Clem Sunter

The Flagwatching Bulletin

2015-11-30 12:03

Clem Sunter

One of the points that I make in Flagwatching, a book that I have just published, is that you must constantly monitor the flags indicating a change in the environment around you. So here is the first bulletin on some of the global flags contained in the book and what they may be suggesting the future has in store. You have cloudy flags (like the first two) that can go in any direction and clockwork flags (like the third one) that have fairly precise consequences.

The religious flag

This flag is getting messier by the day with the introduction of Russian forces into the Syrian conflict and the downing of a Russian plane by Turkey. The Russian response has been to put various economic sanctions on Turkey and bring into the area sophisticated surface-to-air missiles that can destroy any plane within a range of 250 kilometres. Their bombers in future will be accompanied by swifter fighter aircraft to protect them from another attack. The risk now is that another incident further escalates the war and turns it into more of a straight fight between Russians and Americans. The fact that these two nations support completely different groups in Syria which themselves are at war with each other has already created a war by proxy. You have America and its allies on the one hand and Russia and its allies on the other. Moreover, the goal of a peace-making deal which turns Syria into a Western-style democracy with opposing political parties and a government held accountable in regular elections seems a distant prospect.

Meanwhile, the Paris attacks indicate that cities in Europe are at more risk from this flag than those in America at the moment. Communities in suburbs are heading into more polarised territory where your nationality means less than your religious persuasion. Indeed, intelligence agencies everywhere will need to learn how to become dedicated flagwatchers on this issue. What are the signals and the behavioural traits to pick up which might give you advanced warning of a conspiracy to commit further attacks of this nature? It is tricky to do this without infringing the level of individual freedom citizens have come to appreciate in a democracy. Snooping comes at a cost.

The red flag

This was first raised by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and has gone further up the flagpole as a result of Russian rivalry with America over the religious flag. At the core of this flag is the complete ignorance that Russians and Americans have for one another which can lead to vital misunderstandings like those which occurred at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. They might as well live on different planets as any comparison between the reports by Russia Today and CNN on breaking news bears out. The point about watching this flag is that one of the possible end-games is a nuclear war between the two adversaries which would devastate the planet. Hopefully, the principle of mutually assured destruction will continue to apply to both sides so that the probability of such an outcome remains low. Of course, if an American jet is shot down by a Russian missile over Syrian skies or vice versa, the probability will change overnight.

The grey flag

The ageing of the world’s population is ticking away in the background, and current data on global economic growth and stock market performance confirm that America as a younger nation is doing much better than Japan or Europe. China has taken notice of this flag by switching from a one-child to a two-child policy but this will take a long time to work through the system. Meanwhile, China’s economy is likely to continue to slow down which has negative implications for any recovery in the principal commodity markets. Africa remains the youngest continent on Earth and is therefore a place of growing interest to Western companies seeking to escape the flatness of their own markets.

The anti-establishment flag

The recent VW experience over cheating on car emissions shows how high this flag is flying and what the penalties can be if you flout it. Never has big business and the political establishment been under such intense scrutiny over whether their ethical behaviour matches up to the promises they make. In South Africa, the recent demonstrations outside Parliament in Cape Town and the Union Buildings in Pretoria- by young middle-class students protesting over fee increases- shows how much the game has changed. Social media has brought into play a new form of activism which was also demonstrated by the EFF march on the bastions of capitalism in Johannesburg. It is a plain fact that half of South Africa’s population was born after 1990.

They want to move on from the struggle to an economy that is as free as our political democracy. They also want leaders who are young enough to empathise with their needs and aspirations. The older generation must step aside.

The green flag

A very important event in December will determine the status of this flag. It is the Paris Summit on climate change. People are already saying that it will be a non-event like all the previous summits on this matter.

The delegates, they feel, will be worrying more about their physical security than the future of the planet. Obama on the other hand has made it clear that he wants reforms to reduce man-made carbon emissions. It will form part of his legacy as President of the United States. He has already signed an agreement with China. We can only wait and see what the outcome is. Meanwhile, the frequency of bush fires in Australia is rising because of higher temperatures and it remains to be seen whether the drought in California is broken by El Nino rains and snowstorms. The whole of southern Africa is at present suffering from a debilitating lack of rainfall.

The porous border flag

This flag has taken a nasty turn with the attacks on Paris. It would appear that the attitude of many members of the European Union has hardened on the number of refugees they are prepared to accept. Borders are being tightened or closed and the whole free movement of people within the European Union is under threat. At the same time, the Syrian war is still raging and creating further refugees. There could be a humanitarian catastrophe in Europe this winter as hundreds of thousands of refugees face the chance of perishing in the cold without adequate protection.

Conclusion

Considering these flags, the world still remains locked in the Hard Times scenario of low economic growth with little chance of a recovery to the boom conditions of the last century. A random event could trigger a much wider military conflict in the Middle East. The one positive flag is that climate change is creating a whole new range of industries around alternative energies to wean the world away from fossil fuels. This could ultimately form the next great wave of technology like the one started sixty years ago with the invention of microelectronics and computers.

- Send your comments to Clem.

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