Tribalisation or the end of globalisation

By Koert Debeuf, December 8, 2015

A connected world

A connected world

For two decades, the world seemed to be convinced that all indicators pointed in the same direction: more democracy, more economic openness, more human rights, more international cooperation. Not anymore.

What will be the consequences of the attacks on Paris? The short-term results are known: France and the UK will intensify their fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, security is tightened everywhere in Europe and borders inside the Schengen zone are controlled again.

The question in this article however is what the consequences will be on the longer term. We cannot call the Paris attacks on 13 November 2015 Europe’s 9/11, yet. Nevertheless, it is interesting to have a look into what exactly changed since 9/11 and if similar trends might happen today.

In my search for answers I stumbled across the “Index of Globalisation” of the KOF Swiss Economic Institute. To my surprise, this Globalisation Index shows an unsettling but clear trend, and this for the first time since 1980: it shows a decline of globalisation.

Their index is based on facts and figures that differentiate between economic, social and political globalisation. The political stagnation starts in 2008. This seems logical as the world saw a major financial and economic crisis with effects on all fronts.

However, the economic and social stagnation started in 2007, before the crisis. My assumption is that the cause is therefore not economical but psychological. Important traumatic events have plunged people all over the globe into an identity crisis. Their response is tribalisation: going back to the tribe they know best.

Dramatic changes

Compared to ten years ago, the mind-set of the world’s main powers has drastically changed. In 2005, events pointed to a strengthening of international cooperation. President George W. Bush pledged for a new, more multilateral foreign policy.

The European Union had its referenda on a European Constitution, a major step forward in European integration. The Kyoto-protocol was ratified by Russia and became the first global climate action plan.

In the Middle East too, 2005 was a year of hope. The assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq Haririr didn’t lead to a new civil war, but to a democratic Cedar Revolution. Egypt changed its constitution and held its first presidential elections.

Iraq held a referendum on its new constitution and seemed to fulfil the democratic promise of the US-led invasion. Israel agreed on a ceasefire with Palestine and withdrew its troops from Gaza.

Today, hope has turned into despair. Long-term policies seem to have failed. Capitalism, the biggest winner after the collapse of the Soviet-Union in 1991, lost a lot of its legitimacy with the financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009. One of the key symbols of European integration, the Eurozone, almost fell apart.

A new authoritarian Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. In the Middle East and North Africa, the democratic hopes after 2005 and the Arab Spring of 2011 have led to civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq, and even worse the creation of the Islamic State. Climate change has fallen to the bottom of the international agenda.

Lost directions

For two decades, the world seemed to be convinced that all indicators pointed in the same direction: more democracy, more economic openness, more human rights, more international cooperation. Not anymore.

The old anti-forces of the liberal order, authoritarian nationalism and religious extremism are back with a vengeance. The most obvious example of the return of authoritarian nationalism is Russia.

The same trend is also clear in most member-states of supra-national Europe, not the least in Hungary and Greece. Religious extremism is on a scary height in the Arab world, but also in parts of Africa, India and Myanmar.

The US and Europe seem to be too tired and powerless to halt this decline. Even though both liberal powers know what they want, both are deeply divided. It looks like both powers are facing a global system failure and have no idea how to deal with it.

Both know that their influence and power is not what it used to be, but they haven’t found a new role yet. It’s not an exclusive Western problem. The entire world is plunging into an identity crisis.

What is an identity crisis?

An identity crisis or existential crisis is a psychological state of mind of – mostly high-achieving – individuals who feel depressed, angry and lost, and who question the very foundations of their lives.

It usually occurs after a traumatic experience such as an extreme disappointment, a broken relationship, the death of a loved one or a sudden loss of status. These traumas result in a loss of confidence and self-esteem.

In trying to find a way out of this depressive disorder most people tend to go into anchoring: finding a well-known fixation point such as religion, closed social groups or one particular idea or ideology. People are looking for the security and warmth of a group, or what I call a tribe.

In Arabic there is a word for this: qabaleya, or tribalisation. It is the choice to go back to the tribe, its warmth and clear-cut identity.

What’s interesting is that psychologists have found that in looking for a way out of an identity crisis people often prefer a negative identity rather than a weak identity.

What counts for individuals, counts for groups as well. It makes sense to say that societies can suffer from an identity crisis too. Social psychology studies have drawn parallels between the psychology of individuals and that of groups.

Societies – just like individuals – can suffer traumatic experiences too. Just like individuals, societies often respond to traumatic experiences with an identity crisis by regressing back into what they know best from the past – what I am describing as tribalisation.

They go back to the tribal (old) ideas and tribal (old) behaviour. These tribal ideas are mostly based on myths of a great past as the only way towards a great future.

Tribalisation is a process that almost always includes the creation of enemies. The fight against external enemies is essential, while internal enemies are the “traitors from within” because they are weakening the tribe in their existential battle.

The 1930s are the most obvious example of this tribalisation process. After the traumatic experiences of the First World War and the crash of Wall Street in 1929, people in Europe felt lost in many ways.

Huge masses took part in ‘anchoring’ or tribal movements such as fascism, authoritarian nationalism, communism and the Catholic Church. People found a new sense of purpose, a new identity by going back to the tribal myths of a glorious past.

The creation of external and internal enemies lead to genocides and mass purifications. The crisis of the 1930s contributed to one of the most destructive tribalisations in world history.

The world’s current identity crisis

The world’s new wave of tribalisation is a predictable answer to several traumatic experiences and a loss of confidence and status. There were obvious traumatic events like 9/11, the bombings in Madrid, London and Istanbul, which created a sense of vulnerability within Western societies.

The military response in Afghanistan and Iraq turned into a failure. Torture centres like Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo in Cuba made people question the moral superiority of the West. A new major traumatic blow to the Western order was the financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009.

These are not just events. They were serious blasts to the system and to the values in which people believed.

When societies and countries lose direction and face identity crises, they tend to look back. They dig through the old sandbox of ideas and beliefs that seem to have worked in the past.

The extremes of the Arab World

The most obvious example of a regional identity crisis is the Arab World. The creation of the Islamic State is only one recent extreme result of this crisis. Until the 1950s liberal parties modernized the Arab World, but they lost credibility as they failed to push the colonial powers out. Socialist and Baathist parties succeeded in gaining independence and reforming the elitist economy.

The Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser created enthusiasm all over the Arab World with his independentist, socialist and pan-Arabist ideas, even though he killed liberalism and democracy. The inglorious defeat of the Arabs by Israel in 1967 discredited all secular ideologies, and opened the way for Islamist conservatives.

The US invasion of Iraq in 1991 lead to the creation of Al Qaeda, the one in 2003 to all kinds of violent extremist groups. However, for the large majority of Arabs, this was not the way forward. They chose to revolt against their own dictators in the revolutions of 2011.

All revolutionary forces knew what they didn’t want, but they were divided on what should replace these dictatorships. Then the Muslim Brotherhood stepped in, failed miserably and lost its credibility.

Most Arabs feel totally lost now. All ideologies are broken. Not one has fulfilled its promises. They don’t know what to make of their religion any more. The ones with the deepest identity crisis see the Islamic State as the last resort, in the Arab World but also in Europe.

Others choose the other tribal solution: authoritarian nationalism. This is obvious in Egypt where President Sisi and the military are ruling with force.

It makes the Arab World a telling example of the two main paths of tribalisation: authoritarian nationalism and religious fanaticism. Both are each other’s biggest enemy.

The propaganda war between the two camps shows that what we are seeing today is only the beginning of a deep and destructive regional conflict.

The old ghosts of Europe

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a victory of the European idea. It proved that people from all over the European continent wanted to become a part of this dream.

Fifteen years later, on May 1, 2004, nine of the 11 former communist countries joined the European Union. This enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe created some fear in the minds of the people in Western Europe.

Populists told them it would open the gates to organised crime and a wave of low-cost unemployed workers. Parties on the extreme right won up to 20% and more in elections in Belgium, The Netherlands, Austria and France.

In December 2004, the European Union decided that membership negotiations would start with Turkey. This sharpened the debate in Europe about whether or not a Muslim country could be member of the European club.

The old, historic fear for Islam, the religion that twice tried to conquer Europe, woke up again. This was only three years after the 9/11 attacks, one year after 27 British people were killed in car bombings in Istanbul and a few months after the Al Qaeda bombings in Madrid.

One year later, in 2005, the bombings hit the heart of London. Not only the extreme right opposed Turkish membership; German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were both elected on a promise to oppose Turkish accession to the European Union.

It was in this political climate that France and The Netherlands, two founding members of the European Union, rejected the European Constitution in a referendum in 2005.

The European Council of ministers had to replace the Constitution with a far less inspiring Lisbon Treaty. Suddenly, the discourse of the European leaders started to change.

The most traumatic experience was still to come. In 2008-2009 the financial and economic crisis did hit the European Union hard.

The euro and the Eurozone were not prepared for this disaster and almost collapsed. For months it seemed that Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and even Italy would have to abandon the common currency. The slow response to the crisis made it into a lasting problem, up to today. In many hearts and minds, the European dream was broken.

In all following elections anti-European parties and authoritarian nationalist parties became prominent political players. In the European elections in 2009 they obtained only 63 of the 751 seats in the European Parliament, in 2014 that number raised to 99, an increase of more than 50 per cent.

Another system failure in the European construction became blatantly apparent with the crisis in Ukraine. When Russia invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the European Union was not prepared. Many Europeans even said Russia had the right to have its sphere of influence.

European integration is in danger. Traumatic experiences have raised questions in the minds of many Europeans about whether the EU is the problem rather than the solution. There are voices to leave the Eurozone and in the case of the UK, to leave the EU itself.

Fearing Russia, Eastern European countries ask for remilitarisation. Feeling lost and anxious they go back the old European tribal ideology: authoritarian nationalism.

The current refugee crisis will make things only worse. Tribalisation is hitting again in the heart of Europe. It is further weakening the EU internally and externally. It’s hard to say how this is going to end but a disintegration of the European Union may be around the corner.

Imperial Russia

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union two years later were only the start of a deeply traumatic period for Russia. Mother Russia, one of the two world powers for half a century, suddenly became this incurable, ill child.

The trauma of lost status wasn’t limited to the country itself. Most Russians could deal with the idea that former communist states and even countries that were part of the Soviet Union, like the Baltic states, joined the European Union.

This was seen as a peaceful and merely economic bloc. But it was hard to swallow that the same countries also joined NATO, a historic, military, inimical alliance against Moscow.

Russia was losing one part of its old empire after the other. When the countries and regions around the Black Sea started to move in the same direction, alarm bells began to ring. The only still-functioning remnant institution of the Soviet regime, the FSB secret service, organised a silent coup and brought one of its peers, Vladimir Putin, into power.

Putin’s mission was clear from the beginning: restore Russia’s status. For that mission he preferred Russia to have a negative identity above no identity at all. The first goal was to stop regions and countries from breaking away from Russia and its so-called sphere of influence.

The second goal was to bring Russia back to the world’s centre stage. In order to reach these goals, Putin is warming up the old myth of Russia as the successor of the fallen Byzantine and Roman Empire.

This imperial dream, with the Orthodox Church at its heart, is obviously being blocked by the old enemy: the liberal West. As in the Tsarist and communist times, the enemies from within are the liberals who are stigmatized as being agents from the West.

The divided United States

The United States is still the only superpower in the world. Yet in the past 15 years, it has suffered some major traumatic experiences. Ten years after its historic ideological victory against the Soviet Union, it was hit at the heart of its identity on 9/11.

However, other traumas followed in the American response to this attack. The United States didn’t succeed in bringing both the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to a good end.

The combination of these traumatic experiences made many Americans plunge into an identity crisis. The high-achieving country par excellence has lost a great deal of confidence in a relatively short period of time.

In the United States too, the result is tribalisation. More people than ever are in favour of a new kind of isolationism. PEW Research shows that not less than 52 per cent of the Americans think that the US “should mind its own business internationally”, the highest score since the research started in 1964. However, an even stronger trend is that people, feeling lost, are entrenching themselves in the tribe they know best: their party.

Everyone who is following American politics and media sees the increasing polarisation between Democrats and Republicans. A fascinating study by PEW Research confirms this deepening rift. Compared to 1994, one sees that the middle ground between Democrats and Republicans is disappearing: “Twenty years ago, the median Democrat was to the left of 64% of Republicans, while the median Republican was to the right of 70% of Democrats. Put differently, in 1994 23% of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat; while 17% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. Today, those numbers are just 4% and 5%, respectively.”

In other words, Democrats are becoming more liberal while Republicans are becoming more conservative. This pattern not only reflects political views, it also appears in the personal life of many. More and more Americans have friends only within the same camp.

Party affiliation often determines the news channel one watches, while these news channels are becoming more partisan as well. Even religious belief increasingly determines party affiliation.

Evangelical Protestants are joining the Republican Party more than in the past, while the religiously unaffiliated are becoming more Democrat. The start of the presidential campaign for 2016 already makes it clear that this tribalisation trend is not going to be reversed in the near future.

Conclusion: 13 November 2015

Globalisation has been an unstoppable trend. However, there can be moments when globalisation is halted or even goes in reverse. The end of the 1920s and the 1930s was such a moment. Back then, people lost their belief in international cooperation and in liberal democracy.

Today, all indicators show that the world is again reaching a decline of globalisation. The cause is to be found in a few traumatic experiences. For every continent these traumas are different, but the result is the same.

There is a general loss of confidence, leading to a collective identity crisis. The reaction to these crises are similar: people look back to what they know best.

They look for psychological security in their tribe, be it a religion, a nation or a party. This trend has been accelerated by the global financial and economic crisis of 2008/2009.

The attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 will only accelerate the trend that was already haunting Europe and the rest of the world. The world has left the path of of globalisation and is taking the trail of tribalisation. Unfortunately, history has shown time and again that nothing good will come out of this.


Koert Debeuf lives in Cairo, Egypt, where he represented the EU parliament’s Alde group for many years. Currently he is Project Coordinator “World Leaders on Transitions towards Democracy” at International IDEA. He is a former advisor and spokesman of the Belgian prime minister. As a blogger and political analyst on the Arab world he is often asked for his opinion by international media. Articles on his work have appeared in “The New York Times”, “Le Figaro”, “Le Soir” and others. He is also author of Inside the Arab Revolution. Three Years on the Front Line of the Arab Spring (Leuven, Lannoo 2014). @koertdebeuf

Article courtesy of Eutopia


Comments are closed.