Let me start with a confession. I’m old-fashioned and I have an old-fashioned profession. I’m a geopaleontologist. That means I dig around in archives to exhume the extinct: all the empires and federations and territorial unions that have passed into history. I practically created the profession of geopaleontology as a young scholar in 2020. (We used to joke that we were the only historians with true 2020 hindsight). Now my profession is becoming as extinct as its subject matter.
Today, in 2050, fewer and fewer people can recall what it was like to live among those leviathans. Back in my youth, we imagined that lumbering dinosaurs like Russia and China and the European Union would endure, regardless of the global convulsions taking place around them. Of course, at that time, our United States still functioned as its name suggests, rather than as a motley collection of regional fragments that today fight over a shrinking resource base.
Empires, like adolescents, think they’ll live forever. In geopolitics, as in biology, expiration dates are never visible. When death comes, it’s always a shock.
Consider the clash of the titans in World War I. Four enormous empires—the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and German—went into that conflict imagining that victory would give them not just a new lease on life but possibly even more territory to call their own. And all four came crashing down. The war was horrific enough, but the aftershocks just kept piling up the bodies. The flu epidemic of 1918–19 alone—which soldiers unwittingly transported from the trenches to their homelands—wiped out at least 50 million people worldwide.
When dinosaurs collapse, they crush all manner of smaller creatures beneath them. No one today remembers the death throes of the last of the colonial empires in the mid-20th century with their staggering population transfers, fierce insurgencies, and endless proxy wars—even if the infant states that emerged from those bloody afterbirths gained at least a measure of independence.
My own specialty as a geo-paleontologist has been the post-1989 period. The break-up of the Soviet Union heralded the last phase of decolonization. So, too, did the redrawing of boundaries that took place in parts of Asia and Africa from the 1990s into the 21st century, producing new states like East Timor, Eritrea, South Sudan. The break-up of the Middle East, in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq and the “Arab Spring,” followed a similar, if far more chaotic and bloody pattern, though religious extremism more than nationalist sentiment tore apart the multiethnic countries of the region.
Even in this inhospitable environment, the future still seemed to belong to the dinosaurs. Despite setbacks, the United States continued to loom over the rest of the planet as the “sole superpower,” with its military in constant intervention mode. China was on the rise. Russia seemed bent on reconstituting the old Soviet Union. The need to compete on an increasingly interconnected planet contributed to what seemed like a trend: pushing countries together to create economies of scale. The European Union (EU) deepened its integration and expanded its membership. Nations of very different backgrounds formed economic pacts like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Even countries without any shared borders contemplated such joint enterprises, like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and, later, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (the “BRICS” nations).