It’s been quite a while since a New Year’s celebration has been accompanied with such trepidation. Certainly we’ve had anxious moments in the past but this year is different. It seems we’re headed into a dark and fearful future.
For almost 75 years, we in the developed world have lived with the broad assumption that the post-Second-World-War system would provide the foundations for global peace, order and economic justice.
The United Nations and the liberal international order, with its free-market economy, were seen as stable forces for good. The general feeling was that, although there may be setbacks, the overall direction of humanity was in safe hands.
Now these comfortable assumptions seem to be unravelling like a cheap carpet.
The most obvious unravelling has occurred in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where the rise of violence and Islamic extremism threaten the very fabric of global liberalism. These violent forces threaten the stability of the region and, through mass migration and terrorism, strike at the very heart of western civilization.
In addition, the ugly spectre of a great power rivalry is, once again, on the rise. Rather than accept what they describe as the U.S. neo-imperialist world order, China and a newly-belligerent Russia have reverted to naked aggression to expand their spheres of influence.
But that’s not all – the standards of international law are being tossed overboard by friend and foe alike.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte unleashed the dogs of war when he authorized the extralegal murder of thousands of suspected drug dealers. Even highly-respected Aung San Suu Kyi has been accused of sanctioning a brutal ethnic cleansing of Muslims in regions of Myanmar.
However, the most disturbing unravelling has been the twin surprises of Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump as the next American president. Those two decisions symbolize a growing threat to the liberal international order from within.
Not only are normally reliable middle-class people abandoning the status quo, but their children (millennials in particular) are jumping ship in great numbers. This youthful rebellion may be best illustrated by the musings of a young U.S. student (with a 4.0 grade point average) who dropped out of college claiming “it’s a scam.” More people liked his damming Facebook post than have read the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
The economic storm clouds are gathering. While Trump prepares to assume the presidency, mixed signals are the order of the day. Key stock market indexes around the world are riding a “Trump Bump,” setting record highs. But in the real world, income inequality continues to worsen and job losses mount.
So are there any hidden positives in a world where Bill Gates claims we face decades at risk from antibiotic-resistant drugs, where the Russian-sponsored ceasefire in Syria is endangered by a government attack on rebel-held towns, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry predicts no end to the Israel-Palestine conflict?
The answer is yes – but the future of civilization rests with a younger generation.
Behind an exhausted and morally-bankrupt boomer generation is a new generation that’s more educated, worldly and globally interconnected than any generation in humanity’s history.
The war generation and the boomers who followed were certain that world peace depended upon globalizing western norms and values. However, the international institutions they constructed are, after many decades, floundering.
The challenge the millennials face is converting their 21st century values into a functioning international order.
The values and institutions of the 21st century must accommodate real progress on human rights. That will be difficult in a world that includes extremes of religious and cultural diversity.
And the old economic order must surely be revised to thwart the growing inequities of modern capitalism, and to find ways to unleash the creative power of youth around the world.
Fortunately, no generation is history is better equipped to accomplish this herculean task.
Starting from the darkness of 2017’s dawn, a new world order could unleash the economic potential of a widely-diverse youth culture and reclaim the moral high ground for generations to come.
If so, a dark and fearful future seems far less certain.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.