Opinions, Column

Paralleling the Past

One month into 2017, the new world order is already shaping up to be one of darkness, division, and dystopia built on prejudicial, fearful, and angry stilts. By the day, the post-war liberal order—led by America, built on consensus—is being disassembled and discarded to make way for a more chauvinistic and isolationist system.

The new world leaders would be well served to consider the last century, in which similarly pernicious sentiments and movements took hold. In 1900, at the dawn of the 20th century, the world was on the up and up. Education and new technologies—ushered in by industrialization and globalization—were reaching new corners of the globe. The international community seemed inclined toward progress, harmony, and stability.

People probably forget that the first decade of the 1900s were a time of remarkable hope, since just a few decades later, mankind experienced two global, heart-wrenching, and system-shattering conflicts. The World Wars came on the heels of global economic anxieties, the build-up of critical geopolitical tensions, heightened nationalism, and militarism on the march. All of these developments have, to some degree, bolstered or made way for the world’s new generation of leaders.

So, is 2017 like 1917? Again, it seems as if we could be on the brink of a 180-degree pivot from an age of optimism and stability to one characterized by division and conflict. An ascendant China and resurgent Russia are brewing up regional rivalries in their backyards and threatening to remake the world order in their likeness. World leaders—from Hungary to the Philippines to Turkey—seem more interested in consolidating power than constitutional governance, democracy, or human rights.

Amid record-setting flows of force-displaced refugees and migrants, leaders are opting to roll out the barbed wire fencing and ban peoples by decree. Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis that “the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural” is certainly given new weight under President Donald Trump and many of Europe’s freshest faces. Ironically, recent events in the West, such as intervention in foreign elections, criticizing the independent press, and using state security apparatuses as an instrument of suppression show that many are modeling their countries after the cruel and unstable Arab ones that they are so quick to shun.

In his first week, the U.S. President has drawn up plans for a costly border wall and enacted an absurd, inhumane, and un-American immigration ban by executive fiat. He has rebuked Ronald Reagan’s depiction of the U.S. as a “shining city on a hill,” instead explicitly evoking an image of our land as one ridden with “carnage,” defeat, and poverty. Yet another similarity between now and then: “America First,” one of Trump’s token phrases, was coined in the 1930s by a non-interventionist group sympathetic to the Nazi party in Germany.

In a world where macho leaders can swap harsh words with intercontinental ballistic missiles or flex their ego by deploying commandos across borders, words, thoughts, and actions matter more than ever. “Don’t take him literally, take him symbolically” is a tough sell when Trump seems entirely intent on unfurling executive actions to make good on his promises from the campaign trail.

There is a possible, cautious case for optimism. Perhaps this century-old comparison is overblown and the international community will not disintegrate under the mantle of its new leadership. Maybe the specter of nuclear war will serve as deterrence to a great powers conflict, or the international fora and institutions established post-WWII will prevent the escalation or outbreak of war.

But there is reason to harbor some skepticism about the future trajectory of the world. In January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a scientific organization that tracks the likelihood and imminence of global threats or existential catastrophes, upgraded the threat of a doomsday scenario to a mere two and a half minutes to midnight. The last time the clock was this close to midnight was the 1950s, after both the U.S. and Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs.

Hopefully, in the coming months, the world’s new bevy of leaders will realize the awesome extent of their powers and scale back rhetoric and policies that escalate tensions, provoke conflict, and stir up instability along ethnic, religious, and cultural lines. And hopefully, we aren’t in the middle of history repeating itself.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Staff

February 1, 2017