These Three Global Crises Will Transform Our World

Where is the peace that the United Nations was created to guarantee?” That’s the pointed question Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the U.N. Security Council during a video speech on April 5 in response to Russia’s war on his country. “Where is the security that the Security Council must guarantee?” he asked.

It is not necessary to explain the urgency of his question. Vladimir Putin believes that Ukraine is Russia’s and has no intention of waging war against the West to stop it. At this point, why should Ukraine’s President, or anyone else, have much confidence that the “international community” will stop this war?

In a larger sense, our age is defined by the decline in faith and confidence in its governing institutions. America, which is the only country that has the ability to project military power in every part of the globe, has been the most dysfunctional political major power. Third of Americans think Joe Biden was not legitimately elected President. Europeans also have lost their faith. In 2016, Britain voted its way out of the E.U., and anti­-establishment, xenophobic parties of the far right shifted the politics inside many European states.

The entire international system has been under increasing threat. Over the past four decades, China has gone from being an impoverished country to a powerhouse and is increasingly refusing to allow Western-led institutions to create and enforce international laws. Russia, Turkey, India and the E.U. have seen strongmen. Hungary and Poland have joined forces to oppose principles of democracy, freedom of expression, checks and balances and the rights of minorities. The U.N. cannot do more than to help refugees fleeing conflict zones that no one can solve.

There’s a lot to be said for the idea that crises create opportunities that mustn’t be wasted. It’s true that our world has faced a stream of shocks in recent years: the 2008 global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the 2015–2016 tidal wave of migrants into Europe, Brexit, the rise of angry populists in Europe and America, and then the worst pandemic in 100 years. None of these shocks has brought about a renewed sense of purpose and unity.

Russia now invades Ukraine. War is killing civilians by the thousands, more than 5 million refugees have headed west in more than two months of fighting, NATO and Russia have moved to high alert, and fuel and food prices around the world are surging.

It’s no one’s fault the system is ­failing. Both order and chaos are cycles. It was the ruin of the war in Vietnam that gave rise to the U.N., and institutions like IMF and World Bank. That’s why Germany and Japan, wealthy and dynamic free-­market democracies committed to multilateralism and the rule of law, had no seats at the table for Zelensky’s speech to the Security Council—and why Russia did.

It is a broken international system. The world must face a crisis in order to fix this problem. The crisis that erupted after World War II was what created the institutions and alliances necessary to maintain peace and support global development over the decades that followed. Putin’s war on Ukraine has created the biggest geopolitical emergency since the Cold War’s end. The Russian ­government has even threatened the use of nuclear weapons and warned of World War III.

This crisis can help revive and build new institutions.

NATO: Start With NATO. Three decades ago, NATO was subject to difficult questions regarding its mission. During his presidency, Donald Trump sometimes talked down ­NATO’s value for U.S. national security, and some of his former aides say he wanted to remove the U.S. from the alliance. In 2019, France’s ­President ­Emmanuel Macron warned of the “brain death of NATO.” Now he says that Putin’s invasion has delivered an “electric shock” and “strategic clarification” for NATO. Putin seems to have persuaded Finland to join NATO, instead of weakening it with an act of force and resolve in Ukraine.

This story also includes the German shift. With a long-standing government trying to cultivate cooperation through trade relations, Europe’s economic engine has dramatically changed its strategic direction over the past few weeks. Three days following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz made a historical speech before Parliament that Germany would supply weapons to Ukraine and impose tough sanctions against Russia. He also announced more than twice the defense budget. His government had announced that Russia would no longer be importing oil from it by April.

E.U. It also feels a new sense of purpose. The E.U. was criticized by Britain and ridiculed by many members’ populists, but it has risen to prominence. The conflict has given it new energy. The governments of Hungary and Poland have openly rebelled against its rules in recent years, but Russia’s invasion has forced Hungary’s Viktor Orban to curb his pro-Putin enthusiasm and presents Poland a chance to play European hero by accepting nearly 3 million Ukrainian refugees.

If these developments weren’t striking enough, consider that Putin has even given America’s Democrats and Republicans a sense of political unity that was best illustrated in March by a 424-8 vote in the House of Representatives to suspend normal trade relations with Russia and its ally Belarus. Putin has achieved the nearly unimaginable in U.S. politics: he’s persuaded many Americans to hate him more than they hate Americans of the opposite party.

It is important to be realistic. The U.S. and Europe will both face significant challenges in the coming months, as well as the institutions that have strengthened their relationship. America is heading for another difficult election cycle ahead of the November midterms. Americans and Europeans are aware that Donald Trump, a noted NATO skeptic, may be the Republican nominee in 2024. Europe might feel the effects of a prolonged Ukrainian military standoff. This could change the political climate. And though China won’t jeopardize its economic future by entering a long-term struggle with top trade partners Europe and America just to help its ally Russia, the longer-­term challenges it will pose for Western values and interests is much ­bigger than anything Putin is likely to concoct. President Biden’s calls for unity among democracies will antagonize both China and Russia.

In short, the Ukraine crisis has boosted some Western institutions that can strengthen democracy, rule of law, and human rights at the expense of authoritarians, at least the one who works in the Kremlin, but it won’t resolve the larger crisis of confidence to solve common problems. We need something larger to do that.

Exist other crises unfolding that will offer real opportunities to boost international cooperation—if we can learn from the mistakes of the recent past. U.S. leadership is limited by bitter partisan infighting, which makes America so dysfunctional. Mistrust will also limit U.S. and China’s ability to work together.

If they are able to form practical partnerships in crucial areas, then there will be others who can help boost global cooperation. The E.U., in particular, has shown that alliances of like-­minded countries can still offer big solutions to big problems in their common interest. In fostering cooperation, there are roles that can be played by the private sector and the international scientific community.

Public-health officials and politicians continue to struggle with new variants of COVID-19 virus. We might not be able to take as much time before another pandemic. Scientists have discovered dozens of lethal new pathogens in the past half-­century that leaped from animals to humans, and the pace of new discoveries is rising because wild animals are more frequently coming into direct contact as people encroach on animal habitats. There are also greater chances of developing new viruses from unsanitary factory farming.

In fact, though SARS-CoV-2, particularly in its Omicron variant, has proved highly infectious, it’s far from the deadliest virus we’ve faced just in the past 20 years. Given how much we don’t know about the mutation of corona­viruses, it would be foolish to assume the next strain can’t be both more transmissible and more deadly.

The pandemic created the greatest global crisis in human history, and real breakthroughs were made in multilateral cooperation. Scientists exchanged ideas and information. The international cooperation in COVID-19 was based on the coordination of research efforts and the establishment of a worldwide supply chain for the distribution. The central banks took complementary actions to help sagging countries, even though they were not coordinated. Joint ventures enabled the development of vaccines at an unprecedented pace thanks to international lenders. For example, without the COVAX Project, inequality among rich and poor countries and the problem of vaccine hoarding would be even more severe. The willingness of some countries to export excess supplies of vaccines—as the U.S. did for neighbors Mexico and Canada, and the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia did for other ­countries—­created a blueprint for shared sacrifice at a time of serious political and economic stress for all these countries.

But political leaders almost everywhere too often blamed and shamed scapegoats instead of rising to meet the moment in the face of invisible enemies that don’t care about boundaries. The COVID-19 pandemic, by itself, wasn’t frightening enough to make us build a new system of global public-health cooperation. COVID-19 was an international threat and could not be addressed without global solutions. Few leaders realized this. The pandemic, in this sense was not enough to force us into the type of cooperation we need. Will we be more prepared for the next fatal virus?

Climate Change is the CrisisThis should be the reason we have the greatest hope. It’s the emergency most likely to force world leaders to share more information, costs, and responsibilities, because it threatens disasters that can destroy the lives of hundreds of millions of people, with impacts felt in every region of the world. This is where, like in other areas of the world, U.S. leadership as well as U.S. China cooperation will be restricted. However, there are many actors who can take the lead.

Europe already has made real and historic strides. The so-called European Green Deal has boosted Europe as a leader on climate by committing unprecedented amounts of money toward the net-zero carbon-­emissions goal. By making climate spending a central pillar of its most recent budgets and COVID-19 economic-­relief plans, the European Commission has boosted its own power to raise future funds for pandemic relief and climate change from reluctant member states. E.U. standards are only applicable to those who comply. standards on emissions and other climate-­relevant policies can expect to get generous support for COVID recovery. It’s also possible that Russia’s war in Ukraine—and the need it creates to relieve European ­reliance on Russia for oil and gas—will spur large-scale investment in green technologies.

Progress is not limited to Europe. Although progress is not limited to Europe, there have been 195 countries that signed on to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change document, which accepts that the climate crisis has been caused by man. The world now has a clear consensus as to how much the planet is warming and in which regions. It also has a common understanding of how likely and probable long-term scenarios. The governments of the world’s biggest polluters, including the U.S. and China, have committed themselves to cutting carbon emissions to net zero. Some of the world’s biggest companies have offered public commitments of their own. In short, climate change has presented an immediate, potentially crippling global problem that has forced many governments, the private sector, and civil-­society organizations to work together. But there are big ­unanswered questions. A certain degree of warming has already become inevitable, and governments and private-­sector leaders need to accept and spend more on climate-­adaptation strategies.

They also need to prepare for the economic—and, therefore, geopolitical—disruptions to come. At the moment, European leaders are putting finishing touches on a plan to end dependence on Russian oil and natural gas, but this is simply an acceleration of a process that global warming has ­already begun. Rising seas and storms, along with more accessible green energy technologies, will make it clear that countries that are still heavily dependent on foreign oil will soon face financial collapse. As decarbonization strategies improve, countries which export fossil fuels may find themselves in less turmoil and less dependence.

Long-standing trade agreements based on fossil fuels, such as China and Russia or the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, will be transformed by the shift to cleaner energy. This trend will change the power balance across whole regions, and spark conflicts that need to be controlled. How to plan for the many millions of climate refugees created by increasing sea levels and changing weather patterns is one of the biggest questions. The political, economic, and humanitarian stakes couldn’t be higher.

There’s another challengeIt could even be considered a crisis. Many disruptive technologies have fundamentally changed our relationship with the government and one another. They’re changing the way we think and the way we live—often in ways we don’t understand.

Even in a time of pandemic, when millions of lives depend on scientists and doctors to develop new protections and treatments quickly, we don’t inject large numbers of people with a new drug until we’ve tested it. It is important to understand how the drug will impact people and how they will react. We also need to determine how effective it is, whether or not it can protect them. But when we ­develop new algorithms that determine which ideas, information, and images we’ll ingest, the way we’ll spend money, the products we’ll buy, and how we’ll interact with other people, we do no testing at all. All this can be injected directly by private companies into the public bloodstream.

You can think of all the ways that technology has transformed our lives. They’re already reinventing the skills needed to earn a living, for example. It is well-known that automation has impacted many work places, with robots performing many more of the jobs that were once performed by humans. But a 2019 study from the Brookings Institution found that workers with graduate or professional degrees will be almost four times as exposed to AI displacement in coming years as workers with a high school diploma.

The warfare landscape is also being transformed by new technologies. In the coming age of autonomous weapons, war will more often be waged with the use of buttons that push themselves—by calculating how and when to strike without human oversight. Cyberweapons will be far more popular than the more costly and more difficult to use nuclear weapons. Their disruptive effect has been increasing in recent years. The emerging Cold War between the West and Russia will emphasize their dangers.

The primary cause for optimism won’t come from American leadership, hampered by bitter partisan divisions, or from U.S.-China cooperation, particularly in areas of fundamental ideological differences over the rights of the individual.

Europe has a significant regulatory role to play in certain of these areas. E.U. is the leading authority on privacy and data use. Leaders are using Europe’s size to establish rules for the world. The world’s largest tech companies have far more power to effectively govern the digital space than any government does. Facebook, Google Amazon, Microsoft and Apple all have the ability to arbitrate global affairs through their collective power.

Whether the crisis that must be addressed is a new Cold War, the next pandemic, the profound disruption of climate change, or the dehumanizing power of many new technologies, there are challenges ahead that threaten our survival—but which can also form the basis for practical cooperation on important issues.

Our decisionmakers and influencers don’t have to like one another, much less agree on a single set of political and economic values. They don’t need to solve every problem. But never has it been more obvious that political leaders, the private sector, and citizens of all countries had better cooperate toward goals we can’t achieve alone. History shows it’s both necessary and possible.


Copyright © 2022 by Ian Bremmer. Adapted from the book THE POWER OF CRISIS: How Three Threats – and Our Response – Will Change the World by Ian Bremmer, published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. This article was reproduced with permission.

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