Ch, ch, ch, ch, changes

One night at the end of the XXth century, a famous British TV program announced the end of the century including biggest changes ever, while images of all kind of technological advances were projected, from modern planes to nuclear mushrooms. The historian Ian Mortimer saw the connection between change and technology clearly, but not so clearly such a statement. He spent two years reviewing the last ten centuries of the Western civilization, highlightening from each one the key events and concluding that it is true that the XXth century includes a lot of big changes, but the rest of the centuries are no slouch. Including the XXIst, which started unruly.

XI: Castles and kingdoms

From the year 1000 the feudal scene was drastically modified by castles. A shelter to be safe from the enemy attacks strengthened the link between the lord and his lands, because even if a retirement in the battle camp was forced, he could come back and claim them —just in the case he was able to keep the control of the castles—. This is why the lords were setting in their possesions by fidelizing their vassals to defend them, fact that lead to greater stability that allowed them to begin to think of themselves as rulers of a territory closer to a kingdom or country than to a tribe or village.

Some castles are so strong that have survived till now, as Loarre, built in the XIth century at the entrance of the Aragon Pirinees, which is today one of the best conserved Romanic buildings in Europe — Image Unknown Author

XII: The control of knowledge

Later on, but not so later on, the settlement of hundred new monasteries triggered an explosion of the spread of knowledge. Monks seeking a wider comprehension of God travelled among them, specially among those of their same order, spreading news and sharing theological and historical papers and works which were stored in their libraries as currently is made in the Internet. The crusades, the Inquisition and the settlement of a parroquial system —that last till now— increased the direct influence of the Church over the people and the powerful idea of the Purgatory spread over every head.

Umberto Eco famous novel reflects very well the relationship of the medieval Church with knowledge, while fray William of Baskerville and his pupil Adso de Melk investigate the crimes of an abbey — Image Jean-Jacques Annaud (‘The name of the rose’, 1986).

XIII: A wide range of variety

The appearance of the medieval market involved a huge change in the life of the people: from a subsistence and domestic consumption to the possibility of buying things, in addition of the access to exotics and till then unthinkable items such as fabrics, spices or dyes. The barter was the main character of the early transactions, but as the markets and fairs developed around Europe, money started to compete with land property as source of power until it became the only way to do business.

Over time, medieval markets and fairs also served to share celebrations and strengthen ties — Image Pieter Brueghel the Younger (‘A village fair in honor of Saint Hubert and Saint Anthony’, 1564)

XIV: The Plague and class consciousness

In 1346 it was thought illness was a divine punishment, but the Black Plague killed more than a third of the Eurasian population in the next five years, and the shock was so huge that people started to rethink their relationship with the power, including even a God that allowed newborns to die without time to sin. That strenghtened the self-esteem of the working class, that started to rebel against their employers in uprisings as the Grande Jacquerie in France in 1358, or the Rebellion of the Farmers in England in 1381.

It is believed that the usual thing was five days from contagion to death, but the legend says that with the Black Plague it was possible to be healhty in the morning, have fever in the afternoon and die in the night, between horrible pains and stinky odors made by the inflammation of the lynf nodes — Image Unknown Author (‘The plague of the XIV century’ details of the fresco ‘The life of San Sebastian’, San Sebastian chapel, Lanslevillard, France, 1411)

XV: Expanding horizons

Beyond the tremendous importance of adding a new continent to the world map with the size of America, the adventure of Colon and his followers also brought along a very important intelectual turn. Explorers broke the prevailing myth in which Greeks and Romans knew all that was worth knowing, and in addition they forced the scholars to left their self-indulgent attitude: if they missed a whole continent, who knows what else could be missed.

In the 1507 planisphere ‘Universalis Cosmographia’ America is first named; with it the world map suffered a great transformation, and also the minds — Image Martin Waldseemüller

XVI: Sacred reading for all

Although the press had been invented in 1455, the truth is that in the beginning few books were printed, usually in Latin and they were so expensive that almost nobody could pay for them. The translation of the Bible to vernacular languages was the real hit and it took place along the whole century. A book people wanted to understand made Europeans want to read and write, fact that allowed a new kind of communication between God and the people: without intermediaries.

The German Bible of Luther and the rest of translations in different languages helped to improve the fulfillment of law and order, which reduced the crime rate to half — Image David Shane

XVII: And yet it moves

Galileo was condemned in 1633 for saying that Earth was moving around the Sun, nevertheless in fact it moves, and in the next years many papers about it were published, and the first scientific societies were founded: the Academia Naturae Curiosorum —after Leopoldina— in Baviera in 1652, the Royal Society in London in 1660 and the Academie des Sciences in Paris in 1666. The change was more sociocultural than technological, changing the authority of the vital matters from the Church to Science, from God to the Man. If you got very ill in 1600 you would call a priest, in 1700 a doctor.

The heliocentric model was already proposed in the 3rd century BC by Aristarchus of Samos, although the world remained geocentric until the arrival of the ‘De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’ of Copernicus, twenty centuries later — Image A&

XVIII: The illustrate revolution

The main European thinkers embraced Illustration strongly and questioned the legitimation of the power to repress people. Montesquieu, Voltaire and in particular Rousseau —with the publication of ‘The social contract’ in 1762— proclaimed that a State is unfair if treats individuals unproperly, and the French Revolution was mainly inspired by those ideas. A new concept of freedom arised, and they started to talk about human rights and the relationship between men and State was rethought.

The French Revolution marked the beginning of the Contemporary Age by creating the concept of popular sovereignty and laying the foundations of modern democracy — Image Eugène Delacroix (‘Liberty leading the People’, 1830)

XIX: Communication and speed

A message or a parcel of the year 1830 took long to reach their destination, at least what it took a horse to cover the distance in between these two points. The train and the steam ship were key for the commerce development and spezialitation and for the massive distribution of basic products, something that made disappear the periods of famine in times of peace. Around 1870, telephone changed the speed of information, messages took just an electric pulse to arrive.

Train allowed to the world be closer to the rest of the world — Image Enciclopedia Britannica

XX: War overflows

Until the First World War only soldiers were killed in war. Society was horrified with the number of civil deads, specially after the creation and released of the atomic bomb in the Second World War, that meant humanity had the capacity for the first time in their history, of destroying the whole planet. The USA and the URSS started the so called Cold War and the European Union was created in order to avoid new wars. After the failure of the Soviet communism in 1989 the capitalist occidental values, that in the 1900 were just along Europe, North America and Oceania, spread worldwide.

The Fat Man atomic bomb was realeased over the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1945 resulting in the end of the Second World War — Image US National Archives

XXI: Universal pandemic

In November 2019, a virus that passed from bats to humans was the origin of a pandemic which affected quickly all countries in a globalized world, and afterwards several waves and mutations, the seven thousand million population of the Earth became a thousand million. At first, the role of State was essential and many omen and dreamers predicted the return of the failed Communism, although after some time states disappeared and in a natural way Universalism started to rule the world as a new kind of government, based in self-awareness that everything existing is an organic system we belong to, and we should better live in harmony. No doubt good old Ian Mortimer would like to look into it.

Picture made with electronic microscope of a bunch of coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, in which we can clearly see the surrounding crown of the proteins that give its name to the virus — Image NIAID
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Friedrich Engels es una de las figuras más interesantes y contradictorias del siglo XIX. Nacido en el seno de una próspera familia mercantil del oeste de Alemania, trabajó en la industria del algodón de Manchester y disfrutó de la cómoda vida de clase media de un caballero victoriano. Sin embargo, también fue co-fundador del comunismo internacional, una ideología que en el siglo XX llegó a gobernar a un tercio de la raza humana y que a principios del siglo XXI, y después de una aplicación decepcionante, todavía sigue viva. Fue además co-autor de El Manifiesto Comunista e hizo posible que Karl Marx pudiera dedicarse en cuerpo y alma a escribir El Capital.

Tristram Hunt es historiador, periodista y ex-parlamentario laborista, miembro de la Royal Historical Society y director desde 2017 del Victoria & Albert Museum de Londres. En su libro El gentleman comunista analiza de manera ingeniosa y amena cómo Engels, uno de los grandes vividores de la Gran Bretaña victoriana, pudo reconciliar su exuberante vida personal con la gestación de una filosofía política tirando a estricta.

Estatua en honor de Marx y Engels en Berlín — Imagen Sean Galup

Friedrich Engels is one of the most interesting and contradictory figures of the 19th century. Born into a prosperous West German merchant family, he spent his career working in the Manchester cotton industry and enjoying the comfortable middle-class life of a Victorian gentleman. Yet Engels was also the co-founder of international communism, the philosophy which in the 20th century came to control one third of the human race and that at the beginning of the 21st century, and after a disappointing application, is still alive. He was also a co-author of The Communist Manifesto and made it possible for Karl Marx to devote himself body and soul to writing Das Kapital.

Tristram Hunt is a historian, journalist and former Labor MP, member of the Royal Historical Society and director since 2017 of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. In his book The Frock-Coated Communist he analyzes in an ingenious and entertaining way how Engels, one of the great bonvivants of Victorian Britain, was able to reconcile his exuberant personal life with the gestation of a strict political philosophy.

Statue in honor of Marx and Engels in Berlin — Image Sean Galup

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Después de un año en el que fuimos testigos del asalto al Capitolio de EE UU, el terrible derramamiento de sangre en Etiopía, la victoria de los talibanes en Afganistán y los pulsos entre las grandes potencias a propósito de Ucrania y Taiwán en medio de una ambición estadounidense cada vez menor en el escenario global, la COVID-19 y la emergencia climática, es fácil pensar que el mundo ha descarrilado.

Pero quizá se pueda argumentar que las cosas están mejor de lo que parece.

Al fin y al cabo, en ciertos aspectos, la guerra está en retirada. El número de personas muertas a causa de ella en todo el planeta ha disminuido desde 2014, si solo contamos los fallecidos directamente en combate. Según el Programa de Datos sobre Conflictos de Uppsala, las cifras disponibles hasta finales de 2020 muestran que las muertes en combate han descendido desde hace siete años, sobre todo gracias a que la terrible matanza de Siria ha remitido enormemente.

El número de guerras declaradas también está descendiendo, después de haber alcanzado recientemente su máximo. Aunque el presidente ruso, Vladímir Putin, amenace a Ucrania, no es frecuente que los Estados se declaren la guerra. Hay más conflictos locales que nunca, pero suelen ser menos intensos. En general, las guerras del siglo XXI son menos letales que las del siglo XX.

Putin a caballo durante unas vacaciones en Siberia — Imagen Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

El hecho de que Estados Unidos actúe con más cautela también puede tener sus ventajas. El baño de sangre de los 90 en Bosnia, Ruanda y Somalia; las guerras de Afganistán e Irak tras el 11-S; la campaña asesina contra los tamiles en Sri Lanka y el desmoronamiento de Libia y Sudán del Sur se produjeron cuando Occidente, encabezado por Washington, era dominante y, a veces, precisamente por eso. El hecho de que los últimos presidentes estadounidenses se hayan abstenido de derrocar a sus enemigos por la fuerza es positivo. Además, no conviene exagerar la influencia de Washington ni siquiera en su apogeo en plena Guerra Fría; sin una invasión, siempre le ha costado mucho someter a los líderes recalcitrantes —por ejemplo, el exdirigente sudanés Omar al Bashir— a su voluntad.

No obstante, aunque estos sean argumentos positivos, son bastante endebles.

Al fin y al cabo, las muertes en combate no son más que una parte de la historia. La guerra de Yemen mata a más personas, fundamentalmente mujeres y niños, por hambre o enfermedades prevenibles que debido a la violencia. Millones de etíopes sufren una horrible inseguridad alimentaria a causa de la guerra civil que asola el país. En otros lugares de África, las luchas en las que participan los islamistas no suelen causar miles de muertes, pero sí expulsan a millones de personas de sus hogares y provocan una devastación humanitaria.

En Afganistán, el nivel de violencia ha disminuido claramente desde que los talibanes se hicieron con el poder en agosto, pero la hambruna, debida sobre todo a las políticas de Occidente, puede causar la muerte de más afganos —entre ellos, millones de niños— que las luchas de las últimas décadas. El número de personas desplazadas en todo el mundo, en su mayoría debido a las guerras, está en unos niveles sin precedentes. En otras palabras, puede que las muertes en batalla hayan disminuido, pero el sufrimiento debido al conflicto no.

Aparentemente, las guerras del siglo XXI son menos letales que las del siglo XX — Imagen AP

Por otra parte, los Estados están envueltos en una competencia feroz incluso cuando no participan directamente en combates. Pelean mediante ciberataques, campañas de desinformación, injerencias electorales, coacción económica y la instrumentalización de los migrantes. Las grandes potencias y las regionales se disputan la influencia en las zonas de guerra, a menudo a través de sus respectivos aliados locales. Hasta ahora, las guerras por terceros interpuestos no han desatado ningún enfrentamiento directo entre los Estados que se entrometen. Es más, algunos eluden ese peligro con gran habilidad: Rusia y Turquía siguen manteniendo unas relaciones cordiales a pesar de apoyar bandos opuestos en las guerras de Siria y Libia. Aun así, la injerencia extranjera en los conflictos crea el peligro de que los enfrentamientos locales desaten incendios más grandes.

Los pulsos entre las grandes potencias son cada vez más peligrosos. Quizá Putin se la juegue con otra incursión en Ucrania. No parece probable que China y EE UU vayan a pelearse por Taiwán en 2022, pero cada vez hay más choques entre los ejércitos de ambos países en los alrededores de la isla y en el Mar del Sur de China, con todo el riesgo que eso entraña. Si el pacto nuclear con Irán fracasa, cosa que parece probable, es posible que Estados Unidos o Israel intenten —tal vez incluso a principios de 2022— destruir las instalaciones de la República Islámica, lo que seguramente empujaría a Teherán a acelerar su programa de armamento y a llevar a cabo ataques en toda la región. Un paso en falso o mal calculado y podríamos encontrarnos de nuevo ante una guerra entre Estados.

Además, al margen de lo que piense cada uno sobre la influencia de EE UU, es inevitable que su declive comporte riesgos, puesto que su poder y sus alianzas han estructurado la política global desde hace decenios. No exageremos al hablar de decadencia: sigue habiendo fuerzas estadounidenses desplegadas en todo el mundo, la OTAN sigue en pie y la labor diplomática reciente de Washington en Asia demuestra que todavía es capaz de formar coaliciones mejor que ninguna otra potencia. Ahora bien, con una situación tan cambiante, sus rivales no dejan de probar hasta dónde pueden llegar.

Partidarios de Trump asaltan el Capitolio de EE UU el 6 de enero de 2021 — Imagen Leah Millis/Reuters

Los lugares más peligrosos de la actualidad —Ucrania, Taiwán, los enfrentamientos con Irán— están en cierto modo relacionados con las dificultades del mundo para encontrar un nuevo equilibrio. Y las disfunciones de EE UU no facilitan las cosas. Para que la transición en el poder mundial sea suave, hacen falta cabezas frías y previsibilidad, no elecciones cargadas de tensiones y cambios de rumbo entre un gobierno y el siguiente.

En cuanto a la COVID-19, la pandemia ha agudizado los peores desastres humanitarios del mundo y ha fomentado el empobrecimiento, el alza del coste de la vida, las desigualdades y el desempleo, es decir, los problemas que alimentan la indignación popular. La pandemia intervino a la toma de poder por parte del presidente de Túnez en el pasado otoño, el golpe de Sudán y las protestas de Colombia. Los daños que está provocando la COVID-19 en la economía pueden llevar al límite la tensión que se vive en algunos países. No es lo mismo el descontento que la protesta, ni la protesta que la crisis, ni la crisis que el conflicto, pero es posible que los peores síntomas de la pandemia estén todavía por llegar.

En definitiva, aunque las inquietantes tendencias que vemos hoy no han disparado aún las cifras de muertos en combate ni han hecho arder el mundo, el horizonte sigue siendo malo. Y la lista de este año muestra bien a las claras que puede empeorar todavía más.

La versión original y en inglés puede consultarse en International Crisis Group. Traducción de María Luisa Rodríguez Tapia para esglobal.org

After a year that saw an assault on the U.S. Capitol, horrific bloodshed in Ethiopia, a Taliban triumph in Afghanistan, great-power showdowns over Ukraine and Taiwan amid dwindling U.S. ambition on the global stage, COVID-19, and a climate emergency, it’s easy to see a world careening off the tracks.

But maybe one could argue things are better than they seem.

After all, by some measures, war is in retreat. The number of people killed in fighting worldwide has mostly declined since 2014 —if you count only those dying directly in combat—. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, figures through the end of 2020 show battle deaths are down from seven years ago, mostly because Syria’s terrible slaughter has largely subsided.

The number of major wars has also descended from a recent peak. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin menacing Ukraine, states rarely go to war with one another. More local conflicts rage than ever, but they tend to be of lower intensity. For the most part, 21st-century wars are less lethal than their 20th-century predecessors.

Putin rides a horse during his vacation in Siberia — Image Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

A more cautious United States might also have an upside. The 1990s bloodletting in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia; the post-9/11 Afghanistan and Iraq wars; Sri Lanka’s murderous campaign against the Tamils; and the collapse of Libya and South Sudan all happened at a time of —and, in some cases, thanks to— a dominant U.S.-led West. That recent U.S. presidents have refrained from toppling enemies by force is a good thing. Besides, one shouldn’t overstate Washington’s sway even in its post-Cold War heyday; absent an invasion, it has always struggled to bend recalcitrant leaders —former Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, for example— to its will.

Still, if these are silver linings, they’re awfully thin.

Battle deaths, after all, tell just a fraction of the story. Yemen’s conflict kills more people, mostly women and young children, due to starvation or preventable disease than violence. Millions of Ethiopians suffer acute food insecurity because of the country’s civil war. Fighting involving Islamists elsewhere in Africa often doesn’t entail thousands of deaths but drives millions of people from their homes and causes humanitarian devastation.

Afghanistan’s violence levels have sharply dropped since the Taliban seized power in August, but starvation, caused mostly by Western policies, could leave more Afghans dead —including millions of children— than past decades of fighting. Worldwide, the number of displaced people, most due to war, is at a record high. Battle deaths may be down, in other words, but suffering due to conflict is not.

Apparently, the wars of the 21st century are less lethal than those of the 20th century — Image AP

Moreover, states compete fiercely even when they’re not fighting directly. They do battle with cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, election interference, economic coercion, and by instrumentalizing migrants. Major and regional powers vie for influence, often through local allies, in war zones. Proxy fighting has not so far sparked direct confrontation among meddling states. Indeed, some navigate the danger adeptly: Russia and Turkey maintain cordial relations despite backing competing sides in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts. Still, foreign involvement in conflicts creates the risk that local clashes light bigger fires.

Standoffs involving major powers look increasingly dangerous. Putin may gamble on another incursion into Ukraine. A China-U.S. clash over Taiwan is unlikely in 2022, but the Chinese and U.S. militaries increasingly bump up against each another around the island and in the South China Sea, with all the peril of entanglement that entails. If the Iran nuclear deal collapses, which now seems probable, the United States or Israel may attempt —possibly even early in 2022— to knock out Iranian nuclear facilities, likely prompting Tehran to sprint toward weaponization while lashing out across the region. One mishap or miscalculation, in other words, and interstate war could make a comeback.

And whatever one thinks of U.S. influence, its decline inevitably brings hazards, given that American might and alliances have structured global affairs for decades. No one should exaggerate the decay: U.S. forces are still deployed around the globe, NATO stands, and Washington’s recent Asia diplomacy shows it can still marshal coalitions like no other power. But with much in flux, Washington’s rivals are probing to see how far they can go.

Trump supporters storm the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 — Image Leah Millis / Reuters

Today’s most dangerous flash points —whether Ukraine, Taiwan, or confrontations with Iran— relate in some way to the world struggling for a new equilibrium. Dysfunction in the United States hardly helps. A delicate transition of global power requires cool heads and predictability, not fraught elections and policy seesawing from one administration to the next.

As for COVID-19, the pandemic has exacerbated the world’s worst humanitarian disasters and propelled the impoverishment, rising living costs, inequality, and joblessness that fuel popular anger. It had a hand this past year in a power grab in Tunisia, Sudan’s coup, and protests in Colombia. The economic hurt COVID-19 is unleashing could strain some countries to a breaking point. Although it’s a leap from discontent to protest, from protest to crisis, and from crisis to conflict, the pandemic’s worst symptoms may yet lie ahead.

So while today’s troubling undercurrents haven’t yet set battle deaths soaring or the world ablaze, things still look bad. As this year’s list shows all too starkly, they could easily get worse.

The original extended version can be consulted at International Crisis Group

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