To understand what has happened and why it matters, I spoke with politicians, foreign-policy specialists, and government officials in the U.S. and Britain. Although there is little consensus on the questions of when and how the previous era ended—or what it means for the future—something of a common understanding is beginning to emerge: The golden era of the ’90s was never golden to begin with. Like Gibbon’s Rome, it was structurally and irretrievably defective, compromised by the arrogant belief in its own myth of inevitable superiority.
Read: The decline of the American world
For many, whether they are on the radical left or populist right, the further from the ’90s and early 2000s we travel, the more flawed that period looks: turbocharged globalization, China’s seemingly costless entry into the World Trade Organization, the creation of a common European currency without the necessary tools to manage it, the failure to regulate subprime lending, unquestioned support for the free movement of labor and capital, apparently unending wars in the Middle East.
The rapid collapse of the liberal democratic global order has left many of its former inhabitants in the West traumatized and politically homeless, wandering through today’s wrecked landscape in a state of bewildered mourning, hoping, somehow, that old certainties can be restored. Here in Britain, we see a yearning for the time before Brexit and the financial crisis, for the centrist political consensus that once seemed permanent. In the U.S., that desire manifests in the hope that Republicans can revert to mainstream Reaganite politics or that all the Democrats need to do is return to the time of Barack Obama.
Yet according to those I spoke with, the pandemic reveals the need to speed away from this time, not reverse back to it. Today’s problems are the result of that era’s mistakes.
“There was a hubristic view that there was an inevitability about things,” Tom Kelly, Tony Blair’s official spokesperson from 2001 to 2007, told me. He recounted a trip to Beijing in this period, during which China gave reassurances about its commitment to democratizing “from the bottom up,” in his words. “Frankly, we were just too eager to hear it,” he said. The same story is true of Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein, and of Saudi Arabia under the brutal but allied rule of its royal family, whose unending promises about planned modernization the West was too ready to accept.
In hindsight, the scale of naïveté is staggering: the failure to anticipate the sudden mass movement of people from Eastern Europe after European Union enlargement in 2004 and the impact it might have on domestic politics; the shortcuts and political fixes built into the European single currency that would come home to roost after 2008; the failure to design a Marshall Plan for Russia after the Soviet Union’s collapse, or to anticipate Russia’s reaction to NATO’s expansion; the wars in the Middle East; and, of course, the great opening up to China and how that accelerated changes in the global economy. Emma Ashford, a research fellow at the libertarian CATO Institute, told me, “When we talk about foreign policy, I think we too often overlook the fact that many of the negative trends we see today are the direct result of our choices during the 1990s and early 2000s.”