by Jason J. Morrissette
It is only natural for the casual observer of global politics and the expert alike to draw historical analogies in order to better grasp current events—a cognitive shortcut to simplify an exceedingly complex reality. As such, it should come as no surprise that many pundits have already equated recent political turmoil in the Arab world with the 1989 revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe that ultimately led to the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and the collapse of the Soviet empire. The similarities, after all, are there: the rapid spread of mass protests from country to country, the hope for democratic reform, and the uncertainty concerning the future. While these recent events are likely to shape the course of regional politics in the Middle East and North Africa for years to come, the impact on global politics—that is, the overall balance of power that defines international relations—will almost certainly pale in comparison to the 1989 revolutions that heralded the Soviet Union's demise.
There is little question that the fall of the Soviet Union was the most significant political event of the second half of the twentieth century. After American foreign policymakers spent the better part of the Cold War concerned about a domino effect that would trigger the spread of global communism, it was ironically a "reverse" domino effect that led to its downfall. The triumph of Solidarity in Poland, the overthrow of Hungary's communist regime, and the fall of the Berlin Wall set off a chain reaction that not only transformed the Eastern Bloc and hastened the fall of the Soviet Union, but also laid the groundwork for the most significant shift in the global balance of power since World War II.
Why are shifts in the global distribution of power so significant? The Soviet Union's downfall not only transformed regional politics, but also marked a transition from the bipolar balance of power that had defined international politics since the end of World War II to a unipolar system dominated by the United States. Such changes in the system-level structure of global politics are quite rare historically. Prior instances include the decline of the British Empire in the nineteenth century, the emergence of the United States as a global power at the turn of the twentieth century, and the commencement of the Cold War following World War II. In each case, these power transitions completely changed the face of international relations. New players entered the game, old alliances were supplanted, new threats emerged on the horizon—a confluence of trends that required global powers to reformulate their foreign policy priorities and strategies on virtually every level.
Do the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt represent a potential global "sea change" of a magnitude comparable to the 1989 revolutions that ushered in the collapse of Soviet communism? In terms of domestic politics, it is clearly a radical departure for a region historically characterized by various flavors of authoritarian rule. Moreover, the United States will almost certainly face the challenge of rethinking key components of its foreign policy strategy vis-í -vis Israel and the Middle East for the first time in decades in order to account for a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Taking a step back, however, the current unrest in the region—even as it spreads to Yemen, Jordan, and possibly beyond—will not fundamentally transform the global balance of power. No empire will fall as a result of the ongoing turmoil. No new superpower will emerge. Regardless of the outcome of Egypt's uprising, the international system will remain (at least for the time being) defined by a single superpower alongside a handful of competing great powers. Far more likely to profoundly shift the global balance of power and, in turn, reshape the ebb and flow of international politics in the years ahead are Russia's steady resurgence and the growing role of emerging powers like China, India, and Brazil.
Make no mistake—the events transpiring in the Middle East and North Africa have the potential to change millions of lives in the region, hopefully for the better. That being said, revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and perhaps elsewhere are unlikely to redefine global politics on a scale remotely similar to the downfall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe. Therefore, despite certain superficial similarities, I contend that 2011 is not 1989 all over again.
Jason J. Morrissette is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Director of International Affairs at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. He specializes in international relations, post-Soviet politics, and environmental conflict. His most recent publication, "Rationality and Risk-Taking in Russia's First Chechen War," appeared in the European Political Science Review (July 2010).