A three ring circus


Reader beware: the following analysis will not be delivered at Davos.  A three ring circus is a circus with simultaneous performances in three rings. It has come to mean something wild, confusing, engrossing, or entertaining. It is dangerous as well. It is therefore an apt image for the world today.


I’d like to represent the current geopolitical panorama of the world as a three-ringed circus.  The reason for using the circus as (more than) a metaphor is that increasingly, both national and international politics are arenas for spectacles.

Some of these spectacles are organized by established powers and multi-lateral institutions.  As Max Weber once wrote, modern politics assumes sometimes the character of sport.  Other spectacles are organized as surprises by non-state and extra-institutional actors.  Of the latter, terrorist irruptions are, sadly, the most spectacular.  It is as if everybody demands attention, often at the expense of truth, decency, and respect for the commons.

Decades ago, the sociologist Guy Debord published a book titled La société du spectacle. [1]   It was a prescient indictment of our image-saturated consumer culture: capitalist-driven phenomena like advertising, television, film, and celebrity.  Today

we must add social media to the mix.  One of Debord’s main tenets was that there is no such thing as neutral media; that instead all news are orchestrated shows.  The Internet has put this human condition on steroids, and its seemingly democratic –some would say anarchic– character has only generalized the ability to manipulate and deceive.  Moreover, the media are omnipresent, and most difficult to escape.

The voices of serious research and rational discourse have taken a back seat in the carnival of images and tweets.  As in the Middle Ages, these practices have sought refuge in some –by no means all—modern “monasteries:” some reading circles, scientific communities, foundations, research institutions, and definitely not in most of the so-called “think tanks” where biased research is adduced in support of pre-established “conclusions.”

The spectacular constitutes the larger, more visible, ring of the circus.  Advertised feats of technology, the performance of national teams competing in international sports events,  bombastic declarations by leaders, movements of troops, the cult of heroes, the (often inane) statements of celebrities, the threats of war, terrorist attacks and counter-terrorist displays of force, and a steady stream of human suffering displayed on the screen, are permanent media-ted features of our daily environment, peppered with a barrage of advertisements peddling both poisons and their antidotes.  In academic circles most of these antics, seen from a competitive perspective, are called “soft power.”  Long after Dr. Goebbels, they are the new wiles of a refined propaganda.

The second ring –one which draws fewer spectators—displays traditional geopolitics.  It is the realm of big and small power competition, in which nation states and blocks of nations –permanent and occasional alliances—jockey for positions on the map.

After the end of the cold war, and for about two decades, globalization –under the aegis of the sole remaining superpower—seemed to have condemned traditional geopolitics to the dustbin of history.  But this was not to be.  Though it brought many benefits, globalization has not distributed them equally, either within or between countries.  The result today is a sprawling resentment and a backlash.

Increasingly the reaction to globalization takes the form of nativism, nationalism, protectionism, a transactional, opportunistic approach to international relations, to a polarization within, and heightened tensions between, nations.  As a result geopolitics has regained saliency both in scholarly circles and in more popular chat spaces, ranging from the punditry of newspapers  to the online areas of social media.  The second ring of the circus is quite active, and its spectators a bit more alert and cognizant of the issues at stake, although nobody knows what to do or how the power games will end.

At the moment, the trends are as follows.  There is a significant loss of power and prestige by the United States[2], a paralysis in a dysfunctional European Union,[3] and the rise in influence and interference by China and Russia.  India is coming forth  just one step behind. Less significant powers, be it Iran or Turkey among the larger ones, and North Korea, Pakistan, or Israel among nuclear-armed midgets, can have their voice and interests heeded. Failing states still have leverage. Even fully failed states can wreck havoc if they host violent movements and networks. Throughout the world, democracy is backsliding and civic space is in retreat.[4]

None of these trends augurs well for the management of the global commons and for the fate of humanity itself.  We should therefore expect mayhem in the second ring of the world circus.  The fluidity of alignments among great powers increasingly defines the international system as Moscow and Beijing balance against each other, just as many U.S. allies hedge their relationships with Washington.

If the reader wishes to explore further the situation in this  ring, I recommend  the recent book by Stephen King, Grave New World.[5]

The third ring of the circus is the circle of violence: terror, insurrection, and open armed conflict.  Under its tent friend and foe frequently exchange places, and the distinction between combatants and no combatants is erased in the count of casualties.[6]  The distinction between winning and losing also becomes blurred in the many wars that have no foreseeable end: Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Crimea, to cite a few.

Any geopolitical report that reaches my desk on a weekly basis indicates growing instability and the risk of fateful clashes.  As an example, here is a representative report from Stratfor Worldview (January 19, 2018):

2018 Annual Forecast — North Korea’s likely achievement of a viable nuclear deterrent next year will give rise to a new and more unstable era of containment. As the specter of war looms in the Asia-Pacific, China and Russia will band together while the United States cracks down even harder on Iran — as well as its own trade partners.”

The news from the third ring of the world circus is not reassuring.  In my forthcoming coming book Strategic Impasse,[7] I characterize the situation, from the perspective of the United States alone, as one of “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”  The report just quoted illustrates the impasse well. Though the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula can’t be ruled out, the United States will probably try to avoid a costly preventive strike against the North’s nuclear weapons program that would kill millions locally and plunge the global economy back into recession if not worse. Instead, the parties to the conflict will enter, as Stratfor predicts,  “an unstable era of containment.”  It will be a harbinger of cold wars in miniature here and there on the planet, with occasional but devastating flare ups.  Conflicts of this sort will sprout like maggots on the corpse of the liberal world order.

With the proliferation of nuclear devices not only among states but soon among non-state actors as well, the risk of mass destruction has increased significantly.  In this respect, the third ring of the geopolitical circus could well become Dante’s fifth circle of hell, where the wrathful fight each other on the surface of the river Styx and the sullen gurgle beneath the surface of the water.  If this comes to pass, with Dante we may say:

“How many now hold themselves mighty kings,

Who here like swine shall wallow in the mire;

Leaving behind them horrible dispraise?” (Inferno, Canto VIII).

We can surely do better than that.


[1] Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (1967, Paris: Les Éditions Buchet-Chastel).

[2] The erosion of American prestige is not recent.  It became serious in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, and was only attenuated during the Obama years, due in large part to retreat and hesitation.  Donald Trump has exacerbated the decline. Where Obama led from behind, Trump retreats from the front.   In breaking previous commitments to a law-bound international order and spousing an authoritarian ideology, the American president is licensing malevolent leaders elsewhere to follow his example. Nasty nationalism is a franchise.

[3] This will be the subject of my next article in OS, “Europa Emerita.” The upcoming election in Italy suggests that its outcome could destabilize the alliance between France and Germany, hold back the process of reforming the European Union, and even risk the survival of the single currency on the Continent.  In short, the EU is so fragile that any significant event like a national election as in Italy, or a local election as in Catalonia, destroys its equilibrium and is a fresh crisis of the status quo.

[4] See http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/11/02/closing-space-challenge-how-are-funders-responding-pub-61808

[5] Stephen D. King, Grave New World.  The End of Globalization, the Return of History (2017.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press).

[6] This was foreseen with acuity by the Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld, in a string of books that started with his celebrated The Transformation of War (1991, New York: Free Press).

[7] Juan E. Corradi, Strategic Impasse.  Social Origins of Geopolitical Decline (2018, New York and London: Routledge).


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