The world is tearing apart at the seams. It is difficult to notice at first until you do and then you see the signs everywhere. The fear, anxiety, frustration and anger experienced in the 2016 US elections are not an American phenomenon. They are an emotional political volcano with a striking number of parallels occurring throughout the world.

stressed out world

The global system operates best when the status quo is maintained. Historically, major shifts from that objective occur only reluctantly, pushed upon the global system by war, economic crisis, or sudden unforeseen disasters. Exclude the Middle East from this scenario and there are no such forces at work on a global scale today.

stressed out world

Nevertheless, the world is shifting. Emotions are running high and they are empowering policies that counter rational or traditional approaches. The Brexit this summer, the overturning of the FARC vote in Colombia last month, and of course the insanity of the US elections are only samplings of this reality.


Consider the following global trends which are all constituted from electorates and governments not at war, not experiencing major economic crisis and not confronting significant natural disasters. These are policies and political developments symptomatic of emotionally strained nations seeking to hold the status quo together by means far outside that status quo.


 The Rise of Walls


The Washington Post did an excellent job a couple weeks ago demonstrating the sudden development of literal barriers and walls around the world in recent years and months. Donald Trump’s threat of a wall on the southern US border may be the sound of a beating isolationist drum but it is not out of harmony with what is taking place elsewhere.


Remember when only the bad guys built walls? I grew up in a world where the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall were symbols of despotism and oppression. That is no longer the case. China might be opening up and the Berlin Wall may have been pulled down but according to the Washington Post:


In 2015, work started on more new barriers around the world than at any point in modern history. There are now 63 borders where walls or fences separate neighboring countries.


These man made barriers and dividers now exist on four continents.

fear walls

We can imagine the view of these sudden developments from a higher plane. Imagine a satellite looking down and seeing the walls and fences being built over the last year across the world. It looks like a sudden application of stitches and artificial bindings working to hold the global system together. The problem of course is that while the walls might appear as sutures from space, on the ground they are barriers to opportunity for one group and barriers to fear and anxiety for another.


Rise of Fear-Based Economics


The erection of walls and barriers is tangible. The rise of fear based economics may be less tangible but is far more impacting to the global system. Brexit is the most prolific example of this in the last year. Brexit countered the dominant status quo trend of globalization that has been fundamental to the forward advance of democracy and free markets since the 1980s. There have been victims to globalization but on the whole there have been far more benefits and people’s lives aided by the spread of its prosperity and global interconnectedness. The European Union was the highest standard of globalization’s success. The Brexit vote was the highest measure of globalization’s halt by fear and anxiety.

stressed out world

In the US the elections have been a platform to speak out against globalization economics. The electorate on both sides of the political lines has moved solidly against an interconnected economic world. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) became a whipping post for both Democrats and Republicans in this year’s elections. Hillary Clinton moved away from the policies of President Obama by announcing her opposition to TPP once this was realized in her primary struggles against Bernie Sanders.


The trend away from globalization and toward isolationist economics is not a new event to history. Many historians suggests the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 was an economic policy born of fear and isolationist ideologies that sought to combat the Great Depression. American interests were what was important, not the rest of the world. It is widely believed that this economic policy caused a deepening of the Great Depression and empowered nationalists throughout the world who would end up giving rise to the issues of World War II.

stressed out world

Like the 1930s, the current rise of fear based economics is stirred up by nationalist politicians who are riding and even empowering waves of fear toward their own interest and ideologies.


Rise of the Nationalists


When Donald Trump shouts about building walls and making Mexico pay for it, forcing NATO to pay for the use of America’s military, limiting immigration, and overwhelming military force to silence America’s enemies, he is working from a pre-written script. This is not fascism as many in the media have alleged. It is nationalism. The confusion arises because fascists like Hitler and Mussolini were also nationalists. Nationalists put the interest of their own nation and people above everyone else even at the expense of shared interests and values. Historically, the advance of nationalism parallels the rise of fear and stress among the people who empower their rise.

nationalist leaders

It is easy to see how Trump fits this mold but what is more surprising is how the trend of nationalism is rising across the global system. Foreign Affairs recognized this in their recent piece The New Dictators.


  • Putin in Russia
  • Erdogan in Turkey
  • Xi Jinping in China
  • Maduro in Venezuela
  • Morales in Bolivia
  • Duterte in Philippines


All of these leaders represent strong autocratic policies, a willingness to exert military force well beyond the historical patterns, a striking out against international political norms and etiquette, and the beginning of growing list of nationalist leaders around the world.

putin nationalist leader

Freedom House found 2015 to be the tenth year in a row in which freedom around the world declined. According to their Freedom in the World 2016 Report 72 countries demonstrated a decline in freedom last year, the largest decline in a decade. Democratic leaders, on the basis of nationalism, are altering constitutions to lengthen the duration and number of terms they can serve. Political violence and systemic corruption are now standard hallmarks in nations that were once developing democracies.


When President Duterte called President Obama the “son of a whore” he was making a statement that went far beyond a personal insult to the leader of the free world. He was showing the Philippines people no longer need to fear the world’s lone superpower. The tide has shifted. They can be independently strong and brash against the Americans or anyone else for that matter.


These are the tactics of nationalist leaders. They replace the fear of their constituents with national pride and irrational policies that may corrupt the global order but solidify independent and nationalist certainty.


The new nationalist leaders rising up throughout the world represent a shift in thought and philosophy of the people who empower their rise. The people are less focused on status quo and stability. They want to feel strong. They want to feel sure. If this means a certain measure of increase in authoritarianism and loss to individual freedom, so be it.   These are symptoms of insecurity, fear and anxiety.


Rising Fear


When fear and insecurity rises throughout the world it is representative of dark clouds and pending storms on the horizon for geopolitics and the global order. This is what we see occurring today.


In France they are now holding security drills in the public schools to prepare the children for terrorist attacks. Teenagers are being taught how to administer life saving techniques to terrorist victims while children ages 2-6 are being taught how to hide, remain quiet and wait for the police. In Russia 40 million people participated in a national nuclear disaster drill after an American general warned of war with Russia due to their actoins in Syria. Meanwhile, Germany has updated its civil defense plan and is encouraging residents to stockpile food, medicine and cash.

stressed out world

Each of these issues has a local cause that has triggered the rise in anxiety, fear, and political action. As significant as the local issues are however, it is just as significant that we are witnessing this phenomena occur globally, uncoordinated and simultaneously. In the absence of global war, global economic crisis, and major disasters; the world is moving to a heightened state of alert and insecurity.


The storm clouds are rising and for those paying attention we are watching as the global order employs all means necessary to barely hold itself together.



Additional Reads

Playing with Fear (The Economist)

The Top 5 Geopolitical Risks of 2016 (Time)

The 10 Most Stressed Out Countries in the World


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JB Shreve is the author of "How the World Ends: Understanding the Growing Chaos." He has been the host of the End of History podcast since 2012. He has degrees in International Relations and Middle East Studies. His other books include the Intelligence Brief Series. Regular posts and updates from JB Shreve are available at