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Stability unravels. How it is being rolled back globally.

by Nik Gowing

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Written by Thinking the Unthinkable Founder and Co-Director, Nik Gowing

Stability is being rolled back globally.

There is no point hoping it is not. It is the new reality. For every corporate and political leader this must now underpin every judgement, however uncomfortable and counter intuitive.

The way you have assumed things will be is no longer guaranteed. Worse still, unthinkables and unpalatables mean you must now turn most of your assumptions on their head. If you move too slowly or cautiously, then you are out.

Look at the language from HSBC chairman Mark Tucker confirming the shock removal of CEO John Flint after just 18 months. Overseeing a 16 per cent increase in profits was not enough. HSBC needs new leadership to respond to “an increasingly complex and challenging global environment”. One banking analyst quoted in the FT said “you almost need a Marvel superhero to run the bank”.

Do not delude yourself that this is a temporary blip. The default reassurance that comes from constancy is fast being rolled back. Those that don’t get this fast should assume they confront a likely similar fate.

Worse still, there is a disturbing truth.

For an increasing number of top global leaders with autocratic instincts, destabilising what we take for the norm is their explicit intention. Donald Trump openly set this goal when running for president. He promised he would ‘drain the swamp’. Few realised the radical nature of what he intended. Details were sparse on how he would do it. Now we know.

Trump is the most brazen of the domineering leaders, many of them democratically elected. They want to create new irreversible realities and power for themselves and their ideas. More worryingly, others who think the same way are watching. They realise that they too can do similar and get away with it.

Having reported and analysed global affairs for forty years I declare that I am scared. Look at what has happened in recent days alone.

Without open debate, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly deployed his radical Home Minister to surprise parliament by unilaterally removing the 70 years special constitutional status of Indian administered Kashmir. India tore up an international agreement. Vladimir Putin’s Russia had faced only international condemnation for seizing Crimea in 2014. He got away with it.

Does Modi assume that he can do the same at negligible political risk? The rage and accusations in Pakistan’s parliament were inevitable. India is planning “ethnic cleansing” of Moslems. Does a third war between two nuclear capable states now threaten? That has long seemed unlikely, despite previous nerve wracking moments. But now? Worryingly, there is conspicuous lack of international condemnation from big global powers.

Another hugely worrying trend has been the sudden collapse of nuclear détente. The US has just withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed with the Soviet Union in 1987. Washington says Russia is building new missiles that knowingly violate the INF deal. NATO says the same. In response to Washington’s decision, President Putin withdrew Russia immediately too.

In the 1980’s I reported the years of deployment of US cruise missiles in Europe designed to counter Russia’s SS-20s, along with often violent public protests. Then came the intense arms control negotiations in Geneva, the extraordinary Gorbachev-Reagan Summit in 1986 in Reykjavik, Iceland, and remarkably, their signing of the treaty a year later.

At a stroke in recent days that huge symbol of ambitions for superpower stability has vaporised. The distinguished American ‘Foreign Affairs’ journal this week even goes as far as to label this ‘The Return of Doomsday’ in its lead article. All the extraordinary achievements of intrusive verification plus destruction of nuclear warheads and missiles have suddenly gone.

The world is a less transparent, more covert and far more suspicious place. The arms race is back. Assumptions of stability are being unravelled. This “could lead to global destruction” warns the Foreign Affairs analysis. Yet - I assume with irony - the publishers then urge their subscribers like me to “enjoy reading” their analysis, then “discussing with family, friends and colleagues”! Just what’s needed for a fun chat over the beer and juice at a summer picnic!

And then another unthinkable: Hong Kong.

The gloves are almost fully off. Beijing’s official voice there publicly warns that “those who play with fire will perish by it”. There is simultaneous China TV transmission of chilling video showing the People’s Liberation Army’s exercising to suppress dissent. The warning is unambiguous.

Ten weeks of huge demonstrations by up to two million people in black Tee-shirts have been extraordinary enough. But the physical attacks on symbols of power, especially the LegCo ‘parliament’ building plus Beijing’s offices and security headquarters turned this more sinister.

I write having accompanied UK Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe on his mission to finalise the Basic Law in Beijing in 1984. I was also a witness reporting inside Tiananmen Square for several weeks between April and June 1989. In the Square there was nothing like the Hong Kong scale of attacks on symbols of one party communist power. Through tight self discipline of the demonstrators there were no violent attacks on the authorities. There was disdain of communist rule in an extraordinary atmosphere of celebration.

But given my years of previous experience eluding the secret police in Eastern Europe during the 80’s, you could sense in Tiananmen Square the invisible role of agents and plain clothes police provocateurs. They were both monitoring and disguising themselves as protesters. It was unthinkable that the PLA army would be ordered to intervene and kill huge numbers of protestors. It was not unthinkable. It was inevitable. Unknown to outsiders it was high on the agenda of the top level of leadership within the secretive Zhongnanhai communist party compound. With no outward signs of what was planned, the Chinese premier Li Peng had decided that political necessity must prevail. He ordered the brutal, bloody suppression and until his death just a few weeks ago was known as the “butcher of Beijing”.

This was part of the PRC’s playbook then. We have no option but to assume that has to be the case in Hong Kong today.

Do we really know enough about the “angry protesters” in Hong Kong battering official doors while the police stood by and did not intervene? Or those daubing graffiti in high profile locations with such self confidence and impunity? And we must ask: who encouraged the vicious assault by “gangland triads” at several metro stations? Were they spontaneously angry members of Hong Kong’s underworld, willing to do it publicly and be identified? Or were they paid and under instructions? If so by who and for whom?

Surely that’s enough. No! This is far from all.

As I write, the unravelling of global stability continues. The weekly Proliferation Bulletin tells me: “Iran Says It Will Further Breach Nuclear Deal In One Month Unless Europeans act.” Tehran is moving towards resuming the enrichment of nuclear fuel to closer to weapons grade again. Another treaty achieved against huge odds is being unravelled. This is as retaliation against Trump’s unilateral economic sanctions which are designed and energised by his hardline National Security Adviser John Bolton to punish Tehran.

In my London Times I then read another sinister unravelling of stability. Using the same strategy as it deployed to fill the vacuum left by the US on Syria, Russia will now start military cooperation with Iran on naval exercises. It will counter the growing US and British naval presence to protect shipping in the Gulf. Result of this opportunism? Tension further ratcheted up in the Gulf.

And oh I forgot (how could I?): There is Brexit. Two weeks into Boris Johnson’s new leadership, we must fear the deepening impact of huge public and political divisions on the stability of the United (yes still in name) Kingdom. Boris has already been warned by the Cabinet Secretary that he faces civil unrest. That has been repeated by Sir Malcolm Rifkind a former defence and foreign secretary, and a former chair of the intelligence and security committee. The PM, he warns, risks leading the UK into a “civil-war level” constitutional crisis.” There is also the backlash in the European Union and the overarching imperative for the remaining 27 EU members to keep it together.

These dark developments are evidence of why everywhere there is no time for wishful thinking. And on the slingshot principle, one unravelling of stability rebounds even more sharply. It then creates others, each of more dramatic scale. The destabilising momentum of the rebounds becomes unstoppable.

Accuse me of being over dramatic. But we look at data and reality, then relate it to history.

These must be regarded as dark times for leaders, as our five years of Thinking the Unthinkable work has highlighted. Many leaders have confidentially told us they are “scared”, “overwhelmed” and “fearful”.

Do please take a moment to share any further examples, or your reasons for optimism. Our project always strives to be balanced and fact based. At least there is word from Qatar as I write that a peace deal between the US and the Taliban is – quite remarkably – almost complete. But scepticism is in order. Look at what has not happened after what seemed to be the extraordinary agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels in Havana. The instincts of war, conflict and suspicion remain the default.

Check out much more of what we have warned about and the implications for the highest level leaders at There is much more detail in our book.

Ignore the evidence and this trend at your peril. Do please feel able to help us on this worrying journey as stability keeps unravelling.

Join the conversation

peter mcloughlin commented on 14 Aug 2019

This is a very stark but truthful article. The pattern of history suggests we are heading for another world war. For more on this see the link below. What drives nations to war is power. Manifested as interest it has been present in every conflict of the past – no exception. It is the underlying motivation for war and cuts across all apparently unifying principles: family, kin, nation, religion, ideology, politics – everything. We unite with the enemies of our principles, because that is what serves our interest. It is power, not any of the above concepts, that is the cause of war. And power eventually brings every empire to the war it seeks to avoid – utter destruction.

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