Tom Fletcher / Former British Ambassador
As you read the predictions for 2017, remember that nobody called 2016. Me neither … I bet that two of the UN, US, France, UK would be run by women in 2017. Wrong two?
This was the year irony jumped the shark. Germany emerged as the bulwark against Fascism; China the defender of the Davos consensus; a celebrity billionaire as the voice of the ordinary American. People voted for policies they knew would make them poorer; for liars to clean up politics; and to take back control by reducing global influence. A nation built on the promise of migrants voted for an anti-immigration candidate. We had a global campaign against globalization. For the first time in recent history, the challenge is not states with too much power, but too little – exhibit A, Russia. A Europe that still thinks it merits five seats at the G8 table became a problem for others to worry about. An election for leader of the free world created a vacancy for leader of the free world. Many now expect – and maybe hope – that elected leaders won’t see through election promises. Russia terrorised Syrian civilians to save them from terror. George Orwell, take a bow.
Several others took a final bow too. At one point I felt that the posters on my bedroom wall had become a hit list. From Ali to Zsa Zsa, via Bowie, Cruyff, David Bowie, Elie W, Fidel, George M (Michael and Martin), Hadid, irony, Jack B, Leonard, Manuel, Nancy R, order (liberal), Prince, Ronnie C, Shimon, Terry, Umberto, Victoria, and Wilder. A grim A-Z that gave 2016 even more of an end of era feel.
Maybe it is. The end of the chapter that started in 1989, or maybe even 1945 or 1789. Maybe the end of the American Age, or the (hopefully temporary) resignation of America as the most influential driving force for liberty ever.
For the first time in my life, we can take nothing about next year for granted, let along the next decade: because 2016 is the new normal.
The new normal has three features: distrust fuelling political uncertainty; inequality fuelling economic uncertainty; and massive technological change fuelling existential uncertainty.
First, Distrust. Authority is one more devalued currency. The West couldn’t save Syria because Iraq destroyed confidence in the foreign policy establishment. Many rejected the EU because MPs expenses, the banking crisis and EU mismanagement destroyed confidence in Westminster, the Square Mile and Brussels. Trump is a rejection of the establishment and mainstream media. Public trust is not just plummeting in politics, the media and the banks, but teachers, doctors and police.
Second, after economic downturns nations turn inwards when they should look outwards. They are nationalist when they should be internationalist. I now understand why we spent so much time at school studying the Weimar Republic. The consequences of the crash of 2008/2009 could be as great as those after the crash of 1929. At a time of massive prosperity, inequality continues to rise, unleashing the spasms of anger we are seeing at the ballot box and on our streets. The America that gave us Trump is richer than ever, but his electors didn’t feel that.
Third, the sense of constant flux is just the initial implications of the internet. How humans interact is changing at a faster pace than any time in history. Look at the political and social impact of the printing press and scale it up.
So, institutions based on trust are failing, and politics is failing. Politicians are struggling to cut through. One recent European leader told me “we no longer think it is just the past that is another country. The present is another country”. I spent much of Summer 2016 in places that entered an uncertain period because of the UK referendum: Dublin, Belfast, Barcelona, Gibraltar, Berlin, London, Cyprus. The decision of the UK may have been based on local factors, but it is the best example of how decisions in one country now effect everyone. Our localism made the case for internationalism.
Too much political rhetoric in 2016 reminded me of two personal experiences. First, an Indiana Summer selling door to door – ‘everyone’s buying it’, we would repeat like a mantra. And second, the online arguments with extremists in the Middle East I used to have in Beirut. They and Western extremists use the same rhetorical devices to radicalize the vulnerable – ‘us and them’, find someone to blame, we can make you great again.
It is this extremism, in all its varieties, that is our biggest threat in 2017. Mankind’s story is one of the gradual – albeit with bad years, and sometimes bad decades – evolution of reason over craziness, expertise over instinct, community over tyranny, and honesty over lies. Yet it is getting harder to hold the territory that ISIL attack as the ‘greyzone’ or the far right and left attack as the liberal consensus, where individual freedom is cherished and diverse communities interact. It is an imperfect space, work in progress. But it has been built with immense patience and sacrifice. The checks and balances created over centuries to protect it are being tested, maybe to destruction. We are still building the driverless car, but seem to have achieved a driverless world. The scaffolding built around the 20th century global order is fragile.
However insecure we will feel at times in the coming period, the answer to modern security threats is in fact more liberty, equality, fraternity. Not less. The painful lessons of the 21st century are stood, blindfolded and arms tied before the wall, wondering if they will hear the first shot of the firing squad.
Basic dictatorship is not complicated: an economic crash, blamed by the aspiring tyrant on elites, minorities and his opponents; the promise of greatness, of bread and circuses; the gradual undermining of institutions; intimidation of the independent media; the reward (not of course confined only to dictatorships) of loyalty over competence; holding enemies close; the building of a personality cult; and the systematic removal of checks and balances. At each of those moments, the dictator hopes that that we stay silent, argue among themselves, or become distracted.
So what can we do in response?
We can build networks in a time of institutional failure; consensus in a time of arguments; and bridges in a time of walls.
We can strive for expertise, patience, perspective and judgement in a time of fake news, sound bites and echo chambers.
We can aspire to be courageously calm, tolerant and honest in a time of outrage, intolerance and ‘post truth’ politics.
We can be internationalist in a time of nationalism, and open minded in a time of closed minds. A retreat from the world is the path to irrelevance, drift and uncertainty.
We can be proud when our countries are magnetic, and smart enough to recognise the economic potential of migrants and refugees from Einstein to Jobs. We were all migrants once, and the 21st century might make us migrants again.
We can get the generation who will inherit all this change a quality education, and not leave them the choice between a Mediterranean life jacket or a suicide vest.
Above all, we must remain curious in a time of too much certainty.
Maybe the silver lining of 2016 is that more good people will start hitting back with small acts of humanity. Join that movement, campaign or NGO. Subscribe to some quality news and thoughtful analysis. Use the smartphone superpower: Facebook and Twitter didn’t create our desire to connect; our desire to connect created Facebook and Twitter. As Jo Cox reminded us, the most influential generation in history will have to defend the progress and freedoms we took for granted with greater urgency and passion.
So yes, let’s drain the swamp. Of those who promote intolerance whether in tabloids or places of worship, and weaponise intolerance during political campaigns. Of those those selling the snake oil of hatred of difference as a panacea for globalization. Of easy access to deadly weapons, and lack of justice for those who use them. Of policy by media cycle, and those hawking quick fixes for a complex world. Of the inequality of opportunity that provides the Petri dish in which extremism and anger festers.
The changes we wonder at today won’t seem wonderful for long. The predictions we think are crazy today won’t seem crazy for long. At moments in 2016, it appeared that technology had disrupted democracy. But used properly it still gives us the means to tackle inequality, improve cyber and economic security, ensure that artificial intelligence helps not harms us, outsmart the extremists, and make it easier for citizens to run their lives.
But that all depends on us – whether we are just connected or can truly connect. Progress zagged in 2016. Let’s get Ziggy again in 2017.