Reasons to be cheerful (part one)

It is one of the enduring perceptions of the modern left - politicians and journalists alike - that it is more eloquent in its criticisms than its prescriptions. Therefore, at the end of this year of all years, it would be only proper to celebrate progress where it has been achieved. Progress might seem a strange definition for a mere willingness to talk further about climate change, but such had been the recalcitrance of some, and gloom of others, that the deal in Montreal led to scenes of euphoria. In practical terms, there has been no actual breakthrough. The optimism, such as it is, arises from a sense that, at last, an international forum can be seen to make a difference. This has not been said about a United Nations conference for some time.

For the first time in the miserable tenure of George W Bush, the US administration has had to bow to multilateral pressure. The main reason for the newfound, and ill-fitting, humility is the political weakness of the president. But perhaps it is more than that. Is it too much to hope that this marks the first sign of global institutions reasserting their authority?

On one level, this might seem far-fetched. After all, 2005 marked the year when the Iraq oil-for-food scandal was traced to the highest levels of the UN. Other global bodies have fared little better. The G8 industrialised nations, under the UK's flamboyant but shallow chairmanship, flattered to deceive on trade justice; the World Trade Organisation struggled to tackle the subsidy-hungry wealthiest nations. The difficulties of the European Union have been the most striking, its authority unravelling over failed constitutional referendums and budget wranglings.

The grounds for any optimism do not lie in the performance of the institutions, but in the belated acknowledgement that, whatever their failings, they cannot be wished away. For a brief interlude, the ideology of neoconservatism, shared by supporters of Bush and Tony Blair alike, was in the ascendant. Neither government has been held to proper account for the lies that were told to the UN in early 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war. Disdain for the rule of law and for the principles of co-operation and consensus-building prevailed only while the agenda was dominated by the mantras of pre-emption and US primacy. Now, incrementally, that appears to be changing.

Bush's fall has been the more spectacular, Blair's the more dispiriting. In July 2005, the suicide bombers who brought carnage to the streets of London also brought the consequences of Blair's Iraq misadventure to our doorsteps. And yet the weakening of these two hubristic and naive leaders has left a potentially dangerous gap. If the world's only superpower retreats into its shell, who is left to assert the will of the international community?

Put to one side Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib or the "rendition" of prisoners, and there has rarely been such an opportune moment for nations to abuse human rights. Look at Uzbekistan, where dissidents have literally been boiled alive, where protesters were massacred in the town of Andijan; international protest was muted because that country is seen as an ally in the so-called war on terror. Look at China: nobody bothers even to mention human rights any more. Robert Mugabe is allowed to destroy Zimbabwe, and the Sudanese militia have rampaged through Darfur.

Often, in dark days for the UN, its supporters have argued that if it and its affiliated organisations did not exist we should have to invent them. These were not abstract constructs, nor did they comprise merely delegations and buildings; they were moral necessities in a world as interconnected as ours. It is 60 years since the UN was established; it has never commanded universal respect; it is now more urgently in need of reform than ever before. This requires greater accountability and transparency, as well as changes to the composition of the Security Council - changes long blocked by the big powers.

A British government under Gordon Brown, even still under Blair, can set about restoring some of its credibility by working with others to give the UN a new lease of life. From the wreckage of Iraq, it may yet be possible to rebuild. Montreal gives us a hint that this is true, and that the wreckers of the international community cannot for ever prevent the collective action that is vital to address our gravest problems.

Reasons to be cheerful (part two)

Here, in the new spirit of optimism, are a dozen uplifting predictions for 2006 compiled by members of the New Statesman staff:

1) England beat Germany 4-2 in the World Cup final.
2) Tony Blair earns millions on the US lecture circuit.
3) Euan Blair follows Carol Thatcher into the jungle.
4) George Bush is found with Osama Bin Laden in his cave.
5) David Cameron is potty-trained.
6) Keira Knightley takes acting lessons.
7) Rolf Harris wins the Turner Prize.
8) Harry Potter gets an Asbo.
9) Paxman and Humphrys let someone finish a sentence.
10) Downing Street is turned into a giant windfarm.
11) Prince Charles is turned into a giant windfarm.
12) The NS outsells Nuts and Grazia combined.

Happy New Year.