With autumn almost here, the world can look forward to a bumper crop of large-scale crises. The international community now must confront a series of disasters that those paying attention predicted with remarkable accuracy.
When James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was first published, early in 1963, the United States was entering a period of vast social and political upheaval. Having just gone through the Cuban Missile Crisis, Americans would soon endure a presidential assassination and almost a decade of war in Vietnam.
Baldwin, of course, was concerned with a much deeper, slow-brewing crisis – one that had been covered up and left to rot in the attic of America’s soul. It had been a century since the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin observed, but African-Americans were still being “born under conditions not far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago.”
The book’s title comes from an old slave song: “God sent Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time.” And as we enter the fall of 2017, such apocalyptic language seems fitting. In the US, white supremacists and neo-Nazis, encouraged by Donald Trump’s presidency, have slithered out of hiding to spew their hatred. Large portions of the American Southeast are now dealing with flooding of Biblical proportions. And the US government is engaged in another perilous nuclear standoff, this time on the Korean Peninsula.
Meanwhile, ethnic chauvinism and bankrupt ideologies, which wrought so much havoc in the twentieth century, are doing so yet again, particularly in Myanmar and Venezuela. What all of these crises have in common is not that they are new, but that they have been left to fester for too long. For many Project Syndicate commentators, today’s disasters thus come as no surprise. And with the help of their informed analysis and insight, we can better understand how we arrived here, and what may come next.
The Korean Pressure Cooker
This week, in response to North Korea’s sixth nuclear test and ongoing missile launches, the United Nations Security Council imposed further sanctions on the country. While the new limits on oil exports to the North fall far short of the embargo sought by the Trump administration, the tightening of sanctions indicates that China and Russia are willing to increase pressure on Kim Jong-un’s regime. As former South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan recalls, when “China informed Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, that it would no longer veto UN sanctions” at the height of the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1994, Kim adopted “a less antagonistic position.” Yoon suspects that China “may be using a similar tactic today.”
But Christopher R. Hill, the chief US negotiator with North Korea from 2005 to 2009, warns that “the US cannot rely excessively on other countries to constrain the North Korean regime.” Hill points out that the North’s “pursuit of nuclear weapons” is not merely symbolic; rather, the Kim regime’s “goal is to threaten the US explicitly, in order to compel it to reduce its presence in Northeast Asia – and perhaps even reconsider its alliances with Japan and South Korea.” And that is an objective that enjoys “tacit support in the world,” not least from Russia and China, which “have proposed that the US suspend its annual military exercises with the South, in exchange for a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program.”
In light of the new sanctions, China will again push for a “double freeze” as the next logical step toward defusing the crisis. But Claremont McKenna College’s Minxin Pei contends that such a solution is no solution at all, because the Kim regime could restart its nuclear program in secret and at little cost, while the US would be left with reduced military capabilities on the Korean Peninsula. Pei suspects that China’s proposal is meant to “shift the international community’s attention away from its own potential leverage over the Kim regime, and toward the Trump administration’s erratic and worrying policy approach.”
But as Lee Jong-Wha of Korea University points out, “for China to do more, it needs assurances that it will not immediately lose its strategic buffer on the Korean Peninsula.” Such assurances have not been forthcoming from the White House. If anything, notes Minghao Zhao of the Charhar Institute in Beijing, “the Trump administration has gone to great lengths to alienate” China, by deploying an anti-missile system in South Korea and imposing “secondary sanctions” on Chinese companies.
In addition, Harvard University’s Jeffrey Frankel observes, “the White House is still pursuing aggressive trade-policy measures against China, only some of which have any merit.” Frankel emphasizes what may be Trump’s key failure in addressing the North Korea crisis so far: his inability to “look at the game from the other player’s viewpoint.” While “a nuclear-armed North Korea is undesirable” for the Chinese, he notes, it is “still less problematic than” a collapse of the Kim regime, which would produce “an influx of refugees into China and bring American troops closer to China’s border.” And, as Yoon explains, from the perspective of North Korea’s leaders, nuclear weapons offer their country the only way to “compensate for its perceived vulnerability” as an isolated regime in a threatening neighborhood.
With the North Korean nuclear crisis nearing a “boiling point,” Lee sees a clear need for an agreement “on how to handle the potential collapse of the Kim regime and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.” Whereas a chaotic collapse would be an economic, geopolitical, and humanitarian nightmare, even a more orderly end to the Kim regime “would have a major economic and political impact throughout the region.” Nonetheless, Lee, hoping for orderly regime change, shows that “a peacefully managed unification process, characterized by comprehensive economic reform and opening up, could enable North Korea to achieve sustained double-digit GDP growth, despite a sharp slowdown immediately following the collapse.”
But an alternate post-Kim scenario could also be spearheaded by China. The implication of “Trump’s insistence that China take responsibility for its dangerous neighbor,” notes Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, is that China itself could invade North Korea or topple the Kim regime. This outcome “is not as unlikely as most people think,” Emmott argues, given that it would “sharply shift East Asia’s strategic balance in China’s favor.” Rather than having to deal constantly with a petulant and unruly child, China would have a docile client on its eastern flank. Better yet, whatever regime emerges in North Korea would not need nuclear weapons, because it would enjoy the protection of China’s nuclear umbrella.
Such an outcome could certainly erode the US’s position in East Asia. But so, too, would a North Korea with deliverable nuclear weapons. As former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer points out, “When North Korea achieves nuclear-power status, the American security guarantee will no longer be airtight,” and South Korea and Japan will feel more pressure “to develop their own nuclear capacity, which they could easily do.”
Richard N. Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations makes a similar point, noting that China’s “increasingly assertive foreign policy – exemplified by its border dispute with India and territorial claims in the South China Sea” has already put pressure on other countries “to boost their own military spending.” And “the growing unpredictability of US foreign policy,” he warns, “could weaken deterrence and prompt allies to take their security into their own hands.”
None of this bodes well for regional stability. For former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, “extended deterrence” – whereby the US’s nuclear capacity also protects its non-nuclear allies – “stands as the only practical way to protect East Asian countries from nuclear blackmail or attack,” especially in a situation where diplomacy or sanctions have failed. Whether we are approaching that situation today remains to be seen. But either way, observes Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University, the North Korea crisis “is pushing the world toward a strategic watershed much like the one that the West faced 60 years ago, when the United States and the Soviet Union faced off against each other in Europe.”
The Rohingya Nightmare
Asia, as a whole, has enjoyed relative peace and prosperity in recent decades, owing to the US-led post-war security framework and China’s prioritization of economic growth above all else. And, as Haass observes, “Because most Asian countries are host to relatively homogenous societies with strong national identities, the chance of civil conflicts erupting and spilling over national borders is relatively low.” But he is quick to point out that none of these factors should be taken for granted. And, as if on cue, the government of Myanmar has since redoubled its assault against that country’s minority Rohingya Muslim population in Rakhine State, ostensibly in response to attacks on police outposts by armed Rohingya militants last month.
In the past few weeks alone, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh. According to Syed Munir Khasru of the Dhaka-based Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance, “systematic discrimination” of Rohingya has now “escalated into ethnic cleansing” by Myanmar’s military. Given the scale of the atrocities being visited upon the Rohingya – including the indiscriminate rape and murder of women and children – many have singled out Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who now presides over Myanmar’s civilian government, for special obloquy. As Khasru explains, Suu Kyi is “between a rock and a hard place.” If she sides “with the Rohingya, she will face a powerful backlash from the military and a large share of voters.” And yet, “by remaining silent, she is severely damaging the moral authority that allowed her to wear down Myanmar’s generals and place the country on the path to democracy.”
Yuriko Koike, a former Japanese defense minister who is now Governor of Tokyo, all but predicted this outcome in a July 2015 commentary, a few months before Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy won that year’s parliamentary election. Koike argued that the military junta had been stoking “Buddhist racism” with the clear intent of damaging Suu Kyi politically. Her analysis predicted Khasru’s synopsis of current events almost exactly. “If [Suu Kyi] speaks out for the Rohingya, her appeal among Buddhists, the vast majority of Myanmar’s citizens, may be dented enough to preserve the army’s grip on power,” Koike wrote. “If she does not defend the Rohingya, her aura of moral leadership may be dimmed among her own supporters, both at home and abroad.”
Two years later, Suu Kyi’s star certainly seems to be falling, especially now that her government has suspended deliveries of humanitarian aid to fleeing Rohingya, citing “the security situation and government field-visit restrictions.” But as José Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Janelle Saffin of the Australian Labor Party’s International Party Development Committee argued earlier this year, placing all of the blame on Suu Kyi risks obscuring “the military’s responsibility in the crisis.”
Ramos-Horta and Saffin noted that whereas “Suu Kyi has the same responsibilities as other heads of state, but not nearly as much power,” the opposite is true of General Min Aung Hlaing, the military’s commander-in-chief, who “has little responsibility, but far more power than Suu Kyi.” Indeed, “Myanmar’s 2008 military-decreed constitution allows [the generals] to stage a coup d’état whenever they deem it necessary to restore order.”
Given that the current violence has its roots in decades of “colonization, military rule, ethnic and religious conflict, and civil wars,” Ramos-Horta and Saffin conclude that it will only end through a “genuine reconciliation effort.” And only Hlaing, they argue, “has the power to launch” such an initiative.
Chavism in Flames
Meanwhile, a humanitarian catastrophe has been unfolding in Venezuela as well. According to Ricardo Hausmann, a former Venezuelan minister of planning and the current director of Harvard’s Center for International Development, “Venezuela is experiencing one of the most calamitous economic collapses ever, accompanied by massive doses of political repression and human-rights violations.” While Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government “is literally starving its people in order to avoid restructuring” its bonds, Hausmann writes, “Venezuelans are involuntarily losing weight and searching for food in garbage piles.”
In a subsequent commentary, Hausmann points out that per capita GDP has contracted more sharply in Venezuela since 2013 than it did in the US from 1929 to 1933. As Juan Manuel Santos, the president of neighboring Colombia, notes, “Some 82% of Venezuelans are now impoverished,” with far-reaching effects on public health. To take just one example, Santos notes that, “maternal mortality rate in hospitals reportedly increased fivefold in 2016, while the infant mortality rate has increased a hundredfold.” And Venezuelans are not dying just from “preventable and curable diseases,” laments former UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Enrique Ter Horst. They are also dying “from violence – including, in some cases, gunshot wounds inflicted by their own government.”
Not surprisingly, Venezuelans have taken to the streets in what New America’s Anne-Marie Slaughter and Fabiana Perera of George Washington University describe as the third major wave of “protest against the Chavista regime.” In 2016, Slaughter and Perera note, “70% of all protests were driven by economic concerns, with the demand for jobs chief among them.” But since then, Maduro’s government hasn’t even bothered to publish “official unemployment rates.”
“Until recently,” Santos observes, “Venezuela – the birthplace of the ‘Liberator’ Simón Bolívar – was a free and rather wealthy country, boasting the world’s largest proven oil reserves.” Venezuela thus owes its current plight not to the whims of fortune and fate, but to what French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy describes as “a mix of incompetence and stupidity.” After Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, “came to power on a wave of populism in 1998,” Slaughter and Perera explain, his regime fulfilled its promise to reduce unemployment by using oil revenues to finance a vast expansion of the public sector. But the flaws in this model “became readily apparent in 2014, when oil prices started plummeting.”
Since then, notes Hausmann, Maduro – who came to power after Chávez’s death in 2013 – has repeatedly avoided a necessary restructuring by cutting “imports while remaining current on foreign-debt service.” His government has avoided a coup, Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff surmises, by giving the “military a free hand in running the drug trade, making many generals and officials extremely rich – and able to buy the loyalty of key troops.” And Venezuela’s leaders have avoided an electoral reckoning, Santos laments, by eroding the country’s “democratic institutions – a process that culminated in [July’s] decision to form an illegitimate constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, so as to entrench Maduro’s regime.”
The international community, with the exception of Santos and a few others, has been slow in responding to the crisis in Venezuela. But, as Lévy argues, it is a situation that “should concern all countries that have an interest in the fight against terrorism, and the money-laundering networks that finance it.” Lévy calls for a closer look at the Maduro government’s alleged “ties to North Korea, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and the freelancing militant group Hezbollah.” After all, he warns, “no act is too depraved for a desperate regime.”
Playing With Matches
Willful blindness and outright denial have also undermined the world’s response to climate change. But with wildfires raging across the American West, and two devastating hurricanes pummeling Texas and Florida within a week of each other, it has become much harder for policymakers of any stripe to ignore the implications of a warming planet. As Nobel laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz points out: “scientists have long predicted that such increases would boost not only average temperatures, but also weather variability.”
For Stiglitz, this year’s hurricane season further underscores the fact that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is not enough. Addressing climate change effectively, he argues, also requires “preventive collective action to mitigate the impact” now and in the decades to come. That means shoring up critical infrastructure; “protecting environmental systems, particularly wetlands, which can play an important role in absorbing the impact of storms”; and developing “adequate response plans, including for evacuation.”
Of course, none of this is likely to happen at the federal level in the US under Trump, given that he has withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement and filled his administration with advisers in hock to – or even collaborating with – the oil and gas industry. That matters for the rest of the world, as Columbia University’s Jeffrey D. Sachs reminds us, because even though “America’s population today is just 4.4% of the world’s population,” it “accounted for an astounding 26.6% of global greenhouse-gas emissions from 1850 to 2013.”
The Trump administration’s approach simply ignores growing evidence that rising temperatures pose a direct threat to the US and the rest of the world. “As global temperatures rise and droughts become more common,” says Gulrez Shah Azhar, an Aspen New Voices fellow, studies indicate that “political agitation, social unrest, and even violence will likely follow.” And even if increasing social strife spares America in the near term, it will occur in regions where the US has vital economic and security interests.
Then again, Helmut K. Anheier of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin contends that the US “has not had a pro-active, forward-looking government since the 1960s.” In Anheier’s view, Trump is not an outlier, but rather the culmination of “a long-running political tragedy” in the US. “Americans’ longstanding suspicion of ‘big government,’” he observes, has “morphed into a kind of political self-hatred” that satisfies itself by destroying the state, rather than improving it. Likewise, Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye suggests that larger structural factors, such as “economic growth and geographic location,” have driven America’s role in the world as much as – if not more than – its presidents do. Trump may get plenty of attention from journalists, but he could be a mere footnote for historians.
Still, all leaders are a product of their time. “When the emotional balance of a society changes,” notes Princeton University historian Harold James, the resulting “social turmoil often gives rise to new leaders whose governing mentality leads to rash, short-sighted, inconsistent, and otherwise bad decisions.” The particular emotions that James lists will sound familiar to anyone who has watched Trump’s rise: “fear, suspicion, and anomie.” Such sentiments are widespread among Trump’s supporters, who are heavily concentrated in the Midwest and South – regions where people are “poorer and less educated than other parts of the US,” writes Ian Buruma, editor of The New York Review of Books, and where they “feel ignored and looked down upon by urban coastal elites.”
Anheier suggests, ominously, that the “demons” Trump has “already unleashed” by appealing to voters’ worst instincts will precipitate “a kind of reckoning.” The 2020 presidential election, he warns, could be “accompanied by civic breakdown and the escalation of violent confrontation that has lingered beneath the surface for years.” In fact, this has already happened, in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist rally ended with the murder of the anti-fascist campaigner Heather Heyer. And, by describing the white supremacists in Charlottesville as including some “very fine people,” laments Guy Verhofstadt of the European Parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group, Trump gave a “nod to far-right bigots worldwide.”
Even after Charlottesville, some of Trump’s advisers have insisted on his moral rectitude, and acquit him of any culpability for stoking violent bigotry among white Americans. Baldwin might tell them that “the authors of devastation” are never innocent. If anything, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”