Written by: Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University
2019 may well go down as the most disrupted year in global politics since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent implosion of the former Soviet Union.
However, the likelihood is that 2020 will be worse, and bloodier.
Conditions that spawned global unrest on every continent in 2019 are unlikely to recede. Rather, they are likely to worsen in the face of a slowing global economy and little sign of causes of disaffection being addressed.
Washington as disruptor
In a word, the world is in a mess, made more threatening by the retreat of the Trump administration from America’s traditional role as a stabilising force.
If anything, Washington is a disruptor in its abandonment of international agreements. These include: the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership, previously the Trans Pacific Partnership, aimed at liberalising Asia-Pacific trade. The US has also withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that froze Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Washington’s defenestration of the JCPOA and its reimposition of tough sanctions on Iran has further destabilised the world’s most volatile region.
All this and more, including an unresolved trade conflict between the US and China, virtually guarantees 2020 will stretch the sinews of a fragile global order.
An evolving US-China technology war and risks of a technological decoupling add to the gloom.
The world is in worse shape than during the GFC
The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08 was a period of intense uncertainty as a global financial system buckled. But, for the most part, that distress was confined to governments, boardrooms and the offices of international lending institutions.
The GFC did not fuel widespread global unrest as a shell-shocked financial world came to terms with the reality of a regulatory framework that had failed.
In 2019, the story has shifted dramatically.
Mass protests over the skewed benefits of globalisation accompanied by faltering confidence in a democratic model are challenging the assumptions on which a Western liberal capitalist system has rested. Local grievances are fuelling protests against an established order in places as far apart as La Paz in Bolivia and Beirut in Lebanon. Endemic corruption is looming larger.
If there is a defining issue that is driving popular unrest more or less across the board, it is that people do not feel they are sharing the benefits of an extended period of global economic expansion.
In January, Oxfam reported that the world’s 26 richest individuals owned as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population.
Billionaires grew their combined fortunes by US$2.5 billion (A$3.66 billion) a day in 2018, while the relative wealth of the world’s poorest 3.8 billion people declined by US$500 million a day.
A rich-poor gap is widening across the world to the point where it is no longer possible to argue that an economic growth model that advantages the few is lifting all boats.
Inequality and anger
Something had to give.
Professor Henry Carey of Georgia State University acknowledges differences in causes of localised unrest now sweeping the world, but he also identifies shared characteristics. He writes:
Each protest in this worldwide wave has its own local dynamic and cause.
But they also share certain characteristics: fed up with rising inequality, corruption and slow economic growth, angry citizens worldwide are demanding an end to corruption and the restoration of the democratic rule of law.
Carey makes the useful point that, as the world becomes more urbanised, overcrowded cities are staging points in a global wave of unrest.
In 1950, there were only two mega-cities with populations of 10 million or more – the New York metropolitan area and Tokyo. Today, there are 25 such megacities.
Of a world population of 7.7 billion people, 4.2 billion, or 55%, live in cities and other urban settlements. Another 2.5 billion will move into cities in poor countries by 2050, according to the United Nations.
In other words, poverty, gang crime, drug trafficking and all the other ills associated with an impoverished urban environment will become less manageable as overcrowding gets worse in cities, parts of which have become urban slums. Carey writes:
Ignored by the municipal government, [overcrowded urban settlements] usually lack sanitation, clean drinking water, electricity, health care facilities and schools […] The injustices of this daily life underlie the anger of many of today’s protesters. From Quito to Beirut, extreme marginalisation of so many people living in big dysfunctional and dangerous places has boiled over into deadly unrest.
In these circumstances, it is no accident that Latin America, with the world’s slowest economic growth and most glaring inequality, has exploded in the longest-lasting violent protests.
In Chile, where economic grievances boiled over into days of mass protests, an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit was abandoned because of security concerns.