As in geology, in geopolitics pre-quakes often portend larger tremors.
Last week in South Korea, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao -- who, like the rest of the Politburo, is not known for loose lips -- said that China would "protect no one" in resolving the crisis that has resulted from the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel by North Korea. China has zero interest in encouraging instability on the Korean Peninsula, but Wen was clearly signaling to North Korea's leaders that when push is leading to shove China can only be pushed so far. Despite long-standing ties, China's other interests have overtaken its ability to overlook North Korea's erratic trouble-making brinkmanship.
Similarly, last week at the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York, the US signed onto a resolution calling on Israel to open its nuclear facilities for inspection and for a regional conference in 2012 on a Middle East nuclear free zone. As with China and North Korea, the Obama administration was signaling to its long-standing Israeli ally that America's other interests must trump Israel's when their strategic goals conflict -- and they increasingly do, as witnessed by the split over expanded settlements around Jerusalem and no doubt now over the Gaza flotilla. If the US wants to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and disarm Iran's nuclear ambitions, it can no longer overlook Israel's nuclear arsenal and the exception it claims for existing in a bad neighborhood.
Politics, unlike tectonic plate shifts, are more predictable and, at least in human-scale time,
move slowly. But cracks are clearly widening into crevices in the old geopolitical order.