Saturday, September 18, 2021


Living at the edge of chaos

This month, two Category 4 (“major) hurricanes hit the United States within 17 days of each other. In Asia, North Korea is threatening nuclear Armageddon, and floods and famine have put thousands of lives at risk from Bangladesh to Yemen. How can one survive in this chaotic era?



A first step is to make sense of the apparent chaos. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have proved that climate change is not fake science, but a real threat to home and security. When hailstones the size of golf balls hit Istanbul in the middle of summer, even agnostics accept that climate change is serious business.
The biggest uncertainty to hit Asia recently is the shock that North Korea has likely developed a hydrogen bomb – and the missile capability to deliver it to the United States. This has changed the geopolitical balance not only in North Asia but globally, since it is no longer possible for the United States alone to contain nuclear proliferation. 
Physics teaches us that chaos is often a characteristic of transition from one order to another. Chaos is also a state of affairs in which there is no discernible pattern. 
Both definitions describe our ongoing seismic transition from a unipolar world led by the United States to a multipolar world of competing powers and ideologies, particularly since the 2007 global financial crisis. As US gross domestic product declines relative to the rest of the world, the rise of China, India and increasing assertiveness by Russia and non-state players like the so-called Islamic State means that Washington’s ability to dominate militarily and ideologically is being challenged. 
At the same time, increasing stress caused by social inequalities, terrorism, immigration and job losses have made the US more inward-looking. The Trump Administration has begun to dismantle the neoliberal order of multilateral trade and finance that has shaped US foreign policy since the end of World War II. There is a raw open divide within the United States in outlook and values. The Democratic left believes in maintaining the old order of moral leadership on human rights, democracy and multilateral global stability and prosperity. The Republican right prefers a nationalist “America First” policy, negotiating bilaterally to achieve that premier status. 
Earlier this year, the Pentagon asked the Rand Corporation to conduct a review on “Alternative Options for US Policy toward the International Order”. The two crucial questions for the new global order are: Who sets the rules and how binding are they?
The study breaks the future order into two camps of rule-makers, the US and its great-power allies. There are two scenarios for binding rules – one is militated by the US and the other is militated collectively by the great powers via a constitutional order enforced by institutions. 
The immediate problem with the Rand Corp’s New Order Vision is that the existing liberal rules-based order is not being challenged by others but by the US itself. 
First, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted earlier this year that Europe must begin to look after its own interests, it seems unlikely that America’s traditional allies will continue to follow US leadership on trade, climate change and immigration. It is no coincidence that America’s largest trade imbalance is no longer with China but with Europe. Germany alone is running a current account surplus of around 8 per cent of GDP.
Second, within the Middle East, alliances are shifting almost by the day. The quarrel between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has divided the Gulf Cooperation Council, while Turkey is playing an increasingly pivotal role within the shifting alliances. 
Third, North Korea’s bid for nuclear weapon capability, despite being a small state, means that the great powers may have to accommodate new nuclear players whether they like it or not. 
Fourth, climate change in the form of hurricanes Harvey and Irma demonstrate that nature can impose larger and larger economic losses on nations and regions, which will require global public goods that the current order is neither willing to fund nor able to agree on. The economic loss from Harvey alone is estimated at $180 billion, equivalent to the annual GDP of a middle-income economy. Existing multilateral bodies such as the United Nations and the World Bank are facing serious resource shortages amid these new global demands.
The bottom line is that the current order has neither the resources nor the collective will to enforce rules in the face of global population growth that is increasing competition for scarce water, food and territory. Chaos arises from the breakdown of rules and borderlines. 
In short, globalisation of trade, information and human migration has meant that traditional borders are becoming non-enforceable. For example, it is 101 years since the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement divided up the collapsing Ottoman Empire into British, French and Russian spheres of interest and eventual control. These borders were drawn and enforced by the great powers through their military superiority. 
Seen through the long lens of history, with the Great Powers now unwilling to put troops on the ground to enforce borders drawn up under the colonial era, these artificial borders are failing. 
A hallmark of the times is that even the best think-tanks cannot find a way to navigate this era of disruptive technology, unpredictable climate and shifting alliances and interests. History teaches us that the fault lines will be at the borderlands, at the confluence of emerging forces and stresses. 
We should thus be prepared not only for disruption at the borderlands of physical space, but within the realms of cyberspace.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. 

Published : September 15, 2017

By : Andrew Sheng Special to The Nation