To Americans, the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago this week - and the Iron Curtain with it - was more than a big move on the geostrategic chessboard. Yes, it made us safer, but it also vindicated our core national identity. Democracy, it seemed to prove, is such a universal value that it will inevitably defeat dictatorship.
Since 1989, this conclusion, which spans the ideological spectrum in America, has helped drive everything from U.S. support for expansion of trade with China to the collapse of the pro-American dictator in Indonesia to the war in Iraq and continued sanctions on Myanmar and Cuba.
Unfortunately, it's too easy to learn the wrong lessons from 1989. Especially in our current dealings with nondemocratic nations like China, Iran and Cuba, the U.S. must be careful not to make those mistakes.
Democracy does have remarkable strengths that have helped it dramatically grow its share of national governance since 1776. But all politics is local - and the Iron Curtain was in Central Europe, not the Caribbean, the Middle East or East Asia. Timing, local history, nationalism, economics and strategy all played specific roles in the collapse of Communism in Europe.
In 1989, America and Western Europe were strong, economically and morally as well as militarily. Communism was only 40 years old in Eastern Europe, so almost everyone had a parent or grandparent who had told them about life with competitive elections, economic competition and close relations with the West. Nationalism in most of these countries was defined in opposition to Soviet (Russian) domination. The prosperity of Western Europe, in contrast to the east, was clear. And, most importantly, the idea of "rejoining Europe" - getting the security of NATO and the prosperity of the European Union - was coherent and valued.
The latter became clear in the years after 1989. The former Soviet satellites were much more successful than the former Soviet states, from Russia to Kyrgyzstan. NATO and EU membership for Central and Eastern European countries were game-changing motivators across the region.
How much can the lessons of 1989 guide us as we promote democracy elsewhere?
History plays out in different places in very different ways. The memory of the years of the Shah of Iran and Cuba's Batista regime are not pleasant for many. Going back is unlikely to be the preferred path. In China, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s is not a happy memory either, for different reasons. Sometimes nostalgia is a powerful political weapon, but in these countries, it's unlikely to drive political change.
Nationalism, on the other hand, has traction. Eastern Europe's foil was Russia; Cuba's was the U.S. Simply, Cuba is part of Latin America. For more than a century, the U.S. has played the heavy in the region - much less aggressively than Russia in Eastern Europe, but in a similar framework. The big boy versus the little ones.
Since Iran and China are not America's neighbors, we are inherently less threatening. But, in contrast to Cuba - and most Eastern European countries other than Poland - they see themselves as "major powers" and world class cultural forces.
Here, history interacts with nationalism. Most Eastern European countries were used to accommodating themselves to the "great powers." Iran and China are not so disposed. From their point of view, our founding fathers were impressive - but a few thousand years behind the curve. (On a visit to China this summer, one of us kept hearing Chinese leaders call the U.S. "the biggest developed country" and China "the biggest developing country." They are looking forward to the world being led by the G-2 - U.S. and China - not an alliance of the big and the small like the EU.)
Around the kitchen table, China diverges from both Iran and Cuba. Its economic model and growth rate reinforce its strategy of evolution, not 1989-style revolution. A rising tide can sink the boats of revolutionaries. Cuba and Iran have not been as successful in growing their economies. They have survived, but change could appeal to the average family.
But the big question for American proponents of democracy in countries like Iran, Cuba and China is this: Is there a strategy that can be as powerful in dealing with these nations as NATO and EU membership have been in Eastern Europe in the last 20 years? What is the road to security and prosperity that will be attractive to these peoples, to their neighbors, and to us?
It's complicated, in part because so much of these nations' behavior is motivated by fear. China is afraid of India, Russia and Japan. Iran is afraid of Iraq, Russia, Israel and the Arab states. Cuba is afraid of us.
That makes Cuba the easiest case. If we can learn how to make "big brother" a term of endearment, not fear, we can bring post-Castro Cuba into a Western Hemisphere of peace and prosperity.