We have been through worse. As the sun sets on 2010, mankind can happily note that while the elapsing year had its fair share of violence, bloodshed and catastrophe, it saw no major war erupt, no market collapse and no blow dealt to justice that it hadn’t absorbed before.
While devoid of epiphanies like 1989’s fall of the Berlin Wall or 1991’s dissolution of the USSR, the year also saw nothing quite like 2008’s financial meltdown or 2001’s terror attacks on the US. In fact, the year so glaringly lacked a defining event that one must suspect it will be quickly forgotten.
Not that there was any shortage of drama.
In 2010 a single earthquake took 230,000 lives, probably more than any other before it, while monsoons in Pakistan killed 1,600 people, and in Cambodia one stampede on one bridge killed 347 people in one fell swoop, to mention but a few of the year’s numerous nonpolitical disasters. Yet these and a host of other catastrophes, from volcanic eruptions in Indonesia and Iceland to an earthquake that sent tsunami waves slamming the shores of Chile, will not make the year historic, lamentable as they obviously were; they have happened before and in all likelihood will happen again.
And neither will the globally celebrated rescue of the 33 Chilean miners who were pulled from the bowels of the earth 69 days after having been trapped 700 meters underground, like Jonah inside the whale. It was nice to see their country fight for their lives with a combination of courage and resourcefulness, and it was inspiring to see millions the world over momentarily share a humanitarian cause. However, nothing about that event sealed, heralded or even just defined an era. Historically speaking, it was an anecdote.
And the political year was altogether rife with banality – mostly of evil.
WATCHING DEMONSTRATORS and troops clash fatally in Thailand or Kyrgyzstan, one had to wonder how such otherwise disparate scenes are different from another, and what, if anything, will have changed there once all the bullets have been fired, all the wounded have been evacuated and all the dead have been buried.
Yes, there was soccer’s World Cup, in which African teams disappointed but the continent itself finally had a long-overdue moment in the sun. Then again, it is much too early to say that in 2010 Africa embarked on a brave new future.
Surely one might hope that the political 2010 will still prove seminal in that it saw the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after nearly 15 years under house arrest. Alas, besides the fact that even in her own country this brave woman’s freedom has yet to be shared by the masses, authoritarianism elsewhere in Asia remained as brazen as ever.
China’s hostile response to dissident Liu Xiaobo’s nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize, and North Korea’s violence toward its southern neighbor, served as stark reminders that freedom in Asia remains scarce and elusive.
Even the dead of 2010 did not represent historic transformation, let alone cataclysm.
Diplomat Richard Holbrooke, with all due respect, was no Winston Churchill, actor Tony Curtis was no Charlie Chaplin and reclusive author J.D. Salinger would have been the first to concede that his Catcher in the Rye, a bestselling rendition of teenage alienation, was no political manifesto, least of all one that changed the way people thought and things were done.
Now some might hastily suggest that 2010 was politically seminal in terms of America’s decline. Barack Obama’s ringing defeat in the midterm elections, some feel, first reflected and now will also accelerate his failure to reduce unemployment, pacify Afghanistan, reconcile the Middle East’s belligerents and restore Washington’s diminishing authority in the international system, from North Korea to Venezuela.
Well, that may all transpire in the remaining months of his presidency, but it also may not.
And neither has drama emerged elsewhere in the international arena.
True, in 2010 a newly religious Turkey’s neo- Ottoman foreign policy
became apparent, possibly signaling the West’s worst geopolitical
setback since the fall of the shah of Iran. Then again, this trend, too,
remains shrouded in uncertainty, whether in terms of its direction,
extent or durability. And while the Turks’ sense of insult in the face
of their rejection by Europe may be justified and irreversible, their
new infatuation with their historic neighborhood is meaningless as long
as Egypt and Saudi Arabia fail to welcome it.
Admittedly, 2010 may in the future be marked as the year of the Arabs’
awakening – first symbolized by the United Arab Emirates’ inauguration
in January of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in world, and then by
Qatar’s selection in December as the host of soccer’s World Cup of 2022.
Then again, for such judgment to be justified, much will have to happen
in the upcoming years socially for these events to mean anything for
the destitute Arab masses in Damascus, Cairo or Casablanca – where very
few can expect to get jobs in the Gulf and where pan-Arab development is
at best a dream, at worst a joke.
ECONOMICALLY, 2010 has seen a Picasso painting auctioned for a record
$106.5 million, several months after a Giacometti sculpture went for
$103m., but the year that saw the European Union beginning to crack has
nevertheless produced no financial Big Bang. Yes, Greece and Ireland
nearly went under and had to be bailed out by their richer brethren, and
resentment in Northern Europe toward what many there see as a lazy,
ungrateful and exploitive Southern Europe can no longer be hidden; then
again, Spain, Portugal and Italy averted financial meltdown, and even if
the euro is to unravel and the EU disintegrate, it will take years for
this to happen. At this point, events, as opposed to processes, have yet
to warrant 2010’s characterization as the year Europe went the way of
the Tower of Babel.
Meanwhile, the year also did not emerge as pivotal in terms of China’s
position in the world. On the one hand, it surpassed Japan as the second
largest economy, a status that was well symbolized by three of the
year’s four largest initial public offerings having originated there. On
the other hand, China showed no signs of proceeding from mass
production of cheap products to producer of ideas, inventions or art.
And this is of course besides the fact that it still remains far from
reaching America’s economic size, and that its inflationary pressures
are becoming impossible to suppress.
Clearly, 2010 did not see China leap from money generation to world
domination, and chances are low this will happen next year either, or
for that matter as long as it remains as suspicious of freedom as it is.
Religiously, too, the year failed to produce anywhere a historic
exclamation mark. True, 2010 was rife with suicide bombings, including
one in sleepy Stockholm that miraculously took no lives other than the
terrorist’s, and one in Pakistan that disrupted a volleyball game while
killing 95 people. However, Iran was compelled to abolish the subsidies
with which the mullahs have been bribing the lower classes for the past
three decades. The consequent inflation is likely to damage the regime’s
reliance on the undereducated rural population that it has been pitting
against the middle classes. Then again, this process, too, has yet to
mature, and for now the fact is that the Islamist revolution survived
And yet, 2010 will, after all, be associated with a revolution, albeit
one that is not outright political, strategic, social, nor economic.
THE YEAR that ends today started with Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s unveiling
of the iPad, and ended with news that online advertising in the US has
surpassed newspaper advertising for the first time, reaching sales of
$25.8 billion, a notch above the newspapers’ $25.7b., but a gap that is
already forecast to widen to nearly $4b. next year. In between these two
events, the media was swamped with the biggest leak of government
documents in history, first in the form of 90,000 US cables about
Afghanistan, then 250,000 about anything and anyone anywhere, 100,000 of
them formally classified as “confidential” and also “secret.”
And above all, six-year-old Facebook crossed the half-a-billion-users mark.
Between these four corners – the technological, the commercial, the
political and the social – lies a new era, one in which paper gives way
to plastic; advertising abandons the media; secrets become difficult to
keep and social interaction becomes more hectic, immediate, telegraphic
and superficial than even science fiction ever dreamed.
That all this has far-reaching industrial, societal and psychological
implications goes without saying. The question is what this will do to
the international system. For what is clearly a technological revolution
on the scale of Gutenberg’s printing press is also fast giving rise to
an intellectual transition, and with it a political transformation. The
decline of government as we have witnessed it in 2010 was largely caused
by the decline of secrecy and the empowerment of the individual. This,
in a nutshell, is what the printing press did in the 15th century to the
powers of the day, ultimately resulting in the Reformation and the
Vatican’s loss of its grip on half its flock.
What, then, will happen next to everyone’s power – the citizen, the
politician, the intellectual, the general, the merchant, the paper
manufacturer, the teacher, the student, the agitator, the criminal and
the terrorist? Will any civilization ride the cyber era to imperial
horizons, the way the Mongols rode the saddle, the Romans navigated the
Mediterranean and the British sailed the steamboat? For more on that,
stay tuned for the rest of the decade, but until then, bear in mind that
in 2010, for better or worse, a new era that had long been approaching