“Why do they call us the Middle Ages when nothing yet comes after us?” This is the plaintive question King Arthur asks in the hit Broadway musical comedy Spamalot.
The frustrated monarch has a point. Those living in what we now call the Middle Ages did not describe their time that way, any more than those who came before them saw their period as “dark” or those who came after them woke up every morning cheering their good fortune for being alive in the middle of a renaissance.
But in modern times, eras aren’t always named in hindsight. People in the 1930s knew they were living through the Great Depression. The Cold War came into vogue as a phrase several decades before it ended. The Sixties weren’t even in the history books yet when people began using the name of the decade to describe those tumultuous times.
What about our era then? Here we are, more than 16 years after the Berlin Wall began to crumble, and this period still lacks a name. Calling it the post-Cold War era is an admission that we know what came before but not where we are, much less where we are heading.
It’s not that people haven’t tried to name this era. Books have dubbed it an “age of anxiety,” an “age of sacred terror,” an “information age” or the “genomics age,” to name just a few. But these names often seem as much a matter of marketing as a true description of our times.
The names that truly stick to past eras are those that capture a defining characteristic: A breakthrough technology (the Stone, the Bronze or the nuclear age); political features (the age of reform, revolution, world war or empire); philosophical outlook (the age of enlightenment, reason or innocence); or economic trends (the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties or the Great Depression).
That this era lacks a name suggests that it still lacks a defining characteristic. Perhaps globalization comes closest, encompassing the increasing volume, speed and importance of flows across borders of people, ideas, greenhouse gases, manufactured goods, dollars, euros, television and radio signals, drugs, germs, e-mails, weapons and a good deal else. But globalization does not describe many features of the contemporary world, be they technological, political, religious or philosophical.
All of these things will help shape our era, but none will have greater impact on how we view it, and what we call it, than relations between the United States and other great powers.
The United States emerged from the Cold War as the world’s most powerful country, the first among unequals. And that has prompted some people in my field to call ours the unipolar era. But this is a misreading of the current international context. Primacy is not the same as unipolarity. We are the preeminent power, but hardly the only one. There may not be a single alternative pole as was the case during the Cold War, but there are multiple, independent actors, not only countries but groups of individuals, some of whom are hostile and virtually all of whom resist U.S. designs. The result is that the United States on its own cannot stave off terrorism, force North Korea and Iran to eschew nuclear weapons, bring democracy to Iraq or the rest of the Arab world, deliver or impose peace between Israelis and Palestinians, or sustain its standard of living without importing oil and dollars.
So if this is an era defined fully by neither globalization nor American control, what is it then? There are three main possibilities.
Ideally, this would turn out to be an era of prolonged peace and prosperity, in which great power conflict becomes a thing of the past. Free markets and democracy would spread, and the energies of governments would be devoted to combating challenges to international order rather than combating one another. Each power’s recognition that its own self-interest requires it to work with others would give birth to unprecedented cooperation. Call it the Age of Integration.
In such an epoch, nations would rally together and intervene to prevent or stop genocides and combat terrorism. Major powers would provide other countries with access to enriched uranium and plutonium for peaceful nuclear energy purposes as long as these raw materials were not diverted for military ends. The World Trade Organization would be extended to cover virtually all aspects of manufacturing, agriculture and services; tariffs, quotas and subsidies would be eliminated. Cooperation would be extended to deal with disease and global warming.
A second possibility is that this moment in history will later be seen as the inter-Cold War era, bracketed on one end by a four-decade struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, and on the other by a struggle between the United States and China. This is the prediction of latter-day cold warriors who see a clash between today’s principal power and a rising China as all but inevitable.
Subscribers to this theory predict a clash over Taiwan or a clash arising from the mismanagement of relations between two powerful and dynamic countries. A U.S.-China Cold War, like the previous one, would be dangerous, costly and distracting from other priorities. The United States needs China’s assistance to deal with regional challenges (such as North Korea’s nuclear aspirations) and global ones (such as avian flu and climate change). China, for its part, needs diplomatic calm so that it can focus on economic modernization.
A third possibility is even worse: a Second Dark Ages, characterized by the spread of nuclear weapons to North Korea, Iran and beyond; terrorism that increases in frequency and destructiveness; virulent infectious disease; mounting protectionism; and a substantially warmer planet. Conflict would become more common, as would the failure of states and a rise in poverty.
The United States could not wall itself off from such a world; we cannot become a gated country. As was the case during the world wars in the last century, even before globalization became a phenomenon, isolation would not be an option. Our standard of living would decline as trade withered and investment dried up. Civil liberties would be curtailed so that Americans could better cope with the threat from within. The world would become a more dangerous place and American society would be worse off.
Therefore, working out the name and nature for our era is an exercise in strategy, not taxonomy. We can help determine how the future turns out. Looking back on the inter-war period during the middle of the 20th century, World War II seems unavoidable. But it took the rise of National Socialism and the failure of appeasement to bring about the second global conflict.
More recently, the Cold War may have been all but inevitable given the nature of the Soviet and Communist challenge. But neither the course nor the outcome of the Cold War was fated; it could have turned hot, it could have been lost, or it could still be going on.
This tells us that history remains anything but ordained. What individuals and countries choose to do matters, none more so than the United States. There is a great deal of discretion in foreign policy. Iraq was a textbook example—it was a war of choice. Tax cuts and increased spending are also matters of choice, as is the absence of an energy policy that limits American dependence on imported oil and gas.
It is not clear how President Bush will use the remaining three years of his presidency, much less who will succeed him. The good news is that the United States, more than any other country, has the power to make this an era of cooperation and avoid the start of a new cold war—or worse. The worrisome news is that, 16 years after the Cold War’s end, the United States has done more to squander than exploit the opportunity at hand.