Yesterday’s Tomorrow

 

“Scarcely anyone in England now believes in the Treaty of Versailles or in the pre-war Gold Standard or in the Policy of Deflation. These battles have been won – mainly by the irresistible pressure of events….But most of us have, as yet, only a vague idea of what we are going to do next…” John Maynard Keynes, 1931.

“Events, my dear boy, events.” Harold Macmillan, 1950s

In 2013, I began thinking about what the world might look like for my grandchildren and what type of educational and other skills would be useful in their adult lives and even, heaven forbid, their sunset years, an euphemism for old age. I canvassed a number of former students whom I had taught at Carleton University asking for their views. Each has gone on to have a successful career in a variety of fields, and all had something useful and often unexpected to contribute to this topic.

I posted an initial summary of their views at cmaule.wordpress.com on June 24th, 2014, with some of my own observations. Much of this content deals with the type of topics to consider studying at university and college and the future characteristics of the labour force. Elsewhere, I came across some excellent studies on these issues written by experts such as those for the Oxford Martin Commission For Future Generations Report available online.

As a next step, I try to examine the future in light of the recent past, recent in this context being from 1800. Over 200 years may seem like a long time to establish context, but tracing actual events since then provides some understanding of how we got from then to now, how quickly circumstances change, and how relatively unpredictable these changes were and still are. The difficulty of saying anything useful about the future is contained in the quote by Keynes namely that, at any time, supposedly informed people have “only a vague idea of what we are going to do next.” Harold Macmillan, when asked what might blow a government off course, is quoted to have said “Events, my dear boy, events.” Though some claim he never said it, it remains a useful reminder.

Historians record what did take place and do not claim to throw a bright light on the future.  The Long Shadow, The Great War and the Twentieth Century, (Simon and Schuster, 2013) by David Reynolds shines the spotlight on how events leading up to and subsequent to WW1 accounted for what has happened since 1900 up to the present. The previous century from 1800 also contains events which shape the world we live in. What is notable, perhaps remarkable, is how during those years (1800-1900) few supposedly informed observers saw what was coming in 1914, and when it did come what would happen next. Most saw this century as a reasonably peaceful world which would carry on with Queen Victoria’s relatives, the King of England, Tsar of Russia and German Kaiser living harmoniously together, although America did have a nasty civil war in the 1860s. How a family spat had such disastrous consequences is today’s history.

The same occurred after WW1, thus the Keynes quote. Many thought that the warring countries had learned their lessons and peace would prevail. Instead the twenty interwar years (1919-1939) turned out to be time-out, while the players rearmed to different degrees before play started again in earnest for WW2. There have not been two world wars since 1914, but one, a thirty year one with a longish half-time.

The exercise I am pursuing in will certainly lead to erroneous forecasts but may suggest ways to think about the future.  I do this by addressing three topics, religious terrorism, current day empires or spheres of influence, and the weakening of democratic institutions. The last two will be discussed in future postings.

Personal context

My frame of reference is conditioned by my own experiences, those of my father who served and survived as a junior infantry officer in WW1 including at the 1916 Battle of the Somme, which lasted five months and resulted in over 400,000 casualties, and my paternal grandfather (1824-1899) who was a vicar. The latter was born shortly after the Battle of Waterloo (1812) which ended a lengthy period of English-French hostilities. It was followed by two world wars, when this time the French and English fought on the same side. Italy switched sides. From a distance, my grandfather would have watched the American Civil War of 1861-65, and probably felt they deserved it after behaving as an ungrateful rebellious colony, which then adopted a modified form of Westminster-type governmental institutions.

While there were a few steam locomotives in the early 1800s, the first gasoline powered  automobile did not appear until 1886, the telephone in 1876 and airplanes in 1903. Ships were powered by wind, then wind and steam, then steam alone fired first by coal and then oil.  My childhood books had pictures of sailing ships with steam funnels. Wireless, telephones, television, computers and many medicinal drugs did not exist in 1824, but 100 years or so later were shaping daily lives. Opium was used liberally for medicinal and other reasons.

Political and economic change driven by technology comes fast and often in unpredictable ways. Looking forward, God knows what will happen, and maybe she does, but we do know that what will take place on planet earth is constrained by the existing area of land and sea and the people residing there. These are fairly fixed parameters at least for our grandchildren’s lifetime. Geography, demography and technology affecting economy are viewpoints to keep in mind. How does religion play into this scene?

 

Religious terrorism

How can the current turmoil in the North Africa and the Middle East be viewed today and for the future in the light of past experience? Religious conflict has a long and messy history and the world has never been free of it. I suspect people often turn to religion because they have no other way to account for the nature and workings of the universe, how it came about, how it operates, and what is happening to it. Most find it difficult to comprehend our position in what physicists tell us is an ever expanding universe with black holes. We are uncomfortable in recognising that earth is a planet with ourselves specks on it. The ten year Rosetta journey by satellite to a meteorite is a 2014 reminder of our place in the universe. In this context, we really don’t matter and that’s hard to accept. See our place in the universe at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17jymDn0W6U

Like a drug, religion becomes a handle to grasp for security, but unsettling when there is more than one religion. Each has organizations and followers offering competing explanations and forms of comfort, and in the process engage in conflicts to achieve supremacy. These occur not just between but within religions. Christians compete against Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, but Catholic and Protestant Christians have had murderous fights with each other. They litter battlefields and the pages of history and, for example, account for many of the sea and land battles between England and France.

Today, another such battle rages for Muslims  between Sunni and Shia brands of Islam as well as within each of these brands, with some being more violent than others. Terrorist acts are performed not just on non-Muslims but on other Muslims. Non-Muslims get involved because they reside in places where Muslims predominate such as in Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Up to 1918, these areas were part of the Muslim dominated Ottoman Empire, which became subject to British and French influence and rule at the end of WW1.

As minorities, Muslims live in other parts of the world such as Western Europe and the North America. Travel, migration and communications make it possible to involve these parts of the world in a way which was not possible in former times, or at least not to the same extent. Immigrants and those born in these countries travel to fight in the Middle East, in the same way British, Canadians and others fought in the 1930s Spanish Civil War. Persons have both volunteered to serve in foreign wars, and to avoid fighting in them. Thus some British left the UK to avoid national service after WW2, and some Americans left the US to avoid serving in Vietnam in the 1960s.

Back in time to the eleventh century, Muslims and Christians fought each other in the Crusades, seen by Muslims as Christians encroaching on Muslim territory, and by Christians as Muslims invading Christian lands. Over centuries the situation stabilized and up until WW1 (1914-1918), the Muslim religion prevailed in the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe was predominantly Christian with its protestant and catholic brands, which, as noted, like the warring Muslims had their own internal conflicts.

At the end of WW1, the Middle East was carved up as a result of an agreement developed by a British and a French diplomat, Sykes and Picot, to allow the United Kingdom to administer Iraq and some other parts of the Middle East, and for France to be responsible for lands including Syria and Lebanon. The borders drawn in the region left different nationalities within each of the newly designated countries. Turkey became a separate country where before it had been part of the Ottoman Empire. At the time, the British interest in the region included the Suez Canal which provided a sea route to the Indian subcontinent, the prevention of Russia from having a southern outlet which could disrupt trade with India, and access to the petroleum resources of the region when the British navy had converted from coal to oil. All these factors play some role today, but to a lesser extent because the context has changed. Battles can be fought in the air with unmanned planes, rockets and drones. Naval vessels can be resupplied at sea and boots on the ground may have less of a role to play.

Today the news focuses on ISIS/ISIL and the attempt by certain Muslims to form a Caliphate in lands that are part of Syria and Iraq. Later, no doubt, they would want to extend their territory into Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel and elsewhere.

“A caliphate is the Islamic form of government representing the political unity and leadership of the Muslim world. The political authority of a Caliph as head of state of a Caliphate comes from the fact that he is seen as a successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. (Wikipedia).”

Agreement among Muslims ends there. Sunni and Shia have different ways of appointing a successor; unsurprisingly each tends to favour one of its own.

An ISIS claimant to the Caliphate is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, known by other names but referred to here as Caliph Ibrahim.

“…a spokesman for Islamic State, announced to Muslims worldwide in a commentary titled “The Promise of God” that other organizations would have to acknowledge the supremacy of Caliph Ibrahim or face the wrath of the IS. Caliph Ibrahim declared that the Islamic State would encompass in five years the lands from India to Southern Europe. That would include Mullah Omar’s caliphate in Afghanistan, which has links to Al-Qaeda.

Caliph Ibrahim offers believers a journey back eight centuries to the time of the Abbasids Caliphate when Islam was spreading far afield. It is that lost glory that he is trying to resurrect and impose upon the world. In keeping with the principles of that distant time, Christians and Jews are to be given the opportunity to convert, flee, or to pay a tax and live as second class citizens. All others are to be put to the sword, their property seized, and their wives and daughters violated and forced into slavery.” (Geopolitical Monitor Nov. 26, 2014).

At present this appears to be mainly an intra-religious conflict but one which spills out geographically from the Middle East because of a combination of the following:

  • Muslims born either in the Middle East or outside who sympathise with those living there and choose to support one side or the other.
  • The ability of these outsiders to travel to, supply weapons and money and communicate with those in the Middle East.
  • Backers of the Caliphate eager to engage in a crusade to foreign lands.
  • Acts by Russia and the West to use the Middle East in their rivalry for world influence. At present this looks from the west like Putin versus the rest. He has strong allies within Russia but fewer abroad.

 

Conclusion

The current Middle East conflict, including certain North African countries, is primarily a conflict between Muslims in these areas. In the past, it could be ignored by countries in other parts of the world. This is no longer the case. Like other issues, there are fewer problems which are local. They are increasingly international and are ignored by any country at its peril. Interdependence and globalization are omnibus terms used to describe the current and future state of the world. It requires several disciplines to understand the context of the near future. Four I suggest are geography, demography, politics and economics. All are influenced by evolving technologies.

In trying to understand how the recent past influences the present and may affect the future, I suggest a reading of David Reynolds’ The Long Shadow. While it does not predict the future, it shows how our previous understanding (the conventional wisdom) of the past 100 years has to be re-evaluated with the passage of time. A clearer appreciation of the recent past is a launching pad for looking forward to the world our grandchildren will live in. Two topics for discussion in future postings are 1. Empires and spheres of influence, and 2. The decline of democracy.

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