“Whatever the precise cause, global order has come undone in the past and may soon come apart again,” Stephens writes. “The undoing will be preceded by a number of seemingly unconnected events and trends whose significance and direction become clear only in the wake of some spectacular event.”
But some current trends are clear. One is Iran. A nuclear Iran, led by an unstable and unpopular regime, is a distinct possibility.
“What makes matters worse — not in an imagined scenario but in the world as we find it today — is the confusion of signals between Iran and its adversaries,” Stephens says. “The West has repeatedly set red lines and Tehran has repeatedly transgressed them without consequence. Israel at this writing continues to threaten action even as its ability to act with decisive effect is increasingly in doubt.”
How about Europe? A meltdown of the European Union, followed by an exodus of Greek workers fleeing their own ruined currency and conditions, could result in worldwide instability.
The Middle East is already a powder keg. But the Arab Spring has brought something new: democratized Islamism. We in the West always assume that if given the choice, people will choose freedom. But the Arab world has shown that isn’t always so. Repressive regimes are being voted in — and legitimized — in democratic elections.
As Stephens notes, “millions of Muslims are consenting to leaders who have long looked askance at the traditions and types of freedoms familiar to the West: freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, a tolerance for intellectual provocation and dissent.”
He also points to problems in China, where the Communist Party leadership is both corrupt and unpopular. In any number of wag-the-dog scenarios, China’s rulers could attempt to distract the populace with a military confrontation — probably over disputed territories in the South China Sea.
“The little islands of the South China Sea beckon like any tropical paradise, offering the hope of respite and distraction from mounting troubles at home,” Stephens says.
Then there’s the possibility of a “Second Great Recession,” brought about by a disappointed Wall Street after the elections in November.
Stephens makes solid cases that any of these discontents could flare up into a real problem, and soon.
Hopefully, he’s wrong.