The 12 months of a year make for artificial boundaries of perception and judgement. Yet as 2009 passes into history, and with it the first decade of the new century, a pattern can be discerned of an order more than half a century old sometimes grudgingly making way for a new one that is haltingly, even reluctantly, taking shape.
The inauguration of Barack Obama, a Democrat and the first black US President, fuelled expectations the world over that flew off the chart of optimism. It seemed to signify not only that Americans were now able to look beyond inherited black-white divisions, but that US unilateralism, as resurrected during the eight years George W Bush was in the White House, had been overcome once again.
In his oratory, but more especially in his tone, Obama signalled that the US was rejoining the world and that the world was invited to rejoin the US in a common endeavour. In his first months, he scattered a presidential term's worth of overtures, starting with approaches to Iran and the Muslim world in general. He announced the promised withdrawal from Iraq, refocusing US military efforts on Afghanistan. And he decided, controversially, that some of the most prominent terrorist suspects should stand trial in the US. Thus did he bring the Administration back to the rule of law, even as the timetable for shutting down Guantanamo slipped.
To object that the new President's achievements to date have been limited to a tonal shift is to underestimate the significance of that one change. Anyone who saw Obama primarily as a world leader by acclamation was always going to be disappointed. His presidency is not about leading or following, but about replacing confrontation with co-operation. And that applies in Afghanistan, too, at least as an aspiration.
Co-operation, not confrontation, placed determined non-cooperators, such as Iran and North Korea on the spot. The disarray into which the Iranian election descended can be traced directly to the difficulty the ayatollahs faced in demonising the United States. Perversely, the new atmosphere in Washington may also have complicated efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, as the US tried to treat with Israel and the Palestinians more even-handedly than before, even as both were in the throes of generational change themselves.
Obama's preference for the co-operative approach was part of his temperament and his world view. But the financial crisis in the developed world surely reinforced it. Not only had the crash in the United States helped to sweep Obama to victory, but it also contributed to the sense that the US was not the single, all-conquering superpower any more.
One vision of the long-term future was of a so-called Group of Two (G2), in which the only serious challenger to the US was, or would be, China. That was in part because China had weathered the global economic storms relatively well, and in part because the country's GDP overtook one OECD country after another. But a G2 future presupposes not only that the two countries will emerge dominant, but that they will seek to exercise the power this would bring.
Yet China has very far to go before its per capita GDP even approaches that of developed countries. And the pressures China faces from world-beating growth that is not reflected in the well-being of the population must be recognised, as must the fact that other countries, not least India, are also on the rise.
If the past 12 months was the year of the G-anything, it was not of the G2, but the G20, the more co-operative assembly of national economies that effectively replaced the G8 in the wake of the financial crisis. It was also the year, in its own characteristically un-assertive and sometimes quarrelsome way, of the European Union. The eurozone weathered the financial storm relatively well, and the EU as a whole ended the year finally ratifying the Lisbon treaty: another vindication for compromise and co-operation as a model for future organisation. In a small way, Britain's 2009 can be seen as emblematic of the swirling trends. The penalties of living on borrowed time and, above all, borrowed money, became embarrassingly apparent. Having been a boastful proponent of the so-called "Anglo-Saxon" economic model for more than a decade, Britain had to make common cause with Europe, albeit in the slightly shame-faced way in which British governments since Thatcher have dealt with Europe.
Discreet action, rather than bombastic words, also defined Britain's disenchantment with the ultra-free market. When Lord Mandelson – he who professed to being profoundly relaxed about people becoming "filthy rich" – conceded that the financial services sector would in future account for a smaller share of the UK economy, the Anglo-Saxon model as we knew it was condemned on both sides of the Atlantic.
The MPs' expenses scandal, the Lords' "cash for questions" affair, and the first resignation of a Commons Speaker all combined to show British democracy as less of a world-beater that many had assumed. If you add the ups and downs of Scotland's flirtation with independence (the ups being the promise of a referendum and the downs the bail-out of the Royal Bank of Scotland) and the opening of the UK Supreme Court, then the country's constitutional arrangements start to look a lot less durable than most Britons are accustomed to thinking.
The cumulative effect, speeded along by the withdrawal from Iraq and mounting casualties in Afghanistan, is a growing fluidity in discussion about Britain and its place in the world, reminiscent of the "East of Suez" soul-searching of the 1960s. Could a country that still sees itself as global, in influence if not actual reach, at last be accepting that it is a medium to small country, and needs to match its self-image to its capabilities?
And here lies the paradox of 2009. There are countries, Britain included but also Russia, which are faced with adopting more co-operative ways of behaving. But there are also countries, such as the US, China and Germany – cloaked in the EU – that are being begged to use their power more assertively. Perhaps this was the year when the shyness of those on the rise matched the reluctant retreat of those in decline and ushered in a new mood – long or short, we shall see – of something like co-operative realism.Reuse content