Bolshiness is back
by Adrian Wooldridge
This is a period of miserable centenaries. First, in 2014, came that of the outbreak of the first world war, which destroyed the liberal order. Then, in 2016, that of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest conflicts in military history. In 2017 it will be 100 years since Lenin seized power in Russia. Lenin’s putsch led to a succession of tragedies: Stalin’s rise to power; the death of more than 20m people as a result of the collectivisation of agriculture and forced industrialisation; and, partly in reaction to communism, the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.
From the dying days of the second world war onwards, Western policy was dedicated to making sure that the problems that had produced authoritarianism, both left and right, could not occur again. The Allies created a triad of global institutions—the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations—that were supposed to stabilise the global economy and prevent conflict. Most countries built (or reinforced) welfare states to provide safety nets and ladders of opportunity. America led a policy of containment that first limited the expansion of the Soviet Union and then led to its collapse.
Yet this golden age is coming to an end. This time the first shots are being fired by the right rather than the left, by the Brexiteers in Britain and Donald Trump in America. But the similarities between the collapse of the liberal order in 1917 and today are stark. They start with the fin de siècle atmosphere. The 40 years before the Russian revolution were years of liberal triumphalism. Free trade (led by the British) brought the world together. Liberal democracy triumphed in Britain and America and looked like the coming thing elsewhere. The years from 1980 were a similar period of triumphalism. Globalisation (led by America) advanced relentlessly. The number of countries that qualified as democracies multiplied. Politicians of the right and left competed to demonstrate their fealty to the “Washington consensus”.
The world has thankfully been spared another total war (though parts of the Middle East are in flames). But other parallels are striking. In America Mr Trump promises to take a pitchfork to the entire liberal order: not just to free trade and liberal values but also to global alliances against rogue regimes. In Britain Theresa May, the prime minister, is trying to extricate her country from the European Union. Mr Trump’s victory will embolden other Western authoritarians, such as Marine Le Pen and strengthen anti-Western authoritarians, notably Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin is much more the embodiment of the spirit of his age than is the outgoing American president, Barack Obama.
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