Lessons unlearnt

If there is a Cold War 2.0 today, it can be traced to antithetical narratives and contrasting lessons of the end of the first Cold War.

It is a great irony that just when the world is commemorating the seminal events of 1989, contemporary geopolitics is reverting to another east-west schism. While it is tempting to locate the causes of the US-Russia crisis in Ukraine, the roots of the present impasse can be actually traced to 1989.  

We now know the end of the Cold War was a chance event with competing factions within the Soviet Union contesting Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. The path from November 1989 to December 1991 was an unpredictable and a highly contingent one. Archival evidence suggests that both superpowers were grappling with fast moving events.

In the December 1989, shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, Bush and Gorbachev met at Malta. The conversation was about German unification, which Gorbachev felt should occur gradually and without undermining “the instruments that have maintained the balance” in Europe. Neither did Gorbachev endorse that the “the division of Europe should be overcome on the basis of Western values”.

From both a security and a normative perspective, the Soviet side was visualising a post-Cold War European order based on multipolarity and co-existence. While a cautious US was also reacting to events, Washington had no intentions to legitimise a partially reformed Soviet Union as a partner in European affairs.

An internal memorandum by Brent Snowcroft in September 1989 stressed that the US sought a “transformation of the Soviet Union”, which meant the
 “institutionalisation of democratic internal laws and human rights practices” and “a more market-oriented economic structure.” In addition, historian Mary Elise Sarotte argues, US policymakers were thinking about NATO’s future role in Eastern Europe “as early as February 1990”.

Jack Matlock, US Ambassador to Moscow in 1990, notes that the Cold War “ended because of a negotiated settlement that was potentially to the benefit of both sides.” What was the essence of this negotiated settlement?

The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact was based on an implicit bargain that the opposing alliance, NATO, would not exploit the political-military vacuum in Eastern Europe. On February 9, 1990, according to Gorbachev, US Secretary of State James Baker assured him that, “if you remove your troops and allow unification of Germany in NATO, NATO will not expand one inch to the east.” West German leader Helmut Kohl repeated this assurance to Gorbachev few days later.

Gorbachev agreed to the unification of Germany in July 1990, and, in the following year the Soviet Union had disappeared. In an interview soon after becoming President in 2000, Putin reflected on the fall of the Berlin wall: “I thought the whole thing was inevitable…But I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That’s what hurt. They just dropped everything and went away… We would have avoided a lot of problems if the Soviets had not made such a hasty exit from Eastern Europe.”    

Western political elite

Even if superiority of the American model was not the primary cause of 1989 and 1991, the sudden emergence of a single normative framework for the world had a profound psychological effect on the Western political elite. As Jack Matlock says, “the US may not have won the Cold War but US leaders did start acting like they had.” At the recent Valdai Forum, Putin was blunt: “This is the way nouveaux riches behave when they suddenly end up with a great fortune, in this case, in the shape of world leadership and domination. Instead of managing their wealth wisely, for their own benefit too of course, I think they have committed many follies.”

For the US elite, 1989 and 1991 was a vindication of its model of socio-political organisation and political economy – a self-image epitomised in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. Based on such a worldview, the US reversed its earlier assurances to Gorbachev and began an expansion of NATO’s military infrastructure and a parallel political expansion through the agency of a hapless EU. By the mid-2000s, NATO’s frontiers had moved 1,100 miles east to within 100 miles of St. Petersburg.

It is worth recalling that after Putin’s ascent to power, Russia actually pursued greater engagement and interdependence with the “Euro-Atlantic space”. Russia’s foreign policy discourse throughout the 2000s indicated its quest to formulate a collective security structure from “Vancouver to Vladivostok”, albeit one based on an equal partnership with the West. As Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov asked, “Why should a united Europe be built from a single center and not at several sites at once?” Ironically, the Russian discourse was similar to Gorbachev’s pan-European security ideas.

Again, this clashed with the US approach to collective security, which as before meant a hierarchical US-led structure with the minimal accommodation to Russian sovereignty, norms, and interests. Four events – NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002, the Georgian war of 2008, and the ongoing Ukrainian crisis – have reinforced Russian perceptions that the end of the Cold War was viewed by the US to expand its sphere of influence right upto Russia’s borders. In 2008, Lavrov rejected the uniformity of the “end of history” approach. Russia “holds that competition is becoming truly global and acquiring a civilisational dimension… competition now includes values and development models.”

If there is a Cold War 2.0 today, it can be traced to antithetical narratives and contrasting lessons of the end of the first Cold War. Since the 1990s, these competing images have hardened with each crisis, with the Ukrainian crisis perhaps being the last straw that broke the back of Russia’s “westernisers”. The dynamism of Eurasia and the Pacific has, however, opened a new path for Russia’s geopolitical and geoeconomic development with significant implications for world politics.

(The author is research scholar at King’s College London)

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