The beginning of a new decade has a happy ring to it – a feeling of turning a page, of starting anew, of a fresh impetus. Yet, according to the Chinese calendar, this Year of the Rat looks ominous, one in which the world will face many daunting challenges.
The gathering storm between the US and Iran, brought to the fore by the killing of General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, and the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane over Iran with which the year began is, of course, the most obvious signal of simmering conflicts around the world.
How likely is it they will explode, drawing in many other players? Which are the flashpoints to watch out for? Is it true, as many say, that things will get worse before they get better? Here is my take on some key issues and how they will shape our increasingly destabilised planet.
Global warming: Climate change is perhaps the defining issue of our time. We only have a small window of opportunity to do what is essential to avoid reaching a 2 Celsius increase in temperatures that would be catastrophic. Yet, no substantial progress is taking place in reducing global carbon emissions. COP25, the big conference held on the subject in Madrid in December, was a fiasco, ending in a disappointing and compromised deal on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Some would say that the fires that have engulfed much of New South Wales and other states in Australia, seemingly forever and burning 8 million hectares and killing an estimated billion animals, provide a frightening, hell-like preview of what we shall soon see elsewhere as a result of rising temperatures, widespread droughts and climate-change denialist governments.
The second Cold War: Far from de-escalating, tensions between the US and China did, if anything, increase in 2019. The welcome news is the signing of phase one of a trade agreement between both parties – and some details about what the second phase would entail are emerging. But tensions on the technology front have not diminished and many seem happy to ratchet up, rather than down, the us-versus-them rhetoric that feeds on itself. In a US election year, this is unlikely to change. The relaunch of the Committee on the Present Danger, once focused on the Soviet Union and now on China, is not encouraging.
An unravelling WTO: Much of the growth and prosperity we have seen in the course of the past three decades, which has led, among other things, to the achieving of the UN Millennium Development Goals, including the drastic, worldwide reduction of poverty, has been driven by high global trade volumes. This slowed down after the 2008-09 financial crisis. Yet, the entity responsible for this open trading system is itself in a critical state. The Doha Development Round negotiations have stalled since 2008, thus rendering moot one of the World Trade Organization’s main functions. Now, since Dec 10, 2019, its other function, that of resolving trade disputes, is also inoperative. Its Appellate Body, normally made up of seven members, has now been left with only one, because the US has blocked all new appointments, leaving it with no working quorum.
A go-for-it Brexit: Until the recent UK elections, there was still hope Brexit might be stalled in one way or another and thus avoid what some consider to be the first step toward the break-up of Europe. With an overwhelming majority won by the Tories in these elections, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the helm, that hope is now gone. For the next few years, both Britain and the EU will be consumed by the protracted negotiations to make Brexit happen, distracting the EU from playing a forward role in global affairs at a time when it will be most needed.
A proxy-war riven Middle East: The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government, within the confines of its own consulate in Istanbul in 2018, indicated the degree to which all bets are off in a region that jumps from crisis to crisis. The Sunni-Shia conflict within the Muslim world, reflecting the geopolitical and ideological rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, is in full swing. Syria and Iraq stand firmly with Iran, Sunni-majority countries such as Egypt do so with the Saudis, and those including Lebanon are caught in the middle. The full break-up of the US-Iran nuclear deal, and Tehran’s signals that it now feels free to join the nuclear arms race, add to an already volatile situation.
A case can be made that all these issues are long-in-the-making processes that took many years to come to the fore and will not necessarily reach a boiling point in 2020. Touche. Yet, my point is a different one. It is the combination of such serious global governance issues with trade and technological tensions at a time of increasing disregard for once-established norms of international behaviour that creates such an international tinderbox.
And this is not by happenstance. As Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci put it, “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” As the unipolar world that emerged at the end of the Cold War gives way to a new one, the hallmarks of which are globalisation and multipolarity, there is resistance and reaction against the newly emerging order. In many ways, the populist movements in the developed world are a reaction against the decline of the West and the rise of the rest. Their disregard for the established rules of international behaviour is part of the appeal to their electoral base.
None of this makes for smooth sailing. But it does put a special premium on the leadership of the rising powers of the Global South to keep the ship of world governance on an even keel as we enter an especially fraught year.
The author is a research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, a Wilson Center global fellow and a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalisation in Beijing. GLOBAL TIMES