LIBERAL democracy and the rules-based international order received the biggest set-back in 2016 in any year since before the Berlin Wall came down. The only year that comes close is 2003, the year of the illegal invasion of Iraq based on concocted intelligence.
After World War II the victors did not want to repeat the mistakes of the aftermath of World War I – harsh peace treaty, hyper-inflation, isolationism, trade barriers, appeasement, another war.
So led by the US, the victorious democracies began setting up a set of international institutions that would prevent the repeat: the United Nations; the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The US also helped the defeated and war-torn nations with the Marshall Plan.
Then followed: treaties on human rights, the law of the sea and the environment; decolonization; the World Court; the European Economic Community which developed into the EU; and the International Criminal Court.
Free trade, globalisation and freedom of navigation returned to 1914 levels.
Yes, we had the Cold War, but that ended in 1989.
By 1997, 44 nations were democracies. By 2015, that had reached 86, representing 68 percent of GDP and 40 percent of the world’s population. Free trade had lifted a billion people out of poverty.
It seemed that liberal democracy and a rules-based international order were unstoppable even if there were some minor glitches on the way.
Then came 2016.
China ignored the World Court’s ruling on the South China Sea and continued illegally creating islands from reefs and building military bases on them.
China also disqualified candidates in democratic elections in Hong Kong and otherwise undermined democracy there.
The Philippines then almost colluded with China in ignoring the World Court ruling which it had sought by accepting China’s offer to let its fishing vessels into the disputed seas. During the year the Philippines engaged in extra-judicial murders openly supported by its president, Rodrigo Duterte, who boasts he killed suspected criminals personally when mayor of Davao City.
Russia continued its destabilization of Ukraine after its 2014 invasion and annexure of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.
Russia also engaged in cyber espionage in order to influence the US election.
In June, Britain voted to leave the European Union. During the campaign Liberal MP Jo Cox was shot and killed in West Yorkshire. The costs of the exit to the British people will be enormous. Hitherto, the post-war history of Europe has been greater integration, co-operation and democratisation. That trend abruptly ended in 2016.
The rise of far-right parties in Europe suggests that it may be some time, if ever, before it resumes.
In the US, Donald Trump was “elected” to the presidency with more than two million votes fewer than Hillary Clinton. He promises greater isolation, less international cooperation, higher trade barriers, greater belligerence and an end to action on climate change.
Also in the US, there was a spate of police shootings of black suspects.
In 2016 Wikileaks joined the dark side. Instead of standing for more open access to information to make governments more accountable, it sided with undemocratic Russia to undermine the US election process.
Russia and Turkey bombed and invaded Syria siding with the Assad tyranny and against the forces of democracy under the cynical guise of fighting Islamic terrorists.
The Arab Spring ended in the dust and ruins of Aleppo with civilians being summarily executed by pro-government forces.
In 2016 inequality continued to rise in the world. In April, the Panama papers confirmed widespread tax dodging by high-wealth individuals and corporations.
And despite the Paris agreement, international governmental action on humankind’s greatest threat was negligible while temperatures continue to rise and the ice-sheets melt.
On 14 March, NASA released data showing February 2016 was warmest month ever recorded globally – 1.35C above the long-term average.
In Australia, the forces of rationality and cooperation went backwards at the July election with the election of four One Nation senators. We had economic contraction, greater inequality and rising greenhouse gas emissions.
In Australia and elsewhere, distrust of science and scientists and evidence-based policy increased as did respect for the truth. Shameless pushing of lies and acceptance of them abounded.
The ANU’s 19 th post-election survey revealed record distrust of politicians and governments.
The importance of the above is that it is all action or non-action by governments or about them.
So where to from here?
We can hope that the events of 2016 wake us up from the complacency that got us here. Liberal democracy, open government, the rule of law, free trade and international cooperation on human rights and the environment are not inevitable trends. They have to be worked upon incessantly against the forces of tribalism and isolationism.
We can hope that the people who voted for Brexit, Trump, Hanson and the far-right in Europe get disillusioned very quickly and realise that the “quick fix” and the simple slogan is no fix at all, but more likely to make things worse. (See New York Times cartoon above.) The bitter exercise might make them realise that we need science, evidence and careful thought rather than prejudice and xenophobia to make things better.
And we can hope that those seeking power do not do so for its own sake and that those seeking to retain power will realise that fairness, openness and a determination to govern for all, not just their financial supporters, will lead to political success and a better world to live in.
The environmental and population threats are just too great to permit the luxury of governmental complacency, elitism, greed, inaction, incompetence and veniality of the sort that we saw in 2016.
This article appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 24 December 2016.