The year 1989 may well be seen by future historians as one of those rare pivotal years of this past millennium—like 1066, 1492, 1793, and 1914—that profoundly altered the direction of Western Civilization. It is, of course, still too early to say for certain that we as a society set ourselves on a dangerous collision course that year, but none should be surprised if it turns out that lost opportunities in 1989 (and subsequent years) will have dire consequences for the rest of this century. The events that unfolded in Beijing, Moscow, and Washington have all the elements of a jumbled Greek tragedy: good intentions, foolish misunderstandings, unspeakable violence, and that most crucial of all ingredients: overweening hubris.
In May of that same year, I was a mid-level American diplomat who had just gotten an assignment he had dreamed of for many years: Senior Watch Officer (SWO) in the State Department’s Operations Center, an office designed to detect, monitor, and report on crises around the world. Timing could not have been better. That year witnessed a stunning number of crises, but the two most influential were the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the Fall of the Berlin Wall. How we interpreted and responded to these two crises have paved our path for the foreseeable future. We might have changed direction at various points along the way, but we never did, and we are now—as in any true tragedy—increasingly unable to make amends.
Beijing: Blood-soaked Saturn
When I began work in the Operations Center, the Department had already set up a twenty-four-hour task force to more closely monitor the unfolding drama in Beijing, as thousands of idealistic students led spontaneous mass demonstrations against China’s totalitarian regime which has a unique blending of communist, capitalist, and racist elements. The intent of those demonstrators—calling for a more open and just society—was seemingly benign and the demonstrations were peaceful.
By early June the drama unfolding in Tiananmen Square had been going on for well over a month and at least one high-ranking expert on China suggested that perhaps the twenty-four-hour task force could be reduced or even dismantled completely since it was clear that the Chinese government would resolve the impasse with the demonstrators through peaceful means. This came as a shock to most of us who were not experts on China, but who had been following the daily events in the Square and the daily statements by both the demonstrators and the regime. This peculiar notion among some experts that the Chinese always would seek compromise and consensus seemed rooted in a naïve admiration for a China that had already made great strides by the end of the Eighties. When the heavily armed troops arrived in the square and started shooting the unarmed demonstrators, the United States was unprepared and shocked.
What followed were the usual calls for restraint, for dialogue, and for an end to the violence. There were even a few calls for suspending economic ties with China, but in the end, the United States decided that it would be punishment enough to simply suspend high-level meetings with Chinese officials. And even this mild rebuke was a fraud, as President Bush, another self-styled expert on China, sent National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger secretly to Beijing in July—just a little over a month after the slaughter of the demonstrators—to assuage Chinese fears of any severe consequences for having slaughtered their own children. (Of course, the official line was that these emissaries were sent “to impress upon the Chinese government the seriousness with which this incident was viewed in the United States.” But if that were the case, there would have been no reason for keeping the visit secret.) That initial secret mission to China in July—we had been told to inform anyone who asked that Eagleburger was not available because he was serving as a master of ceremonies for some event elsewhere in the United States—was not disclosed until December when the information was leaked to a media outlet. From a subsequent visit to Beijing that same December, there is a now infamous photo of Scowcroft toasting the architects of the Tiananmen Massacre with champagne.
China got the message. The United States appreciated stability and respected force. The United States would not try to isolate or punish China’s regime for the murder of hundreds of its own citizens. More importantly, the United States would continue to push for greater and deeper relations with China, including eventually allowing it Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status and entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), and would repeatedly tolerate China’s violations of its WTO obligations and its wholesale theft of our intellectual property. The Americans, the Chinese realized, like to talk about human rights and fair play, but in the end they were pragmatists and were always guided by realpolitik. But it was never realpolitik so much as naïveté and wishful thinking. If there is one lesson for Americans to learn from the missteps of the last thirty years it is that American foreign policymakers are never more unrealistic than when they think themselves realists.
Moscow – Medea Scorned
A few months after the Tiananmen Massacre, quite a different drama played out in Europe as Gorbachev’s efforts at reform and openness challenged the authoritarian regimes of Eastern Europe, culminating in the Fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9. Mistaking what did occur as inexorable, most observers now believe that the Fall of the Wall had been inevitable once Gorbachev had set in motion a process of reform and that there was no turning back. But that is not so. The Soviet Union, even in its weakened state, could have cracked down and could have prevented, albeit at a great cost in lives, the collapse of the old structures that kept the Warsaw Pact countries and the Soviet Union intact. But those in power refused to use force and so the old order crumbled.
At the time, many Soviet experts speculated that there would be a harsh crackdown as there had been in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Suspicion of Russian motives was so intense that few truly believed that the end of the “evil empire” could end in a bloodless surge of freedom and openness. But Moscow stood by and quietly watched the events in Berlin unfold, fully knowing that they would likely trigger subsequent events breaking down the old system throughout the other Warsaw Pact countries.
The reaction in Washington was disappointing. While there was general relief and even euphoria in witnessing the collapse of tyranny and the birth of a new freedom for Eastern Europe, there was also an odd consternation. In a peculiar sort of way, a certain nostalgia for the Cold War was born even before our old nemesis was interred. It still fills me with revulsion how many times over monitored phone calls high-ranking US officials only half-jokingly confided that they yearned for the more predictable, stable, good old days of the Cold War, when our military and intelligence agencies had true purpose and were not left vying with other government agencies to fight pseudo wars, like the one on drugs. We had defined ourselves and our self-worth too much with fighting our Soviet foe and we were left aimless once it had been vanquished. Despite all our talk about freedom and despite all our assurances that the end of the Soviet Union would herald a new relationship with Russia, the reality was far different. No one sent emissaries to Moscow for champagne toasts or to offer reassurances of continued strong ties. All we offered was half-hearted economic support and an abundance of pity. As one Russian official ruefully acknowledged even then, “it is better to be feared than pitied.”
There is only one plausible explanation for how Washington reacted so differently to Beijing and Moscow: Washington was more comfortable dealing with the pragmatic bloodiness of Tiananmen than the courageous refusal by Russia to use violence against its own citizens and citizens of Warsaw Pact states. It turned out that Mao was right after all: Political power—and international respect—come from the barrel of a gun.
The new American attitude toward the failing Russian state was best exemplified by then-President Bush’s dismissive attitude toward Gorbachev’s suggestion that Russia, too, should be offered the chance to join NATO. And now the provocative actions taken by a resurgent Russia over the last decade seem to prove that Russia had not changed its evil ways and needed to be reined in indefinitely. Thus, the persistent expansion of NATO ever closer to the Russian homeland, the illegal creation of a new state in Kosovo against all precedent, the tearing up of the ABM Treaty, and many other actions on our part were seen not as provocations against Russian security, but legitimate actions to keep a belligerent Russia at bay.
In Euripides’ masterpiece, Medea, few literary critiques focus on Jason’s perfidy and arrogance, and instead heap all the blame on Medea for her horrific actions. And while Russia is far from guiltless for its many recent actions against civilized standards of conduct, we refuse to see how our actions prodded Russia into the monster it is becoming.
Washington, D.C. – Narcissus Rising
In 1989, in the corridors of power in Washington, triumphalism overtook baseball as America’s favorite national pastime. We had “conquered” the Soviet Union and had “won” the Cold War. Pundits, with more words than common sense, explained that we had “out spent” Russian and driven it to financial and moral bankruptcy. Bizarrely, many of us continue to believe even today that Gorbachev and others who firmly believed in a more open system played only bit parts in the unfolding drama, and that former President Reagan with his trite call “to tear down this Wall” played the pivotal role. We succumbed to the worst angels of our darker nature, our basest inclinations as a nation—exceptionalism and triumphalism. In turn, we let lose the basest instincts of Russia and China. For Russia those flaws are obvious: a disturbing inclination toward authoritarianism and a sometimes well-founded but malignant paranoia of foreign countries; China’s darker nature is equally obvious: a firm conviction in its own superiority and aspirations to regional, perhaps global, hegemony.
Unintentionally, we were midwife to what China and Russia have become today. Since at least the times of Peter, the Great Russia yearned to be part of Western civilization but has never—even after playing crucial roles in rescuing Europe from Napoleon and Hitler—been embraced. China, on the other hand, has never sought anything but fealty and obeisance from the West—as is its due since in China’s eyes we are all barbarians. It is a sad irony that we sought compromise and cooperation with the one state that vies with us for supremacy and wealth, while denigrating and lamenting the state that wanted to be part of us—that is, the West. The evil empire turned out not so evil after all, while the Middle Kingdom turned out monstrous, literally, a monster even willing to devour its own children as the blood-soaked pavement of Tiananmen Square proved.
As the world slips into a dangerous multipolarism on its way to a new unipolar world dominated by China, we remain too busy, still too focused on our old nemesis and our own fading influence, hoping to rekindle our once-unrivaled power. It is a pity that Kissinger, our chief architect of our rapprochement with China, had focused his studies on Metternich rather than Napoleon. He—and we—could have learned more from Napoleon’s dire warning that “China is a sleeping giant; we should (have) let her sleep.”
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