The Next Hundred Years: By a Circuitous Route, the World Has Returned to Something like Its Condition a Century Ago, in Which the Risk of War Is Always Present

By Gray, John | New Statesman (1996), April 12, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Next Hundred Years: By a Circuitous Route, the World Has Returned to Something like Its Condition a Century Ago, in Which the Risk of War Is Always Present


Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)


In The Great Illusion, a bestseller in 1913, the Labour MP Norman Angell distilled the ruling wisdom of the time: the immense productivity of global markets had made war a destructive anachronism. A new phase in human history had arrived, a period of continuing growth and prosperity, bringing with it an era of peace. In fact, it was the long peace that Angell and so many others expected that turned out to be the great illusion, and the century that followed was shaped by violent global conflicts.

When the first issue of the New Statesman appeared, 14 months before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, European states controlled much of the globe. The culmination of many years of geopolitical rivalries, the First World War destroyed Europe's primacy and led to another world conflict from which the United States emerged as the global hyperpower. Today the US can no longer claim any all-round pre-eminence; but that does not mean that China, or any other country, can occupy the position in the world that the US once did. Instead, we have entered an era in which no great power is predominant. For the foreseeable future, no one will rule the world.

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In this, as in other ways, the next loo years seem likely to resemble the late 19th century more than the late 20th. There have been significant changes in social and political structures, with women and gay people achieving partial emancipation, and varieties of democracy spreading across many countries. Yet the projects of international peace and world government that many cherished a century ago have not been realised and the pattern that is emerging at a global level looks likely to be another round in a remarkably familiar kind of human conflict.

If geopolitics is the struggle of states for power over natural resources, we find ourselves in an era of geopolitical rivalry similar to the one that existed a century ago but with new players and higher stakes.

The most obvious shift that has taken place in the past 100 years is also the most clearly irreversible. A trend since 1914, the dwindling significance of Europe as a global player has become an unalterable fact. If Britain has yet to acquire any coherent post-imperial role, Europe has consigned itself to impotence by trying to turn itself into a super-state. Writing in 1927, the visionary French poet Paul Valery observed: "Europe visibly aspires to be governed by an American commission. Its entire policy is directed to that end. Not knowing how to rid ourselves of our history, we will be relieved of it by a fortunate people who have almost none."

Being ruled by the US may have been the secret European dream during the interwar years, but the course of events after 1945 was rather different. Europe's peace was guaranteed by US power (without which Nazism could not have been defeated or Stalin kept at bay) but the European elite were unhappy living in the shadow of the American shield, and from the late 1940s a movement developed aiming to reassert Europe in the world. Its goal was to escape from American rule by becoming like America - a federal state - but one held together by European values and a distinctive type of social market capitalism.

The resulting European project produced 40 years of peace and prosperity. But the goal of forging an American-style polity on the European continent neglected basic differences - not least that the US became a modern state only after a savage civil war and generations of sometimes coercive nation-building. There is no way Europe can replicate the US's achievement.

A single European currency created in the absence of anything resembling a functioning European polity, the euro has divided the EU and plunged the southern half of the continent into a state of permanent depression. Under pressure from the austerity policies required to shore up the banking system, the social market economy that was meant to mark out European capitalism from the Anglo-American variety is being shredded relentlessly. …

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