WASHINGTON, DC – 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.”