A pretentious title requires a modest beginning. The world has increasingly destabilized and it is necessary to try to state, as clearly as possible, what has happened and why. This is not because the world is uniquely disorderly; it is that disorder takes a different form each time, though it is always complex.
To put it simply, a vast swath of the Eurasian landmass (understood to be Europe and Asia together) is in political, military and economic disarray. Europe and China are struggling with the consequences of the 2008 crisis, which left not only economic but institutional challenges. Russia is undergoing a geopolitical crisis in Ukraine and an economic problem at home. The Arab world, from the Levant to Iran, from the Turkish border through the Arabian Peninsula, is embroiled in politically destabilizing warfare. The Western Hemisphere is relatively stable, as is the Asian Archipelago. But Eurasia is destabilizing in multiple dimensions.
We can do an infinite regression to try to understand the cause, but let's begin with the last systemic shift the world experienced: the end of the Cold War.
The Repercussions of the Soviet Collapse
The Cold War was a frozen conflict in one sense: The Soviet Union was contained in a line running from the North Cape of Norway to Pakistan. There was some movement, but relatively little. When the Soviet Union fell, two important things happened. First, a massive devolution occurred, freeing some formally independent states from domination by the Soviets and creating independent states within the former Soviet Union. As a result, a potentially unstable belt emerged between the Baltic and Black seas.
Meanwhile, along the southwestern border of the former Soviet Union, the demarcation line of the Cold War that generally cut through the Islamic world disappeared. Countries that were locked into place by the Cold War suddenly were able to move, and internal forces were set into motion that would, in due course, challenge the nation-states created after World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire that had been frozen by the Cold War.
Two emblematic events immediately occurred. In 1990, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union was complete, Iraq invaded Kuwait and seemed to threaten Saudi Arabia. This followed an extended war with Iran from which Iraq emerged in a more favorable position than Tehran, and Baghdad seemed to be claiming Kuwait as its prize. The United States mobilized not only its Cold War coalition, but also states from the former Soviet bloc and the Arab world, to reverse this. The unintended consequence was to focus at least some Sunnis both on the possibilities created by the end of the Cold War and on the American role as regional hegemon, which in turn led to 9/11 and is still being played out now, both to the south and north of the old Cold War dividing line.
The second event was the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian war that left about 100,000 people dead. It was a war of old grudges and new fears. It seemed to represent a unique situation that was not applicable to the rest of the region, but it in fact defined the new world system in two ways. First, Yugoslavia was the southern extension of the borderland between the Soviet Union and Western Europe. What happened in Yugoslavia raised questions that most people ignored, about what the long-term reality in this borderland would be. Second, among other things, the war centered on an east-west schism between Christians and Muslims, and the worst of the bloodletting occurred in this context. The United States and NATO interceded in Kosovo against Serbia despite Russian protests, and Moscow was ultimately sidelined from the peacekeeping mission that defused the war. The explosion in the Balkans foreshadowed much of what was to come later.
While Russia weakened and declined, the two ends of Eurasia flourished. The decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany ushered in a period of significant prosperity that had two results. The European Union, created through the Maastricht Treaty the same year the Soviet Union disintegrated, expanded its influence eastward into the former Soviet sphere and southward, incorporating disparate states whose differences were hidden by the prosperous period. And China, after the end of the Japanese economic miracle, became the global low-wage, high-growth country, powered by the appetite for its exports in prosperous Europe and North America.
The forces at work in Eurasia were hidden. The fragility of peripheral nations in Europe relative to German economic power was not fully visible. The cyclical nature of China's growth, similar in many ways to the dynamics of Japan in the previous generation, was also invisible. The consequences of the end of the Cold War Islamic world, the forces that were unleashed beneath the surface and the fragility of the states that were containing them were hidden beneath the illusion of American power after the victory in Kuwait. Only in Russia was weakness visible, and one of two erroneous conclusions was reached: Either Russia was permanently impotent, or its misery would cause it to evolve into a liberal democracy. All seemed right with Eurasia.
Signs of Destabilization
The first indication of trouble was, of course, 9/11. It was the American attack that was critical. Drawing on the recollection of Desert Storm, it was assumed that American power could reshape the Islamic world at will. All power has limits, but the limits of American power were not visible until later in the 2000s. At that point two other events intervened. The first was the re-emergence of Russia as at least a regional power when it invaded Georgia in 2008. The other was, of course, the financial crisis. Both combined to define the current situation.
The financial crisis transformed Chinese behavior. Although China was already reaching the end of its economic cycle, the decline in appetites for Chinese exports changed the dynamic of China's economy. Not only did the decline suppress growth, but Beijing's attempts to shift growth to domestic consumption created inflation that made its exports even less competitive. The result was a political crisis as the Chinese government became increasingly concerned about instability and therefore increasingly oppressive in an attempt to control the situation.