By Trevor Busch
In 1991, world citizens saw the fall of the Soviet Empire and the enshrinement of liberal democracy as the apparent victor in a two-horse race that had dominated world politics and economics for most of the 20th century. At the time, it seemed like a watershed moment. One pundit even famously declared it to be “the end of history.”
But it wasn’t the end of history. In recent years the rise of populism, resurgent nationalism, economic isolationism, and fear of the immigrant are engaged in undermining the stability of the economic and social order that has largely been the status quo since the dying days of WWII. Stepping into this vacuum appear to be manifestations of various movements that have been fought and defeated at great cost in the past — shades of fascism, ultra-conservatism, extreme nationalism, and racism, among others — all neatly re-packaged into more palatable and socially-acceptable versions than those of their ancestors.
In the nearly three decades since the death of the Second World (the now mostly-unremembered term for the Communist world, and the reason we still refer to those previously unaligned as the Third World), the triumphant First World nations drifted through the rest of the 1990s largely maintaining the old order, and even 9/11 — although ushering in a new age of unilateralism on the world stage — only shook foundations that had been suffering cracks. But in the wake of a series of economic blows, great recessions, and a growing inequality between rich and poor has risen the spectre of our modern politics. And underlying it all, in almost every situation around the globe, seems to be a rising tide of anger among electorates and populations desirous of change on a wholesale scale.
Anger can be useful for the politician in gaining and achieving power, but it usually requires directing that anger — and the anger of your multitudinous followers — toward a convenient, and usually simple, target. The classic example would be the Nazis’ employment of the Jew as the source of all the nation’s ills, to be rooted out and eliminated. Unfortunately, fomenting hatred against a racial or class enemy — while extremely effective at achieving and maintaining power — requires action against that same target lest supporters themselves turn into future enemies. That troubling reality is usually what oils the machinery of state-sponsored persecution and murder, sometimes culminating in a frenzy of assembly-line slaughter called genocide — a concept we didn’t even have a word for before 1945.
In today’s world we see a falling away from much of the old order that has, in one form or another, preserved a semblance of global peace since the conclusion of WWII.
Trump’s new America has taken a decidedly deep dive to the right, inflaming tensions in the homeland of democracy between neo-fascists and liberals, environmentalists and climate skeptics, ethnic minorities and WASPs, immigrants and “true Americans.” Trump is adept at driving a wedge between controversial groups and concepts, and opposing forces, to exploit these divisions for partisan political gain. The end product of such politics — and perhaps we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg with Trump — will be deep wounds and divisions among America’s citizens that could take decades to repair, if ever. And when a majority that enjoys power for long enough grows tired of the constant opposition of minorities — minorities it may have already painted as social enemies of the nation — it is only a short few steps before segregation, and eventually annihilation. Anyone who questions such a sequence of events — anywhere in the world at almost any time — would benefit from a closer examination of history.
Post-1991, there were no nations left powerful enough to challenge America’s global supremacy on the world stage. Fast forward to today, and that pre-eminence appears to be quickly eroding — and may be one source of the animus that is driving many Americans into the waiting arms of more radicalized politics on multiple fronts. While America still outspends all others in support of its military and can wield its might to pressure others to knuckle under, the bully-boy method of policing the globe must inevitably be finite. Unilateral actions like the 2003 invasion of Iraq have done untold damage to international perceptions of American benevolence.
And while missiles, planes, drones and tanks are a tangible manifestation of power, on the economic front America is increasingly becoming a paper tiger. Trade wars with China can be viewed as a desperate attempt to stab back at an emerging superpower that has no interest in yielding to America’s bellicose threats, and thanks to its gargantuan economic explosion now has the ability to imperil the U.S. economy in ways that Soviet economists could only dream of.
The democratically-inclined European Union appears to be failing as it falls victim to increased radicalization and division — this week’s parliamentary elections providing strong evidence for this motif — with Britain’s Brexit fiasco only the most prominent example. But in the east, the old Russian bear has been stirring under Vladimir Putin’s ministrations, and with NATO under threat from an unenthusiastic Trump, another pillar of the old order is in danger of slipping away. NATO was once the very bedrock of American foreign policy opposition to the Soviet Union. Now it seems to be viewed as an outdated anachronism whose time has passed. Watching from the windows of the Kremlin, however, one suspects Putin couldn’t be more pleased. If America no longer has the stomach to be a key partner in defending Western Europe from aggression, maybe it might be time to roll the tank columns. After all, there must be more than a few plans of attack moldering down in some Soviet archive about how to exploit the Fulda Gap or outmaneuver Allied infantry divisions. And with an apparent blank cheque from America? Wars and international incidents have been precipitated over much less. These are some of the potential implications that politicians of Trump’s ilk seem wholly unable to grasp when they throw out ill-timed tweets that send shockwaves through international corridors of power.
At the mid-point of the 20th century, there was a great reckoning between the forces of fascism and extreme nationalism versus the weakened democracies struggling against the market forces of the Great Depression.
Today in the 21st century, in some of the same decades where the latter struggle took shape, we’re seeing the second coming of some of the same old cavalry as the Trumps and Putins of the world — among many others — seek to destroy the old ways of tolerance and understanding as a path to consensus in favour of harsh absolutes, rigid divisions, rhetoric in place of reason, and the development of a kind of hybrid totalitarianism that preserves the outward trappings of democracy while limiting the freedoms of those that don’t align or agree.
As the old liberal democratic order appears to slip quietly into the night, we’re left to consider if we’re witnessing the beginning of a struggle for the establishment of a new order. And if history is any teacher, great change to the modern world order often only comes in one way — global war. One fine summer morning in 1945 the inhabitants of Hiroshima — and in a way all of us — discovered that a future global war would be virtually unwinnable. Or if it could be ‘won’, those among the dead might be the lucky ones. The estimated 70 million killed in the conflagration of WWII would be a rounding error in a future nuclear conflict.
The prospect of global war is a far cry from our romantic notions of the past. And we’re playing for all the marbles now, ladies and gentlemen, nothing short of the possible annihilation of the species.