Global conflict in a new age of extremes
26 Nov 2018|

The late historian Eric Hobsbawm described the 20th century as the ‘age of extremes’, in which state socialism led to the gulag; liberal capitalism led to cyclical depressions; and nationalism led to two world wars. He then predicted that the future would amount to a prolongation of the past and present, characterised by ‘violent politics and violent political changes’ and by ‘social distribution, not growth’.

History may not repeat itself, but it does frequently rhyme. Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’, but only ‘individual men and women’ certainly rhymes with the divisive worldview and self-serving behaviour of today’s populist demagogues.

Today, like in the 20th century, nationalism is tearing societies apart and dividing erstwhile allies, by fuelling antagonism towards the ‘other’ and justifying physical and legal protectionist barriers. The world’s major powers have largely resumed their Cold War postures, preparing themselves psychologically, if not militarily, for open conflict.

As Hobsbawm predicted, skyrocketing income inequality has emerged as a major cause of rising nationalism, anti-globalisation sentiment and even the shift towards authoritarianism. Reconfirming the connection between bad economics and political extremism—highlighted by John Maynard Keynes in the aftermath of World War I—a decade of austerity in Europe has weakened the foundations of the welfare state and driven millions of voters into the arms of populists.

Ironically, a major reason why today’s politics increasingly rhyme with 20th-century developments is the fear of repeating the Great Depression—a fear that emerged after the 2008 financial crisis seemed to rhyme with the 1929 stock-market crash. Germany, for example, became obsessed with austerity, in order to ensure that runaway inflation did not contribute to dictatorship, as it had in the 1920s.

But austerity went too far, enabling anti-establishment politicians to capitalise on economic hardship (along with xenophobia and misogyny) to win support. Struggling to compete electorally, many mainstream parties moved away from the centre, causing the entire political field to become increasingly polarised.

This trend can be seen in the United States, where, under President Donald Trump’s leadership, the Republican Party has become practically devoid of moderate voices. It can also be seen in the United Kingdom, where a more radical Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership faces a Conservative Party held hostage by pro-Brexit extremists.

In Italy, the populist Five Star Movement and the nationalist League party have united in a flaky governing coalition following the electoral collapse of the country’s mainstream political forces. When Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte proclaimed to Vladimir Putin that Russia is Italy’s ‘strategic partner’, it became clear that Italy, a core member of the EU and NATO, had become a potentially destabilising power.

In Spain, the People’s Party (PP) has become openly nationalist under the leadership of the hardline Pablo Casado. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party is the PP’s mirror image, having abandoned the centrist legacy of Felipe González in order to compete with the far-left populists of Podemos.

In Germany, voters in Bavaria and Hesse abandoned German chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, the Christian Social Union, in droves. The Greens drew votes from the more moderate Social Democratic Party, and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland gained significant ground. With the centre gutted, Germany’s capacity to remain the bulwark of a united Europe is in jeopardy. Even the notion that a radical—even neo-fascist—leader could one day rule Germany again no longer looks farfetched.

As democracies abandon moderation, abuses of power are proliferating, and social and political tensions are rising. In the US, Trump routinely demonises opponents and dehumanises marginalised groups; during his first year in office, politically motivated murders, perpetrated primarily by fanatical white supremacists, doubled. Several prominent Democrats or party supporters were recently sent pipe bombs.

The risks posed by these developments are hardly confined to the countries in question. Maintaining relative global peace—or at least avoiding major interstate wars—depends on strong alliances and leaders’ awareness of the devastation their weapons can cause. But, at a time when shortsighted, radical and inexperienced figures are gaining power, both of these bulwarks against war have been weakened.

In fact, the framework of global peace is already coming under mounting pressure. Because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s relentless revanchism, Russia’s borders with NATO are now the sites of the most extensive military build-up since the Cold War.

Making matters worse, Trump has pulled the US out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, unravelling decades of progress on nuclear arms control. He seems to hope to force Russia (and China) into a new deal by threatening to ‘develop the weapons’. But he is unlikely to succeed. Whereas Ronald Reagan was negotiating with the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev, Trump would be facing the power-hungry Putin.

The risks the world faces are compounded by new—and inadequately regulated—technologies. Cyber warfare is already a daily reality; indeed, at any moment, a cyberattack could be launched against a NATO country, potentially triggering the alliance’s mutual-defence guarantee. Likewise, the United Nations has so far failed to overcome opposition to regulation of the use of lethal autonomous weapons based on artificial intelligence.

The risk of violent conflict will continue to rise as the effects of climate change intensify. Among other things, massive desertification in the Middle East and Africa would bring famines that dwarf those of the 20th century in scale. Human migration would surge, and struggles over resources would intensify. Despite efforts to secure multilateral cooperation, in today’s Hobbesian world, the slide towards climate chaos seems unstoppable.

The challenges facing the world today would have been unimaginable in the 20th century. But the underlying political dynamics are all too familiar. It is time for us to take stock of what those dynamics portend, and take seriously the lessons historical memory holds.