The next 40 years, not the next four

Eight years ago, I was in an unseasonably warm Grant Park in Chicago when Barack Obama was elected:

Grant Park, Chicago, 2008

I had visited Georgia six weeks previously, after the brief war there with Russia. This is what was left of the tiny Georgian Navy:

Georgian Navy, 2008

I then visited Aleppo, Hama, Palmyra and Damascus in Syria, 10 months after attending Obama’s inauguration in Washington DC:

Citadel, Aleppo, 2009
The Temple of Bel in October 2009. Later blown up by ISIS.
And I was on 6th Avenue in New York when Donald Trump was elected President in November 2016:

6th Avenue on Election Night 2016
As a mid 30s male from Ireland, I’ve managed to see or experience the events or aftermath of key moments that have defined my generation. None of these trips were for work — while I have been a journalist and blogger at various points — they were all vacations (sometimes mixed with some mobile journalism or social media experimentation). I guess like many people I’m just curious about the world.

My first ever visit to New York was on September 26, 2001, where I walked around the devastation wrought by terrorist attacks on 9/11, in a largely deserted lower Manhattan — still largely covered in dust and pictures of the missing.

All of those moments have defined my adult life in one way or another. But in my view one above all defines my life: and it wasn’t 9/11.

The election of Donald Trump in November is the moment that will define the rest of my life and everything that is to come. It won’t just be the next four or eight years, it will be the next forty.

The world I grew up in was a relatively simple timeline of; the Cold War; the collapse of the Soviet Union; the first Gulf War; the boom in Ireland in the 1990s along with increased EU integration (including increased globalisation and the rise of the internet); the 1990s ‘era’ ended on 9/11, followed by the second Gulf War in 2003; the global economic crash in 2008 (with Obama elected at the same time); the Arab Spring in 2011; the Russia intervention in Ukraine in 2014; and finally the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

Pretty much all of my life has been defined by the US as a global economic and military power. Whether it was the Cold War, the post-Cold War era (including the NATO intervention in Serbia), 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the crash of 2008 — all of these were within a global political order in which the US was the pre-eminent power, particular from the early 1990s onwards. Or as a capitalist power which precipitated the largest global economic collapse since 1929.

The world that I was born into in 1981 ended in November.

Indeed, I would go further. I would argue that the world my parents knew — the one from the 1950s to today, is also ending.

We are going through the largest transformation in the global political order since 1945. And it is entirely driven by the US electing Trump as their President (partly aided by Russian intervention in the election).

And Jonathan Kirshner summed it up thusly:

And so the election of Trump will come to mark the end of the international order that was built to avoid repeating the catastrophes of the first half the twentieth century, and which did so successfully — horrors that we like to imagine we have outgrown. It will not serve us well.

The upheaval that is coming will be unprecedented in my lifetime, and it’s happening just as the generation that lived and fought in the 1940s dies out.

And let’s think this through a little.

The globalised world that I saw grow in my teens in the 1990s — the evolution of internet commerce, the global trade system, goods manufactured in China and delivered to your home — is a) relatively novel b) inherently brittle and c) depends on a global political order that to date has been defined by American hegemony.

Any hint of conflict, either trade or military, will disrupt this weak system. And it will break. It will break fast. Any countries dependent on this system of trade will be affected quickly, not slowly. Knock on affects would include food production (do countries produce for domestic or international customers?), energy production (how dependent is an economy on imported energy?) and basic access to goods (how much of what you buy every day is manufactured nearby?).

And all of this is happening when energy — the driver of the global economy — is going through a transformation. The cost of producing energy is declining rapidly, thanks to the technology of renewables. Any countries that are dependent on fossil fuels for energy and revenue will be in trouble. And it so happens that one of them has thousands of nuclear weapons, and has been trying to destabilise the order (for better or worse that US-imposed global political order is) that has existed since 1945. And vested interests, such as the Exxons of this world, have a clear interest in delaying the shift to renewables as much as possible — why? Because there’s trillions of dollars still buried in the ground. Why would we shift to renewables when there’s money still buried?

There are times when people say: this time is different, and you don’t believe them.

This time is different. Within a very short period of time we will find ourselves in a completely different world, one that none of us is ready for nor indeed for which we have any frame of reference. And there will be few people still alive who have that frame of reference to teach us.

In a new world order of authoritarianism, we will need to learn fast.