The sounds pretty bad! And no doubt, there have been disruptions in 2021 that carry a whiff of chaos to them. But then I read the rest of Lawler’s article and got a bit confused.
Here is the list of trouble spots and flash points that he runs down: Ukraine, Gaza, Kashmir, Venezuela, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Taiwan, Myanmar, Peru, Colombia, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Do not get me wrong, all those places are trouble spots. Exactly zero of them, however, are new trouble spots. With the possible exception of Haiti, none of the flash points that Lawler lists is a new development in 2021. Furthermore, many of the places listed are less troublesome now than they were, say, 12 months ago.
Lawler’s report also elides the obvious ways in which the world is in better shape now than a year ago. To list the three most important differences: there are now coronavirus vaccines, the economy has recovered from the pandemic disruptions from spring of last year, and Donald Trump is no longer president. That last one in particular eliminates a huge wild card in world politics.
So is this just a case of Axios hyperventilating about garden-variety trouble spots? Some folks on social media suggested this when I tweeted about this article: that it is in the DNA of the Axios/Politico tribe to look at the rest of the world and scream “We’re doomed!” in an effort to scare readers. This is an uncharitable read.
The more generous interpretation is that Lawler’s article was not so much wrong as incomplete. All the geopolitical fissures that he details are real, if not altogether new. What is different, and can be illuminated by an Axios story by Rebecca Falconer, is a recent NASA report on coastal flooding.
According to Falconer, America’s coastlines will experience a dramatic increase in flooding over the next decade or two because of an unhealthy confluence of trends: climate change and a “wobble” in the orbit of the moon. As she explains, “Scientists have known about wobbles in the orbit of the moon, which takes 18.6 years to complete, since 1728. While such events are not dangerous on their own, what’s new is how one of the wobble’s effects on the moon’s gravitational pull — the main cause of Earth’s tides — will combine with rising sea levels resulting from the planet’s warming,” In Falconer’s story, the issue is a combination of something that has progressively gotten worse combined with a known event that amplifies the effect of the worrisome trend.
Something similar is going on in international politics. All the trouble spots that Lawler lists are real, and some of them are getting worse. The issue is that there are two additional layers of problems on top of that. There are the non-agentic threats — climate change, pandemics, other kinds of normal accidents — that can exacerbate those trouble spots. And then there is the great power competition that so many policymakers seem bound and determined to make happen.
So, is Lawler’s story overhyped? Sure. But there was a different version of this story that could have pointed out the very real threats the world faces, and the reduced margin for error that proponents of the liberal international order face in the coming decades.