The accelerating pace of world history poses a single, common challenge to all the world’s governments, cultures, religions, businesses, civil society groups and individuals. But if the challenge is the same, the capacity to respond is profoundly unequal. Some governments, some people, some cultures, some businesses and even some religions and civilizations are better placed to respond creatively and constructively to the challenges of the decade. More than most, this will be a decade of winners and losers. The flow of power to the winners, the deeply destabilizing consequences of failure for the losers, and the increasing gap between the two groups will help define the political environment of the new age.
The world is in many respects fundamentally unfair, and that unfairness is going to be felt very keenly in the coming decade. Some societies historically have been much better at embracing and managing change, harnessing the power of new technologies and developing flexible institutions that can surf the waves of change rather than drowning in them. Others have not been so lucky. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab Middle East (with the handful of a few sheikhdoms that are rich in both oil and ingenuity) and Pakistan and Central Asia are conspicuous failures.
The past isn’t destiny. China is an example of a country that was once considered a basket case: hopelessly trapped in traditional misgovernance and completely incapable of responding to the challenges of the twentieth century. That is not how we see China today. On the other hand, countries like Egypt have been trying and failing to ‘catch up’ for more than two hundred years. Egypt today seems farther behind France than it was in 1798, when Napoleon’s sudden arrival and conquest of the country jolted Egyptians into an awareness of their growing military and technological backwardness compared to the once-despised West.
Readers of this series are by now very tired of the phrase ‘acceleration of change,’ but I hope that they understand just why this concept is so vital for understanding the decade ahead. As technological, social, cultural, political and economic changes sweep ever more rapidly through the world, the capacity to adapt to change, manage change and harness the power of change to fulfill a society’s goal becomes an ever-more critical ability. Over the next ten years these key qualities of adaptability and enthusiasm for change will separate the world’s societies into ever more sharply defined groups; the tensions within and between those groups and the consequences of failure in the significant number of societies who will fail to master these challenges will increasingly define the international political picture.
The old division of the world into ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries has become less and less useful through time. To get a grip on the new decade, it’s useful to divide the world’s societies into five groups: cutting edge countries on the leading edge of world progress and development; developing countries that are gaining ground on the leaders and show signs of one day taking their place among them; coping countries that are not gaining ground on the leaders but are maintaining their general position (if they aren’t gaining ground they are at least not falling farther behind); failing countries that are falling behind; and, finally, countries that have decisively failed and show no prospect of moving forward in the near future or under their current political and social arrangements.
The world is likely to become increasingly polarized during the decade ahead; the relatively large group of countries that today are just managing to more or less hold their ground (including countries like Greece, Argentina, Venezuela, Iran, Russia, Thailand, Syria and, barely, Ukraine) will be pulled to one side or the other: they will begin to succeed or they will begin to fail.
Ominously the group of countries at the bottom is likely to grow — and the consequences of failure both to the inhabitants of these unhappy places and to the wider world are likely to be serious. One hesitates to use something so horrifying as the consequences of the recent earthquake in Haiti to illustrate a point, but the combination of growing population, urban growth and the failure to develop basic state and local institutions and infrastructure is not confined to Haiti. Major urban centers in countries like Pakistan and Indonesia lie on or close to dangerous fault lines; what we see in Haiti today could all too easily be repeated in other and even larger urban centers in the years to come.
Beyond exacerbating the death and suffering associated with natural disasters, the increasingly definitive failure of a larger number of states will result in disorder that extends beyond their frontiers. Extrapolating the decline of Nigeria’s political and social infrastructure another ten years into the future is not a happy exercise; imagine an oil-rich Somalia, riven by vicious internal rivalries and religious conflicts, with an organized and skilled criminal class linked both to what remains of the state and to international criminal and in some cases terrorist syndicates. Such chaos and disaster is by no means inevitable in Nigeria, but it is much more likely than it ought to be, and the consequences of a breakdown of this kind in Africa’s most populous and, perhaps next to South Africa, its most richly-endowed country would be catastrophic for its neighbors and for many living well beyond its frontiers.
The geopolitical consequences of state failure can be high. If, for example, Russia fails to arrest its demographic and institutional decay, and continues to fail to replace its discarded socialist system with an effective capitalist one, the consequences of Russia’s decline will not just be felt in the Caucasus and Central Asia. At some point, it will not be clear whether a Russia in demographic and economic decline can hold on to its extensive Far Eastern territories. Increased immigration into the Russian Far East from China would lead to questions being asked in Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Washington and Seoul about the future of Russian East Asia. This is not good, but if Russia cannot get its act together this is where we may be headed. (Russia did in fact report a slight population gain last year, due largely to immigration.)
The problem of failed and failing states will likely be felt most strongly in Africa. The picture is not uniform, but it seems increasingly likely that some African states (and possibly a fair number of them) cannot avoid failure as long as they are organized on their present lines. In northeastern Africa, the dissolution of failing states is well underway; Somalia has largely ceased to exist as a country, Sudan seems to be breaking up into two (and possibly more) entities, and the old Ethiopia broke up when Eritrean independence was recognized back in 1993. Other states have decisively failed: the ludicrously named “Democratic Republic of the Congo” exists largely on paper. Rival armies battle over resources and ethnic hatreds and the central government has been powerless to do anything about it for many years.
Millions of people have died in Africa’s conflicts since independence; millions more seem likely to do so in the 21st century. And while a handful of sub-Saharan countries post solid economic gains (in 2007 both Angola and Equatorial Guinea were among the world’s ten fastest-growing economies), these resource-fueled booms often do little to help the overall standard of development and in general sub-Saharan Africa overall is poorer and less stable than it was half a century ago and in far too many places the meltdown continues.
Modern history suggests that Africa’s future may be bloodier and more difficult still. In 1850 most of what is now eastern and central Europe plus the modern Middle East was under the control of a handful of multinational states: Russia, Austria, Prussia, and the Ottoman Empire. Those multinational empires broke up one by one into ethnically based ‘nation-states’. The process led to the deaths of scores of millions of people and the creation of tens of millions of refugees. It is not over yet; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has its roots in the imperial crack-up, as do the problems of the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Kurdish question that vexes Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Many factors led to the break up of the multinational states, and most of them (including the rivalries of outside great powers) are present in Africa today. One of the chief problems was this: a modernizing, developing country requires a strong and effective government. That does not mean that it needs a tyrannical and socialistic one, but it does need a government that is honest and competent enough to establish and maintain the legal, economic and physical infrastructure which a growing market economy needs. Governments must be able to enforce contracts and the law in reasonably transparent and reasonably timely legal procedures; they must maintain the roads, ports, sewer systems and power generation capacity on which modern and especially urban life depends; they must maintain a sound currency and a reasonable macroeconomic environment; they must either build or sponsor a basic health infrastructure; they must provide a solid educational system.
All these things turn out to be very hard for multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic countries to do. The kind of strong, modernizing state that developing countries need usually seems to require a reasonably high degree of cultural consensus among its citizens. Today, many African governments today can do none of these things; only a very few are doing all of them.
In the next decade the continuing and perhaps accelerating state failures in Africa are likely to cause even more suffering and horror than we have seen in the past. Or to put this more hopefully, the effort to stave off catastrophes of various kinds in Africa will consume more and more time and attention both of Africans and of other interested parties. It may well be that for parts of Africa, the present network of fragile, multi-tribal states will have to break up and be replaced by smaller countries with more homgenous populations. If so, this is almost certain to take place against a background of religious and tribal conflict, genocide and ethnic cleansing. To say this is not to single out Africa as a special problem area of the world; it is to suggest that history in Africa may follow a similar pattern to what was seen earlier (and what still goes on today) in Europe and the Middle East.
For many years, most African states have been leading lives of quiet failure; they have remained largely stable even as they have fallen farther and farther behind the rest of the world and become in many cases steadily poorer on the basis of per capita GDP. The 2010s will likely see that process of failure become less quiet; drawn by its resources outside powers (India, China, Europe, the US, in some cases Brazil) will engage more intensively, often in ways that exacerbate Africa’s ethnic and religious divisions. The old state system inherited from the colonial era will creak ever more rustily on its hinges; as the old system’s failures become less tolerable the quest for new political forms and institutions will become more urgent and, often, more chaotic and explosive.
This is not a pretty picture, but while there will undoubtedly be bright spots and exceptions, the world will do Africa no favors by failing to recognize just how severe the problems facing the continent really are.