Lessons Learned in 2011 and What They Can Tell us About 2012

Arab Spring [LP]Arab Spring Image by Painted Tapes via Flickr

Events in 2011 taught us some lessons about the fragility of democracy, the limits of nuclear power and the incapacity of the political class to manage a modern state. Let me elaborate a little before drawing conclusions about 2012:

1. The Fragility of Democracry, starting with the Arab Spring and ending with Occupy Wall Street: The Arab Spring was the first major event in 2011 followed by a series of protest movements in Europe and the US (fueled by the "Indignados" in Spain and Occupy Wall Street in the US). The role of the Internet, particularly Facebook and Twitter, was hyped up and seemed to herald a new age for human rights and democratic freedom, particularly in the Middle East that had been singularly bereft of them up to that point. More generally it pointed to an awakening of the middle class around the globe as it realized at last that with unbridled capitalism, an explosion in income inequality had relegated it to the 99 percent. The young failing to find employment, even those with university training, lost all hope of matching their elders' income and maintaining their living standards.

The final results of these protest movements are not in yet, but it is already clear in the Middle East that only two countries so far have "made it": Tunisia and Morocco. Strengthened forms of democratic government have arisen there while in the other countries of the region the process still has to play out, with Yemen still suffering from troubles and Syria apparently sinking in civil war. 

In Lybia fresh out of its civil war, it is too soon to tell  but it is obvious that the road to democracy will be long, arduous and uphill. The first priority for any Libyan government will be to disarm the rebels and pacify the country. The next priority will be to find a political consensus between the various ethnic groups and tribes that make up the country, and here too, Sharia may prove a more powerful unifying force than any desire for a liberal Western-style democracy. Too much religion is not good for democracy...  

Egypt, the country furthest along in the democratization process after Tunisia, is now threatened by an increase in Islamization and a military unwilling to give up the power it has held for some seventy years. Indeed, Egypt is a particularly worrisome case, as  the Muslim Brotherhood has gained some 40% in the on-going election process and the more extremist Salafi movement is up to an astonishing 25%. That means liberal forces have the rest, a very modest 35%, not enough to prevent the establishment of a Sharia-governed state and society.

In the early days of the Arab Spring, much was made of the "Turkish model" as an example of a Muslim country capable of running a full and free democracy.  Now no one mentions it anymore and it is probably just as well since even Turkey is experiencing problems: Erdogan's government is pushing towards Islamization (for example the debate around women's head scarves) and keeps a very large number of journalists in prison on trumped up charges.

Protests in the rest of the world have similarly failed in achieving any concrete results. China has moved quickly to quell them.  At the time of writing, protest is washing over Russia where people got angry when the recent elections were visibly skewed to support Putin's United Russia party. But the protest is unlikely to succeed anytime soon as Putin, predictably, reacted negatively, viewing protesters as having "no leaders and no goals" - exactly what critics in the United States have said of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Tangible results so far are nil. Clearly democracy is fragile and difficult to bring about in places where people have been used to dictatorial governments. And let's face it:  democracy is not doing very well even in Europe. Apart from the well-known shortcomings in countries like Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, we are now experiencing the surprising spectacle of Hungary, in the very heart of Europe, slowly but surely moving towards an autocratic system: Victor Orban's government has already muzzled the press and moved to take control of the Hungarian Central Bank, denying it the independence that is essential for a central bank to function properly. 

Moreover, the democratic system weakens a country's ability to govern, in particular its foreign policy whenever an election is on the horizon: politicians worry more about scurrying around for votes than about managing the state. In 2012, this is going to be the case for several countries including France but most importantly for the United States, still the prime player among nations. Well, don't expect the US to play much in 2012!

2. The Limits of Nuclear Power: How can we ever forget the Fukushima drama? Many countries drew lessons immediately, prime among them Germany that gave up its nuclear program and turned resolutely to green energies. 

But Germany's example hasn't been followed - least of all by France that continues to bet on nuclear power - not surprising given its investment in it (read: Areva). Oddly enough, Japan itself is vacillating and clearly hasn't decided yet on its course of action - though it's likely to continue to cling to nuclear power as the more economic solution. These hesitations are echoed at the ground level in Japan where the villages hit by the tsunami still haven't decided to move uphill and appear to stay put in their original site in spite of the obvious dangers.

The upshot? Nuclear power is going to cost more but it won't fade away in spite of all the dangers...

3. The Incapacity of the Political Class to Manage a Modern State. This is perhaps the most surprising lesson of 2011. For the first time it has become crystal clear to everyone that the political class tends to fall into its political games rather than pay attention to governing the state - admittedly a very difficult proposition for politicians who are generally untrained as managers and are only good at public speaking and shaking hands. The modern state is highly complex and subject to a variety of economic pressures and social challenges - none of which politicians are prepared for. Indeed, they are never voted in for their capacity to manage the state. They get votes for their pleasant look and attractive demeanour. 

The case of Belgium that went nearly two years without a government underlines how useless the political class really is. It showed that a modern state can perfectly well be run by its bureaucracy. It really only needs a government to handle foreign affairs - not particularly a pressing issue for Belgium that has its foreign policy embedded in the European Union. 

When the Euro crisis took a bad turn for Greece and Italy, both countries ditched their politicians and resorted to technocrats to resolve their problems. Does this mean the technocrats are not democratically legitimate? No, because in each case, these technocratic governments obtained a vote of confidence from their respective parliaments.  How well they will manage the crisis has yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: for the first time, politicians have accepted to let people savvier than themselves run the state. There is little doubt that a failure of Monti in Italy and Papademos in Greece will signal the end of the Euro. If they can't do it, no one can.

There were many other major events in 2011, chief among them the Euro crisis, but I've picked out those who seemed most promising in heralding change. 

Will 2012 be the year that democracy and human rights win in the Middle East? That nuclear power is reined in within the limits of prudence and reason? That the political class recognizes its managerial limitations and allows technocrats to be in charge of crisis management? 

What's your take? Do you think we will apply the lesson learned in 2012? 

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