Our ability to predict the consequences of complex processes is diminishing. How can Central Europe best prepare for the future? By not substituting short-term benefits for long-term successes, actively participating in the life of your community, and having the courage to make radical decisions and changes.
In 2019, we witnessed changes confirming the shift from cooperative multilateralism to competitive multipolarity. In other words, an increasing number of states are choosing a more assertive and confrontational approach: they prefer direct bilateral diplomacy between states over a willingness to address their issues on international platforms.
We can see this clearly in foreign policy steps of Turkey, in the German approach to the Nord Stream 2 and Trump’s foreign policy openly working according to the very same logic. Such an approach suits strong states which can more easily enforce more favourable terms for themselves, especially if they outweigh their “partner” several times in a bilateral relationship.
Having the political and economic weight of the Visegrad Group in mind, this is hardly the desired development. Moreover, such development is increasing the unpredictability of actions and responses by individual actors.
Pressure on our political systems is also increasing in the streets and squares where politics is said not to be done. Yet, we have seen the rebellious protests in Hong Kong, the anger of the yellow vests in France, and the demonstrations in India. Mass protests are also taking place in Chile and the wider region, which some have already called the South American Spring. Bratislava and Prague also saw massive protests.
People’s dissatisfaction is driven by a combination of the fight for political rights, corruption, rising living costs or climate change. An interesting exception can be found in Slovakia, where the black swan-like murder of young journalist and his fiance triggered a major reshaping of the political landscape.
Escapism from information noise
Another distinctive feature of today is the unprecedented amounts of information. The challenge is no longer to find information but to meaningfully filter and interpret it. More information does not mean more wisdom.
Information pressure can lead to disinterest in public affairs when an individual resigns not only from critical consumption of information but from the consumption of any politically related information.
The result is a kind of escapism from public life – the citizen becomes a recluse. Under the pressure of noisy opinion minorities, who reject any centrist positions online, such a choice is often tragically understandable.
Social networking pulsates in the rhythm of clicks, likes, comments, and sharing. The importance and legitimacy of information are determined by the degree of our attention. Unfortunately, without the brakes and counterbalances of real communication, bulks of the discussion in the online space resemble the trench warfare of tribes and clans. Instead of a desirable and beneficial exchange of views, we have come to the gradual polarisation of society.
The unpredictability of sand piles
From one perspective, civilisational progress can be described as a gradual increase in specialisation, narrowing the profile of all sectors of human activity, with the ultimate goal of greater efficiency. The increasing complexity of processes is a necessary companion but also a limiting element of progress. Moreover, our ability to predict the consequences of complex processes is diminishing.
Similarly, the complexity of our social, political, economic and technological systems is increasing. We can imagine it as a pile of sand on which we constantly pour new sand. Operating and maintenance costs of our “sand piles” are increasing in proportion with their complexity and size.
When quickly hitting a critical threshold, the possibility of a sudden change of shape or even avalanche is not excluded. Are we equipped with the knowledge and tools to determine when such avalanches will occur in our societies?
In historical terms, our region has an especially rich experience with unexpected and unprecedented avalanches – chain reactions leading to major shifts. In 2019 we commemorated 30 years since the sudden collapse of communist regimes in the region.
More recently, the Euromaidan protests triggered the annexation of Crimea, the war in Eastern Ukraine and brought about a substantial earthquake in Ukrainian society, the economy and the political system. Ukraine is a good example of a sudden change of set-up which had been long in the making.
However, the lesson here is that we cannot simply predict such moments. Proven procedures for remediation to keep the pile of sand intact cease to work. So how do we manage systems we do not understand but in which our actions often worsen the problems?
The logic of the matter implies a higher degree of caution. It seems reasonable to strive for a more modest and patient approach, to choose less ambitious goals, not to prioritise short-term efficiency over long-term resilience. Of course, an underlying necessary condition is the willingness to deal with problem-solving rather than vote-seeking.
The change of attitude required by the “era of unpredictability” is well reflected in the transformation of humankind’s position from being an architect (or system designer) to being a gardener (or system maintainer). Unlike an architect, a gardener works primarily on the immediate outcome of his work. In particular, a garderner understands well that a number of factors that directly affect his work are out of reach.
The general blurring of system functions results in outputs that traditional categories such as military, economic or environmental security fail to cover.
If the threats we face become hybrid – or better, we finally admit their hybrid nature – our countermeasures must also become hybrid. This means not sticking rigidly to best practices, but trying to respond in a flexible and appropriate way to the internal dynamics of the processes we observe. This may include the need to reformulate one’s own interests because nothing is really eternal.
Think about our own Visegrad experience. Certainly, we must live with our neighbours but what about the V4 Group as a common platform? It is surely not in the interest of Slovakia, Czechia neither Poland to be perceived as part of Victor Orbán’s foreign policy trojan horse within the EU.
Another example is the Polish-led Three Seas Initiative, which makes great sense as an ambitious infrastructure project adding missing north to south connections. Yet, Poland’s aim of creating a cordon sanitaire against Russia could also be perceived as reorienting to Washington, instead of Brussels. The US-dominated would then act as a form of leverage over the EU but thereby damaging the attractiveness for Slovakia and Czechia.
The complexity of current and future challenges should lead us to think not only about the object we want to keep safe but also about the context in which we move. Direct interventions must be complemented (in some cases fully replaced) by the indirect influencing of environmental conditions.
It will not be attractive to media and voters, but it can yield the desired results at a lower cost and with a smaller risk of unwanted side effects. Our adversaries have been working in this way for a long time, especially in informational and psychological activities.
Feeling blue as the spirit of our time
The spirit of the contemporary era seems to be depression alternating with manic episodes. Let us recall, for example, the techno-optimism associated with the so-called Twitter revolutions of the Arab Spring. Right now, there is a little hope left for the democratisation of North African and Middle Eastern states. We will find even fewer of those who believe that social networks, as we know them today, are beneficial to democracy and not just a massive vehicle for manipulation and influence operations.
Scepticism and disagreement with immigration policy and the Brussels bureaucracy made the Brexit wheel spin. Out of unfulfilled expectations, anger, disapproval, anxiety and helplessness, anti-system movements and national-populist parties were born. They are saying a radical no to today’s politics.
In Hungary and to some extent in Poland, political actors with this anti-systemic and national-populist profile are the governing parties. We are not speaking about some weird, fringe voices but politics and policies which have become mainstream.
The liberal intelligentsia loves to discuss the similarities between today and the 1930s, whereas their opponents are meditating on the new world order. Everything is framed by global climate change. Armageddon seems imminent, but we can have the most passionate discussions about its origin. Perhaps the most serious change this development brings is the loss of the ability to reach compromise and without compromise, democracy is unsustainable.
The extraordinary pace of change, the total crisis of confidence in traditional authorities and the polarised, values-based public debate can be understood as birth pains. Behind these pains, still in vague forms, one can sense a civilisational transition. The old order is already stepping with one foot into oblivion, while the new order is not quite born yet. The “interregnum” is thronging with uncertainty and turbulence. So, how can we prepare?
On a personal level, we can only recommend building physical and mental reserves, not substituting short-term benefits for long-term successes, actively participating in the life of your community, and having the courage to make radical decisions and changes. Flexibility will be the key. On a societal level, we should support options based on compromises.
A winner-takes-all approach feeds resentment and polarisation.
Authoritarian populists do not have to be the only strong and vocal leaders. Democratic populism can and should be reinvented, to make our region’s democracies work and deliver. In historical terms, Central Europe rarely was a nice, peaceful and quiet region. Let’s have this in mind when facing our uncertain future.