Gerard Malie / AFP / Getty Images
Gerard Malie / AFP / Getty Images

25 years on: How the fall of the Berlin Wall changed the world

Twenty-five consequences of the earth-shaking events of a quarter century ago

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. 

A wealth of nations

Dozens of new nations were born after the Berlin Wall fell.
Thomas Koehler / Photothek / Getty Images

When the Berlin Wall fell, there were 159 member states of the United Nations. Today there are 193, and that doesn’t include de facto nation-states such as Taiwan and Kosovo. The fall of the wall set the ball rolling on the collapse of the Cold War geopolitical order and, within two years, of the Soviet Union itself. That saw 11 former Soviet republics claim statehood.

The centrifugal effect began to dismantle not only Lenin’s creations but also those of the League of Nations, as Yugoslavia broke into six countries, and Czechoslovakia split in two. Although the post–Cold War baby-nation boom has slowed, events in Ukraine, Catalonia and Scotland this year show that the secessionist surge that followed the fall of the wall hasn’t entirely gone out of style.

A free South Africa

Nelson Mandela and his then-wife, Winnie, raising fists after his release from prison.
Allan Tannenbaum / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images

The decision by South Africa’s apartheid regime to release Nelson Mandela, revoke the ban on his African National Congress and negotiate a transition to democratic majority rule was announced two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the events are intimately connected.

Ronald Reagan’s administration protected Pretoria from sanctions because the white-minority government had been a Cold War ally and Mandela’s ANC was perceived as an friend of Moscow. But with the Cold War winding down, Washington no longer needed its anti-communist allies in Pretoria, and President F.W. de Klerk read the writing on the wall and opted to negotiate from a position of relative strength, opening the way to a peaceful end to apartheid.

Power failure

Rising powers? BRICS leaders meet.
Ben Tavener / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Seeking to punish Russia over its Ukraine policy earlier this year, Western powers ousted President Vladimir Putin from the forum known as the G-8. But that was a largely symbolic gesture, since the G-8 — or G-7 — is little more than a talk shop and photo opportunity. Putin will nonetheless be present in China this week alongside President Barack Obama and other leaders, for the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, underscoring the fact that the U.S. and its allies no longer call the shots in world affairs.

NATO and other U.S.-led alliances now find themselves part of a multipolar world with power centers and groupings both more numerous and more complex. On the security front, for example, China and Russia are building a bloc of Asian countries to challenge U.S. influence over North Asian security matters, while Moscow is also seeking to enlist former Soviet territories in a Eurasian Union to counter the European Union.

Today’s economic and financial realities require more of a role for China and its partners in the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), some of whom are weighing creating alternative institutions to the World Bank and, more ambitiously, supplanting the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency.

It’s not that the U.S.-led international organizations have been eclipsed by rivals, however; global economic and political power is increasingly fractured, with no single power or bloc capable of decisively influencing events. As influential analysts Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini explained in Foreign Affairs, “We are now living in a G-Zero world, one in which no single country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage — or the will — to drive a truly international agenda. The result will be intensified conflict on the international stage over vitally important issues, such as international macroeconomic coordination, financial regulatory reform, trade policy and climate change.”


Osama bin Laden
AFP / Getty Images

“Jihad” was all the rage in Washington in the 1980s, when the CIA was working with Saudi and Pakistani intelligence to forge an international brigade of Muslim warriors willing to help Afghanistan’s mujahedeen fight Soviet invaders. The quintessential Hollywood Cold Warrior John Rambo joined their fight, at least on screen in “Rambo III,” in which he smiles and nods as one of his Afghan allies says, “To us, this war is a holy war. And there is no true death for mujahedeen, because we have taken our last rites and because we consider ourselves already dead. To us, death for our land and God is an honor.” Reagan hosted a delegation of mujahedeen commanders at the White House, among them Jalaluddin Haqqani whose network today the U.S. lists as an international terrorist organization.

The fall of the wall coincided with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. The mujahedeen continued to fight the Soviet-backed regime of Najibullah, which fell in 1992. Then they turned on one another in a vicious civil war that was ended by the Taliban’s coming to power in 1996. Many of the Arab volunteers radicalized in Afghanistan did not return home to regimes that saw them as a mortal threat; instead they coalesced around Saudi funder Osama bin Laden and became the nucleus of Al-Qaeda.

China’s rise

The Tiananmen in Beijing.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Chairman Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic the last bastion of socialist ideology in 1961, a rebuke to the Soviet Union. Despite ebbs and flows in Sino-Soviet relations, that remained China’s official stance until the Soviet Union’s collapse. And the U.S. reinforced the wedge between Moscow and Beijing with President Richard Nixon’s historic visit in 1972.  

While capitalism came like a lightning bolt to Russia after the Soviet collapse, turning the country into a highly unequal petro-state economy, it has grown steadily in China over more than three decades, to the point that a Communist-ruled country is on track to eclipse the United States as the world’s largest economy — with the largest middle class. Once the “sick man of Asia”, China has emerged as a major global strategic power, especially in postcolonial Africa, where Beijing’s involvement has spanned more than half a century and where its hunger for resources has led to billions in infrastructure investment. While Washington and Beijing are increasingly engaged in strategic competition, particularly in China’s immediate neighborhood, that competition remains contained, less because of the balance of nuclear terror that restrained U.S. and Soviet leaders from confrontation during the Cold War and more because the economies of today’ss China and the United States are so deeply mutually dependent. 

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