Watershed Face-off: 1979 vs. 1989

While Europeans and Americans are remembering the major transformation of international relations in 1989, economic historian Niall Ferguson argues that 1979 marked a much greater watershed.

The real question about Russian policy today is not whether Russia will invade Ukraine, but whether Gazprom’s strategy of investing in new pipelines and gas fields will pay off. Should Gazprom focus on developing its dominant position in the European natural-gas market? Or should the vast gas fields of Russia east of the Urals (Yamal, Arctic, Far East) be given precedence with a view to capturing market share in China? Could Russia one day establish an Organization of Gas Exporting Countries, modeled on the Saudi-dominated oil cartel? Or is the simpler strategy simply to stoke trouble in the Middle East, covertly encouraging the Iranians’ nuclear ambitions until the Israelis finally unleash airstrikes, and then reaping the rewards of a new energy price spike?

These questions themselves indicate the limited long-term significance of the Soviet collapse of two decades ago. By comparison, the events of 10 years earlier—in 1979—surely have a better claim to being truly historic. Just think what was happening in the world 30 years ago. The Soviets began their policy of self-destruction by invading Afghanistan. The British started the revival of free-market economics in the West by electing Margaret Thatcher. Deng Xiaoping set China on a new economic course by visiting the United States and seeing for himself what the free market can achieve. And, of course, the Iranians ushered in the new era of clashing civilizations by overthrowing the shah and proclaiming an Islamic Republic.

Thirty years later, each of these four events has had far more profound consequences for the United States and the world than the events of 1989. Today it is the Americans who now find themselves in Afghanistan, fighting the sons of the people they once armed. It is the free-market model of Thatcher and Reagan that seems to lie in ruins, in the wake of the biggest financial crisis since the Depression. Meanwhile, Deng’s heirs are rapidly gaining on a sluggish American hyperpower, with Goldman Sachs forecasting that China’s GDP could be the biggest in the world by 2027. Finally, the most terrifying legacy of 1979 remains the radical Islamism that inspires not only Iran’s leaders, but also a complex and only partly visible network of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers around the world.

In short, 1989 was less of a watershed year than 1979. The reverberations of the fall of the Berlin Wall turned out to be much smaller than we had expected at the time. In essence, what happened was that we belatedly saw through the gigantic fraud of Soviet superpower. But the real trends of our time—the rise of China, the radicalization of Islam, and the rise and fall of market fundamentalism—had already been launched a decade earlier. Thirty years on, we are still being swept along by the historic waves of 1979. The Berlin Wall is only one of many relics of the Cold War to have been submerged by them.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Britain, China, economics, energy, Iran, Islam, Middle East, Russia, U.S., USSR, war

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