Year end is the traditional time for stock-taking. It is also a special moment for getting together and getting in touch with all those we've lost sight of...I can't do a full stocktaking in a blog post, but at least I can try to share with you, my friends, what stayed with me this year and what we shall soon put behind us - and what may be in store. Hopefully, something good...
First, what went wrong. This is not an exhaustive list, just what was most striking:
- theocratic terrorism: in Syria and attacks abroad - at Charlie Hebdo first and the Paris attacks in November, but not only. Attacks were experienced everywhere, in the US, in Libya, in Lebanon, in Africa, not forgetting the tragic war in Yemen, the list is long;
- a tsunami of refugees: 4 million Syrians fleeing their homes, one million headed for Europe and among them, "economic migrants" from places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, desperate people looking for jobs;
- "European Project" slowdown: EU politicians continue to mishandle the Euro crisis and fail to address the refugee crisis; as a result the political landscape is polarized, with a lurch towards a conservative right (Le Pen in France, UKIP in the UK...) closing the continent on itself and a counter-movement to the political left, with populist parties (Syriza in Greece, Podemos and Citizens in Spain, Cinque Stelle in Italy...) contesting austerity policies;
- The rise of China: causing instability in East Asia, still supporting a backward-looking North Korea while expanding its presence in the region, with military outposts in the sea across from Japan and a brand new infrastructure development bank that has worried America (and the World Bank) but won the support of Europe;
- The rise of the Russian Bear: a return to Soviet imperialism Putin-style has squashed opposition at home and led to new military adventures abroad, in Syria after Crimea and Ukraine; causing inter alia growing tensions between Europe and Russia as the problem of Ukraine and Crimea festers on and the Minsk 2 ceasefire accord stall;
- financial turmoil: with unresolved sovereign debt crisis in Greece and a looming collapse in Puerto Rico, hedge funds take a beating;
- extremists in the Republican party: several tough-talking presidential candidates led by an irrepressible Donald Trump leave the rest of the world wondering (with trepidation) what American leadership will look like if ever one of them wins.
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia. Photograph: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
Next, what went right (up to a point):
- COP 21 and the Paris Agreement, opening the way to a future where mankind might at last begin to address the climate change challenge; and this comes right on top of the UN General Assembly - 193 countries in the world - adopting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals intended to promote peace and eradicate (most of) poverty by 2030; yes, this was decidedly a pivotal year for the United Nations; now much depends on whether business will follow suit, but it is in the cards: the number of business leaders expressing support has never been so large; civil society, NGO watchdogs are also keeping an eye out to make sure that governments don't renege on their promises...
- Dawn of a liberalizing transition in Latin America, where (among others) Venezuela's opposition might make its voice heard while Cuba is pursuing its open-door policy with the United States;
- A last-minute reset in Europe, with (finally) a (belated) EU decision to address the refugee crisis in a collegiate manner - so far, only Germany had shown open generosity, even Sweden has started to close its doors; on the economic front, removal of austerity measures is unfortunately forestalled by powerful financial lobbies: investors don't want to lose money, the political-financial complex is alive and well...
- America's economic recovery from the 2008 Great Recession further consolidated with the Federal Reserve finally raising its key interest rate... but it's happening in a climate of uncertainty: this is the weakest recovery to date on record, the middle class has lost its position in American society to the ultra-rich and lost its way as jobs don't recover;
- Accelerating progress and inequality: on the plus side, more discoveries and innovations are made than ever before in technology and science, as the CERN in Geneva plumbs the depths of physics and astronomers uncover the secrets of planets and exoplanets in outer space; on the minus side, it's happening at a cost, as many jobs that used to belong to the middle class are threatened by the rise of Artificial Intelligence, read: computers and robots (e.g. driver-less cars that will replace truck drivers); the unresolved questions: will our future be in the hands of robots or computer scientists? Are the benefits of further advances in technology going to accrue only to those who can afford them, i.e. the ultra-rich?
UN Secretary General at COP 21 in Paris - Impakter
- More refugees? Let us hope that Europe will pull its act together and find a morally acceptable way to handle the crisis, a way that will preserve its economies and respect its values; and let us hope that America and Canada will follow - so far, both are even more closed on themselves than Europe, with Canada the only country showing generosity now that Trudeau has become Prime Minister.
- A rebirth of the "European Project"? That, for now, looks highly unlikely - it is not only linked to a satisfactory solution to the refugee crisis but also to an acceptable outcome of the upcoming UK in-out vote and a final resolution of the Greek crisis;
- A solution in Syria? The UN Security Council has finally passed a long-awaited resolution that may open the way to negotiations and a political settlement; it would be important to see progress on this front: it would help to address terrorist-fomented instability elsewhere, starting with Libya and Yemen;
- More democracy in Latin America? Not yet in the cards for Venezuela, but the continent is moving in the right direction with Cuba opening up.
- A benign China aware of its carbon imprint and wishing to be friendly with neighbors and traders? Hidden behind its Internet firewall, China is hard to decipher yet trying hard to guide the world its own way, if the world will let it...
- Technological solutions to mankind's problems, starting with climate change? Bill Gates is betting on it with one billion dollars. But technology is not all "good", Artificial Intelligence is scary, it's our "biggest existential threat" as Elon Musk once famously said in a talk at MIT -and he too believes in supporting the right kind of research to ensure ethical choices are made. The nightmare of a world falling in the hands of the very few made globally powerful by technology, the very few who might escape Earth to another planet once (and if) it becomes unlivable, could well remain the stuff of science fiction rather than reality...
Yes, maybe mankind will not disappear yet, maybe the Earth won't turn arid like Mars, maybe we all have a future after all.
On this note of hope, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
See you next year!