International and domestic developments are often far more predictable than commonly realised.
As long ago as 1962, the French political scientist Raymond Aron noted that
- “heterogeneity among civilisations” was the major source of conflict in international politics,
- bipolarity veiled this conflict,
- the end of bipolarity end would “unveil” that heterogeneity.
In the mid-1980s, the international relations expert Hedley Bull observed that around 1900, European and Western powers
expressed a sense of self-assurance, both about the durability of their position in international society and its moral purpose.
This confidence was shattered by the disaster of the First World War and introduced the revolt against the West, which, according to which Bull identified, was characterised by “five phases or themes”
- an anti-colonial revolution and the struggle for equal sovereignty
- racial equality
- economic justice
- cultural liberation
Underpinning these themes, wrote Bull, were five factors:
- a “psychological awakening” outside the West
- “a weakening of the will on the part of the Western powers to maintain their position of dominance, or to at least accept the costs necessary to do so”
- the rise of new powers such as the Soviet Union
- “a more general equilibrium of power”
- “a transformation of the legal and moral climate of international relations” – this was heavily influenced by the majorities of votes held by Third World states
Hedley Bull, “The Revolt against the West” in The Expansion of International Society, Oxford University Press, 1985, pp. 217-228
In 1987, the British historian Paul Kennedy made a similar same point:
But did this competition by Washington and Moscow for the affections of the rest of the globe, this mutual jostling for influence with the aid of treaties, credits, and weapons exports [in the 1950s and 1960s], mean that a bipolar world had indeed come into being, with everything significant in international affairs gravitating around the two opposing Schwerpunkte of the United States and the USSR?… pp.391-2.
What was happening, in fact, was that one major trend in twentieth-century power politics, the rise of the superpowers, was beginning to interact with another, newer trend — the political fragmentation of the globe. p. 392.
Like other Great Powers before them, both Russia and the United States had to grapple with the hard fact that their “universalist” message would not be automatically accepted by other societies and cultures. pp. 394-5.
Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, 1987
From the late 1980s, the German-Syrian expert Bassam Tibi was forecasting the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as the biggest challenge to the West in the 21st century.
All the above is precisely what we are now seeing. The views and hopes that many held after the collapse of the Soviet Union that we had reached “the end of history” have been disappointed, although what Francis Fukuyama actually said was not that we had arrived at “the end of history” and that there would be no more événements, but that the liberal capitalism order was the highest stage in man’s political development.
In that, Fukuyama is correct – no better system in terms of health and wealth has yet been discovered. Challenges to the West and the liberal international order from countries such as China, Russia and Iran, or ideologies such as Islamism, hardly represent an improvement on liberal capitalism.
But as Samuel Huntington wrote, it is becoming increasing clear that a “clash of civilizations” is developing as the Cold War stasis passes ever further into history and other developments and trends reassert themselves.
Even before Trump, many did not want to join the American-led system and gain its immeasurable benefits, instead wishing to recast it in their own image. Much of this is about revenge and power along the lines of “it’s our turn now!” – and much of it contains a large dose of reverse racism.
As Camus wrote,
The slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown. He must dominate in his turn.
Albert Camus, The Rebel, 1951
This is despite the fact that the West not only created the modern world, but also relinquished its empires with relatively little bloodshed after 1945 and racist views of “white supremacy” and, in addition, brought developing countries into its global system to their huge benefit.
All this is compounded by the fact that the West itself is in serious trouble and suffering from deep and possibly insurmountable cultural divisions. Many in the West reject the very idea of the West itself, but a reaction against that negative view has now set in to produce the latest incarnation of the “culture wars.”
On the domestic front, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump also caught journalists and politicians by surprise – because they failed to do their job properly and actually talk to people outside liberal metropolitan centres to find out what they were actually thinking.
It is a media myth that “populism” only resonates with poorly educated “deplorables” and victims of globalisation.
Some Oxbridge-educated friends of mine in the UK were furious at the European Union and mass immigration in the early 2000s – and that was before the latter shot up after 2004 following the accession of 10 poor countries from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean: the three Baltic countries and former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; the four Slavic countries of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Slovenia; Hungary; Cyprus and Malta.
Under the then prime minister Tony Blair, a policy was made under which there would be no transitional period for admitting people from the new members of the European Union – which led to a huge rise in immigration. Now, Blair is aghast at the Brexit vote, but along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her “open door” policy on refugees in 2015, bears the biggest single share of responsibility for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Later, American friends on both sides of the aisle who attended or taught at elite universities were similarly furious at US politics and believed the whole country was corrupt.
Moreover, numerous expert warnings were consistently ignored by politicians, policymakers, most academics, journalists – few of whom had any idea what the general public actually thought.
Angela Merkel’s open invitation to refugees in 2015 is a classic example of a policy rammed through in the face of expert opposition – from experts on Islam, Islamism and the Middle East, such as Bassam Tibi, the German security community, German economists and Germany’s regional and local authorities, which had to cope with the huge sudden influx when their finances were already stretched.
Moreover, virtually every middle-class German I spoke to at the time was also opposed to the mass influx – including Turks and Arabs long-established in the country. Some businessmen told me that a repeat of similar numbers in 2016 would prompt them to sell up and leave the country.
Other members of the European Union were also opposed, but Merkel expected them to take their share of the refugees – without, however, consulting with them beforehand.
It is not surprising that the German chancellor has since dialled back her open-door policy, nor that it led to greater support for the AfD, the “populist” Alternative für Deutschland.
Merkel and her CDU party were indeed fortunate that the country’s next federal elections were due in September 2017, and not in 2015 or 2016.
Much media criticism is now aimed at “populists,” as if they were to blame for the current polarisation across Western society.
In fact, populists are merely reacting to long-term structural changes long since visible and forecast – and largely ignored by Western elites who believed in yet another myth – that globalisation “raises all boats.”