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Hindsight Is 2020 – OpEd


By Yossi Mekelberg*

Hindsight might be 2020, but as we are about to embark on the third decade of the third millennium there is more bemusement than clarity vis-a-vis where humanity is heading.

Twenty years ago, on the eve of the new millennium, computer experts raised the specter of the Y2K bug, also known as the “millennium bug,” warning of a complete digital meltdown if computers should fail to cope when the date switched to 01/01/2000.

The imagined apocalypse of paralyzed emergency services and planes falling out of the skies never materialized, but two decades later the world is now threatened by rapid advances in technology that have taken control of our lives, with much more to come, while equally worrying are the accelerating regressive trends in leadership and governance.

Around the corner is the next technological revolution of artificial intelligence (AI). But until the day comes when we relinquish our power, influence and responsibilities to robots, the world meanwhile faces some pressing issues to deal with, and if 2019 was any indication of what is to come, we are in for an eventful 2020.

There is a general sense of pessimism about the near future, which derives from signs of an imminent global recession, an inadequate response to climate change, a revival of the nuclear arms race, and the rise and rise of ultra-nationalism.

However, before we conduct the last rites for the planet and for humanity, there are also encouraging signs of a backlash, especially from the millions of young people who took to the streets in 2019, determined to take control of and reshape their future.

It came as no surprise when Time Magazine named 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl who inspired a worldwide youth movement to fight climate change, as its Person of the Year for 2019. She is the youngest to be so named since the American weekly began the feature in 1927.

The irony is, however, that nearly a century ago Charles Lindbergh, who rose to fame for being the first aviator to make a nonstop flight cross the Atlantic, was the first to be awarded the accolade of Man of the Year, as it was called then, while this year’s choice is a young female who has made a similar voyage in a boat as part of her campaign to reduce air travel.

The next years and decades will be defined to a large extent by the battle against climate change, and in this unfortunately contested issue the fault lines are forming between the generations, the socio-economic classes, the developed and developing countries, and the scientific and the anecdotal.

This is prompting a younger generation who see their future and their opportunities compromised in terms of jobs, housing, and in certain parts of the world the erosion of their human rights, to take to the streets. What concerns them is not just global warming. In Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon, Spain, France, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and elsewhere in 2019, protesters risked their lives to face, and in many cases fell victim to, the brutality of security forces as they protested inequality, political oppression and corruption.

The changing nature of inequalities, from basic needs to access to education, technology and power, is triggering social unrest. Unless there is a global change that acknowledges these grievances, protests are likely to become commonplace next year and well beyond.

In the meantime, many of those in power are on the wrong side of history, resorting to old methods, using nationalism to divide and rule, employing excessive force against dissident voices, and even embracing inequality itself as a tool to control societies in place of any attempt to eradicate it.

In Moscow, Washington, London, Ankara, Budapest, Beijing and Caracas, to different degrees, this approach prevails as a means to win and retain power. This makes the US’s 2020 presidential and congressional contest one of the most crucial elections in that country’s – and the world’s – history.

With President Donald Trump’s impeachment gathering momentum and the Democratic Party in the midst of holding its primaries, it can only be expected that one of the most vicious and brutal rounds of electioneering in living memory will take place, as America battles for its future and its soul.

The countries of the EU will continue to be dominated by Brexit, and not only in terms of its nuts and bolts. The EU must also combat the negative impact of Brexit on the future of this unique political, economic and social experiment, which has been one of the most successful projects in history in the struggle to eradicate violence from international affairs through collaboration on all levels of human existence, and consequently has brought peace and prosperity to its members.

It is for the EU to negotiate the UK’s exit without damaging irreparably the ideas and values it stands for, and perhaps to utilize that sorry saga as an opportunity to reform and improve this unique example of human endeavor.

If the growing willingness, especially among the young, to abandon political apathy and take a more active role in deciding the future, is one of the more encouraging developments in contemporary world affairs, the other is the increasing prominence of soft power in world affairs.

Leaders such as Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia and Leo Varadkar of Ireland, through their determined efforts to advance peace, culture, enterprise, education and human engagement, have improved the standing of their countries. Soft power has proved to be a powerful tool for countries to enhance their reputation and strengthen their relations with other countries, for the benefit of all.

On the eve of 2020 the future is rather blurry. Multiple crises, the realization that the post-Cold War era has been all but eroded, and that the world economy has never really recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, pose a real threat to world stability.

This has led to a change of social-political discourse that together with the emergence of social media has bred a type of leadership that is exacerbating an already fragile and unstable world.

The US elections, and the outcome of unrest around the world in the coming year, might give us a better indication of whether we have got through the worst times, or whether what we are seeing is merely the prelude to a complete breakdown in the international order.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the international relations and social sciences program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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