• What were the major international initiatives of the Clinton administration in the aftermath of the Cold War?
• What forces drove the economic resurgence of the 1990s?
• What cultural conflicts emerged in the 1990s?
• How did a divisive political partisanship affect the election of 2000?
• What were the prevailing ideas of American freedom at the end of the century?
In December 1999, delegates from around the world gathered in Seattle for a meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), a 135-nation group created five years earlier to reduce barriers to international commerce and settle trade disputes. To the astonishment of residents of the city, more than 30,000 persons gathered to protest the meeting. Their marches and rallies brought together factory workers, who claimed that global free trade encouraged corporations to shift production to low-wage centers overseas, and “tree-huggers,” as some reporters called environmentalists, who complained about the impact on the earth’s ecology of unregulated economic development.
Some of the latter dressed in costumes representing endangered species—monarch butterflies whose habitats were disappearing because of the widespread destruction of forests by lumber companies, and sea turtles threatened by unrestricted ocean fishing. Protesters drew attention to the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere, which shields the earth from harmful solar radiation. The heightened use of aerosol sprays and refrigerants containing damaging chemicals had caused a large hole in the ozone layer. A handful of self-proclaimed anarchists embarked on a window-breaking spree at local stores. The police sealed off the downtown and made hundreds of arrests, and the WTO gathering disbanded.
Once a center of labor radicalism, the Seattle area in 1999 was best known as the home of Microsoft, developer of the Windows operating system used in most of the world’s computers. The company’s worldwide reach symbolized “globalization,” the process by which people, investment, goods, information, and culture increasingly flowed across national boundaries. Globalization has been called “the concept of the 1990s.” During that decade, the media resounded with announcements that a new era in human history had opened, with a borderless economy and a “global civilization” that would soon replace traditional cultures. Some commentators claimed that the nation-state itself had become obsolete in the globalized world.
Protesters dressed as sea turtles, an endangered species, at the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, December 1999.
Douglas Harp’s 1993 lithograph drew attention to the development of a hole in the atmosphere’s ozone layer, exposing human beings to increased solar radiation.
Globalization, of course, was hardly a new phenomenon. The internationalization of commerce and culture and the reshuffling of the world’s peoples had been going on since the explorations of the fifteenth century. But the scale and scope of late-twentieth-century globalization was unprecedented. Thanks to satellites and the Internet, information and popular culture flowed instantaneously to every corner of the world. Manufacturers and financial institutions scoured the world for profitable investment opportunities.
Perhaps most important, the collapse of communism between 1989 and 1991 opened the entire world to the spread of market capitalism and to the idea that government should interfere as little as possible with economic activity. The Free World triumphed over its communist rival, the free market over the idea of a planned economy, and the free individual over ideas of shared community and social citizenship. American politicians and social commentators increasingly criticized the regulation of wages and working conditions, assistance to the less fortunate, and environmental protections as burdens on international competitiveness. During the 1990s, presidents George H. W. Bush, a Republican, and Bill Clinton, a Democrat, both spoke of an American mission to create a single global free market as the path to rising living standards, the spread of democracy, and greater worldwide freedom.
Similar demonstrations at economic summits overseas followed the Seattle protests. The media called the loose coalition of groups who organized the protests the “antiglobalization” movement. In fact, they challenged not globalization itself but its social consequences. Globalization, the demonstrators claimed, accelerated the worldwide creation of wealth but widened gaps between rich and poor countries and between haves and have-nots within societies. Decisions affecting the day-to-day lives of millions of people were made by institutions—the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and multinational corporations—that operated without any democratic input. These international organizations required developing countries seeking financial aid to open their economies to penetration from abroad while reducing spending on domestic social concerns. Demonstrators demanded not an end to global trade and capital flows, but the establishment of international standards for wages, labor conditions, and the environment, and greater investment in health and education in poor countries.
Even President Clinton, a staunch advocate of free trade, told the Seattle delegates that the protesters were “telling us in the streets” that “we’ve been silent” about the effects of globalization. The Battle of Seattle placed on the national and international agendas a question that promises to be among the most pressing concerns of the twenty-first century—the relationship between globalization, economic justice, and freedom.
The year 1989 was one of the most momentous of the twentieth century. In April, tens of thousands of student demonstrators occupied Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, demanding greater democracy in China. Workers, teachers, and even some government officials joined them, until their numbers swelled to nearly 1 million. Both the reforms Mikhail Gorbachev had introduced in the Soviet Union and the example of American institutions inspired the protesters. The students erected a figure reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty, calling it “The Goddess of Democracy and Freedom.” In June, Chinese troops crushed the protest, killing an unknown number of people, possibly thousands.
In the fall of 1989, pro-democracy demonstrations spread across eastern Europe. Gorbachev made it clear that unlike in the past, the Soviet Union would not intervene. The climactic event took place on November 9 when crowds breached the Berlin Wall, which since 1961 had stood as the Cold War’s most prominent symbol. One by one, the region’s communist governments agreed to give up power. In 1990, a reunified German nation absorbed East Germany. The remarkably swift and almost entirely peaceful collapse of communism in eastern Europe became known as the “velvet revolution.”
Demonstrators dancing atop the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989. The next day, crowds began dismantling it, in the most dramatic moment of the collapse of communist rule in eastern Europe.
President Bill Clinton with Nelson Mandela, during Clinton’s visit to South Africa in 1998. Mandela’s election as president of South Africa in 1994, ending decades of white minority rule, was one of the most significant triumphs of democracy in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union itself slipped deeper and deeper into crisis. Gorbachev’s attempts at economic reform produced only chaos, and his policy of political openness allowed long-suppressed national and ethnic tensions to rise to the surface. In 1990, the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which had been absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1940, declared their independence. In August 1991, a group of military leaders attempted to seize power to overturn the government’s plan to give greater autonomy to the various parts of the Soviet Union. Russian president Boris Yeltsin mobilized crowds in Moscow that restored Gorbachev to office. Gorbachev then resigned from the Communist Party, ending its eighty-four-year rule. One after another, the republics of the Soviet Union declared themselves sovereign states. At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist; in its place were fifteen new independent nations.
The sudden and unexpected collapse of communism marked the end of the Cold War and a stunning victory for the United States and its allies. For the first time since 1917, there existed a truly worldwide capitalist system. Even China, while remaining under Communist Party rule, had already embarked on market reforms and rushed to attract foreign investment. Other events suggested that the 1990s would also be a “decade of democracy.” In 1990, South Africa released Nelson Mandela, head of the African National Congress, from prison. Four years later, as a result of the first democratic elections in the country’s history, Mandela became president, ending the system of state-sponsored racial inequality, known as “apartheid,” and white minority government. Peace came to Central America, with negotiated ends to the civil war in El Salvador and an election in Nicaragua won by opponents of the Sandinistas in 1990. Throughout Latin America and Africa, civilian governments replaced military rule.