Twenty Years Later

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Articles, China, Europe

On June 4, 1989, history forked.

In Poland, voters went to the polls to give the anti-communist opposition a sweeping victory in the country’s first, partially free elections in ages. It was the first sign of the revolutionary changes that would sweep through Eastern Europe that year, knocking down the Berlin Wall and changing the face of the continent. On the other side of the world, on that same day, the Chinese government sent tanks and troops into Tiananmen Square and crushed the student-worker demonstrations. This was the anti-revolution of 1989. Communism collapsed in one place; communism continued in the other.

Twenty years later, it seems as though both countries took different paths to the same economic endpoint. Poland has become a member of the European Union (EU) and NATO. And China, after its own long march to capitalism, has become the largest holder of U.S. treasury securities.

In both countries, the populations live better on average today than 20 years ago. But increasing inequality suggests that the two movements — the Solidarity trade union in Poland and the Communist party in China — ultimately betrayed their core constituencies of workers and peasants. At the same time, the fervor for democracy that animated Polish voters and Chinese protestors in 1989 has subsided as corruption and commercialism has driven people away from politics and into IKEA. Nationalism has become more important as a unifying ideology in both countries, expressed either in the form of the clericalism and anti-German sentiments of the Kaczynski twins in Poland or the Han chauvinism and anti-Japanese sentiments so prevalent in Chinese chat rooms.

We don’t, of course, live in a flat world leveled by technology and driven by the market. There are still important differences between the paths taken by Poland and China, between the social market of the EU and the market socialism of the “Beijing consensus,” between the corrupt but functioning democracy in Poland and the corrupt but functioning oligarchy in China.

The sharpest contrast between the two countries, however, lies beneath their routine proclamations of a desire to improve relations with Washington. The Polish government has campaigned hard for a U.S. military base that would be part of the missile defense network. Fearful that the Obama administration might change its mind, Poland is lobbying for Patriot missiles stationed outside Warsaw by the end of the year. China, on the other hand, is distressed about U.S. missile defense plans, so much so that it is reportedly undertaking the largest increase in its nuclear-tipped ballistic missile program since the late 1980s.

So, in 20 years, we really haven’t fully escaped the shadow of the Cold War. Poles and Chinese can suck down frappuccinos as they trade funny videos on Facebook. But nuclear weapons still hang over us all like a guillotine blade. And we have yet to escape, fully, our global bipolar disorder. “Even if China and the United States make nice in bilateral meetings, they are spending as if a new Cold War is just around the corner,” I write in The G-2 Paradox.

There will be many commemorations of June 4, some joyous, some sorrowful. Many courageous people sacrificed so much to change the world. And much did change. But 20 years later, I’m still waiting for my invitation to the Cold War’s funeral.

Shadow Wars

The Cold War was never just cold. There were plenty of “hot” conflicts around the world — Vietnam, Angola, El Salvador — that absorbed U.S. arms and soldiers. Today, our containment posture toward China, North Korea, and even Russia is likewise complemented by the same old counterinsurgency campaigns — in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

“The concept is hardly new,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Conn Hallinan in Shadow Wars. “The units are different than they were 50 years ago — Navy SEALS and Delta Force have replaced Green Berets — but the philosophy is the same. And while the public face of counterinsurgency is winning ‘hearts and minds’ by building schools and digging wells, its core is 3 AM raids and Hellfire missiles.”

The argument in Washington has centered on the efficacy of this counterinsurgency strategy. But that formulation misses the point, argues FPIF contributor Ira Chernus. “We should insist that the important question is not, ‘How can we win our wars?’” he writes in an annotation of Obama’s recent national security speech. “The important question is, ‘Does it serve the best interests of the American people — ultimately our common goal — to declare that we are at war with anyone at all?’ Once the debate shifts that way, we can build a strong case that the very idea that we are ‘at war’ is likely to do us more harm than good in the long run.”

Speaking of Nukes

North Korea conducted its second nuclear test last week. Seoul responded by joining the Proliferation Security Initiative, which Pyongyang has considered an act of war. Even though North Korea is substantially outgunned in the region and everyone recognizes the terrible consequences of military action, tensions could still escalate into a full-blown conflict.

“It’s not too late to step back from the brink,” I write in Korean Tragedies. “We’ve been here before: the first nuclear crisis in 1994, the controversy over the underground site at Kumchang-ri in 1998, the breakdown of the Agreed Framework in 2002, and North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. The latest crisis has come a few months shy of its usual quadrennial anniversary. We managed to talk our way out of these previous perils. We can talk our way out of this one, too.”

The right signals can make a big difference. Consider the situation with Iran. “It’s too early to make firm predictions regarding the future direction of the U.S.-Iranian relationship,” writes FPIF contributor Benjamin Tua in Lessons from Moscow and Tehran. “But it’s clear that the new administration in Washington has embarked on a course correction focused more on engagement than on sanctions and hectoring. In response, influential Iranians — including speaker of the parliament Ali Larijani, who suggested in February that, rather than boxing with Iran, the United States should ‘play chess’ with it — are sending many signals that they are prepared to engage as equals.”

Stiglitz and Israel

The Stiglitz Commission is tasked with coming up with ways to restructure the institutions governing the global economy. It will consider more substantial changes than a mere nip and tuck here and there. As FPIF contributor Alex Wilks writes in Overhauling Global Finance, the most provocative recommendations of the commission concerns process: “One of the commission’s findings is that decisions concerning necessary reforms in global institutional arrangements must be made not by a self-selected group, such as the Group of the world’s eight richest countries (G-8), but by all the countries of the world working in concert.”

Recently, 10 state attorneys general sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton defending Israel’s military actions in Gaza during the recent war. Wait, why are the chief law officers of Michigan, Florida, and Utah getting involved in this issue?

“It is virtually unprecedented for state attorneys general — whose mandates focus on enforcement of state law — to weigh in on questions regarding the laws of war, particularly in a conflict on the far side of the world,” writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in Defending Israeli War Crimes. “More significantly, their statement runs directly counter to a broad consensus of international legal opinion that recognizes that Israel, as well as Hamas, engaged in war crimes.”

FPIF, June 2, 2009

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