AS the pandemic forced governments to build field hospitals, buy vaccines and provide emergency aid to battered businesses and the unemployed, international debt soared. During the lockdowns, global economies ground to a standstill, tax revenues dried up and borrowing spiralled.

With the world economy beginning to recover and bounce back, the gap between richer and poorer nations is becoming increasingly portentous. We live in a global marketplace. The common market no longer refers to the European community but to the world. But while free enterprise is increasingly the route to bridging the gap between nations, there are still four conflicting political ideologies that govern the planet. All are progressing at a different pace.

Firstly, there is America and the nations of Europe, who follow a strategy of free enterprise, freedom and democracy.

Then there is China, with a policy of galloping free enterprise, like Adam Smith on steroids, but with little freedom and no democracy.

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Thirdly, we have Russia, which follows a mainly 19th century political strategy. Putin is trying to recreate Russia’s imperial past by continuing on a path first set by Ivan the Terrible and followed by all his successors. The Warsaw Pact was a high point and the Soviet collapse in 1991 merely a setback and now with the situation in Georgia and the Crimea the direction of travel is forward once again.

Finally, we have the Jihadists. They seek to bring down all the global economies in order that the Imams and Mullahs can rule the world. As we have seen with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the Jihadists follow a strictly 7th century political credo based on a crude distortion of Islam. They look to Tehran as the Godfather of their oppressive philosophy.

All four of these diverse ideologies exist side by side, but two of the creeds are straight nationalist. Russia and China do not hesitate to use brute force to spread and protect their values. The Jihadists base their philosophy on religion, although, unlike most Muslims, theirs is a religion of nihilistic despair and radical annihilation.

So only one system, that of the US and Europe, is strictly political and spreads by democratic osmosis and example and, sadly, sometimes also by violent intervention.

On top of this we have to add the toxic mix of globalisation, global poverty, climate change, the pandemic and consequent economic meltdown. So where do we go? What does the future hold in such an uncertain time?

With the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Putin was testing the reaction of Europe and the US to the use of violence. He discovered that there was little appetite for confronting the Russian bear. The West’s failure to react to the Georgian tragedy also gave Putin the green light to advance his claims on the Crimea.

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In March 2014, he achieved his objective, effectively annexing Crimea and the city of Sevastopol as two federal subjects of the Russian Federation. The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has so far led to the deaths of more than 13,000 people, many of them innocent civilians. Putin has reinforced his belligerence by massing thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine, testing the US and NATO to breaking point.

According to a report published in December last year and commissioned by NATO, “NATO 2030: United for a New Era”, Russia will remain the main threat facing the US-led military alliance for at least the rest of this decade. The report said Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia has been accompanied by air and naval build-ups in and around the Barents, Baltic and Black seas. In the Mediterranean Sea and Africa, it said Russia has been using proxies and private military companies to establish footholds.

The report also highlighted the threats posed by Russia’s “broader hybrid toolkit including offensive cyber, state-sanctioned assassinations and poisonings – using chemical weapons, political coercion and other methods.”

In China, meanwhile, Xi Jinping has continued to flex his muscles internationally, using trade and investment as his main tool. Investing heavily in global infrastructure, China has established major billion dollar deals with countries stretching from Africa to Asia and the Middle East, in what it calls its ‘Belt and Road Initiative.’

Its most recent deal was with the theocratic regime in Iran, where Xi Jinping signed a 25-year $400 billion agreement, effectively turning Iran into a client state. It is believed the deal will incorporate military cooperation between the two nations including weapon development and combined training and intelligence sharing, securing China’s strategic trade and security interests.

Xi Jinping has also cracked down hard on Hong Kong, effectively ending the ‘One Country Two Systems’ agreement and crushing democracy. Many of the leading democrats have now been forced into exile or jailed. Once again, the West has stood aside and done nothing. Western appeasement may be tested soon as Xi Jinping turns his attention to Taiwan, with almost daily naval and military aircraft incursions into Taiwanese territory.

What can we conclude from all of this? The world is currently divided by four clear political and ideological schemes, with five cities – Washington DC, Brussels, Beijing, Moscow and Tehran vying for pre-eminence. Even if freedom and democracy are not universally revered in every one of these five capitals, at least free enterprise in one shape or another is pursued diligently in four of them. So, the unifying force is the marketplace and our need to survive and grow economically. America, the European nations, Russia and China have that in common. Only by working together can we hope to tackle global issues like climate change, poverty and disease.

One thing is certain, as we know from Iran to the debacle in Afghanistan, our common enemy is Jihad and we have to unite to fight that common enemy. It was Napoleon who said "The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemy’s."

In this uncertain world it is our duty to make sense out of the chaos and to ensure that we control it rather than allow it to engulf us.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.