Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Revolution in the Air

Tunis, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and the question everyone asks is: where will popular democratic uprisings strike next? Will these demonstrations remained confined to the Middle East or will they spread to China and the Americas? Most importantly, what will be the long-term effects of these uprisings? Will the Jurassic park of aged, tyrannical dictators of the Middle East be replaced by groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, who would implement their own restrictions on freedom and liberty and advocate policies hostile to American interests, or will genuine democratic institutions take root? It is too early to tell for sure.

This is not the first time there has been a transnational wave of rebellion. In the 1820s, nearly the entire continents of Central and South America freed themselves from Spanish imperial rule. In faraway Europe the Greeks revolted against their Ottoman oppressors. These revolutions prompted President James Monroe to issue his famous “doctrine” as part of his annual message to Congress (what we today call the State of the Union) in 1823. In effect, Monroe wanted to recognize that once a nation freed itself from its imperial overlord it should remain free.

Then in 1830 there were more transnational protest and rebellion in Europe. The powers of the French monarchy (restored after the downfall of Napoleon) were greatly curtailed and Belgium gained its independence.

Then in 1848 a massive wave of popular uprisings struck the heart of Europe. These liberal, pro-democratic, nationalistic, and anti-monarchical rebellions have much in common with the affairs of the Middle East today. In the end, the results of 1848 proved disappointing. Although they instituted some reforms, the reactionary monarchs remained in power. The greatest failure of 1848 occurred in Germany where the drive for a liberal based unification failed. It was Bismarck’s Blood and Iron (with a good deal of gold) that unified the nation under a strong Prussian monarch, not exactly a democracy. No doubt global history would have been different if the unification of 1848 had succeeded.

The most recent transnational revolts occurred in the late twentieth century. There were waves of anti-imperialist revolts all through Asia and Africa from the late 1940s until the early 1960s as the European empires centuries old crumbled. In 1968 protests against unpopular governmental policies hit both sides of the Iron Curtain, in communist and capitalist country alike, from the United States to France to Czechoslovakia. Twenty years later, waves of popular protests bought down the communist puppet dictatorships throughout Eastern Europe and even tore down the Berlin Wall itself. That is the only one I remember and it was a truly inspiring moment. 

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