The Sunday Magazine

Paul Rogers and Margaret MacMillan discuss a planet on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Kashmir, Hong Kong, Iran, Brexit, U.S. politics, the rise of the xenophobic far right across Europe, not to mention the extreme weather unleashed by climate change: Lately, it's seemed as if the world is having a meltdown. British security and geopolitical expert Paul Rogers and renowned Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan have studied global affairs at their most turbulent in the past and present, and discuss the current state of geopolitical upheaval and Canada's place is in the world (dis)order that's unfolding now.
Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the gates of Downing Street at Whitehall in London, Britain, Aug. 31, 2019. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

It seems as though the world we know is in caught in a vortex of chaos and disruption.

Signs of discord are everywhere: in the collapse of parliamentary politics in Britain over Brexit; in the stand-off in the Persian Gulf, which has teetered on the edge of warfare for months; in the wars that continue to rage on in Yemen and Syria; or in the defiance displayed by North Korea in its ongoing missile tests.

That collective sense of unease seems only to intensify as we watch the rising and unchecked powers of Russia and China and wonder if and when Hong Kong is going to boil over. Or when we see the leader of India – the world's largest democracy – brazenly cutting off the state of Kashmir and Jammu from the rest of the world. 

Meanwhile, the earth's largest rainforest continues to burn, and apocalyptic stories about heat waves, floods and hurricanes fill up our news feeds every day.  

In such an unsettled – and unsettling – world, where does one find cause for optimism? 

"All periods of history have their problems but I think what is happening to us at the moment is so many things are coming together," the famed historian Margaret MacMillan told The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright. 

MacMillan is a Professor of History at the University of Toronto and Emeritus Professor of International History at the University of Oxford. 

Historian Margaret MacMillan has been exploring discord as a result of international chaos. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

"We have the crumbling of a liberal international order which has served the world pretty well on the whole since 1945," she said. "We have the greatest power in the world turning inwards and behaving under the Trump administration in a very erratic way, shedding its old allies or at least destroying old alliances. We have, I think, a public loss of faith in many countries in our institutions and in our leaders … There's a sense that it's just all too much at once."

"One of the greatest difficulties is to try and draw back and see whether there are any generic factors involved or whether it's basically a set of very uncomfortable coincidences which may be interconnected to some extent but that aren't part of an overall world trend in a particular direction," added Paul Rogers, Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University in Britain and the Global Security Consultant with the Oxford Research Group. 

"One can argue now that what seems to have been a pretty successful neoliberal economic era over the best part of 40 years, going right back to Thatcherism and Reaganism, in fact may be coming to an end," he added. "It seems to be producing this odd phenomenon of what one calls majority marginalization. Not huge numbers of people getting poorer but people feeling rather more marginalized from the elite."

"That in some ways is made far more potent by this whole issue of the changing climate, which is clearly happening a lot faster than even climate scientists realized," Rogers said. "[The neoliberal period] has great difficulty in coming to terms with climate change because it requires a lot of intergovernmental cooperation and major action… That doesn't fit in with the neoliberal model."

While the shifting and crumbling international order has evoked comparisons to the pre-war years of 1913 and 1933, Margaret MacMillan said the mood now is different.

"We are concerned about the general future of humanity, which I don't think people worried as much about in the past," she told The Sunday Edition. "I think there is now a sense that it's not just the possibility of a breakdown of civil politics or an outbreak of a major war, but there is something even more threatening, which is threatening the whole of humanity."

As more than 165,000 fires burn in the Amazon rainforest, the world faces diplomatic as well as environmental turmoil. (CBC)

But MacMillan also argued against falling into despair.

"The dangerous thing is to feel helpless … The world has been through dreadful periods. I mean, we're forgetting what the Second World War was like. We're forgetting what the First World War was like. We're forgetting what the Black Death was like.

"I think we have to really be careful not to exaggerate how difficult things are … A lot of institutions are holding. So I think we have to try and keep a balance," she said. 

To hear the full conversation, click 'listen' above.

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