The great reset: towards an existential geopolitical order?

#CriticalThinking

Climate, Energy & Sustainability

Picture of Adel El Gammal
Adel El Gammal

Secretary General of the European Energy Research Alliance

The world has entered a phase of deep and accelerated transformation, affecting all aspects of the post-World War II Western model for political convergence. Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist, could not have been less visionary when, some 30 years ago, he predicted that “the worldwide spread of liberal democracies and free market capitalism of the West and its lifestyle might signal the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution”.

In fact, the growing US-China rivalry that put an end to the post-Cold War ‘unipolar moment’ is also accompanied by a historic rising of non-alignment throughout the Global South. At the same time, the Western socio-economic system is being challenged from within, as liberal democracies and free-market capitalism are both confronted with their own limits and contradictions.

After the early warning of the 2008 financial and economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic decisively whistled the end of decades of deepening globalisation. A full-scale war is now developing on European soil, and major energy disruptions are within sight for European economies. Global strategic supply chains are being dismantled, public debt has exploded, and both inflation and commodity prices have risen to decade-highs, triggering a major risk of extended starvation across the world. In just a matter of months, the crucible of the Western model has been torn into pieces.

The 1.5°C target set by the Paris Agreement for the end of the century could soon be breached

Nuclear deterrence no longer prevails. The hypothesis of a global conflict has become a very real possibility, rooted in a potential expansion of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the revived tensions over Taiwan’s independence, rekindled by the increasing assertiveness of the Chinese military, notably in the Asia-Pacific region.

In this context, the Paris Agreement signed in 2015 at COP21 was the last beacon of hope for renewed multilateral cooperation and international convergence to tackle the global climate challenge. Since then, geopolitical developments have already long thwarted these hopes and exacerbated rivalries between economic blocs and nations, thereby rapidly closing the thin window of opportunity to avoid climate chaos and its global consequences on human societies.

In its latest Assessment Report (AR6), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that global warming is happening sooner and quicker than earlier assessed and that its effects are more profound. The World Meteorological Organization recently predicted that the 1.5°C target set by the Paris Agreement for the end of the century could soon be breached. Evidence of global warming multiplies in every part of the world on a daily basis. The ‘exception’ has suddenly become the ‘new normal’.

As the existential nature of these challenges becomes more evident to the broader public, a window for disruptive societal innovation may open

This must come as no surprise. The systemic response of our economies resulted in a set of political, economic and societal reactions and counterreactions that diverted steeply from climate imperatives. Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions have rose by 6% in 2021, against the backdrop of re-commissioning high-polluting energy assets and skyrocketing investments in new fossil fuel infrastructures. These were consciously planned and openly endorsed by major economic public and private stakeholders against all scientific climate mitigation scenarios.

On top of this, political turmoil and the acceleration of compounding and converging manmade challenges leaves little doubt that the ‘boiling frog’ metaphor might well prefigure the fate of human society under any kind of ‘continuity scenario’.

As the existential nature of these challenges becomes more evident to the broader public, a window for disruptive societal innovation may open. And Europe has the opportunity to be at the forefront of such a revolution, given the unprecedented scale, speed and nature of the EU response in recent weeks.

Tectonic geopolitical shifts are at work

The long tradition of compromise-based, iterative EU decision-making process has given way to a highly unanticipated cohesive front, enacting a streak of bold and far-reaching EU policy packages, while displaying solidarity for the achievement of common objectives above individual member states’ interests.

Decades of financial orthodoxy graven in stone have been paused – if not reversed – almost overnight. The sacred-saint rule of the free market has been cracked. Fiscal measures and market rules can now be adapted so that stakeholders unduly benefitting from the exceptional market situation might see their windfall profits redirected to finance the exceptional public spending required to maintain social stability and keep the economy afloat.

Even the EU military doctrine is being revised. Massive military support is being directed to Ukraine, the existence of a European military is back on the table, and member states are revising their military capabilities. After two centuries of historical neutrality, Sweden eventually decided to join NATO, together with Finland. Tectonic geopolitical shifts are at work.

The emerging consciousness of the founding values of the EU might finally become legible

Though recognising its young and fragile nature, the sudden acute sense of urgency has created the conditions for an unprecedented political convergence in the European Union that no observer would have dared to evoke just a few months ago. This nascent convergence must be seen as an ambitious, yet unverified proposition. But it is now increasingly acknowledged as the privileged pathway to a commonly positive outcome for all European citizens. The emerging consciousness of the founding values of the EU might finally become legible.

The prisoner’s dilemma, depicting a situation where nations have a default incentive to create an individual competitive edge against a less-than-optimal collective outcome, does not hold anymore. On a single planet, there cannot be any such thriving society in a collapsing world.

The proposition is that only a disruptive socio-political innovation can lead human society to challenge the paradigm of nation’s rivalry as the sole foundation of the geopolitical order. Instead, the planetary limits, hit by extraordinary human development, constitute new boundary conditions to life on earth. They urgently call for unprecedented global science-based collaboration and convergence to allow any liveable future for humanity.

The EU might instantiate an embryonic, though imperfect, move towards such a sustainable collaborative paradigm

The extreme emergency created by the convergence of global crises and the existential threat they represent to human life on earth might well soon create the unique conditions for such a disruptive societal approach to emerge globally.

Finally, Ukraine’s tragic suffering might trigger further reflection on its reconstruction. Perhaps its inclusion in the European project should be based on creating a blueprint for a fair, democratic and sustainable nation, rather than on its mere economic convergence with the old model.

In this respect, the EU might instantiate an embryonic, though imperfect, move towards such a sustainable collaborative paradigm. It should be strongly encouraged and could be proposed to the world as an open testbed for a new geopolitical order.

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