The End of Stability
BERLIN – The world is reeling from an extraordinary confluence of crises, including Russia’s war of aggression in Europe, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, sweeping trade and supply-chain disruptions, inflation, food insecurity, and all the morbid symptoms of climate change. Though the world order built after World War II was far from perfect, it at least provided stability and ample opportunities for international cooperation. But now, it seems to be falling apart.
Russia, a nuclear great power, has attacked its neighbor for no good reason, indiscriminately murdering those whom it still calls its “brothers” and “sisters.” For six months now, the Kremlin has waged a bloody campaign of conquest that is more befitting of the 1940s than the 2020s.
And Eastern Europe is not alone. The specter of war – and a conflict between the twenty-first century’s two superpowers – also looms over the Taiwan Strait. China is escalating its military threat against Taiwan, and thereby increasing the risk of a direct armed confrontation with the United States.
Nor can we forget Iran, which has been pursuing its nuclear program in earnest since former US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018. A nuclear-armed Iran would introduce a new permanent risk of war in a region that is already supercharged with geopolitical tensions and volatility.
Together, Eastern Europe, the Taiwan Strait, and the Middle East form a triad of extraordinarily dangerous crises that are unraveling the post-Cold War global order and its core principles of non-violence, international cooperation, and economic globalization. The primary beneficiaries of that order – East Asia and Western advanced economies such as Germany – are already suffering the effects of this thoroughgoing destruction. Snarled supply chains, the breakdown of trade, and surging inflation are proof of a new economic reality.
When the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War and its zero-sum confrontation between rival geopolitical blocs, the West was able to capitalize on its victory because it seemed to have an attractive alternative model to offer. Its message to post-communist and other developing and emerging economies was, “Just follow our example. A market economy and democracy will deliver modernity, prosperity, and stability.”
Yet beyond the European Union, North America, and East Asia, this formula never really worked as promised. The biggest economic success stories were found in places like China and Singapore, which adopted some market reforms without the democracy. And when the 2008 financial crisis erupted in the US and quickly spread to the rest of the world, many came to doubt the superiority of the Western model.
The question now is whether the new great-power rivalries will evolve into a broader systemic confrontation between democracy (the US and Europe) and authoritarianism (China and Russia). Is Cold War II upon us?
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is. But the situation today is also much more difficult and complicated than in the late 1940s, when Cold War I began. To the new-old risk of violent conflict (in Europe, East Asia, or the Middle East) must be added the increasingly severe effects of climate change. As this summer’s unprecedented heatwaves in both China and Europe have shown, the climate crisis will amplify the new geopolitical and economic crises. No longer can humanity afford to ignore or postpone investments in climate adaptation and mitigation, which will require a full remodeling of the world’s industrialized societies.
The first Cold War ultimately was decided by the nuclear-arms race and the superiority of the Western economic system. This one will be decided by the ability to build a more equitable global order and to resolve the climate crisis. To win, Western democracies will have to offer something that truly benefits everyone. While military armaments will remain important as deterrents against potential adversaries, the key decisions will be taken in other domains.
The important thing to bear in mind about the climate crisis is that it is not typical of human societies’ historical progression. Whereas most crises occur within the existing system and eventually yield to a return to normality, we are now facing a crisis of the system itself. Like it or not, a new reality is announcing itself and demonstrating that there will be no return to the status quo ante. Humanity’s destruction of the environment and altering of the climate have precluded any continuation of existing models.
Russian aggression certainly poses a threat; but it is a familiar one that we know how to deal with. Rising temperatures, dry riverbeds, parched landscapes, falling crop yields, acute energy shortages, and disruptions to industrial production are something else. We have known for a long time that these problems were coming; but we did nothing, because a truly effective response would require a break from the past and a systemic overhaul of our politics, economies, and societies.
Most states have been unwilling to undertake such a project. But one must ask: When the consequences of the climate crisis become even more painfully obvious, will we still have time to mend our ways? Or will the climate already have passed irreversible tipping points, ushering in a new Heat Age that makes life worse for almost everyone?
Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.
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