The shame of it all

Next week I leave for a trip to China. Before COVID and before the war in Ukraine, you could fly direct from Montreal to Shanghai for less than $1,000 CAD. Today, a return trip is about $3,000 and you need to connect in another city, adding a least 10 hours or more to the trip. When I was last in China, about six months ago, you could feel the slow down of the economy and the change in tone. Things are not as buoyant as they once were.

Nearly twenty years ago in 2006, I made my first trip to China to work for Danieli Corus, a steel equipment manufacturer. That year I was a junior engineer working with the team in Beijing and helping in the small ways I could to support the senior engineers and sale staff. It was a truly remarkable experience. At that time the steel industry in China was red hot, with rapid expansion of capacity and modernization of equipment across the country. Beijing had only three metro lines and China had no high speed rail. Barely 20 years later, Beijing has 20 metro lines and China has twice as much high speed rail than the rest of the world combined. China was growing at insane rates and it was an exuberant atmosphere. Today, China is a modern and advanced country that offers a high quality of life to the vast majority of its citizens. The world around us has unfortunately changed somewhat.

With all the conflicts in the news – Gaza and Ukraine notably – it is easy to think the world is falling apart. I however took great solace in this article entitled “Beware of the Polycrisis” that outlines all the conflicts, wars, issues and nonsense we have survived in just the past 50 years. In short the world has muddled through innumerable conflicts from the cold war to genocide in Rwanda, conflict in the DRC, environmental disasters, rigged elections and much more. Are things worse than they were in the 1970s, 80s, 90s or 2000s – not really. For some people things are indeed much worse – notably Gaza and Ukraine today, but broadly speaking things are better for the vast majority of people. That is not to say that there are not tremendous problems in the world, but perhaps things are better than they seem?

What seems most worrying however is the apparent escalation in violence between large countries who have vast arsenals of weapons. The war in Ukraine is killing hundreds of thousands of people and is keeping Europe on the precipice of a broader conflict that is not prepared to fight. China is being pushed into a corner through trade wars and is turning towards Russia and the global south. Gazans are being exterminated and the support of the western political class for this massacre is creating a generational divide in many western countries. The violent suppression of student protests is making it abundantly clear that western governments have little tolerance for meaningful dissent and even less moral high ground. It certainly feels like the world is changing in a substantive way.

Geopolitical predictions are notoriously unreliable, but the person I currently most respect in geopolitics is John Mearsheimer who has laid bare the situation around the world. According to him, Ukraine will likely lose the war and cede parts of its territory. Gaza will be destroyed and its people will be killed or expelled. China will continue to rise and challenge the US. As for US domestic politics – who knows. Trump could very likely win, though that may help calm tensions on the geopolitical side. In Europe, the rise populist leaders and the right is real and scary. Debt is rapidly increasing due to interest rates. In short, we seem to be escalating unnecessary conflicts in a scary way.

What can be done? De-escalation needs to be our focus across the board. We need to de-escalate the actual violent conflicts in the world – notably Ukraine. This means negotiations and this is not appealing to western elites who think they can win, but it remains the only realistic hope for stopping a broader escalation or a long term problem in Europe. Gaza, sadly, is hopeless and the United States and the West seems intent on supporting Israel no matter what it does. Until that changes, there is not much that can be done. The biggest risk is of course US-China. This is where de-escalation matters most. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely this will happen, but we should aim to build greater bridges between the major powers in the world. In this respect, I do think China has a major role to play and I hope they take more leadership and leverage their relationships in the developing world. For my very small part, I continue to hope we can somehow calm the entire situation down. At home, we need to advocate for dialogue at the political levels and abroad we need to continue to travel, meet, discuss and attempt to build bridges wherever possible.

Published on May 15, 2024