“And on Earth peace, goodwill to all men.”
The New Testament invocation of global harmony is a commonplace of holiday cards, even if it has been an impossible standard for the two millennia since its debut. Perhaps humankind is destined to never-ending conflict — war, terrorism, “regime change.” Even as the awful year 2020 comes to an end, there is little genuine peace anywhere.
I chuckle, perhaps with a tinge of bitterness, to think of that brief period toward the end of the 20th century when the Iron Curtain fell, the United States was the world’s remaining superpower and a noted political scientist wrote a tome declaring “The End of History and the Last Man.” As Francis Fukuyama was insisting that Western Enlightenment ideas — democracy, reason, evidence — had won the battle for worldwide political supremacy, pundits began writing about how the United States should spend its “peace dividend.” Congress should, of course, turn its attention to improving the lot of the common person by bolstering health care, education and housing, they said.
That thesis fell apart in just a few years as Islamist terrorists grew bolder, proving their savage mettle in the murderous strike of Sept. 11, 2001. As the Western world turned its attention to the Middle East, the United States became mired in protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There was not to be a peace dividend.
That was not the worst of it. Fukuyama was clearly naive to suggest that democracy had “won” the battle of ideas. The Arab spring failed; Turkey elevated an authoritarian; after the fall of its dictator, Libya fell into chaos.
But even Fukuyama’s fiercest critics failed to predict the rapid rise of authoritarian trends in places where democracy has been in full bloom for centuries. Though we might expect that China and Russia and North Korea will long be controlled by a more or less cynical dictator, Western Europe and the United States would never be tempted by the siren song of a despot. Or so most of us believed.
That, too, turned out to be sadly naive. The newer democracies of Eastern Europe, those nations once in the Soviet orbit, have already fallen victim to a surge of closed-minded nationalism that borders on dictatorship. In Poland, for example, leaders have undermined judicial independence and attacked freedom of the press. Hungary’s fledgling democracy has been similarly weakened.
Even staunch allies of the U.S., nations such as Germany and France, have witnessed a worrying rise of far-right white nationalist parties that bear the hallmarks of Nazism. Alternative for Germany, whose members embrace Nazi rhetoric and imagery, has gained power in state and federal elections. The Sweden Democrats have tried to erase their recent history of embracing Nazism, but they are still racists. Similar parties have gained a toehold in France and in Spain, which only managed to get rid of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
As those trends became evident, the U.S. should have been a bulwark against the depredations of authoritarianism — the “shining city on the hill” that continued to be an exemplar for the rest of the world. But that was not to be, either. A significant minority of Americans have a fondness for despotism, it turns out — as long as it’s a despot they like.
As President Donald Trump continues to fight the peaceful transfer of power — a basic tenet of democracy — he is cheered not only by supporters who march in the streets but also by those elected Republicans who parrot his claim that the election was stolen. Some of his more deranged supporters, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, have suggested that Trump declare martial law to stay in power. That’s right out of the playbook of a tinpot dictator.
Peace on Earth? Goodwill to all? Hardly. But the cliched holiday cards do at least offer an alternative vision that humankind might one day choose, a ray of hope for the road ahead.