The Berlin Wall was constructed in the year of my birth, 1961. It was gone by 1990. Which means that I’ve lived longer in a world without the Berlin Wall than I lived in the world in which it served both to imprison millions and to symbolize the ideological unfreedom that was imprisoning billions. The thing is, the Berlin Wall didn’t seem like it was something new by the time I came to know it was there in the early 1970s. I hadn’t seen it being put up, and so to me and to people like me at the tail end of the Baby Boom, it seemed like it had been there forever, like the Great Wall of China or Stonehenge.
Similarly, global Communism didn’t seem like a rickety experiment that would collapse of its own internal contradictions, even though that’s what George Kennan had suggested would happen when he proposed “containing” it in 1947. As the great struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union wore on, the idea it might just end, kind of just like that, wasn’t even a matter for discussion or even conscious thought.
The truth is that we were woefully unprepared for the victory the United States and the West achieved in the Cold War. We did not really think there could be a victory on such a scale, with our enemy not only vanquished but literally (to use an image from The Communist Manifesto) melted into air. Just as nothing like the Soviet Union had been seen before on this earth, there had never been anything like its sudden disappearance. Without a shot fired between the great antagonists, the Evil Empire evanesced. That is not something that evil does; and it’s not something empires do either.
Evil never dies. Empires collapse over time. What had happened was something new.
A political consensus developed, shared by Clinton Democrats and Bush Republicans alike, that “freedom” had triumphed and that therefore “freedom” would be the story of the 21st century. But what kind of freedom? There was no consensus on exactly how to help Russia and its former vassal states to achieve Western-style freedom—not to mention China. Achieving the rule of law and creating self-sustaining institutions to undergird democratic values would be a multi-decade project. In the meantime, what about the free market? What about private investment? Couldn’t we teach these countries how to be capitalists, and wouldn’t the capitalism basically help create the democracies?
As Abe Greenwald details in his brilliant cover essay, “The Failure at the End of History,” the missionaries went native. They might have thought they were bringing liberty to the world, but it turned out that many of them were surrendering some of the key building blocks of liberty—sanctity of contract, the right to own one’s own property (intellectual property, in this case)—in pursuit of a different core value. That core value was best expressed by China’s Deng Xiaoping as he began taking his country down a different path away from Maoism: “To get rich is glorious,” he had said.
There was, for a time, an idea that those who went abroad after the end of the Cold War in search of economies to conquer were somehow acting primarily out of deep virtue rather than naked self-interest. It was an amazingly short hop from helping open closed markets to helping dictatorial regimes control their own people with our technology and taking money from anti-Democratic potentates to advance their interests in the United States. Perhaps that is why we barely seemed to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the civilian onrush that brought the Berlin Wall down.
At this moment, three decades later, it feels like we blew it.