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.

Microsoft announced earlier this year the launch of a new United Nations representation office to deepen their support for the UN's mission and work. Many of the big challenges facing society can only be addressed effectively through multi-stakeholder action. Whether it's public health, environmental sustainability, cybersecurity, terrorist content online or the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, Microsoft has found that progress requires two elements - international cooperation among governments and inclusive initiatives that bring in civil society and private sector organizations to collaborate on solutions. Microsoft provided an update on their mission, activities for the 75th UN General Assembly, and the team. To read the announcement from Microsoft's Vice President of UN Affairs, John Frank, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

Over the past eight days, the US-China relationship got notably hotter. None of the new developments detailed below is big enough by itself to kill hopes for better relations next year, but collectively they point in a dangerous direction.

US jabs over Hong Kong: On September 14, the US State Department issued a travel warning for the city because of what it calls China's "arbitrary enforcement of local laws" by police. The US is closely monitoring the case of 10 people detained by China while attempting to flee to Taiwan by boat. China's response to US criticism of its new security law in Hong Kong remains muted. That could change if relations deteriorate further.

More Show less

Trump is willing to give up Wisconsin for Belarus' democracy? When multilateralism hits the Zoom calls, we can't really tell what's real and what's not. #PUPPETREGIME

Kevin Sneader, global managing partner for McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on how the pandemic has influenced climate action:

Has the pandemic helped or harmed efforts to tackle climate change?

More Show less

In a new interview with GZERO World host Ian Bremmer, conducted on the eve of the 2020 General Assembly, UN Secretary-General António Guterres confronts the challenges of leading a multilateral organization in an increasingly nationalistic world. "I am not naïve," he tells Bremmer. "I know this is going to be a very tough ideological battle."

Watch the episode: UN Secretary-General António Guterres: Why we still need the United Nations

How has the pandemic influenced climate action?

Business In 60 Seconds