Professor Michael Clarke is Director General of the Royal United Services Institute.
I was in good company in being wrong about the longevity of the Berlin Wall. Mrs Thatcher thought the same. Like the French, we loved Germany so much we thought it was a good idea to have two of them. And we thought that as the communist system across Eastern Europe, from Poland to Bulgaria, steadily transformed itself into an ersatz capitalism, the Berlin Wall would be the last bit to go – the enduring symbol and the de facto division of Germany, the disappearance of which no self-respecting communist leader could countenance.
So we were wrong, and 9 November1989 was much more than a symbol; it was a genuine historical turning point. Only 25 months later, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist. The whole astonishing process reminded us of a few political truths. One was that autocratic and corrupt systems of government can last for a very long time even after they become little more than facades of respectability. The great twentieth century writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, understood ‘the autumn of the patriarch’ very well; foolish old men, backed by dim young men, all of them in office but not in power; doing nothing but sucking the life out of the societies they were meant to serve. But the autumnal period can last a long time. The facade endures until a line is crossed and suddenly, surprisingly, policemen watch passively while people follow their own instincts. When the line is eventually crossed it is normally astonishing.
The Middle East, for example, had seen almost no strategic change since the collapse of the Turkish empire in 1918. There have been many conflicts; the Second World War, four Arab-Israeli wars, three Israeli-Lebanon wars, the Iraq-Iran war that killed close on a million people, and two western-Iraq wars – none of which created any strategic – i.e. structural – change in the region. Then, on 17 December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in exasperated protest at the petty bureaucracy of a sclerotic government. Within a month Tunisian President Ben Ali was gone after 23 years in power; within another month President Mubarak of Egypt was gone after 30 years in power and the ‘Arab Spring’ was turning the strategic wheel across the region for the first time in a century.
Both the Middle East and Europe are completely different regions today, and neither of them more secure than they were 25 years ago. Freedom and liberal prosperity rarely come with security automatically built in. Today’s Europe is immeasurably better off than Cold War Europe and has a potential for human and economic development the Cold War would never have allowed. But its security cannot be taken for granted and is in danger of slipping away while we worry about the strategic wheel turning in the Middle East.
There are no end of surprises. When the Berlin Wall was breached Defence Minister Tom King visited it and observed that none of its voluminous graffiti was in English. No, he was told, there was some English on it. It said ‘Geoff Boycott is God’. ‘Yes’ said Tom King, ‘but which side of the wall was that written on?’