THE URGE to apply era-defining labels to global affairs is strong and enduring. A label and a few easy-to-understand attributes associated with it can impart a reassuring simplicity to what is actually a complex and often-intractable reality. While the disadvantages of era labeling, including oversimplification, are probably as great as the advantages, the practice is here to stay.
Indeed, American analysts and commentators have struggled with this era-defining business ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union and of Communism in Eastern Europe. The Cold War between the United States and the USSR was such a dominant backdrop for U.S. foreign policy for so long that it overshadowed every attempt to characterize international affairs in any other terms during those years. The strength of the Cold War paradigm was demonstrated during the first decade after the Cold War, when the defining term most often heard was “the post–Cold War era.” That inherently unsatisfying nomenclature described what the era wasn’t but not what it was. Some attempted to encapsulate the times some other way, usually with an emphasis on economically oriented nonstate actors, but no one formula seemed to catch on.