We are living in an age of disorder and discontent
In his remarkable book, “Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century,” the British historian Geoffrey Parker explores in great detail the complex interaction of the physical environment, social change, political instability and armed conflict in an era of constant threat. His focus was an age of plague and disruptive climate events, when not a single year passed without a major war in some part of the globe and peace was a vanishingly rare commodity. Political orders tottered, regimes collapsed and many states came close to disintegration in the face of internal and external challenges.
Sound familiar? We live, of course, in the middle of a global pandemic, whose virulence has strained the resilience of all states, including those that are able to lock down their citizens at the flick of a switch. Simple, unthinking strands of rogue DNA and RNA have become our mortal enemy. Elsewhere, we are witnessing the damaging impact of long-standing economic inequalities on social and political systems in the US and Europe, where social solidarity is eroding in the face of an identity-driven flight to group security.
In Iran, we have seen mass demonstrations by farmers, driven to desperation by repeated and worsening droughts. In Iraq, blessed with two of the greatest river systems in the world, the issue of depleting water resources and salination is urgent. There is now a serious public debate. But it may already be too late. The same would apply in Syria if debate there was not drowned out by the sound of human misery. Yemen is a disaster. Both there and in Syria, the costs of reconstruction, even if conflict were to end tomorrow, would be unachievable.
Lebanon, meanwhile, is becoming a test case in collapse. The great Scottish political economist Adam Smith famously observed that there was a great deal of ruin in a nation. But Hezbollah, Amal and their collaborators in Lebanon’s subjection to the interests of Iran are demonstrating quite how fast things can deteriorate when you pursue not the common good, but factional and sectarian advantage. Meanwhile, the global order established after 1945 under the aegis of a dominant US and its allies is under unprecedented pressure.
Some of this was probably inevitable. The Roman Empire stood in one form or another for 1,500 years. But that was before social media. Globalization, which has brought so many benefits to so many people, also has the capacity to amplify systemic shocks and send them coursing around the world in seconds. Even with Rome, when the western empire fell apart sometime between the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. — another phenomenon we now know was associated with climate disasters and virulent pandemics — many parts of Europe reverted for a period to a level of subsistence that they had not seen for four centuries. Out of this emerged the modern European state system. But the pax Romana — the stability and order provided by a central imperial authority — was no more. It took another 1,200 years for such an order, in Europe at least, to be restored at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. That, in turn, lasted a century. The post-1945 global order has so far lasted less than 80 years.
The most significant geopolitical disruption to this order has come from the rise of China. China has always tended to authoritarianism — or collapse. This may be a function of the country’s sheer size. And the Communist Party is, in effect, simply another in the long line of dynasties stretching back millennia. But most dynasties did not interpret their mandate as meaning global — and often not even regional — domination. It was enough to govern the Middle Kingdom.
We are collectively facing a more unstable and uncertain future than we could have imagined even a decade ago
Sir John Jenkins
In contrast, driven by a frantic search for resources to power economic growth while there is still time and riding a wave of nationalism, the China of President Xi Jinping has sought to claim expansive territorial rights across the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan, in the Himalayas and possibly, in the future, in Siberia (a Russian nightmare). The Belt and Road Initiative seeks to open up new trade routes for Chinese business underwritten by the state, secure the energy resources of Central Asia — and doubtless also Iran — for Beijing and create digital linkages that will help disseminate Chinese modes of governance and social control across the world.
This is causing deep concern among China’s neighbors and in the US. It is also driving a divisive policy debate within the EU, which is already fractured over energy issues. European leaders like France’s Emmanuel Macron proclaim that Europe needs to distance itself from a US they claim is no longer a dependable security partner: The English word folly is, of course, derived from the French.
Within Europe, populism is on the rise. Brexit was a harbinger of this phenomenon, shaped by the distinctive history and political traditions of the UK, but driven by discontents that are almost universal, certainly across the West and probably much more widely. Just look at the current situation in the French presidential race, where the populist right is shaping up as the most significant threat to Macron’s position — something that looks like a long-term trend. Look at Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic, or indeed Austria or Italy. And look at the US, where the appeal of Trumpism has not faded, even if many would prefer it to be Trumpism without Donald Trump.
We are, in short, living in an age of disorder and discontent. Globalism, which seemed like the answer 20 years ago — as it had in 1914 — has become part of the problem. Its costs have been borne by the poor and its benefits captured by the rich. The damage it causes to the environment has not been properly priced. And, again, those who suffer most, like Iran’s farmers or the inhabitants of Iraq’s marshes, are often those without political power. Where a regime’s legitimacy depends on continual growth, such as in China or Turkey, an awareness of impending scarcity and demographic pressures has produced external aggression, not collegiality. Where regimes can suppress popular protests by violence and intensive surveillance, as in China, Turkey, Iran, Syria or Iraq, they do. Elsewhere, these pressures produce neo-tribalism, which risks disabling democratic politics.
The response of the Gulf states to all this has been interesting, and often clever. Their economies remain overwhelmingly dependent on the production of hydrocarbons. They understand they need to diversify. And they are taking action — often impressively. But this costs money. So they have sought, quite rationally, to maintain global energy prices at a level that enables them to meet their needs. On the other hand, the pace of technological change in major international markets — and the rise of green politics — suggests there is now a relatively narrow window within which to make the most of their energy assets. This demands more efficient governance and investment in education and more productive private sector jobs.
This is a demand of most populations in the region anyway. But the record remains patchy. In too many countries, a lack of accountability and an overreliance on government — often through parastatals or favored businesspeople with privileged political access — as the engine of welfare distribution has, in practice, constrained growth and innovation. The UAE’s recent announcement of sweeping changes to its legal and regulatory framework shows an admirable desire to adapt to this rapidly changing landscape. Saudi Arabia’s drive to bring more women into the workforce is also positive. And the expansion of the Abraham Accords — with all their implications for trade, technology and skills transfer — to include more regional states is welcome. I do not for a moment think that the Palestinian issue has gone away. It still needs a proper resolution. It always has done. But conflict is not going to help. Integration might.
Globalism, which seemed like the answer 20 years ago — as it had in 1914 — has become part of the problem
Sir John Jenkins
This is especially true when other conflicts show no sign of abating. Iran is at the heart of most of these, certainly as they affect the Middle East. Whatever happens at the nuclear talks in Vienna, that is not going to change. What regional and other actors need to do is ensure they are, as far as possible, insulated from such conflicts and that Iran itself is constrained from exploiting or expanding them. No one can afford another regional war. But the alternative to war is not appeasement: It is — as I have written before — containment and deterrence. And part of this is making clear to Iran what costs will be incurred by aggression and what benefits will arise from normality. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their partners can play an important role here — and are already doing so.
But even the welcome new initiatives that we see in the Gulf region and the wider Middle East — involving the Kingdom, its Gulf Cooperation Council neighbors, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Israel in a wary diplomatic quadrille — will not fundamentally alter the imbalances of power, ideology and ambition that have bedeviled the region for decades. If the US genuinely means to lessen its presence and interest in the region, then the stabilization of relations between states will need to be built on the stability of political orders within them.
The need of the elite in Tehran to behave as if the Iranian revolution never ended — and the intense dissatisfaction of most Iranians with the hardships this brings — is a major reason for their bellicosity abroad. You could say the same for Hezbollah. Daesh arose partly because enough Sunnis thought the Iraqi and Syrian states were oppressive. That is no basis for regional order in the new balance of power world we are entering.
The perception that domestic political stability — achieved by sufficient attention to the interests of all stakeholders — should be the first priority of a successful state is as old as Aristotle, who thought Sparta was exemplary. Polybius, the great Greek historian of the Roman Republic’s rise to empire, thought it was because of the inclusive Roman class-based order. The Italian thinkers of the early Renaissance, constantly threatened by internecine conflict, thought the same. Human nature has not changed much in 2,500 years. That suggests that governance will continue to be contested everywhere.
None of this alters the fact that we are collectively facing a more unstable and uncertain future than we could have imagined even a decade ago. The urgent task of all states is to help build new and sustainable domestic, regional and global orders that will satisfy the needs of restive populations and contain rivalries — such as those between the US, India and China, Russia and the EU, and Iran, Turkey and the Arab world — without spilling over into conflict.
Speaking as a European, I firmly believe that at the heart of the global order must be a reinvigorated US true to its best traditions. Without this, freedom will retreat and regional orders will simply represent the dominance of the strong. And that, as we see in the Middle East, produces an intense counterreaction. At a time of great political strain and momentous social and rapid environmental change, achieving all that is easier said than done. But a failure to achieve it will cost us dearly. We are all in this together. That is the task for 2022 — as it was for 2021 and will be for 2023. As the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci remarked, to balance any pessimism of the intellect, we shall need long-term optimism of the will.
• Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was corresponding director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.