The late British historian Eric Hobsbawm famously called the period between Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914 and the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 the “short twentieth century.” For Hobsbawm, the end of the Cold War marked a new and distinct era in world affairs.
Now, with more perspective, we should reconsider this classification. Rather than constituting a break from the past, the quarter-century following the fall of the Berlin Wall actually turned out to be a continuation – indeed, a culmination – of what came before. But Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States represents a definitive break from the past; the long twentieth century has now come to a close.
It is too early to guess what will come next, just as it was in June 1914. Since Trump’s election victory, one popular prediction is that the world will revert to nineteenth-century spheres of influence, with major players such as the US, Russia, China, and, yes, Germany, each dominating their respective domains within an increasingly balkanized international system.
Trump reinforced this view with his stark inaugural address, in which he asserted a “right of all nations to put their own interests first.” But even if this is how Trump’s America will behave, no one in today’s interconnected world can turn back the clock. As Chinese President Xi Jinping – now the default champion of globalization – pointed out at Davos this year, “Whether you like it or not, the global economy is the big ocean from which you cannot escape.”
The top-down, strongman model that seems to be in ascendance today does not portend the future; rather, it is a last gasp from an earlier time – a nostalgic rehash of an obsolete model. Governance has been disaggregated and hybridized by the rise of non-state actors, and we have scarcely begun to consider the far-reaching implications of new technologies such as artificial intelligence. These trends are precursors to a very different international model that has yet to emerge – one that will be distinct from both the nineteenth century’s “balance of power” and the twentieth century’s “community of states.”
In 1994, Hobsbawm believed that there could “be no serious doubt that in the late 1980s and early 1990s an era in world history ended and a new one began.” But it is now clear that the subsequent period, between the early 1990s and today, marked the culmination of a process that began in Sarajevo in 1914.
That process gradually built the liberal international order, first with an aborted attempt after World War I – embodied in the ill-fated League of Nations – and then after World War II, with the founding of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions. In the post-Cold War period, the flower came fully into bloom as democracy and free markets spread around the globe. This model held a moral umbrella over the existing Westphalian state system, by creating a universal structure within which national governments could collaborate in the pursuit of progress.
For most of the twentieth century, this framework applied only to a core group of countries; but with the end of the Cold War, it was suddenly available to all. And yet, just when this moral order was in a position to be fully realized around the world, it lost its center and began to drift. Free markets and material prosperity, once regarded as means to larger ends, had become ends in themselves. The 2008 financial crisis revealed the soullessness of this approach, and set the stage for the unraveling on display today.
This is all in the past now. The world has pushed off from the shore of a rules-based system that was founded on the Enlightenment idea of universal progress. As for what lies ahead, three immediate approaches have emerged. The first is to revive familiar nationalist and nativist tropes, such as Trump’s vow that “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first,” or British Prime Minister Theresa May’s appeal to Little England: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
The second possibility, epitomized by the European Union’s leaders, is to continue down the twentieth-century path, but with more rhetorical flourishes. The third, comprising perhaps the largest camp, is to retreat below deck and wring one’s hands, bemoaning the expulsion from paradise and fearful of a looming apocalypse.
None of these responses is constructive. We cannot return to the world of yesterday or simply stand still; and we do not yet know what the world of tomorrow has in store for us. When sailors cannot rely on maps or charts, they must navigate by sight, and that is precisely our situation today. Until the world regains its bearings, this is not the time to charge in bold new directions, or to let the currents push us toward potential hazards.
Instead, we need decisive, concrete action that addresses tangible and discernible problems in governance and public policy. Before we can move forward into this brave new world, we must first reestablish the idea of common purpose – and wait for the fog to lift.
Trump’s inauguration marks a new epoch in world history – a new geopolitical “century.” Nobody can yet say if it will be a time of conflict or harmony, advancement or retrenchment. But, before attempting to chart a new course forward, we must make our way into calmer waters.