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As 2019 ends, the phrase that comes to mind is "what an interesting year!" And, the word "interesting" in this context should be taken in its traditional Chinese meaning, which is full of risks and dangers.
The year now ending confirmed a trend that started earlier in the decade, marking a slow, but undeniable, retreat from globalization which, at the start of the new century, was believed to be the panacea for all our ills. The new trend, taking shape in many countries, is that of nationalism highlighted by a return to the nation-state as the most effective model of political organization.
This new trend puts the international system, or "world order" as some like to call it, under immense pressure. International organizations, starting with the United Nations itself, appear less relevant than ever.
Institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, that were riding the crest of the wave under globalization, are now all but sidelined. A convalescent NATO is in search of a facelift to merit attention. The European Union, shaken by the British departure expected to be finalized next year, is forced to cast a hard look at its prospects. Other multinational groupings, from the Organization of American States (OAS) to the African Union and passing by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, are also trying to readjust to a changing world situation. As for outfits such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Russian-led Eurasia "common market", they resemble ghostly characters in search of an author.
However, is the nation-state, and nationalism that is its ideological trope, capable of responding to the new evolving world situation? That is not at all certain. The nation-state itself is under pressure from fissiparous and secessionist tendencies in several countries, including several democracies -- notably Spain, Great Britain, Canada, and Italy. Worse still, we witness the multiplication of the number of failed states such as Syria, Venezuela, Somalia, Congo-Kinshasa, Zimbabwe, and Libya, where the nation-state model is more of a chimera. In other countries, notably Afghanistan, Sudan, and Iraq, and to some extent even Lebanon, the situation is frozen and the threat of failed statehood looms on the horizon. In some other countries, notably Iran and North Korea, the state has morphed into an instrument for keeping the nation under control and is thus preventing the emergence of the traditional model of a nation-state.
Even where the nation-state operates more or less normally, which is still the case in most countries, its power and authority are challenged by non-state or trans-state actors such as giant multinational corporations, global pressure groups such as the environmentalists, and trans-national media. In some cases, even celebrities could exert greater influence than the average nation-state.
The virtual disappearance of traditional political parties has led to the emergence of countless niche groups that often transform themselves into ideological echo chambers. Classical media have also lost much of their power and relevance, and are challenged by countless "news" outlets marketing "alternative facts."
Another challenge to the traditional model of the nation-state is the feminization of politics in more and more countries. A generation ago, having a woman minister, let alone a prime minister or president, was a rarity. Today, it is a banality. The leaders of most political parties in Britain, for example, were women. And, in the United States, female presidential wannabes dominated the Democrat Party's list of candidates. This feminization shifts the emphasis away from the traditional goals of the nation-state that highlighted prestige, glory, economic growth, and hard power to social goals such as welfare, education, health, and help for real or imagined "victims of society."
To be sure, different parts of the world will cope with these new challenges in different ways. Western democracies have developed mechanisms for reform that could help them through what is an epochal transition with a minimum of damage to their socio-economic fabric. Authoritarian systems such as China and, in a different register even Russia, may also be able to negotiate many bumps on the road, at least as long as they maintain economic growth rates that could offer the average citizen the prospect of a better living standard. A number of Asian countries, notably Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Thailand are in a similar position with the difference that their economic performance is less secure than either China or Russia. India, often labeled "the world's largest democracy" has the additional problem of managing an explosion of religious nationalism out of sync with the emerging international landscape.
In the coming year, the final phase of the politico-cultural civil war triggered by Donald Trump's election as president will be fought, with gloves off on both sides. Because the United States remains an important model for many throughout the world, the outcome of that fight could affect developments in several other nations across the globe.
In our own region, I have a sense, based on a hunch more than concrete information, that the war in Yemen may end. The Houthis, sponsored by the Islamic Republic in Iran, may realize that their benefactors in Tehran are no longer capable of ensuring the level of support needed for continuing a long low-intensity war.
On Iraq, I remain the last person on earth who is still optimistic. Iraq may well be able to negotiate a difficult transition from an old generation of politicians, mostly returning exiles, to a new one raised inside the country since its liberation in 2003.
Iran is also heading for a transition as a regime of geriatrics that has lost much of its legitimacy finds it more and more difficult to frustrate the ambitions of a mostly young, creative, and determined nation.
In Syria, a question mark remains hanging on future prospects. Because of Russia, Iranian and Turkish intervention, the transition that could have taken place from the Assad regime to a new national consensus has been kicked in the long grass.
It is difficult to see how, let alone when, Syria may re-emerge as a unified nation-state in any acceptable sense of the term.
The good news is that an interesting year is ending. The bad news is that the coming year may prove even more interesting. Again, in the Chinese sense of the term.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.