Reflections on Legacies and Lessons of 1989

In evaluating history, T.S. Eliot reminded us that human beings often “had the experience but missed the meaning.” In efforts to make sense of our past, we look for patterns to wrap around the path of experiences. Yet we—both individuals and nations—find ourselves continually confronted by new experiences that challenge assumptions, requiring adjustments to our meanings in order to make better choices.

During the last three decades, debates over the narrative and rationale of U.S. global leadership has illustrated this struggle with regard to the question: what meanings did we miss in our experiences?

The meaning that emerged in the U.S. about the dramatic events in Europe in 1989 and in the decades following was formed around the two concepts of the end of the Cold War: the implosion of the Soviet Union and the vision of countries now capable of joining a liberal world order increasingly sharing democratic values and led by the unipolar dominance of the U.S. These assumptions fit into an American view that a world community would now converge around the “indispensable nation” to shape a global world order based on the web of multilateral alliances, the rule of law, and networks of trade backed up by U.S. military might as the lone superpower.

These assumptions fit into an American view that a world community would now converge around the “indispensable nation” to shape a global world order based on the web of multilateral alliances, the rule of law, and networks of trade backed up by U.S. military might as the lone superpower.

That vision was articulated by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 in a speech in which he described a new world order where the nations of the world can prosper and live in harmony and “the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle.” With the image of thousands of East Germans streaming through a fallen Berlin Wall and the defeat of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, Bush saw an opportunity to make not only Europe “whole and free,” but to include nations around the world in the new liberal order. The post-Cold War environment was envisioned as marked by cooperation among nations creating an expanding web of interdependence based on shared values of democracy.

In many ways, this American vision echoed post-World War II views of a world in which the rebuilding of security and prosperity was dependent on the leadership of the U.S. Because that strategy had worked reasonably well for those under the American umbrella during the previous four decades, the thinking went, it should now be worth pursuing again in the post-Cold War period.

There was a difference in the two periods. Those who crafted the strategies in the late 1940s were burdened by the specter of preventing another catastrophe. The post-Cold War environment, however, was accompanied with a greater sense of hubris. This time, it was believed, the world could really be made safe for democracy.

So the meaning went.

But reality struck back almost immediately. In the wake of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the return of war to the European continent in the Balkans was one of many red flags pointing at the fact that the melting of Cold War ice sheets uncovered the fires of nationalist entities no longer dormant but rather still burning. The brutal suppression of human rights demonstrations in the streets of Beijing in the spring of 1989 had also reminded that a convergence of values among nations was not self-evident. And the turmoil in Afghanistan did not subside after Soviet troops left; it boiled over a decade later in the attacks by al-Qaeda in Africa.

Then came 9/11 and the reminder that an expanding globalization brought both the good and the bad—shared vulnerability with it. Regional conflicts continued, financial insecurities erupted, inequalities deepened, and the bonds of alliances were strained over the Iraq War. The experiences were challenging the meanings we had thought of as self-evident.

What had we missed?

The post-1989 framework with which we approached the dramatic changes unfolding drew on experiences of the past. We believed we had learned our lessons well after 1945 by weaving a more expansive global presence to help secure peace and anchor democracy. That formula had guided us throughout the Cold War and was key to the success of securing a peaceful and stable Europe, strengthening allies in Asia, and preventing Soviet expansion. The meaning of the American experience was largely captured in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

The American consensus around that mission was largely supported by the strategic community, the experts and scholars who advised it, and the public at large. Fear of nuclear war and communist threats added to that commitment. But overall it fit into the larger self-perception of the U.S. as a source and guardian of global peace and prosperity.

Along the way there were also many misguided and contradictory efforts such as the U.S. war in Vietnam, a failed military intervention in Cuba, and supporting dictators in South America as well as in the Middle East. It also informed the decision to invade Iraq and to engage in the longest war in U.S. history in Afghanistan.

All this caused more Americans to increasingly question President Kennedy’s admonitions about burdens and burden-sharing while the hubris that went with the post-Cold War moment was receding. Building schools in Kabul seemed less urgent than focusing on the needs of Americans at home. There was a fading consensus on what we wanted to achieve and at the same time what we needed to confront.

Today Americans struggle with the current version of this long-standing debate over how the U.S. needs to exert global leadership, project its power, and exercise its responsibilities at home and abroad.

Today Americans struggle with the current version of this long-standing debate over how the U.S. needs to exert global leadership, project its power, and exercise its responsibilities at home and abroad.

On one side of that debate are those who wish to limit both capabilities and put “America first.” The election of Donald Trump was evidence that a large number of Americans have ambivalent feelings about the global role of the U.S. President Trump has rejected the notion of an evolving international community and seeks to restore the emphasis on the primacy of national interests. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently stated in Brussels, “Our mission is to reassert our sovereignty, reform the liberal international order, and we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well. “

The other side holds that the U.S. remains the leading force for global stability, security, and the multinational framework of cooperation and consensus with its partners. With that role have come more burdens designed to help prevent the breakdowns of the global system that roiled the twentieth century during its first half but has prevented—so far—a repeat of those disasters. That argument also sees allies and alliances not as burdens but as assets—even as they also need to share today’s burdens more equitably.

Both these approaches are not new to the American debate over priorities and policies. But they reflect the challenge of adjusting to a world with different equations of power emerging. The U.S. remains the dominant global force but there is more diffusion of influence than was the case thirty years ago. There are different and more players and power centers in today’s world as well as different forms of leverage. There are also new forms of threats—most of which cannot be confronted alone, be it terrorism, climate change, cyberattacks, or economic insecurity.

Arguing simply over how much or how little we need to do is missing the meaning of the moment we face today. The U.S. is confronted with an environment unlike that of over seventy years ago or thirty years ago. It is not the globally dominant economy, not uncontested on the world stage, nor is it capable of achieving a globalized liberal order. And the U.S. is plagued domestically by a deeper polarization over these arguments, which is undermining the capacity to develop new strategies to confront these challenges.

Inevitably our policies and our tools to implement them need to be refitted or replaced in light of new experiences to meet today’s global tectonic shifts.

Inevitably our policies and our tools to implement them need to be refitted or replaced in light of new experiences to meet today’s global tectonic shifts. We need to answer questions as to how, when, and where we can respond both at home and within our alliances. The answers may be uncomfortable, unsettling, or even uncertain. In 1947, George Kennan described that challenge with these words: “The bitter truth in this world is that you cannot even do good today unless you are prepared to exert your share of power, to take your share responsibility, to make your share of mistakes, and to assume your share of risks.”

Seven decades later, that is still a much-needed message. The questions we confront today may appear similar to those of yesterday, but the answers will be shaped by the new moments, meanings, and realities we recognize today and tomorrow, perhaps with a greater portion of humility than hubris.  It is not only the questions about how, when, and where we meet today’s challenges which demand answers. It is the answer to the overarching question of why that will determine our capacity to respond.


This article is based on a shorter text that appeared for the 2019 Brussels Forum.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Jackson Janes

President Emeritus of AICGS

Jackson Janes is the President Emeritus of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics from 2005-2010.

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Atlantic Council of the United States. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS), the Robert Bosch Foundation Alumni Association, and the American Bundestag Intern Network (ABIN) in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Board of the German American Fulbright Commission and serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington DC.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Education:
Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Expertise:
Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.