Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 04:00 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 04:00 | SYDNEY

Berlin Wall: Six observations


Hugh White

10 November 2009 10:13

1. Asia got there first. The Cold War ended in Asia between 1972, when Nixon went to China, and 1975, with the fall of Saigon. That meant the Soviets had lost China to the US, and their gains elsewhere in Asia were limited to Vietnam. The rest of Asia, once so promising, would now be drawn rapidly into the Western-led globalised economy, and Russia would be left behind. 

The sole Soviet effort to retain a strategic foothold in Asia beyond its own territory – Camh Ranh Bay – was a strategic and operational liability that became a demonstration of weakness, not of strength. Moreover, the immense resources required to hold their Chinese front added to the economic and military strain on Moscow, and no doubt hastened the Soviet collapse in Europe. 

2. The Soviets missed their chance. They could have settled with America in the mid 1970s. After Vietnam and Watergate, with something like nuclear parity and the US eager for détente, had Brezhnev called it quits and attempted to consolidate the status quo, America would have done the same happily enough, in which case the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall might still be in place today. 

But instead, he pushed his luck in strategically marginal places like the Indian Ocean and even Central America, backed Gorshkov's foolish attempt to challenge the US at sea, and then went into Afghanistan, which was too close to real US interests in the Gulf for the US to ignore. 

3. The end of the Cold War was only the second-most important event in world history since 1945. The most important was the very different way in which the legacy of Marx and Lenin was repudiated ten years earlier in China. That created a new and quite different sort of state with the potential, it seems, to multiply OECD levels of per capita income by 1.2 billion to achieve an unprecedented volume of power. We shall see whether this turns out to be the answer to the other question; not 'What ended when the Wall came down?', but 'What began?'

4. It is still too early to say what the end of the Cold War means for America's place in the world. In the early 1990s, many people thought America would step back once the Soviet challenge ended. I was one of them: a line in the 1994 White Paper still stands (I think, I hope) as the most obviously wrong thing I have ever let into print. But it was not evident at first how strong America's economy would prove in the 1990s, how relatively cheaply they could sustain the position of uncontested global primacy which they inherited when the Wall fell, and how much Americans after all rather liked the idea of extending the Monroe Doctrine to the entire globe. 

Nor, of course, was it evident how US global engagement would after 2001 acquire a whole new impetus. But twenty years on, as the War on Terror winds down and the probability that US primacy will after all be contested, at least in Asia, the question of America's future posture arises again. What in Asia or Europe now matters enough to Americans for its government to risk, let alone accept, a nuclear attack on New York or LA or both? 

Until the Wall fell, Americans convinced themselves, and the Soviets, that keeping Western Europe and Japan out of Soviet hands was so important that America would accept nuclear attack to prevent it. They did that from fear of what Soviet global primacy would mean for America. But would they do it now for a very different reason — to preserve their own primacy? I doubt it – primacy is nice but not worth a nuclear attack on America. 

My hunch is that unless a new power emerges that threatens, as the Soviets did, to establish primacy over America, then the US is unlikely to be willing to return to Cold-War level risks simply to preserve their own. So there is a strategic opening for a power that is strong enough to contest US primacy but not strong enough to impose primacy on the US. Anyone come to mind?

5. In many ways the most remarkable result of November 1989 was the subsequent absorption of eastern Europe into western Europe. Europeans on both sides of the old divide get less credit for this than they deserve. It may be that Europe is on the way to the first post-strategic international system. But first, Europe has one big bit of unfinished strategic business, and that is either the absorption of Russia into the European system, or the delineation of a stable boundary between them. Neither seems very likely right now. This is the major strategic question for Europe.

6. Finally, a parting thought about Australia's Cold War. After the Cold War ended in Asia in 1972-75, Australia took almost no part at all in the Western effort to confront and contain the Soviet Union. We had no US forces based here. We had no forces of our own committed to oppose the Soviets. Our forces were not in any way designed to do so, and indeed Australian defence policy paid no attention to the possibility that we might want to contribute forces to a US-Soviet conflict if it occurred. All we did was host the joint facilities and send an occasional submarine to gather intelligence. 

The Joint Facilities loomed large to us, of course, but one only has to compare them with what NATO allies or Japan contributed to the central balance to see how slight our burden was. Indeed, we sometimes had to remind ourselves that we were involved at all – there is a line in the 1987 White Paper that does just that. So when our grandchildren ask what did we do in the Cold War, we'd better say – 'nothing really'.

Photo by Flickr user huhuguy, used under a Creative Commons license.