November 9th brings the thirtieth anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I was a senior in high school, and I remember the event vividly. For months, we had read about the tottering Soviet economy and about how the Soviets would be unable to sustain the Cold War effort. It seemed at once too good to be true while, also, oddly possible. One Thursday night, it happened with startling suddenness.
When I look back, understanding the events that followed has defined my adult life. I have spent thirty years trying to understand the meaning of November 9th, 1989. The rules that had governed our world since World War II changed that night. We knew it then, but we did not yet understand it. I still wonder, do we understand it now?
In retrospect, the Nineties seem only to have been a long dream, a fantasy that we could outrun the facts of what a changed global order must mean and claim victory without adapting to new circumstances. The first Gulf War (1990-1991) was an exception: the U.S. and global allies went to war to protect Kuwait’s sovereignty from an Iraqi invasion, and then we declined to go on to Baghdad.
The first Gulf War was about oil, of course. But how we fought that war was what mattered. We pursued it with diplomacy and restraint, a generally responsible use of power in a context of collaboration.
That should have been a blueprint for a new global order. But everything that followed that brief war was something else. The 1990’s drift of globalism and neoliberal triumph wrapped up in the primacy of the financial economy seemed like a Reagan-era fantasy about how capitalism had won and the United States would keep winning.
Of course, we should want to celebrate political and economic freedom. What we seemed to forget after the Wall fell was how important it is that our economics and our politics should be at the service of everyone. From today’s vantage, it is clear we might have done better. Instead, strutting our post-Cold War victory, we went about building a post-Cold War world all wrong.
By September 11th, 2001 our false peace was over. Ethnic and religious tensions long suppressed by the Cold War already had broken into the open in the Balkans, in Africa, and elsewhere. We barely had noticed it, but primeval instincts that accompany religious and ethnic kinship had begun to undermine the nation-state and the rule of law that the nation-state exists to enforce.
The September 11th attacks posed the United States with a choice about how we would respond to a suddenly, unavoidably changed world. We chose wrong. Terrorists had attacked us, a stateless and lawless band. The next day found China, Iran, and Russia mourning with us. “Nous sommes tous américaines,” said a French newspaper: “We are all Americans.”
For an instant, it seemed possible that the nation-states of the world might overlook their other disagreements and stand together for an international order based on law. We might have responded to September 11th with the same spirit of collaboration and restraint we brought to the first Gulf War. But, we did not. We embarked on a war of revenge in Afghanistan and a second Gulf War launched in arrogant lawlessness followed.
Later came intrusions on our civil liberties and the winking at Islamophobia that made it possible for antisemitism and other forms of racism also to flourish quietly while the high-stakes, must-win spirit that governed our War on Terror increasingly characterized the polarized, political war among us. Careless rhetoric and a pervasive spirit of division spiraled us into a reckless Tea Party Movement and catapulted us into the Trump era.
And after all of it, I wonder what can we say—what can I say?—after thinking all these things for now thirty years?
Only this. It never has been more important to assert that the use of force cannot solve our problems. A just world depends on restraining our power with the moral force of law. And this is the thing we must remember: law is a moral force.
I do not mean that the content of the law is moral: often, it is not. Neither do I mean that moral laws make moral people: look around, they do not. I mean that we are sustained by the desire to follow the rules and restrain our behavior, privately in our lives but especially in the public business of government.
The Trump Administration has demonstrated persuasively how the law has no force apart from the desire to observe it. What we have learned also is that failing to follow law has consequences for real people: for asylum-seekers and other migrants, for poor and hungry children, for anyone who is vulnerable and depends on the powerful to follow the rules. When a man who always has felt that the rules do not apply to him becomes the most powerful man in the world, the powerless find quickly what unrestrained power means for them.
Václav Havel, the Czech playwright and dissident who became the first post-Soviet president of Czechoslovakia, wrote an influential essay in 1978 about living in truth under corrupt power. Thirty years since the Berlin Wall, it still makes good reading. Havel asked, “whether an appeal to legality makes any sense at all when the laws…are no more than a façade.” Any “moral reconstitution of society,” he wrote, depends on the regeneration of “values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love.”
We depend on “a commonly shared feeling” toward our communities and each other. Those “human ties like personal trust and personal responsibility” give law its power and make our societies just. They are the moral power that the powerless possess. And, they are a greater power than deception, force, and corruption when we live in truth and permit them to be powerful.
It still is not too late to learn that lesson, now thirty years later.
Image: Unsplash cc via Melissa Van Gogh