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The new world disorder

THE WAR THAT NEVER WAS: The Fall of the Soviet Empire 1985-1991 David Pryce-Jones Weidenfeld & Nicolson pounds 22 THE RETURN OF THE STRONG: The Drift to Global Disorder Robert Harvey Macmillan pounds 20; Godfrey Hodgson asks how the world has changed since the Cold War ended
Twenty years ago I interviewed Dr Benjamin Mays, a very wise black man who grew up in South Carolina at a time when he was lucky to be taught to read, and ended up the chairman of the Atlanta school board. He was reminiscing about the glory days of his pupil Martin Luther King's march on Washington when people felt "this is the time, and the things we've been struggling for for centuries are just about at hand". And he looked at me and said, "Well, it's never so".

The collapse of the Soviet empire seemed another such moment. "The triumph of good over evil", says Robert Harvey, "seemed complete", though to be fair he adds that "euphoria swiftly turned to disillusion, the sweet taste of Western victory to ashes". Well, it's never so. And now, more than five years after the apex of hope and excitement that came with the fall of the Berlin wall, it is possible to ask the two essential questions those great events present us with. What happened? And how has the world changed? One of these two books asks the first of those questions, the other, the second.

David Pryce-Jones does not deal in facile optimism. "It was exceptional", he writes, "not to concede 'miraculous', that events of this historical order should occur so peacefully". And of course it has been only relatively peaceful. Force has been used, and people killed in Nagorny-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Moldava, in the Baltic states, in the heart of Moscow, and in Chechnya. Still, whatever may happen in the future, how many would have predicted, ten years ago, that the Soviet Union would disappear with so little fighting? Pryce-Jones is quite right that this was the Third World War that never happened, and he has written a book that is likely to be a valuable tool for understanding why not.

His method is not far from that of oral history. He has strung together dozens of interviews with actors (few actresses) in the complex, often murky processes by which first the captive nations of eastern Europe, then the component republics of the Soviet Union peeled away from Moscow's control, and Mikhail Gorbachev was ousted by Boris Yeltsin. The interviews are fascinating in themselves, and will provide a rich archive. And Pryce- Jones's central thesis, that the politics of the Soviet Union have to be seen as an endless series of personal trials of strength, is at least an improvement on much naive Western commentary.

But, for me at least, Pryce-Jones's book is diminished by ideological narrowness and limited intellectual curiosity. He writes from a maximalist anti-communist position: indeed he starts from the politically correct proposition that "the Soviet world was a tyranny the like of which had never before been experienced". It is not just that such a statement invites Sellers and Yeatman questions like, "Who was more of a monster, Stalin or Genghis Khan?". Pryce-Jones's mixture of ideological fervour and aristocratic disdain for the people he has interviewed - most of them, after all, once committed communists - does sometimes seem to get in the way of his own understanding.

It must have taken enormous determination to collect interviews with so many of those who shaped these great events. But the excellence of his material, and the skill with which he has handled it, does conceal weaknesses in his analysis. There is only space to mention two of them.

Many of those who have studied the fall of communism, both at the Soviet Centre and in, for example, the then Czechoslovakia, have been struck by the tantalising fragments of evidence suggesting that the secret manipulators of the KGB or the Czech secret police may actually have helped to bring about the preconditions for the revolution against the regimes they had so ruthlessly defended. So, far from being a counter-revolution, to oversimplify, perestroika may have been a conservative ploy that backfired. Pryce-Jones is aware of these theories. But nowhere does he formally tackle the question, How far was Gorbachev himself the creature of the KGB? He hints that Gorbachev might have been involved with the State Committee and its coup, but he does not answer that vital question satisfactorily.

A second ambiguity is more worrying. To put it simply, sometimes Pryce- Jones attributes the savagery of life in the Soviet empire specifically to communism. At other times, he seems to believe that the communists inherited a national tradition of brutality from Russian history. It does seem a matter so fundamental to the understanding of what happened - and of what is likely to happen - as to be worth addressing.

In short, this rich and elegantly written book might have been better able to carry the reader along with its argument if the author had been more willing to step back from his documentary method and confront more directly some of the great historical questions his witnesses raise.

Robert Harvey, on the other hand, is not at all afraid to ask big questions, and to offer confident answers to them. A former Conservative MP and journalist with both the Economist and the Daily Telegraph, his bent seems more in tune with the Economist's brisk and prescriptive style.

He is a man with an open mind, by no means inhibited by intellectual blinkers. He sets forth, at a spanking trot, to cover a fair amount of ground, beginning with the former Yugoslavia, of the southern tier of the former Soviet Union, and of some (but only some) of the world's other potential trouble spots.

He canters through six types of government which he sees prevailing in the contemporary world: monarchy; militarism; colonialism (in Tibet, for example); elitism; Confucian authoritarianism; and western liberal democracy. Like so many people, he assumes that monarchy is doomed, although so many of the world's most successful polities, from Japan to Britain, by way of Holland and Sweden, are constitutional monarchies.

At a gait not far short of a gallop, he covers four threats to the rosy scenario that liberal democracy, coupled with free market capitalism, is destined to prevail. Knowledgeably and with common sense occasionally interrupted by eccentric judgments (Norman Lamont "one of the most technically competent finance ministers in history"!) he discusses the instability of global markets; the ravages of debt in Africa and Latin America; the globalization of trade; and the overmighty power of the multinational corporation.

At an even more breathless pace he surveys the salient issues of international security in the post-Cold War world. He inclines to the view that the world's angry peoples and unscrupulous leaders will best be led along the path to sunlit uplands by a sort of triumvirate composed of the United States, Japan and Europe: just the sort of arrangement, surely, most likely to inflame the rage and the sense of unjust dispossession among the peoples of Islam, the Indian subcontinent, mainland Asia and Latin America, who would seem to constitute the main threat to the future. It is all well-informed, sensible, civilized, even. But I closed the book wondering what it was for. It reminds me of the sort of encyclopaedia which tells you just what you know already about everything, and falls short exactly at the point where you get to the question that made you turn to it in the first place. It reminds me, too, of the premature optimism of American liberals in 1965 or of those who saw the collapse of communism in 1989 as the end of history. It's never so.