By Louise Arbour, Globe and Mail, September 8, 2011
Louise Arbour, former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the Balkans and Rwanda, is president of the International Crisis Group. Ms. Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court justice, also served as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The first political decade of the new millennium began in the fall of 2001 on American soil and ended in the spring of 2011 in North Africa and the Middle East. In the course of that decade, the rich world became increasingly afraid – first of terrorism, then of financial insecurity – while the poor, countries and people, became increasingly assertive and hopeful.
This is, of course, a broad generalization. The people of Somalia are neither assertive nor hopeful. Neither is the government of Somalia, which doesn’t even exist. China continues to depict itself as either poor or powerful, as convenient, while the so-called emerging powers have yet to fully express the direction in which they will exert their economic and political might, individually and collectively.
This political decade already has a distinctive personality. If nothing else, it will have been a transitional decade. There has been, for a long time, a debilitating institutional fatigue. International organizations, from the United Nations to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, are receding in visibility and influence as regional and multinational organizations – whether the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Arab League or the G20 – emerge sporadically to occupy centre stage.
Bureaucracies are tired and uninspired, which is not surprising since the decade has also yielded a desert of personal leadership.
Presidential regimes, particularly in Africa but also in Afghanistan and in Venezuela, for example, favour the personalization of power and encourage personality cults and cronyism; the overall mediocrity of leadership is stunning. This was made strikingly apparent at the two extremes: The overwhelming repudiation of the likes of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Moammar Gadhafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh said a lot about them personally, just as the political glow of Barack Obama during his presidential campaign spoke as much about him as about his message.
But more than anything else, the millennium that started with Sept. 11 is, so far, one of assertiveness without content. Osama bin Laden never made clear what kind of caliphate he wished to install in Manhattan, let alone worldwide. Even the Arab Spring, perhaps the loudest political outcry of the decade, has yet to convey a coherent vision of its future.
It is as though ideas have been the unintended casualties of the receding relevance of political ideology. In democratic systems, policies are dictated by opinion polls and electoral prospects. In authoritarian ones, the survival techniques are different, but the objective is the same.
Ideas asserted as universal have come under unprecedented repudiation.
Not only have dictatorial regimes continued to violate blatantly fundamental human rights, but Western governments turned their back on the many civil and political rights they purported to champion. From extraordinary renditions to incommunicado detentions, universal norms themselves came under attack, shockingly so in the public debate questioning the absolute prohibition of torture.
Phrases like "debilitating institutional fatigue" and "mediocrity of leadership" and "ideas...unintended casualties of receding relevance of political ideology"...virtually leap out at the reader in Ms Arbour's piece, not to mention the violation of human rights for which the public outcry has been but a whimper.
Her perspective, ironically, may be one of the most salient and cogent, given the intensity of the media scrutiny of many western politicians whose daily lives are more and more spent on putting out political fires, and less and less on thinking through complex problems and their calculus to imaginative and courageous solutions.
Fear is clearly one of the by-products of both the threat of terrorism and the media's obsessive relationship to nano-second reporting of every aspect of every threat, including the threat of starvation, the threat of bankruptcy, the threat of political constipation resulting from oversimplified political pledges to another form of caliphate, that of the Grover Norquist variety, that commits forty and fifty-year-old children to the totalitarianism of vacuity...and the idol of government being held hostage to that tyranny.
It is as if the public is drowning in the dust of its own navel, suffocating on the lack of oxygen snuffed out by the toxicity of that micro-dust of gossip and the titillation of the adolescent voraciously stuffing the latest "slanderous" piece of information about whomever...a colleague, a public figure or a "star of the entertainment world of music, movies, television or, more recently, the internet.
Not only does the assertiveness of nations, or cabals or cults lack content; there is almost literally no content of ideas, and their rubbing against each other, in ordinary daily discourse. We have become, like the digits we send and receive, little more than electric impulses of stimulation, without regard to its import, impact, toxicity or hollowness.
We act as if those digits that carry the latest "market" information are emitted from the new "vatican" presided over by the collective "pope" of Wall Street, including bankers, brokers and their retinue of sycophant "reporters" whose main dream is to sleep, drive, sail and fly in the same luxury cabins as the ultra-rich, so the sanctity of their sources remains unchallenged by those ostensibly deployed to question that holiness.
Essentially, it would seem that humanity is consumed by its own narcissism, albeit of varying kinds and complexions of the disease, but nevertheless narcissism...covered by a veneer of bobbles, bangles and beads bearing trademarks like BMW, Mercedes, Rolex, Lear Jets and the most expensive wardrobes, scents, wines, vacations, even platinum-plated friends who share both the same bobbles and the motive for more.
It is not only "ideas" that are the latest casualties; it is also any concerted, co-ordinated and committed initiative in compassion, empathy and recognition of the least of our brothers and sisters. We have become so seduced by the vacuity of our narcissistic ambitions that we have lost sight of our higher capacity, and any higher purpose for which there might be some long-lasting, endurable change in the way we work together, not on an ad-hoc, crisis intervention basis, but on a sustained recognition that we all face the tremors of the tectonic plates under the earth, and the rising temperatures from the fires of those same BMW's and the carbon from the stacks of all those manufacturing plants generating the smaller bobbles for the poor and the super-bugs that have become immune to our drug plans and the corporate greed that serves as the model of "achievement" for our young....
Thanks, Ms Arbour, for initiating a dialogue of those whose dreams of bobbles lie broken, shattered by the reality of their very emptiness in the hope that ideas, leadership, and even transcendent ethical ambitions might become "in vogue" over the next few decades in all countries, continents and even institutions....there is a high price to be paid if we fail, especially by our grandchildren.