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The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century

by Jennifer Welsh

In The Return of History, the 2016 edition of the CBC Massey Lectures, Jennifer Welsh takes umbrage with Francis Fukuyama. In 1992, Fukuyama declared that the end of the Cold War marked the inevitable cessation of ideological disagreement among nations and the unquestioned triumph of liberal democracy. Welsh, who was born in Regina and is now a professor and chair at the European University Institute in Florence and a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, marshals her knowledge of both past and present to clearly and succinctly refute all of Fukuyama’s assumptions. And she does so in five brisk chapters.

NovemberReviews_ReturnOfHistory_CoverIn the eponymous first chapter, Welsh explains Fukuyama’s thesis about the evolution of democracy, and its capacity to absorb its critics. But instead of assuming this evolution must continue, Welsh cautions that “we cannot bank on this optimistic reasoning,” due to the factors she outlines over the course of the next four chapters: the rise of the Islamic State, the ongoing global refugee crisis, the political climate in Russia, and the growth of income inequality in the West.

Welsh titles her second chapter “The Return of Barbarism.” Here, she provides one of the clearest descriptions of the growth of the Islamic State that I have ever read. She details the need for the U.S. and its allies to confront the impact of interference in the Middle East, and describes how the failure of the Arab Spring and subsequent government crackdowns fuelled the appeal of the insurgent movement. The sustained ideological fervour of ISIS and its supporters puts paid to the idea that liberal democracy must eventually triumph against an increasingly and unabashedly fierce antagonist.

“The Return of Mass Flight,” Welsh’s third chapter, follows closely on this theme. A brief look at history makes it clear that while displaced persons are in no way a new phenomenon, the current scale of migration is unprecedented. And the increase in the number of westerners who would deny liberal democratic rights to anyone who chooses to live under this system rather than continuing to suffer oppression at home causes one to wonder about the supposed superiority of the philosophy such xenophobes espouse. Welsh advocates strongly for a reappraisal of western responses to the issue: refugees should be considered the new normal, she argues, rather than a short-term problem.

In “The Return of the Cold War,” Welsh cites recent Russian geopolitical manoeuvring as another inciting factor that should shake our confidence in liberal democracy. Welsh does not actually believe we are seeing the return of the Cold War. Rather, she sees Vladimir Putin’s rule as another challenge to the supposed supremacy of liberal democratic ideals. Russia’s so-called “sovereign democracy,” which often rejects personal freedom in favour of stability, has arisen within the tent of democracy itself, and the admiration Putin enjoys in certain circles is a sign that things are not as clear-cut as they might have seemed.

In her last chapter, “The Return of Inequality,” Welsh shifts from international relations to challenges within individual states. Without resorting to dense economic arguments, she explains how increasing income disparity is a key cause of disillusionment with liberal democratic societies. She describes fascinating research by social psychologists pointing to a correlation between wealth and a sense of entitlement, which in turn provokes behaviours that undermine social cohesion. As the liberal democratic model was originally conceived, people were meant to share both the risks and rewards of collective achievements. In Welsh’s view, “the effects of inequality … damage the entire social fabric.”

Welsh describes her lectures as having three clear themes: history is returning, albeit with a modern twist; history is often used to justify present goals; and liberal democracy is not an inevitable product of history, but was crafted and maintained by courageous individuals seeking a better life for everyone. With these themes in mind, she issues several calls to action. These take the book from merely interesting to outright inspirational. Welsh lays out specific challenges for the West, each of which involves taking a hard look at our past and evaluating what internal changes are needed before we react to external threats.

Whether you are interested in history, political science, economics, or are simply concerned about the state of the world, this book will force you to think long and hard. With a bit of luck, it may also prompt readers to revisit the history of liberal democracy “to learn more about how our societies coped with both global and domestic challenges, and about the particular battles fought in the name of creating the world’s best political system. And then we need to take that history into the present and give it our own modern twist.”