In the departure from the normal grind of daily micro-concerns and issues, and increased reflection that the festive season brings, the end of one calendar year prompts the very risky activity of prediction for the next. Festive preoccupations have cut my time for a post short over the past fortnight. Nevertheless, despite normally loud-mouthing about how futile this activity is, I thought I might attempt something similar, although in my own way.
The significance of the coming year will be obvious to anybody with an eye for dates. 100 years have passed since the onset of one of the greatest human catastrophes civilization has ever seen. The First World War shook the world and our tolerance for hardship to the very core. So much has changed in the century between now and then that making any comparisons might seem totally futile. On the contrary, I am quite committed to noting the parallels – if a lesson so shocking were to go amiss, the tragedy would be all the greater.
Whatever your personal persuasions may be on the subject, the topic of human nature remains a fairly contentious one. One side of the debate features those who view our species as inherently limited, and that society will reflect this; the conception of humankind as a collection of self-interested entities, leading to the free-market, is not far from this. Then there are those who think we can perfect ourselves and guide nations and societies to desirable ends through the use of rationality and reason. Theological conceptions of society might represent a variant of this second type, spearheaded by God’s guidance. Thomas Sowell offers a fantastic interpretation of the topic and this rough dichotomy in his A Conflict of Visions, which I reference here to serve as a precursor to a full review of his ideas as a separate post.
If the former set of ideas in this discussion are more correct, then the events of the past clearly bear heavily upon our actions in the present – we cannot change much, so should learn from essentially similar affairs that have come before. I feel that, should the second group be in the right, then we are left with a scale of possibilities between two separate situations. These two are: firstly, we have changed or refined ourselves over the course of 100 years sufficiently to alter the likelihood of similar events occurring under similar circumstances, or secondly, the time has not been long enough and our modern civilization is insignificantly different to the one of 1914 anyway.
My point, then, is that we should be at least a little concerned if either the first group are right, or the second group’s hopes for change have indeed been dashed by insufficient time. I am of course not proposing that the horrors of a World War may well be unleashed within the year. Nuclear arms have at least ensured that, horrible and merciless though it will be when it comes, our destruction is likely to be delayed for some time in a global game of chicken between leaders, and conventional war between major powers is no longer a norm. But, importantly, we must always look at international relations and the role of powerful nations with an emphasis on peacekeeping, to try and mitigate the effect of our limitations – this much we are reminded of by reflections on the past.
So, how does this bear on 2014? Notable events include whatever lies in store for East Asia, with the territory’s giants locking horns more and more often. China and Japan’s leaders must remember that even the temptation of using hostility against foreign nations for domestic political gain can incite attitudes that are dangerous to say the least. Reckless naval and aerial scuffles without a pre-existing agreement to resolve such infractions peacefully are incredibly risky – I hope the two countries bear this in mind and open their problems to serious international debate, rather than private (potentially martial) dispute.
European nationalism remains strong and potent in its role of destabilising integration in the continent, just as it did 100 years ago, albeit with much more disastrous consequences. Though any nationalistic noises made by leaders, pre-eminently Angela Merkel, have their critics, the pervasive influence of trepidation towards integration and suspicion of one’s neighbours has rendered stability and concerted action difficult to come by. A European Union that sets its ambitions high for a para-national rule of law and consistent legislation, but fails to take into consideration differences between countries and each nation’s own reasons for caution, will not become a strong presence any time soon. Concessions between countries must be greater if working together is to be a serious option, instead of simply setting off regional disputes and stalemates.
The Middle East remains an awkwardly fractious and volatile region, as does much of Northern Africa, where (I believe) it is the duty of more powerful states to help fragile and, more often than not, well-intentioned national governments to quell chaotic rebellions that make no demands and cause only grief and conflict. Syria will likely see its civil war reach 3 years old – the nation has ripped itself apart only to find the rest of the world sit back and watch for all the talk of lines being crossed. Pockets of disorder and humanitarian crises like this can create problems far more wide-reaching than the few issues thrown up in defence of not getting involved – some kind of consensus and plan of action must be reached by the international community to help defuse tensions. This is something that Barrack Obama has completely failed to do, and he has been rightly criticised for it.
Few people can even realistically claim to know some of the solutions to these problems. Yet persistent problems and trends take our civilization in a perilous direction. They must be discussed and confronted, and our obligation to avoid the mistakes of our predecessors explicitly recognised.