Don’t just blame Trump as the world nears a tipping point
Kevin Rafferty worries that a conflagration is brewing from the deadly mix of an expanding list of political hot spots and incompetent leaders
A recent New Yorker cartoon shows the head and elbows of a leonine old man, a real Ancient of Days, appearing wearily through a cloud, addressing a small human with halo and wings, while below the Earth explodes in a profusion of nuclear mushroom clouds. The Ancient comments: “Pretty good. The ending was a bit predictable.”
Has the Earth reached a tipping point, where its very future is in doubt? In the past few weeks, new threats have begun to grow: not merely a slow suffocating end because of destruction of the delicate environment and ecosystems protecting the planet; but potentially fiery political and military conflicts.
“America first” President Donald Trump said he was so moved by the deaths of dozens of people from chemical weapons that he ordered the attack of the Syrian base from which the aircraft had taken off. His message: the US is back with its big stick to beat the wicked world.
In Asia, political and military temperatures are rising, so fast that some experts fear there is a danger of a small accident or miscalculation leading, potentially, to the incalculable damage of a nuclear war.
The immediate flashpoint is the Korean peninsula. Trump ordered the deployment of a naval strike group to the waters off Korea to try to get North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to stop defying UN nuclear weapons sanctions.
Trump’s national security adviser H. R. McMaster claimed that sending the strike force was a “prudent” response to Pyongyang’s “pattern of provocative behaviour”.
In response, Pyongyang declared itself “ready for war”.
What next now? For the 1.6 billion people living in China, Japan and the Koreas, what will happen if Kim test-fires more missiles or conducts more nuclear tests to perfect his systems? Will Trump’s short temper snap?
The room for manoeuvre is small, not least because North Korea has powerful conventional forces that would destroy much of South Korea if unleashed.
Washington imagines that China could do more to squeeze North Korea. But the twin realities are that Beijing’s influence is limited – Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) has not even met Kim – and China fears that conflict would lead to millions of refugees as well as American troops on the Yalu River, even if Trump bloodily managed to overthrow Kim.
Elsewhere, there are other deadly hot spots. The UN says the death toll in Syria has reached 400,000 – and is rising as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air force thumbs its nose at US might and continues to attack rebel positions with conventional weapons.
The terrorist group Islamic State is active in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Turkey, leading to millions of refugees spilling over into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, while a minority of braver spirits try to reach Europe. The terrorist group and its imitators have also brought terror to European cities and disrupted air travel.
Smaller but equally nasty conflicts are seen in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, the African Great Lakes and Afghanistan, not to speak of the continuing violence in the so-called Holy Land. They continue to inflict daily misery on millions of people.
Altogether, such conflicts have driven a record 65.3 million people – almost the same number as the total population of the UK, France or Thailand – from their homes as refugees or displaced people.
The 21st-century world is both more dangerous and more precarious than the one on the eve of the two world wars. We live in a more global world: what happens on one side of the globe – whether discarded plastic crossing the oceans, pollution in the air, jobs that flee across borders, or consumer goods put together a world away – turns up half a world away to delight or damage lives and the environment.
More than 60 years without a major global conflict have transformed the world. The economic and political umbrella of Pax Americana and the opening up of China added prosperous dimensions to global economic and trade flows. Together, these developments lifted economic growth and pulled several billion people out of poverty.
But the 2008 financial crisis revealed deep flaws in the model. More than a billion people in poor countries remain stuck in poverty, often because the policies of corrupt dictatorial rulers prevented them from joining the rapidly growing world.
In rich countries, the benefits increasingly went to a small privileged group, while larger numbers of people who failed to adapt to rapidly changing times lost out.
This has created a damaging and explosive situation. An increasingly global world requires leaders with global vision, but leaders of all the so-called great powers are increasingly narrow-minded and often seek only national advantage. Trump’s election campaign epitomised this.
Trump’s strike against Syria and subsequent actions and comments about Korea and Syria suggest that he may now realise that the US cannot simply divorce the world. But larger questions remain, including his lack of understanding and preparedness to handle foreign affairs, his temperament and grandstanding – which led him to tell the visiting Xi about the strike against Syria while they were having dinner.
Vladimir Putin is the perfect match for a nationalist Trump. He has parlayed a weak and ailing Russian economy into political mischief and military power extending way beyond Russia’s borders. He relishes strutting across the world. But Putin is no peacemaker.
Xi and China are the important new players who hold the key to whether the world emerges intact or broken to see a 22nd century. Neither leader nor country comes naturally to a global role. A Beijing wishing to project soft power among its neighbours would not be so actively creating concrete facilities in disputed oceans. Xi’s recent statements on the environment and trade have been statesmanlike. He appears aware of the global dimensions of today’s world. However, he needs to be challenged by new ideas.
In this important religious season for Christians and Jews, I wish that Xi, Trump, Putin, Antonio Guterres (secretary general of the UN, if you had not noticed), Theresa May and her European frenemies would take some time to consult a ruler who commands a tiny territory of 0.44 sq km and just 451 inhabitants, but whose statements on the environment, war and peace, the economy and the important values of life show an appreciation of what is at stake for the world.
The best way of presenting Pope Francis is through his words. Here are just four reminders…
“Jesus was a refugee [who] had to flee to save his life.”
“War is madness.”
“Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throwaway’ culture which is now spreading.”
“[The Earth] is protesting for the wrong that we are doing to her, because of the irresponsible use and abuse of the goods that God has placed on her.”
Happy Passover! Happy Easter!
Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, the biggest Catholic newspaper in the English language