A World Besieged

From Aleppo and North Korea to the European Commission and the Federal Reserve, the global order’s fracture points continue to deepen. And everywhere, it seems, the political establishment is sitting on its hands.

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A week, it is said, is a long time in politics. It certainly proved far too long for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad, to honor the ceasefire both had just accepted. Instead of humanitarian relief for Syria’s shell-shocked citizens, the world is seeing what the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy calls the “urbicide” of Aleppo: “massive, random, indiscriminate bombings” that Russia and Assad’s forces “have resumed with a vengeance in and around what was once Syria’s most populous city.”

Of course, nothing in the world today compares to the horrors of Aleppo. But if any word best characterizes the world economy and geopolitics, “besieged” fits the bill. Europe, says Anatole Kaletsky of the consultancy Gavekal, confronts “five simultaneous crises,” including “Brexit, refugee flows, fiscal austerity, geopolitical threats from East and South, and ‘illiberal democracy’ in central Europe.” Beyond the West, argues Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, it “is difficult to overstate the risks were North Korea,” which this month detonated its most powerful nuclear device yet, able to deliver a nuclear weapon on an intercontinental ballistic missile. Indeed, former US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill believes that confrontation with the North is becoming unavoidable, because its “status as a nuclear-weapons state will never be accepted.”

And that’s just the start. Almost everywhere around the globe, there is a nagging sense that, in the words of Hernando de Soto, the president of the Institute of Liberty and Democracy, “the post-World War II international order – which aimed, often successfully, to advance peace and prosperity through exchange and connection – could well collapse.” Indeed, for Nobel laureate Robert J. Shiller, it is the very “economic implications of the nation-state” that have become ripe for challenge.

In such circumstances, as University of Oxford Chancellor Chris Patten puts it, “[m]ainstream political leaders face a challenging road.” To navigate it, “they will need to adopt a fighting spirit and signal confidence in their cause.” And yet, as many Project Syndicate commentators suggest, the political mainstream will first have to address its own shortcomings.