Over the span of history, the American Century — those years of American global leadership dating back roughly to D-Day — may turn out to be barely the blink of an eye. Thirty years ago, conservative scholar Francis Fukuyama declared that the rise of liberal democracy in the post-World War II era and the collapse of the Soviet Union marked “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and… the final form of human government.” Would that it was true.
As Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former strategic advisor, travels across Europe, urging European nationalists forward in their attacks against the evils of immigration and globalization, it is apparent that the American Century may be coming to an end. It may be self-evident that the new generation of European nationalists are Trump’s natural allies, nonetheless, it was jarring to see him lash out on Twitter this week against German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the wake of America’s turn to Trumpism, Merkel has assumed the tacit mantle of Leader of the Free World, yet it is a mantle that has increasingly undermined her political standing in Germany. Merkel’s defense of a united Europe has placed her in the direct path of the storm of ethnocentrism and nationalism sweeping the continent and contributed to the decline of her Christian Democratic Party in the polls. Trump, whose resentment of Merkel is palpable, was only too happy to pile on.
Hiking in the Julian Alps and Soča River valley of Slovenia, and spending time in Budapest over the past few weeks, it was apparent that the wars and wounds of the past century continue to lie just below the surface, and it is evident that across much of Europe the political commitment to liberal democracy that America nurtured — and the advance of which Fukuyama and many others believed to be irreversible — is increasingly under siege. According to each person I talked to over the course of our trip, the old rivalries — nationalist, ethnic, religious — continue to lie just below the surface, even as economic prosperity has continued to grow. It was an eye-opening experience for me, as someone educated in America, for whom World War I, in particular, lies buried deep in the past.
Slovenia is a small country with barely two million people, yet one hundred years ago, when the Soča River marked the border between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, almost one million people died in a series of battles — chronicled by Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms — that spanned a period of two and one-half years.
The seeds of World War II were, of course, sowed in the treaties that followed World War I, as the borders of Europe were redrawn and war reparations were exacted. World War II began with Hitler’s invasion of the Czechoslovakia in 1939, with the avowed purpose of reestablishing German sovereignty over lands that had been taken from it in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles two decades earlier. Each place we traveled had in the not too distant past been part of a different country or seen its borders redrawn: Slovenia was once part Italy, part Austro-Hungary; The Italian city of Trieste had for hundreds of years been part of Austria; and Hungary today — once the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — is just a shadow of its former self, having lost 70% of its land area in the wake of two world wars.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — a right wing populist on the leading edge of the nationalist wave sweeping Europe — is using that history to great political effect. As a Czech friend now living in Poland pointed out when we were in Budapest, Orbán no longer flies the European Union flag alongside the Hungarian flag above the Hungarian Parliament — as is customary in E.U. member countries — but flies the “Székely” flag instead. Székely Land is an area in central Romania that used to be part of Hungary and continues to be inhabited by an ethnic Hungarian minority. Székely Land is to Orbán what the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia was to Hitler: It is proof of the unfairness of the international order; an unfairness that Orbán uses effectively to stoke the ethnic resentments that lie at the heart of his nationalist politics.
For Americans, borders — with the possible exception of those separating Israel and Palestine — are generally presumed to be settled facts. Yet as one looks across the world — from Serbia to the South China Sea — that is less true than we imagine, as deference to international law is giving way to regional politics and power. Vladimir Putin — who makes no bones about his resentment over the loss of Russian territory in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union — is aggressively seeking to upend the post-World War II rule-based international order and re-legitimate Great Power politics. He justified Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea using the same argument that England and France used to entice Italy into World War I, that Hitler used to justify Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia that marked the beginning of World War II, and that is mirrored in Viktor Orbán’s flying of the Székely flag: the legitimacy of retaking historical lands in order to reunite ethnic nationals with the Motherland. It is a view, incidentally, that Donald Trump appeared to endorse during the recent G-7 meeting in Canada.
In Slovenia, the walls of the former summer palace of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito are festooned with post-World War II photos of Tito with fellow strongmen of that era. With the end of the Cold War, the era of the strongman steadily receded and democracy seemed to take hold. By the end of the 20th century, even the dictators of Africa and South America had largely disappeared, as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, along with the potentates of the Arab world, became the outliers. The leaders of Russia and China looked to find a modus vivendi with the west and seemed to recognize the inevitability of the global trend toward liberal democracy.
No longer. Tito’s photos of the world as it was just a few decades ago provide a reminder of how brief the tide of democracy has actually been. The influence of America and the post-war institutions that we helped to create is waning, as we watch the emergence of leaders in countries across the globe increasingly unrestrained in their hostility to democratic values. The images of Tito with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose mantle has now been assumed by General Sisi, beg the question of whether the Arab Spring, which at the time appeared to mark the apotheosis of that tide, may from the vantage point of history turn out to have been its high-water mark, before the beginning of a long retreat.
For Donald Trump, the immigration crisis in Europe and rise of right wing movements is a validation of his own domestic stance. He may be President of the United States, but he ran for office in opposition to the American Century and all it stood for, as he transformed the resentments of his base voters into a conviction that the seventy years of American leadership in the post-World War II world has inured to their detriment. As right-wing movements posted wins in recent elections in Slovenia and Italy, televised images in our hotel room in Budapest of caged immigrants along the U.S.-Mexican border gave cover to those movements and conveyed a clear message to those in Europe seeking to hold the line against the rising nationalist tide: Don’t look to the United States for leadership in your time of crisis.
The most jarring aspect of Trump’s tweet, however, was the notion that an American president might think nothing of egging on German resentments and chauvinism. Over the past 70 years, Germany has been nurtured by American leadership from its horrific past into a position of constructive leadership in the world, yet in Germany — as in the Balkans and Hungary — there is little doubt that those resentments and chauvinism that linger just below the surface can be stirred up again should the right demagogue happen along. And we can see it happening before our eyes: as Angel Merkel’s party has declined to 36% in the polls, the nationalist right-wing party has risen to become the third largest party in the German Bundestag; this time with the American President urging them on.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit: Why Federalism is Not Just For Racists Anymore.”
Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out Jay’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.