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Why the Past Undermines Peace and Development


As a new year begins we are inclined to take a long-term view, so let’s see why we should have patience with our hopes for world peace. While proper analysis of this would require a book, not an article, I take the liberty here of presenting some very raw sketches for reflection.

First of all, we should agree that we are still the victims of a cycle of post-war adjustments. The cycle started with the end of the First World War, continued with the end of the Second World War, and concluded with the end of the Cold War. But while the end of the First World War saw the idea of the League of Nations, and the end of the Second World War saw the birth of the United Nations, nothing similar has surfaced following the end of the Cold War.

The First World War saw the end of four empires: the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, the German and the Russian. It is widely accepted that adjustment following this war was the cause of many of the conflicts that followed. For instance, the absurd war reparations imposed on Germany created the revanchism that led Hitler to power. The end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed the Balkans to become a powder keg. The end of the Ottoman Empire, and its dismemberment by the winning powers into new artificial states is showing its effects today.

The widespread social protests of an impoverished Europe after the First World War ushered in Nazism and Communism: not kings or people but, for the first time, ideologies. So, unlike dynasties, it was ideas in power that united people all over the world.

This made the Second World War vastly different in nature and scope from its predecessor: it was a war between democracies and Nazism. However, the main outcome was to divide the winners into two blocs, capitalism and communism, and the threat of communism obliged the West to adopt the options of social justice, workers’ rights, participation and social values. Meanwhile, the rest of the world played with this division, or tried to set up its own system – the non-aligned movement – and the North-South divide became another important post-war adjustment.

Then, with the collapse of Berlin Wall in 1989, came the end of the Cold War and globalisation. This post-war adjustment added additional new elements into the previous unfinished adjustments, and this time they were global.

With globalisation as its justificatory framework, a “new capitalism” took hold in which social harmony was no longer vital, and in the search for maximum profit the market became the only value, without the “burden” of social costs. The result was the dismantling of the social system, a decline of investment in education and health and the demise of trade unions, to name just a few: in other words, the end of the idea of societies based on the rights of their citizens. The U.S. Supreme Court even ruled that corporation had the same rights as citizens. We entered the era of the “new economy”, based on the idea that people are dispensable and that the less they are part of production the better it is. The “new economists” argue that unemployment is here to stay, and that the state has little to do with economy. They are harbingers of an unprecedented era in history, where 99% of economic growth goes to 1% of the population and the fixed salary becomes a thing of the past. Growing numbers of young people are unemployed and those that do work are in precarious jobs. The social security net that grandparents and parents still provide will gradually disappear. The United Nations predicts that today’s young generations will retire with a monthly pension of 480 euro. Certainly a new and different world.

Today, the heritage we face is a combination of at least of three legacies which make global governance distant. The United Nations has become increasingly marginal under a globalisation that runs on two engines: trade and finance. Finance was never part the United Nations (and is completely void of control) and trade was taken out in 1994 with the creation of the World Trade Organisation. So, there is no system which can address the present situation.

The first legacy we have is the creation of artificial states. African states and Arab countries were created at a negotiating table among the colonial powers. No Arab country, except Egypt, can claim an unbroken history over its present territory and people. The new states incorporated ethnic and religious groups, which were not at all homogeneous, and homogenous groups were sometimes dismembered (look at the Kurds who are now in three countries). The process of incorporating minorities throughout democracy is a very difficult one, and requires a long process of national emancipation and sense of communality. The rules of majority and minority often exacerbate conflicts.

If we look at the second legacy in which different religions must coexist, the difficulty of the adjustment process becomes clearer. The divide between Sunnis and Shiites, and more importantly between radicals and moderates, is the most significant obstacle to stability among the billion Muslim in the world. Only modernity eliminates that conflict, but modernity arrives with economic development, and it will take a long time before modernity arrives in the vast Muslim world. But religion is also an element of conflict in the Buddhist and Hindu worlds. Ethnicity and religion also play a significant role in Asia. Myanmar, with 40 minorities and different religions, is a good example of how the road to democracy is difficult. But the same goes for so many countries, like Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and so on. Democracy, in merely formal terms, cannot solve these issues if minorities do not feel themselves a real part of the governance process.

It is obvious that only through regional integration can local conflicts be minimized, but integration remains a distant goal. Latin America, after two centuries of political independence, has only managed to produce some weak trade agreements and an insignificant Latin American Parliament comprising representatives of national Parliaments (not elected by citizens as in Europe). Africa has not even managed that. At the beginning of the independence process, there was a debate between its two great fathers: Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. Kenyatta sought immediate integration of Africa, while Nyerere called for gradual integration after a phase of national developments. The result is that now, with national parliaments, bureaucrats, parliamentarians and so no, the quest for unity is very weak. The Organization for African Unity is no more than a platform for the meetings of Heads of State. Meanwhile, the Arab world is divided more than ever, and it has no real structures for integration. Asia is so vast and different that is not even attempting something so complex; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was created by the Southeast Asian countries to create a common front against the growing power of China and is widely considered a toothless organisation. So, regional integration, which could have reduced national conflicts, is still very far off.

Our third legacy is today’s of globalization. It has homogenized the world in the wrong way through, for example, consumerism, life style, entertainment and food, but it has brought a divide between rich and poor all over the world. Rich countries now have a growing number of poor, and poor countries have a growing number of rich, with social justice on the wane, internally and internationally. Take just the case of the Savar garment factory disaster in Bangladesh early last year in which more than 1,000 people died: no compensation of any sort has yet been paid while the garment industry, basically in the United States and Europe, continues to increase its profits. The total absence of international social laws goes together with globalization. Social inequality has been growing since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The divide between rich and poor is growing worldwide, and the middle class is shrinking, especially in Europe.

So, we are facing an extended period of instability. The legacies from the First and Second World Wars have melted into the legacy of the end of the Cold War. The United States and Europe are in irreversible decline because of the emergence of a multipolar world, with new countries taking space and power. And yet, even clearly defined global issues such as climate change, when they conflict with economic interests, go nowhere. It is a long time since some meaningful international treaty has been adopted.

It will take time to come to terms with our legacies and find the just solution for the future. But this is not a reason to lose patience with governance and peace. We should realise that a new era will come and that we are coming out of the present one. As philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote in his ‘Prison Notebooks’, when one historical cycle has finished and the new one has not yet arrived, we will have to deal with the “monsters”.

So, when will escape the present instability? Probably only when a global protest against social injustice brings some communality and similarity of action and vision … and that is not so far away!

Roberto Savio is the founder of Inter Press Service.

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