The world in 2008: a year and an era

David Hayes
28 December 2007

* Ivan Krastev - KA Dilday - Rajeev Bhargava - Kerry Brown - Mariano Aguirre - Roger Scruton - Ramin Jahanbegloo - Ivan Briscoe - Nasrin Alavi - Keith Kahn-Harris - Krzysztof Bobinski - Becky Hogge - Mary Kaldor - Michel Thieren - Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie - John Palmer - Arthur Ituassu - Mark Vernon - Patrice de Beer


Ivan Krastev

The shorter 21st century

The historian Eric Hobsbawm introduced the notion of the "short 20th century" lasting only seventy-seven years: it started in August 1914 in Sarajevo and ended (after the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989) in December 1991 in Moscow, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps the 21st century - conceptualised in the European imagination as the age of post-nationalist politics and increased interdependency - will turn to be much shorter: some future historian might even conclude that it started in 1989 and ended in 2008.

This is the third year in succession openDemocracy has invited our contributors to look ahead to the year to come.

The previous collections are:

▪ What does 2006 have in store? - parts one and two

▪ 2007: reflections and predictions

The coming year has the potential to be a revolutionary one that forces European publics into a radical re-perception of the world. The Beijing Olympics will mark the shift from a Europe-centred world to an Asia-centred one. The hosting of this major spectacle is but one indication of China's arrival as a global superpower. A worldwide economic slowdown - perhaps recession - will accelerate the shift and make awareness of it unavoidable. And as liberal democracy continues to lose its monopoly on political discourse, the world's China-focus will increase interest in liberal democracy's competitors: Beijing's one-party capitalism or the Kremlin's "sovereign democracy".

A much to be desired - and still possible - victory of Barack Obama in the United States presidential elections in November 2008 would wake European publics to a fact that experts have known for quite some time: that the US is not a European power any more - neither in its strategic concerns and priorities, nor in its demographics, nor in the socialisation of its elites.

Closer to home, Russia in 2008 will challenge dramatically the foundations of the postmodern, post-cold-war European order. Turkey's debate on European Union membership ("should Turkey join?") will become as important for Turkey-EU relations as the EU debate on Turkey ("should we allow them to join?"). And the reality of EU recognition of Kosovo's independence will signal the return of "sphere-of-influence" politics in Europe.

So, welcome to the 22nd century. This could be a long one.

KA Dilday

On the move

To me, migration will continue to be the most important issue in 2008: northbound trans-Mediterranean migration, trans-European migration, forced migrations born of war waged in Africa by Africans, and in Asia and the middle east by the United States and its coalition. The US will confront the moral hypocrisy of instigating wars ostensibly for humanitarian reasons and then refusing to take in the humans who suffer because of those wars. Western European countries will continue to undergo identity crises as their demographics shift and the European Union impinges on nation-state duties; east European EU member-states will discover that some people are more European than others; Africans will continue to voluntarily undertake this century's "middle passage" - the perilous journeys on rudimentary seacraft that litter the Mediterranean with the bodies of failed migrants.

We will grow no closer to figuring out the dilemma of migration - how to preserve the good life for those of fortunate geographical birth while allowing those whose weren't so geographically lucky to share in it. I predict that this difficult issue will be a less appealing topic of discussion than environmentalism, which allows wealthy westerners to indulge in the self-obsession of purifying their bodies with organic goods and pretend they are saving the world.

Rajeev Bhargava

The west and the west

Over the last few years the world has witnessed the gradual erosion of the ideological hegemony of western civilisation. Disillusionment with the west has grown rapidly and alarmingly. And here, I refer not merely to how this phenomenon is manifest in several Muslim societies and its expression in extreme versions of political Islam, but also among liberal Muslims as well as societies with non-Muslim majorities. I fervently hope that members of the western intelligentsia respond urgently to this phenomenon in 2008. Or else, like many non-western societies, even western societies might recoil from some of their own achievements of the past few centuries.

Despite the persistent imperial presence of the west and the havoc caused by western colonialism, a substantial section of non-western intellectuals has been intellectually and culturally enamoured of the west. With good reason, one would think. For to them, the west has been the harbinger of emancipation, of freedom and equality, of ideas of human rights and gender justice, of humanism and humanitarianism. It is the west of deep “this-worldly” reflection, of debate, discussion and deliberation, of argument and tolerance of deep disagreement. It is also the west of the arts, art that soars as high as religion aspires to and has the potential to substitute it, of great novels, films, paintings, theatre and poetry – everything novel, ingenious, “interesting”, and at all levels insightful.

What is gradually dawning upon many non-western intellectuals is that there is another west, that it has always been there and that when push comes to shove, it is this west that abides, that really matters, even to many western intellectuals. This is a crushing realisation: that this second west is the real thing or at least more dominant. Or perhaps the west is experienced in two different ways by different kinds of people in two different parts of the world. There is a west in the west and another west outside it. The one in the west is largely benign with an extraordinary positive energy. The one outside is monstrous.

This monstrous west masks its cunning, calculating and exploitative nature with an intuitive indifference to the rest of the world. It is neurotic, self-obsessed and suffers from what the Greeks call pleonexia - it wants to get more than what is due to it, is relentlessly ambitious, is blind to any limits on self-assertion and aggrandisement, and uses any means to fulfil its insatiable greed. It sacrifices justice at the drop of a hat and steadily demonises others. Its rational thinking is purely calculative – to establish new structures of control and power.

Good old Marxists had identified these traits with a particular socio-economic formation: capitalism. But for many outside the west and for at least some inside it, this does not wash any more. They would rather see it as an important strand that runs through western civilisation. Indeed they regretfully, wistfully remember Gandhi's pithy remark at the beginning of the 20th century, that western civilisation would be a good idea!

So, there are two wests and it does not need rocket science to know which is dominant today. What is worrying is the thought that perhaps it has always been the dominant one, particularly when seen from the point of view of vulnerable sections of non-western societies. It is too much to expect this second west to disappear. The human traits on which it feeds anyway persist everywhere, both inside and outside the west. But can we hope that enough people everywhere wish to defeat it? At least I do hope that in 2008, intellectuals everywhere will begin to turn this into a common project and bring back credibility to the other west on which the sun is fast setting.

Kerry Brown

China at centre-stage

In 2008, the People’s Republic of China will enjoy its moment in the global limelight. At 8 minutes past 8 o’clock, on 8 August, the opening ceremony of the Olympic games will be held in Beijing. 31,000 journalists will have travelled to the Chinese capital to see an event on which the government will have spent at least $36 billion. The politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, appointed at its seventeenth congress in October 2007, will stand on the podium, facing the world, blinking in the light of the country’s overwhelming glory.

For the rest of the world, however, 2008 will offer some key decisions about how to engage with the newly emergent China. The tidal wave of trade deficits the European Union and the United States are running with China will need to be addressed. For both, these are reaching politically unacceptable levels, notwithstanding the economic rationale they may have. The question will arise: be to protect, or not to protect?

The world beyond China will also have to decide how to attract the new wave of Chinese overseas direct investment about to enter its markets. The present level of $200 billion is likely to double, perhaps even triple, by the end of 2008. The question here is: does the west want Chinese state money buying a stake in its banks, hedge-funds, manufacturing industries, strategic industries; and if so, how much?

These issues will arise at the very time when the Chinese economy's contribution to global GDP growth will be higher than any other country because of an expected downturn after the financial turmoil and credit crunch since autumn 2007. The west, in short, will be contemplating a tougher attitude towards China at the moment it most needs it.

The west will also have to decide just how much pressure it can afford to exert on the Chinese government over the environment. The climate-change conference in Bali in December 2007 exposed some of the faultlines. The United States wants China (as well as India) to do more as it considers its own commitment to the search for a post-Kyoto deal. The Chinese government says that, as a developing country, it should be shown some latitude. The west needs to know when and where to adopt a harder policy. China might well be in the process of poisoning itself. But environmental contamination does not respect borders.

Mariano Aguirre

A region of dangers

As 2007 neared its end, “Annapolis” emerged as the hopeful myth about the middle east: the perfect setting for the latest cycle of peace-hopes (and in the end failure) that the establishment media likes. The fact that the United States secretary of state Condoleezza Rice is leading the effort also satisfies the true believers that Washington alone must lead the region to peace.

But after the nice words, the millions of euros already expended and the others promised by the donor community to reconstruct what Israel has destroyed in Palestine, comes the harsh reality: Israel is continuing its settlement policy in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, thus undermining the basis of any possible agreement in the next twelve months.

In 2008, Israeli will intensify its repressive control of the West Bank; Gaza’s population will remain under siege and continue to suffer a humanitarian crisis; the gap between Hamas and Fatah will grow; the alliance between the US, the Quartet, the Palestinian Authority and Israel to isolate Hamas will help this movement to win more support among Palestinians who feel excluded. The failure of Annapolis, in short, will generate more violence; and Europe will continue to pay the bill.

This pattern of politics - more repression generates more deadly radicalism - is also visible in Pakistan. The country has (to mention only five of its big problems) nuclear weapons; millions of young poor people who are effectively abandoned by the state to be indoctrinated in madrasas; a porous, violent border with Afghanistan; internal ethnic divisions; and tensions with India. While Pervez Musharraf imposes his will to defend his trembling regime against the rise of Islamism, the chances grow that an alliance between Islamists in the mosques and the army and the state’s intelligence apparatus will control the country.

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination is a dramatic confirmation of the dangerous intersection of religious and geopolitical ambition. Pakistan’s descent into an even deeper crisis, which seems inevitable after Bhutto’s killing, will also make the war in Afghanistan less containable and more regional.

In their last year at the White House, George W Bush and Richard Cheney will reduce the number of troops in Iraq but will intensify involvement in Afghanistan - projecting the fiction that Iraq was a war pursued with good intentions if flawed by mistakes, but that Afghanistan is the good war that all can win.

Washington and Nato’s secretary-general are putting pressure on the western allies to deploy more European forces in combat-zones with less restriction on their ability to use force. But most European contingents and the Canadians are having more doubts about US and Nato strategy in this war.

The last big question is what the United States and Israel will do towards Iran. The latest national intelligence report about the freezing of the Iranian nuclear programme undercuts the Bush administration’s arguments on the need to use force against Tehran. It also opens the possibility of negotiation leading to a deal in which Washington could lift sanctions and recognise that the Islamic Republic is a legitimate international actor, in return for Iran’s implicit acceptance of the state of Israel, a slowing of its nuclear programme, a halt to the promotion of insurgency from Lebanon to Gaza, and help in stabilising Iraq.

Such an unlikely deténte with Iran would also contribute to healing the breach between Shi’a and Sunni in Iraq and the region. But a US-Iran dialogue would also drive Israel to attack Iran. After Israel’s defeat in Lebanon in 2006, an attack would show a weaker US and its next president, and the region, who wants to have the final word in the middle east.

Roger Scruton

Five divorces and a consolation

It seems likely that 2008 will see an escalation in the following trends:

* concern over immigration, in both Europe and the United States, and in particular over the increasing numbers of immigrants from cultures hostile to the western Enlightenment vision of the public sphere

* renewed efforts by the European elites to divert resources to the centre, and to remove sovereignty from the nation-states

* the break-up of the nation-state (Belgium) in which the idea of a pan-European government has most taken root

* a growing antagonism between Russia and the west, and a steady mafia-isation of Russian influence in Europe

* an increasing divergence in foreign policy between Europe and America.

On the positive front, I look forward to a growing movement towards the restoration of tonality in music, an acknowledgment at the political level that the real problem is plastic bottles, an extinction of the influence of Britain’s attorney-general Charles (Lord) Falconer, and a worldwide disgust with Australian Shiraz.

Ramin Jahanbegloo

Remaining true to the ethical

The end of a year is usually dedicated to economic and political pre-visions of the one to come. What then can be expected as the outcomes of 2008: will it be beneficial for the world and for peace, or to the contrary will it see an aggravation of existing conflicts and an overall deterioration of strategic and political situations around the world?

2007 has not been such a good year in this respect, a fact highlighted by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in its last week. The murder of Pakistan’s former prime minister pushes terrorism to the forefront of many people’s minds. Her death is a reminder that if the world is to succeed in combatting terrorism, we need to reach out far wider than temporary security plans and actions. Politicians and statesmen in the west and in the Muslim world must strip away old prejudices and think afresh about the poison of intolerance, which is poured in the hearts and minds of those who kill in the name of God or democracy.

The key here is to recognise that we must take action not only against existing terrorist groups, but also against the idea of terror and the message of hate that fuels it. Tragically, political violence has been the bane of the middle east and south Asia - from Israel, Lebanon and Afghanistan to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Militants and fanatics of all stripes and dogmas and grievances have assassinated leaders and intellectuals. It is worth recalling that on 31 January 1948, an outraged Hindu killed Mohandas K Gandhi in New Delhi. As the world mourns the loss of Benazir Bhutto, it would be a political and intellectual error to focus only on Islamic-inspired violence and on Pakistan. Islamophobic preoccupation with Muslim terrorism often blocks out a bigger picture, that of understanding the motives that drive individuals to kill in the name of democracy or against it.

If the battle of democracy is to be won in 2008, it cannot be done via military intervention in the middle east or in south Asia, but only through providing platforms for diverse points of view in Muslim cultures. For a Muslim Gandhi to emerge in one or both these regions, the task before democracies is to remain true to the ethical rather than only to the pragmatic. After all, democracy is a system based on trust in the human sense of ethics, which ought to awaken and cultivate.

There are many pluralists in south Asia and in the middle east who are interested in democracy and its ethical possibilities. Those individuals and institutions that in the west and the east have made a public and systematic commitment to open politics and non-violent action have an obligation to reach out to these people. Though in 2008 we will continue living on a planet overheated by violence and environmental damage, we should never forget that terror and violence must be fought not only by military tools but also by political measures and cultural interventions. Men and women around the world will continue to strive for democracy in 2008, because they all know that it is possible to remain true to the ethical.

Ivan Briscoe

A confused era

Early-morning panic over what the future may bring is usually of hardware gone wild: nuclear or economic conflict, perhaps the forced march of over-heated populations. But the soft centre of the human mind is a subtler concern. On 11 September 2001, we saw, as William Gibson noted, the exteriorisation of a vision that should have remained a private terror. It is a pattern that is being repeated, as if the splay of information channels and desire machines, each one so useful and seductive, might eventually eat away all silent thought, producing an absence to be filled by any mass ideological storm.

It is nevertheless dangerous to predict global shifts given the quantum factors that get in the way: lost files, missed planes, late-night hunches. So, at the risk of over-generalisation, it seems to me that two very broad currents in the west are swallowing up large parts of semi-digested political thought. The first is “muscular liberalism”, to which virtually everyone now subscribes, albeit with different doors to smash down: some on the left counsel forced entry into Burma and Darfur. while thinkers on the right such as Norman Podhoretz hanker for assault on Iran.

Each individual case can be argued over, and 2008 will see a slew of them. The sense that “our” liberal values and systems must de defended abroad with a steely gaze is now inscribed in the discourse of the United States and Europe; the notion that certain domestic liberties can be crossed off so as to defend the wider glories of freedom has also dropped anchor. Despite Iraq, this great nodding of heads goes on, disliking the onset of dictatorship in Russia while simultaneously propagating the usefulness of military power and of tradable human rights. Significantly, it also fails to adapt its theory to lived social realities. Liberal values are attacked by extremists, but are they not also assaulted by inequality and de facto economic power? (Try being “free” in the United States without health insurance.) So what muscles should we exert on this collection of chronic ailments? Oh, but that would be interventionist, quite possibly undemocratic.

This smudge of confusion around the liberal end-state makes it a poor way to resolve the world’s basic problems. Meanwhile, and second, we are now seeing a belated reaction to what Eric Hobsbawm describes as “the transformation of public behaviour”, or the worldwide collapse of cap-doffing peoples and polite conversation. For some years Britain has focused on getting social undesirables to reform themselves, with the aid of electronically monitored ankle straps. Now, Iraq and Afghanistan have given rise to the school of David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency, founded on “population control”. It is fascinating to read about, drawing on the latest political theory, PR methodology, social psychology and military strategy; it is clever and perceptive; it also spells a new era of official doublespeak and control freakery. Or as one of the motifs of the strategy says: “Manage Expectations - Disappointment Kills.”

Following last year, in which my predictions on openDemocracy were 100% wrong, I would posit with absolute certainty the following events for 2008: a flood of dollars is released by China and Russia after a sex scandal hits the US Democrat candidate; Iranian Revolutionary Guards form a peace corps to teach the merits of drug-free life in Latin America; and the longed-for revelation of a secret particle in the Large Hadron Collider, Geneva, explains energy, mass and most of life.

Sidney Blumenthal

An election year

My thoughts on 2008 are focused on United States developments, particularly the outcome of the presidential campaign and the potential threats posed by the George W Bush administration in its final year.

First, on the US election: I am committed and engaged to a specific campaign as senior adviser to Senator Hillary Clinton, who I believe has the vision, experience and character to end the Bush travesty and launch a new era of international affairs. Immediately upon assuming office, a President Hillary Clinton would begin removing troops from Iraq, at least a brigade or two a month as logistically possible; begin a diplomatic process around the future of Iraq involving the Arab nations, Europe, Iran, Turkey, and Russia; recognise and send ambassadors to Iran and Syria and begin negotiations; restart the middle-east peace process with the direct and sustained personal involvement of the new secretary of state and president; and create a new diplomatic process involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. And this would just be the beginning.

Second, President Bush in his last year remains triumphalist, delusional, messianic, and oblivious of the reality principle, despite secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's very belated but welcome diplomatic efforts, even if to rescue her tarnished record. Bush declines much personal effort behind the Annapolis middle-east peace initiative and still seeks somehow a military option against Iran, whether or not it is enriching uranium for nuclear weaponry. Vice-president Dick Cheney, weakened by the loss of his ally Donald Rumsfeld and the latter’s replacement as secretary of defence by the realist Robert Gates, remains a force for extremism, motivated now by the sands of the hourglass running down. One desperate, uncertain year to go.

Nasrin Alavi

Iran in a new light

Many had warned long before 11 September 2001 that the Islamist threat would spread “across vast swathes of the globe that can be coloured green on the television maps in the same way that communist countries used to be coloured red." Yet for most, the collapse of the Twin Towers signalled the devastating birth of an evil global menace.

On that despicable day, the reputedly holy Islamic warriors of the kind who had successfully fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan became nothing but psychotic murderers. It is a hard truth to accept for the millions of Muslim faithful who - as do others around the world - like to see themselves as people of peace cannot defend the indefensible. No wonder the routine official disclaimers that the “terrorists do not represent Islam” still circulate; or that conspiracy theories abound that the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job”. After all, how could good Muslims commit such heinous acts?

Yet denial is hard to sustain in the face of violence in the Islamic world, from Algeria to Lebanon, Pakistan to Iraq.

The war in Iraq, now President Bush’s central battlefield in the global “war on terror”, has created a haven for the terrorists and offered them the script for a noble fight against occupation. But even here, the militants appear to have overrated their popularity. Most people in the world are motivated more by economic security and social justice than by fantasies of religious salvation. When militants start to exult in brutality and to threaten everyday stability, the hitherto silent majority will turn against them. The senseless slaughter across much of the Islamic world is likely to make the region less rather than more welcoming as a recruitment-ground for jihadists.

Some observers still see Iran as the terror-master at the centre of the global war. The fact that the United States’s latest national-intelligence estimate, released in December 2007, is likely to reduce the chances of a US attack on Iran in 2008. Inside Iran too, the report helps to deprive Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of his own politics of conflict, and leaves him more exposed to a growing band of political critics at home ahead of the parliamentary elections in March 2008. The president’s allies fared poorly in elections for local councils and the Assembly of Experts in December 2006; as the economy continues to deteriorate, despite record oil prices, his government is unlikely to fare any better this time. Ahmadinejad is becoming more of a lame-duck leader and less of a stage-villain. The American administration may be forced to abandon him in search of a new regional bogeyman. It is a time of flux and slender hope.

Keith Kahn-Harris

A climate of failure

In thinking about 2008, it is instructive to think back to 2001. In September of that year an event that no one (at least among political commentators) had foreseen had, by the end of the year, caused dramatic changes to the global political environment.

What is interesting is to compare the kinds of cataclysmic events that engender far-reaching reforms, policies and responses, with those that do not. Terrorist attacks, at least in the western world, evidently do have the capacity to radically and speedily affect change. Whether or not you agree with the “war on terror” there is no question that its launch in the months after 11 September 2001 has caused far-reaching global social and political change. In contrast, “natural” disasters appear to have a much weaker capacity to change the world. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 generated (highly imperfect) localised responses and (according to Naomi Klein) its aftermath may have served as a test-bed for long-term changes in global capitalism; but in the end its consequences were limited.

Despite the progressively high profile of global warming as a political issue, there has yet to be an environmental 9/11. The problem is fourfold:

* no individual environmental catastrophe can be conclusively linked to man-made climate change

* even the largest environmental disasters only affect a relatively small proportion of the earth

* the idea of “the natural” as a realm independent of human activity is dying incredibly hard

* those who deny that manmade climate change is occurring have done an effective job of nurturing widespread doubts.

Climate change may well mean that 2008 will be another year of deadly and extreme weather events. The frequency of such events is likely to increase but the chances of a concomitantly dramatic increase in political action to combat climate change are slim. True, climate change will remain a major political issue in 2008; indeed, after the Bali conference of December 2007, international negotiations are likely to be frenetic. The problem is that such discussions are unlikely to translate into any dramatic short-term concerted action of the kind that will be effective in the window of opportunity we are likely to have left.

2008 is likely to be a year of sound and fury that may well signify very little in the long term. There will be no shortage of political battles and controversies, no shortage of shocking disasters, no shortage of war and bloodshed. Yet action against the most fundamental problem that human beings face will be patchy, uncoordinated and largely ineffective.

Krzysztof Bobinski

Europe and its neighbours

The presidential elections in the United States and in Russia in 2008 will see these one-time superpower rivals attempting to define a fresh role for themselves in the post-cold-war world. Those who seek signs of a new epoch in current disorders might care to reflect that the previous new era started almost twenty years ago with the end of the Soviet Union, and that work begun then on shaping a stable (and hopefully equitable) world order continues.

However, to fulfil this aim will take time.

The Democrats in the United States look set to emerge victorious from the November 2008 elections. They still have to decide how much of a break they will want to make with George W Bush’s dream of a US-ordered world - and how far they will want to go towards establishing multilateral arrangements designed to underpin a globalised economy.

Russia, bent on regaining its self-respect at home and retaining the semblance of being a world power abroad, will re-elect President Putin’s nominee. This will apparently mean that Moscow will have chosen an authoritarian, energy-based, model of political development; but is even Putin sure that this is a solution for the country’s problems?

Both elections will come as the European Union is relieved to a have agreed (if not yet ratified) a new treaty, which assumes more coordination in foreign policy. The EU waits to see what possibilities of cooperation with the US the new administration in Washington will open. In relation to Russia, the search will continue in the EU for an accommodation which will save Europe’s face on values, present a certain measure of unity on energy issues, and negotiate a new agreement which will enable Brussels to claim that both sides remain engaged.

But that assumes that the EU can keep its act together on smaller, if vital, issues like the future of Kosovo. Can it also retain an interest in enlargement to the Balkans and Turkey (and at some future date to countries like Ukraine and Georgia) which provides the best chance of extending the rule of law, democracy and stability to regions in its neighbourhood?

EU enlargement to the east provides the best chance of promoting political alternatives in the greater Black Sea region to those presented by the US (democratic rhetoric plus pragmatic cooperation with dictators) and Russia (pragmatic cooperation with dictators without the democratic rhetoric). But in 2008 this process looks set to continue to founder on “enlargement fatigue” in the European hinterland. Moreover, differences of interest among the member-states will continue to paralyse the EU, notwithstanding the articles in the new treaty on a common foreign policy.

So the key questions will remain on how the US is to arrange its relations with Europe and the post-Soviet space and how the various countries in that space (which includes central Asia) will arrange their relations with each other and with Europe. It is unlikely that firm answers will emerge any time soon. But at best the dilemmas facing the various actors will become clearer.

Becky Hogge

The fight for digital freedoms

Technology inspires. Several years ago, it inspired the British government
to imagine themselves and their relationship with citizens "transformed". In 2008, the British public will be questioning that vision, as its contrasting reality continues to emerge. Government conceived seamless public services, a high-information environment where every child matters, where criminals are denied use of the roads, and where medical breakthroughs might follow from the study of the nation’s health on a macro scale. But to the governed, this is becoming a dystopia of mass privacy-invasion on behalf of a state which (especially after the catastrophic loss of million of confidential records held on official databases) they no longer trust.

For this alone, 2008 will be an interesting year for those citizens, like me, who have also been inspired by the transformative power of technology. The internet has driven volumes of information and knowledge into the most remote corners of the globe. Its potential to open up society is awesome. The tension between openness and privacy will be the battleground on which the fight for digital freedoms will take place in 2008.

Mary Kaldor

A turbulent year

2008 will be another turbulent year reflecting the crisis of our continuing inability to adapt to what Vaclav Havel once called “our technological civilisation”. Politics and social organisation remain embedded in the legacy of the bloody 20th century, too rigid to deal with the intended and unintended consequences of dramatic discoveries in science and technology.

Since 2001, many so-called realists have hailed the “return of sovereignty” - the sustained hegemony of the United States and the rise of new great powers like Russia, China, India and Brazil. Yet this has not resolved the underlying tensions that arise from growing interconnectedness, the global capital market, mass migration or mass communications. On the contrary the capacity to respond to new global risks like climate change, nuclear proliferation, terror and war, or the spread of disease has been undermined by the return of sovereignty. The “war on terror”, moreover, has weakened multilateral institutions, especially the United Nations and the European Union, and contributed to growing instability in large parts of the world, especially the middle east, central Asia and parts of Africa.

Even the multilateral achievements of the 1990s in the Balkans and elsewhere are likely to unravel in 2008. Kosovo will declare independence early in the year and this is likely to be accompanied by a spate of similar declarations from putative mini-states, including the northern part of Kosovo; Herzeg-Bosne and Republika Srpska (the Croatian and Serbian parts of Bosnia Herzegovina); Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh in the south Caucasus. The international community will be divided about how to respond, preoccupied with issues of status as opposed to the situation of ordinary people. Amid this confusion, a renewed bout of ethnic cleansing and the spread of an unstable combination of religious radicalism, extreme nationalism, criminality and violence to the Balkans and South Caucasus can be expected.

Some are pinning their hopes on a Democrat victory in the American elections. But “Bushism” is more than a personal phenomenon. It has to be understood in structural terms. The military-industrial complex and the messianic ideological thinking inherited from the cold war were never dismantled, and have now been supplemented by the wave of military privatisation and new communicative capacities. These have produced an even more deadly phenomenon that has a profound influence on American politics as well as other countries like Israel and even Britain caught in its net; it is the basis of what John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt call the “Israel lobby”. At least the military-industrial complex mainly wanted to build weapons and were satisfied with imaginary war. The new private contractors have an interest in continuous real war and, with the collapse of America’s erstwhile communist enemy, it is only real war that justifies the messianic message. Can a new Democrat president, assuming he or she will win, even begin to deal with this deep-rooted condition?

It ought to be possible for the rest of the world to set the agenda and find ways of managing the American problem. But with the demise of any UN leadership, it is difficult to identify an alternative source of power. The emerging powers are self-interested and often authoritarian. Despite the reform treaty and growing EU capabilities, European politicians, not least in Britain, are too defensive and preoccupied with domestic prejudices, to get together and act in the way that the world desperately needs.

Michel Thieren

From the end, to the end of the end, of politics?

“Lightly breathing winds
Proclaim your arrival;
Valley mists announce you all,
And the earth, still sounding from the storm.
Hope colors the cheeks;
Mother and child
Sit before the house door,
Looking upon the peace.”

(Hölderlin, Celebration of Peace, 1803)

This year, a doctor will take the Hippocratic Oath after spending up to seven years in the study of medical textbooks. "By Apollo Physician, by Asclepius, by Health, by Panacea …" she/he will commit her/his life to alleviate human suffering, where suffering means surviving through the next day free from illnesses and hunger. The young doctor will turn down offers for prestigious hospital careers and rather look at voluntary work with du monde or sans frontières medical organisations, then head straight to a place like Darfur, the Ituri province of Congo, southern Afghanistan. In 2008, the destination may also be the Central African Republic, or newly independent Kosovo, or one of the countries of central Asia.

That doctor will get fully involved - working days and nights, delivering babies, feeding kids and stripping them of pulmonary infections, and treating malaria in conflict-zones. At all times, she or he will bear witness to the end of politics. But in 2008 too, someone who grew up in the anger of being one of the "wretched of the earth" will one day see the humanitarian physician connected with a system that carries the blame for decades of afflictions and humiliations. The doctor will be executed or abducted, as between ten and twenty humanitarian workers were in 2007 and will be again in 2008. She or he will then enter an anonymous statistical record.

2008 will, indeed, have its cortège of statistical records: tens of thousands will die from violence in Iraq, hundreds of thousands in other wars and other disasters. More silently, half a million mothers all over the world will die while giving life, 11 million children won't reach the age of 5. All these numbers are nothing but scary multipliers of an individual, tragic daily story. Their purpose is not to impress the press and communicate the aggregate of 2008’s avoidable human losses. They are there for everyone to imagine, or remember, at least one name behind the big figure, and on behalf of that name, tell the world: enough is enough!

This year may offer some opportunity to see in many places of the world the end of the end of politics:

* justice and memory may be rendered for 2 million Khmer murdered by the “Angka”

* Europe may finally deal with its centennial Balkan ghosts, concede independence to Kosovo, reopen the Dayton accords and integrate in one block all communities and nations from Zagreb and Sarajevo to Belgrade, Pristina and Skopje

* the Olympics may turn out to be something better than just the anticipated counterfeit of political propaganda

* the elected fifty-fifth United States president may think that Iraq was not such a great idea, and that nation-building can be done without military intervention.

In August, the world will for sure remember that five years ago a great man, Sergio Vieira de Mello, with unalienable humanitarian convictions and immense peacemaking capacities died while on a mission in Iraq, after having made a difference not only to entire populations trapped in war-zones, but for anonymous individuals who coincidentally crossed his hectic path here and there.

Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie

Beyond the clouds

Predictions are always difficult, someone once said, especially about the future. And indeed, all I see on the horizon for 2008 are clouds, especially when I look in Africa's direction. So perhaps, in the attempt to peer through the murk, as a new-year's resolution for 2008 one should drop the habit of thinking about "Africa" - a continent of fifty-three countries, with a diversity of cultures, peoples, systems, and indeed prospects - and instead recognise and register uniqueness, individuality and variation.

The contrasts are evident. While Sudan – both to the west and to the south – peers into the abyss of continued and resumed conflict, an increasingly confident Ghana looks forward to hosting the major Cup of African Nations football tournament in February. Where refugee camps in the continent’s conflict-zones are home to destitute but forgotten millions, booming cities filled with new urbanites are seeking their fortunes. These are but two of Africa’s many faces in 2008.

Africa is home to some of the world’s longest serving political leaders. In 2008, is it too much to ask God to call to a better place some of these "sit-tight" presidents and prime ministers? Mind you, their untimely departure will likely precipitate destabilising power struggles that could presage low-key or even all-out conflict (think Guinea, Zimbabwe, Gabon, Egypt, Libya…). None of these gerontocrats have made a priority of succession plans (except those involving their own family members in some sort of dynastic impulse), so the best to hope for is that the dust settles pretty quickly on their decades of rule while the newly enthroned manage to break with old habits.

Certainly, Africa's largely young electorate is looking for leaders who will break with the bad old habits and deliver meaningful benefits, especially jobs. At the ballot-box, in opinion polls, with their feet – this is the choice that the vast majority of Africans shall continue to make in 2008, the search for a better life.

With varying degrees of success, the powerful shall continue to try rigging elections, spewing out more propaganda, and imposing tighter border controls to deny people this basic choice. The violent aftermath of the flawed election in Kenya is not a good augury. However, whether in London, Lagos or Lahore the pattern of unequal development is stark for all to see.

If there is one glimmer of hope it is the much-unheralded decision by the United Nations general assembly in late 2007 to adopt a goal of full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people, in the realisation of the first Millennium Development Goal: halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015. Better late than never. The challenge in 2008 shall be to translate these fine words into concrete actions that make a tangible difference in people's lives. The best way to predict the future is to create it. If we manage to offer more people the hope of a dignified existence on Planet Earth, maybe the clouds shall lift or at least display a glimpse of silver lining in 2008.

John Palmer

An open society

2008 will be the year when modern, global capitalism is forced to make a number of serious gear-changes to the way it functions. The financial “credit crunch” may or may not result in recession: it will probably result in several years of very sluggish economic growth across the world and something close to stagnation in the older industrialised countries. However this is not the only element in the maelstrom of circumstances which now collectively challenge the global status quo.

Independently of the turmoil on financial markets and the potential banking crisis, the imperatives of climate change are also likely to impose themselves with growing force on economic decision-makers. For all those states which have - in effect - signed up the post-Kyoto global-warming targets, the implications are massive. Economic policy will increasingly have to be conducted not through the traditional optic of maximising growth and “competitiveness” but through the much wider lens of environmental and social sustainability.

The danger of renewed inflation will further complicate decision-making in 2008. Quite apart from higher energy prices, the biggest impact will come from the current and prospective massive shortfall in global food production. This is only in part caused by the switch of grain producers to biofuel. It is also the result of drastically reduced harvests due to climate change. One effect may be a new look at the European Union’s common agricultural policy now that the problem is no longer subsidised food surpluses but serious food shortages.

In 2008 the demographic changes affecting the world - including the older industrialised world, but especially countries such as China - will also accelerate. Ageing populations will begin to enforce rather different economic and social priorities to those which have dominated the policy debate for the past two decades. Governments in unequal countries such as Britain will confront growing dissatisfaction at the maldistribution of wealth and opportunity. Tensions which were sublimated during periods of exceptional (but environmentally and socially fragile) growth may begin to surface and affect politics.
2008 will also be a dangerous year of transition for the faltering United States-led “coalition” as it seeks to disentangle itself from the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. The year will also see whether the European Union is on a collision course with an increasingly autocratic Russia or whether – after the replacement for Vladimir Putin is elected president in March – a new partnership can be established. An early test of that relationship will be in the late winter or spring when – after the Serbian general election in January – Kosovo finally declares its independence, with EU support and protection for Serb and other minorities.

The early months of 2008 will also clarify who will form the post-George W Bush administration in Washington. Whoever emerges as the presidential candidates will have to spell out very clearly to a sceptical world just how far and how deep the changes are going to be in US policy on global warming and the middle east, including relations with Iran.

Arthur Ituassu

Washington, Caracas, Brasilia

In looking ahead to 2008, I would point to three major developments. The first concerns the international realm and is related to the United States election on 4 November; the second is very important for south America’s regional political environment and will be influenced by the capacity of Venezuelan civil society to keep or even reinforce the constraints on Hugo Chávez’s dictatorial ambitions; the third relates to Brazil’s national context and a possible change in the role of the government in relation to the political economy.

The first point raises the question of whether the failure of the war in Iraq will be sufficient to reverse the neo-conservative trend in American politics, including foreign policy. The Republicans may be under pressure, but the party is well established in American society; even if a Democratic candidate is elected president, the new leader will have to a difficult task in making his or term appear not just an exception but a new path for the country, with all the consequences – domestic and international - of such a course.

The second point is raised by Hugo Chávez’s defeat in the December 2007 constitutional referendum. Will this become the springboard and the seed of a larger opposition movement to the Bolivarian revolution, which is offensive to democratic principles in the region? If so, this could lead to a new spirit of political freedom in the sub-continent. If not, the threat will continue its dangerous effort to gain hearts and minds among south Americans, especially in the Andean region. As I wrote earlier in openDemocracy (“The sum of all fears in Latin America”, 7 May 2006), there is no middle ground in this battle.

The third point was raised by the defeat of Brazil’s President Lula in the senate over his effort to extend a transitory financial tax (CPMF, which raises 40 billion reais [$22.6 billion] a year). The rising arc of government revenues (now almost 40% of the country’s GDP) seems to have reached a peak, and a debate over establishing new priorities is emerging. This could become an important turning-point in public debate in Brazil about the role of the state, which leads politics to address the most urgent issues in the country: basic education, healthcare, public security and a judiciary that can be universally accessed, respectful of the laws and observing minimum standards of efficiency.

Mark Vernon

Dogma and departure

Public discourse on religion in 2007 was dominated by Richard Dawkins’s international bestseller, The God Delusion. But it dominated by being loathed as well as loved. Some protested that their God, about whom they are supposed to be so deluded, was not the deity that Dawkins portrayed. Others worried that the book will only feed the martyr-complex of religious fundamentalists, thereby adding to the world’s woes. Perhaps 2008 will be the year in which Arabic translations of the book are found in Pakistani madrasas, proving to militants that western secularism believes they are a virus.

More parochial vitriol will dominate the Anglican church in 2008. It is the year of the ten-yearly Lambeth conference. It falls in the middle of the slow schism of the worldwide communion, ostensibly over the issue of homosexuality. I’ve never believed that myself: homosexuality is just the lever various factions are pulling to effect a shift in the balance of power - either away from the Church of England or against Anglicanism’s traditional latitudinarianism. Lambeth ’08 will be angry. Gay people will continue to be sacrificed on the altar of unity.

But why should you care, if you are not a churchgoer? Well, if the conservatives have their way, the Church of England will change. They will demand overt and literalist confessions of Christian belief before you can marry in your parish church, send your kids to the school, even have a religious funeral. There’s a lot of concern about Britishness at the moment, that will rumble on through 2008: the loss of the ethos associated with the parish church would deepen that anxiety.

These two religious issues are signs of our times in more profound ways too. For they emerge because of the crisis that has been building since Nietzsche announced the death of God. He knew it would take centuries to play out and would be horrid on the way. Thus, we also see scientism rushing in to fill the vacuum vacated by religion.

This is dangerous. Determining all by numbers opens up a gap between what counts as knowledge and who we are. Think of consciousness studies. Its cheerleaders say it is only a question of time until meaning is measured in a brain scanner. But meaning is no more deepened by watching neurons firing than a Vincent van Gogh painting is appreciated by treating the image as smudges of paint. If science is taken as the whole of learning, our wisdom is colourless, utilitarian, dehumanising.

However, there are signs of a new departure. Consciousness, along with other sciences like cosmology, are forcing the truly big questions of existence. There are philosophers, disgusted with the endless arguments about arguments, who seek to return to the mystery at the origins of their discipline: the confrontation between being and thought. Even in religion, there are movements that are neither doctrinaire, sectarian nor defensive. They are asking afresh how we should live. The tensions will increase in 2008, but so will the possibilities of enlightenment.

Patrice de Beer

A virtual year

So many new as well as old worries, so many achievements - 2008 should be more than a repeat of 2007. Sub-primes, global warming, Iraq, Afghanistan, but also technological and e-revolutions and the certitude that George W Bush will be out. Let’s hope he does not start a new war before then!

But does it all really matter? Don’t we live now in a virtual world where what we are given to see supersedes what really happens, where those who rule over us - if they don’t any longer rule the waves - rule the airwaves, dominate and cajole and pressure the media, shape the political agenda with words, images, slogans, promises and photo-ops: a permanent blitz of data which obfuscate the real reality? Mostly photo-ops; it’s the virtuality, stupid!

Tony Blair was the first to make an art out of the new communication techniques, filling the agenda with news and projects to “change” Britain - which he did - before being buried in a backlash when all he had left were empty words disconnected from reality. After all, if the art is to beautify reality and powerful people - in France we call it “people-isation” - it still has to connect, at least partly, to people’s daily hard reality, and to their hip-pocket nerve. You can’t, as under Stalin or Mao, forever promise joyful tomorrows, under penalty of death if you fail or refuse.

George W Bush succeeded in hijacking the global agenda after 9/11. He made Americans believe that the Iraqi dictator was more dangerous than the man who blew up the Twin Towers, and managed too to carry with him the conformist and not-too-brave United States media, who took three years to admit they had been fooled, or had fooled themselves, into reprinting the cuckoo-land stories brewed by the White House. Never has the word “truth” been so often used, and never has truth been dealt with so economically.

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy is so close to his business-baron “brothers” who control the print and electronic media that he does not even need to pressure them into promoting his agenda. Like Blair, he daily fills the news with projects, promises, reforms, and photo-ops - today’s news chasing away yesterdays in an unending circle. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has convinced voters that he is their new Tsar and the west that he is a democrat (or at least, that if it doesn’t treat him like one, its oil and gas pipelines might be shut).

So, politicians and their unreal “reality shows” could still shape our tomorrows - rather than scientists, intellectuals or NGOs looking at what is actually happening. Until we wake up, until someone rocks the boat or a clumsy politician breaks unwillingly the magic mirror. Perhaps in 2008? We can still hope.

Why it’s vital that women journalists can work in safety

There has been a huge increase in the number of women journalists being detained and abused because of their work. Why is this happening? And what harm does it do to societies at large?

Join us for this free event on 11 March at 1pm UK time/8am EST.

Hear from:

Mona Eltahawy Feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her latest book ‘The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls’ took her disruption worldwide

Lydia Namubiru Africa editor, openDemocracy

Rebecca Vincent Director of international campaigns, Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData