After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many people believed humans had finally – after centuries of political, economic and human turmoil – reached “the end of history,” a peaceful era of global prosperity centered around Western political ideas.
As political economist Francis Fukuyama noted, the United States (and the Western world in general) had won the Cold War, symbolically universalizing ideas like human rights, democracy and political liberalism. And as the largely peaceful demonstrations in Eastern Europe showed, history seemed to be on our side. Indeed, 1989 set the tone for the rest of the millennium with a promise of a new era of global stabilization, prosperity and cooperation.
With the Cold War over, the world could now breathe a collective sigh of relief. The threat of atomic and/or proxy wars felt like a thing of the past in light of the economic and technological boom. During the ’90s, the United States turned record deficits into record surpluses. The global economy, thanks to market liberalization and reduced trade barriers, lifted millions of people out of poverty. Nations with antagonistic histories, such as Israel and Palestine, made crucial steps towards peace (or at least tolerance) with the signing of the Oslo Accords. New technological innovations, such as the Internet and cell phones, not only boosted the economy but also created conditions to make instantaneous communication a reality to some of the most remote areas of the globe. A lot happened in those ten years.
This optimistic (and pro$perou$) decade had a profound impact on how we view the world. Raised in what President Bill Clinton called “unrivaled prosperity,” nothing could hold us back. Whereas our parents spent their elementary years doing “duck and cover” drills and hiding from outside world, we were encouraged to explore the world and seize all we could from it. Sure, the world could be a scary place sometimes, but, more than anything, it was a platform for discovery, adventure and, thanks to the newly coined terms “multiculturalism” and “globalization,” new friends. Now that the physical walls separating “us and them” had crumbled, our only limit was our own timidity.
Then came September 11, 2001, which shattered the illusion that “history” was over. Americans were hurt and angry in the wake of the attacks, but they were also surprised. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States had finally made good on its promise to make the world safe for democracy, and this was the way the world showed its gratitude? It was President George W. Bush who asked the question on everyone’s minds: “Why do they hate us?”
After we collectively took a few deep breaths to gather our thoughts, it soon became apparent that September 11 was not an isolated, spontaneous event. Rather, the tensions that fueled it had been simmering for years. The problem was that in the decade preceding the attacks, we had been so preoccupied with making money, inventing new technology and getting our kids to soccer practice on time, we had largely ignored all events – and warning signs – that preceded September 11.
While there were no wars on a global scale, there was plenty of global unrest. There were mass genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans. There were terror attacks at the World Trade Center almost a decade before 9/11, as well as in Oklahoma City, Kenya and Ireland. Guns were brought to school and used to kill innocent students. The spread of AIDS had destroyed an entire generation. The economy, riding an Internet and housing bubble, as well as letting a predatory Wall Street run unchecked, was unsustainable and on the verge of a financial meltdown. The list goes on.
Yet we remember the ’90s in the same way the Boomers remember the early sixties: a time of stability, optimism and, admittedly, a little bit of naivety. But where the Boomers’ idealism quickly faded as the ’60s progressed, ours has largely remained, despite the sour economy, soaring national debt and a much frostier geopolitical scene.
Perhaps it was Bill Clinton who best captured the joie de vivre of the ’90s in his 2000 State of the Union address:
“Never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats. Never before have we had such a blessed opportunity – and, therefore, such a profound obligation – to build the more perfect union of our founders’ dreams….We should, all of us, be filled with gratitude and humility for our present progress and prosperity. We should be filled with awe and joy at what lies over the horizon. And we should be filled with absolute determination to make the most of it.”
Long live the ’90s.