The West Is Burning: Our Age Of Geopolitical Decay

01/16/2017 09:36 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2017
Trump towers over street kids in Mumbai, India by <a rel="nofollow" href="
Paul Needham
Trump towers over street kids in Mumbai, India by Paul Needham. (If you were curious, this terrifying photo has been authenticated.)
“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.” –David Bowie

The year 2016 (as we spit upon the ground) was defined by ― the loss of David Bowie notwithstanding ― intense contradiction, the decline of domestic and international institutions, and emerging instability throughout the world. Welcome to the future.

Some have suggested that we are witnessing nothing less than a phase shift from the postwar era to something altogether different. The results will likely be unimaginable to anyone who was born after World War II.

What’s especially striking about this era to which we’re witness ― indeed our era ― is the uniquely powerful mix of contradictory trends that are as encouraging as they are troubling; they pose both existential threats alongside world-shifting opportunities. Steven Pinker, the Harvard linguist and social scientist who has made macro-optimism something of a personal brand, has been trying to impress upon us that things aren’t really that bad (mostly because they’ve been far worse before). And yet, despite victories of the modern age, there is an unmistakable sense that we are on the cusp of a new phase of Western authoritarianism that was previously unthinkable, and which almost none of us have ever experienced first-hand.

Consider the following:

  • That the reduction of extreme poverty, and the growth of income inequality are both simultaneously, and perhaps counterintuitively, unfolding at the fastest pace in modern history;
  • That the rise of automation and resulting disruption of the labor market will likely be the fundamental economic issue of the century, with unknown consequences. It might either spur massive social programs such as universal basic income, or further accelerate income inequality and create a plausible scenario for widespread social unrest on a scale heretofore unknown in the modern age;
  • That the same hyper-globalization spurred by the internet has been accompanied by the most significant nationalist movements in the US and Europe in a century, undermining the integrity of both;
  • That post-WWII geopolitical institutions, marked by US leadership, which defined the second half of the 20th century, are in decline, and nobody knows what ― if anything ― is about to replace them.
  • What may be the greatest long-term risk of emergent reactionary populism in the West is that the Paris Agreement, perhaps humanity’s last opportunity to stave off runaway carbon emissions and global warming, is nearly certain to be undermined. (If future generations are generous enough to offer some degree of forgiveness for our inaction, we will not deserve it.)

Both of those pieces were written before the US election, which I suspect will be viewed as a milestone in the decline of US influence. The trends embodied in those events have begun to accelerate on a global scale, alongside the globalism and hyper-connectedness that seem to have outstripped our capacity to understand or manage them.

“May you live in interesting times.”

Last fall I was at a wedding where someone had written this as a message to the newlyweds. The author, though presumably well-intentioned, didn’t realize that the phrase is typically used ironically, and is said to be (perhaps apocraphally) the English translation of a Chinese curse; after all, interesting times are only interesting because they present unknown risk and an uncertain future.

Imagine being in our position only a century ago: trying to make sense of the world in 1917 and assessing the geopolitical winds of the twentieth century. Having just witnessed the horrors of the Great War, the emergence of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the rise of the automobile, even the most prescient among us could have only faintly imagined the moon landing or the internet. Horrors like the holocaust, or the global threat of nuclear war, would have been more unimaginable still.

Like our counterparts in 1917, we are blind to how the character of our century will yet unfold. But maybe this century — our century — has come just enough into focus to make some educated guesses.

Living in our era feels to me like living in an Escher drawing; it’s a world that’s at once awe-inspiring, beautiful, and disturbing, and it creates an impending sense of dread. As that world’s inhabitants, we are witness to trends which are as remarkable as they are incongruous: unparalleled advances in public health, alongside unimaginable terror in a destabilized Middle East. A greater standard of living for billions of people in the developing world, alongside a growing chasm of wealth inequality. The emergence of progressive international cities, alongside the greatest threat of authoritarianism in the West since the nineteen-thirties, which threatens to undo the European project and American postwar influence.

Our age of contradiction

The streets of Athens, November, 2016
Daniel Leslie
The streets of Athens, November, 2016

The trends of the early twenty-first century can be at once impressive, disorienting, and distressing. In the best case, once fully realized, they will spur solidarity among policy-makers committed to addressing social, political, and economic injustice; in the worst case, they will feed reactionary policies and social unrest.

The reduction of poverty vs. growth of inquality

If you’ve ever doubted that the advances of the modern world have had a positive effect on the human condition, just look at this breathtaking chart posted recently by the Financial Times:

Financial Times

What this chart represents – the dramatic reduction of extreme poverty, which has plagued humanity for millennia – is one of the defining achievements of modernity, and it shows no sign of stopping. In the post-war era, the reduction of the extreme poverty rate has actually accelerated, which is all the more impressive against a relative explosion in world population. Here is an interactive version which lets you toggle between relative numbers, and absolute values.

From the article:

That is a huge achievement, for me as a researcher who focusses on growth and inequality maybe the biggest achievement of all in the last two centuries. It is particularly remarkable if we consider that the world population has increased 7-fold over the last two centuries — switch to the ‘Absolute’ view in the visualisation below to see the number of people in and out of poverty. In a world without economic growth, such an increase in the population would have resulted in less and less income for everyone; A 7-fold increase in the world population would have been enough to drive everyone into extreme poverty. Yet, the exact opposite happened. In a time of unprecedented population growth our world managed to give more prosperity to more people and to continuously lift more people out of poverty.

Author Max Roser points out that “’Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 130K since yesterday’ should have been the headline every single day in the last two decades.”

And yet, despite this staggering achievement that has brought hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty, wealth inequality has approached levels unseen in recent history.

The phenomenon of concentrated hyper-wealth has become a defining characteristic of our age. The eight wealthiest people in the world (and if you were wondering, yes – they are all men) are collectively as rich as the poorest half of the world’s population of about 3.6 billion.

This chart from a recent piece by the Financial Times shows the striking trendline that has begun to trace an outline of a financially bifurcated society:

Financial Times

The gap becomes even more dramatic when plotted by race, as provided by the Pew Research Center; these charts show a growing gap between the median net worth of white/black, and white/hispanic populations in the US over a period of thirty years (the trendline and the gap itself seems unremarkable until you realize that the Y axis is on a logarithmic scale):

Pew Research Center

Fears of authoritarianism in the first-world’s largest democracy

That a reactionary quasi-fascist regime led by a former reality television host could gain control of the world’s most powerful democratic state is the stuff of cartoonish dystopian nightmares. It’s also really happening.

One could be forgiven for thinking that 2017 is really just Dick Tracy come to life, smart watches and all, with its cadre of cartoonish villains run amok in the West Wing. With the former CEO of Exxon soon to be our nation’s ranking diplomat, perhaps Pruneface should have a go as Secretary of the Treasury, or Flattop for Secretary of Education. At this point, the difference would seem negligible.

It’s become a global phenomenon, with upcoming elections in France and Italy likely to determine how deeply the global trend toward nationalism runs.

For a useful playbook on how authoritarianism emerges, and how it’s best addressed, in a modern democratic state, this Hungarian perspective is useful:

Please do not forget that populists can turn into peaceniks or imperialists at any moment, depending on what they think could yield good spin that boosts their support. Remember how Putin and Erdogan had switched, within months this year, from warring to fraternity. Or how Orban in opposition had blasted any compromises with Russia, only to become Putin’s best friend upon his election.

Ultimately, by virtue of their origins, populist regimes lend themselves to a kind of bipolar unpredictability, perhaps the greatest risk they post to a stable international order.

Coastal cities become privileged havens of freedom

You might be less concerned about how a populist authoritarian regime might affect you if you live in New York or San Francisco. That’s because politicians in these cities have already said they will refuse to comply with some of the more extreme measures proposed by the incoming administration, including turning over undocumented immigrants, registering muslim citizens, or re-introducing reactionary and abusive policies such as stop-and-frisk.

Cities have earned some degree of political autonomy, partly due to their shifting demographics, and by the sheer power of their economic influence. Indeed, the rebirth of America’s cities (or at least some of them) has been one of the great unexpected successes of the last twenty years.

The plummeting crime rates in New York are particularly breathtaking. Murders dropped to 325 last year, which would have been inconceivable to anyone inhabiting New York in the 1980’s. With an overall crime drop of 4.1%, some crimes have fallen to the lowest rates since records started being kept.

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Violent crime in general has generally plummeted as well. In New York, there were over five thousand shootings in 1991, and dropped by over 80% to fewer than one thousand in 2016. But this trend has emerged across almost all major urban centers in the US since the early 1990’s (recent upticks in places like Chicago notwithstanding):

Mother Jones

And yet, the protections offers by cities like New York – whether from politics or violence – are looking more like a privilege than a right.

Even as urban renewal and gentrification have been among the great domestic successes of the early twenty-first century, they are also quickly becoming the source of enormous injustice. Plummeting crime rates have emerged alongside startup incubators and ten-dollar lattes. The area south of Central Park — so called “billionaire’s row” — now offers some of the most expensive real estate ever created in human history.

If you’ve ever wondered what kind of view you could buy in New York for $95 million, here’s your answer:

<a rel="nofollow" href="" target="_blank">The $95 million view<

This particular vantage point happens to be from one of the upper floors of 432 Park Avenue, the tallest residential tower in the world.

Real estate like this is often used as a vehicle for safely storing overseas cash. In a compelling piece, New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe uncovers some of the bizarre metrics from the US Census and other sources that shed some light on this shadow economy of ultra-luxury:

According to the Census Bureau, throughout a sweeping stretch of midtown — from Forty-ninth to Seventieth streets, between Fifth Avenue and Park — nearly one in three apartments is completely empty at least ten months a year.

And yet, cash-stuffed oligarchs aside, many cities will provide havens of liberalism, serving as progressive bastions offering relative safety from the prying agents, amidst an emerging backdrop of authoritarianism.

I suspect cities –– and especially coastal cities –– may someday even become semi-autonomous political units, not unlike the city-states of ancient Greece, as protectorates of liberal democracy in an age of reactionary conservative politics.

The tragic contradiction of this landscape of urban renewal is that while urban inhabitants might take those protections for granted, cities themselves are becoming increasingly out-of-reach to all but the very same gentrifiers, and billionaires who have made cities into what they have become.

Our age of institutional decay

“Geopolitical Recession”

Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group has suggested that we are now in a “G-Zero” world, where American exceptionalism has essentially vanished from the global stage. They describe this phase shift as a “geopolitical recession.” In its annual Top Risks feature, they write:

But with the shock election of Donald Trump as president of the US, the G-Zero world is now fully upon us. The triumph of “America first” as the primary driver of foreign policy in the world’s only superpower marks a break with decades of US exceptionalism and belief in the indispensability of US leadership, however flawed and uneven. With it ends a 70-year geopolitical era of Pax Americana, one in which globalization and Americanization were tightly linked, and American hegemony in security, trade, and promotion of values provided guardrails for the global economy.
In 2017 we enter a period of geopolitical recession.
This year marks the most volatile political risk environment in the postwar period, at least as important to global markets as the economic recession of 2008. It needn’t develop into a geopolitical depression that triggers major interstate military conflict and/or the breakdown of major central government institutions. But such an outcome is now thinkable, a tail risk from the weakening of international security and economic architecture and deepening mistrust among the world’s most powerful governments.

Moreover, the debate over whether we’re likely to see a “soft” Brexit or a “hard” Brexit has quickly morphed into a more extreme version, which Gideon Rachman calls “train-crash Brexit”:

So which is it to be: “hard” or “soft” Brexit? Maybe neither. There is a third possibility that is little discussed but increasingly likely: “train-crash Brexit”. In this version of events, the UK and the EU fail to agree a negotiated divorce. Instead, Britain simply crashes out of the EU — with chaotic consequences for trade and diplomatic relations.

Further to this disastrous scenario is the apparent yet-unprecedented EU skeptic policy of the incoming US administration (such as it is). Foreign Affairs, hardly a sensationalist liberal rag, questioned in a recent feature whether the postwar liberal order will survive at all.

Former GOP congressional analyst Mike Lofgren has suggested that the rise of authoritarian populist regimes might be how Western democracy meets its end, echoing Cambridge Professor of Politics David Runciman who posed the question in a recent paper in the London Review of Books. The Council on Foreign Relations listed at the top of its recent annual survey of foreign policy risks, a conflict between Russia and a member of NATO as the most likely, and most disruptive to peaceful global order.

On one reading, Crimea and Ukraine were a kind of testing of the waters. A weakened or undermined NATO, provides a rare opening to a more assertive Russia as it struggles with falling oil revenue and seeks to defray popular opinion amid a kind of perpetual fear of social unrest. Whether such a conflict would be an all-consuming global event, or merely a regional dispute on the order of Crimea Part II, will likely hinge on the integrity of NATO leadership and a European appetite for widespread disruptive event among entrenched economic interests.

“The West is already at war,” writes Molly McKew in this compelling Politico piece. “This war seeks, at home and abroad, to erode our values, our democracy, and our institutional strength; to dilute our ability to sort fact from fiction, or moral right from wrong; and to convince us to make decisions against our own best interests.”

And yet the rising waters of divisive reactionary populism may just as likely prove to underwhelm. We should be cautious to not mistake a cyclical trend for a linear one — midterm elections in the US may serve as a flashpoint for liberal coastal elites terrified into action.

But whether Trumpism, Brexit, or an outwardly ascendant Putin are bellweathers or a blips on the overall trajectory of this century remains to be seen, one of the surest outcomes appears to be the decline of American influence which has so permeated the postwar era.

The weaponization of the internet

Twitter has become a toxic haven for hate speech, a real-world experiment in how truly awful anonymity can become. Facebook, in its dual identity as a technology platform or all-consuming media congolmerate, has proven itself as the most viable tool for overt manipulation of public opinion for profit. 

How young we were: the USENET flame wars of old seem quaint by comparison. The internet as a utopian information resource has morphed into a political weapon that threatens democratic discourse. This wonderful investigation into Russian disinformation campaigns by Adrian Chen is required reading for anyone who wants to know how the internet has become weaponized to serve the interests of authoritarian regimes, most effectively by the Russian government.

Disinformation campaigns of the Russian state (colloquially, “fake news”) and the erosion of traditional journalism have served to further undermine public trust in the media, however undeserving it may have already been. This foundational element of democracy has been turned against itself in a kind of authoritarian ju-jitsu, and it’s unclear what, if any, solution there might be.

(Public encouragement to subscribe to The New York Times or Vanity Fair in the wake of Trumpism, however well-intentioned, evokes a kind of pitiful charity.)

Our age of instability

The collapse of the postwar international order will provide no shortage of existential anxiety. But the safety of the nuclear weapons programs that emerged within that order is now vying for position as an answer to the question of how nightmarish an unstable twenty-first century might become.

Eric Schlosser’s recent exploration in the New Yorker of aging cold-war-era nuclear weapons, and the persistent likelihood of a false alarm that might trigger their use, provides disquieting fodder for the dystopian imagination.

And Bill Perry, the former US Secretary of Defense, nuclear advisor since the Eisenhower administration, and self-described “prophet of doom,” is on something of a social media crusade to prevent this scenario.

If you’re curious how a thermonuclear blast would affect you and your loved ones, try the NUKEMAP, an educational tool for schoolchildren and preppers alike, which provides a handy visualization of kilotons, megatons, and how your neighborhood will be affected by the detonation (accidental or otherwise) of “Tsar Bomba.” (And if you’re pressed for time, I’ll save you the trouble: you’re fucked.)

The coming labor-pocalypse

The advances in automation that will, in short order, utterly disrupt the labor market in most of the developed world have been matched only by our lack of vision in how to address them. 

The dutiful analysts at McKinsey Global Insights have been hard at work trying to understand the implications of automation –– perhaps the most important economic issue of the twenty-first century –– and recently published a study which seems disturbingly understated in its implications (you can interact with the data set here).

What McKinsey is too polite to suggest is that we’re on the cusp of a major disruptive event that may result in rates of unemployment unheard of in modern society.

Our species has undergone shifts of this magnitude before. Hunter-gatherers shifted to an agrarian world after the emergence of agriculture, and the enlightenment ushered in the forces that transitioned the agrarian world to one of industry. In his World After Capital, venture capitalist Albert Wenger sees humanity on the cusp of a third major economic transition, from the industrial age to the knowledge age, with scarcity shifting from capital to attention.

Forces like automation and AI are positioned to massively disrupt our traditional concepts of labor, privacy, and scarcity. They are also poised to accelerate disruptive trends that are already in motion, including income inequality and the widespread erosion of personal privacy rights. Unless democratic institutions are used as a tool to manage those changes, through policies like universal basic income and universal healthcare, we are on a path toward a scenario of unsustainable inequality, polarization, and social upheaval.

“Insurrection, how beautiful you are.”

“Insurrection, how beautiful you are”
Daniel Leslie
“Insurrection, how beautiful you are”

This was the sharpie-scrawled inscription on a granite column at the Polytechnic University in Athens, epicenter of the student protest movement that became a prominent, if still fringe, presence in the city since the financial crisis of 2008, and where I found myeslf wandering through crowds of student protestors on a crisp afternoon this past November.

My trip to Athens happened to overlap with a stopover by the Obamas, on the President’s final foreign tour. The city was effectively shut down for the few days he was there, in anticipation of the student protests that ensued.

(President Obama, I learned, was nearly as disliked by the protestors as Angela Merkel, who probably rates on the popularity scale somewhere between Stalin and Suharto. Casto, who would die a week after my trip, was probably as popular as any sitting Greek politician.)

Street fires in Exarcheia
Daniel Leslie
Street fires in Exarcheia

For my friends in Athens, street fires, militarized riot police, and a resigned acceptance of civil unrest have become the new normal over the past decade. (I was asked by my host to close the windows at night in case a tear gas cannister landed by the building.)

The protests were ostensibly directed at a combination of President Obama’s visit and an annual observance of 1973 government attack on student protestors at the Athens Polytechnic University, which had unfolded on the ground beneath our feet. (Greek military police dust off the riot shields and the armored paddy waggons in what has become something of an annual ritual on the seventeenth of November.)

“NATO, move out”
Daniel Leslie
“NATO, move out”

The idea of widespread social unrest in Western democratic states is so foreign precisely because it’s literally understood to be a foreign phenomenon by Westerners, except perhaps by a select few like my friends in Exarcheia, whose attitude toward the protestors varies between embarassment and a kind of bemused frustration.

Professor Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut is a self-described “math historian” who studies how historical data can help predict political shifts such as the collapse of empires. In a recent paper he has suggested that we reached a kind of tipping point of instability sometime in the 1970’s, based on historical analysis of forty different social data points. Indicators like wealth inequality, government dysfunction, and political polarization, point to “many years of political turmoil, peaking in the 2020s.”

How soon we’ll see evidence of social unrest like general strikes, widespread violent protests, or street fires in midtown Manhattan is anyone’s guess. I have too much cynical faith in the NYPD’s heavyhanded tactics to believe that overt violence will be tolerated anytime soon (ask anyone who was arrested during the Occupy Wall Street protests).

Our age of hyper-globalization

Take a walk through the international terminal at Istanbul airport, as I did a few weeks ago during a transfer from Athens to London, and you’ll see a miniaturized and concentrated version of what’s unfolding around the world.

Most apparent to anyone except the most jaded of international travelers is the intense and seemingly unstoppable force of globalization, and a cultural incongruity that will leave any traveler either deeply inspired or strangely uneasy, and possibly both.

There were two images in particular that struck me as symbols of both the wonder and anxiety of globalization:

First, head coverings and clothing of all kinds and from all corners of the world: habit-covered nuns pulling suitcases in syncopation with the crosses swinging around their necks, alongside women in black burkhas and niqabs; men in robes and sandals, as if having just walked off of a movie set. A trio of Hasidic Jews, who could have just been walking through Brooklyn. And everyone around me apparently finding this scene completely unremarkable.

Second, the aggressive positioning of luxury brands at every turn. Modern international terminals are designed around a particularly aggressive shopping experience. The dusty, dimly-lit duty-free shop of yore has beome a hyper-illuminated luxury shopping hub. This is something I’ve always found jarring and unrelatable (who are these people with the luggage space for magnum-sized bottles of Baileys?). Just imagine what the Istanbul airport looked like thirty years ago, and you can get a sense of how Western brands and culture have come to dominate the world.

The defining characteristic of globalization is its inevitability. This is because globalization is an effect of advances in communications and, by extension, technology, itself a force of nature which we as a species are wholly powerless to change. Public referendums that cater to populism, nationalism, and isolationism which deny this only serve short-term political expediency, and are counterproductive to a meaningful public discourse about what it means to a global species in the twenty-first century.

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