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Is world on the brink of an abyss in 2017?

A general feeling of good riddance 2016 unites most people around the globe

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

A general feeling of good riddance 2016 unites most people around the globe, as the brand new year of 2017 is still in its infant days. In a matter of 12 months most of last year’s predictions and forecasts have evaporated into thin air.

The mood around the world is one of general malaise, anxiety and uncertainty, leaving any optimism more wishful thinking than a reality grounded in evidence. One of the first acts of this year was a terrorist attack in a crowded Istanbul nightclub, killing dozens of revellers celebrating the New Year; starting this year with violence, similar to the way last year ended.

The year we have just left behind is one in which discord between people and nations have deepened. It begs the question whether the last year was just the precursor of what awaits us this year? Or in 2017 is a world on the brink of an abyss capable of reflecting and reforming before it is too late?

A number of events in 2016 sent severe shock waves across the globe because of their magnitude and because they left a sense of helplessness. None did this more than the civil war in Syria, and especially the unfolding tragedy in Aleppo towards the end of the year. When the battle in Aleppo was approaching its final stages it was accompanied by an influx of horrific images of the inhuman suffering of many thousands of innocent people which were transmitted around world.

It exposed the international community in its most extreme cruelty, ineptness, or even worse its indifference. It makes it more horrific considering that the international community has been standing on the side-lines doing absolutely nothing to save these lives. Some countries, such as Russia and Iran, took an active role in helping the Assad regime to commit these crimes against humanity. All of the above rendered commitments by many countries to human rights as no more than an empty gesture, and revealed the extent of our desensitisation in the face of others’ extreme suffering.

Collective memory

However, the inaction in Syria, and other places, will remain in the collective memory for many years to come. It can only result in undermining the trust of ordinary people around the world in their leadership and in international institutions as the guardians of their security and wellbeing. It was also a year that a wave of terrorist attacks, carried out in places such as Nice, Orlando, Berlin and Istanbul, induced insecurity. This will continue to also affect relations between communities, attitudes toward migration in its different manifestations and may rapidly change the political landscape.

Sadly last year was one of the worst for social diversity. The notion of people of different ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs at least coexisting if not living in harmony, within the confinement of the nation-state, suffered some major blows. Social, political, ideological and economic polarisation are widening with grave consequences. Religious fundamentalism and far-right nationalism are two sides of the same coin.

Even for the eternal optimist, a touch of realism leaves considerable doubt as to whether the year that has just started will be any better, if not even worse, than the one which we are all too happy to bid farewell

Yossi Mekelberg

They both feed on hatred of the other. Both played a key role in two of the major upsets of 2016 – first Brexit and then the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections. These two developments made a farce of the notion that elections and referenda are arenas for civilised, intelligent and fact-based debate. Less than twelve months ago the likelihood of Brexit or President Trump’s success sounded beyond the realm of rational possibility, not to mention a collective nightmare. Now similar developments are threatening to sweep Europe.

We find ourselves in a new era in which insecurity enables the merchants of fear to gain power in the most cynical and opportunistic manner. Brexit advocates and Trump employed what became known this year as post-truth and fake news, two euphemisms for sheer lies and half-truths, that serve both those who deliver them and those who choose to believe in them. It provides an over simplistic, though effective platform, for those on the campaign trail attempting to win votes, and short-term instant gratification for voters.

Election time

Crucially in 2017 countries such as France, Germany and Holland, which saw rise in far-right parties and their discourse, face elections. There is a mixture of reactions to this rise ranging from complete dismissiveness of the chances of radical right populist parties doing well in elections, to dread of them succeeding in the ballot box. To be sure this triggers an alarming thought that we might relive the 1930s all over again, but in an environment of more diverse societies, hence possibly creating a more inflammable situation.

Who is going to bet against Marine Le Pen of the French National Front, Geert Wilders of the Dutch far-right Freedom Party, or the anti-immigration AfD party in Germany increasing their power in this year’s elections? If they succeed it is not only the democratic character and rights of minorities which will be under immediate threat, but also the entire European Union project faces the danger of collapsing with dire consequences.

Trump’s victory in the United States and what it represents shuffled the cards domestically and internationally. Based on the type of language and behavior we witnessed on Trump’s campaign trail and the almost parity in the popular vote, the United States is dangerously divided, and from the 20th of January will be led by the most discordant of presidents in living memory.

The nature of his relations with the Russian president Putin remain a disturbing mystery. His presidency may also place one of Obama’s major achievements in office, the ratifying of the Paris climate change agreement, in jeopardy. What are the chances of such an agreement surviving the presidency of someone who believes that climate change is a Chinese hoax?

Trump has assembled one of the most hawkish administrations since the end of the Cold War and may end in increasing friction with China, Latin America, and is at a complete loss in the handling of relations with the Middle East.

The last year also left many despairing due to the deaths of several significant cultural icons including David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and Carrie Fisher. However, much of the damage inflicted last year is carried through to this year. The unthinkable, Trump’s inauguration, takes place later this month, and Prime Minister May is expected to trigger article 50, starting the Brexit process for real, as of March.

Both are likely to result in a decrease in economic growth and disparities that in turn are likely to be a source of widening social and political discord. Even for the eternal optimist, a touch of realism leaves considerable doubt as to whether the year that has just started will be any better, if not even worse, than the one which we are all too happy to bid farewell.
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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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