In January 2014, “Crimea,” “the Caliphate,” and “Sykes-Picot” were terms students learned in history courses. People knew Isis as an Egyptian goddess and thought the United States was out of Iraq for good. Nobody expected a global Ebola crisis and everybody expected oil prices to stay high indefinitely.
In January 2015, things look rather different. According to an increasingly common narrative, the liberal international order that emerged at the end of World War II and spread after the end of the Cold War is now in decline. The United States is in retreat; China, Russia, Iran, and other challengers are on the march. War has returned to Europe, the Middle East is in turmoil, and Asia is a tinderbox waiting to explode.
A few scattered optimists beg to differ. They point out that the crises have occurred in the periphery, not the core. The farther reaches of Eastern Europe may be contested, but the rest of the continent remains safe and secure, nestling under an iron-clad nato security guarantee. Iraq and Syria may have collapsed, but the rest of the region has not followed suit, and global energy supplies have never been more plentiful. China may be determined to flex its geopolitical muscles, but the more it does so the more it scares its neighbors and provokes a balancing coalition. And for all its dysfunction, the United States remains the dominant global player, has the developed world’s most dynamic economy, and is at the forefront of revolutions in energy, information technology, and other areas.
So much is going on that it is hard to get a handle on it all, let alone to tie things together neatly in a simple framework. But at Foreign Affairs, we have been carefully tracking the emergence and debating the significance of this “new global context,” as the World Economic Forum puts it, in real time. So we decided that it would be useful to put together this special collection as background reading for the Forum’s 2015