Much Ado About the Islamic State

Terrible though they may be, even the worst events of late -- from IS to Ebola -- may not make a lasting imprint on the world. Or your investment portfolio.

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News
Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News

Isn’t 2014 wonderful? We’ve got a new war going against the Islamic State. Separatism continues to simmer in Catalonia and elsewhere. There’s a frozen conflict in Ukraine and Ebola cases popping up outside Africa. Beijing faces demonstrations in Hong Kong, while drug gangs corrupt Mexican politics and commit crimes every bit as heinous as the Islamic State’s. There’s shelling on the India-Pakistan border, and Hezbollah detonated a bomb on the border between Israel and Lebanon. And back in Washington, another former official is blaming everyone but himself for shortcomings in U.S. foreign policy.

It is safe to say that this is not the "new world order" that President George H.W. Bush and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft had in mind when the Soviet Union collapsed and left the United States "perched on the pinnacle of power." Although one can point to any number of positive developments over the past 20 years (most notably the lifting of a billion or more people out of dire poverty), it’s hard to escape the feeling that the current world order is rapidly becoming a lot less orderly. Unsurprisingly, that’s precisely the theme that the Republican Party is trying to hammer home this election season.

Is there a common taproot to these problems, and can we learn any broader lessons about the current disarray? Let’s take a step back from today’s lurid headlines and try to see the bigger picture.

From where I sit, one obvious theme is the connection between those forces that are unifying the globe and those forces that continue to divide it. On one side, we have the spread of markets, investment, supply chains, and the like, usually lumped under the term "globalization." Add to this the declining costs of global communications (which includes your ability to read this column from the other side of the planet), the movement of millions of people across borders, and the growing recognition that humanity’s own actions threaten "global commons" on which we all depend. You might even toss in the global role of U.S. military power, which still undergirds security arrangements in many regions.

But these unifying forces also encourage and reinforce powerful forms of local identity, some of them operating in strong opposition to the forces identified above. Globe-trotting elites who frequent the World Economic Forum, the Shangri-La Dialogue, and other lofty forums often forget that local forms of identity remain powerful political forces, whether in the form of nationalism, sectarian religious affinities, tribal loyalties, or ethnic solidarity. Such ties drive various forms of crony capitalism, and they become especially important when state structures are weak and security is scarce. When violence is a real possibility, people have to turn to those they can trust, and this usually means people who share their language, their religion, their cultural background, or direct family ties. Even in today’s globalized world, a lot of politics is local.

Paradoxically, economic globalization and institutions such as the European Union have reinforced pressures for local autonomy by reducing the need for large states with big internal markets. If Catalonia can trade freely with rest of the EU (and, indeed, the whole world), why does it need to be part of Spain? Such movements are also a response to perceptions that federal or EU officials are insensitive to local customs and traditions, and the solution is to reassert one’s own independence.

Globalization can also trigger harsher responses, especially when local governments are weak. Groups whose way of life and cultural values are threatened by modernity often react against it, much as when local residents in the United States sometimes resist when neighborhoods gentrify or when their ethnic composition shifts. Such movements sometimes turn to violence (see under: Taliban), especially when foreign occupiers with little understanding of local conditions try to construct new and unfamiliar political institutions (see under: the United States).

The globalization of information also encourages destabilizing political contagion. The suicide of a Tunisian fruit seller in December 2010 ignited demonstrations that brought down the Tunisian government, and this example quickly spread across the Arab world. Ease of communication also allows extremist groups to spread their messages in ways that Lenin or Trotsky could only have dreamed about, while the ease of global travel creates fears (usually exaggerated by threat-mongers) that trouble in some distant land might eventually come to visit us here.

The erosion of other elements of order has exacerbated these developments. The end of the Cold War reduced superpower support for a number of former client states and left existing rulers vulnerable to internal challenges. The "rights revolution" that began after World War II also increased the costs of repression and encouraged efforts at democratization in many places. There is much to be said for these campaigns and these ideals, of course, but the inevitable effect was to shake up existing political orders in many places. Absent effective political institutions, efforts to move from authoritarian to more participatory forms of government tend to provoke bitter quarrels between previously advantaged groups and those who have been excluded from wealth or power. In a world where most states are in fact multiethnic or multinational, democratization was bound to provoke greater internal conflicts, at least in the short term.

Nor can we ignore the deliberate efforts that the United States and some of its allies made to "transform" key regions at the point of a gun, which created larger ungoverned spaces in which violent movements could take root. Iraq is the most obvious example of this phenomenon, of course, but U.S. interventions in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia had similar effects as well. Regrettably, U.S. efforts to remove hostile dictators and impose the United States’ own political values on foreign societies have helped create a world that is both more disorderly and less sympathetic to core U.S. values.

What advice might I offer in light of the above?

First, get used to it. The current disorder results from a collision of large structural forces and isn’t going to be contained, deflected, or ended by some clever foreign-policy initiative, a successful bombing campaign, an eloquent speech by U.S. President Barack Obama (or anyone else), or any other sort of clever diplomatic jiujitsu. What we are seeing reflects the contradictions and tensions that are inevitable when state governments are weak, existing state borders do not reflect underlying social identities, balances of power are shifting, and whole societies are being rapidly transformed. Given everything we know about human beings and about politics, the absence of significant turmoil would be surprising indeed.

Second, we also need to keep all this trouble in perspective. Most of the problems dominating the headlines today reflect local troubles that aren’t likely to have far-reaching consequences unless we make them do. Unless you believed the upbeat U.S. reports on Iraq and went long on Anbar province, your investment portfolio won’t be affected very much by anything the Islamic State does or does not do, unless foreign interference manages to make a troubling problem a whole lot worse. The Islamic State gets a lot of attention, but the state of Sino-American relations, the ability of the eurozone to generate some economic growth, and a resolution of the crisis in Ukraine are likely to matter a lot more to the overall state of world affairs in the months and years ahead. I’d even argue that a nuclear deal and gradual thaw with Iran will matter a lot more to world affairs than the battle against the Islamic State.

Bottom line: There’s a lot of nasty and vivid trouble out there in the world today, but not all of it is likely to matter very much beyond the immediate confines of the troubled region itself. Now, as always, the real challenge is figuring out which of today’s headlines really matter, which can be left to others, and which can be mostly ignored.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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