Where does the contemporary world begin and where does the modern world end? Historians ask themselves such questions before setting out on research, and generally they hesitate before answering.
Often, they wonder whether it is possible to study an event before a quarter of a century has lapsed and many believe that a half-century will produce more documents and records to rely on.
But journalists, commentators and similar writers do not have the luxury to wait. Their job is to record what is happening now in their capacity as front seat spectators of history as it unfolds and is recorded and transmitted on the spot by diverse audio and visual equipment and media and, above all, the new phenomenon of social media that disseminates the “now” with its “in-your-face” impact and all its pathos.
This attempt to read the contemporary world begins around 2011, not just because that was the year that shook down the leaves of the “Arab Autumn” due to the quake that rumbled through many Arab countries, but also because it was the year that brought the tidings of the birth of a new historical phase in the world.
This new beginning had its origins in 1989 when the Cold War ended and the period that would become known as “globalisation” emerged in tandem with the predominance of the Western liberal and democratic order and a single polar order led by the US. This period might be the shortest historical era ever.
When historians get to it, they’ll probably argue over whether it can be called an era at all, because no sooner had the third millennium begun than the most bizarre incident one could ever have imagined occurred: two passenger planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York triggering a series of American reactions from the invasion of Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Today, we know the outcomes of those wars and how Washington has been wrestling with the dilemmas of engineering exits while leaving things far worse off than before.
But we were still feeling our way towards 2011. The next main stop before that was in 2008 which brought two more events of major historical value: the worst global economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression of 1929 and the election of the first African-American president in US history, Barack Obama.
The first event declared that “globalisation” was not a global asset that came without a price and an antithesis, as it also brought the birth of globalised terrorism and globalised economic crises.
The second announced the last wave of liberalism which drove the US to elect Obama as a gesture that America was changing itself and shedding the diseases of racism and slavery. The waves clashed, as high waves do, at the time when Obama was seeking a second term. Although he won, he failed to pass a single piece of legislation in his second term without presidential decree, thereby making it easy for his antithesis, Donald Trump, to do away with them with other presidential decrees.
That was the year when Trump began his presidential campaign in earnest. It was also the year in which the first seeds of Brexit were sown along with the seeds of the resurgence of “white supremacy” in Europe, the US, the West and elsewhere.
By the midpoint of the decade, extremist rightwing groups had made a comeback and by the end of this decade authoritarian governments were in power from Brazil in the West to India in the East.
The world has experienced its 13th consecutive year of democratic decline, according to Freedom House’s report on “Democracy in Retreat.” Democracies have collapsed across the world, from Burundi to Hungary and from Thailand to Venezuela. More disturbingly yet, democratic institutions have proven surprisingly vulnerable in countries where they had previously seemed stable and secure.
The events in the Arab world in 2011 and their subsequent repercussions precipitated an outbreak of civil wars and an unprecedented upsurge in terrorism leading to the establishment of the first “caliphate state” in modern history.
These developments generated tidal waves of migrants, refugees and displaced persons. But these were not the first or last of such waves in the world. Similar ones originated in Africa and in South America, and before these came Southeast Asian waves dating back to the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma.
These demographic movements of a global magnitude benefited considerably from what seemed like a unified world in terms of the flow of capital, technology, new values, as well as employment and labour markets.
When the EU evolved from a community for Western European countries to a larger community for the whole of Europe that included countries from Eastern Europe and that, for a majority of these countries, had a single visa and a single currency, the demographic tide quickly benefited from that single market. This placed huge pressures on labour and employment prospects in the EU’s founding countries, which were also the more developed ones. Globalisation made the world grow closer together.
It also made it more crowded and congestion generated a new and fanatical surge towards the right. This trend has its own political movements which have little enthusiasm for working with institutions and established conventions and prefer, instead, to work through direct contact with people. In short, “populism” has prevailed.
Many “strongmen” have emerged in the process: Putin in Russia, Xi in China, Modi in India, Trump in the US, Johnson in the UK, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, Erdogan in Turkey, Orbán in Hungary, Duda in Poland and Maduro in Venezuela. Simultaneously, the words “democracy” and “liberalism” have become eclipsed by “authoritarianism”, “centralisation”, “dictatorship”, “autocracy” and “populism”.
Ironically, all these strongmen came to power through democratic elections. Yet, their visions for their countries and the world are entirely different from what was once the prevailing global view of the world. Theirs is ultranationalist and often ethnocentric.
“Identity” has become the most important chapter in the book of nations. Philosophers and journalists from Fukuyama to Fareed Zakaria are racing to produce books on the subject. Evidently, technological progress and the new industrial revolutions, which were supposed to give the individual the power to make an impact and take part in formulating political decisions, had given those strongmen extremely powerful means and capacities to dominate the world in a “contemporary” age which is so different to its predecessor.
How long will this “contemporary” age last? Will it have a longer lifespan than its predecessor? It’s impossible to predict this with any degree of certainty. The compass and the gauge are in the hands of political leaders and technology. However, we can probably take it as a general rule that historical eras are getting shorter even if humans live longer than ever before. And the longer one lives, the more one sees.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The shortest era