Back to the Future: World Politics Edition

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Back to the Future: World Politics Edition

What would leaders from 1985 make of the world in 2015?

Back to the Future: World Politics Edition
Credit: REUTERS/Nick Didlick

As you may have heard, October 21, 2015 was the date on which Marty McFly, the protagonist of the Back to the Future trilogy, traveled to the future in order to prevent his son from committing a life-altering crime. The film, released in 1989 but set in 1985, made a series of mostly inaccurate (albeit fun) predictions about the world of 2015.

The makers of Back to the Future, writer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis, were certainly not the only people in 1985 trying to imagine what the world would look like 30 years past the horizon. National leaders, intelligence agencies, and militaries were all gazing into their crystal balls to determine how global geopolitics would evolve. The National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends” reports didn’t begin to be published until 1996, but do provide interesting food for thought about how America’s best thinkers envisioned the world in 2010 and the world in 2015. My purpose, however, is not to describe the predictions made in 1985, but rather to determine whether or not leaders of various countries would have been happy with the way 2015 actually turned out. Would they be satisfied with the structure of the world system and their state’s current position therein? To paraphrase U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union speech – who from 1985 won the future and who lost? Which states fell backwards into the future and which ones shot forward?

Suddenly, the future’s looking a *whole* lot better….

Germany: If on October 26, 1985, the day that Marty McFly’s fictional adventures take place, a fortune teller would have foretold West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that West (FRG) and East Germany (GDR) would be unified in 1990 and that by 2015 a united Germany, led by a female Chancellor from the GDR, would be the unquestioned leader of a 28-member entity called the European Union, he would have laughed in their face and asked for his money back. This was simply too good a scenario. In 1985 the process of European integration remained stubbornly slow, plagued by a persistent lethargy that historians would later call “Eurosclerosis.” This phenomenon began to change in February 1986 with the signing of the Single European Act (SEA), but in 1985 the momentous Treaty of Maastricht was still well out of sight. The unification of Germany was an even more ridiculous concept. Mikhail Gorbachev, who assumed power in the Soviet Union in March 1985, had yet to declare any genuine reform in either domestic or foreign policy. Ostpolitik had ended more than a decade earlier, Ronald Reagan’s famous “tear down this wall speech” was still two years away, and there were certainly no signs that the USSR would allow German reunification. As for a prosperous, peaceful Germany leading a unified Europe? This would have seemed preposterous to a stagnating West Germany that, in the midst of Kohl’s privatization reforms, had experienced years of anemic growth. True, in 1985 West Germany had the third-largest economy in the world, but with the growth of Japan and other East Asian economies its share of global GDP had fallen from 7.9 percent in 1975 to 7.4 percent in 1986.

And what of Angela Merkel? In 1985, the precocious 31 year-old, who would later become Kohl’s protégé, was hard at work on her dissertation on quantum chemistry at the East German Academy of Social Sciences. She had never been involved in politics. Yes, a trip to 2015 in Doc Brown’s DeLorean would certainly have satisfied the Germans of 1985.

If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.

Kazakhstan: There are many Communist states whose status in 1985 gave no indication of a bright future thirty years down the road. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and even Mongolia are prime examples. Still, if one stipulated that the USSR would collapse, then those countries would quickly come to mind as the most likely to profit from such a transition. Within the Soviet Union itself the Baltic States can be placed in the same category, as they were already among the wealthiest Soviet Republics in 1985 and their subsequent success is not particularly surprising. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, was a backwater province, still recovering from the famine that had decimated the ethnic Kazakh population in the 1930s (approximately 40 percent of the overall population perished).

After World War II Kazakhstan was repopulated by ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and German prisoners of war. Krushchev’s Libensraumesque “virgin lands” policy pushed even more ethnic Russians into Northern Kazakhstan, creating a population mix reminiscent of the situation in west and east Ukraine. The ethnic tension was not yet evident in 1985, but became apparent in December 1986 when Almaty were rocked by the Jeltoqsan riots in which ethnic Kazakhs demanded that the ethnically Russian First Secretary (governor), Gennady Kolbin, be replaced by a Kazakh. In fact, it was these uprisings that eventually resulted with Gorbachev appointing Nursultan Nazarbayev as the First Secretary of Kazakhstan in late 1989. Nazarbaev retained power after the collapse of the USSR and is still the autocratic president of Kazakhstan to this day.

Kazakhstan could have easily gone the way of Belarus, Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan where Alexander Lukashenko, Islam Karimov, and Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbasy), all of whom were former Communist appointees, slowly created nearly totalitarian conditions. Or Nazarbaev could have shared the fate of Askar Akaev, the reforming leader of Kyrgyzstan who was ousted in the “Tulip” Revolution of 2005. Or Kazakhstan could have turned into a flawed democracy with a fledgling economy like Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan. Instead, Kazakhstan is increasingly being touted as the “Singapore of Central Asia.” Although the 75 year-old Nazarbaev remains firmly entrenched in power, he has gradually allowed for the creation of democratic institutions that may result in Kazakhstan converting to a full democracy after he steps down. Kazakh Civil Society is vibrant and the media enjoys relative freedom.

Even if Kazakhstan’s political evolution leaves something to be desired, the country’s economic progress is impressive. Despite headwinds from Russia and China, the Kazakh economy grew at a respectable 4.3 percent in 2014 and at a blistering 6 percent in 2013. Moreover, Kazakhstan’s economy is remarkably open with the Netherlands, the U.S., and Switzerland leading the way in FDI. This trend should continue – in late July, after 20 years of negotiations, the WTO formally approved Kazakhstan’s accession. Had Marty McFly navigated his Time Machine to the capital of Kazakhstan in 2015 he would have found the glistening, ultra-modern Astana. In 1985 that city, still called Tselinograd, was a sad remnant of Kruschev’s failed campaign. Borat would be proud.

I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it….

Vietnam: It is arguable that in 1985 the country least likely to succeed was the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Still recovering from the war with the United States and the subsequent collectivization and purges of South Vietnamese society, isolated from the West and highly hostile to China, Vietnam in 1985 was run by a hardline gerontocracy led by 79-year-old Lê Duẩn. Every year thousands of refugee “boat people” with no hope for the future attempted to escape from the stifling conditions. Vietnam’s command economy would not be reformed until the end of 1986 when Lê Duẩn died and the 6th National Congress began the “Doi Moi” (renovation) reforms. From 1986 to 2008 the Vietnamese GDP grew at an average of just over 7.5% and was heralded by The Economist as the next Asian miracle, before being brought down to earth in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.  Today, the Vietnamese economy is roaring again and Hanoi is also becoming an increasingly important geopolitical player. Quick, name the only country that is part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and also enjoys a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Russia? You guessed it, Vietnam! If Marty McFly decided to linger in Vietnam for a few weeks in 2015, he would have a chance to meet the first African-American U.S. president, who will be making his first trip to Hanoi enroute to the APEC summit in Manila. Now, that would be even harder to believe than Ronald Reagan becoming president!

No one should know too much about their destiny …… 

Japan: Ezra Vogel’s Japan as Number One: Lessons for America was published in 1979 and, in 1985, it certainly seemed that Professor Vogel’s predictions were coming true. Even Marty McFly agreed that “all the best stuff” was made in Japan. Japan’s rise didn’t stop in 1985 but continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Since 1992, however, Japan has experienced two “lost decades” of persistent deflation, low GDP growth, gradual aging, and population decline. Japan Post Group’s landmark IPO may yet breathe fresh life into the moribund Abenomics and the TPP agreement should also make Japan more competitive. Moreover, Japan remains the third-largest economy in the world, is still a vital Asian ally for the United States, and maintains a crucial cultural niche in Asia and beyond.

Still, Japan’s GDP is now approximately 40 percent below where the world in 1991 estimated the Japanese GDP would be in 2015. Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japan’s Prime Minister from 1982 to 1987 and still the country’s most revered elder statesman, has expressed remorse for his country’s direction after the end of his term in office. A visitor from 1985 would be underwhelmed.

This could unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe!

The Soviet Union: The list would remain incomplete without mention of the collapse of the Soviet empire, an event of which George Kennan said “it is hard to think of any event more strange and startling, and at first glance inexplicable, than the sudden and total disintegration and disappearance of the great power known successively as the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.”

The U.S. intelligence community wasn’t any more prepared. In 1986, when asked if the CIA was doing anything to prepare for regime change, Robert M. Gates, then the CIA’s director of intelligence, replied: “Quite frankly, without any hint that such fundamental change is going on, my resources do not permit me the luxury of just idly speculating on what a different kind of Soviet Union might look like.” Soviet leaders were certainly aware of their country’s problems, but the USSR’s young leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, seemed like the right person to make the necessary reforms to revitalize the Soviet Union. Seeing the mosaic of different countries in place of the monolithic USSR would shock anyone from 1985. The Kremlin’s recent actions, on the other hand, would be far less surprising.

Greg Shtraks is a PhD Candidate at the University of Washington where he is writing his dissertation on the evolution of Sino-Russian relations. He is currently a resident fellow at East China Normal University in Shanghai.