Celebrating this new world order

November 11, 1999

This is an edited excerpt of an editorial that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Wednesday.

THE fall of the Berlin Wall, 10 years ago, marked the real end of the 20th century. The breech of communisms most symbolic barrier led directly to the collapse of the whole bankrupt communist system, and with it the end of the Cold War.

That collapse was so total that the nuclear standoff which threatened the world for 45 years must seems like ancient history to high school students.

Much has been written about the failures of many former communist countries to blossom into market democracies since the Wall fell. That reflects the legacy of communism.

This unprecedented transition is still painful for those going through it, and some are nostalgic for the past. But those difficulties cannot dim the significance of this anniversary. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made a fateful decision in choosing not to use Soviet troops to restore the barrier between East Germans and freedom. The East German military had been prepared to act, and the Walls demise might have led to bloodshed. This decision alone should earn Mr. Gorbachev an honored place in history.

The Kremlin leader did not understand the significance of the moment. He thought he could rejuvenate the communist system by making it less draconian; shedding blood in Germany would have undermined that goal.

No one predicted how quickly the other communist dominoes would fall after Nov. 9, 1989. Neither Mr. Gorbachev nor Western leaders understood fully how deep was the internal rot of the communist system.

Those who never experienced democratic rule can be susceptible to strongmen or nationalist leaders. The end of the neat, bipolar world has made it simpler for ethnic wars to erupt on regional fronts, and for nuclear weapons to proliferate. But these threats do not approximate the danger that haunted the world for half a century, the threat of all-out nuclear warfare between two superpowers.

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