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Political risks in an age of uncertainty

Pulitzer Prize winning historian, journalist and geopolitical commen­tator, Anne Applebaum will examine the challenges and opportunities of global, political and economic change through the lens of world history and the contemporary political landscape. Looking ahead to 2019, she sees one country posing the greatest political risk:

“It sounds odd to say it, but the country whose future is most uncertain in 2019 – and which, as a result, poses great risks, particularly to itself - is probably the US. We have a volatile president who will now be faced by a hostile Congress; I hesitate to make any predictions about what will happen. US politics will be turbulent; it is also possible that Trump will lash out at foreign enemies, or indeed foreign allies, as a way of distracting from his problems at home.

In the absence of American leadership, old problems may return to haunt us in 2019 too. North Korea, for example, which was most definitely not ‘solved’ by the president, or Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.” 

Reading history is not the same as experiencing it

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Applebaum wrote that the polarisation now evident in Europe is reminiscent of Europe in 1937. She attributes the similarities to a combination of globalisation and technological change that has made individual leaders, even in important democracies, genuinely less powerful than they once were:

“People can see that their presidents and prime ministers don’t control as much as they once did.

Secondly, the changes in information technology have undermined the broadcast and print media that once underpinned electoral democracy, both by giving people new tools to conduct malign influence campaigns and by eliminating the possibility of a real national debate: People live in their own echo online chambers, and don’t speak to one another. Finally, it is important to remember that the generation of people who remember 1937 is now gone, and reading history is not the same as experiencing it.”

Democracy at risk

According to Applebaum, there will always be people who believe that the prevailing political system does not serve them or their interests. For this reason, she feels that democracy is always at risk:

“Right now, our particular form of technocratic, meritocratic, free market democracy is particularly at risk from people who want the state to embody ‘higher,’ more profound values; it’s also at risk from people who aren’t succeeding in meritocratic or market competition."

Applebaum sees a number of things we can do in order to save democracy. These range from internet regulation to new business models for media to social inclusion:

“We need to think about internet regulation – not censorship, but, for example, the limitation of anonymity and automated accounts, in order to halt malign influence campaigns. We need to come up with new business models for good journalism and broadcasting. We need to think harder about people who consider themselves “losers,” either from globalisation or from competition and meritocracy, and make sure they not only have decent jobs but have some measure of social respect. I believe that we also need to think about promoting forms of liberal patriotism, to rethink how civic education is done in the twenty-first century. That’s just the beginning of a long list, but it’s not an impossible one.”

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