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The Era of Disorder

NEW YORK – Historical eras are difficult to recognize before they end. The Renaissance became the Renaissance only in retrospect; the same can be said for the Dark Ages that preceded it and any number of other eras. The reason is simple: It is impossible to know if some promising or troubling development stands alone or represents the start of a lasting trend.

Nonetheless, I would argue that we are witnessing the end of one era of world history and the dawn of another. It has been 25 years since the Berlin Wall was dismantled, bringing the 40-year Cold War to an end. What followed was an era of American preeminence, increased prosperity for many, the emergence of a large number of relatively open societies and political systems, and widespread peace, including considerable cooperation among the major powers. Now that era, too, has ended, ushering in a far less orderly and peaceful epoch.

The Middle East is in the early phases of a modern-day Thirty Years’ War, in which political and religious loyalties are destined to fuel prolonged and sometimes savage conflicts within and across national borders. With its behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere, Russia has challenged what had been a mostly stable European order founded on the legal principle that territory may not be acquired by military force.

Asia, for its part, has remained mostly at peace. But it is a precarious peace, one that could come undone at any moment, owing to a large number of unresolved territorial claims, rising nationalism, and a paucity of bilateral or regional diplomatic arrangements robust enough to prevent or moderate confrontations. Meanwhile, global efforts to slow climate change, promote trade, set new rules for the digital age, and prevent or contain outbreaks of infectious diseases are inadequate.