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Lecture Topic: Is It 1939 Yet?

Is It 1939 Yet?

A lot of people are worried that the world is heading for a catastrophe – and it must be admitted that there are a number of things happening that feed those fears.

The last time the world felt like this was the 1930s, when the painfully slow recovery from a global financial crash led to political polarization, trade wars, and the rise to power of anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist leaders in a number of countries. The consequences included the Second World War and forty years of Cold War.

Well, we had our global financial crash in 2008, and average incomes in many Western countries have still not recovered to pre-2008 levels. The growth of nationalist and racist sentiment is evident in major countries like Britain (the Brexit vote), France (the rise of the National Front), and the United States (Trump).

The wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that transformed so many developing countries in 1986-2010 ended with the failure of the “Arab Spring”. In parts of Asia the democratization process has even gone into reverse, and authoritarian governments hostile to the European Union have come to power in Hungary and Poland.

A trade war is brewing between the United States and China, and China’s new ruler, Xi Jinping, is more autocratic and readier to play the nationalist card than any Chinese leader since Mao. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is addicted to high-stakes international brinkmanship.

Quite a list, but does it really mean that we are back in the 1930s, with the calamity of global war just a few years away? Or is this just a grab-bag of the local problems, failures and worries that are bound to exist in a world of almost 200 independent countries?

Probably the latter. Most of the support for right-wing extremism in the West comes from those who have been left behind by globalization, but better education and social spending can reduce the pain and the anger.

The Middle East is a disaster area, but its only impact elsewhere is occasional small-scale terrorist outrages in Western countries. To live in fear of a world-wide Islamic caliphate is as delusional as to hope for it.

Democracy is not in retreat in Africa or Latin America, and the pluses and the minuses balance out in Asia. Nor is the triumph of a couple of ultra-nationalist parties in Eastern European countries necessarily a signpost to Europe’s future.

The world’s economic center of gravity is shifting, and many things will change as a result. The United States and China might even stumble into a military confrontation at some point, but that is far from inevitable. We are not doomed to repeat the past.