back to

e-flux conversations

What Comes After the End of the US World Order?


At the website of The Nation magazine, historian Alfred McCoy sets out to define what constitutes a “world order.” He then argues that modern history has seen three such world orders, with the most recent—the “Washington world system”—currently drawing to a close. What new world order will takes its place? According to McCoy, one centered in Beijing and beset by climate instability. Here’s an excerpt:

Looking back over the last millennium, old orders die and new ones arise when a cataclysm, marked by mass death or a maelstrom of destruction, coincides with some slower yet sweeping social transformation. Since the age of European exploration started in the 15th century, some 90 empires, large and small, have come and gone. In those same centuries, however, there have been only three major world orders—the Iberian age (1494–1805), the British imperial era (1815-1914), and the Washington world system (1945–2025).

Such global orders are not the mere imaginings of historians trying, so many decades or centuries later, to impose some logic upon a chaotic past. Those three powers—Spain, Britain, and the United States—consciously tried to re-order their worlds for, they hoped, generations to come through formal agreements—the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and the San Francisco conference that drafted the UN charter in 1945. Should Beijing succeed Washington as the world’s preeminent power, future historians will likely look back on its Belt and Road Forum, which brought 130 nations to Beijing in 2017, as the formal start of the Chinese era.

Image of the White House via PBS.