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Each passing year serves up its own reminder that history didn’t end in the final decades of the last century, and that the conclusion of the Cold War wasn’t a moment of resolution but merely the prelude to the phase we live in today of disorder and deadly tumult.
Obviously, it was precipitous of Francis Fukuyama to proclaim the triumph of liberal democracy as the Soviet Empire was disintegrating, and hubristic of the West to be seduced by his “end of history” thinking.
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America’s unipolar moment – what Robert Hughes described in the early 1990s as “an exquisitely silly piece of late imperial thinking, if you don’t happen to be American” – proved fleeting. Rather than a “New World Order”, we were on the verge of a 30-year phase of global disorder.
Even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, there were signs of trouble. Vladimir Putin rose to power on December 31, 1999, a Y2K bug in human form. The bursting of the dot.com bubble in 2000 hinted at how the digital economy could be as destructive as it was disruptive. The Battle of Seattle in November 1999, when protesters targeted a meeting of the World Trade Organisation, semaphored the backlash against globalisation. The Florida election debacle in 2000 demonstrated the fragility of US democracy. The very phrase New World Order was seized upon by the conspiracy-mongering forerunners of QAnon, who believed it was shorthand for a secretive world government.
More germane to the crisis in the Middle East was the failure in 2000 of the Camp David summit where then-US president Bill Clinton, searching for both peace and a legacy, sought to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet despite the then-Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, going further than any of his predecessors in the deal he offered to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the usual divides over borders, refugees and the final status of Jerusalem proved unbridgeable.
Just months after the failure at Camp David, the second intifada erupted, a five-year Palestinian uprising that put a two-state solution even further out of reach.
Strategies of democratisation and Westernisation that guided American thinking around the turn of the century, both within the Clinton and Bush administrations, ultimately backfired. NATO’s eastward expansion, which included the admission in 2004 of three former Soviet republics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – fuelled Putin’s ultra-nationalist grievance politics.
The admission of China into the World Trade Organisation on December 11, 2001, supercharged the economic growth of a resurgent Middle Kingdom but did little to advance liberalisation, which was the aim.
The idea promoted by George W. Bush that democracy offered a panacea to the troubled Middle East was shattered by the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, which resulted in a sweeping victory for Hamas. Bush called for Hamas to renounce terrorism, disarm its militias and recognise the state of Israel – demands that sound even more fantastical in retrospect than they did at the time.
Elections held elsewhere in the region around the same time bolstered the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon and a new Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a vile Holocaust denier who called for Israel to be “eliminated from the pages of history”. All these election results underscored the same lesson: be careful what you wish for.
The enormous cost of the Iraq war, both in blood and treasure, is well-documented, as is the damage it wrought to US prestige. America squandered the “nous sommes tous Américains” (we are all Americans) goodwill that existed in the aftermath of September 11, and damaged its credibility at the United Nations with exaggerated claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, how could America claim to stand for a rules-based international order when it rode roughshod over the UN Security Council in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq? It was an argument voiced loudly in subsequent years by Russia and China.
For all its missteps, I have tended to look upon the US as a force for good in foreign affairs – a “last, best hope” to use Abraham Lincoln’s ringing phrase. But the past 30 years have reminded us of the limitations of US power, the perils of wishful thinking and the impossibility of somehow controlling or shutting the door on the past.
The new century has only demonstrated the seismic power of deep historical forces which, like shifting tectonic plates, are the source of so much friction and rupture.
In his Russian empire-building, Putin has evoked the 18th-century tsar Peter the Great. Xi Jinping’s determination to make China great again is based on his reading of 5000 years of Chinese history and the sense that his country has habitually been starved of global respect.
America’s present-day divisions are a reversion to its default setting of disunion. The United States has always struggled to be united. The present-day conflict in the Middle East is biblical in its timeframe.
What are billed as definitive breaks with the past, whether they come in the form of a wall coming down, the dawning of a new millennium or the election of a black president, tend to be overblown. Rather than benefiting from the end of history, the modern-day world remains its prisoner.
Nick Bryant is the author of When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present.
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