Limits Tests and Reality Checks

The Bipolarity of 2018 in Review

It was only earlier this year that Reformer made Medium its new home and an eventful year it has been for this publication and for world affairs. Even and especially on this new platform, the mission of Reformer has remained the same since its inception in 2016: to provide at-length, contextual articles on complex issues that deserve nuanced analyses. This has been, and shall remain, a humbling challenge in a saturated and mostly superficial media environment, further exacerbated by a global socio-political climate permeated with fatalism and extremism.

We are proud of the diverse and thoughtful articles we have published in 2018 and remain grateful to all of the writers who have contributed to Reformer. Even with the natural ebb and flow throughout the year, we have averaged an article for every week. We would especially like to acknowledge and thank Chris Kiyaseh, Adam E. Badenhorst, Camilo Lascano Tribin, and Matt Brockman for their numerous submissions this year, which covered a wide variety of essential and challenging topics. Most importantly, though, we would like to thank our readers and Patrons who help keep us true to our mission.

American Non-/Centrality

2018 has proven to be a year of bipolar extremes, with events more diverse and disparate than what many commentators would allege to be a year of only chaotic ruptures. It is true that politics worldwide have been upended in similar and different ways, pushing and breaking the limits of what mainstream actors posited as the internationalist global order. Depending on the country and region, these tests have manifested in a variety of forms, including in forces of economic populism, religious extremism, and social revanchism. However, this testing of limits has also brought about severe reality checks against many of these same forces, making 2018 a year not of absolute chaos but of intense contention.

Medium continues to be a platform dominated by American writers and readers. Reformer has featured articles related exclusively to the United States, while many others have been on global affairs notwithstanding the United States. Our desire as editors for a global focus has been intentional, but we cannot ignore the fact that American hegemony remains an important factor in global affairs. It is the altered state of that hegemony currently, due to the distracted and dysfunctional nature of incumbent American leadership, that has opened the floodgates for other global ruptures. Therefore, as much as we would be averse to interpreting all global events through an American-centric lens, it remains the case that American upheaval has had global implications.

American upheaval has moved global markets, shaped diplomatic intrigues among allies as well as adversaries, and left the future of key conflict zones, especially in the Middle East, uncertain and fragile. The apologetics and advocacy put forth by President Donald Trump for authoritarian, illiberal, and/or isolationist movements and leaders have emboldened such forces to be more assertive globally, previously deterred by traditional American leadership. It is no accident, then, that troubling developments, including Xi Jinping’s power consolidations in China (Chris Kiyaseh, 27 October), Russia’s flagrant operations in Europe and especially Ukraine (Adam E. Badenhorst, 26 September), and the entry of Turkey (Chris Kiyaseh, 28 July) into Syria have occurred because of the absence of serious American executive engagement in global affairs.

This point is not made as an apologetics of American foreign policy, for it has certainly had its large share of errors and calamities through history. However, if there have been doubts about the dampening effect of American leadership on the default state of global anarchy, those doubts ought to be put to rest given all that has transpired this year and last. American global engagement is undoubtedly fallible, but the absence of it has yielded a state of affairs even more undesirable than when it is flawed but active.

History Never Ended

At the end of the Cold War, American academic Francis Fukuyama put forth the concept of The End of History, arguing that as history is a sociocultural evolution, it was coming to its end with the spread of Western liberal democracy and free market capitalism. All other lifestyles and systems would continue to fall out of favor. Fukuyama’s long association with American Neo-Conservatism, later disavowed, has made The End of History synonymous with American Exceptionalism for many analysts. However, Fukuyama later clarified that he saw it as akin to the supranational post-politics of the European Union (EU) rather than the more nationalistic, military-focused United States.

Francis Fukuyama, progenitor of The End of History.

It is no accident, then, that Fukuyama is included here. It is the very Western centers of power that were supposedly bringing about The End of History, the United States and especially the EU, that are severely in flux. Its leaders and laities are debating the very essence and purpose of existing political institutions and socio-economic norms. The End of History has been criticized from its inception for its underestimation of other ideologies, like Islamism, and other powers, like China and Russia. Yet, the most definitive proof that history never stopped is coming from the previously self-assured liberal, free market democracies that served as the exemplars of Fukuyama’s provocative concept.

The ruptures in American norms have mostly been self-explanatory, with the nomination and election of President Trump serving as the culmination of the asymmetrical polarization of the American Right (Rushd as-Safaa, 4 July). The situation in Europe is different and more varied in manifestation. In France, the Yellow Vests Movement manifested abruptly in mid-November and is ongoing, providing inspiration for imitative protest movements to spring up elsewhere across the globe since. The Vests have mobilized over a number of public concerns, including rising fuel prices, high cost of living, and burdensome taxes. Like any movement, it is hardly monolithic and the stated concerns are not mutually exclusive between internal factions. The Vests are part of the broader rebellion against neoliberalism and the established global order (Jade Saab, 16 Aug), but there is also a partisan-ideological aspect for some of them, because half of the Vests voted for the right-wing/far-right National Front-cum-National Rally.

The issue of Brexit and the future of the United Kingdom (UK) have naturally been at the forefront of EU affairs this year as well. Along with Brexit, domestically, the UK has seen a resurgence in socialism, primarily via Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. This marks a return to Labour’s Old Left heritage over the Third Way politics of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and his associates. Across the political spectrum, the UK has always remained more Eurosceptic compared to the other Western European founding states of the EU. Yet the failures of European leadership have certainly exacerbated and contributed to Brexit and other EU problems. This includes the growing/returning illiberalism among Eastern European EU members.

Marketed as political idealism, but really a matter of cheap labor economic opportunism, the expansion of the EU to include former Eastern Bloc states increasingly appears to have been a serious error. The End of History had wrongly assumed that liberal actors would always defend liberal values, ignoring the temptations of cynical, political expediency. Those temptations, more often than not, have proven too great. Such has been the case with the growing/returning illiberalism in Europe, criticisms of which fall along purely partisan lines. Germany, the preeminent state of the EU and under the leadership of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has criticized the authoritarianism of the Law and Justice (PiS) Government in Poland, while shielding the authoritarianism of the Fidesz Government in Hungary. The only reason for this is because the latter is the CDU’s sister party in the EU Parliament, while the former is not.

It is worth acknowledging that there are a greater number of societies across the world that are freer and more democratic than at any previous point in human civilization. Thus, the overall trend that The End of History outlines has not been completely wrong or misplaced. The problem is that its assumption about the ever-increasing predominance of Western liberalism is predicated only on the failings of other systems. The concept never accounted for the fragility of Western liberalism itself due to the universal frailty of human machinations in the realm of politics, a reality we also pointed to in our 2016 Review.

Reality’s Retribution

Even with so many limits tested and comforting norms shattered this year, there have been reality checks that have met the disruptions with equal and opposite force. In the United States, the Special Counsel investigation, led by Robert Mueller, has racked up a remarkably swift and high number of indictments, guilty pleas, and convictions among associates of President Trump. The investigation is closing in on the President himself and it remains to be seen whether this matter ends in impeachment, a Presidential deal with the Special Counsel, or an electoral response in 2020. An interim electoral response has been delivered already in the midterm election, of course, with the Democrats assuming control of the House of Representatives (Rushd as-Safaa, 13 November) in January.

In Europe, Brexit has proven to be excruciatingly difficult (Adam E. Badenhorst, 6 September) and not just between British and European negotiators. Revelations of Brexiteer cheating and a public that was not fully aware of Brexit’s ramifications have generated calls for a second referendum (Jade Saab, 15 November), while the Conservative Party and the Government it leads have descended into disunity over whether a Hard or Soft Brexit is favorable. Sectionalist sentiments have also returned to the fore, because Scotland overwhelmingly voted to Remain and now finds itself in an awkward position within the UK. None of this is noted to dismiss the legitimate concerns many British citizens had and still have regarding the EU and the UK’s place in it, but the messiness of Brexit is proof that measured, detail-oriented policymaking is always more favorable over dramatic, dichotomous ultimatums.

Given the global focus of Reformer, it is worthwhile to discuss events overlooked or ignored because of the tumultuous state of the Global North this year. Many of these events were also a reality check in their own right, with some manifesting as truly positive turns for the countries in question. For example, in Malaysia, the National Front coalition, which dominated the government since independence, was voted out in favor of the opposition Hope Alliance in May. The Front has become a clientelist political machine and its leader, former Prime Minister Najib Razak, was tied to a massive corruption scandal involving a state sovereign wealth fund. Observers of Malaysian politics never imagined that anything could ever bring down the Front, especially given Malaysia’s racialized politics, so this election is cemented as one of the most important events in Malaysian history.

The left-wing in Latin America has also faced its own reckoning, unfortunately through numerous crises that have exacted a severe toll on their countries. Former President of Brazil (Bruno Doanny de Moraes, 17 October) Lula da Silva was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption, Venezuela faces collapse (Camilo Lascano Tribin, 4 September) due to the failed policies of the Chavez-Maduro regime, and Nicaragua has descended into violence once again under the Sandinistas. Although the serious grievances that propelled left-wing forces into power in Latin America remain genuine, left-wing leaders and factions either worsened the existing problems or have not dealt with the structural issues that generated them in the first place.

Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed and President of Eritrea Isaias Afwerki embrace after signing the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship.

On the positive side once more, the longstanding conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, among the deadliest in modern African history, ended in earnest this year. The first stage of the conflict was the Eritrean War of Independence, which occurred during 1961–91 and claimed 150,000 lives. The second stage was the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, which occurred during 1998–2000, but continued past the official 2000 peace treaty into a longer third stage, known as the Eritrean-Ethiopian Border Conflict. Both countries agreed to genuinely cease hostilities only in July, with another 100,000 lives lost since 1998. Although this was a conflict relatively unknown beyond Africa, it played a major role in numerous refugee crises. This includes the European refugee crisis, most of which has been generated by sub-Saharan Africa and especially Eritrea, even though the public focus has been on Middle Eastern refugees. The resolution of this conflict bodes well for refugee resettlement and regional stabilization. The leaders of both countries realized there is far more to be gained from peace and normalized relations than from continued war.

Nostalgia and Global Solidarities of Desperation

Given the events and discourses that have juxtaposed globalism versus nationalism these last few years, it is tempting to extrapolate the trajectory of 2019 using a framework of increased unilateralism versus a return to multilateralism. However, as this review has outlined, some of the most severe cleavages this year have occurred within countries rather than between them, with socio-political tribalism inflecting policy issues both spectacular and mundane. Rapid changes in technology (Matt Brockman, 27 May) have exacerbated and altered tribalism, but not just by creating self-contained echo chambers.

Technology has allowed the formation of global discursive alliances between otherwise parochial actors in local settings, who hold such intense suspicion and enmity towards their domestic opponents that they seek far away socio-political partnerships as an escape. The global and the local, therefore, have increasingly become one and the same for many politically engaged individuals and movements. Frustrations no longer have to be expressed just locally. They can be joined globally with other faraway actors, whose interests and realities may not actually be identical, but who serve as like-minded sources of mutual frustration and sympathy. This allows people to disconnect from and dismiss their local reality if they feel it no longer suits them. In turn, they use a distant reality and vision to indulge in whatever mindset needs to be indulged. The problem is that the distant reality may not even be reality at all and the vision may be a manipulation.

These are global solidarities of desperation fueled by different types of nostalgia. Each type of nostalgia, ironically, manifests as its own self-indulgent form of The End of History. For the vanguardist elements of the Western Right, it is a nostalgia that seeks a return to an idealized society defined by fixed economics, traditional structures, ethno-nationalism, and male leadership over gender and minority empowerment within diversity. This has meant forming relationships with illiberal actors like Vladimir Putin, framed by the vanguard Right as a champion of nationalistic traditionalism. For the vanguardist elements of the Western Left, it is a nostalgia that falsely believed that the West was past things like racism and xenophobia, thus provoking panic and the subsequent fetishization of concepts like diversity and victimhood. This has meant ignoring or dismissing real problems, such as Islamism and broader Islamic cultural stagnation (Rushd as-Safaa, 7 May), a naïveté framed by the vanguard Left as a defense of diversity, ipso facto, being the panacea for worldly problems.

The dilemma for policymaking, especially democratic policymaking, thus, is that the everyday norms of representative government at the national and supranational levels have been too slow for the growth of technologies and too short-sighted for the growth of nostalgias. This gap has allowed too many leaders and laities to let their countries devolve into sites of unending political competition and brinkmanship, eschewing serious policy discussions for cynical, short-term political calculations. In democratic societies, most of all, it is the duty of citizenries to be better so that elected leaders are better in turn. Reformer shall continue to do its part in contributing to more informed and sober public discourses.

To a conscious and engaged 2019,

Rushd as-Safaa and Jade Saab
Editors at Reformer