Change in the international system comes in large and small doses, but fundamental patterns generally stay consistent. From 1500 to 1991, for example, European global hegemony constituted the world’s operating principle. Within this overarching framework, however, the international system regularly reshuffles the deck in demoting and promoting powers, fragmenting some and empowering others, and so on. Sometimes this happens because of war, and sometimes because of economic and political forces. While the basic structure of the world stays intact, the precise way it works changes.
The fundamental patterns of European domination held for 500 years. That epoch of history ended in 1991, when the Soviet Union — the last of the great European empires — collapsed with global consequences. In China, Tiananmen Square defined China for a generation. China would continue its process of economic development, but the Chinese Communist Party would remain the dominant force. Japan experienced an economic crisis that ended its period of rapid growth and made the world’s second-largest economy far less dynamic than before. And in 1993, the Maastricht Treaty came into force, creating the contemporary European Union and holding open the possibility of a so-called United States of Europe that could counterbalance the United States of America.
The Post-European Age
All these developments happened in the unstable period after the European Age and before … well, something else. What specifically, we’re not quite sure. For the past 20 years, the world has been reshaping itself. Since 1991, then, the countries of the world have been feeling out the edges of the new system. The past two decades have been an interregnum of sorts, a period of evolution from the rule of the old to the rule of the new.