We are living in a time of profound change, when history’s forward movement is interrupted by violent lurches one way or another. Suddenly nothing can be taken for granted; a way of life that seemed constant is challenged and, in some cases, swept away.
This is nothing new, it has happened at regular intervals throughout human existence, the most recent examples being the French Revolution which overturned the principle of absolute and sacred monarchy and, in the last century, the rise of fascism as an alternative to existing systems of government.
Ominously both these events resulted in long and ruinous wars, and indeed changes of this nature are often followed by conflict, especially when the leaders of the day fail to mitigate the excesses, or simply go along with them.
The momentum for another profound change has been building over the past couple of decades and Friday, January 20, 2017 with the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States is part of it.
Trump is like no other American Commander in Chief, and not just because of his regular, one could say obsessive, use of social media throughout the election campaign and up to the eve of inauguration day. From what can be gleaned from his tweets, interviews and election statements, he seems bent on a drastic realignment of the American view of the world, moving closer to Russia and confronting China.
Not content with overturning the US’s long held foreign policy positions, he has apparently decided to undermine the European Union, championing Britain’s vote to leave and giving encouragement to those elements that seek further disintegration of the bloc.
Talk of building walls to keep out immigrants, and raising tariffs to protect American industry run counter to the people movements and trade liberalisation which has been steadily taking place over the past seven decades. Admittedly the results have been patchy, there have been losers as well as winners, but it does not take a Nobel Laureate in economics to see that closed borders and protectionism will, in the end, hurt far more people than they will benefit.
With Trump on the verge of the presidency, the hard right and its populist over-simplified remedies for complicated questions, is becoming steadily more aggressive throughout the world
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described allegations of Russian meddling in the US election that saw Trump triumph as “the final spasms of those who realise their time is coming to an end”.
In a speech in which he berated the United Nations as a farce, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked forward to the day when “Israel will be able to rely on many, many countries to stand with us at the UN. Slowly but surely the days when UN ambassadors reflexively condemn Israel are coming to an end”.
Even in Australia, a presentation advertising Australia Day which displayed, in part, two young Muslim girls with headscarfs was withdrawn after violent threats — including burnings and shootings — were made to the company responsible.
Would this have happened a year ago? Probably not.
However, there is another way at looking at all these events: That they are the last angry death throes of ultra-nationalism as it becomes increasingly irrelevant and ineffective in a world where the challenges require global responses.
The rise of nation states under what is usually referred to as the Westphalian System, filled the vacuum created by the collapse of the feudal order and the waning influence of the Catholic Church as a temporal power in the 17th century. It has been the basis for government, albeit of many different hues, for more than 400 years. Its time is almost up.
We are indeed on the cusp of profound change — but is it the change we think we see, or something that we haven’t quite grasped yet? Maybe it is Trump, Brexit, Putin, Netanyahu and all the flag-waving nationalists who represent the final spasms of a dying era.
To take another example from the past: At the beginning of the fifth century, how many Romans thought their empire, which had lasted 1000 years, would be gone in another 50?
Change on this scale is bound to be painful; we are in for difficult, maybe even dangerous times, but history is a harsh taskmistress — and she will not be denied.