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It’s the dawning of the age of disunion as global history closes the chapter of a world in union


Natale Labia writes on the economy and finance. Partner and chief economist of a global investment firm, he writes in his personal capacity. MBA from Università Bocconi. Supports Juventus.

South Africa’s extraordinary victory in the Rugby World Cup last month inevitably evoked nostalgia for the Springboks’ first win in the tournament, in 1995, and the inimitable voice of PJ Powers singing, ‘The World In Union’.

“It’s the world in union, the world as one. As we climb to reach our destiny, a new age has begun.”

At the time, PJ Powers’ lyrics seemed to perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the 1990s. Apartheid had just ended, the Berlin Wall had fallen, peace was coming to Northern Ireland and the Oslo Accords even suggested there would be a resolution in the Middle East. Democracy was coming to Eastern Europe and promised to take hold even in Russia.

Of course, the horrific genocide in Rwanda in 1994, as well as ensuing wars across the Great Lakes region of Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Balkans, tempered the optimism. But it can be suggested that the overwhelming sense was of a world becoming more united, peaceful and generally better.

Sadly, it is clear that this chapter of global history has ended. 

By contrast, it is hard to remember a time when there have been more dark clouds on the horizon, and when the world has felt more disunited and fragmented.

As Gideon Rachman has written in the Financial Times, today it is the “nationalists, warmongers and conspiracy theorists who have the wind in their sails”.

Perhaps it was the complacency that came from the halcyon days of the 1990s and early 2000s that allowed cracks in the global order to appear and widen into the fractures that we see today in Ukraine, the Middle East and the South China Sea.

In a fascinating recent interview, ex-European central bank governor and Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi made the candid observation that the problems of today are a consequence of the West having been far too naïve. 

“The war in Ukraine was preceded by a long series of retreats on our fundamental values: Russia’s admission to the G8 despite its failure to recognise Ukrainian sovereignty; the failed promise of an intervention in Syria in the event of Assad using gas as a weapon; Crimea; and the withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Draghi said.

“The lesson we can learn is that we must never stoop to compromises on our fundamental values, on which the EU and the West were built, and that is peace, democracy, liberty and national sovereignty.”

Sadly, however, it may be too late for anyone to rediscover such values and stop the rot. 

There is a growing danger that Russia will regain the upper hand in its war against Ukraine in 2024, especially with critical funding from the US being withheld by a Congress seemingly hellbent on US self-destruction. 

In the Middle East, the tentative optimism fostered by the Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab states has been shattered by the brutality of the 7 October Hamas attacks, and the subsequent Israeli bombardment and invasion of Gaza. 

With Hezbollah and Iran sounding increasingly bellicose, a wider Middle Eastern war currently looks more plausible than a reinvigorated peace process.

Despite reassuring results in last week’s off-elections in Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania, US President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign is in deep trouble, with Donald Trump now favourite to regain the White House in the betting markets. 

Recent polls by The New York Times show Trump markedly ahead in the critical swing states which will decide the election. 

The US is not the only place that will see a critical election next year. 

European parliamentary polls will also be held, which will be a critical litmus test for the future of that continent. 

Will the progressive parties of the centre continue to hold a majority and ensure that the EU continues to be a project of “ever-closer union”? Or will the Eurosceptic populists, with their constant fear-mongering on migration, finally storm the Berlaymont, endangering the European project itself? 

As Draghi remarks in the same interview, “Either Europe acts together and becomes a deeper union, a union capable of expressing a foreign policy and a defence policy, aside from all the economic policies … or I am afraid the European Union will not survive other than being a single market.”

South Africa too faces its most important election since 1994 next year, with South Africans being asked to choose between an ever-weaker and more fragmented ANC or an untested opposition party. 

There is no doubt that the conflicts in Ukraine and now the Middle East have taken the ANC further away than ever from the West, accusing it of clear hypocrisy when it comes to calling out Russia on human rights violations but remaining mute on the same crimes being committed by Israel on the Palestinians trapped in Gaza. 

This could also play to the strengths of the EFF, who have been as vitriolic as can be expected on the actions of Israel, with Julius Malema openly calling Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu a “war criminal”. It could potentially weaken the more openly pro-West Democratic Alliance and expose cracks in John Steenhuisen’s much-vaunted “moonshot pact” opposition coalition. 

Whether or not this is enough for the ANC to be forced into a coalition with the EFF, it is far too early to say. However, PJ Powers’ bucolic vision she sang about all those years ago has rarely felt more distant. That new age she described is over. 

Now, disunion reigns. DM


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  • Skinyela Skinyela says:

    Even is the USA stayed for another 20 years in Afghanistan they werw never going succeed in making Afghanistan a democratic country, assuming that that was their intention, unless they changed their approach.

    Propping up a very corrupt government, just because it is not Taliban, was never going to work.

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