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Approaching the precipice

As war drums start to accompany a breakdown in civility in the West, investors should beware.

A few columns ago I commented on the way that American politics has changed from a game of baseball, where the objective was to win, to boxing, where the objective was to knock the other side out, and now to bullfighting, where the objective is to kill the other side.

Some weeks ago grievous bodily harm was done to a member of Congress and lighter injuries to other members and staffers by a gunman who approached a baseball practice asking if the players were Democrats or Republicans. On being informed that they were Republicans, he opened fire. Only by a miracle was no-one killed.

The new political bullfighting has just claimed its first fatal victim, in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia, where the city fathers had decreed that the statue of Robert E. Lee be removed from a city park. Pro- and anti-removal demonstrators descended upon the city, both sides with helmets and shields and armed with wooden clubs (!). Simultaneously, a car was driven at high speed into a group on onlookers. Results: one dead and several injured and a state of emergency declared in the town, with the state police deployed and the national guard on alert. Total fatal casualties in the incident were three. 

No, this is not a news item from Pakistan or Egypt, or even from the Muslim quarters of a European city–it is a news item from a normally quiet, tree-lined university town in the United States of America–as the previous incident took place at a baseball diamond in a park in Washington, DC.

The breakdown of social and political civility in the great majority of countries of what is called the Western world, once the bastion of Judeo-Christian morality and Greco-Roman civil order, coupled with the proliferation of failed states in the Middle East and now in Latin American (Venezuela) would be disturbing enough.

But equally if not more disturbing are the war drums being sounded around the world: From the Far East, where North Korea is threatening to fire missiles at Guam and China is rampaging around the East and South China Seas creating air and naval bases from nothing; to South Asia, where the Asian giants India and China are facing each other in the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean; to the entire western and southern periphery of Russia, with Russian military provocations in the air and on the sea proliferating.

Erratic and unpredictable leadership in the US and North Korea, coupled with unbounded hubris displayed by the Chinese and Russian leaders, when added to the confrontation between Iran and allies and Saudi Arabia and allies in the Middle East, have created a situation where any number of quite possible errors of judgment or misunderstandings could lead to the first major international war since Afghanistan and Iraq (both of which, be it noted, are still ongoing).

World War I began due to multiple errors of judgment on the part of several of the great powers at the time, not because any of them simply made a policy decision to start a war. To err is human and happens all the time. The world is currently approaching a precipice. Investors take note.

This article was originally published in Globes.