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Contradictory developments in the 2020s: progressive learning vs the increasingly likely possibility of a global military catastrophe

Contradictory developments in the 2020s: progressive learning vs the increasingly likely possibility of a global military catastrophe

Prof. Heikki Patomäki – Social scientist, activist and Professor of World Politics and Global Political Economy at the University of Helsinki. 


In scenario A, conflicts between states escalate further, step by step. The process is marked by regional conflicts and global re-alignments and alliances. The process includes events during which social meanings, mentalities, forces, mechanisms, and institutions continue to change. The conditions for a global military catastrophe are created as these processes progress.

In scenario B, peaceful and possibly democratic reforms of global economic governance are possible without a major global catastrophe. These reforms mitigate the tendencies and tensions that lead toward Scenario A, and may even help to transform them. Scenario C focuses on slower processes (climate change) and more localized global disasters (e.g. a limited nuclear war). Here, I consider, for example, climate change only as part of the B scenarios.

It is possible that learning about global problems, contradictions and threats will help create a movement capable of changing global economic governance systems. In the 2020s, the clearest example of this is the global climate movement. The realization of a global Keynesian world order will take time. For the time being, world history is mainly following the path of scenario A. My conclusion is that confidence-building measures, arms limitation negotiations, and the activity of non-aligned countries are necessary because the adequate realization of B-scenarios will take 10-20 years even in the best case, but we also need new forms of transformative political agency.

The political economy of global security

In 2006-7, after having concluded that the transformative momentum of global civil society is over at least for the time being, I wrote The Political Economy of Global Security (Routledge 2008). In this book, I outlined three main scenarios about a possible and likely future in the 2020s-2040s. Scenario A focuses on possible paths involving escalation of interstate conflicts that will gradually assemble the conditions for a global military catastrophe. Scenario B is based on the alternative idea that peaceful and possibly democratic reforms of the governance of the world economy are possible without a major global catastrophe and that these reforms will mitigate tendencies from Scenario A, and may even help to overcome them. Leaving aside scenario C (of other tendencies toward a global catastrophe), what seems to have been happening so far is that aspects and components of both scenarios are materialising simultaneously.

The main mechanisms pushing the world toward scenario A include (i) uneven growth, economic imbalances, and contradictory responses to them (e.g. ‘Thucydides Trap’); (ii) competition over increasingly scarce resources and sinks, whereas this competition is also taking forms that are partly analogical to earlier imperial practices; (iii) crisis-prone global finance and the precarious role of the US dollar in the global monetary system; (iv) de-democratisation and the increasing role of vested interests, and (v) securitisation, enemy-construction, and an armaments race. In my subsequent works, especially in Disingrative Tendencies in Global Political Economy (Routledge 2018), I have tried to explain further how Thomas Piketty’s inequality r > g may help to understand the interaction of different factors in complex open systems (r is the rate of return on wealth and g is annual economic growth). The greater the difference r—g, the more the growth of inequality is a self-reinforcing process. When Piketty’s simple inequality holds, it means that the past increasingly determines the present, and accumulated inherited wealth grows faster than production and income. An increasing difference between r and g is especially likely in slow-growing systems.

The concentration of wealth and capital has far-reaching political consequences. Wealth can be translated into political influence in liberal democracies as well, not only through labour relations but also through the political system. When the rules limiting the influence of money on politics in favour of the wealthy and companies, the process easily becomes self-reinforcing, because it produces positive feedback connections: previous changes enable new changes in the same direction. Following the ‘shock therapy’ of the early 1990s, Piketty’s inequality r > g became a prevailing reality in many parts of the former Soviet area in just a few years. In the 1990s, g was sharply negative. The rise of global financial markets and a new wave of financialization had made it possible for those who became rich in the 1990s (or after) to buy and sell existing assets in the hope of quick profits; tap into large financial flows and move funds to offshore centres and tax havens, including, for example, Geneva or the City of London; and to invest in housing markets around the world. They have received the same rate of return r on their assets as investors and elites in other parts of the world. This has benefited not only oligarchs but also financial centers and tax havens, while at the same time weakening local and national economic developments.

The unevenness of growth, rising inequalities, and neoliberal economic policies have slowed down growth in the OECD world and some other parts of the world economy. In scenario A, uneven growth generates diplomatic tensions between the established centres of the world economy and the new centres of growth. This competition is shaped by, but also shapes, internal developments for instance in India, Russia, and the EU, while a lot depends on the US responses to the rise of China. In a sub-scenario, the US will crumble economically and react aggressively, causing a rapid process of securitisation and antagonisation. Competition among large states and blocs will lead to further securitisation, enemy construction, new alliances, and arms race.

From questioning the neoliberal world order to securitisation and alliance-formation

The post-Cold War dynamics stem in part from various critical responses to the one-sidedness of the neoliberal world order. In a tightly interconnected world economy, no major crisis, war, or development is isolated. The build-up for each conflict, crisis, or war takes time. For example, in the early 2000s, Russia turned against universal liberal claims and related double standards and forms of self-righteousness (especially concerning Kosovo, Iraq, and attempts at regime change, but also with regard to economic policy). In response, it has promoted pluralism via multipolarity and power-balancing. However, this is only an aspect of complex processes that involve political economy mechanisms, conflicts over principles, and state-reasoning (raison d’etat).

A series of episodes and developments accord with scenario A, including the global financial crisis, the Euro crisis, the rise of nationalist populism, authoritarian developments across the world including in China and Russia, and escalating arms races (including an offence–defence race in space). The Covid-19 crisis has further exacerbated some of the underlying tendencies for instance through increasing inequalities and triggering nationalist responses, including by the EU.

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I wrote that the increasingly acute conflicts in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea have the potential to escalate into full-scale war, even to nuclear war. That potential is now actualised in Europe and the possibility of a global military catastrophe has become ever more likely. It does not seem particularly prudential to continue along this path.

Developments in real historical time are immensely complex, however. Consider the way the Trump administration was defeated in elections. Also, the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan after years of hesitation exhibits complexity and indicates the ineffectiveness and expensiveness of military force in the interconnected world. Noteworthily, Russia has fared no better. During the Putin era, Russia has been involved in half-a-dozen limited wars. These conflicts have become a hefty economic and political burden to Russia. Already in 2014-2020, the economic growth was negligible, affecting Putin’s popularity. While in 2022 the rally-around-the-flag dominates the political scene, the Russian economy is anticipated to contract by some 12% and further 1% in 2023 (a decline of more than USD 200 billion). Even if there seems to be no economic or other point in war anymore, it is still possible to opt for it because of organisational stupidity or drift into it – a bit in the same way as the Europeans “sleepwalked” into World War I.

Moreover, we know that regimes can respond to political opposition, economic difficulties, and high and possibly rising inequalities by intensifying nationalistic sentiments, generating ‘rally-around-the-flag’ effects, and leading to securitisation across the world (consider e.g. Brazil, India, China, and Turkey). Something similar is true even for the EU. While the EU faces the internal opposition of nationalists and also – albeit in a very different sense – ‘frugal’ member-states, it is searching for ‘strategic autonomy’, involving EU-scale securitisation of potential dangers, such as migration, China, or Russia, thereby contributing to the global geopolitical developments.

The global security dynamics imply regressive unlearning and a partial return to the interstate practices of the late 19th and early 20th century (given nuclear weapons, etc., in one sense this is also a new round of Cold War). However, recent political economy developments have also embraced at least some potential progressive learning. In particular, it has become clear that the macroeconomic ‘consensus’ of the 1990s did not work. Unconventional monetary policies emerged as central banks responded to the threat of deflation and the global financial crisis and its aftermath (the euro crisis). To the extent that the securities bought by the central banks include public debt, these policies have facilitated stimulus and fiscal deficits per Keynesian theory.

The Covid19 crisis of 2020-21 caused further shifts, at a time when unconventional monetary policies had seemingly become more or less permanent. In 2020-21, further experimentation with economic policy (eg ‘helicopter money’) took place in the US, EU, and other places. In 2022, however, because of rising levels of inflation, the central banks seem hesitant. The macroeconomic ‘consensus’ of the 1990s is over, and yet authorities may resort to neoliberal business-as-usual and opt for high interest rates and austerity. A possible new global economic crisis is likely to aggravate antagonisms even further, constituting one more step toward a global catastrophe.

Progressive learning and transformative possibilities in the 2020s and 2030s

Nonetheless, there are also other indications of progressive learning. For example, it has been finally realised that national taxation is subject to contradictions in the interconnected world economy. Civil society actors and international organisations such as OECD have kept tax evasion on the agenda since the 1990s. The OECD/G20 2021 agreement on corporate taxation exemplifies the move from contradictions to social and political change. The publicly stated aim is to ‘end the global race to the bottom on corporate taxation’. Although the agreement only defines the bottom and rules of the game without abolishing it, the agreement is nonetheless an example of learning leading to collective action. The agreement is thus a step in the direction of scenario B.

Scenario B is about peaceful – and possibly democratic – reforms of global governance occurring in the absence of any major global catastrophe. It is possible that learning about global problems, contradictions, and threats will suffice to generate a movement to transform and rebuild global governance systems. In the 2020s, the clearest example of this is the global climate movement. Any large-scale movement may eventually convince many governments to change the existing and to create new international and global laws, thereby affecting also the global security dynamics. A series of limited future economic crises and wars may instigate a further rise of movements, as can the gradual unfolding of the climate crisis – at least under politically favourable circumstances. Learning can occur also at the ‘top’, as the OECD/G20 agreement shows. Some learning has already contributed to changes in the prevailing framework of macroeconomic policy and induced global cooperation to tackle tax evasion, inequalities, and corporate power.

As the world is increasingly divided into two alliances, it is once again urgently important to engage with confidence-building and arms control measures to restrain the increasingly dangerous global security dynamics. A peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine to end the violence would be a necessary step in that direction as well. Disintegration in the form of, say, Brexit or sanctions and countersanctions vis-à-vis Russia has indicated that what we see is not a Cold War world but a world of complex interdependence. This interdependence shapes worldwide relations of power e.g. through value chains, the overlap between different national jurisdictions, global networks of informational and financial exchange, and the global formation of aggregate efficient demand. Because of regressive developments since the 1990s, this interdependence has now become weaponised. The steps taken to govern this interdependence have been grossly inadequate in view of countering the main mechanisms pushing the world toward scenario A.

To paraphrase H. G. Wells, ‘civilisation is in a race between learning and catastrophe’. The point is not to wait passively for the next nodal point in world history or to predict exactly what, where, and when, but to contribute to our collective learning and to ensure that we can avoid full-scale global catastrophes. In my recent book, The Three Fields of Global Political Economy (Routledge 2022), I discuss how the existing gpe fields are based on collective learning that constitutes the holomovement of world history. Therein lies the hope – this is especially true for learning from crises and critique – yet no changes are achievable without transformative agency in world politics.

I would argue, however, that a sustainable global future would be impossible without a fundamental shift from the dominant national mythos to a global worldview, and the concomitant creation of institutions with transformative political agency. A world political party would be well-suited to bring about such a shift. Although the challenges to forming a transformative world party are profound, the risks of inaction are grave – and the rewards of success momentous.