History after the Cold War (final installment in my history series)

Karl Marx insisted that history is shaped by economics and by conflict between classes. He predicted a revolution led by working classes, beginning in those countries where the Industrial Revolution had begun and spreading through the entire world, first creating a socialist economy managed by the government, then followed by a communist economy in which social classes had been abolished and the government had withered and disappeared.

Marx’ predictions did not come true. Highly industrialized countries preserved capitalism by placing some regulations on industry and production, by allowing workers to be represented through labor unions, and by raising the standard of living of all people—working class as well as ruling class—so the desire for revolutionary change was diminished. Marxism was attempted in less industrialized nations, beginning with Russia, spreading to China and other east Asian countries, and also appearing in Cuba, Ethiopia, and other so-called “third world” countries. In the 1980s, China abandoned its socialist economy and returned to capitalism, and in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. As a historian and an economist, Marx was revealed to be a failure.

Ironically, many historians continue to view the world with Marxist ideas and Marxist terms. Great emphasis is still placed upon the distinction between classes. Marxist terms—such as capitalism, socialism, and communism—are still widely used. The end of the Cold War revealed the failure of Marxist thought, yet historians often view the years following the Cold War through the lens of economic struggle and the disparity of wealth.

One key term used to discuss the world since the end of the Cold War is “globalization.” The economies of various countries and civilizations are so intertwined that a change in one part of the world affects the rest of the world as well. The spread of industrialization has linked the nations of the world in such a way that military and political power seem less relevant than they were before and economic success seems to be the most important way of measuring a country’s power and influence in the world. The importance of globalization was illustrated by an adage that was true until 2008: “There has never been a war between two countries that both had McDonald’s restaurants.” (Vladimir Putin’s Russia ended that interesting truth when it invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.)

People worried about globalization point to the homogenization of culture around the world. McDonald’s and Walmart and Disney reach into the lives of people everywhere in the world, and they are the same wherever they are found. Remnants of indigenous cultures sometimes are swallowed up by the spread of this overwhelming culture. Critics of globalization worry about pollution, especially in countries trying to catch up to Europe and North America’s industrial successes. They worry about the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few successful inventors and marketers. They worry about government being replaced by a hidden conspiracy of wealthy plutocrats who decide what will happen in the world without being held accountable for the results of their decisions.

Globalization also brings many benefits to people around the world. Awareness of events elsewhere in the world is higher than ever before. People experience other cultures without leaving their hometowns: they watch movies set in other lands, they hear music representing other cultures, and they eat food from many different cultures. Many jobs rely on the fact that items produced in one place are transported and sold in many other places. Political leaders hesitate to begin wars because they measure the cost of warfare, not only to their own governments, but to the economic exchanges that benefit their systems and provide tax revenue to their governments.

In Europe, the Benelux trade cooperation expanded into the Common Market, which then became the European Economic Community. Similar trade agreements were made in other parts of the world including the North American Free Trade Agreement, which linked the economy of the United States with those of Canada and Mexico. Trade agreements had several benefits: they increased jobs, they provided more products for consumers, they lessened the likelihood of wars, and they offered opportunities for some governments to shape the values of their neighbors regarding environmental concerns, education, working conditions, and other issues.

If the Era of Globalization began around 1990 with the end of the Cold War, then it perhaps came to an end around 2015 when powerful countries began to back away from full-scale globalization. First the voters of the United Kingdom chose to end their country’s participation in the European Economic Community. The next year, voters of the United States elected Donald Trump, a President who vowed to “make America great again” by cutting back on trade agreements and focusing on government policies that favored American workers and investors. Putin’s Russia also seems to have backed away from globalization, as his government has used military force to threaten its neighbors, trying to reestablish Russian hegemony in that part of the world. The attempts of President Biden and other leaders to stifle Russian expansion through economic sanctions strikes many observers as weak and ineffective. Military power and deterrence (having enough military strength to prevent aggressive behavior on the part of other nations) are still important in 2022; history still is not shaped by economic factors alone.

What new Era will follow the Era of Globalization? Answers are not yet available. Older objectives—including nationalism and the drive for freedom—continue to be important to many, perhaps most, of the world’s citizens. Religion also has not disappeared, as historians have been predicting ever since the so-called Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. This final truth allows Christians to say with confidence that the world still belongs to God and that His plans still outweigh all the schemes and efforts of mere mortals, even the most powerful among us. J.

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