The 1930s and the 2020s are almost 100 years apart, yet it is worthwhile to briefly consider both similarities and differences in terms of their political, economic, social, and international relationships. The 1930s were an especially difficult time with multiple challenges and, to all appearances, so is ours. The biggest differences between then and now are undoubtedly: (1) the population explosion, and (2) accelerating climate change coupled with the loss of biodiversity – neither had started in the 1930s.
It is commonly said that history repeats itself, but this might not be the case for a very simple reason: Technological change via globalization has reached and changed the lives of many more people than ever before – multiple times the number compared to the 1930s – and this has changed the equation. Social dynamics are different today.
The end of World War I resulted in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which was essentially an agreement to divide the spoils among the victors and create debt obligations and loss of territory for the losers. Perhaps one of the bizarre quirks of history is how historians (and the general public) managed, in the heady Roaring 20s, to forget the Spanish flu tragedy that killed some 50 million people around the world in just a couple of years, 1919-1920 – more than World War I itself.
The 1929 Great Depression which soon followed, created fertile soil for totalitarian regimes such as those already existing, namely the Soviet Union (1917), Italy (1922), and then Germany (1933). Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, and Adolph Hitler effectively used propaganda to silence, imprison, or murder opposition and used fear tactics to attack minorities.
Japan’s further expanded militarization in the 1930s, driven by notions of empire and the need for reliable resources, was the Asian counterpart to autocratic rulers in Europe. These became the “Axis” countries, which led to the creation of an opposing alliance and the latter’s ultimate victory in World War II.
Power dynamics have been shifting globally, regionally, and nationally. The rise of China, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the emergence of new nuclear States such as North Korea, India, Pakistan, and soon possibly others, Iranian own aggression and support to militant Islamic proxies in the Middle East, taken together are redefining the geopolitical landscape.
The war in Gaza and recurrent conflicts in Africa are tragic expressions of continuing tensions that linger and regularly flare up. The reasons are many but their persistence through time appears to derive from their deep roots in the past, in the case of Israel, largely the result of Nazi and historic anti-semitism, and in Africa, the effects of colonialism.
Religious-based fundamentalist movements, whether Christian, Islamic, Judaic, or Hindu, are weakening bedrock notions of secular government.
Efforts by liberal democracies to separate religion from governance have run up against formidable religious activists, whose adherents are more committed, organized, and unified than other citizen groups.
Autocratic and/or charismatic leaders have learned how to harness populist sentiments with language and distorted ideas, to reshape the political narratives in their home countries and export them abroad.
In the prior decade, some countries were faced with hyperinflation as in post-World War I Germany, and most were hit hard in the 1930s with the continuing effects of the Great Depression.
Mass protests and labor movements emerged in various parts of the world, particularly in Europe and the United States, driven by growing inequality, poverty, and perceived injustices.
Coupled with the collapse of stock markets, and the decline in international trade, a worldwide economic crisis was turned around in many places by World War II need for wartime production, which stimulated economies and demand for workers.
Some of the economic challenges of the 2020s are different from those of the 1930s, others brand new. For example:
- inflation now is common across much of the world;
- we are experiencing far more frequent and harsher severe weather events at a huge cost; pollution of the atmosphere is far greater and more harmful now;
- the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to have economic consequences (as did the 1919-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic which had long-term effects well after);
- the impact of the rise of AI and automation is uncertain but certainly profound; and
- workers are unsatisfied with what they perceive as income unjustified inequality when their pay is compared to that of managers.
Social and Technological Environment
In the 1930s, economic hardships and political disillusionment fueled social discontent and unrest.
Mass protests and labor movements emerged in various parts of the world, in particular in Europe and the United States, driven by inequality, poverty, and perceived injustices.
Commercial air transportation was in its infancy, newspapers and radio- not television- were the primary mass communications method.
The 2020s social landscape is greatly influenced by technological advances – including the digital revolution, and the birth of the Internet that has accelerated globalization. As a result, means of transport and communications have undergone radical change, literally exploding and spreading across the world.
What happens in one corner of the world is instantly heard (and noticed!) in most other places via social media. This has a major impact on social relationships and political life, and in so doing, launching us into a new era.
Social movements driven by environmental concerns, gender equality, racial justice, and human rights have never been stronger as social media accelerates their spread.
Likewise, the voices of anti-immigration, anti-LGBT, anti-secular as well as racial and religious bias have found ways to attract new audiences.
Lacking any trusted and effective means to distinguish between fact and fiction, language put forward by social media and digital platforms, for good or ill, provides unprecedented connectivity, enabling much broader grassroots mobilization, and effective shaping of political narratives.
Environment for Global Cooperation
With countries facing virtual collapse, protectionist measures, tariffs, and trade barriers — essentially beggar-thy-neighbor policies — held domestic appeal.
At the same time, the desire to “end all wars” led to the creation of the League of Nations. It was a noble idea, but one that lacked the growing power and importance of an American endorsement and was therefore essentially doomed to obscurity.
At the end of the 1930s began the next “global” war, which then morphed into World War II, encompassing Europe as well as Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and North America.
In the early 2020s, broadly speaking, communications between nations have remained possible without rising to uncontrollable levels of confrontation. The emergence of social media technology has meant that remote voices could increasingly be heard as never before.
More fundamentally, the broad global framework created after World War II was largely holding; and, though imperfectly, new countries that were established with decolonization have been represented and have had a voice on the international political stage.
In the early 2020s, the United Nations and its specialized agencies – as well as the Bretton Woods institutions, the International Court of Justice, and other international entities – appeared to be operating within that post-World War II global framework.
There have been some new areas of common concern, such as with development assistance, dealing with HIV/AIDS and COVID health threats, cooperating in space (the International Space Station), initial conversations about regulating cyberspace, and growing vocal concerns about climate change.
Trade disputes, competitive efforts to pursue country and regional spheres of influence and control, and security arrangements such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are very much part of the picture.
And, as mentioned above, there are existing bloody conflicts such as the Azerbaijan invasion of Armenia, the Hamas-Israel war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as civil war or violence in Ethiopia, Myanmar, in the Sahel, Sudan, and Yemen, and there are many others.
All serve to underscore the fragile nature of our increasingly interdependent world.
Also happening are new political and financing alternatives designed to challenge past global structures. These include BRICS, a new entity created by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – a partnership likely to be extended in 2024 with Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE as new members. As BRICS now exists it already has 42% of the global population – but what it means in terms of concrete geopolitical influence is yet to be determined.
Created in 2017, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), is headquartered in China, with a capitalization of US$100 billion, and is seen by its founders as an alternative to the World Bank Group and regional development banks. Another example is a recent Memorandum of Understanding between the AIIB and the Islamic Development Bank that could be perceived as undermining the cohesion of the Bretton Woods ‘system’.
As to the famous China Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which has prompted similar initiatives from Europe and America as neither the EU nor the US wanted to be left behind, after 10 years of BRI operations worldwide, some are trying to assess its impact:
Caution and hope
There are similarities and differences in terms of global cooperation between the 1930s and 2020s. However the task of leaders today is far more difficult as a series of factors come together in a perfect storm, and these are, briefly put:
- Technological advances including the digital and AI revolution;
- population growth, now up to 8 billion and 10 billion is around the corner;
- now a geopolitical landscape of nearly 200 countries, most of them members of the United Nations;
- rising social unrest pumped up by social media;
- the loss of biodiversity linked to an accelerating climate crisis that many see as the coming “sixth extinction, and
- volatile political dynamics with changing geopolitical influences (many wonder whether America is losing its global dominance) with conflicts that keep resurging, apparently resistant to any permanent solution.
Whether our leaders will have the wisdom and skill to deal with today’s challenges is an unanswered question.
It is a certainty that competition between power centers, and extensive arms industry export trade will continue, and destabilizing efforts by non-state actors are likely to be with us for the foreseeable future.
It is also a certainty that if we continue with “business as usual” – i.e. increase fossil fuel usage claiming it is needed for economic growth while ignoring that it threatens humanity’s very existence on this planet – we will face, as UN Secretary-General Guterres said last week, “double trouble”.
That said, we must believe there is enough common sense among us all to recognize that the specter of human annihilation is possible if we do not find ways to mitigate known and unknown dangers.
Our collective survival depends on it.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: A protest in Vienna to support Black Lives Matter Source: Academic Accelerator Creator: Manfred Werner Copyright: Manfred Werner CC BY-SA 4.0