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In a chilling piece in Foreign Policy, Niall Ferguson, the Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University, and expert on the intersection of economics and history, delivers a dire warning.

The Axis of Upheaval examines the coming together of forces that have historically predicted planet wide dislocations.

I have been musing for several weeks on the sudden level of cooperation among governments to stem the economic storm.  I have wondered if it is a purely self-protective reaction based on a deep fear of massive population protests, and riots as millions of people find themselves out of work, out of money, and out of luck.  The cooperative governments may fear finding themselves out of power.

Ferguson mentions the Bush "Axis of Evil" speech and the invasion of Iraq, and then notes:

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."

And he then observes:

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.

After years of study Ferguson has identified what he believes to be the three factors that have led to every violent conflict during the past 200 years.  The first two, ethnic disintegration and economic volatility, are common factors in various nations.  But the third factor, empires in decline, removes the stabilizing force that kept the systems from total collapse.

As the major powers turn inward to address their own national economic crisis there is less interest, and less investment, in the faltering economies in the most volatile regions of the world.  The potential for political upheaval grows as the factors converge.  

After nearly a decade of unprecedented growth, the global economy will almost certainly sputter along in 2009, though probably not 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.

Professor Ferguson concludes with a dire warning:

Economic volatility, plus ethnic disintegration, plus an empire in decline: That combination is about the most lethal in geopolitics. We now have all three. The age of upheaval starts now.

For a fuller view of his thesis, get a copy of his most recent book
The Ascent of Money.

Climate change may well have led to the French Revolution.  The crash of the Golden Age, may have precipitated WWI.  Clearly the world wide Depression in the 1930 led to the Second World War.

It becomes our responsibility to be aware of this nexus of forces now converging, and to do all within our power to prevent another global-wide melt down.

Originally posted to Granny Doc on Thu Feb 19, 2009 at 09:49 AM PST.

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