President Emanuel Macron’s long and provocative interview in “The Economist” coincided with the celebrations marking the fall of the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago, on November 9th, 1989, which brought a peaceful end to the Cold War in Europe.
President Macron’s interview also coincided with the beginning of the campaign in yet another British “Brexit” General Election.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was an unexpected event.
It created the opportunity for the emergence of a new United Europe: “Whole and Free” as the saying went. It led to a reunited Germany which was to become the dominant economic power at the core of the new Europe.
It also marked the collapse of Soviet dominated Warsaw Pact, and it opened the door for the incorporation of the new democracies which replaced the communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe to join the expanded institutions of the European Community.
It led to the expansion of NATO eastward to incorporate a reunited Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states.
The Soviet Union collapsed and was replaced by a resentful, shrunken (and initially chaotic) but profoundly irredentist Russia.
A Pew Survey in 2015 found that 61% of Russians believed that parts of neighboring countries really belonged to Russia, 69% believed that the breakup of the Soviet Union had been a bad thing, and 60% wanted the Ukraine to splinter further. The Russian “near abroad” and former parts of the old Russian Empire and the USSR (as well as territories within the new Russian Federation like Chechnya where open warfare broke out during the rule of Boris Yeltsin and thereafter), were to become targets of opportunistic interventions once Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 and consolidated his authority.
Nothing in history stays still for very long.
President Macron is right about this. Few victories go uncontested. History did not “end” in 1989, nor did wars end in 1989. Within two years of the fall of the Berlin Wall internecine conflicts began in the Balkans. In 2001 the Al-Qaeda terrorist group struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon In Washington DC. Conflicts were merely sublimated, transferred, and relocated onto new but equally dangerous paths. In response to the 9/11 attacks President George W. Bush launched his “war on terror” and began the endless American military engagements in Afghanistan, and then launched a war against Saddam Hussein, the disastrous consequences of which was the rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or (Daesh) seizing control of large territorial portions of Syria and northern Iraq.
America’s NATO allies were drawn into both of these American military interventions, most especially Britain under Tony Blair’s Labour government (despite large scale popular opposition at home and dishonest justifications), though not significantly France, which although it was involved in Afghanistan after 2001, was strenuously opposed to participation in the military intervention in Iraq. In 2008 the global financial crisis shook the foundations of the western financial system. In 2011 the Arab spring brought hope and then disaster to the Middle East, with brutal and unending civil conflict in Syria. Britain and France intervened in Libya (with the US under President Obama leading “from behind”), but then left Libya in chaos after Muammar al-Gaddafi was overthrown and assassinated. Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe shook Nice, Paris, Brussels, London and Birmingham.
The new Europe had already emerged in the decade before the Fall of the Berlin Wall, with important developments in the South. Portugal, then Spain and Greece, had all emerged as democracies in the mid-1970s after long periods of right wing dictatorships.
Portugal had been a founding member of NATO despite being ruled by the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. Spain had not been a member of NATO until it joined in 1982 after the Spanish Caudillo, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, died in 1975. The entrance of both Spain and Portugal into the European Community took place in 1986 when they acceded to the then “Europe of Twelve.”
The US already had military bases in Spain during the Franco regime. But NATO membership for Spain required a referendum of the Spanish people in 1986 in order for accession to be approved. The successful integration of the two former Iberian dictatorships into the Western European democratic mainstream, however, was undoubtedly a major achievement of the 1980s, and the role of West Germany in this process was notable, in both Portugal and in Spain, by providing political and financial support through the West German political parties and their party affiliated trade unions and international foundations.
In fact the models of democratic transition provided a positive model for post-Berlin Wall post-communist eastern Europe
Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall major changes had also occurred in the Eastern Europe and especially within the Soviet Union and within the Soviet dominated Eastern European satellites, which in the final analysis, made the reunification of Germany, and the expansion of the EU and NATO to the East possible.
The rise of Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland, the rise of Vaclav Havel and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, contestation in Hungary where the electrified wire border fence was turned off, and the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 as the leader of the Soviet Union who was not prepared to use brute force to sustain Soviet domination (as had happened in in 1968), meant that East Germany found itself increasingly isolated within the eastern bloc. In 1989 East Germany was the last dike holding out while the force of the water pent up behind the dike was finding exit channels all around it.
I was in Berlin for a conference earlier in 1989 just prior to the fall of the wall. I had been speaking at a seminar on the democratisation of the Iberian peninsula. Stanley Payne, the American historian of Spain was there, as well as several leading political figures involved in the democratic transitions from both Spain and Portugal.
There were participants from East Germany who sat throughout in stony silence. We went over into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie. I will never forget the female East German border guard who checked me out. She was a splitting image of the female border guard who had daggers hidden in her boots in the James Bond movie.
Ironically l had been in Berlin during Easter 1961 on my way by train via Warsaw to Moscow.
We had also visited East Berlin then and brought back four Berliners who jumped aboard our bus and were tucked away under our feet as they fled from the Russian zone. The Berlin Wall went up on August 13, 1961 five months later.
NATO has been founded in 1949 with 12 European and two North American members. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, West Germany in 1955. Spain in 1992. The Warsaw pact was dissolved in 1991, and the expansion of NATO to the east occurred in 1999 when Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic joined over Russian objections.
There was, and there remains, much controversy over the understandings undertaken or implied or not undertaken between east and west over NATOs expanded role into the former communist states in eastern Europe.
But despite these Russian objections NATO in 2004 incorporated seven more Central and Eastern European nations, including Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania.
There is an elementary rule of physics that an action produces a reaction.
Predictably the Russian Pushback began. Putin in 2014 audaciously made a successful land grab for the Crimea, a iconic location of Russian conflict with Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire, during the 19th century. He launched a long war of attrition within Ukraine’s eastern boundary. He exploited American indecision over Syria to provide critical military support to the floundering Assad regime allowing Assad to regain lost territory and seize the initiative in the grotesque and bloodily Syrian conflict. He engaged with Turkey to outflank Trump and become (possibly) the major outside broker in Middle Eastern diplomacy, backed with the unambiguous use of diplomatic influence and of force where necessary.
President Macron is right about the retreat of American engagement under President Donald Trump.
But this retreat began earlier.
The real challenge lies in the shifting of the tectonic plates of world power and politics and conflicts and in the manner in which they are conducted, which has changed dramatically over the past decade.
We have long since ceased to live in an American dominated unipolar world. The authoritarian regimes of China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran and North Korea, not to mention the growing web of south-south relationships between India, China, Brazil and South Africa though the embryonic BRICS institutions, investment, and trade, are all players in this new emerging re-configuration of power, competition and challenge.
Meanwhile, the core participants, those “present at the creation” in the words of Dean Acheson, of the post WW2 global order, the United States and Great Britain, are each engaged in their own psychodramas.
Some of these psychodramas are encouraged and stimulated by Russian clandestine cyber-warfare, a new and increasingly effective ingredient in international clandestine competition.
Macron refers to the British Brexit mess as an irritating sideshow.
It is not.
Britain remains a member of the UN Security Council like France. It remains a middle range military power with the capacity for overseas engagement, also like France. It is a nuclear power, also like France.
The British referendum which resulted in a majority voting in favor of leaving the EU is a continuing and self inflicted blow to the European Union idea which should not be underestimated. The result of the three-and-a-half years of paralysis since the referendum over EU membership also reflects a wider disenchantment with the political system and in particular with the political class.
The Pew Research Center’s global attitude survey earlier this year found that in Britain 69% of the population were dissatisfied with the way democracy was working, which ironically approached the attitude Russians where the survey found 64% were dissatisfied (In Sweden by way of contrast 72% were satisfied, though in France only 41% were satisfied.)
The election campaign has begun with a battle between “the toffs” and “the chavs,” between a posh-boy mini-would-be British Trump in the person of Alexander Boris de Pfellel Johnson, the Eton College and Balliol College, Oxford University, educated, Manhattan born, former Oxford Union president, and sacked columnist for the London “Times” for falsifying a quotation, and then the correspondent for the “Daily Telegraph” in Brussels, where he entertained and stocked up his eurosceptic readership with tales of the absurdities of the Brussels Eurocrats.
He then was elected as the mayor of London were he hosted the London Olympic Games (successfully) and introduced a hire cycle scheme known colloquially as “Boris Bikes.”
He is also known for his verbal excesses, his sexism, his homophobia, and his crass comments about Muslims. Together with Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, Boris Johnson is a caricature of English upper class privilege and entitlement.
The “leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition” (his official title), Jeremy Corbyn, has an equally absurd profile of class resentment, stepped in an anti-American sub-Marxism from the 1970s.
Corbyn was an overseas student volunteer in Jamaica and then travelled extensively in Latin America between 1969 and 1970, joining anti-military regime demonstrations in Brazil, and witnessing the election of Salvador Allende in Chile. His current wife is a Mexican. He was apparently for a time under surveillance by MI5, and for two decades by the Special Branch of the metropolitan police as he was deemed to a subversive. He has been a participant in the campaign for nuclear disarmament, the campaign for a United Ireland, and he was a vocal opponent of the Iraq war, and a warm admirer of the late Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chaves. He has long been a eurosceptic. He is in favor of the nationalisation of public utilities and the railways. And needless to say he is in favor of nuclear disarmament and approves of the UK leaving NATO. He has been dogged by accusations of anti-semitism in the Labour Party.
Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are entirely out of touch with electorate which is utterly fed up with the shenanigans of their would be political leaders inside and outside parliament.
Not surprising they have agreed to one on one debates excluding the Liberal Democrats, the Brexit party, the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Greens, and the Welsh Nationalists. Which is s huge mistake since the upcoming election and Brexit could well lead to Scottish Independence next year and renewed conflict in Ireland over unification.
Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are promising a Christmas tree laden with goodies in a pre-Christmas election. Yet all these promises are underwritten by massive unfunded and borrowed money to fund these competing giveaways.
Thank you President Macron for the wake up call.
You make some very pertinent arguments as always.
They should be debated.
But l very much doubt anyone, especially in navel-gazing Britain and in the Trump obsessed USA, is listening.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles we will publish commenting on President Macron’s Interview with The Economist.