Mikhail Gorbachev takes part on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, November 2014. Bernd von Jutrczenka/ Press Agency.All rights reserved.The year 2016 saw a string of shock political events, from the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency to the Brexit vote in Britain. There were also shock election results in many countries and a surge of support for right wing conservative forces in the heartland of the EU and elsewhere. Many interpreted these in terms of the rise of populism, but this begs the question of why populism has become seemingly so strong in the west at this time. One answer may lie in the end of the cold war in 1989/91.
The cold war was a confrontation – political, ideological, military, economic and social – between two camps, the liberal democracies of the west and the communist states of the east. The architecture of this confrontation consisted of a standoff between two armed alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and in Europe two economic communities, the EU and Comecon.
The cold war also shaped the political agenda in the individual countries. In the liberal democracies, it undercut much of the appeal of more radical left-wing forces and greatly complicated the life of the moderate left; it was all too easy to discredit the moderate left by referring to the international enemy. In the communist east, it provided a rationale for regimes to crack down on any signs of domestic reformism, and therefore consolidated those regimes in power.
The end of this confrontation had dramatic consequences in the communist east. The international architecture of the communist side collapsed, with the abolition of the Warsaw Pact and Comecon. Notwithstanding some attempts to create new international overarching institutions, none has become a major actor on the international stage. Domestically, the politics of most states was transformed; the three federal states all disappeared, and most of the new and continuing states adopted significantly different political systems to their communist forebears. Even in those countries where hard authoritarian regimes are in power, the dynamic of politics is different. This is in stark contrast to what has happened in the west.
The end of the cold war and the west
Perhaps fuelled by hubris from perceived victory in the cold war and unwilling to acknowledge the extent to which their systems were a result of the cold war, western decision-makers saw no need to make major structural changes to the political, economic or security structures that had developed during the confrontation with the communist bloc.
NATO is the clearest instance of this. It was originally developed to confront what was seen as an expansive Soviet Union; this was its sole rationale. When the Soviet enemy disappeared, so too did this rationale. However western leaders opted to retain NATO as a collective alliance, and even to expand it much further eastward than it had ever been in the past. NATO’s front line is now the Russian border, and many countries formerly seen as enemies (including three former republics of the Soviet Union) have been incorporated into it.
Western leaders realized that, with the Soviet threat gone, if they were to keep NATO, a new enemy was needed, and one was soon forthcoming: Russia. While the hostile relationship that has developed between Russia and the west owes something to both sides, there is no doubt that the way in which Russia has been framed by western leaders and the media – Russia is an aggressive power that disobeys the rules – provides the rationale they need to retain the alliance.
The result of this framing is both an inability to appreciate nuance in the understanding of Russian actions (including understanding the role that NATO itself plays in shaping those actions), and provision of the enemy NATO needs. In their eyes it is a virtuous circle. While NATO continues to exist, relations will remain strained.
And then there is the EU
The other major structure on the western side is the EU. While the communist threat may not have been articulated as a reason for the foundation of what was to become the EU, the need for some unity of action on the part of the west in facing the communist threat was recognized.
But the EU was different from NATO in that its rationale was not only opposition to communism but economic cooperation. With the end of the cold war, the EU underwent significant expansion, taking in most of the former Comecon members. The consequent doubling in size coincided with attempts to bring about increased unity within the organization.
Attempts to bring about greater harmonization of domestic and EU law and to assert the primacy of the latter over the former affected all member states, but the introduction of a common currency in 1999 and its adoption by a majority of members has been symbolically the most important element of this drive for greater unity.
But while the EU has expanded and sought to become more integrated, at one level it remains a profoundly exclusionary organization: it has been made clear that Russia (and most of the other former Soviet republics) will never become a member. Gorbachev’s idea of the “common European home” died on the altar of western realpolitik.
Part of the reason for the hard-nosed EU attitude to Russia is that its Russia policy has effectively been sub-contracted to the new member states that had formerly been part of Comecon. Leaders in these countries had very strong views about the threat they believed Russia posed, and given both the decision-making structures in the organization and the political dynamics among the members, they have been able, by and large, to shape the organization’s Russia policy.
But the entry of the new members has also posed another major problem for the organization. Just as it was seeking to increase the level of integration, the doubling of membership massively increased the complexity of this task. Important here was not just the number of member states, but the significant variation in development levels that this expansion introduced.
Certainly there had always been different levels of economic development and performance among the member states, but geographical expansion complicated this considerably.
Differing national interests became apparent with the diverse reactions to the global financial crisis and the 2016 migration crisis. The EU was unable to undertake coordinated activity on either of these issues. One result is significant strain on EU structures; another was Brexit.
Internationally, then, the maintenance of the two western cold war structures relatively unchanged except for their expansion has shaped international politics in unfortunate ways. NATO has contributed in a major way to the current hostile relations between the west and Russia, while the expansion of the EU has brought the continued existence of that organization into question.
The end of the cold war has also had a significant effect on the domestic politics of most of the major western states.
The end of the cold war and domestic politics
The end of the cold war did not change the structure of domestic politics in most western countries, but it did change their dynamic, ultimately creating the circumstances for the emergence of populism.
It did not do this alone. The emergence of post-materialist politics was under way before the cold war ended. This involved the erosion of class as a clear determinant of political affiliation, with the result that the electoral arena has become more fluid and the lines between left and right blurred. But this process was substantially accelerated by the end of the cold war.
Before the collapse of communism, the belief that there were other ways of organizing society to that offered by western industrial capitalism remained strong. This does not mean that there was significant support in the western political mainstream for the Soviet Union; such sympathy as there had been largely dissipated with the revelations of destalinization and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. However the western left retained its commitment to socialism, even if this was at times more rhetorical than real, and to the view that there were alternatives to the structures and processes associated with contemporary industrial capitalism.
The collapse of communism had no necessary effect on this socialist commitment. However the fall of communism was widely interpreted as evidence of the victory of capitalism and of the fact that democratic industrial capitalism was the only viable means of organizing modern mass society. This was certainly the line propounded by conservative writers in the Anglo-American world (Fukuyama’s “end of history” is the best example of this), and appears to have taken hold generally in those societies.
The result was an existential dilemma for the left. If they did not stand for socialism, what did they really stand for? The intellectual rationale for leftist politics disappeared, and along with it the rationale for voting for leftist parties. If they did not stand for a definably different view of society than the right, the only real difference appeared to lie in their capacity to manage society as it was currently structured. While they might mount arguments on the basis of egalitarianism, fairness and justice, this was essentially tinkering at the margins, not articulating a different vision.
The effective removal of socialism as an alternative frame to the discussion of politics meant that the bounds of political discussion have become significantly narrowed. The attempt to shift the debate onto other grounds like the environment has been unsuccessful because the dominant frame of reference has tended to cast this as a marginal issue.
There has also been a narrowing of political organization as the disappearance of socialism took away the space within which radical leftist organizations had existed. These had not been important political forces in themselves in most countries, but they were often the source of new ideas and activists that could refresh and reconfigure elements of the mainstream parties’ thinking.
Management and 'the enemy'
The end of ideology in politics and the blurring of the left-right divide has had a malign effect on our politics. It has robbed those politics of much policy content and reduced the discussion to one of claims about who is the better manager. But as society has continued to become more complex and diverse and as some major problems have emerged that have not been able to be resolved domestically – climate change, immigration and the treatment of refugees, and international terror to name only the most salient – the task of management has become intrinsically more difficult.
Because of this increased difficulty, it has been in the interests of all sides of politics to obfuscate and to create an appearance of external enemies: it is much easier to beef up anti-terror laws than it is to realistically tackle the climate change problem; or to emphasize “Russian aggression” than to tackle the issue of the failing states in central-eastern Europe.
This focus on management, added to the scale and apparent intractability of some of the problems, has exacerbated the tendency present in all democracies: the propensity of the governors to believe that they are wiser than the governed. The result is patronizing politics and the politics of lies, with the consequent alienation of the populace from politics. Furthermore, this focus erodes the status of expert opinion, because in their drive to claim managerial competence, the politicians eschew complexity and go for simplistic solutions, often based on little other than political expediency.
This was clearly evident in both Brexit and the Trump election. In the former, neither side of the debate was able to make a reasoned, credible, argument to the population on the benefits of acting as they proposed. The “leave” side in particular was breathtaking in the arrogance of the lies it told about both the costs of remaining in and ease and benefits of getting out. But the “remain” side was no better; it presented arguments in stereotypes that could easily be cast as a scare campaign.
Neither side treated the electorate as intelligent, preferring to appeal to prejudice and ignorance. And once the decision was made, the government continued in much the same vein, talking up as opportunities things which they were clearly going to be unable to provide.
Similarly Trump’s election was achieved despite his campaign being very weak in terms of coherent policy. He offered slogans as solutions to complex problems, exaggerated and stereotyped issues and opponents, and clearly lied when it suited him. Major issues were simply dismissed as being unimportant. And in the early days of his presidency, he has continued in the same vein. Opinion trumps facts, prejudice trumps science, and stereotypes and prejudices rule.
These examples reflect the way that as the mainstream becomes more homogenous and seems to offer less in the way of answers to our problems, popular alienation grows and the search for alternatives continues. The popularity of Marine Le Pen and the Front National in France and the Alt-Right in Germany reflect this fact. However as the experience of Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and the rejection of far-right Norbert Hofer in the Austrian presidential election show, the right need not be the only source of response to this crisis. But what does this mean for mainstream parties?
Standing for nothing
Instead of basing their appeals on lies, stereotypes and obfuscations, they need to be seen to stand for something. Political leaders should not be afraid to adopt clear policy positions on even contentious issues, and to fight for those positions in political debate.
The fear that they will alienate some voters by standing up for what they believe in may be well founded, but they are alienating increasing numbers of people now by standing for nothing. In this sense, the domestic political debate needs to be liberated from the constraints imposed by the hegemony of the view that things can only be done the way they are now.
After all, things are not working now. The massive shifts in wealth over the past few decades have created increasing inequality and an underclass in very rich societies. The sense of community has been eroded as “user pays” is applied to an ever-widening circle of activities. Ethnic and religious groups retain feelings of discrimination and of second class citizenship. Gender violence remains a scourge on our societies.
It is not as if there are no domestic problems that need solving. But they cannot be solved if society is content to accept the second class treatment it is getting from its governors. Only when those governors treat their citizens with respect, only when they involve them in real political discussion rather than fobbing them off with lies and slogans will it be possible to fix the body politic.
And this new relationship with the citizenry must involve an end to the conjuring up of an external enemy and the promotion of a “new cold war”. The end of the cold war created an opportunity for such reassessment that was missed. Unless our governors lead us in such a reassessment now, they may have it forced on them.