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book review

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You may have noticed that the face of the Earth is not exactly ablush with democratic stability, international co-operation and rising prosperity this year.

Even though humans are experiencing fewer wars, less crime and far less poverty than ever, it's hard to feel optimistic about their countries: Too many once-hopeful ones, such as Turkey, South Africa, Thailand and Brazil, have slid into national crises that threaten their decades of astonishing betterment; some, such as Russia and Egypt, are now democratic only in name; a notable few, especially Syria, have fallen off the brink of statehood into murderous chaos. And the better-off ones, far from agreeing on any kind of solution, are fighting their own internal electoral battles against political extremists who could threaten the whole game.

What sort of a moment is this? Is this a bump in the road – one of the many setbacks, stalls and ruptures the world has experienced during its seven decades of postwar democratic and economic expansion? Or have we driven off the road entirely – is this the end of a dream of global stability that seemed to flower most brightly after the Cold War ended in 1989?

Jennifer Welsh is using her forthcoming 2016 Massey Lectures, to be broadcast starting Oct. 31 and published this week as The Return of History, to warn that too many symptoms point to this second, darker path, in which the era of liberal-democratic peace is in danger of ending altogether: "I am more of a Chicken Little about liberal democracy's future," she acknowledges in her conclusion.

"Liberal democracy itself is less stable, and less admirable, than it was at the end of the Cold War," she writes. "It should also be less confident about its longevity."

Welsh makes this diagnosis from a uniquely elevated vantage that both provides her with a distinct perspective on the well-worn questions of global progress and decline and also colours her response to this era's events.

A Canadian political scientist of Métis descent who has taught at Oxford and the Florence-based European University Institute, Welsh is best known as a key architect and framer of the United Nations doctrine known as the Responsibility to Protect – an international agreement that permits and regulates the use of interventions (not usually, but sometimes, military) into the affairs of other countries in order to prevent atrocities and crimes against humanity. Since 2013, she has served as a special adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the prevention of genocide.

So it shouldn't be surprising that her book often views the world through the lens of international institutions and agreements. Much of her assessment of the fate of countries hinges not on their internal economies and societal structures, but on the ties that bind them to one another, both formally through conventions and treaties and informally through mutual co-operation, political compromise and example-setting.

Her starting point, as her title suggests, is the most famous essay of the 1989 transition, Francis Fukuyama's The End of History? He argued the collapse of the Soviet empire had put an end to a specific form of "history" defined by a worldwide dialectical struggle between all-encompassing ideologies, and that while the future would contain plenty of wars, conflicts, depressions and catastrophes, they would all take place in a world where the default and assumed national ideology involved some combination of a liberal economy with a nominally democratic state.

The triumph of one kind of economy and one kind of state, Fukuyama claimed, would bring on a less volatile, more co-operative "Western" era. At the moment, it sure doesn't feel like that world – but it's harder to show the world has fallen back into incompatible poles.

In setting out to do so, Welsh is entering a crowded field. The careers of a number of scholars, notably Robert Kagan (whom Welsh quotes a lot) have been built on three decades of claims that the world is surely about to collapse into post-Fukuyama chaos and destructive competition.

This is where Welsh's unusual perspective serves her well and distinguishes this book from other return-of-history jeremiads. Not only is she exceptionally fluent in the debates and histories of political science, but she has a unique understanding of the actual workings and breaking points of the formal international order and its failings.

As a result, The Return of History takes us in some surprising directions. You would expect a book on the breakdown of the global ideological consensus as defined by Fukuyama to follow a well-trod path: A big section on China's authoritarian capitalism and its export of non-democratic liberalism; a big take on the internal ideological crises in the other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries, and maybe something on the tentative anti-Western ideological models attempted in Iran or Venezuela.

But Welsh makes only passing mention of most of these places. She is not challenging the Fukuyama vision by trying to claim that major alternatives to liberalism and democracy are arising – in fact, she acknowledges that there is not really any other totalizing ideology on the stage today and that even Iranian theocrats and Russian hardliners express themselves in the language of liberal economies and democratic state institutions.

Rather, she is looking at the places where those liberal-democratic ideals are falling apart, collapsing under the weight of their contradictions, their credibility ruined by failure or mocked by those who have no overarching ideology at all, only hunger for power.

So her lecture has four major sections, each looking at a threat to the post-1989 world order that can be found in the headlines and major political crises of 2016: The return of "Barbarism" (by which she means unregulated and often merciless total warfare, ignoring humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions, as waged by the group calling itself the Islamic State or ISIS, and sometimes by the West), the return of mass flight, in the form of refugee emergencies; the return of the Cold War (the rise of Putinism, both in Russia and abroad) and the return of economic inequality, which renders the liberal-democratic state unstable and makes it look unappealing to those seeking to escape autocracy.

Some of these stray far from where you'd expect an anti-Fukuyama argument to go. The current refugee crisis would not seem, at first, to be an existential challenge to the liberal-democratic order: After all, its headline issue involves a million people a year fleeing into stable liberal democracies. People are voting with their feet for the post-1989 world. And it's not as if refugees define the world today: In the past three decades, we have seen three dramatic, short-term spikes in refugee movement to the West, during the Lebanon, former Yugoslavia, and Syria conflicts; the longer periods between these spikes have seen the lowest levels of refugee movement in modern history. Mass flight is politically controversial, but not order-shaking.

But then Welsh comes around to her argument: "In order to respond more effectively and more humanely to twenty-first-century mass flight, Western liberal democracies need to become bolder and more creative about fulfilling their duty to protect." She is not discussing refugee crises themselves, but the actions of liberal democracies that provoke them (such as the Iraq invasion) or fail to prevent them (such as the lack of a Syria intervention).

This, and her chapters on economic inequality and ungoverned warfare, make the larger case that the wealthy liberal democracies are destroying their brand, their scenes of torture and poverty and non-intervention making it less likely emerging countries will want to follow their model.

That argument gains a lot of credence when you confront her chronicle of the return of Cold War dynamics – especially since she is careful to point out the current Russia-West showdown does not really resemble the Cold War at all, either in scope or in ideology. Putinism doesn't offer a competing system of thought and economy at all (he was quick to purge his government of the "Eurasianist" ethno-nationalist ideology that might have offered one). Nor, deep down, do China's or Iran's models – they subtract from Fukuyama's default ideology, but don't offer a wholesale alternative.

But Putinism and its parallels are explicitly and forcefully aimed against the liberal-democratic international order. This is in good part because Fukuyama and the leaders who read him made the original mistake of branding it as a "Western" order (even though both liberalism and democracy have equally deep roots in the East), a triumphalist phrasing that was too eagerly adopted by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and the ayatollahs in denouncing it.

This is where Welsh's book becomes most timely and its arguments form a neat circle, because Putin's rejection of pluralism and democratic openness is being embraced, like never before, by politicians in Western countries. Putin's explicit admirers and imitators – Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Nigel Farage in Britain and especially Donald Trump in the United States – have had a great year. Their successes in the polls both reinforce her case the liberal-democratic brand is crumbling and suggest the world could indeed rupture into a grand division over how to run countries.

This time, though, it would not be between two grand ideological models, but between one well-established model and an idea-free alternative built only on rejection, isolation, intolerance, total power and subordination. The sky may indeed be falling, she says, but this time, nobody seems interested in putting up a new one.

Doug Saunders is an international affairs columnist with The Globe and Mail and the author of Arrival City and The Myth of the Muslim Tide.

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