Terrorist attacks, a military coup, EU disintegration, the rise of the far right, demise of political credibility — all amid mass migration, economic volatility, and deep divisions in the US. Caroline O’Doherty asks what’s going on and what does it mean for life as we know it?
EVERY so often, events come so thick and fast that it is hard to process intellectually or emotionally the simple facts of them, never mind figure out their causes or consequences.
A sort of Stendhal Syndrome sets in, only worse because it is not the beauty of the world but its ugliness that sparks the paralysing sensory overload.
The past six weeks of summer may well have triggered such a reaction, as news organisations delivered report after report that shocked, bewildered and frightened, while social media convulsed in confusion and distress.
It began with the Orlando nightclub attack where 49 people were shot dead. But guns were not Omar Mateen’s only weapons.
His attack unleashed a cluster bomb of contentious issues — immigration, Islamic State, homophobia, racism, gun control — that are rocking an increasingly rattled United States.
In Britain, Labour MP Jo Cox’s anti-Brexit plea for a pluralist, tolerant society earned her the ire of the right wing and made her the target of one of its more deranged disciples.
Then came Brexit, when not even those who precipitated it or campaigned for it were prepared for it or the impact it may have on the entire European Union project.
— Irish Examiner (@irishexaminer) July 23, 2016
Soon after, dozens died in a deadly suicide bombing at Istanbul Airport, only the latest in a series of IS claimed attacks in Turkey, but one that resonated all the more because of the similarities with the Brussels Airport attack earlier this year.
Iraq had its single-most deadly bombing since the start of the war. More than 300 died in the IS-claimed attack on a shopping mall — an achievement of notoriety given the 13-year litany of mayhem and death that preceded it.
Just days later, the report of the Chilcot Inquiry into the legitimacy of that very war concluded that the decision to go to war in the first place was not justified.
In the US, the latest fatal shootings of black men by white police officers prompted peaceful protests, but in Dallas the peace was shattered when 11 police officers were shot, five fatally, in retaliation.
Then came the Bastille Day massacre in Nice when 84 people died after a man with tenuous IS links drove a truck through crowds at a fireworks display on the national day of celebration.
As the remains of many of the dead lay on the promenade awaiting forensic examination and formal identification, news broke that Turkey — the buffer between Europe and the volatile regions of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the South Caucasus, and the soakpit for almost 3m refugees — was in the grip of a military coup.
It failed. Hundreds died, hundreds more were injured and, at the last count, some 60,000 had been arrested, court martialled, sacked from State jobs, placed under travel restrictions and/or threatened with revival of the death penalty, in a purge of those who oppose the Erdogan regime.
Back in the US, there was Baton Rouge. One more black man intent on revenge, three more white policemen dead, 50 states looking nervously on, wondering where the deterioration in race relations will play out next.
Then in Germany, a teenage Afghan refugee with a makeshift IS flag on the wall of his room in a local foster home, went on an axe rampage on a train.
A week later, another teen lured classmates to McDonald’s with a fake Facebook posting and shot dead nine. He had no IS links — just an obsession with mass murders. How perverse that this felt cause for relief.
Meanwhile came the cries of Aleppo, Syria’s city of rubble and despair, pleading for help as Assad’s troops closed the last access road in a move that many fear spells a choice between starvation or surrender.
All this comes against the backdrop of an ongoing migrant crisis and continuing economic challenges along with renewed violence in South Sudan and doubts in Iran over the survival of the year-old US-brokered deal to curb nuclear activities.
And in the US, a man who has pledged to tear up that deal — and just about every other deal, treaty, and gentleman’s agreement the US holds with the rest of the world — has just become candidate for president.
In response to a previous period of questioning, uncertainty and fear, Marvin Gaye spoke for many when he eloquently asked: “What’s Going On?” Forty-five years on from that seminal song and album, its plea is as pertinent as ever, though a modern remix might add some expletives to the title.
The very fact that such works exists, however, tells us that we’ve been here before. For Gaye, the cracks in his world stemmed from the Vietnam War, racial violence, and civil rights violations, but each generation before and after him had their own period of doubt that life as they knew it would survive.
— Irish Examiner (@irishexaminer) July 23, 2016
Here, we’ve just marked the centenary of the 1916 Rising — 100 years that saw two world wars, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Spanish Civil War, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, Nicaragua, Chile, Cambodia, Chernobyl, Biafra, Ethiopia, the revolutions of 1968, Palestine, and Israel, Apartheid, the end of the Iron Curtain, the Great Depression, the 80s depression and its noughties sequel.
So is there anything notable about the current spate of shocks, or were all those ‘end is nigh’ tweets that flooded Twitter at the height of the news-storm just over a week ago to be expected because of the proximity of hysteria to the modern-day means of expressing it?
An expert in international relations, Dr Ken McDonagh from Dublin City University is reluctant to pronounce that these are the days that will change the world. “It’s like the proverbial saying with the French Revolution — it’s too soon to tell in terms of what will be really significant,” he cautions.
“I’d be a little bit sceptical as to whether we’re in an unprecedented period of unrest. Certainly on the terrorism front, in terms of the absolute number of attacks, we’re still lower than the peak in the 60s and 70s.
“You have a very visceral experience of those attacks because of the instantaneousness of social media but it’s hard to tell if that’s just the feeling that more is happening, rather than more actually happening.”
Historian and biographer Professor Geoffrey Roberts, based at University College Cork, sees it slightly differently. “It is difficult to think of a peacetime crisis as intense and diverse as the current one,” he says.
“9/11 was a big turning point which had manifold consequences because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it did not shake the kaleidoscope of world politics — as Blair put it — in the way that is happening now. The collapse of communism and the USSR and the end of the Cold War was a big shift but there remained a stable western core for world politics to re-cohere around.
“The outbreak of the Cold War in the 1940s, which led to the division of Germany and Europe, nuclear arms, American-Soviet struggles, and proxy wars in the Third World, is probably what comes closest to the situation, but by the early-mid 1960s the Cold War had stabilised itself. I think we are in the midst of a prolonged period of instability and uncertainty.”
THE sense that some sort of stability prevailed in the past, even during turbulent times, is also felt by Dr McDonagh.
“At least with the ‘traditional’ terrorist, for want of a better term, you had the sense that they had very clear political ends, whereas the idea of individuals engaging in attacks like we saw in Nice, with essentially no weapons — just turning an ordinary machine into a weapon on the day — that’s a change,” he says.
“The techniques of terrorists and the lowering of their dependence on a structured organisation is what’s changed. It makes it somewhat more unpredictable and very, very difficult to create safety for civilians on a very grand scale, and it’s something we almost have to learn to live with as the new normal.”
The idea of accepting terrorism as an any-time, any-place occurrence sounds terrifying in itself, but Dr McDonagh says it is no overstatement.
“It’s one of those genies that once out of the bottle, it’s very hard to put back in. It’s not just a case that it’s only coming from those inspired by Islamic State — you have those on the far right as well. Think of the attack against the MP in the UK, Anders Breivik in Norway, and you’ve had attacks on mosques as well.
“But,” and this he stresses, “at the same time it is a rare thing and it’s not a strategic threat to our societies unless we allow it to be; unless we panic and fall into the trap being set by terrorists who want it to completely disrupt our way of life.”
For the most part, our way of life is pretty simple. We need homes, jobs, schools, hospitals, a bit of entertainment to keep us amused in between times, and a bit of law to keep us in line if our idea of amusement breaches reasonable boundaries.
Realistically, are those fundamental features of every day life going to be affected by what’s going on in Britain, France, Turkey, or further afield?
If terrorism is one of the enemies at the door, then complacency is the enemy within, warns Dr Aidan Regan, economist at University College Dublin, who tracks the interaction of politics and economics.
“I think there is a real change and it is here to stay but there is a level of complacency amongst liberal elites in the western world, be it the European Union or be it within the policy-making apparatus of nation states, that radical change is not really going to happen.
“There was complacency around the Brexit vote in particular. There was this sense that, when push comes to shove, rationality will prevail, that there’s no way the fifth-largest trading block in the world will pull out of the European Union, the largest trading block in the world, and go its own way. But that’s precisely what has happened.
“And now the question is what’s driving that, what’s the determining factor behind the vote to leave? It’s fairly clear that immigration is a big concern but inequality is a big concern and that those who voted to leave were those who were classically classified as the losers from globalisation, that is the lower income groups in our society who have lost out from high-skill technological change.”
Globalisation was the buzz word of the 1990s and early 2000s, when more often than not it came with the prefix ‘anti’ attached, and there were regular protests against the fast-rising power of vast global corporations who seemed able to conduct — and destruct— business wherever and however they liked, unfettered by regulatory controls.
The terminology may not be so prevalent now, but Dr Regan says the effects are. “To zone in on the greater European region, what’s fairly clear is that there is increased political fragmentation; there’s increased parliamentary volatility; there’s a rise in supply of new political parties and the type of issues that traditional leftist parties used to mobilise on are increasingly becoming the mobilising factor of the far right.
“I think a lot of this can be traced back to economic inequality,” he says.
“The very well-off seem to be getting on quite fine and the vulnerability of the middle is increasingly exposed. You don’t have to be a historian to realise that this creates perverse politics.
“We need to talk more about sharing the fruits of globalisation to ensure that everybody benefits.
“If you are multi-lingual, internationally mobile, with good computational skills, you don’t have a problem.
“You can move between countries, you can work in Google in Dublin, move out to San Francisco, choose Madrid if you want the sun.
“So there are people who will benefit from what’s happening at the moment and will be relatively immune to it, and policymakers tend to fall into this group. But they are not the majority and that’s where the tension is happening, that’s where stuff is boiling over.”
So how do you turn down the temperature? Dr Ken McDonagh feels a lot of the heat can be taken out by applying cool heads.
“As we know well in this country, people tend to get hysterical and quite high-pitched coming up to a referendum, and then afterwards it resolves itself and we figure out a way to continue the status quo,” he says.
“In relation to Brexit, I think that’s what the UK is going to have to do as well; that they’re going to have to negotiate something that is pretty similar to what went before — albeit possibly having less say and less influence in the decisions that affect their lives, so ironically they end up with less sovereignty rather than more by leaving the EU.”
DR AIDAN REGAN isn’t so sure it will all work out in the end, especially given the precarious financial state of Italy, the ongoing problems in Greece, and the limbo Spain finds itself in without a government for eight months after two inconclusive general elections.
He thinks Germany and France’s insistence on the EU taking a tough line on Britain, while apparently logical, could backfire.
“They don’t want to be seen to go easy on the UK because if the UK gets access to the single market but simultaneously is able to control the free movement of people, then every country in the EU is going to want the same.
“But I think the EU is on the wrong path and I think if it’s going to salvage itself it needs to take a serious look in the mirror and say, do we need a new social contract?
“It can’t be all about cuts, it can’t be all about austerity, it can’t be all about more rules. There has to be a realisation that something is qualitatively different about certain countries and they need to be given the flexibility to respond to their own particular problems.
“Italy is the country to watch next. I think the pressure that’s been put on the Italian government by the EU is not the way forward. They have a banking crisis; they have a real unemployment crisis; they need the flexibility to respond to the particular problems their country faces but they’re stuck in this bind within the EU and the more that the EU sticks to what I would consider to be pretty irresponsible economics, the more you’re going to get political consequences.
“Maybe we need to start talking about European disintegration, about maybe not being able to assume that the borders of the EU are stable and fixed, about do we need to reconsider the project.”
Not so fast, says Dr Ken McDonagh. “People need to take a deep breath in relation to most of these things, to take their time and work their way through them.
“The lowest risk crisis is the Brexit-EU relationship. That’s something where there are definite lines of communication; there are structures; there are treaties and there are processes that can be engaged in. It’s something that’s going to wind down over the next three or four years before we see where it’s going to end up.”
Turkey’s future, and its impact on the rest of Europe and the Middle East, is less certain, but again Dr McDonagh urges calm.
“It’s not hugely different from the problems we’ve had with Turkey for the last decade since Erdogan took power — a chequered human rights record and a chequered democracy, but also the reality that we need to be engaged with Turkey in a very real way because we have common interests.”
Dr Regan, however, does not believe it is business as usual in the traditionally uneasy relationship between the EU and Turkey. “Given what’s happening there, a shift to a much more authoritarian type politics, it doesn’t bode well,” he says.
The US has by turns been a steadying hand and a meddling hand in world affairs and both academics agree which would be the likely legacy of a Donald Trump presidency, but Dr McDonagh offers some reassurance.
“There’s certainly no way in which Donald Trump being the nominee of the Republican Party is a good thing, but I think it’s very unlikely he will win the election,” he says.
“Even if he were to get in, there are enough constraints in the presidency in terms of the constitutional system, the role of Congress and reasonably sensible people within the military and defence establishment, so it’s not as risky as it’s laid out.
“But,” he adds, “I wouldn’t like to make an experiment out of it if I had the choice.”
Dr Regan echoes that. “There are institutional checks and balances in place that either restrict or encourage or facilitate or block change in US politics.
“We saw it with Obama when he wanted to pursue a more progressive policy agenda. The same vetos and restrictions would be placed on Trump. But I still don’t think we should underestimate the damaging effect that somebody like him could have. I don’t think any of us should be willing to take that risk.”
Italy’s 15 years under Berlusconi provide an insight into a Trump presidency, he says. “He’s an interesting comparator to Trump. Both of them spend a lot of time on tv and media; both have a certain view of the world; and both adopt a kind of ‘I’m one of the people’ persona.
“The Berlusconi approach is ‘I own two football clubs, I’ve got a beautiful wife, but I curse and blind and I slap people on the ass so I’m just like you’. Trump is the same and, disturbingly, that stuff seems to go down well with people.”
Trump or no Trump, Professor Geoffrey Roberts says the current turbulence owes its provenance to the 2008 financial crisis and the instability that unleashed, so it has a momentum of its own.
“All sorts of radical outcomes are possible, if unlikely: The collapse of the Eurozone and the disintegration of the EU; major war in the Middle East; Turkey’s Islamisisation, US isolationism, confrontation with China in Asia, a deepening of the nationalist turn in European politics, a renewed economic crisis, a flare-up in Ukraine,” he says.
“The difficulty with the present situation is that it is difficult to envisage what a new stability would look like.”
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