SOCIETY

Chances of civil unrest in the US ‘pretty slim,’ says Yale historian Odd Arne Westad

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“Of course Greece is a huge success story,” Odd Arne Westad, Elihu Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale University, tells Kathimerini while speaking about the course of the independent Greek state.

The Norwegian historian is renowned for his fresh take on the Cold War. He believes that the period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the United States and their respective allies was felt in every corner of the world and had its roots in the Industrial Revolution; he also argues that it is ongoing today.

On Tuesday, November 2, he and his friend Evanthis Hatzivassiliou, professor of contemporary history at the University of Athens, will participate in a digital conference organized by the Kyklos Ideon (ekyklos) think tank titled “Laboratory Greece: Institutions and Situations Tested in Greece to Date,” which starts at 6 p.m.

This interview, however, focuses primarily on the main topic in the international news headlines today, namely the US presidential election.

Do you think the US election will define the US and the world of 2030?

It’s going to be a defining election. It’s a choice between two very different alternatives. I think there’s definitely going to be a tremendous difference in style if Joe Biden wins this election. In a broader sense, it would be easier for Europe to deal with Biden than it has been to deal with the Trump administration. Biden will be more oriented towards cooperation. This has something to do with personnel. I mean the most likely people to come in and handle European affairs under a Biden administration are well-known figures to many European policymakers. But some of the broader issues that now divide Europe and the United States and the United States and East Asia will remain.

What issues?

First, the emphasis on competition in terms of trade and technology. Second, the unwillingness on the American side to take responsibility for the whole system, as it was during the Cold War and immediately after that. I don’t think these will change much. Also, a Biden administration is going to push at least as strongly as the Trump administration has towards increasing Europe’s contribution to defense expenditure.

How would a President Biden handle Turkey?

A Biden administration will appreciate the opportunities that are there for building some kind of a cooperation. On the other hand, especially among some of the younger people in his foreign policy team who do not have a background in matters of NATO cooperation, there is more of a negative attitude. For younger Democrats with an interest in foreign affairs, Turkey is seen as increasingly autocratic, increasingly out of line with US foreign policy with regard to the Middle East. So there is a bit of a generational divide.

Can Greece be confident that the United States under Biden would be more supportive against the Turkish aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean?

It will be very interesting to see, if there is a change of administration, how Turkey reacts to that. I think my own personal view is that if Turkey more or less persists in the same direction as it has for the past two years of the Trump administration, then we will see very significant policy differences in US policy response. But if there are promises from the Turkish side – for instance with regard to Russia and its weapon systems like the S-400 – then the US-Turkey relationship will continue to be a functioning one. The relationship between the US, Greece and Turkey is a very complicated triangular one.

Many believe it is almost certain that Trump will dispute the result if he loses the vote.

It all depends on how close it gets. If it is a very close election, it could take a very long time until it is resolved. It could even go to the Supreme Court, as it did in 2000 between Al Gore and G.W. Bush. But if there is a clear direction one way or the other, then my feeling is that the next president will be decided pretty close to the evening of the election.

Do you see any possibility of civil unrest in a country where citizens are so heavily armed?

I’m worried about that – particularly if there is a protracted battle in the courts – say seven weeks after the election. America is far more divided than it was in 2000. However, I think the chances of it happening on a broad scale are pretty slim.

Are we experiencing the end of America’s dominance of the world or is the talk of an American decline greatly exaggerated?

There is an impression that the US is in chaos while China is projecting the image of having a much more stable, elite-based hierarchical system that actually delivers results. But if you conclude that this is really a decline for the US, then you also have to see potential challengers on an international scale. China is undoubtedly a rising great power, but it will take some time before it’s able even to challenge the US on the international scale.

How about democracy? The concept of democracy is a very slow process of governance. But in today’s world technology has accelerated historical time. So, are we observing the twilight of democracy as a system of governing the world?

This is a really good question. If we see historical parallels starting from ancient Athens, we will conclude that one very significant part in the democratic collapse is that people within the system lose faith in it. It’s not just pressure from the outside; it’s how people themselves within each democracy deal with it. I would add a curious thing, that the amount of information that is now easily available to each individual citizen has not led to more thoughtful and broader political engagement; it has led to very strong partisanship. There is not much middle ground. This reminds me very much of the democratic collapses in the past: the inability to find middle ground, the inability to work together particularly in constitutional terms, it’s just dangerous for democracy.

Next year we will celebrate the bicentennial of the beginning of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans. Do you think the 200-year-old Greek state is a success story?

I think Greece is a success story. I think one has again to take the longest historical view. We can just think where Greece was when the origin of the modern Greek nation state came out. Back then it would be very hard to foresee the kind of success that Greece could end up being. It is quite a remarkable journey. It’s not just the persistence of the Greek state, that it was able to survive during all of this period, but also how it was able to find a degree of integration with the rest of Europe. So, overall, I think that Greece in the past 200 years is a tremendous success story.