Berlin Wall 10 years on

Mainichi Shimbun, Tuesday 9 November 1999

Private citizens began tearing down the Berlin Wall during the evening of Nov. 9, 1989. Ten years have passed since this dramatic event, which symbolizes the end of the world order that prevailed for most of the second half of the 20th century.

A month after the wall came down, U.S. President George Bush met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta to declare the end of the Cold War. East and West Germany were reunified in October 1990, and the Soviet Union collapsed 14 months later.

The opening of the Iron Curtain did not occur overnight but rather was preceded by a wave of democratization and liberalization that swept Eastern Europe, generating pressure that was eventually irrepressible.

The epicenter of this upheaval was the Kremlin, which had kept Eastern Europe under its thumb for many decades. But Soviet Union began to permit its satellites to pursue independent foreign policies after Gorbachev started promoting glasnost and perestroika. The emboldened citizens of Eastern Europe became the vanguard for a democratic revolution.

The revolution swept Hungary, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania and Czechoslovakia. These newly democratized countries then sought to link themselves with the rest of Europe by seeking membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and implementing market and political reforms that would smooth their entry into the European Union.

In the arena of international politics, these momentous changes gave rise to a unipolar world dominated by the United States. Ethnic and regional conflicts that had been simmering beneath the surface boiled over, and the United States exerted its dominance in conflicts ranging from the Persian Gulf to Kosovo. But the unipolar world diminished the stature of the United Nations, which is supposed to play a leading role in settling international disputes.

Globalization is another phenomenon that was unleashed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has given rise to a global money game that has increased the tendency toward unipolarity in not only the political but also the economic sphere.

The fact that 13 of the 15 EU states are governed by socialist parties is not unrelated to the shift toward unipolarity. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are seeking a Third Way as they attempt to strike a balance between market forces and social welfare programs.

The capitalist countries incorporated socialist values even during the height of the Cold War. But the spread of globalization and the West's pride in winning the Cold War could mean that the world will be a less forgiving place for the unfortunate.

The world has changed considerably in the post Cold War era, but we continue to grope about for a new world order. Whatever shape the new order eventually assumes, human rights and humanitarianism will surely play a major role.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. And the human-rights clause contained in the Helsinki Final Act adopted by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1975 contributed indirectly to the eventual downfall of communist regimes in Europe. As we enter the 21st century, we must reaffirm our commitment to giving concrete shape to the old yet new concepts of human rights and humanitarianism.