In a private message a friend, a retired soldier and current academic, described a recent counter-terrorism conference he attended; one of the speakers (Chatham House rules so no names) gave a very optimistic presentation; that speaker was followed by a mutual acquaintance, a very senior person with good contacts in the upper levels of several governments who said, roughly, “the world is a sh!tty place … and it’s going to suck more before it gets better … if it gets better.“
That reminded me of something I discussed about 2½ years ago: Robert Kaplan, the American neorealist author and strategic analyst, worried that both China and Russia are or are becoming economically weak ~ something US President Trump may be trying to accelerate in China’s case ~ and that is making them act more aggressively abroad. That, Mr Kaplan said, means that “policymakers in Washington had better start planning now for the potential chaos to come: a Kremlin coup, a partial breakup of Russia, an Islamic terrorist campaign in western China, factional fighting in Beijing, and political turbulence in Central Asia, although not probable, are all increasingly possible. Whatever form the coming turbulence takes, it seems certain the United States will be forced to grapple with new questions of one sort or another. Who will control Russia’s nuclear arsenal if the country’s leadership splinters? How can the United States stand up for human rights inside China while standing by as the regime puts down an internal rebellion? … [but] … Planning for such contingencies does not mean planning a war of liberation, à la Iraq. (If China and Russia are ever to develop more liberal governments, their people will have to bring about change themselves.) But it does mean minimizing the possibility of disorder. To avoid the nightmarish security crises that could result, Washington will need to issue clear redlines. Whenever possible, however, it should communicate these redlines privately, without grandstanding. Although congressional firebrands seem not to realize it, the United States gains nothing from baiting nervous regimes worried about losing face at home.“ In fact, of course, Donald J Trump’s America is doing the opposite as far as I can see.
Personally, I do expect Russia to splinter. I just cannot see how Vladimir Putin can push Russia towards anything like economic stability and progress by the sheer force of his will, mighty though it may be. Russia, today, makes neither social nor economic sense.
But Russia isn’t the only problem. As I also pointed out, also back in 2016, the Middle East remains a trouble spot with too many competing visions of how to recover lost glories. The Middle East could explode in a nuclear war or fanatical terrorists, one of the region’s main exports, it seems to me, could, yet again, attack the West … or China, as Robert Kaplan predicted. I have my own views on how to best counter the terrorist threat, they consist of a trio of measures:
- Near-total, isolation of the parent region, essentially North Africa, the Middle East and South-West Asia, until the people there sort out their own destinies; coupled with
- Ruthless, ferocious military action when necessitated to respond to an attack on the West; and, mainly
- An aggressive reaffirmation of the liberal culture of the West in our schools and in our society.
I also worry about China. I subscribe to Kevin Rudd’s view of China’s goals and priorities, but I worry that Xi Jinping has put all his eggs in one basket, centred on his massive, and potentially world-changing, belt and road initiative, through which China wants to both:
- Connect the economies of Western Europe and East Asia (mainly, today, China and South Korea) together; and
- Shift the world’s economic ‘centre of gravity’ to the East. This is, in my view, the main, ongoing, aim of the Chinese strategic thinkers; they, I think, believe (perhaps just hope?) that they can achieve their mid to long term goals by ‘peaceful’ means. They seem to me to be aided, in the longer term, by America which seems to want to withdraw from the world, even as, in the short term, President Trump’s trade wars make China’s (and everyone’s) strategic situation more precarious.
My worry is that IF Donald Trump can inflict enough short term pain on China and IF the belt and road initiative founders and IF there is a surge of radical, Islamist terrorism in China, then China might feel sufficiently threatened to drop its long term, peaceful, strategic plan and, instead, opt for some short term military campaigns to ‘change the channel,’ as it were. That would, almost certainly, bring China into conflict with some of its East Asian neighbours ~ think e.g. Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam ~ and, potentially, India, Russia and America, too. The prospects are scary.
The world is, indeed, a sh!tty place … and we haven’t even discussed Africa and Latin America which are also plagued with problems.
How to make it better
For a start, responsible small and middle powers, like Australia, Britain and Canada, can stop mouthing progressive platitudes and start taking some concrete actions to shore up the global, liberal, order which, for the moment, America seems intent on abandoning. Those three countries, plus New Zealand, should, IF the British can negotiate something with the EU that does, indeed, allow Britain to trade more freely with the rest of the world, negotiate a real, comprehensive free trade, plus, deal of the sort I have discussed on several occasions.
Britain needs to stop disarming and Canada needs, urgently, in my opinion, to rearm so that they and other responsible powers can take up the strain of global peacemaking.
Canada needs to expand its trade with Asia and Africa … but Asia wants oil and to export that we need to build pipelines to ports on both the Atlantic and pacific coasts.
But none of those things are on Team Trudeau’s agenda.
It’s going to suck more
I have a hunch ~ that’s all it is ~ that global terrorism has been taking a bit of a rest. We did not win the ill-named ‘global war on terror,’ there hasn’t even, really, been an armistice.
A report by Esri a geographic information system provider, show that “In recent years, an increasing number of terrorist attacks have shocked communities around the world. Many of the gravest attacks have occurred in nations often overlooked by Western media, such as Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia and Bangladesh.” It appears, from the Esri data, that North America has been free, thus far, from terrorist attacks in 2018 and Western Europe has suffered only a few attacks, more in France than anywhere else:
My guess is that Da’esh/ISIL/ISIS and similar groups, many (most?) of which seem to be Islamic, are refocusing their efforts on securing and expanding their own home bases in Africa, the Middle East and West Asia and are, probably, searching for and reconnoitring new, high value targets in America, Australia, Britain, Canada and so on, including in China.
But terrorism isn’t the only problem, although it is, perhaps, the one that worries the most people. The worse problems, the ones to which Robert Kaplan referred a few short years ago, is that terrorism is just a symptom of global instability which is, in large measure, a result of the failure of most of the world to be able to adopt, adapt and use those institutions, about which I bang on about so often. The unstable world ~ I would argue that less than ⅓ of the almost 200 nation states in the world have enough working institutions to make progress in the 21st century ~ coupled with an apparent American desire to disengage from global leadership leaves the field open for aggressive disruptive powers like China and Russia to impose their will on large parts of the world. That makes things worse for the globalized, liberal, West ~ which remains the best hope for global peace and security.
… If it gets better
This is the key takeaway: some smart, experienced and thoughtful people are worried that we, the big liberal, secular, democratic, capitalist West that extends from Australia and New Zealand, through much of Asia (Hong Kong (even though it is part of China), India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan etc) through North America and across the Atlantic to its “home” in Iceland, Britain and Scandinavia, cannot sustain our system and values without active, positive leadership which has, since circa 1935, been provided mainly by America.
Is America running away from its leadership role? I don’t know … but it seems pretty clear that tens of millions of Americans and the sitting president of the United States want to do just that. It’s not hard to understand, Canadians did the same thing in the late 1960s: Pierre Trudeau tossed two decades of principled foreign and defence policy on the trash heap because he understood that Canadians were tired of paying for something that they thought should be done by someone else. “Stop,” Donald Trump seems to be saying, “don’t come to us looking for leadership and support, we have our own problems to look after … America First!” That’s almost exactly what Pierre Trudeau said in his nonsensical Foreign Policy for Canadians White Paper in 1970. “Go away, world! We have our own, internal problems,” he said, “like national unity and language rights and creating a ‘harmonious natural environment,’ and we cannot be bothered be a ‘leading middle power’ anymore … someone else can do that.”
If no one wants to lead the West then China and Russia will keep pushing, first at the fringes, then at the core, even aiding terrorists when it suits them, punishing them when it doesn’t.
None of Japan, Germany France or Britain is willing or able to assume a real leadership role in the West. The EU cannot get its act together on vital internal issues, ASEAN, even though it is slightly more liberal on trade issues than the EU, is not politically united and even if it were is it wedged between two giants: China and India. Even America, when it wants to lead, does so best from within alliances like NATO and through trade deals like NAFTA and the ill fated TPP. Does that mean there is a role for either and established group like the OECD or, perhaps, the G7? Or is there room for a new grouping like CANZUK? No to the first, the OECD, because it has all the disadvantages of the EU plus America will not want a new group; equally no to the second, the G7, because America doesn’t like it, either. So there might, big MIGHT, be a role for a grouping like CANZUK or even a CANZUK+, as I described a few months ago, but that will only be possible if Britain makes a clean, even ‘hard’ exit from the EU … something that is looking for probable this week. But a grouping like CANZUK or CANZUK+ or ++ will have difficulty in playing a leadership role unless all the countries are firm in their commitments which, for some, means a painfully expensive rearmament process because being a leader means doing more than mouthing progressive platitudes about climate change and feminism.
But, by far and away, the best choice, for the world, is for America to shake off its current flirtations with both isolationism and protectionism and to return, with renewed political will, to the centre of the world’s stage … but that will require America to rediscover its traditional sense of purpose in the world; when that happens it will, once again, seek out and elect men and women of integrity:
If, when, I sincerely hope, America does that then the world will get better … if America decides to abandon its traditional role as a leader and as a beacon of hope then maybe ~ but it’s a long-shot ~ a coalition built around CANZUK might be able to help but it is much more likely that the world, which already “is a sh!tty place” and which “is going to get worse” will not get any better in the foreseeable future.