A new world order will likely arise only from calamity
President Trump gives a thumbs up as he walks to board a Marine helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House in 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
- The centrality of the nation-state to geopolitics emerged from the Peace of Westphalia, which marked the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). That conflict laid waste to vast stretches of Central Europe and resulted in the deaths of eight million people, including, it is estimated, a quarter or more of all Germans. Some historians estimate that it took upwards of a century for Germany to regain its prewar population.
- The imperative of maintaining a balance of power gained greater salience with the Congress of Vienna, which emerged in the aftermath of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815). Those 23 years of bloodshed did more than leave some seven million dead. “In a development without precedent,” explains David Bell, a historian of early modern France, “the wars brought about significant alterations in the territory or the political system of every single European state.”
- The League of Nations, a noble yet short-lived experiment in circumscribing great-power competition, emerged from World War I, a conflict that destroyed three empires and left some 20 million dead. So encompassing was the carnage it wrought, notes political scientist Graham Allison, that historians had to coin the term “world war” to capture its scale.
- Finally, the postwar order emerged from World War II (1939-45), which left roughly 65 million dead, destroyed much of Europe and Asia and displaced some 40 million Europeans. One of the preeminent historians of World War I, Margaret MacMillan, observes that “it had been possible to contemplate going back to business as usual” after that conflict. “However, 1945 was different, so different that it has been called Year Zero.”