Four years in, and after the absurdly good opportunity the pandemic provided, I think it’s pretty clear that Donald Trump is not the authoritarian I was so worried about back in 2016. He may have wanted to be, but he doesn’t have the capacity. That doesn’t mean my country is safe though. We’ve got a pretty good model of where a the flounderings of a clownish can lead a country. Boris Yeltsin is that model. And if the US produces a Putin, he or she will be a lot scarier than anything Russia can muster in the 21st century.
History can seem predictable sometimes. We know how it turned out, so we assume that the countries that are powerful today had somewhat predictable paths to power. Sure, there were ups and downs, but the countries we’ve come to expect to have done well, did well. No surprises there. The story of Egypt’s 19th century provides a counterpoint to that complacency. There was a lot about its story that was quite similar to the stories of the Japanese and German world-beaters we are more familiar with. In the 1830s, an African country was, quite successfully, intervening in Europe. If a few things had gone differently, Egypt might have ended up as one of the world’s great powers.
It all went wrong of course. And the British had a lot to do with this. But too some extent, it was also just bad luck. There was nothing to guarantee that Japan or Germany would be successful countries. There wasn’t even anything guaranteeing that the United States would have been as successful an experiment as it has been. It’s all much more up in the air than we might think. This is a little terrifying, but also a little exciting. Today’s video on Egypt talks about what could have been.
A certain kind of commenter has real problems with videos like this one. It compares the trajectory of current Chinese leader Xi Jinping to a mid 19th century French dictator. Some see the idea of historical comparisons as ineffective, or even racist. To those who say it’s ineffective, I am forced to agree. It’s not like what happened to Napoleon III will predict exactly the path that Xi Jinping’s rule will take. But I never claimed it would. This video only talks about the surprising parallels, it makes no claims for the future. History is a treasure trove of events, processes, and situations. None of it will predict exactly what happens, but aspects are often similar. There’s no harm, and certainly no prophecy in drawing out parallels the way that this video does. Some other commenters, both Chinese and Western, claim that it’s ridiculous to compare China to European history. Both of them hold on to the idea that there’s something intrinsically different about the Chinese, and I’m either being racist, or not racist enough by assuming easy parallels with Europeans. I think that’s just balderdash. Chinese people are people too, and despite the scale and age of their country, it moves in similar ways.
Vague similarity to past situations is all I’m claiming here. I’m not claiming to know how Xi Jinping’s rule will end. But I am trying to make the case that Xi Jinping’s assumption of dictatorial power is something that we’ve seen before in modern history. Many in the US are reacting with panic to the idea of a great power backsliding in this way. They are acting as if it’s somehow unprecedented. It’s not. That’s all this video is saying.
One of the best things about my quixotic attempt to cover everything is the way different geographies and times inform my coverage of other places. It’s probably the amount of time I spend looking at 19th century history, and the modern Middle East, that allows me to look at modern Europe in ways that others don’t. It’s not just the EU that makes 21st century Europe a more peaceful place than those other places, but it’s a huge, huge part of it. People are letting that aspect of EU stability fade away, unlamented, and almost unnoticed.
Another issue this video highlights is the reductiveness of the standard view of Europe. My alarmism about the stability of Europe looks ridiculous if you focus on Germany, or France, or even the UK, where the issue of separatism is handled quite politely. But those countries were rarely the main problem with Europe. It was always petty revolutions and squabbles of the smaller countries that made Europe such a dangerous place. If you look for the consequences of the EU’s current weakness in the EU’s core countries you won’t see much, but if you look East, or Southwest, as we do in today’s video, the developing problems become obvious.