ADELAIDE - In trying to understand contemporary or near contemporary events in human history, a prudent historian will closely examine and reflect upon the sometimes very distant background of such events.
It is almost never the case that more modern history departs radically from long established patterns of human thinking and behaviour.
It is demonstrably the case, over the very long term, that events in human history tend to proceed in a fairly predictable, or even mundane, manner.
Periodically though, things happen that utterly confound, destabilise and disrupt the established order.
The direction of history can suddenly pivot in reaction to all sorts of unexpected events ranging from the death of a single individual, major scientific discoveries or the cataclysmic impact of a natural disaster such as a volcanic eruption or tsunami.
There is not necessarily any known and predictable pattern into which such events might be fitted. If there is a pattern, it is that they can and do occur and that this can lead to sometimes very profound changes.
For example, the final collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 ushered in an era of socio-economic fragmentation and decline in Western Europe that is commonly but inaccurately called the Dark Ages.
This ensured that the centre of gravity in human affairs shifted relatively abruptly away from Mediterranean Europe and towards Central Asia.
It would not shift again until around 1500 when the European imperial powers we known today began to emerge.
The re-emergence of Europe as the central player in human affairs was itself the result of an unsuspected capacity for scientific inquiry and technological innovation, especially as it could be applied to organised warfare.
This was probably triggered, in part at least, by the rediscovery of the writings and ideas of the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations.
Ironically, these had been carefully preserved, studied and expanded upon by various Asiatic powers for many centuries, whilst Western Europe was composed mainly of backward, superstitious and perpetually warring mini-states.
Thus it is to Arab scholars we owe the preservation and development of our knowledge of algebra, geometry, modern numerals and a much basic medical understanding.
I think events or developments like these may be described as ‘Great Disruptions’, primarily because they shift, or even overturn, the prevailing world order.
What is certain is that from around 1500 human affairs came to be dominated by the competitive and imperialistic machinations of various European powers.
It was not until 1945 that two successive world wars- just 20 years apart - finally brought about the complete collapse of European political imperialism which arguably culminated in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Since then the centre of gravity in human affairs has moved steadily towards Asia.
This trend has now reached the point where China feels able to reveal the full extent of its ambitions to resume what it believes is its natural place as the world’s predominant power.
While it’s not yet clear that China is truly the super power that its leaders and many observers claim it is, it is undeniably true that, for the foreseeable future, it will be the predominant power in East Asia.
Of course, China’s ambitions extend far beyond Asia, and its eyes now turn to the hitherto largely neglected South Pacific.
The main strategic reason for this is the need to contest the influence of the USA and its allies Japan, Australia and New Zealand, who view military control of the Pacific Ocean as critical to their defence and security.
The recent treaty with the Solomon Islands which allows China to provide support in areas such as policing, education, training and infrastructure needs to be viewed in this light.
All of China’s recent diplomatic, political, economic and military manoeuvring is straight out of the standard historic imperial playbook, differing little from what was done by the former European imperial powers.
So far, China’s ambitious efforts to become a super power seem to have gone largely to plan but I contend that recent events may massively disrupt that plan.
I believe we are experiencing another Great Disruption in human affairs which may upset the current world order in unexpected ways.
I think future historians will date the beginning of this disruption to 26 December 1991 when the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.
This event left the USA as the world’s sole super power and it set about recasting the world order in ways that accorded with its political, economic and philosophical outlook.
Perhaps the most important consequence of this was that its ideas about how the world’s economic system ought to be managed became the prevailing orthodoxy.
Specifically, the neo-liberal doctrine - advocated by people like Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, and popularised by politicians such as Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA - became accepted as the way the world’s economic affairs were to be conducted.
In turn, the related emphasis on deregulating markets, suppressing the power of organised labour and globalising industrial production triggered a revolution.
The consequences of this are still reverberating around the globe.
However even the greatest proponents of neo-liberalism failed to properly understand its likely consequences.
Indeed, many of its advocates are unable and unwilling to acknowledge the contradictions, problems and perverse outcomes neoliberalism has created.
What can be said with confidence is that China, South-East Asia and South Asia have benefited disproportionately from neo-liberalism, and this is because it has enabled many hundreds of millions of people to be lifted out of poverty.
This has not come without costs.
In shifting the world’s economic centre of gravity to Asia, the USA and Western Europe have greatly weakened their own ability to impose upon others their conception of a just and fair world order.
This has had consequences good and bad: one being the ability of emerging powers such as China and Iran to challenge or ignore international law when it suits them.
It can be argued legitimately that in doing this they are emulating the USA and its allies, who sometimes choose to interpret international law as they see fit.
So far, this Great Disruption has well-suited China and other Asian powers.
But the changes I’ve mentioned are not necessarily the end point.
The events of 2007, when the world’s financial system teetered on the edge of collapse, was a warning that neo-liberalism is a highly unstable way to manage economic affairs.
The crisis generated in 2007 required the world’s central banks to embark upon what has been the largest economic and financial experiment in history.
In essence, the central banks collectively created (through quantitative easing or ‘money printing’) many trillions of United States dollars in various currencies and flooded the world’s financial system with credit.
In so doing, the banks stimulated the world economy to avoid a collapse of the entire international system and what would have been a catastrophic depression.
While, thus far at least, this appears to have staved off immediate disaster, it has created an even more unstable situation where total world debt has reached levels unparalleled in human history.
Quantitative easing has created the largest asset bubbles in history, with the value of shares, real estate and other asset classes having reached absurd and unsustainable levels.
Worse still, while it is apparent that the world’s central banks have no real idea about how to safely defuse the global ‘debt bomb’ they have created, they are now confronted with the urgent necessity to do so as inflation begins to emerge as a problem throughout the world.
The complexity of this task now has been greatly compounded by the continuing Covid pandemic and the unjustifiable and unforgiveable decision by Russia to invade Ukraine.
While many nations are removing public health restrictions imposed to manage the disease, the pandemic has not abated.
In practice, many governments have chosen to prioritise their economies over public health in the hope the worst of the pandemic is over.
This is a tremendous gamble. Even if successful, many people (mostly the elderly) will die prematurely as a direct consequence.
If a new and much more lethal strain of Covid emerges, a public health and economic disaster may ensue in which the damage done greatly exceeds that of the original strain.
Perhaps with this in mind, China is persisting with its rigorous strategy of suppressing the virus, even at considerable cost to its economy.
It seems improbable that this strategy can be sustained indefinitely owing to the highly infectious nature of the Omicron strain of Covid.
If, as seems inevitable, the virus begins to spread exponentially amongst the Chinese population, it seems reasonable to suppose huge numbers of people will become seriously ill or die.
The economic impact will be very severe, with unpredictably consequences for both China and the wider global economy.
The war in Ukraine has revealed strategic understandings previously hidden or unknown.
In particular, it has demonstrated that Russia is not the great power that Vladimir Putin purported it to be and that many people believed it to be.
Also, it has demonstrated that what the USA calls a ‘revolution in military affairs’ is both a real and exceedingly potent new way of fighting wars.
Until the last few weeks it was not commonly known that the Ukrainian military has spent the last eight years comprehensively reforming its Soviet-era military doctrine and organisation. In doing so, it has made extensive use of instructors and advisors, in particular from the USA, UK and Canada.
Its soldiers have been trained in how to harness modern strategy, tactics, logistics, technologies and weapons to hugely increase the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the entire Ukraine military structure.
The result has been the emergence of an extremely agile, innovative and hard hitting military that uses Western military doctrine with some distinctive Ukrainian characteristics.
Somehow, these developments were either unnoticed or ignored by the Russians and they are now paying a heavy price for this error.
While the war is by no means over, it is abundantly evident that Russia has suffered irretrievable damage to its military prestige and to its international political status.
It has been revealed to be a middle ranking power which, although nuclear armed, lacks the economic and military means to project power much beyond its borders.
Also, it is being rapidly economically isolated as the European powers belatedly understand the urgent and pressing need to decouple their economies from Russia’s, especially in relation to energy supplies.
The biggest winner out of this war will be China.
Its Russian ally has conclusively demonstrated the correctness of a comment attributed to Winston Churchill that wars are easy to start but usually very hard to finish.
The number of erroneous assumptions made by Russia has been startling and this will not be lost on the more pragmatic and cautious Chinese leadership.
Xi Jinping and his generals will be very concerned about the lethal impact of new missile technologies that can be carried by individual soldiers, by the impact of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and by the way cyber warfare systems have been used to frustrate, mislead and confuse Russia’s military leadership.
Beijing will have been shocked by the speed with which severe economic sanctions were imposed upon Russia by Western countries, as well as their willingness to supply Ukraine with a large and formidable arsenal of weapons and access to powerful intelligence gathering systems.
The commanders of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will be recalibrating their thinking about any prospective invasion of Taiwan.
At the same time, the Taiwanese will have realised the need to recalibrate their own ideas about how defensive warfare can be conducted.
By the time the Ukraine War comes to an end, the course of international affairs will have irrevocably been changed.
The status quo will not survive the combined impacts of the pandemic, the war in Europe and, potentially, a global economic crisis triggered by the necessity to unravel the ‘debt bomb’ and asset bubbles deliberately created since 2007.
I would contend that the Great Disruption triggered in 1991 has not yet run its course and that many of its consequences are still unforeseen and unforeseeable.
This has created an incredibly fevered environment within which nations, large and small, are being forced to try to navigate their future paths, with the impacts of climate change already felt and known to be worsening.
If history is any guide, the opportunities for error or misadventure will be many.
This means that small nations in particular will need to proceed with great caution, tact and care when deciding with whom they form relationships in the wider world.
Hopefully, this is understood and appreciated by those now governing Papua New Guinea and the small Pacific Island states.
These countries are and will remain vulnerable in the extreme to being collateral damage in any ensuing economic, military or climate maelstrom.