Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

How Many Shocks Can the World Take?

| Oct. 24, 2022

We're seeing what occurs when everything happens everywhere all at once.

Regular readers of this column know that I'm not inclined to be alarmist. Although there are times when I worry about the costs and risks of certain foreign-policy decisions, I tend to push back on the tendency for foreign-policy experts to inflate threats and assume the worst—but not always. Sometimes, the wolf really is at the door, and it’s time to start worrying.

What's troubling me today is the gnawing fear that we are living through a series of disruptions that are overwhelming our collective ability to respond. World politics is never completely static, of course, but we haven't seen as serious a sequence of shocks in a long time. We're accustomed to thinking human ingenuity will eventually provide solutions, but as political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon warned many years ago, that reassuring assumption may not apply when the number of problems to be solved becomes too large and complex.

Just how many shocks can the system stand? Let’s take them in chronological order.

  1. The breakup of the Soviet empire

Although the collapse of the Soviet Union and the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe were positive developments in many ways, they also created considerable uncertainty and instability, and they opened the door to political developments (such as NATO enlargement) that still reverberate today. The breakup led directly to a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, contributed to the dissolution of Yugoslavia and subsequent Balkan wars, encouraged an unhealthy sense of hubris in the United States, and reshaped politics in Central Asia. Loss of Soviet patronage also destabilized governments in Africa, the Middle East, and even the Americas, with unpredictable and sometimes unfortunate consequences. History didn't end; it just headed down a different track....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Walt, Stephen M."How Many Shocks Can the World Take?" Foreign Policy, October 24, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt