Where does time go ? It struck me that the first quarter of this century is just over a year away and what 25 years it has been.
We started this century on a high, the world was at peace, the Millenium Bug didn’t kill civilisation, Britannia was still cool. The West was dominant and helping struggling nations get onto the wealth ladder. A young business-like President called Vladimir Putin had just taken his first steps to sorting out the chaos that was Russia. While in China there were real effort to modernise the economy and seek Western trade as a means of doing so. In the US a new president George W Bush had just been elected, the future was bright with not a hint of orange.
Roll the clock forward and today we have a brave new world, a chaotic less optimistic one. This started with 9/11 – this century’s equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand; a random unexpected act of violence which set off a chain of uncontrolled reactions.
As we look back, we can see the West has decayed from the high point of the 1990s. Supremacy unchecked led to bad decisions. The general reaction to a group of extremists in the Arab world unleashed the Iraq invasion, ISIS and Afghanistan all of which wrong footed the West. Not just the thousands of deaths but it established a view that democratic rule was in its own way flawed. Western high principle was called in to question when force could be used on a whim. Both at home and abroad democracy suffered a credibility gap.
The first quarter also saw the emerging impact of changing demographics a trend which will shape the world for the rest of the century. Advanced economies began to experience the effects of ageing populations while developing countries continued to grow with improved economies. Wealth and influence began to shift. The biggest example was of course China but with India following on its heels and later this century the emergence of Africa. All of this points to a new balance in geo politics and perhaps an ideological struggle between democracy and autocracy, with autocracy at this point in the ascendant. The autocratic line up has a full turn out in Gaza how will the democracies handle one of the world’s faultlines ?
But on the ideological front nothing is set in stone. Westerners have a flawed habit of trying to railroad their values on others instead of letting societies mature at their own pace. We forget that it took 200 years for the United Kingdom to move from a limited rule of the wealthy to a full citizen franchise. In Asia and Africa more patience is required, there is no inevitability about autocracy. For Chinas one party rule we have the contrast of India’s democracy and at the extremes of the Korean peninsula a dictatorship faces a modern open society.
The moving geopolitical plates present lots of challenges to the West. While the West might feel things are going downhill for many in developing nations the first quarter century has been a time of progress and optimism. It is clear that the West will not have the primacy it once had, an African born today will have no experience or even interest in what happens in the UK – bar maybe Man United. So, the challenge for the West is to reestablish its global credentials. Initially this will mean our politicians reconnecting with their electorates something which has gone badly wrong in Europe and the US. A reinvigorated West having the policies and support to engage with the wider developing world can still make its mark in the next 75 years, it is time for our politicians to step up to the mark.