The Current

Liberal democracy on defensive as history returns with vengeance: Jennifer Welsh

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, it seemed to some thinkers we'd arrived at the "end of history." But it sure doesn't seem that way today. This year's Massey lecturer Jennifer Welsh shares her thoughts on The Return of History.
Universal rights for refugees an important part of Liberal democracy, says author Jennifer Welsh. (Courtesy of House of Anansi Press)

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When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, political scientist Francis Fukuyama called the event "the end of history."

As communism collapsed, liberal democracy would fill the ideological vacuum and an era of freedom and peace would begin for the world.

Jennifer Welsh, a Canadian graduate student at Oxford University at the time, believed the fall of the Berlin Wall also marked the beginning of a democratic renaissance. She and a few friends hopped on a cheap flight to witness the great event.

"It was an incredible time, You look back and so much seemed to have been preordained," Welsh tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"Germany would be unified. Communism would topple everywhere, but at the time that is not how it felt. There was euphoria yes, but uncertainty about what would come next."

That uncertainty has turned to despair and regret 27 years later.

Welsh would go on to be a special advisor to the UN secretary general on the Responsibility to Protect, and had a front row seat as the Francis Fukuyama's predictions disintegrated into war, terrorism, displacement and authoritarian rule. And she has written about it in her new book The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century.

"For me, in the last five or six years," Welsh tells Tremonti. "It's become clear we are seeing not just the return of conflict — barbaric conflict and mass migration. We are also seeing cracks in the liberal democratic model itself — which are very, very worrying."

Welsh says liberal democracy and helping refugees are strongly linked.

"How we have responded to those who are fleeing over the last two centuries has partly defined who we are," she says.

 "And it is defining who we are today."

Listen to the full conversation.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.

This year's Massey Lectures series, delivered by Jennifer Welsh, begins Oct. 31, on CBC's Ideas.