Draw back from the day-to-day news in Europe and think a bit about the wider trends, globally and regionally. Without a feeling for these, it’s harder to make sense of individual items in the news.
The eerie thing about Trump is that his campaign echoes so many themes of the so-called European far-right. I say “so-called,” because the word “right” confuses matters. These parties go beyond traditional left-right categories. I’d prefer to call them “Trumpist” or “Putinist” parties, and call their opponents, “traditional” or “establishment” parties.
Like Trump, these candidates tend to run on platforms of protecting very high levels of welfare and social spending. Thrift and budget discipline are not part of the program. Like Trump, they’re protectionist, anti-globalist, and thoroughly unimpressed by the blessings of free trade. Like Trump, they promise to limit or end immigration, and like Trump, they’re particularly concerned about Muslim immigration. Like Trump, they admire Vladimir Putin, and don’t see why there should be such a fuss about Ukraine.
They suggest that if voters are economically frustrated, it’s because the Establishment — be it the Acela corridor or the Eurostar corridor — is comprised of a bunch of Davos-brained idiots who’ve determined to rip them off, or permit them to be ripped off, or to destroy their national sovereignty. They hate and distrust the media. Like Trump, even if the candidates are not themselves anti-Semitic, they’re the candidates of choice for those who are. In Europe, these parties also tend to be anti-American.
Most people who vote for these parties have been on the losing side of globalization and technology change. If neoliberal trade regimes have benefitted anyone, it sure hasn’t been them.
What differs, of course, is the country that’s the star of the story. In every case, the candidates appeal to a time when his or her own country — be it the United States, France, Russia, or Great Britain — was “great,” “respected,” and less embedded in an international system that deprives it of sovereignty. (Obviously, if all of these countries become “great” again in the way these candidates suggest, this will be a planet with too many pigeons and not enough statues.)
Is the deeper story behind all of this the seemingly-eternal fallout of the financial and the Eurozone crises? Or is it something even bigger?
If you grew up reading Robert Kaplan’s thoughts about geopolitics, you’ll know that he’s been predicting anarchy since 1994, when he wrote his famous, Malthusian essay, “The Coming Anarchy.” I don’t always agree with him, but he’s a writer for whom I always have time. First, because he’s deeply learned. Second, because he gets out of his armchair and spends time in the places he writes about, a lot of time. He isn’t just building geopolitical models from the comfort of his mom’s basement. Third, because he’s a pessimist to the bone, which is of course the correct foundation for conservatism. So whenever things seem to be falling apart, I think, “Perhaps it’s time to read Kaplan again. He did predict this, after all.”
The collapse of communism from internal stresses says nothing about the long-term viability of Western democracy. Marxism’s natural death in Eastern Europe is no guarantee that subtler tyrannies do not await us, here and abroad. History has demonstrated that there is no final triumph of reason, whether it goes by the name of Christianity, the Enlightenment, or, now, democracy. To think that democracy as we know it will triumph—or is even here to stay—is itself a form of determinism, driven by our own ethnocentricity. Indeed, those who quote Alexis de Tocqueville in support of democracy’s inevitability should pay heed to his observation that Americans, because of their (comparative) equality, exaggerate “the scope of human perfectibility.” Despotism, Tocqueville went on, “is more particularly to be feared in democratic ages,” because it thrives on the obsession with self and one’s own security which equality fosters.
I submit that the democracy we are encouraging in many poor parts of the world is an integral part of a transformation toward new forms of authoritarianism; that democracy in the United States is at greater risk than ever before, and from obscure sources; and that many future regimes, ours especially, could resemble the oligarchies of ancient Athens and Sparta more than they do the current government in Washington. History teaches that it is exactly at such prosperous times as these that we need to maintain a sense of the tragic, however unnecessary it may seem. The Greek historian Polybius, of the second century B.C., interpreted what we consider the Golden Age of Athens as the beginning of its decline. To Thucydides, the very security and satisfactory life that the Athenians enjoyed under Pericles blinded them to the bleak forces of human nature that were gradually to be their undoing in the Peloponnesian War.
I know I recommend a lot of articles, but I recommend that one particularly highly. It’s prescient. That’s one among a number of passages that makes the essay worth reading. Here’s another:
Democracy loses meaning if both rulers and ruled cease to be part of a community tied to a specific territory. In this historical transition phase, lasting perhaps a century or more, in which globalization has begun but is not complete and loyalties are highly confused, civil society will be harder to maintain. How and when we vote during the next hundred years may be a minor detail for historians.
And remember, he wrote this in 1997, when this wasn’t an especially fashionable view:
… trouble awaits us, if only because the “triumph” of democracy in the developing world will cause great upheavals before many places settle into more practical—and, it is to be hoped, benign—hybrid regimes. In the Middle East, for instance, countries like Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf sheikhdoms—with artificial borders, rising populations, and rising numbers of working-age youths—will not instantly become stable democracies once their absolute dictators and medieval ruling families pass from the scene. As in the early centuries of Christianity, there will be a mess.
Last February, he wrote a piece for Stratfor titled “Why So Much Anarchy?” He elaborates his argument and updates it with new observations. Also worth reading. I’m thinking about Kaplan this morning because of this item in the news. Mario Monti, the former Italian prime minister and European commissioner, is alarmed:
“The EU is going through a crisis which leads me and others for the first time to consider whether we are not heading towards disintegration,” Monti said, with his calm tone and deliberate cadence only emphasizing the seriousness of his words.
“The EU has never been hit by such a high number of different crises of this gravity,” he continued, referring to the migration problem, the rise of terrorism, and the bloc’s persistent economic malaise. “What I am concerned about is that, although the EU has developed itself historically through a process of crisis, response to the crisis, and advancement, this time around it may well not happen.”
“The degree of mistrust and sheer prejudices between North and South and between East and West has never been so high and so unashamedly voiced,” he said. …
“Unfortunately, this has started to pay off, at least in the short-term, for politicians who cultivate the gut feelings of their citizens. Even heads of government and ministers belonging to traditionally pro-European parties now indulge in this habit. They hit out at the EU and also to other member states in bilateral acrimony.”
I have no special affection for the EU, which is indeed as bloated, bureaucratic, and inefficient as reputed. But I see no reason to expect it to be replaced by something better. On what historical experience would that expectation be founded? People who suggest that Europe’s future without it would naturally be more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic have no evidence to which they can appeal. The condition of Europe before the EU was none of those things. I’d feel much more confident in the Euroskeptics if I saw from them realistic proposals to build new mechanisms for European trade and cooperation, rather than just the proposal to tear this one down.
Kaplan’s just written another piece, for the National Interest, in which he argues thatvulgar, populist anarchy will define the 21st century. He accounts for these political movements in terms of growing world disorder, this occasioned among other things by the end of the American imperial moment:
[T]he underpinnings of the global order today attempt to replace the functions of empire—from the rules-based international system to the raft of supranational and multinational groupings, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, the International Court of Justice and the World Economic Forum. Silently undergirding this process since World War II has been the undeniable fact of American power—military, diplomatic and economic—protecting sea lanes, maritime choke points, access to hydrocarbons and, in general, providing some measure of security to the world. These tasks are amoral to the extent that they do not involve lofty principles, but without them there is no possibility for moral action anywhere. This is not traditional imperialism, which is no longer an option, but it is a far more humane replacement for it.
And this is his prediction:
World disorder will only grow. The weakening and dissolution of small- and medium-size states in Africa and the Middle East will advance to quasi-anarchy in larger states on which the geographic organization of Eurasia hinges: Russia and China. For the external aggression of these new regional hegemons is, in part, motivated by internal weakness. They’re using nationalism to assuage the unraveling domestic economies upon which their societies’ stability rests. Then there is the European Union, which is enfeebled, if not crumbling. Rather than a unified and coherent superstate, Europe will increasingly be a less-than-coherent confection of states and regions, dissolving into the fluid geography of Eurasia, the Levant and North Africa.
With the great multinational empires and totalitarian regimes gone, and their surrogates — the United States and the EU — fading, he predicts “a maelstrom of national and subnational groups in violent competition.”
And so, geopolitics—the battle for space and power—now occurs within states as well as between them. Cultural and religious differences are particularly exacerbated: as group differences melt down in the crucible of globalization, they have to be reforged in a blunter and more ideological form. It isn’t the clash of civilizations so much as the clash of artificially reconstructed civilizations that is taking place.
Kaplan has been predicting anarchy for years, so it’s no surprise he’s predicting it again, but might he be right?
In sum, everything is interlinked as never before, even as there is less and less of a night watchman to keep the peace worldwide. Hierarchies everywhere are breaking down. Just look at the presidential primaries in the United States—an upheaval from below for which the political establishment has no answer. … vulgar, populist anarchy that elites at places like Aspen and Davos will struggle to influence or even comprehend will help define the twenty-first century. The multinational empires of the early-modern and modern past, as well as the ideological divisions of the Cold War, will then be viewed almost as much with nostalgia as with disdain.
In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence. …
In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.
My larger question, for the purposes of this book, is whether this series of crises in Europe will result in a kind of muddling-through, with or without the EU, which preserves a Europe much like the one we’ve known in the past half-century. That is, a Europe comprised of nation-states that have embraced a tolerant and democratic form of governance, and which trade and cooperate peacefully among themselves.
Or is it more likely to result in competing authoritarian and nationalist regimes? Would this return Europe to its traditional bloody past, or to an inter-European arms race and Cold War?