Why history is back, with a vengeance

In her 2016 Massey Lectures, Jennifer Welsh makes the case for a bolder solution to mass flight
A golfer hits a tee shot as African migrants sit atop a border fence during an attempt to cross into Spanish territories between Morocco and Spain’s north African enclave of Melilla October 22, 2014. Around 400 migrants attempted to cross the border into Spain, according to local media. Picture taken October 22, 2014. (Jose Palazon/Reuters)
Portrait of Jennifer Welsh. (Photograph by Martina Melchionno)
Jennifer Welsh. (Photograph by Martina Melchionno)

A quarter-century ago, when Jennifer Welsh was a young grad student, the United States was the last superpower standing. Francis Fukuyama was proclaiming the end of history, the world was a different and, for many, more hopeful place. Welsh, a 50-year-old Regina-born Metis, former adviser to the UN secretary-general and currently professor of international relations in Florence and Oxford, spent the summer of 1992 in newly post-Communist Prague, teaching the workings of Western liberalism in an exhilarating atmosphere. She thought that Fukuyama, on the whole, had it right.

Very few believe that now, including Welsh, who will deliver her sober state-of-the-world assessment in the 2016 Massey Lectures, which will be broadcast on CBC and collected in The Return of History: Conflict, Migration and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century. Fukuyama “was right,” Welsh says wryly in an interview, “that Westerners would sink into a consumerist complacency.” But the American political commentator’s central claim, that the end of the Cold War meant the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” she says, “has hit more than a bump in the road.”

Democracy does seem locked in place in the West and other advanced economies, even if democratic states are not as liberal or as confident as they once were, says Welsh, but in many places the situation is far more dire. Her first lecture, bearing the book’s overall title, traces the path from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the present. “I’m an international relations specialist, and someone who came of age at the end of the Cold War, so the first thing I was bound to look at was the geopolitical situation.” Crumbling Middle Eastern states (Syria most notably), wars fought with calculated savagery, an escalating refugee crisis and Russian authoritarianism and expansionism all mean “history is back, with a vengeance.”

Related: A new way of looking at refugees is needed

Welsh—whose 2013 to 2016 stint at the UN was as an adviser on its Responsibility to Protect policy, a commitment adopted by all member states in 2005 to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity—devotes a lecture to “The return of barbarism.” There were 100,000 conflict deaths in 2014, the highest in 20 years, she notes, and the willingness to inflict violence on civilians is approaching Second World War levels. There are more bombings in civilian areas, more attacks on schools, hospitals, and humanitarian convoys, and, in the murderous Syrian conflict, chemical weapons directed at civilians. “We are slipping in our standards,” Welsh says, “meek in our responses.”

A weary and eyes-averted West does not want to be involved, or already is, in ways it doesn’t want to broadcast—often backing fighters indifferent to civilian suffering. But to let the “ethic of restraint” lapse, Welsh argues, is to allow the logic of military necessity—the Trump-like argument that torture is justified by results—to overcome our highest ideals: “We should have no illusions about what could follow.”

“The return of the Cold War” tackles the West’s new and disconcerting relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “It’s all back,” says Welsh, “the military rivalry, the economic blackmail, the espionage, the domination of neighbours, plus the new cyberwarfare.” The stand-off may be more a matter of traditional geopolitical power politics than ideological Cold War—it does allow for episodes of co-operation, like the recent Syrian ceasefire—but that only adds to the rivalry’s unsettling nature. Russia has democratic trappings and is, in its own way, as capitalist as the West, so right-wing Western politicians, from Marine Le Pen of France to Donald Trump, can openly express admiration for Putin. Russia’s espousal of what it calls “sovereign democracy”—anti-globalist and anti-outsider, hostile to minority and individual rights—resonates, says Welsh, with increasing nationalism and xenophobia in the West.

Nowhere is that tide rising higher than in the democratic world’s response to the migrant and refugee crisis sweeping the world. From 2011 to 2015, the number of forcibly displaced people rose from 42.5 to 65.3 million, 12 million of them in 2015 alone—24 individuals fleeing their homes every minute. One in 113 human beings is currently a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. But numbers, even numbers that hark back to postwar Europe’s crisis and the 1950s era when the UN’s High Commission for Refugees was established to deal with a “temporary” problem, is not the reason Welsh says today’s situation is “eerily reminiscent” of the mid-20th century. Our “relationship with refugees” invokes more the 1930s, when Jews fleeing Nazis struggled to find safe haven, than the late 1940s and 1950s.

A golfer hits a tee shot as African migrants sit atop a border fence during an attempt to cross into Spanish territories between Morocco and Spain's north African enclave of Melilla October 22, 2014. Around 400 migrants attempted to cross the border into Spain, according to local media. Picture taken October 22, 2014. (Jose Palazon/Reuters)
A golfer hits a tee shot as African migrants sit atop a border fence during an attempt to cross into Spanish territories between Morocco and Spain’s north African enclave of Melilla October 22, 2014. Around 400 migrants attempted to cross the border into Spain, according to local media. Picture taken October 22, 2014. (Jose Palazon/Reuters)

In January, Denmark—celebrated for its protection of its Jewish population during the Second World War—began allowing police to search refugees and seize their assets to pay for their care. Hungary has erected a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia, while Britain is planning a four-metre-high wall to prevent migrants in Calais, France, from climbing aboard U.K.-bound transport. The continent that tore down the Berlin Wall in 1989 is now the continent that raises new walls. (It may yet be joined by North America.) Strong political pressure has led to what Welsh calls the “securitization” of refugees and migrants, as most Western governments move from welcoming them to efforts “to keep them at bay.” Her lecture stresses the need for innovative thinking in democratic nations if we are not to fail one of humanitarian law’s most basic obligations.

As her lectures evolved, Welsh came to focus less on geopolitics and more on “the worrying trends” within the West. They too bring back history: “To really look at us is to see how recent the triumph of Western democracy was, how wobbly we were in the 1930s.” So her last lecture is on the topic. “I’ve come to think the issue that matters most is the rising inequality in the West.”

Less prescriptive here than she is in areas relating to her professional expertise, Welsh mounts a forceful moral argument. Our level of inequality “is eroding the very idea of meritocracy and our sense of fairness, which is what holds us together.” Without it, we are more distrustful of governments, fellow citizens and, especially, outsiders, more inclined to retreat and seal the borders in the face of international challenges. It’s why Welsh so often references George Kennan, the American diplomat famous for advocating the containment of the Soviet Union, but whom Welsh also admires for his clear-eyed view of Western weaknesses. “We will lose this struggle,” she says, echoing Kennan, “if we don’t fix the divides in our own society.”

In order to respond more effectively and more humanely to 21st-century mass flight, Western democracies need to become bolder and more creative about fulfilling their duty to protect. This requires three ingredients: policy innovation, to respond to the nature of contemporary migration; a shift in mindset from viewing refugees as a cost to appreciating how they can contribute their talents and skills; and a reactivation of our moral consideration for those seeking a better life.

As a first step, governments could more actively explore alternatives to both traditional naturalization policies and organized resettlement schemes. One option is to offer special “humanitarian” visas to refugees in transit countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. These have the double benefit of improving the safe passage of refugees by helping them avoid resorting to smugglers or embarking on a perilous journey, as well as the security of destination countries by checking traveller identities before they reach Western countries. Another option is to offer forms of temporary protection to refugees, while leaving open the possibility of repatriation to their place of origin.

Governments could also explore the idea of giving resettled refugees a kind of dual status: the right to re-establish themselves in their home countries while also retaining their right of residence in the country of asylum. “Revolving” or “part-time” refugees may be more likely to take up voluntary return options if the risks of return are managed and if there are incentives to contribute to the rebuilding of their country of origin. These transnational solutions have been pursued by millions of people without formal assistance programs; many more might opt for them if they were properly supported by asylum countries and the broader international community.

Exclusive Excerpt from from the 2016 CBC Massey Lectures, The Return of History:

In order to “change the script” on mass flight, the citizens of Western liberal democracies need to recognize, in the words of the Turkish-American philosopher Seyla Benhabib, that “ ‘the other’ is not elsewhere.” She is right at our borders, asking to come in, or is already trying to make a life among us.

Three particular shifts in mindset are needed. The first requires us to revisit the long-standing debate within liberal democracies about how the rights and interests of those who are members of our political community should be weighed against the interests of those who are outside it. In political theory, this debate is broadly between communitarians and cosmopolitans. Communitarians believe that our primary obligations are toward others within our national society and that as democratic communities we have the right to collectively regulate who comes in and who goes out. Cosmopolitan liberals, by contrast, emphasize the rights of individuals, wherever they may reside. They assert that borders are morally irrelevant and that denying refugees political membership and keeping them stateless constitutes a violation of human rights. A commitment to liberal principles of equality and freedom thus demands a policy of open borders.

One way of resolving this debate is to weigh the obligation to aid refugees against the costs to the receiving society. But what exactly count as reasonable or unreasonable costs? On one end of the spectrum is the American ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin, who used the metaphor of “lifeboat ethics” to emphasize the limited capacity of rich and developed countries (the “lifeboats”) to take in people who are metaphorically swimming in the surrounding waters. Governments of the West have a moral duty not to let in more people if it means surpassing the limits of what the country can reasonably sustain.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who argues that unless the cost to our quality of life is greater than the gain to theirs, there are no reasonable moral grounds to exclude those in need. Singer famously used the example of coming across a child in a shallow pond whose life can be saved at the cost of ruining an expensive pair of shoes: choosing to let the child drown is morally analogous to refusing to let in refugees by pointing at the economic costs of hosting them.

These arguments, and the many positions in between, are mirrored in today’s debate about refugee policy. But our notion of “costs” needs to be re-evaluated in a world where the interests and values of an increasing number of people are intertwined, and where the very real prospect of population decline in many Western liberal democracies calls for greater openness toward refugees and asylum seekers.

The second shift is to rethink how we see the 21st-century refugee. Too often the Western public views statelessness, and migration, as the result of failure. And we pity. But if our current world is one in which one in every hundred people is displaced, how can it be “their fault” or “someone else’s problem”? As the Russian-American wartime reporter and author Anna Badkhen tells us, failure today “is of a planetary scale. It belongs to all of us.” And those who embark on the other side of the Mediterranean, hoping to reach “us,” are closer than they seem. Standing on the southern shore of Sicily in the summer of 2015, I might not have (quite) seen them, but I could certainly feel them—especially the souls of those lying at the bottom of the sea in front of me.

In reimagining the refugee, we also need to have the courage to consider whether the legal definition, designed for the post–Second World War period, is still fit for today’s purpose. Back then, refugee status was limited to individuals who could prove they had a “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” It had a strong political dimension. But the drivers of displacement today are not always captured by this definition. It excludes those fleeing generalized violence, environmental change, food insecurity, or extreme economic deprivation. Are “survival migrants,” as one analyst has called them, any less deserving of protection?

The third and related shift is to get out of our national straitjackets and recognize that we are all in this together. As long as war and persecution are part of the human condition—and history suggests this will be so—we are all ultimately at risk of being forced “on the move.” If faced with the kind of instability and fear that daily haunts citizens of Syria, many of us would likely resort to their strategies for survival. Part of what was so haunting about the pictures of Alan Kurdi was that he could have been the child of any one of us.

The recognition of our collective vulnerability, and responsibility, also suggests that we should worry as much about the sin of omission—failing to play our part in sharing the burden of migration—as we should about the sin of commission: turning asylum seekers away at the border. The magnitude, duration, and ongoing impact of 21st-century mass flight calls for a global response—one that acknowledges that the responsibility for refugee protection and settlement cannot continue to be allocated on the basis of proximity or the “first safe country” where a refugee lands. Asylum is a global public good from which all countries, and all individuals, benefit.

The duty to provide asylum is as old as history itself. So too is the phenomenon of mass flight. But liberal democracies have a particularly intimate relationship with migrants and refugees: our response to episodes of political persecution and armed conflict outside our borders has helped to define who we are. Today we face a crisis of forced displacement on a scale never seen before.

Yet our political systems are failing to meet the challenge, and narratives of fear crowd out humanitarian obligations. As Western governments continually fail to exercise their collective responsibilities, the liberal democratic model is increasingly tarnished.

Excerpt from the 2016 CBC Massey Lectures, The Return of History. Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Welsh and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Permission granted by House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher.