Seven years ago, in his State of the Union address on Jan. 29, 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush warned of an "axis of evil" that was engaged in assisting terrorists, acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and "arming to threaten the peace of the world."
In Bush's telling, this exclusive new club had three members: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Bush's policy prescription for dealing with the axis of evil was preemption, and just over a year later he put this doctrine into action by invading Iraq.
The bad news for Bush's successor, Barack Obama, is that he now faces a much larger and potentially more troubling axis--an axis of upheaval. This axis has at least nine members, and quite possibly more. What unites them is not so much their wicked intentions as their instability, which the global financial crisis only makes worse every day. Unfortunately, that same crisis is making it far from easy for the United States to respond to this new "grave and growing danger."
When Bush's speechwriters coined the phrase "axis of evil" (originally "axis of hatred"), they were drawing a parallel with the World War II alliance between Germany, Italy, and Japan, formalized in the Tripartite Pact of September 1940. The axis of upheaval, by contrast, is more reminiscent of the decade before the outbreak of World War II, when the Great Depression unleashed a wave of global political crises.
The Bush years have of course revealed the perils of drawing facile parallels between the challenges of the present day and the great catastrophes of the 20th century. Nevertheless, there is reason to fear that the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression could have comparable consequences for the international system.
For more than a decade, I pondered the question of why the 20th century was characterized by so much brutal upheaval. I pored over primary and secondary literature. I wrote more than 800 pages on the subject. And ultimately I concluded, in The War of the World, that three factors made the location and timing of lethal organized violence more or less predictable in the last century. The first factor was ethnic disintegration: Violence was worst in areas of mounting ethnic tension. The second factor was economic volatility: The greater the magnitude of economic shocks, the more likely conflict was. And the third factor was empires in decline: When structures of imperial rule crumbled, battles for political power were most bloody.
In at least one of the world's regions--the greater Middle East--two of these three factors have been present for some time: Ethnic conflict has been rife there for decades, and following the difficulties and disappointments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States already seems likely to begin winding down its quasi-imperial presence in the region. It likely still will.
Now the third variable, economic volatility, has returned with a vengeance. U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's "Great Moderation"--the supposed decline of economic volatility that he hailed in a 2004 lecture--has been obliterated by a financial chain reaction, beginning in the U.S. subprime mortgage market, spreading through the banking system, reaching into the "shadow" system of credit based on securitization, and now triggering collapses in asset prices and economic activity around the world.
After nearly a decade of unprecedented growth, the global economy will almost certainly sputter along in 2009, though probably not by as much as it did in the early 1930s, because governments worldwide are frantically trying to repress this new depression. But no matter how low interest rates go or how high deficits rise, there will be a substantial increase in unemployment in most economies this year and a painful decline in incomes. Such economic pain nearly always has geopolitical consequences. Indeed, we can already see the first symptoms of the coming upheaval. …