Author: Peter Oppenheimer, Christ Church, Oxford
A lot happens in forty years. Before pondering how the world has changed since 1975, compare for a moment a similar period 200 years ago, starting in 1775. The next four decades led off with the loss of Britain's American colonies – not, of course, including Canada, and not before the modest foundations of a new Empire in India had been laid by the likes of Robert Clive and Warren Hastings. Anglo-French rivalry in these events was conspicuous. In 1789, however, the French Revolution broke out, to be followed by the Napoleonic generation with its wars and political ferment across Europe, lasting until 1815, forty years on from 1775.
All this while Britain's agricultural and industrial revolutions were in full swing, though military hostilities restricted international trade and finance. Adam Smith with his Wealth of Nations (1776), and later David Ricardo and Robert Malthus, laid the foundations of modern economic analysis. The physical and biological sciences saw their biggest move forward for a century, i.e. since the age of Isaac Newton. Basic findings were made on electricity by Galvani and Volta, and in chemistry by Priestly and Lavoisier. War was a long way from being “total” in twentieth-century fashion. At Boulogne on the Channel coast there is a memorial to the British physician who during the French Revolutionary Wars brought over — “malgré l'état de guerre entre les deux pays” — the news of Edward Jenner's devising of smallpox vaccination. Fellows of the Royal Society similarly undertook scientific visits to the continent during the wars. Sir Humphrey Davy was accompanied on one such trip by a young bookbinder with scientific aspirations, Michael Faraday.
Space does not permit analogous summaries of the next four quadri-decennial periods, taking us up to the creation of BISA in 1975. Readers who do that for themselves may ponder how the sweep of changes in our own lifetime measures up to earlier epochs.
The mid-1970s saw the Western world struggling with “stagflation,” meaning price rises, often in double figures, combined with absence of economic growth. This stemmed from two elements. One was the repercussions, not least in ending the era of cheap oil with the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973, of the previous quarter-century's “Golden Age” of post-World-War-II growth and modernisation. The other was the misguided attempts by government in contemporary “mixed” or market economies to boost growth with the help of ill-judged financial license.
Global inflation had been eliminated by the early 1990s. This was achieved partly by a decade of high-interest-rate policy, above all in the United States, and partly by a resumption of global industrial expansion — centred now, however, in Asia and not in the North Atlantic area. In Europe particularly economic weakness has been intensified since 2000 by the folly of currency unification (the Euro) without flexible money-wages or a unified labour market. Conspicuously absent, at the same time, has been any lasting re-imposition of discipline on banks and other financial institutions. Excessive competition and ineffective supervision have led to banking crises in one country and one continent after another, on a scale and frequency whose historical precedents are debatable.
Patchy as has been the national financial and economic management of Western countries, the market system as a whole had already proved itself decisively superior to central planning in the furtherance of both prosperity and technological progress. In 1989-91 the end of Soviet tutelage in Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself was brought about by a combination of economic failure, ten years of military misadventure in Afghanistan, and the ability of Mikhail Gorbachev to see the world as it was.
The response of Western governments was unsophisticated and showed no interest in building a new era of relations with Russia. Membership of NATO and of the European Union was extended in the 1990s and early 2000s not merely up to but beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union, to the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) and potentially to Ukraine and Georgia. Russia's response, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and more importantly in Ukraine and the Crimea in 2013-14, has been predictably opportunistic and assertive. While the situation may remain quiescent for years at a time, no satisfactory resolution of these confrontations is currently in sight.
A still longer time-horizon is required to envisage the achievement of stability and harmony in the Islamic Middle East, as well as in relations between it and other regions, notably the North Atlantic countries. Limited favourable signs may be discerned in the cosmopolitanism of smaller Islamic states (Bahrein, Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar) and also in the early-20st-century boost to North American oil and gas output from fracking. A lurking menace, on the other hand, is Iran's nuclear policy, which could trigger extensive further proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the startling development during the course of BISA's first four decades of the internet and mobile communications has opened the way to cyber-warfare as a new mode of conflict, multi-level, with few accepted limitations to compare with rules such as the Geneva Convention, and with the potential intermittently to disrupt, for example, payment systems, air-traffic control and goodness knows what else. Watch this space.