Jennifer Welsh’s “The Return of History”: (Re)Defining Liberal Democracy for the 21st Century

As I browsed bookstores last December for holiday gifts (and a few gifts for myself), one book repeatedly caught my eye – The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century, by Canadian international relations scholar Jennifer Welsh. I noticed it for three reasons: (1) the title was a clear rhetorical response to one of international relations’ most famous essays, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man; (2) the brief synopsis on the dust jacket seemed to cover every major crisis that made headlines in the past year, from refugees to Russia; and (3) it was the 2016 selection for Canada’s Massey Lectures.

Most of this post will focus on the first two reasons, but let’s take a minute to appreciate the third. While Canada is far from the perfectly peaceful, liberal oasis that some wish it to be (most recently expressed in a New York Times op-ed by Nick Kristof), the Massey Lectures are one uniquely Canadian attribute that actually matches this stereotype. Launched in 1961 in the honour of former Governor General Vincent Massey, this annual cultural event provides a platform for a Canadian intellectual to share his or her life’s work through a series of public lectures across the country, which are disseminated by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The partnership also includes a book deal with the fantastic House of Anansi Press, and most Canadian bookstores make room to prominently feature the newest Massey Lecture book. Recent lectures have focused on such diverse topics as identity and belonging, reconciling ancient wisdom with the modern world, and yes, the meaning of winter. In an age of quick soundbites and “alternative facts”, it is comforting to find at least one occasion in which scholarship and intellectualism are not only celebrated, but actively shared with the broad public. (You can read more about the Massey Lectures, and purchase digital recordings of previous lectures, here.)

Now, onto the themes of the most recent Massey Lecture and book…

Winter 2017 Book Club Selection: The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century, by Jennifer Welsh


  • Hardcover, 295 pp.
  • Jennifer Welsh – Professor and Chair in International Relations at the European University Institute in Florence; and Fellow, Somerville College, University of Oxford
  • Selected for the 2016 Massey Lecture

The End of History… Or of Liberal Democracy?

The central thesis of Welsh’s book is that liberal democracy – the type of governance that mixes democratic elections with strong protections for the rule of law, minority rights, and humanitarianism – faces serious challenges in the 21st century, including some of its own making. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, according to conventional wisdom: The original Fukuyama essay on “The End of History” appeared at the end of the Cold War, and claimed that Western-style democracy and capitalism had essentially won the war of ideas, and would inexorably spread throughout the world. And yet, the last five years have bundled a series of rebukes to Western triumphalism, including the rise of ISIS, the refugee and migration crisis that have shaken Europe to its core, a resurgent Russia, and extreme inequality that has fuelled the rise of populist politicians in supposedly “safe” liberal democracies.

Welsh argues that this is indeed a problem. For all its faults, liberal democracy has a centuries-long track record of extending basic rights and dignity to increasingly wider circles of people, starting with the abolitionist movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. And it has generally proven resilient, as Welsh claims: “Over the decades, it has developed a sophisticated capacity to integrate its critics, by offering them political representation and reforming itself at the margins – thereby keeping more radical challenges at bay.”


The post-World War Bretton Woods Conference established many of the international economic institutions that continue to manage the global economy today. Many of our other international institutions date back to the same time period. (Source: The Economist)

In Welsh’s analysis, the root of liberal democracy’s current malaise is that many of its institutions were formed during the First and Second World Wars, and struggle to govern the realities of a 21st-century world. For example, whereas post-war economists believed that economic growth and the spread of knowledge and technology would keep wealth fairly evenly distributed, the financial instruments of the past two generations have now made inherited wealth more important than actual earned incomes in determining individuals’ economic well-being, driving inequality and resentment. In turn, this has fuelled the rise of populist movements in Western countries, which now threaten to strip away the core of liberal democratic institutions:

But through the processes of bureaucratization and globalization, [argue populist politicians], the people have been stripped of their governing power and decision-making has shifted to so-called experts and distant elites in international organizations. The public utterances of almost every populist politician today include the refrain ‘Take back control.'”

A New Kind of Refugee

Welsh illustrates why our liberal democratic institutions struggle to adapt to today’s realities through a historical examination of how they developed. For example, her most compelling chapter, “The Return of Mass Flight”, explores how we have sought to govern migration and refugees. Our modern conception of refugees stems from the two World Wars, particularly referring to individuals fleeing Nazi Germany because of their political beliefs or membership of a particular religious, ethnic, or other vulnerable group. In this conception, Welsh demonstrates, the “model” refugee is someone who is pushed out of their country for a short, definite period of time, and who is essentially a passive receiver of historical forces.


Syrian migrants charging their cell phones in Greece – one example of how “modern” refugees differ from the World War era. Source: Business Insider

Since then, however, the drivers of migration and displacement have changed significantly: people are now compelled to leave not just because of targeted persecution, but because of long-lasting civil wars, generalized violence (e.g. that perpetrated by drug-related gangs), food insecurity, environmental change, and economic poverty. Moreover, the line between someone who is pushed out of their country and someone who is pulled to a destination in search of a better future is increasingly blurry, and even refugees fleeing the most desperate situations are able to make use of smartphone technology and global networks to take charge of where they go.

Partially as a result of these changes, the number of displaced people has dramatically expanded since 2011, from 42 million to 65 million people. Yet, international laws regarding refugees remain essentially stuck in the early 1950s. Rather than continuing to hold on to an outmoded concept of a refugee as someone who is fleeing Nazi-style persecution, and who can return to their home country in a few short years, Welsh makes a compelling case for why we should think about global flight as a core feature of today’s international system. In turn, this implies that asylum is a global public good that all countries have an interest in providing, in order to maintain global stability – similar to providing safe transport for airplanes, or maintaining a healthy environment.

Managing a Resurgent Russia

As our international institutions and concepts are ineffective in managing the modern challenges of global flight, argues Welsh, so are they outdated for dealing with a resurgent Russia. While the rise of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s assertiveness on the international stage have drawn comparisons to a “new Cold War”, Welsh demonstrates that these are two fundamentally different conflicts. The real Cold War was defined by a global struggle for dominance between two competing ideologies, capitalism and communism. In contrast, today’s Russia does not seek to convert the rest of the world to its ideology; indeed, Putin and the country’s oligarchs have embraced their own form of capitalism.


Vladimir Putin as the embodiment of “sovereign democracy”, as opposed to Western-style “liberal democracy”. Source: CNN

In Welsh’s analysis, Russia instead seeks to preserve its own unique model of “sovereign democracy”, in which the people democratically elect a strong government that has few checks on its power, but promises economic growth and derives its legitimacy through conservative nationalism. In this narrative, Western efforts to impose liberal democratic values, and the “messiness” that it has created through economic inequality and mass migration, can be seen as a threat to Russia’s carefully-crafted sense of order. Welsh does not advocate for moral relativism here – she is a passionate defender of liberal democracy – but she does argue that the West could do better in balancing sanctions for Russia when it transgresses international norms, while opening the door for better relations. “This isn’t Cold War 2.0”, she summarizes, “but rather the prudent management of geopolitics in the twenty-first century.”

Navigating a New World Order

In addition to these chapters, Welsh also delivers sweeping historical analyses of the return of barbarism (i.e. the decline of international humanitarian law when it comes to war), and the return of inequality in Western societies in recent years. These analyses don’t necessarily present new ideas, but rather paint recent developments in a broader historical context, enabling us to better understand the historical importance of liberal democratic ideals, and why they are falling to help us effectively govern our contemporary challenges. Throughout her book, Welsh’s writing is both informative and highly readable; as a reader, it truly feels as if you are experiencing a personal, engaging lecture on the history of liberal democracies over the past half-century or so.

If this book has one shortcoming, it is that Welsh’s prescriptions for fixing liberal democracy largely rely on the assumption that Western societies will continue to believe that this form of government is worth preserving, and will exhort their politicians to strengthen these institutions for the 21st century. Yet, the events since the publication of this book – from “Brexit”, to the election of Donald Trump, and perhaps the election of populist governments in other European countries in 2017 – seem to indicate a fundamental shift in Western values, or at least, a deep polarization regarding the value of liberal democracy.

In the vocabulary of systems theory, we are witnessing a partial collapse of a valuable governance system that had largely promoted human rights and prosperity for industrialized countries in the post-war era. This shift has precipitated a new set of feedback loops – consisting of political beliefs, organizations and global events – that likely render it irreversible; that is, the path to restore rights-based governance will not be to simply retrace our steps back to the previous system. Rather, the challenge now for humanitarians is to develop new paradigms, norms, and governance systems that promote human dignity, based on the realities and fundamental assumptions that are shaping today’s world.

As always, if you have read this book, or plan to do so in the near future, please share your own takes in the comments section!

2 thoughts on “Jennifer Welsh’s “The Return of History”: (Re)Defining Liberal Democracy for the 21st Century

  1. Wow. A lot of thought provoking ideas here. Especially with the shifting paradigms of liberal democracy, changing ideas. I’m especially interested in the refugee crises. Does she propose how to handle this. I’d like to know about the parallels with those fleeing nazi and was there a similar pattern of phobia towards these refugees. Has liberal democracy amd capitalistic agendas further exacerbated income inequality or are other forces more responsible for this? Very well written and interesting piece. I’m so glad you shared your blog with me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for taking the time to read, and for your very interesting thoughts! As a brief response, Welsh’s main recommendation for managing global displacement more humanely is to treat this as a core condition of our world today, rather than to think of it as a temporary condition. For example, one of her proposals would be to give refugees the right to return to their home countries when they feel safe, while still having the ability to come back to the host country whenever they want (rather than making them choose one or the other). Another would be to give economic migrants (who typically don’t qualify as “refugees”) a fixed-term visa, say for 5 or 10 years, that can be renewed on an ongoing basis.

      Regarding income inequality, she does say that capitalism has contributed to this; I think she mainly borrows from Thomas Piketty’s book (which I haven’t read yet), stating that the way capitalism has been practiced in the last two generations (particularly allowing for wealth to be accumulated through inheritances, investments, etc.) has driven the inequality. As well, because wealth is often tied to political influence in many Western democracies, this leads to a vicious cycle in which regulations get written to help the wealthy get even more wealthier. However, I think Welsh believes that with the right reforms (e.g. de-linking wealth and political access; better re-distributive policies), capitalism and liberal democracy could be better reconciled.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s