Reflecting on the events that shaped the summer of 2016, its easy to be overwhelmed by the many images evoking contradictory emotions. The smiles of triumphant athletes mixed in with the tears of parents of the victims of the Nice terror attack. And yet, one image prevails over all the others. It’s the picture of a five-year-old Syrian boy pulled from the rubble of his home in the besieged city of Aleppo, after yet another bombing from Syrian forces.
His body is covered with dust, his face with blood. His gaze, which is fixed somewhere into the distance, conveys all the world’s misery. Like the women of Guernica who looked up at the skies and saw death coming in a wave of warplanes, this picture will come to symbolise the Syrian conflict and our shame in the face of the human, as well as geopolitical, tragedy.
As top United Nations official, Stephen O’Brien said, “this callous carnage that is Syria has long since moved from the cynical, to the sinful”. The Syrian tragedy will arguably go down in history as one of the greatest failures by the international community of the 21st century.
The shock and outcry triggered by the image of the boy has long since faded. Instead, French minds are occupied with other, apparently more peaceful, images. Beyond the bombs destroying lives in Syria, we’ve become fascinated by the sight of “covered” women at the beach. “Unveil this body, which you shall not cover,” say today’s defenders of France’s secularism.
“I order you to be free,” is the message touted by Prime Minister Manuel Valls and former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who both spoke out in favour of banning the “burkini.”
The dispute over the burkini is a perfect illustration, both tragic and ridiculous, of how we’ve lost our bearings in the face of chaos. What the summer of 2016 has shown is how bad we’ve become at seeing the world’s bigger challenges. While some issues are sensationalised, many others go underreported. It’s a dangerous mix of ignorance and indifference.
There are countries, if not continents, that seem to be beyond the reach of our radar. How many articles and news reports from this summer were on the political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela? Thousands of starving refugees are leaving the oil-rich country, victims of their elite’s corruption and their leaders’ recklessness.
A former French prime minister who recently passed away, Michel Rocard, once famously said that we “cannot host all the misery of the world”. Indeed, we don’t even seem capable of even reporting it.
The developing nations of Africa have struggled to capture the media spotlight with news focusing on little more besides electoral messages aimed at spreading fear and the dual imperatives of security and development.
In contrast, everything directly or indirectly linked to Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) receives widespread media coverage, which is legitimate, of course, but also potentially dangerous. Daesh thrives on media attention. Even as Daesh loses ground, it continues to recruit men and seeks to balance its defeats with the imagination it shows in its choice of targets.
The summer of 2016 will also be remembered as the summer of Turkey and Russia. While Ankara and Moscow are both indulging in a show of force, their actions are representative of a world in disarray.
Amid the chaos of the world, the debates that followed the referendum in favour of Brexit occupy a special place. The British now realise the complexity of the process they’ve set in motion. “Only one person is missing and the whole world seems depopulated,” said French writer Lamartine. More prosaically, can Europe learn to live without Britain, and Britain without Europe?
The summer’s only real good news came from the United States, where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump engaged in political self-sabotage. He has fallen prey to his own abusive language and his taste for perpetual provocation. After his senseless statements against the parents of an “American hero”, a Muslim soldier who died fighting in Iraq, many Republican leaders wanted to distance themselves from the “losing machine” that is Trump. He has neither the charisma and political instincts of Ronald Reagan, nor the cold and calculating intelligence of Richard Nixon. If the latest polls are to be believed, it now seems increasingly unlikely that the world’s biggest democratic power will become, as a result of its electoral choice, the world’s laughing stock.
Can the defeat of populism in the US generate an upswing of more moderate political forces that will next year stand for election across Europe? We’re about to find out.
— Worldcrunch 2016, in partnership with Les Echos/New York Times News Service
Dominique Moisi, a professor at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), is senior adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI) and a visiting professor at King’s College London.