West would come down hard and it would cause a major diplomatic rift. The player in all this that goes unmentioned are the Americans who've sent special forces in Georgia. It would be cynical to assume that Georgia was coerced into a response thinking that they would capture South Ossetia (although internationally recognized as Georgian territory, many of its citizens hold Russian passports and are therefore like their brothers in North Ossetia, Russian citizens), but with the vital importance of regional control, this is sadly the typical international chess game, with the expense being paid by innocent civilians. It's also obvious that the provisional passports that Russia has granted to the Ossets occurred knowing that this conflict was oncoming and Russia needed an excuse to claim they were just defending their citizens. It must further be understood that in no means is Russia innocent of exploiting the situation but it's to provide a better framework for explaining the conflict in the region. It can also be argued that the Soviet policies of Russification are a major factor for so many ethno-linguistic groups allying with Russia, but as can be seen from the conflict in Chechnya, it wasn't exactly beneficial to Russia or completely effective. What Abkhazia, Ajaria, and South Ossetia, have in common is that although they're provinces of Georgia, they see their future closely aligned with Russia instead of the West. Since they're semi-independent and have de-facto control over their regions, they feel that they shouldn't need to be subservient to Georgia's pro-Western president, Saakashvili, and the West. His Rose revolution, though quite important for regional control of the West, is actually looked upon as disastrous by the opposing provinces. When you have such a culturally heterogenous region that's also of great strategic importance, you're going to have all sides attempting to exploit the region for their economic benefit. It comes down to simple economics and geopolitical control.

Attempting to recreate the stage that this conflict is set is somewhat of a difficult task, but in doing so, the nature of the cycle of violence and geo-politics in this region becomes clear. From the map below, the semi-autonomous provinces of Georgia are indicated in red. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia border Russia, and more importantly prove strategic in Russia's influence within Georgia. Currently, both the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline (operated by British Petroleum and highlighted in Blue) and the Baku-Supsa Pipeline travel across a narrow central corridor of Georgia, before diverging. The Baku-Ceyhan then proceeds through Turkey, to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, while the Baku-Supsa terminates near a town Sochi, in another semi-autonomous province of Georgia known as Ajaria. Sochi is an important Black Sea port for the Caucases region, allowing the fuel to be transported on barges that are sent across the world. This is known as the East-West corridor and is already a well established fuel-transit system. Yet, there's also a natural gas pipeline just recently built that connects Iran to Armenia. As can also be seen, there's an additional natural gas pipeline that emanates from Russia, connecting to Georgia. If the two natural gas pipelines can be linked (the hard to see broken yellow line potentially passing through central Armenia), this becomes a valuable North-South corridor that benefits Russia, Iran, as well as Armenia. Even though Georgia could potentially benefit from this North-South Pipeline, simple economics dictate that the benefit they receive from the East-West routes, along with other economic stimulus funds from the West are too good to give up.

As this conflict escalates, and Russia forces its heavy hand towards manipulating the present situation to exert greater regional control over such a strategic area of the world, world criticism that the Russian response is disproportionate will increase. Yet, where was the same response when Israelis were bombing Palestine? Why were Bush and Company silent as Palestinians were running for their lives? Why did they allow the Sudanese government to ravage their own population through genocide while remaining relatively silent? These hypocritical world leaders now assume that because this conflict disrupts their attempts at regional hegemony in the Caucuses, the world will forget their silence under similar situations involving such morally ambiguous allies. They ultimately have no voice on the world stage, and their words will continue falling on deaf ears in Moscow because they showed their true colors in the silence under similar circumstances. Because of such geopolitical games of chess, peace is going to remain a commodity that is quite difficult to attain.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Credibility Trumps Credulity -- Part I (Introduction)

One of the most difficult concepts to comprehend and relate to other people is the importance of critical thinking, skepticism, and the accessibility of evidence in determining the plausibility of various theories. Often times, we come to feel as though we have attained a very cohesive and complex theory and choose to focus squarely on information that supports our preconceived notions. In other instances, we may be introduced to theories that may superficially seem deep and thought provoking, perhaps even superior to accepted notions, and yet, due to our need to seek reinforcement for our preconceived theories, we are lead astray from reality. We can construct an artificial reality that is strengthened by falsely reinforced information and loaded notions that we extract from our misguided observations and preemptive filtering of accessible information. In our current day and age of information accessibility, we are consistently bombarded with a gradient of relevant information ranging from sources that are at best dubious to those that are well researched and supported. Some of this information is present as a means to misguide and misdirect credulous individuals, while others inadvertently present false and highly misleading data. Whether the data is statistical, material, figurative, or evidential in nature, verifying it, and maintaining a healthy degree of skepticism often interferes with our inherent need to reinforce our preconceived notions, no matter how misinformed and misguided they may be. Ultimately, it is up to us to develop critical thinking skills, and strive to constantly apply a healthy degree of skepticism towards any information that we encounter. There are various tools at our disposal to break down the information into manageable packets, or quanta, and through our rigorous internal filters, we'll be better able to assess given data. These are skills that are rarely taught to us, especially in the United States, and it takes a great deal of work and meticulous usage to break the bonds of credulous thinking and eventually come to think critically of various pieces of information we encounter.

The most important tool that we use to properly assess a situation is the scientific method. As any primary school pupil should learn, the scientific method involves certain steps that help us uncover natural processes. In short, the process involves the identification of a problem, observing and collecting data, posing a hypothesis based on the data, performing an experiment on the data, analyzing the relevant information gained, and reassessing the hypothesis to see if it holds up to the data. Generally, the first step to the scientific method involves a question. For example, why are the oldest hominid bones found in East Africa? Once we have the question, we can start to research the problem and attempt to form a hypothesis. In the given example, we can start by looking at the paleobotanical record of East Africa during the last few million years. We can further use comparative anatomy to view the changes in hominid development during the last few millions years. Further research and data can include fossilized pollen, geological changes, climatic differences, etc. What we'll see is that the ecology of East Africa during the critical time of bipedal development changed from relatively wet, to dryer conditions. What was once forested areas, were developing into grasslands. We can hypothesis then, that perhaps the reason the oldest hominid bones were found in East Africa was because the climatic changes forced certain apes to adapt to grasslands, whilst others were forced to retreat deeper into the forests. Since performing an experiment in this case would be impossible given the time constraints we have to deal with (we don't have millions of years of time to research this), we can continue building evidence and collecting data to further allow us to determine whether the new data will help reinforce our hypothesis. At this point, we can look at various hypotheses and use the growing evidence to rule some of them out. The greatest aspect of the scientific method is that it allows a hypothesis to be discarded when the evidence counters it. Using the hominid example, we can look at the various hypotheses attempting to explain why apes in that region of Africa evolved bipedalism and certain characteristic traits. Could it have anything to do with adapting towards a life in and near inland lakes (Aquatic Ape Hypothesis)? We can then ask, if the climate changed in East Africa, it must have had an effect in other areas of Africa. Is there evidence for evolutionary changes in other species during this time period? Was there an increase in animals that inhabit grasslands? In any case, the growing body of research into this problem allows us to come closer to answering the initial question, and discarding hypotheses that fall apart on further reflection. The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is one of those that proved to fall apart and the many holes in the hypothesis are mentioned in the following link. Often times with science, we don't have a quick and easy solution to any question, and in fact, answering one question often leads us to a path of asking many more in return. Yet, it's the curiosity and rigorous tools of the scientific method that allows us to chip away at our ignorance and attempt to understand the world around us.

Considering that no single person has the time or resources to investigate every single aspect of the natural world, we must come to realize that we are dependent on the work and theories of others to help build a case for any investigation into nature. In this instance, a second tool that helps us critically analyze a given situation is the credibility of the individual making a claim. Many of these individuals have spend their lives on a specific question and thus have the greatest knowledge in their relevant field. Yet, it's only those individuals that have used the rigors of the scientific method who truly stand out as experts. One can spend their whole life attempting to explain hurricanes and tornadoes as acts of god, or caused by invisible cherubs at specific regions of the troposphere, but without the background in meteorology, their explanations are often completely groundless. Similarly, many so called "experts" with little background in the sciences will analyze the Egyptian Pyramids and determine that there is no possible way that humans could have built them. Their assumptions stem from the lack of technological tools that the Egyptians possessed, or the lack of political organization, or any number of other possible factors. Yet, without having to look to the heavens, there are many clues as to how the pyramids were constructed within standard Egyptian society and culture. Just because it took us thousands of years to relearn the methods, and due to our lack of hindsight as far as the organizational skills that Egyptian Civilization possessed during the Old Kingdom, many were and still are quick to dismiss the fact that such a feat was possible without any extra-terrestrial or supernatural influence. It's mainly thanks to the tireless work of actual experts, such as Egyptologists, Engineers, Architects, Computer Scientists, and even comparative sociologists, who have all contributed to our advancing understanding of early Egyptian civilizations and the true extent of their capabilities.

A third tool we can use when critically analyzing a given piece of information is Evidence. We should strive to ask ourselves what kind of evidence exists that helps support the given information. Does the evidence come from credible sources? Is it reproducible? Can we see this evidence for ourselves if we search hard enough or attain enough knowledge in the given field to uncover it? Are there independent sources that we can corroborate the information with? Feelings and thoughts are not enough to be considered evidence. As in law, the burden of proof falls upon those presenting the evidence that refutes the body of information that we have. Sure, some pieces of evidence prove to completely turn a theory on its side, while others are methodological errors, such as Cold Fusion, that prove impossible to reproduce. When accepting a given kernel of information as fact, the line of reasoning and rational thinking is our own to demarcate. It comes down to our educated and highly critical filters that determine whether a given quanta of information is reliable, credible, and ultimately, backed by evidence that can ultimately be falsified. Following this line of thinking, the second segment of this post will focus on the conspiracy theories that even the most educated and well intentioned people may hold as truth.