Time-Bombs Around the World: the Three Under-Reported Global Black Swan Events of which We Should All Be Aware

by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
Image shows a US battleship in the South China sea, silhouetted against the sunset. The 24 hour news cycle leaves us thinking we have all bases covered.

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If there’s time for rolling coverage of transfer deadline day, celebrity divorces and the eccentricities of domestic animals then presumably the big stuff is out of the way already? Sadly, probably not.
The nature of rolling news coverage is that it skews our ability to understand the shifting currents of world affairs. Conceptually, it might be easiest to approach it this way – we are now probably much better informed about events than at any other stage of human history. We are also probably worse at filtering those events and discerning trends than at any other point in history.

Image shows the BBC News 24 set.
Rolling news has affected our ability to process information.

I think there are three reasons for this. The first is that we are saturated with news coverage to the extent that it is very difficult to pick out and order truly significant events as opposed to noise. The second is that the way we receive news now is deeply unhelpful when it comes to filtering the relative importance of events – think of a newspaper and the comparative importance of a story is demonstrated by its position in the paper, story size and any commentary, now think of Twitter, where all news is exactly the same length and sorted only by time, and you will see what I mean. The final reason is impartiality, a tradition of new media from television onwards and including a surprising amount of internet news – the requirement of impartiality dictates the absence of an attempt to place the news within a subjective narrative. This frequently means it is only placed in a backwards looking story and not in a piece that seeks to project out future trends.
For all these reasons it is possible for us to have both an excellent knowledge of the recent past and very little by the way of an understanding of the main perils to our future. The purpose of this article is to identify some of those trends which have the potential to become major negative events with global significance if the present direction of travel remains. The three events I have selected and placed in order of magnitude are all events which are plausible but rarely discussed and would have a ‘black swan’ impact on the wider world, throwing global politics into chaos. We need to start paying attention.

1. The increasingly violent state of Nigerian politics

Image shows a mosque in Abuja.
Nigeria has a roughly even population of Christians and Muslims.

Nigeria is Africa’s most important country. It is the largest economy, it has the largest population (which could be anywhere between 150m and 200m, the politics of the last national census being impenetrable even to seasoned Nigeria watchers), and it is the only country in the world of a comparable size with roughly even Christian and Muslim populations. What happens there sends reverberations both around the continent and also around the very large Nigeria diaspora who can be found in every major city from Vancouver to Goa.
It is a country in trouble, and not just thanks to Boko Haram (this analysis from an anonymous colleague gives a more detailed background on that particular threat). The elections which are due to take place in the February of 2015 are the single most important event on the horizon for Africa in the next decade. If they go well – passing off without an escalation of violence, with a result not in serious dispute and producing a government (either PDP or APC) with a genuine national mandate and reform agenda – then I think Africa will have reached a new age, with Nigeria as a politically mature country well-positioned to tackle its domestic problems with terrorism and its infrastructure deficit and acting at once as a beacon and an anchor for sub-Saharan Africa.
I fear, however, that these elections may herald something much less promising. The domestic terror campaign is reaching heights not seen since 2011 / 2012. The simultaneous targeting a fortnight ago of targets in the two economic lodestars of Lagos and the government citadel of central Abuja showed that the ability of terrorists to strike far beyond their strongholds in the North East remains high. President Goodluck Jonathan is almost certain to run again as the governing PDP candidate, fuelling the ire of the Muslim North who see his presidency as disrupting the implicit bargain to rotate the presidency between North and South. In the opposing APC, there is even more potential for strife, with several powerful politicians capable of mobilising hundreds of thousands, in some cases millions, of disaffected citizens on to the street, all competing for a single presidential nomination. At the moment, all of these characters buy in to the current constitutional arrangements; the moment they are excluded, there is potential for mass unrest. Then there is the position of the army, which has no political allegiance but may decide that when unrest reaches a certain pitch it would be justified in stepping in and implementing a caretaker government. Add to this the fact that three Muslim states are still under conditions of martial law and may not be allowed to vote, and you have a toxic cocktail of big egos, unconstitutionality and a showdown between regions and religions in a country that already resembles a tinderbox.
In African terms, Nigeria is too big to fail, but it is also too big to help. Unlike in Sierra Leone, the sheer size of Nigeria and the incredible complexity of its politics make any non-consensual intervention highly unlikely to be undertaken or to succeed. Nigeria must lead first itself and then a continent – the next nine months will tell whether it has become sufficiently mature to do so.

2. The destabilisation of Turkey

Image shows the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
The Hagia Sophia – first an Orthodox church, then a mosque, now a museum – encapsulates Turkish history.

Historically, Turkey’s relationship with Europe is a very odd one, comparable only to that of Russia. Even while the Ottoman Empire died its long, slow death, Istanbul like Moscow was still a diplomatic centre, a place where allegiances were sought and the borders of a continent decided. Like Russia, Turkey is not a European country, but its size, manpower and intellectual tradition make it a European power. Even though, again like Russia, it is locked out of the European Union, and is likely to remain so thanks to the long memories of the Greeks and the racial politics of the French, a politically stable and prosperous Turkey is close to being a precondition for a stable and prosperous Europe.
At present, the civil war in Syria rages just beyond Turkey’s borders. It is Turkey that acts both as a sponge absorbing the displaced who can struggle so far as the border post (in November 200,000 refugees were in formal camps in Turkey, 400,000 were in the country but not in camps), and also as a funnel for the hundreds of Western citizens who have taken a side and wish to travel into the war zone.

Image shows the portacabins of a refugee camp, with a Turkish flag flying overhead.
A refugee camp in Kilis, Turkey.

As with any large influx of people into a concentrated area, the large number of refugees in Southern Turkey will have a profound influence on its domestic affairs. It is worth noting that while, in the main, the Turkish and the Syrians share a religion, they do not share either an ethnicity or an intellectual tradition – Syria being part of the Arab world and never a European power. An analysis by the Washington Institute supports this – the province of Kilis was 1% Arab in ethnic make-up before the Syrian conflict; it is now 42% Arab. Likewise the Southern provinces have seen the cost of living shoot up thanks to a rising population, while the economy has declined thanks to the closing of border posts. In other words, the South has become less ethnically homogenous and poorer simultaneously, rarely a recipe for stability.
The size of Turkey, as well as its large population, means that it is a long way before the disruption in the South starts to make a large impact at a national level. That said, the southern border is porous, and the longer the war in Syria drags on – something more likely by the day – the greater the odds become of Turkey itself becoming destabilised. Fanaticism in any form is damaging to the body politic, but the two brands of fanaticism being practiced in Syria – nationalist fanaticism against religious fanaticism – are particularly dangerous to a country that has for the most part skilfully maintained its status as a deeply religious nation with a strictly secular constitution. When Turkey becomes sick, the rest of Europe will catch a cold sooner rather than later. The consequences of Syria may end up reaching far beyond its borders.

3. Escalation of tensions in the South and East China Sea

Image shows a map of the Spratly islands, showing occupied features marked with the flags of countries occupying them.
This map shows the occupation of the Spratly Islands by different countries.

I spoke to a serving diplomat from a South-East Asian nation recently – his message was that all the countries in the region were approaching the next two years with their fingers crossed. Not only has America’s Pacific pivot proven toothless, he argued, but China viewed the Obama presidency as an opportunity to seize the foreign policy agenda in the region, which was unlikely to be repeated.
The island chain disputes in the South and East China seas are myriad and complex – there are disagreements between Japan and China, Vietnam and China, South Korea and Japan, Taiwan and China, Taiwan and Vietnam, Brunei and Vietnam, Vietnam and The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, The Philippines and Malaysia. This complicated balance of power has been rendered even more complex by the activities of the United States.
Hilary Clinton, when Secretary of State, declared that freedom of the seas in Asia was a US “national interest” and that it would act to maintain “international law”. Not only is the US not signed up to the international law it has pledged to protect – the UN convention on the Law of the Sea – but nor is China, the only participant in the dispute with the capacity to act with overwhelming force. The US position is particularly worrying as it recalls the country’s posture in international affairs prior to the Second World War – always willing to act as an honest broker or arbiter in disputes that did not concern it and in respect of laws it did not itself abide by, but impacting the debate only to the extent that it emboldened weak countries to over-play their hand without having a consequent corrective effect on the strong.

Image shows ships of the US Navy operating in the South China Sea.
The US Navy operating in formation in the South China Sea.

It is ostensibly in the interests of none of the affected parties to cultivate a dispute in the South and East China Seas. However, the economic slowdown already beginning to hit China will challenge its leadership to find a radical response. The ZIRP and QE policies of Western governments are beginning to export their high-stability, low-growth effects to China, causing a slackening of the pace of growth that will break the implicit compact between the Communist Party and the people. The slowdown is bad news for the Chinese people, many of whom are still waiting for jam tomorrow while the proceeds of growth remain unequally shared; it is also bad news for the Chinese leadership who can expect their activities to be subject to an unusual degree of scrutiny, particularly amongst the oligarchy of families who have captured an un-comradely share of China’s growing wealth.
There are a number of ways China may choose to respond to this – it could pursue a policy of furious wage pressure internally, it could launch an exchange rate war with the West, but it could equally change the basis of its engagement with the world from exporter to imperial power – a move which may be a calculated gamble to reduce internal dissent. In the normal course of things, the Chinese would not seek a head-on confrontation with the world’s most powerful navy. But there is a sense that the US under Obama talks a wonderful game and then obdurately refuses to back words with action. If the Chinese really do view this as a window of exceptional executive weakness in the US, then the region could be about to become much more unstable.

Image credits: banner; BBC News; mosque; Hagia Sophia; refugee camp; Spratly Islands map; US Navy.