December 19, 2014
A global chill
For the Herald
Are the bindings that make a world economy possible coming unstuck?
THE HAGUE — A few miles from a fishing village on an island in the central Philippines, the modern era began. It is a bold claim. But it is one that is sustained in earnest by the US writer Charles C. Mann in his magisterial work, 1493. For all its world-historical cachet, the village in question is now a sorry affair, poor, unvisited and affected by bouts of guerrilla violence, its main entertainments cock fights and local rock gigs. Nonetheless, whether it looks the part or not, the village still sits next to the bay where Spanish conquistadors hailing from the Americas first met with Chinese sailors, and thus produced, to use Mann’s words, the “beginning of today’s world-encompassing trade network.”
Appropriately, the first encounter in 1570 between Spaniards sailing with freshly minted silver from the New World and the Chinese ended in a bloodbath. Likewise, the isolated and impoverished condition of the site where economic globalization first winked its mischievous eye fits well with what we know of later developments in this arena. But above all, it is worth pondering that just as the global economic era began at a time and place, it might also wither away at a given moment.
The idea of such demise in the global trading system, mostly inconceivable a decade ago, has jellified into something rather more palpable and ominous in recent weeks. Almost as if intended to mock the carnival of human togetherness mounted over the course of the soccer World Cup, events since them have force fed wariness and fear into the West. Each crisis has its own reasons; each has its own atrocity exhibition, to borrow words from the great dystopian, J. G. Ballard. But the cumulative effect, reinforced by the decision this week by Russian to block EU and US fresh food imports, is to raise the question as to whether the bindings that makes a global economy possible are coming unstuck.
Since I live in the Netherlands, the crash of MH17 over eastern Ukraine stands out for the shock of its occurrence as much as the horror of its aftermath. The plane’s black box is now safely in the Netherlands, and will presumably confirm that the aircraft was shot down by a Buk missile in the hands of pro-Russian militia. Alien to every single part of this war but the briefest sharing of airspace, the first Dutch victims have since returned in 40 hearses.
This tragedy, as well as the obliteration of Air Algérie’s flight as it traversed Mali — seemingly because of the weather — do little to instil confidence at check-in. Yet by far the most potent aspect of the crash is not the reflex recoil of the average air passenger. Instead, it is the sense, conveyed so viscerally by the television images of splattered debris and cobwebbed death trains, that the Russian president Vladimir Putin was snubbing his nose at one of the most fundamental rituals of human society: honouring the dead. “We see images of insurgents posing for the world press with toys of children who died in the crash. That is disgusting,” wrote Peter Knoppe, an expert on Dutch foreign affairs. “So people demand respect and dignity. We are humans. You cannot dehumanize us.”
These sentiments do not augur well for the bonds of shared activity — however mistrustful and malignant that activity might be — that underlie global markets and multilateral institutions. It does not help the interconnected world to perceive that the leader of a major power would abandon your unburied dead.
Tellingly, the main channel for European dialogue with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, appears to have edged toward a similar clinical diagnosis of the Russian leader. Despite over 30 phone calls to the Kremlin in the past few months, as well as a close encounter at the World Cup final, Merkel has reportedly commented that Putin is dwelling “in his own world.” The large and powerful pro-Russian lobby in Germany, meanwhile, appears to have become temporarily speechless.
The sense of a cultural and political gulf in international affairs is thickening, even if from one day to the next no big difference is noticed. Mass-casualty offensives of the sort seen in the Gaza Strip, or the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (now simply called the Islamic State), cause grief and distress; the sheer disproportion of Israeli military force in the former is surely the most wretched proof that dehumanization is best conducted at close range.
But at the same time, the first decade of the 21st century also brought cycles of war in Israel and the Palestine territories, as well as in various countries chalked down for attention under the war on terror. Yet this was also the decade of the greatest flowering of the global economy, whether through Chinese hyper-growth, Latin America’s commodity boom, African renaissance or the birth of the euro. Corporations segmented supply chains into ever more arcane combinations. The social media were born. Global finance attained views over limitless horizons before spontaneous combustion set in.
The wars in the aftermath of the Arab Spring suggest a different pattern. Information from inside the Islamic State is sparse, but an extraordinary video report on Vice News conveys the testosterone, recklessness and totalitarian dogma that are ripening within the group that is now under US bombardment. Filmed in Raqqa, the State’s Syrian base, it shows a “press officer” for the organization running off to join a gun battle during a tour of the front-line, as well as the spiked heads of enemy troops displayed to intimidate locals. Reformation Europe in the 16th century would have understood; modern-day Europe peers down as if at an abyss in the civilized world.
Downed planes and millenarian fighters, Ebola and migrant ships, import bans, trade spats and drone wars together make up powerful toxins corroding belief in the bases of a global economic system. Yet the system also has very powerful defenders and interests. It may well be interesting to see whether the Europeans, Americans and Chinese from that original meeting in the Philippines 444 years ago do something more constructive than fire their muskets.