The way in which the international world order is configured at present borrows as much from the early 1900s as from the 1930s. Politics is taking its revenge on the economy.
Francis Fukuyama’s assertions that we have reached the end of history have proved to be mere illusions. Democracy is facing an existential crisis – a reminder of its own mortality. In the 1930s, a number of democracies were wiped out by totalitarian revolutions – fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany –, by ultra-nationalist regimes like that of Admiral Horthy in Hungary, by civil wars as in Spain and by military defeats as in France in 1940. So it is that the 2010s have many points in common with the 1930. The after-effects of a major crash in the capitalist world – the worst since 1929 – putting the financial sector at risk and causing deflation through debt. The middle classes – the pillar of democracy –being destabilized by the cruel blows of unemployment, falling incomes and property values, as well as blocks to social mobility. Increasing external threats: the totalitarianism of the inter-war years, the Jihadism and the démocratures [a combination of democracy and dictatorship] of today’s world. Finally, democracies being weakened and divided by changes in the world order: the leadership transition from the UK and the USA after the First World War, and between the USA and China at the moment.
All of these factors combine to produce shock waves of populism that destroy free nations from the inside. Having begun at the very heart of the Western world with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, it is now spreading into Europe and into Latin America as well. Countries are breaking up, divided by concerns that may be social, statutory, racial, generational or territorial. The anger of the people goes alongside the treachery of the elite. Democracy hangs by three fragile silk threads which could easily break: firstly, its values (faith in freedom); secondly, its institutions (the force of checks and balances and respect for the rule of law); and thirdly, its mores (preferring compromise to fanaticism).
And yet, our world is very different from that of the 1930s. The world population is growing but aging fast, with the notable of exception of Africa. Capitalism is everywhere, even though it takes different forms and is being restructured into regional blocs by globalization. The 2008 crash has not degenerated into a global depression because the banks have been rescued, demand has been supported by public expenditure and, up until the election of Donald Trump, protectionism was halted. The open society is showing signs of resistance: our citizens are greatly attached to the freedom of circulation of goods, services, information and people. Démocratures cannot be compared to totalitarian regimes which combined racial or class ideologies with the merging of nation and party, absolute control of the economy and society, mass terror, and internal and external war. For the moment, they do not make up a bloc. As a final point, the stocks of weapons of mass destruction ensure a precarious deterrent against armed force, which could so quickly bring about an apocalypse.
The way in which the international world order is configured at present borrows as much from the early 1900s as from the 1930s. Politics is taking its revenge on the economy. It is the end of a cycle of globalization and the opening-up of societies “telescoped” by nationalism. The First World War brought an end to a liberal Europe which had control over 70% of emerging nations and the world population in 1900. Donald Trump is doing what Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan have dreamed of: by destroying a century of American soft power, he is putting the seal on a post-Western future for the world and is giving China a twenty-year head start in its bid for global domination.
Democracies are not so much victim to the strength of their external enemies as victim to their internal demons. The real common feature between 1890, 1930 and 2010 is to be looked for in the deleterious merging of social, national and religious fervor – 20th century ideologies were above all secular religions as Raymond Aron stated. Therefore the fate of democracies in the 21st century will be determined by their ability to reinvent themselves and reestablish a social pact. This was the case at the end of the 19th century with the wage-earning system, the spread of universal suffrage and the integration of the working class – with figureheads like Theodore Roosevelt, Lloyd George, Jaurès and Clemenceau. It was also the case after the Second World War with the Keynesian era of full employment, the emergence of the welfare state, economic integration and with free nations united in resistance to the Soviet Union – a period that is associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and General de Gaulle. And this is the case today in the democracies of northern Europe which have changed in order to bring together economic competitiveness and solidarity, an open society and national sovereignty, the vitality of the rule of law and rearmament in face of Russian pressure in the Baltic Sea.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 16th July 2018)