Still, we tend to mark the start of the Cold War by focusing on the inability of the Soviet Union and the West to agree on how to govern post-war Germany. The temporary division was the product of this inability to agree. Then this cleavage seemed permanent with guard towers, walls, minefields and the like (mostly on the eastern side due to West German "caveats"!). So, if the Cold War started with the division of Germany, then its unification, a sanctified act of irredentism, marked the end of what we knew as the Cold War. While the collapse of the Soviet Union happened two years later, the fall of wall indicated that the Soviet Union was no longer in the business of using force to keep Eastern Europe under its thumb/yoke/etc.
While we have some debates about the conditions under which this happened, one of the striking things of that time is that the US and the rest of West Europe were able to strike a bargain with the Soviet Union to let this and the ensuing democratization of most of Eastern Europe happen.
To be clear, elections were not always a force for stability, as they helped produce nationalist governments within the various pieces of Yugoslavia, which then produced several years of war and ethnic cleansing. Still, of the countries that once belonged to the Warsaw Pact, all are far better off now than they were in 1989, even the increasingly authoritarian Hungary. Romania is far better off than anyone could have expected, given its violent regime change, its stunted economic development, and so on. Bulgaria is hardly perfect as well, with deep corruption.
Of course, the reality is that the fall of the Berlin Wall ultimately moved the line between Us and Them, between Democracy and Something Else, and so on hundreds of miles to the east. Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and much of the former Soviet Union have not made nearly as much progress when it comes to rule of law, democracy, and the stuff that people in East Germany mostly take for granted these days. Yes, Russia has had elections since the 1990s, but Putin has made it clear how little of Western democracy really took root. Ukraine? Perhaps this new government will be genuinely democratic and bound by the laws, but the previous governments were not so much. Anyhow, the point here is that a new dividing line emerged when the old one disappeared. Ukraine now is divided along that line. We shall see whether it tips on one side or other.
There is now lots of debate about how the West screwed up the end of the Cold War by declaring victory and by imposing itself on Russia. I am not so sure. People forget that 1990s Russia looked a whole lot like 1930s Germany--political upheaval, economic dislocations, recently revised boundaries. There was much effort to bring Russia into Western economic and political institutions, which seems less like occupation and more like welcoming a neighbor. Of course, we also sent a variety of experts to Russia to tell them how to manage their political and economic systems, so maybe we should apologize for that.
But before people blame the expansion of NATO for Russian behavior, we need to remember a couple of things:
- Russia was messing around in the countries on its periphery before NATO enlargement got serious. Transnistria is one example. Supporting Armenia in its irredentist war against Azerbaijan is another. Much of Russia's behavior that it claims to be legitimated by NATO's actions in Kosovo pre-date the Kosovo intervention. Oops.
- The security dilemma operates a bit different these days. Yes, when an alliance creeps up on your border, you can get nervous. In the old days, that meant seeking allies and engaging in arms races. But when one happens to be the second largest holder of nuclear weapons, one can avoid over-reacting.
- It was not NATO membership that led to Russia hacking off Crimea from Ukraine, but enhancing the relationship between the European Union and Ukraine. Was that worth all of this? Probably not.