Was 2016 a historical turning point, or merely a year like so many others? No one knows yet. The rioters who stormed the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789, had no idea they were launching one of the most formidable revolutions in contemporary history. Wine and the summer heat, so they say, sparked their actions as much as their republican ideals.
This inability to grasp the true significance of an event at the time it occurs was immortalized in literature by French author Stendhal, whose main character in The Charterhouse of Parma, Fabrice, fights in the Battle of Waterloo. He fights with all his might against English and Prussian soldiers, but is unaware of the stakes of the struggle. It is only after the event that he learns that he was part of the battle, now known as “Waterloo,” which marked the end of an empire and the birth of a new political order in Europe.
If we look back over 2016, we can observe at least three obvious and new phenomena: the rise in populism, the return of brute force to international relations, and the weakening of democracy. These trends have sent the media scrambling, but do they announce the future of our world or will they merely evaporate? Or perhaps we are not looking in the right place. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, was anyone looking to Galilee other than three wise men most probably invented later on by the collective imagination?
Let us assume that 2016 was in fact a populist milestone, with Brexit, the unexpected election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the rise of conservative parties in France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Austria and Hungary. We should take a closer look at the meaning of the term, as “populists” define themselves as patriots. Basing themselves around strong government, they want to “take back control of their destinies.” They see themselves as alienated by immigrations, globalization and Europeanization. They are against cosmopolitan intrusions, and position themselves as an authentic people through their culture, their language and their origins. Populists are united more by their passion than their solution. Will this dynamic push populists increasingly further, dragging the international order towards a national downturn, a breakdown in discussion and violence? Or will the difference between populist promises and reality extinguish these enflamed passions? We simply have no idea.
Who knows if the recourse to brute force will significantly replace the art of diplomatic negotiations in 2017? Without a doubt, the leaders of China, Russia, Turkey and Syria will think they have won a number of major victories in 2016 by disregarding international law, human rights, the U.N. and international treaties. But once again, is this a rather worrying new order, or a fleeting moment of weakness on the part of democracies, who will wake up to reality in 2017? There is no way of knowing.
The weakening of democracy was incontestable in 2016. While we believed Africa was on the right path, the continent has moved backwards with the commendable exceptions of Nigeria and Ghana. In Zimbabwe, Gambia and the Congo, dictators are refusing free elections and the principle of changes in power. The Ibrahim Prize, which rewards heads of state who step down from their position at the legal term, has not yet been awarded for 2016.
All over the world, the very principles of pluralist democracy, respect of minorities and rights of opposition have wavered. And what is worse, these steps backwards seem to leave the West indifferent. We are used to the fact that the Russians, the Chinese and the Arabs are subject to tyranny, as if it were their cultural destiny. Against the backdrop of Western silence, Syria is dying under the bombs of Bashar al-Assad. There are no demonstrations against the imprisonment of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia. The West doesn’t seem to care that the new Egyptian dictator has crushed dissidents with even more cruelty than his predecessor, Hosni Moubarak. Only Tunisia seems to be trying to maintain a state of law inherited from the Arab Spring. The final example of the progress of cynicism in 2016 is taken from Myanmar (Burma). Since the admirable, long-detained, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been the leader of her country, she has allowed her army to crush the Rohingya minority because they are Muslims and not authentic Burmese people. All those who fought to free Suu Kyi have received little for their pains, and have chosen the cowardly option of staying silent.
Will 2017 contradict or confirm these trends? We will be keeping a particularly close eye on the United States and France. Will the bizarre Trump government carry through on what it has promised? If it does, it will drag the country and the rest of the world in chaos and economic recession. But if it fails to keep its indefensible promises, how will its voters react? In France, will the rise of populism be contained by the presidential elections next spring? If it is, Europe will be saved, but if it is not, the entire continent will be plunged into brutality reminiscent of the 1930s. But I am prophesying; which is both seriously erroneous and very vain. Stendhal’s Fabrice knew that he did not know, and that is a sign of wisdom.