We live in wavering times. The changes which took prolonged epochs and eras to occur can now take place in sequences of transitory spans. The German sociologist, Ulrik Beck, called this swiftly changing or post-modern world a risk society. Though he came to this conclusion primarily on the bases of his sociological understanding of the world, I think, it also holds true for the political landscape of our present world.
The world has turned into a bidding ground where the rewards and losses are prompt. The pace of development is nothing less than a miracle, but the hazards of failure aren’t less than a curse. Nevertheless, the overall picture looks courteous exempting few ventures, the lava beneath is simmering.
In the similar order, the great Swedish statistician, Hans Rosling, showed us an inspiring world of optimism and hope where things are on the right track with some trivial risks. But no matter how indubitable he is in his apprehension of our time, he is blown over by the other side of the picture and its wide-spectrum vulnerability and man’s foolhardiness.
In the first half of the last century, 16 million people died in the First World War, and soon after followed the Second World War where death toll reached to approximately 85 million. One of the reasons for this was the advancement of technology which made the business of war more effective and lethal.
But this gruesome story didn’t just end there. Right after the death of about 100 million people, we entered into a bipolar world order of the Cold War era. On October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of a nuclear war. Some analysts believed that the Cuban missile crisis could’ve been worse than the Second World War. But somehow the mankind was lucky that it didn’t escalate into a full-blown nuclear war.
Today there are more than enough nuclear, chemical and biological weapons which in case used altogether can wipe out the whole of humanity from our blue planet. So far, these scary nuclear warheads by some miracle worked as deterrents, but as we are in the threshold of a new world order, the possibility of new confrontations become alarmingly plausible. And on top of that there is this menace of global warming, and technological disruption for which we have no references from any history books that how mankind would tackle them. No one can tell for sure that whether these universal threats of near future end up in uniting us or push us towards further division and bring the devils out of us.
After the fall of the Berlin-wall and the disintegration of the USSR, many have thought that the liberal democracies with their free market model have won. Political scientists like Francis Fukuyama in his book, The End of the History and the Last Man, came up with this proposition that it might be the end of the ideological wars. In his new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, he shifted himself from his former position somehow and talked about the resurgence of new turbulences and tensions and an amplifying demand in the masses to be seen and have an identity.
Contrarily, Fukuyama’s teacher, Samuel Huntington, viewed the end of the Cold War as the starting point for new clashes in the form of deep-rooted identity politics. In his book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Making of World Order, he predicted that the ideological conflicts of communism and capitalism would be replaced by our nostalgic and wistful civilizational identities and the Western dominance would be challenged.
When we look at the global world order, it seems like Huntington was to a certain extent right. The global power dynamics are shifting from the West to the East or politically towards a more sporadic multipolar world. According to some economic and political predictions, there will be only one Western country among the top ten biggest economies in 2050 while there are six today. If these economists and political gurus are right, then it would be a very polarized and different world we would be living in.
The Western powers had set the agendas and chiseled the modern world order for two or three centuries. They had the largest share in almost all the good and evil done under their unchallenged dominance. For instance, from colonization to exploitation to machines, technologies, lethal weapons, genocides and internet to international organizations, and a developed concept of liberal values and human rights etc. All of it has been an idiosyncratic mishmash of the Western dominance with its unique mixture of good and evil.
In historical context, after witnessing so much death and destruction in the Second World War, the Western vision of the world shifted from a narrow political realism towards a broad political idealism. This visionary idealism led to the formation of the United Nations, and acceptance of human rights and liberal values as universal virtues. The overall vision for a better world in both Communist and capitalist blocs were beyond the ordinary constraints of nation states. Ideological questions and fundamental human rights were subjects beyond the question of sovereignties. The liberalists believed that they should depend and raise their voice for the human rights no matter where, and communist thought that they should support the working class or peasant irrespective of national boundaries.
And this idealist worldview is challenged from many fronts today. Let’s take the example of Europe where this idealism reached its pinnacle with the formation of the European Union in which former enemies become not just new friends, but companions and partners. The European Union works almost as a single loose federal state with its own sovereign parliament of 751 members from 28 different countries. However, with the financial crisis of 2008 and the refugee crisis of 2015, European skepticism took a new turn, and England left the union in 2016. Though the European Union has become too big of a giant to show your back to, some other countries with Brexit are still quite ambitious to go for either an outright exit or a reform of the European Union in order to protect their own local or provincial identities.
In many cases, it is even worse than Huntington predicted. The ideal worldview of globalization, human rights, multiculturalism, post-modern’s liquescent or ever-changing identity politics, positivism and transnationalism, are being replaced by a political realism with a soaring need for strong nation states, national identity, monoculturalsim, with a growing intolerance towards other cultures, religions and ethnicities. These new tendencies are generally called populism where ordinary citizens believe that they have been cheated by the elites with all these unrealistic conventions, globalism, political correctness, multiculturalism etc.
A worrying thing about these new populists in the West is that they are very ethnocentric and do not care much about the universality of human rights, international conventions and globalism. So, it is quite hard to expect from them that they raise their voice or come in support of minorities and persecuted ethnicities in the world. It is the West which led by USA has been policing the world partly in the name of democracy, human rights and globalization and of course partly for its own interests. But, today, that rhetoric has been substantially changed. There are new slogans in the air like the USA first, and building of physical walls.
Hold on for a second and imagine that the USA has abandoned the UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO, the Paris agreement, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Treaty, its trans-pacific partnership etc. These transnational organizations and binding agreements were to a great degree designed by the US itself and today it has withdrawn from them.
Not just in the USA, the old picture of Europe is also altering with the rise of populism and populist parties. For example, in Sweden, Sweden Democrats; in Finland, The Finns; in Denmark, the Danish People’s Party; in Germany, the Alternative for Germany; in Netherlands, the Freedom Party; in France, the National Rally; in Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party; in Hungry, the Fidesz; in Italy, the League; and the list goes on. These are all ultranationalist parties which are in some way or other reactionary and are against globalism and want to be free from international conventions and obligations which are not in their favour.
One can also find corresponding tendencies in other parts of the world. For example, Turkey after many years of flirting with secularism and liberalism is trying to find lure in Islamization, Russia is romanticizing the Orthodox Church and tsar era, China is digging back to a Confucius identity and its imperial past, and India is replenishing its Hindu identity. Nationalism always needs a binding force and these countries are on their way to build their modern national identities in the uniqueness and renewal of their cultural and religious roots. It is an open revolt against the narrative of the postmodern world where traditions, and identities were merging and losing their essence in an upsurgingcosmopolitanism and globalism.
As the Western world with the USA in lead is getting more and more homesick and pulling back, China is flexing its muscles and Russia is getting more and more active in the global scene. Countries like China are too big to be accountable for their human rights violations. China is also positioning itself geo-strategically in the whole world in the name of the so-called Belt and Road Initiative with the narrative of being the last hope for globalism and free trade in the world. China is a totalitarian state and it openly disregards the liberal values and individual rights, and the rights of minorities. Therefore, the expansion of China isn’t a very good omen for persecuted minorities in the world. It is also deluding many dysfunctional or failed regimes into a debt-trap by its easy loans of so-called infrastructure packages. For example, when Sri Lanka couldn’t pay back its 1.5 billion dollar debts for a port, China seized the right of occupancy of the port for some 90 years in exchange, and it seems like something of this nature could sooner or later happen with the Gwadar port or with other borrowers of Chinese loans.
But there are also some ambivalent signs that somewhere down the road Chinese neo-imperial ambitions would be challenged. And hitherto, we can observe some rudimentary mixed reactions as Trump declared an open trade war with China and the European Union is not happy with the Chinese firms copying their ideas and restiveness of the Chinese market for foreign investors. And the US also hindered Chinese tech-giant Huawei from laying down the foundation for 5G internet network in many western counties.And similarly, If India’s economic rise continues, it surely won’t be happy to be strategically encircled by China. At the same time, many countries in the south and east China sea are also not very happy with the Chinese aggressive behavior and power demonstration, and building of artificial islands.
However, we are descending into a new era of polarization in the world politics. If the technological advancements with its horrifying risks make the outright confrontations unlikely, we got to be probably prepared for a new Cold War scenario with multiple big players. And it might end up opening new fronts with a whole new generation of proxy wars and conflicts in many parts of the world. History is witness to the fact that when big powers became diehard nationalists, conflicts of interests and confrontations had been unavoidable.
In this new era of a risky world, if things go right, they can go quite marvelous, and if things go wrong, the can go deadly wrong. We have witnessed in the history that from the ruins and wreckage of an old world-order, there had always emerged a new one. And who knows if it turns out to be the same case this time. Or maybe not.
It is hard to be much of an optimist given that so much is at stake. Nonetheless, it is not my intention just to portray an outright pessimistic image of the present world order, but rather show that the world that we knew so far is changing. It is turning into an unpredictable, abrupt, altering and a risky world. And with it there might come some new opportunities and hindrances, but the room for mistakes would get narrower and narrower while the risks get higher and higher.
Yaseen Ghani studied Political Science from the University of Balochistan. He is also interested in philosophy.