By Barah Mikail
Crises have always existed and are structural features of human civilization. From ancient warfare to financial depressions, major upheavals and challenges have disrupted societies throughout history. The Peloponnesian War in ancient Greece, the Black Death pandemic in the 14th century, and the World Wars of the 20th century represent major historical crises.
As scholars such as John Lewis Gaddis have analyzed, crises are cyclical and recurring. Today, we are experiencing a feeling of heightened vulnerability about both traditional and emerging threats. Crises provoke anxieties about military conflict, economic stability, climate change, and global health. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has undermined assumptions about European security and sparked new fears about military aggression between major powers. It reminds us that realist ambitions of territory and power still motivate state actions.
The Evolving Nature of Modern Crises
However, the nature of crises has also evolved due to rapid technological advances. Modern crises can be evaluated using the “risk society” theory put forth by Sociologist Ulrich Beck, as dangers increasingly stem from modern systems’ results rather than having an external nature. Threats like cyber warfare and economic collapse linked to the financial system or energy markets may feel more abstract than traditional kinetic war but can also produce destabilizing effects. For example, a large-scale cyber-attack on critical infrastructure could debilitate economic and government functions without firing a shot. At the same time, states have contributed to the complex nature of modern crises by outsourcing core functions of defense and security. The use of private military contractors became prominent in Iraq and Afghanistan, with companies like Blackwater providing services previously handled by national militaries. As Peter Singer argues, this fragments and privatizes state violence in ways that make conflicts more opaque.
Mitigating Crises in an Imperfect World
There are still positive advances that emerge from periods of crisis and conflict. As economists like William Baumol have assessed, significant innovations in transportation, communications, medicine, manufacturing, and more can occur during wars due to heavy investment in R&D for military needs. However, we must be wary of justifying crises as necessary evils for human progress. There are always alternatives where more selective and targeted efforts can produce technological and social advances without large-scale suffering. Ultimately, the reality is that crises will continue to occur in various forms. Given this permanence, societies must focus on resilience and preparation. Institutions like central banks can develop tools to mitigate financial crises and prevent contagion. Transnational policy coordination through groups like the G20 helps nations collaborate during global crises. Investment in public health infrastructure and early warning systems can limit the severity of pandemics. Redundancy in critical supply chains can make them less fragile. Energy transitions to renewables can increase economic and environmental resilience.
A Useless and Dangerous Resignation
Rather than resigning to crisis, we should leverage institutions, technology, and shared capabilities to reduce risks. A degree of idealism is also helpful, as utopian thinking about a more stable world motivates innovation. But clear-eyed pragmatism is also needed regarding the persistent risks that human civilization faces. Vigilance and collective action can minimize the worst effects of crises, but there are no perfect remedies as long as flawed human systems govern a complex world. The project is to craft policies and norms that make progress while knowing crises will continue to challenge them. It is a constant struggle, but one well worth undertaking.
Barah Mikaïl is an associate Professor of International Security at SLU-Madrid and Director of the Observatory on Contemporary Crises.
To quote this article or video, please use the following reference: Barah Mikaïl (2023), “The Ever-Present Reality of Global Crises”, https://crisesobservatory.es/the-ever-present-reality-of-global-crises.
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