Commentary / Japan

Were the 2010s a return to the 1930s?

The 2010s came to an end on Dec. 31. Any period is comprised of irreplaceable memories for those who lived through it, but the decade band is a particularly vivid marker of time. This was especially true of the 2010s.

During this decade, the framework of the long postwar period — its international order, domestic political structures, and the organization of industry and media — started to crumble.

It was the Lehman shock of 2008 that gave birth to the roaring and tumultuous decade that followed. It triggered a global financial crisis, reduced trade and forced free trade into retreat.

The Lehman shock also complicated the euro crisis, encouraged both China and Russia to challenge the international order and flout established rules, and fostered opposition to globalization and liberalism among advanced industrial nations while encouraging the counter-currents of populism and nationalism.

These counter-currents were particularly striking in Britain and the United States — the two countries that have been the world’s leading forces of liberalism — as they were manifested in the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. Meanwhile, votes won by political parties opposing European integration among EU member states have doubled over the past decade.

The collapse of the international order began in the Middle East. Following the setback of the Arab Spring democracy movements, Syria and Libya slipped into national dissolution and anarchy. The U.S. began to “retreat” from its global roles.

Next, the rise of China in the 2010s forced us to realize that a country with an entirely different political system had become a superpower — and that we needed a new strategy to deal with this nation. In the U.S., Europe and Japan, a new view of China as a “revisionist power” and “strategic rival” that would threaten the existing international order is increasingly shared across party lines.

In retrospect, no words better capture the decade than those delivered by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at the July 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum. Scowling at the ASEAN foreign ministers assembled in the audience, Yang declared: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”

In his “History of the Peloponnesian War” in the fifth century B.C., the ancient Greek historian Thucydides records the following words from the Athenian envoy to the people of Melos: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Yang’s declaration is the 21st century version of the Athenian “warning to Melos.”

The 2010s also witnessed the social implementation of the Fourth Industrial Revolution as represented by the advent of artificial intelligence, 5G next-generation mobile networks, big data and blockchain, which captured both the real and the virtual within the net of the “internet of things” and connectivity.

On one hand, this enabled innovations that targeted individual needs within a diversifying society. On the other hand, it raised major fears surrounding the giant American platformers’ control over data and the “dataism” they have accelerated.

In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked highly classified information regarding the U.S. National Security Agency’s surveillance program. In 2016, it was revealed that the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had worked for the “Leave” campaign ahead of the Brexit vote, manipulating political opinion. Just as people wondered whether the age of electronic voting would arrive, they realized that social networking services represented a threat to the very basis of “free and fair elections.” As the internet split into the “Splinternet,” the dark and repulsive future of the “dark web” is already upon us.

The 2010s are frequently compared to the 1930s. The British historian Ian Kershaw identifies ethnic-racist nationalism, territorial revisionism, acute class conflict and a prolonged crisis of capitalism as the four concurrent crises of the interwar years (between the first and second world wars). Kershaw’s analysis is beginning to resonate with the present moment in terrifying ways.

The fascist parties of 1930s Europe gained the support of ordinary citizens by advocating for a welfare state. In the face of economic depression and extremely high unemployment, women who had initially turned their backs on Nazism because they disliked its violence eventually demonstrated the same level of support as men for Nazism in elections after the early 1930s.

This was because the Nazi regime successfully created jobs for people who had lost their occupations and provided a brief period of stability for German households.

Despite many similarities, the 2010s were not the second coming of the 1930s. At present, at least, it is difficult to imagine a war breaking out between the world’s great powers. Today’s populist movements lack the militaristic slant of 1930s populism.

Furthermore, climate change has become a major issue for the entire world. This may prompt greater cooperation across national borders, and solidarity among the world’s youth in particular. They have the media tools to connect individuals throughout the world to make that possible. Indeed, the speech by the 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg before the United Nations may herald the advent of a new tide of international climate change politics.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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