2010s will be remembered by historic events of unexpected and unprecedented nature on the international stage. The decade that just passed witnessed Arab Spring, Brexit, shock Presidential victory of Donald Trump, the initial establishment and unilateral cancellation of the Iranian Nuclear Deal, Trump-Kim Summits, the rise and fall of ISIS, Paris Climate Agreement, the sharp downturn in US-China relations, Climate Emergency Declaration, and Global Protest Wave. In the opening half of 2020, we have already experienced COVID-19 pandemic, near economic depression and nationwide “Black Lives Matter” protests in America.
All is not well, but where are we headed? These supposedly isolated events are ominous signs of and incremental steps towards a larger fallout. The global systems that govern the world are at breaking point and reaching functional obsolescence. As a result, we are staring at four impending and inter-connected systemic failures, if we are to go on as life-as-usual.
The four systems in crisis are our natural environment (climate and biosphere), political organization (liberal democracy), economic model (capitalism) and international order (US-led liberal order). As systems are stretched to the limit by changing conditions or excessive magnitude, they start to malfunction, descend into disorder and eventually break down. The way to arrest this slide into chaos is to transform the systems, whether deliberately or accidentally, into a modern form fit for contemporary circumstances.
This is called a strategic inflection point, which, as the late CEO of Intel, late Andy Grove explains, “is a time… when its fundamentals are about to change. That change can mean the opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end”.
Humanity’s last strategic inflection point was during the World Wars of 20th Century. The multi-polar European imperialist international order, underpinned by conquest, mercantilism and colonialism, was initially spurred but subsequently demised by industrial progress. By 1914, the fully sprout industrial revolution armed competing European powers to the teeth, disrupting the nature of warfare and balance of power. The world wars period was humanity’s descent into abject chaos and destruction as the pre-modern geopolitical-economic-social order was unable to naturally adapt to the industrial age. The League of Nations, founded in 1919, was an inadequate and, ultimately, futile attempt to patch an ailing world order. The Great Depression of 1929–1933 added further trauma before World War II erupted.
Imagine for a moment the alternate history of Pax Germanica. Adolf Hitler was first to successfully develop the atomic bomb, leading to Nazi Germany winning the war and the Axis Powers attaining global dominance. Human civilization might then slip into a second Dark Ages, with endless genocides, permanent enslavement and ubiquitous terror.
Now back to reality. The Allies’ final victory over the Axis Powers in 1945 was the upturn of the strategic inflection point. The United Nations and Bretton Woods Institutions were established, laying the foundations for a new rule-based international system. Decades of peace, progress and prosperity followed well into the 21st century.
Today we are at it again. The fight against global warming has been aptly called the World War of 21st Century. UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared that we “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” by 2030 to limit temperature rise to a maximum of 1.5C or face dire climate catastrophe. Leading intellectual Noah Chomsky warned that “we have to make decisions now which will literally determine whether organized human life can survive in any decent form”.
Chomsky also cautioned that neoliberalism, or extreme capitalism, is destroying democracy. The increasingly winner-takes-all economy is making America a plutocracy, a system of rule by people of wealth. Former US President Obama echoed that “we have to worry about economics if we want to bring democracy back on track.” Paul Mason’s 2017 book entitled Postcapitalism “argues that we are on the brink of a change so big and so profound that this time capitalism itself, the immensely complex system within which entire societies function, will mutate into something wholly new”. There are also rising calls for Universal Basic Income and Post-Growth Society to fix broken capitalism.
In international relations, both renowned geopolitical experts John Mearsheimer and Graham Allison foresee that war between US and China as being likely, though not inevitable. “China and the United States are currently on a collision course for war — unless both parties take difficult and painful actions to avert it”, wrote Allison. This is an unwelcome return to aggressive and realist sphere of influence politics when we can least afford it. Former President of UN Security Council Kishore Mahbubani likens this to “two tribes of apes fighting each other while the forest around them is burning.”
It is evident that all four systems are in urgent need of repair. This is today’s strategic inflection point. Three pertinent questions to ask is: firstly, what is the timescale; secondly, whether they will be transformed by peaceful evolution or painful revolution; and finally, what are the future trajectories.
I believe 2020s provides the remaining runway to reboot our operating systems. We are running out of time. The climate does not wait for humanity to get its act together nor can disaffected citizens endure the swelling wealth divide or environmental inaction much longer.
If we are not able to sufficiently shapeshift by 2030, we risk the slippery downward spiral towards runaway climatic, political, economic and international entropy. Peaceful evolution will have to occur in 2020s, failing which painful revolution becomes necessary and widespread. Mass civil disobedience would then escalate into violent popular uprising, multilateral disagreements into unruly big power strife, climate extremes into even more devastating disasters and democratic gridlocks into military coups; culminating in global chaos.
Successful transformation will lift civilization to the next level, towards the “Great Abundance” scenario. A space-faring and technologically augmented species, with negligible hunger, poverty and violence. Failure, on the other hand, could condemn us to a “Great Implosion” scenario as we fall into the next Dark Ages. Except this time, we have also incurred the uncontrollable wrath of Mother Nature. The best of times or the worst of times is ahead of us. Our primary purpose in 2020s is to take our pick.