The post-Cold War moment, a 30-year period when globalisation and free trade were orchestrated under the aegis of American supremacy, is ending. As the historian Anders Stephanson has written, “One could not deny that geopolitics reduced to a set of mopping-up operations was a historic achievement of US power.” Today, great-power rivalry, war and the competition for diminishing resources are old realities reborn, revenants of history that now define a present of increasing peril and uncertainty.
In The Tragic Mind (2023), the American correspondent, author and foreign policy adviser Robert D Kaplan argues that we must learn to think tragically to avoid tragedy. We need what he calls anxious foresight. The wisest among us fear disorder and anarchy as much as tyranny.
But thinking tragically is not fatalism. It is understanding our limitations and acting with more effectiveness.
For this wide-ranging exchange, we asked Kaplan, the Cambridge political economist Helen Thompson and the philosopher John Gray to explore what we are calling this new age of tragedy, and how societies might navigate and endure the gathering storms.
Robert D Kaplan
Weimar Germany connotates the ultimate doom: a cradle of modernity that gave birth to fascism and totalitarianism. More specifically, Weimar was an unstable political system that existed between late 1918 and 1933, born in the ashes of the First World War and ending with the ascension to power of Adolf Hitler. Our world is unlikely to be headed for such moral darkness. Nevertheless, Weimar constitutes a model of sorts. It was a system composed of a parliamentary upper house, a lower house, small states, and two large ones – Prussia and Bavaria – that were to some extent laws unto themselves. Complex and prone to bickering, Weimar was a classically overloaded political regime that existed in a state of perma-crisis. Such is our world today.
We do not have a world government; nor do we have any truly effective world governance. But owing to the shrinkage of geography caused by technology, there is an emerging world system, in which crises can migrate from one part of the Earth to another. Greater interconnections mean that any place or continent can be considered strategic and affect all the others. It is a global Weimar, where there is always a crisis.
The 20th-century computer scientist and polymath John von Neumann once said that the finite size of the Earth would become a source of instability. As populations rise in absolute numbers, as more and more human beings live in complex urban settings, and both weaponry and communications – especially cyber – develop and become more sophisticated, the Earth will eventually become just too small for its volatile politics. That is why, like Weimar, our world today seems so anxious, claustrophobic and unstable.
There is surely trouble ahead that will require anxious foresight and tragic thinking on our part. Tragic thinking encompasses many things, among them the realisation that fear is useful. We have to use fear without being immobilised by it. Above all, we must realise that given such a claustrophobic and overloaded world system, the assumption of linear progress is a dangerous notion to entertain.
The idealists among us say that geography is not determinative, and that fate is ultimately in the hands of human agency. But human agency need not have positive outcomes. Individuals such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are human agents who have caused a vast and bloody war in Ukraine and are driving Asia toward a high-end military conflict over Taiwan. In fact, as world geography shrinks, the price for human error and human malevolence grows. The margin for error narrows, so thinking without illusions becomes necessary.
In such a world, all political leaders must be realists, aiming for the lesser evil rather than for the ultimate good. And yet unbounded idealism mixed with hubris still threatens disaster. Suez, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and so on constitute a drum roll of avoidable disasters. And precisely because of the shrinkage of geopolitics produced by technology, there will be increasingly greater, even cataclysmic costs for such failures in the future. That is why in Ukraine and Taiwan we have to find a middle ground between acquiescence to authoritarian rule and inflexibly demanding perfect democratic outcomes. We have to get used to the prospect of many disappointments ahead.
A global Weimar riven by new technologies and resource scarcity is our default condition. The task is not to shore up a semi-imaginary and defunct Western-led “rules-based order”, but to avoid catastrophic conflict in a post-hegemonic world.
The US will remain a great power. Even so, American decline is a trajectory human agency cannot alter. The idea that a nation now so intractably divided could construct a new international order is far-fetched.
Intensifying political polarisation poses a question about the capacity of American government to execute any long-term strategy. Even if it is defensible in legal terms, Trump’s indictment confirms that the justice system has become a weapon in partisan political warfare. As the next presidential election approaches in 2024, the US is entering a legitimation crisis.
This implosion forms the background of an accelerating international retreat. Saudi Arabia’s joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, Brazil, South Africa and Malaysia opting for closer ties with China, and India being increasingly non-aligned testify to America’s rapid descent. China’s proposals for peace in Ukraine may be vague and not altogether serious, but Russia cannot be restrained without Chinese intervention. A multipolar international system is already in operation.
American strategists are fixated on a world that belongs in the past. China has major vulnerabilities, including an economy weakened by Xi’s ruinous Zero Covid policy and an army that has not had combat experience since the Sino-Vietnamese border war of 1979. The US, despite the drawdown of some of its armaments for use in Ukraine, retains formidable military capabilities battle-honed in decades of almost continuous foreign conflicts.
Yet America is unprepared for the war so many in Washington think is coming. It has offshored much of its industrial base to China. It continues to be heavily reliant on China for medical supplies and on Taiwan for high-end computer chips. Even if a national industrial strategy of the kind Joe Biden has launched is consistently implemented, remedying this self-inflicted dependency will take many years.
The world situation is similar to that in the run-up to 1914. New technologies have not overcome rivalry over scarce natural resources, only shifted its focus. A new version of the late-19th-century Great Game is being waged for strategic metals in Africa and the resources of Siberia and central Asia. Beginning as a response to russian aggression, the conflict in Ukraine has morphed into a proxy war between great powers in which resources are as important as ideology.
The least illuminating way of understanding this conflict is a collision between democracy and autocracy. There will be democratic states and tyrannies, along with myriads of hybrid regimes, in any foreseeable future. The hubristic fantasy of a global liberal order must be replaced by realism, restraint and an unceasing struggle to stave off disaster.
If we live on a finite Earth, we live in a geopolitical world in which the competition for resources creates winners and losers. The Weimar Republic began after Germany was defeated in the contest to control the energy source on which modernity would depend in the 20th century: oil. Victory in the Great Game in Eurasia between the late 19th century and the First World War went first to Britain and France in the Middle East and then to the Soviet Union when it reconquered the Baku oil fields in 1920.
Weimar’s answer to Germany’s defeat was to apply technology to the energy resource that Germany did have in abundance: coal. The first synthetic oil produced at the Leuna plant during the Weimar years was a triumph of German science and engineering. But technological success could not save German democracy. The Weimar Republic still needed to import oil as well as other resources, and that required a world economy in which Germany could be a trading power. When the 1929 stock market crash saw American investors retreat and the start of the economic depression, the Nazis easily exploited Germany’s humiliations. Hitler then sent Germany down the path of total conquest to procure resources and agricultural land by annihilating the populations whose lives already depended on them.
Today the Weimar problem is global because no state is protected from the hard world of resource competition that Hitler drove to such hideous finality. The shale oil and gas boom of the 2010s gave the US a respite from the foreign energy dependency that had trapped it in a succession of disasters in the Middle East. But the growth rate of shale output has slowed, leaving the Biden administration at the mercy of decisions made by the Saudi-Russian-led cartel Opec Plus. For the best part of two decades russia has been the world’s energy-exporting superpower. But the imposition of Western sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine has made it harder for russian companies to develop the Bazhenov shale basin in western Siberia, without which the russian oil industry will decline. Meanwhile, as governments across the world attempt to direct a low-carbon energy revolution, this competition for resources includes an ever growing list of raw materials.
The idea of linear progress always hid the problem of resource depletion under an a priori assumption that technology would ride to the rescue. Our tragedy in the West is that, for all the catastrophes of the 20th century, we still carry this hubristic world-view, blinding us to the complexity of our collective human predicament on a finite Earth.
Robert D Kaplan
Indeed, a finite Earth will feature a zero-sum contest for resources. Think of our present and future world as we do early modern Europe: competing states rammed up against each other, periodically at war, with little extra physical space to manoeuvre.
The late military historian John Keegan explains that Britain and the US could champion freedom only because the seas protected them “from the landbound enemies of liberty”. But continental Europe through the middle of the 20th century had no such luxury (and only afterwards because of an American security umbrella). And now that technology has contracted distance, reducing the protective power of expansive waters, the world itself has rediscovered the fate of an earlier Europe, where realism and pragmatism reigned.
The new Saudi-Russian Opec Plus is an example of this process, in which the contraction of distance has encouraged de facto alliances across yawning regions so that, with China moving closer to both russia and Saudi Arabia, a true Eurasian power system has come into being. It will be a claustrophobic world where technology won’t always be able to rescue us. That is why linear progress is a delusion – since even when technological fixes arrive to solve problems, they often arrive too late to prevent conflict and suffering.
Unlike in the two world wars, America will no longer be able to act as an unencumbered policeman on the world stage. As it is today, the US was intractably divided in the 1930s, when racism, anti-Semitism and right-wing hatred of Franklin Delano Roosevelt were prevalent. But the Second World War, a total war involving mass conscription, gave the US dynamism and unity.
When the war ended, the American economy dominated the world. That is no longer the case, particularly because China is a full-spectrum great power, with the world’s second-largest economy and a technological base that manufactures both high-end military and consumer products.
Yet, China faces grave economic, social and political problems of its own. Indeed, since the Ukraine War has dramatically weakened russia as a great power, it may be that all three powers – the US, China and russia – are in decline, though in different ways and at different speeds. But decline is relative, so one or more of these powers may continue to maintain leverage over the others in the foreseeable future.
The Royal Navy began its decline around the turn of the 20th century, yet Britain went on to help defeat Nazi Germany almost half a century later. That’s why decline itself may be overrated. Therefore, in this increasingly smaller and conflict-prone world, just as we should not become idealists ideologically demanding democratic systems everywhere, neither should we become fatalists, as there is much work to do.
Twenty-first-century conflicts reflect two kinds of scarcity, both on a global scale. The first is a zero-sum contest for the material resources of a finite planet, the second a type of value scarcity in which all the available options involve loss. The combination makes geopolitics inescapably tragic.
Tragedy is not imperfectability, nor is it the fact that progress is intermittent and reversible. Human beings confront tragedy when they know that whatever they do may not be enough to avert disaster. In such circumstances a measure of fatalism is reasonable, though it need not entail passivity.
Scarcities in resources and options are tightly intertwined. Geologists estimate that, in order to achieve global Net Zero, there will have to be more mining in the next few decades than throughout history. Here humans are approaching the physical limits of growth. But scarce natural resources trigger rivalry among states, drawing them into wars, and here scarcity of options is at work.
The two world wars were in part driven by a need for oil. New technologies can propel great powers towards disaster. High-end computer chips are needed to maintain the living standards to which billions of human have become accustomed. Over time technology spreads by diffusion, but whichever power controls these chips in the near future will have a major advantage. That is why, unless the West accedes to China’s absorption of Taiwan, which produces around two-thirds of the output, the island is fated to be the epicentre of a global conflict. Continuing the status quo is not an option.
An intensifying resource scarcity undermines the stability of states. A low- or zero-growth economy is not, as environmentalists and their opponents both believe, a policy choice, but a sign that humankind is testing the limits of an overcrowded planet. In both developmental dictatorships and advanced industrial states, governments rely heavily on economic expansion for their authority. Lacking the legitimacy given them by rising living standards, they are more likely to turn to war.
Scarcity of options is exacerbated by liberal ideology. Autocracies are proving less doctrinally rigid and more strategically flexible than democracies. As a matter of justice, the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against Putin for war crimes looks fully justified. But it also shows a reckless disregard for the consequences. Putin is not Slobodan Milošević, a petty tyrant, but the commander of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. the West is implicitly staking the future on benign regime change in russia, a desperately dangerous gamble.
Western societies are based on the belief that resources and options can always in principle be expanded by human agency. In reality both are inherently limited – by geography, history and ideological folly – and it is this that explains the recurrence of tragedy in geopolitics. The task, as ever, is to make the best of the situation.
Faith that creative human agency can triumph over nature’s limits has been a central feature of most modern political projects, not least liberalism. Missing the fact that technology cannot create energy, this conviction has long proved overly sanguine. Those who assume that the political world can be reconstructed by the efforts of human will have never before had to bet so much on technology over energy as the driver of our material advancement.
We are now a long way removed from the revolutionary hopes of the 19th and 20th centuries that the transformation of collective life would mean the complete development of all natural resources and an end to scarcity. Even in China, Xi Jinping’s theoretical mission for the Chinese Communist Party to deliver “material abundance” as an aim of “scientific socialism” coexists with the dangers of “black swans” and “grey rhinos”, not least those that might arise from China’s foreign oil dependency – with all its implications for Beijing’s ability to fight a war for Taiwan.
The technologies of low-carbon energy do have some capacity to ameliorate geopolitical competition around hydrocarbons. But low-carbon electricity and electrification still depend on extracting metals from under the Earth’s surface. As John notes, technological progress can also invite geopolitical disaster. It was the knowledge that oil-fuelled warships would be superior to existing coal-fuelled navies that drove a great deal of the geopolitical competition over oil prior to 1914. A century later, Xi’s “Made in China 2025” strategy – when in 2015 the Chinese leadership bet the country’s future on dominating high-tech manufacturing supply chains and electric-vehicle production – terrified the political class in Washington into its present tech war against the country.
As climate change accelerates, the modernist faith in technology must do ever more work to keep at bay an underlying dread that fossil-fuel civilisation will prove no less tragic than all others in history. The assumption that modern human ingenuity is unique allows energy optimists to treat the technological successes in reducing the unit costs of low-carbon energy as the inevitable prelude to the next round of remedies required, starting with eliminating the present intermittency of solar- and wind-generated electricity. But a fear that a low-carbon modern civilisation is unrealisable also powers the recent techno-fantasies of one day transferring human life to Mars.
Clear-eyed realism about the available options and their respective human costs is essential. Denial of our tragic age will only lead to more suffering. But we are far from being helpless sleepwalkers in our collective human plight. Resource-driven geopolitics is riven with inescapable dangers. But it will only be an apocalyptic struggle if governments make it so by refusing to recognise the restraint required by coexistence in the face of the limits nature imposes.
Robert D Kaplan
The emphasis on scarcity and limits, particularly on resources, combined with the increasing connectedness of a Weimar world, has been an ongoing phenomenon for well over a century. Witness the two world wars. But attrition of the same can add up to big change.
If there is one Enlightenment philosopher who intuitively grasped this, even if he made mistakes, it is Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834). Indeed, a Weimar world is a Malthusian world. Malthus continues to be ridiculed for claiming that while population increases geometrically, food supplies increase only arithmetically, so that humankind risks eventual shortages and starvation.
In fact, during his lifetime, Malthus revised his theory numerous times while upholding the central thesis, that populations expand to the limits imposed by the means of subsistence. Perhaps more so than Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, Malthus introduced the whole subject of the physical and natural environment into contemporary political philosophy. Humankind might be nobler than the apes, but we are still biological. Therefore, our politics, Malthus suggested, are affected both by the natural conditions and by the densities in which we inhabit the Earth.
To keep from destroying ourselves in this Malthusian world, we will have to husband fear without being immobilised by it. We cannot assume that technology will come to the rescue of every dilemma. The Ancient Greeks argued that no man is lucky until he is dead, since catastrophe can befall any of us at any moment. To carry that over into humanity at large, we should not assume that catastrophe cannot befall us at any moment or in any historical period. That is, we will need to think tragically in order to avoid tragedy. And precisely because our civilisation is rubbing up against limits of resources and space, such tragic thinking is more vital than ever before.
Yet, it is less in evidence. Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer in Britain are technocrats in spirit and background, and technocrats assume there is a solution to every problem, which leads to a certain arrogance. Meanwhile, the American political elite is more ideological than ever before, and this leads to another form of arrogance; the world’s problems will not go away if only all of humanity became democratic – as the American elite seems to believe.
I fear that the elites in both Britain and the US will have to learn about tragedy the hard way, by actually living it, due to their failures in seeing it ahead of time.
Since Malthus wrote without understanding that he lived at the start of an energy revolution that would transform the cycles of land fertility, his medium-term prophecy was doomed. The likely long, drawn-out end of the energy world that began in the 18th century may well validate his pessimism. But the limits of our own knowledge today could also lead us to the sort of unnecessary millenarian conclusions that he drew.
The stridency with which some think that energy abundance is a right of modernity flies in the face of a long history of reckoning with resource scarcity. In his 1865 book The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines, the English economist William Stanley Jevons explained how, by turning to a finite energy source, Britain had placed itself on an economic trajectory towards ever greater dangers from which it would not be able to escape.
Since the US began to dominate the modern economic world on the back of oil, Americans have been through multiple cycles of exploration and depletion. Pithole in Pennsylvania, where the first commercial American oil well was drilled in 1865, was a ghost town by the 1880s. As the early-20th-century wildcatters who found huge quantities of oil in Texas understood, fossil-fuel industrial civilisation has always been a roller-coaster.
Scientific invention and the viability of its commercial exploitation to surpass resource constraints are part of that roller-coaster. The energy historian and scientist Vaclav Smil estimates that perhaps half of us today would not be alive without synthetic ammonia.
The scientific push for this innovation came from the fear in the early 20th century that the natural nitrates used as fertilisers were running short. The chemist Fritz Haber’s invention was mass-produced as a result of German desperation when, during the First World War, the Allies’ naval blockade cut off German trade with Chile, exporter of most of the world’s nitrate supply.
Thomas Malthus has become relevant again because we are deliberately trying to undo the energy revolution he missed. We also know that technological advancement is a contingency, often around war, that cannot transcend the laws of thermodynamics. Any honest assessment of our likely future should recognise the enormity of trying to substitute electricity for fossil fuels in food production and distribution while already knowing the limits of technology to solve the problem.
Our partial agency is why we must learn to live consciously with mind-boggling uncertainty. Searching for and extracting metals will be another high-risk voyage, pitting human creativity against the inexorable force of resource depletion that will play out regardless of temporary successes.
If the energy predicament is singularly modern, the tragic mindset, shaped as it was by earlier civilisational experiences of limits, can still offer wisdom as we reckon with the Faustian odyssey that using fossil-fuel energy set in motion.
Today, the great powers have some things in common with the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944). Three dead souls find themselves in a locked room, seemingly damned for their sins. One of them tries to escape, but when the door opens he cannot make himself go through it, and all three remain stuck in the room. In a celebrated line, the failed escapee concludes: “Hell is other people.”
The great powers are trapped in a geopolitical version of Sartre’s room, a claustrophobic world from which there seems to be no exit. This is not the binary world of the Cold War. Three or more states – America, China, Russia and India – are contending for the shrinking resources of an overloaded planet.
As Robert argues, the theorist who best explains this situation is Thomas Malthus. In 1798, when he first published his An Essay on the Principle of Population, there were about 800 million human beings. Now there are approaching eight billion. Not only have human numbers increased tenfold, but many people today enjoy living standards higher than most have done throughout history.
In assuming food production could not be increased, Malthus was mistaken, but in a roundabout way he may yet be proved right. The spike in population and living standards was largely a by-product of hydrocarbons. It is true that birth rates are falling in many countries. But unless there is a large-scale die-off, global human numbers will still reach around 10 billion in this century, and feeding a population of that size will require enormous quantities of energy.
Mechanised agriculture, fertilisers, insecticides, factory farms, refrigerators and transportation require giant inputs of fossil fuels. Intensive farming is the extraction of food from oil, part of the worldwide industrialisation that has ravaged wilderness, depleted the biosphere and destabilised the climate. The confluence of global warming, energy scarcity, pandemic and geopolitical warfare may signal the beginning of a brutal rebalancing of the kind Malthus described.
As Helen says, there is an underlying mood of existential dread, a nagging suspicion that our civilisation may destroy itself as so many others have done in the past. With his fantasies of interplanetary migration, Elon Musk is an unwittingly tragic figure – as much an expression of a hidden despair as of the techno-optimism he loudly proclaims.
The reality of a planet from which there is no exit is intensifying competition for control of its resources. Ukraine is not only the world’s breadbasket but a rich site of rare earths, while the russian-occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk contain substantial deposits of shale gas. Geology and geography shape our conflicts as profoundly as any clash between autocracy and democracy.
If there is hope, it is in recognising this fact. Global disaster could still be averted by reality-based diplomacy. It will be unfortunate if, like Jean-Paul Sartre’s failed escapee, our leaders cannot bring themselves to go through the door.
[See also: Rescuing conservatism]
This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age