Reflections for the New Year: 2019
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 7 Jan 2019
Ending a Lamentable Year
31 Dec 2018 – At a party for friends a few days after Christmas, as people left our home, their parting greeting was a series of variations on a single theme—“let’s hope that the year ahead will be better than this year.” Of course, such words are partly a reaction to the dark shadow tossed across our lives, whether directly affected or only appalled by the media show, by the Trump presidency. Never has such an unabashed loutish leader with an unquenchable appetite for media dominance and public attention, and an incomparable ability to achieve these egotistical goals, so shaped the political consciousness of American society, and quite remarkably for his base of support, exemplified the most admirable characteristics of what made American great in the past. Such contrasting perceptions of what is admirable and what is disgusting explains the polarizing cleavages that mark the country in this period with or without Trump.
Yet polarization may not be worse than the bipartisan consensus that is the repugnant legacy of the Cold War period, and characterizing by accepting three shared verities: that minimally regulated capitalism is the only legitimate basis of economic wellbeing and political legitimacy; that American-led global militarism is in the national interest and serves the wellbeing of humanity; that Israel and Saudi Arabia are unconditional allies, one a repository of democratic values, and the other the site of the world’s largest oil reserves, and each behaving in a manner guided by reasonable security concerns that correspond with Western wellbeing. I find each of these presumed verities to be deeply flawed and largely responsible for American decline internationally and at home.
As aggravating this posture toward political reality was the impact of ending the Cold War in a disastrous uncritical manner for several reasons: failure to construct a stronger normative order by strengthening the commitments to the UN and international law, as well as by seeking in a determined way, nuclear disarmament; failure to incorporate socialist aspirations into the regulatory framework governing economic globalization, and instead allowing neoliberal approaches to economic policies to displace more humane Keynesian precepts that had built a strong floor of political support for social democracy in leading Western societies; failure to restore and enhance the infrastructure of America.
What set this year of 2018 apart was the looking back with regret. My past experience, even during wars and economic downturns, has been to look ahead with hope, and forget the ending the past year. Now the measure of expectations is much diminished by hoping that 2019 will at the very least be better than 2018. My inner pessimist has a different wish—that 2019 will not be worse, possibly far worse. My inner realist is all about commitment, which means resisting, and most strategically in the American setting, rejecting the pragmatic pleas of the political center that wants reforms but without challenging the bipartisan consensus associated with capitalism, militarism, and ‘special relationships’ in the Middle East. I find vindication of these concerns in the angry response of the liberal segment of the center to Trump’s sensible decision to pull combat troops from Syria as decried by the resignation letter of Jim Mattes, and strongly reinforced by the liberal media– CNN, MSNBC, and the NY Times/Washington Post, and their nightly parade of ‘experts’ and retired generals and top intelligence officials.
I also ask myself, ‘was 2018 really as bad as it seems?’ ‘Are there not some glimpses of a better future?’ It will turn out even worse than it seems if Trump pulls down some pillars of the temple on his own head, and ours, if he finds his adversaries at home closing in for a final kill. He would likely opt for confrontations, a trade war with China or an attack on Iran, closed borders, dismissal of the Special Counsel. These are the only the most obvious regressive scenarios. But will the return to the White House of an anointed representative of the national security establishment offer the world any fundamental improvement with respect to the three basic explanations of structural constraint? Such centrist and practical leadership would certainly be more humane toward immigrants and asylum seekers, more responsible international actors on environmental and social issues, and far more moderate in their judicial appointments. Still, this is not sufficient given the challenges facing this country and the entire world.
And if we look at the world through a less nationalist world, then truly 2018 was a disaster for the people of Yemen, Gaza, Syria, Rakhine, parts of Africa. And there are leaders who are making their own people even more miserable than Trump, including Duterte, Orban, maybe Putin, Modi, and the recently elected Bolsonaro seems determined to saddle the Brazilian people with a fascist agenda.
So as 2018 draws to an end a more modest, and realistic hope, is that things will not get worse, that famine will not consume millions in Yemen, that fires will not sweep across the planet, that a recession will not become a lethal depression, that refugees will be treated more humanely, that a new geopolitical rivalry does not accelerate an arms race containing an array of hyper war technologies, that global warming does not intensify a multiplicity of hazards, and that out of desperation migrants do not become global insurgents.
In all this, those who run the world have lost faith what little faith they had in international law, human rights, and the United Nations as being instruments for realizing a better human future and a less dangerous world. Even those of us who have advocated a more cosmopolitan approach to global challenges now doubt that the UN possesses enough creative agency, due to a paucity of will and capabilities, to contribute to the construction of a hopeful future. I avoid despair by discounting these rational expectations of worse to come by resorting to an insistence on ‘a politics of impossibility’ and ‘a necessary utopia.’ Denialism and escapism also function to defend ourselves against despair if we are lucky enough to be spared dire harm from present circumstances. These ways of seeing can be otherwise understood as confessions in the form of failures of imagination thinly disguised by an admission that what we do know is leading us toward cliffs of devastation and catastrophe, and so we are inclined to take refuge in a kind of non-religious faith in the unseen, including the possibility that a second axial age is emerging in ways that prefigure an ecological civilization that will soon become more evident as a response to the ravages of climate change and the spiritual desecration associated with cynicism and oppression.
Perhaps, the future looks better from certain different sites of observation. I was impressed by the speech given by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, on the 40thanniversary of economic reforms that led to the remarkable achievement in development that China has experienced over the course of the last four decades, achieving astounding material results by its approach to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ China’s rise in the face of many obstacles exhibited an extraordinary master of soft power instruments. There have also been notable failures, a lack of environmental protection and an intolerance of dissent and diversity, especially toward the Uyghurs, and a kind of consolidation of political power that hides abuses and brings unhappiness. Yet Xi Jinping’s at least imparts a vision of a human-centered future that he proclaims as the guiding aspiration of China’s governing authorities.
Yet the experience of China is worth heeding in the West as an antidote to the lingering remnant of hubris. The capitalist triumphalist claims that socialism and authoritarian controls squeezes the mind, and makes the society lose its creative energy, has been dramatically refuted. While China explores the technological frontiers of the future with unsurpassed energy and resources, the West stagnates, and places its main bet on military capabilities, including even its capacity to threaten and wage nuclear wars. There is no reason to do our best to reproduce the Chinese path, or to devote ourselves to blocking and discrediting it, but there is the need to bow our heads low enough to listen and learn.
My private commitment for 2019 is to nurture humility, while trusting the formation of identities that link a progressive vision for our nation to a cosmopolitan embrace of humanity, with a major infusion of empathy. And as citizens, we need to be rooted in our particular personal and public experiences, while reaching out to the world and to the future. The becoming of citizen pilgrims is to be engaged with the entire world, but also to acknowledge that before we can claim to be world citizens we must create a world community. Genuine world citizenship is not a matter only of spatial outreach to the far corners of the planet, but depends on creating a sense of community based on values, norms, procedures, and institutions that ground political practice in experience rather than merely in sentiment. Too often world citizenship exhibits a sentimental wish rather than recognition that to feel and act as part of humanity depends on building community, a commitment to time as well as to space.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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