Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

How Many Shocks Can the World Take?

We’re seeing what occurs when everything happens everywhere all at once.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Lightning strikes as a column of ash surrounds the crater of Taal Volcano.
Lightning strikes as a column of ash surrounds the crater of Taal Volcano.
Lightning strikes as a column of ash surrounds the crater of Taal Volcano as it erupts on Jan. 12, 2020, as seen from Tagaytay city, Cavite province, Philippines. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Regular readers of this column know that I’m not inclined to be alarmist. Although there are times when I worry about the costs and risks of certain foreign-policy decisions, I tend to push back on the tendency for foreign-policy experts to inflate threats and assume the worst—but not always. Sometimes, the wolf really is at the door, and it’s time to start worrying.

What’s troubling me today is the gnawing fear that we are living through a series of disruptions that are overwhelming our collective ability to respond. World politics is never completely static, of course, but we haven’t seen as serious a sequence of shocks in a long time. We’re accustomed to thinking human ingenuity will eventually provide solutions, but as political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon warned many years ago, that reassuring assumption may not apply when the number of problems to be solved becomes too large and complex.

Just how many shocks can the system stand? Let’s take them in chronological order.

Regular readers of this column know that I’m not inclined to be alarmist. Although there are times when I worry about the costs and risks of certain foreign-policy decisions, I tend to push back on the tendency for foreign-policy experts to inflate threats and assume the worst—but not always. Sometimes, the wolf really is at the door, and it’s time to start worrying.

What’s troubling me today is the gnawing fear that we are living through a series of disruptions that are overwhelming our collective ability to respond. World politics is never completely static, of course, but we haven’t seen as serious a sequence of shocks in a long time. We’re accustomed to thinking human ingenuity will eventually provide solutions, but as political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon warned many years ago, that reassuring assumption may not apply when the number of problems to be solved becomes too large and complex.

Just how many shocks can the system stand? Let’s take them in chronological order.

  1. The breakup of the Soviet empire

Although the collapse of the Soviet Union and the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe were positive developments in many ways, they also created considerable uncertainty and instability, and they opened the door to political developments (such as NATO enlargement) that still reverberate today. The breakup led directly to a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, contributed to the dissolution of Yugoslavia and subsequent Balkan wars, encouraged an unhealthy sense of hubris in the United States, and reshaped politics in Central Asia. Loss of Soviet patronage also destabilized governments in Africa, the Middle East, and even the Americas, with unpredictable and sometimes unfortunate consequences. History didn’t end; it just headed down a different track.

  1. China’s rise

Americans initially thought the unipolar moment would last a long time, but a new great-power rival emerged almost immediately. China’s rise is not a sudden or unexpected shock, perhaps, but it has still been extraordinarily rapid, and most experts in the West misread what it portended. China is still significantly weaker than the United States and faces serious headwinds at home and abroad, but its impressive economic growth, rising ambitions, and expanding military power are undeniable. Economic advancement there has also accelerated climate change, affected labor markets around the world, and helped trigger the current backlash against hyper-globalization. Its growing wealth and power improved the lives of the Chinese people and benefited others as well, but it is still a shock to the existing global order.

  1. The 9/11 attacks and the global war on terrorism

The terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the U.S. Defense Department in September 2001 completely transformed U.S. foreign policy, and the United States found itself trapped in a war on terrorism for more than a decade. This event led directly to the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the two so-called forever wars eventually cost the United States far more blood and treasure than it had lost on that fateful day. The war on terrorism also destabilized countries throughout the greater Middle East and unintentionally spawned groups such as the Islamic State, whose actions aided the rise of right-wing extremism in Europe. It also accelerated the militarization and polarization of U.S. domestic politics and the mainstreaming of right-wing extremism in the United States—a major shock by any measure.

  1. The 2008 financial meltdown

The collapse of the subprime mortgage market in the United States triggered a financial panic that quickly spread around the world. Wall Street’s supposed “Masters of the Universe” turned out to be as fallible (or corruptible) as anyone else, and although the people who caused the debacle were never held accountable, they could never speak with the same prestige and authority that they had before the crisis erupted. Europe suffered a sharp recession, a protracted currency crisis, and a decade of painful austerity, giving populist parties another political boost. Chinese officials also saw the crisis as a telling sign of Western decline and an opportunity to expand their own foreign-policy ambitions.

  1. The Arab Spring

It sometimes seems nearly forgotten, but the Arab Spring was a tumultuous event that toppled governments in several countries, briefly kindled hopes of widespread democratic transitions, and led to civil wars in Libya, Yemen, and Syria that are still being fought today. It ended with authoritarian crackdowns (known as the “Arab Winter”) that reversed nearly all of the gains that reformers had made. Like the ill-fated Revolutions of 1848 in Europe, it was a “turning point at which modern history failed to turn.” But it consumed lots of top decision-makers’ time and attention, tarnished the reputations of a number of top officials, and led to considerable human suffering.

  1. The global refugee crisis

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of “forcibly displaced” persons rose from about 42 million people in 2001 to nearly 90 million people in 2021. Refugee flows are themselves a consequence of some of the other shocks we’ve experienced, but they exert profound effects of their own, and the problem defies easy solutions. As such, they constitute yet another shock that governments and international organizations have struggled to address in recent years. 

  1. Populism becomes popular

The year 2016 marked at least two shocking events: Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and Britain voted to leave the European Union. Both events defied expectations, and each turned out to be as bad as opponents had feared. Trump proved to be every bit as corrupt, capricious, narcissistic, and incompetent as he had appeared to be during the campaign, but even his severest critics underestimated his willingness to attack the foundations of American democracy. Indeed, more than two years after his electoral defeat and facing multiple legal challenges, Trump continues to exert a poisonous effect on U.S. political life. Brexit had a similar impact in Great Britain: Not only did leaving the EU do considerable damage to the British economy (precisely as opponents had warned), but it accelerated the Conservative Party’s flight from reality, leading to the cartoonish and serially dishonest antics of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the utter trainwreck of Prime Minister Liz Truss’s brief tenure at No. 10 Downing St. Put your schadenfreude on hold, please: It is not good for anyone when the world’s sixth-largest economy is governed by such a succession of blundering buffoons.

  1. COVID-19

What’s next? How about a global pandemic? Experts had long warned that such an event was inevitable and that the world was not prepared for it, and they turned out to be all too prescient. At least 630 million people have been infected worldwide (the actual number is doubtless higher), the official global death toll now exceeds 6.5 million, and the pandemic has had punishing effects on trade, economic growth, educational achievement, and employment in many countries (especially in the developing world). Work-life patterns have been disrupted, governments have had to adopt emergency measures to save their economies, future productivity growth has almost certainly been reduced, and a combination of loose money policies and supply chain disruptions have helped trigger the persistent inflation that governments and central bankers are now struggling to contain.

  1. The war in Ukraine

We still do not know what the full impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be, but it won’t be trivial. The war has inflicted enormous damage on Ukraine, threatened existing norms barring the acquisition of territory by force, exposed Russia’s own military deficiencies, sparked what may turn out to be a serious European effort at rearmament, worsened global inflation, and raised the risk of escalation (including the possibility of nuclear weapons use) to a level not seen in decades. Relations between Russia and the West have been deteriorating for some time, but few observers anticipated that this would lead to a major war in 2022 and dominate the foreign-policy agenda in Washington and Europe.

  1. Climate change

Lurking behind many of these events is the slow-motion shock of climate change. Its impact is now being felt in worsening natural disasters, increased civil conflicts, and rising migration from heavily affected areas. Efforts to immigrate or adapt to rising atmospheric temperatures are going to be expensive, and global cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is faltering. All told, the scope of climate change is one more shock that governments ignored for too long and will have to deal with for decades to come.

It would be easy to add some other events to this list, and it would be a challenge to address even one or two of them successfully. Dealing with such a rapid succession is proving to be nearly impossible.

The first problem is bandwidth: When too many disruptions occur too quickly, political leaders don’t have the time or attention span to develop creative solutions or weigh alternatives carefully. The odds that they’ll respond badly increase. Nor do they have adequate time to assess how well their chosen solutions are working, making it harder to correct errors in a timely fashion.

Second, because resources are finite, dealing with the latest shock properly may be impossible if previous crises have used up the assets that are needed today. The more problems leaders face, the harder it will be to give each one the attention and resources it requires.

Third, when successive shocks are connected, trying to solve one problem can make other problems worse.  It made good sense for Europe to stop buying natural gas from Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, for example, but this step increased energy costs (making inflation worse) and burning coal instead of natural gas increases greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbates climate change. Focusing laser-like on helping Ukraine may be the right thing to do, but it takes time and effort away from the problems posed by a rising China. There is a good case to be made for limiting China’s ability to use Western technology to enhance its military power, but imposing export controls on chips and other forms of advanced technology impairs U.S. economic growth and will hurt some U.S. businesses, at least in the short term. The more problems you’re trying to solve all at once, the greater the danger that responses to one will undermine your efforts to deal with others.

Finally, unless leaders are extremely lucky or unusually skillful, trying to handle multiple shocks tends to erode public confidence in the entire political system. Citizens may rally around the government when a single, clear-cut crisis erupts (as Ukrainians have in response to Russia’s assault), and policy successes can help convince them that the people in charge really do know what they are doing. But when public officials are facing more shocks than anyone could handle and repeatedly fail to deliver good results, citizens will lose confidence in them (and in the experts they are relying on for advice). Instead of trusting people with the relevant knowledge, experience, and responsibility, publics become more dismissive of expertise and vulnerable to conspiracy theories and other flights from reality. Of course, this problem will be even worse if those in charge are visibly dishonest, corrupt, self-serving, and fully deserving of public scorn.

I don’t have a happy ending for this story, just a final thought. We’ve been living in an era where “move fast and break things” was the mantra—and not just in the fast-moving world of digital technology. Given the shocks we’ve endured in recent years, a better motto for the moment might be “slow down and fix stuff.” I hope we get the chance, and I hope we don’t blow it.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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