By Mohammed Abdullah Younis
Analyses, philosophical views, and applied interpretations during the year of 2016 have not been able to transcend the state of turmoil, fluidity, and uncertainty imposed by shifts in the international arena throughout the year.
These shifts led academic and research institutions to draw new concepts and develop traditional notions of defining, explaining and encompass the unsteady and unstable reality plagued by internal conflicts, terrorist threats, economic challenges, and social and technological changes.
In this context, an overview of concepts that will most likely shape the global interactions in the short-term are:
1. Protracted Instability: Fading prospects of protracted instability and returning to the balance point in many countries of the world have diminished due to the increased momentum of instability triggers, and the loss of international actors’ abilities to control the course and intensity of global interactions. This enhances the importance of concepts such as “adaptation” to instability and living with the status quo in fear of waves of change that may bring about uncontrollable transformations.
Due to the structural changes that accompanied Arab revolutions and the consequential frustration from the high expectations of the people, the focus over the last two years was on gradual and partial reform concepts as stated in Jonathan Teppermans’ The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline. The main idea of the book is to start accepting the status quo and deal with a crisis-ridden reality equipped with pragmatism, equilibrium, and gradualism. The Fix also takes into account the extraordinary role played by leaders in times of failures and crises.
Teppermans’s view is similar to what Thomas Friedman states in his book titled Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, in which Friedman monitors engines of rapid change in the world that would drastically affect labor market policy, geopolitics, morals, and communities. The driving forces of change include a change in the nature of the market, technology, and environment. Friedman focuses on the ability of humans to coexist and adapt to the continuous changes and gradual transformations that alter the course of history toward balance.
2. Recovery and Resilience: In the context of complex internal and external situations, resilience to crises and disasters constitutes an essential element to sustain cohesion of societies. In this regard, concepts such as “speedy recovery” and “resilience” prevailed in academic debates on how to be resilient in the face of pressures posed by rapid changes.
Andrea Maurer’ tackled this concept in New Perspectives on Resilience in Socio-Economic Spheres, providing insights on how to employ concepts of resilience and rapid recovery in addressing economic and social transformations.
Resilience refers to the ability to withstand changes in countries and communities, to maintain their survival and rebound to initial conditions. Speedy recovery has four levels. The first is readiness and preparedness to face crises and disasters; the second relates to response and adaptation to changes. The third level is based on the ability to bounce back to normal, and the fourth involves feedback and the ability of a system to change its pillars and repair its weaknesses to improve its capacity to respond and adapt during times of crises and disasters.
At the level of internal shifts, rapid recovery relates to the capacity to absorb pressing external and domestic changes. Such a position involves the ability to contain later repercussions through the use of multiple tools to prevent such change from widening and worsening. It also includes survival in the face of state transitions and reversion to normality, and finally tackling the causes of pressing changes to avoid future threats to survival.
3. Stateless Societies: As a returning concept within the social sciences, this relates to the writings of Pierre Clastres on “stateless society” and his analysis of power practices in “primitive” societies as per the colonial definition, and reasons for its refusal to establish a state based on the social contract. By this anthropological analysis, Clastres wants to restore justice in the face of injustice and predominance of power over weak people.
In contrast, current manifestations of stateless societies are based on the functional replacement of societies in contexts of shattered state institutions, and declining ability to do their job and meet the basic needs of communities. In the midst of civil conflicts in Syria and Yemen, primary social formations have become stronger than the state because of their ability to respond to the economic and security needs of their people. Ethnic, sectarian and regional affiliations have become more established due to the dwindling of national belonging and diminishing elements of the clear and tangible presence of the state.
The above goes hand-in-hand with the growing demand for security roles for tribal, sectarian and regional militias in civil conflict regions, and the end of state monopoly on armed force amidst security chaos and the presence of multiple axes of internal conflicts; where parallel armies become comparable in formations, functions and arms to those of regular troops. This also applies to regional economies, based on establishing full economic cycles which are independent of the state in different areas to meet the basic needs of its inhabitants, as well as the spread of self-management and autonomy mechanisms in the areas that are not under the control of the state or that were liberated from terrorist organizations.
4. Grey Zone Conflicts: This concept refers to the interface between war and peace that arises when the actors employ multiple tools to achieve political and security goals through activities that are ambiguous and go beyond traditional rivalry but is in a space below a full military conflict.
The overlap between war and peace in this pattern of conflicts is due to several factors. Most notably are the mutual exhaustion between conflict parties, the balance of weakness that makes both incapable of settling the conflict, and finally the presence of regional and international powers which exploit the conflict parties as proxies to defend their interests, which further complicates the paths of conflict.
Grey zone conflicts also include combining political, economic and military instruments, and employing local proxies in conflict relationship management with adversaries indirectly, such as conflict management between the regional powers and Iran in the Middle East, or between China and the United States in the South China Sea, and between Russia and NATO.
5. Minimal Settlements: The faltering of a comprehensive solution in areas of internal conflicts leads to growing emphasis on minimal settlements based on an interim truce of conflicts by imposing a temporary truce in some geographical spots which witness more intensified confrontation without tackling the root causes of the conflict.
Minimal settlements deal realistically with the intricacies of internal conflicts that are not amenable to a final settlement, under the severe contradictions between the positions of the parties in conflict, zero-sum game interactions and ruling interests that fuel the conflicts, and complete incompatibility between the interests of regional and international parties, which support struggling parties.
These patterns of settlements are also linked with the mistrust between the parties of the conflict such that deep-seated enmity, the demonization of adversaries, and each party’s intent on ending the physical presence of the other take prominence. As a result, attaining a settlement based on the relative gains is impossible within such a complex conflict that lacks a precise definition of parties and network of coalitions.
6. Network Terrorism: Over the past two years, the concepts of “individual terrorism” and “lone wolves” topped many analyses in describing the terrorist attacks in Western countries, starting with the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, and ending with the attack on a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016. The analyses focus on the individual capacities to launch rapid and unexpected attacks depending on available mechanisms, in what terrorist leaders call “possible jihad.”
In contrast, there has been a recent shift in the perspectives of terrorist operations analysis. In “The Myth of Lone-Wolf Terrorism,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr argue that employing the concept of lone wolves in analyzing attacks in European countries hampered the ability of security institutions and analysts to find the sophisticated networks that support individuals in carrying out such terrorist acts, as well as the extended operations to transform ordinary people into radicals via electronic media and social networks.
Terrorist networks include actual and virtual groups which help in fostering extremism in the minds of individuals, those who train, arm and shelter terrorists, as well as the phenomena of family terrorism, which makes the family one of the pillars of violent terrorism.
7. Populist Discourse: The rise of ultra-nationalist movements in European countries and the United States led to a revival of populism, making it the overwhelming element in the discourse and propositions of the followers of such movements. The populist speech focuses on extreme simplicity of the issues, and leaders sweet-talking their supporters by promising to achieve the highest aspirations through policies characterized by simplicity, mystery, and appeal and at the same time they imagine making absolute gains.
This populist discourse runs counter to rationality and discipline associated with traditional political discourse, where the former is extremely emotional and centers around polarization and discord within the country, blaming the traditional elites to fuel feelings of anger and hostility to others. Also, the populist discourse promotes false and inaccurate information as hard facts in the process of deliberate deception of the masses to maintain support for the leadership.
Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections is one of the most significant manifestations of widespread populism in Western states. Whereby the US presidential election saw a degradation in the language of political discourse in parallel with the decline of public confidence in politics, and a state of anger towards the dominant elites in the US politics. As such prompting vast segments of the population to bank on punitive voting against the political system itself in an attempt to break the monotony of the status quo and secede from the familiar political system.
8. Cyber Exposure: During the past year, internal and international interactions reveal a decline in the margin of virtual security, in what came to be known as “Cyber Insecurity.” Individuals and states are no longer able to control cross-border information flows with the spread of individual privacy hacking and collecting personal information about individuals and using them to compromise their interests in what can be termed “Post Privacy Age,” as a result of the increasing cyber vulnerability.
This is inseparable from the rise of a new generation of information technology users who do not believe in privacy, who find no problem in the dissemination and circulation of personal information and photos. This generation argues that waiving privacy is low cost compared to enjoying the experience of interaction via social networks or using the free of charge available electronic applications on smartphone platforms, despite being acutely aware that these applications exploit their personal information and sell them to advertisers for financial returns.
The cyber exposure extends to banking and political institutions amid escalating cyber war between states. Such an outcome manifests in the CIA’s confirmation of Russia’s involvement in influencing the presidential election by hacking into email accounts of major parties in the United States and leaking information contributing to strengthening the chances of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election.
In this context, an Intel report of major cyber threats in 2017 include hacking threats that target banking institutions to redirect money transfers, deliberately targeting critical infrastructure, using the “Internet of Things” to launch extensive electronic attacks, posing threats to cloud computing, abducting drones through electronic penetration and Denial of Service (DoS) attacks on smartphones.
9. Sharing Economies: Non-ownership is likely to dominate economic interactions due to the increasing profits of start-ups and the spread of innovative economy practices in the light of the growing costs of fixed assets such as headquarters, capital, heavy equipment, and product distribution networks. These factors led to the emergence of a sharing economy which is based on sharing the assets of more than one project to maximize returns.
The underlying philosophy behind these practices is to preserve resources and prevent waste through optimization of assets that can serve more than one project at the same time. This is also associated with the rapid change in consumer tastes and the need for flexibility in organizing institutions and incorporating mechanisms for rapid restructuring in the organizational structure of innovative projects.
This is closely linked to the prevalence of outsourcing practices to offer intermediate services that start-up projects cannot provide alone, relying on crowdfunding to collect the necessary capitals to start up small projects and depending on short-term contracts or “Gig Economy” in employment.
10. Globalization in Retreat: The rise of the right-wing nationalist movements led to growth in “withdrawal trends” in Western states’ policies. A state of public outrage sparked due to the repercussions of complete openness to the outside world, the implications of freedom of trade flows on domestic economic conditions, which are associated with the refusal to receive more migrants, increasing hostility to foreigners, and condemning moving factories and capital abroad to take advantage of the low cost of production.
The logic of full competition between individuals and producers on employment and sales is no longer accepted by the people who prefer protectionist measures, restrictions on free trade and immigration and isolationism to protect the interests of the state. This made Donald Trump’s discourse in the US presidential election appeal to large segments of the US population, particularly middle-class voters because it focuses on rejecting globalization trends, and abolishing free trade agreements and bringing American companies working abroad back to the United States.
In the same vein, the majority vote for Brexit is a new indicator of the middle-class’ rejection to bear the increasing costs of globalization and economic integration, and their anger of liberal political elites’ support of globalization in Western countries as they disregard the financial burden caused by global economic competition.
At the political level, there is growing support for a return to unilateralism which focuses on prioritization of national interests, achieving total gains for the state, reliance on self-capacities and lack of confidence in the allies. On the other hand, there is a decline in multilateralism which focuses on collective solidarity among states and people to achieve common interests in the face of cross-border threats and challenges.
In short, the global interactions would most likely be shaped by the outcome of a scramble between conflicting trends, some of which rely on withdrawing to center on itself against other patterns that promote coexistence and adaptation to rapid changes considering the imperatives of cooperation and mutual dependence between international actors. The same applies to the conflict between the motives of consolidating power and regaining control, the dynamics of power distribution and diffusion, the rising influence of non-state actors and trans-nationalists on international interactions, and the conflict between speedy recovery and resilience and protracted instability and complexity of unresolvable conflicts.
Mohammed Abdullah Younis – Assistant Lecturer of Political Science at Cairo University