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Yuval Noah Harari: 2016 and the liberal story

  • 22 December 2016
  • From the section World
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West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall early 11 November 1989 as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall. Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption In 1989, with the end of the Cold War, it seemed that the liberal story had won

2016 has been a momentous year. The UK's Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump confounded expectations while the wars in Syria and Yemen caused more bloodshed. BBC Radio 4's Today programme asked top historians for their assessment of the year.

In the future, 2016 may be remembered as the year in which Westerners lost faith in the liberal story.

It may therefore be remembered as the counterpoint to 1989.

In 1989, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, it seemed that the liberal story had won.

The liberal story says that humankind is inevitably marching towards a global society of free markets and democratic politics.

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Image caption Bill Clinton told the Chinese government that its refusal to liberalise put it "on the wrong side of history"

Those who willingly join the march of history by opening their borders and liberalising their markets and politics will be rewarded with peace and prosperity.

Those who refuse to liberalise and globalise are doomed to failure.

Bill Clinton, for example, confidently told the Chinese government that its refusal to liberalise Chinese politics put it "on the wrong side of history".

In the 1990s and 2000s, the liberal story shaped not only the foreign policy of the United States and its allies, but also the domestic policies of governments across the world, from South Africa to Indonesia.

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Image caption Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his determination to reassert Russian power

However, since the global financial crisis of 2008, people all over the world have become increasingly disillusioned with the liberal story.

It is no longer so clear that the Chinese Communist Party is on the wrong side of history, and authoritarian rulers such as Putin, Erdogan and Netanyahu are taking their countries in distinctly illiberal directions.

The year 2016 - marked by the Brexit vote in Britain and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States - signifies the moment when this tidal wave of disillusionment has reached the liberal heartland of Western Europe and North America.

Whereas a few years ago Americans and Europeans were still trying to liberalise Iraq and Libya at the point of the gun, they now have second thoughts even about American democracy and European identity.

More and more Americans and Europeans are convinced that liberalisation and globalisation are a huge fraud that serves the interests of a tiny elite at the expense of the masses.

Image copyright Press Association
Image caption Could Brexit signify the last chapter of the liberal story?

In the long run, however, 2016 may turn out to be similar to 1968, 1933 and 1914.

On all these previous occasions, Westerners lost faith in the liberal story only to eventually embrace it again.

The people who voted for Hitler and Mussolini eventually built the West German and Italian democracies, and the youngsters who rioted in 1968 eventually went on to become Wall Street traders and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

We probably haven't yet reached the last chapter of the liberal story.


Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli historian and lecturer at the department of history of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He is the author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

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