Remember the ’90s, Don’t Long for a Return

Remember the ’90s, Don’t Long for a Return

  • The liberal order has collapsed, and the pandemic is revealing why the West needs to speed away from this not-so-golden era.

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus,” Edward Gibbon writes in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.” It was stable, at peace, just, and prosperous. Yet a single flaw made its collapse inevitable: dependence on the character of one man, the emperor.

It is hard not to read these lines and think of our own golden age. Only recently, after all, did the democracies of the West appear at ease with themselves, the day’s great ideological conflicts apparently solved. Governments were liberal, open, and modern, and their countries not yet so full of the angst that seems to define them today. The phrase War on Terror had not yet been coined, China had not yet risen, and Europe was on a smooth path to ever-closer union, protected and supported by the only power on Earth that mattered, the United States. This was the 1990s.

This world is now gone. Today, faced with a once-in-a-century pandemic—which itself came on the heels of the great financial crisis of 2008, September 11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, breached red lines in Syria, and the rise of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Donald Trump, and Brexit—the extraordinary power, prestige, and sense of inevitable triumph that the West inherited only a few decades ago has suddenly disappeared. Is this how the American Century ends and China’s begins?