Europe is dead. Long live Europe!

Driven by civil war, insurgency, poverty, and instability in their home countries, increasing numbers of migrants from all across the developing world are converging on Europe, often with heart-rending consequences.

European reactions to the accelerating mass migration have varied considerably. In Germany and Austria, both the government and the people are welcoming the newcomers with open arms, at least for the time being. Elsewhere, the reaction has ranged from distaste to outright xenophobia, especially in geographically vulnerable and economically depressed Eastern Europe.

“I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban remarked recently. Orban and his center-right Fidesz Party are under pressure from the ultranationalists on his right flank, who have been, shall we say, somewhat more emphatic in their rejection of the refugees.

Europe has never been an island.

This is a historically myopic attitude. Hungary–much like France and England–is itself named after a conquering band of migrants that overwhelmed the borders of a no-longer-relevant state and decided to stick around for a thousand years. As is so often the case, the people that are claiming to be “native Hungarians” have more in common with the people they deem outsiders than they probably realize.

Looking to the future rather than the past, it’s clear enough that ethnic nationalism in Europe, while politically resurgent, is built upon an interesting paradox: the two pillars of the faith, ethnic solidarity and national power, now militate against one another.

Ultranationalists like Anders Breivik argue that a purely white, Christian Europe would be a resurgent Europe, but nothing could be further from the truth. The demographic data indicate that such a Europe would wither into total economic and political irrelevance within a few generations.

The EU-wide fertility rate now stands at 1.55, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Population loss creates a vicious economic feedback cycle: the rapidly aging population requires an increasing share of resources that younger people struggle to replace, leading to stagnation.

At this point, those same young people, sick of sky-high unemployment and governments that favor the interests of pensioners over their own, emigrate to greener pastures in the developing world, reinforcing the death spiral. The worst-afflicted countries could quite literally disappear from the map over the course of the 21st century if things don’t change.

As of 2015, the Germans have snatched the low birthrate crown from ultra-geriatric Japan, where engineers are starting to replace all those missing babies with androids. But Germany also enjoys the luxury of having Europe’s largest and most productive workforce, meaning it has more time on the clock than most other countries in a similar demographic position.

More importantly, ordinary Germans seem to be much more receptive to welcoming immigrants and refugees than other European voters, perhaps due to the country’s unique historical circumstances.

As I see it, European states have three basic choices at this point: maintaining the status quo, going ultranationalist, or accepting the reality of mass emigration and facilitating it. The first choice is really no choice at all; it will only delay the incidence of one of the other two paths until those states no longer have the resources to exert any control over the process.

The second option, which Putin has experimented with and could spread in Eastern Europe, involves invoking an existential national threat–namely the specter of being overrun by barbarian hordes–to make closing the borders and raising the birthrate a patriotic duty. This was a linchpin of Hitler’s domestic policy, and fits into a larger program of militarization and authoritarian governance. I can’t imagine that any country adopting this direction could stay in the European Union for long.

The third option is risky and politically gut-wrenching. It’s also Europe’s best chance for long-run prosperity. The European states that are most open to immigration will reap major economic benefits as time goes on, and not just from an improvement in demographic fundamentals. Many of the refugees fleeing instability along the European perimeter were middle-class, skilled professionals in their own countries who can add value in their new homes. The data support the notion that immigration tends to boost economic growth.

That being said, Europeans have every right to be concerned about the short-run economic costs of absorbing and supporting huge numbers of refugees from crisis-hit areas. This is surely not going to be a one-time deal, especially given the probable future impact of climate change on many developing countries.

On top of that, Europeans are worried about the cultural impact of the newcomers. Fears of sharia law being implemented across a newly transformed “Eurabia” are risible–Muslims are currently slated to make up less than 8% of the continent’s population by 2030. But the migration crisis does put considerable pressure on the hyphen between “nation” and “state.” Europe and its migrants will exert reciprocal change on one another. The core issue is where the balance is ultimately going to fall three or four generations down the line.

The “native Europeans” suspect that this bargain is a Faustian one that will sacrifice the nation in order to save the state. To some extent, they are correct. Germany, France, the UK, and many other European countries will be significantly less Caucasian in 2050 than they are today. Germany might have a Turkish- or Syrian-German Prime Minister. Perhaps one of the House of Windsor will marry a person of British Asian extraction.

But do we really think that Europe will be any less “European” then than it is now? I don’t. Like most migrants, today’s refugees primarily seek a higher standard of living and more opportunities for their children–and such opportunities are most quickly located by assimilating. Most are completely disinterested in turning Berlin into Damascus or Paris into Tangier.

Thus, the best way to forge a “European” future for Europe is simply to turn these people into Europeans as quickly as possible. Get them housing and jobs and put their children in school. Invest in the necessary facilities. It will be worth it.

The fact is that the Europe of the “native Europeans” had effectively signed its own death warrant well before the advent of the crisis. And it is also a fact that every crisis conceals an opportunity. Let’s hope that Europe’s leadership and people end up seeing it that way too.

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On Borders and the Islamic State

Ever since I picked my dissertation back up in January after a year and a half of near-total inattention, I’ve tried to get back into the academic mindset by thinking about the security situation a bit. While I would have preferred that world peace had broken out in the interim and left me with nothing to write about, warfare is a depressingly consistent feature of international politics. That goes double for certain unlucky parts of the world, like any country sharing a border with Russia that isn’t China, or the whole of Western Asia, where borders in general now seem less meaningful than ever (despite Saudi Arabia’s best efforts).

I’ve always been interested in international borders. Two of my favorite books growing up were the New Penguin Atlas of Ancient History and the New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History, both compiled by Dr. Colin Mcevedy, who his 2005 obituary described as a “psychiatrist, historian, demographer and polymath” (in other words, the real-world version of Hari Seldon). You could pick one of these atlases up, thumb it like a novelty flipbook, and watch an animation of hundreds to thousands of years of human history, seen from near-Earth orbit, play out in a few seconds. Here’s a version on YouTube if you need help visualizing this.

Watching these things, one realizes that borders are what states make of them. That is to say, a stable border exists where two neighboring countries agree to put it. When one or both parties disagree, war tends to follow–or at least it did up until the latter part of the 20th century, when the United States and the Soviet Union, and then the United States alone, decided to spend its blood, treasure, and international credibility freezing most borders between countries in place.

In 2015, that rule is looking less like a permanent change and more like a blip on human history’s radar. Last year, the borders of Ukrainian Crimea vanished into Russia with a whiff of artillery fire, followed by a quick referendum. Meanwhile, certain disputed islands in the South China Sea currently enjoy six sets of borders at once, which might be some kind of modern record and frankly seems unsustainable.

But the real action is taking place in the countries formerly known as Iraq and Syria. These states are being steadily consumed from the inside out by the Islamic State, a virulent political cancer that is abhorrent and fascinating in equal measure.

Dreamers gonna dream.

The Islamic State doesn’t fit neatly into any of the analytical categories we use to describe political entities and substate actors in the 21st century. For instance, it is a successor organization to the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Iraq, and it uses the media to broadcast its atrocities like a terrorist group would. But it does other stuff that terrorist groups don’t typically do, in that it controls and governs large amounts of territory and is not primarily interested in extorting political concessions from a government.

It looks like a classic insurgency from some angles, particularly in its use of infiltration tactics and its steady efforts to take territory away from the Iraqi and Syrian governments, but it is also spending its resources cleansing the areas under its control of ethnic and religious undesirables, and it is replacing those it has killed or expelled with homesteading families from all over the world. It acts like a nation-state by fielding a regular army and governing the areas under its control–collecting taxes and providing services–but has also declared itself the center of a supranational caliphate which will eventually dissolve all international borders in the areas under its control:

“Nothing remains after the elimination of these borders, the borders of humiliation, and the breaking of the idol, the idol of nationalism, except the caliphate in accordance with the prophetic method.”

– Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, Islamic State spokesman

This is a fascinating quote on several levels. First, we have the reestablishment of the caliphate–and not just any old caliphate, like the Ummayad, the Abbasid, or the Ottoman varieties, all of which came to resemble secular imperial administrations to some degree–but the original article, the Rashidun, which was led by the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood recently analyzed the religious scholarship of the Islamic State’s leadership, concluding that the June 2014 declaration of a new caliphate was meant to initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. The Islamic version of the apocalypse involves the armies of the righteous getting the tar kicked out of them by the Antichrist right up to the very last minute, when Jesus returns to Earth and leads them to final victory.

With this in mind, the Islamic State’s many gross provocations come into sharper focus. They’re following a script that requires them to turn literally the entire non-Salafi non-Sunni Muslim world into deadly enemies.

Needless to say, that is highly atypical (although not unprecedented) behavior for a state. So is the obsession with erasing the borders of the Middle East. Most irredentist regimes (such as Revolutionary Iran) are focused on redrawing borders and then fortifying them. Not the Islamic State. Al-Adnani’s references to “the borders of humiliation” and “the idol of nationalism” refer not only to the former colonial powers of the West, but the Westphalian system of nation-states itself. The degree to which the Islamic State’s ideology is actually Medieval in origin is debatable, but at least in this respect, the appellation fits.

It’s important to remember that the establishment and spread of the nation-state, along with the parceling out of the Earth’s territory into 200-odd sets of borders delineating who controls what, is a relatively recent phenomenon. A thousand or more years in the past, temporal and spiritual powers were conflated in both the Muslim world and in Christendom, and borders meant significantly less than they do now. Politics was characterized by multiple overlapping spheres of authority: the emperor or the king, the pope, and various flavors of liege lord in Europe, and the caliph, the emir, the city, and the tribe across the Middle East and North Africa. The people living on a single piece of territory might owe allegiance to several parallel organizations or hierarchies at the same time. Needless to say, it was a confusing and dangerous time to be alive.

The Islamic State is not at interested in restoring this kind of political system. It hopes to establish a highly centralized, totalitarian theocracy. But when you look at places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, or Afghanistan–places where the state and its borders mean little, and the new caliphate and its allies have established a foothold–the facts on the ground spell out a similar kind of liminal space. It’s not quite anarchy, but it certainly isn’t hierarchy, either.

I very much doubt that the Islamic State will be able to erase the borders of the Middle East and reestablish the classical caliphate. However, I don’t think that the international community is going to be able to get rid of it very easily, either. The ideal behind it is powerful, it has romantic appeal, and it is loose in the wilds of the Internet. Although the meme resonates with only a very small fraction of Muslims globally, that will be enough to keep it alive longer than we might think.

The real risk is not that the Islamic State will explode. It is that it will persist indefinitely, allowing that small fraction a chance to tick upwards year by year. If it lasts another five years, or ten, how many people will be joining its ranks at that point? These guys aren’t in a rush. They’re making themselves comfortable and settling in for the long haul.

I am generally in favor of selective engagement when it comes to grand strategy, but when it comes to the Islamic State, I don’t think the United States can afford to wait. We, our allies, and as many of the nation-states of the Middle East as possible should act now, with overwhelming force, to strangle this particularly ugly baby in its crib.

Food Security Hits Home

For my second field paper at UCLA, I’ve been working on a project investigating correlations between food insecurity and various kinds of political instability. This subject received renewed attention from political scientists and development economists after the global Food Price Crisis of 2007-8, where prices for the four major staple grains (wheat, corn, rice and soybeans) jumped 200-300% in months.

It got another big shot in the arm when food prices went even higher in 2010-11 and the Arab Spring revolutions broke out contemporaneously. There were many anecdotal suggestions that high food prices contributed to regime-toppling unrest in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere. A new wave of academic research has discovered some empirical truth in the claim, although there is disagreement as to whether high prices, price volatility or both are causing the instability, and no detailed mechanisms have been identified.

Do high food prices cause regime change? How about food price volatility? If so, can food insecurity collapse a regime all by itself, or do other factors (such as poor growth) need to be present as well? Are there systematic differences in how food insecurity works in democracies and autocracies? How about wealthy countries and poor ones? These are the questions I’m looking at.

Out of all of those topics, the last one is probably the least controversial. The assumption has been that political instability caused by food insecurity is basically confined to the developing world, and is especially prevalent in extremely poor countries that are also net food importers (designated Low Income Food Deficit Countries).

We don’t need to do a fancy large-N study to understand that food insecurity is a big problem in Africa and some parts of Asia, where food costs account for 50% or more of household budgets. All we need to do is take a look at what’s happening in Somalia right now, where corrosive political effects of serious food insecurity are on full display. Even the Al Shabaab Islamist militant group–an epitome of the homegrown militia that is supposed to flourish in failed states–appears to be splitting apart under the economic and human pressures imposed by the famine.

The Somali Famine of 2011

When it comes to wealthy countries like the United States, however, where food costs amount to 10-15% of household budgets, food insecurity as such isn’t supposed to be a big deal. Although it may have some impact at the margins–maybe affecting our choice of grocery store, or how often we go out to eat–we don’t have crowds of hungry people in the streets screaming for bread, let alone millions of starving people in the countryside, and we probably never will.

That’s something to be thankful for. But we should start worrying about food insecurity and its political ramifications nonetheless. Food insecurity has arrived in the developed world in style, and its insidious effects, while still subtle, are starting to make themselves known.

A new study out of the University of Washington finds that healthy food is significantly more expensive than unhealthy food. This is not surprising. The more alarming result is that a healthy diet–even as defined by the US Department of Health, which is hardly a paragon of nutrition science–is simply no longer affordable for many Americans.

According to the study, hitting the government’s daily recommended allowance for potassium adds an average of $380 to the average consumer’s food costs. That’s another $32 a month per person per year for a single nutrient; when you start looking at other important nutrients as well, and buying for a family instead of an individual, costs rise considerably from there.

What do you do if you can’t afford good food? Simple enough–you eat bad food. The study also finds that a 1% increase in saturated fat and sugar consumption on the part of a consumer will lead to a significant decline in his or her food budget. If there is little to no margin for error, you are going to go for those cheap, tasty calories.

Here’s what the findings boil down to: wealthy people eat freshly grown meats, fruits and vegetables purchased at Whole Foods; poor people eat petrochemicals via the industrial corn food chain, which spits out processed, preserved and fast foods.

So even if poor people don’t starve in the U.S., they sure as heck suffer from obesity at radically higher rates. Obese people may not appear to be hungry, but in fact, obesity is often a manifestation of starvation–only for nutrients, not calories.

The health effects aren’t as immediate, but they are deadly nonetheless, and although the social and political costs are defrayed, they do come due eventually. By one estimate, the obesity epidemic has added $174 billion to our national health care costs. Obviously, the political debate about how to address such costs is only beginning.

Obese American Children

Diffuse economic pressures like these ratchet up over time, and as they do, they lower the standard of living. This in turn can produce demands for redistribution and widespread frustration with the political process. It can most certainly lead to political instability in the long term, particularly if the impact on well-being is differential by income, ethnicity, or geography. We may be witnessing the incipient stages of that process.

Food insecurity in the U.S. doesn’t look like food insecurity in Somalia, but I would argue it is quite serious nonetheless.