Discerning threats in the fog of disorder

Which emerging threat is the world missing right now?

After a truly horrendous year for international peace and security, this question will be even more important for the leaders, analysts and media gathering this week at the 51st Munich Security Conference (MSC).

A year ago, the war in Syria and the crisis in Ukraine were the international community’s preoccupying challenges. But many of the participants in last year’s MSC would likely now admit that they did not appreciate the true gravity of these events — let alone what might come next.

Only a few months later, the rapid escalation and regionalization of both crises, together with developments elsewhere, led many observers to proclaim that 2014 marked the beginning of a less peaceful and more chaotic era in international relations.

Numerous flaws and points of erosion in existing collective security structures have been revealed over the past year. Terms like the “The Great Unraveling,” coined by the journalist Roger Cohen in the fall of 2014, resonate widely because they capture the current sense of helplessness, lack of control and inability to predict or grasp which crisis might come next.

As Javier Solana recently put it, “We have been living in an illusion. For years, the world has believed that the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar order would be peaceful, orderly, and steady. … How wrong we were.” That illusion coexisted happily with a lack of imagination.

While it may sound elegant to distinguish between the “right” and the “wrong” side of history, or to criticize the use of 19th-century methods in the 21st century, such arguments amount to little more than rhetorical devices.

At best, they do no harm; at worst, they obscure the complexities of today’s security landscape that need to be understood and addressed.

For starters, war has returned to Europe. Fundamental principles of pan-European security are part of the wreckage, and so may be the progress in relations between Russia and the West made since the Cold War’s end.

Moreover, the Arab world, more violent and unstable than it has been in many decades, seems likely to fragment even further, while radical jihadist groups, energized and competing with one another, are increasingly directing their rage at the West again.

And in the Asia-Pacific region, even though major incidents were avoided, stability remains precarious.

Sadly the cracks exposed over the last few months appear likely only to widen, as political conflict and competition among the world’s key powers increase.

Indeed, in 10 years, 2014 will probably be regarded as a prelude. But to what? Even as the international order and regional arrangements are increasingly tested, it is unclear who will be able, or even willing, to uphold peace and stability.

Fears that the United States is abandoning its global leadership role are certainly exaggerated. But, at the very least, President Barack Obama’s declared focus on “nation-building at home” has created a perception of retreat that worries many allies.

In Europe, meanwhile, many countries are still trying to overcome the impact of the financial and economic crisis of 2008, as well as domestic policy paralysis and rising Euro-skepticism.

Europe’s global role, for all its potential, will not be spelled out in a meaningful way anytime soon.

Over the course of the last year, Germany debated whether it should take on a more active international role, but the German public is adjusting only gradually to new expectations.

Although some surveys suggest that Germany’s culture of restraint is not as entrenched as many believe, a new poll conducted for the Munich Security Report finds that only 34 percent of Germans think that their country should become more engaged in international crises. A significant majority of Germans remain skeptical of adopting a more active global stance, suggesting that any effort to assume an international leadership role remains an uphill battle.

Of course, not all breakdowns in order can be attributed to domestic politics, economic considerations or shifting great power relations.

The number of relevant actors and potential spoilers on the world stage has skyrocketed, further weakening the ability of governments to resolve problems on their own or in coordination with one another. But collapsing orders are both a cause and an effect of their traditional and potential guardians’ increasing reluctance. As leaders stop acting the way they used to, or fail to do as much as a situation might warrant, other actors test the limits.

As orders crumble and become harder to maintain or manage, traditional and potential leaders increasingly consider the challenge too great, or they rely heavily on quick fixes and stop-gap measures, further fueling unpredictability and instability. It was at this intersection of test and trepidation that today’s vicious circle of geopolitical turmoil was set in motion.

Against this backdrop, there is no reason to believe that predicting major crises, let alone containing them, will become any easier.

Growing global complexity intensifies the problem. Overwhelmed by a surfeit of information, governments and key international institutions find themselves overlooking or misjudging the signals amid the noise. And it is becoming much more difficult for leaders to focus on a few critical items that would likely increase the quality of their decision-making.

Many old assumptions died in 2014. At this year’s MSC, the world will have an opportunity to consider what should replace them.

Wolfgang Ischinger is chairman of the Munich Security Conference. Adrian Oroz is senior adviser for policy and analysis at the MSC. This article draws in part on an essay from the first Munich Security Report, which was published on the occasion of the 51st Munich Security Conference. © 2015 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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