Is a vulnerable world teetering on the edge of a new Dark Age?

Communities everywhere are feeling more vulnerable and the planet is suffering stresses too. Shutterstock/Nejron Photo

We appear to have reached one of those extraordinary moments in history when people everywhere, communities and even entire nations, feel increasingly stressed and vulnerable. The same may be said of the planet as a whole.

Whether intellectually or intuitively, many are asking the same question: Where are we heading? How do we explain the long list of financial, environmental and humanitarian emergencies, epidemics, small and larger conflicts, genocides, war crimes, terrorist attacks and military interventions? Why does the international community seem powerless to prevent any of this?

There is no simple or single answer to this conundrum, but two factors can shed much light.

The first involves a global power shift and the prospect of a new Cold War. The second relates to globalisation and the crises generated by the sheer scale of cross-border flows.

Is a new Cold War in the making?

The geopolitical shift has resulted in a dangerous souring of America’s relations with Russia and China.

The dispute over Ukraine is the latest chapter in the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Washington and Moscow. In what is essentially a civil war in which over 3,000 people have been killed, the two great powers have chosen to support opposing sides in the conflict by all means short of outright intervention.

The incorporation of Crimea into Russia, Moscow’s decision to use force in Georgia in 2008 and its support for the independence of the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are part of the same dynamic.

The conduct of Russian governments in the Putin era has been at times coercive and often clumsy at home and abroad. But the United States has also much to answer for. For the last 25 years its foreign policy has been unashamedly triumphalist.

In his 1992 State of the Union address, President George Bush senior declared:

By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.

Since then we have seen the bombing of Serbia without UN Security Council approval, US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the US invasion of Iraq in defiance of UN opposition, overt support for the colour revolutions on Russia’s doorstep (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan), and the Magnitsky Act singling out Russia for human rights violations. Western military intervention in Libya, which contrary to assurances brought about regime change, dealt a further blow to the relationship.

And now the Ukraine crisis has led to steadily expanding US and European sanctions against Russia and renewed efforts to ramp up NATO deployments and joint exercises in Eastern Europe.

Are we seeing the emergence of a new Cold War? Though ideology is now less conspicuous, the underlying structure of the conflict is remarkably similar. The trans-Atlantic alliance is once again seeking to contain and erode Russian power and influence, this time round by reaching ever closer to Russian borders.

Mishandling China’s rise

Simultaneously, through President Barack Obama’s “strategic pivot to Asia”, the US is committed to redeploying 60% of US air and sea power to Asia by 2020. It has supported the Philippines in its maritime dispute with China, strengthened the security commitment to Japan, allocated troops to the Philippines, Australia and Singapore, and agreed to supply Taiwan with advanced weapon systems.

These and other measures are part of a wider strategy designed to thwart China’s rise as a major centre of power and so maintain US supremacy in the Asia Pacific.

In response China has vigorously asserted its position in maritime disputes with the Philippines and Japan, pursued an economic charm offensive in Central Asia and Southeast Asia, proposed the establishment of two new “silk roads” and expanded relations with Russia, the most dramatic development to date being the $400 billion gas deal signed in Shanghai in May this year.

We face rising risks and uncertainties

Put simply, a new Cold War is in the making; perhaps the Cold War never ended.

This US nuclear submarine is part of the vast arsenals the major powers have arrayed against each other around the world. AAP

Both the United States and Russia are modernising their nuclear forces, making them more lethal than ever. Of their combined arsenal of over 15,000 nuclear weapons, about 1,800 warheads are on high alert, ready for use at short notice. Should even a tiny fraction of these weapons be used, the humanitarian impact would be catastrophic.

The nuclear risk is compounded by US efforts to retain global supremacy just as Russia is reasserting itself after two decades of humiliating decline. China’s virtually irreversible rise, the Sino-Russian marriage of convenience and the emergence of new centres of influence, notably Brazil, India and Iran, add to the high levels of risk and uncertainty.

All of this is happening against a backdrop of failed and costly Western military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Africa and proxy wars, notably in Syria. These have unleashed demons that may take decades to tame.

Given these fault-lines and their religious and cultural overlays, it is no surprise that the UN Security Council has been unable to function effectively in discharging its security mandate.

Cross-border flows prove overwhelming

There is another element to our predicament. That is our inability to manage effectively the unrelenting application of science and technology to war, industry, commerce, finance, education and the media. The sheer volume, speed and intensity of cross-border flows has transformed the way we trade, produce, consume, travel and communicate.

A great transition is under way – this much is clear. What is less clear is whether we can develop in timely fashion the political institutions and agreements we need for a relatively soft landing.

As the following examples show, the record to date is not encouraging.

Financial flows: Over the last 25 years a string of financial crises, often triggered by large and sudden flows of speculative capital, have brought many economies, including seemingly robust ones, to their knees. Despite much talk, an effective system of global financial regulation remains elusive.

Arms flows: Authorised international transfers of small arms, light weapons, parts, accessories and ammunition are estimated at about $8.5 billion annually. The illicit trade probably comes to $1.5 billion. Taken together these transfers account for 60-70% of annual casualties in today’s conflicts.

Population flows: By the end of 2013, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees calculated that the number of refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, stateless people and others of concern had reached an unprecedented 42.9 million. Permanently resettling the displaced, let alone preventing such displacement, does not appear within reach.

The world has more displaced people, about 43 million of them, than ever before. EPA/Sedat Suna

Atmospheric flows: In its fifth Assessment Report the International Panel on Climate Change concluded that the earth’s surface in each of the last three decades has been warmer than any preceding decade since 1850. It is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause". Global greenhouse gas emissions during 2000-2010 have grown more quickly than in each of the three previous decades. Many doubt that next year’s world climate change summit in Paris will yield the requisite agreement.

Pathogenic flows: The current Ebola scare is just one of many infectious diseases (e.g. tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, influenza) ravaging the world. In 2012, 8.6 million people contracted tuberculosis and 1.3 million died from it. Though HIV/AIDS deaths have been declining, an estimated 1.6 million died from the disease in 2012 and the AIDS epidemic has cost nearly 30 million lives since its inception.

Information flows: The Snowden revelations and other leaks tell us that states and corporations, working independently or in tandem, have developed sophisticated surveillance programs. These target not just would-be terrorists but presidents, prime ministers, corporate managers and the millions of computer and social media users.

In all of this the problem is governance failure. National institutions are struggling in advanced industrial states as well as in failed states.

Parliaments, governments and political parties, buffeted by volatile transnational markets and rapid technological change, lack the competence, resources and legitimacy to manage complex cross-border flows. To hide their irrelevance, they resort to short-term fixes, political spin and security hysteria.

Multilateral institutions have limited room for manoeuvre, UN reform barely rates a mention and civil society organisations are often lacking in direction or organisational capacity.

All is not lost

These Filipino soldiers are returning from the Golan Heights, one of 17 current UN peacekeeping operations. EPA

Yet not all is bleak. High-intensity conflicts between states have become less frequent since 1989. A contributing factor is the UN’s steadily expanding peacekeeping effort – 17 current peace operations involve over 117,000 military and civilian personnel and contributions from 122 countries.

In other policy arenas, including health, environment, development and human rights, the United Nations and its various agencies, despite limited resources, are performing equally useful functions. The G20 now offers a more meaningful framework than the G7/8 for reviewing the complex challenges facing the world economy.

Civil society remains active. The scientific community has provided an authoritative account of the dangers posed by climate change and of the actions needed to arrest it. A growing body of informed opinion is questioning the intrusiveness of the surveillance state.

We nevertheless still lack the appropriate institutions and forums that can mobilise human energies and resources and convert them into effective political agency.

A few steps readily suggest themselves. Small and middle powers that aspire to good international citizenship can do more to encourage collective action. The successful coalitions that led to the Cluster Munitions Convention (2010), the establishment of the International Criminal Court (2002) and the Land Mines Convention (1999) involved constructive collaboration between governments, multilateral institutions and civil society organisations.

This model can be applied to the resolution of other pressing problems.

Inter-civilisational dialogue involving intellectuals, business, professional, political, community and religious leaders can facilitate the transition from unilateralist impulses and interventions to acceptance of a truly multi-centric world.

Those in leadership positions in multilateral institutions can call great powers to account and help create new spaces where the energies of civil society can combine with the resources of philanthropy to address the challenges of the Great Transition.


Joseph Camilleri OAM will deliver a series of four lectures on “Rethinking the Future” at St Michael’s on Collins in October.