Saturday, Dec. 07, 1996

Forging Union And Beyond

Cover Story

The mood in the West at the beginning of the 1990s was so optimistic that the period was defined by a single provocative phrase: "The end of history." Historian Francis Fukuyama, at the time deputy director of the U.S. State Department's policy-planning staff, first used the line in an obscure 1989 essay, then expanded upon it in a book, "The End of History and the Last Man". Fukuyama argued that the forces of freedom had triumphed over Marxism with its legacy of war, revolution and totalitarian oppression. The result, he warned, could be an era so devoid of conflict and challenge as to be deadening. As TIME's Strobe Talbott (later U.S. Deputy Secretary of State) described Fukuyama's thesis in a 1992 essay: "Mankind is entering a state of grace and risking terminal boredom."

Europe certainly seemed to enter the '90s in a state of grace. It was a decade that began with the final failure of communism, dissolution of the Soviet Union, withdrawal of armies, destruction of nuclear weaponry, opening of borders and unparalleled prosperity.

Optimism was in the air, a confidence in the future not felt for a half-century. In Central Europe closed societies burst open with the promise of market economies and democratic government. The signing of the Maastricht Treaty created the prospect of a common European currency before the turn of the century. The World Wide Web — created by a British scientist working in a European laboratory in Switzerland — offered the promise of a burgeoning information age free from the blight of borders, suspicion and censorship.

The end of history, it appeared, was a lovely time to be alive.

Then, suddenly and perhaps predictably, history returned, and with much the same violence and vindictiveness that have made the previous decades of the 20th century so dismally memorable. Iraq launched an attack on Kuwait. It brought a massive response from the U.S.-led coalition that annihilated the Iraqi army in a lightning war. Yugoslavia came apart in an orgy of civil strife and "ethnic cleansing" that revived memories of Nazi genocide during World War II. Europe and its institutions — NATO, the European Union, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe — stood paralyzed amid slaughter.

For a few perilous days in August 1991, it seemed that the same might happen in the Soviet Union. A junta put Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest and announced a state of emergency. Defenders of democracy, led by Boris Yeltsin, barricaded themselves inside Moscow's White House, and the coup collapsed. The Soviet Union followed. Soon after, the Central Committee of the Communist Party itself disbanded. Result: freedom for the inmates of the Soviet prison of nations. Mapmakers struggled to redraw borders, and the U.N. made way for 17 new members.

Freedom did not necessarily bring peace. In the Caucasus, Georgia dissolved into civil war while Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over contested territory. Russia itself — a vast multi-ethnic federation stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific — seemed headed for further disintegration. Regions rebelled, some peacefully and some violently. Most violent was the republic of Chechnya, whose unilateral declaration of independence Moscow ultimately resisted in a bloody and winless war.

For many in Eastern Europe, war was only one bitter consequence of newly won freedom. Market reforms shuttered unproductive factories and even whole industries, creating widespread unemployment and sometimes runaway inflation. Health and welfare systems collapsed: in 1994 the typical Russian male could look forward to an average life-span of only 57 years, the worst prognosis in the industrialized world. Faced with such catastrophes, both public and personal, citizens began using their new voting right to turn back to the past. Communist parties popped up once again, with liberal-sounding new names but many of the same old faces. In 1995 Poles ousted the mercurial Lech Walesa from the presidency, replacing him with ex-communist Aleksander Kwasniewski. Former communists won high office in Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Slovakia and Hungary. Even in eastern Germany, prospering from unification, a renamed former Communist Party won seats in parliament. In Russia only a timely alliance between Yeltsin and popular ex-general Alexander Lebed helped defeat a revived Communist Party and its candidate, Gennadi Zyuganov, in last summer's presidential election.

While history clearly did not end in Eastern Europe, it sometimes appeared to have come to a standstill in the West. The Maastricht formula for a European Union proved to be a paper dream. The Danes initially voted against ratification, and Britain threatened to do the same, forcing virtual renegotiation of the treaty. A French referendum produced a narrow petit oui of only 51.05% in favor of the treaty, and there was little more enthusiasm elsewhere.

By the end of 1992, Big Europe looked very much like the same Old Europe. When Yugoslavia broke apart in 1991, so did the idea of a common E.U. defense and foreign policy. Germany plunged ahead with diplomatic recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, while the rest of Europe dithered. When full-scale war broke out in Bosnia, the European response was three years of feckless diplomacy, resulting ultimately in a plan engineered by Britain's Lord Owen that would have divided Bosnia into a messy myriad of Swiss-like cantons.

By 1995 the conflict had become intolerable. The siege of Sarajevo had become the longest in the century's history. Some 700,000 refugees had fled to Western Europe and North America. Worse, more than 200,000 people had died, a high percentage of them civilians, amid growing evidence of war crimes ranging from systematic rape to mass executions. Finally, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke tackled the problem of peace with threats and inducements that brought the warring parties together in Dayton, Ohio, to hammer out an agreement that finally stopped the fighting. Europe's role was embarrassingly marginal.

Yet somehow the Continent manages to move ahead. For all its failures, the E.U. remains the world's most attractive economic club. Austria, Sweden and Finland have rushed to join, and others, including most of the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, have put their names on a long waiting list. The Dayton Agreement has proved that NATO can become an effective peacemaker in regional conflicts. France has rejoined the military portion of the alliance after almost 30 years, and nearly all the former Soviet-bloc countries are clamoring for membership. Even a suspicious Russia has acceded to the alliance's "Partnership for Peace" arrangement and has cooperated with NATO in implementing the Dayton accords.

But peace is far more than the absence of war, and civilization more than the pronouncements of parliaments. It is art, music, cuisine and fashion, all the qualities that transform the monotony of existence into the joy of living. In those qualities, the Europe of the coming millennium is richer, both materially and spiritually, than ever in its history. When hemlines rise or hairlines fall in New York City and Tokyo, the reason can be found in the artistry of the great Parisian houses of haute couture. The hundreds of publicly financed orchestras, operas and ballet troupes of Europe constitute the main repository of the Western world's legacy of great music and dance.

It is a wealth, moreover, that is shared by the vast majority of the population. Despite its costly excesses, the European approach to social welfare has given most of the Continent's people levels of health care, education and pension rights that are the envy of the world — while preserving the market forces that make the difference between a welfare state and a police state. The new Europe is the excitement of Berlin rebuilding; the thrill of a high-speed train streaking beneath the English Channel; the new businesses and investments that are bringing style and sparkle to Moscow, Budapest and Warsaw; the growing web of computer connections that are drawing all together.

As Fukuyama would now be the first to agree, history did not end with the '90s; terminal boredom has not set in. For all its setbacks, European history at the end of the century has been less dangerous than it was at its wretched midpoint 50 years ago. The Continent is as lively, inspiring and unpredictable as ever — and is sure to remain so.