Self-absorbed West needs reality check on actual existential threats

Published in (Wellington), 22 February 2022

“Unlearning Helplessness” may sound like the theme of a TED talk event. Or the title of a book in Whitcoulls’ personal growth section. Maybe even Andrew Coster’s future memoir.

In fact, it is neither of these. “Unlearning Helplessness” is the motto of the Munich Security Conference, the world’s pre-eminent geopolitical discussion forum.

It is a feature of the conference to come up with snappy titles to sum up the mood of the time. A couple of years ago, the conference coined the term “Westlessness” to mourn the passing of Western leadership (Once upon a time in the West, 26 February 2020). So now, against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, they have identified another “-lessness” to confront.

As the conference report lays out, there is indeed a sense of helplessness around. Not just among the political and economic leadership, but more widely in the general population.

To document this trend, they teamed up with the communications company Kekst CNC to survey citizens of the G7 industrialised countries and the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The result is a revealing snapshot of public opinion. It shows how vulnerable people feel in the face of global risks. But it also illuminates what they perceive these risks to be.

In all countries except China, at least a relative majority of the population agreed with the statement “I feel helpless in the face of global events”. The agreements ranged from 37 percent in China to 69 percent in India, with Germany (49 percent), the UK (49 percent), and the US (50 percent) in the middle.

On the related question of whether the respondent’s country had control over global events, the results were similar. There was no country, not even the US or China, whose citizens believed it had control over global events.

However, there was a twist in these responses, and that was the discrepancy between democratic and non-democratic countries. On average, the citizens from democracies felt even more helpless and less in control than the people from non-democracies.

Whether that also reflects successful propaganda in autocracies is a matter for debate, but Western democracies have a problem.

The promise of the state is to reduce uncertainty and provide some protection, at least from elementary threats. Yet that basic need for safety is no longer met in the eyes of a large part of the population.

So, what are the threats people are afraid of?

Usefully, the conference survey did not just ask what people fear. That could have resulted in a long list of items, no doubt. But it might not have rated them in any meaningful way.

Instead, conference developed a composite index which assessed 31 items for their overall risk, trajectory, severity, imminence and preparedness. It makes sense to differentiate them in that way, especially those risks which may take years or decades to materialise.

The survey was conducted in November 2021. What were the top risks on people’s minds back then?

Russia and China would have been somewhere close to the top of my list. Over the past years, both countries have not only become more authoritarian domestically but also more aggressive in their foreign policy. By the end of last year, Russia’s influence over Belarus showed in its orchestrated refugee crisis, and China had upped its military presence in the South China Sea so much that some analysts were convinced an invasion of Taiwan was just a matter of time.

Similarly, the prospect of a major economic and financial crisis after years of monetary easing would have worried me greatly. Add to that the fragmentation of the global trading system and the disruption in supply chains, not least for food.

As it turns out, people may feel helpless about global events, but not really the ones above.

China featured as risk number 10 on the list – and Russia, which now threatens the biggest war in Europe after 1945, was only 23. Food shortages and trade wars were not thought of as too scary at 15 and 17 respectively.

Oh, and the next economic and financial crisis? At least that made it onto the Top 10 – at number six.

The biggest geopolitical risks, as perceived by citizens, were “Climate change generally” followed by “Destruction of natural habitats” and “Extreme weather and forest fires”. Interestingly, too, the Covid pandemic only came in fourth place, just before cyber-attacks.

There were big and unsurprising variations between countries, reflecting national peculiarities. The Japanese were extremely concerned about China, while the French feared Islamic terrorism and the Brazilians were worried about inequality.

Still, environmental risks were close to the top in practically all countries. There was also a corresponding willingness to address them. Support for a net zero-carbon emissions target was strong in all countries, ranging from 48 percent agreement in Japan to 77 percent in India.

Perhaps the widespread environmental concerns also explain the feeling of helplessness? If the circus of big UN climate conferences proceeds from year to year without ever leading to much tangible outcomes, how could one not feel despondent?

But there is another way to read the conference survey. And that is to contrast it with the proceedings at the conference in Munich. Unsurprisingly, it was dominated by one single topic: the potential Russian aggression against Ukraine.

As mentioned before, Russia was not even perceived as one of the world’s most important risks. In Italy, France and Germany, issues such as “Racism and other discrimination” and “International organised crime” were ranked much higher than fear of Russian aggression.

To be clear, racism, discrimination and crime are all worth worrying about – but, unlike Russia, they hardly have the potential to cause a major (and potentially nuclear) war.

Therefore, it may be a good time for a reality check, especially in Western industrialised countries. Perhaps they worry and feel helpless about things that, though bad, may not pose the most existential threats.

And that could be the topic for the next conference: “Escaping cluelessness. When countries worry too little about the biggest threats.”

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