Remarks Delivered at the 2023 Munich Security ConferenceFebruary 16, 2023
I feel greatly honored to be addressing you this evening.
I’ve spent my entire life trying to understand the world I was born into, and I can claim some modest success. At a relatively early age I realized that our understanding is inherently imperfect.
That’s because we are part of the world in which we live. We are both participants and observers. As participants we want to change the world in our favor. As observers we want to understand reality as it is. These two objectives interfere with each other.
The interference doesn’t affect all domains of reality equally. For instance, natural scientists like astronomers can come close to perfect knowledge because they have an objective criterion, like the movement of the stars, that allows them to judge whether their predictions are correct.
Social scientists don’t have it so easy. People’s behavior already reflects their imperfect understanding. Therefore, it doesn’t provide as reliable a criterion for social scientists as the movement of stars does for astronomers.
So how can we understand the current state of affairs? We must find a way to distinguish what is important from what is less so.
Let me start with a bold assertion. While two systems of governance are engaged in a fight for global domination, our civilization is in danger of collapsing because of the inexorable advance of climate change. This is a very succinct statement, but I believe it provides an accurate summary of the current state of affairs.
My statement links climate change, which belongs mainly to natural science, with systems of governance, which is a social concept. I’ll discuss climate change first and systems of governance later.
I have always been fascinated by the Greenland ice sheet which is several kilometers deep and has built up over a thousand years.
In July 2022, an extreme weather event occurred in Greenland. It was so warm that scientists there could play volleyball in short sleeve shirts and shorts.
When I saw this, I sent a team of photographers to Greenland to gather visual evidence. They were present when a second event occurred in September, and they recorded it live.
The melting of the Greenland ice sheet would increase the level of the oceans by seven meters. That poses a threat to the survival of our civilization. I wasn’t willing to accept that fate, so I tried to find out whether anything could be done to avoid it. I was directed to Sir David King, a climate scientist who had been chief scientific advisor to previous British governments.
He has developed a theory which is widely shared by climate scientists. It holds that the global climate system used to be stable but human intervention disrupted it. The Arctic Circle used to be sealed off from the rest of the world by winds that blew in a predictable, circular, counter-clockwise direction, but man-made climate change broke this isolation.
The circular wind used to keep cold air inside the Arctic Circle and warm air out. Now cold air leaks out from the Arctic and is replaced by warm air that’s sucked up from the south.
This explains, among other things, the Arctic blast that hit the United States last Christmas and the cold wave that hit Texas recently.
The Arctic Ocean used to be covered by pristine snow and ice that reflected the sun in what is called the “albedo effect”. But rising temperatures have caused the ice to melt and the Greenland ice sheet is no longer so pristine; it is covered by soot from last year’s forest fires on the West Coast of America, Arctic shipping and other causes.
Sir David King has a plan to repair the climate system. He wants to recreate the albedo effect by creating white clouds high above the earth. With proper scientific safeguards and in consultation with local indigenous communities, this project could help restabilize the Arctic climate system which governs the entire global climate system.
The message is clear: human interference has destroyed a previously stable system and human ingenuity, both local and international, will be needed to restore it.
At present, practically all the efforts to fight climate change are focused on mitigation and adaptation. They are necessary but not sufficient.
The climate system is broken, and it needs to be repaired. That’s the main message I’d like to convey this evening.
The message is urgent because we are dangerously close to breaching the 1.5-degree limit set in the Paris Agreement in 2015. We are already at 1.2 degrees and if we maintain our current course, global warming will reach more than 2.5 degrees around 2070.
That would take us past several tipping points such as the melting of the Arctic permafrost. Once that happens, the amount of money needed to re-stabilize or repair the climate system grows exponentially. This is not well understood.
The accelerating pace of climate change will also cause large scale migration for which the world is ill prepared. Unless we change the way, we deal with climate change, our civilization will be thoroughly disrupted by rising temperatures that will make large parts of the world practically unlivable.
We must reorient our international financial institutions, particularly the World Bank, to focus on climate change. The president of the World Bank, David Malpass, who was a climate denier, resigned yesterday.
Since pictures can be more powerful than words, I’ll show you a short video of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet with a commentary by Sir David King.
Now, I should like to turn to geopolitics. There are two systems of governance that are fighting for global domination. I’m talking about open and closed societies.
I have defined the difference between them as simply as I can: in an open society the role of the state is to protect the freedom of the individual; in a closed society the role of the individual is to serve the interests of the state.
As the founder of the Open Society Foundations, open societies are obviously close to my heart, and I consider them morally superior to closed ones.
When we talk about moral superiority, however, we encounter a difficulty: both systems consider themselves superior. Open societies must therefore distinguish themselves by actually protecting the freedom of the individual. That would certainly attract people living in closed societies.
Of course, repressive states may still prevail because they may be able to force their subjects to serve them.
The fact is, both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. By understanding them better we can improve our understanding of the world.
I have distinguished between open and closed societies. This leaves out many countries that have gone to great lengths to avoid tying themselves irrevocably to one side or the other.
India is an interesting case. It’s a democracy, but its leader Narendra Modi is no democrat. Inciting violence against Muslims was an important factor in his meteoric rise.
Modi maintains close relations with both open and closed societies. India is a member of the Quad (which also includes Australia, the US, and Japan), but it buys a lot of Russian oil at a steep discount and makes a lot of money on it.
Erdogan’s Turkey is perhaps even more interesting. He is actively engaged with both sides of the Ukrainian war and established himself as a neutral intermediary between them.
Erdogan has much in common with Modi. But, while Modi seemed to be firmly in the saddle until recently, Erdogan has mismanaged the Turkish economy and will face elections in May. All his efforts are focused on winning the elections.
He has moved closer to Putin who will make Turkey a distribution hub of Russian oil which will give him the money he needs for the elections.
He has also turned more autocratic at home. He is trying to jail his most powerful opponent, the mayor of Istanbul, and to ban the Kurdish party from participating in the elections. But he will not be able to break the tradition that allows the political parties to supervise the counting of the votes. This will make it difficult to falsify the results.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Turkey earlier this month is a tragedy. The shock is turning into anger in many affected areas because of the government’s slow response and desire to control all aid efforts.
This was not fate. Turkey’s lax construction practices and Erdogan’s construction-driven growth model made everything worse. The best way to address these issues is to hold elections.
Reverting to India, Modi and business tycoon Adani are close allies; their fate is intertwined. Adani Enterprises tried to raise funds in the stock market, but he failed. Adani is accused of stock manipulation and his stock collapsed like a house of cards. Modi is silent on the subject, but he will have to answer questions from foreign investors and in parliament.
This will significantly weaken Modi’s stranglehold on India’s federal government and open the door to push for much needed institutional reforms.
I may be naïve, but I expect a democratic revival in India.
There are many other regional powers that can influence the course of history. Brazil stands out. The election of Lula at the end of last year was crucial.
On January 8th there was a coup attempt much like January 6th, 2021, in the US. Lula handled it masterfully and established his authority as president.
Brazil is on the front-line of the conflict between open and closed societies; it is also on the front-line of the fight against climate change. He must protect the rainforest, promote social justice, and reignite economic growth all at the same time.
He will need strong international support because there is no pathway to net zero emissions if he fails.
The current situation has some similarities with the Cold War, but the differences are much greater. There is a real war going on in Ukraine and that has changed everything.
Until October, Ukraine was winning on the battlefield. Then Russia, with the help of Iran, introduced drones on a large scale. Their aim was to deprive the civilian population of electricity, heat and water and undermine their morale. This has put Ukraine on the defensive.
The regular Russian army is in desperate straits. It is badly led, ill equipped and demoralized. Putin recognized this and took a desperate gamble. He turned to Yevgheny Prigozhin who owns an army of mercenaries called the Wagner Group and is eager to prove that he can do better than the regular army. Prigozhin has a criminal background and knows how to deal with criminals. Putin allowed him to recruit prisoners from jails. That violates Russian law, but Putin doesn’t obey any laws.
The gamble worked. With the prisoners help, Wagner started gaining territory.
The Ukrainian army slowed down their advance, but it was losing more than a hundred trained soldiers a day which it could ill afford. Ukraine faced a strategic choice: either get bogged down in holding Wagner at bay or hand Russia a propaganda victory and preserve its limited resources for a counterattack.
On December 22, Ukraine’s President Zelensky flew to Washington to discuss the situation with President Biden.
They agreed that the only way to end the war is to win it.
But Biden warned Zelensky that there were limits to what he is willing to do. A Third World War must be avoided at all costs and Europe’s support for Ukraine must be preserved.
The Biden administration is providing Ukraine with the weapons – air defense, tanks, and plenty of ammunition – which are needed to defeat a Russian assault and to deter future ones. But opposition from the Republican-led House of Representatives makes another large bi-partisan funding package from the US unlikely.
Zelensky went on a diplomatic offensive in European countries urging them to deliver more tanks faster. He also asked for fighter planes and European countries have agreed to start training Ukrainian pilots to fly state of the art planes.
Prigozhin has been ordered by Putin to produce a victory before the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th.
He is trying to surround the Ukrainian defenders of the town of Bakhmut where he enjoys numerical superiority.
It is possible that he will succeed but I consider it unlikely because the Ukrainian army is putting up strong resistance and once Ukraine can use the weapons it has been promised the tables will be turned.
But Moldova’s president, Maia Sandu, warned that Putin is planning a coup d’etat against Moldova. That threat could be executed before the anniversary.
On February 11th, Prigozhin gave an interview to The Guardian in which he admitted that he won’t be able to trap the Ukrainian defenders of Bakhmut. “There are many roads out and fewer roads in” he said. He took a two-to-three-year perspective talking about occupying the Donbas.
This gives Ukraine a narrow window of opportunity later this Spring, when it receives the promised armaments, to mount a counterattack which would determine the fate of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The countries of the former Soviet Union can hardly wait to see the Russians defeated in Ukraine because they want to assert their independence.
This means that a Ukrainian victory would result in the dissolution of the Russian empire. Russia would no longer pose a threat to Europe and the world.
That would be a big change for the better. It would bring huge relief to open societies and create tremendous problems for closed ones.
Turning to China, Xi Jinping would be an obvious loser. His close association with Putin would hurt him. But China may be already undergoing a revolution. Most of Xi Jinping’s problems are self-inflicted. He started mismanaging the economy right from the beginning of his rule when he went out of his way to undo Deng Xiaoping’s reformist achievements.
Xi’s Zero Covid policy was his biggest blunder. It imposed enormous hardship on the population and brought them to the verge of open rebellion.
Then, in response to popular pressure, Xi suddenly abandoned the policy without putting anything else in its place. The result was Armageddon.
Without proper inoculations, infections spread like wildfire. Hospitals and morgues were overwhelmed and an untold number of people, most of them elderly, died within a very short period of time. The regime stopped providing information, but people could see what was going on when their relatives and friends began to die.
The first, urban wave of infections peaked in January; the second, rural wave is doing so just about now, but it will take another month or so for the health system to start functioning normally.
The chaotic way Xi Jinping exited Zero Covid shook the Chinese people’s trust in the Communist Party under Xi’s leadership. The current situation fulfills all the preconditions for regime change or revolution. But this is only the beginning of an opaque process, whose repercussions will be felt over a longer period of time.
In the short term Xi is likely to remain in power because he is in firm control of all the instruments of repression.
But I am convinced that Xi will not remain in office for life, and while he is in office, China will not become the dominant military and political force that Xi is aiming for.
Fortunately for Xi, he is not personally threatened from abroad because Biden is not interested in regime change in China. All he wants is to reestablish the status quo in Taiwan.
Due to his weak position at home, Xi responded positively to Biden’s offer in Bali to lower temperatures between the United States and China.
But the discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon traversing the length of the US soured relations and it is on its way to poisoning them all together.
Preliminary examination of the remains indicate that it was designed to spy military targets, not for meteorological purposes.
In any case, Xi Jinping’s conversion to cooperation would have been only temporary and tactical. He would not be who he is if he could abandon his deeply felt beliefs so easily.
The fact is, we are witnessing a historic process in China whose significance is not widely appreciated.
To complete the geopolitical picture, I must also examine how democracy is functioning in the United States. Obviously not very well. When Donald Trump became president in 2016, he posed a real threat to our democracy.
Trump is a deeply flawed character, a confidence trickster whose narcissism grew into a disease.
He feels no commitment to democracy; democracy merely provides him with a stage on which to perform. As president, he was more interested in hobnobbing with dictators than in promoting democratic principles.
Trump’s role model was Putin, who amassed a fortune while asserting total control over his country.
Trump attracted a lot of non-educated white followers, but his biggest backers were the mega-rich – and he certainly delivered for them.
First, he cut their taxes. Second, he nominated to the Supreme Court ideologues who embraced an extreme version of the Republican agenda.
Third, he brought the Republican party under his control by threatening those who didn’t swear loyalty to him with a challenge in the primaries.
Lastly, he encouraged Republican-controlled states to introduce outrageous measures of voter suppression to ensure that his party would remain in power indefinitely. With that program, he was almost re-elected in 2020.
My hope for 2024 is that Trump and Governor DeSantis of Florida will slug it out for the Republican nomination.
Trump has turned into a pitiful figure continually bemoaning his loss in 2020. Big Republican donors are abandoning him in droves.
DeSantis is shrewd, ruthless and ambitious. He is likely to be the Republican candidate.
This could induce Trump, whose narcissism has turned into a disease, to run as a third-party candidate. This would lead to a Democratic landslide and force the Republican party to reform itself.
But perhaps I may be just a little bit biased.
To conclude, I want to repeat what I said at the beginning: while open and closed societies are in a fight for global domination our civilization is in danger of collapsing because of the inexorable advance of climate change. I believe this sums up the current state of affairs accurately.
I also believe that an open society is superior to a closed society, and I grieve for people who must live under repressive regimes, like Assad’s Syria, Belarus, Iran and Myanmar.