The Crisis of Our Crises

PRINCETON – At first glance, today’s major international crises seem to have little in common. Some, such as Greece’s debt drama, are economic disasters; others, like Syria’s implosion, are characterized by brutality and political chaos; and still others, most notably Ukraine’s predicament, fall somewhere in between. But, despite what policymakers might like to believe, these events are not unrelated. On the contrary, they reflect a deeper crisis of international integration and cooperation.

Over the last 60 years, the world experienced unprecedented peace and prosperity for a simple reason: countries voluntarily integrated themselves into an international community underpinned by shared rules and norms. But this trend has given way to piecemeal crisis responses, whether austerity or localized damage control, that are based on the unreasonable assumption that problems like those in Greece, Syria, and Ukraine will eventually correct themselves.

In relying on stopgap measures to address crises, global leaders seem to have forgotten how interdependent the world has become. Upheaval or stagnation in one part of a complex system can have outsize consequences elsewhere, in the form of, say, a refugee crisis or an uptick in inequality.

For example, Europe’s malaise – which has persisted partly because its leaders have insisted on muddling through, rather than seeking comprehensive solutions – has had serious consequences for Ukraine, a country teetering on the edge of a meltdown. By the end of this year, Ukraine’s economy is expected to be 15% smaller than it was 2013, and its debt-to-GDP ratio may be near 200%, exceeding Greece’s at its worst. And the security situation in the eastern part of the country is deteriorating.