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Saturday 4 February 2023 Dublin: 3°C
Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/Press Association Images
Opinion Welcome to the new normal – global instability
From the rise of extremist groups in the Middle East, to conflict on the fringes of Europe, it’s clear the world is entering a new age of international relations.

THE MARCH OF Islamic State suffered a setback this week, albeit a minor one. A combination of US-led air strikes and Kurdish ground forces succeeded in weeding a significant amount of IS militants from the Syrian border town of Kobani. While strategically such a development is to be welcomed, the recent gains made by the coalition against IS are unlikely to have any major large scale impact on a campaign that President Obama has admitted will be a “long-term” conflict with no “quick-fixes.”

Moreover, the news will provide little comfort to the thousands of civilians displaced and even killed, both in Kobani and throughout Iraq and Syria, as a result of the rise of Islamic State and subsequent airstrikes.

Meanwhile, the Ebola virus continues to grab headlines in the west, as fears of a global epidemic are stoked by sensationalist media headlines – ironic, given that now that the west has woken up to the Ebola crisis in west Africa, the chances of the virus sweeping through New York or London are incredibly slim. However, reports suggest that almost 5,000 have died on the African continent in an epidemic that could have been constrained had the west woken up and provided much needed support to African communities sooner.

These two crises, their origins and indeed the world’s response to them are indicative of a stark reality in today’s international system; the west is asleep, and as a result, instability reigns supreme.

The West’s Not Awake

It’s not hard to provide examples. Take a look at the year of 2014 so far. We have witnessed one of the 21st century’s most systemically unstable years, if not in terms of lives lost, then certainly in terms of geographical spread and sheer significance of events. From the detestable rise of brutal extremist groups in the Middle East and Africa, to revolution and unnecessary civil war in on the fringes of Europe in Ukraine, the year has granted unto future historians a trove of case studies, while also inflicting untold misery on countless men, women and children.

At the root of this instability is western society’s approach to dealing with global issues. Until developed nations begin to take responsibility for the unstable reality that is current international life, we can expect to see a world that continues to snowball into conflict and crises that we could potentially avoid. There exists in the international system a power vacuum; a space that states seem unwilling to fill, facilitating instability, and contributing to what is fast becoming the new normal.

The locations in which the effects of this vacuum are being felt are of vital strategic importance to the west. Take, for example, China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. Over 50% of the world’s merchant ship tonnage passes through the disputed waters in this region every year, making any potential conflict here – be it a military one or otherwise – an economic headache the west could do without. While direct conflict is unlikely, the space provided by western disengagement in this region has allowed China to begin to exert more pressure on its neighbours, something that few in the Asian market will actively welcome. Therefore, from a cold-hearted strategic perspective, it makes sense for the west to actively up its game when it comes to global engagement.

Yet since 2008, western countries have been remarkably reserved when it comes to engaging with the rise of new economies such as China’s. Instead, what we have witnessed is an extreme global disengagement on the part of the west, that is indicative of a society that has lost its will to lead.

Bolstering the confidence of extremists 

Certain states now know that the potential implications following their actions have become less serious post-2008, as was displayed by events in Crimea earlier this year. Similarly, groups such as Islamic State have been able to gain valuable strategic footholds in already volatile conflict zones as a result of the geopolitical slack granted to them by western disengagement. It is only when these problems begin to spiral out of control and threaten its core interests has the west, and more specifically the US, chosen to act. This has been the case with IS as western fears of attacks by returning extremists forced action, and also with Ebola, as the epidemic began to creep outside of Africa. But the fact is that a response to both of these problems would not have been necessary if the issues were dealt with at an earlier stage. Because they weren’t, the Middle East is staring down the barrel of yet another violent geopolitical crisis, and an Ebola has gained a firm grip in western Africa.

The existence of a power vacuum and the west’s lack of will to fill it mean that when challenges do arise, they are left to fester and gain traction before action is taken. When the west eventually awakens to the wolves knocking at its door, the solutions come in the form of pin-pricks. Consider the case of Libya in 2011. Limited airstrikes from western and Gulf states solved a short term problem, but left a gaping hole in the state society which was filled by various rebel groups. Almost four years later, the Libyan parliament was forced to take refuge in a Greek car ferry while the remnants of the state disintegrated into utter chaos, leaving a gigantic regional security problem in its wake.

Why is it the responsibility of the west? 

We may ask why it is the west that must pick up the geopolitical slack in the international arena when it comes to situations like this. Why not someone else? The simple reason is that there is nobody else. The west can avail of the luxury of being able to cobble together a strong coalition of states to combat global issues. No other set of states, for now, can match that ability to spearhead global initiatives. For that reason, the west is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, the go-to force for emergency action and global change. But times are changing, and it seems less interested in putting its neck on the line for initiatives that seem outside of its interests.

It’s a strange argument to make but, to put it bluntly, we are the architects of our own misfortune – lagging two-steps behind when it comes to tackling a new international crisis almost every time. We no longer live in a world of American dominance. We live in an unstable world, where power lies in the hands of those who can create it. The irony lies in the fact that the west has had a hand in creating such a situation.

We are entering a new age of international relations. Welcome to the reality of global instability that is the New Normal.

Jack Lahart has just finished a masters degree in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He also holds a BA in History, Politics and International Relations from UCD. He is currently working in the field of Political Intelligence and specialises in US foreign policy, Middle Eastern politics and International Relations. Follow him on Twitter @lahartjack.

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