The end of the European age was not the end of the global system. It was only the end of the European global system. The world had a new center of gravity. It had a new geographical foundation around which the rest of the world pivoted—North America. And it had a global power which dominated North America—the United States. 1991 was therefore a breakpoint. It marked the end of an era. But far more important, it marked the end of the first global age and the beginning of the second.
Like the first global age, the American Age didn’t announce itself. It just crept up on us. The importance of North America had been increasing since the late 19thcentury and with it, the global significance of the United States. The collapse of the Soviet Union came as a surprise to most people. It took a while to believe that it had really disintegrated. Its consequences took even longer to be understood. But what still hadn’t been grasped was that the entire architecture of the world had changed, not only in the sense that the Soviet Union was gone, but in the deeper sense that Europe, if not gone, had ceased to be what it once was. Just as it took quite a while for the meaning of 1492 to sink in on the world, so it took quite a while for the meaning of 1991 to sink in.
At first it appeared that history had somehow ended. Francis Fukiyama wrote an important book with the title “The End of History,” which made the case that in some sense history as we had known it had come to an end. President George Bush made a speech about the “New World Order.” Everyone understood that something momentous had happened. No one could quite grasp what it was or what was its significance.