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David Armitage at JLF 2017: US president’s instability could end peace since WWII

The swearing-in of Donald Trump as America’s 45th President and its possible repercussions formed the background to the session on civil wars at the Jaipur Literature Festival where historian David Armitage walked the audience through the history of internal conflicts.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Updated: Jan 22, 2017 10:51 IST
Supriya Sharma
Jaipur Literature Festival

“His (Donald Trump’s) instability, trigger-happiness, and willingness to set the US against the world means the period of long peace is set to end. We may return to a world where conflict between states might return,” said historian David Armitage. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

At a session on the intellectual history of civil wars, British historian David Armitage said the current political polarisation might bring back conflict between states.

The swearing-in of the 45th American President and its possible repercussions formed the background to the session on civil wars where David Armitage walked the audience through the history of internal conflicts. The long period of peace since World War II or the absence of conflict between states, as historians call it, might be set to change, the Harvard professor said while discussing his forthcoming book, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas.

Donald Trump became Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series at the session with the speaker and later the audience referring to him as “the one who cannot be named”. “Someone, whose name I still cannot use with the word president will soon receive the nuclear codes,” Armitage said. “His instability, trigger-happiness, and willingness to set the US against the world means the period of long peace is set to end. We may return to a world where conflict between states might return,” he said.

“The purely self-interest based policies that he hopes to build will destroy the underpinnings of the international order that have been in place since World War II,” he said. Armitage said the present American president was a sign of America’s anxiety as a declining superpower. “He has encouraged nuclear proliferation and some people fear a global civil war, one that is fought with nuclear weapons.”

Ours is not a world of peace but of civil wars, said Armitage, pointing to the pattern of conflict that has moved from war between states to war within states. “There are 40 ongoing conflicts around the world from Afghanistan to Yemen,” he said, and the Al Qaeda and ISIS have brought the war to the streets. The states may be at peace but their citizens can hardly experience it. Tracing the origins of civil wars to Rome of the first century BCE, he said the term originated from the war between citizens which erupted repeatedly throughout Roman history.

“Modern democratic politics was designed to prevent civil war and violence, but now we are finding it difficult to manage fundamental differences,” said Armitage during the session. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

Medieval Europe was the inheritor of this tradition with Italy experiencing civil war in the 15th century, France its religious wars in the 16th century and England the War of Roses in the 15th century. The series of violent upheavals took the thread of modern liberation in the 19th century with civil wars taking the form of revolutions whether it was the French or the American.

The definition of civil war changed over time but was incorporated in the Geneva Convention only after World War II. Referring to the reluctance of the international community to term the Syrian conflict as a civil war against president Bashar Al-Assad’s government, Armitage said it was a typical response since so much, politically and militarily, hangs on the use of the term.

Polarisation is the most frightening feature of international politics today, Armitage said. Civil war is returning to even peaceful states and politics.

“Modern democratic politics was designed to prevent civil war and violence, but now we are finding it difficult to manage fundamental differences,” he said. “Brexit showed that there are two Britains, which cannot comprehend the other side’s point of view.

Pointing to the savage American presidential campaign, the blaming of opponents looking to encourage internal conflict by the French president after the Paris attacks, Armitage said that democratic politics in USA, Europe and India looks like a civil war by other means.

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