Essay

Does Putin’s War Mark a New Period in History?

It has been only two years since the start of another world crisis thought to mark a new era.

back-to-the-future-history-senor-salme-illustration-lead
back-to-the-future-history-senor-salme-illustration-lead
Señor Salme illustration for Foreign Policy
By , a professor of history at Princeton University.

Earlier this year, a student asked me how I thought historians would characterize the period of world history he believed had just begun with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I couldn’t resist replying: “I have no idea. I just hope they won’t be calling it the ‘prewar period.’”

But are we, in fact, at the beginning of a new period in history? Many have been quick to affirm the idea. Even before the invasion began, the Wall Street Journal columnist Gerard Baker was opining that “the crisis over Ukraine … marks the definitive end of the post-Cold War era.” And no sooner had Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border than the Brookings Institution’s Daniel S. Hamilton agreed: “The post-Cold War period has ended. A more fluid and disruptive era has begun.” A few days later, the political scientist Sean Illing called the invasion a “world-historical event,” adding that “the effects of it will likely ripple out for years to come.” All three were confident that one day, historians would begin new chapters in their textbooks with the year 2022.

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Earlier this year, a student asked me how I thought historians would characterize the period of world history he believed had just begun with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I couldn’t resist replying: “I have no idea. I just hope they won’t be calling it the ‘prewar period.’”

But are we, in fact, at the beginning of a new period in history? Many have been quick to affirm the idea. Even before the invasion began, the Wall Street Journal columnist Gerard Baker was opining that “the crisis over Ukraine … marks the definitive end of the post-Cold War era.” And no sooner had Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border than the Brookings Institution’s Daniel S. Hamilton agreed: “The post-Cold War period has ended. A more fluid and disruptive era has begun.” A few days later, the political scientist Sean Illing called the invasion a “world-historical event,” adding that “the effects of it will likely ripple out for years to come.” All three were confident that one day, historians would begin new chapters in their textbooks with the year 2022.

Historians themselves, though, have never had a single, obvious, agreed-on way of slicing up history into distinct segments, and they quarrel endlessly about how to do so. Some speak of a “long 18th century” that stretches from 1688 to 1815 and others of a “short 18th century” that runs only from 1715 to 1789. Did the Middle Ages end with the Italian Renaissance in the 14th century or with European voyages of exploration in the 15th? Or perhaps the Reformation in the 16th century? Was there such a thing as a “Global Middle Ages,” or does that term impose a European concept on areas of the world unsuited for it? As long as historians disagree about the relative importance of different factors of historical change—i.e., forever—they will disagree about periodization. 

“The pandemic,” Foreign Policy itself proclaimed in March 2020, “will change the world forever.” The actual predictions it elicited on this occasion have, for the most part, stood up quite well. But did 2020 really mark the start of a new era? Today, with the initial shock having receded and with COVID-19 possibly (hopefully) descending to the level of an endemic but manageable disease, its world-changing character seems at least somewhat less apparent.

Even moments of particularly massive, violent upheaval do not necessarily constitute transition points between distinct eras. Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, might seem one such moment. But many historians argue that World War II had a crucial prologue in the Spanish Civil War that began in 1936. Asian historians often date the start of the war to 1931 and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. Some historians, including Princeton University’s Arno Mayer, have lumped together both world wars, and the years between them, as the “Second Thirty Years’ War.” The pie of history gets endlessly resliced.

It is the end of wars, and the collapse of regimes, that most reliably marks the end of an era. Historians frequently cite British statesman Edward Grey’s remark, at the start of hostilities in 1914, that “the lamps are going out all over Europe.” But at the time, most Europeans expected what became World War I to last no more than a few months and for it not to cause regime change. It was the end of the war in 1917-18, and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian empires, that—pace Mayer—marked the clear end of one era and the start of another. A similar point could be made about the end of the Cold War in 1989-91. 

The end of the post-Cold War period is far harder to measure. Indeed, it has already been proclaimed many times: with the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999; with 9/11; with Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia; with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea; with the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. I would not be at all surprised if, 10 years from now, following some new international horror, a fresh chorus of instant analysts declares it over yet again. Some periodizations are simply more convincing than others. Social scientists frequently call our current era one of “late capitalism,” although that phrase has been in common use since at least the mid-1970s. But as capitalism has stubbornly refused to end, they have no alternative.

Of course, historians do need ways to organize their material chronologically. The pie does need to be sliced. But premature expostulations about how a new era has started all too often amount to nothing but empty rhetorical gestures, reflecting what can only be called “Fukuyama envy.” (You, too, can have your name forever attached to “the end of” something!) Worse, they flatter the egos of dictators like Vladimir Putin, who want nothing more than to be seen as world-historical figures, bending the course of human events to their superhuman will. They also generally require attributing to earlier periods a degree of stability that observers at the time singularly failed to perceive. Calling the era that supposedly began this February more fluid and disruptive than the one that preceded it plays down the enormously disruptive effects attributed at the time, with reason, to the breakup of Yugoslavia, to 9/11, to the Iraq War, to Trump’s election, and to much else.

In the shock and horror that accompany events like the invasion of Ukraine, it is easy to forget the obvious point that observers most often can start to gauge the true significance of an event only once its long-term consequences have begun to emerge. Will the war in Ukraine degenerate into another frustrating, low-level frozen conflict like so many others around the world? Will it lead to new and even more destabilizing aggression by Russia? To nuclear war? Will it cause Putin’s fall from power? At the end of 1991, we knew that whatever else the future held, the pre-1989 communist bloc would not be part of it. We don’t have even that degree of certainty about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Its outcome, still enormously unpredictable, is what will ultimately determine whether it deserves to mark the end of an era—or something else entirely.

The story used to be told that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, on being asked in the early 1970s about the meaning of the French Revolution of 1789, replied: “It is too early to tell.” It has since come to light that he was really talking about the French student revolts of 1968, but there is a reason the story’s original version struck such a chord. It takes time—often a very long time—for the effects of an event to come into reasonable focus. And even then, historians will continue to produce competing interpretations, depending on the perspective they write from and the questions they ask.

We should also remember that history all too often offers up unpleasant surprises. The coming year could be the year of a plague that overshadows even COVID-19. It could be the year of a stock market crash and a second Great Depression. We could, in fact, currently be living in the “prewar period.” Until we know for sure, we won’t know what to make of the past few months, either.

David A. Bell is a professor of history at Princeton University and the author of, most recently, Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution.

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