It was 1968 when the Beatles released "Revolution." Five years after the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviets and the Americans were in a constant nuclear standoff. America was embroiled in the Viet Nam War. The North Vietnamese forces had Khe Sanh under siege. In a few months the Viet Cong would rise up to launch the Tet Offensive in cities and towns all over the South. Even staid Walter Cronkite would be rocked on his heels to declare America's war in Viet Nam lost. The following January Richard Nixon would be sworn in as president of the United States.
Ah, the good old days even if it didn't seem that way at the time. Then the USSR tanked and it seemed the unipolar world had become one of those Coca-Cola ads, you know - the "perfect harmony" one.
Before you know it the new millennia was upon us. The 21st century with its promise of peace and prosperity. Well, a false promise anyway.
A few years into this 21st century I started taking freebie courses, survey-grade stuff, offered by various western universities. My focus fell on subjects that interested me such as economics, history, climate change, global food security and war studies. These courses were more informational than educational but they did introduce you to current thinking in these fields.
I learned about theories that the 21st could be a "century of revolution." The early thinking was that we were on the verge of "peak oil" and that petroleum shortages would destabilize the developed world, the West, and it would be falling dominoes after that. Then shale came along with advances in seabed extraction, melting bitumen, etc. But that didn't solve any problems unless you were an oil baron or one of the petro-pols who clings to their teats. And, besides, as one door closes another opens whether they open onto opportunity or peril.
A century of revolution.
Think of it as an unanticipated confluence of threats and forces. The hallmarks include aspects of stability that lose their footing and fall into flux. Change. Uncertainty. Perils. Discontent, fear and anger. Aren't we up to our alligators in all that stuff?
There have been so many of these uprisings and near-revolutions that Wikipedia has them organized alphabetically. You can probably add a couple that didn't make Wiki's list.
Then there's the rise and fall of hegemonic powers. The US is on its way down - not out but definitely down. It's still the world's greatest military power but even that supremacy is being challenged. Its economic and diplomatic stature is also weakening as China moves into areas of former American dominance. Donald Trump has worsened this decline by attacking and alienating America's traditional allies who no longer are as eager to follow America's lead.
Around this time last year the international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote of how China was eating America's lunch on economic and diplomatic hegemony.
The US is throwing punches wildly at smaller powers, imposing trade penalties in breach of the global rules. China is grabbing the maritime territories of smaller neighbours and building military bases on them, in stunning disregard of the international order.
"Neither the current occupant of the White House nor of Zhongnanhai is convinced of the merits of the rules based order," says the Lowy Institute head, Michael Fullilove, in measured understatement. Zhongnanhai is Beijing's red-walled leadership compound.
And, not content to hit smaller nations, the two biggest powers increasingly are going at each other. Not only are they directly hitting each other with trade sanctions and bulking up for actual warfare, they are starting to wall off the world economy into competing blocs.For decades we have naively assumed that the powerful integration of America's and China's economies would be security enough. We failed to recall that, in the runup to WWI, Germany and Russia were each other's major trading partner, their economies tightly linked - until, suddenly, they weren't.
In November of last year, former US Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, suggested that the Sino-American coupling was about to disengage.
“For 40 years,” Paulson noted, “the U.S.-China relationship has been characterized by the integration of four things: goods, capital, technology and people. And over these 40 years, economic integration between the two countries was supposed to mitigate security competition. But an intellectually honest appraisal must now admit both that this hasn’t happened and that the reverse is taking place.”
Which brings us to the other problem - military dominance and something called Thucydides Trap.
The odds aren't good. Three times out of four, the result is war. Such is the nature of superpower politics. Over the centuries superpowers have come and gone. There have been 16 instances where a dominant power was muscled out by an ascending power. 12 of those ended in war. It's called the "Thucydides Trap."Coincidentally, it was on NPR news this morning that Trump is floating the idea of a resumption of nuclear weapons testing. Great. Oh well, at least they'll be using Nevada.
Today we're on the cusp of America's uni-polar moment being ended by the ascendancy of China giving rise to a multi-polar world in which America is still prominent but not dominant.
Economic and geo-political rivalries almost inevitably manifest in military rivalries. This is also underway. On a daily basis America's unsurpassed military demonstrates its power but it also demonstrates its weakness. The conflicts since 9/11, called by some the "long war" or "perma-war" have revealed how often all the King's Men and all the King's Horses utterly fail to deliver meaningful victories despite costs running to several trillion dollars.
Of course, superpower sabre-rattling isn't quite the same as revolution - the social upheaval business that evolves through the ranks of insurgency to rebellion to civil war. That's definitely lower-grade stuff but it's perfect for major power rivalries, proxy wars.
America (shhh, Canada too) decided to play the proxy game in backing the Saudis in their murderous slaughter of Houthi civilians whom we see as proxies for Iran. Shame, shame, Canada. America, meanwhile, wants to play the containment game in Asia, hoping to recruit India to block China both on land (Uttar Pradesh) and in the Indian Ocean/South China Sea. It's rare to get a proxy that has its own nuclear arsenal. What could possibly go wrong? Modi, however, may share many of Trump's traits but stupidity isn't one of them.
If I had to bet, I'd choose climate breakdown as the main driver of revolution for the balance of this century. I'd be in good company. Both the Pentagon and Britain's Ministry of Defence see it the same way.
The 2020s are predicted to see climate breakdown sweep across the equatorial and tropical latitudes where many nations are already less than stable.
While we've been distracted by the pandemic, new research has come in corroborating earlier studies (some of them, my Gawd, seven years old) that predict Central America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and nuclear-armed and heavily populated India could experience lethal bouts of high heat coupled with high humidity. How might this all play out? Gwynne Dyer explores a few possibilities in his 2008 book, "Climate Wars, the Fight For Survival as The World Overheats." Dyer released a 2nd edition in, if I recall correctly, 2015. Still worth a read.
Global heating, Wet Bulb 35, food insecurity, water shortages, locusts (they're back), all break down civil society and destabilize national governments. Whether it's a nation state or a region of nations, destabilizing events create power vaccums and those, in turn, can spark revolts or insurgencies eager to fill the void. Not surprisingly, the nature of armed conflict has proven itself exquisitely adaptable.
A course on warfare in the 21st century presented by King's College, London, focused on the advent of what's called "New War." It's a departure from the nation state wars of the past in which nations exercised a monopoly on armed conflict that was governed by all manner of conventions and rules, some of them clerical.
New War is war for revolutions. New War is a devolution of access to and use of weapons of mass destruction once the preserve of state actors and their allies into the hands of new players including semi-state actors such as militias, quasi-state actors such as ethnic factions and tribal warlords, and a bevy of non-state actors from insurgents to rebels to drug lords and other organized criminals to local criminal gangs such as pirates and highwaymen.
New War is fluid. The various actors often pursue different goals, objectives that can also shift according to circumstances. These non-state actors can form alliances based on commonality of interests that can readily dissolve as those interests evolve. One of the characteristics of Afghan warlords when the Americans showed up in 2003 was that the major warlords had, at various times, fought against and fought alongside each of the others. Some New Wars continue without the usual concern for winning or losing.
I can't think of a time when there have been so many destabilizing forces in play. Governments repeatedly demonstrate they're too inflexible to keep up to these changes. They have feet of clay. They will be overtaken by events. And, as they fail to protect their populations, the trust of the public in their government can waver, animosities can build, and the rest is only a matter of time.