From Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University
The resources available for policing the world are certain to be reduced for the foreseeable future. That will be especially true if foreign investors start demanding higher yields on the bonds they buy from the United States or simply begin dumping dollars in exchange for other currencies.
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.
Barack Obama now faces a much larger and potentially more troubling axis—an axis of upheaval. This axis has at least nine members, and quite possibly more. What unites them is not so much their wicked intentions as their instability, which the global financial crisis only makes worse every day. Unfortunately, that same crisis is making it far from easy for the United States to respond to this new “grave and growing danger.”
Iran, meanwhile, continues to support both Hamas and its Shiite counterpart in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and to pursue an alleged nuclear weapons program that Israelis legitimately see as a threat to their very existence.
The democratic governments in Kabul and Islamabad are two of the weakest anywhere. Among the biggest risks the world faces this year is that one or both will break down amid escalating violence. Once again, the economic crisis is playing a crucial role. 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.
This club is anything but exclusive. Candidate members include Indonesia, Thailand, and Turkey, where there are already signs that the economic crisis is exacerbating domestic political conflicts. And let us not forget the plague of piracy in Somalia, the renewed civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the continuing violence in Sudan’s Darfur region, and the heart of darkness that is Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe. The axis of upheaval has many members. And it’s a fairly safe bet that the roster will grow even longer this year.