The Most Dangerous Continent


Moisés Naím, The Atlantic
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Moisés Naím, The Atlantic
Oct. 17, 2013, 12:02 p.m.

Some prob­lems travel well. Some­times too well. Fin­an­cial crashes have taught us that in some cases what starts as a very loc­al eco­nom­ic prob­lem quickly es­cal­ates and be­comes a glob­al crisis. Think Greece — or more re­cently Cyprus. And we know that ter­ror­ism also has a way of go­ing glob­al in un­pre­dict­able and dan­ger­ous ways.

But what about re­gions? Which con­tin­ents are more prone to in­fect the rest of the world with their prob­lems? Africa and Lat­in Amer­ica’s woes, for ex­ample, re­main mostly in­su­lated. Of course, the mass emig­ra­tion of Afric­ans to Europe and Lat­in Amer­ic­ans to the United States is an ex­ample of how one con­tin­ent’s prob­lems spill over in­to an­oth­er, but this con­ta­gion has had much less of an im­pact than the eco­nom­ic crisis in the U.S. or Europe, for ex­ample. Mil­lions of people all over the world, and es­pe­cially in Europe, are still pay­ing the con­sequences for that fin­an­cial earth­quake.

The point is that the prob­lems of some con­tin­ents are more ‘sys­tem­ic’ than oth­ers. This is to say that the ag­on­ies of some re­gions af­fect the en­tire world, no mat­ter how far away they are. The ques­tion, then, is: Which of the five con­tin­ents is bound to spread more un­hap­pi­ness in the fu­ture?

One way to an­swer is to think about which threats travel the easi­est and with no trouble skirt bor­ders, for­ti­fic­a­tions, or the pub­lic policies that we naïvely be­lieve pro­tect us. An eco­nom­ic crash in China, for ex­ample, is bound to be felt every­where and by every­one.

Nor may we be able to dodge the con­sequences of the nuc­le­ar ex­per­i­ments of a young, in­ex­per­i­enced North Korean tyr­ant. So, which con­tin­ent is the most dan­ger­ous? Asia. This may sur­prise those who see the ‘Asi­an eco­nom­ic mir­acle’ as a mod­el for the rest of the world. Or those who think that con­di­tions in the Middle East are ripe for a lengthy and rising wave of armed con­flicts, re­li­gious rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion and in­ter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism. All this is true.

But the prob­lems that ori­gin­ate in Asia will prove more and more com­plic­ated, as their already gi­gant­ic eco­nom­ies con­tin­ue to grow, al­beit at a slower pace than in the last sev­er­al dec­ades.

The main threats to hu­man­ity today are: 1) cli­mate change; 2) nuc­le­ar pro­lif­er­a­tion; 3) the out­break of a dis­ease with no known cure that spreads across the globe claim­ing a large num­ber of vic­tims; 4) glob­al eco­nom­ic crises and, of course, 5) an armed con­flict between two or more mil­it­ary powers, such as China and In­dia, for ex­ample. Of course, there are oth­er threats: ter­ror­ism, the in­creased scarcity of wa­ter, crim­in­al­ized gov­ern­ments, struc­tur­al un­em­ploy­ment, and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of failed states. But none of these would gen­er­ate the co­lossal con­sequences of the five I list.

Asia is the re­gion with the most coun­tries that have the po­ten­tial to cre­ate and spread these five prob­lems. The much cel­eb­rated eco­nom­ic suc­cess of the ‘Asi­an ti­gers’ ob­scures the fact that this con­tin­ent is also home to the prin­cip­al threats to glob­al sta­bil­ity.

Ac­cord­ing to the Asi­an De­vel­op­ment Bank, Asia is on the path to double its con­sump­tion of oil, triple its use of nat­ur­al gas, and see an 81 per­cent in­crease in its use of high pol­lut­ing coal, speed­ing up and doub­ling its car­bon di­ox­ide (CO2) emis­sions by 2035. Asia alone, then, would be emit­ting the total amount of CO2 that ex­perts have cal­cu­lated to be the max­im­um sus­tain­able level for the en­tire plan­et.

Asia is also the con­tin­ent with the greatest pro­lif­er­a­tion of nuc­le­ar weapons. These cap­ab­il­it­ies are present in high-risk coun­tries like North Korea and Pakistan, which also hap­pen to be those that have shown no qualms in selling their nuc­le­ar tech­no­logy to the highest bid­der.

Many of the world’s longest-last­ing armed con­flicts are found in Asia. From Afgh­anistan to Sri Lanka and from Kash­mir to the un­end­ing armed in­sur­gen­cies in In­done­sia and the Phil­ip­pines, wars are routine. Asia is also marked by the most ex­plos­ive bor­ders in the world: China and In­dia, Pakistan and In­dia, and between the two Koreas.

From Asia came the avi­an bird flu pan­dem­ic. While the mor­tal­it­ies proved lower than feared, the world was aler­ted to Asia’s po­ten­tial to rap­idly spread dis­ease across the globe.

Are these ac­ci­dents and Asia-ori­gin­ated prob­lems in­ev­it­able? Of course not. But they are un­for­tu­nately more im­port­ant and ur­gent than is­sues that more fre­quently ab­sorb the world’s at­ten­tion.

Re­prin­ted with per­mis­sion from the At­lantic. The ori­gin­al story can be found here.

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