Diverging Trends: A Geopolitically Active West


(This is a two-year old draft that I finally decided to update and publish.)

The western world, especially the US, is becoming allergic to getting involved in international conflict. This is down to two major dynamics. The first is the extreme unpopularity of wars abroad, making them politically toxic. Western populations have simply had enough; they’re acutely aware that they have frequently been the villains on the global stage for decades. Being forced to consistently stand on the wrong side of history is a moral injury, and despite the widespread opposition the democratic system has resisted them for too long. They have also watched the total capture of their governments and decision-making processes by special interests who profit from war (military-industrial complexes and foreign lobbies), and it has made their democracies less accountable and less representative.

The second is the more-than-anticipated economic pressure caused by these wars (the $2.3tn spent by the US on Afghanistan will go down as one of the worst blunders by an empire ever), The political elite belatedly realised the hubris of this, given that these decades of conflict failed achieved any permanent success, only damaging their soft power and draining economic resources – this was the realisation behind Obama’s desire to disengage from the MENA region, even though he was repeatedly thwarted. This takes on a new importance given that there’s now great power competition vs China – the west can afford even less to squander resources now than when it was a hegemon.

Add to that, I believe the US specifically will become more inward-looking over future decades as it is forced to address long-running internal problems of economic inequality, simmering for years, and racial inequality, which came from being long-dormant to being politically explosive in the last two years.

All else being equal, western countries would simply scale back foreign military presence and become less interventionist, but they can’t – the problems are now looking for them, rather than the reverse. The UAE is trying to start World War 3 by goading attacks on Iran, whilst Iran threatens war on Israel and the entire gulf bullies Yemen. Putin encroaches ever further on Europe, undermining and then invading western democracies piece by piece. Authoritarians attempt to subvert democracy as a concept through disinformation and electoral interference. The last few years have even seen outright attacks on an unprecedented level, including:

  • Repeated election meddling (US elections ’16)
  • Cyber attacks on important infrastructure (Solarwinds, DNC hack, UK Salisbury investigation hack, En Marche election campaign hack)
  • IP theft (costing upward of $300bn/year by most estimates) – inc aerospace1 data on 21 million US federal employees 2, network tech3 and much more (this one has been going on for years).
  • Outright attacks on individuals on foreign soil (Russian Salisbury nerve agent attacks, Saudi attempted attacks in Oslo, Canada, UK and US)
  • media attacks and concerted disinformation campaigns, which are far too numerous to count but have had incredibly severe consequences, including playing a contributory role in Brexit and undermining COVID response.
  • Military attacks on allies of western democracies (pick a Russian campaign)

Compare the severity of each of these actions with the unprecedented response, or impotent total lack thereof. Imagine what the response would have been at any point in the last century – this level of passivity was last seen during the appeasement of Hitler. It’s deeply unsustainable – how far will Putin and the CCP go before they decide they’ve had enough?

And at the same time as the west’s disengagement and the empowerment of malicious actors, we’re also living through an incredible democratisation of speech and media, bringing with it the empowerment of voices never heard on this scale before. The oppressed of the world are speaking up, telling their own stories, shaming their oppressors and demanding that the wrongs which led to their subjugation (often involving the West) are corrected.

The world is in the middle of a major rebalancing – decades of total unipolarity and a power imbalance that were the consequence of a unique time in history (primarily colonialism’s aftermath, then the world wars and the cold war). The future of the world will be more equal.

So on the one side is a deep western desire for disengagement, unpopularity of war and a geopolitical rebalancing to end the unipolar world order. On the other side is energised autocracy expanding ever wider, as well as the internationalised democratic uprisings in the MENA and the coming age of African populations demanding solidarity and support from the world to right historic wrongs. Both extremes – the interventionist and the anti-interventionist – are deeply unsustainable positions. How do these conflicting dynamics combine? What will the outcomes be in the long-term, for the position of the west in the world, the world’s geopolitical balance, and for populations attempting to emerge from decades of tyranny and corruption?

Obviously this evades any simple answer, and these trends will evolve over decades and reveal the answer slowly rather than all at once. But we’re in an unsustainable place – something has got to give. And as usual, all these problems are exacerbated by conformist thinking by those in institutions clinging to “normality”, unwilling to contemplate that new problems in a new context will require solutions and modes of thinking that weren’t even on the menu over the last few decades.