The new “Sleepwalkers”!
Current geopolitical developments in Europe and beyond recall those preceding 1914 during which, imperceptibly, as described by Christopher Clark in his book “The Sleepwalkers”, events would engulf the planet in World War I. It was the epilogue of a lengthy period of “globalisation”, which started with the industrial revolution in the 19th century and was abetted by the rivalries between European (colonial) empires. The world and Europe in particular would only recover after World War II having, in the interval, wrought untold destruction, hardship and loss of life on an unprecedented scale, as well as initiated an irreversible upheaval of established relationships among world powers.
While recognizing the differences between the “globalisation” that preceded 1914 and the current situation, one should nevertheless acknowledge also its many similarities and draw the appropriate lessons.
Thus, the transformations of society, whether in the field of innovation, demography, the dissemination of information, climate change, finance, the distribution of wealth, etc., are certainly similar – though on a vastly greater scale – to those that occurred during the 19th century. However, this time around, these changes (progress?) are occurring and their impact is spreading far more rapidly, exacerbating the distortions and inequalities between – and within – populations throughout the world.
If one should welcome the undeniable progress made globally in fighting poverty as well as the progressive – though uneven – spreading of human rights and democracy, such a judgment cannot overlook the seriously negative impact that globalisation has also had on entire segments of society which feel being treated unjustly. This is particularly the case within developed economies which have patiently built expensive social protection systems which are today taken for granted but whose financing is severely compromised by the explosion of inequalities that have simultaneously expanded the number of beneficiaries and shrunk the taxable base.
This situation creates in turn political, economic and social tensions which are being unabashedly exploited by nationalist movements that preach isolationism, the hate of all things foreign and the false idea that reclaiming “national sovereignty” will shield citizens from unfair competition. Such competition is, however, the unescapable consequence of a globalized world in which interdependence is growing inexorably and irreversibly, a fact that needs to be addressed with humanity and determination. It calls for a deep change in mentalities and in world governance in order to assist the “losers” left on the roadside without, however, depriving the rest of the world of the benefits of the indispensable innovations required to meet the many challenges on the horizon (demography, climate change, dilapidation of commodities, etc.).
In the context of such extreme uncertainty, citizens are being encouraged to take refuge in the safety of a cocoon which is supposed to provide the illusion of safety and the ability to chart one’s own future. Symptomatic of such attitudes are the empty promises of a “glorious” future for those nations who “take back control” (of what?) in the name of a hypothetical idea of “national sovereignty”. Such sophistry is at work in attempting to solve the problems of implementing “Brexit” as well as the questioning of the future of the EU in the French electoral debate or in the programs advocated by nationalist parties in Italy, Poland, Hungary, etc.
Rather than losing its way in the meanders of the Brexit negotiations, whose favourable outcome depends primarily – for both parties – on the survival of the EU, the right way forward is to prioritize the further integration of the Union so as to have the appropriate tools and wield the necessary power to confront constructively the existential challenges posed by globalisation. Failure to build a bespoke form of “federal” solidarity among the EU27 can only lead, at more or less short notice, to the dismemberment of the Union and trigger a global financial crisis of historic proportions. It would render any Brexit type negotiations pointless and annihilate rapidly the benefits of 60 years without armed conflict on its soil as well as compromise the important economic and social conquests over which it has presided.
In a similar vein, one should underscore the dangers caused by the inaction of the international community in the face of the atrocities committed in Syria, the horror of which is broadly disseminated by the media and social networks. Once again the demonstration is being made of the near impossibility of overcoming national egoisms, trampling the values for which, less than a century ago, previous generations endured huge sacrifices in the hope of ensuring our own wellbeing. Our collective cowardice shall weigh, far more heavily than the burden of excessive accumulated indebtedness, on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren.
It is hazardous to predict which event shall turn out to be the equivalent of the “Sarajevo murder” in 1914, but it is becoming clearer by the day that we are going down the road where its occurrence is not only foreseeable but is also becoming inevitable. Can we just be satisfied with a new history book describing the “New Sleepwalkers”?