The 20th century started late and ended early, framed not by chronology, but conflict. It opened in June 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. And it ended with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2nd a year ago.
Taken alone, these two events are remarkable for their relative inconsequence. Few could have imagined that the death of an unloved Duke in a remote corner of Europe would move all the World to War. And Saddam’s initial attack on an oil-rich micro-state caught Washington planners by surprise, and gained only passing mention in the news. Yet each event triggered far larger forces, changing the global order forever.
The bomb that killed Ferdinand also dealt a mortal blow to the tottering monarchies governing most of the continent. By 1930, politicians, not Kings headed a 20th century Europe of nation-states carved by conflict from the 19th century empires. Another World War and the century of nation states ossified into today’s bipolar world of the Superpowers.
Now the world has changed again. Saddam lost the Gulf War, but not before his tanks blasted a weakening superpower order into oblivion. Saddam’s southern ambitions were restrained for decades by a Soviet Union engaged in a geopolitical balancing act with the United States. But Perestroika and growing internal crises turned Soviet concerns inward, causing the Soviet Union to abandon its Superpower role, freeing Saddam and others to pursue old desires.
We entered a new century as Saddam’s army crossed the Kuwaiti border. Washington optimists talk of a new uni-polar world dominated by the United States, but it remains to be seen whether the world must have at least two superpowers for any superpower to exist at all. It is as if the US and USSR occupied opposite poles of a geopolitical magnet, with other nations coherently aligned between them like so many iron filings. Now one pole is disappearing, and the pattern is dissolving into complex unpredictable uncertainty. Freed of external threats, Cold War allies are rediscovering old enmities. And old adversaries like the two Germanys are finding new common ground. Last year, Francis Fukuyama, a policy planner for the State Department published an essay titled “The End of History?” in which he predicted the defeat of communism and triumph of western liberalism. In fact, we are experiencing a return to history on a global scale, as slumbering national and regional rivalries held in stasis by the Superpower conflict reawaken.
We are entering a new hyper-polar century dominated by the many and ultimately by no one. It will be a world of complex and constantly changing alliances and rivalries within multiple spheres of influence and endeavor. Allies in one sphere may be competitors in another, just as Japan and the United States are trade rivals and security partners today.
The United States will remain a dominant economic and military force in this hyper-polar century, but this dominance may prove insufficient to influence the course of events to any meaningful degree. Translating power into useful action will be harder than ever for the consequences will be impossible to predict. Already the victory of Desert Storm is dissolving into the uncertainty of the outcomes it has unleashed around the globe. That uncertainty is the signature of a century arrived a decade early to change the global order forever.