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From the marbled halls of power to the streets of small towns around the world, a new and unsettling mood is abroad – a sense that the world is coming unmoored. The old certainties of the postwar global order are shaky; powerful new technologies can be frightening; citizens around the world are wondering what global warming will do to the planet, and many are losing their faith in governments to look after them.
The politics of anger and intolerance are on the rise.
But the future is not written in stone. It is not yet clear how far Washington will retreat from world affairs, nor how easily the Chinese government will be able to stamp its authoritarian style on other nations, for example.
And wherever you look there are people carving out a more hopeful future, trying to build a sense of shared purpose, trust, and direction. Will the young people leading the popular charge on climate change be able to make a difference? Will a new generation of business leaders do enough to restore flagging faith in capitalism? Can social media bring people together more often than they drive them apart?
The world may be in flux. But everything is left to play for.
Her name is Margaret Farley, Maggie to her friends. She spent much of her adult life in Lower Falinge, a disadvantaged cluster of public-housing blocks near Manchester in northern England.
That is 5,014 miles away from Zhongnanhai, the government compound beside the Forbidden City in Beijing from which Chinese leader Xi Jinping rules China.
But Ms. Farley and Mr. Xi have something in common. That something, moreover, also ties them to the headquarters of NATO and the European Union in Brussels; to the marbled halls of government in Washington and the Kremlin; to residents of the favelas of São Paulo in Brazil, and the villages of Somaliland. And to Tehran and Baghdad, Damascus and Tripoli, in a newly fraught Middle East.
They all find themselves having to deal with a world that on multiple levels seems to have become unmoored.
It’s not just the geopolitics that have changed, with the shift of the center of gravity eastward toward a rising, authoritarian China, and the more inward-looking, nationalist approach of leaders like President Donald Trump in the United States, or Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Old economic models – and, crucially, a whole raft of old technologies – have been left behind as well. The shine has come off globalization and its benefits since the world economic crash of a decade ago. Long-standing trade agreements have been giving way to tariff wars.
But as we’ll explore in a Christian Science Monitor series beginning today, many are now also searching, in a dramatically altered world, for ways to safeguard the core values and achievements of the post-World War II order: democracy and human rights, the freer movement of people, educational improvements, and economic growth.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, millions of people around the globe have been drawn to the politics of anger and intolerance. Conspiracy theories, amplified by the power and reach of the internet, have proliferated. Strongman leaders mixing populism with strident, even xenophobic, nationalism are gaining strength. Millions, too, have lost their trust in established national and international institutions to look out for their interests, and for their future. Or, for that matter, our warming planet’s future.
Even in economically advanced countries, despite the dizzyingly greater wealth of those at the very top, far more people, like Maggie in Lower Falinge, have been left wondering if the old maxim of “work hard, play by the rules, and you can make it” still holds.
Sound bleak? That’s understandable, given some of the changes already evident.
But here’s what should be more reassuring. We do not yet know how all this ends. We are in a period of turbulence and instability unprecedented during most people’s lifetimes. But we are also only at the beginning of defining what comes next.
It’s a critical inflection point.
It is also the starting point for our series. Once every two weeks, Monitor writers will be reporting on the causes, effects, and implications of this new world disorder: from Beijing and Hong Kong to Malaysia and Vietnam in Asia; from Russia to Britain, the Netherlands, and Portugal in Europe; from Jordan and Egypt in the Middle East to Somaliland in Africa; and from Seattle to Cuiabá, Brazil, in the Americas.
We’ll be looking at the seismic changes in geopolitics, but also at wider questions of economic change, technological change, climate change, and the future of democratic governance and human rights. We’ll be looking forward as well, sniffing for the first traces of an answer to the critical question of what comes next.
Is America’s retreat, begun under President Barack Obama but supercharged under President Trump, henceforth a fixed feature of world affairs? How will the United States – and other countries – respond to an increasingly assertive China? Will the trend toward strongman rule, populism, and nationalism gather further momentum, or will there be a revival of some form of international cooperation, perhaps in a different shape?
And while there will be no dispatch from Lower Falinge, Maggie’s personal story is important to one major theme of our series. For the question of what comes next is not for the superpowers alone to answer, nor for other national governments, whether or not they are led by strongman figures.
The directions that local communities, citizens’ groups, and even individuals around the world choose to take will also influence the outcome.
A bit player on a world stage
I first met Maggie, flanked by two reassuringly serene pet Rottweilers, at the time of the 2008 world financial crash, but the sense of alienation that I found among many residents of Falinge had been building for years.
The area enjoyed the unwanted distinction of being the “benefits capital” of Britain: More than three-quarters of its residents were living on state welfare payments. Rochdale, the town that Lower Falinge belongs to, had been a thriving center of the wool, cotton, and cloth trade at the height of Britain’s industrial power. But all of that had long gone.
Maggie, like many of her neighbors, was unemployed. She’d been laid off from a part-time job at a nearby packing plant. But she was retraining – successfully, it turned out – in the hope of getting work as a security guard. She was also putting her teenage daughter through a course at a local technology college to equip her, again successfully, for similar work.
She was less bitter than nostalgic. In her teens she had done work in what was then known as the Youth Training Scheme, a government-run program. It had paid a pittance, she told me, “but it was a full-time job. We all did it. We got used to the hours. We got used to working. But many of the people here … haven’t worked for years.”
That had undermined their identities, and unmoored the community itself. Maggie’s concern was how her community could restack the building blocks that are critical to, but increasingly missing from, both local and global institutions: shared purpose, trust, agency, and direction.
We’ll be searching for clues as to whether those qualities may ultimately reemerge.
Will the youth-led popular movement to face the climate emergency make governments change their policies?
Will the activists who sought to put democracy and human rights on their governments’ agendas during the Arab Spring stay the course now that political winter has set in across the Middle East?
Or, will some of the old structures and strictures ultimately reassert themselves, as our look at Portugal might suggest – a small, pro-European Union country that has repaired its economy and defied the drift toward populism and nationalism?
To borrow from Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who in the aftermath of World War I wrote one of his most powerful poems, his tale of how “things fall apart,” can the center hold?
History starts again
The geopolitical challenges are daunting. It took two world wars, but over several decades beginning in the 1940s, a fairly stable world order emerged. The U.S. forged a close economic, political, and defense partnership with the countries of Western Europe. The Americans’ rival superpower, the Soviet Union, dominated Eastern Europe. And though there were crises – the Cuban missile showdown, the U.S.-Soviet standoff in Berlin – both sides, and the wider world, knew and respected the rules of engagement. That is no longer the case.
With the fall of the USSR and its client East European governments, a brief flame of hope flared that the world was on the brink of a new, shared international commitment to the model of free-market democracies. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama went so far as to proclaim “the end of history,” arguing that Western liberal democracy had comprehensively triumphed.
He spoke too soon. Now, if there is a single defining power rivalry in the world, it pits the U.S. against an increasingly well-resourced and ambitious China. And under President Trump, the contest is becoming increasingly bipolar because Washington has called into question its commitment to alliances not only in Europe but in Asia as well.
Russia, meanwhile, ruled by a president who has described the collapse of the USSR as the overriding tragedy of his lifetime, has been moving to reassert Moscow’s influence on the world stage.
Domestic politics in many countries present challenges as well: the angry tone, the rise of populism, the stoking of division – the selfsame trends that led Yeats, nearly a century ago, to lament that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Yet two other areas of change that our series will explore, technological and economic, may provide a counterweight. For our world has not only been getting warmer; it’s been getting smaller, more intimately and immediately interconnected. The same communications technology that has sometimes fed extremism or spread fake news – a kind of anti-social media – has also been used by pro-democracy movements from Somalia to Hong Kong.
And in the economic field, some of the world’s most influential business leaders are beginning to question the unbridled pursuit of profit that has riven modern capitalist societies into haves and have-nots. Will their homilies about ethical capitalism pave the way for greater social justice?
Surveying the world in 1930 from the prison cell to which Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had condemned him, the Communist thinker Antonio Gramsci observed that “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
That entry in his prison diary serves as a reminder: In times of turbulence, however bleak the apparent outlook, now as 90 years ago, the next chapter has yet to be written.
You'll find other installments in the Navigating Uncertainty series here.