2022 Is the New ... 2001
This year is shaping up to be a pendulum year—a moment in history when the big formative forces of world affairs reverse direction. There are telling parallels with the year 2001. Europe, however, needs to draw the right lessons.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
Three months in, 2022 has proved to be a momentous year, but hardly the first of such. History tends to rhyme. So, are we experiencing a riff on 1918—pandemic, inflation, global war, and the murder of the tsar? Is it 1812 again, only instead of Napoleon’s disastrous march to bring progress to Russia, we are seeing Moscow’s disastrous attempt to bring the 19th century to Europe? Or is it a mash-up of 1979—the Kremlin’s fateful invasion of Afghanistan—and 1962, the brinksmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis?
Events in Ukraine are too raw to be playing parlour games, but historical parallels can help us make sense of bewildering events. 2022 is shaping up to be a pendulum year—a point in time where a new global order constitutes itself, but also where the counterforces to that order start to take shape. In other words, we are at a point when smart observers can see both which way the world is swinging and how it will correct itself.
And for Europeans, reading this moment correctly matters, because we need to be in the vanguard of the counterforces.
The last pendulum year was 2001: Following Islamist terror attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, Western governments subjected Afghanistan to liberal state-building. The same year, the United States brought China into the World Trade Organisation, genially propelling it onto the path to becoming a market economy. And Western governments pressed Russia to accept the Internet, an invention of the US military, as a vector of worldwide openness and exchange. The mechanics of US civilization had become clear, but so too had the seeds of its destruction.
The Four Factors Driving World Affairs
At the start of 2022, I phoned colleagues in Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, and Singapore. Everyone I chatted with corroborated views prevalent in Europe about what is driving global affairs, naming much the same four factors—bipolarity (the “G2” of China and the US), geo-economics (attempts by governments to use industry for foreign policy purposes), “sovereignization” (the reassertion of strong states like Russia), and conflict black holes (Yemen, Libya)—and in roughly that order of importance.
That straw poll suggests that people generally agree on which way the world is swinging. Which is where pendulum theory comes in. According to the theory, the global order swings back and forth looking for an equilibrium. Global interdependence has historically gone in waves, deepening and then receding. The world economy has repeatedly pushed out to encompass new territories and societies. Then it has been pushed back, before it expanded again, on a more politically inclusive footing, looking for a stable order that suits all.
It’s been obvious for some time that the pendulum is swinging back and reversing the expansive momentum of the 2000s, but only this year have the constitutive forces of the new order become clear. The pattern, moreover, only really emerges if you compare 2022 to what are widely seen as the two previous pendulum years of 2001, when Reaganite policies finally peaked, and of 1980, when détente gave way to a deeper Cold War.
Already in January we were seeing evidence of this ebbing and flowing. Today’s structuring of the global economy around bipolar US-Chinese rivalry replaces the heavy-handed US unipolarity of 2001, which in turn corrected the bipolar division of world affairs in 1980 between the US and the USSR. Today’s attempts by governments to use commercial technology for geo-economic purposes corrects the commercialization of military technologies like the Internet and drones in 2001, which in turn corrected the military industrial complex in 1980.
Attempts like that of Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish long-prepared for autarky in 2022 are the counterforce to 2001 when the imperative of global trade forced governments to dismantle national bureaucracy, which in turn corrected the heavy promotion of industrial champions in 1980. And the “proxy wars” of 2022 in Libya or Yemen are the counter-reaction to 2001 with US-led regime change in “failed states,” which in turn corrected the attempts by Washington and Moscow at creating puppet regimes in Nicaragua and Afghanistan.
Europeans Read It Differently
If the constitutive forces of our—regressive—new world order are becoming clear, so too are the counterforces. And the European Union is seen as prime amongst these counterforces: a potential force for integration and openness. The people I spoke with were all enthusiastic about the EU’s efforts to achieve “European sovereignty” and looked upon the EU as a vital ally in pushing the pendulum back again.
And so, it was worrying that, even though Europeans used the same terms as the rest of the world, our interpretation of these four forces in fact turned out to be very different as I drilled down.
Sino-American bipolarity: All agreed that Sino-US relations define the ruptures in the global order. But Europeans these days speak more and more of an implacable ideological rivalry between China and the US, the emergence of two competing economic systems, and the need to line up behind Washington in pursuit of liberal values. By contrast, the rest of the world saw two big powers interested primarily in top dog status, in a hurry because of domestic weaknesses, and too vulnerable to really compete. They spoke of “implosion or collusion”—the pair would overheat if they competed and, therefore, were more likely to sew up global affairs quietly between them. And whilst Beijing and Washington might set ideological loyalty tests for partners, they wouldn’t be able to enforce them, let alone show loyalty in return. They hoped that the EU would promote liberal norms on their own merit, rather than using these as an excuse to take sides and line up behind the US.
Geo-economics. All agreed that the state is making a return to the global economy, not least because of China’s command economy model. But Europeans talked of responding by becoming geo-economic, learning to leverage the EU’s huge internal market for the purposes of spreading its rules. By contrast, in the perception of the rest of the world the EU, like the US, has been actively geo-economic for decades, using their structural influence in global standard-setting bodies, their multinational businesses, and above all their internal markets to open up the global economy. They suggested that the EU tends to view itself as the passive victim of the backlash and worried that the EU would now further isolate itself, putting up market barriers first and then leveraging access to its market to spread its rules. This was a real dilemma for them. They liked the flavor of EU norms, but did not see why these should be imposed unilaterally from Brussels.
Sovereignization. All agreed that Russia is in the vanguard when it comes to preferring state-building to wealth. But Europeans saw Russia as a limitless malcontent, an indiscriminate and risk-hungry spoiler weaponizing cross-border economic and infrastructural links to simply cut itself off. By contrast, the rest of the world described Russia as having skin in the game, a constitutive power that was trying to win over its peers and prove that its model of state-building-without-interdependence could work. They spoke of a strange alliance between a neo-imperial Russia and former European colonies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, with Putin bent on proving that 1950s-style state-building still worked. They argued that the only way to defeat Russia was on normative terms, showing that its “strong state model” is anything but—that it creates chaos and is dependent on China and that the EU’s open model is still viable and attractive.
Conflict black holes. All sides worried about conflict zones as providing the dark matter of the new order. Europeans complained about being ringed by such conflicts, which they could not enter and could not contain—Libya, Syria, Yemen, Nagorno-Karabakh, Donbass, Transnistria. They pictured the EU surrounded by a “ring of fire,” that was sucking in the great powers. The rest of the world pointed out, firstly, that these conflict hotspots were far more widespread than merely marking the EU’s neighborhood. And secondly, that they were not vacuums. These were spaces where the great powers test new military technologies, cut access to the Internet, and spawn new global norms cynically citing humanitarian imperatives and establishing exceptions from international law. These black holes will constitute a new global order much more than they contain the old. Again, this is a field where the rest of the world expected the EU to lead a multilateral response.
This straw poll of colleagues was hardly scientific, but it did suggest that people in other parts of the world hope the EU will become a prime bulwark for multilateralism and openness, standing up against today’s regressive momentum. Brussels will in turn need to diversify relations away from the US and seek new partners worldwide if it is to stand for globalization on the basis of a new and more equitable form of global order. And this, in turn, requires some empathy from Europeans for other parts of the world—an awareness that we are losing the information war in the South, are depicted as creators of instability with our sanctions, and that any new settlement in the international security architecture must be on a South-North basis as much as West-East.
Yet the straw poll suggests that the way Europeans view the global situation is deeply Eurocentric. Viewed from Berlin, Brussels, or Paris the EU appears as a beacon of stability in a world on fire, bereft of reliable partners, which sees a mix of unilateral market leverage and military defense as the one reliable means to spread its norms. For all those parts of the world that want to work with the EU, this is a dismal reading of the situation. The rest of the world tended to describe 2022 as a “correction” to the excesses of globalization. We talk grandly of the end of the “hiatus from history,” which began in 1989.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, in a speech on March 10, did draw the parallel to 2001. But not as a pendulum year. Hers was a Eurocentric reading of the parallels: like the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Russo-Ukrainian war was an attack on Western soil for which we expect special solidarity from the rest of the world. This is to draw the wrong lessons from history. Our friends in the rest of the world have simply said, “Welcome to our club.”
Roderick Parkes is research director and head of the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).