Sunday 17 January 2010

A straw in the guano; "When Giants Fall" by Michael Panzner

After his prescient book "Financial Armageddon", in which Michael Panzner identified four major threats to our economic security, he wrote another called "When Giants Fall", which I have been planning to review for a year now.

The latter is more complex and harder to summarise, but as I see it, essentially it views America's loss of power and prestige as leading to a sort of Balkanization of the world, just as after the death of Tito, Yugoslavia and other Eastern European countries fractured and fought. I once visited a pet shop where there was a large rabbit sitting among the guinea pigs; when I asked why, they told me that guinea pigs will fight to the death for dominance, but one look at the rabbit told them they had no chance and so they decided to get along peaceably.

This global fracture is now under way, with major nations like China and Russia playing a 21st century version of The Great Game, and we see it in little ways as well as the more obvious ones. Mark Steyn, a sharply witty Canadian journalist, comments on the curious case of a South Pacific islet (Nauru) taking it on itself to recognise the nationhood of Abkhazia, currently a province of the Caucasian republic of Georgia (Stalin's birthplace). Naturally, it's for a consideration, in this case money from President Putin, who wants to reabsorb Georgia.

Should we take it seriously? Aren't both these little nations a bit like the Duchy of Grand Fenwick in the film comedy "The Mouse That Roared"?

A single match can start a forest fire. When some Serbs decided to break off from Croatia in the 1990s, they may have started as a rather small, contemptibly scruffy and ill-equipped band, but other players and suppliers got involved and things fell apart very nastily. When there are powerful interests at stake, nothing is insignificant: Russia quibbles about the definition of its continental shelf to lay claim (in 2001) to fossil fuels near the North Pole; China goes back to the 13th century to justify its claim to Tibet, and by extension the (currently) Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh - both containing valuable natural resources that the Chinese need. Relatively small amounts of money and support can recruit votes that matter in international politics and law.

Panzner's book examines all sorts of potential consequences of the weakening of the "world's policeman", and no-one knows how matters will progress. The situation is so complex that chaos theory could be relevant - the flutter of the butterfly's wings triggering a hurricane thousands of miles away.

So what can we do about it? I think all we can do, is to become generally more cautious and store resources to cope with emergencies. Like Boy Scouts, we must "be prepared"; as our grandparents would say, "don't put all your eggs in one basket".

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1 comment:

Paddington said...

Perhaps the best analogy is what happened to Europe after Rome was sacked.