Return of History author Jennifer Welsh. Credit: Daniel Kevorkian, The Italian Cut

By: David MacDuff

International relations specialist and former advisor to the UN Secretary General Jennifer Welsh’s new book, The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century (House of Anansi Press, 2016), informed her 2016 Massey Lectures, delivered in September and October to audiences in five Canadian cities. For those who could not attend (regrettably, despite the policy content of the lectures, Ottawa was not among the destinations) the book will be the best option to catch up on Welsh’s latest thinking.

The author frames her argument using American political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s famous “end of history” thesis, in which he claimed that, with the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the only competitive model to liberal democracy had been extinguished. While history (in terms of events) would continue, the main debates would be within liberal and democratic terms – promoting individual freedoms and maximizing material well-being – rather than a completely different model. Welsh quotes Fukuyama as predicting the result would be “liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic” – the examples perhaps underlining just how long ago 1989 seems.

Throughout her Massey lectures, Welsh showed that over the past 25 years or so some of the old questions that have bedeviled international and domestic politics have re-emerged, in a different form and often influenced by technology. Her analysis in The Return of History unfolds over five chapters: the return of history; barbarism; mass flight; the Cold War; and inequality. The first four chapters, which she references in the sub-title of the book, are the strongest, whereas in the final chapter she moves beyond her specialization.

It is particularly insightful to read Welsh’s book in conjunction with Margaret MacMillan’s History’s People: Personalities and the Past, the publication accompanying the 2015 Massey Lectures. Both scholars are Canadians and professors at Oxford University. They question grand narratives and underscore the importance of human agency in world affairs. Their books are also complementary: MacMillan seeks to explain the pivotal role of leaders in shaping the past and Welsh aims to underscore the vital power of individual choice in influencing the future.

Welsh’s overall argument can be largely accepted: most analysts agree that there has been backsliding in the strength of liberal democracies since the original post-Cold War euphoria of the early 1990s, with the rise of “illiberal democracies” that do not respect free and fair elections, individual rights and independent courts. Examples abound: countries as different as Russia, Thailand, Venezuela and Burundi.

The most interesting parts of Welsh’s book are the individual thematic chapters. The chapters on the return of barbarism and mass flight are where the author has the greatest recent expertise, and can be considered together. Welsh decries the regressions that have occurred in applying established principles of international humanitarian law – notably, the distinction between combatants and civilians – most recently in Syria. She likens the suffering of civilians in Syria to that of soldiers during the Second World War when Germany also used poisonous gas – a brutal return to history. As a logical consequence of this suffering, mass flight arises, with a record 65 million people – nearly double the population of Canada – displaced in the world today.

Welsh’s chapter on “The Return of the Cold War” might have been better titled “The Return of Geopolitics,” as she very effectively shows that the tension between the West and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not a reprise of the Soviet-American conflict. Putin’s ideology of “sovereign democracy” is about protecting his grip on power within Russia (as well as selectively with key allies, such as Syria), and not about exporting revolution to the rest of the world.

The author also rightly distinguishes between the contemporary use of “geopolitics” as a loose shorthand for great power rivalry and its original and more precise definition of a conflict over a specific geographic space. Many of the flashpoints between Russia and the West are distinctly geographic, and geopolitical, in nature – e.g. those in Crimea, Ukraine and the Baltics.

One of the elements missing from this chapter on the return of geopolitics is China. At one level, the exclusion is perfectly understandable: this is a book on liberal democracy, and China is neither liberal nor democratic. But, then again, Welsh addresses Russia, and it is neither liberal nor democratic. Furthermore, under the book’s theme of the “return of history” surely the return of China to great power politics after a decades-long hiatus is a significant development. Moreover, China’s challenges to the existing balance of power in Asia are distinctly geopolitical, the South China Sea being the prime example.

In her final chapter, Welsh shifts gears, moving from her specialty of international political relations to domestic economic issues, and noting the tremendous growth in inequality in many countries, especially since the 1980s. Here the author is on less firm ground in making her argument. She transitions from the chapter on geopolitics to the chapter on domestic economics by referencing the distinguished American diplomat and the architect of America’s containment policy, George Kennan. Among his observations in his famous “Long Telegram,” which he wrote in 1946 when he was posted to Moscow, Kennan noted that domestic sources of strength (not just military means) would be essential in a patient and long-term competition against the Soviet Union. Welsh uses this focus on the domestic level as a lever to open up her argument about a contemporary domestic challenge: the corrosive effects of inequality.

But her selection of Kennan is puzzling: he was no liberal. A traditional conservative and historian of pre-World War I European balance of power politics, he advocated an unsentimental realpolitik approach to U.S. international relations. This involved statesmen and diplomats making foreign decisions based on a calculation of national interest, with a minimal role for other actors, such as Congress – much less the general public – or other considerations, such as democracy and human rights. In short, Kennan’s worldview had little in common with Welsh’s modern, open, pluralistic and cosmopolitan outlook.

There are other challenges with the final chapter. Reflecting on the emergence of the hard-left socialist leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, Welsh argues that his redistributionist proposals deserve fair consideration. Here, she may be stretching the bounds of what exactly is meant by “liberal.” There is a strong tradition, represented in the United Kingdom by publications such as The Economist, in favour of the liberalism of free markets.

Clearly, given the momentous populist political developments of 2016 and the potential reassertion of state sovereignty, making a case for internationalism beyond the cognoscenti will be challenging. To the extent that Welsh offers a conceptual path forward in her key areas of strength – and can win a broad audience – she may be writing not only about the return of history but also offering a glimpse of the future.

David MacDuff is a foreign service officer with experience in multilateral (non-proliferation), regional (ASEAN), and bilateral (Canada-U.S.) issues. He was previously posted to Singapore as Canada’s regional economic advisor on Southeast Asia. The views expressed in this review are entirely the author’s alone.

Book Review: Jennifer Welsh’s The Return of History: Conflict, Migration and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century