International crises are like London buses, it seems. You wait ages for one and then a whole load arrives all at once.
The last few months have seen a dizzying succession of problems that have grabbed international attention. We have seen the proliferation of al-Qaida franchises in North and East Africa, the military take-over in Egypt, political chaos and violence in Libya, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the mass kidnapping of school girls in northern Nigeria, rising tensions between China and its neighbours in the South China Sea, the use of chemical weapons in Syria and now the rapid territorial expansion in Iraq by ISIS and the proclamation of a self-declared caliphate straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border. No wonder that a recent survey by Barclays Bank rated geo-politics as the number one concern for international investors.
But despite the apparent proliferation of knotty and dangerous problems, there is little evidence that equity markets share the same level of anxiety as the international diplomatic community (many of whom are more worried about the state of the world than they have been in a long time). Indeed, my colleague Jonathan Wood took part in a recent BBC World Service programme discussing why the so-called “fear index” – the CBOE Volatility Index – is registering a seven-year low.
Even the oil markets seem to have largely discounted the threat to Iraq’s oil production from the ISIS advance presumably on the assumption that the southern Iraqi oil fields are unlikely to fall and that Kurdistan production may eventually increase if a de-facto independent Kurdistan is now inevitable.
So why are markets so sanguine? Maybe they too are shell shocked from the daily barrage of geo-political artillery zipping past their ears. Alternatively, it might be a symptom of how the political world and the business world now spin in very different orbits. In an age when international finance and business has accelerated towards globalisation with extraordinary enthusiasm, the politics of nation states seems locked in reverse.
Every day senior executives devise ever more elaborate structures to leverage themselves into new markets agnostic of the territorial rivalry and competition for influence that pre-occupies their political counterparts. Russia and the west square off against each other over Ukraine while American, European and Russian oil companies jointly plot the exploration of the Arctic.
The job of American military advisers arriving in Baghdad this week is remarkably similar to their sixth century Roman counterparts despatched to the province of Mesopotamia to try and shore up the crumbling fringe of a declining empire beset by Muslim insurrection and threatened by the long shadow of the ambitious Persian Empire.
So perhaps the analogy of London buses is appropriate after all. Like political crises, the technology and the design have changed over time but the form and function have remained pretty constant.