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The Zeitenwende and Polycrisis of our Lives: New Paradigms in International Security


I woke up this morning to a room shrouded in darkness. It is foggy outside and sunrise is only scheduled in a couple of hours. The temperature is -1 degrees Celsius in October. I go through a tightly scheduled morning routine, get all my things ready, and survive a couple of moments of suspense that I might miss my bus. The thought strikes again:

Everything is different now.

For more than a month, I have been working for my internship host organization, the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. It has been a highly rewarding position, creating many opportunities to work with accomplished practitioners, academics, and military personnel. Most notably, it has represented a major shift in my lifestyle. Having moved to a small German mountain town, the concrete jungles of the Netherlands, full of life and in an apparent state of constant acceleration, seem very distant like faint memories. The family or friends I have formed during my student years become another reason to smile when, in the quietness of commute or the evening, I remember what my life was like only a few weeks ago. Suddenly, it seems like there is no more time. The respite throughout the week is lessened, but the weekends and vacation days are so much sweeter. The times have changed, and a wave, consisting of the sacrificial demands of maturity, has swept across my generation.

During this internship, I have had the chance to attend the flagship course of the Marshall Center, their Program on Applied Security Studies, taught by a wide range of experienced lecturers. Here, up-and-coming security professionals are introduced to what has been described as the new paradigm of international security: that we live in a time of “Zeitenwende” and “Polycrisis”.

This is not an article meant to give you a full theoretical breakdown of these terms and their manifestation in our current and emergent world. I know you are easily bored, and I, unfortunately, lack the temporal resources to research and write as much as I used to in my former articles. What I will do is give you a short introduction to those terms so you are aware of some of the new guiding concepts of current thought in international security, which I believe may not have yet seeped into the curriculum of SSMS. Naturally, my following words do not reflect the official teachings of the Marshall Center, but rather my own, simplified interpretation.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz said it best: “The world is facing a Zeitenwende: an epochal tectonic shift.” What does this charged statement mean? In short, it reflects that we live in a time where we face a disintegration of the old international arrangement that assured our peace and well-being and that various recent events are leading to major alterations to the playing field. It is a mere synthesis of countless historical developments, state policies of various national actors, and their effects on the macro and micro levels of human existence. Just a few years ago, the nations of the world coexisted in a comparably peaceful net of global trade and economic dependency. The bipolarity of the Cold War, when the world was dominated by the nuclear-powered United States and the Soviet Union, was first replaced by a stable unipolarity following the fall of the Soviet regimes. During this time, the US acted as a sort of global police force, keeping the nations of the world in check, nudging them towards a relatively peaceful, rules-based international order by means of its military and economic hegemony. However, the tides have changed. As more and more nations have industrialized, formulated their own economic arrangements, and acquired nuclear weapons, the world has shifted towards a multipolar distribution of power. New challengers have entered the game, and the stronger ones have been perceptive enough to attract the weaker ones to their side, forming new coalitions that will serve to complicate our Western-centric liberal view on achieving peace through international order.

I would not know how to tell you what the exact moment was that the Zeitenwende occurred. For me, it was when I had to cut my workouts short to 40 minutes to fit them during my lunchtime. For the international order, I would denominate the 2014 annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Russian invasion of Crimea as the main culprits. You can already identify the pattern of strategic competitors like Russia and China acting as disruptors of the international order, otherwise known as spoilers in the terminology of international affairs. We face an ideological battle between the autocracies and democracies of the world that is fought on multiple levels, conventional and non-conventional, that will likely decide how the lives of our children and grandchildren will be formulated. From my observation, another essential component of the post-Zeitenwende world is the weaponization of everything. Everything can be manipulated by influential actors on the global stage, and that is often done with ill intent to gain a strategic advantage. As I come into contact with this concept of a turning point in history, I think about how it acts as a parallel to my daily life. In a similar manner, some of the things I took for granted, and for whom I assumed permanence in the hubris of youth, are gone, perhaps for a long time. Only time will reveal what the new future means for the world and for ourselves.

This brings us to “Polycrisis”, a term brought to the international spotlight after a speech by Jean-Claude Juncker, then president of the European Commission, in 2018. Since then, its essence has become increasingly more apparent on the international stage, as we have dealt with crises that are not only intense but also concomitant. The word is used to describe the potentially disastrous interplay between global crises that occur simultaneously or in close succession. While systems may survive the impact of one such impactful event, when pressure is exerted on economies, governmental institutions, supply chains, and social cohesion from multiple sources, some likely unknown and distant, the situation becomes direr. This is a contemporary symptom of the vast web of political, economic, and cultural dependencies that we have fostered through the international liberal order. While these dependencies have allowed for high prosperity and exchange of knowledge, and have contributed to a general pattern of democratization in the world, they have also left us vulnerable inasmuch as crises can no longer be geographically contained. In addition, these dependencies can also be weaponized by malicious actors through the infinite types of hybrid warfare. In my intentionally reductionistic assessment, these are some of the phenomena that constitute our current polycrisis:

· The economic fallout and social polarization caused by COVID-19, which has been conducive to social strife in the Western world as ideological divisions between people and their economic difficulties have been capitalized upon by various populist movements of both the left and the right;

· The supply chain interruptions and disruptions in international collaboration due to the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, which have led to a cost-of-living crisis and a new emerging barrier towards collaboration between the democracies and autocracies of the world;

· The dangerous interplay between climate change and our stubborn adherence to hyper-consumerism, which has slowly been reducing the availability of arable land and food while continuing to foster an attitude that deems the environmentally destructive industries of the world necessary and even desirable.

There are definitely other dimensions at play, such as the countless manipulations of reality propagated through selected media channels as part of cognitive warfare, namely disinformation and propaganda campaigns. One may argue that this is one of the most difficult crises to counter, as the provenance and methodology of campaigns of this type may be difficult to identify, and beliefs spread across societies in an organic, uncontrollable manner given the high flux of data in the information age. As usual, an invisible adversary is the most dangerous.

As I have provided an introduction of some of the essential elements of these concepts and the word count of this page keeps increasing, the point of this article is coming to an end. Sitting at work in a beautiful lecture hall, the speaker’s slides contrast the liberal optimism of the post-Cold War era and the subsequent diplomatic aggressions of Russia. Even in this comfortable room, a certain gravity feels the air, and many attentive eyes seek solutions in a chaotic world. I can feel the concerns of my youth becoming the concerns of my alliance, and I conclude that the Zeitenwende of my life is here. The thought strikes again:

Everything is different now. What will we do about it?

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