Concept mapping the state of the world

The view of Van Kappen, former advisor of Kofi Annan

Yesterday I listened to a 20-minute radio item about current threats to world peace or what is left of it. The show can be listened to online here (in Dutch, sorry). The interviewee was Frank van Kappen, Major General, Senator, former advisor of the Secretary General of the United Nations etc. etc. The interview was about his growing concern about the increasing threat to global stability. So it’s about Russia, the US, China, Europe, North Korea, the Islam, and the rest of the world. In my previous post on soft operational analysis I discussed a NATO report, which incidentally wrote some very nice things about concept mapping as “an example of ‘soft’ OA: [in] a concept map … key concepts and their relationships are depicted in order to create a structured visual image of the ‘problematic situation’. Its purpose is creating clarity, focus and enabling communication and debate.” Let’s see if the NATO report was right. What follows is a description of my concept map of Van Kappen’s perceptive view of the current state of the world and what could be done to improve matters a bit. 

Rule-based World Order       … is the central theme in Van Kappen’s view. There is a lot of talk these days about the emerging world order, but little attention is paid to what preceded it and why. The rule-based world order emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War. It involved the creation of a global platform for diplomacy, called the United Nations (UN), and a global platform for encouraging global trade, the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has replaced – after the Cold War – the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In addition there existed more or less informal mechanisms for preventing the escalation of conflicts from turning into full-blown nuclear war. These mechanisms were necessary because diplomacy can be sluggish at times, while rockets are damned fast, these days. Almost any place on earth can be ‘nuked’ in 30 minutes. The rule-based world order (RWO) has been relatively peaceful and certainly prosperous, though not for all.

China wants to change    … the rule-based world order, because it reflects the interests of the West or so it claims. What is sure is that China has benefited enormously of this world order and the US decision in the 1970s to draw China into it in spite of Chinese expansionism in North Korea, against Taiwan, and in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Birma and Tibet (Levin, 2015). Thanks to the Americans and their western allies, and an increasing Third World presence in the UN, Communist China was recognized at the UN in October 1971, taking over the permanent seat on the UN Security Council from Taiwan. As a result, peacekeeping became less of a priority at the UN, which shifted its attention to the secondary goals of economic development and cultural exchange.

Mechanisms of China’s growth       … are essentially the same as those of the so-called Asian Tigers South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. “The export-oriented development strategies of Japan and the smaller Asian ‘tigers’ depended on America’s willingness to accept the imports of these countries and to live with huge trade deficits” (Ikenberry, 2004), mostly as part of its Cold War effort of preventing the USSR from spreading communism. Although a totalitarian communist state, China is building on these successes by roping in the expertise and resources of UK and US-groomed businessmen in Hong Kong and Taiwan. China hauls in vast trade surpluses from the West, building its foreign exchange reserves to a point where it could destroy the world economy. Meanwhile it uses those funds to invest in global infrastructure, in fact developing trade monopolies by efficiency in transport (resembling that of the Dutch in the 17th and 18th century, the British in the 19th century, and the Americans in the 20th century). Strong state involvement implies that China does not play by the trade rules about market access and competition as intended by the WTO, an organization to which it was granted access in 2001 and which it now tries to dominate. It is doubtful that the West can support and allow the Chinese mode of operation for much longer, especially it being an authoritarian, non-democratic state, the intentions of which remain shrouded in mystery.

Resource grab      What is obvious is that China does not only invest to obtain global dominance in infrastructure and transport, but also to get hold of as many resources as possible, be they agricultural land (Africa), water (often comes with the land), natural gas, oil (South China Sea), minerals (Africa, Siberia), or simply land (Siberia, Tibet) with vast migration and intermarriage programmes, of which it has a long tradition. As this goes well beyond the needs for trade promotion, it has all the hallmarks of unprecedented, centrally guided imperialism. Moreover, its nature is such that it can never be turned back in the same way as most trade-based colonialism in Asia and Africa.

Weakness of capitalism       Globalization has one major weakness that China is exploiting to the maximum. Capitalism needs to increase market share to stay profitable. China has a vast market: it is now the second economy of the world after the USA, not counting the EU, and booming. China also has a disciplined and well-trained working population. Global corporations are all tempted to move production to China with the promise (or excuse?) of access to Chinese markets, thus leading to enormous Foreign Direct Investment flows. This strengthens the transformation of the West to service economies. The question is how profitable these services can remain with less and less production taking place?

Knowledge economy & Information Age     There is a global economic transition going on towards more information and knowledge-based activities. There is little doubt that at least part of this information and knowledge concerns production, which the West is increasingly losing to other parts of the world, China in particular. At the same time, China too is busy developing its own knowledge economy. Millions of Chinese students have been trained in the US and its Western allies. Intellectual capital held by companies is obtained either legally (by purchasing companies) or illegally (by industrial espionage, so much easier with millions of former students trained in the West or now actually working within the same businesses holding valuable intellectual property). China, on the other hand, is a strictly non-open society, which is characterized by a legal system that does the handiwork of the Communist Party, has a formidable language barrier, and generally an absence of intellectual capital not already developed in the West. With its priorities on disinformation, information theft and information control, China is as yet unlikely to lead the world into the Information Age, which in itself holds great promises yet to be explored and developed for its social and economic potential. Facebook, Apple, Alibaba and Microsoft are peanuts.

Hegemonic character        Historically, hegemonies come in two varieties, benign and liberal or coercive and exploitative. The current arrangement with a relatively benign, open-market, hegemonic USA suits everybody, including China (but less so Taiwan and Tibet etc.), but the situation is far from stable. China is a lot less ‘user-friendly’ – both idelologically and economically – not in the least towards its main trading partner (and source of foreign currency and investment) the USA. The economic security of the US and the West in general is being aggressively undercut by China. Currently, “finding ways to take advantage of and protect against the Chinese boom is at the top of every government’s foreign economic agenda” (Ikenberry), including those of Japan, South Korea, France and Germany. US isolationism could follow from one of three disaster scenarios, or a combination of them: (1) terrorist attacks, possibly nuclear in nature; (2) the problem of imperial overstretch, or, more generally, a rising unwillingness to bear the cost of peace in the world; and/or (3) an economic crisis and fall in the American economy.

The way ahead       The best guarantee for global geopolitical security is for China to show constraint in its military build-up, stop emigration of Han Chinese to Tibet, Siberia, Africa, Australia, and elsewhere in the world, stop industrial espionage, stop forcing companies to relinquish intellectual capital, stop barring access to its markets, stop promoting a biased legal system, and stop nationalistic propaganda etc. It is quite likely that the Chinese leadership is opposed to such constraint, because it would hamper economic progress and threaten the ‘social stability’ that comes with authoritarianism and economic growth. So it will have to be forced to show this constraint. We can expect that China will slow such a process to a standstill in practice. Meanwhile, it will try to bend or rewrite the rules of the international finance and economic system to favour its form of expansion, if not within existing institutions than outside them. This will make the situation worse as will further economic growth and trade instability. Still, every effort needs to be made to prevent US isolationism and therefore all of the three disaster scenarios mentioned above that would trigger it. The US must enter into closer trade agreements with the non-Chinese world, starting with TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU, preferably expanded with a number of key Asian (Japan, South Korea, India), Oceanian (Australia, New Zealand), and American countries. Five complex areas remain: Russia (culturally a Western nation), the Islamic world (roughly the Middle East and Central Asia: hot potato), Africa (mess), South-East Asia (frontier with the Chinese sphere of influence). But as long as China’s economic war coffers remain filled to the rim as a result of its enormous trade surplus with the rest of the world, things will get worse.

In the shadow of it all       … international attention is diverted to Russia poisoning a spy, Islamic conflicts creating waves of costly and dangerous migration to the West, the West pursuing humanitarian goals and an agenda of Responsibility to Protect civilian populations when they are massacred by their governments – a pursuit blocked by non-benign China and Russia – and the threat of nuclear war by North Korea, a rogue state supported by China and sharing nuclear secrets with Iran, a key mess-maker in the Middle East, with the help of Russia. The only sense in this situation as a whole is made by the West, especially in the person of Jim Mattis, the US Secretary of Defense, who wisely favoured a ‘symbolic’ bombing in Syria to stop the use of weapons of mass destruction against civilians, innocent or not. We need to move forward. Russia – although its future is with the West – and China are not helping.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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