The Old World in Turmoil
15 June 2012
There is a famous song by The Beatles that begins, “I read the news today, Oh boy.” This is what I felt like when I looked at today’s Financial Times (since I am still a newspaper reader, despite the declining position of the papers today). The Old World once again appears to be coming apart at the seams. All around the Mediterranean basin, throughout the region where once reigned the Roman Empire, there is turmoil: the Eurozone economic crisis playing out in Greece, Italy, and Spain, the Egyptian military canceling the election results, and civil war in Syria.
The failures in Europe and the failures in the Arab world will certainly interact in unpredictable ways. What remains to be seen — unlikely though possible — is whether these failures escalate each other and result in a complex catastrophic failure of the complex system that is the Old World. Will European economic failure mean that peoples from the Arab world will no longer seek to migrate to Europe, or will it mean that Europe’s weakness will create the conditions allowing a greater transfer of population? This is a complex question, and only time can tell what direction events will take.
When the Eurozone was created there were predictable but also believable claims made on its behalf that it would surpass the US as an integrated economic zone. Now we know that this is not going to happen. The next few years and decades will see countless analyses of what went wrong with the Eurozone. There will be more than one diagnosis, and ongoing events in Europe will continue to churn the mix, turning up further interpretations.
What lies ahead for Europe? Will Europe have a “lost decade” such as Japan experienced, or more than a decade? Again, only time will tell, but there are some general observations that can be made. The future of European development will exemplify regionalism rather than continental integration. I have suggested that a new economic zone in Northern Europe, a modern analogue of the Hanseatic League, might be more successful as an economic bloc. Even if nothing so ambitious is tried again, and there is no Hansa to replace the Euro, the economics of Northern Europe are likely do much better than those of the south. All one needs to do is to look at their economies today to see that they are set for future development, while much of Southern Europe is set for stagnation.
It took a decade for the Euro to reveal its fatal weaknesses. It took a year for the Arab Spring to reveal its weaknesses. It would be easy to be cynical about what has been accomplished, or what was not accomplished, by the protests throughout North Africa, the Levant, and the Persian Gulf, but we should not abandon our hope so quickly.
The Arab peoples have been living under perversely repressive regimes for decades, and in some cases for centuries. Such stagnancy from retrograde regimes cannot be shaken off in a year. We should understand the Arab Spring, whatever its successes or failures, as one of those periodic uprisings that mark societies struggling to free themselves. There will be further unrest, and more Arab Springs to come in the future.
Denis Diderot, committed as he was to the extirpation of the old order in the Old World, notoriously said, “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” This was never more true than it is today, although today we ought to say, “Man will never be free until the last Sheik is strangled with the entrails of the last Mullah.”
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