30 May Opinion | Coronavirus Showed How Globalization Broke the Wo…
If recent weeks have shown us anything, it’s that the world is not just flat. It’s fragile.
And we’re the ones who made it that way with our own hands. Just look around. Over the past 20 years, we’ve been steadily removing man-made and natural buffers, redundancies, regulations and norms that provide resilience and protection when big systems — be they ecological, geopolitical or financial — get stressed. We’ve been recklessly removing these buffers out of an obsession with short-term efficiency and growth, or without thinking at all.
At the same time, we’ve been behaving in extreme ways — pushing against, and breaching, common-sense political, financial and planetary boundaries.
And, all the while, we’ve taken the world technologically from connected to interconnected to interdependent — by removing more friction and installing more grease in global markets, telecommunications systems, the internet and travel. In doing so, we’ve made globalization faster, deeper, cheaper and tighter than ever before. Who knew that there were regular direct flights from Wuhan, China, to America?
Put all three of these trends together and what you have is a world more easily prone to shocks and extreme behaviors — but with fewer buffers to cushion those shocks — and many more networked companies and people to convey them globally.
This, of course, was revealed clearly in the latest world-spanning crisis — the coronavirus pandemic. But this trend of more frequent destabilizing crises has been building over the past 20 years: 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, Covid-19 and climate change. Pandemics are no longer just biological — they are now geopolitical, financial and atmospheric, too. And we will suffer increasing consequences unless we start behaving differently and treating Mother Earth differently.
Note the pattern: Before each crisis I mentioned, we first experienced what could be called a “mild” heart attack, alerting us that we had gone to extremes and stripped away buffers that had protected us from catastrophic failure. In each case, though, we did not take that warning seriously enough — and in each case the result was a full global coronary.
“We created globalized networks because they could make us more efficient and productive and our lives more convenient,” explained Gautam Mukunda, the author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.” “But when you steadily remove their buffers, backup capacities and surge protectors in pursuit of short-term efficiency or just greed, you ensure that these systems are not only less resistant to shocks, but that we spread those shocks everywhere.”
Sept. 11, 2001
Let’s start with 9/11. You could view Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, as political pathogens that emerged out of the Middle East after 1979. “Islam lost its brakes in 1979” — its resistance to extremism was badly compromised — said Mamoun Fandy, an expert on Arab politics.
That was the year that Saudi Arabia lurched backward, after Islamist extremists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca and an Islamic revolution in Iran brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Those events set up a competition between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia over who was the real leader of the Muslim world. That battle coincided with a surge in oil prices that gave both fundamentalist regimes the resources to propagate their brands of puritanical Islam, through mosques and schools, across the globe.
In doing so, they together weakened any emerging trends toward religious and political pluralism — and strengthened austere fundamentalism and its violent fringes.
Remember: The Muslim world was probably at its most influential, culturally, scientifically and economically, in the Middle Ages, when it was a rich and diverse polyculture in Moorish Spain.
Diverse ecosystems, in nature and in politics, are always more resilient than monocultures. Monocultures in agriculture are enormously susceptible to disease — one virus or germ can wipe out an entire crop. Monocultures in politics are enormously susceptible to diseased ideas.
Thanks to Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Arab-Muslim world became much more of a monoculture after 1979. And the idea that violent Islamist jihadism would be the engine of Islam’s revival — and that purging the region of foreign influences, particularly American, was its necessary first step — gained much wider currency.
This ideological pathogen spread — through mosques, cassette tapes and then the internet — to Pakistan, North Africa, Europe, India and Indonesia.
The warning bell that this idea could destabilize even America rang on Feb. 26, 1993, at 12:18 p.m., when a rental van packed with explosives blew up in the parking garage below the 1 World Trade Center building in Manhattan. The bomb failed to bring down the building as intended, but it badly damaged the main structure, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000.
The mastermind of the attack, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, a Pakistani, later told F.B.I. agents that his only regret was that the 110-story tower did not collapse into its twin and kill thousands.
What happened next we all know: The direct hits on both twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, which set off a global economic and geopolitical crisis that ended with the United States spending several trillion dollars trying to immunize America against violent Islamic extremism — via a massive government-directed surveillance system, renditions and airport metal detectors — and by invading the Middle East.
The United States and its allies toppled the dictators in Iraq and Afghanistan, hoping to stimulate more political pluralism, gender pluralism and religious and educational pluralism — antibodies to fanaticism and authoritarianism. Unfortunately, we didn’t really know how to do this in such distant lands, and we botched it; the natural pluralistic antibodies in the region also proved to be weak.
Either way — as in biology, so, too, in geopolitics — the virus of Al Qaeda mutated, picking up new elements from its hosts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, violent Islamic extremism became even more virulent, thanks to subtle changes in its genome that transformed it into ISIS, or the Islamic State.
This emergence of ISIS, and parallel mutations in the Taliban, forced the United States to remain in the area to just manage the outbreaks, but nothing…