2021 - The Year We Acted Dumb

Populism and autocracy have been on the rise for some time, largely attributed to the feckless insouciance of the neo-liberal democratic leadership that has fueled inequality and want in the world.

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne in Montreal

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity… Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam

The Economist records five major trends that confront us at the present time: the threat to democracy; the advent of the electric vehicle; China’s emergence in the global film industry; climate change; and the technology that could deflect an asteroid threatening the world. Of these, we had a foretaste of the first trend throughout the year – the decline of democracy in the world.  There were two other largely contentious events which happened in 2021: The ill-advised, arbitrary, and seemingly capricious withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, which left the Afghan people destitute of security and sustenance; and  COP -26 in Glasgow which many considered a COPOUT rather than just another COP.

Attack on the U.S. Capitol

Populism and autocracy have been on the rise for some time, largely attributed to the feckless insouciance of the neo-liberal democratic leadership that has fueled inequality and want in the world. When we look at the concept of Democracy (in the classical Greek sense of governance by the people and the right of the citizen  to vote-in a government) which brings with it such rights as the right to speech and press freedom; the right to expect free and fair elections; and the rule of law, there is no room for doubt that the foretaste we had  on 6 January – when the United States Capitol was violently attacked by  a rabblesome band of obstreperous insurgents – brings to bear the stark reality that democracy is nothing but an elegant discourse on theoretical social semantics.  Our primeval nature is riven with a tendency towards hanging on to the coattails of a strong man (and rarely a strong woman) who would control us with demagoguery  and  fearmongering along with false promises of protection from the insidious elite and pernicious migrants.

The onslaught on the US Capitol released contentious arguments among the vituperative and malignantly divided legislative community and argumentative academics and lawyers, if only from a constitutional law perspective. The gravamen of accusation was against the speech delivered by President Trump which some called invidiously inciting.  The basis for this accusation was that the speech focused on the claim by the President that the democratic Presidential elections was stolen by the Democrats, and that people should not take it lying down.  This distinct link led to a groundswell of demand from the Democrats for the impeachment of the President.  On the other hand, Professor Alan Dershowitz, a distinguished and erudite law professor at Harvard University de linked the President’s speech from  the attack, claiming that if the President’s speech did not lead to the attack it would have been considered, and indeed could have been considered, an innocuous exercise of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which proclaims: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”.

The question that arose was whether the attack could be directly imputed to the preceding  incendiary speech of the President on  the basis that he incited the insurgency, arousing the people to protect their right by effectively precluding the United States legislature from confirming the election to office of President Biden.  From a strictly non-partisan point of view it must be stated that 18 U.S. Code Chapter 15  § 2384 on Seditious Conspiracy says;” “If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both”. 

This is of course if a link could be established between the President’s speech and the insidious attack'.

As for impeachment, the U.S. Constitution, in Article II section 4 says: “ President, as well as the Vice-President and all civil officers, may be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” This provision was seemingly drafted by the founding fathers of the Constitution to refute the old English adage that “the king can do no wrong”.  The issue here would lie on the words “high crimes and misdemeanours” for which there is no coherent definition.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan

By August 30th the withdrawal of the U.S and its NATO allies from Afghanistan was complete – a withdrawal initiated and decided by President Biden without formal consultation with the European allies.  As The Economist noted: “ THE LAST Royal Air Force transporter has left and the British are gone, taking with them 15,000 people and 173 cats and dogs. The French have lowered their tricolour and departed, having evacuated some 3,000 people. Germany got out another 5,100 people before calling it quits. Nation by nation the NATO powers that spent 20 years fighting alongside America in Afghanistan have in the past few days raced to end their missions.

General Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, announced the end of America's withdrawal from Afghanistan at 3.30pm Eastern time on August 30th, which was in the wee hours of the morning of August 31st in Kabul: right on President Joe Biden’s schedule”.

The U.S.  and its allies left US $ 65 billion worth of fighting equipment as a “gift” to the Taliban who effected a peaceful but ominous takeover of Kabul. Congressman Jim Banks said: “   "The Taliban now has biometric devices which have the fingerprints, eye scans and biographical information of all the Afghans who helped us and were on our side in the last 20 years,… There is no plan by this administration to get those weapons back…there is no plan to account for any of this equipment or these weapons."

As the Democratically elected President of Afghanistan fled, Afghans rushed to the airport to get out of the country, desperately clinging to aircraft ferrying foreign personnel and their families; some fell violently to the ground; the people wept, unable to cope with their own saturnine misery, while suicide bombers killed13 soldiers and numerous Afghanis at the airport.  President Biden said: “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces. That’s why we’re still there. We were clear-eyed about the risk….We gave them every chance to determine their own future. We could not provide them with the will to fight for that future,”.  This drew disapproval and protests from British legislators among others.

BBC World News of 28 December 2021 showed children working on the streets of Kabul as shoe shiners and tea sellers, while some were foraging through garbage.  What they earned would buy them bread for them and their unemployed parents to eat at night. The children who were interviewed said they should be in school some saying they wanted to become doctors, engineers and pilots.

While the world equivocated, Jane Ghosh of Bristol wrote a letter to The Guardian which explicitly summarises the indiscretions of western interference: “ The history of western interference after the second world war in countries throughout the world has been one of unmitigated failure for which we all bear a share of shame... Western powers have invaded countries thousands of miles away in the name of “democracy” and achieved a vacuum of power that has swiftly been filled by the very forces they went to evict. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. We have left behind devastation and despair while never learning the lessons of each disaster. If people want a one-party state, why does the US and its poodles think it has a duty or right to impose a very flawed system of democracy on other nations? Hubris followed inevitably by nemesis”.

Was COP 26 a COPOUT?

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP-26) of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place in Glasgow in October amidst the bluster of evocative speeches by leaders  and vocal  protests of environment activists.  As reported at the end of the Conference “COP-26 had had four key objectives summarized as “coal, cash, cars, and trees”—in other words: Ending coal power generation (a pledge now endorsed by 46 countries with a deadline set at 2040). Providing the long promised $100 billion annual support towards developing countries’ green transition (a goal that was meant to cover the period 2020-2025). Supporting electric vehicles and a phase out of gasoline and diesel-powered motor vehicles by 2040. Reversing deforestation in an attempt to protect existing nature-based solutions to capturing emissions.

COP26 resulted in the completion of the Paris Agreement rulebook and kept the Paris targets alive, giving us a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. During the summit, member countries agreed for the Glasgow Climate Pact, which will accelerate action on climate this decade, and finally complete the Paris Rulebook”.

There were criticisms that stakeholders were left out of negotiations. Asad Rehman, a spokesperson for the COP26 coalition, told CNBC when asked about his experience of COP26 so far: “I’d like to be polite, but it will go down as the worst planned, worst organized and least effective COP that I have ever known. It is just unbelievable.”

CNBC reported: “Rehman, who said he had been attending U.N. climate talks for over a decade, estimated that only one-third of the usual number of participants representing the Global South had been able to attend COP26 due to Covid-19 restrictions, a lack of affordable accommodation and an inability to access the conference. This “seriously undermines” the credibility of the meeting, he said, before adding that some civil society groups in attendance had also been “locked out” of negotiations”. This, when the 52 African countries pollute 1% of the world and  the top 10 richest nations pollute 70%. Yet, the Africans bear the brunt of climate change and global warming, not to mention poor Pacific States and States in Asia

The much celebrated bestselling  author Naomi Klein said at Doha Debates: “ It’s now or never: We must rein in capitalism and fight the climate crisis and poverty at the same time. Our moment calls for holistic and systemic solutions” that are “designed to meet the basic needs of all while radically lowering emissions — ones that do not gamble the lives of billions on capitalist shell games”


As Michael Sandel, a distinguished professor at Harvard University said, there is a moral vacancy in public discourse. This was clearly evident in the equivocality of the neo post modernism of the world in 2021.  Apart from the three major events cited in this article, there were scores of others in 2021 that spoke to “vaccine apartheid” as some called the inequity of vaccine distribution in the world; the billions spent on the momentary experience of “floating in space”; the contumacious greed for the accumulation of fortunes where, to quote Inequality.Org : “[A]ccording to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, the world’s richest 1 percent, those with more than $1 million, own 43.4 percent of the world’s wealth. Their data also shows that adults with less than $10,000 in wealth make up 53.6 percent of the world’s population but hold just 1.4 percent of global wealth. Individuals owning over $100,000 in assets make up 12.4 percent of the global population but own 83.9 percent of global wealth. Credit Suisse defines “wealth” as the value of a household’s financial assets plus real assets (principally housing), minus their debts”.

Something definitely was wrong with 2021.  Let’s be sanguine about 2022 as we seem to have no alternative.

Dr. Abeyratne is a former senior official of the United Nations.