It is simply impossible to read or listen to the news these days and not come to the conclusion that the world is simply descending into chaos and, seemingly, dragging with it the experiment in government called democracy.
Those of us who have been around for a while tend to see the populism that has surfaced worldwide as an anomaly, almost an aberration of the natural order of things and very much hope that the pendulum will swing back to saner times. What we don’t realize is that the natural order of the world is, in fact, chaos. For most of world history mankind has been constantly engaged in war, in pursuit of other nation’s lands and under the rule of dictators, whether benevolent or otherwise. But every once in a while we get a respite from all of that which was the case from 1945-2015…..70 years of relative calm.
And it is understandable why that relative calm developed. By the end of 1945 over 60 million people had lost their lives (i.e. 3% of the world’s population), 1/3 of the world’s Jews had been killed and much of Europe, Russia and Japan lay in ruins. The devastation was so massive, the disruption of peoples’ lives over a five year period was so dislocating, and the reality of what had happened was simply so difficult to comprehend, that most of the world seemed ready for a period of stability and simply some time to recover from the experience of World War II.
The only Western country that emerged with its infrastructure intact was the United States as it was not attacked physically during the war. If anything, its manufacturing infrastructure was actually in better shape after the war than before simply because the war effort caused a tremendous amount of production capability to be developed in order to support the military machine. It was thus only natural that the world turned to the US for leadership and the political establishment there was willing and able to fulfill that need.
As a result America became the dominant democratic power in the world, whose currency set the standard for everyone else, whose political leadership as the world’s policeman was happily accepted and where the new United Nations chose to locate its headquarters operation. But other nations also looked to create entities that would support the new world order. The Europeans worked to develop the European Common Market which later morphed in the European Union. Mutual defense pacts such as NATO were created to avoid future conflicts. Regional associations such as the Organization of American States proliferated and in the face of nuclear threats after the war, nuclear non-proliferation treaties were negotiated and agreed to as well.
In a word, it seemed as if the world had learned its lessons, people understood that wars that kill 60 million people were not in anyone’s best interests and that the old axiom of cooperation, that 1+1 often does equal 3, seemed to rule the day.
And then it all started to fall apart. The leaders who were around after the war died off, the people with memories of those days grew older and disappeared from the scene, the physical evidence of war was paved over with super highways and tracks for bullet trains. As if that was not enough to encourage slippage back into the world’s normal state of chaos, 2008-2009 saw the introduction of electronic communication devices such as the iPhone, iPad, and the like which put the entire world in reach of every person with enough money to buy the device and pay for a user plan.
In 2008, America elected a new president whose roots were not in America and who did not believe that America was exceptional nor that it needed to be the world’s policeman any longer. While his intentions were admirable he refused to acknowledge that the natural state of the world is not order but chaos, and unless there is someone acting as policeman the world order runs the risk of imploding, as has indeed happened. America’s drawing back from its involvement in many places of the world made it possible for other forces to take over and, at least at this point in time, most of them have not been positive. Whether it is ISIS in the Middle East, or Boko Haram in West Africa or the emergence of a stronger yet dangerous Iran intent on controlling their entire region, the “good guys” were not winning.
Of course when people get the feeling that the “good guys” are not winning, they become insecure even if they live in relatively stable places like America, England, France and the Netherlands. So then the populists take over and elect a president in America because he promises change, even though he does not explain how he will make that happen. England votes to leave the European Union even though nobody gives any thought to how to deal with the fallout after the vote. In France the daughter of a racist whose own views are not significantly different from that of her father promises that she will make France French again. In the Netherlands another racist promises that he will return the Netherlands to the Dutch. And those are western countries. In much of the rest of the world it’s not even possible to accurately describe the chaos in less than 10 pages of text.
So no one should be surprised that chaos has descended on the world once again and, with it, the gradual destruction of the experiment in government called democracy. Because when people are insecure, when they are desperate for change, the electorate voluntarily gives up much of its rights to the emerging dictator believing that this or that leader who says I am the only one that can solve the problem actually can deliver on those promises.
It was Plato who said: “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.” Those words uttered over 2,400 years ago are as true today as they were then. Our job as residents of democratic countries is to remember them and hold our leaders to account in every possible way.