It is easier to summarise history than to predict the future. In a couple of recent articles, I have tried to summarise the major developments of the last century, which was a century of fast change–in the world at large and in individual countries. Democracy became the common form of rule in the West and universal suffrage was introduced, women came into top posts in politics, and ordinary and poor people reached betterment in working and living conditions. It was the decade when most colonies gained independence from the Western powers. There were major inventions and achievements in medicine, science, and technology. But it was also a century of two world wars and numerous other wars, such as the American-Vietnam War, 1955-1975, as part of the Cold War.
In the 1960s, students and other young people on the left questioned the West’s development model. Peace issues were high on the agenda, including development aid and fairer economic and information world orders. Alas, little came out of it. At the end of the century, globalisation led to economic growth, but inequality between and within countries grew, with multinationals having a particularly lucrative time.
Now we are well into the 21st century and new things are given focus, in addition to safeguarding earlier achievements. Maybe this too will be a century of change, although not quite as profound as in the 20th century. But who knows, perhaps unknown things will happen, including such we don’t want to see.
AI, artificial intelligence, is one such field, scary and promising at the same time. What if it is used in wars and violent conflicts, allowing machines rather than people to make decisions? What if ‘private armies’ and guards, similar to the Wagner Group, will gain and use AI? After all, states are more reliable than private and unclear entities, with rules of war and consequences afterwards. Well, wars and conflicts are terrible and overstep rules. AI may make them even worse–unless we at one stage get over and beyond the concept of war. Perhaps AI can help us realise such dreams. We can also hope that AI may help us make better economic and other decisions, internationally and locally.
The issue of keeping the world away from major wars and conflicts, within and between countries and internationally, is the most important in our time and in future. The ongoing wars, especially the war in Ukraine, could escalate and include other states, and in addition, it could involve NATO or NATO countries directly, and then be seen as a war between Russia and its supporters and the West, including Europe and the USA which it probably already is, but not said to be. Many believe it is likely that the war will last for long. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg keeps saying that if Russia withdraws its military forces, the war will end immediately. However, the NATO leader does not say what he and the West, first of all the USA, can do to contribute to ending the war.
The USA-China dialogue is cooler than in a long time, with few concrete actions for improving trade and political relations. It is said that both countries want better relations and certainly not direct conflict, not over trade and technology and not militarily. It is a fact that the two current major powers of the world, and the world at large, will gain from more peaceful cooperation, including about climate change. We know that the USA may not continue to lead the world in the 21st century to the same extent as it did in the last century. China has had unprecedented growth for decades, but bumps are also seen; just now, India, the world’s most populous country, above China, is said to have higher economic growth than China, yet also with serious political challenges, especially related to religious and ethnic issues.
The uneven relations between the Global North and the Global South remain a problem, as it has been since the colonial time and its end. Too little has been done to make the relations fairer and more even; the rich West is evasive, avoiding implementing real structural measures to improve the situation, including paying compensation for earlier exploitation. At last year’s UN climate change conference, COP27, it was decided that compensation should be paid in climate change fields caused by the West. We will hopefully get some concrete plans at the upcoming COP28 meeting in UAE in November and December this year.
Outright poverty in developing countries, including in sections of Pakistan, is to some extent the responsibility of the West, not only local leaders. The poorest countries in the world, and large sections of them, may relapse further into poverty. How can the world politically and morally look at that happening in the 21st century? The new BRICS initiatives will place the issues higher on the agenda, but it is less likely that changes will come soon.
In the 21st century, I hope that those who are young today and their children will find new solutions to the world’s problems, with a reformed and strengthened UN, old and new multilateral organisations, governments, the private sector, the civil society, and ordinary people, such as Greta Thunberg has been. There is a need for a new moral leadership. That also relates to solving dragged-out conflicts, such as the Kashmir conflict, the Palestine-Israel conflict, the Afghanistan conflict, the Syria and Yemen conflicts, and many minority-majority and economic conflicts in the world. We certainly need a renewal of the peace organisations that were more active before. Like the women’s and environment organisations in the last century and today, strong peace organisations are indeed needed in the 21st century.
We live in a time of major rearmament, indeed that of the countries belonging to NATO, the world’s largest military organisation. Rearmament takes away resources from constructive development issues, including girls’ education and women’s health, to name key fields that the West claims to be concerned about. Just tiny fractions of the military budgets could solve those issues and create a better and more even world. Thus, it is a worry that the massive rearmament we experience takes us in the opposite direction of what it claims, towards a more dangerous and uneven world.
Many would say that I argue more for the importance of environmental and climate change, creating a world with less use of fossil fuel and emissions and a greener and more sustainable world. I do argue for that; it is the most important and urgent task in the 21st century, along with part of creating a more equal world, between the North and the South and within countries, and working for a more peaceful world. The environmental and climate change messages must be quite categorical as well as the peace and economic equality issues, including such regarding immigration, refugees, and faith issues so that we can all share the resources God gave us and be better custodians of the earth in future.
In the 21st century, we must renew and develop further the democracies that we have had since the beginning of the last century, and more countries must join that form of rule. We must also make the political parties and other organisations better and more inclusive, including using modern technologies, so that young people and minority groups will indeed participate. I also believe that we must make drastic changes in the education systems that we have, built on the Western model. In many ways it is undemocratic, forcing all to learn predefined things, which soon will be outdated, rather than allowing children, youth, and adults to use their creative abilities and develop new and better ways of living together in the 21st century. The century is still young, and it is up to all of us to contribute to shaping it.