Dispatch November 2009

The Fall of the Wall

We may have gained victory in the Cold War, but lost Europe to apathy and decadence in the process.

When the Berlin Wall collapsed twenty years ago, idealism seemed to have vanquished realism as the reigning political philosophy. Because an artificial border had fallen in the heart of Germany, it was thought that all borders between men had similarly disintegrated, and we were all destined to be free and empowered individuals in a global meeting place.

Such dreams were soon shattered. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, and the following year, Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, as divisive ethnic nationalisms long thought dormant exploded violently. Indeed, even in Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall had not liberated people from their own histories and geographies. The road forward from communism for the northern countries of the former Warsaw Pact – East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia – heirs to the relatively prosperous and liberal influences of Prussia and Habsburg Austria, proved far less onerous than for such countries as Bulgaria and Albania, of the poorer and less liberal former Ottoman Empire. And the eastern part of the Ottoman domain in Mesopotamia was poorer and less developed still. Which meant that democratizing Iraq proved far more difficult than democratizing Eastern Europe had been.

Also see:

The Berlin Wall: A Lesson in Change
"Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell, Germany is still struggling to fulfill the promise of that event." By Lane Wallace

And so, twenty years after the end of the Cold War, classical geography continues to shape the terms of global politics – as evidenced by our predicaments in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while the Soviet Union may have disintegrated, Russia is still Eurasia’s preeminent land power. Indeed, once again – thanks to its plans to build natural gas pipelines directly to Western Europe—it holds the ability to split Eastern Europe off from the West and hold the former Warsaw Pact nations captive. Meanwhile, Germany is torn between east and west, and may become dangerously neutral vis-à-vis Western Europe and Russia as a result. And the Near East once again is announced by a series of developmental gradations, rather than by a hard and fixed border, beginning, as in Ottoman days, in the middle of the former Yugoslavia, and ending somewhere in Central Asia.

Thus, difficult histories and geographies, it seems, matter more than we imagined following the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Now, though, a new challenge beckons, equal to that of liberating Eastern Europe. That challenge is Iran, where history and geography conspire to provide us with hope. Iran has been a state in one form or another since antiquity, and has a far more urbanized and sophisticated population than most in the Arab world. We saw the strength of Iranian civil society during last spring’s uprising. And that civil society is now held captive, much as Eastern Europe’s used to be, with its own equivalents of communist-era dissidents.

Iran holds the key to changing the Middle East, much as the collapse of the Berlin Wall held the key to changing Europe. With a reformist regime in power in Teheran, turmoil in Iraq will lessen and Hezbollah may eventually be robbed of a sturdy patron, even as Syria is forced to make its peace with the West, and hopefully with Israel, too. All that, taken together, will release nascent democratic forces that can truly reform the Middle East.

The end of the Cold War was not just a culmination of the Long European War that began in 1914, but also a new beginning that allowed us to direct our energies towards liberating societies further eastward. It’s a struggle we’ve devoted ourselves to for a while now, and we’re fairly far along with it: the European Union is now struggling to incorporate Serbia, and we are trying to salvage something noble from Iraq and seek peaceful regime change in Iran.

More from Robert D. Kaplan:

Kaplan Further Elaborates on These Points at Jeffrey Goldberg's Blog
"While a society should certainly never want to go to war, it should nevertheless feel the need to be prepared to stand for something besides itself ... Europe remembers well its centuries of war which it does not want to repeat. That I understand. But I honestly feel that its low defence budgets are dangerous in some important ways..."

But America is much too alone in taking on this work. Europe, having been liberated from nuclear terror at the conclusion of the Cold War, proved unable to muster the gumption to deal with Yugoslavia on its own, or, as the case of Afghanistan shows, to demonstrate much enthusiasm for any great collective effort. Which leads to the question: What does the European Union truly stand for besides a cradle-to-grave social welfare system? For without something to struggle for, there can be no civil society—only decadence.

Thus, with their patriotism dissipated, European governments can no longer ask for sacrifices from their populations when it comes to questions of peace and war. Ironically, we may have gained victory in the Cold War, but lost Europe in the process.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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