The security threats of the 21st. century, not least the war in Ukraine, have revealed how naïve we were to think that the interlocking and interdependence of economies was an unqualified good thing. Countries sharing complex economic relationships with each other, we supposed, would not go to war with each other. The global market would be the infrastructure of a peaceable, prosperous world. And if that were true then Fukuyama might have been right about the triumph of liberal capitalism. Images of bombs smashing into Ukrainian supermarkets, hospitals and homes shattered such hopes and the illusion of Fukuyama’s dream.
The triple threat of the pandemic, of accelerating climate change, and of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, have peeled away protective layers of naiveté, short-sightedness and ignorance to reveal the abiding cruelties, inequalities and moral indifference of a fractured world. Russian barbarism has caused a geopolitical earthquake with its resultant economic tsunami. The West found no difficulty in occupying the moral high ground but then had to run for help to the oil rich Middle East. Suddenly all sorts of deals with former pariah State, Iran, became possible. And also time to pay Mohammad al-Salman al-Saud a call, coinciding with the execution of 81 Saudi citizens most of whom had the misfortune to belong to the wrong branch of Islam. These days it takes a strong dose of realpolitik to keep the lights on.
In Britain the poor will be worst hit. This is a political choice. But what happens when the tsunami reaches the shores of the Mediterranean? Lebanon for instance. Lebanon buys 80% of its wheat imports (Egypt 85%) from Russia and Ukraine. According to IFAD, the United Nations Fund for Agricultural Development, recent spikes in the cost of fertiliser have added 30% to food prices. Lebanon is deemed 22% ‘food insecure’, meaning almost a quarter of the population already don’t get enough to eat. Hunger is about to increase and add to existing problems. Already children from poorer families are on one meal a day, often depending on being fed at school.
I am involved with Caritas Lebanon, one of the country’s biggest NGOs, working with the poor and in education and so aware of the country’s accelerating descent into poverty after the end of its civil war in 1990. Peace was achieved by creating a complex political system that shared power between the different religious and ethnic elites, a form of confessionalism. This arrangement turned out to be a formula for government entropy leading to State failure.
The disarray got worse in the wake of a banking crisis in 2019 followed by the pandemic. The Lebanese pound and thus wages lost 90% of their value. Within a few months professionals such as teachers and doctors, suddenly pauperised, began to leave the country in droves. Meanwhile Lebanon remained home to thousands of refugees from Palestine and other countries as well as receiving over a million people fleeing Assad’s Syria.
As if Lebanon’s problems weren’t great enough, in the early evening of 4th August 2020 a warehouse containing an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut’s main harbour. Ammonium nitrate is used in fertiliser as well as in explosives. A second and massive explosion which registered as far away as Cyprus immediately followed. A quarter of a million people were displaced, thousands wounded and hundreds killed as the blast spread over two miles from its epicentre in the harbour to the northern part of town. 85% of Lebanon’s grain silos were blown to bits and not replaced. Now the nearest port for storing imported grain – and sunflower seed for cooking oil - is Tripoli in the north. Lebanon has only about three weeks of wheat reserves. A Lebanese Carmelite priest told me that on a visit to a Beirut school at lunch time he heard one boy ask another what his mum had put in his sandwich. The boy opened it to show him. There was nothing in it. As prices soar, for many there won’t even be bread.
Rapidly deteriorating living conditions in other countries are likely to spark civil unrest. Egypt and Somalia immediately come to mind. The impact of sanctions on Russia will affect the Central Asian Republics. For example, 31% of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP comes from remittances sent by migrants working in Russia, the collapse of the rouble will have dire consequences for their families. In Africa where food makes up the bulk of expenditure for vast numbers, people will be hit three ways: pandemic, climate change, and the knock-on effects from conflict in Ukraine.
Globalisation has obviously not done away with nationalism, its beliefs in a mythical past, and accompanying ideological blinkers. Look at our forthcoming Nationality and Borders Bill and the mind-set behind it. Look at the P&O’s ruthless substitution of foreign labour on pitiful wages for British labour with tolerable pay, a snapshot of global corporate practice. We seem unable to deal with the debilitating inequalities that globalisation has failed to remedy, many would say increased. Worse, economic connectedness has failed to create international solidarity in the face of the greatest of the 21st. century threats, climate change. For governments as for individuals the immediate seems inevitably to banish the demands of the long term. Given the urgency of reducing carbon emissions, when is our response to Russia’s threat to oil and gas energy supplies going to take into account the impact on climate change targets set in Glasgow?
Putin may posture with his finger on the nuclear button, our finger has to be on the domestic and global reset button. World leaders are in denial about the magnitude of the change now essential. Quite literally it can’t go on like this.