1979: The Real Year of Revolution
Despite the seemingly endless celebrations of the events of 1968, it is the legacy of 1979 that lingers on, argues Jeremy Black.
In the years before 1979, Britain appeared to be drifting out of control and into rapid decline. A turnaround, though not immediately evident, has been attributed to that year’s election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, though the extent to which the preceding Callaghan administration anticipated aspects of Thatcherism – notably its rejection of Keynesian deficit financing and the development of North Sea oil – is too often neglected. Callaghan, moreover, had doubts about European integration that matched those of Margaret Thatcher. Even then, whatever the achievements of Thatcher, the fundamental problems of a people and government living beyond their means have returned strongly in the first decade of the 21st century, contributing significantly to the current crisis.
Elsewhere, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and his Pahlevi dynasty in January 1979, reflecting anger at the widespread corruption of the regime, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that December were dramatic events with long-term consequences. But they were essentially just two among a number of disparate struggles that reflected the role of local tensions, as in China’s regional conflict with Vietnam. It was in Afghanistan, however, that local tensions joined with the ambitions and anxieties of great powers to create a crisis. While the US was unwilling to intervene to assist the Shah, the Soviet Union was determined to stabilise its troubled Afghan protégés, a task that proved beyond it: a warning to today’s NATO forces.
What did link Iran and Afghanistan were the difficulties of achieving stability in countries affected by demanding ideologies, a mismatch between pretensions and capabilities of governments, and a limited experience within those countries of consensual or compromise politics.
Events in Iran suggested a general deterioration in America’s standing, which seemed to call for some kind of action. The response included the Carter Doctrine, thedeclaration that any attempt to gain control of the Persian Gulf would be resisted as an attack on American interests, and the establishment of the Rapid Deployment Task Force, which was to become the basis of the US military’s Central Command’s planning.
That Iran and Afghanistan were the points of concern helped give the crises a geo-political resonance that drew on the ideas of the early 20th-century strategist Halford Mackinder’s concern about an expanding Eurasian Heartland, and his subsequent Heartland-Rimland concept which was employed as a justification for the ‘containment’ of the Communist bloc. Indeed, Soviet moves into Afghanistan led to talk in the West of the Soviets seeking a warm-water port and of the possibility of their advancing from Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean across the Baluchistan region of Pakistan.
The American response was part of the movement, towards the close of the Carter presidency, away from détente and towards a firmer response to the Soviet Union. As such, the events of 1979 served as an instance of the crisis-response model of American power that was to be seen so much more prominently after September 11th, 2001.
Across the world as a whole, the most important development was the gradual breakdown of Maoist orthodoxy in China but, as yet, the degree to which this would lead to a new world order was not fully understood. Instead, East Asian developments were considered largely in terms of Japanese economic growth. Japan’s rapid recovery from the economic problems of the 1970s indicated the capacity of East Asian societies to adapt to circumstances more successfully than more sclerotic societies such as India or western Europe. But the greatest failures were elsewhere, and somewhat hidden from attention. The economies of the Communist Warsaw Pact countries were failing to adapt to new economic and technological requirements, let alone to satisfy domestic demands, and this was to help cause the collapse of European Communism a decade later; by then Communist economic management was also seen as unworkable in China.
The second failure was that of radical Islam to spread beyond Iran. The Iranian Revolution was to usher in a totalitarian regime that brutalised sections of the population, suppressed free speech more thoroughly than the Shah’s secret police had ever done, and failed to create an effective economy able to meet the demands of its rapidly growing population. The consequences are still with us today. But it is striking how most of the Muslim world continues to find little appeal in Islamic fundamentalism, for all the efforts of its small band of fanatical followers.
Europe Since the Seventies (Reaktion, 2009).
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