November 9th, 2009
01:21 PM ET

The fall of the Wall: A world restored?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/europe/11/09/berlin.wall.anniversary/c1main.berlin.wall.afp.gi.jpg caption="World leaders were gathering in the German capital Monday to mark 20 years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall redrew the map of Europe and brought about the end of the Cold War." width=416 height=234]

Christopher Chivvis
RAND Corporation

The fall of the Berlin Wall retains its status as an epoch-making event in modern world history, even as it passes from recent into truly historical memory.

The year 1989 ended what the historian Eric Hobsbawm dubbed the “short” 20th century. Over its course, the European states that once bestrode the world spent themselves in two world wars and were then superseded by the new superpowers of East and West, each dedicated to its own ideology, each armed with weapons of unsurpassed destructive force.

To those raised in the shadow of possible nuclear holocaust, the chief sentiment when the Wall fell 20 years ago was disbelief, followed by relief. Relief naturally brought hope that the end of the Cold War would bring lasting peace, and the end of conflict. And in Europe, at least, it mostly did - but not everywhere.

At the time, not a few of Germany’s erstwhile adversaries feared that a reunited Germany would revert to the militarism of its past, that Europe’s “German problem” would be reborn. Here the pessimists were wrong. Reunited Germany opened the door to a new European order and a continent at once whole, free, and at peace.

Was this a world restored? In some ways, yes. The great European powers of the 19th century again appeared ascendant. The United States was free, after half a century, to return to its shores. Though it chose to keep troops in Europe, its focus gradually shifted elsewhere.

By contrast with the past, however, and in part because of it, Europe’s states chose to bind themselves together in new institutional structures around a rejuvenated European Union and a reformed NATO.

If there was peace, however, there were also the seeds of future conflict.

Not all the states with a historical claim to great power status were embraced in the new institutional structures that developed over the next decade. Russia’s exclusion from them may have been inevitable, but it may still prove tragic if the fall of the Wall turns out to have the perverse effect of isolating Russia in its own darkening sphere.

Meanwhile, the Balkans churned, a harbinger of far-reaching changes in the nature of global security affairs. During the Cold War, the era in which contests between advanced industrial states dominated security affairs reached its apex. Bipolarity kept a lid on many civil wars between peoples. When it ended, these conflicts rose again to the surface, not just in the Balkans, but across Africa, the Middle East, and in Asia.

In the world of ideas the dismantling of the Wall also marked the end of old conflicts and the beginning of new ones. It was the death knell of Marxism-Communism and therefore the termination of the central intellectual contest of 20th century European politics.

Yet 20 years later it is still uncertain whether Communism’s defeat also meant definitive victory for liberal democracy. In the last two decades, from Russia to China to Venezuela, democratic processes have proven susceptible to autocratic impulses. Liberal democracy now is forced to compete with new brands of neo-nationalist authoritarianism in these places, and at the same time struggle against the universalist fundamentalism that energizes groups like Al Qa’ida.

Meanwhile, dissolution of the Soviet Union accelerated the nascent process of globalization, unleashing the productive potential of societies across the world and ushering in a new era in the history of free-market capitalism. But these dynamic new forces have proven susceptible to the same crises that have marked the history of free-market capitalism since the 19th century (and of which, ironically, Marx first forewarned).

No surprise then, that we see nostalgia for the days before the Wall fell, when all seemed orderly and predictable. Even today’s nuclear challenges can lead to reconsideration of the improbable upsides of the bipolar “balance of terror” and “mutual assured destruction.” In retrospect, it is self-evident that the events of 1989 meant neither the end of history, nor the end of conflict. But they did mean the end of an era whose successor is still taking form.

Editor's Note: Christopher S. Chivvis is a political scientist with the RAND Corporation in Washington D.C., and adjunct professor in European studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies.

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