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Germany, 30 years on

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November 7, 2019

When Mikhail Gorbachev talked to the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg this week to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, what he said evoked a strong sense of nostalgia for those hopeful days. But an unexpected sense, too, of a man caught in a time warp. As Soviet leader, Gorbachev had not quite acted on Ronald Reagan’s appeal to “Tear down that wall”, but he had let it happen. He had left the East German leaders to their destiny, telling Rosenberg: “We said we would not interfere”, without the slightest awareness, it appeared at the time, that the fate of East Germany and its leaders would be a precursor to that of the country he led, and his own.

Gorbachev is widely reviled in today’s Russia for, as many see it, destroying the Soviet Union and their country’s status as a great power. It may take another generation before Russians regard him, if they ever do, through a more charitable lens, as the heroic figure who facilitated the end of communism and accelerated the demise of the Soviet bloc in such a way that these momentous transformations took place largely without bloodshed.

So much for the nostalgia. What about the unexpected timewarp? The surprise was less at how Gorbachev has aged — it is 30 years, after all; the early death of his beloved Raisa (in 1999) hit him hard, he is diabetic, and he has had spells in hospital with heart problems. It was more that, when Gorbachev voiced his fears for today, his apprehensions seemed framed by quite a different world, the world of then rather than now. Asked about contemporary dangers to world peace, he replied: “As long as weapons of mass destruction exist, primarily nuclear weapons, it’s a colossal danger.” Repeating a theme from his earliest summits with Reagan, he declared: “All nuclear weapons should be destroyed, to save ourselves and the planet.”

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His prism remains that of East-West relations, the bipolar world that ended with the Soviet collapse, and the premise of Mutual Assured Destruction that underlay the string of arms control treaties concluded by the United States and the Soviet Union. Then, these treaties were hailed as guarantees of security for both countries and the European states in between. Now, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1972), renounced by the United States in 2002, the Intermediate-range Nuclear forces Treaty (1987), which the US withdrew from after citing violations by Russia, and the latest Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (2010), which expires early in 2021, are passing successively into abeyance without being either renewed or replaced.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan sign the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty on 8 December 1987. (Credit: CORBIS/Getty)

Is the world a more dangerous place because of that? Some would say it is, and blame Donald Trump for trifling with global security and abandoning the responsibilities of the United States as world policeman. Could it be, though, that the apparent lack of urgency to negotiate updated agreements is less a reflection of the US President’s brand of isolationism than evidence of how the world, and the perception of major threats, have changed since those years? Is codified arms control, including nuclear arms control, simply less significant than it was,  at least in the bilateral form it then took?

The tentative answer to this has to be yes — and it is one reason why Gorbachev’s anniversary observations marking the fall of the Berlin Wall sound so dated. The concerns of today, which may themselves be hopelessly obsolete in far less than 30 years’ time, are very different from those that derived from the East-West divide then.

How different became apparent when I took part in a discussion at the annual debating festival, the Battle of Ideas last weekend, entitled “Can we stop World War III?”.  Our panel put forward a range of views, but almost entirely absent — either from the presentations or from questions — were the following: any suggestion that World War Three would be waged between East and West in the old Cold War sense; arms control treaties, including nuclear weapons treaties; and even — strange though it might seem in the light of Washington’s recent preoccupations — Russia.

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The biggest difference between then and now is the focus on China, and the prospect of an eventual conflict with the United States, as the one power rises and the other — perhaps — declines. Thirty years ago, China was nowhere as a global player. It was isolated after after its leaders had crushed the democracy movement at Tiananmen Square; it was not projecting its power any further afield. Even now, it is reasonable to question how sure and steady China’s continued rise will be. It faces economic and demographic difficulties, the Communist Party has not relinquished — or been forced to relinquish — power. Internal turmoil cannot be excluded.

But the US and its neighbours are already uneasy about possible plans Beijing may have to control the South China Sea, and there is a fresh interest in maritime power. Perhaps those two British aircraft carriers some dismissed as a vanity project are not such an irrelevance after all. There is also much about China, from mass surveillance to the treatment of its non-Han ethnic groups, to the way it acquires other people’s technology, that could spell dangers, even confrontation, ahead. Hong Kong today has become a front-line of sorts, where one system is confronting another, but the imbalance in power between the two sides suggest that, if it escalates further, it will be settled only one way.

Then again, the whole nature of warfare is changing. There is no sign that regional conflicts will cease but whether they could escalate into a world war, however, is another matter. If you consider the existing or likely flashpoints of today — the greater Middle East, Kashmir, the Korean Peninsula — only Syria has come near to becoming a proxy conflict on the Cold War model and it is winding down. US self-sufficiency in energy has radically altered its calculation of risk when considering military engagement, even of a relatively limited kind.

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Will the next world war — if there is one — even be about territory at all, or control? Will it entail physical combat? It is not necessary to make prophecies about Artificial Intelligence to conceive of conflicts conducted remotedly, wars waged by cyber threats to critical infrastructure and weapon systems that require no human intervention.

This is why Mikhail Gorbachev sounds as though he lives in another world when he calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons worldwide as his prescription for world peace. Nuclear weapons still pose an existential threat, but the nuclear threat is now one among others, and deterrence may no longer be the only answer. If the US has the capability to sabotage other countries’ nuclear research and perhaps even their tests, that “smart” technological approach might achieve the same effect as developing your own nuclear weapon at vastly less cost.

International arms control treaties might not have completely outlived their usefulness. After all, they were never just about counting missiles and warheads. They were about establishing a framework of trust — which is one reason why they were seen as a useful start to trying to improve US-Russia relations whenever those relations soured. But the age of bilateral arms control has to be over. New arms negotiations might just foster a US-Russia rapprochement (though this looks unlikely before the next US election), but — as both the US and Russia quietly acknowledge, any serious arms control in future must include China.

In 30 years the world of international security has changed beyond all compare: geographically with the rise of China and the emergence of India and Pakistan as nuclear weapons states; technologically with the advent of cyber warfare, and philosophically with the evisceration of Soviet communism and threat from climate change. None of this was on the horizon when the Berlin Wall fell. A hero of his time, Mikhail Gorbachev’s anniversary call for the destruction of all nuclear weapons offers a salutary reminder of how far and fast the world has moved on.