London-based Ned Temko navigates us through challenging times

Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, fear and uncertainty about the state of the world were escalating. Tensions among nations, the destructive impact of climate change, the slipping away of economic security and human rights, along with a rise in nationalism, have spurred many to ask the question: Why does everything feel as if it's coming unmoored? 

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
A man cleans up the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange, following traders testing positive for coronavirus, March 19, 2020.

In our series Navigating Uncertainty, the Monitor is delving deeply into the growing global disorder challenging leaders and institutions worldwide. It’s a disorder that has been made all the more striking by the crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But as the 12 correspondents reporting our Navigating Uncertainty series are discovering, with great challenges come new paths to progress. 

Ned Temko is the Monitor’s London correspondent and wrote the first story for the series. I asked Ned why the series was launched.

Many of us at the Monitor had been witnessing the ground-level effects of that “unmooring” from many of the institutions and assumptions that had underpinned national and international politics – and our own lives – since the aftermath of World War II. In their place, in many countries, was a rising polarization and a brand of politics powered by populism, nationalism, and often resentment and anger. All of this at a time when the old economic certainties were being challenged not just by new technology and a shift toward a more globally interwoven economy, but by ever-widening gaps in income and a narrowing of opportunities for many of those who were being left behind.

The aim of the series, as it evolved, was ambitious: to look at the human stories behind these headline trends; to draw out the patterns and connections that linked these different stories.

I think what the series most aspires to do – what we think of as “Monitor journalism” – is to step back from the day-to-day headline events and, along with readers, navigate our way toward a clearer, more nuanced picture of the major changes that have been underway. 

Also, importantly, we wanted to shine a light on individuals and institutions who are actively looking for new ways to make common cause on issues like human rights, social and religious tolerance, free speech, economic development and fairness – as well as to tackle specific new challenges like climate change. In other words, efforts to shape whatever “new world order” emerges on the other side of the instability and uncertainty that have grown dramatically over the past few years.

Find all of our Navigating Uncertainty stories on the series home page.

When the Monitor first planned the Navigating Uncertainty series, we were still weeks away from the point where millions of people were forced to shelter in their homes from a virus that is knocking the global economy off its axis. Has coronavirus changed the need for this series?

A good question, and one we have naturally been asking ourselves as the COVID-19 crisis has spread and intensified. I think the answer is that it hasn’t so much changed the need for the series as made it more timely. Some of the issues we’d set out to chronicle and illuminate have proved strikingly relevant to the pandemic.

To take just one example, the question of the increasingly interconnected world economy, which both contributed to the worldwide spread of the virus and has had a major impact on the frantic scramble around the globe to secure things like ventilators or protective equipment – much of which turns out to come from the country where COVID-19 first appeared: China. The halting, and in some cases belated, response of many Western governments to the spread of the virus also brings in other issues we’d set out to explore in the series: the rise of populist politics, or the growing distrust among many people of existing institutions, leaders, policy experts, and of the idea of facts-based policy. The pandemic has also become a major stress test for longstanding international partnerships and alliances that were also, as the series reflects, becoming increasingly fragile.

We look back at what the world was experiencing in the 1930s as a reference point to today’s global challenges. Remind us what we went through then and how that compares and contrasts with what we’ve experienced in recent years?

There are indeed potential parallels, I think, which are likely to become more significant in light of the huge economic contraction being caused by the shutdowns put in effect in many major countries to control the spread of COVID-19. The 1930s – the years of the Great Depression – also saw a rise in nationalism, populism, protectionism, and isolationism. All of these have been evident in a number of major democracies, or in opposition politicians opposing sitting governments. The open question – part of the “uncertainty” we’re trying to navigate in the series – is whether those trends will become ever more dominant, or whether we’ll see a kind of new world order that retains an outward-looking, cooperative, international point of view.

Where are the biggest threats now to all of the gains that were achieved as democracy and human rights expanded after World War II?

My own sense is that the main challenge is to recreate a sense among governments, within communities, and among individual citizens both of the importance, and fragility, of the post-war consensus. It was not perfect. It was, of course, initially a series of structures and principles largely focused on Western countries and which was led, indeed created, largely by the United States. But over many decades, the main guiding principles – democracy, free markets, trade and, perhaps above all, human rights and the rule of law – became more and more widely accepted, or at least aspired to. And maybe they also were, by the turn of the new century, simply taken for granted. That’s why I say there is a new and important challenge for governments and civic groups and citizens who do believe in them. In many countries, they’re having to make a renewed case for these principles, to explain why they matter, and to risk criticism, opprobrium, or sometimes personal freedom or even their lives, to defend them.

Give us examples of people and institutions who are countering the forces giving rise to growing authoritarian power and the decline of human rights.

That’s one of the most extraordinary things amid all the dramatic changes occurring in the world: the enormous resiliency of those who, broadly speaking, believe passionately in human rights and in the idea that might does not necessarily mean right. This has been very much part of the series articles that have appeared so far, whether in Anne Scott Tyson’s fascinating look at the protest movement in Hong Kong or those who continue to defend a separate political path for Taiwan from mainland China’s; or, for instance, Sara Miller Llana’s encounter with pro-democracy activists in populist President Jair Bolsinaro’s Brazil. And in a series piece that’s coming up in the weeks ahead, our Middle East correspondent, Taylor Luck, will be looking at the lonely but determined struggle being waged by rights activists in the Arab world now that the proclaimed hope and promise of the so-called Arab Spring seem to have largely faded. There’s also a compelling “Navigating Uncertainty” audio report by Dominique Soguel based on conversations with a number of those opposing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s consolidation of power and his increasing constraints on democracy and free expression.    

You also wrote in your overview story how a woman in a public housing development in the north of England is tied to NATO, the E.U., the White House and the Kremlin in the same way as China’s leader Xi Jinping. What’s the connection and why is that important to progress?

The link is in the erosion of many of the institutions and life assumptions that for so long defined the politics of the post-World War II world, and which I suppose began to unravel in the wake of the international economic crisis of 2008. But the other reason we began with the example of this woman, Margaret Farley, whom I in fact met on a reporting assignment in the aftermath of 2008 crash, was to emphasize that the changes and challenges which we’ve been tracing in the “Navigating Uncertainty” series do not involve only heads-of-government, or international alliances, or corporate CEOs, but millions of individual citizens in dozens of countries around the world.   

I was struck by a recent opinion piece by Henry Kissinger in the Wall Street Journal in which he states "No country, not even the U.S., can in a purely national effort overcome the virus. Addressing the necessities of the moment must ultimately be coupled with a global collaborative vision and program. If we cannot do both in tandem, we will face the worst of each." What’s your take on this?

I agree wholeheartedly with Kissinger’s view. What I’d add is that one of the major issues over the next few years is likely to be America’s role in the world. Though President Donald Trump has supercharged the idea of “America first,” at the time he was elected the U.S. was already on a post-Iraq war path toward a less assertive and engaged role. I recognize, and in fact share, the view that the U.S. should engage in military action only in response to a clearly defined threat, and with a clearly defined and well-thought-out aim. And I wouldn’t suggest that American policies and actions have always been perfect. No country’s policies are. Yet my long experience as an international correspondent has left me firmly convinced that American involvement has far more often been a force for good and that American leadership has been, and almost certainly still is, indispensable to achieving the kind of collaborative vision for which Dr. Kissinger is calling.

And if I could come back to where we started, the Navigating Uncertainty series. I’ve been hugely privileged in my journalistic career, beginning in Lisbon not long after the overthrow of the dictatorship, then, for the Monitor, based in Beirut and later Jerusalem, covering both sides of the Middle East conflict, in Moscow during the waning years of the Soviet Union, in South Africa during the waning years, and final violence, of apartheid. For Monitor television, I returned there to cover the release of Nelson Mandela, and was in Berlin the night the wall came down. All of this, I suppose, brought home to me the importance of the values and principles that were part of the post-World War II architecture built under that American leadership: above all, perhaps, institutions like an independent judiciary, an independent media, and basic individual rights and freedoms.

Read much more of Ned Temko’s interview on CSMonitor.com. You can also find more profiles of our writers here. Got a question for Ned Temko or comments about our series? We’d love to hear your feedback. Send your thoughts to me at fitzgeraldg@csmonitor.com.

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