Long before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his attacks often met with accusations – brought by John Kerry and Angela Merkel, among other things – that he is a 19th century figure in a 21st century world. It’s a line that seemed intended to find Putin guilty not just of malice but of anachronism, which is somehow more confusing to the modern mind.
But today there is a sense in which being a 19th century man in the 21st century actually makes Putin an extremely current figure – a defining figure of our time, not an unfrozen caveman confused by a world that exceeded it. It illustrates our transition to a kind of retro future, in which crucial elements of the Victorian era are superimposed on the very different social, cultural and technological landscape of our time.
What is returning from the past, as American primacy wanes, is some kind of consolidation and competition between the great powers, echoing the dynamics of the European empire of the late 1800s, but this time with actors global rather than predominantly Western.
In this analogy, the United States resembles both Victorian Britain (the great naval power and world empire) and late 19th century France (the cultural war-torn republic) – a long dominant power haunted by the specter of decline.
Contemporary China, India, Russia and arguably the European Union all have goals that echo the ambitions of 19th century Germany and Italy, Romanov Russia and ultimately the Empire. of Japan: establish the greatest possible political union based on shared ethnicity. or cultural heritage; become strong enough to challenge Anglo-Saxon hegemony; to project power into areas of the globe that lack a dominant nation-state, whether in Central Asia and the Middle East or in Africa and Latin America.
In this multipolar world, you have emerging alliances that echo alignments of the kind that predated World War I – for now, Russia and China versus Europe and America. And then you have the small nations and regions caught between them, stirred by their own ambitions and offering potential powder kegs for bigger wars. Manchuria, Alsace-Lorraine and the Balkans then; today, Taiwan, Afghanistan, Syria and now Ukraine.
But all these echoes and revivals did not fully revive the 19th century. Instead, the old geopolitics reappears in a decidedly 21st century context.
First, globalization has gone further than it ever did in the 19th century. The scale of our interdependence is sometimes exaggerated, but it remains extraordinary, as is the scale of the wealth at stake in any lasting disruption of the global system. This does not mean that some strands of the vast web cannot be unrolled. But for it to happen suddenly and heartbreakingly, as is happening in Russia right now, is a greater peril than the empire builders of the 19th century faced.
These empire builders also operated in a world where it was still possible to claim real public legitimacy for imperialism, conquest, autocratic rule. That day may come again, for now even de facto dictators like Putin feel they must pretend to be democratically elected, pretend to defend self-determination, deny that they are invading their neighbor even when it is obvious to all.
This fraud then fuels the cynicism and alienation that also characterize our times. The consolidation of Germany or Italy or, for that matter, the United States in the 19th century shaped and was shaped by new forms of mass mobilization and mass politics – including the rise of parties politics, unions, ideological movements and more. But our time is more of a time of fragmentation and isolation, of retreat into virtual escapes. It promises a near world, perhaps, where the elites are invested in great civilizational rivalries but where the masses show little enthusiasm for struggle.
Moreover, today’s great powers are much older than their predecessors, lacking the youthful population that past empires relied on for energy, creativity, and cannon fodder. As the British writer Ed West said Noted, the war in Ukraine is a war between two societies with levels of fertility far below replacement level, in which families can lose everything when they lose a single son. This raises questions both about how long such a war lasts and what happens next.
An energetic figure like Volodymyr Zelensky, for example, evokes the youthful nationalisms and nationalisms of the 19th century – the Young Turks, Young Ireland. But the nation he’s trying to preserve isn’t exactly young, and it’s possible to imagine a Ukraine that keeps its independence and simply stagnates alongside a senescent Russia, their conflict buried by old age.
Then, finally, ours is a world with nuclear weapons, which the old great power world was not.
It’s a difference for the better, it is hoped, making some form of total war almost unimaginable, giving our leaders an existential reason to avoid the dark 1914-18 terminus of this old world.
But these leaders will still need real wisdom to navigate a new era of nuclear rivalry that will likely be very different from the Cold War era, and sometimes closer to the distant past of the 19th century.