1989’s ambiguous legacies: Freedom & democracy, polarization & populism


Thirty years on, the fall of the Berlin Wall seems like a miraculous ending for the most indelible armed standoff of the Cold War. But the nonviolent collapse of the wall was a close call, notes , the Kravis Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.”

Political leaders’ grand strategies had provided the context in which it could unfold, but on Nov. 9, 1989, it was the actions of average East Germans that made it happen. Caught unprepared, the secret police, border guards and military forces scrambled to reassert their power, but it was too little, too late. The closer we look, the clearer it becomes that the peaceful demise of the wall depended largely on the actions of ordinary people, she writes for the Wall Street Journal. 

When we say 1989, we think of Europe. But two other events that year produced enormous long-term implications for U.S. foreign policy, notes James Goldgeier (@JimGoldgeier), Robert Bosch Visiting Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of international relations at American University:

  • In February, the Soviet Union completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, from which al-Qaeda was soon planning the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led the United States into its longest war.
  • In June, the Chinese government cracked down on protesters in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds, if not thousands. While the West was focused on the flourishing of democracy, Chinese leaders after 1989 pursued a different path, giving rise to America’s most important strategic competitor.

The United States spent four decades containing the Soviet Union and then a quarter-century promoting a new Europe, but it no longer has a clear foreign policy strategy for Europe and with Europe, he writes for the Washington Post.

University of Oxford scholar Paul Betts pointedly noted, “Open borders, long proclaimed by 1989ers as the expression of freedom and human rights, are now identified as the very causes of insecurity.” If 1989 was a victory for democracy and rule of law, it’s become a lot tougher in the era of political polarization and rising populist nationalism 30 years later to claim that those remain best practices, adds Goldgeier,the co-author (with Derek Chollet) of “America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11; The Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror” (PublicAffairs, 2008).

Those were heady days. Open societies were in the ascendant and international cooperation was the dominant creed, says George Soros, Chairman of the Open Society Foundations, whose most recent book is In Defense of Open Society.

Thirty years later, the situation is very different. International cooperation has hit serious roadblocks, and nationalism became the dominant creed. So far, nationalism has turned out to be much more powerful and disruptive than internationalism, he writes for Project Syndicate.

T­­hree decades after the euphoria of the Berlin Wall’s fall, democratic erosion — not democratic consolidation — appears in the region’s headlines, according to Anna Grzymala-Busse, Professor of International Studies at Stanford University, and Pauline Jones, director of the International Institute at the University of MichiganSo what caused this backsliding? The dominance of liberal ideas became the victim of its own success, they write for the Washington Post: 

  • First, the consensus of political elites in post-communist Europe on market reforms and E.U. accession ironically fueled the anti-democratic resurgence. Their unanimity meant that there were few mainstream domestic critics of these projects. The exception were largely populist parties, which decried E.U. and NATO accession as selling out sovereignty….. Once some mainstream political parties showed themselves to be corrupt and incompetent, however, their populist critics gained new prominence and credibility.
  • Second, the apparent triumph of democracy and markets in Europe led to complacency in the E.U. and the United States. The E.U. took note of the democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary, but has done little to sanction these wayward governments. For its part, the United States underestimated Russia’s disruptive potential. …Analysts debate who “lost Russia.” But this is a misplaced argument; the West never “had” Russia. Russia’s governments never invested in the West’s dual projects of democracy and the market.

As we are learning across the world, democracy is not an irrevocable achievement, they add. This is especially the case among newly democratized countries in the shadow of an aggressive and autocratic power.

According to the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, the motivations behind the rebellion against communism were always more mixed than the Western triumphalist narrative suggested, notes Yascha Mounk, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, Those brave protesters in the streets of Dresden and Gdansk, Budapest and Sofia, were united by a hatred of their communist regimes. But they were far less unified in their aspirations for the future, he writes for the Wall Street Journal:

A great number did seek to realize the core values of liberal democracy. But others primarily wanted to liberate their nations from Russian domination, to revive the influence of their ancestral religion or to give free rein to nationalism. In that light, today’s battle against liberal democracy by populists like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski is not so much a betrayal of the revolution of 1989 as a civil war among its protagonists.

But announcements of the demise of liberalism in the former communist bloc—and for that matter in other parts of the world, from India to the U.S.—are almost certainly premature, adds Mounk, a contributor to the NED’s Journal of Democracy and the author of “The People Versus Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.” There is nothing like losing their individual freedom and collective self-determination to remind people that the values of liberal democracy are still vital.

Was 1989- the greatest year in European history? The European Council on Foreign Relations asks. ​​​​​​​In the first of a mini-series on the events of 1989, ECFR’s Mark Leonard is joined by Timothy Garton Ash, historian and Professor of European Studies at Oxford University. Ash provides insights into the course of our political history, but cautions on prescribing a course to our future. The neglect of solidarity, identity and community as part of the development of the European Union project has led to a hollowing out of European identity.

The revolutions that toppled Communism in Eastern Europe 30 years ago and heralded the end of the Cold War triumphed, in part, because of the work of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and foreign broadcasters, a role showcased by RFE/RL in a new microsite titled Reporting 1989.

The National Endowment for Democracy invites you to a conference commemorating The 30th Anniversary of the Historic Democratic Transitions in Poland and Central Europe. RSVP 

Thursday, November 14, 2019. 9:00 a.m.– 12:15 p.m.

1025 F St. NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20004

8:30 a.m. Registration and Continental Breakfast
9:00 a.m. Welcome and Opening Remarks

Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy
Robert Destro, Asst. Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Keynote Addresses
The Triumph and Legacy of Solidarity

Lech Walesa, Founder of Solidarity and the Former President of Poland 
Introduced by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka

Poland’s Political and Economic Transition
Leszek Balcerowicz, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Poland.
Introduced by CIPE Board Chairman Greg Lebedev

Panel Discussion: Defending Democracy in Poland and Central Europe 
Anne Applebaum, Author and Historian
Victoria Nuland, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe
Simon Panek, Executive Director, People in Need, Czech Republic
George Weigel, Author and Biographer of Pope John Paul II
Moderator: Daniel Fried, Former US Ambassador to Poland


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