How post-1989 events transformed the world

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR November 4, 2009

Europe Got Freedom, Asia Got Rich


NEW DELHI — On its 20th anniversary, the fall of the Berlin Wall stands out as the most momentous event in post-World War II history. The end of the Cold War transformed geopolitics, thereby changing the world. But no continent benefited more than Asia, as has been epitomized by its dramatic economic rise, the speed and scale of which has no parallel in world history.

An important post-1989 effect was the shift from the primacy of military power to a greater role for economic power in shaping global geopolitics.

That helped promote not only an economic boom in Asia, but also led to an eastward movement of global power and influence, with Asia emerging as an important player on the world stage.

Global power shifts, as symbolized by Asia’s ascent, are now being triggered not by military triumphs or geopolitical realignments but by a factor unique to our contemporary world — rapid economic growth.

Rapid growth was also witnessed during the Industrial Revolution and in the post-World War II period. But in the post-Cold War period, economic growth by itself has contributed to qualitatively altering global power equations.

Another defining event in 1989 was the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. But for the end of the Cold War, the West would not have let China off the hook for those killings.

The Cold War’s end, however, facilitated the West’s pragmatic approach to shun trade sanctions and help integrate China with global institutions through the liberalizing influence of foreign investment and trade. Had the United States and its allies pursued the opposite approach, centered on punitive sanctions — as have been applied against Cuba and Burma, for example — the result would have been a less-prosperous, less-open and a potentially destabilizing China. Instead, China now is set to displace Japan as the world’s No. 2 economy.

India’s rise as a new economic giant also is linked to the post-1989 events. India was heavily into barter trade with the Soviet Union and its Communist allies in Eastern Europe, so when the East bloc began to unravel, India had to start paying for imports in harsh cash.

That rapidly depleted its modest foreign-exchange reserves, triggering a severe financial crisis in 1991. The crisis, in turn, compelled India to embark on radical economic reforms, which laid the foundations for India’s economic rise.

More broadly, the emblematic defeat of Marxism in 1989 allowed Asian countries, including China and India, to overtly pursue capitalist policies. Although China’s economic renaissance already had begun under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Communist Party, after 1989, was able to publicly subordinate ideology to wealth creation.

So, while Mao Zedong gave China unity, nationalism and self-respect, Deng helped make it prosperous. That example, in turn, has had a constructive influence on surviving Communist parties in Asia and beyond.

Geopolitically, the post-1989 gains extended far beyond the West. China and India were both beneficiaries. The Soviet Union’s sudden collapse came as a great strategic boon, eliminating a menacing empire and opening the way for Beijing to rapidly increase strategic space globally. Russia’s decline in the 1990s became China’s gain.

For India, the end of the Cold War triggered a foreign-policy crisis by eliminating the country’s most reliable partner, the Soviet Union, described as “a trusted and tested friend.” That crisis helped lay the base for a revamped foreign policy.

It compelled India to overcome its didactically quixotic traditions and inject greater realism and pragmatism into its foreign policy. Post-Cold War, India began pursuing mutually beneficial strategic partnerships with other key players in Asia and the wider world.

The new Indo-U.S. “global strategic partnership” — a defining feature of this decade — was made possible by the post-1989 shifts in Indian policy thinking.

To be sure, not all post-1989 developments were positive. The phenomenon of failing states, which has affected Asian security the most, is a direct consequence of the end of the Cold War. While the Cold War raged, weak states were propped up by one bloc or the other. Without the Soviet Union, the United States got out of that game.

That is the reason why dysfunctional or failing states began to emerge in the 1990s — a phenomenon that has contributed to making such states a threat to regional and international security either because they are home to transnational pirates (like Somalia) or transnational terrorists (Pakistan and Afghanistan), or because of their defiance of global norms (North Korea, Iran). Asia has suffered more casualties from international terrorism than any other region.

Between 1988 and 1990, as the Cold War was winding down, pro-democracy protests broke out in several parts of the world — from China and Burma to Eastern Europe. The protests helped spread political freedoms in Eastern Europe and inspired popular movements elsewhere that overturned dictatorships in countries as disparate as Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and Chile. After the Soviet disintegration, even Russia emerged as a credible candidate for democratic reform.

The overthrow of a number of totalitarian or autocratic regimes did shift the global balance of power in favor of the forces of democracy. But not all the pro-democracy movements were successful. And the subsequent “color revolutions” only instilled greater caution among the surviving authoritarian regimes, prompting them to set up countermeasures to foreign-inspired democratization initiatives.

Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the spread of democracy has stalled. China, now the world’s oldest autocracy, is demonstrating that when authoritarianism is deeply entrenched, a marketplace of goods and services is able to stymie a marketplace of political ideas. Authoritarian capitalism indeed has emerged as the leading challenge to the international spread of democratic values.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

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