Hurricane Harvey: A geopolitical force of nature
What’s happening to the U.S. Gulf Coast is difficult to exaggerate and even more difficult to ignore. Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey have killed several people and displaced countless others. Situated higher in the Hill Country, Austin has been spared the worst of what Harvey has wrought in cities like Rockport, Houston and Corpus Christi. But it is near enough to the coast that most of us who call it home know someone afflicted by this particular natural disaster. In a way, it has become personal to us. Communities – and in the United States, states are absolutely communities – are funny like that.
Nature, of course, is indifferent to communities. It is ignorant to the objects of our study here at GPF. It doesn’t recognise the strategic imperatives of the United States any more than it recognises those of China, which, like Texas, is currently a victim of nature’s capricious power. Typhoon Hato, which earned a signal 10 – the highest possible rating in Hong Kong’s classification system – struck the region on August 23. The South China Morning Post described it as “the worst typhoon that Macau has seen since 1968.” Typhoon Pakhar, which earned a signal 8 rating, hit the region a few days later on August 27.
At GeoPolitical Futures, we presume to chart the course of international events because, if you know where to look and how to interpret the data, the behaviour of nations is predictable. Their behaviour is predictable partly because it is anchored to impersonal forces. The Himalayas, a stalwart fixture in southern Asia, shape relations between China and India. The North European Plain – the superhighway for military invasion – has defined European politics for centuries and will define it for many more. Changes to these kinds of fixtures come slow, if at all.
Natural disasters like Harvey and Hato are unpredictable. (Advances in meteorological technology clue us in to general arrival times and broad behaviour, sure, but even as late as last week no one could confidently say whether Harvey would turn east or west.)
They come quickly and, compared to great plains and mountain chains, leave just as quickly. Put simply, there are things that cannot be accounted for ahead of time. Think about Japan’s bad luck at the Battle of Midway. Remember Gen. Robert E. Lee’s miscalculation at Gettysburg. Recall Mount Tambora, whose eruption in 1815 would destroy crop harvests around the world, giving the world in 1816 what would be known as the Year Without a Summer.
No matter how diligent or rigorous we may be, there are circumstances we will not be able to anticipate, and the only antidote for that is to be quick to recognise when those circumstances are upon us and to correct our course accordingly.
Hurricane Harvey, and the concurrent storms of southern China, are serious enough to consider whether they qualify.
Let’s consider, then, the geopolitical importance of the storms that have stricken China and the United States, the