“Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”
Alphen, Netherlands. 27 August. The stock market crashes in China. Saudi crude drops to $50 per barrel. A migrant dies aboard an over-crowded wreck lost in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. A young girl in East London logs onto an Islamist web-site run by a British jihadi out of Raqqa in northern Syria. A Californian student joins an online petition to protest against global warming. A Moroccan Islamist attacks Europeans on a train between Amsterdam and Paris. Three Russian Tu-160M bombers fly down the coast of northern Norway deliberately violating Norwegian airspace. Welcome to the world of catastrophic interdependence and bad globalisation and the policy and strategy vacuum that is today’s West. What if anything can the ‘West’ do?
Catastrophic interdependence goes something like this. Since the 2008 financial crash China has been the saviour of the world economy enabling much of the anaemic economic growth that helped prevent global economic meltdown. However, China is about to pay the price for not building a sustainable economy as China’s debt-fuelled economy crashes, depriving the world of economic drive. The Chinese Communist Party faced with the prospect of an ouster resorts to armed nationalism to shore up its power base as the contradiction of free market capitalism competing with a command economy breaks the Chinese state.
The US economy is too debt-ridden and American economic growth too fragile to replace China as the driver of global growth. The Eurozone again faces economic collapse as the exports of its beating heart – Germany – falter and then collapse. Unemployment in Europe again soars opening the door to political populists and extremists offering simple, and to some people romantic solutions to incredibly complex problems.
In the developing world the consequences are more profound. Many countries across the world are one-shot economies that rely heavily on the export of commodities such as oil, wood and precious metals to meet the basic needs of their growing populations. In the absence of Chinese demand commodity prices collapse placing Nigeria. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States under extreme duress. No longer can Riyadh buy off Islamists as Saudi Arabia joins the now long list of failing states across the region. Iran is strengthened but so too is ISIS as the prospect of a Caliphate offered the false hope of ‘stability’.
A final reckoning between Shia and Sunni extremists explodes, leading to a general Middle Eastern war that also threatens to engulf Israel. The migration flows into Europe in 2015 that caused such concern suddenly seem like a trickle as many millions head north and west seeking safety and security in Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. Free movement across Europe is suspended but it is too late as EU member-states simply force the migrants to keep on moving north and west.
Terrorist attacks break out across the European Continent as networks of Islamist radicals become established feeding on disillusioned youth. Growing immigrant populations begin to exert and impose identity politics paralysing the political action of Western European states that whilst powerful on paper have become virtually ungovernable as ‘communities’ retreat into mutually-loathing ghettos and European cities begin to look more like broken parts of Africa and the Middle East than Europe.
And then there is Russia. The Putin regime facing the collapse of the Russian economy that threatens the survival of the regime seizes the opportunity of Europe’s distraction to divert attention by completing the occupation of much of Ukraine. Moscow also seizes the Baltic States. Faced with challenges on many fronts NATO, the EU and its member-states issue a welter of condemnation…but do nothing. However, even in the hour of Putin’s ‘triumph’ Russia itself begins to collapse as beyond the Ural Mountains Moscow’s writ fails. Much of Russia becomes yet another ungoverned space decisively reinforcing the power and wealth of the Russian mafia and the global criminal network of which it is a part. The trafficking of drugs, arms and people accelerates unchallenged.
The blame game begins. The West must bear its responsibility for catastrophic interdependence and bad globalisation. The West has gone strategically-AWOL these seven years past. With the failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya. Powerful Western leaders have retreated into sound-bite, gesture, and gimmick politics. Instead of confronting dangers European leaders have wasted political capital and energy on a fantasy ‘union’ that will never work and which actually prevents power, influence and action rather than aggregates it. In the margins even the President of mighty America sounds ever more like a junior policy-wonk in a think-tank offering pious hope rather than decisive action.
So, what to do? Even if I am deliberately painting a very dark picture all of the threats I outline above are plausible and interaction between them probable. Therefore, it is time for Western governments to return to the first principles of power, policy and strategy-making and turn analysis into action. Critically, it means the ‘West’ together reinvesting in the tools of influence and effect – diplomacy, intelligence and armed forces. It also means the creation of policy, strategy and structure than can effectively prevent and manage the consequences of catastrophic interdependence and bad globalisation. Above all, it demands of our leaders the political courage to see my big, dark picture – my Edvard Monck of a strategic picture – tell people the hard truth, and then act.
It will be tough. Bad globalisation is a world defined by a growing battle between interconnectedness and interaction, between power and ideology, between hatred and hope, between values and consequences, between extreme faith and no faith, and between old structure and new anarchy in which state power however powerful simply does not have the same currency or value as it had in the past. However, the alternative would be disastrous. A continued penchant for political bullshit (sorry!) by leaders would be unforgivable for it would mean ceding the realm of dangerous change that is the world today to the forces of evil, to effectively leave the world at the mercy of predators and predation simply because leaders are no longer capable of effective policy-making or the crafting or sound strategy.
A senior Canadian friend of mine said to me this week how nothing is possible anymore, until suddenly it is possible. He is right. It is time for our leaders to get a grip. It is time for Europeans, North Americans and their fellow-travellers in Asia-Pacific such as Australia, India and Japan to begin properly preparing for and thus preventing the picture I paint. It is time for our leaders to cast aside the old, tired mantra that public opinion would not understand. It is time for them to stand up and lead. It is time for a new West that is more idea than place to confront the forces of catastrophic interdependence and bad globalisation.
If not bad globalisation and catastrophic interdependence mixed with political vacillation, weakness and incompetence will surely permit all these separate evils to merge into one - the worst of all worlds. A world that is ever more prone to shock, but ever less capable of coping with shock. Yes, the world is complex; but managing complexity is precisely what government is meant to be for. Yes, effective policy means tough decisions; but that is why we pay our leaders and why they enjoy the fruits and the perks of taxpayer-funded power.
Pericles, the great leader of Ancient Greece and defender of the Greek demos once said; “freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it”. It is time to get real before it is too late. Big West, little West or no West – it is up to our leaders.