How will history remember our era?

The remarkable run of news these past few weeks leads J BROOKS SPECTOR to contemplate what kind of label our times will have once this present has finally become the past.

Throughout history, many, perhaps most, periods of time come to be labelled for one of the dominant features of their intellectual, economic or political life. Think of the Age of Enlightenment followed by the Age of Revolution, the earlier Age of Discovery, or even the Renaissance, as just a few examples. Over the past few weeks, in thinking about our present time, the writer has begun to wonder how people in the future will think of our own time, assuming the human race survives, of course. A hundred years into the future, will our time be thought of as a second age of discovery and one of vast universal prosperity, or the Age of Tumult, the Time of Troubles, the Era of Disaster?

Of course, looking forward to the future is an inherently risky business. It is far better to predict the past. It is doubly complicated when trying to predict how those in the future will think of our present difficulties. Perhaps it is useful to apply a bit of humility to this effort and take a leaf out of the book of those who sell investment products. Their announcements and advertisements always seem to end with warnings along the lines of: Past results do not ensure future returns.

Consider, as a starting point in a search for that predictive humility former secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous explanation of the perils of prediction in determining what would happen in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Rumsfeld explained there are those known knowns, those known unknowns, and – most problematic – those wily, treacherous unknown unknowns. And, of course, he was largely brought low, along with the president he served, by all three categories of faulty risk analysis – as their grand strategy came apart from a glaring failure to understand how to interpret things so as to extrapolate more effectively into the future.

Or, consider another example that demonstrates the inability to think outside the straitjacket of conventional thinking in predictive thinking. In the early stages of World War II, just as the Japanese Imperial Army was gearing up to conquer Malaya and Singapore, while en route to the natural resources of the then Dutch East Indies, the British government and its military were smugly confident Singapore was an impregnable fortress. It commanded the sea approaches to the Indian Ocean and East and Southeast Asia and the oceans beyond and was symbolic of Britain’s imperial power.

The Japanese understood the power of Singapore’s fortifications as well as the British did. So, instead of trying to take Singapore by force in the face of its sea-facing armament and naval strength, they raced down the roads of Malaya using thousands of bicycles “liberated” from the surrounding population. They seized the causeway between Singapore and the mainland of the Malayan Peninsula and were able to subdue the greatest British concentration of strength in Asia in just a few weeks.

As we look at our own time and try to guess how the future will judge us, we must be aware of several different types of problems. There are the obvious geographical spaces where we have near-intractable problems such as the Middle East – with its continuing Arab-Israeli conflict, the division between Shia and Sunni communities, and the conflicting aspirations of Iran and Saudi Arabia. We are now likely to be seeing a near-fundamental restructuring of much of the Middle East, by virtue of the explosive force of Islamic State and the near-collapse of states such as Iraq and Syria. This seems likely to reshape key parts of the region in a way that has not happened since 1918 and the total collapse of Ottoman suzerainty.

There are, of course, other obvious geographic hotspots where whatever evolves will have vast consequences for the geopolitics of the globe. These include the slow-motion militarisation of the island groups in the South China Sea from a resurgent China. This is taking place in a space where there are already conflicting claims from China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Then, of course, there is what is playing out in what scholar/journalist Anne Applebaum calls “the borderlands” – that wide swathe of land with no real boundaries and a complex history of conquests and changing sovereignty that runs from the current Baltic nations on through to the Crimea. The Russian pressures on Ukraine and its seizure of the Crimean Peninsula may well be just one part of Russia’s longer term effort to enforce a kind of domination over what Russian leaders have termed its “near abroad”. The result would be territories that would not be able to embody the full freedom of action that has come to be a sine qua non of nations under the Westphalian norm since the mid-17th century.

But there are also the increasingly problematic circumstances of the consolidation of Western Europe, a project that first began in the early post-war years led by statesmen like Jean Monnet. Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer. This vast multi-national effort, now culminating in the European Union (EU) and the euro zone, now stands on the brink because it has been singularly unable to get member nations to surrender any real sovereignty in political and economic policy to a larger whole. The Greek crisis is simply a visible manifestation of this deeper challenge.

But beyond all these contemporary challenges, there is a vast list of issues that transcend state borders – borderless crime and cybercrime, migration, piracy and hijacking, climate change, the potential for plagues and crop failures, and impending water shortages in many places – all of which may quickly degenerate into broader social and political collapse, or inter-state conflict. In thinking about this, there seem to be several very different dynamics at work. There are all of those old, even ancient social/cultural/political fault lines, as well as newer ones deriving from the still-unfinished business of more recent conflicts. There is also the remaking of political-economic systems now at crossroads such as the future of the EU. And then there are those critically important transnational issues which could upset the entire global apple cart.

East Asia continues to host lingering border disputes and territorial issues largely left over from the end of World War II. This is a region where there has been no comprehensive settlement in the way the post-war settlement in Western Europe was confirmed and accepted. Korea remains divided along the line where US and Soviet forces accepted the surrender of the Japanese (and after the Korean War). The southern Kuril Islands remain officially in dispute (at least from the Japanese perspective) from that same surrender, while Okinawa continues to serve as a sometimes-uneasy host of a major concentration of US military forces, also as a result of that same war’s end.

Meanwhile, Taiwan remains politically separate from China (albeit increasingly integrated economically) following the defeat of the nationalist Kuomintang forces in 1949; and there are all those overlapping territorial claims over those tiny but strategic islets. The current build-up of a permanent Chinese presence on some of them, speaks to the possibilities of local conflicts, if a more comprehensive security architecture is not achieved in that region. And, of course, the Chinese economy’s cycles of booms, busts and investment bubbles now looms increasingly over the region, as China’s economic leadership tries to shift the country’s economy from a growth model supported by exports to one that increasingly relies upon domestic consumption versus international export-driven growth.

And as noted earlier, much of the current Middle East dispensation derived from the 1916 Sykes/Picot Agreement, the 1920 Sevres Treaty and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The boundaries that resulted from those circumstances at the end of World War I are melting away in many places. But it is entirely possible that new and different lines will come into being in the future.

But then there is also that rough division stretching right across Africa from west to east that largely splits states into competing Christian/animist and Muslim halves, even as this division often overlays ethnic splits within those contemporary nation states – a situation that was compounded by that European scramble for Africa sanctioned by the 1884 Treaty of Berlin. But in large part, this split has been in the making for nearly 1,000 years, even if often-murderous consequences have only become visible in our own time.

But then, of course, there are all those critically important transnational, transcendent issues that will be crucial in producing whatever it is that gives our era its moniker when people in the future look back at us. These issues include more traditional transborder crime and cyber crime; piracy and hijacking – whether it is of passenger transport or commerce; climate change; the rapid dispersion of diseases; possibilities for crop collapses; growing pressure on limited water resources; new migration flows; the vexed question of economic inequality; and economic impacts that will come from shifts in energy sources and usage.

Cyber crime, just like all of these issues, goes beyond individual nations, of course, as almost anyone with a bank account and internet access has already learned. Meanwhile, a dozen nations already help patrol the Gulf of Aden and the near reaches of the Indian Ocean to try to protect shipping in that dangerous region. While epidemics and pandemics leap across borders to crop up wherever there has been international contact in the conduct of travel and trade. While diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Ebola and Aids are well known to all, relatively fewer people are aware that most of humanity remains dependent on vast planted expanses of mono-crop cultivation, based on a starkly limited range of varieties of those key crops – circumstances that could be excellent for outbreaks of major crop disease pandemics.

Even if one refuses to accept the worst case climate change scenarios such as that now being offered by scientists like James Hansen and his collaborators that would lead to real global warming and the consequent melting of polar ice and flooding of major low-lying, densely settled regions, there is always the possibility of shorter-term climate change from undoubted natural causes. In 1815, a massive eruption of the Tambora volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa was the worst such event in recorded history. The nearly immediate effect on the weather was so severe that 1815 earned the label “the year there was no summer”. Crop failures, famines and popular unrest in many places occurred around the globe. And we are, even now, not much more competent to prevent such things than we were 200 years ago, even if we can deliver relief aid more efficiently – after the fact. And, then, of course, there is the growing fear that human endeavour is already outstripping the available water resources.

Stemming from the distressing political and economic circumstances in many parts of the world, a great rise of uncontrolled migration from Latin America to the US, from a wide band of Africa and the Middle East into Europe, and from persecuted communities in Asia to other nations or Australia has erupted. At this point at least, there seems to be little ability to manage this population flow, to move it into more settled circumstances, or to stem its flow by changing the circumstances in the places the people are fleeing – and there is every likelihood there will be many more people yet to come. The effects on the politics and economics of the receiving nations remain almost impossible to calculate fully.

Then, of course, there are technological changes. To think specifically in terms of South Africa for a moment, platinum production looms large in the country’s economic circumstances. But much of that metal goes into catalytic converters used to trap noxious gases from motor vehicle emissions. What will happen to South Africa’s platinum belt – and well beyond it – as less and less platinum is needed worldwide, as fewer vehicles in the global fleet rely on petrol and more make use of electric or hydrogen-fuelled engines, or are fitted with much lower polluting hybrid engines? Is South Africa really prepared to cope with the massive repercussions of such a massive shift? Or, for that matter, will the global petroleum market and oil-producing states be able to weather this shift as incomes fall dramatically?

Of course all of these changes – both glacial and cataclysmic – are amplified by the tremendous multiplier effects of global communications, the internet, and, now, social media. Virtually every social movement and economic shift takes place in front of a global audience – whether it is the start of a social revolution in Tunisia or the effects of a massive fire in a Chinese port. Investment decisions and the movement of capital take place in seconds via the members of Thomas Friedman’s electronic herd. And all of this, in turn, is affected by the inequalities in wealth and the rising expectations of vast classes of aspirant people all around the world, eager for the benefits they can see all around them. Will our time eventually earn the reputation as a time when the survivors have come to envy the dead – or will it be known as one in which they marvel at how we transcended our dangers, disagreements and difficulties? DM

Photo: Smoke from the remains of New York’s World Trade Center shrouds lower Manhattan as a lone seagull flies overhead in a photograph taken across New York Harbor from Jersey City, New Jersey, in this September 12, 2001 file picture. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine/Files


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