Was 2016 a historical turning point, or merely a year like many others? No one knows yet. The rioters who stormed the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789, had no idea that they were launching one of history’s great revolutions. Wine and the summer heat, some said, sparked their actions as much as republican ideals.

Stendahl immortalized this inability to grasp the true significance of an event as it occurs in the character of Fabrice in The Charterhouse of Parma. Fabrice fights with all his might against English and Prussian soldiers in the Battle of Waterloo, but he is unaware of the stakes of the struggle. Only afterward does he learn that he was part of a great event, now known as “Waterloo,” which marked the end of an empire and the birth of a new political order in Europe.

If we look back over 2016, we can observe at least three major phenomena: the resurgence of populism, the return of brute force to international relations, and the weakening of democracy. These trends have sent the media scrambling for meaning, but do they really portend our future? Perhaps we’re not looking in the right place. After all, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, was anyone looking for him there other than three wise men?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that 2016 was in fact a populist milestone, with Brexit, the unexpected election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the rise of conservative parties in France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Austria, and Hungary. We should take a closer look at the meaning of the term “populist.” Populists usually define themselves as patriots who want to “take back” control of their destinies. They see themselves as alienated by policies concerning immigration, globalization, and, in Europe, Europeanization (as opposed to national identity). They are against cosmopolitan intrusions, and they position themselves as an authentic people through their devotion to culture, language, and origins. They are united more by their passions, though, than by solutions. Will populists push the international order toward a breakdown, and possible violence? Or will the gulf between populist promises and reality extinguish these enflamed passions? We don’t know yet.

Likewise, we don’t know whether the recourse to brute force will displace the art of diplomatic negotiation in 2017. Without question, the leaders of China, Russia, Turkey, and Syria believe that they have won major victories in 2016 by disregarding international law, human rights, the U.N., and international treaties. But here again, the crucial question—do these trends represent a new order, or a fleeting moment of weakness on the part of Western democracies?—will go unanswered for the time being.

Certainly, 2016 was a bad year for democracies. While Africa had appeared to be on the right path, the continent has moved backward of late, with the commendable exceptions of Nigeria and Ghana. In Zimbabwe, Gambia, and the Congo, dictators are blocking free elections and rejecting the principle of regular changes in administration. The Ibrahim Prize, which rewards heads of state who step down from power in deference to their legal term, was not awarded in 2016.

Around the world, the principles of pluralist democracy, respect for minorities, and the rights of opposition have been weakened. Worse, the West seems indifferent to these regressions. We are accustomed to the fact that the Russians, the Chinese, and the Arabs are subject to tyranny, as if it were their cultural destiny. Against the backdrop of Western silence, Syria is dying under the bombs of Bashar al-Assad. No demonstrations greeted the imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia. The West doesn’t appear to care that the new Egyptian dictator has crushed dissidents with even more cruelty than his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. Only Tunisia seems determined to maintain a state of law inherited from the Arab Spring.

The final example of the progress of cynicism in 2016 is Myanmar (Burma). Since the admirable, long-detained Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has taken power, she has allowed her army to crush the Rohingya minority because they are Muslims and not authentic Burmese. All those who fought to free Suu Kyi have received little for their pains, and have chosen the cowardly option of staying silent.

Will 2017 contradict or confirm these trends? Developments in the United States and France will be telling. Will Donald Trump deliver on what he promised—and if he does, what will be the results? If he fails to do so, how will his supporters react? In France, will the rise of populism be contained by the presidential elections next spring? If so, Europe will be saved, but if not, the entire continent could be plunged into brutality reminiscent of the 1930s. But now I am prophesying, which is both erroneous and vain. Stendhal’s Fabrice knew that he did not know, and that is a sign of wisdom for us to emulate in the year ahead.

Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images


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