The world may feel like it’s about to explode.
Death ships on the Mediterranean. Cyberattacks in America. Syria in turmoil. War in Yemen and Ukraine. Islamic State, Boko Haram, al Shabaab — all on the move.
If the world seems more volatile, it is. If it seems more dangerous, not so much.
Welcome to the war of perceptions, in which an ever-improving planet seems ever more at risk largely because of the noise.
Many more people are hearing from many more people as they compete for the same, or fewer, resources. The result: a louder world, and more anxiety about the noise, but not necessarily deeper crises underneath.
“It’s almost the principle of network mathematics that when you build a system of globalization like the one we’re building with computers and speed, you’re going to get volatility, and we see it in the financial markets, and we see it in the rise of groups like ISIS overnight and their ability to empower themselves through their own engagement with global technologies and communications,” said Steve Coll, author of several books on terrorism and dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. “You’re looking at a world that is more subject to sudden shocks.”
Coll was among five previous winners of the Lionel Gelber Prize interviewed for a video project to mark the 25th anniversary of the award, which is named for the late Canadian diplomat who helped create the state of Israel. The award — granted, through the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto to the best English-language book on international affairs – was given this week to Serhii Plokhy, author of The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union.
The others interviewed were Paul Collier of Oxford University; China scholar Jonathan Spence of Yale University; the American political scientist Walter Russell Mead; and human rights expert Adam Hochschild of the University of California at Berkley.
Each author was asked about the world today, and whether it is in better shape than in 1990, when the award was created, communism was on its deathbed and the Internet in its cradle.
They noted the world has seen extraordinary declines in poverty and child mortality, epic rises in global trade and investment, and the spread, albeit fitfully, of democracy and human rights. The threats of loose nuclear weapons from collapsing nations, debt crises in Latin America, Southeast Asia or Russia, a war between India and Pakistan, the collapse of Africa and a litany of global pandemics have all been avoided.
The Gelber winners each said they maintained optimism about the next 25 years, for different reasons. But equally, they remain concerned about the world’s ability to cope with emerging small forces, including terrorists and cyberattackers, and the potential that their asymmetrical pressures bring to bear.
Despite the noise, five of the dominant themes of the past quarter century — terror, rising China, the struggle for human rights, poverty and American hegemony — have been reasonably well managed. Even terrorism, Coll contended, could have been a lot worse, as fears of massive, random civilian attacks in the West subside.
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