Since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, it has become increasingly popular to make analogies with the 1920s and 1930s — otherwise known as the ‘interwar period’. Martin Wolf, a prominent columnist at the Financial Times, provides the latest example of this trend. The use of this ‘interwar analogy’ by pundits in the last 8 years has been so ubiquitous that it could without doubt provide the subject matter for an entire book.
In many accounts, the historical parallel between our time and the interwar period refers to both the economic conditions of the two periods, i.e. a major international economic crisis, and to a lesser extent, to the political situation, namely the rise of far right and far left parties.
This analogy, like all others, captures specific dimensions of reality and leaves out others. It also serves certain political purposes. For instance, the interwar analogy was often used to orient the response (e.g. here) to the Great Recession towards public spending (the ‘Keynesian’ solution). Failure to pursue this course of action it was argued, might lead to a more extreme kind of politics — the rise of the far right and far left — as it had in the interwar period.
When we turn to the realm of international politics, the interwar analogy obscures a great deal, in fact, it fails to capture some of the key dynamics that are now developing and may be accelerated with the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
One of the key differences between the interwar period and our time is that there are currently no states that are so dissatisfied with the status quo that they want change the world in its entirety. We do not have a USSR that wants to do away with states and replace them with a worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat, nor do we have a Nazi Germany seeking to expand its race-based empire across the world.
It would indeed be a stretch to think of ISIS, a revolutionary international actor, as having the potential to overthrow the states-system and to radically transform international order. By contrast, the most important rising power of our time, China, may want to revise some features of the current international order premised on liberal values, but it certainly is not trying to throw out all the institutions that underpin it. Russia, a major power in steady decline, displays a similar type of behavior to China.
One question that looms large now is whether the U.S. will remain attached to the status quo or if it will seek to change some of the core principles of our world? Will it continue to support free trade? There are good reasons to doubt that it will. Will it renege on its commitments to provide the overarching security guarantee for a liberal world, through military presence on the high seas, and a string of bases on the outer rim of the Eurasian landmass? Trump’s isolationist comments leave an enormous question mark here.
And yet, as the main underwriter of the liberal order, the U.S. may scale back its commitments to traditional liberal policies such as the free trade and humanitarian intervention, but it is not interested in a complete overhaul of the current order.
The absence of revolutionary states and the limited nature of the changes sought by the world’s main rising and declining powers thus make comparisons with the interwar period tenuous at best. Put simply, all these great powers want to revise various aspects of how the world works, but they are not interested in doing away with the whole set of principles and institutions that underpin it.
What brings many of the major powers of the day together, and even more so with the election of Donald Trump, is their common commitment to a conservative domestic ideology, and to fairly illiberal international principles. These principles include a larger role for great powers in the management of the international system, a disinterest in the preservation of the rights of minor powers (think of Donald Trump’s comments on Ukraine), and perhaps, a preference for bilateral negotiation instead of multilateral cooperation.
If our period resembles anything, it is the first half of the nineteenth century: the heyday of the Concert of Europe.
After the defeat of the French Empire in 1815, leading European powers came together to restore a conservative order in Europe. These states thought that the stability of international relations and the pursuit of peace were linked to stability within European societies. This domestic stability was premised on highly conservative ideals including the respect for dynastic rights and the religious principles that came with them.
These principles were imposed through the repression of liberal, republican and nationalist movements across Europe throughout the entire first half of the nineteenth century. The Holy Alliance, an alliance between Austria-Hungary, Russia and Prussia, was specifically important in this process, though France and the United Kingdom also played their part in dealing with what was then called, the ‘social question.’
The early nineteenth century may be a better representation of things to come than the interwar period. If the analogy holds true, we are not necessarily headed for the international military showdown that put an end to the fragile post-World War I peace, but rather for a period of relatively managed tensions between socially conservative powers of the likes of Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, Trump’s United States, Modi’s India, and Jinping’s China. There remain question marks over France and Germany, who will hold elections in 2017.
Not all these states are similar politically speaking and my argument should not be taken as a claim that they are, but then again neither were members of the Concert of Europe. There were key differences between Russia and Prussia on the one hand, and France and the United Kingdom, on the other, just as there are differences between Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia.
This analogy, like all others, is not meant to be perfectly accurate and we should certainly not think of it as such. Nonetheless, it offers an alternative, if bleak, vision of the coming international order, to the interwar one.
If this analogy helps us to understand the kind of world for which we are headed, then liberals, socialists, and other progressive political groups are in for a serious ride. In the first half of the nineteenth century, mobilization across Europe brought this conservative order to its knees.
Perhaps it is time to revive this spirit.