Global anti-establishment sentiments are laying the foundation for new political trends. Rightwing and leftwing populist politics continue to test the boundaries of democratic systems worldwide. Anti-establishment candidates have won highest office in several liberal democracies such as Donald Trump in the United States, Emmanuel Macron in France, and Narendra Modi in India. Leaders such as Vladimir Putin in Russia, Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunisia and Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Egypt, Michel Temer in Brazil, and Xi Jinping in China rose to power as an expression of rejection of the immediate past and its turbulent transitions, and carry a mandate to create new realities and a better future.
The reemergence of populism is no doubt a factor but I believe that the causes for the state of world politics today is much deeper, highlighting fundamental questions about traditional political economic and social norms and practices. Superficial analysis would explain the reason behind all this as a struggle between revolution and evolution, or democracy and authoritarianism. These are incomplete premises, if one can even call them that. Revolutions mostly occur when natural evolution is stunted. And in today’s world, fully democratic or rigidly authoritarian countries rarely exist. The world operates within many shades of gray.
Democracy is seen by those who promote it as the ideal endgame. But even in democracies, the interests of the more powerful frequently come at the expense of domestic, regional, and international players. Besides, examples of turbulent political transitions worldwide demonstrate that a democratic culture is nurtured over time by practice. Opponents of democracy argue that it is a traumatic source of instability and insecurity. They, however, intentionally ignore its longer-term benefits, especially the sense of public ownership and the egalitarianism it creates in concept.
Authoritarian systems, on the other hand, are generally seen as a source of security and stability that is imperative for society’s wellbeing. Its opponents argue that authoritarian regimes fail to fulfill the expectations of their constituents in the long run because they refuse to provide space for their diverse, individual, and creative citizens to thrive. The Velvet Revolution in the late 1980s, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution at the turn of this century, and most recently the Arab awakenings show the consequences of longstanding inefficient authoritarian governments that failed their constituents.
Democracy and authoritarianism in their unregulated or overregulated extremes can lead to both disorder and stability, depending on which comes first. If applied arbitrarily, neither truly fulfills the needs of people today. Ironically, in promoting democracy, its protagonists frequently argue it is a source of stability, a characteristic that people attribute to the centralized authoritarian regimes they are living under, especially in the short term. Equally contradictory is that authoritarian countries now frequently bring up elections and the need to respond to their constituencies, basic concepts and procedures normally attributed to democracies and systems of shared government. It is no wonder that neither option has found true resonance among the majority of the world’s citizens.
The greater problem is that people are growing dissatisfied with the geopolitical paradigm established in 1945 at the end of World War II, consequently becoming the world order which governs us. Victors of World War II, essentially American and Soviet-led western and eastern European blocs, created a system that ensured their prominence in the current world order; they provided some return to cooperative parties but marginalized any power that contested their own. Today, the geopolitical paradigm is changing in many ways. For example, it can no longer be defined as bipolar, unipolar, or in fact even multipolar. The future will definitely not be Euro-centric. In a few years, 60 percent of the world’s middle class will be in Asia.
Equally important, the components of the post-World War II order have changed. Nation states, while still important, are increasingly affected by non-state actors, particularly mega economic entities like multinational corporations, and by the sociopolitical consequences of the rapid exchange of information. This brings into the fray every state, big or small, and even individuals at the center or fringes of society and makes their urgent satisfaction paramount.
The increasing election of anti-establishment candidates or revisionist candidates should not be taken as anything less than a clarion call to establish a new world order—one that is realpolitik in the short term but more compassionate and collective in outlook in the medium and long run. “Survival of the fittest” may be a short-term strategy, but it cannot be the standing principle by which we live. Realities of the discrepancy between countries having stability and security and those who do not, the glaring disparities between succeeding and failing political systems globally, and the disproportionate distribution of wealth and rampant abject poverty internationally, regionally and within nation states, cannot be challenged by regimes in this age of communications and technology. In a transparent and connected global society, disparities and injustices resonate much wider, louder, and quicker than the words of even the most eloquent or forceful political machine in democratic or authoritarian countries.
To move forward with a sustainable, stable, and secure future, the world should embrace a more representative geopolitical paradigm that is commensurate with the diversity of the twenty-first century. We should establish a more equitable world order where the benefits of economic growth are accessible to the majority of people—an order that promotes tolerant diversity in thought and politics through pluralistic societal norms and political systems.
It is high time we acknowledge that the existing geopolitical paradigm does not work, and that we need to create a world order that responds to the growing marginalized sectors of the community of nations.
Nabil Fahmy, a former foreign minister of Egypt, is the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. He served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 1999–2008, and as envoy to Japan between 1997 and 1999. On Twitter: @DeanNabilFahmy.
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