Is this the Beginning of World War III?: Making Sense of 2014

As Russia faces off with the West and terrorism hits the skies again, the news looks increasingly bleak around the world.  The European Union is fragile, much of the world is in a recession worse than the one hitting the United States, China's presiding over the world's largest financial bubble, North Korea acting increasingly erratic, the Middle East is spinning into chaos, and Latin America's two-decades of stability look to be coming to an end.  Is this the beginning of World War III?  Is something unusual going on, or is this just the result of too much satellite T.V. and our having got used to a Post-Cold War era of peace?

First of all, much to the disappointment of Apocalypse-predictors everywhere of all religions, even if we enter into a period of extended chaos, life-expectancy has never been higher, infant mortality never lower, the poor never wealthier, nor has the world been as free from international and domestic conflict than it is now.  If you had to pick a century to live in, this is the one.  The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were far scarier in the 20th, 19th, and 18th, Centuries.  

What is happening, is that we are seeing the inevitable counter-action against the latest wave of hyper-globalization that I wrote about in 2006 in my book "Passport of Faith."  Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the speed of global integration on the cultural, economic, technological, and political levels has been unprecedented.  While some form of globalization is always occurring throughout history, this is an era of hyper-globalization of which we have only seen two previously (the Age of Exploration and the Industrial Revolution).  "In this era we have seen the birth of the Internet, the shrinking of the microchip, the establishment of new nation-states, the growth of immigration, the creation of mega-cities, the integration of world financial markets, and the practicality of satellite technology.  At the same time, these rapid changes are responsible for new challenges and dilemmas in the medical, environmental, financial, political, and social spheres. Cloning, the homogenization of cultures, global stock market crashes, the disintegration of nation-states, environmental degradation, and the rise of transnational terrorism all remind us that globalization brings benefits as well as challenges.  Globalization always demands radical change and adaptation." (p. 258 Passport of Faith).

That rapid, large-scale change causes global instability eventually, even though the foundation is being set for an era of greater prosperity and stability in the long-term. In POF, I spoke of the counteraction to globalization that would come and that it would involve competing ideologies, a new divide between rich and poor and lead toward shaky alliances, imperial overstretch, great power rivalries, an increase in terrorism, and anti-Capitalist movements.  Today 8 years later, I suggest that the prediction was accurate and in 2014, we can see 3 key global trends that are threatening to cause the counter-action to Globalization that is now ushering in a period of instability.  They are:  1) A Clash of Fundamentalism 2) Disillusionment with Democracy and 3) Severe Wealth Disparity.


Samuel Huntington was much criticized for his politically incorrect article and book "The Clash of Civilizations: the Remaking of the the World Order" which predicted that in the Post-Cold War era, we would see religion and cultural differences re-assert themselves.  He spoke of new fault lines between the Orthodox East, Islam and it's neighbors, and the West.  The war in Yugoslavia in the early 1990's was a foretaste of this.  

Huntington has been proven right in many ways, but what is becoming clear is that--in general--nationalism and fundamentalism has become a response around the world to globalization's rapid change.  It is not just Islamic Fundamentalism that is having  re-awakening, it is Hindu Fundamentalism in India, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel with Netanyahu government following suit, and Christian fundamentalism from Uganda to the U.S.A. making itself known.  Fundamentalist movements are often fueled by time of rapid change and modernization.

There is political fundamentalism as well.  The polarization of the U.S. Congress is mirrored in a number of countries.  Germany is increasingly divided into two, and India is seeing its political system paralyzed.  Thailand, like many countries, is divided between the rural class and the more urbane, wealthy class.  Leftist extremists are making a comeback in Latin America,  Right-wing extremists are gaining traction throughout Europe, both East and West. Even in peaceful Scandinavia, the 2011 Norway shooting by a right-wing extremist broke our image of the Northern countries being peaceful places of tolerance with no division.

The largest and most volatile Fundamentalist division is between Islamic movements and their non-Muslim neighbors (as Huntington predicted) and between Muslims themselves.  This division includes everything from a Sunni-Shia divide, to Fundamentalist Islam against Liberal Democracies, Fundamentalist Islam against secular regimes in Islamic countries, and division between Fundamentalist groups themselves.  

It is very likely that the path toward "peace" in the Middle East will only occur after a period of "Christendom-like" religious wars in which theocracy is proven to be an unmitigated disaster and Muslims come to reckoning with the need for a division between church and state.  Since this idea is not inherent to Islam, this civil war within Islam may long and bloody.  

We will continue to see fundamentalism and extremism grow throughout the world.  But extremists and fundamentalists make lousy governors, so many economic and democratic gains will be lost as these regimes take over playing on the nationalistic fears and fear of change of the general populace.  


The next area of the inevitable counter-action against globalization that is becoming very clear is "disillusionment with democracy."  After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the assumption was that Western-style Liberal Democracy had triumphed over communism.  The first two decades did see a democratic wave sweep the Earth.  By 2007 there were 123 elected democracies, up from 40 in 1972.  Since 2007, another 69 or so have been added.  Some have been complete surprises:  Russia, Burma (Myanmar), South Africa come to mind.  

But the past few years have seen democracy rejected, rolled-back, or corrupted to such degrees that widespread disillusionment is settling in.  Russia's experiment was pretty short-lived, the Afghanistan and Iraq experiments in Democracy are widely accepted to be a disaster now, Turkey's leadership has increasingly turned its back on Democracy after leading much of the world in economic growth and development, Greece is seeing extremists win votes, and the E.U. is becoming a symbol of a non-democratic trans-national organization issuing directives from above.  Meanwhile, the US has become a model of paralysis, lobbying, and financial recklessness over the past 20 years--never saving for a rainy day and always assuming problems can be postponed and delegated to future generations.  

China has opted to keep its democracy very limited (only at local levels) and its central government has been able to accomplish a lot more than countries like India or the USA that have to go through a messy political process to get anything done.  The downside for China is that the rising middle-class is demanding more a say over their daily lives, and issues like corruption and environmental degradation are infuriating the average Chinese and leading to emigration.  

Then there is the Arab Spring, where democracy has been messy and violent.  From Libya, to Egypt, to Tunisia and Syria--democracy has been far more fragile than people had hoped.  It's too early to give up on democracy in the Middle East, but one thing has become very clear:

Democracy needs healthy institutions to flourish.  When there is no Civil Society, no common sense of national identity, and no national institutions present, the choice quickly becomes anarchy and disintegration and/or authoritarianism.  The U.S. experiment in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11th, 2001 has become a textbook case on the limitations of a country like the United States being able to create democracy out of thin air.  It required an almost mind-blowing amount of naivete to believe that a country like Afghanistan--addicted to war, marginalizing women, and comfortable with the use of children as sexual objects--could somehow become a democracy after a short-invasion, some financial assistance, and a puppet leader installed.  


It must be understood that liberal democracy and free-market economics as has been practiced in this recent period of hyper-globalization have eradicated diseases, created a middle-class, integrated women in the workforce, and raised living standards faster than any other system in history.  This is something I have witnessed first-hand in more than 70 countries and I could literally give hundreds of examples of how this is true.  However, as I've consistently argued since 2006 (in two different books, and a fourth to be released this year), the potential for dangerously high levels of wealth disparity is very real. 

From Nigeria, to Peru, to Ukraine, to the United States, there is a global elite that is emerging that not only has greater wealth than everyone else, but has an enormous level of control over the economies of entire countries.  With smaller groups of people and a handful of corporations dominating economies as different as Russia's and the United States', this version of Capitalism doesn't look too different from China where a handful of government families and the few state-owned businesses they have run the country.  The lines between Liberal Democracy and oligarchy have become increasingly blurred in the 21st Century and people around the world are noticing.  Both Ukraine and Russia which are at odds from this suffer from a democracy that is really beholden to a few wealthy people that have the freedom to use the state's money and industry to enrich their coffers.  But we saw the same thing in certain Middle Eastern countries and in Latin America.

While living standards have raised over-all, the amount of money that globalization generates overwhelms and easily gets too centralized in the hands of few.  Brazil is a good example.  Under President Lula, Brazil's economy did improve dramatically and a new Middle-Class and wealthy class emerged.  The wealthy, however, became extraordinarily wealthy.  All this wealth doesn't always trickle down in the ways people would like to think.  It doesn't stand to follow that the needs of society are developed sufficiently.  This is what the recent protests in Brazil were about:  the government can invest in large showy projects such as hosting the World Cup and Olympics, but basics like bus service don't improve.  As in Ukraine, Russia, Venezuela, and many other countries--the people wonder--"Where does all the money go?"  In the United States, our recent financial windfall did nothing to change the extreme amount of debt college kids are racking up with their 8% government loans, but large corporations that go bankrupt and nearly collapse the economy do not have to pay even 1%.  

In the same way that airlines now have two classes:  Luxury for the global elite, and poor-service economy--the countries are themselves becoming like this.  There have always been classes on airplane.  But today, airlines base their entire service on the jet-setting, wealthy, elite--even if it means that half-of a 747 is taken up by 40 seats.  The whole airline and aircraft is built to cater to those 40 while 360 see no evidence of much effort made for them.  This is how many around the world feel from Brazil to Iran to the U.S.A.  

Wealth disparity when it gets to a certain level, can cause huge problems--even for the wealthy themselves.  It is not sustainable for very long.  As time goes on, more and more generations will have grown up seeing this stratification and they will have no problem reigning in capitalism and globalization.  If free-market champions and supporters of Liberal Democracy don't want to see extreme solutions to the problem (such as a resurgence of class-warfare and Marxism), then it will be up to them to address these issues in concrete ways striking the middle-ground between hyper-capitalism and sclerotic re-distribution that stifles wealth.  The temptation in an era where fundamentalism, disillusion with democracy, and severe wealth disparity are so present will be to resort to cheap-shot name calling, demonizing, caricatures, and disengagement.  This would be an enormous mistake and cost us greatly.  

The world is not ending, but it is returning to its more natural, complicated state.  The years 1991-2008 were a peaceful aberration and the counter-action to globalization is beginning in earnest.  There is nothing that a U.S. President (Republican, Democrat, or Independent) can do about it.  It is an unavoidable part of the process.  The limitations of wealth-generation minus healthy governing institutions is becoming clear from East to West.  Brace yourself for a bumpy ride.


If you liked this essay, my new book:  "In God We Trust?  A Challenge to American Evangelicals" will be available this summer 2014 and released this Fall! Stay tuned for details.