Uncertainty in Interesting Times: We Live in an Interesting Age

There is so much uncertainty all around us. Whether we consider the issues of climate change under discussion at the COP28 conference, the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict/war, the war in Ukraine, the US presidential election, or geopolitics writ large, it is difficult to predict what is going to happen

By Anil Madan

The Thanksgiving holiday was a welcome break, and I was fortunate to spend some time in California sunshine with friends and on golf courses. As I was contemplating thankfulness for so many things, I was also struck by how much turmoil there is around the world that dampens my sense of thankfulness other than for being far away from most of it.

We certainly live in an interesting age, I thought. This ruminating brought to mind the alleged ancient Chinese saying that sounds like a blessing but is ostensibly a curse: “May you live in interesting times.” A little reading led me to an article at The Phrase Finder (www.phrases.org.uk) which claims that this saying is neither Chinese nor an ancient curse. The phrase, “we live in an interesting age” is attributed to remarks made by Frederic R. Coudert at the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, 1939 in which he recounted writing to a friend, Sir Austen Chamberlain, who replied that he had been told that one of the principal Chinese curses is: “May you live in an interesting age.” That was uncertain since Chamberlain did not read Mandarin.

As I made a mental survey of interesting topics for interesting times, it struck me that there is so much uncertainty all around us. Whether we consider the issues of climate change under discussion at the COP28 conference, the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict/war, the war in Ukraine, the US presidential election, or geopolitics writ large, it is difficult to predict what is going to happen.

COP28 conference in Dubai

Sultan Al Jaber is the President of the COP28 conference in Dubai. In an exchange with former Irish President Mary Robinson, Al Jaber said that while phasing out fossil fuels is inevitable, there is no scientific evidence to support the notion that it would meet the world’s climate change goals. The only certainty was that his remarks would cause an uproar. But it bears noting that while he was politically incorrect, he was factually correct. Putting aside the problem of defining the “world’s climate change goals” or over what timescale fossil fuels are to be phased out, the warnings that we hear from scientists are that if we don’t reduce fossil fuel consumption, we will push things over the tipping point. No responsible scientists claim that eliminating all fossil fuels tomorrow will be an instant cure for the damage already done, or that it is reversible. And, of course, given the world’s energy needs, it is unlikely that absent a major technological breakthrough in the very near future, we will see a massive shift away from fossil fuels. The end of fossil fuels is inevitable, the time frame is uncertain.

Meanwhile as the COP28 conference went on, Chennai and its environs experienced another major flooding event, the second in eight years. Chennai was hit with 24 cm (almost ten inches) of rainfall in a single day, on Monday. In a span of 35 hours Sunday to Monday evening, a nearby area had 43 cm (nearly 17 inches) of rain. Events around the world have shown the certainty that major floods, winds, snowfalls, and fires, is beyond question. What is uncertain is where and when they will strike, and how hard. The other certainty is that despite all warnings, the world is unprepared to deal with these catastrophes. And it seems that once again, the attendees at COP28 will pay lip service to compensating countries that are most affected by rising sea levels while producing minimal greenhouse gases but fail to accomplish any meaningful funding.

Israel-Gaza war and war in Ukraine

The Israel-Gaza war and the war in Ukraine tell us that just as it has always been true, the certainty is that man will find cause to kill his fellow man. There is grave uncertainty about whether Ukraine can withstand Russia’s ongoing onslaught and indeed, uncertainty about whether and for how long Russia can continue. Aid from the US and European countries to Ukraine is critical to the beleaguered nation’s defense. Yet, there is uncertainty about whether the aid will continue.

There is a slight bit of good news here. It appears that Republican opposition to aid for Ukraine is not rooted in any ill will or disregard of the Ukrainians’ struggle to maintain their democracy. Rather, it is a cynical ploy to force funding for border control to stem the burgeoning inflow of undocumented immigrants into the US. It is not clear why the Democrats do not want more robust enforcement at the border, and such reluctance seems illogical. This will certainly resolve itself. 

On the Israel-Hamas front, it seems inevitable that in the short-term, Israel will succeed in damaging Hamas significantly. Less certain is whether Israel can prevail over the long-term or whether its campaign will result in a million or more dead Palestinians. And that is a serious existential question for Israel. The good news is that the major Arab nations seems to have abandoned the idea of destroying Israel. Certainly, it is in the interest of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, and the Gulf nations to make peace with Israel.

Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon are hardly major nations in their current condition. This leaves Iran as the wild card. There is grave uncertainty about whether and how fast Iran will develop a nuclear weapons delivery capability. It is all but certain that Iran will develop nuclear weapons if it has not already done so. There is uncertainty about how much longer the Ayatollahs can continue to rule an unwilling populace. The history of the world tells us that tyranny is often long-lived.

Reports from UN agencies state that almost 1.8 million Gazans have been displaced and the threat of death from hunger and disease is ever-present. Meanwhile Israel threatens to flood the tunnels that Hamas has constructed under Gaza’s buildings with sea water. It is uncertain what environmental damage sea water will do as it may take months to execute this plan and years for the sea water to lose its corrosive force.

The China-Russia-Iran Axis

On the geopolitical front, some months ago, it seemed that China, Russia, and Iran were about to form an axis to challenge the US, Europe, and countries generally aligned with the West. The faltering Chinese and Russian economies seem to have damped that move for now. But it would be a mistake to underestimate China. For decades to come, China will continue to enjoy massive trade surpluses that can be diverted to expanding its naval fleet, attack aircraft, space capabilities, nuclear arsenal, and armaments in general. China will remain a regional Asian harasser and a world-stage troublemaker.

India remains the odd man out in this mix. Still dependent on Russia for aircraft parts and for armaments, but pivoting toward America, India has a growing economy and a growing working age population. Will India make a major dent in China’s unrivalled position as the world’s manufactory? That remains to be seen. India has its own security priorities, with hostile neighbours in China and Pakistan. It will be decades before India is a true force on the international stage in terms of strategic capability. What is uncertain is whether India can accomplish this without US technology and perhaps US funding and whether the US has the wherewithal to fund such an endeavour.

US presidential election

On the domestic US front there is great uncertainty about the presidential election coming in 2024. Although Donald Trump is far ahead in the polls for the Republican Party nomination, the uncertainty as to whether he is barred from serving as President by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, remains a cloud over him. That issue is now squarely before the Colorado Supreme Court. It is certain that the issue will reach the US Supreme Court erelong. What is uncertain is how that court will rule.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to get more unhinged by the day. If his 2016 and 2020 campaigns were characterized by ginning up hate against enemies, real or just perceived (China, immigrants in general, Mexicans specifically, Muslims, NATO, etc.) those were all foreign. Now, he is defining fellow Americans as the enemy and threatening to exact vengeance. Are the Republicans who ostensibly support him in the polls, crazy enough to turn on their fellow Americans and vote for a man with that kind of message? Will we have a civil war at the polls? That is uncertain.

President Biden has injected more uncertainty of his own. He said: “If Trump wasn’t running, I’m not sure I’d be running, but we cannot let him win.” This certainly sounds like Biden is setting the stage to bow out of the presidential race. But that too is uncertain. As a reader of the tea leaves of presidential politics, I have long predicted that California Governor Gavin Newsom is the most likely Democratic Party nominee if Biden does not run, and I reiterate my prognostication that he will not run again. If Newsom does run, then Kamala Harris cannot be his running mate because a Vice Presidential candidate cannot be from the same state as the Presidential candidate. Certainly, she could change the state of her domicile, but that too is uncertain.

The only certainty is that we live in an interesting age.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 8 December 2023

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