Will 2011 be better than 2010? We can only hope. Many columnists agree with Indian-American journalist Fareed Zakaria that 2010 was a tough year. And if we read the tea leaves correctly, 2011 is going to be a hard one, too.

2010 was a year of dire natural catastrophes: according to Munich-Re, an insurance company, there were 960 earthquakes, floods, droughts and other disasters; climate change is intruding palpably in our daily lives; U.S. President Barack Obama, his approval rating at a personal low of 36 per cent, lost the House of Representatives to ever more petulant and aggressive Republicans; the euro almost failed, as Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain faced insolvency; and an increasingly assertive China overtook Japan to become the world’s second largest economy.

A year of turbulence

2010 was also a year of turbulence, volatility and anger in many countries in both the old industrial world and in the emerging nations of the global south; a year in which rumblings of war dashed the dreams of peace in the Middle Eastern arc of crisis, on the Indian subcontinent and the Korean peninsula. It was a year, finally, during which economic recovery after the financial meltdown of the 2008-2009 crisis remained both partial and parlous.

Looking at 2010 from another angle, one might say that it was a year in which leaders around the world may have prevented far worse from happening but were unable to forge a new order. Most of the time they simply let things play out. Can they do better in 2011?

Their to-do list is daunting, both at home and abroad. All of them face the task of slashing budgets, reducing debt and re-cranking their economies while preventing beggar-thy-neighbour policies from disrupting the mutually beneficial interdependence of today’s globalized world. On the bright side, consumer indices are rising, the stock market is up, and inflation still down.

Even in the West, millions of men and women are living on food stamps, on the dole, known as Hartz IV in Germany. Inequality is growing in our societies. Historians know that such unfairness holds the seed of social upheaval, if not revolution.

The world’s leaders also face daunting challenges on the foreign policy front. Americans will have to finish the job in Iraq while NATO has to wind down the war in Afghanistan. Together, the Europeans and the U.S. must contain Iran and persist in pressing for a peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis.

Ranking even higher on the priority list is an overdue rapprochement between India and Pakistan to end the interminable Kashmir conflict, an indispensable condition if the endgame in Afghanistan is not to lead to a cataclysmic denouement. In the same vein, nuclear North Korea must be kept on a leash by the international community – an effort whose success will for the most part depend on China.

But beyond these nitty-gritty tasks our leaders will also have to judiciously manage three developments that are going to determine the course of history in the next four decades.

  1. The continuing shift of power and wealth to Asia and, over time, to at least some countries in Latin America and Africa – Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa spring to mind.
  2. The undeniable fact that climate change is happening. Limiting and mitigating its catastrophic consequences is a huge challenge.
  3. The seemingly inexorable emergence of more and more nuclear weapons states. Their rise makes the installation of either effective missile defence systems or a worldwide fail-safe regime imperative. As North Korea and Iran have shown, sanctions cannot be relied on to stave off further proliferation.

Other issues, barely visible yet in the haze of the present but already the subject of heated intellectual argument, will also predominate.

The future of globilization

The first concerns the future of globalization. Will the erosion of national barriers to the free flow of capital, people and ideas continue or will that process come to a halt? Will new barricades go up in the advanced economies where further liberalization risks endangering many jobs? The first signs of a protectionist backlash against unbridled free trade, cross-border investment and immigration have become visible in many countries.

Governments everywhere tend to put domestic concerns over global issues, and “Open but not naïve” is heard both in America and Europe. But all over the developed world can be heard calls for once again according new importance to industry as the backbone of a nations’ economy.

The concept of the post-industrial age has become less popular since the recent financial crisis, with Lebanese economist Georges Corm goes even further, calling for a “progressive de-globalization.” While this might seem an unattainable goal, no one should be surprised if the globalization process stalls in the coming years.

The second concerns the future world order. Conventional linear projections prognosticate the steady decline of the United States, a Europe continuing to muddle through and the unstoppable rise to pre-eminence of China and India. “The West will rule – for now,” opines the Stanford historian Ian Morris. “Maybe the East will be Westernized, or maybe the West will be Easternized”, he argues. “Maybe we will all come together in a global village, or maybe we’ll dissolve in a clash of civilizations.” His preference is clearly what he calls “singularity,” meaning convergence rather than confrontation.

Others are less sanguine. Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World, speculates that, in the first half of the 21st century, Western rule will give way to a fragmented global order, with multiple currency zones (dollar, euro, and renminbi-dominated), and different spheres of military-economic influence – America will continue to hold sway in Europe, Southwest Asia and South Asia; the Chinese will dominate in East Asia and Africa. But in the second half of the century, he predicts, China will rule and the world will be Easternized.

The American writer Parag Khanna begs to differ. In his forthcoming book How to Rule the World he does not expect a revamped multipolar order but rather a diffusion of power away from states toward cities, companies, religious groups and humanitarian NGOs (also: from terrorists to philanthropists).

Khanna’s new world would be a neo-medieval one. “The 21st century will resemble nothing more than the 12th century,” he says. It would be a world both Eastern and Western at the same time, and one in which authority counted more than sovereignty.

Whichever prediction comes true, the tyranny of the immediate will likely keep the world’s leaders in its throes. But their actions today – wise or foolish, parochial or worldly-minded – will shape our planet’s future. Tackling current problems, they ought to keep the larger picture in mind. Cooperation must trump contestation.

 – Theo Sommer