At the turn of the year various magazines and columnists all had a little bit of fun looking back at the past decade, and trying to come up with big themes for what the Noughties were all about. A couple of months late, I’ve decided to join the party.
This is the introduction to a planned four-part series over the next week or so, offering some thoughts about what not just the past decade has been about, but that of the decade before that, taking us from 1990 through to 2010. I want to cover this swathe of time because it seems that we’re still struggling to come to terms with the ‘big thing’ that our times are about. Many writers in the 1990s simply described that decade as the ‘post-Cold War era’, which seemed appropriate enough. So many of the concerns of that decade seemed to emerge from the forces set loose the end of bipolar ideological rivalry (American unipolarity, the market transition of East European states, humanitarian intervention). The 1990s, in other words, seemed to be dealing with the detritus of the Cold War. Were the 2000s just more of the same? Are we living in the long post-Cold War era? It’s a bit of a cumbersome moniker. So let me borrow another label, coined for the 1990s but which I think better captures both where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
Three British academics (not coincidentally from my old place of learning, Aberystwyth), as editors for a special issue of the Review of International Studies journal in December 1999, offered the ‘interregnum’ as their description of the 1990s. Their introduction to the issue said: “[T]he idea of an interregnum as a space between one era and another at least captured something about the ill-defined and almost impossible-to-define character of the last ten years. […] while we might know what our modern era is not—it is not a Cold War—we are not at all sure what it is, or where it might be leading to.
Alongside this, I’m also mindful that the ’causes’ and ‘underlying drivers’ of things really only become blindingly apparent after the event, making for wonderful post hoc debate. So last year amidst the anniversaries of the Berlin Wall coming down and the sweeping aside of the Iron Curtain, a fascinating piece by Niall Ferguson in Newsweek offered a provocative antidote: that the real year of significance was 1979, laying the foundations for the convulsive transformations of a decade later and indeed the challenges that still pervade today’s international affairs.
“1989 was a moment of revelation, not revolution,” Ferguson writes. Instead, if we look to 1979, “[t]he Soviets began their policy of self-destruction by invading Afghanistan. The British started the revival of free-market economics in the West by electing Margaret Thatcher. Deng Xiaoping set China on a new economic course by visiting the United States and seeing for himself what the free market can achieve. And, of course, the Iranians ushered in the new era of clashing civilizations by overthrowing the shah and proclaiming an Islamic Republic.”
In part, this is the case for taking a somewhat longer view than just the self-contained recent decade. Perhaps it offers a better sense of the deeper significance of today’s events, and their reveberations into the future. But the idea of an interregnum, to return to the point, isn’t open-ended. If the period we live in now is a transition, it has to be a transition to something. Some thoughts on what this ‘something’ might be, is what will follow over the next week or so.