This November marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. After Hungary began opening its borders in April 1989, a veritable springtime of nations followed as the Warsaw Pact countries, one after the other, began to emancipate themselves from Soviet rule. The reaction in the West was reminiscent of the fervor abroad that had greeted the French Revolution two centuries earlier. As the poet William Wordsworth rejoiced,
Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
For all the ebullience about the dizzying pace of events, the peaceful demise of the Cold War came almost as much of a shock to the Western powers as it did the Kremlin itself. German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s push for reunification aroused apprehensions abroad about a potential German hegemon in the center of Europe: both French president Francois Mitterrand and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher viewed the prospect with dread. As the French writer Francois Mauriac once sardonically observed, “I love Germany so much that I am glad there are two of them.” Now the two Germanies, which had been sundered after the Second World War, were about to become one.
In Washington, the administration of President George H.W. Bush, which had initially been skeptical of Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, sought to create what amounted to a permanent postwar settlement in Europe. Bush, together with Kohl, not only presided over the unification of West and East Germany, but also helped to establish the Charter of Paris for a New Europe in November 1990.
Like the 1815 Congress of Vienna which established the European order that endured until World War I, the aspiration of the Charter was to forge a new framework for European peace—one that envisioned a vastly expanded role for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Soon, Washington and its Western allies pushed for the expansion of NATO in two separate phases eastward. The unexpected terminus of the U.S.-Soviet conflict created a sense of euphoria in the West that was also reflected in the pages of The National Interest, which had hitherto viewed the Cold War as an intractable conflict.
IN 1985, in the inaugural issue of this magazine, the editors had published a mission statement that contended, “the Soviet Union constitutes the single greatest threat to America’s interests, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.” Four years later, as Eastern Europe was imploding, Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” essay appeared in TNI. In declaring that free-market liberal democracy represented the “final form of human government,” Fukuyama’s essay almost overnight became the locus of controversy about the role of progress in history.
Ultimately, it served as a bellwether for the doctrines that would prompt leading neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, Charles Krauthammer, Robert Kagan and William Kristol to champion an American triumphalism. It would be tedious to recount the steps by which the neocons came to dominate debates over war and peace in Washington, but perhaps there is some merit in recalling that a different vision was promulgated in the aftermath of the Cold War by several leading realist thinkers. It was George F. Kennan, for example, who warned in 1997, “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the post-Cold-War era. Such a decision may be expected … to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”
BUT IT was an essay by Owen Harries, a founding editor of The National Interest, that perhaps most directly contradicted the eupeptic spirit of the Fukuyama essay. Early on, Harries put his finger on the nub of the problem that has assailed the Western democracies since the end of 1989. In an essay in Foreign Affairs that appeared in 1993, Harries examined what he termed “The Collapse of ‘the West.’” At the very moment that America and Europe were pushing for NATO expansion and contemplating military intervention in the Balkans, Harries was asking a fundamental question—whether there really was such a thing as the West. His point was that while there has historically been a cultural entity known as the West, it has been divided politically and economically more often than not. For all the belief that economic ties would preclude warfare, Europe, as AJP Taylor observed in The Last of Old Europe, was never more unified than before World War I: “A man living in London could decide at a moment’s notice to settle in Vienna or Paris, and he could move himself and his possessions there the same day. Europeans had never enjoyed such freedom and were never to do so again.” Unity was not the natural state of European affairs. As Harries observed,
Over the last half century or so, most of us have come to think of “the West” as a given, a natural presence and one that is here to stay. It is a way of thinking that is not only wrong in itself, but is virtually certain to lead to mistaken policies. The sooner we discard it the better. The political “West” is not a natural construct but a highly artificial one. It took the presence of a life-threatening, overly hostile “East” to bring it into existence and to maintain its unity. It is extremely doubtful whether it can now survive the disappearance of that enemy.
Fast forward a few decades and Harries’ comments begin to look even more trenchant. There are several stress fractures that have opened up in the West over the past few years, each of which is the result of the rise of populist sentiment that directly contradict the kind of effusiveness originally embodied in the belief in an end of history.
One is the approval of the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the United Kingdom’s tortured efforts to depart from the European Union. Though Winston Churchill called for a United States of Europe in a speech in Zurich in 1946, a number of British conservatives have always viewed the European Community, then Union, as a German or French plot designed to strip the United Kingdom of its sovereignty so as to render it a vassal of unelected bureaucrats ensconced in Brussels, handing down edicts about immigration or agriculture inimical to Britain’s true interests. Now that the Tory wets have been driven out of the party, however, the anti-EU faction has largely made a hash out of Brexit, which appears to be like the horizon—the more you walk toward it, the further it recedes into the distance. Brexit has already claimed the scalps of two prime ministers: David Cameron, who has gone on an apology tour burbling “I feel sorry about lots of things,” and the hapless Theresa May, who failed to deliver on her promises of a Brexit.
NOW IT is Boris Johnson’s turn. So far, Johnson, whose embrace of Brexit was wholly opportunistic—on the eve of the referendum, he wavered over publishing one of two op-eds that he had written, the first pro- and the second anti-Brexit—has badly bungled matters. In seeking to defy parliament, he has only aroused its antipathy, forging a union between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is making noises about creating his own version of Brexit. He announced in late September, “We have consistently put forward what I believe to be a credible option, which is based on five pillars – the customs union, the trade relationship, protection of consumer and environmental rights, and of course the Good Friday agreement.” If Corbyn prevails, he will pursue his own version of a “little England” policy that might represent a more profound breach with Europe than anything Johnson is contemplating. It would likely result in his own form of personalized rule, modeled on Cuba or Venezuela. Johnson is a pantomime of an authoritarian leader. Corbyn would be the real thing.
Another sign of the fissiparous tendencies of the West can be detected in the rise of nationalism in what was once called Mitteleuropa. Germany has long been the motor of a united Europe, but it is experiencing a sharp rise in populist sentiment, particularly in the former East Germany, where aggrieved locals believe they were manhandled after 1989 by their brethren in the West. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s emphasis on a Willkommenskultur, or a welcoming culture, has proved calamitous for her Christian Democratic Union, which has been outflanked by the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD). The AfD began as a fringe party of Eurosceptic professors and journalists opposed to the currency union in Europe. Since then it has morphed into a much more overtly bellicose party, expressing disdain for a German sense of guilt about the Holocaust, among other things. After Merkel became the “refugee chancellor” in the summer of 2015, when she welcomed hundreds of thousands of Syrian immigrants to Germany, the AfD picked up steam. In recent state elections in Brandenburg and Saxony, the AfD scored very well indeed—23.5 percent in the former and 27.5 percent in the latter. The party has become the third-largest in Germany. Only a few years ago such numbers would have been unthinkable. But the party’s message of a restoration of German pride and an end to apologies for the horrors of World War II is apparently falling upon receptive ears. Put bluntly, almost three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, nationalism has once more become salonfähig, or acceptable for polite society. Germany may also enter into a trade war with America as Trump eyes the imposition of auto tariffs. All of this may end up having direct implications for Berlin’s dealings with Brussels, its membership in NATO and its alliance with Washington. Instead of serving as the leader of a revivified Europe, it might well turn inward, emphasizing the policies that could make Germany great again—including outreach to Russia and China to counterbalance America. Essay Types: The Realist