After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 1990s promised a new era of peace, but it was only an illusion
In December 1979, oil prices were twice as high as they had been at the start of the year. With Moscow’s coffers swollen by revenues from energy exports to Western Europe, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered an army to be sent to Afghanistan. Although the war to prop up the communist government in Kabul contributed to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, the invasion showed how the world’s most resource-rich state could project military might into Eurasia. Meanwhile, Western response was shattered by disunity: although US President Jimmy Carter imposed a grain embargo in January 1980, European Community countries Canada and Australia increased their exports to Russia.
The reason oil prices were so high this winter was the tumult in Iran. In January 1979, the Shah fled the country and Ayatollah Khomeini declared a revolutionary government based on Islamic Sharia. In the fall, Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan was seeking an agreement with the Carter administration. But there could only be room for hostile relations with the United States in the theocratic fervor of revolutionary Iran. After Bazargan was photographed meeting Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, taking hostages. Having lost control of events, the government of Bazargan falls.
The 444-day hostage crisis was a humbling testament to what has become Washington’s long-term ineffectiveness in military intervention in the Middle East. Although some of his advisers had advocated an airstrike against Iran, Carter feared the loss of life that would follow. When he ordered a rescue mission in April 1980, operational failures led him to abort it, only for one of the helicopters to crash into another plane on the way home.
But the hostage crisis also marked the start of a permanent US naval presence in the Persian Gulf, the body of water through which about a fifth of the world’s oil supply flows. With the United States having maintained only a token presence off the coast of Bahrain since World War II, Carter ordered American ships into the Gulf in November 1979. To date, the military guarantor of the free flow of oil in the Strait of Hormuz is the United States. marine, although China has replaced the United States as the world’s largest oil importer.
China’s rise to this position began with the economic reforms that Deng Xiaoping enacted in 1979. Deng executed a long-term growth strategy more successful than any other in the world during the 20th century. But at some point in late 1979, Deng also began to pursue a state-enforced one-child policy to control China’s population growth.
By the late 1970s, even though Western politicians largely renounced any notion of limits to growth, Deng seemed to take seriously the idea that economic development is ultimately limited by resources, especially the demands of energy. increasing of each. consumption.
Certainly, Chinese President Xi Jinping recognizes that aging societies and a gender imbalance also limit economic development, while causing social problems. But the realization that the resource and ecological consequences of economic growth cannot be resolved without state intervention has become central to the politics of our time.
The illusion of the 1990s was to think that Europe, a continent poor in energy resources and condemned to fight against American and Russian shifts in geopolitical power, as well as a strategically resurgent China, could be the harbinger of the future. As the historian François Furet said, we are witnessing “the disappearance of an illusion”.
Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge.