In a season of lists, George Friedman, Chairman of the global intelligence company Stratfor, has made a list of his top five events for 2104.
1: Europe’s Persistent Decline
The single most important event in 2014 was one that did not occur: Europe did not solve its longstanding economic, political and social problems.
Europe, taken together, remains the world’s largest economy and a centre of global commerce, science and culture. It’s inability to solve its problems or make any significant progress has the potential to disrupt the world system. There is general economic malaise and huge unemployment in the south.
Friedman tends to think that if Europe’s problems were soluble then they would already have been solved. He notes the rise and rise of anti-EU parties. In the coming Greek election a party favouring withdrawal from the EU may “become a leading power”. As Europe redefines itself we could all be affected.
2: Ukrainian and Russian Crises
Historically, tensions between Russia and the European Peninsula and the United States have generated both wars and near wars and the redrawing of the borders of both the peninsula and Russia.
The Ukrainian crisis has opened “a new and extended confrontation between the European Peninsula and the United States on one side and Russia on the other.”
At the same time the Russian Federation is internally unstable, which is likely to become critical in the long run.
While he does not expect Russia to collapse, nor the Ukrainian crisis to evolve into a broader war, the destabilisation of a country with massive nuclear capability is a concern to everyone.
3: The Desynchronization of the Global Economy
Europe is predicted to see little to no growth in 2015, with some areas in recession or even depression already. China has not been able to recover its growth rate since 2008 and is moving sideways at best. The United States announced a revision indicating that it grew at a rate of 5 percent in the third quarter of 2014. Japan is in deep recession. That the major economic centers of the world are completely out of synch with each other, not only statistically but also structurally, indicates that a major shift in how the world works may be underway.
Economic theory is no help. All we can say is that the world is full of things that need explaining.
4: The Disintegration of the Sykes-Picot World
Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot were British and French diplomats who redrew the map of the region between the Mediterranean Sea and Persia after World War I. They invented countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq.
The fragmentation and the crippling of national governments matters more than Islamic State.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad is just a warlord now, and the government in Baghdad is struggling to be more than just another faction.
All this matters less than it did 40 years ago, when the Middle East dominated oil supply. Turkey is the only force with a prospect of stabilising the region, but it currently lacks the capacity, even if it wanted to.
5: The birth of Friedman’s grandchildren
Two more grandchildren were added to Friedman’s progeny. Life goes on in myriad particular and personal ways.
Some random comments
Intrigued by Friedman’s complaint about economists, I took a quick look at Immanuel Wallerstein’s commentaries to see whether any address the issue directly. They don’t, more is the pity, since he’s been writing about the instability of the world system for over 40 years. One intriguing piece is very relevant: “The Center Isn’t Holding Very Well”.
Wallerstein says that it is natural to assume that elites acting politically are in control. The assumption is that things work in a top-down political manner in each country.
This seems to me a fantastic misreading of the realities of our current situation, which is one of extended chaos as a result of the structural crisis of our modern world-system. I do not think that the elites are any longer succeeding in manipulating their low-level followers. I think the low-level followers are defying the elites, doing their own thing, and trying to manipulate the elites. This is indeed something new. It is a bottom-up rather than a top-down politics.
So what we do in local action matters, to us and potentially on a broader scale.
As our existing historical system is in the process of dying, there is a fierce struggle over what kind of new historical system will succeed it. Soon, we may indeed no longer live in a capitalist system, but we could come to live in an even worse system – a “rough beast” seeking to be born? To be sure, this is only one possible collective choice. The alternative choice is a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian system, also seeking to be born. Which one we shall see at the end of the struggle is up to us, bottom-up.
Meanwhile individual powerful actors can be important within broader trends. Wallerstein has commented on the importance of Germany and Angela Merkel in particular, at least for a time. For example, Merkel and Putin are both fluent in German and Russian and have spoken over 40 times about the Ukraine crisis. But influences can go beyond personalities. Commenting on Ukraine back in February, he points to a long-term Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis because of mutual interest, but it also gives France and Germany greater independence from the USA. Sanctions against Russia have a sunset clause, and it’s possible that over time Germany and Europe may allow them to lapse.