The events of the past week in Istanbul’s Taksim Square are already etched on our minds. Pepper spray, baton charges, perplexed youths lying battered and bruised, but still chanting for change.
Of course, the Turkish uprising may just fade away as a number of others have done. After all, globalisation will continue its onward march – Turkey is forecast to enjoy much stronger economic growth than many “advanced” economies. For some, this is a rational view of the future. Wealth will be a unifier. Won’t it?
But there are dangers, especially for global businesses, in focusing upon this as the only possible future. A very different world may be staring us in the face. The problem is in seeing the symptoms of this new world and breaking away from the hypnotic grasp – and apparent predictability – of globalisation.
We may need to look at recent events in Turkey and elsewhere from a different perspective. These could well be key early warning signals that the world is headed in a very different direction.
Glimpse of the future?
In the 1970s, the late Hedley Bull put his mind to the conditions that could lead to a fundamental shake-up in the way that the world works. Bull set out a series of conditions that had to be met before such a fallout could occur. If we look at recent events in Turkey, we may well be able to catch a glimpse of a microcosm of the future.
There are at least three conditions or early warning signals that we should reflect upon.
The first relates to the relevance of historical geographic borders, and the degree to which these seemingly permanent structures really reflect the views, values and opinions of those living inside them. The events in Taksim Square have been described as “culture wars” – secularism rubbing up against religion – and they expose a major difference of views that may be the basis for fragmentation. And we do not have to look that far away from Turkey to find more evidence of fracturing: 2014 is a big year for both Spain and the UK, as groups in Catalonia and Scotland make plays for independence.
The second early warning signal is technology. The role of social media in empowering the average person on the street sounds very democratic. But there are two difficult realities to deal with. The first is that, as others have observed, technology and social media may not be unifiers but rather catalysts that will seek to heighten and deepen differences. This just might be why Prime Minister Erdogan was driven to denounce Twitter.
We don’t know how this powerful tool will evolve and be used. All we know for now is that social media may be a powerful tool to help bring an establishment down, but it might not be particularly effective in building a replacement.
The third issue is that we are in the opening years of a totally new and untested era. We are now in the multipolar age. The unipolar age, where the US acted largely as a single global architect, is behind us.
Not about trees
We need to understand what could drive fragmentation and disharmony in a world where new powers want their voices to be heard. Conflict, and not just conventional military conflict, can arise when there is a contest between opposing ways to run the world. Again, we can see the traits in Taksim Square where differences have appeared not about the future of the trees in the square, but about the interpretation of democracy and capitalism.
So if we look closely enough, we can see the germinating seeds of another world.
Now might be the time to look for the “fracturing points”, the parts of the world that could suddenly divide. And if we remember that there are now 3.6m unemployed young people in the euro area, then the these fault lines might just be closer to home than many may think.