The Back to the Future Issue

Delving into the past to make sense of current affairs.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
foreign-policy-back-to-the-future-print-cover-summer-2022-ed-note
foreign-policy-back-to-the-future-print-cover-summer-2022-ed-note
Orlando Arocena illustration for Foreign Policy

History repeats itself, we’re often told. And it seems as if it’s happening more than usual these days. Interstate war is back. The world is once again worried about nuclear weapons. A pandemic has killed millions of people and shut down commerce—just as it did a century ago. Inflation has hit levels unseen since the 1970s. The world is running out of food. There’s an energy crisis. In a replay of the Cold War, the United States is aligning nations against Russia—and once again, despite unity in the West, several large countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America would rather stay out of the tussle. 

But as much as our current moment feels marked by echoes from the past, there is plenty about our world today that is better described as unprecedented. Perhaps it’s the rapid rise of a country as large as China, a phenomenon without any real historical parallel; maybe it’s the bite of climate change, a truly transnational challenge that is already changing our planet (and on which countries simply must cooperate); or it could be the rise of artificial intelligence and all the change it promises to usher in. 

Our Summer 2022 issue tries to find ways to make sense of current affairs by delving into the past. If the cover looks familiar, it’s meant to: It is, of course, inspired by the 1985 summer blockbuster Back to the Future, in which a high school student inadvertently finds himself transported three decades into the past—and then realizes his actions could alter the future. Foreign Policy hasn’t quite figured out time travel, but we reckoned we could assemble some of the smartest historians and experts we know to try to explain our world today—and perhaps impact the course of policy. 

History repeats itself, we’re often told. And it seems as if it’s happening more than usual these days. Interstate war is back. The world is once again worried about nuclear weapons. A pandemic has killed millions of people and shut down commerce—just as it did a century ago. Inflation has hit levels unseen since the 1970s. The world is running out of food. There’s an energy crisis. In a replay of the Cold War, the United States is aligning nations against Russia—and once again, despite unity in the West, several large countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America would rather stay out of the tussle. 

But as much as our current moment feels marked by echoes from the past, there is plenty about our world today that is better described as unprecedented. Perhaps it’s the rapid rise of a country as large as China, a phenomenon without any real historical parallel; maybe it’s the bite of climate change, a truly transnational challenge that is already changing our planet (and on which countries simply must cooperate); or it could be the rise of artificial intelligence and all the change it promises to usher in. 

Our Summer 2022 issue tries to find ways to make sense of current affairs by delving into the past. If the cover looks familiar, it’s meant to: It is, of course, inspired by the 1985 summer blockbuster Back to the Future, in which a high school student inadvertently finds himself transported three decades into the past—and then realizes his actions could alter the future. Foreign Policy hasn’t quite figured out time travel, but we reckoned we could assemble some of the smartest historians and experts we know to try to explain our world today—and perhaps impact the course of policy. 

David A. Bell kicks things off by taking on the many commentators who have called Russia’s war on Ukraine the start of a new era in history. How do we know when a historical period ends or begins? Doesn’t it all depend on the perspective from which the historian writes? M.E. Sarotte builds on that theme in her essay about a new Iron Curtain. The collapse of the Soviet Union is often portrayed as a set of events that took place in one day. But, she writes, if you see the world as Russian President Vladimir Putin does, the humiliations of Nov. 9, 1989, never really ended. The West has inflicted a thousand perceived cuts that explain his actions today. 

There’s a danger here of seeing the world purely from a Western lens. Shivshankar Menon, a former Indian national security advisor, gives us a different perspective. Many countries in the global south, he writes, share a “basic disquiet at having to choose sides” between Beijing, Moscow, and Washington. You can call it strategic autonomy, as is the fashion today, but it could also be the return of Cold War-era nonalignment.

Remember “duck and cover”? The reality is that the average FP reader is now too young to have memories of a world when we worried about nuclear war. Nina Tannenwald, who wrote The Nuclear Taboo to much acclaim in 2007, revisits her research to warn us of a “whiff of nuclear forgetting in the air.” 

Nobody is forgetting inflation, obviously. But trying to draw too many parallels with the 1970s won’t help us, FP columnist Adam Tooze writes. Calling on central bankers to continue with only mild monetary intervention, he points out that the cost of living will likely plateau by next year. 

Switching gears a bit—in our custom-built DeLorean, of course—Hal Brands explains why the world has a new arms race on its hands and why that might not be a bad thing. “An arms race is only futile if you lose,” he writes, before laying out a plan for the United States to win. 

Lastly, as a coda to our package of feature essays, Priya Satia scours recent history to find a cure for the world’s present maladies. She draws on the example of Mohandas Gandhi and his nonviolent struggle to suggest we should seek to remake ourselves rather than the world. In practice, Satia writes, that would entail sustained civil disobedience to confront broken systems and political injustice. 

As every character in a time travel fantasy learns, changing something in the past transforms a future timeline. Maybe adapting our understanding of history can help us rethink policy today. Or, at the very least, we can provide you with a thought-provoking read. 

Lots more in this issue. Enjoy!

As ever,

Ravi Agrawal

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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