On Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed — not literally, as the concrete-supported, machine-gun reinforced, 160-meter-wide “death strip” would remain in place for another three years. But on that day the wall was effectively leveled when East Germans were allowed to pass to the West unhindered. That opening ended the reinforced separation that made the East German regime possible, speeded up the process that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and merged the ideological division that had marked the world since the end of World War II.
Those events are a distant memory for many and “history” for many others. They should be a symbol of the power of the elemental yearning for freedom, and a reminder of how much our leaders have failed in the quarter-century since to build a world that better responds to that driving force.
The “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart,” as the wall was officially named, was built in 1961 to halt the flood of emigrants who were deserting the socialist paradise of East Germany — the crown jewel of the Soviet empire — for the West. In the years before it was erected, some 3.5 million East Germans — one-sixth of the population — voted with their feet for capitalism, challenging, according to the leader of East Germany Walter Ulbricht, the very existence of his country.
Construction began without notice on Aug. 13, 1961, to isolate West Berlin. Eventually 156 km of barbed-wire fences and concrete enclosed the three western sectors of the city as well as a 43 km stretch that divided Berlin into East and West. It was a heavily guarded, bloody manifestation — reportedly more than 100 people died trying to cross from East to West — of the world’s ideological division.
The wall remained in place for 28 years until, amid the collapse of other Soviet regimes in East Europe, an East German Politboro member mistakenly announced that East Germans would be free to cross the Wall.
That opened the flood gates. Within a year, East and West Germany would be formally unified and, shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union would implode under the weight of its own sclerotic and corrupt system.
Those events transformed the world. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that they signaled “the end of history.” Then U.S. President George H.W. Bush spoke of “a new world order,” a lofty concept given weight by the unprecedented international coalition that was mobilized to drive Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991.
Those dreams evaporated amid the hubris and complacency of world leaders who opted for more of the same rather than seize the opportunity to fashion a new global order. The consequences of that failure have become increasingly clear.
The conceptual poverty of those leaders (and their successors) is evident in the way that the 1990s were referred to as either “the post-Cold War world” or “the post-post Cold War world” — at least until the traumatic events of Sept. 11, 2001, provided another marker for delineating historical periods. But that is not just a matter for historians.
The implications of that failure are evident in the ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose drive to restore Russia to the former glory that he and his backers view as characteristic of the Soviet period, reflects his belief that the world has not been ordered in a way that gives Moscow its proper place. A similar mind-set animates Chinese leaders who increasingly flex their muscles to reclaim what they see as their rightful role in Asia and a rewriting of global rules to better represent their interests.
These are not abstract grievances. The rise of the BRICS group of nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Group of 20, the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the momentum animating the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia are all a product of the growing sense that global institutions and norms that may have fit a Cold War world no longer represent the current distribution of power and influence.
In some cases, these produce bureaucratic battles as diplomats spar over the division of voting rights in international financial institutions such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.
In other cases, however, the result is a genuine clash among nations, as has been occurring in Ukraine and Central Europe, as Russia acts upon its unhappiness, and as looks possible in the East and South China Seas.
In Asia, the Cold War has not really ended. Korea remains divided. Japan has yet to normalize relations with North Korea or conclude a formal WWII peace treaty with Russia. Nor has Japan reached a shared historical reckoning with its neighbors regarding the events of the first half of the 20th century.
Yet, even as the most destructive elements of the Cold War persist in this part of the world, countries in Asia have been transformed. A new regional order must come to grips with those changes. Thus far, it has not.
The challenge today for world leaders is to build a replacement for the Berlin Wall. That does not mean erecting a new barrier that divides the world anew. Rather, a new ordering principle is needed, a symbol of which the wall once served. It is mere good luck that the failure to do so has not led to more tragic results, but that luck could be running out.
As Mikhail Gorbachev, the former head of the Soviet Union, warned last week, “the world is on the brink of a new Cold War” — with or without a Berlin Wall.
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