Is this the end of history?

Independent Decade
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Futurology is the mania of the moment. The waning of the millennium, the folding of the Cold War chess board, the fast forwarding of technology and economics have produced a whirl of speculation about the near future of humanity. Will the 21st century bring the end of history, the end of democracy, the end of the nation state, the end of western hegemony, the rise of Islam, the rise of Asia?

Predicting the future is like guessing the winning numbers in the lottery: anything you write down looks plausible, until the coloured balls fall into place and what you predicted looks like, um, balls. Or as EF Schumacher said: "Predictions are always unreliable, especially predictions about the future."

In 1986, when the Independent began, the world looked a fairly reliable place: but who predicted the fall of the Soviet Empire within five years? Not us; not the CIA; not Ronald Reagan.

Ten years on the world looks hopelessly formless and unmanageable. The old global battles between various -isms and -ocracies, which (in Western eyes) dominated most of the 20th century, have ended. We are left with a world without an operator's manual; a world without political heroes.

Foreign events appear more confusing than ever: one damned thing after another. The peoples of the world, like the inhabitants of Sleeping Beauty's castle, have woken from their Cold War trance and resumed their own interrupted business, for good or for evil. Some quarrels which had seemed hopelessly tangled - the Middle East, South Africa - have begun to solve themselves. In some cases (Palestine), they have immediately begun to tangle themselves again. Elsewhere, national and tribal enmities and ambitions which had been anaesthetised by big power politics for decades - Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afganistan - have sprung brutally back to life.

Attempts to fabricate over-arching patterns - Islam versus the West; Asian values versus western democratic values - can be more misleading than helpful. There is no monolithic Islamic movement against the West, more a series of loosely-connected assertions of national and religious identity. Asian values are remarkably similar to all other early-period, tooth-and-claw, capitalist values. For Singapore or Taiwan 1996, read Manchester or Pittsburgh, circa 1896. The relatively mature Asian boom economy, Japan, is already beginning to behave more like a western consumerist country.

Without offering too many hostages to fortune, some trends are reasonably predictable. Global warming and population increases will make food scarcer; competition from the nearly-developed world (and the burden of our own ageing populations) will make sustained growth harder for the west; the shrinking of the globe will make the squalor and corruption of the Third World harder to ignore, bringing immigrants, drugs, even new diseases, to our doorsteps.

All these issues have one thing in common: they erode the distinction between domestic and foreign events. If there is one useful, unifying theory about the way the world will turn in the next 10 years, or the next 50 years, it is this. There will be a whirlpool of conflicting trends and forces setting Globalism in its various forms against Nationalism in its various forms.

The world is becoming smaller, more interdependent but everywhere, it seems, politics is becoming more inward-looking. Economic fashion and technological advance are tearing down barriers between nations. At the same time, the end of the Cold War has produced a surge of nationalism and national introspection.

At their most exaggerated the globalists predict the collapse or marginalisation of the nation state; even the death of democracy. The future, they say, belongs to a cosmopolitan elite of creative but ruthless technologically- literate individuals and multi-national corporations who will evade national controls, taxes and politics.

Some of this will happen. But we should be cautious. Paul Krugman, the US economist, offers a voice for common sense. "The big questions about trade and technology are a bit like global warming. The principle is not in doubt, but it is a question of scale."

The global theorists also tend to ignore an old truism: every action has a reaction. The backlash against globalism is already under way in the west, and from a surprising quarter. The market idolatry of the 1980s was associated with radical Reaganism and Thatchersim. In the 1990s, open markets have become centrist orthodoxy - a centrepiece of both Blairism and Clintonism.

In the west, the visible and strident resistance to free market ideology is coming not from the left but the far-right: Goldsmithism and Lepennism in Europe; Perotism and Buchananism in the US. These may seem like marginal forces now but they contain seeds of a potentially, powerful demagogic national-conservative reaction against globalism, maybe even against aspects of modernism, in the next 10 to 20 years.

Both Perot and Goldsmith have made fortunes as international businessmen - in Perot's case benefiting especially from the barrier-busting new technologies. And yet both now present themselves as patriotic protectionists. Meanwhile Rupert Murdoch's media empire - the paramount exponent and beneficiary of globalism - encourages editorial policies which preach often petty nationalism. The two forces, globalism and nationalism, not colliding but cynically colluding.

Efforts to respond to the new globalism by establishing supranational, regional or global political structures are not to Mr Murdoch's liking. They are, in any case, frustrated (with the partial exception of the EU) by the absence of any real regional or global constituency in support of democratic transfer of power from nation states. In the face of the forces transforming the world, the forces for democracy, pluralism and fair competition have not yet got their shoes on.

The unappealing choice we face is a world dominated and slyly manipulated by Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates or their successors; or, maybe, a series of nations controlled all too visibly by the likes of Pat Buchanan or John Redwood. Most unappealing of all is some form of coalition between the two: a globe controlled undemocratically by a commercial oligarchy, disguised at national level by an array of jingoistic illusions and sideshows.

Here is a related paradox. If all the above is a quarter true, the distinction between domestic news and foreign news will shrink in the next ten to 20 years. And yet almost all news organisations in the west - in Britain, in the US, on the continent - are drawing back from foreign reporting, squeezing costs, responding to introspective national moods.

The Independent, which made its name partly on the quality of its foreign coverage, has also been forced to cut back. But we remain committed to a substantial body of reporting on the world. The alternative would be a kind of journalistic disfunction, in which we dwell on the sound and fury surrounding national symptoms, but offer little deep reportage or analysis of global analogies, solutions or causes. Will the Internet fill the gap? Can it replace the kind of enterprising and informed journalism culled from our efforts in the last ten years which fill other parts of these special pages?