A Decisive Year?
by Guy Sorman
For all the rhetoric about 2016, we won’t know its true significance for some time.
Was 2016 a historical turning point, or merely a year like many others? No one knows yet. The rioters who stormed the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789, had no idea that they were launching one of history’s great revolutions. Wine and the summer heat, some said, sparked their actions as much as republican ideals.
Stendahl immortalized this inability to grasp the true significance of an event as it occurs in the character of Fabrice in The Charterhouse of Parma. Fabrice fights with all his might against English and Prussian soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo, but he is unaware of the stakes of the struggle. Only afterward does he learn that he was part of a great event, now known as “Waterloo,” which marked the end of an empire and the birth of a new political order in Europe.
If we look back over 2016, we can observe at least three major phenomena: the resurgence of populism, the return of brute force to international relations, and the weakening of democracy. These trends have sent the media scrambling for meaning, but do they really portend our future? Perhaps we’re not looking in the right place. After all, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, was anyone looking for him there other than three wise men?
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that 2016 was in fact a populist milestone, with Brexit, the unexpected election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the rise of conservative parties in France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Austria, and Hungary. We should take a closer look at the meaning of the term “populist.” Populists usually define themselves as patriots who want to “take back” control of their destinies. They see themselves as alienated by policies concerning immigration, globalization, and, in Europe, Europeanization (as opposed to national identity). They are against cosmopolitan intrusions, and they position themselves as an authentic people through their devotion to culture, language, and origins. They are united more by their passions, though, than by solutions. Will populists push the international order toward a breakdown, and possible violence? Or will the gulf between populist promises and reality extinguish these enflamed passions? We don’t know yet.
Likewise, we don’t know whether the recourse to brute force will displace the art of diplomatic negotiation in 2017. Without question, the leaders of China, Russia, Turkey, and Syria believe that they have won major victories in 2016 by disregarding international law, human rights, the U.N., and international treaties. But here again, the crucial question—do these trends represent a new order, or a fleeting moment of weakness on the part of Western democracies?—will go unanswered for the time being.
Read more: city-journal.org
Read more: city-journal.org