Ismail Serageldin


It is 2016

 12/06/2016 | Delivered at the 8th NGIC High-Level meeting, Andorra


It is 2016….


Ismail Serageldin

Opening remarks

Delivered at the 8th NGIC High-Level meeting




Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,


Welcome to Andorra.  Welcome to the NGIC 8th high-level meeting. The topic this time is “Global Forces, Local Voices: People power in a globalized world”, and it is intended to give us a chance to focus on the growing imbalances and disruption that we are feeling in different parts of the world as the entire structure of the global world political order, the functioning of the political institutions in the most established of the western democracies, the governing realities of the globalized world economic order, and the role of the nation state itself, are all being called into question.   Local identities assert themselves and local voices are being heard, sometimes with strident calls for autonomy from this dysfunctional world order and the unrelenting globalization that is crushing the poor and the middle class everywhere. All this as the Internet and the ICT revolution are transforming the world.  Billions move across the globe with the click of a mouse and the flight of an electron, and social platforms connect billions of people; and, increasingly, hand-held devices are everywhere, for there re more mobile phone lines than there are people in the world today.


It is 2016.   As the world gets more and more mesmerized by the American presidential campaign, it behooves us to reflect on one rather unusual aspect of current American politics: there is an unprecedented level of alienation between the public and the institutions of governance.  Indeed, many of those vying for the highest office are trying to run as outsiders against the system of government.  All are promising to fix it, and though they differ from the extreme right to the extreme left in their ideas and their proposals on how the fixing is to be done, they are all – more or less – in agreement with the public that the current system is dysfunctional and needs a major overhaul.   Why?


It is 2016.  The EU is being subjected to unprecedented strains as some of its member states consider leaving it and others are putting up barriers at their old frontiers once more.  Migration has become the hot topic of this political season, and yet all know in their hearts that refugees will come in increasing numbers if the conditions in their home states do not change for the better.  Many refuse to acknowledge these realities and see in all that is happening the further manifestation of a global order gone awry, and pervasive economic uncertainty where a generally optimistic outlook once prevailed. Indeed, there is a sharp swing to the right as identity politics and fear of the other manifest themselves in outspoken racism and xenophobia by political populist politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.  Why and what can be done about it?


It is 2016 and the individual European states, as well as the USA, are finding a large swing of the political pendulum towards the extreme right.  It unleashes the internal forces of fear and hatred, builds on populism to fan the fires of bigotry and division within the single state, and underlines the flaws and the weaknesses of the existing political order and the stasis of the democratic welfare state that was Europe’s greatest achievement. 


It is 2016, the centennial of the well-known Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the Ottoman empire and created the boundaries of the Arab states to be colonized by France and Britain after the first World War.  Today, the mosaic of ethno-religious identities that make up these countries, are fighting murderous conflicts and civil wars as terrorist extremists of Da'ish and Al-Qaeda continue to practice their horrible crimes while still attracting new recruits among the youth.  The western powers, especially the USA, have a part of the responsibility for this sad state of affairs, from having sponsored the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the soviets, which begat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the results that cascaded from that, all the way to partial and uncertain interventions in the revolutions of the Arab spring of 2011.  And now terrorism strikes everywhere and the horrors of its acts destabilize the psychological moorings of the societies where it strikes.


But while we are certainly not in a unipolar world, claims about the decline of American power are unjustified.  While the relative power of the USA has declined its economic power remains dominant and its military superiority is unmatched.  But what we have come to realize are the limits of American military power.  While America can strike anyplace in the planet and can still deploy its military forces anywhere in the world, that does not imply that they can bring about the political outcomes that American leadership desires.


But global imbalances are real, as the old post-WW2 international order and the cold-war balances that came after it, no longer reflect the new realities of a rapidly changing world.  The old frameworks, including the global framework for managing nuclear weapons are coming unglued.  Instability reigns from the ME to the South China Sea.  Institutions of governance are being challenged as never before from the heart of Europe to heart of Africa and beyond.


But it is 2016, and no one can deny the fact that for the last three decades, if not more, the economic and political currents have favored the rich and the ultra-rich, and that inequality is rising in every country around the planet.  This rising inequality coupled with increasing uncertainties about the future has been nurtured within a framework of laissez-faire capitalism and a swing of the political pendulum to the right, very far to the right…


Just how far the political pendulum has swung can be realized by reflecting on the fact that Richard Nixon, considered by most of us who remember the sixties to have been a terribly right wing president who engineered the other 9/11, the overthrow of Allende and the installation of Pinochet in Chile on 11 September 1973 which opened a new period of subsequent “dirty wars” by CIA-backed Latin American strongmen. That same Richard Nixon was actually the most left-wing president that the US has had in the last half century!  Unbelievable, but the facts support that view.


To get the full measure of just how far to the right the West has drifted, it is interesting to note that Nixon, yes Nixon, was the president who governed most to the left since 1970.  More cognitive dissonance! But, wait, just listen to the facts as listed by Kurt Andersen in the NYT several years ago, who showed that it was under Nixon that:


Spending on social services doubled, and military budgets actually decreased. He oversaw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. His administration was the first to encourage and enable American Indian tribal autonomy. He quadrupled the staff of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, almost tripled federal outlays for civil rights and began affirmative action in federal hiring. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment and signed Title IX, the law granting equality to female student athletes. One of his Supreme Court appointees wrote the Roe v. Wade decision.


Nixon made Social Security cost-of-living increases automatic, expanded food stamps and started Supplemental Security Income for the disabled and elderly poor. It helped, of course, that Democrats controlled the House and Senate. But it was the president, not Congress, who proposed a universal health insurance plan and a transformation of welfare that would have set a guaranteed minimum income and allowed men to remain with their welfare-recipient families. It was Nixon who radically intervened in the free market by imposing wage and price controls, launched détente with the Soviets, normalized relations with Mao’s China and let the Communists win in Vietnam.  And, for good measure, the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts grew six-fold, by far the biggest increase by any president. (Andersen, NYT, “The Madman Theory”)


AND, I would add, he presided over the delinking of the dollar from gold and the termination of the Bretton Woods System of fixed exchange rates.


These observations seem so disconcerting only because we are comparing Nixon’s actions in the political climate of 1970 by the ideological standards of 2016.  That rightwards drift has been pervasive, in Europe as well as in America. 


The prevailing political ideology has been pulled enormously to the right under the influence of the Reagan-Thatcher revolution and its followers who promoted the view that “governs best who governs least”, and “let the private sector do everything”.  The philosophy of the social democrats, who successfully gave us the enormous advances in the postwar period and the creation of social safety nets and welfare systems as well as expanding the notions of democracy and human rights, have been unable to reclaim the initiative politically throughout the West.  They have been unable to do so, even after the post-Reagan-Thatcher revolution and the right-wing version of laissez-faire that it bequeathed us produced the biggest disaster since the great depression: the Banking and Credit collapse of 2008.


I submit that this political failure reflects a failure of ideas.  Ethical politicians have been caught flatfooted and put on the defensive by the politics of fear and hate.


So,…It is 2016, and we are gathered here to share our reflections and our ideas, in the hope that the collective wisdom and experience of this august gathering that the NGIC has convened with our Hosts the Reibas foundation, will shed some light on the best directions for the future of this troubled world.  


Thus we will meet and reflect on four main themes in the next two days: (i) Re-thinking globalization; (ii) Improving the management of our democratic institutions, suggestively referred to as “the Trump effect”; (iii) building a 21st century sharing economy; and (iv) reflecting on the future political map and the role of the nation state … all to bring reason to bear on the important political and socio-economic as well as cultural decisions that the course of practical wisdom dictates in this time of unprecedented interconnectivity and global interdependence, with its chaotic realities and its uncertain future.  May our deliberations be productive…


Thank you.






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