Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters Sophia, a robot with Saudi Arabian citizenship, interacts during the innovation fair in Kathmandu, Nepal March 21, 2018.
Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: Which World Are We Living In?
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Predicting the future is hard, so let’s start by explaining the past. What’s the best lens for evaluating the arc of world history during the nineteenth century? For starters, it’s the dawn of liberal democracy. The French have already guillotined their king, and a handful of John Locke enthusiasts across the Atlantic have established a nascent republic. In the United Kingdom, the philosopher John Stuart Mill is ably defending liberal democracy and human dignity. It’s starting to look like monarchy has had its day. Then there’s the laissez-faire capitalist revolution, starring such economists as Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. Karl Marx is bringing economics to the proletariat.

The nineteenth century is also the height of Western empire and colonization. It’s the start of the era of total war. It’s the beginning of the decline of religion as a political force and its replacement with the rise of nationalism. It’s also, if one squints hard enough, the start of the era of human equality. Women demand equal rights in Seneca Falls, New York, and New Zealand becomes the first country to give them the vote. The United Kingdom outlaws the slave trade, the United States emancipates its slaves, and Russia frees its serfs.

So: democracy, capitalism, colonization, modern war, nationalism, and human equality. All of them vast in their implications, and all of them the catalyst for thousands of books.

And none of them mattered. When looking back today, the most important geopolitical feature of the nineteenth century is obvious: it was the era of the Industrial Revolution. Without it, there’s no rising middle class and no real pressure for democracy. There’s no capitalist revolution because agrarian states don’t need one. There’s no colonization at scale because there’s a hard limit to a nonindustrial economy’s appetite for raw materials. There’s no total war without cheap steel and precision manufacturing. And with the world still stuck largely in

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