The Systemic Sources of Geopolitical Turmoil: Instability, Fragmentation, Resource Wars

The proximate trigger of instability is less important than we think.

It’s tempting to think that the resolution of various geopolitical crises would restore global stability: tempting, but wrong. Global turmoil may appear to have specific causes–Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, etc.–but the deeper reality is the instability is systemic.

The proximate trigger of instability is less important than we think. The often-cited analogy is a sand pile formed by a steady trickle of sand from a storage bin. The sand slowly accumulates into a seemingly stable pile. But the structure of the pile becomes increasingly unstable as the sides steepen and the height grows, and at some unpredictable point the pile suddenly collapses in cascades of sand.

Do we focus on the last grain of sand that triggered the collapse of apparent stability, or do we focus on the real cause, the rise in systemic instability?

Gordon Long and I discussed these systemic causes of global conflict inGeopolitical Turmoil: Instability, Fragmentation, Resource Wars:

We discuss five systemic sources of global instability:

1. Failed Governments/States, where failed means an inability to provide the citizenry with basic levels of security, civil liberties and basic necessities of life.

Failed states are characterized by:

  • Weak Institutions & Corruption
  • Failed Governance/Political Gridlock
  • Failure of Central Planning Model
  • Failure of Neo-Liberal Model of Capitalism

2. Fragmentation of nation-states assembled in the 20th century by the Great Powers.

3. Divided geopolitical loyalties of traditional states located on geopolitical faultlines.

4. Resource wars:

  • Transport of energy
  • Fewer resources (food, water, energy)
  • Shortages/rising prices of resources

5. Insolvency of nations/governments due to unpayable debts.

Thinking that putting out geopolitical fires is the solution to global instability is equivalent to thinking that the solution to forest fires is to douse every small fire before it spreads. What results is an entire forest piled high with so much deadwood that the next fire will necessarily explode into a raging, uncontrollable conflagration. 

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