Most people believe that the 21st century simply began at the turn of the millennium, in the year 2000. However, Krzysztof Szczerski, a secretary of state in the chancellery of the president in Poland, came to Yale to posit that the 21st century actually started at three different times.
“You can argue about the beginning of historical periods by defining the nature of the geopolitical order,” he said.
In his talk entitled “Geopolitics and Europe: A Polish Perspective,” Minister Szczerski drew from his experience as a Polish diplomat and statesman to define the three beginnings of the 21st century. The first one occurred in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
To Minister Szczerski, the dissolution of the Soviet Union marked the end of a bipolar international order between the communist Eastern Bloc and the liberal democratic Western Bloc. Many thought of 1991 as the “end of history” because the longstanding rivalry between warring ideologies was seemingly over.
“The 21st century would be the first century with one model of political and social life: democracy and a liberal market economy,” he explained.
This unity was reinforced by the creation of the internet, a symbol of a new inter-connected era. The World Wide Web made everyone neighbors in terms of virtual proximity.
Minister Szczerski emphasized that during the 1990s, Poland, a former satellite state of the Soviet Union, was disconnected from much of the optimism of connectivity. Because Poland relied on the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, it did not have an advanced banking system, money, infrastructure, or alliances to prepare it for a globalized world. Even Poland’s bordering countries could not provide security or assistance. From 1989 to 1995, all of Poland’s neighbors changed. Eastern Germany became Germany. Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic and Slovakia. And the Soviet Union became Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Russia.
“We had to sign border treaties with all our new neighbors,” he told. “We were free but unsecure.”
On this note of insecurity, Minister Szczerski transitioned to his second beginning of the 21 century: September 11.
“9/11 turned the dream of globalization into parts. It started the new pattern that the 21st century would be the century of global terrorism,” he said.
The attack on the World Trade Center, a physical representation of interconnectivity through global trade, communicated that history had not ended – the war of ideologies had only begun.
Minister Szczerski pointed out that for the first time, the allies of the United States were divided over whether or not to support the War on Terror.
“That was described as the division between the old and new Europe. Germany had a different idea of international relations than the United States. It was unbelievable that the Chancellor of Germany could deny the United States,” he shared.
Minister Szczerski then proclaimed that the third beginning of the 21st century happened on a similarly memorable date: August 8, 2008, or 8-8-08, when Russian invaded Georgia. He admitted that though the event may seem insignificant compared to September 11 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it is nonetheless important because the conflict in Georgia was the first geopolitical war of the 21st century. Just like 9/11, the attack on Georgia indicated that peace would not be a theme of the 2000s.
Although Minister Szczerski spent his lecture drawing attention to three separate beginnings of the 21st century, he closed by advising the audience to consider them as parts of a whole.
He said, “You have to understand that all three patterns are not replacing one another; they are cumulative. To understand what’s going on you need to put on three lenses at the same time.”