Up Front

« Previous | Next »

A Rapidly Evolving World

A globe of the world.

As a diplomat for 42 years, 16 of which I spent at the Elysée, under three presidents (Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy), I’ve always believed that one of the most difficult tasks of an advisor involved in the action is to understand the long-term consequences of key events beyond their immediate impact, which can be misleading.

To take the image of a game of chess, how can you think not just tactically but strategically, calculating not just the next move but the fifth or sixth one down the line, based on all the possible reactions of the other player? With an additional difficulty: In international relations, the number of players—both state and non-state—is considerable.

The demise of the Soviet Empire and reforms in China marked the end of a century of ideologies. The market economy now reigned supreme.

Without rewriting history, it’s possible to illustrate my remarks by looking at key moments in recent decades that eventually led to upheavals that were unsuspected at the time.

1979: Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan on Christmas day. The USSR was on the offensive, making gains in Africa, Angola and Ethiopia. Faced with this event, along with the loss of an ally, Iran, and bogged down in the Teheran hostage crisis, President Carter projected an image of America on the defensive. This was also true on the economic front, due to the meteoric rise of Japan, which was buying up Hollywood properties and the Empire State Building. According to a number of analysts, it was about to become the world’s leading economic power.

1989: Just 10 years later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, the Soviet empire imploded. Meanwhile, Japan entered a period of economic stagnation from which it is still trying to recover.

It is clear that the end of the USSR resulted partly from the Red Army’s failure in Afghanistan, and partly from the “Star Wars” program launched by Ronald Reagan, elected by the American people in response to the humiliation inflicted on President Carter by Iran. The American rebound was also economic: This was the beginning of the information technology revolution and the age of digital communication.

The demise of the Soviet Empire and reforms in China marked the end of a century of ideologies. The market economy now reigned supreme. The world was no longer bipolar, but global and unipolar. Without actively seeking it, the United States became the world’s only superpower—a hyperpower, as Hubert Védrine so aptly described it.

2001: Twelve years later, with the advent of September 11, this dominant America suddenly discovered its extreme vulnerability in the face of a few dozen jihadi suicide bombers.

Now more than ever, our planet is seen as a global village, interconnected. But there’s no one in the driver’s seat. Still feeling burned, the U.S. no longer wants to be the world’s policeman.

Where did al Qaeda come from? From the U.S. response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. In order to counter the USSR without engaging American troops, Washington armed Afghan, Pakistani and Arab “freedom fighters,” with Saudi support. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, these war-hardened fighters sought other battles and “global jihad.” We are now having to deal with their successors in Mali.

Deeply destabilized, the U.S. became involved in two wars, in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, which would serve most notably to demonstrate the limits of the country’s military supremacy. No longer was the world unipolar. It had become multipolar, with the extraordinary ascent of China, followed by other major emerging countries: India, Brazil, South Africa. We had entered the era of “relative powers”; no one country alone could claim to resolve the problems of our time.

2013: Another 12 years have gone by and the world is already a different place. Along with the major emerging countries, new powers—Korea and Indonesia, Turkey and Mexico—are claiming their place at the decision-making table. We’ve experienced the Arab Spring. Here and there, from Ghana to Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire, Africa is taking off.

Now more than ever, our planet is seen as a global village, interconnected. But there’s no one in the driver’s seat. Still feeling burned, the U.S. no longer wants to be the world’s policeman. It is now reluctant to get involved militarily, as France saw in Libya and Mali. The major emerging countries want greater rights in multinational forums, which is understandable, but concerned first and foremost with their own economic and social development, they are loath to share responsibility for solving the major problems of our time, which is regrettable. And some want to reaffirm their dominant positions in their own regions first, which is dangerous. International organizations are struggling to evolve and are weakened by this lack of collective leadership, at a time when they are more necessary than ever.

The world is no longer multipolar; it is now apolar. Worse: The risk of fragmentation is very real. Despite the establishment of the G20 and efforts by the IMF, five years of financial crisis have led to a three-speed economy, consisting of the emerging countries, North America, and Europe and Japan. The failure of the Doha world trade talks is leading to a proliferation of regional, transpacific and transatlantic negotiations, and it is doubtful whether the nomination of the Brazilian Roberto Azevêdo to replace the Frenchman Pascal Lamy will be sufficient to revive the WTO. The natural gas and shale oil revolutions are freeing North America from its energy dependence on the Middle East; this is a major development with a myriad of strategic consequences that remain to be seen.

The past 30 years have not been a transition period between an old and a new order, as in 1815 or 1945. We are living in a period of disruptions and discontinuity that is far from ending and is increasingly out of control.

What lessons can we learn from these past decades? The main one seems to be this: On the global chessboard, we can no longer attempt to predict the future—whether of nations or of the international system—on the basis of past or present trends.

The past 30 years have not been a transition period between an old and a new order, as in 1815 or 1945. We are living in a period of disruptions and discontinuity that is far from ending and is increasingly out of control.

In this increasingly heterogeneous, complex world, one of the things that strikes us the most is the unprecedented acceleration of change in the power hierarchy.

blog comments powered by Disqus