Associate Editor

“Burn me and I’ll drop a hydrogen bomb on your head! Hahaha.”

The Inertia

Last week I spoke with Harvard-educated philosophy professor and surfing devotee Aaron James about his new book Surfing with Sartre. The conversation was fruitful; we unpacked a lot of the theories he develops in his book, which essentially uses the unspoken philosophical ideals most surfers can relate to and pits them against those of Sartre, Camus, and other notable thinkers. More detail on that later.

One thing that was especially striking in our conversation, though, was James’ belief that the average lineup (notwithstanding outliers like Malibu or Lunada Bay) is fairly democratic. In a lot of ways, lineups everywhere model the way countries behave in international relations, he said. Having studied the subject for six years, I was intrigued.

It’s not a perfect comparison. No surfers paddle out with nuclear weapons that could annihilate us all. But certain principles hold. Much like how every surfer just wants his or her share of waves on any given day, one of the fundamental theories of IR is that all countries want their share of power.

There are certain rules of engagement, too. Surfers recognize unspoken rules of priority. Countries recognize each other’s sovereignty and right to self-determination – for the most part. Caveats exist. Locals are often given priority in lineups and/or wield the local card as an excuse to break the rules. The same is true in the way countries behave. There are more powerful countries that exercise influence over smaller, weaker ones. And there are rule breakers who renege on international treaties and are reprimanded in what IR scholars call “naming and shaming.” Much like surfers who get barked at for burning someone. But in the end, every country is vying for their own waves, er, power.


Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been the undisputed regulator of the global lineup – telling others what waves they can and can’t go on, and, really, taking all the best waves that come through.

Meanwhile, China’s sat on the inside picking off leftovers, honing full rotations, and is now second to the top dog in the lineup, not quite a full-fledged challenger, but close. Russia would dispute that – after all, they learned full rotations before the Chinese. But you get the metaphor.

Anyway, if the landscape of a typical lineup resembles the international system, who the hell is North Korea? And could the way the average lineup handles such a person aid in the way we deal with the looming threat of the DPRK’s most recent H-bomb test? Let’s ponder.

Under Kim Jong-il, and now his son Kim Jong-un, North Korea has aggressively sought to gain respect in the international system by flexing its military might and pursuing nuclear ambitions at all costs – even, if reports are to be believed, those of its own people.

Back to the lineup. You know the type. The guy that’ll do anything to get waves even if it involves burning other surfers with reckless abandon, threatening violence, or even intentionally spearing people. That’s North Korea.

And how does a lineup typically deal with that guy? Depends on the lineup, probably. But once at Lowers I witnessed a guy in a bright blue wetsuit yell at and burn people left and right. Then a brawny fellow spoke up: “Hey, man, stop it. You’re ruining things for everyone.”

“Fuck you!” screamed bright blue wetsuit guy. Brawny fellow quietly but assertively paddled in blue guy’s direction. Blue guy paddled away in retreat screaming obscenities all the way to shore, while brawny fellow pursued him unabated. Once blue guy was far enough away and it was certain he wouldn’t try to get back in the water, brawny fellow paddled back out. Problem solved.

The reality with North Korea is obviously infinitely more complicated – China notably has an interest in North Korea’s existence as a buffer from US military installations. But once North Korea crosses a line, will a brawny fellow step up while the rest of the world sits back and applauds? The surf lineup suggests as much.

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