Letter from the Editor: May/June 2011

Last month I read a New York Times article explaining how the world’s leading geophysicists and geologists are beginning to realize how little they really know about the tectonic plates colliding beneath the earth’s surface. New and deadly faults blindsided the scientific world when they wreaked havoc in New Zealand and Haiti in the past two years, and the destructive power of the known fault buried off Japan’s coast had been vastly underestimated until last month’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.

The Times article was interesting in itself, but also brought to mind the analogous unpredictability, uncertainty, and danger resulting from the constant, and often unseen, geopolitical forces colliding just beneath the surface of international life. Tremors of war, terrorism, tyranny, and rebellion are always in motion, shifting the ground under us. And, like the earthquakes, they sometimes blindside the experts—striking without warning and with unanticipated ferocity, and taking us on a dangerous journey to an unknown destination.

In the midst of these volatile and violent times, when we have become accustomed to expect the unexpected, we find that America’s least experienced president, barely half way through his term, has been tested abroad far more than most of his more seasoned predecessors were, and by a portfolio of challenges more complex and as dangerous as any ever faced by an American president.

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In his contribution to this issue, Frank Loy, a former undersecretary of state in the Clinton administration and an early supporter and adviser to candidate Obama, takes stock in the president’s handling of these challenges during the first two years in the Oval Office. In his favorable assessment, Loy sees a president alert to the world’s rising multipolarity and the limits of American power who is pioneering an “ambitious realism” that “deftly mixes high ambition, caution, and pragmatism.” The course Barack Obama is steering, Loy believes, will allow America to play a leading global role in the years ahead.

While the president—and the world—focuses on the rebellions in the Middle East and North Africa that were unanticipated only a few months ago, we present two articles in this issue to help you prepare for the tectonic political movements now taking place on the northern half of the Korean peninsula. Three authors—Robert Kaplan, Abraham Denmark, and Gordon Chang—present two articles between them that examine North Korea, one generally from the inside out, and the other from the outside in.

There are two words—nuclear weapons—that explain why the coming crisis in North Korea will have an urgency that is difficult to contemplate in a time when our attention is directed elsewhere. As you will more fully appreciate after reading these articles—dense with information and troubling insight—the world is dealing with a form of rule that combines knee jerk militaristic bellicosity with the claustral destructiveness of a dysfunctional family. Armed to the teeth, starving its people into sullen submission, the Kim Dynasty (soon to get a new incarnation) has driven its benighted nation to the edge of collapse. And, when (not if) that collapse comes, the race to find, seize, and control the country’s dispersed nukes before one is launched or “misplaced” will focus the civilized world’s attention. China has positioned itself for a leading role in that drama, as usual, that is, also as usual, driven by self-interest but otherwise inscrutable.

Eric Edelman, a former US ambassador to Turkey, along with co-author Mara Karlin, offer a vivid accounting of the past thirty-odd years of America’s well-intended missteps in Lebanon—a country once considered the world’s crossroads, but now a national gangland for some of the world’s more loathsome troublemakers. It is a largely unhappy tale of a nation once enchanted, but now war weary, and “hostage to the whims of external actors.”

Franco Pavoncello, the president of John Cabot University in Rome, takes us on a journey to explain the origins, the rationale, and guiding principles that drove European unity, and the contradictions and realities that now threaten its survival. And Roland Flamini’s tale of the sex scandal that has embroiled Italy’s now infamous Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as well as having tied him, at a most untimely moment, to his bunga-bunga party co-conspirator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, shows that Rome’s great political arena has become a theater of the absurd.

There’s more here, Jamie Kirchick, Seth Cropsey, Arthur Milikh, Camille Pecastaing, and Apoorva Shah—all of whom have made contributions that will widen your horizons. We thank them, and, as always, welcome your comments and suggestions.

— James S. Denton

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