Par­tial tri­umph of 1989

The Korea Times - - OPINION - By Javier Solana Javier Solana, a for­mer EU high rep­re­sen­ta­tive for for­eign and se­cu­rity pol­icy, sec­re­tary-gen­eral of NATO, and for­eign min­is­ter of Spain, is cur­rently pres­i­dent of the Esade Cen­ter for Global Econ­omy and Geopol­i­tics, dis­tin­guished fel­low

MADRID — Nov. 9, 1989, is a date my gen­er­a­tion will never for­get, and one that will for­ever be in­scribed in hu­man his­tory. On that day nearly 30 years ago, the Ber­lin Wall fell.

The break-up of the Soviet bloc showed that com­mu­nism was to be­come the sec­ond great ide­o­log­i­cal fail­ure of the 20th cen­tury, fol­low­ing the demise of fas­cism a few decades ear­lier. Lib­eral cap­i­tal­ism and its main ex­po­nent, the United States, reigned supreme, seem­ingly des­tined to en­joy a long, un­chal­lenged hege­mony.

Many coun­tries flour­ished in the new en­vi­ron­ment. Poland, for ex­am­ple, in­stalled a non-com­mu­nist-led gov­ern­ment shortly be­fore the Ber­lin Wall fell, and, after over­com­ing some early tran­si­tion prob­lems, moved smoothly to­ward NATO and the Euro­pean Union.

The Pol­ish econ­omy last ex­pe­ri­enced a full-year con­trac­tion in 1991. And in 2009, when ev­ery other EU mem­ber state’s GDP shrank, Poland’s grew by al­most 3 per­cent.

To­day, how­ever, we know that 1989 marked the end not of his­tory as such, but of a spe­cific chap­ter in his­tory. Western lib­eral democ­racy, which Fran­cis Fukuyama pre­dicted would en­joy eter­nal supremacy after 1989, now faces an in­creas­ingly se­ri­ous chal­lenge from il­lib­eral forces.

Amer­ica’s pe­riod of dom­i­nance also turned out to be short-lived. The Sept. 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tacks against the U.S. showed how vul­ner­a­ble a great power could be to emerg­ing non-state ac­tors.

In ad­di­tion, China’s ac­ces­sion to the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion the same year gave fur­ther im­pe­tus to that coun­try’s spec­tac­u­lar rise. Amer­i­can hege­mony crum­bled, and the world grad­u­ally got used to speak­ing the lan­guage of mul­ti­po­lar­ity.

The rise of China has shat­tered many pre­vi­ous as­sump­tions. Back in Novem­ber 1989, the Com­mu­nist Party of China (CPC) seemed ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble. The other spear­head of com­mu­nism — the Soviet Union — was fac­ing an in­creas­ingly ev­i­dent cri­sis, while China was still lick­ing its wounds in the af­ter­math of the Tianan­men Square protests.

The CPC re­acted to these two episodes by clos­ing all doors to po­lit­i­cal lib­er­al­iza­tion. In the end, con­trary to many pre­dic­tions, the col­lapse of the Soviet Union did not lead to the down-fall of the CPC in China. Nor has China’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment un­der­mined its au­to­cratic model, at least up to now.

On the con­trary, the CPC is re­in­forc­ing its pri­macy un­der the leadership of Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, and some gov­ern­ments have even be­gun to look to China’s au­thor­i­tar­ian de­vel­op­ment model as a source of in­spi­ra­tion.

But the Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties’ al­ter­na­tive nar­ra­tive has some blind spots. The Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China re­cently cel­e­brated its 70th an­niver­sary, thus out­liv­ing the Soviet Union. But com­mu­nist China is not 70 years old: De­spite the of­fi­cial rhetoric, China’s eco­nomic take­off was mainly the re­sult of Deng Xiaop­ing’s lib­er­al­iz­ing 1978 re­forms, and the coun­try’s lead­ers no longer har­bor com­mu­nist am­bi­tions.

As the econ­o­mist Branko Mi­lanovic ar­gues in his new book “Cap­i­tal­ism, Alone,” to­day’s Chi­nese model rep­re­sents a dif­fer­ent kind of cap­i­tal­ism, not a dif­fer­ent eco­nomic sys­tem al­to­gether. In this sense, Fukuyama’s pre­dic­tions are yet to be proven wrong, as cap­i­tal­ism still has no ri­val world­wide.

The fact that nom­i­nally com­mu­nist China is among glob­al­iza­tion’s staunch­est de­fend­ers is one of the great para­doxes of our time. In re­al­ity, China’s open­ness to the out­side world is still rel­a­tively lim­ited.

But its gov­ern­ment is nonethe­less as­sum­ing a lead­ing role in cer­tain eco­nomic fo­rums, mostly be­cause oth­ers will not. The two ma­jor pow­ers that pre­vi­ously did the most to pro­mote free com­merce — the U.S. and the United King­dom — are now in full re­treat. These days, glob­al­iza­tion is more pop­u­lar in Asia than in the West.

Many in the U.S. and Europe be­lieve that glob­al­iza­tion’s so-called losers have helped to bring il­lib­eral fig­ures such as U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to power. But eco­nom­ics pro­vides only a par­tial ex­pla­na­tion for this trend.

Con­sider Poland again. De­spite be­com­ing a poster child of a suc­cess­ful tran­si­tion from so­cial­ism to lib­eral cap­i­tal­ism, and de­spite sidestep­ping the Great Re­ces­sion, the coun­try has em­braced il­lib­er­al­ism in the form of the Law and Jus­tice (PiS) party, which re­cently won its sec­ond con­sec­u­tive par­lia­men­tary elec­tion.

Although PiS has cap­i­tal­ized on eco­nomic dis­con­tent among some parts of the pop­u­la­tion, it has also tapped into deeper and more wide­spread con­cerns about Pol­ish na­tional iden­tity.

It is im­por­tant to re­call the ex­tent to which Poland’s au­ton­omy has been con­strained in the last cen­tury — ei­ther in­vol­un­tar­ily (by for­eign pow­ers’ oc­cu­pa­tion or con­trol) or vol­un­tar­ily (by join­ing the Euro­pean Union). Far from be­ing an­ti­thet­i­cal, there­fore, cap­i­tal­ism and il­lib­er­al­ism are now ad­vanc­ing in tan­dem and con­sol­i­dat­ing glob­ally. And the progress of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy could strengthen each of them si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

Since the in­ven­tion of the World Wide Web (as it hap­pens, in 1989), its im­pact has been more am­biva­lent than ex­pected. In a sense, the in­ter­net has helped to unite peo­ple, but it has also di­vided so­ci­eties into echo cham­bers.

More­over, some gov­ern­ments are ex­plor­ing the po­ten­tial of the in­ter­net — and re­lated re­sources such as big data — as a tool for so­cial con­trol. The ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple is the CPC, which wants to avoid any and all po­ten­tial dis­rup­tions to its plans to reach “full de­vel­op­ment” in 2049, the cen­te­nary of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic.

In his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Cen­tury,” Yu­val Noah Harari writes that, “If some­body de­scribes to you the world of the mid-21st cen­tury and it sounds like sci­ence fic­tion, it is prob­a­bly false.” But, he adds, “if some­body de­scribes to you the world of the mid-21st cen­tury and it doesn’t sound like sci­ence fic­tion -- it is cer­tainly false.” In other words, the only cer­tainty is un­fore­see­able change.

Be­cause our pre­dic­tions al­most al­ways miss the mark, it is best to avoid both fa­tal­ism and eu­pho­ria when look­ing to­ward the fu­ture. Thirty years from now, we could be liv­ing in a world where il­lib­eral pow­ers con­stantly col­lide. Or it could be a world in which val­ues such as democ­racy and mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism have staged a come­back.

The les­son from 1989 is that we should be mod­est. But that does not mean that we should be­come pas­sive: What we choose to do to­day will un­ques­tion­ably leave a mark on the world of to­mor­row.

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