A Fitting Tribute to the Fall of the Berlin Wall

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 30 years since the Berlin Wall “fell,” heralding the end of the Cold War that supposedly was going to last forever. Within a short time, hundreds of millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe no longer lived under communism and the heel of the Soviet Union and its satraps. They gained a chance to pursue the prosperity enjoyed for decades in the West and to regulate their own lives—though in terms of governance, some of them, think Hungary and Poland, aren’t doing a good job of it. The world no longer had to hope and pray that two countries, the United States and Soviet Union, would be able to prevent humankind’s last and final war, fought with nuclear weapons. There was a great collective sigh of relief.

What’s not to like?

What Then?

Of course, we now know that the post-Cold War world hasn’t been all roses. The United States enjoyed a time in which it could call itself the “sole superpower,” and in terms of overall agglomeration of the tools of power, that is still true, even though, clearly, to cite one of the less intelligent analyses in 1989, history did not “come to an end.” 

Even China still lags far behind the United States in overall instruments of power and influence, and the idea that Russia will be a serious player except in its immediate neighborhood (e.g., Ukraine and parts of Central Europe), plus a limited role in parts of the Middle East, is for the rest of the world of second-order importance. Russia’s limitations, though still permitting some challenges to others’ interests, will continue to hold true at least for many years, however determined Vladimir Putin is to re-make Russia a major player on the geopolitical map.

The United States did a lot of things right. So did NATO and what is now the European Union in helping many of the countries that came out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. These newly liberated countries built Western economies, went through the painstaking task of creating democratic political systems, and fulfilled decades-old ambitions of being part of the West. The U.S. also did some things wrong, in part out of hubris and in part because it saw itself as not limited by a powerful adversary. Notable on that list was the colossal mistake of leading an invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its consequences still bedevil the region, stimulate terrorism, call upon huge American resources and take American and others’ lives, and have, through migration to Europe, produced the worst internal crisis in the European Union’s history. But none of this can compare to the threat of a nuclear war.

Viewed in retrospect, at least three positive developments after the Cold War’s end are of special importance to European security. First, the United States did not withdraw from Europe as it did in 1919 and, to a much lesser extent, in 1945. It continues to be a “European power,” however many doubts there are because of President Donald Trump’s misplaced ambivalence, which is shared neither by the American private sector nor U.S. public opinion.

Second and in part a reflection of the first development, NATO did not come to an end, as has happened with coalitions after earlier wars ended. Thus, the Allied Expeditionary Force that won the Western European part of the Second World War went out of business two months after VE day in 1945. By contrast, NATO still carries on, with its robust institutions, integrated military command structure, and habits of 29 allies in working together. Despite classic naysaying about NATO about to disintegrate, which regularly reappears like the morning dew, it shows no indication of joining the Soviet Union in the “ash heap of history.”

Third and reassuring across the Continent after the most destructive century in European history, the end of Germany’s division did not lead to a new “German problem,” as happened in the 1930s and was feared by some of its neighbors after 1945—hence, Western and Soviet agreement that a divided Germany was not such a bad thing. Instead, Germany has undergone one of history’s remarkable, positive transformations. There are no serious indications, despite some growth of the German radical right, that its peaceful, democratic course will be reversed. 

Nevertheless, reflecting on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the two-year aftermath that wrote finis to the Cold War does not provide a basis for indifference. In the 1970s, I worried about a “successor generation” which wouldn’t remember World War II and thus might no longer take security issues seriously. Now I think about a “successor to the successor generation,” for whom awareness of the Cold War is almost as remote as the Napoleonic Wars.

One negative consequence is that the practice of serious strategic thinking that flourished during the Cold War, both in the United States and in Western Europe, has atrophied.  Arguably, this was a natural product of the period between the two “nine-elevens.” The first “nine-eleven” was the fall of the Berlin Wall (9 November 1989), and the second the terrorist attacks in the United States (September 11, 2001)—the U.S. and Europe write their dates in opposite directions. During that 12-year gap, the United States faced no serious external enemy; equally important, it did not perceive itself to be threatened. But since the terrorist attacks that underscored that the United States was no longer bullet-proof against the outside world’s turmoil, it is hard to understand why there has been so little resurgence of thinking, analysis, and policy development on a “grand strategic” level, such as there was during the Cold War.  This is a major failure of the U.S. think thank community.

The last serious expression of a true U.S. grand strategy was President George H. W. Bush’s setting the  goal of a “Europe whole and free” in May 1989, which became the basis of U.S. European policy for a decade. For the most part, it worked, with the critical exception of attempts by the Bush and Clinton administrations to forestall Russian revanchism, as happened in Germany after World War I, in part because the Treaty of Versailles required it to assume all blame for causing the war. A combination of serious U.S. miscues and Putin’s ambitions severely damaged the Bush/Clinton recognition that Russia would at some point return to the ranks of serious nations. The questions have always been what kind of role it would choose to play, notably in its near-abroad, and how to nurture it in the right direction, in part by including it in Europe’s future, not isolating it.

While Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, military intervention in other parts of Ukraine, and probing through energy, cyber, and “hybrid warfare” seemed to answer those questions, to the detriment of all concerned with Europe’s future, worse was to come: Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the later  non-sensical effort by Democrats to blame Russia for Hillary Clinton’s loss and to use Russia as a principal cudgel to get rid of Donald Trump.  This has meant a freeze in U.S. domestic politics regarding exploration of possibilities for change in relations with Russia, to mutual benefit, assuming that Putin would be amenable, as continued Russian economic weakness and Western steadfastness in Central Europe should counsel him.

An Immediate Agenda

Thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell, some immediate lessons and steps to take now are important. The following is a short list:

First is to advance the study of the last century’s history, especially by Americans, given that the United States is still the most consequential “European power,” at least in the expectations of all allied and partner nations. That must include foreswearing nostalgia for the strategic certainties of the Cold War because of today’s turmoil—where the latter pales in comparison. Utter nonsense is the idea, presented this past week in the Financial Times, that the end of the Cold war “just happens to be a victory from which [America} has never recovered.”

Second is to recognize that dealing with Russia remains the key European security problem, but not just in adopting a quasi-deterrent approach as represented by NATO’s military activities in Central Europe. It is also critical to avoid a new cold war, with a single-mindedness and rigidity that would prevent necessary efforts to seek an “off ramp” for Putin’s assertiveness. Yet even the New York Times has expressed alarm at something as modest as the presentation of Russian culture at a leading U.S. university, as though the average American student is fair game for Moscow’s propaganda; this article recalls fear-mongering from the 1950s.

Third is for both NATO and the EU to press Central European countries that are moving away from democracy to get back in line.  Few European security tasks are as important. The current U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, tried as a U.S. Senator in 1997 to institute a formal mechanism for remonstrating with failing Central European governments, at penalty of isolation from some benefits of Western association; her idea was rejected by the Clinton administration, but is much needed now.

Fourth is for allies at the December 3-4 commemoration in London of NATO’s 70th anniversary to undertake some course corrections. One step is for NATO and the EU finally to find means of working closely together, as was on the cards in the 1990s until naysayers in the U.S. State Department renewed misplaced worries that a separate European defense identity would somehow interfere with NATO’s primacy and U.S. leadership. The breaking down of remaining NATO-EU barriers should include parallel summits with cross representation: I have proposed this for two decades without success. It should include a joint declaration on transatlantic security covering all bases—political, economic, military, and cultural—and an integration of the instruments of power, influence, and shared values.

Fifth is for European allies to step up to the mark at the NATO summit. This doesn’t necessarily mean meeting the agreed goal of spending 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense—a goal that will never be met by many allies and that takes no account of an equal or greater need, which is for NATO allies to take on economic and political efforts to bolster security in the broadest sense in Central Europe and Ukraine. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has said that “what we are currently experiencing is brain death of NATO,” and he ascribes most of it to the U.S. administration and particularly Trump (though he also blames President Barack Obama). Even if so, Paris can contribute mightily to NATO’s mental resuscitation instead of so often deploying its favorite word in response to initiatives by others at NATO: “Non!”

Sixth is for the British political elite to understand that Brexit will signal a major diminution of Britain’s role in Europe, including European security, even if it continues to meet its responsibilities in NATO. It will no longer be able to ameliorate tensions between Berlin and Paris; it will be outside the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), a significant element of political cohesion; and it will have little if any role in non-military activities in Central Europe. The only person outside of the United Kingdom who will be completely satisfied with Brexit is Vladimir Putin. However unlikely, a new UK referendum is the answer.

Finally and most consequentially, the most important immediate step lies in the province of the President of the United States. He needs during his “formal intervention” (speech) at the London NATO summit to start by uttering one sentence, just 15 words. “We in the United States are fully committed to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.” That reassurance of the single most important underpinning of European security and transatlantic relations would do more than anything else to calm frayed European nerves at this time three decades after the Berlin Wall fell.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.