Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Historical trajectories

While only recently it appeared that the resurgence of rightist nationalism was inexorable, liberalism and internationalism are taking back ground, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

This article is about the world in which we live. It is an attempt to see the “bigger picture” at a time when “change” is so rapid that it is virtually impossible to capture a still shot that is not too blurred to be able to gauge the state of the world and when what we know of the global order tells us that we are like blind people trying to measure an ice cube as it melts between our fingers. In the past things were easier, or, more appropriately, possible. That was when history was demarcated by empires. Then, after the French Revolution (and the American one as well) and the birth of the nation state, the history of the 19th century up to World War I was characterised by colonial competition between European powers over the South or the Third World as that geographical region would later be known.

Not all nation states were equal. Great Britain was the global pole par excellence. It possessed the world’s most powerful navy and it was the pioneer of the first industrial revolution. By the time World War I was over, the killing industry had become mechanised. The first industrial revolution was also a part of the birth of the nation state. Major empires (the Ottoman and Hapsburg) crumbled. Competition flared between a multiplicity of poles in the North (Britain, the US, France, Germany, Italy and Japan) and conditions were growing rocky for colonial authorities in the South.

The experiment of forging a world order around the League of Nations failed to weather the storm and became the first victim of the breakout of World War II which, in turn, bequeathed a world order that was at once more dangerous, yet safer and clearer. The bipolar order (the US and USSR) arose by dint of the products of the second industrial revolution. Of central importance was the nuclear weapon that was used at the end of that war and the consequences of which raised the spectre that further recourse to that weapon might result in the extinction of human life altogether. The result was the Cold War in which the superpowers competed to expand their realms of influence in the world but which simultaneously made the world safe from the eruption of another world war. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and, two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. The third industrial revolution had peaked and no closed ideological regime could survive in a world of unprecedentedly rapid and extensive communications. As the US was the furthest ahead in the technological revolution and, perhaps, the most prepared for globalisation, it became the new single pole. However, that new pole may be the shortest lived in the history of monopolar orders. Its toll knelled in the form of the terrorist attacks that were carried out in the space of a few hours in New York and Washington on the morning of 11 September 2001. Another new world was born that day.

That other new world challenged everything we had known about previous worlds, whether characterised by mono- or multi-polar orders and regardless of the industrial, social economic and, accordingly, military/security revolutions that shaped them. The new challenge now came from non-state organisations and movements, nebulous forces that transcended national boundaries and even social classes, that vented wrath against human beings indiscriminately, and that obeyed no known rules in the realms of defence, attack and above all deterrence. The phenomenon is a reflection of the most primitive and most barbaric states of human culture, but at the same time it flourished using the instruments of globalised social communications, which is to say the instruments of the third industrial revolution. The US declared war on terror at the outset of the current century. Most other countries would eventually follow its lead. However, today, a decade and a half later, victory in this war is still out of reach while the consequences of the US campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were exorbitantly costly, both in going in and in trying to get out.

Of course, we can also attempt to read the new world in light of previous world orders. Perhaps our perplexity derives from the fact that we are not looking at one world but many worlds and dimensions. Certainly, the world is still a bipolar one militarily. The US and Russia both continue to possess the sufficient weapons of mass destruction to wipe out the planet many times over. In this respect, we can say that the two poles are playing a game that has the characteristics of the Cold War which, incidentally, had many intense crises just as it had its moments of concord. In terms of economic polarities, Russia is a long way off while China, Germany at the head of the EU, Japan and Britain formerly of the EU take Russia’s place, and these are followed by a train of emergent economic powers such as India, Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. However, the third industrial revolution and the fourth that is dawning have generated a new type of scientific/technological polarisation that is connected with the power to steer certain modes of global production. In this realm, countries such as Israel, Switzerland, Finland and Sweden have emerged and, perhaps as well, multinational global entities that have the ability to affect, positively or negatively, international security and the global economy, such as Microsoft, Apple and Google.

This other new world is not just complex and multifaceted, it is also highly interactive and it moves rapidly through different levels of power and types of strength, both soft and hard. Perhaps only a year before now, the world seemed as though it had settled into a certain type of “globalisation” with the US at the summit, which it sometimes shared with others depending on the sphere and/or type of strength. That may not have offered sufficient clarity for countries to design their foreign policies and international relations, but the “order”, such as it was, soon encountered a number of shocks, beginning with Brexit which was immediately followed by Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections. Suddenly, the liberal democratic order, as shaped by the substance of globalisation and the third industrial revolution, was reeling from debilitating blows from within. Ultra national ideologies were gaining ascendancy over liberal ideology and cries such as “America first”, “Britain first”, “France first” and so on throughout Europe as well as in Canada and Australia locked horns with respective globalising trends in these countries that held that what is good for themselves is good for the rest of the world.

Emanuel Macron’s victory over Le Pen in France and Moon Jae-in’s victory in the South Korean presidential elections are signs that the ultranationalist ascendancy over liberalism is not as smooth as it first appeared or that liberalism has lost the momentum it had acquired through the third industrial revolution. True, the story is far from over yet. There are more elections in the offing. However, one of the anticipated results is that the dynamics inherent to the technological capacities of globalisation, especially when considering what is being said about the fourth industrial revolution, will probably make the current ultranationalist trends more in the nature of the exceptions that merely prove that history does not always march in a straight line. In fact, most of the time history zigzags before resuming its “natural” course, much as a subplot might cause the historical narrative to swerve but without straying from the main thrust of the human story.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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