In drama falling action is defined as that part of the story which comes after the climax but before the end. In a conventional five-act play it would be Act Four. And that is where it feels we have been for a long time now, stuck in the middle of an interminable fourth act, surrounded by falling actions. The international scene has been replete with climax and anti-climax but any resolution is as far away as ever.
During the last year uncertainty has been heaped upon uncertainty. Protracted conflicts persist, from major global disputes to local wrangling, while populations are left to worry about their future. You would be forgiven for asking whether humanity has learned anything at all from past disasters and atrocities.
The Middle East has continued to be a battleground for others. Rather than seek solutions and end the misery the battle to secure footholds in Libya, northern Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea has continued. Foreign soldiers continue to operate on the ground in Syria and Libya and we are not nearer to finding peace in Yemen.
Recent US decisions over Israel have effectively ended Washington’s role in any peace process. They have eroded whatever was left in the Palestinians’ faith in a future settlement and confirmed to Arab public opinion that the Palestinian cause is no more than a plaything, to be twisted according to superpower bias.
So what have we learned in 2019?
One lesson is that the world is now hostage to a chaotic multipolar order in which the rivalry between major powers is taking new forms. It is the US establishment, rather than the administration, that is resisting Russian attempts to expand Moscow’s influence. It is also escalating the tug-of-war with China.
Trade wars, disputes over ways to tackle climate change, migration and the refugee crisis, populism and cyber wars have prevented the world from enjoying the benefits that not too long ago it was assumed would automatically accrue from technological and digital advances.
We need only look at the recent past to see what 2020 holds in store. Act Four will drag on and on. There will be presidential elections in the US in the fall: as US President Donald Trump seeks a second term we can expect his administration to push for something it can present as a foreign policy triumph, probably vis-à-vis Iran, North Korea or China, and which it will hope might distract the US public from the impeachment drama unfolding in Congress. Business as usual then, as the US election cycle dominates geopolitics.
In the UK populism triumphed with last week’s landslide victory of Boris Johnson in elections, and it could well be repeated in the US where Trump will be battling for another four years in office. That, too, would simply be the continuation of existing trends.
Do not expect any reversals. The major issues that confront the region and the world will remain unresolved. Solutions will continue to be tantalisingly out of reach. The recent past will spill into the immediate future. It will do so because the main actors on the stage are frozen in their positions, unable to move.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.