As the World Turns: Will the West Prevail?

"Jihadist Islam ... is creating rings of 'emirates' and 'Islamic states' in the Wastelands of Libya, the Sahel, Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, and Iraq ... and is securing beachheads among Islamic immigrant communities in Europe and North America."

Dr. Michel Gurfinkiel

OpEds Michel Gurfinkiel
Michel Gurfinkiel

It has been assumed, since the end of the Cold War, that globalization is irreversible and that technologies, cultures, and markets are spreading, merging, and interacting at an ever quicker pace. This is certainly true. But what if, in addition to globalizing, the world is also splitting into separate and antagonistic sub-worlds? Two of them in particular, which ironically came into existence and have been growing as free riders in the Western-shaped universe, now pose a threat to the West.

The Wastelands

First, there is what we might call the Wastelands. These are the many countries that have descended into chaos in the last quarter-century, and those that may follow them at any moment. As early as the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington pointed out that disorder was sprawling in the border zones between civilizations. In the ensuing years, Robert D. Kaplan wrote even more specifically about what he termed the "coming anarchy." The 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States, which originated at least in part from chaos zones, drew the attention of global decisionmakers to the strategic threats implied by these areas. The "Arab Spring" revolutions of 2011 and events such as the terrorist attack in Benghazi were reminders that chaos is spreading rather than receding, and that, in the space of some twenty years, it has become a permanent fixture of the world.

Foreign Policy has been running for several years a "Failed States Index" (FSI)—renamed the "Fragile States Index" this year—that lists those countries where government and society do not work, or work very badly. According to the 2013 index, at least sixty out of one hundred and seventy-eight countries fit into that category. In other words, one out of three.

After years of instability, Somalia is struggling to build a government. The speaker of Parliament is not unlike a traffic cop at a particularly dangerous and sometimes violent intersection.

The methodology of ranking states on the FSI can be debated. While government disruption and social underachievement (in terms of poverty, life expectancy, child mortality, literacy rate, and similar measures) are often connected, there are many cases where they are not. Moreover, there are states that remain strong despite widespread social ills (think of Iran, which ranks thirty-seventh on the FSI), or where society remains intact despite a powerless government (think of Lebanon, which ranks forty-sixth).

The West may be considerably more powerful, in strategic terms, than the Wasteland "emirates," but it is less willing than they are to make full use of its strength.

Still, it cannot be denied that most of Foreign Policy's "most fragile states in the world" are indeed fragile, or even disintegrating. Somalia, ranked number one on the FSI in 2013 and number two in 2014, evidently disappeared as a functioning country many years ago. The same is true of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Haiti, Syria, and Libya, a few of the other paragons of failure.

There are several reasons why governments cease to function. For one, many states are semi-fictitious. One UN member state out of two is a former colony that became independent between the late 1940s and the early 1970s and was originally carved out according to the colonial powers' interests, rather than according to ethnic or religious or even sound geographic realities. No wonder that once the former colonizer withdrew formally (by granting independence) or informally (by removing military or administrative personnel), the new state, having no experience in being a state, simply began a slow-motion unraveling.

Other non-functional countries may be more homogeneous or even more deeply rooted in history but nonetheless lack the traditions of a civil society predicated on the assumption that the state is not the private property or the booty of a ruler, a family, a tribe, a brotherhood, or a party, but something that belongs to all citizens.

It is also the case that for some countries, demographic or societal change—ups and downs in birthrates, changes in family patterns, mass migration, religious or linguistic upheavals—along with a lack of ongoing development, tips them from barely to non-functioning.

The political chaos of the Wastelands started in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s, right after the end of colonial rule. The Democratic Republic of the Congo never recovered from the hurried withdrawal of the Belgians in the summer of 1960, in spite of a brief restoration as the Republic of Zaire under president Mobutu Sese Seko in the 1970s. Chaos then spread to parts of Latin America and Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s, carried along by various guerrilla groups and drug trafficking. It made inroads in the former USSR and former Communist East European countries (especially in the Balkans) in the 1990s as the dominant political paradigm—communism—disintegrated. Ever a latent threat in Islamic countries, where a "public good" culture has never taken hold for religious or societal reasons, it has grown dramatically there since the Arab Spring.

In some places, chaos has resulted in the partition of existing states and the tentative formation of smaller but more cohesive countries. Somalia, for instance, has de facto broken into at least three sub-countries—the almost functional Somaliland in the north, the totally un-functional rump-Somalia in the south, and the semi-functional Puntland in between them. Christian and Animist South Sudan broke away de jure from Islamic Sudan in 2011, only to devolve into ethnic conflict two years later. Some experts foresee similar outcomes in the Middle East's currently disintegrating countries, namely Libya, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

It would be a mistake to dismiss these Wastelands simply as countries in a death spiral that profoundly disconnects them from the functional world.

Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss these Wastelands simply as countries in a death spiral that profoundly disconnects them from the functional world. More often than not, the militias, guerrillas, terrorist networks, jihadi brotherhoods, criminal groups, and other warlords that overthrow or challenge regular governments in many countries and turn them into Wastelands rely on state-of-the-art equipment: weaponry, cars, planes, drones, communication or monitoring devices. Djaffer Ait Aoudia, a French-Algerian journalist who visited Taliban-ruled Afghanistan a few weeks before 9/11 and wrote a stunning report for the conservative French weekly Valeurs Actuelles, knew beforehand that the jihadist fighters were equipped with automatic weapons and half-tracks; he was however surprised to find, amidst the country's squalor, fleets of four-by-four cars and well-managed and well-tended military and administrative enclaves, complete with air conditioning, Danish furniture, Japanese computers, and advanced telephone systems. The same is true, according to many reports, in other chaotic countries where the overlords of the Wastelands are sophisticated users of computer, Internet, and mobile technologies and networks, and know how to write or alter programs or otherwise break into functional countries' operating systems and databases.

The predatory rulers of the Wastelands may have looted parts of their equipment from the societies they overthrow. But they contrive to get new supplies from functional countries as well, either as presents from those who see them as useful pawns in their geopolitical games or as donations from NGOs or simply by purchasing them. The more powerful they become, the more attention they must devote to taking care of the populations they control in terms of food, shelter, medicine, and so forth. If these goods must be purchased, revenue will be required, and having no economic development to draw on, the Wasteland rulers will have little choice but to create an illicit and high-profit economy based on drugs (Latin America, the Sahel, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Burma), diamonds and other precious stones (Africa), human trafficking (Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, the former USSR), or piracy (Indian Ocean, South China Sea). And of course additional revenue can be generated by money laundering.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, global criminal or illicit economic activities generated some $870 billion in 2009, or one and a half percent of the gross world product (GWP) and seven percent of world trade. The activities they undertake to support their failed states link the Wastelands as providers to Western countries as receivers.

Wastelands rulers need skilled personnel to run their equipment and handle sophisticated financial activities ranging from Internet operations to business management. They can hire proxies, recruit politically or religiously motivated fellow travelers, or just send off family relations or people already in their ranks to be educated in functional countries, as is increasingly the case. If necessary they can set up humanitarian NGO fronts or infiltrate existing NGOs. Immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from the Wastelands who settle in Western countries often remain under their former rulers' sway, either as a result of brute intimidation or through familial or tribal pressure. Lobbies and influence organizations in Western countries can thus exert geopolitical leverage on behalf of the Wasteland overlords.

Jihadist Islam ... is creating rings of "emirates" and "Islamic states" in the Wastelands of Libya, the Sahel, Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, and Iraq ... and is securing beachheads among Islamic immigrant communities in Europe and North America.
In this respect, the worst-case scenario is for the Wastelands to turn into new kinds of states—not the territorial states that have shaped history at least since the Renaissance, but rather predatory "network states" like the early Scythian, Arab, and Mongolian steppe and desert empires. When such networks hide behind utopian revolutionary ideologies—think of the Andean drug traffickers masquerading as Marxist guerrillas—they are dangerous enough. When they adopt a totalitarian religious outlook, they can be lethal. Jihadist Islam, Sunni and Shia, which is creating rings of "emirates" and "Islamic states" in the Wastelands of Libya, the Sahel, Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, and Iraq, has heavily invested in drugs and other illicit activities and is securing beachheads among Islamic immigrant communities in Europe and North America. Gilles Kepel, a French sociologist who has studied radical Islam for the past thirty years and who for years was confident that it was on the decline, recently wrote an alarming book, Passion Française, about its growth in Islamic enclaves in France. According to him, immigrant Muslim neighborhoods are now jointly dominated by drug gangs and Salafist or jihadist "religious police" who insist on a complete rejection of the French way of life and of Western democracy and human rights. No wonder that several thousand Muslim youths from European countries have joined the jihadist fighters in Syria; or that, according to Joëlle Milquet, the Belgian interior minister, they are likely to be, upon their return to Europe, a "major concern."

The New Emerging Powers

The second rising sub-world that challenges the West is usually referred to as the New Emerging Powers (NEPs). Indeed, both its core—the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa)—and its more tenuous members (Turkey, Iran) have, or seem to have, undergone stunning economic growth. According to the IMF, China achieved three hundred and thirty percent GDP growth from 1990 to 2006. India's GDP growth was one hundred and fifty percent, while Brazil's and South Africa's were each fifty percent. Russia actually experienced a negative growth throughout the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet regime, but then engaged in a solid four to eight percent yearly growth rate from 2000 to 2013, except for 2008–09, when it was badly hurt by the American and European recession. Turkey's GDP underwent a fourfold increase, from $200 billion to $800 billion at official exchange rates; Iran's was threefold, from $150 billion to $580 billion.

Such growth took place against a background of decline by former growth leaders like Japan (barely twenty percent) or most European Union nations (an average thirty percent). Moreover, it meant for every country in that sub-world—with a combined population of about three billion, or forty percent of the world population—a definite transition from endemic poverty and backwardness to at least the prospect of affluence and economic maturity.

However, the New Emerging Powers are very different from the older emerging countries such as Asia's "Little Dragons" (Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong) in the 1970s in that their main challenge is not economic but political and geopolitical.

First, NEPs are not democratic powers. While democratization or the consolidation of democracy was either a stated concern or a corollary of growth for the older emerging countries, most of the NEPs are neither democratic nor moving toward democracy. China, nominally still a communist country, is a one-party authoritarian regime. Russia is a post-communist country that has relapsed into authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin after a brief and chaotic experimentation with democracy under Boris Yeltsin. Post-apartheid South Africa is effectively ruled by the hegemonic ANC party. Iran is a theocratic dictatorship. Turkey moved from a secular, military-dominated semi-democracy to a neo-Islamic and increasingly authoritarian regime. Only Brazil and India can pass today for bona fide democracies.

Second, NEPs are hypernationalist regimes. Without exception, the NEPs are pursuing explicitly nationalist agendas, very much at odds with the Western globalist and post-nationalist agendas. It may be an ethnicity-centered nationalism, as in China, a race-centered nationalism, as in South Africa, a religion-based nationalism, as in Iran, a civilization-based nationalism, as in India, or a combination of several types of nationalism, as in Turkey, where the "neo-Ottomanism" blends ethnicity and religion, or in Putin's Russia, where ethnicity combines with a revived Eastern Christian Orthodoxy, but in all these cases there is a link between the absence of democracy and nationalism.

Third, NEPs are decidedly anti-American and anti-Western. A determining factor of this anti-Americanism appears to be the nature of the self-interest of the local elites. In the older emerging countries, these elites created or remodeled under the aegis of America (as in the case of occupied Japan), benefited from the openness and inclusiveness of Western civilization, and soon realized that adopting democracy would not jeopardize their position, but rather stabilize it. In most of the New Emerging Powers, on the other hand, the ruling elites were created or took over in defiance of the West and regard Western influence as a threat (even though their current economic surge is largely an outcome of a Western-induced globalization), and tend to believe that they will not survive a Western-style democratization.

NEPs (New Emerging Powers) see anti-Western and anti-American cooperation between them as an overriding priority for the time being.
Finally, NEPs are building strategic anti-Western alliances. While their respective national interests do not always coincide, and in fact collide in many respects, the NEPs see anti-Western and anti-American cooperation between them as an overriding priority for the time being. They tend to take a unified stand and to support each other in diplomatic affairs and at international fora: Russia and China in particular, as UN Security Council members, have taken similar lines on the Balkans, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Palestinians, and Ukraine. They have set up strategic, military, and economic cooperation. They lead mutually reinforcing media and influence campaigns.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has been so far the main vehicle for strategic inter-NEP cooperation. It was started in 1996 as the Shanghai Five, ostensibly a common strategic forum for Eurasian powers: its founding members were Russia, China, and the three Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In 2001, it took up its present name upon the inclusion of a fourth Central
Asian country, Uzbekistan.

Two other factors have been even more relevant than the SCO itself, however: the signature, in 2001, of a bilateral "friendship" treaty between its two most prominent members, Russia and China, and the steady accumulation of "observers" (India, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia), "dialogue partners" (Belarus, Sri Lanka, Turkey), and "guest attendees" (the Commonwealth of Independent States, ASEAN, Turkmenistan) that have turned the Shanghai Cooperation Organization into a loose but very large group, representative—to quote Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev—of "half of humanity." Significantly, the US was denied SCO observer or partner status when it applied in 2006.

The SCO has been dismissed for years as a mere showcase with no real substance. In fact, the organization and its array of partners have gradually developed formal and informal strategic cooperation in many fields, from counterterrorism to intelligence sharing, and from conventional defense matters to cyber warfare. The Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure, an SCO agency headquartered in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, explicitly coordinates action against "terrorism, separatism, and extremism" in the member states. Bilateral or multilateral military exercises have been conducted since 2003, and SCO members have engaged in bilateral armament trade.

The SCO has also fostered economic cooperation in terms of transportation, energy, and trade. Time and again, the SCO has floated concepts like an alternative world banking system or even an alternative global currency, establishing it as a rival to the IMF, the World Bank, and the dollar. However, such projects stand a better chance to materialize—if they stand any chance at all—within a broader BRICS framework.

Many countries that remain formally outside the circle of SCO membership or partnership can be construed as virtual members, since they tend to coordinate their diplomatic or strategic policies with SCO countries. This is the case of paleo-communist states like North Korea and Cuba, of Brazil and the "progressive" Latin American countries (Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Nicaragua, and others), and of South Africa.

As noted earlier, the West—the United States, the European Union, and clusters of countries, all around the world, that align with them—is still the leading element in world affairs, whatever the challenges and threats from the Wastelands and the NEPs, and in spite of six years of recession.

Out of a rapidly growing gross world product, according to the IMF, the United States, Canada, and the European and Euro-Pacific countries (Australia, New Zealand)—the West's historic core—achieved a total gross product of $39.1 trillion: 52.8 percent of the global world product.

The older emerging countries of Asia—Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, which are culturally, politically, economically, and strategically aligned with the West, and not likely to switch sides in a foreseeable future—add a global $7.3 trillion to the sum total. Several Latin American nations—Mexico, Chile, and Colombia—add another $1.9 trillion. The West's global product thus comes close to $49 trillion: 65.2 percent of the world product.

Likewise, the West and the West-oriented countries remain unchallenged world leaders in per capita GDP—from $99,000 per annum in Norway and $65,000 in Australia in 2013, to $53,000 in the US and Canada, and from $38,500 in Japan and an average of $32,000 in the EU, to $26,000 in South Korea and $21,000 in Taiwan. The first NEP, for comparison, is Russia, with $14,000. Then come Brazil and Turkey, with $11,000 and $10,000, respectively. China stands at $6,800, Iran at $5,200, and India at $1,500.

Not unexpectedly, life expectancy largely follows per capita GDP. It is above eighty years in most Western or West-oriented countries, and falls sharply among NEPs—76.2 years in Brazil, 74.4 years in Turkey, 74.2 years in China, 73.5 years in Iran, and 70.0 in India and Russia.

The West and the West-oriented countries come first again, by an even wider margin, in more qualitative matters. They are still undisputed leaders—both as innovators and as producers or providers—in hard science, R&D, high tech, machine tools, robotics, avionics, cars, pharmaceutics and medical technologies, nuclear energy, water processing, food production and conditioning, nature and species conservation, quality housing, services, tourism, fashion, entertainment, quality media, armaments, and war-related technologies. According to the Academic Ranking of World Universities—the so called "Shanghai Ranking," published since 2003 by the Jiao Tong University, in Shanghai—four hundred and fifty out of the five hundred top universities are Western or West-oriented, forty-five are NEP, and five do not belong to either sub-world.

Although some NEPs (China, India, Brazil, Turkey) have been building up an impressive manufacturing base over the past thirty-five years, and have even successfully absorbed state-of-the-art technologies, none of them has so far launched by itself a new and innovative technology or product with a potential to revolutionize everyday life or war.


Does such dominance mean that the West should dismiss the threats presented by the Wastelands or regard the anti-Western militancy of the NEPs as hyperbolic? Alas, no.

The West may be considerably more powerful, in strategic terms, than the Wasteland "emirates," but it is less willing than they are to make full use of its strength. As for the NEPs, the fact that the West is retaining its quantitative and qualitative edge at present does not mean that some of them at least, especially China, India, and Brazil, will not become dominant powers in the future, especially given their additional assets of a large landmass and a very big population, and thus be able to pursue their hypernationalist agendas without any restraint.

Moreover, the West is crippled by some specific frailties that should not be overlooked. While demographic transition—due to birth control, drop in fecundity, and higher life expectancy—is now a near universal feature globally, it started much earlier in the West than in other countries and the West's share in world population is thus likely to drop more sharply in coming decades. Western countries may be gradually paralyzed by lower manpower and an ever-expanding elderly class in comparison to the Wastelands and NEPs.

Another Western vulnerability is the decoupling that appears to be taking place between the West's main pillars, America and Europe; or, alternatively, between the Anglosphere (North America, Australia, and England) and continental Europe. The Anglosphere remains solidly democratic: citizens still believe they have a say in public affairs, if only by voting against current administrations. But confidence in democracy has been corroded in most European countries by steady transfers of power and competence from the elected national governments to the unelected EU bureaucracy. America remains moderately prosperous, in spite of the Great Recession of 2008, whereas most European countries are frozen in a zero-growth situation (notably because of the euro, a currency tailored for deflation), or just bankrupt. Religion and family values are still important in America, while they have collapsed in most of Europe. Immigrants are more willing to join the mainstream in America than in Europe.

A third challenge for the West is the sympathy many of its citizens feel for the NEPs and their political or geopolitical projects. Russia is successfully cultivating close ties in Europe with both the far left and the far right. Turkey, very much a Western country until 2002, has switched to the NEP side after more than a decade under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In fact, Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan's foreign minister, is one of the main theorists of a global NEP entente directed against the West.

The successive crises, from Syria to Ukraine, that have shaken the world since the summer of 2013 have already brought about a new introspection in all Western countries. These crises may turn out to be blessings in disguise. Paralysis among American decisionmakers may be replaced by a sustainable bipartisan consensus on major geopolitical issues, given the new specters stalking the world. A similar consensus may be reached as well with most other Western nations who have experienced a wake-up call.

One result of acknowledging these new realities might be a recognition that NEPs should be seen as hostile or potentially hostile countries, and agreements to which they are parties reviewed accordingly. The validity of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the other international regimes born out of the Cold War, and extended after the fall of the Soviet Union, should be questioned, given Russia's membership. Turkey's economic partnership with the West, an important factor of its phenomenal growth for the last twenty years, might also be reconsidered, as well as its strategic membership in NATO.

Simultaneously, incentives could be devised to help the least hostile NEPs—India and Brazil—break away from national-socialist temptations and join the West. And a hardheaded attempt should be made to talk even the core NEPs—Russia and China—into reassessing their present policies.

All in all, Putin's Russia is less a resurrected empire than a zombie empire, a half-dead polity that can still cause serious misery for its neighbors and mischief for its "frenemies" in Europe, but is nonetheless a tottering state. It can seize Crimea from Ukraine, but it may not be able to prevent China, sometime in the future, from seizing the underpopulated Russian Far East, where a Chinese presence of investors and immigrants is steadily growing. In this regard, whatever temporary accommodation Russia makes, its long-term geopolitical interest is clearly to associate with Europe and America rather than to become a hardened enemy.

As for China, it should be urged to pay attention to the Japanese precedent. Japan's modernizing program in the late-nineteenth-century Meiji era was encapsulated in two words, Fukoku Kyohei, to be translated as "Rich Country, Strong Army." As a rich country, both imperial and postwar Japan were overwhelming success stories; as a military state, imperial Japan spiraled into disaster. Since Deng Xiaoping took over for good in 1979, in just thirty-five years, China has achieved as much or even more than Meiji Japan—by joining, as the Japanese did, the Western-designed global market of information, science, technology, manufacturing, and trade. While China's growth is likely to slow down a bit as it switches from emergence to full wealth, and from manufacturing to innovation, it will probably remain quite high for years. But the West should point out to China that if it seduces itself into a belief that it can win zero-sum Great Powers games, it may both lose its magic link with modernity and stir an anti-hegemonic coalition, first in East Asia and then elsewhere, that will dominate its future.

Even in its current uncertainty, division, and intellectual turmoil, the West knows what must be done. But as has been the case at other crucial moments in history, the question is whether it will summon up the will to do it.

Michel Gurfinkiel  (for website, click hereis the founder and president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think tank in Paris, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

This article also appeared in the  World Affairs Journal and  MIddle East Forum