White swans or colored horses? How to qualify the crises that overlap?

Four crises unfold in front of us and cause consternation. They have a disturbing similarity with the first four seals of the Book of Revelation in Western religious eschatology.

According to a colleague from New York University, economist Nouriel Roubini (whom newspapers call “Doctor Doom”), we are facing several very serious crises, or seismic events that threaten international order. In contrast with the “black swans” that financial analyst Nassim Nicolas Taleb[1] studies, (unexpected catastrophic events), Roubini talks about “white swans” (potentially discernible catastrophes) and warns: “This year, we can see several potentially seismic white swans in the horizon. Any of them could trigger serious economic, financial, political and geopolitical disruptions not seen since 2008 crisis” (quoted in Project Syndicate, February 2020). In this article, I propose reviewing the main four and re-baptize them, no longer as birds but rather as motley horses: nothing less than the four horses (and their respective horsemen) from the Apocalypse.

Four seismic movements shake the international order today. They are clearly discernible and very hard to constrain or mitigate. They are the following:

  • The White horse: strategic rivalry among false prophets

We perceive a notable increase in strategic rivalry among five actors, to wit: the United States, reluctantly retreating from its once dominant position in various continens; the Popular Republic of China that translates its economic force into regional warlike moves and global technological power; a Russia that opportunistically advances covering the holes left by the American retreat; the Islamic Republic of Iran that bets on an ever more serious conflict with United States and is already an irrepressible regional power in the Middle East;  and finally, North Korea that has demonstrated its ability for manipulating the first world’s power with a nuclear gamble.

This strategic rivalry has translated into armed confrontations in the Near East that so far have not escalated to a larger military conflict, but that do have the potential for an uncontrollable escalation, especially because each one of the world powers  presents itself before humanity as a false redeemer.

More important than the conventional arms race (whose main function is commercial and not simply military) is asymmetrical war. The latter is in full development and does not guarantee any more an American hegemony, as the Achilles heel of the battered western democracies is the political polarization and own information networks that are vulnerable to frequent foreign interventions, whose objective is to spread confusion and delegitimize institutions. The cracked western block faces a serious exogenous challenge (subversion of democracy by their rivals).

In this conflict, a western counterattack consists of benefiting from the discontent and cracks within the authoritarian and/or totalitarian model of their rivals that is too rigid for their own good. It is already clear that Chinese politics and governance will not be the same after the outbreak of COVID-19. The myth (though not the reality) that Chinese president Xi and his allies had promoted regarding the virtues of centralized control has been demolished. The population accepts central control, but not necessarily a modern “emperor.” The block lead by China faces a serious endogenous challenge (rigidity of its governance model).

In such strategic rivalry, each opponent takes advantage of the adversary’s weakness: too much openness on the one side and too much stiffness on the other. So far, we do not know where this “soft power” asymmetric war can lead us, or its relation with the “hard power” rivalry we have pointed out before, at the beginning of this article.

In summary: We are facing two different and opposed types of geopolitical fragility. Authoritarian and/or totalitarian systems mobilize at great speed (example: the construction of emergency hospitals in China) but, in this way, they also make serious mistakes. On the other side, western post-democratic anomie (end of the “American dream”) prevents that country from developing coherent strategies. In both cases, there is an increase in aggression and a tendency to “blame the other” for  core problems –and thus no one solves them.

  • The Red Horse: Non-conventional, diffuse, and total war.

The current truce in the commercial war between the United States and China is just that: a truce. The underlying trend is the decoupling of these countries and other economic regions as well. The fragmentation of the global order takes place on several fronts: with China, with the European Union, between United Kingdom and Europe, and is outlined in other regions. However, this distancing is not pacific; on the contrary, it is clear that there is a strong  the development of a covert cybernetic war. The latter, at the same time, is part of a general tendency to use economic policy, communication, financial system, immigration and scientific research as non-conventional weapons. The consequence is serious: each of these “weapons” detracts specific processes and institutions from their original purpose and turns them dysfunctional.

In case of an escalation in this conflict, it is not difficult to imagine a Chinese “discharge,” not of weapons but of American treasury bills. The growing diversification of Chinese reserves and eventually of other holders of American bonds and the current “seek refuge in gold” can produce a crisis of large magnitude and signal the beginning of the end of the dollar’s hegemony. In this order, as in others, there is a profound contradiction between interpenetration of productive chains, on the one side, and the nationalist reactions against globalization, on the other.

The internationalization of nationalism is a fatal oxymoron. It is an unsolvable contradiction. Current leaders around the White House and other government centers of different countries seem to negate or ignore their serious consequences: a global economic collapse. The red horse of the Apocalypses has started to gallop.

  • The Black horse (the plague): Sanitary fragility and humanitarian crises

The current pandemic of coronavirus is an example of an even more general tendency. In the current one, different types of humanitarian crises are developing, from old and new diseases to starvation in vast poor regions of the planet. The current pandemic is a first scratch in the surface of curable and neglected diseases, and the first instance of more crises to come.

At the same time, these diverse crises have an accelerating effect on the geopolitical decoupling I have pointed out. We clearly see a contradiction in the core of these crises as a symbol of the international situation. On the one side, the crises are an expression of the interpenetration of economies and populations and, on the other side, the reaction against them is closing borders and confining within hermetic units. It is a perverse contradiction. The only possible solution is precisely what these measures avoid, that is, the international coordination in solidarity. The quarantine of millions of people exemplifies the contradiction: there is more and more social control and, at the same time, less control of the underlying causes.

  • The pale horse. Ecological fragility and threats to entire life in the planet. The pale horse is a harbinger of death

We know that denial is a very dysfunctional defense mechanism. Everywhere, the alarm regarding a climate crisis has fallen on deaf ears, at least at the leadership level. Leaders repeatedly promise to prepare themselves for a future emergency that is present not future and is already affecting production, distribution, or information chains. In sum: the denial of the seriousness of the ecological problem, passing it into the future when it is present everywhere, simply intensifies the crisis. It is no longer if or when, but now. The other side of this denial is paralysis, disguised as distraction over other urgencies that are not such. The apocalypse has become familiar and daily and there is no worse thing than such “normalization.”

Soon there will be an awakening from this denial so full of distractions. But it will be a rough awakening. From the seven seals of the Book of Revelations, there are three to be discovered. I don’t dare imagine the result[2].

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[1] . [1] Nassim Nicolas Taleb,  The Black Swan.  The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Second Edition, New York: Random House, 2010.

[2] . I am referring to Saint John’s Apocalypse in the Cristian New Testament that today is part of the western mythology.

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