It all seems so long ago, yet in reality it was less than 30 years since that remarkable time in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down and democracy and capitalism appeared poised to launch the world into a new, more equitable era. My wife, Jane, was there and wrote Lincoln’s famous words on the wall: “… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” British journalist Timothy Garton Ash famously called those remarkable few days “the greatest street party in the history of the world.”
Almost two million East Germans crossed over to the West in the next few days. Communist regimes began falling like dominoes – Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Two years later the Soviet Union was disbanded. Numerous conflicts ended and the number of refugees decreased as a result. More nations became democratic and it felt as if a whole new world was in the process of being born.
What happened? That was just a generation ago. Now we’re talking walls, travel bans, dismantling trade deals, more refugees, multiple threats to economies, the possible breaking down of climate change efforts, rising terrorism, a confused international order, and significant anger at different levels. As the good folks at Freedom House reminded us not too long ago, the democracy we have believed in is undergoing more threats and decline than at anytime in the past quarter of a century.
It’s likely that during that headier time we sat back and delighted in watching democracy and capitalism wend their way through traditionally autocratic regions when we should have been using all the momentum to also reform our own institutions in the developed and affluent world. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the real question was if democracy and capitalism were up to the challenge of this new world? It should have been repeatedly asked, but the West, in trying to export these twin ideas to the newly liberated nations, was too busy to consider upgrading its own beleaguered political and economic infrastructures.
Now it’s our turn, as political, social and financial upheaval threaten the established order in ways that surprise us. Did we honestly ever consider that the banning of millions of Muslims from America was actually going to happen, or even doable? Wasn’t the Cold War supposed to be over and prosperity just around the corner for everyone? It’s tough to address such queries because they are still being played out. We have yet to see if the growing pushback against extremist forces will be sufficient to reduce the overall danger to the planet.
What we are witnessing is history’s revenge. It’s what happens when people place history’s hard gotten gains on cruise control. By always assuming that economic and social progress was a natural development we overlooked the steep sacrifices paid to provide such opportunities. Power had morphed and we weren’t on top of it. For former German Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer it was as though the emperor had lost his clothes. As he told author Moises Naim: “One of my biggest shocks was the discovery that all the imposing government palaces and other trappings of government were in fact empty places.”
And now we are discovering the same thing. It’s neither universal nor total, but the trend towards political and financial dysfunction is clear, leaving social damage in its wake. Canada is in the fortunate position of perhaps shaping these effects, but only if we form a united front against those leaders and movements that would seek to reintroduce the demons of history that we once thought vanquished. Making room for racism, xenophobia, online bigotry, and outright hatred will quickly strip us of the moral sinew required to steer a more principled course into the future.
To that must be added the urgency of defeating inequality, and creating effective environmental legislation, a sense of solidarity among all Canadian citizens, and the belief that the strides we have made in the past must be continually guarded against decay. Civil society must begin the hard work of softening the rough edges of a more violent world.
Those more troubling aspects of history are now biting back, restless to release their havoc upon a confused and alarmed world that had once hoped for something better. To survive the troubling years ahead the secret isn’t so much to put the genie back into the bottle, but to create equitable institutions and systems that better the entire world and not merely the few.