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North Korea nuclear crisis

The great unravelling of a US-led global order

Andrew Sheng says the chaos of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation and climate-related disasters, plus the rise of China, India and non-state actors, all stem from the decline of a unipolar world, with an uncertain set of solutions

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 September, 2017, 12:25pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 September, 2017, 7:13pm

Two category four hurricanes have hit the United States within two weeks. In Asia, North Korea is threatening nuclear Armageddon, and floods and famine put thousands at risk from Bangladesh to Yemen. How can one survive in this chaotic era?

A first step must be to make sense of the apparent chaos. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma prove that climate change is not fake science. When hailstones the size of golf balls hit Istanbul in the middle of summer, even agnostics must accept climate change as serious business.

The biggest uncertainty that has hit Asia recently is that North Korea has not only possibly developed a hydrogen bomb, but also the capability to deliver it to the United States. This has changed the geopolitical balance not only in North Asia, but globally because it is no longer possible for the US to contain nuclear proliferation alone.

Physics teaches us that chaos is often a characteristic of transition from one order to another. In this case, there is a seismic transition to a multipolar world of competing powers and ideologies, particularly after the 2007 global financial crisis. The rise of China and India, plus increasing assertiveness by Russia and non-state actors like Islamic State, challenge the US’ ability to dominate militarily and ideologically.

At the same time, increasing stresses from social inequalities and paranoia over terrorism, immigration and job losses have made the United States more inward-looking. The Trump administration has begun dismantling the neoliberal order of multilateral trade and finance shaping US foreign policy for decades. There is a raw open division within the US in outlook and values. The Democratic left believes in maintaining the old order of leadership on human rights, democracy and multilateral global stability, while the Republican right questions these beliefs.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon asked the Rand Corporation to conduct a review on “Alternative options for US policy toward the international order.” The key questions for the “new global order” are who sets the rules and how binding the rules are.

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The study breaks the future order into two camps of rule-makers – the US and its allies or a concert of great powers. Under this division, there are two conditions where rules are binding – one dominated by the US camp to enforce rules and the other where the great powers agree to a global constitutional order enforced by institutions. The other two conditions where rules are not binding involve a coalition of states aligned to counteract revisionism and a new concert of great powers.

The immediate problem with the Rand categorisation is that the existing liberal, rules-based order is challenged by the US itself, not others.

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First, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comment earlier this year that Europe must begin to look after its own interests, it is no longer clear that America’s traditional allies are going to follow US leadership when there are serious disagreements on trade, climate change and immigration. It is no coincidence that the largest trade imbalances are no longer between China or oil producers with the US, but between Europe and the US. Germany alone is running a current account surplus equivalent to around 8 per cent of GDP.

Second, within the Middle East, alliances are shifting almost by the day. The quarrel between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has riven the Gulf Cooperation Council, while Turkey plays an increasingly pivotal role within the shifting alliances.

Third, North Korea’s bid for nuclear power membership, despite being a small state, means that great powers may have to accommodate new players, like it or not.

Fourth, climate change in the form of hurricanes demonstrate that nature can impose large economic losses on nations and regions, requiring global public goods that the current order is neither willing to fund, nor able to agree on how to address.

The bottom line is that the current order has neither the resources nor the collective will to enforce rules when human population growth means increasing competition for scarce water, food and territorial spaces. Chaos arises from the breakdown of rules and borderlines.

In short, globalisation of trade, information and human migration means traditional borders in many regions are becoming unenforceable. Seen from the long lens of history, with the great powers being unwilling to put troops on the ground to enforce borders drawn up under the colonial era, these artificial borders are failing.

A hallmark of the times is that even the best of think tanks cannot map out how to navigate this era of disruptive technology, unpredictable climate and shifting alliances and interests. What history teaches us is that the fault lines will be at the borderlands, at the confluence of emerging forces and stresses.

We should therefore be prepared for not only disruption at the borderlands of physical space, but within the realms of cyberspace.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective