We are in our century’s equivalent of the 1930s, the years that saw the rise of populism and nationalism, and the destabilization of Europe.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that has been described by Ben Bernanke as worse than the Great Depression of 1929, a wave of populism is again sweeping through Europe, the Middle East and America. This rise is weakening the very tools and mechanism built in the aftermath of World War II.
Trump’s victory is the latest—and likely not the last—in a series of blows to the pillars of stability of our time. Whether he implements his policies or not, his election has already emboldened the world’s strongmen, who were the first to welcome his election. President Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egypt’s Abdel el-Sisi all swiftly congratulated a president-elect who was already endorsed during his campaign by North Korea. Beyond the individual aspirations of these leaders, there is a shared sense that, while a Trump presidency is a jump into the unknown, it most likely will mark the weakening of American influence along with a shift in the world order.
This is exactly what Marine Le Pen’s main advisor, Florian Philippot, captured in his tweet, after Trump's victory, stating that “their world is crumbling. Ours is being built.” This sentiment was shared by the French ambassador to the U.S. who lamented that “a world [was] collapsing before our eyes.” These two statements, though coming from two opposite perspectives, may well have captured the spirit of our times. The world order built in the aftermath of World War II is indeed crumbling quickly, in the same way the one created in the wake of World War I collapsed during the 1930s.
Le Pen herself is part of a generation of European politicians who seek to dismantle or weaken the European Union, an institution that has successfully maintained peace for the longest period in Europe’s history. Meanwhile, as Trump threatens to leave NATO, the Baltic states are shivering. After the Cold War, the old treaty may have seem outdated for a time, yet with the rebirth of Russian ambitions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, it is more relevant than ever. At a time when powers such as Russia, Iran and China seek to change the balance of power, the West is electing leaders backing the dismantling of the very institutions that constitute its most solid defense.
The 1930s also saw the rise of leaders who sought to appease and build what we would call today a “constructive dialogue” with rising autocrats trying to change the balance of power. Today, pro-Russian political leaders, their backers in Europe, along with some Trump supporters, claim their proximity with Moscow as an asset, and will propose we continue to discuss with Putin. It takes little prescience to predict the outcome of these discussions. The wave of pro-Russian sentiment has only embolden a leader that uses negotiations to deflect international pressure rather than to settle crises. Ceasefires and international conferences over the Ukraine and Syria crises have failed to solve the conflicts while almost always leading to escalations in violence.
Some find comfort in the hope that Trump just won’t do what he said, that his apparent friendship with Putin, his pledge to build a wall along the Mexican border, his claim that America’s allies will now have to pay for their protection and deal with local threats alone, are just mere posturing. It could even be argued that his blurry foreign policy may be the equivalent of Nixon’s “Madman” doctrine, a deliberate effort to scare America’s enemies by acting irrationally.
But Trump’s foreign policy isn’t just irrational: it is incoherent. The president-elect wants to let Russia finish the job in Syria, but also said he would “bomb the shit out” of ISIS. He seeks to spend even more on America’s defense, but also places himself as an isolationist. No, Trump isn’t Nixon and hasn’t been perceived as such by world leaders. He has rather been seen as a Caligula, the Roman Emperor who appointed his horse as consul, or a Nero, who burnt Rome for the sake of rebuilding it. His incoherence and the belief that he is a taciturn and easily manipulated man, even if untrue or tempered by wise advice and checks and balances, will embolden America’s enemies just as weak leadership and lack of cohesion emboldened the autocrats of the 1930s.
That is not to say that our decade will fully resemble the terrible years that preceded World War II. History does not repeat itself. But as Mark Twain said, it certainly rhymes. This wave of populism coupled with the belief among the world’s autocrats that they can change the world order to their profit is as dangerous now as it was before. In fact, the differences between the 1930s and today’s current events are an even greater source for concern. In the 1930s, the wave of populism and nationalism was preceded by a crisis that saw a significant drop in GDP (up to 30 percent), while the 2008 crisis saw a drop of “only” 6 percent. There is something deeply disturbing in the understanding that the factors behind the current wave of populism are in fact much weaker than the ones that prompted one of the worst human catastrophe of the last century, if not history.
More importantly, while America was at the center of the economic crisis, it did not succumb to the appeal of strongmen, when other countries in the West did. In his novel The Plot Against America, Philip Roth explores an alternative world, describing the implications of a candidacy and victory of Charles Lindbergh’s “America First Party.” Thankfully, this was just a novel. Unfortunately, we may be living through a real modern-day version of Roth’s novel, where a world that usually turned to Washington for hope, sees America as the greatest source of fear.
Michael Horowitz is director of intelligence at Prime Source, a Middle-East-based geopolitical consultancy producing updates and analysis on the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts.