Ahead lies – what?

R.W. Johnson

  • Paradigms Lost: The Post Cold War Era edited by Chester Hartman and Pedro Vilanova
    Pluto, 205 pp, £10.95, November 1991, ISBN 0 7453 0638 1
  • The Crisis of Socialism in Europe edited by Christiane Lemke and Gary Marks
    Duke, 253 pp, £37.95, March 1992, ISBN 0 8223 1197 6

As Peter the Great, Tsar of All the Russias, lay dying in 1725, the future of the Imperial dynasty hung on his choice of successor. Peter, the first to take the title of emperor, had issued a law granting to himself the power to appoint whoever he liked as successor, but had continued to ponder the question, having had his own eldest son condemned and executed for serving as a rallying-point for opposition. The end was cinematic. As he expired, he scrawled ‘Leave all to ...’ But his fingers failed him and the name was illegible. The result was chaos: seven emperors followed in rapid succession – four women, a baby, a drunkard and a boy.

The story has a certain symbolism today, with the ex-USSR apparently on the point of collapsing back into its pre-Romanov state. The moral seems to be that change is controllable only up to a point. Sometimes a given order is frozen into a system for decades on end, as at Vienna, Versailles, Yalta or Bretton Woods, but there comes a time when the logic of the system fails to hold. This is pretty much where we are now.

In the early Eighties I used to give talks to the middle managers of a major oil company about the changing international environment. It was my custom to flash up on the projector a map of Orwell’s world in 1984, with the globe divided into the great blocs of Oceania, Eurasia and East Asia. While there was, I said, little Sign of his predictions of global totalitarianism coming true, his strategic vision had been extremely prescient: those exact three blocs were emerging at some speed. This new three-bloc world, rather than the Cold War, was, I suggested, the new order for which they must plan. This led to heated objections: Oceania and East Asia made sense to most, but, it was pointed out, for Eurasia to exist, Western Europe would have to achieve full economic integration with the eastern lands as far as the Urals. Somewhat half-heartedly I would argue for the natural complementarities of the EC and the Soviet bloc – we were geographic partners and we had the technology, they the raw materials – but my hard-headed middle managers would have none of it. There could, they said, be no Eurasia without the re-unification of Germany and the collapse of Communism, both of which were inconceivable. These were simply fixed points.

Today no one is any longer sure about fixed points – all accept that we live in an era of unprecedented geopolitical change. Gorbachev was, in this, the prime mover. His determination that the Cold War should end was at first the object of furious Western suspicion: this had to be a plot, a trick, a feint by the ever-wily bear. Right-wing ideologues were horrified that at Reykjavik Reagan was so gullible as to come close to believing in Gorbachev’s new agenda. Disbelief gave way as the INF deal was signed, the two superpowers agreed on a solution to the Angola/Namibia problem, and the Cubans were bundled out of Africa.

Until about that point we were still in the era of controllable change. But once the Wall went down in 1989 the dominoes began to fall hither and yon, clearly beyond anyone’s control. In little more than two years since then we have seen the reunification of Germany, revolutions right across Eastern Europe, the end of Communism, the division of the USSR into 15, civil war in Yugoslavia, the collapse of Scandinavian neutralism, a Gadarene rush to join the EC, the end of legal apartheid in South Africa, the Gulf War, a Middle East peace conference attended by both Israel and the Arabs, the collapse of long-standing regimes in Liberia, Somalia and Ethiopia, the ending of guerrilla struggle in Latin America and the coming of multi-partyism to Africa.

Ahead lies – what? Famine and war in the ex-USSR, the subdivision of Russia, the reemergence of the old duchies of Kiev, Muscovy and Novgorod and the de facto collapse of Siberia back into a vast, contested no man’s land? Perhaps. The collapse of Castroism in Cuba, Korean reunification and with it the emergence of a true rival to Japan in the Far East? A return to America Firstism, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism along the North African littoral, political revolution in China? Maybe. What does seem clear, however, is that with the old two-bloc balance gone, it will be some time before a new three-bloc balance is achieved. The proximate new rulers of the world are the G7 states, but their attempt at balance is confined to influencing the terms of trade between the three blocs – supporting the dollar, boosting the yen, and so forth. More ambitious co-ordination will probably require the emergence of a G3 of Germany, Japan and the US, which would, immediately, have either to relegate or replace the permanent membership of the UN Security Council as the principal directorate of the planet.

The notion that several major states – the USSR, the DDR and Yugoslavia – have simply disappeared will take some getting used to. Literally: our airborne nuclear weapons now have no targets and our nuclear submarines cruise with Tridents targeted at silos and cities that pose no threat in a country that no longer exists. The only power we really worry about is that of a united Germany and the military threat from Berlin is approximately the same as that from Heligoland: yet we are in the midst of an election campaign in which both major parties are frantically pretending that we need our nukes as much as ever.

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