OPINION

The turbulent 21st century

The turbulent 21st century

It’s been one crisis after another for the last 20 years. Greece has been at the center of some, and battered by the tidal-wave aftershocks of others. The 21st century began with the attack on the Twin Towers. The West awoke to the asymmetric threat of radical Islam, a threat it would find itself confronting at home (UK, Spain, France) on a number of occasions. Its handling is a complex challenge which drives the new politics – and feeds the far-right.

In 2003, George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which France and Germany opposed, produced a new reality. The dissolution of a state, even one that had formerly been ruled by an appalling dictator, gave birth to the monster that is the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). It also undermined the moral capital of the United States and the West, the authority of the United Nations, and international law. Then 2008 saw the outbreak of a ferocious financial crisis, the worst since 1929. The international community was forced to address the gaps in the regulation of financial markets, and extreme income inequalities became a key issue for discussion, even in the chalets at Davos.

Between 2010 and 2015, Greece found itself at the epicenter of the euro crisis. Our economic woes gave populism a huge boost, but the crisis ended with populism’s defeat. Greek democracy had woken up to the need for fiscal responsibility and proven resilient, with a more dependable and pro-European political system. The European Union also learned a lesson or two. In 2015, the refugee crisis tested the limits of Europe’s open societies and European solidarity, putting Greece back in the spotlight. The migration crisis fed into populist nationalism, which struck a double blow to Europe in 2016: Brexit and Donald Trump. Faced with complex societal problems, vulgar nativism and the search for scapegoats has proven to be an easy sell.

In 2020, the pandemic provided Europe with the crisis it needed, accelerating fiscal integration and shoring up public health, the digital transition, and Greece’s convergence with the EU average. At the same time, uncontrollable wildfires showed just how catastrophic the impacts of climate change have become. The green transition was prioritized as the leading paradigm, with the EU emerging as a global pacesetter. Gradual social developments (#MeToo, minorities) served to remind us that Europe remains that prosperous part of the planet where people have the luxury of discussing quality of life and the extension of individual and social rights.

The shock of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken Europe out of its complacency, turning the clock back to the Cold War and beyond, reviving images reminiscent of 1939. Europe has been forced to take its collective defense seriously, and the West is regrouping as a geopolitical actor.

Europe has improved its capacity to be shocked by barbarism, but not to prevent it

What imprint have these successive crises left behind? What conclusions can we draw from the eventful 21st century thus far? First, that technology has changed, but the challenges facing humankind are not qualitatively different than they were in the past: economic crises, refugee waves, wars, terrorism, pandemics. Second, while our political and diplomatic tools are sophisticated, humanity’s capacity for self-destruction (and for wreaking destruction on others) remains indomitable.

Third, as liberal societies become more demanding and bolster their rights, their enemies have begun to regroup and fight back. Europe has improved its capacity to be shocked by barbarism, but not to prevent it. Fourth, while the challenges (pandemics, financial crises, terrorism) are transnational in nature, the efforts made to coordinate a multilateral response remain incomplete and insufficient. Nationalisms and power asymmetries hinder collective responses. Fifth, while progress within democracies does build a democratic acquis, its trajectory is not linear. After Bush, Barack Obama, after Obama, Trump.

And what of us? A review of the 21st century thus far finds us on the right side of history, though sometimes despite, rather than because of, public opinion. Only 70% of Greeks polled are opposed to Putin’s invasion, the lowest percentage in Europe, placing us at the EU’s pro-Russian extreme. But even that is progress for a society in which Putin was more popular than Obama in 2016. That said, the majority have a realistic grasp both of the need to prioritize security and the importance of the country’s main alliances (EU, NATO). At the same time, 40 years of osmosis within the EU is (slowly) leading to a convergence of values. The tectonic plates are moving in the right direction.


George Pagoulatos is a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business, visiting professor at the College of Europe, and director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).