The world in 2015: a disordered place

Just 100 years and six months ago, Europe was an ordered place. By this time 100 years ago it was in brutal disorder.

Early in her time as Prime Minister, Helen Clark talked of an “incredibly benign (security) environment”. The September 11 2001 raids quickly falsified that, driving changes to security laws.

John Key’s entire prime ministership has been in a time of global disorder.

Of course, human affairs are not a simple alternation between periods of order and periods of disorder. The reality is much more complex, as Robert Ayson at Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Studies has distilled from global analysts Hedley Bull and Thomas Schelling.

Beneath apparent order there can be, and usually are, many forces. Apparent order may result from a variety of motivations and take various forms.

So, while Europe up to 1914 appeared orderly, beneath the elites’ veneer societies were evolving in ways that at some point would require major adjustments within and across boundaries.

War pulled out the pegs. At war’s end four empires caught up in it lay dead and dismembered and the fifth, the British, was badly wounded.

The 1914-18 war was a disjunctive shock. Such shocks happen periodically. The 1929 crash (followed by economic depression), the 1973 oil price quadrupling (followed by economic “stagflation”) and the 2007-08 global financial crisis (still reverberating) are examples.

Historian Niall Ferguson explains such shocks this way: human society is a complex system “made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organised” and “operate somewhere between order and disorder, on the edge of chaos” which a small event can trigger.

For four decades until 1989 the United States-Soviet Union cold war generated a sense of order, a standoff between two mutually suspicious superpowers. After the Soviet collapse — itself an example of a sudden descent from apparent order — the United States appeared to be running a stable “unipolar” world.

Not any more.

China is claiming a G2 status abreast of the United States and a regional pre-eminence reminiscent of past imperial status. It asserts territorial claims to seas along its coast.

So far war is unlikely. But China’s words and actions are jangling nerves in the region, not soothed by mixed messages from a vacillating United States president trapped in a dysfunctional political system.

How far can a country take resistance if pressured by China and would the United States back it with strong action? Maybe, judged by some recent moves. But maybe not.

Vladimir Putin has annexed Crimea, backed eastern Ukraine autonomy and heavied other ex-Soviet Union states not to get too close to the European Union (EU). Putin seems bent on reassembling imperial Russia, so far at the cost only of western economic sanctions which are set at western public pain levels, not higher Russian ones.

Will he cause trouble outside his region? Probably not a lot. But no one can be sure.

The liberal-democratic west cannot fix the Putin problem, not least because the states he is invading, inveigling or importuning are not (yet) fully democratic, especially Ukraine, which one analyst labels “weakly administered”. Even EU member Hungary is an “illiberal democracy”, Putin-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orban (now under challenge) has said.

Neither can western liberal democracies fix the Middle East.

There a toxic mix of tribal and sectarian contests has spawned the vicious “Islamic State”, humanitarian disaster and a redrawing of national maps, spheres of influence and alliances. The “Arab spring”, a fiction of western sentiment, was actually a descent from apparent order into chaos and repression.

There is a loose European parallel. A devastating 30-year war of principalities, kingdoms and Christian sects ended only with the signing of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia which enshrined state sovereignty.

Only Europe could have fixed that. Only the muslim Middle East can fix muslim mayhem.

That is the geopolitics Key and his foreign affairs advisers must navigate through 2015, the year we commemorate our Gallipoli defeat 100 years ago.

Add the global destabilising potential of viruses, climate change, water shortages, mass migration and loner or transnational terrorism — not to mention wild fluctuations in oil and other commodity prices, financial market gyrations and economic uncertainties (about which more next week).

Then throw in social and economic disorder generated by disruptive digital technology, which is changing the nature of work and income.

These are exhilarating times and scarifying times — the best of times and the worst of times, as Charles Dickens wrote of another time of turmoil.

Such times require resilience, cool heads and strategy. Last year’s election was sequestered in a 1960s-like steady-as-she-goes bubble of security and modest household financial optimism.

That bubble might float through 2015 intact. Or it might be popped.