Twenty years ago, no one could miss the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On Nov. 9, 1989, the Cold War struggle between the United States and Soviet Union was finally over after 40 years. Unexpectedly, the Soviet Union failed to hold on to its empire in Eastern Europe. Americans began to imagine the benefits of a “peace dividend” now that they seemingly no longer needed to spend quite so much on defense.
But the fall of the Berlin Wall was not the only event of lasting significance that year. In February 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew its remaining troops from Afghanistan, and the United States turned its attention elsewhere, thereby paving the way for the growth of al Qaeda. In June, the Chinese government killed hundreds of its own citizens in Tiananmen Square, making clear that it would not allow its burgeoning capitalist economy to be accompanied by democracy.
Although Americans didn’t know it at the time, one challenger - Soviet communism - had given way to two new ones: failed states and illiberal capitalism. While neither has proven as all encompassing as the Soviet threat, each has vexed the United States for the past two decades and will continue to do so in the coming years.
With the Cold War rivalry over, the United States wasn’t sure at first why it needed to worry about failed states. When the former Yugoslavia imploded, and violence erupted among the new states that emerged, the United States hoped the Europeans could deal with the turmoil. They couldn’t. Meanwhile, the United States decided to lead an international effort to feed starving people in Somalia and to restore the democratically elected government of Haiti. The term “nation-building” entered the American lexicon, but often as a term of derision; aside from the refugees streaming into the country from Haiti, it was hard for most Americans to see the importance of these disparate conflicts.
Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which spurred the United States to topple the Taliban from power. Al Qaeda fled into Pakistan, drawing the United States deeper and deeper into the tribal conflicts of the region. Now President Obama faces the most challenging decision of his first year: whether to commit more troops to an effort to support the Afghan government in its ongoing battle with the Taliban insurgency or concentrate on finding and eliminating al Qaeda operatives. Or both. The United States has learned the hard way the limits of its nation-building prowess, but fears abound that not fixing Afghanistan’s problems will only embolden America’s enemies.
No country could be more pleased with the deepening American involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan than China. In the years after Tiananmen, the Chinese generated economic growth that was the envy of the world. In 2000, presidential candidate George W. Bush challenged the Clinton administration’s depiction of Beijing as a “strategic partner.” Had the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, not occurred, the Bush administration likely would have concentrated its attention on China’s rise and the threat it posed to American dominance.
Instead, the United States followed its war in Afghanistan with its war in Iraq. In the process, the United States became yet even more dependent on Chinese purchases of American Treasury bills.
China, meanwhile, showed the world that capitalism could develop without democracy. Such illiberal capitalism may prove unsustainable in the long run, but China has found favor among autocrats around the world. From Venezuela to Sudan to Iran, China has cut deals with America’s adversaries, frustrating U.S. efforts to promote democracy and human rights and to counter proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we rightly celebrate the victory for freedom that day. It was a day of hope, and a new beginning, particularly for a Europe that has largely fulfilled the vision of becoming whole and free in the two decades since. But as we remember the joy of 1989, we should not forget the year’s dark side. Afghanistan’s descent into chaos and China’s crackdown on human rights continue to cast a shadow that we struggle with today.
James Goldgeier is a co-author of “America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 - The Misunderstood Years between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror” (PublicAffairs, 2008).