By George Soros
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images
DAVOS, Switzerland ( Project Syndicate ) — We’re living at a transformational moment in history. The survival of open societies is endangered, and we face an even greater crisis: climate change, which threatens the survival of our civilization.
These twin challenges have inspired me to announce the most important project of my life.
As I argue in my recent book, “In Defense of Open Society,” in revolutionary moments, the range of possibilities is far wider than in normal times. It is easier to influence events than to understand what is going on.
As a result, outcomes are unlikely to correspond to people’s expectations. This has already caused widespread disappointment, which populist politicians are exploiting for their own purposes.
Open societies have not always needed defending in the determined way that they do today. Some 40 years ago, when I became engaged in what I call my political philanthropy, the wind was at our back and carried us forward. International cooperation was the prevailing creed.
In some ways, it prevailed even in the crumbling and ideologically bankrupt Soviet Union — remember the Marxist slogan “workers of the world, unite”? The European Union was in the ascendant, and I considered it the embodiment of the open society.
But the tide turned against open societies after the crash of 2008, because the global financial crisis constituted a failure of international cooperation. This in turn led to the rise of nationalism, the great enemy of open societies.
So long, normal world
In the middle of 2019, I still cherished the hope that there would be another reversal toward international cooperation. The European parliamentary elections produced surprisingly favorable results. Participation increased by 8% — the first uptick since the Parliament was established. More important, the silent majority spoke up in favor of greater European cooperation.
By year’s end, however, my hopes were dashed.
The strongest global powers, the United States, China and Russia, remained in the hands of would-be or actual dictators and the ranks of authoritarian rulers continued to grow. The fight to prevent Brexit — harmful both to Britain and the EU — ended in a crushing election victory for Brexit’s promoters.
Nationalism, far from being reversed, has made further headway. The biggest and most frightening setback occurred in India, where a democratically elected Narendra Modi is creating a Hindu nationalist state, imposing punitive measures on Kashmir, a semi-autonomous Muslim region, and threatening to deprive millions of Muslims of citizenship.
In Latin America, a humanitarian catastrophe continues to unfold. By the beginning of this year, almost 5 million Venezuelans had emigrated, causing tremendous disruption in neighboring countries. In neighboring Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has failed to prevent the destruction of the Amazon rainforest by those seeking to open it up for cattle ranching.
In a further blow, the United Nations climate conference in Madrid broke up without reaching any meaningful agreement.
To top it all off, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un threatened the U.S. with its nuclear capabilities in his New Year’s speech, and President Donald Trump’s impetuous decision to assassinate Iran’s second-highest-ranking official heightened the risk of a conflagration in the Middle East.
The China test
The problem of North Korea is of course tied to an even larger problem: the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China.
Sino-American ties have become exceedingly complicated and difficult to understand, but the interaction between the two presidents, Trump and Xi Jinping, provides a useful clue. Both face internal constraints and various enemies. Both try to extend the powers of their office to its limit and beyond.
While they have found some mutually beneficial reasons to cooperate, their motivations are completely different.
Trump is a con man and narcissist who wants the world to revolve around him. When his fantasy of becoming president came true, his narcissism acquired a pathological dimension.
Indeed, he has transgressed the limits imposed on the presidency by the Constitution and has been impeached for it. At the same time, he has managed to gather a large number of followers who have bought into his alternative reality. This has turned his narcissism into a malignant disease.
He has come to believe that he can impose his alternative reality not only on his followers but on reality itself.
Trump’s counterpart, Xi, suffered a traumatic experience in his early youth. His father, one of the early leaders of the Communist Party of China, was expelled from the CPC, and Xi grew up in rural exile.
Since that time, the goal of Xi’s leadership has been to reassert the Party’s dominance over Chinese life. He calls it the “Chinese Dream” of a “rejuvenated” China capable of projecting its power and influence throughout the world. To consolidate his leadership, Xi abolished a carefully developed system of collective leadership to become a dictator as soon as he had gained sufficient strength to do so.
When it comes to their motivations, the two men are completely different. Trump is willing to sacrifice U.S. national interests for personal political or material gain, and he will do practically anything to win re-election in November. By contrast, Xi is eager to exploit Trump’s weaknesses and use artificial intelligence to achieve total control over his people.
But Xi’s success is far from assured. One of China’s vulnerabilities is that it still depends on the U.S. to supply it with the microprocessors it needs to dominate the 5G market and to fully implement the AI-powered social credit system that threatens open societies.
Moreover, impersonal forces, such as demographics, are working against Xi. The one-child policy, in effect from 1979 until 2015, created a shortage of child-bearing women and young workers. The decline in the working-age population, together with a growing proportion of old people, is now relentless.
The Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s signature program to build infrastructure linking China to Europe and Africa, has required giving countries along the route large loans, some of which will never be repaid. China can ill afford this, because its budget deficit has increased and its trade surplus has diminished.
Since Xi has centralized power in his hands, China’s economic policy has also lost its flexibility and inventiveness.
To make matters worse for Xi, the Trump administration has developed a comprehensive and bipartisan policy declaring that China is a strategic rival. This is the only bipartisan policy that Trump has been able to produce and there is only one man who can violate it with impunity: Trump himself.
Unfortunately, from an open society point of view, he is capable of doing so, as he has demonstrated by putting Huawei on the bargaining table with Xi.
Iran over impeachment
This month, Trump abruptly shifted focus from China to Iran. Trump didn’t have a strategic plan when he authorized the drone strike that killed the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Qassem Souleimani, and an Iraqi pro-Iranian militia commander, but Trump does have an unfailing instinct for how his faithful followers will respond to his actions.
They are jubilant. This makes the task of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, which has impeached Trump, extremely difficult. The trial in the Senate is shaping up to be a strictly pro forma affair, because the Senate’s Republican majority is united behind Trump — although Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding, may surprise us.