We're on the brink of disaster
Violent protests and riots are breaking out everywhere as economies collapse and governments fail. War is bound to follow.
Mapping a world at the brink
Survey the present world, and it's all too easy to spot a plethora of potential sites for such multiple eruptions -- or far worse. Take China. So far, the authorities have managed to control individual "mass incidents," preventing them from coalescing into something larger. But in a country with a more than 2,000-year history of vast millenarian uprisings, the risk of such escalation has to be on the minds of every Chinese leader.
On Feb. 2, a top Chinese party official, Chen Xiwen, announced that, in the last few months of 2008 alone, a staggering 20 million migrant workers, who left rural areas for the country's booming cities in recent years, had lost their jobs. Worse yet, they had little prospect of regaining them in 2009. If many of these workers return to the countryside, they may find nothing there either, not even land to work.
Under such circumstances, and with further millions likely to be shut out of coastal factories in the coming year, the prospect of mass unrest is high. No wonder the government announced a $585 billion stimulus plan aimed at generating rural employment and, at the same time, called on security forces to exercise discipline and restraint when dealing with protesters. Many analysts now believe that, as exports continue to dry up, rising unemployment could lead to nationwide strikes and protests that might overwhelm ordinary police capabilities and require full-scale intervention by the military (as occurred in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989).
Or take many of the Third World petro-states that experienced heady boosts in income when oil prices were high, allowing governments to buy off dissident groups or finance powerful internal security forces. With oil prices plunging from $147 per barrel of crude oil to less than $40, such countries, from Angola to shaky Iraq, now face severe instability.
Nigeria is a typical case in point: When oil prices were high, the central government in Abuja raked in billions every year, enough to enrich elites in key parts of the country and subsidize a large military establishment; now that prices are low, the government will have a hard time satisfying all these previously well-fed competing obligations, which means the risk of internal disequilibrium will escalate. An insurgency in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, fueled by popular discontent with the failure of oil wealth to trickle down from the capital, is already gaining momentum and is likely to grow stronger as government revenues shrivel; other regions, equally disadvantaged by national revenue-sharing policies, will be open to disruptions of all sorts, including heightened levels of internecine warfare.
Bolivia is another energy producer that seems poised at the brink of an escalation in economic violence. One of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, it harbors substantial oil and natural gas reserves in its eastern, lowland regions. A majority of the population -- many of Indian descent -- supports President Evo Morales, who seeks to exercise strong state control over the reserves and use the proceeds to uplift the nation's poor. But a majority of those in the eastern part of the country, largely controlled by a European-descended elite, resent central government interference and seek to control the reserves themselves. Their efforts to achieve greater autonomy have led to repeated clashes with government troops and, in deteriorating times, could set the stage for a full-scale civil war.
Given a global situation in which one startling, often unexpected development follows another, prediction is perilous. At a popular level, however, the basic picture is clear enough: Continued economic decline combined with a pervasive sense that existing systems and institutions are incapable of setting things right is already producing a potentially lethal brew of anxiety, fear and rage. Popular explosions of one sort or another are inevitable.
Some sense of this new reality appears to have percolated up to the highest reaches of the U.S. intelligence community. In testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Feb. 12, Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the new director of national intelligence, declared, "The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications ... Statistical modeling shows that economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they persist over a one to two year period" -- certain to be the case in the present situation.
Blair did not specify which countries he had in mind when he spoke of "regime-threatening instability" -- a new term in the American intelligence lexicon, at least when associated with economic crises -- but it is clear from his testimony that U.S. officials are closely watching dozens of shaky nations in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Central Asia.
Now go back to that map on your wall with all those red and orange pins in it and proceed to color in appropriate countries in various shades of red and orange to indicate recent striking declines in gross national product and rises in unemployment rates. Without 16 intelligence agencies under you, you'll still have a pretty good idea of the places that Blair and his associates are eyeing in terms of instability as the future darkens on a planet at the brink.