2010: global cracks, human prospects (part II)

More openDemocracy authors reflect on a volcanic decade in global politics - continued from part I
David Hayes
2 January 2010

openDemocracy deputy editor David Hayes asked openDemocracy writers to reflect on the decade that has passed and the one that lies ahead by considering three questions:

1) What was the most significant trend in the century's first decade?

2) What do you most hope for, and most fear, about the decade to come?

3) What idea do you see fading and/or emerging in 2010 and beyond?


Sidney Blumenthal

The greatest challenge for the early 21st century is that China's leadership has contempt for much of the international order and many of the international organisations developed since the second world war. In pursuit of its narrow and even crude understanding of its interest, China will constantly abuse and break international rules, protocols and bodies. Its wilful destruction of the Copenhagen summit on climate change reveals the pattern. Its mercantile currency policy in a beggar-thy-neighbour approach, environmental degradation, and disdain for human rights and the rule of law generally are the obvious reflections of its despotism. Through its rough and strange neo-imperialism, in Africa especially but also elsewhere, China is able to gain help, partly through economic intimidation, in its international forays to repel or strike down the responsibilities of internationalism.

Internally, China is a prison of nations, an empire similar to imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and may also be the most unequal industrial country in distribution of income. China's power is increasing, but the authoritarian regime is hardly the wave of the future as some awestruck worshippers of raw power and money (whether investment bankers or ex-Marxists) imagine. The system is inherently unstable, which accounts for its rigid currency policy (at root a fear of operating on other than a virtual slave-labour standard, of turning its poverty-stricken millions into consumers with real choice, and ultimately of letting go even a little bit).

In the long-term the tyranny of the one-party state and its military rule is at odds with the new economic classes of entrepreneurs and professionals it has fostered. China's growing economic power is accompanied by expanding arrogance, demonstrated not least in the incivility and rudeness with which President Obama was treated on his trip there. China’s regime lacks an ideal other than a communist gloss on Confucian uniformity, itself based incoherently on reckless economic development, for example in the areas of currency, environment and labour; it has no "soft power", not just because of the coarseness of its supposed diplomacy, but because its cultural appeal does not travel. China forces its way through coercion of one sort or another.

The next decade will see how flexible or inflexible its rulers are and how secure their system is. The brief effort at a rhetorical gesture by some in the Obama administration who floated the turgid phrase "strategic reassurance" was risible and did not last. For now, the west has no policy to deal with China as it is. The place to begin is on currency.

The most powerful idea for the 21st century is the equality of women. It is the idea most feared by those - from the Vatican to the Taliban - arrayed against modernity, the still vibrant project of the Enlightenment. Someday the United States may even have a woman president. It took fifty years after granting the vote to African-Americans to pass a constitutional amendment giving it to women. Perhaps the distance between electing the first African-American president and the first female one will not be so great.

Sidney Blumenthal is former senior adviser to President Clinton, and an Oscar and Emmy award-winning documentary producer. He is writing a book on Abraham Lincoln

Also by Sidney Blumenthal:

The choice” (21 November 2007)


Celia Szusterman

1) The most significant trend of the century’s first decade has been the arrival of new fears and insecurities to replace the hope that the 1990s encouraged. The predicament now is perhaps best expressed in Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase “known unknowns” (for there is not much point in worrying about his “unknown unknowns”). It is important to identify the source of current threats to freedom, and how societies can be protected without a sacrifice of liberty.

In Latin America, the election of left-wing governments throughout the region has been referred to as a “pink tide”. But as so often in the past, a tendency to generalise - and to take the rhetoric of “progressiveness” at face value - can eclipse the diversity of policies, institutions and achievements.

Some countries, for example, used the United States’s “benign neglect” in this period as an opportunity to establish a new type of relationship with Washington; among them Chile, Brazil, Peru and Colombia. Hugo Chávez’s need to invent an “enemy” to reinforce his “Boligarchic” populism, and the loathing inspired by George W. Bush’s administration, saw others follow a different course.

2) I hope that “democracy” will be revalued, so that it is seen not just as a process but as a way of ensuring fundamental values and principles. What these are and should be, is something that I would like to see debated in Latin America.

If Sebastian Piñera wins the second round of Chile’s presidential elections, I hope he will continue the centre-left Concertacion’s effective governance and poverty-reduction strategy in an overall climate of freedom and tolerance - thus dispelling the fears that right-of-centre governments in Latin America inevitably mean a return to dictatorship and socially regressive policies. 

What I most feat is that Hugo Chávez will continue his military intervention in Bolivia, as well as support for the Farc guerrillas in Colombia. For the first time in the 200-year history of independence in Spanish America, forces of destabilisation come from within rather than from outside the region.

I fear that climate change will become the new “moral panic”, leading to the demonisation or self-censorship of those who are looking for new ways of reducing man-made damage to the planet, as well as effective ways of feeding the world’s growing population. Why are there malnourished children, and children dying of hunger, in Argentina, a country of 40 million that has the natural resources to feed 300 million people?

I fear the continuous erosion of the institutions of liberal democracy in countries like Argentina and Venezuela; and that active political divisiveness, coupled with attacks on the possibility of the existence of an independent media, will lead to social hatred and violence.

3) The 1990s fashion for describing any new event and/or process as a “transition” to democracy or to a market economy will fade. Change, we will be constantly reminded, does not always lead where we had hoped it would. The notion that foreign aid always contributes to development will also continue its retreat

A debate on immigration and remittances as the sensible and effective way of reducing world poverty should be welcomed. The understanding that “small is beautiful” - that, for example, microfinance can give people a sense of dignity and self-worth, thus helping to change the expectations, hopes and values of the children born in 2010 - has great potential, even if it will not eradicate poverty from the face of the earth

There will surely be a slow-growing backlash against the individual isolation that the new technology encourages, including a search for new forms of socialisation.

Celia Szusterman is is senior lecturer in Spanish and Latin American studies at the University of Westminster

Also by Celia Szusterman:

Argentina's broken polity” (13 July 2009)


Martin Shaw

The decade just ending, the first of the 21st century from a strict chronological point of view, was also the second of the new post-cold war era. The 1990s were in many ways a decade of hope: the democratic upheavals may have peaked in central Europe with the 1989 revolutions but continued through South Africa, South Korea, Indonesia and many countries worldwide by 2000 (with a dark side that was all too evident in Rwanda and Bosnia).

The new decade began with a double-pronged assault on what was left of that hope. The seizure of the agenda by radical Islamists eclipsed optimism over democratic progress in the Muslim world, and George W Bush's America responded in kind by waging war and ignoring law; his administration’s externally imposed “regime change” substituted for genuine democratic change. Tony Blair threw away the British centre-left's historic opportunity to make an international difference by jumping into bed with Bush.

It is tempting to see Blair's as an individual folly, but it can stand for a wider corruption of western democracy. Blair was in awe of American power; virtually all western politicians were in awe of the world of speculative wealth. The financial meltdown of 2007-09 helped blow away Bushism, and has demonstrated the importance of international political coordination to respond to global crises. But the great recession, like intensifying climate change, has highlighted the absence or weakness of serious, imaginative political alternatives. The election of Barack Obama was a big moment of hope,within the constraints of celebrity politics, but Copenhagen showed the president squeezed between a conservative Senate and a defiant China - and unwilling or unable to make a real difference. 

The underlying trend of the decade, indeed, has been the rise of China and other countries where elites are even less accountable and inequalities even grosser than they are in the west. The key questions of the next decade are:

  • Can courageous movements and activists bridge the democracy-gap as fast as power shifts to the east?
  • Can social democracy renew itself so that problems of poverty and inequality come to the fore of national and global politics?
  • As the west and the United Nations remain mired in Bush's (and now also Obama’s) war in Afghanistan, what chance that either will be able to protect the civilian victims of states and armed movements in many places across the world?

From Darfur to Gaza to Sri Lanka, the millions forced from their homes in brutal wars face a daunting start to the new decade. There is little at the moment to suggest that that our compromised democracies and international institutions will respond much better in the 2010s than they have in the 2000s.

Martin Shaw is professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. His website is here

Also by Martin Shaw:

A century of genocide, 1915-2009” (23 April 2009)


Li Datong

In the first ten years of the 21st century, one of the world's most impressive changes was China’s phenomenal economic development. The country’s ascent led it by the end of the decade to rank among the world’s most powerful nations.

In the late 1950s, Mao Zedong’s strongest desire was to become the respected leader of a major power. This led him to promote the slogan “Surpass Britain and overtake the United States” and launch the Great Leap Forward. This utopian moment almost brought about the collapse of China's economy; tens of millions of people starved to death. Mao died without ever understanding why the “revolution” he desired could not bring development, but would, in fact, destroy the economy.

In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping saw that Mao's road was a dead end and put the emphasis on market forces. This was a decisive turning-point. The Chinese people's desire to get rich had been suppressed for decades; once released, it pushed forward economic development and boundless power. A closed, poor and “self-reliant” China became an opened up, increasingly wealthy China that produces whatever the world needs. The absolute egalitarianism of the Mao era has disappeared. Now, 10% of the Chinese people own 45% of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 10% own less than 2%.

In contrast to the tremendous changes in the economy, the Chinese people still live under a political regime that long ago lost its soul and its morality; thus Liu Xiaobo, who drafted the “Charter 08” appeal for civic rights and was one of its first signatories - and who had already been in detention for a year - was charged with “subversion” on 23 December 2009; two days later he was sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment. This is a return of China’s age-old policy of “literary inquisition”. The morning I write these words, four police officers came to my house to “investigate” why I signed Charter 08 - an act of blatant intimidation. How long can this system, which uses violence against the expression of ideas, endure?

As the country's economy has grown stronger, western nations seem increasingly to turn a blind eye to China’s human-rights situation. In the late 20th century, the Soviet government (which deployed military force against the western democratic world) collapsed; in the early 21st century, the Chinese government (which uses markets, order-books and economic deals with western countries) seems increasingly strong and self-confident. The pattern of China's history is that authoritarian regimes do not take the initiative to reform without sufficient external pressure. Today, the Chinese government seems to have withstood the tide of democratisation.

In the next ten years, China will undergo a change of leadership. The new leaders will have grown up in the environment of the reform era, their depth of knowledge and range of vision will be different from those of their predecessors. There is some hope, but we may well be disappointed.

(This contribution was translated by Sam Geall of chinadialogue)

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Freezing Point

Also by Li Datong:

Beijing’s credibility crisis” (25 September 2009)


Asef Bayat

The depth, scale and variety of technological innovation have intensified. The past decade has seen an acceleration of information and communication technology which in just a few years have reached every part of the world. These innovations herald new possibilities for an expansive globalization from below, including possible venues for mobilisation and resistance vis-a-vis national and global power-elites. If the “network” is the basis of any collective movement, then the new communication systems are deeply entrenched in politics - a politics both of emancipation and domination. After all, it was this globally networked reality that made al-Qaida what it came to be.

Indeed, my fear is that the same technology which facilitates the subaltern’s mobilisation at the same time empowers elites to impose an unprecedented degree of surveillance over citizens. We are moving incrementally towards an exposed life, where our identities, relations and conduct are constantly exposed to the watchful eyes of states and strangers. This trend is likely to continue and be extended in the repressive states of the global south. The dilemma of how to tackle this dark side of globalisation will be with us for the foreseeable future.

In the past couple of decades, religious politics - in particular Islamism - have emerged and expanded, in part as a response to such unfettered consequences of globalisation. The outcome has been disappointing to say the least. If anything, Islamism’s extremist practices and exclusionary visions have played into the hands of its neo-liberal enemies to justify their own domineering encroachments, thus pushing any emancipatory project to the margins.

My hope is that religious politics - whether Islamic fundamentalism or its equivalents of other faiths - may reach its limits. There are already signs that Islamism is becoming conscious of its own harmful consequences and is beginning to contemplate internal reform. It would be welcome were this process to be echoed in similar self-reflection by those who previously disregarded the suppressive aspects of capitalist globalisation. The global economic crisis and its catastrophic consequences may at last demolish the idea of the “natural” disposition and “invincible” posture of the market. The coming decade may thus see a space opening for a more progressive fusion of politics and economics.

Asef Bayat is professor of sociology and middle-east studies at Leiden University, the Netherlands. His latest book is Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2009)

Also by Asef Bayat:

Iran: a green wave for life and liberty” (7 July 2009)


Gaby Oré Aguilar

1) The first decade of this century was meant to be one of consolidation of the great advances made in international justice and human rights in the 1990s, epitomised by the creation of the International Criminal Court in 1998. Instead, the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 triggered an international war that crushed this hope. The global security strategy pursued by the United States and others in the aftermath of 9/11 put immense strains on the relationship between a counter-terrorist definition of security and respect for people’s fundamental rights. This trend influenced international justice and human-rights agendas during the first part of the decade in particular, and rendered near-invisible other dimensions of international law and justice. The second half of the decade has seen efforts to refocus the attention and action of the international community, especially on the economic and social dimensions of justice which underlie crises and conflicts.

2) In the next decade, it is very important that an international agenda on security, democracy and peace anchored in social and economic justice is consolidated. A series of interlocking crises - financial, food, energy and climate - threaten the lives of the most marginalised. There must be a huge investment of resources to address these crises and reduce their human cost

The pattern emerging from the Copenhagen conference on climate change - where a number of powerful states decided to exempt themselves from their obligations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, while the less powerful were expected to assume the consequences of this conduct - must end. This “ neo-exceptionalist” approach undermines both the legitimacy of international institutions and the sense of transnational responsibility, both of which are vital to the search for rule-based and rights-protecting progress

3) Human-rights legal scholars and activists have proposed the creation of a World Court of Human Rights. To make this global mechanism a reality would be a great step towards realising justice for all. It would accomplish a number of welcome advances: generate a coherent body of human-rights jurisprudence, further a holistic understanding of human-rights norms, hold non-state actors responsible for human-rights violations, provide justice to people in regions where neither regional nor domestic human-rights courts exist, and complement the work of existing bodies (for example, by looking at issues that cannot be dealt with by the International Criminal Court). The debate over the proposed body may be at an initial stage, but this is a project        likely to concentrate the energy and attention of the human-rights movement and a number of states in the next decade and beyond.

Gaby Oré Aguilar works for Human Rights Ahead

Also by Gaby Oré Aguilar:

Peru vs Fujimori: justice in the time of reason” (10 July 2008)


John C Hulsman

Over the past decade the world has become multipolar - but not multilateral. The nation-state and the Westphalian state-system, despite constant rumours of its demise, is alive and well. Worse, from a European perspective, is that the continent may not matter all that much in the new global configuration.

From a western point of view, it is a world filled with strange and exotic new powers - such as India, Brazil, and China - that until now no one has had to think about very much. For the first time in hundreds of years, the world will not be dominated by western powers; the globe is no longer the playground of Europe and the United States; international relations have become truly international. However, very little thought has been given to what all this actually means. 

But if the great recession of 2007-09 has made multipolarity apparent to all but the most diehard neocon, it is not the world of French fantasies either. The problem is that when Euro-federalists dreamed of a multipolar world to replace American dominance during the cold war, implicit in their thinking was the certainty that the continent would emerge as a rising power to counteract American influence. Now that we truly face the dawn of a multipolar era, the irony should be lost on no one that it is Asia, rather than Europe, that - along with America - holds the key to determining the stability of the new order.

In the new era, America is in relative decline; but Europe is in absolute decline. Europe’s demographic problems are the worst of any of the great powers - there are simply far too few people coming along to support the overly generous safety-net that has so beguiled the European populace. This inescapable reality will force policy-makers there to try raise taxes (hardly possible), cut its generous benefits system (hardly popular), or take in a massive number of new immigrants to pay for it all (hardly likely). As such, Europe will matter less and less, even as life continues to be relatively pleasant. The Copenhagen deal - crafted by South Africa, Brazil, India, China, and the US -is a foretaste of the feast to come. Europe better get used to being text-messaged about global outcomes.

Even worse for the continent is the nature of the new rising powers. Forget the Bric acronym and think about the rising powers individually for a moment - Brazil, Russia, India, China. One quality they all share is a deep suspicion of the multilateral process, which they see as a western plot to rein in their sovereign rights and obstruct their national interests. These states, representing the future global order, are more nationalistic, more interest-based, and less likely to pool sovereignty than has even proven true of the Americans, who have so driven European functionalists into a lather. 

Look, then, for a world where multilateral institutions continue to function very poorly, and where international cooperation tends to work only in an ad hoc manner, when states find they have primary transnational interests in common. So a less important Europe will get the multipolar order it has so craved, which will be characterised by the rise of huge nation-states, increasingly pursuing their own interests at the expense of the “global community”. Europe, in short, should have been careful of what it wished for.

John C Hulsman heads an international-relations consultancy and is a life-member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His fifth book is To Begin The World Over Again: Lawrence of Arabia, From Damascus To Baghdad (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009))

Also by John C Hulsman:

Beyond the neocons: ethical realism and America's future” (20 September 2006)


Diane Coyle

1) The decade marked a decisive shift in economic strength away from the west and towards Asia. The market reforms and subsequent growth in India and especially China were the crucial factor in this process. Both countries will have some turbulent developments, socially and politically, to navigate; but the fact that they dominated global growth both before and now during the financial crisis means the start of the 21st century will almost certainly come to mark a clear transition in the global balance of economic power

2) My biggest hope is that out of crisis comes the opportunity and will to reform. In Britain, this would mean a reassessment of the role and effectiveness of the public sector, and the balance of the economy. We will have to cut 10% or so in real terms from public spending in the next generation, and must face up to the fact that vast amounts are currently being spent ineffectively in our baroque, ungovernable Gormenghast state. Internationally, it would mean a joint effort by key states to develop more effective institutions for global governance. Between the Doha round and Copenhagen, it's clear that the existing institutions are paralysed.

My biggest fear is that the political and intellectual leadership needed to make these things happen will not emerge, or that global society has simply become too complex for any reforms to be effective.

3) An idea that will fade is the false dichotomy between market and state. Each needs the other to function well - a weak state makes markets dysfunctional, and inadequate markets hollow out the effectiveness of government.

An emerging idea is harder to call. I'll go for the distributed state. The more citizens get ubiquitously online (and it's happening in developing countries too), the more blurred will be the boundary between the democratic state “out there” and social networks of the civic-minded.

Diane Coyle heads the consultancy Enlightenment Economics. Her books include The Soulful Science:: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters(Princeton Unversity Press, 2007)

Also by Diane Coyle:

Economics, the soulful science” (21 February 2007)


Krzysztof Bobinski

1) The dominant motif of the decade was the United States’s “war on terror”, which was sparked by the destruction of New York’s twin towers and led to the the fighting in Afghanistan and the war against Iraq. Alongside the suffering, death and destruction - and the debates about how far the western world should go in promoting its version of democracy in places where democracy has had no place - the decade also saw the west becoming much more aware of the Islamic world and Islam in our midst. Whereas the 1990s saw the western/transatlantic world triumphantly winding down the cold war, the new century’s first decade provoked key questions (as yet unanswered) about us and our values and our relationship with Islam, as religion and ways of living.

2) If the first decade of the century saw the cold-war divide fade into the history books, so its closing years produced the climate-change controversy - the first (non-ideological?) global debate of our new times. Taken together with the need to face the challenges posed by nuclear power and the need to contain and reduce nuclear armaments, climate change poses major questions about the relationship between rich and poor countries, developed and developing societies, age-old cultures and old and new enemies – in a word about how to build a new global order in circumstances that (if the global-warming arguments are to be believed) threaten the future of many millions on our planet.

My hope would be that world leaders absorb the lessons of the Copenhagen summit and take the lead in the quest for answers to these questions. My fear for the new decade is that they will  pay more attention to their national constituencies and business lobbies, and play to people’s fears rather than strive to show them a viable, global  vision for the future.

3) Might the debate on combatting climate change and dealing with the financial crisis spark more talk of systems of world governance? Strobe Talbott raises the issue in his latest book The Great Experiment. If the birth of the post-conflict United Nations in 1945 was accompanied by such hopes, maybe now we might start discussing these issues before coming conflicts descend

At the same time, federalism in Europe seems to be on its last legs with fewer and fewer people believing in the European ideal. The list of leading candidate for a fading idea starts here. 

Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw

Also by Krzysztof Bobinski:

The Polish summer, 1989: a farewell salute” (2 June 2009)


Julia Buxton

1) The west’s grand post-cold-war vision of an integrated world of liberal democracies and strong states, of good governance and free-market economies continued to dissipate in the 1990s. The decade saw a raft of policies, strategies and interventions justified as security and democracy-building. In practice, they hollowed out the essence of these terms, delegitimising them in the process. Grave injustices and inequalities were allowed to persist while new ones were generated. The next decade will be preoccupied with addressing counterproductive legacies, on tighter budgets, amid intensified competition for influence

2) The emergence of a Barack Obama administration that lives up to the ideals of the Nobel peace prize would enhance prospects for justice, peace and development in the next decade. A United States government that engages in world affairs on a truly multilateral basis, that thinks imaginatively and is able to discard old prejudices and vested interests, would transform international politics. It would certainly revolutionise hemispheric relations, where continuity rather than change has been the trend. US policy on Cuba, Honduras, Mexico and Colombia stands out for the way it shadows previous failed approaches. The possibility that grievances and tensions will be exacerbated rather than addressed by the US makes for a troubling long-term outlook

3) In the first half of the year, England will be gripped by the idea that its national football team can win the world cup in South Africa. Memories of 1966 will be routinely invoked and there will be a surge of national pride. Without doubt this notion will have disappeared by the second half of the year.

Julia Buxton is senior research fellow in the department of peace studies at the University of Bradford

Also by Julia Buxton:

Hugo Chávez: tides of victory” (20 February 2009)


Abiye Teklemariam Megenta

1) Who remembers SixDegrees.com? In 1997, Andrew Weinreich started a social-network site, which allowed its users to create profiles, surf for people and list friends. It was the first time that such different features were available in a single package. But the soil of the 1990s wasn’t congenial enough to nourish the idea’s roots. The rapidly growing but still relatively small number of internet users meant that it was difficult to establish extended internet friendships. In less than four years, the company folded 

The first decade of this century seems to be light years away from the 1990s. The approach that SixDegrees pioneered has been embraced by a wave of successful social network sites with expanded facilities. The connections these tools enable have affected the way we conduct our daily lives: what we think about God; whom we select as our partners; when and where to travel; even how we do politics. It is wise not to get entrapped by the idea of technology as the basis of all human activity. But social-networking - which I believe is the most significant trend in the last decade - shows that technology makes some human activity possible and easy, and creates as-yet-unimagined potentials

2) & 3) John Kampfner’s book Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost our Liberty is one of 2009’s must-read books. The author chronicles the emergence of a new “pact” in many countries between government and citizens: government delivers economic prosperity, and in exchange citizens refrain from politics. The argument may press very varied setbacks to democracy too tightly within its theoretical framework, but it does identify the greatest emerging threat to democracy in the world

This new challenge to democracy is a form of social-contract theory. It follows classical social-contract notions that specify when a form of government is legitimate, this time however by establishing the norms underlying an authoritarian state. Each citizen, the argument goes, has a sufficient reason to consent to a political order which guarantees him or her a basic livelihood and physical security. These two freedoms are elevated above all others. This theory accepts the liberal assumption that unanimous consent is the foundation of legitimate political order, but draws different conclusions.

John Kampfner’s book presents some empirical evidence of how this new social-contract theory works in reality. In the next decade - with the economic and political dominance of China expanding, threats of terrorism evolving, and the number of authoritarian states registering solid economic growth-rates rising - I fear that this idea will emerge as a powerful alternative to classical democratic ones.   

Abiye Teklemariam Megenta is an Ethiopian journalist and researcher at the University of Oxford


Joe Smith

1) The most significant trend in the century's first decade was the new forms of connection generated by the internet. My grandfather said to my 10-year-old self that he was sad for me that all the really interesting things had already been invented. He had seen telephony, broadcasting and air travel all become widely accessible in the course of his lifetime. While I think he is right that these all represented qualitatively new experiences that haven’t really been extended since the 1970s, I am sure he would (as a radio-ham, pilot and clockmaker) have been intrigued by the internet. Much of its potential remains untapped: in social networking, in business, and in politics

2) Hope feels obligatory rather than felt, but there is a good chance of a retrieval of confidence in partnerships between state, markets and civil society to establish decent conditions within which people can seek their own goals. The coming together of the banking crisis and international political engagement with climate change creates a fascinating and important opportunity for fresh thinking about how humanity can get more of a grip over its economies

I fear existing (and further proliferation of) nuclear weapons stockpiles, and that we have neglected this enormous threat to security. I also fear that lazy rhetorical moves in response to climate change (creating imminent “monsters behind the door”) will lead humanity up some dark, dangerous and expensive blind alleys.

3) There is a good chance that politics and culture will take a more collective turn. There are plenty of people working towards an acknowledgment of our economic, ecological and cultural interdependence, and a refiguring of our politics in response to that. This is not to suggest that there will be uncomplicated agreement, just that the boundaries of politics are likely to see more than the usual level of revision. Naïve assumptions about the benefits of unfettered markets - ideas mostly generated by people with little or no experience of business - will hopefully continue to fade.

Joe Smith is senior lecturer in environment at the Open University

Also by Joe Smith:

A global declaration of interdependence” (18 June 2006)


Goran Fejic

Has there been a dominant trend in the past decade? A trend may not be the adequate image; what we went through looks more like a painting by Jackson Pollock: an inextricable concentration of intertwined directions, crossroads and nodal points; some of them heartening, others much less so. Centres of power have been shifting and waning. The global south has acquired a stronger voice. People everywhere have mobilised against oppression and exclusion, though with varying success. The world has seen peaceful and fair elections, but also violent and fraudulent ones. In China, the world’s emerging industrial plant, groups of workers have won trials against party bureaucrats, but at the same, time pro-democracy activists have received long prison sentences. There has been some progress in gender-equity in most countries, but its slow pace remains upsetting. Women are still denied equal access to the public sphere and suffer systemic violence.

Stupid blunders have been committed and it may take another decade to get rid of their consequences.

The “war on terror” has deepened political and cultural divides and offered handy arguments to all sorts of terrorist and authoritarian practices, state and anti-state alike.

The wild privatisation and deregulation - financial in particular - has become a new ideology. It has discouraged productive investments, and undermined both the credibility and the “delivery capacity” of many nascent and young democracies, turning them into hunting-grounds for transnational mafias.

After the successful tumbling of the Berlin wall, new walls have been built. They cut across Palestinian olive-groves; stretch along the US-Mexican border; isolate the cities of Ceuta and Melilla from their hinterland; ghettoise the Baghdad “green zone”; and segregate rich residential areas in Sao Paulo, Mumbai and many other cities worldwide. They were aimed to protect; instead, they divide, exclude and frustrate. Virtual walls have proliferated too.

Capitalist greed, hypnotised consumers and dormant citizens cemented absurd production and consumption patterns which by the end of the decade revealed more clearly than ever the finite nature of our planet’s life-sustaining capacities. Complacent governments, navigating with the compass of opinion-polls, nurtured fears of endangered identities and the illusion of state sovereignty, thus raising new obstacles to human solidarity and trans-cultural empathy.

The decade ended with a spectacular crisis, but isn’t a crisis also the point at which everything is questioned: a moment of freedom and opportunity? My former boss at the United Nations - also from the Balkans - used to cheer up her staff by urging them to exercise “positive thinking” which, in her accented English, always came out as “positive sinking”. Can we turn the sinking into thinking? Press the reset button? The UN, the G20 and the top-guns at Copenhagen haven’t been able to find the right buttons. Maybe because it’s no longer about pressing buttons but about reformatting the entire hard-disc.

At the same time, incredible new things have been happening: the United States has an African-American president, Bolivia an indigenous-Aymara one. The self-appointed G8 directorate has dissolved into a broader group that includes emerging powers of the global south. All over the place new networks are burgeoning, within and beyond the internet, while young people frantically explore and connect and seek to give fresh meaning to stale politics. They don’t seem to invest much confidence in established political institutions and hierarchies. Their local-global sensitivity is affected by another major feature of our time, migrations. The perspectives of a new generation may influence understanding of the systems of political representation and participation in the years to come.

The big issues of the next decade are already with us, but a new type of politics is needed to deal with them successfully. Historic necessities have produced new mindsets in the past and let’s hope that our times will be no exception.     

Goran Fejic is senior adviser in the strategy and policy unit at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA)

Also by Goran Fejic:

The trial and the wall” (6 November 2009)

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