It is impossible to count the number of times I have heard someone say that we live in a “global village,” one that has become so interconnected due to the information technology revolution, international trade networks, the movement of people and goods, and the interweaving of different cultures and values. People always seem ready to cite examples of this: They will point to young people in villages from India to Zanzibar cheering for Chelsea FC, to fashion and design trends and fads spanning continents. The Japanese are famed for their pride in their customs and traditions. Yet we can observe hordes of Japanese shoppers abroad snatching up the latest international brand names. Of course, given the rate of the Yen, products abroad are relatively cheap. But this is not just a question of prices. It is about making Japanese women think that they will feel “feminine” when they are carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag or making Japanese youth believe that they are not truly modern until they wear a shirt with a Polo or Burberry label on it.
There are innumerable examples that testify to the relentless march of this “one world” phenomenon. In fact, the pace has increased to the extent that when one spots yesterday’s brand names it is almost like seeing a woman in a Kimono on the streets of Tokyo or a man dressed as a cowboy on the streets of Dallas. Never before has the world seen such connections and networks, ones that can spur worldwide protests at human rights violations in one country or another, or enable the flow of trade only in accordance with the rules of the World Trade Organization—though those operating outside that framework see this as a form of collective punishment.
Nevertheless, the world did not seem so “one” when Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula; it was more like a scene from the 19th century or the first half of the 20th. Once again we were hearing the same old story: minorities being used as pretexts for territorial expansion, in the same way Hitler used German minorities in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Austria as a pretext for the invasion and annexation of parts of those countries. Today, it is Putin’s Russia—brimming with a host of diverse ethnic minorities—that is using the same pretext not only to annex Crimea, as it did with parts of Georgia, but also to harass Kiev with an eye to annexing eastern Ukraine. Now Moldavia and other countries in Central Asia and the Baltic are coming under Moscow’s crosshairs.
Putin could have elevated Russia’s standing in different ways. Russia has an educated population, resources and industry. But dictatorship and lack of freedoms have encouraged him to leap into space while his country is yet to produce an exportable car. In fact, Russia is a Third World country; it relies on the production and export of primary resources such as oil and gas. True, Russia has made it to the moon, but it has not yet reached the rest of the world. Few people can remember the last Russian product they bought—unless they happen to be military men or terrorists who are fond of Russian-made weapons.
Neither did the world look very modern when Bashar Al-Assad unleashed chemical weapons against his own people and razed entire villages and towns to the ground. This is an “old world” with no connection with the widely held conception of the “one world” of the 21st century. The events of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath ushered in a new era of religious wars—otherwise known as “The clash of civilizations”—but human nature has not changed much; the laws governing the balance of power remain unchanged and geopolitical forces assert themselves as always.
Perhaps it was not all that strange, after all, when the world was suddenly jolted awake to the resurgence of the “piracy” ravaging Africa’s coasts on the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. Could it be that those pirates have taken to the air? And where is that missing Malaysian plane? Last week, information surfaced regarding sightings of airplane debris in the southern Indian Ocean. The images were picked up by satellites, some commercial and others for communications—as well as a third group whose presence in outer space cannot be explained. However, the airplane parts were hundreds of miles away from each other and there is no solid evidence that any of them came from the missing plane. But even if such evidence existed, what brought the plane to that part of the world? Why was it heading towards the South Pole when it should have been heading northwards towards China?
But the story of the flight is more complicated. The plane did indeed head northwards only to reverse course, re-enter Malaysian airspace, and then head westwards towards India. It has also been established that the plane remained aloft for some seven hours before vanishing without a trace. There are signs that it veered southwards at some point during this period, but nothing was heard from the plane itself.
Such stories seem to come from another time, an “old world.” Where, here, is our new and modern world? It seems there are many worlds situated at various points between the old and the new. Nor is there any proof that the old world has entirely gone away. Most likely elements of it survive: the Vatican state, for example, or the call for the revival of the Islamic Caliphate by means of the sword. Take Egypt, where Facebook—that symbol of the new and interconnected world with all its creative energies—helped launch a revolution. But that revolution was hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, a symbol of the old world towards which the group planned to steer the course of the country. With the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood rule, a new page has been turned, but it remains impossible to predict the nature of the world to come.
Another way to frame this is to say that a minority in the world has already found its way to the future. You can identify this by looking at the considerable inventions and discoveries that appear every day in the fields of aerospace, medicine, commerce and industry. All the while, a large majority remains unchanged in an old world, rooted in the same ideas and values. This is not about rich versus poor; if Russia and China are poor—which, materially, they are not—it has to do with the lack of innovation in human networking: There you will not find a “Google,” a “Facebook,” a “Twitter,” a “Bloomberg,” or any other such ideas that are embraced by the world, then developed, refined and expanded until they can generate new ideas. Yes, you will find in these countries actions and behaviors relying on force—whether in the South China Sea or in Eastern Europe—but the rest has been “borrowed” from the West.
There is definitely an element of political choice involved in this matter. And choice is what propels a country in one direction or another. Perhaps what has happened in our Arab countries following the storms of the “Arab Spring” were all about this difficult issue: Choice.