The end of the Cold War a generation ago was supposed to herald a new, prosperous, free era. For at least a decade, it seemed this was so. 2016 has shown it to be a bitter illusion.
Three things happened as a direct result of the end of the Cold War, none of which was foreseen at the time.
Economically, a new, true globalisation occurred. It became possible to expand East, and get things manufactured more cheaply. This suited the West, by and large, because it lowered the cost of living and meant “stuff” was suddenly accessible to the average family which would not otherwise have been; and it suited the East because it provided jobs, income, skills and potential to join a new global “middle class”. Indeed, so compelling was this arrangement, that the poorer East began lending the richer West money to buy its products. Credit boomed, credit crunched, and a Great Recession began from 2007. People were left bewildered.
Militarily, the direct threat was removed. Russia retained nuclear weapons but it was so weakened there was no serious chance it would use them. Its territory (as it saw it) was scythed up and some of it became part of the West. Meanwhile all kinds of non-State threats, from Al-Qaeda to ISIS, grew up with no Cold War side to align to (and be bought off by). They became terrorising in their own way, first locally and then globally. The West, which had not yet worked out this was a post-State world, got involved in wars it did not understand and could not win. A bitter Russia used this to encourage the terror groups, causing refugee crises, promoting division and arming rebels. People were left scared.
Technologically, a defence system of interlinked computer stations developed by the Pentagon was no longer needed. Instead, it was further interlinked globally and given to the world – as the World Wide Web. This great liberation would lead anyone to be able to access any information from their pocket – but also any misinformation. This mass democratisation of information and knowledge enabled groups to network – for good purposes, and for bad. Increasingly people formed their own networks, ignorant of other networks, and then began to be stunned as elections and campaigns did not work out in their favour because other networks had proved more efficient and the facts, as they saw them, had been ignored. People got angry.
Economically bewildered, militarily scared, techno-communally angered, a generation on from the Cold War the time was ripe for rampant populism – simple, 140-character solutions to complex, multi-webpage problems. As they saw manufactured products and commodities such as steel now being imported in vast quantities from countries with cheap labour and no welfare, England’s post-industrial north felt it had nothing left to lose from the chaos of Brexit and America’s Rust Belt felt it had nothing to lose from the chaos of Trump (and next year the same will happen in France). As they see refugees pouring in and causing rapid change in areas already in administrative decay, Austria will opt for the chaos of Hofer, Italy for the chaos of changing PM by referendum as happened in the UK, and the likes of Bulgaria and Moldova will turn from the over-democratic and stalled EU to the security of dictatorial Russia. Technology will not help – surrounded online only by like-minded souls, we will continue to ignore each other’s concerns, each other’s fears and each other’s anger. That ignorance will itself, as it always does, breed fear, hatred and violence.
We were supposed to “remember” this weekend. But actually none of us really does remember. The horror of the trenches has passed into history. And, unhindered by the actual ghastly memories, we have set ourselves on a course to repeat it. The lights are dimming across Europe (and North America) again.