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27 April 2022updated 12 Oct 2023 10:41am

The 1990s promised a new era of peace, but it was an illusion from the start

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Europe was lulled into a false belief that the horrors of the 20th century were exhausted.

By Helen Thompson

The feeling that history might have ended belonged to the summer of 1990. With shards of the wall that once divided Europe lying scattered around Berlin, it was easy to believe that the horrors of the 20th century were exhausted, largely without more blood having to be shed. A continent chastened by the catastrophes of competing millenarian nightmares and abandoned empires could, it seemed, start to enjoy itself. If the impression of a new dawn of peace was punctured by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August that year, the first Gulf War was still cast as a “good” war to uphold international law.

That summer’s hopefulness was always a chimera. Few gave any thought as to how an independent Ukraine containing Sevastopol – a Russian Black Sea naval port since the days of Catherine the Great – could defend itself against a humiliated Russia without the new, pacific-minded Germany acting as a military protector.

The Gulf War too was not a moral crusade but an oil war, fought, as President George HW Bush admitted, because “we cannot permit a resource so vital to be dominated by one so ruthless”. Even in its own terms, victory proved incoherent. Far from establishing the geopolitical conditions for successfully projecting power in a region on which it had an acute resource dependency, the US established a postwar sanctions regime against Saddam Hussein that constrained the supply of oil from Iraq.

[See also: Could Putin’s great gamble turn Russia into a Chinese vassal state?]

As a guide to the future, Europe’s new dawn offered little. The world in which we now live had already taken shape farther east a decade earlier in the autumn and winter of 1979, when Soviet power was still ascendant and a series of energy shocks were distressing Western democracies.

In December 1979, oil prices were twice as high as they had been at the beginning of the year. With Moscow’s coffers swollen with revenues earned from energy exports to Western Europe, the Soviet premier, Leonid Brezhnev, ordered the Soviet army into Afghanistan. While the war to prop up the Communist government in Kabul contributed to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse, the invasion showed how the world’s most resource-rich state could project military power in Eurasia. Meanwhile, the Western response was wrecked by disunity: although Jimmy Carter imposed a grain embargo in January 1980, the European Community countries, Canada and Australia increased their exports to Russia.

The reason why oil prices were so high that winter was the tumult in Iran. In January 1979, the Shah fled the country and Ayatollah Khomeini declared a revolutionary government based on Islamic sharia. By the autumn, the Iranian prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, was seeking an accommodation with the Carter administration. But there could be no place for anything but hostile relations with the US in the theocratic fervour of revolutionary Iran. After Bazargan was photographed meeting Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, students seized the US embassy in Tehran, taking hostages. Having lost control of events, Bazargan’s government fell.

[See also: United on Ukraine, Nato powers now see the world from Warsaw’s point of view]

The 444-day hostage crisis stood as humiliating testimony to what became Washington’s long-term ineffectualness at military intervention in the Middle East. While some of his advisers advocated an air strike against Iran, Carter feared the loss of life that would follow. When he did order a rescue mission in April 1980, operational failures led him to abort it, only for one of the helicopters to crash into another aircraft on the way back.

But the hostage crisis also marked the beginning of the permanent US naval presence in the Persian Gulf, the body of water through which around a fifth of the world’s oil supply flows. With the US having kept only a token presence off the Bahrain coast since the Second World War, Carter ordered US ships into the Gulf in November 1979. To this day, the military guarantor of the free flow of oil down the Strait of Hormuz is the US navy, despite China having replaced the US as the world’s largest oil importer.

China’s rise to this position began with the economic reforms that Deng Xiaoping enacted in 1979. Deng executed a more successful long-term growth strategy than any other in the world during the 20th century. But at some point in late 1979, Deng also began to pursue a state-enforced one-child policy to control China’s population growth. While by the end of the 1970s Western politicians were largely dispensing with any notion that there were limits to growth, Deng appeared to take seriously the idea that economic development is ultimately resource-constrained, not least by the demands of rising per capita energy consumption.

Certainly, Xi Jinping recognises that ageing societies and a gender imbalance limit economic development too, while also causing social problems. But the realisation that the resource and ecological consequences of economic growth do not resolve themselves without state intervention is now central to the politics of our times.

The illusion of the 1990s was to think that Europe, a continent poor in energy resources and condemned to struggle with the shifts in American and Russian geopolitical power as well as a strategically reborn China, could be a harbinger of the future. As the historian François Furet once put it, we are witnessing “the passing of an illusion”.

[See also: The age of plutocracy]

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma