Word has it that China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy by the end of this year, according to a recent World Bank report. This is an event of dramatic, albeit symbolic, importance for the way the world will conduct its affairs. With this in mind, what can be expected from international relations in the coming decades?
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published a seminal article in The National Interest entitled "The End of History." In it, the former RAND analyst beckoned that with the fall of communism, democracy became the only game in town, as no other alternatives exist, nor will they exist. Fukuyama predicted that we are approaching a post-historical period where only “the perpetual care taking of the museum of human history will take place.”
In the public uproar that followed, “The End of History” gathered widespread fame, serving as the one-stop shop for democrats around the world to claim their moral superiority and right to spread the gospel of liberal democracy. Some 25 years and several global conflicts later, it seems that history has yet to have its final word. And I’m not talking only about China.
From Europe to Latin America, parties and leaders have been scouring to prove that the “Washington consensus“ cannot be considered the sole suitable variant of democracy for advancing their societies. Indeed, we are witnessing the return of national-specific values and increasing Balkanization of international relations. But unlike the Castros and Trotskys of yesterday, globalization has found worthy opponents that do make some sensible points, grounded in the realities of their respective countries.
This crusade against political orthodoxy is led in Europe by the rise of pragmatic populists, such as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary or Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K.'s Independence Party. Criticized abroad but admired internally, these political leaders have tailored their rhetoric to the ears of their citizens while rejecting Brussels along the way. As political scientist Bartolomiej Nowak so poignantly pointed out, "Populism usually offers simple solutions to complicated problems." But do these solutions work?
Take Orbán for instance. In spite of heavy-handed criticism coming from Brussels and beyond, he was successfully re-elected earlier this month, garnering a whopping two-thirds majority of seats in the national parliament. His re-election shows a global trend in world affairs that hits right at the heart of Fukuyama’s once-universally embraced theory: Instead of having a single unifying thread of political thought spanning the globe, we see the emergence of multiple streams of thought, revolving around several regional countries.
An oddly similar situation can be found in Latin America. With the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, several leaders have hastened to fill his shoes as regional beacons of a new way of doing politics. Among them, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador seems best suited to take the reins, boasting the highest approval rating in South America and credited for lifting his country’s economy out of a rut. Alongside Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and five other Latin American countries, Ecuador is part of a rising regional block called ALBA that seeks to wean itself off Washington’s perceived nefarious influence.
In many respects, the pragmatic populism of Europe finds a perfect echo chamber in Latin America, taking into account cultural differences of course. On the old continent, European Union bashing is the rhetoric of choice for leaders seeking to capitalize on the electorate’s disenchantment with Brussels, blamed for everything from low wages to enacting ridiculous regulations on toilets.
In Latin America, it is the U.S. that draws the ire of individuals. Instead of exercising direct influence, as the European Union does over its member states, Washington relies on a network of regional organizations to indirectly promote its interests. Through the Organization of American States and its judicial arm, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, America has been accused of using concepts such as democracy and the protection of human rights as umbrellas meant to conceal its desires to steer the fate of the continent. The main point of contention is the fact that the U.S. itself has not adhered to the standards it preaches to others, having not signed any of the human rights conventions that it accuses other American states of infringing.
When an entire continent gives creed to these ideas, whether they are true or not, is suddenly beside the point. They are symptoms of increasing malaise in global affairs, of the ebbing influence of the developed world, and of the inevitable rise of regional power blocks that are no longer willing to accept guidance from above.
We are heading down a road where the dominant powers of the world not only do not aspire to become like the West, but they espouse quite different views of how the world should hang together. In the end, why should the West be the only one entitled to preach exceptionalism? The assumption that some cultures are morally superior to others and therefore hold the right to shepherd the less enlightened simply cannot stand in the face of a diversifying number of dissenters. History is back and it’s back with a vengeance. Despite Fukuyama’s hopes for “centuries of boredom at the end of history,” eventful times are up ahead.