Just like 1989, this is a year that has turned the world order upside down
History is not linear: it stumbles along, then suddenly it speeds up. It changes course at key moments – called knots by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This was the case in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, marki,g the close of the 20th century with the final surrender of totalitananism to democracy. And this is also the case of 2016, which has redrawn the contours of the 21st century.
With Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the resignation of Matteo Renzi after the rejection of the proposal to revise the Italian constitution, we are seeing the resurgence of populism in democracies. There are numerous reasons for the furore that is sweeping across the free nations. On the economic front, it is rooted in the stagnation of income levels and the rise in inequality, amplified by the 2008 crash. On the social front, it comes from the destabilization of the middle classes who have had to deal with the dual impact of globalization and the digital revolution. On the political front, it results from a feeling of loss of control and loss of identity due to the arrival of the open society, crises within nations and waves of migration. On the strategic front, it comes from an awareness of the decline of the West and renewed risks to internal and external security.
People living in democracies have become exasperated with the way in which the elite have become disconnected from reality and with the powerlessness of the establishment. They have turned toward rabble-rousers and the seductive voices of strongmen who extol protectionism, nationalism and xenophobia, using the social media to discredit representative democracy. The perfect example of this is Donald Trump, an oligarch elected because of Twitter, just as Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected because of the radio and John F. Kennedy because of television.
The populist thrust which is ravaging our democracies echoes the nationalist and religious passions that flourish in the vacuum left in the wake of the collapse of 20th century ideologies. After its defeat in Libya, Iraq and Syria, Jihadism is in mutation and on the move, transforming itself into a social media nesting in the heart of developed societies. Nationalism is spreading and strengthening discord between the United States and China, China and Japan, and India and Pakistan. Most importantly, it is the démocratures (a combination of democracy and dictatorship) that are profiting from the disruption of democracies and asserting themselves: as the USA falls back, China under Xi Jinping is becoming a world power; Russia under Vladimir Putin – strengthened by the election of pro-Russian presidents in Bulgaria and Moldavia – has regained its place at the centre of the diplomatic chessboard in Europe; and Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the failed coup d’état of July 2016 to make Turkey into an Islamic démocrature. These three regimes do not yet form an axis, but they are moving closer together, finding common ground in designating the West as their main adversary.
The world system has undergone upheavals in 2016 that will last for a long time. The protectionist direction taken by the USA and the UK’s turn towards control marked by the devaluation of sterling and a budget deficit, signal the beginnings of a cycle of deglobalization. The world economy is being recentered around regional blocs. Monetary policy is reaching the limits of its capabilities. Violence is freeing itself from the political, diplomatic and strategic frameworks that used to contain it. The war in Syria is the perfect example of an unending conflict in which the warring parties can neither win nor lose, and during which the civilian population is a main target. This has brought about an increase in the movement of populations, affecting 65 million people. Frontiers are resurfacing and more walls are going up, putting a halt to the open society that Theresa May summed up in her words, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
What all this means is a challenge to the order that came out of World War II. The USA no longer has the will or the means to remain the benevolent imperial power that, as a last resort, could ensure the prosperity and safety of the free world. With Donald Trump, it is in the process of dismantling free-trade treaties, strategic alliances and multilateral institutions that used to underpin relative stability in the world. The European Union, which was part of this order, is now under threat because of pressure from Brexit and populism, and the euro zone crisis is again coming to a head with the rise in interest rates.
Therefore, the West is not only losing its monopoly of capitalism and of world history, which it has held since the end of the 15th century, but is also losing the very meaning of its values. We are witnessing the separation of democracy, capitalism and liberalism. Globalization has shown that capitalism was a chameleon that could adapt itself perfectly to the Chinese démocrature which claims that it is more able to manage the long-term development of capitalism. Numerous strongmen – Viktor Orban in Hungary, President Duterte in the Philippines and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland – lay claim to an “unliberal” form of democracy which implies freeing themselves from those institutions, rules and limits that are the characteristics of the rule of law.
The main conflict is now between democracy and populism. Jihadists and autocrats derive their strength mainly from the weaknesses and divisions of free nations. Æsop stated that “demagogues handle their affairs much better when they have thrown their country into discord.” Therefore, concord must be brought back into the democracy camp and discord thrown into the enemy camp.
It is not enough to denounce populism. Its causes must be dismantled. From now on, globalization and the digital revolution should serve the interests of everyone instead of being the prerogative of an elite. A new commitment must be made to patiently educating people about freedom, because responsible citizenship is acquired and not innate. A global strategy – military, economic, cultural and idealogical – must be deployed as a response to strongmen and fanatics.
Democracies have lost their monopoly of capitalism and world history, but they remain the holders of an inestimable monopoly – that of political freedom. This monopoly in no sinecure: it is the result of a fierce and precarious combat. We must take up the fight for freedom once again, with all the energy and force that we can muster.
(Column published in Le Point, 15th December 2016)