OT: Utopia or dystopia? Challenges for our future (long but worth it)

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(EDUCATIONAL USE ONLY - Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 2000)

UTOPIA OR DYSTOPIA? CHALLENGES FOR OUR FUTURE: Predictions of a new international order made only 10 years ago now seem hopelessly optimistic. Guardian writers examine the options for four areas which are likely to shape the 21st century.

If the new millennium had come a decade earlier, in the first flush of post-cold war enthusiasm, how different the forecasts would have been. Then we were encouraged to look forward to a new international age, free from superpower strife, when efforts would be focused on real problems: poverty, ill-health, injustice and the environment.

The UN-led war against Saddam Hussein encouraged optimism: the international body, no longer paralysed by the veto, was able to act against aggression. The US and Russia began to roll back their arsenals and the fear of global obliteration receded.

Those forecasts now seem hopelessly utopian. New conflicts have broken out in areas we were hardly aware of; world poverty continues to rise. There are two new nuclear powers. The UN's reputation has been deeply dented by its inadequate response to a string of humanitarian crises. The mood is shifting from utopia to dystopia.

What sort of world are we living in where the perspective can change so fast? Predictions remain difficult but four areas will vitally affect our global future - the prospects for China, Africa, the UN and disarmament.


China enters the new millennium as a giant with shaky foundations. Assessments of its prospects from outside continue to be wildly inconsistent. Will it become the world's second economic power within 20 years or be brought down by massive political and social contradictions? Is a strong China good for Asia or a potential threat?

Everyone agrees on one thing: stability in China is crucial for the region and the world - note the huge sigh of relief in 1997-98 when Beijing refrained from devaluing its renminbi currency, and thus saved the Asian economic crisis from becoming a global disaster.

The greatest risk now faced by China, many believe, is that the communist regime will fail to adapt and will meet the same fate as that of the Soviet Union, plunging the country into chaos and risking disintegration. Certainly the current leadership of Jiang Zemin has disappointed by maintaining the brake on political reform. Somehow the momentum checked by the 1989 Beijing massacre has to resume. Yet the comparison with the Soviet Union is inexact. China's version of perestroika, unlike that of Mikhail Gorbachev, will continue to deliver enough goods to enough people to buy acquiescence.

The politically alienated of 1989 are already returning to make money. More will come back when Beijing joins the World Trade Organisation. Patriotism is not a discredited concept, and a sense of common identity - far stronger than the artificial Soviet version - will endure, reinforced by the overseas Chinese community. The party is not loved, but neither is it hated; instead it is seen as an apparatus of government which in one form or another China needs. Popular protest at corruption and privilege focuses on specific complaints, without demanding the party's overthrow.

But China will pay an increasingly high environmental price for the policy of maximising the growth which buys it stability. In the long run, pouring concrete over fertile land is a recipe for disaster. Mounting floods and diminishing naturalresources will hit particularly hard those in poor areas who have already missed out on the economic boom.

By the year 2050, a population well above 1.5bn people will face severe water and land shortages, heightened by a growing concentration in urban areas near the coast. Pollution could rise by 600%, with hidden costs to health and productivity. Cities will fail to provide adequate services for the rural migrants on whom they depend, and whose numbers should reach 220m within 10 years.

The police and security forces will be strengthened to deal with rising crime. As in Indonesia, an underclass of the under-employed will provide a reservoir of social unrest.

China's complete entry into the world market will remove the last barriers which have cushioned its economy: the renminbi will fluctuate and export industries will become increasingly vulnerable to competition from other developing labour forces. Beijing's nightmare scenario - a surge of domestic unrest coinciding with a western economic slump - will one day become reality.

China will pour resources into defence and prestige projects to achieve the aim of becoming `the giant of Asia'' by the year 2050, leading to recurrent tensions with Japan and an unstable Russia.

The love-hate relationship with the US will be tested to destruction over Taiwan: sooner or later (probably sooner) Beijing will be tempted, or obliged for internal political reasons, to make a challenge across the strait. Repression of alleged `splittism'' in the non-Han Chinese western regions will provoke what it seeks to prevent: the challenge will come first from Muslim militants in Xinjiang, then from Tibetan activists after the death of the Dalai Lama.

Slowly new generations will realise that the only solution to these problems is to reject the concepts of centralised rule based on the Chinese empire.


Will Africa be the forgotten orphan of the 21st century? It limped out of the 20th with little more prestige or autonomy than it had at the beginning of it, when most of its states were ruled by European colonialism. It will not be in a position to reverse this powerlessness alone, and it will be in the rest of the world's urgent self-interest to offer massive financial and technical aid. This will be the only way to stem Africa's contribution to the growing problems of global warming, the spread of the Aids pandemic and unrest in Europe as the angry poor outnumber the rich with the influx of men fleeing economic and political insecurity in Africa.

The speed of technological change in the 21st century, and the world's domination by a knowledge-based economy will be a threat, rather than an opportunity, for the continent. Inevitably this trend will further marginalise Africa.

On present trends, in 15 years three-quarters of all the world's school-age children who are not able to go to school will live in Africa. The yawning education gap will prevent the continent moving towards more democratic and accountable government. Instead it will still be prone to see its people swept easily into the primitive fascist movements which have managed in the late 20th century to destroy country after country in west and central Africa in civil wars.

These wars for resources, easily fired by ethnicity, by extensive drug abuse and by the use of impressionable children as cannon fodder could simply spiral on from one generation to another with no political force capable of redrawing the map of these countries' alternative possibilities.

One new force of the century will be the increasingly powerful non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The erosion of national sovereignty in the face of the western human rights lobbies was one of the more remarkable phenomena of the last two decades of the 20th century. In the 21st it will be not only the confident and ambitious NGOs which dictate policies to African governments, but the multinationals who will be obliged by their shareholders to answer publicly for every policy or financial transaction in the countries where they operate.


An effective UN will be crucial for the 21st century, as nation states show no signs of being able to regulate disputes peacefully and ethnic conflict is on the increase.

The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has been publicly criticised in an independent report for his role in the UN's failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda in 1994. This report came hard on the heels of Nato taking the lead in the Kosovo war; on the long stalemate on Iraq which reduced its people to abject poverty; and on the failure of UN-supervised elections and years of fruitless negotiations in Angola.

Meanwhile the US continues to hobble the organisation by failing to pay its dues in full while demanding the right to approve all significant UN initiatives.

Yet expectations of the UN are higher than ever, while international law is changing to give it a wider mandate. As environmental and man-made catastrophes multiply, UN agencies will be asked to perform miracles to bring food and medicine to millions of victims.

The UN's future will depend on how soon these new pressures lead to structural change. These must include the long postponed enlargement of the security council, more democratic decision-making, more secure funding for specialised agencies and the formation of permanent peacekeeping forces. The prospect of any of this happening may seem unlikely now. But international disaster in the 21st century will concentrate minds and promote a new demand for international solutions.


The world will face new types of conflict which national governments and even established groupings like the EU are still not prepared for, despite their rhetoric.

The threat of further proliferation will put the prospects for nuclear peace throughout this century to a severe test. A new arms race will also start if the Nato allies fail to dissuade the US from plans for a national anti-ballistic missile shield. President Bill Clinton is expected to give the go-ahead to this expensive `Son of Star Wars', which is enthusiastically backed by the Republican candidate George Bush. The Democratic front-runner, Al Gore. may have to support it reluctantly.

The strong security element in the Russian leadership - enhanced by the rise of Vladimir Putin - increases the danger of conflict between a revanchist Moscow and the US, with a side-current of discord between the Nato powers over how far Russia has legitimate security concerns.

The Europeans believe that the US wants a series of `regional anti-missile shields'', one to protect Israel, another for Taiwan and Japan. The plan is also directed at China, provoking Beijing's military to a new arms race. Moscow has also reacted angrily to US proposals to amend the 1972 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty and is deploying more advanced missiles. European concerns are deepened by the US senate's refusal last year to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty.

Prospects for the non-proliferation treaty review conference, to be held in New York in April, do not look good. The five official nuclear weapons states are not giving a lead. Indeed, the US is developing new warheads for its Trident system, on which Britain relies.

Instead of constructing nuclear shields, western strategy will have to find new ways of bringing `pariah states'' into the international community.

As the environment deteriorates, new sources of conflict will also emerge over scarce resources such as water.

The next one or two decades will be make or break time for the choice. We can either continue down the road of nuclear proliferation, with ever smaller weapons, plus chemical and biological weapons, which can also be used by terrorists. Or the nuclear five must take a new road to convince the world that they are serious about disarmament.

-- Risteard Mac Thomais (uachtaran@ireland.com), January 04, 2000


Good read. Thanks for posting, Risteard.

-- (4@5.6), January 04, 2000.

To the top: this really is worth reading!

-- Risteard Mac Thomais (uachtaran@ireland.com), January 05, 2000.

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