Five Trends and Their Impact on Today’s Geopolitics

A great deal is being said on the geopolitical and security fronts; they warrant this short piece. Terror attacks; migrant crisis; resurgence of extremes; demagogy and populism; isolationist tendencies and calls for trade barriers and secessions, the world’s public discourse is rife with them. We feel that we are in the midst of some major geopolitical transitions, and as it is often the case with geopolitics and the media, there are determining trends that are addressed only too little; they are, for the most part, of a socio-economic nature. Five trends underlie most of the current geopolitical rhetoric in my view.

The first one of those trends may seem at odds with the news: wealth is rising globally, mostly driven by the economic development and increased technological penetration in several populous countries in Asia and emerging markets. The world’s economic centre of gravity is moving back East, after having moved constantly West from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution and the economic rise of the USA. In fact, the largest part of this economic shift has already taken place and it explains the commodities super cycle that we had witnessed globally and which has come to a rather abrupt end 5-6 years ago. A slower continuation of this shift East will follow now, that is until India, if at all, undertakes the same type of economic breakout as China, at which point this centre of gravity will accelerate further East again. Given the large populations of Asia, all of it means that the world is, in general, getting less poor and less underdeveloped – and this is rather wonderful.

The second important trend is the dominance of the services sector in the economies of all developed nations. We live in a world where services constitute more than two-third of the economic output of developed countries, even those countries with reputed manufacturing sectors such as Germany and Japan; and with the continued automation, interconnectivity, and advancement of artificial intelligence, this trend towards more services is likely to continue. French farmers may pursue their protests, but it will not change much to the fact that agriculture is today only a small and decreasing percentage of the economies of all developed nations.

By combining the first and the second trends, we can easily see that the West, Japan, and China, among others, are becoming less dependent on foreign commodities, in relative terms to their past, even if some of them still need to import a great deal of them for their economies to function properly. It explains the current economic struggle of many commodity-exporting countries, as well as the wish for a geopolitical ‘pivot’ of the USA and Europe out of the Middle East and Africa towards the Pacific region.

A substantial percentage of the population of advanced economies is getting older and retiring; this is the third important trend. As this generation of ‘baby boomers’ is both the holder of the greater part of the wealth in developed economies and the one that requires the most of the state benefits of pension and healthcare, the political landscape in developed countries has become divided and deadlocked; and should we add to this observation the job losses in low-skill sectors as a consequence of the first and second trends, we see how it all converges to lead to a rise in income and wealth disparities in developed nations, despite the global economic prosperity. Populism; tendencies to retrench; inability to reform social contracts on pension and healthcare; changes to taxation as a way of transferring wealth from one group to another; and blame games (e.g. against the rich, the bankers, or foreign migrants), all become effective political means for garnering votes. Many people want to change the system drastically; many people feel the need to blame or attack someone; but different social groups have, simply, contradictory views on how the economic systems should be changed, given their conflicting priorities. Opposing extremes emerge, and the traditional political parties see themselves stuck in the middle.

The Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa have high number of youth coming to the job market, and most societies in these regions are having great difficulty adjusting to the pace of demographic change, which is fuelling tensions, inequalities, and political disillusionment. Things are only made worse by the traditional reliance of these regions on the export of commodities at times where the developed world does not need them as much anymore and, therefore, is not as interested in intervening politically in these countries as much either. When a great number of young people are looking for subsistence without finding one, it almost always results in tectonic shifts within a country. Moreover, the failure of most countries in the Middle East at effective economic and political self-governance since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the chaos of the Iraq war, and the missed chances at democracy following the Arab Spring, all add to the mix of political tension, which seems to be reaching its apex in our days. The result is a wide geography marred by 1848-like revolutions mixed with Thirty Year War-like sectarian strife. One ought to say that continental Europe also missed its chance at democracy immediately following its populous revolutions, and it is only in the late 19th century and early 20th century that democracy started to effectively take hold in it. As the problems worsen and the chaos endures, anarcho-nihilist and destructive movements start to attract more in the youth. Not finding their place in society, some in the youth start to wish only for the destruction of everything, including their own person; they are joined by some of the marginalised youth in the developed world. In this particular case, the anarcho-nihilist ideology is wrapped in religious cloth for further validation. Furthermore, given that most of the troubled countries belong to a religion distinct from that of the developed world and, we must admit, have a long legacy of conflict with it, the tension becomes quickly a global religious one. The US and Europe want to disinvest themselves from the Middle East and Africa towards the higher priority regions of East Asia, but, in an integrated world, the troubles coming from these regions will not allow them to easily escape from the challenges.

And finally, there is the salient fifth trend of rising expectations about what constitutes good lifestyle and good livelihood. With the fall of barriers of information and, hence, of barriers to social comparisons, there has been a sharp transformation of expectations about what constitutes a successful and worthy life. Something has outrun even our technological advancement and our economic prosperity, and it is our expectations about how easily and fast technology and economic prosperity should be delivered to us; they have become, simply, unachievable. We cannot all become billionaire tech entrepreneurs or multimillionaire fashion icons; we cannot all have the latest supercars and the finest luxury items; and we cannot all afford traveling the world constantly looking for new entertainment. And yet, this is what is being ‘sold’ to us everyday due to the fall of barriers of information. With the fast penetration of technology in our lives, we have witnessed great gains in productivity, but also certain complacency towards the ‘more… faster… now…’ I reckon that a large part of the economic malaise about which everybody seems to be talking – whether in the US, Europe, or China – can be explained not by economic figures, but by the run of material expectations of most people; it stands at odds with the wonderful prosperity and technological democratisation that the world has realised over the past decades. This run of expectations, mirrored by the incessant leveraging to meet them, is, in my view, the most alarming of all trends; it represents a dangerous potential of destruction from within. Often, we do not realise how good we have it until we lose it – ask any pre-war generation.

If we combine the third and the fifth trends, we explain a great deal of the anger at the domestic level; and if we combine the first, fourth and the fifth trends, we explain a great deal of the anger at the global level.

As these trends evolve or dissipate, and many factors can come to influence each, so will the doomy political rhetoric, the dissatisfaction, and the incessant promises of something unattainable. The reasons behind the current geopolitical trends are understandable, and their roots are less sensational, of a general conspiracy kind, or of a tribal/clash-of-cultures kind. Unfortunately, violence and the fear of other draw more interest than cool observation; too many in politics and the media take advantage of this fact without a shred of self-respect. But that is nothing new in human history either.



Is it Legal? Is it Moral? (1/3)

The permanent conflict between what is legal and what is moral is a key sign of our times and of our modern cultures; it is an important conflict and a great challenge to almost all of our current social considerations. As Action (and most human action is social) is central to our living, to our identity building, and to the shaping of our general human culture and civilisation (whatever the latter might be), then it is a matter of simple inference to consider the subject of legality vs. morality as central to our humanity. Our action is governed and/or judged by a certain compass, and this compass is often legal, moral, or a combination of the two. It is precisely in this confusion of the compass to use, and in the circumstantiality of the compass we use, that we continue to find great difficulty in our days in acting and judging social action. Should we base our actions on some legal code, legal practice, or legal tradition? Or should our action be ultimately accounted for by a higher morality? When should we consider that doing something morally right is more important that doing something legal, and why? And why is it, in any case, that we have this conflict between legality and morality? What is it so difficult in unifying them and ridding ourselves of the problem?

Before we continue further, we shall note that we will purposefully concentrate in this three-part series on the conflict between legal and moral within the context of one particular general culture (say for example, the European culture, American culture, or Chinese culture), and not address the even more important and more difficult subject of reconciling different legal codes and different moralities pertaining to different cultures. In other words, we will limit ourselves to the opposition between one legal system and one moral system only, which is admittedly quite a simplification of our global social reality as it presents itself today.

The subject of what is moral in opposition to what is legal has been quite alive in recent geopolitics, in both explicit and implicit manners. Let us take two recent examples: we witness heated debates today on the subject of surveillance programs and their scope, as well as on the subject of Western powers intervening in foreign conflict areas and what scope of intervention exactly.

The current US administration’s defence line on the surveillance program consists of saying that the programs currently in place are actually legal, or, slightly more controversially, are not forbidden by the US constitution in place. These surveillance programs, it holds, do not tap into the content of the communications of US citizens on US soil, even if it records them, unless under direct US court authorisation or warrant; hence, these programs respect the civil liberties of the US citizens as protected by the US constitution. As for the rest, i.e. as for what is not strictly forbidden by the US constitution, it remains silent on what is really happening. It is worth noting that this ‘rest’ is around 6.8 billion people around the world… We can then naturally ask, are the practices of these surveillance programs morally acceptable acts, by the same moral standards that the American culture holds high? The scope of the US constitution is predominantly US citizens and US soil; we do not expect of any constitution or legal code of any particular country to legislate everything concerning every foreign citizen, soil, and circumstance. Hence, if these surveillance practices are indeed legal under US legal code, are they really moral?

Let us now consider the case of intervention in foreign conflict areas, such as Syria or Central Africa, and the debate over whether militarily-capable powers, especially Western ones, should intervene in foreign lands to secure peace and protect the innocent, under which conditions, following whose decision and support, and according to which defined scope and objectives. Here, we must say, we are not any longer in the realm of any one particular culture anymore because of the international aspect of the problem; nevertheless, there exists today an international legal code for such geopolitical matters, and I like to think (or hope) that most human beings in this world can agree or do agree on some very basic human rights and moral values, such as the protection of innocent children from being massacred in a large-scale manner. Western powers intervening in conflict zones without the formal consent of the United Nations is illegal under current international law. Many have expressed this view, for example in the case of Syria, and they are right in saying so from a legal point of view. NATO consent and Arab League consent in the case of Syria are not commensurate with UN consent; hence, a military move in Syria without UN consent would remain illegal under current international law and how it is structured, regardless of what NATO and the Arab League might think. But should we not do anything in acute conflict zones because of that? Is it ethical to have children and innocent people killed continuously and on a mass-scale; know that this is not likely to stop in the near future; know that if anything it is actually worsening; and sit idly or shrug and say we can not do anything because the UN Security Council can not come to a decision on the subject? The current UN political structure is a relic of post World War II dynamics and needs modernisation – most reasonable people know that. Several attempts have already been made to discuss the subject of the governance of the UN with no luck so far; International Law and its enforcement systems remain highly deficient today. So what are we to do in cases of acute human conflicts, especially when weapons of mass killing are being used? Here, in contrast with the above, and despite opposing wars in general from having seen their consequences first-hand, I find myself closer in agreement with what the current US administration wanted to do in Syria or what France is doing today in some parts of Africa.

What is important to note is that legal definitions and structures do change with politics; moral values and ethical systems are also prone to politics but less so and in a different, slower manner.

[To be continued].