A. Today’s Four Superpowers
At the turn of the century, the American / Soviet hemispheres shifted rapidly to a quartered globe dominated by the US, European Union, Russia, and China. The three Eurasian superpowers have arrived from completely different arcs of history.
The USSR, the last empire, fragmented into Russia and several other independent states by 1991. Reasons for Soviet failure included a prolonged arms race and space race with the United States, stubborn isolationism, and an economy that grew too large and complex for the government to micro-manage. 2 The new national governments made moves to privatize their most valuable industries – like energy and mining – but the fortune was too great, and the transition too abrupt, to control. Most Soviet wealth passed quickly into the hands of just a few oligarchs. Russia was in ruins until 2000, when Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency. Putin took advantage of high oil and gas prices to stabilize the economy. 3 He has led a complicated regime, managing the oligarchs at home and the country’s lucrative energy exports and arms sales abroad. Relations with the other superpowers have been especially tense after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and interference with US elections in 2016. 4
The European Union assumed its present political form in 1993, 5 with the euro as common currency since 2000. In many ways, the unification of Europe has been a striking success. EU membership has traditionally been highly coveted, especially by less developed countries. It promises the allure of subsidies, economic support, jobs, and access to major markets. To earn EU membership, a candidate state must exhibit a stable democracy and basic human rights without rampant corruption in government. 6 These criteria have allowed the EU to grow by positive reinforcement, methodically pressuring growth, peace, and stability at its fringes.
Even so, the present is a trying time for the union. It is perfect case study of the challenges of equilibration – raising up poor regions by integrating them with richer ones. A debt crisis among its poorer states has put European resolve to the test. In 2019, the EU faced its first secession when one of its wealthiest members, Great Britain, made its “Brexit”.
China claims the world’s largest population and economy, which grew explosively at double-digit rates for many years. Though the Communist Party is still in control, it began economic liberalization reforms in the 1980s. China is now described as a socialist market economy. 7 Scholars debate why China has been able to make this transition so much more successfully than other recently-industrialized nations. Hypotheses include the Confucian ethic 8 or a civil incentive system that promotes local leaders based on their economic successes. 9 The single-party Chinese government still draws plenty of criticism in other regards. It has a notoriously bad record on human rights, and it grants limited economic freedom beyond its special economic zones on the coast. President Xi Jinping has been consolidating power and now holds multiple key offices without term limits.
On the UN Security Council, the autocratic eastern states still usually vote in lockstep against the west. The superpowers’ chess board is the “second world” of large-but-dependent client countries. Governments and corporations tend to be attracted to American, European, Russian, and Chinese zones of influence. The superpowers compete intensely in these regions for investment opportunities, trade relations, and military alliances. Collectively, then, these emerging nations possess enormous clout. 10
B. The War on Terror and the Arab Spring
Terrorism, jihad, revolution, war … none of these are new, but in the last few decades they have crossed currents in ways never seen before, taking the Islamic struggle to the world stage.
One of the Soviet Union’s final campaigns was its failed invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Among the combatants was a young generation of Islamists, the jihadists, who hoped to replace the Soviet-backed secular government with a Muslim state. They succeeded, and by 1994 their Taliban controlled the region. Inspired by that success, and with years of training under their belts, many jihadists turned their attention to new theaters. The best known among them was Osama bin Laden, who had founded al Qaeda.
By that time, the United States had intervened against Iraq and still had a military presence in Saudi Arabia. Many jihadists, including bin Laden, were offended by that presence. Emboldened by their defeat of one superpower, they put pressure on the US to leave the Arabian Peninsula. A series of strikes and counterstrikes between the US and al Qaeda culminated in the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. It was the largest terror attack in human history and the United States’ deadliest day since its civil war.
In response, US President George W. Bush elevated the conflict to the scale of war. He organized a UN “war on terror”, 11 which commenced immediately with the invasion of Afghanistan. Bush then led a much more controversial invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. These campaigns quickly achieved their immediate goals: UN forces routed the Taliban government in 2001 and extirpated Hussein’s regime in 2003. However, a lack of long-term planning has led to decades of war, instability, and ironically much more terrorism. The new UN-supported governments have been weak. Taliban insurgencies continue to this day in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al Qaeda has spread into Iraq.
Meanwhile, a homegrown revolutionary spirit was fomenting in the Arabic world. A growing number of college students were graduating into a jobless economy mismanaged by corrupt authoritarian governments. The people of Tunisia were the first to reach a breaking point. They organized en masse to immobilize and impeach their government. Much to everyone’s surprise, they were highly successful. The government collapsed within a month of peaceful protests. The Tunisian revolution was a flashpoint that inspired millions. In the Arab Spring of 2011, protests spread to Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere, mostly within the 22 Arab League nations. The Egyptian and Yemeni regimes fell that year. By the end of 2011, some of these dictators were on trial, held accountable for crimes during their reign.
Much like the War on Terror, the Arab Spring was successful only in the short term. Two Arab countries, Libya and Syria, slipped into all-out civil war. Dictators Moammar Qadaffi in Libya and Bashar al Assad in Syria took up arms against their own citizens. The Libyan conflict was the first to draw foreign intervention. With the aid of French air support, Libyan rebels captured Qadaffi and killed him on the spot.
Leaving power vacuums, the unfortunate long-term consequence of the Arab Spring was to open the door to jihadists. Most Arab dictators had headed secular regimes and had stifled religious opposition. Egypt soon fell into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Syria’s war has continued to rage on for years. Assad and his Ba’ath party, though nominally a secular government, are Shi’ites, a small minority in Syria. The citizen rebels were mostly Sunni, so they attracted unwelcome support from radical groups like al Qaeda and its offshoot, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The international community intervened in 2014, bringing the fate of the Arab Spring together with the War on Terror.
The War on Terror has been much costlier than the terrorism itself. The US-led military campaigns have cost trillions of dollars 12 and have killed around a million people. 13 They have been highly divisive in the US and Europe, not only for their costs but for their impact on domestic policies such as protectionism, surveillance, and immigration.
C. Global Financial Crises
The global financial crisis of 2007 – ’08 was the world’s worst recession since the Great Depression. In broader context, it was just the most recent in a series of unusual financial crises around the world. The 1980s – 2000s were a particularly volatile period. 14
To try to encapsulate a very complex phenomenon in a nutshell, a financial crisis is a large-scale pattern of unsustainable borrowing. It often results when there is an overabundance of money and low interest rates. Consumers borrow heavily. If they are borrowing for, say, real estate, home prices rise. This attracts speculators, financiers who buy and sell real estate for short-term profit. Unfortunately, all this activity is built on a false foundation without adding any value to the economy. Such a bubble always reaches a climax of wanton lending, fraud, and white-collar crime before it crashes. False prices collapse, borrowers default on loans, and banks run out of money to lend. It is a vicious cycle that gets much worse very quickly.
National governments, central banks, and insurance companies have become well equipped and willing to be lenders of last resort when banks need help with liquidity. The recent crises have all been international. There is no effective central bank for the world. International crises are further complicated by the fact that they involve multiple currencies. Only since the 1970’s, the values of different units of currency – the dollar, pound, euro, yen, etc. – have been “floating” independently of each other. Each country has some control over its own currency, while other factors are determined by the whims of market forces. Currency fluctuations create a whole new dimension of complexity that makes global financial crises much more difficult to manage than domestic ones. For instance, if a Thai lender borrows dollars, and then the Thai baht devalues by 50%, suddenly that lender must repay twice as many bahts! This actually happened in the late ‘90s.
The era of floating currencies has actually been a continuous period of one crisis precipitating another. A sequence of crises can be traced from Latin America to Japan to Southeast Asia to the United States and then around the world. The Japanese boom and bust was particularly interesting. As investors took their money out of Japan in the 1980s, they took much of it to newly liberalized China. This was the seed money for China’s campaign of growth.
This history of crises has shown that, in the age of floating currencies, exchange rates can fluctuate uncontrollably. This can lead to large-scale cross-border money flows, which can precipitate bubbles and crashes. Some economists believe that a central world bank would provide much greater stability, because it would not have to worry about exchange rates and would have greater control over the total money supply. 15 However, a true world bank is not a politically popular concept. 1 Each nation has a long history with its particular currency, and can use it to exert some degree of influence over the economy in its part of the world. It is difficult to give up this mark of national sovereignty and relinquish it to a larger authority.
In fact, the 2010s have been characterized by populist right-wing politics. The US, India, Israel, Turkey, Poland, and Brazil have elected leaders on brazenly nationalist platforms since 2008. The UK voted to leave the EU, mostly for localized control over its economy and borders. At least one study has shown a correlation between the financial crisis and this current trend of right-wing populism. 16
Yet if the economic analysis of floating currencies is correct, financial crises are a global problem that could use a global solution. A de facto world bank could have helped prevent or mitigate the wild financial crises of the recent past. It is an institution worth considering for the long run, as globalism becomes increasingly comfortable for those young people who were not born in ultra-nationalistic times.
D. The Global Warming Debate
Since the 19th century, scientists have understood that industry and mining release greenhouse gases that can trap heat at Earth’s surface. Early evidence of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere was demonstrated in 1960. 17 By the 1980s, the average global temperature was also slightly on the rise, in a pattern consistent with the greenhouse effect. 18 Further signs of warming include reduced sea ice 19 and slowly rising sea levels. 20
Global warming gained serious political attention in 1990, when a UN committee, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), began issuing assessment reports. Each assessment report discusses evidence of climate change and the effects of greenhouse gases, present or predicted environmental impacts, and recommended policies, which serve as the basis for international negotiations. The assessment reports have made climate change a hot-button political issue, because they recommend significant changes in industrial practices worldwide. The Fifth Assessment Report predicts serious environmental damage and advises a wholescale shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, and nuclear energy within this century! 21
That would be a difficult and expensive transition. Coal and oil have literally fueled the industrial revolution and all the marvels of the last two centuries. When a UN agency tells us to abandon them, it’s a suggestion that will not be taken lightly. Conservatives say that the evidence for climate catastrophe is not strong enough to justify such a sacrifice. After all, climate science involves infinitely complex data and predictions of the future. It is definitely not simple.
Even among the concerned mainstream, action on climate change would require a carefully orchestrated international agreement, and that has not yet come about. Two key accords came close – Kyoto in 1997 and Paris in 2016 – but both failed in practice. No nation or corporation wants to put itself at an industrial disadvantage experimenting with clean energy while its neighbors burn tried-and-true coal. It’s a textbook example of what political scientists call game theory, where individual players have interests at odds with the collective.
As with any emotional and complex issue, there are now extreme viewpoints. Ultra-conservatives, with President Trump at the helm, dismiss evidence showing any risk of global warming. 22 The Al Gore camp, on the other extreme, takes the most alarmist predictions at face value. 23 The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Billions of people are burning fossil fuels, so of course global warming is a risk, even if the ecological impacts cannot be isolated or predicted. Fossil fuels are non-renewable, so future generations will eventually need to find alternatives anyway. By all measures, industries should be encouraged to phase in renewable energy. Yet this transition will bear its own costs and risks, urging a balanced approach. 24
Nevertheless, the two political fringes seem to be growing larger and more entrenched. 25 Thus far at least, global warming’s greatest proven impact has been to get people hot under the collar.
- G20 photo by Kremlin.ru / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2017_G20_Hamburg_summit_leaders_group_photo.jpg (accessed saved, and archived 5/30/20). ↩
- Robert C. Allen, “The rise and decline of the Soviet economy”, Canadian Journal of Economics vol. 34, No. 4 (November, 2001), http://content.csbs.utah.edu/~mli/Economics%207004/Allen-103.pdf (accessed and saved 2/24/19). ↩
- Matthew Johnston, “The Post-Soviet Union Russian Economy”, Investopedia (10/15/2018), https://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/012116/russian-economy-collapse-soviet-union.asp (accessed and saved 2/25/19). ↩
- United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “Report on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election” (7/25/2019). Vol. 1, “Russian Efforts against Election Infrastructure”, https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Report_Volume1.pdf . Vol. 2, “Russia’s Use of Social Media with Additional Views”, https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Report_Volume2.pdf (both accessed and saved 5/30/20). ↩
- Council of the European Communities, “Treaty on European Union, signed at Maastricht on 7 February 1992”, Official Journal of the European Communities vol. 35 (7/29/1992), https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=OJ:C:1992:191:FULL&from=EN (accessed 2/24/19). The Maastricht Treaty took effect in November, 1993. ↩
- European Commission, “Conditions for membership”, European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (6/12/2016), https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/policy/conditions-membership_en (accessed and saved 2/25/19). ↩
- Chinese Ministry of Commerce, “Socialist Market Economic System” (6/25/2004), http://english.mofcom.gov.cn/article/topic/bizchina/economicsystem/200406/20040600239133.shtml (accessed and saved 2/25/19). ↩
- Maqsudul Hasan Nuri, “China’s economic development: Confucian values”, Business Recorder (4/03/2016), https://fp.brecorder.com/2016/04/2016040332073/ (accessed and saved 2/24/19). ↩
- Junyan Jiang, “Making Bureaucracy Work: Patronage Networks, Performance Incentives, and Economic Development in China”, American Journal of Political Science 62(4):982-999 (9/20/2018), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ajps.12394?af=R (accessed and saved 2/24/19). ↩
- Parag Khanna, The Second World, Random House (New York, 2009). ↩
- Bush first used this term publicly in a Joint Address to Sessions of Congress on 9/20/2001, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html (accessed and saved 2/17/19). However, neither the US government nor the UN ever adopted this term officially, as they must enumerate specific combatants and goals for each mission. ↩
- Neta C. Crawford, “United States Budgetary Costs of the Post-9/11 Wars Through FY2019: $5.9 Trillion Spent and Obligated”, Costs of War (11/14/2018), Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2018/Crawford_Costs%20of%20War%20Estimates%20Through%20FY2019.pdf (accessed and saved 2/23/19). ↩
- Death toll = 500,000 according to Neta C. Crawford, “Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars: Lethality and the Need for Transparency”, Costs of War (November, 2018), Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2018/Human%20Costs,%20Nov%208%202018%20CoW.pdf (accessed and saved 2/23/19). Death toll = 1 – 2 million according to Physicians for Social Responsibility, “Body Count: Casualty Figures after 10 Years of the ‘War on Terror’” (March, 2015), http://www.ippnw.de/commonFiles/pdfs/Frieden/Body_Count_first_international_edition_2015_final.pdf (accessed and saved 2/24/19). ↩
- Charles P. Kindleberger and Robert Z. Aliber, Manias, Panics, and Crashes, 6ed, MacMillan Publishers (2011), p. 278. ↩
- Ibid at 254. ↩
- Gyozo Gyongyosi and Emil Verner, “Financial Crisis, Creditor-Debtor Conflict, and Political Extremism”, SSRN (November, 2018), https://ssrn.com/abstract=3289741 (accessed and saved 2/24/19). ↩
- Charles David Keeling, “The concentration and isotopic abundances of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere”, Tellus vol. 12 no. 2 (June, 1960), http://scrippsco2.ucsd.edu/assets/publications/keeling_tellus_1960.pdf (accessed and saved 3/18/19). ↩
- James Hansen, “Statement … presented to United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources” (6/23/1988), http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Environment/documents/2008/06/23/ClimateChangeHearing1988.pdf (accessed and saved 3/18/19) ↩
- European Space Agency: “Satellites witness lowest Arctic ice coverage in history” (9/14/2007), http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Observing_the_Earth/Envisat/Satellites_witness_lowest_Arctic_ice_coverage_in_history (accessed and saved 4/06/19). ↩
- John A. Church and Neil J. White, “Sea-Level Rise from the Late 19th to the Early 21st Century”, Surveys in Geophysics vol. 32 issue 4-5, pp. 585-602 (Sep., 2011), https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10712-011-9119-1 (accessed and saved 4/06/19). ↩
- IPCC, “Characteristics of mitigation pathways”, Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers, https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf p. 20 (accessed and saved 3/18/19). ↩
- Donald Trump, tweet of 11:15 am, 11/06/2012, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/265895292191248385 (accessed and saved 3/18/19). ↩
- Sally Peck, “Al Gore’s ‘Nine Inconvenient Untruths’”, The Telegraph (10/11/2007), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthnews/3310137/Al-Gores-nine-Inconvenient-Untruths.html (accessed and saved 3/18/19). ↩
- It is hard to find centrist presentations about global warming. The best example I have found of a book written from a neutral fact-and-solution-finding position is Frank P. Incropera, Climate Change: a Wicked Problem, Cambridge University Press (2016). ↩
- Gill Ereaut and Nat Segnit, “Warm Words: How are we telling the climate story and can we tell it better?” Institute for Public Policy Research (August, 2006), http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.397.7554 (accessed and saved 3/18/19). I don’t know if this article is peer-reviewed, but I highly recommend it as a rare and insightful meta-analysis of climate science as a social debate. ↩
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