By Roberto Savio*
Rome, June (IPS) ? The latest figures from UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, show that in 2013 the total number of refugees worldwide had reached the staggering figure of 51 million people ? we are close to the trauma of the Second World War, when the number of refugees was estimated at 55 million.
Now, while the Third World War has not been formally declared, this means that conflicts throughout the world are reaching levels unseen since 1944. Of course, for the large majority of people throughout the world, news about these conflicts is just part of our daily news, even though it should be insane to ignore the increasing spending on arms everywhere.
Another share of our daily news is about the mess in our countries, but this is so complex and confusing that many people have given up the effort to attempt any form of deep understanding. So I thought it would be useful to offer ten explanations of how we succeeded in creating this mess.
Of course, because they cover many angles and issues, each one of these explanations would require much more space, so there are no pretensions that they represent a rigorous scientific approach to the issue. The aim is simply to offer people ? and the younger generations in particular ? a very quick instrument for understand the mess.
1) The world, as it now exists, was largely shaped by the colonial powers, which divided the world among themselves, carving out states without any consideration for existing ethnic, religious or cultural realities. This was especially true of Africa and the Arab world, where the concept of state was imposed on systems of tribes and clans.
Just to give a few examples, none of the present-day Arab countries existed prior to colonialism. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf Countries (including Saudi Arabia) were all parts of the Ottoman Empire. When this disappeared with the First World War (like the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires), the winners ? Britain and France ? sat down at a table and drafted the boundaries of countries to be run by them, as they had done before with Africa. So, never look at those countries as equivalent to countries with a history of national identity.
2) After the end of the colonial era, it was inevitable that to keep these artificial countries alive, and avoid their disintegration, strongmen would be needed to cover the void left by the colonial powers. The rules of democracy were used only to reach power, with very few exceptions. The Arab Spring did indeed get rid of dictators and autocrats, just to replace them with chaos and warring factions (as in Libya) or with a new autocrat, as in Egypt.
The case of Yugoslavia is instructive. After the Second World War, Marshal Tito dismantled the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) and created the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, ending the subjection of non-Serbs to the Serbian-dominated Kingdom of Yugoslavia. But we all know that Yugoslavia did not survive the death of its leader, the strongman Tito.
The lesson is that without creating a really participatory and unifying process of citizens, with a strong civil society, local identities will always play the most decisive role. So it will take some before many of the new countries will be considered real countries devoid of internal conflicts.
3) Since the Second World War, the meddling of the colonial and super powers in the process of consolidation of new countries has been a very good example of man-made disaster.
Take the case of Iraq. When the United States took over administration of the country in 2003 after its invasion, General Jay Garner was appointed and lasted just a month, because he was considered too open to local views.
Garner was replaced by a diplomat, Jan Bremmer, who took up his post after a two-hour briefing by the then Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice. Bremmer immediately proceeded to dissolve the army (creating 250,000 unemployed) and firing anyone in the administration who was a member of the Ba?ath party, the party of Saddam Hussein. This destabilised the country, and today?s mess is a direct result of this decision.
The current Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whom Washington is trying to remove as the cause of polarisation between Shiites and Sunnis, was the preferred American candidate. So was the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, who is now virulently anti-American. This is a tradition that goes back to the first U.S. intervention in Vietnam, where Washington put in place Ngo Dihn Dien, who turned against its views, until he was assassinated.
There is no space here to give example of similar mistakes (albeit less important) by other Western powers. The point is that all leaders installed from outside do not last long and bring instability.
4) We are all witnessing religious fighting and Islam extremism as a growing and disturbing threat. Few make any effort to understand why thousands of young people are willing to blow themselves up. There is a striking correlation between lack of development/employment and religious unrest. In the Muslim countries of Asia (Arab Muslims account for less than 20 percent of the world?s Muslim populations), extremism hardly exists.
And few realise that the fight between Shiites and Sunnis is funded by countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran. Those religions have been living side by side for centuries, and now they are fighting a proxy war, for example in Syria. Saudi Arabia has been funding Salafists (the puritan form of Islam) everywhere, and it has provided nearly two billion dollars to the new Egyptian autocrat, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, because he is fighting the Muslim Brotherhood, which predicates the end of kings and sheiks and power for the people. Iraq is also becoming a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, defender of the Sunnis, and Iran, defender of the Shiites.
So, when looking at these wars of religion, always look at who is behind them. Religions usually become belligerent only if they are used. Just look at European history, where wars of religion were invented by kings and fought by people. Of course, once the genie is out of the bottle, it will take a long time to put it back. So this issue will be with us for quite some time.
5) The end of the Cold War unfroze the world, which had been kept in stability by the balance between the two superpowers. Attempts to create regional or international alliances to bring stability have always been stymied by national interests. The best example is Europe. While everybody was talking about Crimea, Ukraine and Vladimir Putin (who had been made paranoiac about Western encirclement, from the George Bush Jr. administration onwards) and how to bring him to listen to the United States and Europe, European companies continued trade in spite of a much talked about embargo. And now, Austria has quietly signed an agreement with Russia to join the South Stream, a pipeline that will bring Russian gas to Europe. This is the latest example of the lack of unity of Europe, which has been clamouring about the need to reduce its energy dependence on Russia.
A multipolar world is in the making, but it has to be seen how stable it will be. In Asia, China and Japan are increasing their military investments, as are surrounding countries. And while local conflicts, like Syria, Iraq and Sudan, are not going to escalate into a larger conflict, this would certainly be the case in Asia.
6) In a world more and more divided by a resurgence of national interests, the very idea of shared governance is losing its strength, and not only in Europe. The United Nations has lost its significance as the arena in which to reach consensus and legitimacy. The two engines of globalisation ? trade and finance ? are not part of the United Nations, which is stuck with the themes of development, peace, human rights, environment, education and so on. While these issues are crucial for a viable world, they are not seen as such by those in power. Conclusion: the United Nations is sliding into irrelevance.
7) At the same time, values and ideas which were considered universal, such cooperation, mutual aid, international social justice and peace as an encompassing paradigm are also becoming irrelevant. French President Francois Hollande meets U.S. President Barack Obama, not to discuss how to stop the genocide in Sudan, or the kidnapping of children in Nigeria, but to ask him to intervene with his Minister of Justice to reduce a giant fine on a French bank, the BNP-Parisbas, for fraudulent activities. The outstanding problem of climate control was largely absent in the last G7 meeting, not to talk of nuclear disarmament ? and yet these are the two main threats to the planet!
8) After colonialism and totalitarian regimes, the key phrase after the Second World War was ?implementation of democracy?. But after the end of the Cold War, democracy was taken for granted. In fact, in the last twenty years, the formula of representative democracy has been losing its glamour. Pragmatism has led to the loss of long-term vision, and politics have become more and more mere administration.
Citizens feel less and less related to parties, which have basically become self-centred and self-reliant. International affairs are not considered tools of power by parties, and decisions are taken without participation. This leads to choices which often do not represent the feelings and priorities of citizens. For instance, U.S. polls show that a large majority of Americans are against intervention in Iraq. This does not stop former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, who has a very large responsibility for the Iraqi mess, and other international leaders such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, from justifying the past and openly advocating for a new intervention in Iraq.
The way in which the bailout of Cyprus from its financial crisis a few years ago was treated in the European Commission was widely recognised as a blatant example of lack of transparency. Few people certainly make more mistakes than many ?
9) A very important element of the mess has been the growth of the ?new economy?, or at least this is how its proponents, especially in the financial world, call it. Is an economy that contemplates permanent unemployment, lack of social investments, reduced taxation for large capital, the marginalisation of trade unions, and a reduction of the role of the State as the regulator and guarantor of social justice. Inequalities are reaching unprecedented levels. The world?s 85 richest individuals possess the same wealth as 2.5 billion people.
We are sliding fast to the days of Queen Victoria, certainly not an exemplary period for social peace and stability. Just look to what happens at international level, from the perspective of how many decisions are result of debate and participation, and how many are taken by just a few hands.
10) All this brings its corollary. It is not by chance that all mainstream media worldwide have the same reading of the world. Information today has basically eliminated analysis and process, to concentrate on events. Their ability to follow the world mess is minimal, and they just repeat what those in power say. It is very instructive to see media which are very analytical about national affairs and very superficial about international issues. The media depend largely on three international news agencies, which represent the Western world and its interests. Have you read anywhere about the gas agreement between Austria and Russia?
So, a final point: never be satisfied with what you read in the newspapers, always try to get additional and opposite viewpoints through the net. This will help you to look at the world with your eyes, and not with the eyes of somebody else who is probably part of the system which has created this mess. Do not go with the tide … search for the other face of the moon. And if they tell you that they know, well, just look at the results. So, be yourself and, if you make a mistake, at least it will be your mistake.
*The author is the co-founder and former Director-General of Inter Press Service (IPS). In recent years he has also founded Other News (www.other-news.info/), a service providing ?information that markets eliminate?. Roberto Savio / firstname.lastname@example.org / www.robertosavio.info