The Cold War’s end
turned out not to be the end of history but the beginning of a fundamentally new and complicated phase, or perhaps more realistically, a return to the normal historical processes
that had been gaining speed since at least the French Revolution. Fukuyama’s forecast might have been more accurate had we all been more thoughtful, had we realized and acted on our opportunity for collective action that the end of the Cold War presented.
The Cold War had bottled up and distorted a number of trends. The end of colonialism, which should have left the new states free to organize themselves, was instead replaced by pressures to join sides in the new global conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The move toward equality of peoples regardless of ethnic background or geographic location was subverted by the shifting of focus to this new conflict as well. Efforts to achieve North-South equality within capitalism took second place to the perceived need to win the world for capitalism.
Democratization was seen either as a luxury that could not be afforded or an outright threat by superpoweers more concerned with lining up allies among the ruling elites.
The Cold War’s end removed these artificial constraints on the process of liberation. It removed the need for all to march in lockstep in a global campaign—there was no more global campaign. Local political disturbances in new states were no longer a threat to the world system because there was no longer an outside power looking for opportunities to take advantage of these disturbances. So the end of the Cold War allowed a return to the process of liberating and enfranchising people worldwide.
The Cold War’s end—and, in particular, the nature of the Cold War’s end—gave the world an historic opportunity. The war ended calmly and peacefully; no one was defeated, and the two sides ended up shaking hands, albeit gingerly, and agreeing that working together would make the world a better place. Previous wars—World War II, World War I, the Napoleonic wars, the Thirty Years’ War—had ended with stunned populations impoverished and desperate, economies and infrastructures shattered. The Cold War, by comparison, ended as an opportunity.
For a brief moment in time, it would not be too far from the truth to say that, on a global scale, money and goodwill were plentiful, and security was no longer an issue. The major masses of organized populations—the U.S., West Europe, Russia, China—were beginning a decade of economic growth with no significant security threat. No fundamental ideological debate was hindering cooperation. Fukuyama had a point – if history did not end, at least it hesitated. We had a chance—and it was a clearly visible chance at the time, not just in hindsight—to do things better.
It was not lack of economic ability or lack of technical ability or security concerns that stood in the way. Courage, imagination, and a willingness to insist on principle could at the beginning of the 1990’s have enabled the world to start moving down a fundamentally new path: a path of slow, careful, tedious, little steps designed incrementally to bring justice and a sense of being respected to all the world’s various groups whose legitimate concerns had been marginalized for so long in the name of winning the Coold War, or winning WWII, or winning WWI. This, of course, would have amounted to a realization of Fukuyama’s vision: a world of slow, perhaps dull, steps toward justice for all without the distortions of the past ideological campaigns against communism, fascism, expansionism, capitalism. We should read Fukuyama as offering not a prediction (for who after all can ever predict history?) but as an opportunity. He told us, in effect, that we had at the end of the Cold War a very unusual chance to shift the course of history onto a new path.
During the Cold War and, indeed, throughout known human history, the predominant model has been to build a society and then to expand its power by forcing others to join. The opportunity at the end of the Cold War was to begin developing societies on the principle of making those societies so attractive that others would want to join. Russia took a laudable step in this direction in letting the ethnic republics go free and then trying to entice them back. Unfortunately, ruling elites could not break old habits, and movement down this road came to a screeching halt in a tiny place almost no one, except perhaps readers of the 19th century Russian writer Lermontov, had ever heard of: Chechnya.
A fundamental change had occurred in the course of world history by 1990: suddenly, now, for the first time, everyone knew everything. Faxes, CNN, and then the Internet meant there were effectively no more secrets. We still have no real idea of the impact of modern communications on world developments, but the well-known impact of faxes on the Tiananmen Crisis and the abortive coup attempt by the Soviet old guard provides clues. It must surely have become obvious to virtually every repressed individual across the globe by the end of the 20th century that whatever excuses had ever been used in the past to justify ignoring, oppressing, disenfranchising, and robbing them no longer held any validity whatsoever.
The Cold War had been used to justify ignoring a vast array of injustices against “marginal” groups, from truly marginal minorities to the vast majority of the population in some countries. As chance would have it, however, the test case for the new era in world affairs turned out to be Chechnya, where a tiny population that had been resisting Russian expansionism for two centuries took the new world political atmosphere at face value and announced that, “Well, yes, thank you very much for the offer, we will be most pleased to become independent. After all, we have been saying that for two centuries. So nice of you to pay attention.” The Russian response did not go over well: “Ah, well, we…ah…actually didn’t have you specifically in mind; you’re not a “republic,” you see, you’re part of “us” and…well…there’s the oil…and those other internal minorities…Dagestan, and what all…” In the event, two Russian-Chechen wars, near genocide of the Chechen people, heroic attempts at exposure by Politkovskaya (since murdered) and other reporters [see Politkovskaya, A Dirty War; Nivat, Chienne de guerre; Smith, Allah’s Mountains], freedom fighters portrayed as terrorists, and, a generation later, with Chechnya shattered and devastated, and with all sides radicalized, the sad story continues. The world protested a bit but essentially made it clear that it had other priorities. Realpolitik still outbid morality.
The next big test for the post-Cold War ruling elites came in an equally remote location, the jungles of southern Mexico, where the plight of marginalized Mayan peasant farmers who were not connected to the world economy via the appetite of Americans for their melons, was ignored by the American and Mexican elites as they negotiated the new NAFTA arrangement. The people of Chiapas stood up and demanded to be heard, as they had done repeatedly over the previous 150 years, but this time the repercussions led to the 1994 Mexican peso crisis and a $20 Billion loan guarantee by Washington: a very big bill for ignoring the price of melons.
One could continue by citing Palestine, Kashmir, Aceh, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Colombia, but one sees the pattern…A vast array of highly diverse events, all with long histories but also with some essential similarities:
- Marginal people demanding to be heard…and respected;
- Despite the post-Cold War opportunity, the initial reaction across the board was to clamp down, control, use force;
- But, in the new interconnected world, the local events had global consequences.
The marginal people were no longer alone, and they knew it. And, somehow, the force used against them no longer seemed as effective.
The 1990’s were not a decade of evil because injustice was found to exist in the world; that injustice had always existed. The 1990’s were a decade of evil because the world’s elites had the opportunity to address that injustice and they chose instead to look the other way.
Why does this matter? Because we are now paying the price.
History may not be predictable but it is predictable that the pattern of long-term injustice against marginalized minorities leading to unforeseen major problems for the world has not ended. The list of candidates for the next disaster is endless. Indeed, the poor record since the Cold War of listening to mistreated peoples and responding to their pleas for justice has, with a few exceptions (East Timor, perhaps Kosovo and Ireland), only gotten longer.
So…step right up. Yes, you: because you are the one who must pay the piper.