A year-end review of 2022 (I)

December 29, 2022 09:12
Photo: Reuters

2022 is perhaps best summarised through four core propositions:

First, that geopolitics matters – and we are transitioning into an era of global geopolitical flux;

Second, that governance matters – and that democracies and authoritarian regimes alike must find a way of accounting for their governance deficits, or face the music;

Third, that the egos of individual entrepreneurs may dazzle, and yet all that glitters is not gold;

Fourth, that humanity tends to be unduly naïve and myopic when it comes to existential risks.

Let’s start with the first. For the first time since the Berlin Wall’s toppling, we are witnessing the return of geopolitical confrontation through the Pyrrhic war that is being fought between Russia and Ukraine – or, by extension, Russia’s loosely defined and increasingly eroded coalition of partners, and the entirety of NATO (sans Turkiye, perhaps) and the majority of the West. Whilst geopolitics had long been an elusive and rare animal – one to be spoken of in hushed breath as an exotic creature in ‘civilised’ conversations over dinner tables – in the Global North, 2022 saw the beast make an unceremonious return at the doorsteps of Europe.

Russia’s move on Ukraine was less a rational response to ostensible NATO encroachment, than a logical corollary of Putin’s hubris and belief that he could settle the security question with NATO once and for all. More conspiratorially individuals would suggest that the coalition of anti-Russian forces goaded the imperialist country into war, through adopting measures that effectively forced Putin into a corner: he had no choice but to retaliate, and to drag Ukraine, alongside the Russian economy and the innocent majority of its population, through the sledges of war. I tend to eschew conspiracies, whilst rejecting the Occam’s Razor, too: a tapestry and combination of factors culminated at the tragedy unfolding on the fields of Central and Eastern Ukraine this year – but it would be naïve to frame Putin a victim of circumstances. At most, he’d be a ‘victim’ of his own making: of an intelligence apparatus that prioritised deceit and mendacity over truth-telling, and of an army that was ill-equipped and under-trained due to the decades worth of corruption and nepotism that characterise the kakistocracy today.

One way or another though, globalisation is being undone before our eyes. It’s by no means dead, but whether it be the economically costly and ineffectual ‘friendshoring’ of strategic supply chains, or the counterproductive deployment of long-arm sanctions by certain members of the coalition in the West, we’re seeing an unwinding of the Belle Époque that some had postulated would arise once the USSR crumbled. As it turns out, peace is more transient than we think – and we’re well and truly headed towards an era of greater geopolitical fragmentation and unrest.

Second, governance matters. For all the fanfare and pride concerning their alleged merits, democracies clearly suffered vast setbacks in quality of governance this year. Britain was subject to the “splendid” rule of Liz Truss, which sent the pound tumbling by over 15% and the economic outlook tanked in a manner that left investors bereft of any semblance of certainty or confidence in No. 10 (and 11)’s ability to govern effectively. Whilst successor Rishi Sunak has restored a degree of ‘law and order’ to the weak and unstable cabal of chaos, he has been dubbed by many to be out-of-touch and aloof in his governance; though as with most things in life, we can’t have our cake and eat it – perhaps that is the price we must pay for a technocrat who understands basic economics and finance.

Japan was rocked by a horrifying episode of political violence and terror, as former Prime Minister and statesman Shinzo Abe was brutally murdered in broad daylight. Malaysian elections saw the emergence of an eventually victorious Anwar Ibrahim – though not without much consternation and uncertainty lingering over the movements of Perikatan Nasional. Sri Lanka – a flawed democracy at best – slid into repeated economic crises as long-standing economic malaise and political ineptitude came to a head in the summer, and toppled the prior Rajapaksha-led government.

Autocracies hardly fared any better. Iran was swept up in waves of mass protests under an increasingly disillusioned populace and in face of the brutal reign of terror. Afghanistan under the Taliban saw regressive rollback to women’s rights and civil liberties under a militant and conservative regime. Leaders with minimal checks and balances in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa have exploited the dying days of the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse for entrenching draconian laws and rules that trampled privacy and security rights, prizing instead the indefinite continuation of their leaders’ tenures. This has not been a good year for global governance – specifically when it comes to accountability and performance legitimacy.

The problems raised above will not magically dissipate as we roll over into a new year. These are issues that would persist in the absence of real, practical solutions. So when asked if I’m more optimistic about 2023, I’d offer the inevitable answer: “Why should we be, when it comes to the above issues?”

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Assistant Professor, HKU