200,000 refugees passed through Austria in September alone. About half a million desperate refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have arrived in Greece since 2015 began (those, that is, who don't die at sea), and the numbers are only expected to rise. Seven hundred children a day have been claiming asylum somewhere in Europe (190,000 between January and September 2015). And at least three million refugees and migrants from the planet's war and desperation zones are expected to head for Europe in 2016.
Under the circumstances, I'm sure it won't surprise you that, once the first upbeat stories about welcoming European crowds had died down, the truncheons and water cannons came out in some parts of the continent and the walls began to go up. Nor, I'm sure, will you be shocked to learn that an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim fervor is now gripping parts of Europe, while far-right parties are, not coincidentally, on the rise. This is true in France, where Marine Le Pen's virulently anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-European-Union National Front is expected to make significant gains in local elections this winter (and Le Pen herself is leading early opinion polls in the race for the presidency), while in "tolerant" Sweden a far-right party with neo-Nazi ties is garnering more than 25% of the prospective vote in opinion polls. In Poland, an extreme party wielding anti-refugee rhetoric just swept into power. And so it goes across much of Europe these days.
All of this (and more) represents a stunning development that could, sooner or later, reverse the increasingly integrated nature of Europe, raise walls and barriers across the continent, and irreversibly fracture the European Union, while increasing nationalistic fervor and god knows what else. In the United States, in a somewhat more muted way, you can see similar developments in what's being talked about here as an "outsider" election, but is, in fact, significantly focused on keeping outsiders separated from insiders. (Just Google Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and immigrants, and you'll see what I mean.) Isn't it strange how we always speak of the "tribal" when it comes to Africa or the backlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan, but never when it comes to our world? And yet, if these aren't, broadly speaking, "tribal" responses, what are?
Should the flood of desperate refugees from the failed or failing states of the Greater Middle East sooner or later alter the configuration and politics of Europe, then perhaps we will finally be able to write a true obituary for the invasion of Iraq that George W. Bush & Co. launched with such blind confidence. After all, how many single acts in historical memory, other than perhaps the assassination of an archduke in 1914, have potentially altered the political configuration of such vast stretches of the planet in more radical and devastating ways?
Of course, the future remains eternally unknown and invariably holds its surprises. Fortunately for TomDispatch readers, however, it will prove far less unknown because among our far-flung authors we happen to have one, John Feffer, with the ability to channel a geo-paleontologist who's had some experience with the world 35 years from now and so, unlike the rest of us, can look back on our planetary fate from what turns out to be a distinctly dystopian future. Tom
The View from 2050
By John Feffer
Let me start with a confession. I'm old-fashioned and I have an old-fashioned profession. I'm a geo-paleontologist. That means I dig around in archives to exhume the extinct: all the empires and federations and territorial unions that have passed into history. I practically created the profession of geo-paleontology as a young scholar in 2020. (We used to joke that we were the only historians with true 2020 hindsight). Now, my profession is becoming as extinct as its subject matter.
Today, in 2050, fewer and fewer people can recall what it was like to live among those leviathans. Back in my youth, we imagined that lumbering dinosaurs like Russia and China and the European Union would endure regardless of the global convulsions taking place around them. Of course, at that time, our United States still functioned as its name suggests rather than as a motley collection of regional fragments that today fight over a shrinking resource base.
Empires, like adolescents, think they'll live forever. In geopolitics, as in biology, expiration dates are never visible. When death comes, it's always a shock.
Consider the clash of the titans in World War I. Four enormous empires -- the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and German -- went into that conflict imagining that victory would give them not just a new lease on life, but possibly even more territory to call their own. And all four came crashing down. The war was horrific enough, but the aftershocks just kept piling up the bodies. The flu epidemic of 1918-1919 alone -- which soldiers unwittingly transported from the trenches to their homelands -- wiped out at least 50 million people worldwide.
When dinosaurs collapse, they crush all manner of smaller creatures beneath them. No one today remembers the death throes of the last of the colonial empires in the mid-twentieth century with their staggering population transfers, fierce insurgencies, and endless proxy wars -- even if the infant states that emerged from those bloody afterbirths gained at least a measure of independence.
My own specialty as a geo-paleontologist has been the post-1989 period. The break-up of the Soviet Union heralded the last phase of decolonization. So, too, did the redrawing of boundaries that took place in parts of Asia and Africa from the 1990s into the twenty-first century, producing new states like East Timor, Eritrea, South Sudan. The break-up of the Middle East, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the "Arab Spring," followed a similar, if far more chaotic and bloody pattern, though religious extremism more than nationalist sentiment tore apart the multiethnic countries of the region.
Even in this inhospitable environment, the future still seemed to belong to the dinosaurs. Despite setbacks, the U.S. continued to loom over the rest of the planet as the "sole superpower," with its military in constant intervention mode. China was on the rise. Russia seemed bent on reconstituting the old Soviet Union. The need to compete on an increasingly interconnected planet contributed to what seemed like a trend: pushing countries together to create economies of scale. The European Union (EU) deepened its integration and expanded its membership. Nations of very different backgrounds formed economic pacts like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Even countries without any shared borders contemplated such joint enterprises, like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and, later, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (the "BRICS" nations).
As everyone now knows, however, this spirit of integration would, in the end, go down to defeat as the bloodlands of the twentieth century gave way to the splinterlands of the twenty-first. The sense of disintegration and disunity that settled over our world came at precisely the wrong moment. To combat a host of collective problems, we needed more unity, not less. As we are all learning the hard way, a planet divided against itself will not long stand.
The Wrath of Nations