Maybe it all gets just too complicated. Too many things go wrong at the same time.
The capacity of the world’s leaders and institutions to respond in a coherent and authoritative way on several huge problems at the same time ebbs away. This opens the way for calculated lunges by different regional powers, aiming quickly to establish some new facts on the ground while attentions are distracted elsewhere.
Imagine some sort of geo-political storm featuring, among others:
- escalating tensions between Turkey and Israel, with Arab countries and Iran weighing in opportunistically to arm Hamas and drive up a sense of inevitable confrontation. Israel’s very existence is openly challenged in numerous capitals
- South and North Korea relations decline amidst mutual recriminations over various off-shore naval incidents
- the European Union’s legal authority is hammered by rulings in the German courts declaring unconstitutional the various attempts by Brussels to underpin the Eurozone by side-stepping existing EU treaties
- the Eurozone crisis quickly enters a new phase, with civil unrest breaking out in Greece and financial markets seizing up in other European capitals. Cash machines across much of Europe run dry; just-in-time supplies of food to Europe’s supermarkets falter
- ethnic clashes break out in several southern European countries, including some within the European Union (Slovakia, Hungary, Romania) and in Serbia/Kosovo and Bosnia
- Europe’s leaders run out of intelligent joint responses to these simultaneous crises – the European Union itself looks vulnerable to abrupt disintegration, as France and Germany bluntly disagree over what needs to be done merely to keep the show on the road
- the financial crisis in Europe spreads to Russia, causing numerous banks to fail. Various parts of Russia proclaim a new autonomy, defying Moscow’s authority. Road-blocks start to appear on many internal borders. Attempts by Moscow to crush opposition in the regions backfire, causing widespread violent demonstrations against Putin’s rule
- NATO forces in Afghanistan and US forces in Iraq suffer heavy losses in a series of terrorist suicide bombings, giving the impression that the USA is being driven back
- Christian/Muslim communal fighting in Nigeria spills beyond Nigeria’s borders
- the BP oil leak suddenly gets worse again
- Israel warns that it will use every possible means to defend itself, and bombs a number of suspected Iranian nuclear bomb installations
- Turkey announces that it will use military force to ‘blockade’ Israel and its airspace.
- the Obama administration cannot react coherently to any of this, above all the soaring tensions in the Middle East. Washington dare not try to rein in Turkey and/or Israel, lest one or other or both simply ignores the pressure…
- The UN is powerless – the five Security Council permanent members are overwhelmed with internal and external dramas
It is not so much that any one of these problems is uncontainable. It is the fact that they come along simultaneously, creating a sense that the shared understandings and responsibilities which have kept some sense of global order since WW2 are giving way to a new ‘grab what you can’ attitude.
Western policy-makers in particular are paralysed, bogged down in their economic problems and unwilling to use military force since it is no longer clear (a) that Western military force can achieve victory in the sort of conflicts now breaking out in different places, and (b) what a stable outcome in any one place might look like.
Western hesitation is matched by Chinese, Russian and Indian hesitation. Those powers themselves are struggling as world markets seize up, but they see an historic opportunity for themselves to move into the philosophical space created by Western retreat.
World Wars One and Two were conflicts with global reach arising from European power-struggles. But there was at least a clear context, involving thematic rivalries in an understandable form.
World War Three is different. For the first time in centuries the USA and Europe are unable to set or even define the global agenda, and so face philosophical and psychological defeat. Other powers come to the fore, fighting and redrawing the map – and therefore the rules – as they see fit.
The turmoil is all the more dramatic and vicious for being in a sense anarchic and incoherent, even if civilisational principles are implicitly at stake.
Or maybe it will all be fine.
BP stop the leaking oil. Turkey and Israel meet for a quiet drink and sort out their differences.
Brussels’ efforts to reform the Eurozone are seen to be brilliantly successful, and prompt even deeper happy integration among all EU members.
England win the World Cup, Jermain Defoe scoring a brilliant solo winner.
Phew. I was getting worried there.