A Victorian Perspective on Globalization
… we have now reached the third stage in our history, and the true conception of our Empire. What is that conception?
As regards the self-governing colonies we no longer talk of them as dependencies. The sense of possession has given place to the sense of kinship. We think and speak of them as part of ourselves, as part of the British Empire, united to us, although they may be dispersed throughout the world, by ties of kindred, of religion, of history, and of language, and joined to us by the seas that formerly seemed to divide us.
But the British Empire is not confined to the self-governing colonies and the United Kingdom. It includes a much greater area, a much more numerous population in tropical climes, where no considerable European settlement is possible, and where the native population must always outnumber the white inhabitants …
Here also the sense of possession has given way to a different sentiment – the sense of obligation. We feel now that our rule over these territories can only be justified if we can show that it adds to the happiness and prosperity of the people …
In carrying out this work of civilization we are fulfilling what I believe to be our national mission, and we are finding scope for the exercise of those faculties and qualities which have made us a great governing race …
No doubt, in the first instance, when those conquests have been made, there has been bloodshed, there has been loss of life among the native populations, loss of still more precious lives among those who have been sent out to bring these countries into some kind of disciplined order [but] …
You cannot have omelettes without breaking eggs; you cannot destroy the practices of barbarism, of slavery, of superstition, which for centuries have desolated the interior of Africa, without the use of force …
Great is the task, great is the responsibility, but great is the honour: and I am convinced that the conscience and the spirit of the country will rise to the height of its obligations, and that we shall have the strength to fulfil the mission which our history and our national character have imposed upon us. … the tendency of the time is to throw all power into the hands of the greater empires …
But, if Greater Britain remains united, no empire in the world can ever surpass it in area, in population, in wealth, or in the diversity of its resources …
Extracts from a speech by Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, at the annual dinner of the Royal Colonial Institute,
31 March 1897
The Andalucían Shock ONE-WAY TRAFFIC
Globalization is often regarded as ‘one-way traffic’. In the modern age, we think of extraordinary advances in technology that allow us to connect in so many remarkable – and increasingly inexpensive – ways.
We can communicate verbally and pictorially through WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. We can talk to each other via FaceTime and Skype. We can search for recipes and the structure of the human brain through Google. We can purchase chicken madras and salmon nigiri over the internet and have them brought to our homes via local delivery services. We can stream music for free thanks to Spotify and watch our favourite artists and cat videos on YouTube or Vevo. We can download television programmes and movies to watch at our convenience. We can more easily pry into the affairs of the rest of the world (and, equally, the rest of the world can more easily pry into our affairs).
Seen through these technological advances, it is easy to believe that globalization is inevitable; that distances are becoming ever shorter; that national borders are slowly dissolving; and that, whether we like it or not, we live in a single global marketplace for goods, services, capital and labour.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT TECHNOLOGY
Technology alone, however, does not determine globalization, and nor does it rule out competing versions of globalization at any one moment in time. If technology was the only thing that mattered, the Western Roman Empire –among other things, an incredibly sophisticated technological and logistical infrastructure –would never have come to an ignominious end in ad 476; the Chinese, with their superior naval technologies, would have been busily colonizing the Americas in the early sixteenth century, preventing Spain and, by implication, the rest of Western Europe from gaining a foothold; the British Empire would today still be thriving, thanks to the huge advantages it gained from the Industrial Revolution; the Cold War – which ultimately offered two competing versions of globalization associated with an uneasy nuclear stand-off – would never have happened; and today’s ‘failed states’–suffering from disconnections both internally and with the rest of the world –would be a contradiction in terms.
Globalization is driven not just by technological advance, but also by the development – and demise – of the ideas and institutions that form our politics, frame our economies and fashion our financial systems both locally and globally. When existing ideas are undermined and institutional infrastructures implode, no amount of new technology is likely to save the day. Our ideas and institutions shift with alarming regularity.
Spanish conquistadors of the early sixteenth century – bounty-hunters hell bent on extracting silver from the New World, regardless of the human cost – would have been surprised to discover that Spain, at one point Europe’s superpower, is now one of the poorer Western European nations.
The Ottomans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – who had threatened to conquer Vienna and, by implication, much of the rest of Europe – would have been amazed to see how their empire, which had stretched from the Balkans into the Middle East and North Africa, completely imploded after the First World War (even if the seeds of its downfall were sown many years before).
Victorians would be shocked to find that their beloved British Empire – which provided the essential foundations for nineteenth-century globalization – had more or less disappeared by the late 1940s, by which time the UK itself was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Those many fans of the Soviet economic system during the 1930s Depression years would doubtless be astonished to discover that the entire edifice began to crumble following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Even when patterns of globalization endure for many centuries, they can break down remarkably quickly, leading to dramatic changes in fortune. Consider, for example, the history of Andalucía in southern Spain, a story that veered from one seemingly permanent political structure (Islam) to another (Christianity) within just a handful of years. In AD 711, a Muslim Berber force travelled from North Africa across the Mediterranean to reach southern Spain. Six years later, and thanks to the Berbers’ defeat of the hitherto-ruling Christian Visigoths, Córdoba had become the capital of what was known as al-Andalus.
The conquering Moors then set about building their symbols of power. In 784, construction began on the Grand Mosque of Córdoba. By 987 – and following three further development stages – the mosque was complete. A truly remarkable building, it was designed above all to be a symbol of lasting Islamic dominance. Yet, following the defeat of the Almoravids by the Almohads, the centre of Islamic power later transferred from Córdoba to Seville, just under a hundred miles away.
Inevitably, a new mosque was required and, in 1171, it was provided: topped off by its minaret, known today as the Giralda, Seville’s Almohad Mosque was a marvel of the Moorish world.
For the citizens of southern Spain, it would have been easy to believe that medieval ‘globalization’ was ultimately dependent on the spread of Islam, a way of life which appeared to be intellectually, technologically and culturally much more advanced than anything Christian Europe had to offer.
Yet within a handful of years, Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula had descended into chaos. In 1213, following the death of the ruling caliph, his 10-year-old son took over. This inevitably triggered infighting among the grown-ups, each of whom jockeyed for power. Worse, the young caliph died a decade or so later without leaving a single heir: at a stroke, the ruling conventions of Moorish Spain had been totally undermined.
For the northern Christian kings, this was too good an opportunity to miss. By 1236, they had taken control of Córdoba. Twelve years later, they had their hands on Seville. Córdoba’s mosque was ‘converted’ into a cathedral, while Seville’s mosque was demolished (apart from the Giralda, which became a bell tower), to be replaced by what to this day remains the world’s largest cathedral. The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that Seville Cathedral – or, to give it its full Spanish name, Catedral de Santa María de la Sede –houses the remains of Christopher Columbus. In 1492, the year in which Columbus discovered the New World, the Moors were finally expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, following the start of the Inquisition in 1478 (doubtless a surprise to the remaining Moors: after all, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…). By then, Islamic power was being consolidated farther east.
Columbus had inadvertently discovered a new Western European-led and mostly Christian path towards global political and economic expansion. The next five hundred years witnessed the increasing dominance of so-called Western powers: either those based in Europe or those whose new populations were mostly sourced from Europe. And while these powers were often in conflict with each other, they all ultimately shared the same view of the rest of the world: it was there to be discovered, exploited and colonized for their individual and collective benefit.
It was the beginning of what might loosely be described as ‘post-Columbus’ globalization.
Yet while there were attempts to create lasting stability –ranging from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 through to the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15 – post-Columbus globalization was always vulnerable to imperial rivalries.
For a while, the British Empire, in all its pomp, appeared to provide an answer: its enthusiasm for free trade – enforced by the long arm of the Royal Navy – opened up a remarkable web of commercial connections worldwide.
Other nations, however, understandably wanted their share of the spoils, most obviously the Russians in the nineteenth century and the Germans in the first half of the twentieth. Eventually – and, in hindsight, inevitably – post-Columbus globalization collapsed, to be replaced by war, revolution and isolationism.
Only after the Second World War was it able to re-emerge, albeit under the shadow of the Cold War. This time the US was, in effect, both globalization’s leading architect and its main sponsor, even if Washington now rejected the empire-building it had partly sponsored during the nineteenth century.
The emergence of the US as the world’s dominant superpower was, in many ways, the apotheosis of post-Columbus globalization, signalling the triumph of Western liberal democratic values and free-market capitalism.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, post-Columbus globalization is in serious trouble. Economic power is shifting eastwards and, as it does so, new alliances are being created, typically between countries that are not natural cheerleaders for Western political and economic values. There are signs that pre-Columbus versions of globalization – in which power was centred on Eurasia, not the West – are making a tentative reappearance.
The US is no longer sure whether its priorities lie across the Atlantic, on the other side of the Pacific or, following the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, at home rather than abroad. Indeed, President Trump confirmed as much in his January 2017 inauguration speech, stating that ‘From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.’
Free markets have been found wanting, particularly following the global financial crisis. Support and respect for the international organizations that provided the foundations and set the ‘rules’ for post-war globalization – most obviously, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the United Nations Security Council (whose permanent members anachronistically include the UK and France, but not Germany, Japan, India or Indonesia) –are rapidly fading.
Political narratives are becoming increasingly protectionist. It is easier, it seems, for politicians of both left and right to blame ‘the other’– the immigrant, the foreigner, the stranger in their midst – for a nation’s problems. Voters, meanwhile, no longer fit into neat political boxes.
Neglected by the mainstream left and right, many have opted instead to vote for populist and nativist politicians typically opposed to globalization.
Isolationism is, once again, becoming a credible political alternative. Without it, there would have been no Brexit and no Trump.
THE END OF POST-COLUMBUS GLOBALIZATION
In combination, these political and economic forces suggest that globalization, at least of the post-Columbus kind, is simply not inevitable. In this book – a deliberate mixture of economics, history, geography and political philosophy – I make six key claims:
• First, economic progress that reaches beyond borders is not, in any way, an inescapable truth. Globalization can all too easily go into reverse.
• Second, technology can both enable globalization and destroy it.
• Third, economic development that reduces inequality between nation states but appears to increase it within those states inevitably creates a tension between a desire for overall gains in global living standards and a yearning for economic and social stability at home.
• Fourth the desire for domestic stability may be undermined by huge twenty-first-century migration flows.
• Fifth, the international institutions that have helped govern globalization’s advance are losing their credibility: rightly or wrongly, globalization is increasingly seen to work for the few, not the many. Creating new twenty-first-century institutions to combat this perception will not be easy, however, particularly given the potential clash in values between what might be described as Western democracies and Eastern autocracies.
• Sixth (and as the Western powers are belatedly beginning to recognize), there is more than one version of globalization. As US relative economic power declines, so other nascent superpowers will be looking to reshape the world around them in ways that serve their own interests and reflect their own histories.
If the Cold War was ultimately a binary rivalry, the twenty-first century is likely to see multiple rivalries, closer in nature to the imperial disputes of the nineteenth century. Indeed, President Xi’s speech in Davos in January 2017 only served to reinforce the sense that globalization is up for grabs.
There have been many cheerleaders for globalization, but ultimately my conclusion is that the world is most certainly not flat, and nor can it be.
Economics and politics are both heavily contoured and constantly changing, particularly so when borders are involved. And, as I argue throughout this book, we are all, in some sense, slaves to our own versions of history. For those of us living in the West, we have found it all too easy to claim that our own good fortune will continue and that, in time, it will inevitably spread far and wide. It’s time to wake up to reality.
POST-WAR SUCCESS, TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY FAILURE
Part One explains both why globalization was, for so many post-war years, a means towards rising wealth, and why, later, it seemingly became more of a curse than a blessing. As the twentieth century drew to a close, it seemed as though Western free-market capitalism and liberal democracy had triumphed.
At the end of the Cold War, it was easy to believe that we could all enjoy, to augment a notorious phrase, ‘peace and prosperity in our time’. It was not to be. Even before the global financial crisis, there were already signs of trouble: the crisis itself just made things worse.
Why, after so many years of rising incomes for the many, was globalization suddenly in trouble? Put another way, why did we ever think we had discovered the secrets behind ever-rising prosperity? What went so right in the years after the Second World War – a period during which economies became both richer and increasingly integrated with each other – and why did it all seem to be going so wrong at just the point when lasting success was, for many observers, seemingly guaranteed?
NATION STATES VERSUS GLOBALIZATION
Part Two examines the inevitable tension between globalization and the existence of nation states. For globalization to work, nation states need to accept reductions in sovereignty for the greater good. But who decides what is the greater good? In the nineteenth century, the imperial powers shared out the responsibility. Some performed the role better than others. Yet none was enthusiastic about the rights of their colonial subjects.
Globalization flourished economically and financially, yet politically it was both unfair and unstable. As, one by one, empires collapsed, the twentieth century saw the nation state emerge as the ‘default’ political arrangement, thanks in part to the philosophical and practical support provided by successive US presidents (and, less helpfully, the arbitrary carve-up by the retreating imperial powers of the Middle East and Africa).
Nation states, however, sit uneasily with a globalized world. From Hobbes to Montesquieu and through to James Buchanan with his ‘theory of clubs’, it is not at all obvious that what might loosely be defined as the ‘national interest’ will always be consistent with the ‘global interest’.
Montesquieu, in particular, argued that a democratic nation would only survive if the vast majority of its citizens thought their interests sat comfortably with those of the state as a whole. If instead some of those citizens began to think their interests could more easily be pursued by taking advantage of others – via the exertion of political power – the ‘spirit of inequality’ would begin to undermine the social contract.
Yet modern-day globalization appears to be conjuring up exactly this spirit of inequality. Rising income and wealth inequality has not helped – although it is worth noting that, even in those countries where inequality of living standards has not really risen much (notably in continental Europe), support for globalization is waning. But of greater importance is, perhaps, the sense that ‘we’re not all in this together’.
In the modern age, the spirit of inequality takes many forms: the growing income gap among those countries that pooled their monetary sovereignty in the Eurozone; the absence of significant income gains for many millions of Western workers, even as a lucky few have become unimaginably rich; the extraordinary progress of the Chinese economy, thanks in part to China’s ability to attract investments by Western companies that might, in an earlier age, have created jobs and raised wages in the US or Europe; the increased competition in some –but not all –labour markets, thanks to the impact of both technology and immigration; and the emergence of elites, which too often appear to be deciding our collective futures to suit their own interests, whether we like it or not.
It would be wrong, however, to think that globalization is struggling simply because it sits uncomfortably with the interests of nation states. As other parts of the world have flourished economically, so competing frameworks for globalization have emerged, reflected in China’s desire to, in effect, re-create a Eurasian Silk Road and Russia’s increasing exertion of power in the Middle East.
New institutions are challenging the international status quo, including the fledgling Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank –backed by China – and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – ultimately a Sino-Russian entity which potentially offers not just closer economic ties, but also closer security ties.
In the West, we lazily talk about the ‘international community’, supposedly a like-minded collection of countries with similar moral and ethical outlooks. It turns out, however, that there is really no such thing. There are, instead, rival communities that, in difficult economic times, may increasingly struggle to agree on a common course of action, particularly given their very different historical perspectives and, in many cases, their inability to reach agreement on unresolved territorial disputes.
THE TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY CHALLENGES
Part Three uses the prism of the past to gaze into the future, focusing on three crucial challenges to globalization: migration, technology and money.
Globalization in its purest form would ultimately be a world without borders, without independent nation states, with the dominant institutions of government operating at the global level. In this – imaginary – world there would be free movement of goods, services, capital and people, precisely the ‘Four Freedoms’ enshrined within the European Union.
There would also be a single currency and a single central bank: with perfectly functioning markets, there would be no need for currency adjustment.
Already, however, we know that the European Union is struggling politically with two of its ‘Four Freedoms’, namely the free movement of capital and of people. The Eurozone crisis, in abeyance at the time of writing, but still unresolved, partly stems from Europe’s inability to cope with the consequences of the free flow of capital across its internal borders. The Syrian conflict, meanwhile, has revealed severe challenges regarding the free movement of people, particularly given the weak points in the Schengen area’s common external border.
Yet, relative to historical patterns of migration, the number of Syrian migrants entering the European Union has been tiny. If migration had a high point, it was back in the nineteenth century, when rising incomes in Europe, together with the falling cost of a transatlantic berth, paved the way for a mass exodus of people to the New World. Syria may eventually represent only the foothills of a twenty-first-century migration crisis.
In sub-Saharan Africa, where the infant mortality rate is falling more rapidly than the fertility rate, a ‘baby boom’ on a totally unprecedented scale is on the way. Alongside rising real incomes, we may be on the cusp of witnessing an extraordinary migration of African people northwards, across the Mediterranean to Europe –in search of a better life –whether Europe is ready or not.
Technology is often regarded as the key driver of modern-day globalization, largely through its ability to demolish barriers associated with distance, time and cost. Yet technology has a dark side. The use of social media is undermining existing political arrangements. Despite its name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a classic example of a non-state actor that has been able to gain support via social media. The cybersphere has created opportunities for nations to attack and undermine each other in virtual reality.
Mainstream political parties – on either side of the Atlantic – have effectively been hijacked by mavericks (and their supporters). And, in many cases, the mavericks have succeeded by forcibly expressing their opposition to globalization on social media, while being economical with the truth.
Money, meanwhile, has become a means of conducting economic warfare, in a twenty-first-century version of coin clipping aimed at the foreign investor. For all the talk of central bankers kick-starting economic growth, monetary stimulus has increasingly ended up creating only winners and losers both within and across borders –a process that has served to create an even bigger gulf between policymakers and the citizens they are supposed to serve.
TECHNOCRATIC SOLUTIONS, OBLIGATIONS AND MORALITY
Part Four argues that many of the ‘solutions’ to the problems associated with globalization are simply too technocratic.
The decline of post-Columbus globalization is, in part, a reflection of its lack of democratic accountability. It is also, importantly, a result of what might best be described as a lack of global ‘leadership’, a reflection not just of an increasingly insular approach from the US, but also of the emergence of credible rivals in other parts of the world who –unlike Western Europe and Japan after the Second World War – see no reason to bow to Washington, particularly given America’s ‘pick ’n’mix’ approach to global values: not everyone, after all, enthuses about Iran–Contra, the Second Gulf War or the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.
Globalization’s demise, however, is not only about the return of global power games. Both before and (more obviously) after the global financial crisis, it has simply failed to deliver prosperity for all.
This reflects profound weaknesses that go far beyond market forces, even though market forces themselves have been – occasionally – incredibly destructive.
Obligations that we take for granted within nation states tend too often to be ignored across borders. How should creditors in one country relate to debtors in another? Why should taxpayers in a single country be on the hook for a bank’s global misdemeanours? What social rights should immigrants enjoy if they haven’t paid their taxes? In the absence of a global tax system, how realistic is it to demand that globalization’s winners compensate its losers, particularly if they come not just from different countries, but from different continents?
My version of the future is not quite as terrifying as that contained in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: there are no human ‘hatcheries’, no chemically engineered economic castes and no official promotion of hallucinogenic drugs to encourage a shallow and hedonistic lifestyle.
My story is, however, deeply unsettling. Many of the values and beliefs that the Western world embraced following the end of the Second World War are rapidly crumbling. In particular, we placed our faith in markets and technology, lazily assuming that, with the Cold War at an end, the rest of the world would embrace supposedly universal truths associated with liberal democracy and free markets. Yet many countries have done no such thing.
Worse, Western nations themselves are deeply divided, unsure as to whether they should carry on supporting international institutions and reaching out to the rest of the world, or should instead hunker down, opting for an insular approach that, even if initially seductive, has proved eventually to be hugely destructive.
The book begins, however, with Lincoln Steffens, a man who would have disappeared from the history books altogether had he not uttered a phrase that encapsulates our utopian tendency to believe that, within the right framework, human progress is inevitable.
1 FALSE PROPHETS, HARSH TRUTHS NEW MODEL ECONOMIES
Lincoln Steffens was one of the pioneering muckrakers. Hailing from California, he first made his mark as an ‘investigative journalist’ in New York in the early 1900s. He came to know everyone – from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson through to William Randolph Hearst and James Joyce. His chosen mission was to expose corruption wherever he found it.
In early twentieth-century America, there was no shortage of targets, with Wall Street, big business and municipal governments at the top of the list.
Steffens eventually became disillusioned with his muckraking efforts. Scandals typically led only to short-term reform. Venality, it seemed, was pretty much a fact of life, at least in the United States. Like other intellectuals of his generation, Steffens became increasingly fascinated by more radical approaches to political and social reform. If corruption was endemic in Western society, perhaps it was time for more ‘scientific’ solutions.
During a trip in March 1919 to what was to become the Soviet Union, Steffens thought he had found the answer. Unlike other fans of the Marxist-Leninist experiment, who chose to ignore the brutality associated with the embryonic Soviet regime, Steffens accepted that life in the ‘workers’ paradise’ was not exactly easy. Short-run ‘evil’, however, was a price worth paying for long-run ‘hope’.
So impressed was Steffens by the design of the Soviet system that, on his return to the United States, he famously proclaimed ‘I have seen the future, and it works.’
It is easy to see why he was so enthralled. In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, much of the West found itself in the midst of economic and political chaos. The United States economy succumbed to an eighteen-month depression beginning in 1920, its citizens enduring both falling output and severe deflation.
Weimar Germany suffered from hyperinflation between 1921 and 1924, a consequence of the absurd reparation conditions imposed by the allied victors under the Treaty of Versailles. Bundles of Marks were carried around in wheelbarrows, and cigarettes became a more useful means of exchange.
Government debt in the UK had jumped from a mere 25 per cent of national income before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 to a remarkable 181 per cent in 1923, triggering years of financial upheaval and austerity. The nineteenth century’s pre-eminent world power found itself, both politically and economically, in severe relative decline.
For a while, Steffens’claim seemed to be remarkably prescient. We now know that, between 1920 and 1930, Soviet living standards rose by more than 150 per cent, compared with gains of 42 per cent for Germany, 20 per cent for the UK and 12 per cent for the US.
Not surprisingly, many regarded Soviet industrialization under Lenin and Stalin as a near-miraculous process. Naive luminaries were totally seduced. In a letter to the Manchester Guardian published on 2 March 1933, George Bernard Shaw and 20 co-signatories angrily wrote:
Particularly offensive and ridiculous is the revival of the old attempts to represent the condition of Russian workers as one of slavery and starvation …We …are recent visitors to the USSR …Everywhere we saw a hopeful and enthusiastic working-class, self-respecting, free up to the limits imposed upon them by nature and a terrible inheritance from the tyranny and incompetence of their former rulers, developing public works, increasing health services, extending education, achieving the economic independence of women and the security of the child and …setting an example of industry and conduct which would greatly enrich us if our system supplied our workers with any incentive to follow it … We urge all men and women of goodwill to take every opportunity …to support the movements which demand peace, trade and closer friendship with an understanding of the greater Workers’ Republic of Russia.
Shaw and his fellow travellers presumably had not stumbled across the Gulag. Nor had they recognized that, in Stalin’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’ ethical world, the best way to survive was to denounce others before they could denounce you.
Steffens and Shaw were far from stupid. Nevertheless, they were too easily seduced by the Soviet system, blinded by the iniquities they saw at home: corruption, unemployment, inequality, inflation and austerity. For them, capitalism had failed. The Soviet system provided, through their blinkered eyes, a vision of the future. It was not to be. Soviet living standards rose relative to those in the US in the interwar period –from 20 per cent in 1920 to 35 per cent in 1938 –only to return to 21 per cent in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. They rose again during the Cold War, reaching a peak of 38 per cent of American incomes in 1975, before falling to 31 per cent as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
The Soviet version of economic progress – the one that Steffens and Shaw believed in so passionately – just didn’t deliver the goods.
HOW THE WEST DIDN’T WIN
Still, it would be wrong to suggest that the proponents of communism in its various forms were the only ones unable to see clearly into the future. In 1909, Norman Angell published the first edition of The Great Illusion, in which he argued that, thanks to nineteenth-century globalization and the resulting economic interdependency, war between the major nations of the world would be futile. Many regarded his book as the best argument in favour of continued peace, and therefore concluded that war was simply impossible (Angell himself wasn’t so optimistic).
Yet thanks to the shooting skills of Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo five years later, it turned out that no amount of political or economic logic could prevent a catastrophic conflagration.
The First World War turned the world upside down economically, financially and politically. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires disappeared without trace, while the British Empire began what proved to be its terminal decline.
Eighty years on, as the Soviet states began to crumble, Francis Fukuyama, the eminent political scientist, argued that: The most remarkable development of the last quarter of the twentieth century has been the revelation of enormous weaknesses at the core of the world’s seemingly strong dictatorships …liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration …liberal principles in economics –the ‘free market’–have spread, and have succeeded in producing unprecedented levels of material prosperity, both in industrially developed countries and in countries that had been part of the impoverished Third World.
More than two decades after the publication of Fukuyama’s The End of History – both as a 1989 short paper and a 1992 weighty tome – its claims no longer appear to be quite so secure. The link between liberal democracy and economic advance, frequently espoused by Western politicians, is not so obvious given the rapid economic growth of China, a nation that shows no sign of abandoning its one-party principles.
Fukuyama himself now writes about both political order and political decay, presciently drawing attention to perceived fault lines in American society: The American political system has decayed over time because its traditional system of checks and balances has deepened and become increasingly rigid. With sharp political polarization, this decentralized system is less and less able to represent majority interests but gives excessive representation to the views of interest groups and activist organizations that collectively do not add up to a sovereign American people.
Certainly, the American people are today no longer quite so enthusiastic about activities on Capitol Hill. The proportion of Americans polled who have either ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in Congress dropped from 42 per cent in 1973 – when Gallup first asked the question – to just 8 per cent in 2015, an approval rating lower than for any other institution, including banks, organized labour, newspapers, the criminal justice system, television news and big business.
Liberal democracy may be a coherent aspiration, but in the US it seems there is little appetite for the current batch of democratically elected politicians or the gridlocked system they claim to represent: one reason why Donald Trump –political outsider, property developer and reality TV star – was elected US president in November 2016.
In what was a mostly conciliatory acceptance speech, Mr Trump stated that ‘the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer’. Why had they been forgotten? Why had they been left behind? For Trump, the explanation was simple: too many people had suffered as a result of free trade deals, Chinese competition, Mexican immigration and Islamic terrorism. It was time to reject globalization in all its many forms.
Trump’s answer was to build walls, both physical and metaphorical, to protect the forgotten people.
MR PUTIN’S POPULARITY
Outside the United States, it is far from obvious that liberal democracy really is ‘the only coherent political aspiration’ or that the collapse of Soviet communism has somehow proved that Western political and economic values are universal.
Vladimir Putin first became Russian president in 2000. After eight years, he ‘stepped down’ to become Russia’s prime minister under Dmitry Medvedev. Four years later, Putin was back in charge. By the summer of 2015, his approval rating was the highest it had ever been. Nine out of ten Russians thought favourably of Putin’s presidency, thanks in large part to developments in Ukraine. Specifically, 87 per cent of Russians were in favour of the annexation of Crimea, which just so happens to be mostly populated by ethnic Russians.
The West’s decision to impose sanctions on Russia only bolstered Putin’s popularity, even if the sanctions – alongside a collapse in energy prices – contributed to the Russian economy’s contraction in late 2014 and 2015. It is hard to believe that Putin’s many supporters are craving the imminent arrival of liberal democracy, despite their economic hardship. They instead appear to prefer their ‘strongman’, an image Putin chooses to reinforce by riding bare-chested on a horse or plumbing the Black Sea’s depths in a submersible off the Crimean coast.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ARAB SPRING?
The hoped-for transition to liberal democracy in the Middle East and North Africa has simply not materialized. In November 2003, President George W. Bush – sticking to the End of History theme – told an appreciative audience at the National Endowment for Democracy that the US was: working closely with Iraqi citizens as they prepare a constitution, as they move toward free elections and take increasing responsibility for their own affairs …This is a massive and difficult undertaking –it is worth our effort, it is worth our sacrifice, because we know the stakes.
The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, increase dangers to the American people, and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region. Iraqi democracy will succeed – and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran – that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic …
Grave New World. The end of Globalisation, the return of History
Stephen D. King.
get it at Amazon.com