Europe's Great Berm
The world beyond our shores seems to be entering a zone of instability. Five years from now we may be looking back nostalgically at the decades 1980-2010 as an age of blessed tranquility when unsightly but skillful autocrats like Mubarak (Egypt), Gaddafi (Libya), Ben Ali (Tunisia), Saleh (Yemen), and the monarchs of the Gulf kept their hungry, unemployed, proliferating populations well suppressed.
Turmoil in these places is very bad news, and not only for the effect on oil prices. Real social collapse across the Maghreb-Mashriq (hereinunder "M-M") belt could unleash great population movements, posing problems for Europe and North America both political and ethical.
We have already had reports of Tunisian refugees by the thousand setting sail for Italian territory. Libyans are so far fleeing sideways, into Tunisia and Egypt, but it may soon dawn on them too that Europe is a much more attractive destination. EU bureaucrats are all in a flutter as to how to cope with a full-scale Camp of the Saints scenario.
The M-M countries may not be the biggest potential problems. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and the Yemen have Total Fertility Rates 3.01, 3.01, 1.71, and 4.81 per woman respectively. Just across the Sahara you have Sudan at 4.93, Chad at 5.18, Ethiopia at 6.07, Mali at 6.54, and Niger at a sensational 7.68. (I'm taking my figures from the CIA World Factbook.)
Things are pretty dire in these Sub-Saharan African nations. With ballooning populations putting more and more pressure on resources, they will get worse. Whether aid from the advanced world has been a help or a hindrance to these nations is much debated; but if the aid-giving nations get stuck in a long recession, as seems likely, we shall find out. "Foreign aid tops the list of programs that most [Americans] would like to see cut."
These North African nations that have been boiling over this past few weeks are a great berm or dike protecting Europe from proliferating hundreds of millions further south with dwindling food resources and mostly-dysfunctional governments. Sub-Saharan Africans have in fact been drifting up into the northern nations for decades: Libya is already 15-25 percent Sub-Saharan African. Many of Libya's Africans would like to move on to Europe, and Gaddafi has taken in billions in bribes from Italy to prevent their doing so:
At the heart of the Rome-Tripoli friendship pact is what some critics say amounts to a gigantic bribe that allows Berlusconi's government to fulfill an election promise to combat illegal immigration. The agreement committed Italy to pay Libya some 5 billion dollars …
If continuing disorder in North Africa coincides with a world economic crisis, we might enter a spell in which, for the first time since the Middle Ages, history is driven by great movements of primitive peoples. If we are lucky these movements will be leaderless and disorderly. Should an Attila or a Temujin take charge, things might get really ugly.
This would mainly be Europe's problem, at least at first. We would be observers, though the psychological effect on American liberals of watching the Camp of the Saints play out in the Mediterranean would be interesting to see. The ethical conundrums implicit in coping with tens of millions of desperate African and Muslim migrants would be difficult to discuss, perhaps impossible, within the framework of familiar multicultural pieties.
From the point of view of southern European nations, historical grievances might kick in. Piracy and kidnapping by the M-M nations plagued the south Mediterranean shoreline for centuries. Robert Davies's book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters tells the whole grisly story:
The effect on the European coastal populations was dramatic. Entire areas were depopulated. The author even sketches out an argument that the culture of baroque Italy was determined in part by a turning inward from the terrors of coastal life — from the "fear of the horizon" that afflicted all the regions subject to slave raiding. He tells us … that to this day there is an idiom in Sicilian dialect to express the general idea of being caught by surprise: pigliato dai turchi — "taken by the Turks." The distress of those left behind, deprived of a husband or father, is painful to read about.
And then Europe's problem might become ours too. Cheap hand-held GPS devices make the Atlantic crossing feasible for anyone bold enough. In fact the U.S.A. has already received its first African boat people. They are not likely to be the last.
The boat-people issue is a major topic in the politics of Australia. We are not much more remote from Third World desperation than Australia is, and technology is constantly shrinking the meaning of "remote" anyway. Australia's today may be our tomorrow. We have some thinking to do here.
Will that thinking be done? With so many PC land-mines in this zone, the smart money has to be on "No."