It is an era of instability and disintegration which began in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 and in Europe and the US in 2016. These regions are very different, but their recent political convulsions have basic features in common, notably a feeling shared by people from the Mississippi to the Euphrates that they are unhappy with the status quo. Likewise, political elites from Damascus to Washington DC have demonstrably underestimated their own unpopularity and the narrowness of their political base.
Inequality has increased everywhere with politically momentous consequences, a development much discussed as a reason for the populist-nationalist upsurge in western Europe and the US. But it has also had a significant destabilising impact in the wider Middle East. Impoverished Syrian villagers, who once looked to the state to provide jobs and meet their basic needs at low prices, found in the decade before 2011 that their government no longer cared what happened to them. They poured in their millions into gimcrack housing on the outskirts of Damascus and Aleppo, cities whose richer districts looked more like London or Paris. Unsurprisingly, it was these same people, formerly supporters of the ruling Baath party, who became the backbone of the popular revolt. Their grievances were not dissimilar from those of unemployed coal miners in former Democratic Party strongholds in West Virginia who voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.
Neoliberal free market economic reforms were even more destructive of political and social stability in the Middle East and North Africa than in Europe and the US. In dictatorships or arbitrary monarchies without political accountability or rule of law, such changes further crony capitalism: access to the narrow circle wielding political power becomes the essential key to riches. Governments turn into giant looting machines under the kleptocratic guidance of a few ruling families. In Baghdad a few years ago, heavier than usual winter showers flooded the streets to the depth of a foot or more with an evil-smelling grey mixture of water and sewage. I asked an advisor to the Ministry of Water Resources why this had happened and she explained, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary, that over the previous decade the Iraqi government had spent $7 billion on a new sewage system for the capital, but either it had never existed or the sewers were too badly built to carry away rain water.
In the US, Europe and the Middle East there were many who saw themselves as the losers from globalisation, but the ideological vehicle for protest differed markedly from region to region. In Europe and the US it was right wing nationalist populism which opposes free trade, mass immigration and military intervention abroad. The latter theme is much more resonant in the US than in Europe because of Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump instinctively understood that he must keep pressing these three buttons, the importance of which Hillary Clinton and most of the Republican Party leaders, taking their cue from their donors rather than potential voters, never appreciated.
The vehicle for protest and opposition to the status quo in the Middle East and North Africa is, by way of contrast, almost entirely religious and is only seldom nationalist, the most important example being the Kurds. This is a big change from 50 years ago when revolutionaries in the region were usually nationalists or socialists, but both beliefs were discredited by corrupt and authoritarian nationalist dictators and by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Secular nationalism was in any case something of a middle class creed in the Arab world, limited in its capacity to provide the glue to hold societies together in the face of crisis. When Isis forces were advancing on Baghdad after taking Mosul in June 2014, it was a fatwa from the Iraqi Shia religious leader Ali al-Sistani that rallied the resistance. No non-religious Iraqi leader could have successfully appealed to hundreds of thousands of people to volunteer to fight to the death against Isis.
The Middle East differs also from Europe and the US because states are more fragile than they look and once destroyed prove impossible to recreate. This was a lesson that the foreign policy establishments in Washington, London and Paris failed to take on board after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, though the disastrous outcome of successful or attempted regime change has been bloodily demonstrated again and again. It was always absurdly simple-minded to blame all the troubles of Iraq, Syria and Libya on Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi, authoritarian leaders whose regimes were more the symptom than the cause of division.
But it is not only in the Middle East that divisions are deepening. Whatever happens in Britain because of the Brexit vote or in the US because of the election of Trump as president, both countries will be more divided and therefore weaker than before. Political divisions in the US are probably greater now than at any time since the American Civil War 150 years ago. Repeated calls for unity in both countries betray a deepening disunity and alarm as people sense that they are moving in the dark and old norms and landmarks are no longer visible and may no longer exist.
The mainline mass media is finding it difficult to make sense of a new world order which may or may not be emerging. Journalists are generally more rooted in the established order of things than they pretend and are shocked by radical change. Only two big newspapers – the Florida Times-Union and the Las Vegas Review-Journal endorsed Trump before the election and few of the American commentariat expected him to win, though this has not dented their confidence in their own judgement. Criticism of Trump in the media has lost all regard for truth and falsehood with the publication of patently concocted reports of his antics in Russia, but there is also genuine uncertainty about whether he will be a real force for change, be it good or ill.
Crises in different parts of the world are beginning to cross-infect and exacerbate each other. Prior to 2014 European leaders, whatever their humanitarian protestations, did not care much what happened in Iraq and Syria. But the rise of Isis, the mass influx of Syrian refugees heading for Central Europe and the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels showed that the crises in the Middle East could not be contained. They helped give a powerful impulse to the anti-immigrant authoritarian nationalist right and made them real contenders for power.
The Middle East is always a source of instability in the world and never more so than over the last six years. But winners and losers are emerging in Syria where Assad is succeeding with Russian and Iranian help, while in Iraq the Baghdad government backed by US airpower is slowly fighting its way into Mosul. Isis probably has more fight in it than its many enemies want to believe, but is surely on the road to ultimate defeat. One of the first real tests for Trump will be how far he succeeds in closing down these wars, something that is now at last becoming feasible.
By Patrick Cockburn