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How Europe’s and China’s Cold War Exits Shape Today

Kristina Spohr 

It is striking that hardly anybody in East or West in the late 1980s foresaw or imagined the dissolution of the Soviet bloc, let alone the demise of the USSR itself. Instead, the public discourse of the time, especially in America, was dominated by predictions of an impending “Pacific Century”—with “Japan as number one.” Scholars, commentators, and policy makers alike mused or worried about the inexorable ascent of Land of the Rising Sun—as it rose from economic giant to political superpower. 

But Japan failed to fulfill its promise. 

In stark contrast to the astute chancellor of West Germany, Japanese leaders proved unable to turn economic prowess into bargaining power with Gorbachev’s Soviet Union—their version of checkbook diplomacy dismally failing to get back the Kuril Islands and to conclude a peace treaty. Nor was Tokyo ready to participate in UN-sanctioned military interventions, as the First Gulf War in 1991 revealed. In fact, just like the newly unified Germany, Japan stuck to its post-war tradition of acting essentially as a “civilian power.” In any case, by the end of 1991 the Japanese economic bubble had burst. 

The collapse of the USSR and Japan’s slide into long-term economic stagnation strengthened the position of those proclaiming America’s “unipolar moment” and the “end of history.” George H. W. Bush appeared to be riding high. But in early 1992, the United States itself became mired in a deep recession and Bush’s re-election hopes were waning as his Democratic challenger Bill Clinton famously proclaimed, “it’s the economy, stupid.” By year’s end, the U.S. president who had steered his country and the world so carefully out of the Cold War and proclaimed a “new world order”—one that was founded on Russian-American cooperation within the UN and guided by international law—found himself preparing for early retirement.

This was the moment when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began its rise to global power. The Communist regime, having survived what it euphemistically called “the Tiananmen incident,” managed to regain its grip and the country’s economy started to take off. The PRC’s reinvention was dramatic: from an insular Maoist developing country to an authoritarian communist-capitalist powerhouse with global reach. As we have witnessed in the twenty-first century, China’s distinctive path out of the Cold War proved far more important, both economically and geo-strategically, for the international order than the previous expectations about a triumphant Japan.

And even post-Soviet Russia didn’t conform to Washington’s comfortable assumption about a world developing in America’s image. Under Boris Yeltsin, Moscow did at first seek a “partnership,” even an “alliance” with America and NATO, but from the outset it also looked to establish more productive post-Cold War relations with Beijing. After all, the prospect of being merely the eastern appendage of a Euro-Atlantic club was always going to affront Russian pride. Crucially, the fundamental issues of national identity and of great power status that would emerge so forcefully under Putin were already plaguing Russian-Western relations in the early 1990s. Even the most sensitive diplomacy would have struggled to resolve these problems in the decade before Putin came to power. 

So, if the triumphalism of some American commentators in the early 1990s was exaggerated, why should we dwell on these “hinge years” of 1988–1992? What was their import? 

First, the world moved out of the Cold War era in a truly remarkable, non-conflictual fashion—unlike earlier transitional years in history, such as 1648, 1815, 1918, and 1945. Secondly, this peaceful transition was made possible only because of the largely cooperative relationship that emerged among a group of statesmen and women who interacted as allies, while also engaging constructively with former foes beyond the Iron Curtain, to forge mutually acceptable compromises in order to build a better world through robust diplomacy.

Where are we now? U.S. hegemony is fading and coordinated leadership is demonstrably lacking. While Trump publicly derides his NATO allies, Putin and Xi openly confront America with their talk of a “post-West world order.” 

At a deeper level, the United States has been reluctant for some time to project power globally, and not just military power. It has stood idly by, and sometimes even participated in, the tearing up of international agreements and the abandonment of institutions. As the world has become more unpredictable and less safe, so the prospect has arisen again of a Pacific century—only this time with a dominant PRC. In what Washington now calls “a new era of great-power competition,” we are on the cusp of another global transformation. 

Yet, although the American international order seems to be waning, it is equally apparent that China, for all its ambitions, has no intention of assuming heavy international burdens and responsibilities. The result might therefore be a highly problematic power vacuum, which would make it much harder to manage future crises.

The hope is that leadership and trust, so fundamental for the non-conflictual ending of the Cold War, can be re-established—a challenge that in a rapidly changing world will demand much courage, humility, and imagination. Whether future political leaders can match the achievements of Bush, Gorbachev, and Kohl remains to be seen.

Kristina Spohr is the Helmut Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs of Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. She has authored and edited eight books, most recently The Global Chancellor.

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