Will tomorrow’s world be realism redux, liberal resilience or radical uncertainty?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 26, 2016

climate-changeHarvard professor Stephen Walt offers three models of the future and you can take your pick depending on whether you’re an optimist like Winston Churchill or a miserable git.

In December 1938, Churchill said, “I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use being anything else”. But he never, as is famously and incorrectly reported, offered that stirring definition of pessimists and optimists: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Anyway, as an optimist, Churchill would probably want to pick #2 of Professor Walt’s three models of the future, but probably regard #3 as more realistic.

Professor Walt calls #3 Radical Uncertainty. It’s a good way to categorise a world in which random events, crucial elections, difficult leadership choices and acts of terrorism help shape the political landscape. The Professor explains this as follows. “Consider how different the world would be today had the 9/11 hijackers been apprehended before they boarded their fateful flights: There might have been no Iraq war, no US occupation of Afghanistan, no Islamic State, and no civil war in Syria. Or imagine what might have happened had the weather been sunny and clear on the day of the Brexit vote in Britain, making it more likely that complacent ‘No’ voters in London actually went to the polls.”

Model # 3 of the world, says Professor Walt, says it will be “what we make of it.” By picking the right leaders and hewing to the politics of reason, the world won’t go off-course by “black swans” such as “a global pandemic, ruinous climate event, nuclear detonation”.

But if we the people choose ill-tempered passion over reason and prudence, #1 would probably be likely. This means “the past 70 years — and especially among the Western democracies — have been a glorious, miraculous aberration” and centrifugal forces are taking hold.