Where the Wall Has Taken Us

article | November 13, 2014

  • New America

When the Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989, some say our world order cracked wide open. This month’s twenty-fifth anniversary of that milestone also coincides with a moment when the question of borders and divisions – though its scope has shifted since 1989 – remains critically urgent on the world stage.

We asked four experts to illuminate lessons from the legacy of November 9, 1989 that are critical to recall as we construct foreign policy today. 

Joseph S. Nye is Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

When George Kennan proposed a strategy of containment in 1946, few people expected that it would take four decades to succeed. The fall of the wall in November 1989 took most people by surprise, and the exact timing depended on the historical accident of individuals ranging from Gorbachev to border guards, but it was the culmination of a longer process. The wall was brought down not by a barrage of artillery, but by hammers and bulldozers wielded by people who has lost faith in their ideology of communism. The soft power of ideas was as important as hard military power. We should keep this in mind as we deal with disorder today. Soft power works slowly but containment of the disorders we face will depend on the power of ideas as well as military might. To me, that is the key lesson of 1989. That is the key lesson of 1989 for my forthcoming book, Is the American Century Over?.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the president and CEO of New America.

What I remember most about 1989 was the human dimension, the extraordinary sight of thousands of people gathered at the Berlin Wall, dancing on top, being helped over and embraced, exulting in the end of what had in fact been experienced as a decades-long prison sentence. I wrote my first article as a law professor then, a short but heartfelt piece entitled “Revolution of the Spirit.” Today we remember 1989 as the end of the Cold War, a historic shift in geopolitics when one superpower decisively vanquished the other and became the lone hegemon in a unipolar system. But it was really the triumph of human beings, who saw the opening created by Mikhail Gorbachev with his policy of _perestroika _and steadily widened it until they had knocked down all the walls – political, psychological, and physical – that had penned them in.

It was their newfound freedom that underpinned the beginning of a new world order –a chance for democracy, opportunity, and prosperity that expanded the European zone of peace and liberty under law. It is worth remembering today that many of the civil society groups, from unions to church parishioners, who ultimately led that revolution had begun their work over a decade earlier; the famous Solidarity strike led by Lech Walesa happened in 1980, not 1990. As we look at the upheavals that will go down in history as the first round of the Arab revolution, now being suppressed in so many countries, it is worth remembering this lesson from 1989: the real drivers of world events are people.

Hans Kundnani is the research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the recent book, The Paradox of German Power.

The fall of the Berlin Wall exactly 25 years ago is remembered as a moment of joy – the beginning of the end of the Cold War and the division of Europe. But in the last few years, it has become clear that the fall of the wall it also had problematic consequences. In particular, since the beginning of the euro crisis in 2010, it has become clear that, in the rush to agree to the terms of monetary union in response to the almost inevitable reunification of Germany, European leaders created a flawed single currency that lacked the ability to correct macroeconomic imbalances or to deal with external shocks.

Until recently, it also seemed as if the creation of the euro had constrained the reunited Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which had re-opened the “German question” (a historic debate with 19th century roots about how to most effectively unite Germany).  But it now looks as if the single currency has amplified German power rather than constrained it. In fact, it seems that the “German question” has now re-emerged in “geo-economic” rather than geopolitical form. Depending on how this story ends, the fall of the Berlin Wall may in future come to be viewed with more ambivalence than it is now.

Mary Elise Sarotte is a professor of International Relations and History at the University of Southern California and Visiting Professor of Government and History at Harvard University.

On the night the Berlin Wall fell, it was as if a starter’s gun had suddenly gone off, beginning a race no major world leader had been expecting to run:  the race to define the political order of post-Cold War Europe. The way that race was run, and won, still shapes transatlantic relations to this day.  Because I believe that an understanding of this time period is crucial to understand politics today, I have published two books about it: The Collapse:  The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, and 1989:  The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe.

I show in these two books that, while Washington was surprised by the opening of the Wall, it moved quickly and decisively to shape the transatlantic order that would follow.  It succeeded in perpetuating U.S. dominance in European security from the Cold War era into the present day.  The strategy, as summarized by Robert Gates, was to “bribe the Soviets out.”  Washington succeeded masterfully in executing this strategy. But, as former Secretary of State James Baker has right written of this period, “almost every achievement contains within its success the seeds of a future problem.” The conflict with Russia today is, I believe, a sign that Baker was right.  As I discuss in my new edition of _1989, _there now exist few political—as opposed to forceful means for dealing with Russia— and that lack dates back to key events of November 9, 1989.


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