Remembering other times of trouble and concern

Mass popular demonstrations in Europe; war in the Middle East; an external shock to the Western system; global recession; transatlantic tensions over US policy; a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow; renewal of extremist violence; new environmental concerns; saber-rattling on the Indian subcontinent and across the Aegean; widespread protests against the power of multinational corporations; a deep sense of unease over the state of the world in general. How familiar it all sounds now. Yet these elements, part of our daily news diet in 2002, also characterized the international situation three decades ago, in the early and mid-1970s. So much has changed since then; the old bipolar world structure has disappeared, for one thing. And yet, the highly unusual times in which we are living may be less unique than we think. According to the old cliche, misery loves company; so, too, in troubled times do people tend to cast their mental nets more widely than usual to gain a sense of perspective by searching for parallels to their own time. An immediate response by many after the horrific events of September 11, in an effort to comprehend the apparently incomprehensible, was to look for similar red-letter dates in the past. December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor day, was frequently mentioned as the nearest parallel, in modern times, to the destruction of the World Trade Center and the plunging of the world into a new, less innocent, more dangerous era. The globalization phenomenon of the last few years, to use another example, has been likened by some observers to the decades prior to 1914 and World War I, when most of the world’s major economies were closely linked within the gold standard and one country, then Great Britain, bestrode the world as the predominant power with worldwide reach. Globalization is new – until you realize that we’ve seen a lot of it before. Useful markers Decades are especially useful marking points, because they are easily measurable and meaningful in terms of the normal human lifespan. They sometimes take on lives of their own, or are attributed characteristics post-fact by instant historians. Some, like the «Gay Nineties» and the «Roaring Twenties,» develop attaching modifiers and become quasi-mythical eras. Others get stamped on the imagination and stand apart as exceptions: The 1960s are so evocative because they were both colorful and controversial. The 1950s evoke an era of social blandness, political conformity and seeming innocence. The 1980s left a legacy (at least in the popular mind) of go-go capitalism, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; the 1990s were post-Cold War years of unprecedented American influence, globalization, and the computer revolution. History, of course, doesn’t always follow the calendar; for the Western world, the 1920s conveniently ended with the Wall Street crash of October 1929 and the 1980s with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, but others (the 1940s offering a good example) had no real ending-point to pinpoint. The 1970s are harder to characterize or categorize because of their complexity, economic and political cross-currents, and lack of clarity, as well as the rapid and unsettling change they brought about. For some countries, namely Spain, Portugal and Greece, they were critical years, ushering in a renewal of democracy with the fall of dictatorships. But elsewhere, few remember the decade with great fondness. It was a time of neither free-spirited idealism like the 1960s nor of rapid economic advance, like the 1980s. Indeed, they are often disparaged as colorless, offering up neither inspiring leaders nor policy leaps forward. The 1960s brought us the Beatles; the 1970s brought us disco. But it is precisely their inconclusiveness and «muddling through» character that makes the 1970s a useful, sometimes disturbing but also salutary, rough parallel with the present. Will the first decade of the 21st century bear similarities with that awkward time? Already there are a number of parallels peeking through the cracks of modern history. Just desserts One of the characteristics of the 1970s with echoes nowadays is that the decade ended a longish period of supposed Western self-sufficiency, and ushered in a much more complicated international environment. The simple truths espoused so freely, and with such conviction, in the 1960s proved to be not so simple after all. One solution creates other problems; this inversion of Hegelian logic was one of the philosophical lessons deriving from that time. The heroes of the era were cut down either by their own excesses (the deaths of rock icons like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison) or by the violence of others (the killings of Martin Luther King and the two Kennedys). Many critics, conservatives and liberals alike, have regarded the 1970s as a time of sober reckoning for the West. Defense of freedom led to the tragedy of Vietnam; ambitious social programs contributed toward the long 1970s recession; the powerful presidency led to the disaster of Watergate. «You reap what you sow» seems to sum up the decade as much as any single phrase. Some see the comeuppance of the West, and specifically the USA, as a prevailing theme today. The 1970s were a time of European frustration with American leadership that was perceived as weakened and morally compromised because of the twin, power-sapping circumstances of Vietnam and Watergate. The presidencies of Gerald Ford (1974-77) and Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) seemed to typify the post-Watergate shakeout and (in Carter’s case) moral if not political renewal, with Carter’s emphasis on human rights rather than traditional realpolitik concerns. The continental perception of weakness in Washington, and frustration over Carter’s vacillations on important questions of trade and armaments, led to a European counterthrust as French President Giscard d’Estaing and German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt – both in office from 1974 – began the meetings that became the G-7 (now G-8) world summits. The European joint initiative, strengthened by an enlarged EU from 1973, was part of an effort to counteract what they perceived as a lack of understanding in Washington of the subtleties and complexities of the global situation. The challenges today are indirect rather than direct, and the relationship possibly more uneven than before, but the disquiet is again palpable. The early 1970s proved decisive for the postwar international economy as well. The relentless economic expansion of the 1950s and 1960s slid into a pernicious form of economic stagnation combined with inflation in many parts of the world. The precipitating factor was an economic and political shock emanating from the Middle East – namely the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the resulting Arab oil boycott of Western states supporting Israel – which led to a quadrupling of the price of crude oil on world markets and made OPEC a household acronym that inspired fear in the West. The sudden power of Arab oil sheikhs suggested a reversal of the usual chain of causation; rather than the West calling the terms, it was an organization of so-called Third World countries with oil reserves that seemed, willfully, to be undermining the world economy. It was an unnerving time in the West; long lines formed to buy gasoline, interest rates were sky-high, and new and unknown forces had arisen to upset the long-established status quo. The Nixon administration in 1971 had removed the gold standard and floated the dollar on world markets. The world was becoming more atomized and more complex. And domestically in Europe, the 1970s brought multiple challenges to the status quo. The rise of extremism and terrorist groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang was the ultimate affront to democratic structures themselves. But even within normal electoral politics, the established parties were challenged by fringe groups on the old and new left and right; Green parties emerged and anti-immigration began, for the first time, to rear its head as a popular political force. Much of this can be discerned today as well. History may throw up inexact parallels, but it can provide markers against which to measure, and cautionary lessons for what to avoid. The author also noted that the settlers have gained significant influence in the territories, having joined forces with political parties that support the division.