Podcast: 2016 CBC Massey Lecture series Jennifer Welsh ‘The Return of History’

The Massey lectures seem to be the Canadian version of Australia’s Boyer Lectures. The speaker is given a wide scope when they are invited to talk about “whatever they want”. Jennifer Welsh, as a political scientist, chose to speak of The Return of History.  She is referencing Francis Fukuyama’s bold declaration in 1989 of ‘The End of History’ and his book, as she says, is the “dancing partner” to her lectures.  Each lecture is conducted in a different Canadian city, taking her across the country over the series.

Jennifer Welsh is Professor and Chair in International Relations at the European University Institute in Florence (Italy) and a Fellow of Somerville College, University of Oxford. From 2013 until 2016, she was the Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary General on the Responsibility to Protect.






In the first lecture “We Were Wrong“, she points out that liberal democracy  has had an uneven trajectory, starting with the French Revolution and American War of Independence, with little of the inevitability of success that Fukuyama suggested. Before WWI, she says, there were only ten democracies; they doubled post-WWI but decreased again in the 1930s when the very idea of liberal democracy was questioned. By 1941, there were only nine again and the world looked to be on the edge of “a new dark age” as Churchill put it. The numbers of democracies quadrupled in the 1960s with decolonization and by the late 1980s, when Fukuyama made his bold claim of the “end of history”, half of the world’s population could be said to be living under democracies. However, from the viewpoint of 2016 (and this viewpoint has been oft-repeated since, and indeed intensified), democracy is in trouble. She sees that the world is divided into two groups: a  liberal democratic core on the one hand, and on the other a large portion of the world “where the sun of history still shines”. They are separated by a gulf of incomprehension. She cautions us to recognize that liberal democracy was not inevitable. Indeed, she argues, history is back with a vengeance.





In the second lecture ‘The Return of Barbarism’ she argues that while history is returning, it is with a modern twist, exemplified by the IS’ use of swords to behead, similar to in medieval times,  and the twenty-first century use social media to distribute that same beheading. ISIS, she suggests, is a product of 21st century interventions in the Middle East, and its spread is rooted in the failure of the Arab Spring.   We have seen such things before. She draws parallels between the influx of foreign fighter to ISIS with the bolstering of Republican fighters in the Spanish Civil War, and she reminds us that some of the siege footage coming out of  Madaya in Syria evokes the Siege of Leningrad during WWII.



“The Return of Mass Flight”, the third lecture, examines the question of refugees. She points out that in 2015, there were 65 million forcibly displaced people, the highest number in history. One in 113 people was either a refugee, asylum seeker or forcibly displaced.  She goes through the development of the UNHCR (which was expected to last only three years) and the creation of the Refugee Convention, and asks ‘What is so different about today’? She points to four things: first, that it is quantitatively different; second, Europe’s response of fences and walls; third, the multiple motivations for immigration and fourth, the reliance on new technology exemplified by images of refugees with smart phones, which tends to undercut our idea of what a refugee should look like.



‘The Return of the Cold War’, Lecture 4, starts off with the Ukrainian Revolution of 22 February 2014 – something that felt momentous at the time, but soon began following a familiar trajectory. At the time of her lectures (2016), events in Syria, the emphasis on power supply through gas lines, and the revival of espionage all seemed to be following an old story too. However, she sees at least three differences between the original Cold War and current events. First, we do not see now the deep ideological challenges that underpinned the Cold War in the 1940s and 50s. Second, the original Cold War was global in scope, whereas now it is in the geo-political realms. Third, the status of both the USSR and US is different.  Still, as she warns, it would be possible to get back to Cold War status again, and both sides need to look at their own actions if we’re to avoid that. Instead – and here’s her ‘history but with a twist’ theme coming through again- what we are seeing now is a modern hybrid of ‘sovereign democracy’ where elections are used to delineate the lines of power, and appeals to nationalism insulate the government from outside influences e.g. migration and foreign interference.  She draws parallels between the Allied triumphalism at the end of WWI, and the smugness of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.


In the fifth and final lecture, ‘The Return of Inequality’, she says that she’s going to return to the local. Actually, each of the other lectures has an intermission where she speaks to someone local from the city in which the lecture is delivered (e.g. someone of Japanese heritage who was interned during WWII, a director of a refugee centre etc). In spite of her intention to ‘go local’, she directs a lot of attention to the United States, and the increase of inequality world wide. She notes that in this 21st century ‘Gilded Age’ (and she references the original Gilded Age), inequality is bad for society and bad for the economy, it can easily morph into inequality of opportunity, and it has the potential to turn into political power and political influence.  She notes that democracy has always been self-correcting and that it has always been anxious.  Francis Fukuyama, whose ‘End of History’ thesis sparked her response in this lecture series is still optimistic, but she is more ‘Chicken Little’ than he is.

I enjoyed this lecture series.  It was a bit frustrating that I couldn’t download them, so I only listened to them at home through wifi (although I could have paid for them on I-tunes). Still, what a wonderful thing that a lecture series can be accessed months, nay years! after it is delivered, on the other side of the world no less!


One response to “Podcast: 2016 CBC Massey Lecture series Jennifer Welsh ‘The Return of History’

  1. Thanks for this Janine:) I rarely listen to podcasts so this is a beaut summary for those of us who’d rather get their info via print.

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