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28 August 2019updated 25 Jul 2021 12:46pm

The illusions of the 1990s have been shattered but the decade is still distorting world politics

By Helen Thompson

The 1990s was a decade of grand optimism. This hope appeared grounded in the Soviet Union’s fall, the subordination of Chinese communism to raising living standards and the domestic absence of radical politics. Many assumed that the future would be peaceful, ever more prosperous and less susceptible to class politics and rebellion from discontented voters. This mindset so distorted political thinking in Europe and North America that it encouraged reckless risk-taking.

The Clinton administration treated Russia’s ongoing energy-producing capacity as irrelevant to its possible geopolitical power. It assumed China could be led into the international economic order on American terms and then that America’s body politic could absorb China becoming a significant manufacturing economy. In the United Kingdom, Tony Blair’s governments began with a cavalier attitude towards the Union. Only on the improbable premise that Labour would remain permanently in power in all of Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff could devolution for Scotland and Wales ever have countered, rather than accentuated, the centrifugal forces already at work within the Union.

The future has turned out to be nothing like the optimists of the 1990s supposed. Rather symbolically, on the decade’s last day, Vladimir Putin became Russian president. Russia’s resurgence under his leadership has seen Moscow rewrite the Russian-Ukraine border, militarily re-enter the Middle East and form an effective strategic alliance with China. Invigorated by easy access to American markets and capital, China has become a predatory trading power, asserted itself militarily in the Pacific and developed a project to economically dominate the Eurasian land mass, which is already dividing the EU states from each other.

Following these geopolitical blows, American complacency has evaporated. Trump may divide the country on almost every other issue, but on China he has inaugurated a new pessimistic consensus that deems accommodating China’s economic rise a strategic mistake. Scarcely anybody in Washington now thinks that trade with China on the terms settled in the 1990s enhanced American security or protected US companies from proprietary theft, or denies that American manufacturing suffered job losses. Since the Chinese leadership will not readily dismantle the Chinese economic model and the United States lacks the wherewithal to dismantle China’s economic alliances across Eurasia, international trade will for the foreseeable future be confrontational and charged with geopolitical tension.

In the UK the apparent stability that prevailed in the 1990s is smashed to pieces. The Union is insecure in part because New Labour’s dual assumptions that Scottish nationalism would be tamed by a parliament in Edinburgh and that English nationhood was a political irrelevance, even under the provocation of asymmetrical devolution, have been proved woefully wrong. The Union would have weakened even if British politicians had not tangled themselves in promises about a referendum on EU treaties. But the Union’s post-devolution fractures also fuelled the crisis around EU membership because the 2016 referendum gave English nationhood an expressive landing place. Now the Union of the United Kingdom as a whole is threatened both by the likelihood the UK will eventually leave the EU and the possibility that Brexit is stopped.

Although the illusions of the 1990s have been shattered, the decade is still distorting political understanding. This time it is the past that dwelling on the 1990s misconstrues. In conceiving the shocks of the past few years as a disruptive eruption, those who have abandoned their liberal optimism for despair often implicitly treat the 1990s as a near seamless part of a political era that stretches back to 1945 and forward to the 2008 financial crash.

This presumption is bad history. American postwar dominance might often have been accompanied by a moralising and universal rhetoric for which Trump is singularly contemptuous. But ultimately it rested on the practical ability of the US to provide military and energy security to its allies. Once France under President de Gaulle decided it could be self-sufficient on security matters and West Germany in the 1970s began to import oil and gas from Russia, the Atlantic relationship necessarily became more confrontational. These divisions left the UK unable to join the European Community until de Gaulle had left office, and later helped end Tony Blair’s attempt to make the UK the equal of France and Germany within the EU by isolating Blair over Iraq.

It was the 1990s that was the historical outlier. Nato’s divisions temporarily abated when Russian power collapsed and oil was cheap and plentiful. But when China’s rapidly escalating energy demand created the conditions for Russia’s re-emergence as an energy power and put pressure on oil supplies, American and Franco-German calculations again diverged.

In the UK the present political turbulence looks much more like an even longer historical norm than the 1990s ever did. The Union of the United Kingdom has always been politically fraught. It played its part in most of the political dramas of the 19th century, from the 1832 Reform Act through the Corn Laws’ repeal, to the Labour Party’s birth. It dominated politics for more than three decades from the late 1880s to the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. Between 1973 and 1979 it helped to produce three general elections, four referendums, two periods of minority government and a permanent backdrop of violence. Political stability is rare and when it appears, it does not last. 

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This article appears in the 28 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler