2015 Off to an Uneasy Start
SAN SALVADOR – New hopes and commitments vie with some unsettling issues that require a degree of realism in 2015.
Optimism is crucial for interpreting the past as it demonstrates that humankind always finds solutions but the new year brings with it a series of handicaps that justifiably dampen enthusiasm and call for a degree of compassion and sympathy to remain positive. Without going into long-winded analyses, I have selected ten of these issues that are – for me – the most significant.
1. Europe has entered the new year with losing appeal, with anti-Europe parties on the rise everywhere, with many internal contradictions and with a noticeable North (Protestant). South (Catholic) divide.
Germans, Finns, Dutch and so on see economy as part of moral science. They consider debt a sin (in German sin and debt have the same root), the result of a profligate life, which must be redeemed through some process of adjustment, as painful as required.
This started with Greece, which spent well beyond its means and falsified the economic data it provided to the European Commission. Greece accounted for only 4 percent of Europe’s GDP, but punishment was swift and severe and the social cost of its bailout has been brutal.
The debate that has followed between those who ask more tolerance and development – such as Italy, France, Spain and Portugal – and the countries of northern Europe which insist that austerity is the only way out has become a dialogue among the deaf.
However, it appears likely that Greece’s left-wing Syriza party will win the elections on Jan. 25 despite a scare campaign by other parties, and its leader, Alexis Tsipras, has already announced that he will not continue to inflict social damage on Greek citizens, and will demand a consistent reduction of the country’s debt, otherwise Greece will leave the European Union.
Leading economists, including those of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have been arguing that Europe should bite the bullet and accept a loss on Greek bonds. But although the cost of reducing the debt would be minimal to European taxpayers, the political obstacle are enormous.
The problem for the hawks in northern Europe is that next in line is Italy, which relies on its bonds to finance its ever increasing debt obligations (Italy’s debt now stands at 133 percent of GDP, higher than Greece’s 128 percent before it was forced into a bailout) – and Italy accounts for 22 percent of European GDP.
Then comes France, whose government is collapsing over austerity measures, with the anti-Europe Marin Le Pen’s Front National looming in the next elections. And if some leniency is used in those cases, Spain and Portugal will protest because they adopted a painful austerity policy that others avoided.
So, Europe is on the verge of its moment of truth and will have to decide what to do. The new European Commission looks like a tribute to the status quo, so the only hope can come from the European Central Bank (ECB) where economic reality (stagnation and lack of growth) has priority over ideological debates.
It is time for the Greek gods to leave the museums and come back to reign over their mortals!
2. The U.S. political system is dysfunctional. It has become clear that the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court have become partisan bodies, unable to run the country together. When executive, legislative and judicial arms are unable to transcend partisanship, democracy is in serious danger.
As Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman says of U.S. politics, “we’re looking at a decade or more in which we have a political system that is essentially unable to make any forward motion on major problems.”
Albeit belatedly, President Barack Obama has admittedly emphasised a leadership role for the United States in the debate on the environment, has taken steps to normalise relations between the United States and Cuba, and has made moves on immigration – but all by executive order, without asking for the approval of Congress.
This means that these actions can go only so far and, quite simply, the United States is not fully able to play its role in global governance.
3. The United States is not alone in its internal political crisis. In fact, every European country is afflicted by the rise of anti-system, anti-Europe, xenophobic political parties which is conditioning governments – just look at the introduction of measures to limit, if not block, immigration, even from other European countries.
This is being accompanied by a general disaffection with politics, which is increasingly considered as corrupt and self-referential.
One of the very significant results of the weakening of democracy as an accepted universal system, coupled with the growing decline of national political leadership, has been the continuous deterioration of the international system – the United Nations, the European Union, the International Court of Justice, and even the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, are at their weakest points since their creation.
As a result, some very fundamental issues, from the regulation of finance (now totally out of control) to nuclear disarmament lack any coordinated action. The international system is hampered by a lack of resources and a lack of leadership from member countries, and there is a continuous effort to re-appropriate, at national level, functions and spaces which were delegated to the international or supranational level.
How can a complex and interdependent world function without some kind of global governance? We will soon be nine billion people. It is possible to govern them with the old policy of military might?
4. A very significant challenge to Western values is coming from the Islamic State (IS), which is widely dismissed as a “terrorist” and “fanatical” movement. This is to ignore the frustrations created by colonialism which have been carried forward to today in the Arab world.
The colonial powers invented kings and rulers who were intent on securing the allegiance of their citizens, and there was never even the minimum attempt to create any form of democracy. No investment in industrialisation or modernisation was ever made in the colonial period.
As a result, social and educational spaces have been filled by religious movements. The Islamic States is one escape valve through which people feel that they can recreate a caliphate based on justice and piety, and once again give pride and freedom to the Arab world.
For the Arab world, the West is responsible for its humiliation and submission. In all this, through drones and military action, the West has done as much as possible to appear as intent on repressing Arabs in their quest for autonomy and identity.
Now it is too late to change a situation of confrontation, in which even moderate Muslims (the silent majority) do not consider the West as an ally.
5. Let us take the issue of Palestine where it is now clear to everyone that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no intention of allowing anything like a Palestinian state, and continues to expand settlements in order to make a contiguous territory impossible.
Here, the lack of constructive dialogue with Palestinians is increasing the division between those Palestinians who believe in diplomacy and those who consider it a waste of time. The Israeli military action against Gaza in mid-2014 which resulted in the destruction of 30,000 houses – not to mention the thousands killed or injured – only served to radicalise that part of Palestine
This, in turn becomes the proof for Netanyahu that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cannot control the radicals, and this cycle continues unabated.
Well, perhaps something will move in 2015. A growing number of European governments have decided to take concrete action for the establishment of a Palestinian state, without any significant reaction from the United States, which is bound, for internal reasons, to support Israel whatever happens, even while condemning new settlements, the escalation of violence, disproportionate military response, and so on.
This trend will continue during 2015. European Foreign Affairs and Security Commissioner Federica Mogherini has declared that she intends to have Palestine as a recognised state before the end of this Commission. In a normal world, this would have brought Israeli and Palestinians to a negotiating table, but will this happen? Much depends on Israeli public opinion – and this also continues to radicalise.
6. The Ukraine issue will also have to be faced in 2015. There is a growing realisation that to push Russia into the arms of China is not in the interests of Europe and, in the long term, not even of the United States which is the prime pusher for sanctions.
There is also a growing awareness that to push for the encirclement of Russia by admitting all surrounding countries into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), with Ukraine as the last step, has been creating an expected Russian reaction. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has created the Ukrainian sore as a way to keep the issue of its space open, now claiming to represent the interests of all Russian people wherever they are.
The sanctions have been hitting the Russian economy, together with the reduction of the cost of petroleum (which is also affecting Venezuela and Iran, other opponents of the United States). Putin, who has enjoyed high popularity through his action to defend Russians brothers in East Ukraine, is bound to lose support because of the economic situation.
On the other hand, Europe – and Germany above all – realises that the shrinking of exports to Russia is one reason for the present economic stagnation. Therefore, again in a normal world, the two sides should sit down this year and find some kind of dialogue.
However, this equation is complicated by the fact that United States is untouched by the consequence of sanctions, and even proposes itself as a substitute for Russia, thus eliminating European dependence on Russian oil – except that this would require much time and heavy investment, and replace one dependence with another.
7. Then there is the tension in Asia. We simultaneously have two nationalistic governments in Japan and China for the first time since the Chinese revolution. Both need national support, and the wars of the past are never forgotten, especially because both countries lost wars and have their pride to repair.
In recent years, there has been growing confrontation between the two countries, using the small Senkaku islands as the bone of contention and source of conflict. In large measure, re-elected Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, has been the one who has been stirring the conflict and 2015 will show the extent to which he intends to maintain the same line or search for greater dialogue with China, as Japanese economic interests would really require.
And then we have another giant, India (which is likely to have a larger population than China within a few decades) on the rise, and this will make relations with Asia more complex, further complicated by the growing relevance of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, among others, as international actors.
The fact is that whatever tensions continue in Asia, 2015 will see more of the same: a decline of the United States and Europe as key international players, and an increasing presence of Asia as the barycentre of the world economy.
8. Turning to the environment, 2015 is the decisive year for climate control. According to the overwhelming majority of scientists, the U.N. Climate Conference scheduled for December in Paris will be the last occasion to reach a global agreement on limiting pollution, with 2025 as the absolute deadline for implementing a plan of action.
For a long time, no action was taken because developing countries regarded the rich countries as those responsible for the mess and they were seen as now pushing for a global agreement that would have blocked the economic development of developing countries in the name of climate control, thus perpetuating the North-South divide.
The Lima Climate Change Conference in December last year turned out to be no more than a formal exercise in finding the lowest common denominator. In fact, the outcome was an agreement that countries would be left to decide their own plans of action, as well as be responsible for their monitoring.
India, the world’s third largest polluter, has announced that it will increase its use of coal because it does not intend to sacrifice development for climate. All non-renewable energy exporting countries like Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia will also definitely avoid any serious commitments.
By March, countries should start to submit their national plans but there is a very slim chance that this will result in anything sufficient to reverse the trend of climate change, and the world will be condemned to making much more dramatic choices later, with irreversible damage having already been done.
Therefore 2015 looks very much like the date to remember as the year which showed that humankind is parcelled among 198 states that are unable to think in global terms and save the planet.
2015 will be the year in which the inability of the international system to defend its citizens will finally become evident, but will this induce some awareness?
9. Then there is the worrying growth of social injustice. According to Oxfam, for example, within ten years Britain will have returned to the level of social injustice of the time of Queen Victoria.
The figures speak for themselves. In 2003 alone, the wealth of the 10 richest men in the world increased by as much as the combined budgets of Canada and Brazil.
The concentration of wealth is rapidly becoming without precedent in world history, and it is being accompanied by the dismantling of social welfare, which has been the result of the fight for social justice since the times of Queen Victoria.
All social conquests, and the social institutions which were the result of a form of socially responsible capitalism, are in decline.
In a planet of what will soon be nine billion people, social injustice is much more strident and unacceptable than in a country of 30 million people as was Britain in Queen Victoria’s day. The current trend of social inequality is a global not a national issue.
But it is clearly unsustainable and we again find ourselves in a cycle of social unrest and a fight for justice – the question is whether it will be violent or not. The optimist would hope that 2015 will bring greater awareness of the obscenity of social injustice accompanied by greater reaction everywhere for a more just and participatory society. And this brings us to the last point – the demise of the information system.
10. This point needs little elaboration because it is now clear to everyone that the information system is not able to keep up with the challenges of the new times. It has become overly commercial, going after events and ignoring processes, and increasingly provincial. Newspapers have declined in circulation, and active people recur more and more to the Net.
A process of concentration and homogenisation of unprecedented dimensions is under way. The year 2015 starts with this major handicap, and citizens will not become better or more informed than last year. A badly informed world is a world which moves without a compass.
So, let us be patient with the year that has just been ushered in and be aware that only with the work, commitment and idealism of as many people as possible can we leave a better legacy than that left by the year that has just ended.