Issue 217: 2019 10 03: The Future

03 October 2019

The Future

Where’s it gone?

By Neil Tidmarsh

Picture the scene – and this is real life, not the movies – a high-speed car chase along the night-bound highway through Fremont, California.  The suspect hits 120mph as he attempts to escape, but the pursuing police officer is driving no ordinary patrol car.  He’s driving a unique vehicle – a Tesla Model S electric car modified for duty as a 21st century crime-buster.

Which suddenly comes to an embarrassing halt.  Its batteries have run out of power.  The pursuit is called off and the suspect escapes.

But electric cars are the future, aren’t they? Weren’t they? Has the future run out of steam (sorry, I mean, run out of charge) already?  It seems so.  The suspect’s car wasn’t the only thing to disappear over the horizon, never to be seen again, after the failure of that electric car last week; it felt as if a little bit of the future disappeared with it.

And this wasn’t the only story in the news this week to suggest that the future ain’t what it used to be, that it’s let us down, or changed its mind, or simply hasn’t bothered to turn up at all.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008.  The UK gave it official recognition the very next day and 25 out of the EU’s 28 states recognised it within a year.  Eventually it was recognised by 116 of the UN’s 193 members and it seemed that Kosovo could look forward to a bright future as an independent sovereign state, taking its place among other such states in international institutions.

Now, however, it looks as if that future is slipping through its fingers.  It began almost imperceptibly, six years ago, when the small African state of Sao Tome and Principe withdrew its recognition (which it had granted only two years before).  In the last two years, however, as many as 14 countries have withdrawn their recognition (or possibly ten – there’s some confusion over four of them).

Serbia insists that Kosovo is still part of its territory and is working hard to undermine its independence.  Its lobbying appears to have borne fruit among smaller, poorer nations such as Palau, Togo, Papua New Guinea, Surinam and Sao Tome and Principe.  Kosovo’s leaders are calling foul, claiming that bribery and corruption is involved.  President Vucic of Serbia has dismissed such claims.

Other, bigger states are beginning to wobble.  The president of the Democratic Republic of Congo will visit Serbia later this month, and Mr Vucic hopes to persuade him to drop his country’s recognition too.  Even the president of the Czech Republic has declared support for Serbia’s position, and the defection of an EU state would be a serious blow to Kosovo’s status.  Serbia’s foreign minister claims that Kosovo will have the support of fewer than half of the UN’s members by the end of the year.  If that happens, then Kosovo’s future as a sovereign, independent state will look very uncertain indeed.

Similarly, for much of the second half of the twentieth century, it looked as if the small island state of Taiwan had a very bright future.  It declared independence from mainland communist China in 1949 and by the end of the century it was democratic and prosperous, with a highly-educated, hard-working and entrepreneurial population enjoying individual liberties and the rule of law, agriculturally self-sufficient but with an efficiently-industrialised economy that evolved from a highly successful manufacturing base to an even more successful high-tech one.  Indeed, it looked as if Taiwan was the future.

As the twenty-first century progresses, however, it looks as if Taiwan – as a self-governing independent state – is in danger of becoming a thing of the past.  China has always insisted that Taiwan is Chinese territory, and President Xi has sworn that political re-unification will be accomplished by 2050.  He hasn’t ruled out military means, either.

In the meantime Beijing is busy cutting Taiwan’s international diplomatic support off at the knees. The process has been underway for some decades as Beijing’s power and influence has grown: fifty years ago Taiwan was recognised by 70 countries and China by only 46; ten years later Taiwan’s support had fallen to 22 and China’s had risen to 121.  (The UK recognised China in 1972, the same year as the USA, and closed its consulate in Taiwan at the same time).  Last week Taiwan was abandoned by Kiribati and the Solomon islands, which has reduced its support to 15.

In recent years Beijing has been putting economic pressure on commercial entities as well, so that airlines, hotel chains, fashion houses and clothing manufacturers no longer recognise Taiwan as being independent from China.  Taiwan, a founder-member of the UN, will not be flying its national flag at the next Olympics.

The future seems to have gone missing closer to home, as well.  In Israel, and in European states such as Spain, Austria, Sweden and Italy, unstable coalitions have produced stasis and stalemate, and repeated elections fail to break the deadlock but simply reproduce the same inconclusive results, time after time.  It’s like some sort of constitutional or political Groundhog Day, with the present continually looping back into the past without ever breaking free into the future.  The electorate is like a populace trekking to and from the temple as the runes are repeatedly cast, only to see the augurs shake their heads and shrug yet again, the future refusing to reveal itself to them time after time.

Things are no better here in Britain, of course.  In June 2016 it looked as if Brexit was our future, but here we are, three years later, and that future still hasn’t arrived.  It remains as elusive as ever, even now with the latest deadline less than a month away – a deal is looking increasingly unlikely and parliament has passed a law against No Deal.  Worst of all, perhaps, is that the whole unresolved business is now the closed door shutting us off from the future and from all those issues like modernising the economy, increasing productivity and improving social justice which we need to tackle there.

Until recently, science seemed to promise us a disease-free future, with microbe after microbe defeated over the last century or two.  But now even hitherto vanquished diseases have returned, in our back yard, in Europe and the US and other parts of the developed world.  Did we over-estimate the power of science?  No, we under-estimated the intelligence of our species, a sizable portion of which has, for whatever weird reason, turned its back on childhood vaccination.  Britain has just lost its “measles free” status – uptake of the MMR jab has fallen for the last five years.  Which means that the future for some children will be tragically far from disease-free.

We’re all sitting in that stationary patrol-car with that policeman from Fremont, California, its batteries flat, wondering where that future which we were pursuing with such speed has gone.



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