RIYADH – In August 2015, I tweeted that if Donald Trump were to be elected President of the United States, we would have to “head for the bunkers.”
A Trump presidency was considered highly unlikely back then; but here we are. And while heading for the bunkers might not be the most appropriate response (yet), where we are is undoubtedly a more dangerous world.
Nearly two years ago, former US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “as we look around the world, we encounter upheaval and conflict.” As Kissinger observed at the time, “the United States has not faced a more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.”
And what seemed true from the perspective of Washington, DC, was doubly so from a European perspective. To put it plainly, Europe feels as though it were surrounded by a ring of fire, from the revisionist and revanchist Russia in the east, to the multiple meltdowns in the Middle East and North Africa in the south.
Since the spring of 2014, when Russia started fueling the conflict in Donbas and other parts of Eastern Ukraine, ten thousand people have died there, and another two million have been displaced. And, of course, these figures pale in comparison to the humanitarian disasters in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
Now, NATO is planning to deploy troops to Northeast Poland and the three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – while the European Union struggles to manage continuous refugee flows and exert control over its external borders.
Moreover, the security threat from Russia has prompted a gradual increase in European defense spending and security cooperation. Whereas the EU has traditionally made peace and prosperity its primary objectives, it is now being forced to prioritize security above all else. That is a significant change.
The “complex array of crises” has also not spared Saudi Arabia, from whence I am writing. No one seems to have an answer to such fundamental questions as how to restore stability to Yemen and the Levant, but everyone knows that as the conflicts continue, it becomes more likely that the entire region will be destabilized. This is a threat that no one can ignore.
Equally concerning are the voices in Washington calling for renewed confrontation with Iran, just after the nuclear deal between that country and the P5+1 – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the US, plus Germany – averted the danger of such a confrontation (if not outright war).
Against this volatile backdrop, the new Trump administration could very well embrace vastly different policies from what we have seen so far. Judging by the last few weeks, it seems as though we are going to have to live with a routine spectacle of international destabilization via Twitter.
For example, by questioning America’s longstanding “One China” policy, Trump has indicated that he might subject even the most fundamental aspects of US foreign policy to renegotiation and new “deals.” National capitals around the world are undoubtedly feeling uneasy about what the future holds.
To be sure, incoming US administrations always usher in a period of relative uncertainty; it takes time for a new team to get up to speed, and to formulate policies in accordance with information that may not have been previously available, such as intelligence briefings. Crisis management is an art form that one can only learn through experience, and with some training.
Still, after years of rising turmoil and uncertainty, we have no choice but to assume that more “black swan” events are around the corner. From Donbas to North Korea to the Gulf region, there is no shortage of places where developments could take a shocking turn.
In normal times, the web of international relations affords enough predictability, experience, and stability that even unexpected events are manageable, and do not precipitate major-power confrontations. There have been close calls in recent decades, but there have not been any unmitigated disasters.
But those times may be over. We are entering a period of geopolitical flux: less stable alliances and increasing uncertainty. One should not exaggerate the risk of things spiraling out of control; but it is undeniable that the next crisis could be far larger than what we are used to, if only because it would be less manageable. And that is unsettling in itself.
Eventually, the world will become accustomed to the Trump administration, and the Trump administration will get used to the world. But now that unpredictability is the order of the day, and a collective “me first” outlook has taken hold, we should prepare for the possibility that turmoil could go global.
In other words, while it is not time to head for the bunkers, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have one nearby.