I keep an old map on my office wall, bought for nearly nothing at a used bookstore and then lovingly framed. It’s a National Geographic print from 1942, covering “Asia and Adjacent Areas.” The legend informs you: “International Boundaries as of Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland.” A map of the same super-region published just three years later would look much different. One published just 20 years after that would be far different still. The changes have kept coming and keep coming even as I write this. I keep that old map over my desk because I love old maps, and I love old maps because they remind us that Bob Dylan got it wrong: The times are always a-changin’.
We need that reminder today, when the papers and blogs are filled with nervous headlines about Brexit, Russian revanchism, Chinese expansionism and ethnic cleansing, terrorism, economic collapse, the virtual disappearance of our southern border, racial strife, woke/cancel culture, disasters both natural and manmade — and in the case of California’s wildfires, both. And so many more.
A quick glance around Asia’s perimeter on my map tells of nothing but change. Japan began a decades-long ascendence over a century ago, but after a losing war and a stunning postwar renaissance, today sits on the precipice of steep demographic decline. Korea, once a colony of Japan and before that a satrap of China, is a fully-independent and glittering economic powerhouse. Well, the southern half is, anyway. “North Korea” was a barely imaginable concept in 1942, but since 1945 it has been and remains a stubborn and troublesome geopolitical fact. Tomorrow, who knows?
Elsewhere in the Pacific, perhaps the Philippines remains the closest thing to unchanged, despite a booming population which now numbers many more millions than the United States did when in 1898 we took possession of the islands from Spain.
Just since 1989, China began waking from its long, if troubled slumber to become the world’s factory floor and upstart military superpower. Beijing’s economic reach encompasses the most resource-rich parts of Africa and Central Asia, exploitative in ways the previous European colonizers could have hardly conceived of. Chinese neocolonialism is extending even into Latin America — the Monroe Doctrine, for nearly two centuries the guiding geopolitical conception of the Western Hemisphere, is effectively dead. Nevertheless, Beijing trembles, privately, at the presence of unarmed and barely organized protestors in Hong Kong. A sleepy fishing village not more than a century ago, Hong Kong grew into one of the world’s great cities even while mainland China remained a Communist backwater. Now, the Chinese coast is littered with a dozen or more virtually brand-new cities just like it.
If the defining postwar fact of Vietnam was its long civil war, featuring robust interventions from France and the United States, its population is now so young that there are relatively few Vietnamese with any memories of war. The people there have progressed from rice bowls and landmines to iPhones and blue jeans in less than a lifetime.
Indonesia has gone from a resource-rich Dutch possession, to a Japanese conquest (itself an unthinkable act until it happened), to a fractious polyglot state which has somehow held itself together. Britain’s crazy patchwork quilt of possessions and dependencies on the Indian subcontinent is now four enduring nation-states of varying degrees of modernity and success, two of which are often at war with one another but rarely officially. Both are in possession of nuclear arsenals whose size, effectiveness, and physical security aren’t fully known.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the borders imposed by European powers on the Middle East’s shifting sands is that they lasted for so many decades, before being effectively swept away by the Islamic State — a non-state actor which didn’t even exist ten years ago. You might recall one late summer morning not many years ago, when a Saudi Arabian man of immense wealth, hiding in an Afghan cave, gave a few orders and spent a little money… and tore a hole in the New York City skyline half a world away.
Europe decolonized Africa so quickly, recklessly in places, that the post-colonial French Fifth Republic still finds itself enmeshed there from time to time.
All by itself, Poland makes a fine example of crazy change and stunning endurance. Once the arguably nicer half of the massive Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Poland was nibbled at by its neighbors until finally it was swallowed completely by Austria, Prussia, and Russia in a swift set of partitions. It reappeared, briefly and shrunken, during the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars — only to be swallowed up once more by the victors in Berlin and Moscow. The Poles re-reasserted their independence between the world wars, only to suffer another partition, this time by two of history’s worst brutes: Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. The occupation was as murderous and destructive as any. Stalin was kind enough to give the Poles their own state back after WWII, but not their own government. They endured decades of Soviet oppression before a Polish shipyard electrician became the unlikely leader of an unlikely revolt of the workingman against the “worker’s” government. Today, Poland is one of the few bright spots left on a continent largely in decline. I’d say “God bless the Poles,” but it seems He already has — or likely there wouldn’t be any left.
Then there are constructs like the European Union that don’t show up on ordinary political maps, but which represented Europe’s last-best gasp at global relevance. The EU is falling apart before it was fully put together.
Another unwieldy artificial construct, the internet, started out as a kind of obscure playground for nerds, geeks, researchers, and some military people. Today it is the dominant force in business, entertainment, and communications, accessible in hi-def color on pocket-sized devices from anywhere in the world. For a world falling apart, we’re also coming together in marvelous, wondrous ways — even as the acid of social media eats away at that.
And of course, the former elephant — or was that a bear? — in the living room: The Soviet Union. That evil empire occupied our strategic thinking, our military budgets, and our technological focus for nearly 50 years, then vanished one December morning almost as though it had never existed. That massive event followed just two years after NATO won what could have been the Third World War, without anyone on either side firing a shot.
Some said that meant an end to history. Others looked at that old map on the wall and knew better. We’ve endured and prospered through all of it, though, and with a bit of luck and a lot of grit, we’ll endure and prosper longer still.