Has the world gone mad? This question is occupying the minds of many people these days. It feels like the world is out of step, that multiple crises are encroaching upon us and that the distant world of international politics is about to get dangerously personal. How are we supposed to deal with the feeling of living in an era that we no longer seem to understand?
This year, international political events have overlapped in an unsettling way. Something seems to be coalescing and brewing, though it’s not yet clear what. Each new development seems to come a bit faster than the last. It may have begun with the Arab Spring in 2011, but it also continued with the wars in Libya and Syria and was further exacerbated by the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and the latest terrorist attacks. We are witnessing the destabilization of the world as we’ve known it since 1989.When our phones began vibrating a week ago Friday with breaking news alerts about the military coup in Turkey, we were still processing our shock over the terrorist attack in Nice, France. Each shock fades quickly in light of the next one. On Sunday, a Syrian refugee detonated a bomb outside an outdoor concert in Ansbach, Germany. Last Friday, an 18-year-old student shot and killed nine people in Munich, most of them teenagers. And only days before that, a 17-year-old asylum-seeker in Würzburg attacked a group of Chinese tourists with an ax.
It was only a month ago that a majority of British voters decided to leave the European Union. The United States is shaken by racial unrest, the massacre in Orlando – and the rise of the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
July 18, 2016: A 17-year-old from Afghanistan attacked people with an ax and knife.
With that, 2016 was really only the worst year since 2015, the year of the great refugee crisis. And 2015 was only the worst year since 2014, the year of the war in Ukraine.
We are living in an age of shocks and crises that could well be traumatizing in their rapid succession and concentration, since it’s not yet clear whether they’re only a temporary jolt or the beginning of a trend with no end in sight. Of course, the sheer number of conflicts has remained constant in recent years. But there is much indication that we find ourselves in a new era of global instability. The biggest geopolitical stories of our time are the destabilization in the Middle East, the European security order and the European Union. In addition, there has been a societal shift in many Western countries: Many citizens are angry at the elites, because they see themselves as victims of globalization, free trade and migration. This anger has enabled the rise of political movements from the fringe to the mainstream in only a few years: Donald Trump, the Brexit movement, Front National and the Alternative for Germany, or AfD. The classic political camps are dissolving as the battle between the political left and the right is replaced by one between Isolationists and Internationalists.
Every now and then, there are phases in international politics during which more happens in the span of a few weeks than would otherwise happen in decades. Do 2014 and 2016 fall into that category? They’re not comparable to the most dramatic phases of the past century, when both World Wars broke out; nor are they anything like 1989, when the Cold War ended and the world order was rearranged. It’s also unclear whether this year will end with the same chaotic violence it started with.
But it is rather likely that global insecurity will become the new status quo. The old, more stable world of the 1990s is not coming back. We have to accept the fact that we live in trying times. Many things are being thrown off-kilter: the balance of power between the United States and China, the future of the EU, NATO’s eastern flank, the global economic order, the relationship between modernity and political Islam, not to mention democracy and human rights in the West.
July 18, 2016: An Erdogan supporter in Ankara. The Turkish government is now considering reimposing the death penalty.
Finding the thread that ties all this together is tough. There are causal and random effects, clear connections and we’re often dependent on speculation. Does the ease with which attackers commit murder in the West have anything to do with the horrific images of Syria that we’re seeing? Do military officials like those in Turkey find it easier to encourage a coup if they find themselves surrounded by violent conflicts and the region is gripped by chaos? And is Erdogan taking a page out of Putin’s book when he suspends the European Human Rights Convention? Instability begets instability – that’s something we are now seeing on a daily basis.
It’s hard to say when the world began to grow more instable. It’s a truism to say 1989 didn’t usher in the end of history, as the political scientist Francis Fukuyama predicted at the time. The end of the Cold War also meant the disappearance of the rivalry between two superpowers that kept the rest of the world in icy suspense. After a short phase of sole American dominance and the relative calm of the 1990s, history once again reared its head with the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War, which bears responsibility for much of what is afflicting the world today.
July 15, 2016: A woman mourns the dead in Nice after dozens were killed in a terrorist attack.
The Iraq War had two consequences. It ushered in the collapse of the Iraqi state and the rise of terrorism in the region, as the self-styled Islamic State was born out of the rubble of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule. George W. Bush’s war marked the overextension of American military might and the beginning of a new isolationism in US foreign policy.
Barack Obama began the withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East and Europe. He wanted to concentrate more heavily on the Pacific region, where China was reclaiming its historical sphere of influence. He wanted to leave interventionism behind him, opting not to invade Syria even though he admitted the situation in the region had spiralled out of control.
If neither the US nor the Europeans or some other major power wants to maintain order, a geopolitical vacuum forms – and that’s what we’re dealing with now. So far China hasn’t been interested in taking on a global role militarily either. If Donald Trump becomes president, America would withdraw from the world even further. It would be the end of NATO as we know it. The Europeans filling the gap left behind by the US is rather unlikely in light of their own weaknesses. Western foreign policy now seems impotent.
The second cause of the geopolitical uncertainty in the Middle East is the Arab Spring. It arose from a dissatisfaction with the economic conditions in Arab countries and it has only been exacerbated by rapid population growth. Enraged young people overthrew their post-colonial rulers, whose power had become brittle. But rather than democracy and prosperity, what followed in many cities was chaos, sectarian clashes and destabilization in the entire region.
Old state structures in Syria, Libya and Iraq have collapsed. Borders once imposed by colonial rulers have disintegrated. Some political scientists feel reminded of the Thirty Years War given the unrest throughout the region. By now, the destabilization of the Middle East has also enveloped Turkey, where old state structures are being called into question. The country is on the brink of civil war as political Islam faces off with secular tradition, tearing the country apart. The further Turkey distances itself from Europe, the more the unrest in the region will have an impact on Europe, for the Continent will have lost an important buffer between East and West.
The geopolitical turmoil wouldn’t have the same effect on us if the West wasn’t already feeling insecure. The shock hits us so hard because we are no longer sure of ourselves. External instability reinforces internal instability.
Terrorism threatens our daily lives, while nationalist populism threatens the political culture. Since the financial crisis of 2007, there has been uncertainty about whether capitalism is still working. Many European countries are languishing amid low growth, high unemployment and growing inequality. A new class of angry citizens has emerged, one in which voters feel left behind, threatened and unrepresented. The beneficiaries of the crisis are the nationalist populists. They sympathize with the authoritarianism of Putin, fan the flames of anti-Muslim rhetoric and dream of bringing an end to the EU. They are fighting the West from within.
Another worrisome tendency in the West is the tendency to believe the kinds of conspiracy theories that circulated on Facebook and Twitter in some countries after the Arab Spring and poisoned the atmosphere there. Even in Europe, some citizens have completely lost their certainty that a reality based in proven facts even exists. The credibility of classic media and politicians is called into doubt – instead, lies and rumors are preferred.
At the beginning of the Arab Spring, there was a debate about whether the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt or Syria would have happened had it not been for Facebook and Twitter. They probably would have still happened, but the protesters wouldn’t have been able to mobilize as quickly as they did online.
In June, the citizens of Britain made the shocking decision to leave the European Union in a national referendum.
The same holds true today. Social media platforms bring the world closer to us than ever before and help us understand it. But they at the same time intensify and spread a new permanent sense of insecurity. They disseminate word of every single shock, attack and cruelty across the globe, and they give everyone a forum where they can further incense themselves. Furthermore, they make it more difficult to maintain perspective in this chaotic world.
Many of us simply don’t understand the world anymore. It will probably be up to the historians of future generations to accurately categorize what exactly it is that we’re experiencing in these times of transition. This is, however, not the time to give in to panic – it is time to have confidence in one’s own values and keep fighting for the society one believes in. Geopolitical turmoil is best overcome when one is grounded in clear convictions, which holds true for both citizens and countries as a whole. First of all, a clear compass is needed in order to take responsibility for foreign policy, confront dictators and manage the crises that we’re witnessing.
Mathieu von Rohr is DER SPIEGEL’s deputy foreign editor.