To judge by the preoccupations of western, and especially American, politics, the defining event of this decade was, without a shadow of doubt, 9/11. Which only goes to show how leaders and societies alike can fail to see the wood for the trees. 9/11 was a hugely overblown event that only assumed its overarching importance a) because it was done to the United States and b) because of the way the US reacted.
Hugely more important has been the rise of China and the accompanying, though still little-understood, decline of the US. It has been during this decade that the world began, for the first time, to feel the growing impact of China, from cheap consumer products and rising commodity prices to environmental fears and a now seemingly universal sense that China is “the future”. The most dramatic expression of China’s rise lies hidden from the western gaze in east Asia. In less than a decade, what is now the largest economic region in the world, home to one-third of humanity, has been reconfigured with China not only as its economic centre, usurping Japan in the process, but also as near hegemonic in every respect other than military, thereby displacing the United States.
The fact that the Bush administration, and those in Europe who have followed its 9/11-inspired agenda, somehow believe that the future of the world is being played out in the Middle East and central Asia rather than east Asia has only served to accelerate China’s rise and the US’s decline.
The enormity of the change, perhaps, partly excuses the fact that the western mind still lags far behind events, debating Africa as if Europe was a more important player than China, solemnly opining about Burma as if the western writ went as it did in the old days. A very different world is in the process of creation and this decade is when we first became able to discern its contours and some of its ramifications.