Saturday marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an epochal moment in international relations. Yet, some three decades on, the initial promise of what is commonly called the 1989 revolutions has now faded.
Indeed, from the vantage point of 2019, it is sometimes necessary to look back and remember the huge wave of optimism that dawned with the wave of political change which swept the former Eastern Bloc, starting in Poland and Hungary, with experiments in power sharing, coming to a head with the opening of the Berlin Wall in November. Thereafter came the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the overthrow of the communist dictatorship in Romania in December, ending in December 1991 with the implosion of the Soviet Union.
This breathtaking period in international relations, after the decades-long Soviet-US bipolar stand-off, gave rise to optimistic hopes and expectations of how the post-Cold War world might be. Yet, the vision then expressed by some of a universal order of liberal, capitalist, democratic states living in peace and contentment has not just been dashed, but replaced by a different reality.
While it is still too early to make definite assessments, it is possible that 2016 may be seen as one of the turning points in the post-1989 period. It was that year which saw the election of Donald Trump as US president, and the United Kingdom voting to leave the EU.
What was so striking about both these events was that two of the countries previously known for their political stability, and being traditional rule makers of the international order, made the world a significantly more uncertain place. However, while 2016 may indeed prove to be a potentially defining twelve months for historians, significant political volatility has actually been a feature of international politics for some time before.
For much of the period since the turn of the millennium, authoritarian states such as Russia have appeared to be in the ascendancy; so-called Islamic terrorism has been a significant international concern; and several unstable countries, including North Korea have acquired nuclear weaponry. So marked has sometimes been this disarray that some academics have pointed to 2001, a year forever remembered for the 9/11 attacks in the United States, as being the start of a new “twenty years crisis” mimicking that between the 1919-1939 interwar period.
The case for this argument lies, in part, in the multiple challenges confronting the US-led international order include not just the nuclear challenge on the Korean peninsula, and the threat from international terrorism. Other geopolitical fault lines include the continuing instability in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan; Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the fact that Washington’s relations with Moscow are perhaps now more strained than at any time since the collapse of Soviet Communism; plus the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process appears moribund.
While much has changed since the end of the Cold War, one constant is that the United States remains the most powerful country in the world — certainly in a military sense. It can still project and deploy overwhelming force relative to any probable enemy.
Yet, with Washington now re-examining its international role under Trump, it is the rise of China — which has now surpassed the United States as the world’s largest economy on purchasing parity terms, which is one of the biggest game changers in global affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mirroring Beijing’s growing economic strength is an increasingly assertive foreign policy and a range of ambitious international initiatives such as the ‘Belt and Road’ project.
The rise of China has potential to be either a growing source of tension with Washington, and or develop into a fruitful G2 partnership. Growing bilateral rivalry is increasingly likely if Beijing’s military power continues to grow rapidly and the country embraces a more assertive foreign policy stance toward its neighbours in Asia.
However, growing bilateral cooperation is possible if the two powers can increasingly cooperate on soft issues like climate change, and find effective ways of resolving harder power disagreements between them, including over territorial claims in the South China Sea. If this can happen, we may transition from the existing post-war multilateral system into a “multi-bilateral” order that would see a network of loosely coordinated bilateral and regional deals, in trade, security and other areas.
One of the key indicators of whether such a future is on the horizon could come if the “interim” trade agreement reached by Washington and Beijing this month can, ultimately, be translated into a comprehensive, sustainable deal. If so, the two leaders could avoid the world hurtling toward zero-sum trade relations.
Taken overall, while the full promise of the 1989 revolutions has not been fully realised, it is by no means inevitable that the international system will be defined going forward by US-China rivalry mimicking the Cold War. While the direction of bilateral relations with China could become a force for greater global tension, it also still has the capacity to evolve into a deeper strategic partnership helping drive a new era of global growth and stability.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics