In 1989, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy given the upheaval in Eastern and Central Europe — and hence “The End of History” as his much-quoted book is titled. Three decades later at this year’s Munich Security Conference, he openly admitted that not all his prognoses had been accurate.
Today, relations between Europa and the US are strained; relations between the West and Russia are in tatters and characterized by mutual distrust. Meanwhile, relations between the US and China are already being described as a new Cold War.
Anyone in any doubt that the world is a long way away from “The End of History” needs to look no further than global defense spending. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), last year saw the biggest increase in ten years. The US continues to lead the way, followed by its new geostrategic foe, China. Russia is fourth, a good distance behind.
In the face of these numbers, it is difficult to imagine the “great sense of optimism” described by the historian when he looks back on the — temporary — end of the Cold War 30 years ago.
“You could shape the future again. And great new opportunities seemed to open up in reunified Germany and also in its neighboring countries,” Konrad Jarausch, the former director of the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam told DW. “And one aspect came true. In the form of the democratization of Eastern Europe and the economic development there.”
The atmosphere was heavy with hopes and expectations. Bold plans were laid at international conferences. The President of the Soviet Union at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev outlined his vision of a “common European home,” in which all inhabitants would share the same sense of security. In November 1990, 34 heads of state attended a special summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, CSCE, signing the Paris Charter and ceremoniously declaring the division of Europe a thing of the past.
Horst Teltschik was at the conference in Paris as a close advisor of the last West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl. In an interview with DW, Teltschik recalled the moment after the signing ceremony: “Gorbachev stood up and said ‘Our task is to move from dictatorship to democracy and from the planned economy to the market economy.’ These principles are enshrined in the charter.”
Little remains of this early enthusiasm. The West German Foreign Minister at the time, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, soberly observed in a guest column for DW thirty years later: “It would appear that some people are not interested in overcoming division, but merely want the lines of division moved east from central Europe.”
NATO goes east
No other political decision irked Russia more than the eastward enlargement of NATO, which began in the late 1990s. As they negotiated the terms of German Reunification, Kohl and Gorbachev had expressly agreed that, as a sovereign country, Germany could remain a member of NATO on condition that no NATO troops were stationed on former East German territory. The chancellor’s advisor, Teltschik, says a further eastward enlargement was not even discussed by Gorbachev and Kohl. For “in the summer of 1990 nobody had any idea that the Warsaw Pact would dissolve three-quarters of a year later, followed six months later by the Soviet Union itself.”
Historians recall promises by US President George Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker, to build up an inclusive. Pan-European security architecture in a spirit of partnership. any American leaders were acutely aware that eastward enlargement by the western military alliance might be seen in Russia as a betrayal of the cooperative spirit of 1990: In an open letter in June 1997, more than 40 former senators, government officials, ambassadors, disarmament and military experts warned Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, that eastward enlargement by NATO would bolster the undemocratic opposition and weaken the forces of reform.
Today, Horst Teltschik is convinced that “NATO, the Europeans, the USA should have issued an invitation to Putin: let’s all sit down together and discuss a list of reservations.” But nothing was done.
Here be dragons
Perhaps the West and the US let the rush of victory go to their heads. “For a certain period around the year 2,000, the US was the only remaining superpower,” said historian Jarausch. “The Russians had their own problems to deal with and communism appeared to belong to history.” Leaders, explained Jarausch, had failed to anticipate the modernization of the Asian form of communism, especially in China.
For many years, the country was viewed solely as a huge market and a cheap workshop for the West. Not only China has benefited greatly from its economic surge in the last 30 years. German firms have profited handsomely, too. The argument was that when a middle class finally emerged in China, it would demand the rule of law and democracy — and get them.
It was not to be. Since Xi Jinping became President of China and Chairman of its communist party, China has become increasingly repressive domestically and increasingly aggressive on the international front. Take for example Xinjiang or Hongkong, the South China Sea or Taiwan. The Berlin-based political scientist Eberhard Sandschneider is not optimistic: “If a country with a population of 1.4 billion achieves an average growth rate of more than 10% for 38 years, it follows that this country will eventually be in a position to translate its economic power into political influence and ultimately, into military prowess.”
Xi Jinping has formulated ambitious targets for his country. He wants the People’s Republic of China to be a mature, modern socialist power by the 100th anniversary of its foundation, 2049, armed with the ability to lay down rules, and to shape world affairs and lead the way economically and technologically. The Sinologist Sebastian Heilmann says China has been quite clear about its ambition to play a central role in the world order. “That, of course, is contrary to the interests of the erstwhile sole superpower, the USA,” explains Heilmann.
Heilmann anticipates the world dividing into two hemispheres, not in terms of military or political power but in terms of technology: “We have to expect a range of technologies in the future with different standards and practices. I’m talking about technological spheres dominated by completely different standards, companies, and regulations.”
This gradual uncoupling of the western world and China has already begun. US President Donald Trump has already announced plans to decouple the economies of the two countries. Any attempt to disentangle the two huge economies will result in massive disputes, according to Eberhard Sandschneider. He sees this process as the end of globalization as we know it.
How this rivalry between the traditional superpower US and the upstart China will pan out is still anybody’s guess. A new Cold War that never actually crosses the threshold to a military conflict may turn out to be one of the less threatening scenarios.