By Anton Golovko Hjälm
THE END OF THE HISTORY theory dictates that all nations, in all parts of the world, are on a natural, if slow-moving, trajectory towards freedom and liberal democracy. Emerging into a globalised world, European leaders embraced this disputed theory as their mantra and adjusted their actions accordingly when dealing with developing nations. This strategy has never paid off.
As the Berlin wall came tumbling down and the Soviet Empire collapsed under the weight of its inadequacies, one could have been excused for being blinded by optimism as the people and politicians of Europe experienced what journalist Christopher Hitchens called a great “sense of human emancipation.” The fundamental division of the world as such was over; Francis Fukuyama heralded the “End of History.” The 1990s – as an era of Western foreign policy – are inextricably bound to this feeling. The bubbling reactionary sentiments in Russia, the intractable communism of China, the surging Islamism of the Middle East: all of it could be – would be – solved with the all-powerful transformative capabilities of capital, combined with the natural inevitability of liberal democracy. The words and actions of the statesmen of Western heavy-weights – the US, Germany, France, Britain – all reflect this.
Boris Yeltsin, having proven himself by defeating the floundering Bolsheviks, halting a coup d’état and winning an election, seemed genuinely intent on bringing liberal democracy to Russia. For a while, Yeltsin unravelled the state-run economy, desperately privatising it to bring it to the Western standard (aided by Western advisors), and in the process birthed the infamous Oligarchs. The West pushed on, shutting its eyes tight against Yeltsin’s ever more pronounced corruption, incompetence, authoritarianism, and alcoholism. The West even overlooked Yeltsin’s 1993 self-coup, in which armed soldiers forcibly dissolved the parliament, ultimately culminating in the 1996 election when the powers-that-be stepped in. An appropriately named article titled “YANKS TO THE RESCUE” by the TIME magazine divulges that the Clinton administration sent a crack team of political consultants to directly support the Yeltsin campaign. This was in addition to bailouts from the International Monetary Fund, saving the Russian economy from collapse.
The result of this support? The ascension of Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who began his long tenure in 1999 with the destruction of the city of Grozny as revenge for Russia’s loss in the First Chechen War, in a scene eerily like what we have seen in Ukraine since February 2022. Shortly afterward, a divergence occurred in Western foreign policy as the election of neo-conservative George W. Bush and the attacks of 9/11 shifted American attitudes towards greater caution, dispelling the Clinton-era optimism.
Undeterred, European leaders continued believing in (or perhaps were indifferent to) Russian democracy, and the promise of a new peaceful world. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sought warm relations with Putin and set the wheels in motion for Nord Stream, which sought to tether the Russian and German economies with a gas pipeline running under the Baltic Sea. Schröder in turn passed the baton to Angela Merkel who oversaw the completion of Nord Stream 1 in 2011, and Nord Stream 2 in 2015, despite increasing Russian aggression. This development followed by the surprisingly prophetic words from President Trump, who warned Germany not to become “a captive to Russia”.
Schröder’s French counterpart President Jacques Chirac was particularly Russophilic. His love for Russia was not just general, but specific in the case of Putin. Even as the Americans and British were being increasingly disabused of Putin’s good intentions, Chirac dined with him at a NATO-summit, awarding Putin a medal and getting one himself in return. This was a mere two-years before Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, which Chirac’s successor Nicolas Sarkozy failed to prevent despite his vetoing of Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership (Sarkozy, like Chirac, continued advocating for Putin long after his presidency ended).
In the east, meanwhile, pressure was mounting against the freedoms of Hong Kong. The small territory belonged to Britain at the turn of the decade, yet the year when it was to be returned to China, 1997, loomed ever larger. Here was a test for the Western powers: could economic interest coexist with democratic activism? No, was the answer. European leaders consistently sidelined Hong Kong in favour of Chinese business. Despite the efforts of Hong Kong democrats and British Governor Chris Patten, no support was forthcoming. The UK government of John Major was ambivalent on its commitments to Hong Kong. As for the rest, well. Germany was happy to let trade be conducted on an unconditional basis; Kohl facilitated contracts worth billions without any demands on human rights. Schröder, once again, uncritically continued the work of his predecessor as he kowtowed to China, also refusing to bring up human rights. German developmental aid and investment flowed into China despite failing eligibility requirements. Chirac, for his part, travelled to China and despite pleas from human rights activists chose to ignore Chinese abuses. This culminated in the joint French-German-Italian sabotage of a UN human rights resolution in 1996, having been bribed with multibillion-dollar contracts and a visit from Premier Li Peng.
“No commitments, no support: Hong Kong was delivered to China.“
No commitments, no support: Hong Kong was delivered to China. Chinese promises meant nothing if there were no consequences. The legislature was subsequently subjugated, activists jailed, and law after law destroyed liberty after liberty. Even as China set Hong Kong ablaze, UK PM David Cameron in 2015 proclaimed a “golden era” in relations. Governor Patten and then Prince Charles at least had the decency to leave Hong Kong in tears, knowing that their departure meant not just the final death of the Empire, but of potential for democracy in Hong Kong.
The Middle East is another troubled region. It has seen the implementation of erratic American policies, having changed drastically with each president. European involvement has been more consistent, but for all the wrong reasons. In 2002, Iran was revealed to be enriching uranium in two hidden facilities. In response, the EU-3 (Britain, Germany and France), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and Iran under the “Paris Agreement” agreed to terms wherein Iran promised to suspend its enrichment activities. This agreement was never followed (nor even ratified by Iran) and failed in its main goals; what it did do, however, was prevent any meaningful action from being taken.
When the IAEA rang the alarm bells in 2005 over Iran’s violations – finding it in non-compliance with the agreement – the whole thing fell through, and in the following year Iran, having stalled the Western powers, successfully enriched uranium for the first time. Despite this setback and Iran’s continuing failures throughout the 2010s to be transparent and suspend enrichment – leading to UN condemnation in 2010 – the EU-3 was all-too-happy to sign Obama’s deal in 2015, which gave support for limited Iranian nuclear efforts in exchange for a promise to stop weapons research. The continuing implicit assumption made by the Europeans, and others, is that if Iran is treated as a normal state it will become one (Whig theory strikes again!).
This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of Iranian politics, which functions at the behest of a theocratic deep-state, and the reasons for its nuclear ambition, which is largely because of its long-standing rivalry with Israel (which transcends the temporal; its enmity is in part religious). Even when so-called reformists have been in power, Iran pursued nuclear weaponry relentlessly, all-the-while blatantly violating international treaties. What could have possibly changed in 2015? Except that now hardliners were in power. In 2023, the IAEA once again reported that Iran had barred its inspectors. Having travelled the same path as North Korea, Iran might well become the North Korea of the Middle East at the end of it.
“Are we Westerners hypocrites? Maybe.“
And Europe continues to misestimate. Appeasement did not work; despite Iran, Hong Kong, Georgia and Crimea, European leaders continued believing in unconditional diplomacy and in free trade’s ability to change hearts and minds, as attested to by Schröder and Merkel who continue to believe that their “diplomacy” with Russia was worthwhile. Chirac remained a Russophile until his death in 2019, a legacy which Sarkozy carries on dutifully. President Macron believed even in February 2022 that he had “secured an assurance there would be no […] escalation” from Putin. Schröder in 2018 warned Germany not to “demonize” China, instead encouraging an even closer “relationship”.
No doubt economic realities defined much of the foreign policy, as I’m sure that German leaders remembered that Germany in 1999 had been called the “Sick Man of Europe”, just as the growth years of Les Trentes Glorieuses had by then long ended in France. But there must be a reckoning. Russian gas and minerals, cheap Chinese manufactured goods, peace-of-mind in the Middle East: they fed us and we fed them. The Russian war-machine gorged itself on Western capital. China feels emboldened, swaggering like a superpower. Iran brutalises its citizens and funds terrorism abroad. All things have a price. And a heavy price is being paid in Ukraine as a generation is traumatised, mass graves are filled, and cities are reduced to rubble. A price was paid in Hong Kong as a beacon of democracy was snuffed out. Mahsa Amini paid a price. Are we Westerners hypocrites? Maybe. But we most definitely are something far worse: accomplices.
By: Anton Golovko Hjälm
Photography: Artur Roman