The World Today for December 31, 2019

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The Desperate Ones

The specter of despair appears to be haunting the world’s democracies.

Electorates and politicians are polarized. Economic growth is steady, but many feel as if they are working hard and not getting ahead. The free flow of people, goods and ideas – a bedrock of the global system that fostered peace and prosperity in the wake of World War II – is in question.

Protests from Hong Kong (a bastion of democratic aspirations in China) to France to Chile are the result. Liberalism (not leftist politics but the promotion of liberty) was supposed to satisfy people’s needs and make them happy. In many places, that isn’t happening.

“We all need to double down on figuring out how to breathe back meaning into our values and institutions,” Nancy Lindborg, president of the United States Institute of Peace, said at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada in November, according to Politico.

Is that possible? Historian Quinn Slobodian is skeptical. Writing in the Guardian, Slobodian noted that, ironically, right-leaning think tanks like the Heritage Foundation often rank Hong Kong and Chile high in terms of economic freedom, meaning the government respects property rights and the sanctity of contracts, without mentioning that income inequality in those supposedly free societies also fuels public anger.

Disillusionment with past truisms also concerns conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who wrote about how many believe the US-led international system has “bled us dry,” how capitalism only made the rich richer, how Silicon Valley “mined our data” rather than delivering innovation, and so on.

“This hostility isn’t manifest just on the progressive left,” wrote Stephens. “It also accounts for the rise of the populist right.”

Latin America is perhaps the best example of the phenomenon.

After decades of brutal military juntas, democracy has taken hold in countries like Argentina, Chile and elsewhere. But corruption, economic stagnation and partisanship have disillusioned many Latin Americans, especially young folks who don’t remember the bad old days and want good jobs so they can move on with their lives. Instead, reforms have led to greater inequality, reported the Associated Press, citing United Nations data.

“Frustration over unmet expectations is a powerful motivator, providing plenty of kindling that only requires a spark to set off,” wrote Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, in World Politics Review.

The spread of social media has fueled the discontent, reported the news agency MercoPress. People can freely share their thoughts and experiences, bypassing authorities who used to grant information legitimacy.

Perhaps the activism of the desperate will build a new world order. Between then and now, expect a bumpy ride.




Tit For Tat

Iran condemned the United States on Monday for a series of US airstrikes that killed at least 25 fighters from an Iranian-backed group fighting in Iraq and Syria, the Guardian reported.

The Pentagon described Sunday’s raids against the Kataeb Hezbollah group as a defensive strike: The group launched a deadly attack against a US base in Kirkuk, Iraq last week, killing one US civilian contractor.

There was no immediate comment from the Iraqi government, but pro-Iranian groups in Iraq criticized the raids as an attack against the country’s sovereignty and security.

Meanwhile, senior Iraqi militia commander and Iran ally, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, vowed to retaliate against the US strikes.

Tensions between groups supported by Iran and the US have increased since the defeat of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria earlier this year.

Forces loyal to Tehran have fired rockets at US bases in the past two months, and the recent clash could lead to a new conflict between US forces and Iranian proxies.


And Justice For Some

A Sudanese court sentenced more than 27 members of the country’s security forces to death for the torture and killing of a protester detained during the demonstrations against former President Omar al-Bashir earlier this year, the Associated Press reported.

The Monday verdict was the first conviction connected to the killing of more than 200 demonstrators since protests began last December.

The judge ruled that school teacher Ahmed al-Khair was tortured and beaten after he was detained by Sudanese security forces on Jan. 31.

Al-Khair’s death was a flashpoint in the pro-democracy protests that toppled the autocratic al-Bashir in April.

Al-Bashir’s fall led to the creation of a joint military-civilian Sovereign Council that is committed to rebuilding the country. It has promised elections in three years.

Another Sudanese court recently sentenced al-Bashir to two years in a minimum-security lockup on charges of money laundering and corruption.

He is still under indictment by the International Criminal Court on the more serious charges of committing war crimes and genocide in the western province of Darfur in the early 2000s.


Soft Power

Spain’s state attorney recommended the release of a Catalan separatist leader from prison in what is widely seen as a gesture of political goodwill as the Socialist Party (PSOE) seeks support to form a government, Reuters reported.

The state attorney asked Spain’s Supreme Court to release Oriol Junqueras, leader of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), who was jailed in October for his role in the failed 2017 bid for Catalan independence.

His release is part of the Socialist Party’s plan to encourage the ERC to join the Socialist-led government, following the Nov. 10 elections.

The PSOE has emerged as the winner of last month’s elections even as it failed to secure a majority in parliament.

So far, the PSOE has made a deal with far-left Unidas Podemos party, but needs the backing of the ERC to abstain in a parliamentary vote to confirm acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez as the country’s leader.

The ERC said it will make a final decision facilitating Sanchez’s confirmation on Jan. 2. Spain’s highest court will issue its decision later this week.


Having Fun

It’s that time of the year when people set goals for next year.

There are plenty of systems that teach people how to actually focus on, and achieve, these goals, but not everyone is successful in accomplishing them.

Researcher Bettina Höchli, however, argued that building new habits and changing our self-perception are actually keys to following through with resolutions, Nautilus reported.

She explained that people need to turn their specific, short-term goals into bigger-picture ones: People should focus more on what they want to be in the world, not just on concrete behaviors.

“It’s about behavior change that should be maintained over the long term,” she said.

Höchli added that these long-term objectives – known as superordinate goals – are more flexible and more tied to our “ideal self.”

Superordinate goals make resolutions more meaningful to people, keeping them motivated and committed to achieving them.

Additionally, to fully stick to resolutions, people have to believe in their ability to achieve their aims – otherwise all resolutions fall flat.

Still, many might stumble along the way, but people are better at coping with negative events than they realize, according to psychologist Elizabeth Dunn.

“We treat our psychological immune system as if it’s incredibly ineffective or doesn’t even exist at all,” she explained.

In the end, Höchli and Dunn explained that achieving goals can feel great, but sometimes what’s important is not the resolution itself, but the journey to fulfilling it.

“Have fun!” concluded Höchli.

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