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The following is a speech delivered to the annual benefit of World Chicago, May 14, 2019

On Global Anarchy

By Marvin Zonis

The 1919 poem, “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

To borrow from Yeats, we are in a time of global anarchy. In the midst of this disorder, the risks of conflict are immense.

This state of anarchy is the product of four major processes – all occurring simultaneously.

First, three states have determined to challenge the global hegemonic status of the United States. Russia, China and Iran have launched foreign policies meant to drive the U.S. out of their regions, at least.

Second, President Trump is committed to the notion that every other country in the world has been taking advantage of the U.S., a situation which he is determined to end. U.S. foreign policy has come to in a bizarre fashion to mirror the policies of Russia, China and Iran. Donald Trump’s unpredictability and his single-minded transactional interpretation of US interests is leaving the administration isolated on the world stage.

Third, another process actually began with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Until then, each superpower kept its satellites in check, fearful that any small conflict on the periphery would work its way up to a confrontation between the superpowers. Once the global competition between the US and the USSR came to an end, more and more countries were on their own.

Fourth --  Non-state actors – al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIS add destructive Islamic Terrorism to this mix.

Let me elaborate on these points:

First the challenges of Russia, China and Iran.

The key task for the government of every country is the same – to win the support of the people. That allows the rulers to continue to rule and in the process enjoy all the benefits that ruling brings. Different governments have, of course, used different methods to generate this support.

One basic method has been pushing a particular ideology. The USSR, China and Iran all had a particular ideology which was hammered home to generate support. Communism and Islam were once powerful ideologies. But the communist countries have abandoned communism and the attraction of Islam in Iran has utterly waned. So the rulers have searched for an alternative to build domestic support.

A different way to build domestic support has been through generating economic growth. An expanding economy, even if unequally distributed, always generates popular support.

No better example can be found than China. For twenty years, annual GDP growth did not fall below 6% and was as high as 15%. But now, economic growth in China has plummeted.

Russia has never been able to generate sustained economic growth because it is utterly dependent on oil prices. When oil prices were above $100, Russia was rich. More recently, with oil prices far below that level, Russia is poor.

So it is with Iran. Because of very poor economic policies, economic and industrial monopolies and rampant corruption all capped by biting international sanctions, Iran is an economic mess. High inflation, a plummeting currency, and a shrinking economy leaves the regime with little economic benefits to offer its people except for the top members of the clerical, military and business elites.

So, without the ideologies of communism or Islam and without robust economic growth, all three countries have instead turned to nationalism to build domestic support – hammering home patriotism, the love of country. “All are dictatorships trying to generate support among those they rule through aggressive nationalism, at the expense of their neighbors.” 

In each case, this nationalism has resulted in a powerfully aggressive foreign policy.

Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 followed by itsSeptember 2015 commitment to Assad in Syria are examples.

In addition, Russia has actually attacked the US – a cyber-attack but an attack nonetheless. In the words of the Mueller Report, the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election “in a sweeping and systematic fashion.” Former Vice President Cheney has referred to this as “an act of war.”

Iran is another major ally of President Assad in Syria. Iran originally sent its soldiers to support Assad and then, when they began taking casualties, withdrew most of them. Instead, the Iranians substituted militias which they organized by nationality and financed and trained: militias of Afghanis, of Pakistanis, of Lebanese of Yemenis and others as well. The Russians bombed from above while Iran’s militias killed on the ground.

But the Iranians weren’t content with an aggressive Syrian policy. They also poured money into Hezbollah in Lebanon; Hamas in Gaza; the Houthis in Yemen, and even various factions of the Taliban in Afghanistan – all in the service of a major role for Iran in the Middle East and for generating national pride and patriotism.

China meanwhile created a domestic enemy – the Muslims of Xinjiang province. They have instituted the world’s most sophisticated system of internal surveillance and control. More than 1 million citizens of China – Muslims all – are now incarcerated in so-called reeducation camps.

For years, China has also pursued a policy in violation of international law of building islands in the South China Sea, which it claims as its own domestic waters despite being as much as 1000 miles away from the Chinese mainland. They have built countless islands which have now been militarized and seek to exclude ships from all neighboring states as well as from the US.

The “One Belt One Road” initiative is another example of an aggressive, domineering foreign policy. China is pouring billions into building infrastructure to link even distant countries into China’s orbit.

All three countries – Russia, China and Iran --having launched on foreign adventures or created internal enemies, devote massive resources to domestic propaganda to mobilize their populations through nationalism and patriotism in support of their regimes.

The US has done little to withstand these powerful anarchic forces.

One of the scariest things I have ever witnessed was President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership soon after his inauguration as President. To remind you, the TPP was a trade agreement between the US, other states in this hemisphere and countries in East Asia. The purpose, of course, was to bind together Asian states with the United States to strengthen their resolve not to fall under the sway of China while also growing their economies as well.

The US withdrawal marked a significant signal by the Trump administration that the U.S. would not be a reliable bulwark against Chinese domination of East Asia.

Of course, there are many other indications of President Trump’s withdrawal from global affairs – negotiating a withdrawal of U.S. forces form Afghanistan, criticizing NATO, the  list is long.

At the same time as the major states go at it, the weak states continue to disintegrate and to be the source of violence and migration, adding to the global anarchy.

In the “good old days” – you remember them –when there was a Soviet Union, the superpowers competed, but they kept their satellites in line and stable – whether through force or through money.

Now the former satellites and allies of each superpower are on their own. At least two processes characterize many of these states:

The Arab world is a manifestation of one of these processes – the failure/inability of governments to create a common sense of national identity. When you ask their inhabitants, “who are you?” the answer is only rarely, for example, a Saudi or a Libyan. More likely the answer will be a father, a Muslim, a worker, a member of a particular tribe, an inhabitant of a particular city – anything but a Saudi or a Libyan. Lacking a sense of common national identity, the center must be a dictatorship to hold  the country together. When the power of the center wanes, the country disintegrates – witness Libya.  

The second process rampant in weak states is their inability or at least failure to generate economic growth. Whether through incompetence (Nigeria) or through lack of interest (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) or boundless corruption (Nigeria, the DRC, or countless others – try Honduras). The poverty breeds crime which in turn breeds violence and the migration by populations seeking better lives.

It turns out that for the last several years, the country sending the  most non-legal migrants to Europe has not been Syria. It has not been Iraq or Afghanistan. That country has been Nigeria. As one recent migrant put it,  “Were it not for Italy taking off the pressure, there would be a revolution in Nigeria.”

Mass migrations of people away from these disorderly and failing states to zones of order is driving the current U.S. and European border crises. They will not go away soon.  

Finally, adding to the disintegration of the global order that we have known since the end of World War II is the rise of terrorism from radical Islamic groups. Most recently, ISIS. The horrific bombings of Christians and foreigners in Sri Lanka is the most recent outrage. This terrorism will also not stop anytime soon.

When I put this all together, I am more pessimistic about the global order than I have ever been. Even if President Trump were to be a one term president, the growing anarchy would not come to an end. For one thing, the political partisanship in the US is so deep – so startling – that Trump’s successor will be the president of a bitterly divided country. For another, all the other forces I have described will continue to operate.

The problem with anarchy is the likelihood of war and revolution.

So one question is, what do the countries caught in the midst of anarchy do to preserve their independence and prevent their being swept into conflict.

First, they should attempt an alliance with a distant state which can become an ally and help preserve their independence. No better example exists than Israel’s dependence on the U.S.

Second, if they have an effective government, they should create the conditions for economic growth. Establishing universal literacy, diminishing corruption, guaranteeing property rights, building infrastructure will all serve as the foundation of entrepreneurship and growth.

All too often, of course, rapacious elites seek to keep all that is worth keeping for themselves, their families and their friends. But elites determined to generate economic growth can do so.

No better example exists today than Ethiopia.

There, Abiy Ahmed, the 42-year-old prime minister, has dazzled Africa with a volley of political reforms since his appointment in April 2019. He ended the 20-year border war with Eritrea, released political prisoners, removed bans on dissident groups and allowed their members to return from exile, declared press freedom and granted diverse political groups the freedom to mobilize and organize.

The result has been a groundswell of economic energy.

It can be done. It has been done in many countries. It is not easy. Reform and growth require enlightened leadership. But such leaders can be found seeking power everywhere.

Meanwhile, we in the U.S. will live with international chaos. Adept diplomacy, military security are our best hope.

But short term optimism seems utterly impossible.