GZERO Media logo

The 1989 that gave us 2019

The 1989 that gave us 2019

Thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall fell. Within months, the Soviet-backed governments of Central Europe were swept away by democratic systems. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed.

It's hard to capture just how extraordinary all that was at the time. Faced with popular protests, one of history's most fearsome empires had swiftly and (largely) peacefully melted away. Freedom had won. Police states had lost. Right?

But those events were seen in very different lights around the world. Here are three interpretations of 1989 that, in many ways, gave us the more troubled world of 2019.


First there was the 1989 of Western policymakers, who drew the conclusion that political and economic freedom were inevitable. This view opened the way to what we'd later call "globalization:" the rapid opening of economies to transnational flows of people, goods, and capital.

That delivered huge benefits to the world. It lifted a billion people out of poverty over the next 25 years. Entire continents joined the global middle class. Bankers and businesspeople got fabulously wealthy. Stuff got a lot cheaper. The internet came to change everything!

But that system eventually sparked a backlash among middle classes and rural communities in Europe and the US. They resented the offshoring of their jobs, the rising inequality of their societies, and the threats that a more globalized world posed to their ways of life. This is the arc that delivered Brexit, Trump, and the return of populism in continental Europe.

Second, there was the 1989 of China, where the Communist Party concluded it must never, ever, relinquish political power. The crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in June, followed by the fall of the Wall in November, convinced the Communist Party that while its ongoing economic liberalization was necessary, political liberalization was fatal.

In the coming years, China would prove wrong the Westerners who were certain – certain ! – that economic openness would lead to political freedom. Instead, the party harnessed economic growth to strengthen its grip. Now it's using new technologies to shore up its authoritarian system, and we're close to the moment when the world's largest economy is an opaque one-party dictatorship. The West believed wrongly that the global economy would change China's system: in fact, China's system changed the global economy.

Third, there was the 1989 of today's illiberal former liberals. The man who currently leads Hungary's avowedly "illiberal democracy" was once a shaggy haired dissident who helped bring down communist rule in his country. How is this possible? For men like Viktor Orban – or former dissident Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who leads Poland's ruling rightwing Law and Justice party – 1989 wasn't about the triumph of liberal democracy as such. It was about reclaiming national sovereignty after decades under Soviet rule.

Today, these leaders have exploited the economic and cultural anxieties of their shrinking populations to argue that the EU – which they joined in 2004 – is a new kind of oppressor whose liberal policies, particularly on migration, are a threat not only to their countries, but to Europe as a whole.

All of these interpretations of 1989 combined to give us the world we live in today. It's a world that is vastly more prosperous and free than it was before the Wall fell, but it's also a world where nationalism is rising, a new global rivalry is emerging between the US and China, and freedom is more fragile than we thought thirty years ago.

Visit Microsoft on The Issues for a front-row seat to see how Microsoft is thinking about the future of sustainability, accessibility, cybersecurity and more. Check back regularly to watch videos, and read blogs and feature stories to see how Microsoft is approaching the issues that matter most. Subscribe for the latest at Microsoft on the Issues.

Not everyone celebrates the US holiday of Thanksgiving, but we've all got something to be grateful for in this awful year, right? So as Americans gather around the table — or the Zoom — to give thanks on Thursday, here's what a few world leaders are grateful for at the moment.

More Show less

With President Trump and most of the Republican Party still refusing to acknowledge that Joe Biden has won the election, it seems pretty likely that the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed Washington for at least the past four years is not going anywhere any time soon. How will President-elect Biden deal with Donald Trump once the latter is, eventually, out of the White House? And how will Biden deal with Mitch McConnell and a Republican party hellbent on opposing him? "If you get past the theater for a second," suggests Biden biographer and New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, "you see that there is something deeply different in the relationship that Biden has with McConnell that Obama never had with McConnell." Osnos' conversation with Ian Bremmer is featured on GZERO World.

Watch the GZERO World episode: What you still may not know about Joe

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists plead guilty: The name Joshua Wong has become synonymous with Hong Kong's once-dynamic pro-democracy movement. But the democrats' momentum has all but fizzled since Beijing imposed a draconian national security law back in May, outlawing secessionist activity and criminalizing foreign influence in Hong Kong. Now Wong, who was instrumental in the 2014 pro-democracy "Umbrella Movement," is pleading guilty in a Hong Kong court to organizing and taking part in pro-democracy protests that gripped the semi-autonomous city for much of 2019. He and his two co defendants — all of them in their 20's — have been remanded until sentencing, scheduled for December 2, and are likely to face prison terms of various lengths. Wong, for his part, said he decided to switch his plea to "guilty" after consulting with his lawyer. (Knowing that the trial would mostly be a sham, the trio decided to plead guilty in order to speed up the process, according to reports.) This internationally watched court case comes as Beijing has increasingly cracked down on Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp in recent months, prompting the US to impose sanctions on Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam, and several Western governments to terminate special economic relationship with the city. To date, there have been more than 2,000 prosecutions linked to last year's protests.

More Show less

The person a US president taps to assume the coveted role of secretary of state, the nation's top diplomat, says a lot about that president's foreign policy ambitions and global vision.

Indeed, the selection of Henry Kissinger (Nixon and Ford), James Baker (George H.W. Bush), Hillary Clinton (Obama) and Rex Tillerson (Trump) to head the State Department, provided an early window into the foreign policy priorities — or lack thereof — of their respective bosses.

More Show less
The 2020 US Election

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's Newsletter: Signal

DOTUS: Dogs of the United States

GZERO World Clips