by Paul Kennedy
A watershed is, by Webster's definition, an aspect of physical geography: "an area bounded by water parting and draining down a particular course." The water to the north of this divide runs in one direction, the water to the south of the mountain divide runs the opposite way. But for centuries the term has also been used to describe a historical and political phenomenon: that is, when an array of existing human activities and circumstances pass, irrevocably, from one age to the next, across a great divide. At the time, very few contemporaries sense that they have entered a new era, unless of course the world is coming out of a cataclysmic war, like the Napoleonic War or the World War II. But such abrupt historical transformations are not the focus of this article. Our interest is in the slow buildup of forces for change, mainly invisible, almost always unpredictable, which sooner or later will turn one age into another.
This topic of "watersheds" crops up frequently in a weekly discussion class I am holding with eight Yale students this semester. It was not originally meant to focus on that problem, but it has emerged that way. The first book we read was Jan Huizinga's classic "The Waning of the Middle Ages." an elegiac look at the end of a centuries-long period in Western History. Then we grappled with books on Europe's early outward push (Carlo Cipolla's "Guns, Sails and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700"), and the brutal Reformation in England (Eamon Duffy's "The Stripping of the Altars"). When we put these books together, we realized that we had been looking at a watershed era of massive proportions. No one alive in 1480 would recognize the world of 1530, 50 years later; a world of new nation-states, the breakup of Christendom, the European expansion into Asia and the Americas, the Gutenberg communications revolution. Perhaps this was the greatest historical watershed of all time, at least in the West.
There are other examples, of course. Someone living in England in 1750, before the widespread use of the steam engine, would have been staggered at its application 50 years later: The Industrial Revolution had arrived! On occasions, some transformations from one era to another have an even shorter life cycle, such as in that epic period between 1919 and 1939. Democracy was fraying by the early 1930s, the world economy was rotting, but who sensed it would lead to war and holocausts? As the great Cambridge diplomatic historian Dr. Zara Steiner asks: "When did people know they were no longer in a post-World War One era, but in the approach to the Second World War?" The answer is that only a very few suspected it, and many came later to the new reality. They were in a new age.
So what about today? Many newspaper correspondents and technology pundits point excitedly to our ongoing communications revolution (cell phone, iPad and other gadgetry), and to its impacts upon states and peoples, upon traditional authorities and new liberation movements. The evidence for this view is clear across (for example) the entire Middle East, and even in the very tame "Occupy Wall Street" movement, although one wonders if any of the high-tech prophets proclaiming that a new era in world affairs has arrived have ever bothered to study the impacts of the Gutenberg printing press, or of FDR's radio chats to tens of millions of Americans in the scary 1930s and early 1940s.
Each age, then, becomes mesmerized by its own technological revolutions, so I am going to focus upon something rather different: indicators of changes which suggest that we are approaching, or may even have crossed, certain historical watersheds in the hard worlds of economics and politics.
The first of these is the steady erosion of the U.S. dollar as the planet's sole or dominating reserve currency. Gone already are the days when 85 percent or more of international currency reserves were held in "greenbacks"; the statistics fluctuate wildly at present, but the figure is now closer to 60 percent. Despite the economic woes of Europe and even China, it is no longer fantastic to imagine a world of three large reserve currencies -- the dollar, euro and yuan -- with a few smaller outliers like sterling, the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen. A blinkered American economist or investment advisor who does not recognize that the times are changing is probably going to do himself and his clients a considerable disservice. The simplistic notion that people will fly to the U.S. dollar as a "safe haven" is put into question by the country's increasingly surreal indebtedness to foreign lenders. And will a world of various reserve currencies make for more, or less, financial stability?
The second transformation is the erosion and paralysis of the European project, by which I mean Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman's dream that the heterogeneous European nation-states would steadily come together, first through commercial and fiscal integration, and then by serious and irreversible commitments to a politically united continent. The institutions for realizing that dream -- the European Parliament, the Commission, the Court of Justice -- are already in place, but the political will to breathe real life into them is gone, sadly undermined by the simple fact that wildly divergent national fiscal policies are incompatible with a common European currency. Bluntly put, Germany and Greece, with their separate budgetary records, cannot march together towards a United States of Europe; but no one appears to have an answer to this dichotomy, except to paper over the cracks with further tranches of Euro-bonds and IMF loans.
The Europeans, in other words, have neither the time nor energy nor resources to focus on things other than their own problems. This means that there are very few observers across that continent who have studied what might be the third great transformation of our times: namely, the enormous armaments race that is occurring in most parts of East Asia and South Asia. While European militaries become more like a local gendarmerie, Asian governments are purposefully developing deep-water navies, building new military bases, acquiring ever more sophisticated aircraft, and testing missiles with ever longer ranges. What discussion has occurred focuses on China's military buildup, with rather less upon the fact that Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, India and even Australia are following suit. I asked this question before in an earlier column but received no adequate answer: What do Asian nations apprehend about the future of the world that European governments are now oblivious to? If slower economic growth, environmental damage and a fraying social fabric in China lead its future leaders towards muscle-flexing abroad -- right now, it is fair to say, their leaders are quite cautious -- its neighbors are planning a firm response. Does anyone in Brussels know, or care, that 500 years of history, the world of 1500, is at an end? Asia advances to center stage, while Europe becomes a distant chorus. Won't future historians regard this phenomenon also as an amazingly important watershed in international affairs?
The fourth change is, alas, the slow, steady and growing decrepitude of the United Nations, and especially of its most critical organ, the Security Council. The U.N. Charter was carefully crafted to help the family of nations enjoy peace and prosperity after the horrendous evils of 1937-1945. But the Charter itself was a calculated risk: recognizing that the Great Powers of 1945 would have to be given a disproportionate role (like the veto, and a permanent Security Council seat), the drafters nonetheless hoped that those five governments might work together to realize the world body's high ideals. The Cold War killed such hopes, the collapse of the USSR revived them, but now they are fading again due to the cynical abuse of the veto power. When China and Russia veto any measures to stop Assad's nasty regime from killing its own Syrian citizens, and when the United States vetoes any resolution to stop Israel advancing into Palestinian lands, the world organization is made redundant. And Moscow, Beijing and Washington seem to like it that way.
The waning of the U.S. dollar's heft, the unwinding of European dreams, the arms race in Asia, and the paralysis of the U.N. Security Council whenever a veto is threatened -- do not these, taken together, suggest that we are moving into new, uncharted waters, into a troubled world compared with which the obvious joy of customers emerging from an Apple store with an updated device look, well, of limp and secondary significance? It is as if one were back in 1500, emerging from the Middle Ages to the early-modern world, and the crowds at that time were marveling at a new and more powerful longbow. Surely we can take our world a bit more seriously than that?
Paul Kennedy is Dilworth Professor of History and director of International Security Studies at
Yale University; and the author/editor of 19 books, including "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers."