An Opportunity Missed in 1989: The Gradual Meander of Western Big-Picture Thinking

By Will Parker

1815, 1919 and 1945 were all years of reset for the liberal conscience – and 1989 should have been one too. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna Settlement achieved relative peace in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars through a ‘Concert of Nations’. The Versailles agreement attempted a different order after the Great War. Then, in 1945, came the settlement in which we live today. The institutions it built in the form of NATO, the United Nations and WTO struck the best balance between power and rules to date.[1] That balance has lasted. But its pillars have long been showing signs of erosion and a need for renewal. Hence, 1989 and the collapse of Communism represents an opportunity missed to create a fourth settlement.

The above dates exemplify the reality that Orders are not permanent. They do come to an end. Therefore, it is a grave folly to caricature those who attempt to highlight such fundamental truths as crazy cuckoos (the popular reaction to David Cameron’s May 2016 Brexit campaign speech on peace and security springs to mind).

Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay and his claim that the collapse of the USSR marked the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” is often cited as the representation of the West’s complacently triumphalist attitude to the post-Cold War world.[2] This is accurate, and is a criticism reinforced in this essay. However, much less mentioned is the content Fukuyama’s concluding remarks. He predicted that the West would struggle for ‘recognition’ as it attempted to assume a role as a mere caretaker of the “museum of human history” in a post-historical world of liberal triumph. Despite his wrongly triumphalist declarations for western democracy, Fukuyama’s analysis accurately predicted the euphoric platform from which the likes President Clinton viewed the post-Cold War environment – and falter. This was one from which America could now ‘focus a laser beam’ on its economy. It could be the indispensable enforcer of a largely self-sustaining world order that had reached its final form. It could intervene in the world when it was morally right, but also with the added knowledge that there would be no external opposition.[3] Therefore, Fukuyama’s thesis was right in the sense that it predicted the nature of western big picture thinking (or rather the lack of it). In short, he foresaw the struggle that western leaders did not. This was the struggle for an overriding doctrine, a functional and long term basis from which the West would act, and the rest of the world know how it would react to world events.

The lack of a western foreign policy doctrine since 1989 is a systematic result of the basis on which the post-1945 order was built: The Truman Doctrine. The doctrine furthered the thinking behind the Marshall plan. It created international institutions that were to prevent another war fought on an industrial scale and curtail any spread of tyranny by containing communism. It was successful because it was overriding. Presidents following on from Truman, all the way to Reagan conformed to this bi-partisan and consistent set of organising principles.[4] However, with Communism’s collapse the adversary against which this order had been built and sustained was no more.

The West had an age-old conundrum presented to it once again in 1989. How could it shape a world of liberal ideals and interests whilst avoiding the moral complexities and economic cost of exercising its power?[5] But this time was different. This time the question was begged from a background of American hegemony and a sustained period of relative peace, not war. This time it seemed that finally, the West had won. The arrangement of Great Power politics was set and ingrained in a globe of international law and institutions. It was, as George H. Bush declared a ‘New World Order’ where the ‘rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle’.[6] The dominant thought was one where western democracies could lean back and observe the compliance of others to a set international norms, tethered to a view that their unquestionable military power would suffice to correct any deviations. Meanwhile, focus could finally be turned to problems at home. A grand strategy was no longer necessary. Leaders believed they had finally achieved what previous statesmen had long craved but failed to achieve – a collective will or cosmopolitanism amongst nations.

The old way of thinking about international relations was thrown out, but statesmen continued to seek a label to identify foreign policy. Doctrine and strategic thought was replaced by reactionary behavior and rhetoric demanding an inward-looking focus. Bill Clinton’s famous 1992 presidential campaign slogan: ‘It’s the economy stupid’ reflected his want for a domestic emphasis; George W. Bush promised to stop using troops for nation-building; President Obama’s foreign policy was summed up by the quip ‘don’t do stupid shit’.[7] And now President Trump just shrieks ‘Make America Great Again’! It was clear that successive post-Cold War Presidents have failed to re-define a consistent and long-term doctrine from which their successors could base policy. The trends were the same on the other side of the Atlantic. Robin Cook’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ was a further symptom of the muddled attempt to erect some form of organising concept around an increasingly reactive and pragmatic attempt of policing the world. Nonetheless the final decade of the twentieth century was characterised by a realisation of the limits of western power and subsequently the dilemma of when, and when not to intervene was perpetuated by an intellectual vacuum and the absence of ideology.

Hence we are in the situation we are today. A situation in which the West moves into a new set of Great Power rivalries with no guide, no strategy and most importantly no decision on the balance between its defined legitimacy versus balance of power shifts from which to base its initiatives. Rather, we enter this geopolitical context where the overconfidence felt in 1989 has been replaced by a mood of introspection. US-led foreign policy has too often been neither effective nor reflective of its proclaimed liberal values. This has caused the public to show apathy towards questions of doctrine, which is dangerous in world that not only is increasingly multipolar, but also clutching contradicting realities (primarily from Russia and China).

The attempt to carry forward the universal values of the West from 1989 has been understood, however there is no consensus on their application. Therefore, our rules have proven ineffective and our so-called ‘rules-based’ order shown to be a liability. The outcome has been the rise of seemingly adventurous powers in Russia and China who hold uncertain views of reality. This has been coupled with the ineffectiveness of the institutions built under the Truman Doctrine to build any sense of common conviction amidst a sea of gridlocked declarations and resolutions. (There is also weight behind the argument that such a set-up leaves us ill-equipped to tackle the new transnational adversary of non-state Jihadism).

Questions regarding the importance of showing that we are ready and willing to intervene are more than adequately answered by the recent Policy Exchange report: ‘The Cost of Doing Nothing’ written by the late Jo Cox MP, Tom Tugendhat MP, Alison McGovern MP with a contribution from Professor John Bew.[8] Consequently, it is unnecessary to dwell on this here.

But this is about more than application. It is also about a lack of an ideal. The tendency to with each presidency advocate a new slogan shows that doctrine has been replaced by a context of short-termism and unachievable demands leading to narrow and opportunistic behavior in a world with no accepted set of rules. Grand strategy should serve a defined long-term vision and represent an idea for the future.

This starts with the USA. As Henry Kissinger has argued, it must not abandon its ‘essential idealism’ but pair it with objective analysis of underlying factors.[9] When looking at China and Russia it should think in both medium and long timespans. Is Russia only a medium-term threat as its economy flounders, whilst those of liberal card-carrying Germany, Japan, Mexico and Brazil flourish? Will these up-comers be forces to match in the coming decades? Therefore, shouldn’t the key task be analysing how any new vision impacts China’s ambitions? Are these ambitions patient or urgent? These are key questions. How the Great Powers are dealing with their conflicts has a direct impact on whether any re-distribution of world power is positive or negative. The answers to such questions are not definitive but have to be subjective. Next, the US needs to man up. It should decide whether its strategy is based on accommodation and compromise for peace, or upon enforcing rules to confront aggression. Straddling a middle way is no longer viable.

So, what should the ideal be? It should be underpinned by a Great Power multilateralism that is organically and incrementally developed through a 21st Century Concert of Powers. Such a concert would (laid out in more detail in a paper by the Peace Research Institute) act as a new global institution for security governance.[10] Its task? Reducing the threat of Great Power conflict by helping to manage our transition from the unipolar, to the Concert world. It will be an institution of informal influence from the outset, allowing for each member to understand the strategies, interests, needs, threats and perceptions of others’. Moreover, such an approach will facilitate the gradual development of collective principles to be negotiated over time – all defined by security governance. It will therefore be intertwined amidst the broader landscape of existing institutions. Hence it should act to decrease risk of stalemate at the UN, whilst proliferating knowledge of each others’ approaches to problem solving. This will contribute to the lessening of an atmosphere of entangled rivalries. Ultimately, such an institution will be founded on modesty. This is an ideal of which even a part realisation would be positive. Finally, its legitimacy will be built from it outstripping the incumbent international mechanisms.

However, prior to approaching such a framework, the West needs its Doctrine. It is essential that this appeals to the public and inspires bi-partisan support. Second, the US, along with other liberal democracies should focus on being just that – exemplary democracies. The nature of our States themselves need altering. They have grown too disconnected from human contact making them unpopular to those they are meant to serve. And third, the West ought to acknowledge that it cannot maintain legitimacy whilst reducing its power. Furthermore, our democracies (as suggested by Senator Kaine, Hilary Clinton’s running-mate) should be the military partners of choice, training others in our values whilst sustaining positions as humanitarian leaders: willing to deploy force with humanitarian aims. These are all things that electorates will support.

The time to abandon opportunistic rhetoric, and take on questions of ideal, doctrine and application is now. Fusing together the basis of a doctrine towards a final ideal (which is itself a means to an end) is key in this transition into an international order with a new set of rivalries. Answers to questions of scope regarding Chinese and Russian ambitions are unknowable at present. But moving into such a context firefighting, not strategising is a recipe for conflict.

The opportunity to set out a way of achieving a new settlement was missed in 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed. What has followed is 18 years of drift. But this does not have to be. The task laid out in the above is difficult because it is fundamentally an abstract one. Kissinger sums up its importance perfectly: “the need to gear actions to an assessment that cannot be proved when it is made – is never more true than in a period of upheaval”.[11] 1989 was the start of such a period.

The need for historically-informed analysis has not been this great since 1945. Harry Truman was unpopular, but his doctrine worked. It successfully defended the liberal democratic world that he and Churchill defined.

We should not expect any less from our current leaders.

To do so would condemn a world of relative Great Power peace, to one of war.

[1] D Hurd, Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary, 200 Years of Argument, Success and Failure (London, 2010), p. 365

[2] F Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, (1989) 1-2

[3] I Bremmer, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, (London, 2016), p. 35

[4] T Kain, Chatham House talk: ‘The Truman Doctrine at 70’, February 2017 –

[5] R Kagan, The World America Made, (New York, 2012), p. 94

[6] ibid.

[7] Bremmer, Superpower, pp. 35-45

[8] ‘The Cost of Doing Nothing’,

[9] H Kissinger, World Order, (London, 2014), p. 370


[11] Kissinger, World Order, p. 372


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