The fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago not only reunited Germany and foretold the coming collapse of the Soviet Union; it signaled a profound change in global affairs. The Cold War that followed World War II created a bipolar world, in which relations between countries and contests for state power everywhere were subsumed by the binary conflict of a U.S.-led West versus a Soviet-dominated East. Even though the U.S.S.R.’s final collapse came two years later, the fall of the wall that separated West from East in Berlin more than any other single moment symbolizes the end of the Cold War.
Excitable politicians and pundits may have rushed to proclaim a new cold war as a result of the current standoff in Ukraine, but the fact that the U.S. and Russia are once again engaged in strategic rivalry is simply old-fashioned geopolitics: There’s no serious argument to be made that all the world’s major conflicts today can be framed as an epic struggle between Washington and Moscow, and there’s no longer much of an ideological pretense in contemporary strategic alliances. (Whatever else unites those fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, for example, it’s certainly not a shared vision of democracy and freedom.)
Key players in most of the world’s major conflicts today make their strategic decisions independently of the U.S. and Russia. And unlike in the Cold War era, most of the world today is integrated into a single global economy, in which the single largest player will soon be China. Latin America today is largely independent of the once jealously enforced primacy of the United States; European influence over African politics has waned. Asia’s geopolitics are far more complex than they are binary, but China — independent of both Washington and Moscow for most of the Cold War — is emerging as the dominant power in the region. The course of Middle Eastern politics is increasingly set by local midlevel powers rather than by distant great powers; Western Europe’s responses to the Ukraine crisis indicate that the Cold War tradition of U.S. leadership no longer applies.
The euphoric assumption that the end of the Cold War equaled a global triumph for the U.S. and for liberal democracy has given way to a more complex set of global conflicts involving new power centers in changing alignments from conflict to conflict — the U.S. and Iran are on the same side in Iraq, for example, but on opposite sides in Syria — with the 20th century system of nation-states under pressure in the Middle East and Africa and nonstate actors introducing a wild card that barely existed in the Cold War era.
Still, as complex and dangerous as the current global conflict scenario may be, it no longer plays out under the shadow of annihilation in a thermonuclear war between two powers with arsenals big enough to destroy the planet — a scenario that seemed perilously imminent throughout the Cold War. Nor are elected governments in distant lands summarily overturned when they don’t conform to the preferences of a big power patron.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Al Jazeera examines 25 ways the world was changed in the aftermath of that moment.