We are not yet a third of the way through 2019, and yet the anniversaries of 1989 have come thick and fast. The events that marked it may be fading in the rear view mirror, but it is emerging as a chapter in its own right in the history books, a defining moment of the 1948-2016 era.
Quite rightly. From the upheavals that swept the Soviet Union out of Eastern Europe to the idea of a worldwide web to the crushing of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations that began thirty years ago this week, 1989 was a year of tumultuous change. And the revolution was televised, so the images are tattooed in our collective memory. ‘Tank Man’, standing alone before a column of armoured vehicles in Beijing, holding bags as if returning from a shopping trip. The denim and euphoria of the first protesters to breach the Berlin Wall. The villainy of the Marcos and Ceausescus.
But what was it really all about? 1989 had its own hot takes. That summer, Francis Fukuyama famously concluded that we were witnessing the end of history. He was not saying events would stop, but that free market liberal democracy had seen off autocracy, Fascism, communism and authoritarianism, for good. Humanity’s path was set – convergence. Clearly not everyone in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran and the mountains of Afghanistan agreed. Fareed Zakaria would write after 9/11 that the fall of the Twin Towers signalled “the end of the end of history”.
With the benefit of three decades more hindsight than Fukuyama, it is easier to cast 1989 as a year when – accelerated by new technology and communications – humans took decisive steps towards greater dignity, and against controlling systems and unfair distribution of opportunities. And it was indeed a decisive moment towards the globalisation of a consumerist model that won the last thirty years: the year McDonalds came to Moscow.
Of course, all of that looks more fragile after our contemporary upheavals. Thirty years on, it is easier to discern the fragility of the model that Fukuyama thought had won. It has proved far better than the systems it saw off at delivering security, justice and opportunity. But not good enough. As Fukuyama and others have observed since 2016, democracies can go backwards. Like the models it replaced, the post-1989 system has proved vulnerable to decadence and decay, corruption and corrosion. It has failed as yet to adjust to the Digital Age by making governments more accountable and citizens more powerful. It has too often been dominated by those who see their right to be superior trumping our rights to equal opportunities. Meanwhile, much of the world continues to entrench inequality. The Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements remind us that we all have much further to travel than some of us realised.
1989 is also a reminder that we all choose our own lessons of history. As the Berlin Wall fell, a middle-ranking KGB officer called Vladimir Putin sulked at the failures of Russian leadership. An East Berlin quantum chemist called Angela Merkel traded academia for democratic politics. And a grandson to German immigrants, the heir to New York real estate tycoon Fred Trump, launched a board game based on his success.
As we face another period of change, 1989 is also a reminder that history somersaults and progress zig zags. For every step forward – a ceasefire in Lebanon, the Soviets leaving Afghanistan, the first black Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff – there were reactionary forces pushing in the opposite direction. Mandela was not yet out of prison, the first Al Qaida cell started operating in New York, and the Iranian regime was offering rewards for the killing of writers. Was 1989 really a step forward? As Zhou Enlai said of a revolution two centuries before 1989, it is still too soon to say.
Most importantly, 1989 is a reminder that the arc of the moral universe will only bend towards justice with our help. Without urgent action, automation will create new sources of division and violence that no political system can manage. And we face a struggle that no-one in 1989 could have foreseen - for digital territory. We need a Berlin Wall moment for the internet, a digital Declaration of Independence. Not just to ensure that technology liberates our creativity and ingenuity. But to protect our individual freedom from the internet and those who control it. Seen from 2049, these struggles will be as important as the breakthroughs of 1989.
The good news though? Fukuyama feared in 1989 that the end of history would be boring. An “endless solving of technical problems… and satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” Some might wish for that as humanity’s next era. But they will be disappointed. Whatever happens, the next three decades certainly won’t be boring. Objects in the rear view mirror may be closer than they appear.
Tom Fletcher is a former ambassador and Downing Street adviser, and a visiting professor to New York University