Not a bad place to be in a disordered world

This year the world became more disordered. That disorder will stretch into 2016. The good news is we have some strengths.

The loudest noise in the disorder comes from the disciples of death in the Middle East.

The arbitrary dismemberment of the Ottoman empire by imperious European victors in the war we are commemorating (1916 was a bad year) have proved to be illusory lines in the sand, blown away by the winds of sectional hate.

Now the region is consumed in sectarian, ethnic, tribal, ideological, generational and national strife. Embroiled there are enemies of enemies of enemies alternately at odds with or alongside friends of friends of friends.

More tightly alongside the United States than at any time since 1984, we have truck with — in fact, have played supplicant to — Saudi Arabia, the incubator of the region’s most ungodly force of disorder, the Islamic State (ISIS).

If Islam’s schismatic chasms are to be bridged, much rests on Saudi Arabia, where under oppressive rule a new generation comes of age as oil revenues reduce the regime’s capacity to buy off dissidence.

Russia, now a force for disorder in its own region, is there alongside dead Syria’s insidious Bashar al-Assad. Iran is back on the block. Washington backs Egypt’s brutal military regime. France is “at war” with ISIS. So, John Key has conceded, are we.

So ISIS-type mayhem may hit here sometime. If so, it will come in a 2010s form which military action in the Levant will not quickly sort.

As Adam Shatz put it in the London Review of Books of December 3, quoting Olivier Roy, ISIS-inspired killings are not evidence of a super-strong quasi-state, despite the efficient propaganda, but the “Islamacisation of radicalism” — that is the adoption by marginalised, alienated, disenfranchised young people of a transcendental ideology and a brotherhood promising transitory meaning in a moment of infamy.

Shatz and others have pointed out that the bombers in Paris, Beirut, Mali, San Bernadino and of the Russian plane and much else in 2015 were radicalised online, not in Muslim mosques by marginal mullahs. Wondrous 2010s communications have their deep, dark side.

Recruits are numerous in some capitals distant from here. But there are marginalised young people here, too, as education, health, income and prison statistics remind us.

The Middle East used to be important to rich countries for its oil. It is now important as the source of a torrent of desperate, damaged refugees.

This torrent has highlighted the fifth globalisation long under way: that of people, through mass migration mostly in search of a richer life. Populations equal to that of the United States live outside the borders of the country they were born in.

That this is destabilising societies which thought of themselves as distinct and defined, with a national story, is no surprise. But, like the globalisations of information, capital, production and consumption, demographic globalisation will not be easily, if at all, reversible. Too much mixing has gone on.

That will add to global disorder.

But that is, in reverse, one of this country’s good news items. As happened to European imperialists after their empires crumbled, our tiny Polynesian empire followed us home when we left.

We have domiciled Pasifika. And we have found space for east and south Asians in rapidly increasing numbers — not perfectly but with nothing like the tensions of North America and western Europe.

Another good news item is economic stability.

Ours is not a rock star economy, the silly label of a merchant bank economist. Many rock stars are drug-takers; the economy’s drug was “milk to China”. We are still not rich in high-end, high-value sales to foreigners.

Nevertheless, the economy is trundling along, making jobs and with a globally-high labour force participation rate. Government finances are healthy.

Super-rich, thuggish Australia is envious.

There are buts.

One is China, now on a track down towards 5% GDP growth by 2020 and with multiple political, social, ethnic, legal, economic and financial conundrums to resolve if order is to be maintained. As those conundrums arise and unfold, there may be a shock or two for us.

There may be a shock or two in the badly distorted global financial system, awash with printed money that has ramped up share and property prices, including here.

And at home social services pips are squeaking, notably in health. Inequalities are now embedded and taking a social and economic toll. Investment in human capital and science and research lags. We might well lose the clean-green brand unless we invest more in natural capital.

But the pluses outweigh those minuses: our relative social stability, unique biculturalism, mostly strong institutions, rich inventiveness across many fields (not least in wine and food), clear air, space and distance from tyranny.

In a disordered world, this will not be a bad place to be in 2016.

* This column is taking a break until January 26.