15.4: Toward the Present
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While Europe has suffered from economic and, to a lesser extent, political instability since the 1980s, that instability pales in comparison to the instability of other world regions. In particular, the Middle East entered into a period of outright bloodshed and chaos as the twenty-first century began. In turn, the shock waves of Middle Eastern conflict have reverberated around the globe, inspiring the growth of international terrorist groups on the one hand and racist and Islamophobic political parties on the other.
To cite just the most important examples, the US invasion of Iraq in 2002 inadvertently prompted a massive increase in recruitment for anti-western terrorist organizations (many of which drew from disaffected EU citizens of Middle Eastern and North African ancestry). The Arab Spring of 2010 led to a brief moment of hope that new democracies might take the place of military dictatorships in countries like Libya, Egypt, and Syria, only to see authoritarian regimes or parties reassert control. Syria in particular spiraled into a horrendously bloody civil war in 2010, prompting millions of Syrian civilians to flee the country. Turkey, one of the most venerable democracies in the region since its foundation as a modern state in the aftermath of World War I, has seen its president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan steadily assert greater authority over the press and the judiciary. The two other regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, carry on a proxy war in Yemen and fund rival paramilitary (often considered terrorist) groups across the region. Israel, meanwhile, continues to face both regional hostility and internal threats from desperate Palestinian insurgents, responding by tightening its control over the nominally autonomous Palestinian regions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In Europe, fleeing Middle Eastern (and to a lesser extent, African) refugees seeking the infinitely greater stability and opportunity available to them abroad have brought about a resurgence of far-right and, in many cases, openly neo-fascist politics. While fascistic parties like France’s National Front have existed since the 1960s, they remained basically marginal and demonized for most of their history. Since 2010, far right parties have grown steadily in importance, seeing their share of each country’s electorate increase as worries about the impact of immigration drives voters to embrace nativist, crypto-racist political messages. Even some citizens who do not harbor openly racist views have come to be attracted to the new right, since mainstream political parties often seem to represent only the interests of out-of-touch social elites (again, Brexit serves as the starkest demonstration of voter resentment translating into a shocking political result).
While interpretations of events since the start of the twenty-first century will necessarily vary, what seems clear is that both the postwar consensus between center-left and center-right politics is all but a dead letter. Likewise, fascism can no longer be considered a terrible historical error that is, fortunately, now dead and gone; it has lurched back onto the world stage. A widespread sense of anger, disillusionment, and resentment haunts politics not just in Europe, but in much of the world.
That being noted, there are also indications that the center still holds. In France, the National Front’s presidential candidate in 2017, Marine Le Pen, was decisively defeated by the resolutely centrist Emmanuel Macron. Contemporary far-right parties have yet to enjoy the kind of electoral breakthrough that set the stage for (to cite one obvious example) the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. Even those countries that have proved most willing to use military force in the name of their ideological and economic agendas, namely Russia and the United States, have not launched further wars on the scale of the disastrous American invasion of Iraq in 2002.
Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, and one that historians in particular are generally loathe to engage in. That said, if nothing else, history provides both examples and counterexamples of things that have happened in the past that can, and should, serve as warnings for the present. As this text has demonstrated, much of history has been governed by greed, indifference to human suffering, and the lust for power. It can be hoped that studying the consequences of those factors and the actions inspired by them might prove to be an antidote to their appeal, and hopefully to their purported legitimacy as political motivations.
Image Citations (Wikimedia Commons):
Margaret Thatcher - Public Domain
Mikhail Gorbachev - Creative Commons, RIA Novosti
EU Map - Creative Commons, CrazyPhunk