Politik und Gesellschaft Online
International Politics and Society 1/2000


Zu diesem Heft / About this issue

The unfinished agenda of the 20th century

Human reality does not unfold according to the rhythm of the centuries. Nevertheless for human perception, centuries have come to constitute an important structuring unit of historical time. At the turn of a century, a full drawer of our mental stock-piling system is closed and a new empty one is opened. For any one with even the slightest accounting instinct, this is the time to draw up a balance sheet. When even all the digits in our time count change from one day to the next, as the living generation had the privilege to witness a few days ago, the temptation to take stock becomes irresistible. It was at least for the editors of INTERNATIONAL POLITICS AND SOCIETY. In their first issue of the year 2000, they simply had to portray the world at the turn of the millennium. To do so, they opted for a mosaic-like approach. They decided to provide disparate pieces of information and leave it up to the reader to integrate them into a pertinent picture of the state of the world.

After some tampering with the idea of presenting articles on major world regions such as the Asia-Pacific, the Arab World or Latin America, we chose a more traditional country focus, given that most things that define people´s conditions of life - beyond nature-bound universals and strictly private affairs - are dealt with, in terms of perception, deliberation and purposeful intervention, at the level of the politically organized national society. What is going on in the world, is in decisive respects what is going on within countries. Moreover, the pervasiveness of the national perspective implies that international relations and global affairs are projected onto the national "screen of perception", albeit with the tendency of downgrading supranational concerns such as the fate of global commons (as in fact evidenced in our collection of essays) . Finally, the fact that the sample of countries in this issue covers well over fifty percent of mankind and represents every major inhabited region of the globe, may justify tentative inferences as to the state of mankind as a whole.

The contributors to our "millennium issue" were asked to portray the state of their respective countries with a view back to erstwhile expectations, hopes and fears, and a tentative view ahead into the early 21st century. The initiative rendered a collection of essays which is, above all, an exciting document of authentic perceptions of collective human reality at the turn of the millennium, of insider perspectives that betray the authors´ deep involvement in the realities on which they report. The viewpoints chosen differ widely: from the the fascinated or suffering observer, to the analyst trying to uncover the social forces underlying observed developments, to the partisan pleader for specific courses of action.

Of course, with political issues, particular views tend to be controversial, sometimes highly controversial. And in fact, the views presented in this issue are far from being objective. But it could not be any different - and it should not. Perceptions are a significant part of the reality this issue intends to portray. This refers to the selection of topics the authors - most of them prominent participants in their respective national discourses - consider as salient as well as to explanations and political options.

The collection of articles that make up this "millennium issue", heterogeneous as it is in certain ways, offers an account of the world which is quite amazing if one considers its underlying common denominator. As a whole, the articles present a discourse that bears no resemblance to the dawn-of-a-new-age discourse that has come to shape the perception of imminent social evolution in the affluent West. The overarching theme could rather be called "the unfinished agenda of the 20th century", or more precisely, of the second half of the 20th century. Prosperity, social justice (including gender justice), rule of law and, most of all, democracy are the salient concerns. It is these benchmarks of "old-fashioned" modernization that dominate the perception of what is going on in society, that define frustrations and hopes. Geopolitical concerns, questions of war and peace, of international status and international cooperation, also play a certain, though minor, role (most clearly in the contributions by former foreign minister Muchkund Dubey on India and by party politician Jose Dirceu on Brazil).

"Globalization", the buzz-word par excellence of the last decade, is, in most of the contributions, recognized as a force that must somehow be reckoned with. But with the exception of Michael Ehrke’s article on Germany, our essays do not treat it as an important divide in their countries’ development. Several authors refer to it as a political project of the advanced capitalist states to which their own country should subscribe, at the most, selectively. Informatization, the decline of manufacturing and stable employment, the increasing speed of market-driven structural changes, the rapid advance of genetic engineering, the emergence of a "knowledge-based" economy etc. are overwhelmingly not seen as crucial factors for the state of society now or in the foreseeable future.

This may seem as not all that surprising in so-called developing countries - including those of the former socialist bloc - which make for seventy percent of our country sample. Still, the new-age discourse appears less significant for mankind at large if we take into account that these countries comprise the overwhelming - and relentlessly increasing! - majority of human beings. Our collection of essays rather underlines the persistent, if not mounting, relevance of the old "boring" North-South discourse. It has yet to be shown that the changes that are perhaps going to transform the affluent Northern avant-garde countries affect the central aspirations of the peoples of the South more profoundly than just by way of redefining the criteria of competitiveness and hence the targets of development policy. Otherwise, it might be the banal and ugly reality of the South that increasingly superimposes itself on the brave new post-industrial and post-modern world of the North.

However, such pessimism is not the dominant feeling in this "millennium issue". Most authors - the German essay being again the conspicuous exception - see the future as brighter than the present. They base their optimism on the observation of a long-begun cycle of transformation the direction of which is pre-set (Yihong Mao on China and, a shade less confidently, Hector Aguilar Camín on Mexico), on the knowledge of the crucial policy decisions to take (Jose Dirceu on Brazil within the conceptual frame of class politics and Nikolai Shmelev on Russia within the conceptual frame of consensus politics), on the foreseeable exhaustion of a long pursued dead-end model of governance (Mohamed El Sayed Said on Egypt) and on the fresh experience of democratic renewal which ended a long traumatic period of bad governance (Matthew Hassan Kukah on Nigeria).

One might be tempted to discard much of the optimism expressed as part of that psychological survival kit with which nature has equipped homo sapiens to protect his vitality from his analytical capabilities. But at least with regard to democracy, the "millennium issue" substantiates the case for optimism. Francis Fukuyama’s famous end-of-history proposition notwithstanding, the notion that the future of mankind will be a democratic one seems anything but self-evident. There are plenty of good reasons to think of democracy as a highly resilient principle of governance, but at the same as a vulnerable institutional set-up in reality, dependent on a not always very probable set of favorable conditions and beset with self-perverting inclinations. Against such pessimism, the collection of essays in this issue cites a remarkable success story of democracy, against all odds so to speak, (India), presents manifold evidence of autocratic regimes’ inherent tendency towards ineffectiveness vis-à-vis today’s problems (Egypt, Nigeria, Mexico, Brazil, China) and comes up with an almost revolutionary proposition of democratic renewal (Charles Sabel on the USA).

It is probably not accidental that the one contribution that looks ahead into the unknown territory of basic societal development, beyond the superficial phenomena associated with the advances in informatics and telecommunication, is the one on the United States, which (notwithstanding socialism and Rhinish capitalism) was for two centuries the pioneer of radical modernization. The notion of "monitored experimentalism" leads, like every major intellectual innovation, to a host of unanswered questions, but it may well point to one of the most promising lines of mankind´s future development. Compared to the essay on America, the ones on Germany and Japan visualize a future that is oriented at the past. Kenichi Mishima sees Japan still struggling with a, by now dysfunctional, legacy from its early modernization phase. Michael Ehrke´s future of Germany - and by extrapolation, of other advanced capitalist countries - is in crucial respects a regression, well back behind the progress achieved in the second half of the 20th century.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | net edition joachim.vesper | 2/2000