Looking forward or backward?

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. As Isabel Hilton asks: What does 2006 have in store? (Part one)
Patrice de Beer
22 December 2005

I am probably not alone in remembering the late 1970s or early 1980s, when everything seemed to go awry after the three decades of steady economic progress that had followed the second world war, and the end of America’s Vietnam war. I thought then that I would leave my children a better world than I inherited. How presumptuous I was. Only poets should be allowed to predict the future. I’d rather look back in anger at a past which is also difficult to apprehend. Predicting the past is less risky.

The Chinese say that New Year is the time to settle all debts. But governments are piling up debts to appease their disgruntled voters, to pay for their own lack of courage and imagination, or just because they have grown too big for their boots. They govern on credit, leaving their bills for our children, who won’t be able to hold them to account. Chirac, Blair and Brown, Schröder (and no doubt his successor Merkel), Berlusconi or Bush all add “pork” to soften the bitter pill of economic liberalism.

But Chirac is not De Gaulle, Blair is no Churchill, nor George W Bush JFK or Reagan. He is not even Bill Clinton, who restored a budget surplus after decades of deficit, only to see it squandered after he left the White House. Today’s world has become the world of the common man. History is not the flavour of the season.

Why, for instance, did Chirac not celebrate the bicentennial of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz – the French counterpart of Britain’s Trafalgar – though he sent the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Nelson’s triumph over the same Napoleon six weeks earlier?

Why did he not commemorate the 1905 bill that separated church and state and paved the way to a peaceful relationship between God and Caesar, at a time when Europe is unable to deal with its Muslim minorities?

The continuing war in Iraq is far from bringing peace and democracy to the middle east or elsewhere in the world. The Montreal conference on global warming ended up with a figleaf compromise because of US objections to any meaningful measures, despite warnings that action is urgently needed. The European Union limps through a crisis that threatens its survival as a political entity after the rout of its constitutional ambitions; haggling over the budget, the British “rebate” and the Common Agricultural Policy shows how the ideal of Europe is withering away in the face of petty national interests.

The World Trade Organisation’s Hong Kong conference started with a clash of egos between the United States and the European Union while Africa waited for a sign that affluent countries cared for its fate in action rather than in words. “The vision, stupid”, Bill Clinton could have said. May 2006 prove the pessimists wrong and turn the clock back to the future. Meanwhile, I am going to visit an exhibition calledMélancolie in the newly- renovated Grand Palais in Paris. “Tout un programme”!

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