From crisis to opportunity: How 4 global threats can change the world for the better
“You must be busy these days.” I get that a lot. I’ve been focused on geopolitical risk for over two decades, and there always seems to be a crisis ongoing that people want to hear more about. And they seem to believe that today was crazier than yesterday.
But my company was created in 1998, as a bloodbath in the former Yugoslavia reached crescendo, a financial crisis engulfed Southeast Asia, and Boris Yeltsin’s Russia defaulted on its debt.
Then came the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election and Bush v. Gore. Next, the bursting of the tech bubble. Then, the 9/11 attacks and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq. Color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. A global financial crisis and a European sovereign debt crisis.
Then came the Arab Spring, revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and civil wars in Libya and Syria. Then another revolution in Ukraine, after which Russia grabbed Crimea and scrambled the Donbas.
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Then came a migrant crisis in Europe and a surge of populism. Then Brexit. Next, the election of Donald Trump upended relations between the world’s sole superpower and pretty much everybody else.
Then we kicked off the worst global pandemic in more than a century. And now Russia has invaded Ukraine, triggering Europe’s worst war since World War II, killing tens of thousands, displacing millions, and remaking the European security map.
This isn’t a moment of crisis.
It’s an era of crisis.And the reason for much of this instability is right in the title of this newsletter: We live in a "GZERO World." It’s not a system dominated by the G-7, the G-20, or some aspirational G-2. There's still no nation—or alliance of nations—capable of offering the kind of leadership that helps avert, or at least contain, all crises. That’s the G-Zero for you.
But stick with me a moment, and I’ll tell you a genuinely optimistic story about the future.The crisis we need
A glance at the headlines, domestic or international, might persuade you that the G-Zero problem can only get worse. The United States—still the sole superpower—has become the world's most politically dysfunctional major country. Too many Americans now say members of the political party they hate pose the greatest threat to national security and the future of the planet.
Making matters even more complicated, relations between the world’s two most powerful states, the U.S. and China, are still crucial for geopolitical stability and the health of the globalized world economy but are headed in the wrong direction.
It’s also true that our multinational institutions no longer reflect the world’s true balance of power or meet the needs created by 21st-century challenges. For a prime example of G-Zero absurdity, look no further than the United Nations Security Council. Russia, led by a man much of the West now considers a war criminal, has a permanent veto over anything the Council might do. Germany and Japan, two wealthy democracies committed to rule of law at home and multinational problem-solving abroad, can’t get a seat… because they lost World War II.
So, here’s the good news I promised: Crises still create opportunities.
America remains a dynamic nation capable of great things, despite its culture-war politics. The U.S. and China can work together in areas that benefit both (and everyone else) even as they fight in a dozen others.
Best of all, future progress doesn’t depend solely on America or China or any group of governments. It depends on crisis. Or rather, on our ability to use the crises we have to build new ways of working together than can help us manage the crises of the future. The past shows us what’s possible, and the present shows us what’s necessary.
But not just any crisis will do. We need a crisis big enough to force political leaders, the private sector, scientists, and activists to work toward common goals, but not a crisis so crippling that they can’t. We need a "goldilocks" crisis.
This is the subject of my new book, The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats—and Our Response—Will Change the World.
the power of crisis
The Russia-Ukraine war
I think it was novelist John Irving who said that “writing is about writing, but publishing is about timing.” Unfortunately, my book went to print on February 26, just 48 hours after Russia invaded Ukraine. If I’d had six more weeks, the book would have one more chapter (instead of an afterword), because the war in Ukraine beautifully illustrates the main point I wanted to make.
On February 24, Vladimir Putin made a bet. He thought U.S. dysfunction, European disunity, Chinese backing, Ukrainian ambivalence, and Russian ruthlessness would let him quickly redraw the map of Europe and correct the greatest wrong of Soviet collapse—the loss of sacred land he considers Russian. With each passing day, that bet looks more and more strategically stupid. Putin created a crisis, Ukraine responded with force, and the West rallied to meet the challenge—on a scale we hadn’t seen in decades.
What would it take to give NATO a renewed sense of purpose? (Not so long ago, France’s Emmanuel Macron warned the alliance was “brain dead.”) Or to persuade Germany to double its defense spending and non-aligned Nordics (Sweden and Finland) to join the club as full members? Or to get Western governments to work together to impose the harshest sanctions ever imposed on a G-20 country? Or to force Europe to end its deep dependence on Russian energy? Or to get Democrats and Republicans to agree on something important?
It took a crisis. But it also took leadership, sacrifice, and coordination in response to that crisis.
Let’s not exaggerate: The war continues, and Putin may yet win a few more pyrrhic victories on the ground. There’s no sign at this point that he’s in real trouble at home. An unstable stalemate can grind on for years. And there are plenty of other governments, including democracies, with little interest in protecting Ukraine or punishing Putin.
But Russia’s president has underestimated both the willingness and ability of Ukrainians to fight, and of much-maligned Western governments to help. The U.S., Europe, and others have responded forcefully to a tyrant who believed the redrawing of maps required only the willingness to take risk. So far, the West has responded effectively to a crisis it didn’t create.
What about broader crises?
With at least 15 million people dead and lasting damage to the entire global economy, it’s hard to think of the global pandemic response as any kind of success. China hid the virus until it was too late to contain it, and despite the undeniable success it’s had so far in preventing deaths through testing, tracking, and isolation—with a reported 15,000 dead vs. more than 1 million in America—the country may now be on the verge of a Covid-19 disaster its leaders too proud to ask for more effective vaccines made in foreign countries that would save a lot of lives against the highly-infectious Omicron variant.
In the U.S., meanwhile, millions of Americans and their elected representatives chose to play culture-war games with Covid rather than take actions that might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
But the pandemic has also created its share of crisis-response success stories. International cooperation on research, treatments, and vaccines from scientists, public policy experts, and leaders at every level of government has been unprecedented. Breakthroughs have been achieved at record speed, thanks mainly to cross-border coordination. In the U.S., despite partisan sniping, Democratic and Republican lawmakers agreed on the most effective fiscal response in the world, reducing the income gap and inequality at a time it was accelerating globally (even if it also added to pre-existing inflationary pressures).
International cooperation provided the world’s poorest countries with economic support from advanced democracies and from China, by transferring Special Drawing Rights allocated from the International Monetary Fund, easing the terms of existing loans, and helping some of the world’s most economically-stressed governments avoid financial crises.
The biggest geopolitical win was in Europe, which emerged from the pandemic much more unified than before, because the wealthiest EU countries funded an unprecedented financial package and provided vaccines to help poorer members in Southern and Eastern Europe.
In the end, the pandemic has not been the crisis the world needs to resolve the G-Zero problem. It has hit some much harder than others, and too often, political leaders have chosen partisan gain over the public good. But Covid-19 taught us lessons we can build on to better manage future crises.
Like, for example, climate change.
Here’s a crisis that’s been developing in plain sight for decades. Yet, U.S. political leaders still can’t agree on how seriously to take this problem, and America, China, India, and other countries can’t agree on how sacrifices should be shared to avoid the worst.
But there is important good news in this story: There is now overwhelming international consensus on the basic facts of the crisis and its seriousness. More than 190 countries agree the planet has warmed by about 1.2 degrees centigrade, that human activity is responsible, and that an ambitious plan to reduce carbon emissions can help avoid a global disaster.
That recognition is central to my optimism that climate change can become the crisis we need.
And dramatic progress has been made. When Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord, the most important global climate agreement to date, progress didn’t stop. Most U.S. governors, many mayors, and a lot of CEOs remained committed to carbon reduction. And other governments continued undaunted by the loss of cooperation from Washington. For all the negative headlines about Congress and spending packages, it matters that the Biden administration has returned the U.S. federal government to the battle.
Activism continues to gather momentum, particularly from young people who take this crisis more personally than their parents and grandparents often do. They’ve demanded that politicians and the private sector commit to ambitious climate targets—and are watching eagerly to see if their words lead to deeds.
The world’s largest financial institutions have made commitments that reflect their recognition that the future of global energy depends on a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, and they’ve moved trillions into renewable energy development. That matters, because it will reduce the cost of transition energy, renewables, and related infrastructure far faster than even the most optimistic estimates from just a few years ago. Multinational corporations have shifted their business models toward sustainability because they know their survival will depend on it.
China has put more money into solar, nuclear, and electric battery technologies than any other country in the world, not because Western environmentalists want them to, but because China has serious pollution problems—and because non-hydrocarbon energy will be one of the most important economic battlegrounds of the future.
Yes, India and some other developing countries have dragged their feet, and the energy dislocation produced by Russia’s war will encourage extra fossil-fuel production in the near term. Much more must be done in every country to prepare for the emergencies created by climate change that is already baked in.
But a generation from now, a majority of the world’s energy will no longer come from fossil fuels. The global fight against climate change may be advancing more slowly and less effectively than some of us would like, but political leaders, business decision-makers, scientists, and activists are working to address climate change, which might turn out to be the crisis we need.
There are always reasons to be excited about the transformative power of new technologies in every aspect of our lives and societies. I’m no technophobe, and I hope you aren’t either. But the pace of technological change is spawning the biggest global crisis of them all, because new tools (and potential weapons) are transforming our lives faster than anyone can track.
Even in a pandemic emergency where seriously ill people are forced into overcrowded hospitals, we don’t inject drugs into our bloodstreams until they’ve been thoroughly tested. Even with so much at stake, we don’t want to be guinea pigs.
But when it comes to new technologies and opaque algorithms, all caution is cast to the wind, even as they are transforming our lives and livelihoods faster than we can understand and adapt—or intelligently regulate.
Cyberweapons are less destructive than the nuclear weapons that cast a shadow across the post-war 20th century, but they’re also much more likely to be used. And they are being used, every day.
Then there’s quantum computing, which could be more destabilizing than any tech breakthrough in history by giving a single government the opportunity to decrypt the communications and codes of every other country on Earth.
Of the global crises today, the lightning-fast advance of disruptive technologies is the least well-understood. Governments aren’t even equipped to identify these challenges, much less to meet them. On the other hand, governments aren’t the most important actors here. The tech companies themselves, those driving these life-altering revolutions, are the ones with true sovereignty in the digital world. They’re the ones who determine how AI works, how cyber-threats are identified and answered, and how disinformation infects the body politic.
Governments will have a vital role to play in helping ensure these companies don’t create crises too large and complex to contain, and the relationship between the public and tech sectors will determine whether the crisis of disruptive technologies becomes too big to handle.
To paraphrase Tanya Steele, head of the World Wildlife Fund, we are the first generation to recognize these challenges and the last that can do anything about them.
I hope my book gives you plenty to think about, and that we can start some important debates right here on Bulletin about what’s to be done.
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