The Return of History
Written by Jennifer Welsh
Publication Date September 17, 2016
In 1989, as the Berlin Wall crumbled and the Cold War dissipated, the American political commentator Francis Fukuyama wrote a famous essay, entitled “The End of History.” Fukuyama argued that the demise of confrontation between Communism and capitalism, and the expansion of Western liberal democracy, signalled the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural and political evolution, the waning of traditional power politics, and the path toward a more peaceful world. At the heart of his thesis was the audaciously optimistic idea of “progress” in history.
But a quarter of a century after Fukuyama’s bold prediction about transcending the struggles of the past, history has returned. The twenty-first century has not seen unfettered progress toward peace and a single form of government, but the reappearance of trends and practices many believed had been erased: arbitrary executions, attempts to annihilate ethnic and religious minorities, the starvation of besieged populations, invasion and annexation of territory, and the mass movement of refugees and displaced persons. It has also witnessed cracks and cleavages within Western liberal democracies, particularly as a result of deepening economic inequality — at levels not seen since the end of the nineteenth century.
The Return of History both illustrates and explains this return of history. But it also demonstrates how the reappearance of acts deemed “barbaric” or “medieval” has a modern twist. Above all, it argues that the return of history should encourage us all to remember that our own liberal democratic society was not inevitable and that we must all, as individual citizens, take a more active role in its preservation and growth.
JENNIFER WELSH is Professor and Chair in International Relations at the European University Institute in Florence (Italy) and a Fellow of Somerville College, University of Oxford. From 2013 until 2016, she was the Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary General on the Responsibility to Protect. She co-founded the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, and has taught international relations at the University of Toronto, McGill University, and the Central European University (Prague). Welsh is the author, co-author, and editor of several books and articles on international relations, the changing character of war, and Canadian foreign policy. She was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, and is of Metis descent. She now lives in Italy, with her husband and two children.