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There could be many horsemen heralding the coming apocalypses

There could be many horsemen heralding the coming apocalypses
From left: US President Joe Biden. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Chris Kleponis / Pool) | Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: Aris Messinis / AFP / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

We have a world in which a new version of the classic formulation of a clash of civilisations may increasingly be propelled by a motivated China and a nervous America.

From the writer’s kitchen table, he contemplates a menacing spread of challenges that are arrayed across the world. Many are taking place on a broad international palette. And this may also invoke the classic confrontations that helped collapse ancient Athens and destroyed the 100-year peace of Europe from 1815 to 1914. Be alert.

With an injury now largely confining the author to sitting, reading and contemplating the contemporary world from his kitchen table, he has been trying to enumerate the underlying patterns of our current, dangerous circumstances.

For the past two centuries, the world has largely been confronted by competing ideologies, all claiming to be the best way to organise societies – but these challenges seem to be different.

Back then, there was a natural conservatism that was largely a modernised version of absolutism and the natural order of the right of kings and emperors to rule over the rest of us.

Such ideas, of course, reached far back into history. (Eastern versions of this absolutism were often based on the ability and rights of rulers to apportion land and, crucially, water for the cultivation of crops like rice.) 

By the 19th century in the West, this approach had been moderated and in some countries, such as England, the Whig version agreed that rural-based aristocracies would hold a share of the rulership. But such arrangements would be pitted against the new and rising forces of industrialisation and nationalism — and, in the case of industrialisation, a growing social-political reaction to it.

In our time, old-style absolutism and Marxism have largely gone out of favour and full-on, unbridled industrialisation/capitalism has been reined in in Western nations (unless you happen to be a Russian oligarch, a state-favoured industrialist in China or a local tenderpreneur where success significantly depends on official connections and access to preferential financial backing).

Potent forces

Instead, our contemporary world seems to have given birth to several other forces, conflicts and trends that have become ever more potent.

To this writer, four writers (and perhaps prophets?) seem to have exemplified the range of trends that have deeply influenced how we see our contemporary world — and how we and our children will live in it.

Consider the impact of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”, Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man”, Robert Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy” and Graham Allison’s “The Thucydides Trap”. Together, consider how well they still interlock in describing our world. 

First, think of Huntington. He was a realist student of the evolution of political circumstances and societies in the developing world, with his enormously influential study, Political Order in Changing Societies, that accepted the reality of corruption and the pressing need for governments to grow in their reach, capabilities and capacities.

Late in his career, his theory of the clash of seven divergent, contemporary civilisations defined by history, culture, ethnicity, religion and other traditions would be the key feature of the emerging global system.

While his broad claim attracted much criticism, in recent years Russia and China (as well as some Middle Eastern states) have framed their circumstances as proof of the superiority of their way of social and political organisation — in short, their civilisation.

In China, this has come through in a blend of Communist Party-managed political monopoly, with wide-ranging capitalism, but often shaped in the dirigiste model. The Chinese leaders argue vigorously that it is an apt description of a way forward for others to follow.


Meanwhile, at the end of the Cold War, philosophy scholar, political scientist and public intellectual Francis Fukuyama achieved popular notice and had a significant impact on many politicians and officials in America. (Along the way, he also garnered some ridicule by those who saw his views as cheerleading for the American political system as the final stage of political evolution, once the Soviet Union had evaporated.)

The core of his argument was that with the passing of the old Soviet Union and its collection of restive, dependent states, the liberal democratic tradition, coupled with vigorous economic liberalism — in the US and the West more generally — had achieved a surpassing victory for a new chapter in history.

Of course, this “end-of-history” saga was soon enough overwhelmed by the public, popular discussion in the wake of the 9/11 attack; the ill-conceived and ruinous American invasion of Iraq; the two extended interventions in Afghanistan and the rise of Isis.

But yet another kind of “end-of-history” teleological argument has arisen in China with its leaders’ assertions that its system has become the true path to the future, with that unique blend of authoritarian government policies and plans in tandem with increasing economic liberalism.

Fukuyama, meanwhile, had moved on to a new analysis.

This was a phenomenon he labelled “identitarianism”, highlighting it as the newest, important societal and political development — and a potential threat to global order.

Identitarianism is on a continuum with the earlier global clash of civilisations and broader, traditional nationalisms. For Fukuyama, it usually exists within existing polities, acting as a more narrow form of nationalism with the political consequences arising from a belief in the superiority of an ethnic, religious, political or geographical home base. (Think of the way Donald Trump has encapsulated his political appeal to reach those who feel overlooked by the United States’ East and West Coast elites and ethnic minority populations.) 

The rise of social media’s ability to conjure up virtual mobs that can quickly pivot into very real actions is a particularly violent or divisive manifestation of that new technology. We have learned this to our astonishment in the past decade in country after country.

To watch the increasing divisiveness in so many national societies is to be able to point to that identitarianism as an increasingly dominant force in the politics of many nations. The gravitational attraction on disparate parts of many societies continues to weaken, influenced by the power of social media to allow smaller and smaller communities to reinforce themselves.

‘The coming anarchy’

Meanwhile, over the years, global trends observer Robert D Kaplan (a writer who had, early on, catalogued the forces raging in Yugoslavia that would ultimately tear it apart) continued to point out what he termed “the coming anarchy”, referring to nations that were part of the broad “zone of instability” that extends from the states of the Sahel and across the Middle East and East Africa. (Think of recent developments in Sudan and other Sahel nations, among others.) 

Building on Kaplan’s argument, that latter phrase became popular with military and defence planners at the end of the 20th century. Many of these states increasingly face political, social and economic instability in the face of their ineffectual or conflict-riven governments, the growing impact of climate shifts, continuing poverty and seemingly unending, multiple insurrections, in addition to military adventurers (most recently, the Wagner Group).

Reviewing Kaplan’s more recent book, “The Revenge of Geography”, Malise Ruthven noted in the New York Review of Books, “… the future can be understood in the context of temperature, land allotment and other physical certainties: China, able to feed only 23% of its people from land that is only 7% arable, has sought energy, minerals and metals from such brutal regimes as Burma, Iran and Zimbabwe, putting it in moral conflict with the United States.

“Afghanistan’s porous borders will keep it the principal invasion route into India, and a vital rear base for Pakistan, India’s main enemy. Iran will exploit the advantage of being the only country that straddles both energy-producing areas of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. 

“Finally, Kaplan posits that the United States might rue engaging in far-flung conflicts with Iraq and Afghanistan rather than tending to its direct neighbour, Mexico, which is on the verge of becoming a semi-failed state due to drug cartel carnage.”

Maybe Kaplan’s reading of things is an overwrought argument. Or, perhaps, it is a realist’s unblinking reading of things as they are.

Crucially, most of these conditions and circumstances have significant interconnections to the impacts of climate change as well. And Kaplan’s argument does not yet include the newest challenges of AI and the supposed existential threats it may bring.

China vs the US

All of this brings us to Graham Allison’s The Thucydides Trap.

Allison has been an influential professor at Harvard and, in recent years, he set out to define the most important strategic challenge and dangerous instability for the future.

In his view, it was the challenge of a rapidly rising China jostling increasingly hard against that status quo power, the US. 

Allison labelled this the “Thucydides trap”, building on the circumstances of Sparta’s response to a rising Athens that eventually precipitated the Peloponnesian War that devastated Greece and broke Athens’ maritime empire. Thucydides, because he was the Greek historian who defined the conflict, its origins and its impacts.

Furthermore, those circumstances were significantly replicated some two thousand years later in the military competition between Wilhelmine Germany and the UK that fuelled the spiral into World War 1. Moreover, it also marked the Cold War competition between the US and the Soviet Union. 

Allison did not argue that the competition between the US and China would inevitably result in tragedy; merely that the strategic landscape opened the door for such a possibility unless real efforts were made to avoid the catastrophic clash.

Such a dangerous landscape meant challenges could come from almost anywhere, but most especially in the sphere of economic competition globally in many of the newest technologies, and in the strategic landscape that ran in an arc from the South China Sea to the Western Pacific and on into the Japan Sea/East Sea.

For the latter, the sharpest points of contact right now are in the waters of the South China Sea or the skies above, since there are always troubling signs of potential naval and air clashes as both powers have something to prove. But the model — and the outcome — of that historic Hellenic conflict must serve as a warning sign, even if it is one that still seems to be overlooked by many.

And so we have a world in which a new version of the classic formulation of a clash of civilisations may increasingly be propelled by a motivated China and a nervous America.

There is a new teleological explanation (replacing the end of history) for the future, although it is coupled with dangerous fissiparous, internal divisions in many nations.

But then there is also a growing range of potential anarchies around the world. These are, collectively, coupled with a potentially devastating two-power conflict that leaves lots of space for chaos, but not so much for a more stable world, even if most of us devoutly wish it to be so.

And so that is what this writer was thinking about as he sat at his kitchen table on Women’s Day. DM


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