The main problem with geopolitical earthquakes, no less than their counterparts in nature, is that their direction, consequences, and implications are, as historian Williamson Murray argued, largely uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unforeseeable. The assumptions of the past no longer hold: As Henry Kissinger said in May 2022, “We are living in an entirely new era.” Mid- and long-term outcomes of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War transformed all the winners, losers, and neutrals, leading some to go through painful, unexpected, and undesired transformations. Taking into consideration the scale of Ukrainian resistance on the ground and the unprecedented unity of the collective West against Russia at the geopolitical level, it is easy to assume that the world will not be transformed in the direction expected by Putin any more than it was transformed in the direction desired by the Japanese militarists after Pearl Harbor. However, this does not necessarily mean that it will go in the direction expected or desired by the West either. A dangerous, uncertain transition to a different global system may lie ahead, due to the structural and economic reasons detailed below, which bring the impact of the war to practically every doorstep worldwide.
Earthquakes are most destructive at their epicenter. Yet due to the specifics of geology and geography, the earthquake’s shockwaves—rather than the epicenter—can also generate devastating and lasting damage: The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake in Japan is an instructive example of that. Similarly, in geopolitical earthquakes, the shockwaves strike well beyond the immediate epicenter; yet, the analogy between the natural and social world is limited. In the natural world the consequences of earthquake shockwaves are necessarily devastating. In the social world, geopolitical shake ups have been known to help societies rid themselves of ineffective and outdated institutions and to overcome systemic obstacles for human development. These processes are sometimes experienced as distressing but can be construed as ultimately necessary. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman noted, in the wake of 1789—when the shockwaves of the French Revolution destroyed the institutions of the monarchist Ancien Régime—it became all too clear that many of them were already “rusty, mushy and coming apart.”
In the last few months, much has been written about the impact of the Western pivot away from Russian fossil fuels. While the skyrocketing oil and gas prices might lead, as some argue, to a positive transformative shift in the Western developed economies, where “consumers, businesses, industry and even entire countries will look to find [greener] alternatives,” their impact on more fragile economies of countries that have already suffered from years of conflict and instability could be devastating.
Poorer countries are currently facing the prospect of a major food crisis. While much attention has been paid to the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports, which disrupts supplies, even if the ports become operational again the problem will remain. First, rising energy prices are already translating to higher transportation costs of basic goods, driving up the prices of basic foodstuffs. Second, Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of basic foodstuffs—together they supply almost 29% of the world’s exports of wheat brands, 20% of corn, and 80% of sunflower oil. While the Western economies have enough margins to address these rising prices, the situation in the poorer corners of the world is different—as indicated by the Economist front page showing human skulls in a sheaf of grain. According to David Beasley, the executive director of the UN World Food Programme, 50% of the wheat supplied by the organization was coming from Ukraine. Russia is also a prime exporter of indispensable ingredients in fertilizers—potash and phosphate. When Ukrainian farmers are preoccupied with defending their land in the beginning of the seeding season, and when Russian farmers cannot be paid due to the exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT system, rising food prices threaten to bring more instability into already unstable countries. Just a few weeks into the conflict and the spiraling prices of food and other basic commodities ignited protests and rallies in Iraq and Morocco. According to the Financial Times, “a jump in grain prices in 2009-10 is regarded as one of the triggers of the Arab Spring in the Middle East.” The looming global food crisis threatens to have yet more destructive consequences, including more conflicts and more refugees.
Many in the West have praised the decisiveness of the EU’s effort to protect Ukrainian refugees escaping the war. While the unprecedented deal—that grants Ukrainians instant rights to live and work within the EU—is more than welcome in itself, many human rights groups and organizations have been clamoring that it demonstrates the EU’s “double standards” in comparison to the 2015 refugee crisis. “The Ukraine refugee crisis,” argues the Global Detention Project (GDP), a Geneva-based nonprofit organization, “presents Europe with . . . a critical moment of reflection: Can the peoples of Europe overcome their widespread racism and animosity and embrace the universalist spirit of the 1951 Refugee Conventions?” This question might become pivotal once food shortages start to affect societies in the Middle East and North Africa. This may expose not only the West’s moral bias but also systemic weaknesses of contemporary institutions that have shaped globalization processes during the last decades, such as migration regimes.
For the past several decades, globalization has been progressing unevenly—with greater freedom for flows of capital and goods across borders and increasingly more restraints on the movement of people. The war in Ukraine may change this situation. The ensuing waves of migration are about to put unprecedented pressure on Western policies of “migration control.” Governments in developed countries devised these policies to ensure that only the “right” types of immigrants would be allowed to enter for settlement purposes. But in reality, these were primarily symbolic policies meant to satisfy public demand for a more assertive defense of national borders. They resulted in global inequality in opportunities, while migration continued via illegal routes that endangered and criminalized the migrants. This mechanism is ineffective in stopping migration, and often causes suffering—and loss of life at sea. Very much like the underperforming institutions of the 18th century Ancien Régime, contemporary regimes of migration control may not withstand the pressures of the post-Ukraine migration shockwaves. Such possible breakdowns of institutions are likely to meet with reactionary political confrontations from within Western societies. These may reveal, in turn, that while the West is more immune to the looming food crisis, it is not safeguarded against other shockwaves unleashed by the war in Ukraine.
In fact, even before any of these future scenarios played out, the war in Ukraine is already galvanizing political radicals, especially on the far right. Since the war began, observers of online radical communities have noted that Ukraine turned in as “a new extremist breeding ground” for far-right, white supremacists and neo-Nazis from Europe and beyond. Following the call by the Ukrainian Azov Battalion (a far-right paramilitary group that was absorbed into the Ukrainian national guard in 2014), a vast online recruitment surge of radicals has been taking place online. One of the consequences of the Kremlin’s narrative of “denazification” of Ukraine is that it hinders the ability to discuss the real danger posed by neo-Nazi radical movements, in Ukraine or elsewhere. Concurrently, QAnon and Russian conspiracy theories about alleged Pentagon-funded laboratories that developed biological weapons in Ukraine are energizing the alt-right media ecosystem, reaching the right-wing mainstream via Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. These conspiracies are linked to the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, vaccines, and other social issues that seem to emerge as a potent ground for further political radicalization. The current galvanization of politics should be a wakeup call for political elites in the West to look for ways to strengthen the mainstream, to curb such excess—and at the same time to address the grievances and anxieties of the communities to whom such incitement appeals and who feel alienated by the opaque nature of political and economic decision-making in the West.
Western societies and economies will have to address these urgent sociopolitical challenges, which may arrive in tandem with other threats to the global order. The disruption caused by the war to the global economic model led Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock and one of the world’s leading hedge fund investors, to write that “the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put an end to the globalization we have experienced over the last three decades.” Fink is worried about two further expected shockwaves. First, the globalized economy is amidst a supply chain crisis, which the war in Ukraine is aggravating further. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, shippers have tried to bypass the uncertainty of fraught container shipping by turning to rail transport as an alternative route for the Asia–Europe trade. Rail operators ran more than 1,200 freight trains per month between China and Europe, transiting through Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and transporting almost 1.5 million containers. The disruption caused by the blocking of land routes may result in more permanent and painful retreat by manufacturers from reliance on global supply chains. Second, the war in Ukraine may also disrupt technological innovation. For example, much of the world’s neon, which is crucial for the production of computer chips, originates in Russia, and 50% of this is purified in Ukraine. The interruption to supply chains and possible deficit of microchips are daunting scenarios for global economic development. But they may also come as a natural and much needed trend to cool down a radically decentralized, overcomplicated, and hence venerable global system of trade.
The problem is further aggravated by the fact that the West faces this geopolitical earthquake in a much more vulnerable state than it is ready to admit. Much attention has been paid in the West to whether China is likely to back Russia. India called off at the last moment a 10-member “high-powered” delegation of British MPs scheduled to visit Delhi and Rajasthan because “the Modi government was not inclined to provide a platform for the UK delegation to discuss India’s foreign policy and its stand in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.” And 26 out of 54 African countries did not vote in favor of the UN resolution that condemned Russia’s aggression in Ukraine (17 countries abstained, 8 were absent, and 1 voted against the resolution). Chandran Nair, a Malaysian businessman of Indian origin and founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow in Hong Kong, explained this in the following way: “Reactions to events in Ukraine have revealed to the wider world a deep-seated Western superiority, particularly with regards to the lesser value of non-Western lives and the right to intervene in other countries. Now, the non-Western world is refusing to accept the West’s selective sense of morality, and this is perhaps the biggest shift arising from the tragedy in Ukraine.”
Explaining the Western reluctance to sanction Russian multimillionaires (hyper-rich below oligarchs), Thomas Piketty, a French economist who established his own school of neo-Marxist thought, argued: “the confrontation between ‘democracies’ and ‘autocracies’ is overplayed, forgetting that Western countries share with Russia and China an unbridled, hyper-capitalist ideology, and a legal, fiscal and political system that is increasingly favorable to large fortunes.” One does not need to endorse his view to concede that the vulnerability of the West does not end on the ideational front. Already in 2013, long before the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a quintet of leading economists warned that “something big is on the horizon: a structural crisis much bigger than the recent Great Recession, which might in retrospect seem only a prologue to a period of deeper troubles and transformations.” In other words, the current US-led global political-economic system has reached its culminating point long before the pandemic, and it might not withstand the shockwaves of the ongoing geopolitical earthquake.
Human history knew many geopolitical earthquakes of different magnitudes. Some of them, like the French Revolution, World War I, or the end of the Cold War, led, indeed, to geopolitical shake ups that helped revive societies by transforming their outdated institutions and overcoming systemic obstacles. Others, like the fall of the Roman or Han Empires, as Ian Morris argues, “broke down large societies, impoverishing people and making their lives more dangerous.” The magnitude of the current earthquake in Ukraine is still unknown. Not all is breaking down. The apparent revival of NATO and the re-energizing of the US-led post-1945 order may have an effect not only on the course of the war but also on the mitigation of some of its effects, from oil prices (if the Saudis agree to help) to supply chains. But the danger of further upheavals is very much with us. We all need to use our active agency in order to stir the international system in the direction of a quick revival, rather than sliding toward a thousand years of Dark Ages.