Be Afraid of the World, Be Very Afraid

Five global problems that are getting worse—and may never get better.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
A man on a rooftop looks at approaching flames on May 3, 2013, near Camarillo, California.
A man on a rooftop looks at approaching flames on May 3, 2013, near Camarillo, California. David McNew/Getty Images

Who’s right: Cassandra or Dr. Pangloss? Are we on the brink of serious trouble, as Cassandra of Greek myth prophesied, or is all for the best “in this best of all possible worlds,” as the fictional Pangloss insisted in Voltaire’s Candide? In recent decades, Cassandra-like warnings include Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy, the late Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, Bill McKibben’s gloomy environmental and social forecasts, and predictions from everyone who thinks U.S. President Donald Trump will end democracy as we know it. On the other side, the ranks of neo-Panglossians include Steven Pinker, Joshua Goldstein, and (on some issues) John Mueller, who stress the extraordinary progress humans have made over the past 500 years and believe that risk of violence or other major disruptions continues to shrink.

I’m generally a fairly upbeat guy, despite my realist proclivities and my recurring frustrations at the embarrassing state of U.S. foreign policy. But today I’m going to indulge my inner Cassandra and describe the five bad things that worry me today. I hope I’m wrong.


Bad Thing #1: Climate Change

On FP’s First Person podcast: Stephen M. Walt talks with George Packer about Richard Holbrooke, America’s long-serving diplomat.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

We haven’t known about man-made climate change for very long, but alarming evidence of its negative consequences continues to accumulate. Moreover, the pace and extent of change appears to be closer to the worst-case end of the spectrum. We are virtually certain to see a rise of more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in atmospheric temperature in the next 20 years, for example, and a major study by the United Nations scientific panel on climate change estimates that a rise of that magnitude would cause roughly $54 trillion (!) worth of damage.

But the troubling part is how tepid the response has been. A well-funded army of people rejecting mainstream climate science tried first to convince us the problem simply didn’t exist, and they have worked to block meaningful actions to address it. At the global level, profligate energy users mostly tried to make sure that somebody else got stuck with the costs of mitigation. When the president of the United States refuses to accept that climate change is even occurring and wants to resurrect coal (the dirtiest of all fossil fuels), you know we’re in trouble. And my guess—see here—is that adapting to this problem is going to affect politics and society in ways we’ve barely begun to imagine.

I’m not saying dealing with this challenge is easy. It’s always hard to get people to make sacrifices today for the sake of future generations, and there are big cross-generational and cross-national equity issues involved. In fact, I believe developing an effective global response to atmospheric warming is the single most vexing political test humankind has ever faced. And so far, we’re flunking it, and placing whole societies in risk. Boy, I hope I’m wrong.

Bad Thing #2: The Two-State Solution, R.I.P.

For nearly three decades, the idea of “two states for two peoples” has been the default solution to the long and bitter struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. It was the stated goal of three U.S. presidents, most Palestinian leaders, the recurring cycle of so-called Middle East peace processors, and a few (but not all) Israeli prime ministers. It wasn’t the perfect solution by any means, but it was the best compromise among the conflicting demands of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism, historical justice, and enduring security. And it gave U.S. officials an easy rote answer when they were asked what the United States’ goal was: They could solemnly intone “a two-state solution” even while declining to use America’s full leverage to bring it about.

I don’t know what sort of rabbit U.S. presidential advisor Jared Kushner intends to pull out of his hat one of these days, but it won’t be a serious path to two-state solution. Given the realities on the ground and the ever-rightward drift of Israel’s domestic politics, it is more likely to be the final nail in the coffin. The Trump administration has abandoned even the pretense of evenhandedness on this issue, having appointed a fervent backer of the settlement movement as U.S. ambassador to Israel, a man who last week told a crowd that Israel has a secret weapon: It “is on the side of God.” Now there’s an evenhanded diplomatic stance for you!

But as countless people (including former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert) have warned, the demise of the two-state solution leaves only worse alternatives. One option is apartheid, whereby Israel controls all of so-called greater Israel while denying its Palestinian subjects any meaningful political rights. Another is forceful expulsion (aka ethnic cleansing), which is a crime against humanity. A third possibility is a subtle version of the second: Over time, Israel gradually makes it more or less impossible for Palestinians to remain in their current communities as part of a long-term strategy to get them to go somewhere else. Call it ethnic cleansing in slow motion.

Make no mistake: If any of these scenarios unfolds as I’ve described it, it will be a major historical crime, and one in which the United States will have been fully complicit. Once again, America’s proud claims to be a principled defender of human rights will have been exposed as hollow. That’s where we are headed, folks, but I hope I’m wrong.

Bad Thing #3: The End of the European Union

I may be a realist, but I like the EU. The original concept was bold and creative, and the EU and its predecessors (the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community) fueled economic growth in Europe for many years, helped spread democracy and tolerance eastward after the Cold War, and did its part to prevent the full renationalization of European politics.

But as I’ve noted before, it’s hard to be upbeat about the EU’s long-term prospects. Britain is leaving (sooner or later), and the United States under Trump is openly hostile. Anti-EU populists are becoming more popular in several European countries—including in formerly stalwart members such as Italy and Germany—and Brussels has been unable to rein in illiberal nationalists such as Viktor Orban of Hungary or the ruling Law and Justice party in Poland. Repeated efforts to establish a genuine all-European voice on foreign policy or a common European defense force have gone nowhere (as Europe’s vocal but spineless response to U.S. threats to impose secondary sanctions over trade with Iran attest). Add to this growing pressure to retreat from the open borders of the Schengen Agreement, and it is easy to imagine a gradual retreat away from the goal of “ever deeper union” and a movement back toward something akin to the old Common Market.

To be sure, the EU has thus far proved more resilient than some observers expected, and the costs of abandoning the euro and moving back toward less-centralized arrangements would be considerable. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if the EU limps along for decades without collapsing entirely. But I certainly don’t expect it to thrive. Once more, I hope I’m wrong.

Bad Thing #4: A Nuclear Crisis With Iran

The primary purpose of the Iran nuclear deal was to keep Tehran a sufficient distance away from an actual nuclear weapon and to buy time to see if the United States’ other differences with it could be ameliorated. This approach was anathema to Israeli hawks, pro-Israel lobbying groups such as United Against Nuclear Iran and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wealthy Republican donors such as Sheldon Adelson, and countries such as Saudi Arabia and certain Gulf states.

Unfortunately, these groups managed to convince a gullible U.S. president that the deal was “terrible” and persuaded him to replace it with a policy of so-called maximum pressure. As I noted in my last column, it is not entirely clear what the administration hopes to gain from this approach or how it will be an improvement over what former President Barack Obama accomplished. At a minimum, Trump, National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, etc. are trying to keep Iran in the penalty box, both to keep it as weak as possible and to prevent it from forging normal relations with others.

Here’s my concern: Maximum pressure won’t topple the regime, strengthen moderate voices in Iran, or resolve any of the other differences Washington has with Tehran. Instead, it is more likely to encourage Iran to resume nuclear development and eventually restart a nuclear weapons program, which it is not—repeat, not—doing at present. Think about it: North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has his relatives and rivals murdered and runs a brutal police state, and he gets to have private meetings with Trump, who says the two of them “fell in love” (whatever the hell that means). Why does Kim get treated this way? Because North Korea has a growing nuclear weapons arsenal.

By contrast, Iran is just a latent nuclear power—it could build a bomb if it wanted to but has not done so yet. Indeed, it remains fully compliant with the nuclear deal and is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. How does Washington respond to Iranian restraint? With ever-greater sanctions, cyberattacks, military threats, and not-very-veiled suggestions from top officials that America’s real goal is regime change. Washington still doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Tehran and has no regular channel of communication with it.

If and when Iran decides that cooperating with the United States (and others) and forgoing a nuclear weapon did not pay off, we’ll be back on the road to war. And because U.S. politicians and pundits have talked about preventive war against Iran for decades now, the whole idea has gradually become normalized in American culture. Last week, for example, a Washington Post headline suggested that Trump was “not convinced the time is right” for war with Iran, as if timing were the only thing that mattered.

I’m not saying war with Iran is inevitable, but, barring a more fundamental rethinking of the United States’ entire approach to the Middle East, it remains a live possibility. And because starting unnecessary wars in the Middle East hasn’t worked out so well for the United States in recent years, I hope I’m wrong.

 Bad Thing #5: The Gradual Collapse of America’s Asian Alliances

For good, sensible, and old-fashioned realist reasons, the United States would like to maintain a significant security presence on the Asia-Pacific region. Why? To prevent China from becoming a regional hegemon in Asia. If China were to establish a position in Asia akin to the U.S. position in the Western Hemisphere—that is, one where China no longer had to worry very much about regional opposition—it would be free to project its rising power around the world, much as the United States does now. And those efforts might include significant security partnerships in Latin America, obliterating the Monroe Doctrine and forcing the United States to devote much more attention to matters closer to home.

In theory, preventing this outcome should be fairly easy. As balance-of-power (or more precisely, balance-of-threat) theory predicts, states whose power and ambitions are increasing tend to look threatening to others, leading the latter to join forces to deter or contain the rising power’s initiatives. Not surprisingly, China’s rise has alarmed a number of Asian countries and made most of them eager for continued security ties with the United States.

But managing a balancing coalition in Asia will not be easy, and the Trump administration is bungling the job. An anti-China coalition will be unwieldy and fragile because 1) the distances involved are vast, which tempts different Asian countries to ignore problems at some remove, 2) these states do not want to jeopardize their economic ties with China, and 3) some of them have significant disputes with one another. The situation calls for adroit and attentive alliance leadership, which the United States could supply if its leaders understood how important it is.

Unfortunately, Trump has done nearly everything wrong. He left the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have bolstered America’s position in Asia. He’s bullied South Korea and Japan on trade issues, while engaging in an erratic, poorly planned, and unsuccessful flirtation with North Korea. He began his presidency with a contentious and unfriendly phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, straining relations with a long-standing U.S. ally.

I don’t think China is interested in territorial expansion (save for those artificial islands it is building in the South China Sea), it just wants to establish a dominant position in its own neighborhood. Who can blame it? What sensible great power would want to be surrounded by a set of states that are formally allied with the United States, in arrangements that allow that Washington to deploy and operate powerful naval and air forces near Chinese territory?

For Beijing, addressing this situation means pushing the United States out of Asia. Not by fighting a war, but by convincing other Asian powers that the United States is too weak, distracted, capricious, unreliable, and incompetent to count on. And thus far, Trump and Pompeo are helping them make their case. Barring a serious effort to make a true pivot to Asia—which will depend as much on diplomacy and economic ties as on a bolstered military presence, by the way—I’d be bearish about the long-term future of America’s strategic position in Asia. But I hope I’m wrong.

I’ve left out a few other worrisome possibilities: a Taliban victory in Afghanistan, a growing refugee crisis driven by a combination of demography and climate change, and worsening political polarization in the United States. Just because things look bleak doesn’t mean they can’t get worse. But I’ve been wrong before—though not that often—and Panglossians out there are free to take comfort from that possibility. Rest assured I’ll be humbly grateful if none of these dark prophecies comes to pass.

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