Global Uncertainty: Lifting the Fog?
By Shlomo Maital
When I want some help in understanding what in the world is going on, I turn to my friend Bilahari Kausikan, Ambassador at Large in the Singapore Foreign Ministry, and until recently Permanent Secretary. Bilahari has met world leaders in person, and is an independent thinker. Here is Bilahari’s ‘take’ on the global fog, in an essay for Nikkei Asian Review:
The problem: “The 21st century global order is becoming more uncertain. The Cold War of the last century had one virtue: structure. The threat of nuclear annihilation focused that structure with stark clarity. Today, we still have danger — although of a lesser magnitude — but without structure or clarity. No one really knows what will replace the Cold War as a frame of reference. More than a quarter of a century has passed since the Berlin Wall was torn down, but we still call that period the “post-Cold War era.” Ours is an age without definition. Without a global structure, there can be no leadership. Without leadership, many urgent issues will be left unresolved or dealt with unsatisfactorily, exacerbating uncertainties.”
What made it worse: “There was a brief post-Cold War unipolar moment, during which the West seemed to define the world alone. The illusions that flourished in this short period were immensely damaging, particularly in the Middle East, where the interventions that destroyed the existing regional order were justified by the illusion of the universality of certain interpretations of democracy and human rights. The disintegration of first Iraq and then Syria shattered the regional balance. Chaos in the Middle East has global ramifications that will play out for many years to come. But the illusion of universality has not yet been discredited and still contributes to the difficulties of establishing a new, stable global order. Notwithstanding loose talk about multipolarity, the U.S. is still dominant in most indices of power. But the U.S. clearly needs help to exercise leadership, as it did during the Cold War.”
So who will step up to help the U.S.? Europe? Forget it. “The region is tangled in knots of its own making” (the worst kind!). BRICS? “Not much unites the BRICS except a vague dissatisfaction with the existing order and the desire for greater recognition of their status. But they are not all equally dissatisfied, and the sources of their discontent are not identical.” China? “China has neither the capacity nor the interest to do so, even in East Asia, its backyard, where Beijing is assertively pursuing a role that is in accordance with what it believes was its historical position and what it believes are its territorial rights. President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy is an ambitious vision of a Sino-centric transcontinental order. Can the vision be fully realized? Can China be “contained”? Should it? Does the vision require the U.S. to be displaced from East Asia? There are as yet no clear answers. The fact is that neither the U.S. nor China really know what they want from each other, even as they each seek a new modus vivendi. The strategic mistrust that permeates the Sino-U.S. relationship, which is rooted in the universalist illusions of the U.S. on the one hand and Beijing’s triumphalist nationalism on the other, do not make the search for accommodation any easier.”
Confusing? Ambiguous? Uncertain? Even, dangerous? Indeed. But at least, Kausikan helps us understand why. And who will do best in this confusion?
“The successful will be those who have best learned to live with uncertainty.” And that uncertainty, globally, will be with us for a very very long time.