Today’s world is riddled with tensions; but are they really greater than in the past? There is greater risk, and unprecedented threats. Cooperation between allies is difficult. Tension is permanent with the rising states (China, Russia, and Turkey), which used to have significant power and are trying to get it back. But there is not necessarily more danger than in the past. Decision-makers are now able to better anticipate risks and have greater understanding of the combined effects of risk and threats. Let’s start with the sources of confrontation. First of all, there are more sources of risk than before. For example, the nuclear risk is not just a military one.
The contaminated water being stored in tanks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant is being treated to neutralize some of its dangerousness. Yet, enough toxic substances remain even after treatment, for the Japanese to hesitate to dump it into the ocean. The abandoned research into fast neutron reactors (notably the ASTRID Reactor in France) indicates that we have given up on the idea of recycling 80% of the uranium burned. Nuclear waste will therefore inevitably build up; some will require further processing and the rest will be buried. The growing illegitimacy of nuclear energy, the future of which is uncertain, is leading to lost skills.
Without qualified experts who are aware of the particular dangers of this industry that requires a great capacity to remember past incidents, the safety of power plants and the fuel cycle could be jeopardized. As far as hydrocarbons are concerned, hydraulic fracturing (to capture shale gas and oil) damages the environment and causes seismic shocks. Offshore oil drilling in previously protected areas (such as the Mediterranean) and the transportation of oil through previously inaccessible routes (such as the Arctic) raise new dilemmas.
Incidentally, renewable energy is not perfect either: what actual impact will renewables have if we scale up production in the long run?
THERE IS NO PERFECT SOLUTION: using vegetable oils for combustion engines increases deforestation; aerial and underwater propellers have a negative impact on the environment and wildlife; solar power plants are not safe for the surrounding areas; burning biomass releases carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen oxides. But it is the deliberate, intentional threats that scare us the most, especially since we have little control over their repercussions. For example, the fact that the major powers possess short-range nuclear weapons does not prevent but encourages their use in the battlefield regardless of humanitarian considerations. As of other powers, the invention of low-key/low-cost drones now paves the way for far-reaching political operations – such as the burning of an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, attempting to control outer space with specialized units – the US Space Force, the new Joint (French) Space Command – risks shifting potential confrontation away from the usual theatres of operation. And let’s not forget all the army and police cyber-commands throughout the world. Finally, mistrust undermines cooperation between long time partners who are reluctant to unite their defence policies. The US federal government criticises its allies for not paying their fair share. The other NATO members fear the United States will let them down when it comes to applying the treaty article compelling states to help out any country that falls victim to an attack. Relations with states that once held centre stage, and which are now back, are becoming more complex.
They want to retrieve their influence, of course, but the gap with the established powers is still wide. To put a bit of perspective on it, Russian GNP is lower than Germany’s; Russia’s and Turkey’s per capita wealth is half of, and China’s a third of, Portugal’s. Turkish military expenditure is lower than Italy’s; the Russian defence budget is lower than Saudi Arabia’s; the Chinese defence budget is only 38% of America’s.
MATERIAL PARAMETERS MATTER : number of divisions, quality of supervision, military potential, rigour and frequency of training, experience in the battlefield. Since the shadow of past rivalry and humiliation weighs on current relationships, the negotiations are hampered by resentment, pushing governments to act against their own interests (such as Turkey acquiring Russian equipment incompatible with NATO weapons, or entering Syria despite Western disapproval). Other countries are facing fait accompli (Europe and the United States with Russia in Ukraine and Syria; Japan and Korea with China in disputed islands). In light of these new dangers, let’s look at new ways to tackle them. On the States side, risk prediction and prevention are improving.
For individuals, there are new warning procedures, while victim compensation is increasingly generous and widespread. Authorities have reinforced preventive standards (anti-fire, anti-flood, anti-tornado, anti-earthquake, etc.). They organize regular drills to raise people’s risk awareness and prepare rescue patrols for incidents of hitherto unknown magnitude. Imagining the worst even if a disaster is highly unlikely makes research highly valued. Steps are taken to align the level of precaution with extreme scenarios. The greater the precautions taken, the lower the death and injury toll tends to be. And the results are sometimes surprising.
At the end of 2019, a French court recognised the existence of “prejudice of anxiety” for people who fear they might one day fall victim to an industrial disease though they don’t yet have any symptoms. An entirely new right! That we should avoid harming people’s feelings is now a firm belief in North America, and is spreading to Europe, and the rest of the world. Words and gestures are chosen with care in order to remain as neutral as possible. Misunderstandings about people’s origins or their lifestyle choices are less likely than before. Potentially devastating social conflicts do not arise, even when new issues of public controversy emerge, which are also sources of divergence between countries.
Think tanks are springing up everywhere producing analysis and forecasts. Strategic studies have never been so popular. Economic assessments are widely broadcast through all possible channels – which makes them difficult to ignore. The warnings given to decision-makers by discreet experts or by activists who vigorously promote their conclusions are increasingly morose. Catastrophism is affecting increasing numbers of worried people on the lookout for prophecies. You would therefore think that because people often perceive the risks and threats to be worse than they really are, public stakeholders, large or small, national or international, would be deterred from contributing to the tension, and people would adopt a kind of reserve, close to self-restraint or even self-censorship. Yet, this is not always the case.
People’s rejection of climate change is leading to civil disobedience and passive resistance, which unprecedented social movements are already advocating.
Avoiding new conflicts will come at a price: civil liberties may be at risk. Since the actual terrorist attacks (a few dozen) and the foiled terrorist attacks (hundreds, even thousands), surveillance has been reinforced (especially in the English-speaking world) and alerts about potential terrorists are on the rise (particularly on the European continent). An American novelist recently imagined a world in which everything an individual says and does is constantly observed, leading transgressors to be exiled, erased from society, or even executed. The warnings given and precautions taken to avoid any harm might then become widespread conformism, to the detriment of the common good.
Excessive social pressure would, of course, save legal sanctions and penal measures, but it would boil down to punishing people’s intentions instead of what they actually do. Basically, the best would be the enemy of good; and who would want to live in such a world?