In political affairs, 2016 was dominated by the double shock of Brexit and Trump, and we shall all live with the legacy of those two decisions for years to come. ISIS and Aleppo have also been a dark cloud of horror hanging over global affairs, with an increasingly confident Putin hovering in the background, and we certainly haven’t heard the last of them either.
Good things have happened too, but good news does not make the headlines. There have been many wonderful and often unsung achievements in creating a more healthy and prosperous world. The widespread heart-searching over the failure to halt the cruelties in Aleppo is in itself a small sign of hope. Similar disasters in the past have sometimes been met merely with a complacent shrug of the shoulders.
It nonetheless feels as if global affairs are at an uncertain, risky turning point. Two contrasting and powerful forces are at work. One is the process of globalization – what the writer Kishore Mahbubani calls “The Great Convergence”. Powered by the internet and technology, international borders are becoming less and less relevant in almost every area of life. The rapid advance of automation has reinforced this process.
Globalization and technological advance have brought enormous benefits, materially and socially. One of the greatest has been the increased awareness that we are all part of one world, interrelated in a host of ways, through trade, the media, travel, etc. But they have also raised fundamental questions about the meaning of work and personal identity. If my work no longer provides me with a respected place in society because it has been “exported” to a distant country, or because I have been replaced by a computer, where can my sense of purpose and meaning be found? If employment no longer acts as a reasonably fair and reliable way of sharing society’s material resources, is there another way? If we are all citizens of the world, where in particular do I belong? Has the nation state as the primary focus of government had its day, and if so, where is that focus to be found in the future?
In response to this uncertainty, a second major force at work is the growth of nationalism (sometimes disguised as patriotism) as a way of rediscovering a sense of belonging and identity. This has been dramatically demonstrated by the UK’s decision to leave Europe (“take back control”) and by the election of Trump (“make America great again”), but is also seen in many other parts of the world. This has obvious dangers, leading some commentators to draw parallels with Europe in the 1930’s. An inevitable companion to nationalism is the depiction of outsiders (immigrants and ethnic or religious minorities for example) as the enemy.
One easy response from those of us who are troubled by the trend towards nationalism is to throw up our hands in horror, and to blame it all on the ignorance and folly of others. Far better to recognize that there are rational factors behind it that need to be addressed. Globalization and automation are processes that cannot be stopped. Probably the dominance in world affairs of the West is coming to an end. If commerce and trade are increasingly conducted at a global level – which they are – politics needs to catch up. Our political leaders need to be honest about this, and those who are deserve our support.
The unpleasant and possibly disastrous side of nationalism, and other forms of xenophobia, need to be confronted. But unless there are positive attempts to understand and address the genuine fears and sense of lostness many people obviously feel, it will not go away. The answers will not be easy, and anyone who suggests they are should be regarded with suspicion, but we have a responsibility to seek them.
Peter Shepherd (January 2017)