Where we’re going, where we’ve been: Jennifer Welsh and the return of history

The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century
Jennifer Welsh
House of Anansi Press

One of humanity’s most nettlesome characteristics is its stubborn inability to learn from its mistakes. As a species, we remain blithely ignorant of our history, and so appear willing – if not surprisingly eager – to march into the same situations that have caused agony and destruction in the past. Humankind is a manifestation of the old Alcoholics Anonymous cliché about insanity: we continue to pursue the same patterns of action and expect different results.

Case in point: our current historical moment locates itself at the confluence of three factors that appear to be driving global politics. The first is galloping technological change, which is replacing the old industrial economy with a knowledge economy, while at the same time eliminating manufacturing and service jobs that are disappearing to automation. The second, closely tied to the effects of technological incursion, is a growing disparity in income between the one percent at the top of the economic food chain and everyone else. And the third is a resurgence of nationalism – specifically white nationalism – in Europe and elsewhere.

If these broad societal pressures seem vaguely familiar, this is no accident: the collision of technology, income disparity, and nationalism formed the exact preconditions that resulted in the First World War. There are, of course, differences in the specifics: industrialization in the late 19th century does not map precisely over top of the digital revolution at the beginning of the 21st. And the type of nationalism espoused by Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Nigel Farage in the U.K. – to say nothing of the president-elect of the U.S. and his xenophobic, paranoid cabal – differs in its contours and context from that of Europe in 1914. But the broad parallels are evident, albeit with what Jennifer Welsh, former Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary General on the Responsibility to Protect and an expert on international relations, calls “a modern twist.”

The author of Edmund Burke and International Relations and At Home in the World: Canada’s Global Vision for the 21st Century, Welsh opens her latest work with an expression of dissent regarding Francis Fukuyama’s famous “end of history” thesis. After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the U.S.S.R. subsequently dissolved, Fukuyama was moved to suggest that the forces of liberal democracy backed by a capitalist ethos had proven themselves to be the natural governing state of humankind and would henceforth serve as the dominant geopolitical reality for the globe. Fukuyama’s analysis was strikingly optimistic in its assertion that the historical upheavals resulting from conflicting ideologies were coming to an end and that a more peaceable coexistence was just around the corner.

Welsh contends, with ample evidence to back her up, that something close to the opposite has in fact transpired. Far from being the inevitable endpoint of international relations, Welsh argues, liberal democracy was never the obvious default setting for geopolitics, and various events of the past decade and a half have conspired to underscore this fact. History has returned, with a vengeance.

Welsh is careful to enumerate the ways in which history’s recent resurgence diverges from its earlier iterations. The medieval barbarism displayed by ISIS beheadings and other killings is coincident with that group’s use of modern technology not just as a means of disseminating its atrocities around the world to intimidate foreign governments and civilians, but also as a recruitment device. “With the succession of videos showing murder and cruelty,” Welsh writes, “[…] ISIS seeks not only to deter the enemy, through the fear of falling into the hands of those who practice barbarism, but also to entice more fighters into its ranks. History has returned, so it seems, in a particularly twisted form.”

Likewise, the return of cold war with Russia is not an exact replica of the bipolar tensions that existed between the former U.S.S.R. and the U.S. in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. The opposing ideologies of the twin superpowers have shifted, Welsh suggests: Vladimir Putin’s Russia is nominally a democracy – Welsh refers to it using Fareed Zakaria’s term “illiberal democracy” – and Putin has the ideological support of many European populist leaders. Donald Trump in the U.S. has expressed approval for Putin’s “strong” leadership. As Welsh points out: “Populist figures in the West do not stop at voicing their respect for Putin; they also openly criticize Western policies designed to pressure or punish his government.”

Barbarism and cold war form two of the four corners demarcating history’s return. The other two, according to Welsh, are mass migration and economic inequality. Ironically, the current refugee crisis – which has now eclipsed any such migration since the Second World War – was born out of the democratically inspired Arab Spring protests, which themselves resulted in a crackdown in Egypt and the ongoing civil war in Syria. And the hollowing out of the middle class in countries around the world is a consequence of globalization’s expanse, encouraged and nurtured by Western liberal democracies.

Welsh is neither an idealist nor a fatalist, preferring instead to contextualize current geopolitical realities in an historical framework and then assess the ways that framework can inform our modern situation. The Return of History, which forms this year’s CBC Massey Lectures, was published prior to the U.S. presidential election in November, but the results of that election and the realignment of political and ideological factions it has engendered in North America and in Europe make the book even more relevant. Welsh has provided a cogent reminder of the importance of paying attention to the lessons of the past, and a primer placing those lessons in a modern context.

Where we’re going, where we’ve been: Jennifer Welsh and the return of history
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