The year’s legacies

It has become a media tradition around the New Year to look back at the highlights of the year – and, indeed, I have always done so here on Topical Creativity. This year, however, I am not giving you a blow-by-blow reminder of the past twelve months. Instead I present you with a list of events which have struck me as most important, the moments which, when we look back, will mark turning points and define 2013. And so, in no particular order, here goes:

  • The US government shut itself down.

This was a rather dramatic way for the Republicans and Democrats to prove that they hate each other, considering the uncertainty the move could have created on the financial markets and the hundreds of thousands of people they sent home from work. In the end, however, the Republicans saw their popularity ratings tumble so far that they were forced to compromise – something they hadn’t done for a while. Once the government was back up and running, Congress actually passed a budget for the first time since 2009. There is a feeling that maybe – just maybe – this heralds a new era in which the governing parties tone down partisanship and, you know, actually govern.

  • France intervened in Mali

The situation in Mali provided us with several lessons. Firstly, the French President may not actually be as wet as he appears (although with his approval ratings bobbing around the 20% mark, this doesn’t seem to have made him any more popular). Secondly, Western intervention can lead to good outcomes if it has a defined purpose and is planned thoroughly – news indeed to many. Although Mali remains unstable, the country’s Islamist rebels no longer threaten the vast majority of the population, especially as French forces still stand in their way. Lastly, we saw that a new wave of terrorism is emerging, this time not in the Middle East but in Africa, where groups take advantage of failed states and rampant poverty. This fact was highlighted by the later attacks on an oil plant in Nigeria and a shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. The world is still waking up to this new development.

  • Syria’s President Assad got away with gassing his civilians to death

Despite France’s success in Mali, the West spectacularly failed to hold Assad to account for his use of chemical weapons. Chilling images of dead children could not overcome the political legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan, and although many, including Obama and Cameron, wanted to act, nothing was done. And with that, the West lost its credibility as the world’s protector. What this means for the perceived world order is yet to be seen.

The civil war is now close to entering its third year. Having already claimed over 125,000 Syrian lives, it is now threatening the peace in neighbouring Lebanon and across the region. And the protracted length of the war is causing the moderate opposition to lose ground while Islamists grow stronger as disaffection grows. An uncomfortable situation is now emerging in which no one particularly wants either side to win. This makes moving towards a peace deal increasingly complicated. Recently, talks have begun in Geneva, but with key players like Iran absent from the table, no one is holding their breath.

  • A deal was made with Iran over its nuclear programme

After years of stalemate, the ice between the US and Iraq has begun to thaw around the edges. Negotiations have finally yielded a deal. Although interim, the deal goes a fair way in limiting Iran’s ability to quickly manufacturing a bomb without anyone knowing. It provides a glimmer of hope for those arguing that the new President will really be a moderate and try to open up his country. It remains to be seen, however, if the Supreme Leader will let him do so. It is possible that the economic sanctions the rest of the world has imposed on Iran will force the Ayatollah to give ground in order to keep a lid on growing domestic resentment. On the other hand, the Ayatollah’s power is legitimised by a cultivated sense of an ideological battle between Iran and the ‘Evil Empire’ of the US. If the two countries enter a period of rapprochement, this legitimacy simply disappears, and so perhaps the economic sanctions pose less of a personal threat to the Ayatollah. Either way, change is coming to Iran and its place in the world.

  • Chaos came to Egypt again

The heady days of the Arab spring are a thing of the past. In early 2011 the world was fooled into thinking that people power and optimism could transform autocratic states into liberal democracies. Alas, the naysayers were right: it wasn’t to be. When massive protests erupted again in Egypt against the Islamist President this summer, in anger at his attempted power grab and undemocratic ways, there was a brief sense that Egypt new what it wanted and was going to get it. But then the army – the kingpin of the ancien regime – arrested the President and staged a coup. After a year’s interlude, the generals were back in power and promising new elections. But with the recent banning of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is unclear who anyone would vote for and, most importantly, if the army would honour the people’s decision should an election actually be held. As the rest of the Middle East has a habit of following where Egypt boldly goes, these questions will prove very important in 2014.

  • We lost a “giant of history”

Nelson Mandela died this year, at the age of 95. The rebel, freedom fighter, President of South Africa and world statesman will be missed dearly, but his iconic status lives on in his legacy. He taught the world many lessons: endurance, forgiveness, devotion to a cause. The question now is whether, with Madiba gone, his country and others can live up to his ideal of rainbow nations free from the scourge of racial oppression. Probably not, but his death has certainly highlighted the failure of South Africa’s current President, Jacob Zuma, to help his people or, indeed, to act within the law. Such increased scrutiny suggests it may be a choppy year ahead for South Africa.

  • A new round of reforms began in China

This development garnered less media attention than my other highlights of 2013, but it may be one of the most significant. With China fast becoming a candidate to be a new superpower, how the vast country controls its internal affairs will, more and more, shape everyone else’s too. The latest gathering of the top echelons of the Communist Party, under it’s relatively new leader Xi Jinping, resulted in the announcement of a relaxation of the infamous one child policy and the extension of market based economics. China is not embarking on an unstoppable march towards liberalism, but it is showing that it will abandon ideological dogma if circumstances require it. This will have one of two opposing effects: make the new China easier to work with, or increasingly unpredictable.

Shutdown

Buried under the commotion of the US government shutdown and the tension about the impending debt-ceiling crisis, a big question is lurking – and its answer building in importance. It is the question on the lips of every banker, every politician and every broadsheet editor. Is America governable?

Quite possibly not. Indeed for much of this week, America simply didn’t have a government. 800,000 federal employees had to take unpaid leave, while over a million more were asked to continue working for nothing. All non-essential government work was put aside for another day. As the Economist declared, this is no way to run a country – let alone the most powerful one in the world.

The shutdown was borne of the inability of House Republicans to pass a budget, demanding instead the defunding of the 2010 law commonly known as Obamacare (which, shockingly, provides healthcare to the poorest citizens of the world’s richest country). Therefore, at midnight on the 30th September, the government simply ran out of money.

There is nothing unusual about fraught budget negotiations – indeed, a formal budget hasn’t been passed since 1997. Nor are government shutdowns unheard of, although the last one was 17 years ago. But these were not normal negotiations. The Republicans weren’t simply trying to stop a measure from being passed, they were trying to destroy a law that was enacted three years ago – and holding the government hostage at the same time.

Not only is Obamacare already the law of the land, it has survived a challenge in the Supreme Court. Republicans therefore have no legal basis on which to base their opposition to it, leading to a bizarre situation in which the usual defenders of the constitution are ignoring its provisions in the name of ideological militancy. In short, a main party of government has lost respect for the law. That cannot be good.

It was not always so. There was a time, not so long ago, when Republicans and Democrats could and did work together, honouring the spirit of compromise enshrined in the constitution. But a combination of events and changing circumstances forced the Republicans to the right. Firstly, America has seen its place in the world fall. Although still the only superpower, it is beginning to be challenged by the growing might of China and, to a lesser extent, India. Republicans have responded to this by re-enforcing their defence of what they believe makes America great – its Christian values – and have not kept up with the steady liberalising of Western opinion. At the same time, they have seen their American values fail to take hold abroad, both in Iraq and Afghanistan where it is possible to argue that democracy has done more harm than good. For the first time in several generations, there is a vulnerability to the American dream.

To make matters worse, America has also been through its worst economic experience since the 1930s. To combat this, George Bush effectively nationalised the country’s biggest mortgage companies and Obama issued a $700bn stimulus package. Deficit hawks suddenly had a lot to squawk about, as did small-government types. The Republicans are now loathe to spend any money, while Democrats still want to spend some. There is now a vast, empty expanse where the middle ground once was. And so the government is shut down.

There is a pretty easy way to fix this madness – remove Congressmen’s right to draw their own districts. Over the past decade they have been able to ‘gerrymander’ their districts and thus turn them into safe seats for their respective parties. Now, Congressmen fear primary challengers rather than actual opponents, and so are forced to pander to the extreme views in their parties. If they are seen to compromise, they will lose their seat pretty soon; House elections are held every two years.

If district boundaries were drawn by an independent body, many more of them would be contestable in general elections. Candidates would therefore have to appeal to the middle ground. Consensus politics would soon come back into fashion. And America would be governable once more.