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December 29, 2019

A look back at 2019


December 29, 2019

The year 2019 was punctuated with a retreating neo-liberal order, anti-status quo protests, great power competition and persistent threat of violent extremism. The US disengagement from several global agreements and conventions on nuclear non-proliferation, environment and trade has created an uncertainty in the international system. The coming year, 2020, is likely to be more turbulent because the factors that generated these challenges are likely to worsen further.

Retreating neo-liberal order: the era of neo-liberal democracy and free market economy, which came with the fall of the Berlin Wall, is facing global discontent over economic slowdown, skewed benefits of globalization and rising autocratic regimes which are trying to refashion the character of the global order.

Today, democracy is suffering from a crisis of confidence and is in peril in every region of the world. Even in advanced democracies, democratic practices and institutions have seen a decline. The inability of developed democracies to bring about a positive change in the lives of their citizens has undermined their credibility.

Likewise, capitalism is in crisis today and there is hunger for wide-ranging reforms. This view is shared across the political spectrum in developed economies. Decades of wage stagnation and wealth concentration has led to inequalities and social injustices on global scale. Today, less than one percent of world’s population owns 46 percent of wealth and the poorest 70 percent own less than 3 percent.

Anti-status quo protests: through much of 2019, the pent up frustration and clamour for change led to large-scale protests in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and other parts of Asia. Though the triggers of these protest movements are diverse and grounded in local issues, they have four common strands. First, young people who form the backbone of these grassroots protests. The widening gulf between haves and have-nots has radicalised young people who want more say and stakes in the economic system.

Second, these protests are leaderless and use social media to organize in a decentralized manner. Third, growing urbanization and the subsequent over-crowding of urban spaces has made major cities around the world the staging point in global unrests. Of the world’s 7.7 billion population, 4.2 billion (55 percent) live in cities. Fourth, these protesters make a common cause against the lopsided benefits of globalization, social injustices, corruption, unemployment and the lack of government services.

These protests have forced some governments to reconsider their decisions, such as the reversal of the extradition law in Hong Kong, and constitutional reforms in Chile. In other cases, leaders had to resign. For instance, Bolivian president Evo Morales, and the Lebanese and Iraqi prime ministers Sasad Hariri and Adil Abdul-Mahdi had to step down from their positions on public pressure.

Return of the ‘great power’ politics: the protracted struggle for who decides how the world will function in the 21st century got a new impetus in 2019 with the return of ‘great power’ politics. The phrase ‘great power competition’ has reappeared in the most recent US national security and national defence strategies. For instance, the October 2019 Pentagon report on the US defence strategy outlines China and Russia, not global militant groups, as the greatest threat to American global interests. However, compared to the past, this competition is far stronger and the rivals are much more ambitious.

China is seeking dominance in the Indo-pacific region and then global pre-eminence, while Russia is trying to end the Western domination in Eastern Europe, and deepen its ties with various states in Latin America and the Middle East. The US’s over-arching objective in this new era of great power competition is to prevent both China and Russia from developing so much influence in Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific that the local balance of power shifts in their favour.

At the heart of this great power competition lie: a) the US-China trade war; b) tussle over China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative which is spread in 135 countries and trying to connect Asia, Europe and Africa; and c) the US, Japan, India and Australia alliance to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Global terrorism and extremism: the year 2019 was bad for both the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda which suffered leadership, territorial and organisational losses. The IS was stripped of its last terrestrial holding in Syria in March and its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in October. The group faced a coordinated crackdown by Euro-pol and nine social media companies in November disrupting its online dissemination of information, propaganda and communication channels. Likewise, Al-Qaeda suffered a twin loss of Hamza Bin Laden, son of Osama Bin Laden who was being groomed as leader of the global jihadist movement, and Asim Umar the chief of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS). Notwithstanding these losses, jihadist militancy poses a potent threat to global peace.

This year, the Christchurch mass shooting televised live on Facebook and subsequent Right Wing Extremist (RWE) perpetrated attacks in the West have heralded the maturation of far-right groups as violent actors. More alarmingly, according to the Soufan Centre, a US-based think-tank, the RWE groups in the West have a transnational network of like-minded organizations that stretches from Australia to Canada and the US to Ukraine. As per the report, there has been a 320 percent increase in RWE incidents in the West. The report also notes flow of more than 17,000 foreign fighters to Ukraine – an emerging hub of RWE groups – to hone battlefield tactics and operational knowledge.

Fake news and misinformation: social media and information explosion are creating new hierarchies of knowledge and communication putting 20th century power-structures under tremendous pressure. Social media has become the voice of the have-nots and allows them to organise at a larger scale for collective action.

At the same time, fake news and propaganda campaigns have also spawned in this social media environment, causing disruptions and influencing political and social opinions. Research indicates that more than half of the internet traffic comes from ‘bots’, and that the misinformation has expanded to fake polling, fake fundraisers and fake think-tanks. Fake news is not just a threat to the media but to societies, states and businesses as well. The most recent case in point is of the anti-Pakistan Srivastava Group which ran pro-Indian fake websites and think-tanks aimed at influencing European decision-makers.

If left unchecked and unregulated, fake news and propaganda campaigns will grow into an effective tool for a plethora of actors. Social media companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter in coordination with governments need to devise new laws and policies to spot, verify and remove fake news and misinformation campaigns.

Outlook: the champions of democracy will have to make it more responsive and participatory for the young people if it is to survive as a political idea in the 21st century. At the same time, as the US and China position themselves to flex their political and economic muscles at the world stage, smaller nations need to hone hedging strategies to advance their interests without alienating either of the two great powers.

This coming year 2020 presents both a challenge and opportunity. Turmoil will increase and challenges will multiply but innovation, accommodation and adaptation are critical to mitigate the future challenges.

The writer is a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies,


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