Our transition into a new decade is an apt moment for soul searching — looking at my grandchildren and wondering where the world is going. In every direction there is turmoil and crises of leadership. Is this a symptom of oncoming catastrophe, or the birth pains of a very different kind of world order?
Everywhere there are strong and assertive women challenging the status quo, notably in protests in Latin America, Hong Kong, Algeria, Sudan, Iran and Iraq. Closest to my heart, I am immensely proud to see Lebanese women frequently outshining men; sophisticatedly articulating their demands, and posing a fundamental challenge to a corrupt, sectarian, and yes, patriarchal system.
We Lebanese who lived through the civil war accepted the revised sectarian quota system of governance because it seemed to be the least-worst solution to stop us from killing each other. It puts us to shame that our young people see this corrupt, backward, broken system for what it is. They desire a mature system of governance that doesn’t straitjacket us according to what sect we were born into.
In Saudi Arabia, the rate of change is mind-spinning. Women drive everywhere. I recently found myself with three female leadership figures from the Saudi financial sector — including Lubna Al-Olayan, who chairs the newly merged SABB and Awwal banks, now the third-largest bank in the Kingdom. Over 60 percent of science graduates are women, and the numbers of female lawyers, academics, journalists and health professionals are rapidly increasing. These changes can never be rolled back, but rather will be consolidated as girls grow up confidently expecting to play leading roles.
As refugee-hating, climate-denying, populist regimes pop up everywhere, young women are inevitably on the frontlines, challenging this ugly reality. Recent US polls suggest about 60 percent of women support Donald Trump being impeached and removed from office; most men disagree. Among young, college-educated, suburban women, support for Trump disappears almost completely.
Disproportionate numbers of votes for authoritarian leaders and retrogressive policies come from the oldest generations. In the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, 75 percent of those under 24 voted to remain in the EU. Europe and America have not lurched toward ultra-nationalist, populist autocrats because young people are embracing fascism, but conversely because an overwhelmingly progressive younger generation is consistently outnumbered at the polling booths by their reactionary and embittered elders.
Nevertheless, in states such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, extreme-right (and also far-left) parties have made ominous inroads with younger demographics, particularly among working-class and poorly educated communities. Academic research shows close correlations between high unemployment and anti-immigrant sentiments.
When leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Trump in the US and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines make crass and uninformed comments about climate change, it is a salutary reminder that we cannot passively expect our rulers to do the right thing. Climate deniers who patronizingly carp that Greta Thunberg is a child, not a scientist, deliberately miss the point. Greta is no more knowledgeable than any of us; she simply followed her conscience and inspired millions of others to demand that we stop choking and burning our planet. It is humbling, but also hope-inspiring, to see our grandchildren, wise beyond their years and far more clear-sighted than our own cynical, self-absorbed generation.
The civilized and democratic city-states of ancient Greece devolved into an irrelevant backwater, while the energetic and militaristic Roman Empire expanded throughout the Mediterranean world. Western global influence has likewise long been ebbing away, and the rise of Trump simply accelerates this tendency. We apparently can no longer expect Western leaders to honor their moral and legal commitments, stand by their allies, or even make truthful, coherent public statements.
China looks set to eclipse the West as the dominant 21st-century power, if its own increasingly authoritarian governing model doesn’t implode. Discreet Chinese influence is visible everywhere throughout Central Asia and Africa. Sometimes Chinese assistance has proved an invaluable motor for infrastructural and economic development; on other occasions, unsustainably indebted governments have been compelled to give away trade and mineral concessions, or surrender control of their ports.
Vladimir Putin is far noisier in his efforts to subvert the old Eurocentric order, with Russia muscling its way to becoming a major Middle Eastern powerbroker in just a few years. But with a dysfunctional economy smaller than that of Italy, Moscow may prove to be merely the opening act for an era of Asian global leadership.
For those of us who report global events, it often feels that everything is going to hell; everywhere civil unrest, regionalized conflict, populist demagogues, intolerance and extremism. Yet a deeper look into this turmoil can elucidate the opposite conclusion: These reactionary, patriarchal and nativist tendencies are the final gasp of a drowning old order. In the heavily gerrymandered US electoral system, Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by nearly three million votes. Irrespective of whether he retains the presidency next year, he is likely to lose the popular vote by an even greater margin.
Demagogues such as Putin, Ali Khamenei in Iran and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey thrive when terrorized, impoverished and disaffected citizens lose all hope, suffering their most humiliating electoral defeats in cosmopolitan, youth-dominated cities such as Moscow, Tehran and Istanbul. Just like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, these autocrats subsist on the wrong side of history, waiting for the gravitational pull of popular rejection to eventually bring them crashing down to earth.
Along with cracking down on the media and judiciary, autocrats invariably target their education systems, because enlightened and informed young people will never voluntarily lend their support to retrogressive, dishonest and corrupt leaders. Iran and Venezuela have among the highest rates of brain drain in the world, but when educated young people choose to stay and invest their energies at home, change is never far behind.
The coming decade will be one of tumultuous convulsions; as displaced elites struggle to grapple with their diminished status, while emerging powers develop the sense of responsibility that can make their expanded influence sustainable and beneficial. This is not a zero-sum game; all nations benefit from stability, open borders, multilateral cooperation, fair and enforceable rules, and a shared ethos for good governance — even if some nations must learn to live with smaller slices of the cake. Nevertheless, global inequality is rapidly increasing. During 2019 the world’s richest 500 people increased their collective wealth by an astonishing 25 percent, up to $5.9 trillion dollars, in an economic climate where overall growth is stalling.
I remain optimistic, however, because I believe that a world in which more women occupy leadership roles will be more humane and considerate, more mindful of our duty to bequeath the world to future generations in better shape than we found it. Finland’s new prime minister, 34-year-old Sanna Marin; European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde; US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi; and the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, are a few of the many powerful examples I could cite.
Lebanon, Iraq, Hong Kong and South America are in turmoil because increasingly well educated and broadminded young people fundamentally reject the corrupt, discredited status quo, and are determined to contribute to building something better. They will not always immediately succeed, but that doesn’t mean they were wrong to try, and it doesn’t mean they won’t learn from mistakes and ultimately live to see their dreams become reality.
Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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