One of the guiding ambitions of right-of-centre politics in Britain, America and most of the west during the 1970s and 1980s was to effect an end to the Soviet Union or, at least, to its imperialist domination of eastern Europe. This was bred most obviously of self-interest, given the threat this superpower was assumed to pose to the security of the west. Many on the right went further, harbouring an ideological desire to have communism removed from the map of Europe. Though far from unknown in Britain, this view was most common in America and attributable not just to the influence of hard-line Republican politicians – Barry Goldwater was there long before Ronald Reagan – but also to writers popular in American culture such as the Russian refugee Ayn Rand.
In common with fellow democrats on the centre and left, the right also sincerely deplored the lack of freedoms in the Soviet system and the violations of human rights caused by the repressiveness of the state. However some, following a tradition of isolationism that stretched back to the 1890s and the Marquess of Salisbury, embraced the doctrine that what happened domestically in those countries was no concern of Britain. Yet others, notably Margaret Thatcher and her adherents, regarded the suppression of individual liberty in the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc as morally unacceptable and a stain on any nation that condoned it; and in the case of countries in eastern Europe that had functioned as democracies before 1939, it represented a shocking reversal of progress compared with the period between the two wars.
Then, with the toppling of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago this weekend and the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991, both the end of the eastern bloc and the emasculation of its former masters came in quick and inevitable succession. One commentator, Francis Fukuyama, declared that history had ended. A bright and irresistible future beckoned for the west; Russia could join the family of free and progressive nations; swords could be turned into ploughshares; liberty and, in its wake, prosperity would sweep the old world once more. The right rejoiced at this near-bloodless toppling of an evil empire and celebrated the triumph of its ideals of liberty and capitalism. Mrs Thatcher, of course, fretted about the reunification of Germany, as did many of her generation who recalled the megalomaniacal wickedness of Hitler, his conquests and his genocide – but such reservations were not to be allowed to spoil the party.
A quarter of a century later it is apparent that things have not turned out so well as the right of 1989 had hoped. Russia, humiliated in a fashion similar to Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany after Versailles, its empire lost and its clout enfeebled, has sought to rebuild a place in the world by resorting to a means familiar from its history – autocracy and not necessarily a more enlightened and just one than was practised by the Romanov tsars. Eastern Europe is nothing like the mythologised fairy tale of the Austro-Hungarian empire or even the interwar model of new, earnest statehood: the right especially is having to come to terms with parts of it being a breeding ground for organised crime (something that flourishes under capitalism), an entrepôt for the drugs trade, a back door into Europe for immigrants and a source of tension with Russia that, because of the enthusiasm with which Nato and the EU embraced the former Soviet bloc, has become our shared problem. The European Union has expanded to include many former client states of the Kremlin and has therefore supplied the influx of legal immigrants causing so much difficulty to the present Conservative Party and providing such an opportunity for Ukip.
If all of that weren’t proof enough of the soundness of the adage “Be careful what you wish for”, the lifting of the Iron Curtain also led to strategic and foreign policy developments that most on the traditional right would never have chosen. The decision in Britain to wind down the country’s defence capabilities, even before the cuts enforced by the present coalition, was informed by the notion that Russia was no longer a threat. After the events of the past 12 months in Ukraine and with mounting evidence of destabilisation in the former Baltic states because of the alleged mistreatment of ethnic Russians, that may no longer be the case. And the US, which since 1945 has increasingly seemed a country seeking an enemy in order to define itself, appeared temporarily destabilised after 1991, as if part of its raison d’être had been removed. After disastrous foreign wars it now seems reluctant to engage at all with Europe and came half-heartedly and late into the Ukraine imbroglio. The fall of the Wall began a long process of detachment by the US from Europe, helped on by other factors of its own making, leaving its former enthusiasts on the right without the paternal guidance so many of them had come to rely on.
None of this is to dispute the great benefits that came after the Wall and the Iron Curtain were taken down. The regime had liberalised since the murderous days of Stalin but life in the east in the 1980s, a time of expansion and rabid consumerism in the west, remained controlled, monochrome and underpinned by fear. The inhumanities went on almost to the end. The imposition of martial law in Poland by Wojciech Jaruzelski and the intense activity of the Stasi in East Germany right up to the fall of Erich Honecker were but two testimonies to that – and the rough justice meted out to the Ceausescus, executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989, betrayed the effect on the people of living under totalitarianism.
Those trapped in eastern Europe before 1989 rarely desire to return there. The want of freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of movement and freedom to grow outside the Soviet model was truly repressive and is well rid of. The reunification of Germany was a magnificent achievement even if, after all this time, parts of the old east still show signs of relative poverty and deprivation. But what the west failed to handle properly – indeed, failed to handle at all – was the new Russia, with consequences that, many fear, have yet fully to play out.
Mikhail Gorbachev may eventually be seen as one of the greatest lost leaders of the 20th century, one who deserves comparisons with F W de Klerk for the enlightened way in which he resigned himself to the morally inevitable and enabled some measure of representative democracy to be brought to his country. But de Klerk was fortunate to be passing South Africa to a statesman of the calibre, integrity and vision of Nelson Mandela: Gorbachev had only the increasingly drunken, corrupt and venal Boris Yeltsin. Under Yeltsin the poor had their meagre savings devastated by his economic mismanagement, while the cunning became fabulously rich. A kleptocracy was formed. All that changed when Putin succeeded Yeltsin at the millennium was that the kleptocracy was taken over by the government itself and therefore became more systematic and better organised.
Given the nature of Yeltsin, the novelty of the conditions in which he was operating, the ease with which he was manipulated by others even less scrupulous than himself and the bruised condition of a Russia shorn of its empires in eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union, it was never going to be easy for the west to influence him, let alone bring him onside. Once he left and an apparently more rational being succeeded him in the shape of Putin, hopes were high, until Putin showed himself to be uninterested in liberal ideals and very interested in sequestering as much power and money as possible for his own use.
Perhaps it was because the end of the Soviet system came so precipitately that the west had such unrealistic, or half-formed, expectations of what would follow. What the New Statesman, in its editorial last week, described as “the havoc being wrought by the forces of globalisation: the free flow of capital and people, open markets, the dominance of a deracinated plutocracy” are as much a consequence of the end of the cold war as of anything else. The right, which advocated globalisation as part of the inevitable march of capitalism, has shown itself incapable of dealing with its realities.
The EU is one obvious example. In the early years of the century prominent Conservatives, then impotent in opposition, were among those leading the cry for the expansion of the club to include those countries that had for decades been impoverished by Soviet control. Their eventual admission was represented almost as a reward or a compensation for what they had endured between 1945 and 1990. However, in moments of honesty those same Tories who wanted eastern Europe brought into the EU expressed the hope that the numbers would become so unwieldy that there would have to be extreme subsidiarity if the club were to continue to function: which meant a return of sovereignty to nation states, while only those matters essential for the maintenance of a single market remained in Brussels.
In did not turn out like that. The European Commission wields as much power with 28 members as it ever did with six, nine or 15. The EU may be over-bureaucratic, deficient in democracy and even in some senses corrupt but it still functions and it still restricts the sovereignty of its members. What the right certainly did not envisage was that the liberation of eastern Europe from the Soviet empire would lead to a mass migration of its former citizens, or their children, to Britain. The idea that eastern Europe post-liberation would revert to a kind of Slavonic Hollywood musical, with happy, smiling locals industriously and cheerfully confining themselves to the development of their own nations, was always going to be nonsense. One of the principles of a free market – which Europe notionally is – is that it entails mobility of labour, even if that means workers going from Bratislava to Bradford or Tallinn to Torquay. The EU, with the earlier complicity of the right, has become a structure that is the inevitable consequence of the end of the Soviet system (and indeed in some structural ways replicates it), just as the Soviet bloc was the inevitable consequence of Stalin’s part in the defeat of Nazism.
The other main consequences of 1989 have been equally unwelcome to the right. Even before the attacks of 11 September 2001 the US was scaling down its presence in Europe, its need to engage with the continent diminished since the cold war. This was of sufficient concern to the then prime minister, Tony Blair, that when asked to endorse George W Bush’s foreign policy in the aftermath of those attacks he did so rather too wholeheartedly, not least, as was widely perceived at the time, to renew US engagement with Europe. Blair, absurdly, saw himself as the “bridge” between the two continents. And, for a time, the US not only tried to stay friends with Europe but it also sought, through the G8 and bilateral relations, to make a liberal westerner of Vladimir Putin. It failed in that, too.
America’s first reaction to those failures was to withdraw wherever possible, Barack Obama realising, when he succeeded Bush, that his country was not wildly popular in the world. Obama did, belatedly, engage with Europe over Ukraine, resuming a role familiar to presidents from Truman to Reagan in warning Russia not to overstep the mark or it would be punished. Russia has been punished with sanctions but remains in Ukraine, suggesting it lacks the respect for Obama’s America that Khrushchev reluctantly had to show to Kennedy’s during the Cuban missile crisis. Obama must wish he had stuck to the state department’s original message, which was to tell those who asked that Russia was primarily Europe’s problem and Europe should solve it. In reality, Ukraine has proved the absurdity of the EU’s claim to have a security function in keeping the peace in Europe: the EU simply abandoned Ukraine to its fate after years of increasing its vulnerability by attempting to seduce it and Russia has revealed itself as being as ruthless as it ever was in the days of the Soviet Union, if not more so.
But there are two harder consequences to swallow still. Germany may not have fulfilled Thatcher’s fear that it would start a third world war and most would think it highly unlikely that it would ever do so. However, it has established an economic hegemony over Europe that may yet destroy the euro and, with it, much of the European project. Far from unifying the continent through the institution of the EU, Germany has divided it. The French rail against its economic policies; the Greeks brandish swastikas when Angela Merkel pays them a visit; the Hungarians have an unpleasant, anti-Semitic government whose brand of politics, mixing kleptocracy with totalitarianism, bears an alarming resemblance to that of Vladimir Putin; across the Mediterranean from Spain to Greece the German-led policy of austerity has led to youth unemployment rates of up to 60 per cent.
In the wake of the liberation of eastern Europe, many of the liberated countries have been condemned to follow German-backed economic policies and have started to feel not so liberated after all. Because of the German memory of the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic, the rest of the eurozone must suffer: so much for the rampant prosperity that was advertised as being the result of a wider, freer Europe.
Russia is now going out of its way to make friends with China, a move calculated to ensure Putin gets the last laugh over his detractors in the west and which could yet be the furthest-reaching consequence of the end of the Soviet system. America is in its fortress, isolated and disappointed. Europe is impoverished, financially if not morally. Bloody old Britain, home to so many who longed for the end of communism, ought to be bemused. That the repression ended was wonderful. But is the world really safer now than it was in 1989 and is it inevitably happier? Or will those who write the history of this period in 200 or 300 years’ time conclude that the world had a once-in-a-century chance to start again in 1989 and that through insufficient support to Russia, overambition in Europe and some wild misjudgments in the US, it blew it?
Simon Heffer is an author and columnist for the Daily Mail