The world is beset by crises. The implosion of the Middle East has killed close to half a million people and resulted in the largest number of refugees fleeing unstable regions since World War II. In Europe and Asia, large powers are asserting their influence through the use of force and territorial acquisition. A changing climate is altering weather patterns resulting in damaging storms, large-scale drought, and rising water levels that threaten tens of millions living in coastal regions. Violence is ubiquitous, as terrorists employ readily available means to kill tens and hundreds, while leaving millions in fear. Economies around the world are slowing, as demographic and technological shifts change labor markets and capital investments decline.
What accounts for this mess? How different is it from the past? When will it end? And what can the United States, still the world’s leading power, do about it? These are the questions many are asking as we enter a new year. 2016 is unlikely to see an end to any of these crises—all are the product of larger forces that will continue to affect the world we live in and the relations among states and people within it. But we can try to make some sense of that world—to understand how these forces are creating the crises we are witnessing—and then suggest ways in which we might cope with or even tackle some of them.
Seen from some distance, there are three broad trends driving what is happening around the world.
- First, we are seeing the return of geopolitics—in fact, the return of history, which some declared ended with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War at the conclusion of the last century. Russia and China—one a declining power, the other a rising one—have both concluded that they can and must challenge the United States, including through the traditional actions of great powers: the acquisition and control of territory.
- Second, we are witnessing a crisis in governance—the growing inability of nation states, notably in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, as well as of supranational bodies like the United Nations and European Union, to govern effectively. Problems multiply, and as governments fail to offer solutions, public trust in national governments is falling sharply, giving rise to populist and extremist movements that further undermine the capacity of governments to govern.
- Third, as a direct result of the first two factors, we are experiencing the rise of non-state actors—both malicious, like terrorist groups and cyber hackers who aim to weaken the nation state, and more benign actors, like corporations and cities that are increasingly driving real social and economic change.
The Return of Geopolitics
When history supposedly ended in 1990, two dominant trends in global politics were evident. The first was the emergence of the United States as the undisputed, sole superpower in the world. It was the “indispensable nation”—a “hyper power” that enjoyed a historic “unipolar moment.” The Soviet Union was no more, and no other power—small or large—was in any position to challenge America militarily, economically, or politically. The second was the rise of globalization—the rapid spread of people, goods, capital, and ideas across frontiers. Globalization affected all levels of global interaction—economic, political, social, even military. It brought greater prosperity for many, and the spread of liberal values inaugurated a third wave of democracy. It also changed the nature of security threats, as challenges posed by terrorism, transnational crime, deadly pandemics, and weapons proliferation turned global and were no longer geographically confined.
This was the era of global politics—in which an unchallenged United States could forge international coalitions and cooperation to address the challenges and exploit the opportunities that increased globalization brought in its wake. Yet, rather than replacing the era of geopolitics, the two are now competing for prominence. Both American power and the positive effects of globalization are under challenge. A decade of failing military effort in the Middle East and Afghanistan has left the United States weaker and less certain of its power and influence than at the outset of this century. The 2008 financial crisis has accentuated the downside of increased economic integration, while the rise of radical jihadism and terrorism has highlighted the dangers of interdependence and weakened support for liberalism around the globe.
As America appears weaker, Russia and China, each in their own way, have begun to challenge the United States in Europe, in Asia, and even in the Middle East. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and openly invaded eastern Ukraine—unconcerned about the reaction, military or otherwise, of a United States that had demonstrated little appetite for new military engagements after Afghanistan and Iraq. A year later, Russian military forces deployed into the midst of a brutal civil war in Syria, undeterred by the fact that the United States was leading an international coalition against the Islamic State and militarily supporting the opposition forces to the very Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad that Russia intervened to defend.
As Russia was moving in Europe, China moved in Asia to challenge American military power in the Pacific. In the East China sea, China increased its military presence to challenge Japanese control over the Senkaku islands and unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone that implied its sovereignty and control extended far wider than any other state could or would accept. Further south, China has laid claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, going so far as building up artificial reefs to establish a growing military presence. Beijing’s aim is clear—flexing military muscle to intimidate smaller neighbors in southeast Asia while creating territorial fait accompli that the United States may find increasingly difficult to challenge.
For the United States and its longstanding allies in Europe and Asia, these forceful maneuvers by Russia and China have come as a surprise—if not a shock. Washington and its NATO allies moved swiftly to reinforce deterrence in Eastern Europe, sending naval, air and ground forces to the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria to underscore that when it comes to NATO’s commitment of collective defense, nothing has changed. But beyond Alliance territory, America and its allies have been far more reluctant to engage. Despite being the clear victim of armed aggression, Washington and Berlin have opposed sending even defensive lethal assistance to Kyiv. Instead, economic sanctions and diplomacy have been the preferred means to seek a reversal of Russian gains—ineffectively, so far. In Asia, Washington was slow to act against Chinese provocations. Although it did send two strategic bombers through the self-proclaimed air defense zone in the East China Sea, it took more than a year to sail a military vessel within what China claimed were sovereign waters around one its new artificial islands. In neither case was the newly emerging military reality affected.
In an age of power politics, geography matters—as does the balance of power. We appear to have forgotten the importance of deterrence and defense. Europe has cut defense spending for fifteen years, and even now, as threats are rising, few European governments are considering real increases in investment and spending. Yet, the era where Uncle Sam was willing and able to take care of security in Europe and Asia by its own has come to an end. A new commitment to enhance defense and strengthen deterrence is sorely needed in response to the return of geopolitics.
The Crisis of Governance
As globalization creates new challenges and opportunities, and large powers engage increasingly in geopolitical competition, the demands on governments to respond are steadily growing. Yet, rather than responding effectively, governments all over the world—including in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States—are flailing. At a time when the demand for more and better government is growing, government is less able to deliver.
Take the United States. Never before have Americans trust in government’s capacity to solve problems been so low. In December 2015, Americans’ job approval rating for Congress was 13 percent, according to Gallup. At the federal level, Washington is politically paralyzed as a result of increased polarization. Demographic and political trends are likely to strengthen this reality—at least in the short run. Republicans have an effective lock on Congress (or at least on the House of Representatives), which strengthens the hands of the far-right within the party. Consider that in 2012, Republican candidates for Congress won 1.1 million fewer votes than Democrats, yet Republicans maintained control of the House. Democrats have won the popular presidential vote in five of the last six presidential elections, and demographic trends (increased minority, women, and younger voters) all favor a continuation of this trend. Divided government can produce moderation and sensible centrism; over the past decade and more it has done nothing of the sort in Washington. Even on issues of war and peace, when partisanship used to stop at the water’s edge, polarization has produced paralysis. Sixteen months after President Obama launched a renewed bombing campaign, supported by thousands of ground troops, in Iraq and Syria, Congress has yet to vote to authorize the use of military forces—even though, on the Republican side, most want the President to do more, not less.
The situation in Europe is no better, and in some ways it is worse. The major problems besetting the continent—from sclerotic economic growth and the Euro crisis, to the strategic challenge of Russia, the threat of terrorism underscored by the Paris attacks, and the million-plus refugees engulfing Europe’s shores—call for increased cooperation and action at the European level. And, yet, the response to all these challenges has been to look for national rather than European solutions, in part because government leaders are responding to growing nationalist sentiments at home and in part because Europe has lacked the strong leadership to lead. Polling from the Pew Research Center shows that two-in-three Europeans think that the EU doesn’t understand their needs, and nearly seven-in-ten believe that their voice does not count in the European Union. This disconnect has resulted in pronounced policy effects. The 2010 Euro crisis underscored that monetary integration had not yet gone far enough; yet, the response was to put national interests (including the need to protect national banks) above a European solution. The refugee crisis highlights the need to strengthen Europe’s external borders, but instead is producing the reimposition of national border controls. The terrorist attacks in Paris should lead to greater intelligence and law enforcement integration at the European level, yet no one is seriously contemplating a European-level CIA or FBI.
The crisis of governance is of course most apparent in the Middle East, where governments are flailing and the entire state system appears under threat from a growing Muslim divide, pitting Sunnis against Shi’as throughout the entire region. Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen are proving ungovernable because of deep internal divisions that are being fueled by outside interventions on all sides. Most of the remaining countries are ruled by autocratic leaders who are unable and unwilling to give their people much hope in a better future—thus radicalizing their populations and increasing the need for further repression. The Arab Spring showed that this situation cannot hold—and the temporary success of renewed repression in places like Egypt is bound to give way to explosive situations down the road.
Without effective governance, whether it be in the United States, Europe, or the Middle East, real problems will be ignored while the resulting further radicalization will undermine whatever possibilities still exist to find viable and lasting solutions. Perhaps grave dangers and new crises can restore the commitment to effective government. But so far, neither the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression nor the largest movement of refugees since 1945 has provided sufficient incentives to act effectively. Instead, both developments have strengthened the very forces that have made effective responses less attainable.
The Rise of Non-State Actors
As a result of the return of geopolitics and the crisis of governance that besets major parts of the globe, power in global politics is diffusing—both among states and between states and non-state actors. The former undermines the strength on supranational institutions, like the European Union and the United Nations. The latter places greater power in the hands of actors that are more difficult to influence and control.
Increasingly, states are confronting malignant non-state actors that they find difficult to control. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups have emerged as major actors with global reach. Many operate globally, using the internet to recruit and train young men and women willing to inflict grievous harm on civilian populations in the Middle East, South Asia, Europe, North America and beyond. In Central and South America, drug cartels have resorted to unspeakable violence and undermined the authority of the state. Cyber thieves and hackers can steel commercial and state secrets from just about any place on earth and now have the power to debilitate critical infrastructure like financial and electrical systems, with serious consequences for large numbers of people.
Not all non-state entities are malignant actors, however. Major global corporations can be actors of great social changes. McDonalds in recent months announced it would only purchase eggs from cage-free chickens and halt the purchase of meat from chickens with antibiotics. Nestle and other major water consuming corporations are increasingly concerned about growing water scarcity and they have collectively committed to spend more than $84 billion over three years to improve the way they conserve, manage, and obtain water. Unilever has made sustainable production a major priority, aiming to cut its impact on the environment in half by 2020. Its factories are already emitting 37 percent less emissions than in 2008 even while production of goods has grown. Landfill waste is down 85 percent in the same period. In these and other ways, global corporations are making a real difference.
Perhaps the most important non-state actors to emerge globally are cities. For the first time in human history, more people today live in cities than in rural areas. By 2050 two-thirds of all humanity will live and work in cities. Cities are where the action is, these days. And global cities—those with the highest concentration of global services, business, education, leadership, and culture—are leading the way. They have the scope, ambition, and clout to shape not just the world’s economy but also its ideas, its culture, its policies, and its future. They set the standards and make the rules. Big and connected, they transcend national frontiers and disrupt international agendas. They are magnets for business, people, money, and innovation.
Global cities are also increasingly driving solutions to real problems. Take climate change. The C40, a group of more than 75 cities, is exchanging information to enable concrete actions to tackle climate change. By taking more than 8,000 climate actions—from energy efficient street lighting to improved public transportation systems to smart grids and other infrastructure improvements—big cities are making a real difference in addressing the dangers of global warming. According to one recent study, in just 15 years cities could cut their carbon emissions by as much as twenty-five percent of today’s global carbon emissions from coal. In these and other ways, cities are having a growing impact on the global affair.
We live in a more chaotic, more complicated, and maybe a more dangerous—and certainly a less controllable—world than any time in history. At a time when international cooperation to address global challenges—ranging from climate change to terrorism to cyber threats—is more necessary than ever, the ability of governments to act decisively, with speed and great effect, is on the decline. Increasingly, effective action will come from sub-state actors like global corporations, global civic movements, and global cities, who can work in concert with national governments to address some of the biggest challenge we all face. The nation-state is by no means obsolete. They remain the repositories of the greatest resources—military, economic, and political—available to address major threats. But increasingly they will need the support of cities, corporations and other sub-state actors to succeed.