At this point in the last century, a generation horrified by the unprecedented slaughter of the First World War was about to descend into a haze of Champagne, dissolution and Parisian ennui. But progress and change were coming fast, too.
Most women in Canada could vote by 1919, and the battle for universal suffrage had been under way for years and would continue. The notion of an objective press – of newspapers that weren’t partisan but dealt in facts – was becoming commonplace. Old monarchies in Europe were ceding to the power of an idea once thought radical: liberal democracy. Canada, barely 50 years old, was taking its place in the world as a model of responsible government.
Soon would come the Great Depression and the massive government efforts, such as the New Deal in the United States, to put people back to work and provide them with basic social security. Then came the Second World War and the global fight against fascism. The United Nations was born from that cataclysm; within three years it had enshrined the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
After that came a global postwar economic boom, fights for civil rights, the women’s movement and, in Europe, the first efforts to unite the continent in a common market designed to put its warring ways in the past forever. North American free trade would follow within three decades.
And then the 2010s arrived, and everything seemed to grind into reverse.
It’s simplistic to think that a critical shift in our world happened suddenly, of course. But between the Brexit vote in 2016 and the nativist and isolationist rhetoric of Donald Trump, who beat the odds to be elected U.S. President the same year, the past 10 years have felt more like devolution than evolution.
Ten years ago, the postwar international order was still accepted as the foundation on which a better, more peaceful world would be built. Barack Obama, a man who embodied the advances of the previous decades and had the stately demeanour associated with high office, was President of the United States. Among other projects, his government was negotiating a free-trade deal in the Pacific region that included countries from Vietnam to Chile and Malaysia to Canada.
Today, free trade is under fire from politicians and their followers in countries on both sides of the Atlantic. Mr. Trump killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, forced the renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement and put tariffs on the steel and aluminum produced by stalwart allies, Canada included.
In Britain, voters have twice returned a government dedicated to leaving the European Union. Brexit, unthinkable before the 2016 referendum, is a fait accompli.
The World Trade Organization is meanwhile defunct as a dispute-resolution body, because of the Trump administration’s refusal to name new judges to its appeals body.
NATO, the postwar alliance created to keep the Soviet Union in check, has been rocked by Mr. Trump’s mockery of the organization and his closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In tandem with the retreat from economic integration has come a rise in populism in many countries, including the U.S. and Britain, as well as Italy, France, Poland and Germany. Immigrants and refugees are targeted as the cause of economic ills, rather than being welcomed and integrated. In the U.S. and Germany especially, a rise in far-right politics has evoked the racist nightmares of the past.
In China, the regime of Xi Jinping has created a surveillance state so omnipresent and repressive that it obviates the need for George Orwell’s satirical imagination. In Turkey, journalists have been jailed for the crime of interviewing people opposed to the ever-more-despotic regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
And, because of Mr. Trump, any journalism that isn’t flattering is “fake news,” critical opinion has been renamed “bias” and the idea of an objective and free press is on the ropes.
These were not things that dominated the conversation at the beginning of the decade. The question is: Is this is a blip, or are we entering a different, darker era?
We’ll know more in 10 years. But one thing is certain: If those who believe in the postwar, liberal order don’t fight for it now, they might not get another chance.