COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS – With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the relatively non-violent overthrow of communism throughout Central and Eastern Europe, optimists predicted a new golden age of a world filled with peaceful democracies. History, for some, seemed to have come to an end. But the optimists have proved to be misguided, as the world’s powers, great and small, drew their own, often conflicting, lessons from the past.
For Americans, 1989 validated everything they already believed. They had won the Cold War, or so they perceived, through hard force and conviction. They saw demonstrators in East European capitals and Chinese crowds in Tiananmen Square chanting for freedom, and believed that those throngs wanted to be American. As George H.W. Bush declared, “We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on Earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections, and the exercise of free will unhampered by the state.”
Subsequent events seemed to validate this American recipe. The Gulf War confirmed American military might and the age-old perils of appeasement. The Clinton era gave us active democracy-promotion as the principle tool of American foreign policy, which George W. Bush’s administration took to unprecedented extremes.
Cold War victory provided the answer for each. “America’s resolve and American ideals so clearly articulated by Ronald Reagan,” Clinton said, “helped to bring the Wall down.” The lesson was clear: “we achieve our aims by defending our values and leading the forces of freedom.”