Review: To Build a Better World

To Build a Better World, Philip Zelikow and Condoleeza Rice. New York: Twelve, 2019.

Summary: An account of the period from 1988-1992 and the transition of states, economic systems, and military alliances, reflecting an emerging post-cold war world.

When I bought this book, there was not a war in eastern Europe. All the world was thinking about a few months ago was get past a two-year pandemic. Life has changed and once again we live under the shadow of a potential global war.

Perhaps that sets in relief those few heady years at the end of the 1980’s when we thought we had entered a new world of global peace with the fall of physical and political walls between eastern and western Europe, when the major powers talked about reducing nuclear arms stockpiles and conventional forces, when Germany was unified, when former Warsaw pact countries gained their independence (including Ukraine in 1990) and more peaceable and mutually economically beneficial relations became a possibility with Russia.

This book traces the series of events that unfolded during those years, the issues that the U.S. and other powers faced, and the decisions made that have shaped Europe over the last thirty years, as well as the course of Russia. Rice and Zelikow were insiders during this era, working in both Bush adminstrations, Rice serving as an NSC adviser and eventually, as secretary of state.

The account begins with the increasing globalization of economic systems, the growing strains on the economic systems of the USSR and its satellites in eastern Europe. Amid this comes the bold attempt of Perestroika with not enough economic reforms with too many raised expectations. At first, the effort was to try to figure out how to prop up the system, as it became increasingly apparent that Gorbachev could fail.

As satellites broke away, the question became what would Europe become. Would the European Union expand to include these countries. And what would become of East Germany? The book takes us inside the delicate balance that had to be struck to not humiliate or antagonize the USSR, and to not arouse fears of a united Germany. And how might Russia be integrated into the new Europe.

And what would become of NATO, forged as a post-war threat by the Soviet Union and paralleled by the Warsaw Pact countries. At first, it was even considered to maintain these alignments with a de-escalation of the military presence. When this was unacceptable to the Warsaw Pact countries and interest was expressed in expanding the NATO alliance, the question became, how would Russia react. At one point, the door was even opened for Russia to also be a part of NATO.

What did happen was the expansion of the number of countries in the alliance, but a military de-escalation and recalibration of the mission of NATO, eventually joining the US in both peace-keeping and military missions in the Balkans and the Middle East. Nuclear stockpiles were destroyed without nukes proliferating to former Soviet satellites. Interlocking European and global trade agreements fostered trade. There was a period where US, Europe, and Russia even stood together against Iraq in Kuwait, and later in the fight against Al-Qaeda in the early 2000’s.

At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to a young East German physical chemist who became interested in the changing politics of her country and a young mid-level KGB colonel in Dresden who was increasingly disturbed with the course of events in his home country. The first was Angela Merkel, the second Vladimir Putin. She represented the culmination of the many positive decisions made in those heady years, leading a German renaissance in a new Europe. He represented the lingering humiliation and resentments (despite George H. W. Bush’s understated diplomatic efforts) at the eviscerating of Russian greatness. Putin resented the effort of the second Bush administration to define the world as those for and against freedom. Russia had been at its best under autocrats which he increasingly became. Ukraine, which Putin stated in 2008 was not even a country, resented efforts to incorporate Ukraine into the EU and NATO, blocked by Germany in 2008. Even then, Putin saw this as a US attempt to push an integrated Europe right up to Russia’s doorstep, or underbelly.

This work was published in 2019, which was after the Russian annexation of the Crimea. Even then, the tensions in Ukraine’s eastern provinces were evident. None of this justifies the brutal invasion of Ukraine. Rather it makes evident that the storm clouds were gathering that would unravel the European peace established in the 1990’s. This book casts light on the developments of those years. One gets a sense of what it was like to face issues with multiple choices without a roadmap to show to where these would lead. The thing that stood out was the failure of finding a way to integrate Russia into the integrated Europe without diminishing its sense of national greatness or compromising the independence of other countries. It was the flaw in an otherwise fruitful approach to the opportunities of a new Europe. This was a fascinating, inside account of the opportunities and uncertainties latent in global diplomacy.