An Anxious World

Events in 2016 have caused a new anxiety about international affairs, which should evoke a positive response on the core challenges facing our planet.

A number of major events in 2016 have increased anxiety around the world, or at least the Western nations. Conflict and suffering in the Middle East worsened despite sustained attacks on terrorism; more and more refugees poured into other countries; racial violence deepened in the United States; Russia and China showed more signs of aggression; Britain unexpectedly voted to exit the European Union and Donald Trump won the US presidency, raising fears of a maverick in the White House comparable with Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Simultaneously we saw the end of some leaders of distinction, notably Barack Obama, David Cameron and Ban Ki-moon, while Angela Merkel also came under threat for her principled stand on refugees.

This is not to deny that many good things happened and continue to happen, though sometimes they may be relatively unnoticed. One of the more significant of these was the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Ebola virus was brought further under control, and Greece and other stricken European economies started on the long, slow road to economic recovery. Still, the predominant outlook by the end of the year was one of gloom. Worse than that, there was a new level of uncertainty and fear that worse might be on its way.

Change now less predictable

Around the globe we have seen change that appears to fly in the face of accepted norms and wisdom: change that is sometimes rapid and sometimes alarming in scale. Self-evidently, as the Universe ages, the possibilities for change of all kinds become greater by the minute. Expansion – the ever-growing number and complexity of people and “things” populating the Universe - brings exponential change. Thus, while many of us are alarmed at individual changes like the Trump ascendency, there is an underlying story that is potentially more troubling. This is the story of change in international affairs that once was more or less predictable but now seems to be spiralling out of control. People not normally given to scaremongering are now making comparisons with the lead-up to World War I and World War II.

How we should respond

When change becomes too hard to bear, we tend to shrink our personal universes, losing ourselves in the immediate. We lose ourselves in trivia such as social media, brand-name shopping, games, the latest TV cooking show, clothing and tattoos and other personal adornments. Like hobgoblins, these diversions seem to hop out at every turn. Obviously, if our minds run only on the trivial, the outcome will be likewise: we will lives massively without meaning. What’s worse, we’ll vacate the playing field of life and leave victory to the spoilers, people who may not be actual terrorists but whose motivations are greed and/or ego and whose paths to success are distortion of the truth, manipulation, or downright bullying.

It doesn’t have to be so. While the times we live in are troubling and it’s tempting to say “Let it all pass by me” or “Things will right themselves without my help”, we have the power to take positive steps and we can make a difference. To lose our nerve at a time like the present would be foolish and irresponsible. What we need to do in the face of threat is to regain our focus on essentials and to pursue them with renewed vigour. What I mean by essentials here are the things that have carried us thus far in our history, like the pursuit of truth and the desire to help others.

The ethical starting point is the proposition we are all here to improve this world, to make it better in some way, to make it more civilised. My thinking here is inspired by the words of former US Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, who on the death of Martin Luther King famously said: “let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” Part of the beauty of Kennedy’s words is that they leave scope for a lot of individual interpretation, deciding what “gentleness” means. With all due respect and acknowledgment of individual difference in these things, I find it hard to see Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and a number of other contemporary leaders being motivated primarily by such notions of goodness. Even if I am wrong, they have to be blamed in part for actions which have aroused in me such a degree of cynicism.

The ideal of a gentler world can be achieved in every sphere of life, but only by the public exercise of certain key virtues: by being truthful, connected with other people in a spirit of goodwill, and committed to positive outcomes. The private exercise of these virtues is no less important, for events played out in the public arena depend very largely on conditions created by the public arena. To reduce this to its ultimate simplicity, a virtuous people will expect and will be delivered a virtuous government.

Core challenges demanding action

Faced with the loss of confidence in our future and the very real fear that international mayhem may occur, we have no option but to exert our muscle more as citizens. This means we have to speak up more, using whatever channels we have at our disposal. To make our utterances credible we have to do the hard work of reading widely in current affairs and conversing with people who will help us be better informed. There are any number of issues which as individuals we might pursue, but there are some which are clearly more important than others. I suggest that there are three topics which across the globe right now have overriding importance. These are:

    • inequality in all its forms, economic, social and political

    • the large-scale oppression and dispossession of people and forced removal from their homelands, and

    • climate change.

These are all existential threats to humankind. As it happens, they are also interconnected. Warfare typically arises from inequality and perpetuates it. Warfare and its aftermath - including the tide of refugees - divert attention and resources from the effort to curtail climate change. And climate change gives rise to conditions where the wealthy are desperate to preserve their existing assets and will do everything in their power to do so, imposing all sorts of measures (justified as “economies”) that have the effect of ensuring underdogs will be forever underdogs. Underlying all these issues are character flaws which are embedded deep in humankind, beginning with ego and greed and extending to other failings such as apathy and lack of conviction and courage.

From just this small list of issues we can see that the opportunities to work for a better world are endless. In the American Civil War, General Philip Kearny was reportedly asked where his soldiers should direct their attention. His reply: “Oh go in anywhere, Colonel, go in anywhere. You’ll find lovely fighting all along the line.” This is equally true today, though we might do better to exercise a bit more thought and be a bit more selective in our approach. In the particular situation of our time, when there’s widespread concern about the very heart of government – the political process itself – logic dictates that we focus more attention on issues like the appropriate exercise of power, the effectiveness of democratic institutions, and balance within political systems.

To sum up, if we feel as many do that the times are more than usually out of joint, there are any number of issues where we can become activist. Climate change, refugees and inequality are just a few of the most obvious. We should also take every opportunity to hold our governments and political operators to account, ensuring they remain within the established norms of behaviour that are honoured around the world, showing integrity, genuine care for the needs of their people, and diligence in discharging the mandates they are given – not the mandates they would like to be given. There is lovely fighting all along the line.

Events like Brexit and the Trump ascendancy have caused a new anxiety, shaking our belief that change is largely predictable and, in the developed world at least, rational.

There are fears now that we may have entered a more than usually turbulent period of history, with catastrophe a real possibility.

To turn our backs on hard realities is not an option. More than ever, we have to stand up for core beliefs - beliefs in ideals like freedom, democracy, equality and concern for others. Climate change, inequality and the plight of oppressed peoples are three areas which should unite us all, presenting issues where we can work for world improvement rather than the feared alternatives of world degradation or world destruction.