A gangland view of international relations


What links behavior in the underworld and international relations is what are called in international relations "spheres of influence." 

The equivalent in the world of gangs and higher levels of business and warfare in the underworld are territories, or markets.
Boardwalk Empire is a TV series centered in Atlantic City during Prohibition, with mob rivalries and alliances ranging up to New York, down to Philadelphia, and out to Chicago. The principal business was alcohol, but there was also prostitution, loan sharking, and drugs. The series has vignettes about the tensions and accommodations among Jewish, Italian, Irish, and "Negro" outlaw entrepreneurs and their organizations, stories of love and frustration, and lots of bare breasts that would not have been allowed on the large or small screens in my youth.
Newspaper readers and viewers of other series can perceive both real life and fictional depictions of what is current in many places, with the principal role now played by drugs in the economics and territorial warfare of the underworld. 
Israeli police have their hands full not only with threats of Palestinian violence, but with drive by shootings and explosions associated with territorial disputes between crime families. There is warfare among among Jewish crime families, mostly in cities near Tel Aviv, and among Arab crime families in Jaffa and Lod. Illegal gambling, loan sharking, prostitution, and drugs are at the heart of the country''s organize crime. 
The cops are forced to take things seriously, rather than pass over killings and attempted killings as disputes among criminals, when they occur in public places and injure innocent by-standers.
Parallels of such territorial stuff in international politics are currently prominent in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
As in the underworld, peace in international politics depends on a delicate balance between recognizing various spheres of influence, with powers on each side of the borders wise enough to know their limits, and not provoking their rivals by overreaching.
Front and center in each region, but not the only issues, are the Ukraine and Palestine.
For reasons of history, ethnicity, and economic relations, the Ukraine is best seen in the Russian sphere of influence. European and US efforts to wean it away have contributed some or much of the current crisis. Hopefully the dust will settle with a minimum of casualties, and no work for the Russian troops arrayed on the Ukraine''s eastern border, or the American and European troops  exercising in the Baltic region.
There are reports of gunfights between "unofficial" gangs of pro-Russians fighting with "unofficial" gangs of Ukrainian nationalists, with some casualties.
The rhetoric coming from German officials is more moderate than what we are hearing from the Americans.
Explain that by greater German economic interests with Russia, its closeness to whatever bad might happen, or the greater sway of pragmatism in Europe as opposed to the idealism in America''s civic religion.
The White House may be going into high gear, or perhaps only full gas in neutral.
"Just as the United States resolved in the aftermath of World War II to counter the Soviet Union and its global ambitions, Mr. Obama is focused on isolating President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia by cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood and effectively making it a pariah state."
Russia is not what the Soviet Union used to be, but it''s still too much to be made into a pariah.
Yet again, the President may be aiming high and shooting low.
"So far, economic advisers and White House aides urging a measured approach have won out, prevailing upon a cautious president to take one incremental step at a time out of fear of getting too far ahead of skittish Europeans and risking damage to still-fragile economies on both sides of the Atlantic. . . . The more hawkish faction in the State and Defense Departments has grown increasingly frustrated, privately worrying that Mr. Obama has come across as weak and unintentionally sent the message that he has written off Crimea after Russia’s annexation. They have pressed for faster and more expansive sanctions, only to wait while memos sit in the White House without action." 
Palestine, for reasons of its history and Israel''s concern for its security, as well as geography and Israel''s economic and military power, is best viewed as part of Israel''s sphere of influence.
Or maybe an Israeli protectorate. The people swept up in recent Israeli activity throughout the West Bank are Hamas and Jihadist rivals of Mahmoud Abbas'' PLO, who are inclined to violence against Israelis and Palestinians.
Russia is in the league of great powers, while Israel is only a regional power. Despite these differences, both Eastern Europe and the Middle East are likely to be more stable if both spheres are recognized.
As in the underworld, nothing is simple in international politics. There are various centers of concern, several aspirants for a greater share of whatever comes from power or influence. Beyond the Ukraine, other points of Russian-Western rivalry are the Baltic countries and Poland. None of those places are strong enough to stand alone against Russia. Their futures may depend on Russia not wanting to provoke too great a response from the US or the EU, and the willingness of Poles, Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians not to drift too close to the West or too far from cooperation with Russia. Complicating the stability, especially in the Baltic countries, are substantial minorities of ethnic Russians who might be hoping for something like what happened in Crimea, and what may be developing in the eastern part of the Ukraine.
Seeking clout in the Middle East are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, and Turkey with lesser efforts coming from Dubai, along with persistent efforts by Washington to assert US interests..
The principal site of the competition involving Saudi Arabia and Iran is Syria, with Russia a major player, the US trying hard, and Israel mobilized enough to deal with any spillovers. 
As in the underworld, nothing is absolutely clear. There are movements and motives, sometimes traceable to heads of state, and sometimes to units or individuals flexing their muscles from somewhere down in the state organizations or among non-governmental organizations or gangs with nationalist or religious inspiration pursuing their own agendas and trying to justify their fundraising among governmental and other donors.
Among the latest Palestinian threats is one to cancel Oslo and declare the end of the Palestine National Authority (PLA), "give the keys" back to Israel and accept the status of occupied territories. Or maybe to hope for the UN to administer whatever the UN is willing to call "Palestine."
That is not a pleasant prospect for Israel, but even less pleasant for the Palestinian leadership and those close to it.
We''ve heard those ideas several times in the past. Likely to block it would be the need of Palestinian elites to accept substantial losses in prestige and business opportunities. They would have to readjust from the widespread corruption of the Palestine National Authority to whatever they could obtain from another regime.
Abbas Junior would probably lose his Palestine cell phone company if Dad actually disbands the PLA.
More recently we hear that the Palestinian leadership now has several conditions for the extension of peace talks.
  • That Israel agree to draw the outline of the borders of a Palestinian state within the next three months; 
  • Halt settlement construction; 
  • Withdraw Israeli troops from the West Bank’s Area C to the lines held before the Second Intifada; 
  • Release the fourth wave of prisoners that it has until now refused to do; 
  • End what are called “disruptions” in Jerusalem; and 
  • Open Palestinian institutions in the city.
With such a list of pre-conditions for talks, the Palestinian negotiators can plan doing something else for the next weeks, months, or years.
We hear about justice, democracy, and human rights from the advocates of both the Ukraine and Palestine, but those terms appear out of place.
Both Ukraine and Palestine are a long way from gaining membership among the enlightened, providing justice, democracy, and human rights to their residents, or expected to be treated as such by others..
No one should envy either Ukrainians or Palestinians, but much if not the vast majority of their problems come from themselves. Both have long traditions of widespread corruption, ethnic and religious hatreds. 
Reports are that Vice President Joe Biden has given the Ukrainian leadership a stern lecture about corruption.
That might temper the adjectives that his boss can use in justifying US support for Ukraine.
Influencing Israeli perspectives toward those places is anti-Semitism of the old Christian variety in the Ukraine, and the Muslim version among Palestinians. 
American officials upset at Israel''s delegation in the UN for not supporting US resolutions in behalf of the Ukraine showed again that they don''t know all that much about history or international politics. 
Pleasing the United States is a higher priority for Israeli policymakers than pleasing Russia. However, pleasing Russia is a higher priority than pleasing the Ukraine.
It isn''t easy being a world leader. Not only is the Obama team having trouble in the Ukraine and the Middle East, but  there are problems where an ascendant China is concerned about its sphere of influence, North Korea is rattling its capacity, and Japan and South Korea are still tense about their shared history.