Notes for the Panel on Geopolitics: Post-COVID and Post-US World Disorder
2020 Oil and Money Conference
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Online, October 14, 2020
The United States is in its gravest internal crisis since its 19th century civil war. That arose from the contradictions of federalism. Today’s crisis reflects the collapse of the constitutional separation of powers and their replacement by unchallenged arbitrary and capricious presidential government. The end of orderly policy-making in Washington is a major contributor to the implosion of the international system created by the Enlightenment and two centuries of Western hegemony.
These are just a few of the forces now disordering the world:
- Washington’s reconceptualization of geopolitics as a zero-sum game of great power rivalries that precludes continued global interdependence.
- The rise or resurgence of previously eclipsed great powers like China, India, and Russia, each of which is a state encompassing a distinctive civilization.
- The ongoing failure of Europe and the Arab world to realize their potential by doing the same.
- The erosion of respect for sovereignty and other principles of international law exemplified in “regime change” and territorial seizure policies.
- America’s turn to ever more domineering behavior that alienates its foreign allies, partners, and friends and puts them off its policies.
- The replacement of the principle of PACTA SUNT SERVANDA – “agreements must be kept” – with unapologetic treaty- and promise-breaking.
- The US-launched trade and technology war with China and its vivisection of global norms, communities, and institutions.
- The devolution of world political, economic, and military power to would-be regional hegemons as well as sub-global groupings of states.
- The questions the pandemic raises about the future of consumer capitalism, global prosperity, and the functioning of human societies.
- Social media’s replacement of unfiltered perceptions of reality with distorted views of it resembling those in fun house mirrors.
- The rise of middle-class despondency in the West and the global depression in which much of the world outside China now finds itself.
- The absence of “a city on a hill” for others to emulate. America now inspires pity or outrage, not hope. China is economically inscrutable and politically dispiriting to all but aspiring dictators.
What does all this mean for the future? It’s early, but I think we can draw a few preliminary conclusions, some of which are directly relevant to the topics under discussion at this conference.
A great deal depends on whether COVID-19 can be managed. This panel is about what the world might look like after the pandemic. But what if the virus continues to sicken and kill even after there are vaccines? Given the apparently limited immunity conferred by exposure to the virus, the fact that its carriers are often asymptomatic, and the high rate of its mutation, COVID-19 has the potential – like other coronaviruses – to become an enduring feature of the human condition. If immunity does not persist, “herd immunity” is but a myth. What then?
At least four hundred million jobs have already been lost to the virus. Will they return? If social distancing remains essential, what becomes of the travel, hospitality, entertainment, education, sports, and restaurant industries? If people can’t work, how can they be consumers? If they can’t worship together, what happens to religious communities? Whatever happens, there are wrenching socio-economic changes ahead.
We are entering a world partitioned along multiple fracture lines and characterized by political and economic decoupling, technological compartmentalization, contention over spheres of influence, arms races, a rising danger of good-sized wars, and likely monetary disjunction at the global level.
Human beings are now too divided to deal collectively with planetwide challenges like pandemics, climate change, migration, or nuclear proliferation. Whatever is done on these dangers to our species – if anything – must now be done by ad hoc groupings rather than institutions of global governance with universal membership.
Here are a few salient characteristics of the world to come:
At the global level:
The United States and China have each substituted abusive diatribe and bullying for diplomacy. This effectively disqualifies either from leading the re-ordering of global governance. The EU is not competent to do so. With no great power or combination of great powers in the lead, the world has entered a dangerous period of uncertainty.
- The eclipse of American and European leadership, coupled with trans-Atlantic discord, means the fading away at the global level of the values of the Enlightenment and the international norms they inspired.
- Regional and sub-global groupings are assuming the regulatory functions previously performed, if at all, by the world-spanning institutions created after World War II.
- Neo-mercantilism is spreading. Governments — not market forces – now manage trade, investment, and technology transfers.
- To say, ‘the recovery is uneven,’ is to acknowledge the early stages of massive economic restructuring. No one knows where this will lead us.
- The world’s greatest powers have come to view most regional conflicts as opportunities for arms sales or point-scoring against each other rather than as challenges that require efforts to halt them.
- When global crises occur, there is no longer a country or organization capable of organizing either a global or regional response.
At the regional level:
- In the Middle East, U.S. influence continues to recede. China remains politically disengaged. Russia has gained politico-military influence but events in the region are driven by local contests between Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE rather than by external powers.
- Iranian regional dominance and the threat of democratic Islamism to one-man or family rule have displaced Palestine as the greatest obsessions of most Arab states. Israel is gaining intelligence and military footholds in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
- Turkey is adrift between east and west and north and south. It has abandoned its attempt to be European, stumbled in its effort to lead pan-Turkism, unsuccessfully sought renewal in relationships with Russia and China, and is failing to reassert leadership in the Islamic world.
- Ukraine and Belarus have become zones of politico-military contention rather than the bridges and buffers between the EU and Russia they might have been.
- East Asia is becoming ever more Sinocentric. Western clamor about Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang and American frothing at the mouth about China’s rise has not and will not slow this trend.
- The U.S. has ceased to adhere to the Sino-American agreements that long suspended the Chinese civil war in the Taiwan Strait. This has provoked China. The risk of a Taiwan war is now real and rising.
- India and China’s tussling over uninhabitable territory on their Himalayan borders remains manageable but implies long-term military tensions and rivalry.
- This is the century of Africa’s economic and demographic rise but it is just beginning.
- Latin America is internally divided and shuns engagement in world affairs. It is being pulled away from alignment with the United States, and toward greater interaction with Asia as well as Europe.
- Electricity is emerging as the universal interface between all forms of power and mechanical activity. Hydrocarbons are increasingly an input to electric systems.
- China is now the world’s largest oil importer and consumer of energy. It is also its largest producer of hydro, solar, wind, lithium batteries, and electric cars. It leads in the introduction of hydrogen and nuclear power but still relies heavily on coal. China has succeeded the U.S. as the central factor in global demand.
- Sino-American economic warfare, supply chain disruption, COVID’s effects on employment, resulting economic restructuring, and differential rates of growth around the world make demand for energy inputs of all kinds to economies hard to predict.