While we think about Covid-19 today we must also think about tomorrow when it is gone. But to write the story of today and tomorrow without bringing in yesterday may lead to an incomplete story. Why? Yesterday, today and tomorrow are necessary inseparables.
To understand the current and the future, the past plays an important role. It is important then, to look at our world and its eras and why Covid-19 is going to be one of the remarkable stuffs used to mark one epoch from another. Indeed, the world and its power structures as we have them today are products of interrelated historical events and acts. Some of them well planned and executed others merely accidental. Covid-19 appears to be one of the accidental events that is likely to cause irreversible changes to our world. This article examines briefly the major events and actions that have shaped our world in its recent history. It will specifically touch on the two world wars, the Cold War, the terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001 and how each was relevant in shaping their own era.
Many events in history have defined the current power relations among states. For some of us in International Relations, the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia which ended the religious and feudal systems of political organization, is still instructive. What became known as the Treaty of Westphalia brought about the modern state as we have it today. Since then the state has been the dominant actor in international politics. From the Treaty of Westphalia till the outbreak of World War I (WW I) in 1914, international politics was largely centered in Europe.
World War I was, thus, very defining in the history of our international system. While the likes of the Napoleonic and Bolshevik Wars were largely relevant periods in Europe, WW I appeared to be the first series of events to have had true global character. The four-year war which ended in November, 1918 resulted in the creation of the League of Nations. The League ushered in what analysts describe as multilateralism under the leadership of the then US President Woodrow Wilson. The founding of the League of Nations was largely seen as a triumph for Idealist who held the view that states had an inherent ability to cooperate to pursue a common good. However, the failure of the League led to World War II (WW II).
Starting in 1939, WW II threw a huge blow on Idealism. Triumphant Realists argued that the inability of states to avoid a second world war was indicative of the difficulty involved in getting states to cooperate. In short, realists blamed WW II on states pursuit of their parochial national interest and the absence of a world government to punish recalcitrant states. Fought between the Axis Forces (Germany, Italy, Japan) and the Allied Forces (US, the Soviet Union, France, UK, China), WW II ended in 1945 with the defeat of the Axis Powers. This war was the deadliest in history. In fact, various sources put the total WW II death estimate between 70 and 80 million (more than twice the population of Ghana). The birth of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Institutions was, however, a positive outcome of WW II.
It is important to note that until the end of WW II in 1945 the global system was largely multipolar – led by multiple states and ideologies – largely European. In fact, the US was in its policy of “Isolationism,” self-isolating itself from global affairs until WW I. However, by the end of WW II, two superpowers had emerged, with antagonistic ideologies. The US pursued and promoted Capitalist Liberalism while the then Soviet Union pursued and promoted Communist Socialism. This ideological and arms race that characterized the frosty relations between the US and the Soviet Union became known as the Cold War. Cold because it did not involve direct combat between the two parties. Of cause, they did fight indirectly through proxy wars across the world. Vietnam, Korea and Congo DR experienced some of those proxy wars.
It is indeed no longer a secret that the overthrow of Ghana’s Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in 1966 was masterminded by the US CIA – probably because the US thought Nkrumah was leading Africa to the East (the Soviet Union). The Cold War arguably peaked in 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly plunged the world into a nuclear warfare. The Cold War era saw extreme competition between the US and the Soviet Union for dominance and influence for over 55 years until the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – leaving the US as the sole superpower. Thus, the world saw a highly dominant United States during the decade following the end of the Cold War – popularly called the post Cold War era.
The desire to take on leadership of the world rekindled in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in the US on September 11, 2001. What became known as the War on Terror led to US hard policies – including war with Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 respectively. Other policies including deployment of ground forces, air strikes and drone attacks were used in effort to stem out terrorism. The period of a dominant US attempting to counter terrorism also coincided with a proliferation of terrorist groups and acts against pro-Western targets. This trend dominated the Post 9/11 era. In Africa, for instance, there was the emergence of notorious terrorist groups – such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin, Al Shabab in Somalia, as well as al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates in the Sahel Region. All these groups emerged and or were activated within the almost 20-year post 9/11 period.
Climate change issues and matters arising were also very prevalent in the post 9/11 era. In fact, prior to the emergence of Covid-19 in December 2019, climate change was the hottest issues on the agenda of most international summits. To a large extent, climate change concerns and terrorism overlapped in the post 9/11 era.
In summary, it is clear that some of the periods described in this article overlapped. However, since the founding of the modern state, the world has gone through various definitive periods or eras. In each era, Realists and Idealists have sought to understand and explain the bahaviour of states. From the experience of Covid-19 so far, it is imperative that the world is heading toward another remarkable era – an era unique and distinct from all others. But again, the dynamics of that era will depend on the behavior of states toward each other and toward one another. That will be the subject for another day. But for now, stay safe and stop the spread.
Author: Francis Kwabena Atta (PhD)
International Relations Lecturer, Wisconsin International University – Ghana