The optimist’s guide to 2019

While it may not have the most auspicious of beginnings, the coming year will present many opportunities to change the world for the better

A man looks toward the Spanish port of Crinavi from the deck of the migrant-rescue ship Proactiva Open Arms. AP / Olmo Calvo
A man looks toward the Spanish port of Crinavi from the deck of the migrant-rescue ship Proactiva Open Arms. AP / Olmo Calvo

There is an old story about a lost driver asking for directions. A passer-by shrugs and tells him: “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

The era of global co-operation that began in 1948 reached its peak in 1989 and ended in 2016. President Trump’s election has orphaned a worldview that many of us had hoped was persuasive enough to become universal. From lonely midnight tweeting to gameshow staff management and pinball diplomacy, never has a president worked so hard to prove his critics right.

In 2018, we learnt what a largely leaderless world looks like. More violence, uncertainty and drift. More proliferation of nuclear, chemical and conventional weapons. More murdered journalists and abuse of elections. More weaponisation of intolerance and difference. More building of walls.

As a result, there was less co-operation on the growing challenge of climate change. Less collective focus on reducing inequality. Less creative debate on the threats and opportunities of artificial intelligence. Less coexistence. Without the restraints of international law, you get the law of the jungle. Without functioning politics, the lunatics take over the asylum.

But it is unfair to blame only Trump – a symptom as much as a cause. So many of the countries that used to set the global agenda now find themselves on the agenda instead. Much of the world is looking with growing uncertainty at what it sees as a decadent Europe, a divided America and a disruptive Russia. The nations in question know from experience that wars happen because of rapid economic shifts, rising nationalism, erratic leaders, malfunctioning institutions, or the rapid rise of new powers. Having all five in place does not bode well.

So, how can we stay optimistic about what appears an even more precarious 2019? Because humanity is approaching a tipping point on three game-changing ideas.

Firstly, the potential of citizen agency. A leaderless world gives each of us much greater choice and power, and that is a good thing. The internet can liberate a new politics that is more participatory and accessible, that can regenerate humanity’s ability to reason together. The more that people determine their own fate, the more peaceful we become.

Second, the need to create more opportunity. The winners from globalisation now acknowledge that too many – whether in yellow vests in Paris, MAGA caps in Texas or lifejackets in the Mediterranean – feel they have lost from it. Ninety per cent of humanity cannot be subject to the other 10 per cent. The new frontline of local, national and international politics will be between those who believe in equality of opportunity, and those who don’t.

Thirdly, the fact that identity is complex. There is growing understanding that one’s country can be exceptional in the sense of being brilliant without needing to insist that is exceptional in the sense of being uniquely brilliant. For instance, I can be a British national without thinking Britain is flawless. We also all have overlapping loyalties, be they to family, business, city, football team, country, continent, race or religion. These change over time. We do not need to let ourselves be defined by our tribes or our differences.

In 2019, we will see the impact of these three ideas as they are spread. New technology will start to reinvigorate our politics, and politics will start to restrain the excesses of Big Tech. We will become better at resisting apathy and distraction, at building rather than simply disrupting. We will see a more robust collective effort to protect and renew the checks and balances created with such wisdom by our ancestors. Just flick through President Trump’s Grinch-like Christmas tweets to see how this feels.

In the Middle East and Africa, there are two widely and deeply held narratives about the West – that we make contradictory promises to allies that we then fail to back up, and that we pursue narrow commercial interests. For the first time, we have a US president who agrees with those ideas entirely. The shifting sense of agency, opportunity and identity will allow for the first time in more than a century the prospect of the region genuinely charting its own course. While serving as the UK’s ambassador to Lebanon, I was often misquoted as having called for a new Sykes/Picot agreement. What I actually said was that the next Sykes and Picot should be from the Middle East.

Closer to home for me, I predict that agency, opportunity and identity will accelerate recognition in the UK that success depends on us becoming more agile internationalists, relentlessly pro-freedom, to trade, to move, to think, to innovate. When we come together as a country and take ourselves more seriously, we can expect the world to take our global aspirations seriously again too. Many international observers tell me the UK has checked into rehab, but they hope we will come out fully recovered. We will.

Columbus sailed quietly off in 1492 to find a new world, while the citizens of Spain squabbled around him. Now, as then, there are ingenious humans quietly discovering the ideas that we do not yet understand, but will soon be unable to imagine living without. Steps forward traditionally depended on a few genius outliers. But the new enlightenment will be broader-based than any before, drawing on the talent of those currently denied opportunity. Only that collaboration can generate the creativity required not just for survival, but for renewal. Smart people finish your sentences; the best people start them.

With all that in mind, we can start 2019 believing that it will be a better year – even if we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to start it from here.

Tom Fletcher is a former UK ambassador, author of The Naked Diplomat, a visiting professor at NYUAD and Emirates Diplomatic Academy, and founder of the Foundation for Opportunity