“Partying Like It´s 1933”- What Did We Learn and Can We Do Better This Time Around?

There is an ongoing debate about the character of these years, 2017 and now 2018. Maybe stimulated by the recent change of years and nostalgic sentiments, there were some features added to this debate. The core issue suggested is that we are experiencing a major change in the global structure, an epochal rupture, a tipping point, or a Zeitenwende, away from the liberal global order established after the horror of the Second World War. The organizations and institutions of the Bretton Woods system are experiencing, so we learn, an erosion, a devaluation, and are partly supplemented by Chinese-led structures (AIIB, OBOR, etc.). The U.S. in particular is departing from organizations (UNESCO), and global treaties (Kyoto Protocol), giving up on trade regimes (TTIP, TPP) and customary rules (status of Jerusalem), and afflicting damage to other agreements (Iran Vienna agreement), reducing the credibility of established organizations (NATO), and addressing the EU with contempt and ASEAN with neglect. Although the Chinese are more polite, they may agree with the substance of a perceived or claimed need to build a new global (dis)order. Russia does not care much either way, violating rules if convenient. Most of the EU sticks to rules, but it is not united, losing with the UK an important member state, and is not strong enough to serve as a counterweight.

A second, more specific concern is the question of whether there are parallels between 1933 and 2017-18. What was the rise of National Socialism 85 years ago, is now, as some writers suggest, the rise of populism. One and a half years ago, Robert Kagan alerted the public with the piece ‘This is how fascism will come to America’. More recently, the President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs stated that ‘the global order that had shaped the world since the end of World War II was over’. The observer Alex Bayer wrote in Kyiv Post under the header ‘Partying like it’s 1933’ about a world that is ‘being launched upon some kind of destructive course and careening full speed toward as yet unknown disaster’, and sees a situation he compares ‘(i)n this respect … is similar to the year 1933 when the foundations of the subsequent momentous events in world history were laid but the events themselves were yet to take shape’.

The New York Times registers and comments on two new publications with the header ‘Will Democracy Survive President Trump? Two New Books Aren’t Not So Sure’. One of the authors, David Frum, who has a sound Republican background, is quoted as saying ‘if it’s potentially embarrassing to speak too soon, it can also be dangerous to wait too long’. USA Today published a piece by the former under-secretary of state Nicholas Burns under the title ‘America is on the brink of a historic break with Europe, thanks to Trump’.

It is very difficult during the course of ongoing events not to lose perspective. Very true. But most of the consequences of 1917, for example, were not quite anticipated, as was the trajectory of 1933. The end of the East-West conflict in 1989 surprised most professional pundits. The financial crashes of 2007-08 came over the world in a similar fashion. So this week’s question is: Do we think that we can do better now?

 – Klaus Segbers

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  1. Thilo Bodenstein 4 days ago

    It is not far-fetched to compare the events of 2017 to those in 1917. Both years are a rupture in the structure of the global system and domestic regimes of leading countries. Brexit, the Trump administration, the rise of China threatens the global order as we know it. Populists challenge the very idea of liberal democracy. The number of citizens supportive of Western values is shrinking. And yet, there simply is no credible and powerful alternative blueprint to rally around as in 1917. Most Europeans are still happy to have a European passport, Paris remains an attractive travel destination even for Trump supporters, and China’s political system has no global appeal. To be sure, the ‘the end of history’ moment is over and the liberal domestic and global order is under stress. But sheer inertia may prevent a disaster.

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  2. Justas Paleckis 4 days ago

    The current situation can be compared with the 1914, when the conflicts of small countries made the great powers to involve in the world war. Signs of the 1933 style authoritarianism are really visible in Russia and the United States, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere, but it is far away from the dictatorships that Hitler and Stalin had created. In general, comparisons with the world, as it was 104 or 85 years ago, are inaccurate. The current world is immeasurably more fragile, the number of deadly threats has increased perhaps a hundred times. The only hope is the European Union. If the great powers will be able to create something similar, at least a coordination mechanism, the world will survive. Otherwise, the future is more than dark.

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  3. Friederike Kies 4 days ago

    Some suggest that we are currently experiencing a major change of global structure. Some even refer to the current times as a tipping point in history. Certainly, rising populism and other global challenges give rise for concern. These changes should be regarded with great caution. However, does this mean that we are facing an apocalyptic end? No, I do not agree. At times when analyzing history one is left with the impression that societies do not learn from past events. However, contrary to this impression I do believe that learning from experience is possible. Times of peace and distress are cyclic. Change is not necessarily always for the worst. The current challenges should not be used to create fear among society, as fear is usually a bad counselor. Rather, one should use these challenges and learn for the better. How? By becoming aware of the kind of society one wants to live in, cherishing which set of values, creating new perspectives and aims.

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  4. Anastasia Wischnewskaja 4 days ago

    After reading this weeks’s intro I got really sad for a while, but then my faith in humanity got the upper hand. We will definitely not do better in the years to come, but I do not think that we will do significantly worse. Institutions and established formats are still well-respected. By creating the framework of BRI for its infrastructure investment projects China made tracking and assessing its foreign policy much easier. The emergence of AIIB where Western countries have a say is an even stronger argument proving that norms and rules of procedure are still intact. Moreover, several BRI projects in Nepal, Tanzania and even Pakistan have been recently cancelled because the host countries found the conditions unfair and standards too low. Governments around the world might not admit supporting the existing rules or even to change it, but they know exactly what they have in the very fact of their existence.

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  5. Nikoloz Tokhvadze 4 days ago

    History has often demonstrated how unpredictable the social world is. Yet, more perils can arise from Self-fulfilling prophecies. Crying too often ‘Wolf’ therefore, might attract those wolves that never intended to come.

    Epochal change in increasingly multipolar world is inevitable. New global players, having very different from the west values and interests, increasingly possess enough international weight to stand up to the world order, which they deem to be tailored ‘by’ and ‘for’ the west. To put in president Putin’s words, ‘the powers that be’ – as he referred the western countries – ‘attempted to spread the actions of their institutions, norms and rules in the whole world, went down the road of Globalization and Security for sake of themselves only and not for everyone’. Incorporating the rebellious behemoths of 2018 into the just and equitable international order without compromising on own values (international law, democracy and human rights) is a tall order for the west, especially considering the abdication of the US from the leader of the world role.

    When juxtaposing democratically elected governments of 1930s with democratically elected governments in 2016-17, many spine-chilling similarities become obvious. Yet, notwithstanding the resemblance, the drastic differences still prevail. First and foremost, we shall not underestimated the experience the mankind gained in the bitter and horrendous lessons of the two world wars. Even if the shortsightedness of the human nature still remains, historic experience coupled with the relatively high living standards and education level of the world communities, are enough for me to rest assured that we can and we will do better this time.

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