[Source, page 19 of the “Global Employment Trends 2009” [pdf report by the United Nations International Labor Organization.]
Niall Ferguson, writing for Foreign Policy with foreboding sees the current economic crisis as the final element needed for “an age of upheaval”:
Economic volatility, plus ethnic disintegration, plus an empire in decline: That combination is about the most lethal in geopolitics. We now have all three. The age of upheaval starts now.
Certainly, around the world, the economic crisis is causing instability – as the legitimacy of many governments around the world is called into question. The constitutional legitimacy of most governments, the bargain they have made with their people, is based on a growing economy that provides for the people’s needs, and increasingly, also provides individual economic opportunity. While this “deal” was often discussed with regards to authoritarian capitalist systems such as China’s, it is also true of governments in democratic capitalist systems. Thus it makes sense that this economic crisis is a serious threat to the stability of nations throughout the world.
If, as the chart above suggests, the worst is yet to come, the current unrest is but a preview. Already though, this crisis has provoked significant concerns and serious riots. Nelson D. Schwartz described the worldwide destabilizing effects of this crisis in his New York Times piece entitled “Job Losses Pose a Threat to Stability Worldwide.” Schwartz saw the crisis as potentially more destabilizing for countries in the former Soviet bloc:
Many newer workers, especially those in countries that moved from communism to capitalism in the 1990s, have known only boom times since then. For them, the shift is especially jarring, a main reason for the violence that exploded recently in countries like Latvia, a former Soviet republic.
Meanwhile, Niall Ferguson described how the crisis is undermining one of the key stabilizing elements in Pakistan, it’s middle class:
Pakistan’s small but politically powerful middle class has been slammed by the collapse of the country’s stock market. Meanwhile, a rising proportion of the country’s huge population of young men are staring unemployment in the face. It is not a recipe for political stability.
Patrick Hosking in The Times of London predicts that Great Britain will be hit by social unrest as well, though it certainly is not as vulnerable to collapse as Pakistan which is simultaneously fighting a civil war:
[I]t may already be too late to prevent social unrest, especially in Britain, which is tipped to be one of the worst-hit countries economically.
The spectacle of bankers continuing to award themselves bonuses while taking taxpayer support is feeding an extraordinary public rage and a fierce sense of injustice. With 40,000 people losing their jobs each month, it is a recipe for trouble, come the traditional rioting months of the summer.
Despite the fact that we have yet to come to the “traditional rioting months of the summer,” there have been large riots in Latvia, Bulgaria, Iceland, Greece, ((Greece’s riots were of course triggered by a police shooting, but it is hard to imagine they would be as intense without the instability caused by the financial crisis.)) and Russia. Russia has proven to be especially vulnerable – and as Arkady Ostrovsky of Foreign Policy explained, “The Kremlin is acutely aware that civil unrest in Russia could trigger the country’s disintegration.” He describes Putin, however, as the best of bad options:
Putin’s social contract has been based on co-opting Russia’s elites, bribing the population, and repressing the disobedient. A mixture of nationalistic rhetoric, rising incomes, and pride in Russia’s resurgence won public support. Until now, money has been Putin’s most powerful weapon. Rising incomes and a strong ruble (due to high commodity prices) have enabled Russians to enjoy imported food, holidays abroad, and foreign cars and technology. But even if the lives of ordinary people have not improved dramatically (49 percent say they have enough money for basic needs but struggle to buy much else), Russians at least felt that they had stopped sliding backward. Now things are looking bleak again…
But the chances of a liberal renaissance as a result of Putin’s social contract unraveling are highly unlikely. There is nothing more misleading than to portray Russia as a liberal-minded society suppressed by a nasty bunch of former KGB agents. The uncomfortable truth is, as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed boss of the Yukos oil company destroyed by the Kremlin, put it: Putin “is more liberal and more democratic than 70 percent of the population.” And unlike late Soviet leaders who inspired the contempt of the population, Putin even now remains authentically popular. ((A side note: Ostrovsky also describes “Putin’s most damaging and possibly longest-lasting legacy…that he has played to Russia’s worst instincts. Rather than develop a sense of pride in Russia’s victory over the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin has fostered feelings of past humiliation and defeat, and subsequently a longing for retribution.”))
What this seems to add up to – short of some economic miracle – is an increasingly unstable world – as long as this economic crisis lasts. At the same time, the trend towards the decentralization of power from the United States to corporations, individuals, non-governmental organizations, and other nations – the trend from unipolarity to nonpolarity, as Richard Haas describes it – could potentially make this problem harder to solve. Regardless, it seems certain that this crisis will reshape international politics – and that America’s power to effect the shape of what is to come is significant though limited.