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Global Shocks

Panel Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA to EU-Australia Leadership Forum, Sydney, 5 June 2017

Shocks to the global geopolitical system – sudden events, often unanticipated at least in their timing or scale of impact, having a big effect on security, stability, particular diplomatic relationships, or the wider international order – have been coming thick and fast in recent times, to the point where even though there is plenty still to distress us, almost nothing now seems capable of really surprising us.

Think of 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, including the invasion of Libya, in 2011 – and the catastrophic consequences of all three both in the wider Middle East and beyond, with the European refugee crisis and recurring Islamist terrorist attacks world-wide. Think of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Ukraine in 2014, and the breakdown in relations with the West, and the nuclear arms control agenda, that has come with it. Think of China’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea, with its land reclamation program dramatically accelerating since 2014. Think of North Korea’s rapid move to becoming a de facto nuclear armed state. And, of course, think of both the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

It’s always difficult – with geopolitical as with global economic shocks (like the oil price crisis of 1973 or the global financial crisis of 2007-8) – to read at the time just how long-lasting or far-reaching their impact will be. The worst fears of many that the populist tide that led to the Brexit decision would be repeated with a victory for Wilders in Holland and Le Pen in France, with the potential in turn for this unravelling the whole EU, have mercifully proved already unfounded. But no-one should underestimate the scale of both the political and economic problems that lie ahead for Europe.

My own instinct is that the most far-reaching impacts of the current run of shocks will be those following the election of Donald Trump. I had occasion to describe him at the National Press Club a few weeks ago as ‘manifestly the most ill-informed, under-prepared, ethically-challenged and psychologically ill-equipped President in US history’, but have to say that with the further passage of time that now seems an understatement.

As to the most recent shock of all, Donald Trump’s walking away from the Paris Climate Agreement last week. while it was hardly a complete surprise, I think historians may well regard the conjunction of events on 1 and 2 June 2017– with Trump’s White House announcement being followed immediately by the joint statement by China and the EU effectively taking up the leadership mantle, and every other significant global player immediately renewing their commitment to the Paris targets – as marking a turning point in world history.

It may be that the US position will be reversed in a few years, or even a few months, as cooler and wiser heads prevail. But following, as this does, years of the US political system being unable to deliver on treaty commitments the executive government has made, and a raft of other indications from the Trump administration that it has nothing but distaste for multilateral institutions and programs more generally, I think there is every chance that 1 June 2017 will be seen, not just by today’s bloggers and leader-writers, but the historians of the future, as the day that the US abdicated the global leadership role it has played since 1945 – beginning with the creation of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions – in the pursuit and institutionalization of global public goods. The US leaves very big shoes to fill, and there is understandable anxiety about who will be doing so.

The EU and some others, including coalitions of creative and active middle powers, may be capable of taking up some of that leadership role. But the real question is how China will go about realizing its manifest ambition – not inherently unreasonable – to from now o n play a major part in global rule-making, not just be a rule-taker.

Even harder than assessing the impact of present shocks, is trying to anticipate what the next big shocks will be. I can’t help but think in this respect of the complete failure of analysts everywhere (though our own Paul Dibb came much closer than most) to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, or that of my own analysts at International Crisis Group, though we were on the ground throughout the Middle East, to do better than anyone else in predicting the Arab Spring).

That said, we do have to keep asking ourselves how bad - or much worse - things can get over the next few years in geopolitical and security terms if we don't get our international act together. And, quite apart from real concern about the diminishing credibility and effectiveness of the UN and multilateral system more generally, there’s quite a lot to be uncomfortable about, in particular:

  • the very uncertain Euro-Atlantic environment – with Russian chest-beating and adventurism, US policy incoherence and disarray under Trump, a possibly renewed nuclear arms race, diminishing NATO coherence (especially with Turkey’s retreat from democracy), and EU institutional fragility; and
  • the very uncertain Asia-Pacific environment – with Chinese political, economic and military assertiveness, US policy disarray, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, an increasingly divided ASEAN division, Indonesia’s drift toward less moderate Islam, and continuing India-Pakistan tensions.

All that said, I am not particularly alarmist or pessimistic about an inevitable drift to war. The present geopolitical fault lines are all now pretty clear, and I do not think there is much prospect of ‘sleepwalking’ to war WWI style. In particular the notion of the ‘Thucydides Trap’ – that when rising great powers confront established great powers history tells us that violent conflict is, sooner or later , more or less inevitable – I think takes insufficient account of all that we have learned from the successive catastrophes of the 20th century. I believe the decades since the end of World War II really have seen the effective disappearance – after many centuries of flourishing life – of what the French call bellicisme, the ideology seeing virtue and nobility in war, and its replacement by the perception that, with today’s technology, the damage inflicted by any war would be unbelievably horrific, and far outweighing, in today’s economically interdependent world, any conceivable benefit to be derived.

None of the present tensions and security anxieties around the world are insoluble (including even the further export of Islamist terrorism, though there is no more complex and intractable current security problem). And that includes the North Korean situation, about which many alarm bells are currently ringing: as ugly and odd as the DPRK regime leadership is, it is intent above all else on regime survival, and it well knows that to be homicidal now, with its nuclear weapons or anything else, would be completely suicidal.

Of course we cannot be complacent about this or anything else. Poor leadership – on the part of the world’s good guys as well as bad guys – can make manageable situations career out of control. While there are, as always, plenty of leaders around in the contemporary world, there is currently not much real leadership.

One of the biggest failures of leadership we are presently witnessing is the failure by all the states that really matter – the nuclear armed states and those sheltering (or believing they are) under their umbrella, including Australia and most of Europe’s NATO allies – to recognize the scale of the risk associated with our continuing failure to reduce the number, role and salience of nuclear weapons – the use of which in any significant exchange is an existential risk to life on this planet as we know it. (The other great existential risk we face is of course global warming, but on any view nuclear weapons can kill us faster than C02).

I don't think the deliberate first aggressive use of nuclear weapons by anyone – not just North Korea – is very likely. But I am very deeply concerned that there is a huge risk, much higher than commonly understood by either policymakers or publics, of a major nuclear exchange being initiated by human or system error, accident, or miscalculation. And that will be a global shock greater than any other we can imagine.

Given what we now know about how many times the supposedly very sophisticated command and control systems of the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War years were strained by mistakes and false alarms, human error and human idiocy; and given also what we both know, and can guess, about how much more sophisticated and capable cyber offence will be of overcoming cyber defence in the years ahead, that we have survived for over seven decades without a nuclear weapons catastrophe is not a matter of inherent system stability or great statesmanship – just sheer dumb luck.

And there is no reason why that luck should continue indefinitely, o long as there are large numbers of nuclear weapons in existence (presently some 15,400 worldwide), and so long as large numbers of these are actively operationally deployed (presently some 4,000), and so long as a very large number of these in turn on very high-alert launch status (presently some 2,000). Particularly given what we now know about the characters and personality of those currently in the Kremlin and White House. If we had occasion to be worried before about miscalculation, misjudgment, human error and sheer human idiocy in handling of nuclear weapons, those fears are now even more real.

I am, and always have been an incorrigible optimist about our capacity to solve public policy problems, both domestic and international – so much so that I have made this phrase the title of my political memoir to be published later this year. But I have to acknowledge that when it comes to ridding the world of the most indiscriminately inhumane and existentially dangerous weapons ever invented, I am not at all optimistic that we will make progress any time soon.