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The seeds of current global political chaos were planted a decade ago

Those looking for common threads focus on perennial issues such as inequality, economic distress, corruption and a lack of democracy. But the answer to “Why now?” is most often clear only in retrospect.

An anti-government protester
An anti-government protester shelters himself from being sprayed by a water cannon during a rally outside the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong in September.
REUTERS/Susana Vera

If the United States wasn’t in such an uproar at the moment, it might be easier to see that much of the rest of the world is in an uproar, too. 

It’s not just Syria or Venezuela; political chaos in Israel, tensions in the Persian Gulf, trade wars, immigration or Brexit. People are on the streets in countries all over the world. 

While it’s unlikely that anything as dramatic as the fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago this week, will occur, the breadth of protests is remarkable. Hong Kong and Moscow have gotten a lot of attention this year, as have global protests against climate change and efforts to undo Brexit. But mass protest movements forced out strongmen in Sudan and Algeria earlier this year. Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt have been engulfed in protest. In Iraq, 250 people have died; in Egypt, hundreds, if not thousands, have been detained. In Latin America, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and Honduras all have seen serious unrest.  

Writing about Latin America recently in Foreign Affairs, Moises Naim and Brian Winter said:  “It is now an open question whether any country in the region can be considered truly stable.” In its own understated way, that’s quite an observation. 

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You certainly could name other countries and other regions. And in some of them you can hear an echo of the debate going on in the United States.

What gives? Those looking for common threads focus on perennial issues such as inequality, economic distress, corruption and a lack of democracy. Those problems frequently go hand in hand, and in many places they seem to be sliding together in the wrong direction. But the answer to “Why now?” is most often clear only in retrospect.

In the meantime, here’s another way to look at many of these stories — as a bookend to the decade. You can trace a goodly number of them to events in the news at the beginning of the decade. So how will today’s stories look a decade from now?

It’s popular to regard protests in Iraq and Lebanon as a challenge to Iranian influence, and that’s true enough. Both countries factor heavily in Iran’s effort to project its power in the Middle East, and Tehran has outsized influence on both governments. But that doesn’t make them any less corrupt or the economy work any better; quite the opposite, arguably. 

In those two countries, in Syria and Egypt and arguably in Sudan and Algeria as well, it’s also about the unfinished business of the Arab Spring of 2011. Millions of young people — then and now — have been frustrated by a lack of opportunity and feel that the system has been rigged by a corrupt elite. Leaders have been forced out in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as Sudan and Algeria. Whether there will be real change is another matter entirely.  

For some perspective on what’s going on in South America and Hong Kong, look to Beijing. Protests in Chile, Ecuador and Argentina are largely about economic issues. A boom in commodity exports — largely to China — led to a decade of growth across South America, which started petering out as Chinese demand waned in the early part of this decade. Naim and Winter argue that governments didn’t react quickly enough to rein in resulting budget deficits. When they did, eliminating fuel subsidies in Ecuador and raising public transport fees in Chile, the people reacted, too. In addition, Brazil, which also rode the commodities boom, has suffered from a deep recession. China has helped keep Venezuela afloat with an oil-for-loans deal. 

Promising a return to a stricter Communist orthodoxy, Xi Jinping became the head of China’s Communist Party in November 2012, and its president a few months later. Hong Kong’s protests are a direct expression of fears that Xi, now president for life, is intent on curtailing freedoms that Hong Kong has managed to preserve.

To better understand Russia in 2019, go back to 2011. Vladimir Putin, forced out by term limits, was prime minister. But in September, he announced he would run for president again, a move that opponents denounced as evidence of anti-democratic inside dealing. December parliamentary elections were widely criticized as unfair, including by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Putin won the election in March 2012, and was reelected last year.

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The Kremlin has been intent ever since on preventing large-scale protests like those of December 2011; many have traced Putin’s animus toward Clinton to her criticism of those elections. That certainly plays a role in Russia’s efforts to prevent what it sees as U.S. meddling; it probably plays a role in Russian meddling on behalf of President Trump in 2016.

Finally, a couple of reminders. While climate change certainly didn’t start this decade, the U.N. formally adopted the goal of keeping the rise in the global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius at a conference in Cancún, Mexico, at the end of 2010. And while Britain faces parliamentary elections next month that should finally determine what happens with Brexit, then-Prime Minister David Cameron set things in motion in 2013 by promising an up-or-down referendum on remaining in the European Union. 

The past, it’s true, isn’t dead — or even very much in the past.