A wise French philosopher, one who hid himself in a tower 448 years ago to write, reckoned that "the most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness". Montaigne's maxim deserves our attention in a year when virtually no glass seems half-full and the year ahead appears bleaker still.
Those few among us believing in miracles - and therefore congenitally cheerful - might hope that, this time next year, Donald Trump is cleaning trinkets and televisions out of his office, pardoning his scabby mates and rehearsing a Christmas special for his new reality TV show. One way or another, Brexit could be off the agenda, with Britons permitted to concentrate on bread-and-butter issues at last. Two great nations would therefore have stopped toying with slow-motion national suicide.
Demonstrators, whether in Santiago, Beirut or Hong Kong may have narrowed their demands, moderated their tactics and eked out a few small concessions. House prices may have steadied, Denmark might still own Greenland, and Essendon might have won a footy final. Rain could have filled the Murray-Darling basin, and the two serious leaders left in Europe (Angela Merkel in Germany and Edouard Philippe in France) resolved to bat on.
Our glass will not be quite that full. In wondering about the year to come, I have been guided by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, who have followed up one coherent, dispassionate account of our plight - Why Nations Fail - with a new one, The Narrow Corridor. Acemoglu's and Robinson's metaphor imagines a narrow corridor between the state and society, where each balances and checks the other. Their corridor may be an awkward concept, but it is meant to be neither a dead end nor a detour.
The literary duet emphasise two markers we would do well to remember, that liberty requires a state and laws, and that freedom similarly depends on a mobilised population. Bearing Hong Kong students in mind, I imagine their use of "mobilised" connotes "equipped", "protected" and "experienced" as well. Even simple axioms provide a bit of political and moral ballast. Otherwise, as Montaigne recognised, "no wind favours him who has no destined port".
What, then, will 2020 bring, a dose of John Locke or more Thomas Hobbes, regulated but guaranteed liberty or a life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short"? Let us try to tip the balance a little towards Locke, to widen the corridor between state and society even if doing so seems like a set of wistful Christmas wishes.
The ineptly provocative Carrie Lam may be the first ushered out, with odiously retro Jeremy Corbyn a close second and that most brutally obdurate of Trump defenders, Mitch McConnell, scuttling after them.
The first step would be to convince political leaders to defy both entrenched tradition and survival instincts by realising when to go. Politicians who leave on their own terms, at a time they set, are ludicrously rare. In the annals of shameless and shameful leadership, my booby prize still goes to an African leader who justified his interminable reign with a video entitled "A Man After God's Own Heart". In 2020, the ineptly provocative Carrie Lam may be the first ushered out, with odiously retro Jeremy Corbyn a close second and that most brutally obdurate of Trump defenders, Mitch McConnell, scuttling after them. If the Bolivian president can recognise that his people do not lie, trust or want him, others can follow suit. A new international fund could cushion their retirements.
A second step would be insistence on the rule of law to hold the recalcitrant to account. A court order to disclose Trump's tax returns may serve as a purgative. After all, the American people really turned on Richard Nixon only when he was revealed as a tax cheat (with picayune sums involved). Turning to us, confirming the value of agreed, enforced national law might lead us to re-consider a treaty with Indigenous Australians.
Conversely, those pedantically using law as a pretext for bullying and intransigence could think again. Imprisoning Catalan separatists is an absurd own goal for Spain. So too is the European Commission's venomous refusal to offer Britain reasonable terms for an exit.
Third, respect for our opponents might be enhanced. Other countries have learned the wrong lessons from American partisanship and brinksmanship. They have copied what was actually a cautionary tale, behaviour to deplore and eschew rather than to emulate. Although we might not expect the most dogged and driven leaders to compromise easily (Erdogan in Turkey, for instance, or Modi in India), more intelligent souls might see reason. We need the approach Gerald Ford promised in his first speech as President, "just a little straight talk among friends". Straight talk among friends is not one antidote for populism, tribalism and authoritarianism. Nonetheless, it would be a start, one which has the virtues of being cheap, authentic and a surprise.
Fourth, we might remind ourselves why institutions matter. Take the case of India, where every political issue is bitterly contested but where nobody would think of impugning the integrity and commitment of the electoral commission and the census collectors. Imposing facades and venerable traditions should not mislead us; institutions which protect us must be nurtured. Moreover, institutions which protect themselves, like the US State Department, command our respect.
The key for next year, though, remains leadership. We need someone possessing at least the resilience of Merkel, the humility of Ford, the managerial talent of Philippe, someone with a copy of Montaigne's essays on her bookshelf. The first task for such a paragon would be to run against Trump. Failing that, any nation should snaffle such a leader to improve 2020 and the years to come.
- Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer.