Amid all the ruminations and euphoric nostalgia, the flood of reflections on the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall failed to grasp perhaps the most important lesson of 1989.
It is not that the elation, jubilation and spontaneous outpouring for liberty were inauthentic. It is not just that rather than being the “end of history,” history has returned with a vengeance. Nor is it that the “unipolar moment,” as the 1990s vacation from history wasn’t real, however ephemeral.
Rather, what has eluded assessments of how and why post-Cold War expectations proved so wrong, is something more fundamental and something of a historic anomaly.
In stark contrast to previous inflection points in the long arc of history—reaching back even before the Peloponnesian Wars—the disruption of conflicts, abrupt, unexpected major change, or revolution shifted the tectonic plates. After the Cold War and the demise of the USSR, however, the post-World War II system remained pretty much intact.
Yet over the four centuries of the modern world, beginning with the peace of Westphalia in 1648, at each epochal shift, a new order was created in its wake– Empires crumbling, borders redrawn, regimes changed, new balances of power. It is worth briefly revisiting previous epochal transformations to grasp why the modest adjustments in the wake of the Cold War’s demise were relatively less enduring.
Peace of Westphalia
Take, for example, the Peace of Westphalia, where the modern concept of state sovereignty was born. It was the result of nearly a century of continuous wars—the Eighty Years War and the Thirty Years War between Protestant and Catholic states in a fragmented Holy Roman Empire. Beginning in 1568, the eighty years was in effect, a Dutch war for independence, revolting against Philip II of Spain.
Eventually, the authority of the Holy Roman Empire was broken, and this led to a series of treaties culminating in the Treaty of Westphalia, a new political order reached through tortuous diplomacy based on the principle of complete state sovereignty. Christians of non-dominant denominations could practice their faith (based on the 1555 Peace of Augsburg) and each state had complete control over its territory, peoples, and religions. Territories were redefined. This resulted in Sweden gaining control of the Baltics, France becoming the leading Western power, and the German states were able to decide the religions within their states. A new political order and a new balance of power based on co-existing sovereign states emerged. It remains the foundation of the nation-state system and international law today.
Congress of Vienna
The next great hinge of history was the 1815 Congress of Vienna, once again, after nearly continual warfare between European powers. The previous balance of power order, the 1722 Peace of Utrecht, had proved unable to cope with the ambitions of France’s. The defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1814 shattered the European order. It took a massive effort by all the Great Imperial Powers—Russia, Great Britain, Austria and Prussia—and skillful diplomacy to reach accord on how to pick up the pieces: French reparations and redistribution of its Empire; a complete reorganization of Central Europe with victors acquiring new territories, reconfiguring the German states, borders of Poland, Italy, Scandinavia.
Eventually, upon punishing France and accommodating the interests and visions of competing empires, peace in Europe based on a new balance of power system was reached. Despite intermittent conflicts, the Congress of Vienna sustained a relatively peaceful political order for a century, until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
In the aftermath of World War I, a century ago, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, created a new order in Europe and sought to transform international relations by creating the League of Nations. A skeptical U.S. Congress failed to ratify the League of Nations, which led to its ineffectiveness and demise. Retribution against Germany, dismembering its borders, seeking large reparations, and largely demilitarizing it, led to a failed peace, and a resentful, resurgent Germany led by the Nazis and to World War II.
Bretton Woods and Yalta
After World War II, the U.S.-led allies sought to learn from the tragic flaws of Versailles, to avoid another global depression and World War III by creating a new global financial and trade system at Bretton Woods in 1944. The adroit U.S. pursuit of enlightened self-interest at the 1945 Yalta conference by Roosevelt, also with Churchill and Stalin, laid the basis for the post-war political order, reconfiguring Europe, and creating the United Nations. In sharp contrast to Versailles, the allies sought to rehabilitate Germany and Japan based on the values of democracy, rule of law and free markets.
The point of this little history lesson is to illustrate the contrast with the outcome of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. The only major borders redrawn were due to the collapse of the USSR and the reunification of Germany, both driven by internal imperatives, not retribution.
The adept diplomacy of the Bush administration and an amiable partner in Mikhail Gorbachev ensured that it all occurred peacefully and began efforts to treat the USSR/Russia as a partner. Massive nuclear and conventional arms reductions were negotiated. Yet the rules-based order—the global financial system and the UN system—remained intact forty-five years later, as did the U.S. alliance network—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and alliances with South Korea, Japan, Australia, and the Philippines.
Aside from the obvious difference from earlier eras—this inflection point did not result from major wars—how to explain the outcome? Instead of evolving as a partner, a resurgent Russia defined itself as apart from the West and has sought to reconstitute as much of the USSR as possible. Former Soviet Warsaw Pact nations in Eastern Europe, after initially delighting in their new freedom and democracy, some—Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic—despite integration into NATO and the European Union (EU), have lapsed into authoritarian populism. The EU itself appears mired in an inward-looking, protracted identity crisis.
Why? Two seminal events—the 2008 Financial Crisis and Great Recession, and the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq—had an impact. Similarly, Russia’s botched capitalist transition and long authoritarian traditions were a factor. And not least, the Clinton administration’s rapid NATO expansion, incorporating the former Warsaw Pact nations, contributed to the Russian antagonism. This was contrary to what Moscow expected. During the transition period, 1989-92, President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker were magnanimous, not gloating in victory. While there was no formal agreement or commitment, Moscow’s acceptance of a reunified Germany into NATO was facilitated by Bush-Baker intimations that NATO would not move further East.
It is impossible to attribute which factors caused the relapse because they were interactive. A counterfactual “what if” can only be conjecture. Alternative futures exist only on paper. But what if the U.S. and its allies had fashioned an inclusive new security system? What if the U.S. over-reach of NATO expansion, financial irresponsibility, and the 2003 Iraq War had not happened?
Would the future be one of a revised, updated and more stable rules-based order, rather than one unraveling amidst renewed Great Power competition? Maybe the reunification of Germany and the democratization of the ex-Warsaw Pact states was the best that could be achieved. Nonetheless, juxtaposed to the strategic earthquakes of earlier epochs, the incomplete post-Cold War transformation and its sour outcome leave one wondering.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counselor to the UnderSecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-12. Twitter: @Rmanning4