How are we supposed to make sense of a world that seems to be going to hell in a handbasket?
The Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other, dreadful enough as more than 1700 people have been killed to date. But right next door the civil war in Syria rages unchecked after more than three years, and where more than 170,000 people have been killed so far.
And spilling out of Syria is the new terrorist force, the savage Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. Apparently unstoppable, it continues to win territory in Iraq.
Illustration: John Shakespeare.
As Australians have recently become keenly aware, another war is escalating in Ukraine. Russia invaded Crimea and is now fighting to take more of its neighbour.
Then there’s Asia, where China is using its muscle to expand its territory at the expense of its neighbours. All of these clashes are continuing without any sign of let up.
These are just some of the troubling conflicts under way. Is this an unbalanced selection that makes the world seem bleaker than it really is?
Crisis Watch, a conflict-monitoring non-government organisation, publishes a monthly overview of the world’s wars.
It lists those where tensions are easing and those where war is intensifying. There are seven wars on the worsening list published on August 1. And on the improving side of the ledger? It’s blank.
Is there a way of seeing any sort of organising construct in this grim survey?
Two prominent US thinkers on foreign policy have offered prisms for viewing this worsening state of the world order. One is Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times and author of books including the 2005 work The World is Flat: A Brief History of The Twenty-first Century.
He urges us to see the world through the prism of the Middle East. Specifically, the Arab-Israel conflict. Why? “Because it is to the wider war of civilisations what Off Broadway is to Broadway. A lot of stuff starts there and then goes to Broadway. So what’s playing Off Broadway these days?
"The Israeli-Arab conflict has become a miniature of the most relevant divide in the world today: the divide between the ‘world of order’ and the ‘world of disorder'.”
As for dealing with disorder, Friedman expresses the hope the great powers may collaborate to impose order but dismisses it as unlikely. “No power these days wants to lay hands on the world of disorder because all you win is a bill. And even if they did, it would not be sufficient.”
Friedman’s prescription? “In my view, the only way Israel can truly curtail the Hamas rocket threat is if the Palestinians of Gaza demand that the rockets stop …
“The only sustainable way to do it is by Israel partnering with moderate Palestinians in the West Bank to build a thriving state there, so Gaza Palestinians wake up every day and say to the nihilistic Hamas: ‘We want what our West Bank cousins have.’ The only sustainable controls are those that come from within.”
Friedman’s analysis is striking for its narrowness. It makes the Israel-Arab struggle central. It proposes a possible solution, no matter how unlikely.
But the Israeli fight with the Arabs takes up so much of Friedman’s view that he finds no room to see anything else. He ventures no responses whatsoever to the other great forces challenging order: ISIL, for instance, or Russia or China.
The other prominent thinker is Francis Fukuyama, a fellow at Stanford University and author of one of the most remarked upon works of the late 20th century, The End of History, published in 1992.
Fukuyama also sees a world where order is being challenged, but his prism for dealing with it is a very different one: “The focus of today’s debate ought to be: how should we prioritise the threats facing us and how bad are the most serious?” he wrote in the Financial Times.
Fukuyama takes issue with his president. Barack Obama said in a key speech at the West Point military academy in May that the only direct threat facing the US was terrorism.
“He said virtually nothing about long-term responses to the two other big challenges to world order: Russia and China,” Fukuyama rebukes.
“Despite the recent successes of ISIL, I would argue that terrorism is actually the least consequential of these challenges in terms of core US interests.
“What we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria is the slow spread of a Sunni-Shiite war,” he says. “However, we could barely contain sectarian hatreds when we occupied Iraq with 150,000 troops; it is hard to see how we can act decisively now.”
But Russia’s annexation of Crimea, says Fukuyama, threatens to impose tectonic instability with far-reaching consequences along Russia’s frontiers with Europe and central Asia.
China poses a similar danger, but on a bigger scale: “Russia’s power is based on a flawed economic model that in time will weaken its power" argues Fukuyama. "Not so with China.” He summarises: “The extremism of ISIL will in the end prove self-defeating. By contrast, the allies the US is sworn to defend are now threatened by industrialised nations with sophisticated militaries.”
Fukuyama’s solution? He urges Obama to apply US power to strengthening international institutions. NATO should be reinvigorated as a military alliance to deal with Russia. And Asia needs a multilateral order to deal with China.
Friedman is all about the Middle East; he’s resigned to inertia for the great powers. For Fukuyama, it’s about making use of the power of nations working together to impose order.
But on one thing they readily agree: the forces of disorder are winning.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor.