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Does the 21st Century begin January 20?
Posted by: Bryan Pick on Wednesday, December 31, 2008

E. J. Dionne Jr. at the WaPo thinks so. Or at least, that's supposed to be the subject of his article. He doesn't describe in any detail why Barack Obama will truly change things in a distinctively non-20th century way, but he does spend a lot of time trying to deny that the 21st century started on Bush's watch.

If I can salvage an argument from the article, it's this: Dionne believes Pres. Bush responded to new economic and international change with ineffective 20th-century thinking, and the country rightly elected Sen. Obama because he'll apply 21st-century thinking to these problems.

Well, for what it's worth, I agree that Pres. Bush often applied (and in some ways continues to apply) 20th-century solutions to new challenges during his time in office.

But everything else about Dionne's argument is a mess.
First of all, Dionne is willing to mark the end of the 19th century as the outbreak of World War I, but he's unwilling to mark the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 or the United States' decision to go to war as the beginning of the 21st.

Why? Because the Bush administration mistakenly used a 20th-century mindset to identify the new threat, and thus had a flawed response.

So they did. But then, Europe's leaders at the outbreak of the Great War clearly didn't know what they were getting into, either. People (including leaders) are often initially unprepared for events so transformative that they define epochs. So much for that point.

Another contention Dionne makes is that the world has lately developed "a new architecture of power" in which the US must act in concert with other great powers.
What should fall is another illusion, the idea that the United States is the world's "sole remaining superpower." This notion weakened us because it suggested an omnipotence that no nation can possess.

By shedding this misapprehension, the United States could restore its influence. We could rediscover the imperative of acting in concert with others to build global institutions that strengthen our security and foster our values.
First, the United States is a superpower as that term is widely understood, and it is the only one still standing. It has a powerful global reach/influence and retains a leading role in the society of states, by almost any measure of power. Its leadership and global role is at least tacitly accepted, if not explicitly praised, around the world.

Anyone who hears the implication of omnipotence in the term is in error; during most of the time the US has been considered a superpower, Americans were conscious of the threat of nuclear holocaust. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a pretty strong sign that superpowers aren't invincible. Since 2001, Americans have been reminded constantly of our vulnerabilities and the limitations of our power.

And does this "misapprehension" separate the 20th from the 21st century? It has been during America's time as a great power and then superpower that we've developed all those global institutions. We played key roles in the founding and progress of the League of Nations, the UN, GATT and WTO, and a host of other globe-spanning organizations and treaties.

But Dionne is obviously thinking of the second American invasion of Iraq, and carefully forgetting the example of Afghanistan. It's an odd story: the Bush administration engaged in 21st-century thinking in 2001, and reverted to unilateralist 20th-century thought when 2003 rolled around?

It's not that I disagree with the suggestion that the US should better mind its international relations. It's that this talk of 20th vs. 21st century thinking is stretching a nifty-sounding idea too thinly over ill-fitting facts.

The final example of 21st-century thinking Dionne mentions is that capitalism needs "significant regulation," something that apparently did not occur to 20th-century American presidents, which is why we had so much less regulation in 2000 than we had in 1900 1914.

It's true that since the turn of the century our government continued the 20th-century tradition with such wild acts of deregulation as Sarbanes-Oxley, the FASB and SEC rules changes, and defending Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae against all attempts at reform, so I can see where Dionne is coming from.

In all seriousness: isn't it possible that some of the significant regulation we already have could be responsible for our 21st-century troubles?

Is adding to the volume and complexity of our regulations really the solution to rising unemployment and widespread depreciation of asset values?

Dionne says, "dreaded government turns out to be the only institution with the capacity to repair things when market actors are routed from the field and sit, petrified, at the sidelines." As if dreaded government had nothing to do with the market actors being routed from the field in the first place, and as if dreaded state and local governments aren't sitting still right beside the market actors, salivating for the big trillion-dollar treat that the dreaded federal government is holding over all their heads.

So when he concludes with this:
Barack Obama will have as free a hand as history ever allows to chart a new course and to define a new era. He may or may not succeed, but the country was right to seize the opportunity he offered to put the previous century and its assumptions behind us.
... I have to ask, since no evidence provided in the article: how exactly has Obama promised to put the previous century behind us?
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Previous Comments to this Post 

If President Bush is applying 20th century solutions to today’s crises, then The Clown™ is about to apply 19th century solutions, i.e., Marxist dogma, as well as 20th century solutions, i.e. "New Deal" spending time 100.

Both "solutions" failed. Yet somehow The Clown™ believes that if you just try them again, they might work this time, evidence to the contrary.
Written By: James Marsden
URL: http://
To be pedantic, the 21st century started on Bill Clinton’s watch. He was our first African American president, and our first 21st Century president to boot! What a man!
Written By: Michael
URL: http://
The next person to suggest the 21st century started in 2000 (instead of 2001) gets slapped. :)
Written By: Scott Jacobs
URL: http://
Does the 21st Century begin January 20?
How can that be when history seems to have only started the day Bush took office?
Written By: shark
URL: http://
He forgot ’Don’t trust anyone over 30’.
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
James Marsden beat me to it. A ’new’ new deal is right out of the 20th century.

Written By: tkc
URL: http://
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Written By: blexptwuxq

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