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Assessing risk: business in global disorder

  • Venice
  • 8 March 2024
  • 9 March 2024

        Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be the harbinger of future threats rather than an exception, unfortunately. Yet some features of the conflict – especially in light of the historic legacy of the USSR and the Cold War – do perhaps make it unique. The serious difficulties the Russian army has encountered in its push to gain ground, despite a marked quantitative superiority in weaponry, is an important sign. The prevailing assessment of the conflict’s possible endgame is that, although Moscow could yet claim some limited military success, we are in any case witnessing Russia’s defeat in terms of its original, and still undenied, objectives.

        Western support will still make the difference in defense, making possible an independent, albeit truncated, Ukraine – thus a Russia strategically defeated in its attempt to upset the status quo. Certainly, aid is and remains indispensable, despite its current insufficiency to ensure Ukraine’s ability to hold the front over the long term, with the risk that any breach could set off a chain reaction in Moscow’s favor. The Russian challenge therefore directly concerns the European order as a whole; which is why the countries of Europe must focus in earnest on bringing defense spending to levels analogous to those of the Cold War period. In any case, this would involve a lower financial commitment than that of the pandemic response: that is, a sizable but not unsustainable economic undertaking that would necessarily require popular consensus. 

        The United States remains a crucial factor in ensuring global stability; this, in turn, depends to a large extent on domestic variables even more than on China’s ascent as a fiercely ambitious major power. Although the US is highly polarized politically, it is economically dynamic and abundantly capable of bouncing back, proof of which lies in a still clear advantage over China in key sectors such as artificial intelligence.

        On the Middle Eastern front, Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel was an event that has been compared with that of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in terms of the political and psychological repercussions on a nation whose very identity is founded on administrative strength and internal cohesion. A collateral effect owed to Israel’s military response is diplomatic in nature, resulting in Tel Aviv’s marked isolation on the international stage, even in terms of relations with its principal allies and partners. At the same time, the overall reaction of Western countries, despite their caveats, has seriously damaged the reputation itself of the Western model in the eyes of many regions of the world even well beyond the Middle East, which threatens to leave a lasting wound. 

        The threat of continued Yemenite Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea, with rudimentary yet effective weapons, poses a serious obstacle to trade between Asia (including China) and Europe. Any truly successful dissuasion has thus far been difficult, but a partial escalation on that front is underway. Major economic interests have been affected by the situation from the Gulf of Aden and to the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and military options include both an offensive component and military patrols to defend cargo ships. In short, the issue is no longer merely local, nor is it associated purely with domestic relations in Yemen or negotiations with Saudi Arabia, but yet another case of the international order being tested. Thus, close transatlantic and allied coordination (as well as cooperation beyond the Euro-American perimeter) is absolutely essential. 

        The market reaction to the numerous global geopolitical risks – starting with Wall Street – has been surprisingly optimistic, concentrating more on the economic cycle (fed mainly by technological innovation) than on the security crisis or the arduous relocation of some value chains. In any case, for some years to come supply security is going to depend largely on the freedom to navigate maritime routes; the strategic importance of the natural resources needed for renewable technologies – which is changing the geography of energy and industrial production chains – is already on the rise. 

        The most prominent drivers of the global economy are a burgeoning technological innovation in the digital sector and the highly complex sustainability transition, whose timeframes differ widely in various areas of the world. The possible applications of AI are so numerous that to date it has been hard to foresee them and thus impossible to regulate them with any precision. Specifically speaking, large language models (such as ChatGPT or the Google Gemini system) are still elementary systems that use statistical instruments to imitate human language and semantics. Nevertheless, the massive investments of digital giants make the acceleration of these technologies’ already rapid progress highly probable, thanks not least to the constantly increasing availability of updated data. This combination works to the advantage of major economic aggregations with flexible rules, i.e., at the moment, (and for somewhat different reasons) the American and Chinese markets. Thus, greater and more widespread awareness of these systems’ features is pivotal, not least in order to foster accurate democratic dialogue and protect civil rights – a cultural operation that must involve the entire society.

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