The conflicts of the new decade will be many

The next decade, or indeed this decade as it now (debatably) is, may seem like a time for change, a chance to move on from the wars, cultural and geopolitical, of the violent Noughties. In this country we are very likely to have a new leader on 7th May, and to many this will offer a sense of renewal, a fresh government after the long twilight of New Labour.
Revolutions surround us which provide sustenance for optimism: Avatar’s success (a little undeserved, perhaps) at the Golden Globes indicates the dawn of a new, exciting era in cinema and entertainment in general; answers to the most fundamental questions about our universe may emerge from CERN; and new ways of combating disease are being found all the time.
It would be wrong to say that these sources of hope should be dismissed. But, equally, it would be wrong not to understand that this decade will see continuing conflicts, and new ones emerging.
Perhaps the most immediately obvious was brought home to us at the very end of the Noughties, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted a terrorist act on a plane into Detroit. The war on terror- whatever that amorphous, ill-defined term may mean- is not over. The West is now turning its eyes towards Yemen as the new home of Al-Qaida; who knows what conflicts may emerge from this new direction.
The war in Afghanistan is far from over, and Iraq is a long way from being a stable state. Let there be no doubt in anyone’s minds that the spectre of terrorism will not diminish in the coming years. If the West does not tread very carefully in Yemen, as it failed so spectacularly to do elsewhere, then the long-brewing cauldron that is the Middle East might finally boil over.
In fact, this may be the decade when that cataclysm happens. Many people in the Middle East genuinely resent the West for its actions in the region; many people welcome it as a bringer of liberty. The division between those who support the regimes of Ahmadinejad, Abdullah, Saleh, and the like, and those who wish for a freer society, may lead to full civil war, internally and internationally. The West will be damned either way: intervene, and face a massively expanded version of Iraq; stay out of it and watch millions of people tear their world to pieces.
It is perfectly possible, and I hope this will be the case, that this will not happen. There is no indifferent force decreeing that it must. Yet it is hard to believe that, within the next few years, the Iranian revolutionaries will overthrow the Islamic state, or even simply remove Ahmadinejad and his like; that Israel and Palestine will finally reach an accord; that Saudi Arabia will suddenly begin to respect its citizens’ rights. The recent decline in relations between the once-friendly Turkey and Israel does not bode well. One fears for the lives of Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi and their supporters in Iran. It remains my fervent hope that regional leaders are not so suicidal as to provoke all-out war, but it is a conflict that is now tinder-dry in a region broiling with fire.
There are other conflicts on the horizon to concern us too. The rise of South American socialism, and leaders such as Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, has already caused occasional combustion with the still firmly entrenched capitalism of the North. It is unlikely this will lead to any sort of military conflict, but proxy wars will no doubt be fought as American companies are pushed out of the South, and leaders will trade increasingly strong words.
Chavez, the most dangerous of the group, is like Ahmadinejad, a swaggering demagogue who sees himself as beloved defender of the people against the immoral West. Some of his principles, and those of his colleagues in Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere, are not unreasonable, and put by a calmer, less egotistical leader might be very welcome. Chavez, though, wants conflict- not armed conflict, but a cultural and political conflict, one he has no intention of losing.
Things will likely remain at an unsteady stalemate while Barack Obama occupies the White House, but if his fortunes do not improve (which they may very well) he could lose it in 2012. I’m not convinced that the American people are quite so stupid as to vote for Sarah Palin for President, but it is a surety that Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty or some other Republican as yet unknown would raise the stakes.
The coming power vacuum in Cuba will be another source for conflict: Raúl Castro is 78, and it is unclear who will succeed him. The USA will doubtless try to use the opportunity to bring Western democracy to the island. Cuba’s allies, like Chavez, will respond hostilely to any such move. There may be a reckoning coming between Western capitalist democracy and its opposition, disparate and far from ideologically coherent but united by a common dislike of their foe.
Nor is it just political conflict that may tear us apart in the 2010s: the planet may yet rid itself of its troublesome priests. The eminent philosopher John Gray spoke at Durham’s Book Festival last term about the resource wars we are likely to face soon: climate change (and this is true whether or not it is manmade) will cause energy and food supplies to dwindle, and that could easily lead to nations attacking each other to ensure their own people’s survival.  One need only look at Haiti to be reminded that natural disasters can bring down society at the drop of a needle; the response from some on the American and British right indicates how easily resource wars could start.
I have yet to mention China, and the whole section could be devoted to the conflicts that nation’s rise could cause; eventually, either it will have to accept Western democracy, or we will have to accept Chinese authoritarianism. Economic and industrial competition will increase resentment between it and the USA, and the rest of the world may find itself having to choose sides.
Price wars, format wars, trade wars and technological wars will all escalate this decade- it must be said, with some benefit to us all as technology is improved and probably cheapened, but the aggressive tactics we are already seeing will not be good for the common man. One is reminded of the film tagline ‘Whoever wins…we lose’.
There is a great deal of other conflict that will occur this decade. Some final decision about how the internet, business, copyright and the economy all intertwine will need making. The current situation is not sustainable for anybody- artists cannot live on applause alone, but equally consumers are now increasingly set against paying for certain kinds of content, and advance many convincing arguments for why they should not start. The entire economy of the creative and technological industries is facing a radical shift, but expect there to be many arguments and lawsuits before it is completed.
Recriminations about the financial crisis will continue for years, and inevitably another one will come. It seems unlikely the fallout will cause the massive restructuring of the system that has been predicted, but public anger will not die down for some time, and the elite may find themselves less and less secure in their positions. The war between science and religion will only get uglier, especially if the US elects a religious conservative in 2012. Should that happen, it is quite possible similar-minded people elsewhere, such as in the UK, will be encouraged to make a move they currently do not dare to make.
Yet in all this, one must remember that in thousands of years of civilization, mankind has not destroyed itself yet, and the worst apocalyptic predictions of the Cold War never came to pass. This will be a decade of conflict and reckoning. To quote another film, there will be blood. But chaos cannot exist without order. There will be a dawn for man.

One Response

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  1. Mark Harmstone
    Jan 25, 2010 - 06:44 PM

    Gosh, this is a cheery column. Even so, I can’t say I disagree with much of it, except to point out that “black swan” events might invalidate every single one of your predictions. No-one in 2000 would have predicted that, ten years on, we’d be embroiled in a futile war in Afghanistan, and have an economy less efficient than that of Italy…

    Must take issue with a couple of points, though. The debate regarding climate change is not primarily whether it is manmade, but whether it is taking place at all, and if so to what extent. I’m sure you heard about the systematic fiddling of figures in “Climategate”, and it’s just been made public recently that the IPCC has been making up figures about when the Himalayan glaciers might melt. Current green thinking assumes that, e.g., fusion power, which will drastically reduce CO2 emissions, will only become widespread after any “tipping point”. If they’ve been exaggerating their figures, obviously this is nonsense…
    And I think China’s transition to liberal democracy is inevitable (pace Fukuyama), but certainly not that the West has any chance of accepting “Chinese authoritarianism”. Or why it would – the futility of such systems was roundly proved in the ’30s and 40s…

    And what do you mean by “the response from some on the American and British right indicates how easily resource wars could start”? Who are you talking about?

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