COLLEGE STATION, Texas — With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the relatively nonviolent overthrow of communism throughout Central and Eastern Europe, optimists predicted a new golden age of a world filled with peaceful democracies. History, for some, seemed to have come to an end. But the optimists have proved to be misguided, as the world’s powers, great and small, drew their own, often conflicting, lessons from the past.
For Americans, 1989 validated everything they already believed. They had won the Cold War, or so they perceived, through hard force and conviction. They saw demonstrators in East European capitals and Chinese crowds in Tiananmen Square chanting for freedom, and believed that those throngs wanted to be American.
As George H.W. Bush declared, “We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on Earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections, and the exercise of free will unhampered by the state.”
Subsequent events seemed to validate this American recipe. The Persian Gulf War (1991) confirmed American military might and the age-old perils of appeasement. The Clinton era gave us active democracy-promotion as the principle tool of American foreign policy, which George W. Bush’s administration took to unprecedented extremes.
Cold War victory provided the answer for each. “America’s resolve and American ideals so clearly articulated by Ronald Reagan,” Clinton said, “helped to bring the Wall down.” The lesson was clear: “We achieve our aims by defending our values and leading the forces of freedom.”
Barack Obama’s words echo those of Clinton. Despite his frequent avowals of change, his central articulation of American policy seems remarkably static. “Earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks,” Obama preached in his famous campaign speech in Berlin, “but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.”
This is why Obama’s America spends more on weaponry than the rest of the world combined, and why democracy-promotion remains the unquestioned foundation of American foreign policy, with debate possible only about its application. History offers a recipe for success, so long as Americans adhere to the lesson of 1989.
But the rest of the world learned different lessons. European strategists largely dismissed America’s interpretation that force had won the Cold War, believing that cooperation had triumphed precisely because force was absent. They heard in pleas for freedom from behind the Iron Curtain not a desire to become American, but to join the remarkably successful European experiment in collective security and prosperity that emerged after World War II. For today’s European leaders, the central lesson of 1989 is that force is counterproductive; what matters is consensus.
Russian leaders, not surprisingly, also drew their own conclusions. When Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of a “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals,” his conception was not of a continent under Soviet domination, as Josef Stalin once threatened. Having demonstrated remarkable restraint in 1989, Russian leaders expected to be embraced by the West. Instead, NATO expanded to Russia’s doorstep, the European Union barred its doors, and membership in the World Trade Organization seemed out of reach. The post-Soviet economy crumbled, crime skyrocketed and life expectancy declined. Russia’s voice in global affairs lost authority.
For Russian leaders, 1989’s lesson was clear: trusting the West was foolish at best, dangerous at worst. Gorbachev’s vision of European inclusion neglected centuries of Russian history; the West did not want Russian participation. Better that Russians rely on their own power, develop their own resources and police their own borders. The Kremlin trusted the West in 1989. Subsequent Russian leaders refuse to be duped again.
Chinese leaders embraced 1989’s most puzzling legacy. They recoiled at the Soviet bloc’s disintegration. “Every effort should be made to prevent changes in Eastern Europe from influencing China’s internal development,” party officials concluded in March 1989, and within months they violently crushed democratic protesters.
China took from 1989 the lesson that state stability was paramount. Yet China’s leaders also recognized that they ignored popular demands at great peril. The government thus made an implicit deal with its citizens: Political dissent would not be tolerated, but in exchange, the state would guarantee economic growth. No one could question the government’s legitimacy so long as prosperity expanded.
Chinese foreign policy also prioritized legitimacy after 1989, with the regime hoping to reassert its authority globally by expanding China’s participation in international organizations. Chinese leaders embraced the cooperative nature of the post-1945 European process, but simultaneously took the Russian lesson to heart: The West would not yield merely to good intentions.
But, unlike Russia, China de-emphasized the relevance of traditional hard power to achieve its goals. In fact, Chinese leaders have spent remarkably little, relative to China’s growing GDP, on the military. Chinese power today comes not from its ability to match America’s blue-water navy, but from its holdings in U.S. Treasury bonds.
The legacy of 1989 echoes even in Iran, whose leaders seem clearly to have learned from Tiananmen Square and the collapse of the Iron Curtain that a committed government can, indeed, demobilize a public demanding reform.
The world would not soon forget the horrors of Tiananmen, global protesters promised in 1989. But it did — and with extraordinary speed. In looking back at 1989, we are, in effect, looking forward from that year’s momentous events at the very different legacies that they produced.
Jeffrey A. Engel, director of programming for Texas A&M University’s Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, is the author of “The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989.” © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)
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