As the Jewish New Year begins, we should look backward and forward in time to decide what is good, what is bad, and what is ugly.
Looking backward, the last category is easy. This past year, which began with the usual mix of good and bad, turned ugly after four months. A coronavirus, an entity too small to see without a microscope, brought the great and mighty human race to its knees. An astonishing void of competent, much less great, leadership in the Western world led to a serious economic/political/social/health situation almost everywhere. There can be little doubt that the effects of the corona-crisis will be felt long into the future.
The economic situation brought about by the corona-crisis, with large increases in unemployment and destitution, led to extensive demonstrations in many countries, and destructive rioting in some, especially the United States.
Incidents such as police brutality were blown out of all proportion and used as an excuse for attacking the whole social order. Politics became even more polarized than it had been before, exacerbated by exploitation of the social chaos by populists of both the right and the left, some in high positions.
Various geopolitical danger-points became worse in the course of the year. In the Far East and the Pacific Basin, China continued flexing its muscles and threatening its neighbors, particularly Taiwan and India. In the Middle East, Iran and Turkey did their best to turn crisis areas such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Lebanon into seething cesspools of anarchy.
Russia continued to try to re-create the old Russian empire, in Ukraine and Belarus, while threatening the Baltic states, and expanding its military and political penetration into the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East.
So much for the bad and the ugly. Was there any good in the past year?
Not much, but surprisingly, what there was was centered in the Middle East, reversing the usual situation. At the very end of the year the US administration was able to engineer a cordial rapprochement between Israel and two of the Gulf states – the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The beginning of an Israeli-Sunni alliance to confront both Iran and Turkey was good news indeed. Still, the net assessment of the year has to be highly negative for the world as a whole.
And the next year?
At this point the net assessment for next year looks likely to be negative again, although perhaps not quite as ugly, as long as a treatment and a vaccine for Covid-19 is found, the situation in the Far East and South Asia does not deteriorate into outright war, and particularly if the November election in the US does not degenerate into challenges, litigation, demonstrations and rioting, which it may very well do.
In the Middle East, all signs point to a continuation of the consolidation of the Israeli-Sunni alliance, with more countries joining the UAE and Bahrain in “normalizing” relations with Israel. Prime candidates for this are Oman and Kuwait, although Qatar is unlikely, unless it is willing to abandon its support of insurgent and terrorist groups throughout the region. The 800-pound gorilla in the room, Saudi Arabia, will clearly be on the list also, sooner or later.
Depending on what happens in the US and also in the highly confusing Israeli political situation, Iran and Turkey will find themselves increasingly confronted in the region.
The dangers, of course, are manifold: an error of judgment on the part of China and/or Russia, Iran making progress toward obtaining nuclear weapons, the US and Israel losing influence because of political and/or social instability and economic decline, especially if the corona-crisis continues for any length of time into the new year.
We can hope for a year with plenty of bad and a good deal of good, and with the final judgment a year from now that the world is less ugly than it was in September of 2020.
Norman A Bailey is the author of numerous books and articles and recipient of several honorary degrees, medals and awards and two orders of knighthood. He also teaches economic statecraft at The Institute of World Politics and has experience on the staff of the National Security Council at the White House, in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and in business, consulting and finance. He is professor emeritus in the National Security Studies Center, University of Haifa, and a columnist for Globes, the Israeli business and financial newspaper.