Whatever the West does, it is likely that it will endure a significant threat to global peace and stability during the next few years. Despite President Trump’s apparent desire to work outside the current system, crises in Syria, North Korea, and elsewhere have already demonstrated that dramatic change is best managed when Atlantic nations maintain their unity. The confusion exhibited at the NATO, EU, and G-7 meetings in May does not bode well for Western unity in face of upheavals. Both the Trump Administration and the European allies bear blame for the confusion.
Ronald Reagan faced a similar dilemma as the Cold War began to wind down in the late 1980s. NATO had been deeply divided by Soviet military threats and by Reagan’s own sabre rattling early in his first term. But by 1987, the President had not hesitated to reach out to the Soviets through Mikhail Gorbachev, and he worked equally hard to rebuild NATO unity as a foundation for dealing with expected instability in the Soviet Union.
The coincidence of the thirtieth anniversary of President Reagan’s June 12, 1987 speech in Berlin presents an opportunity to compare his approach with American strategy today—in particular, to remember that the President’s famous speech was aimed more at rebuilding unity in NATO, and in particular with Germany, than at Russia.
When Reagan stepped up to the podium in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the Soviet empire was already on its last legs. But its aura of invulnerability continued to hold Europe in thrall—and especially Germany, which was drifting dangerously close to proposing a separate deal with Gorbachev to end the Cold War on Moscow’s terms.
Reagan’s immortal phase “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall,” is often given credit for putting into motion the dramatic events that followed. But the speech was actually mocked at first, considered naive and unrealistic until the Wall fell just shy of 18 months later. And it did not cause panic in the Kremlin, as many Reagan loyalists continue to believe. Neither did the Wall fall just because Reagan called on Gorbachev to tear it down.
My source for this judgment is Mikhail Gorbachev himself. I met him for a long discussion in 2009 on the fringes of a ceremony in Berlin, where he was to be honored for his contributions to peace in Europe. Gorbachev began by giving me a big hug. “We helped build peace in Europe,” he said through his interpreter. With Putin’s Ambassador looking slightly ill in the background, Gorbachev proceeded to give me his very colorful version of the world as he saw it after the famous 1986 Reykjavik Summit—a version perhaps colored by past-tense egoism, but likely as close to sound memory as we are liable to get.
Gorbachev began by rejecting firmly any thought that the Reagan speech caused panic in Moscow. The speech was not seen as a provocation; it was much more complicated, he said. “By 1987, Ronnie and I were already good friends. I still talk regularly to Nancy.” After all, he noted, the Treaty calling for destruction of all medium range missiles would be signed less than six months later. “I knew Ronnie was not going to let me down. “
Gorbachev said that in his view, if there had been any one reason for the collapse of the Soviet Empire, it was the dramatic decline of the oil price in the 1980s. Despite his friendship with Reagan, Gorbachev in 2009 still could not help but wonder whether the U.S. and Saudi governments had not colluded to keep oil and gas prices low to undermine the USSR. Market experts have repeatedly rejected this theory. But Gorbachev believed and perhaps still believes that if oil prices had gone higher, his reforms of the Soviet system might have worked.
But if the speech did not usher in the collapse of communism, it did play an important role: Its main message reached those for whom it was actually intended—those who lived in Germany. On June 12, 1987 Ronald Reagan made Germany an offer that was more dramatic and insistent than the road to appeasement that had been gaining popularity there for several years. Reagan placed the United States directly on the dividing line between East and West and made clear in terms echoing Martin Luther: “Here I stand; I can do no other.”
Those who had been echoing Soviet propaganda for years were thus made aware of an inescapable truth: Neither the United States nor the other Western allies were going anywhere, regardless of enticements from the Soviet Union. The image cherished by many Germans of Reagan as a warmonger and Gorbachev as a peacemaker thus became irrelevant to the real situation in Europe.
The Soviets had been working on their version of “alternative facts” for several decades. Historians have concluded that, by the 1980s, Moscow saw the hope of splitting Germany from the West as its last chance for maintaining influence in Europe. And they almost made it. Soviet propagandists of the 1980s were as skillful as Vladimir Putin’s are today in defining Russian offers as the logical road to peace. They tried to disrupt Western political life then much as Putin does today.
And the German public reaction was hauntingly similar to the mood in Trumpland America today: A deal with Russia was better than continuing confrontation. Leading German politicians, reaching far into the conservative CDU party as well as among the SPD, steadily increased pressure for an accomodation with Russia. Dissenting voices were rare.
The fall of the Berlin Wall would not have been possible with an Alliance in disarray, with a “rogue” Germany chasing appeasement toward the East. If President Reagan had delivered a different speech at a different spot in Berlin, as the German government lobbied hard to convince him to do, the political impact of his appearance at the very border between East and West would have been sharply reduced.
Had that happened, a collapsing Soviet Union would have continued to tempt the West with a false vision of peace. A bitterly divided Germany would have been torn between supporters of Western unity and those who wanted a special deal with Russia. Even Helmut Kohl had to play the game: Only 24 hours before the border opened in Berlin on November 9, 1989, he was in Poland to assure Lech Walesa, the country’s first non-Communist leader, that it would be “many years” before Germany was reunited. He really believed it, too.
What does this mean for today? Is a perfect storm already brewing? Chances are that it is. But it is especially ironic to note that this time America is losing interest in Atlantic unity, while Germany (with France) is holding firm. At recent summits in Europe, Donald Trump severely weakened Allied solidarity by leaving no doubt about his disdain for the European allies. America has now become the rogue nation and Chancellor Merkel has become the strongest advocate of a common and principled policy toward Russia.
Erosion of American leadership has taken place just as a severe economic and political crisis is once again making Russia unpredictable. Oil prices have again collapsed and political unrest is rising. Vladimir Putin’s cyber meddling and global propaganda attack has launched the 21st-century version of the 1980s.
The main issue here is not whether today’s Russia matches the global power of the Soviet Union. It doesn’t even come close. But it does have the ability to throw the West into chaos, if the irresolution and confusion of Western leaders persists. This is why Merkel, nearly alone among the Western crowd, is now so unbending. Trump may relish disruption, but Germany depends on stability and predictabilty to maintain balance within its still unsure national identity.
Trump’s boorish behavior at the May summits in Europe is only part of the problem. Less proximate but of equal importance is the Transatlantic security policy gap, which has been widening for years. This is a gap not mainly about money, or percentages of GNP spent on defense. It is a gap that is conceptual in nature.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brought things into focus at the Munich Security Conference in February 2017, leaving no doubt that Russia will test Western indecsiveness as far as it can. He said that Moscow was seeking a “post-Western world order.” Under this concept, each country would be allowed, “in accordance with the principles of international law,” to formulate its own definition of sovereignty, which established a balance between national interests and the interests of its partners.
Lavrov’s concept is a classic definition of big-power spheres of influence. It is in essence an attack on the cooperative approach to world security that emerged after the Cold War and it is nearly identical with Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” Threatening Mexico with a Wall is only slightly different than trying to intimidate Ukraine, but it is very different from Reagan’s plea to tear down walls.
If the Russian concept were allowed to spread, it would throw both Europe and the Middle East into disarray. Turkey, Poland, and Israel are only a few of the Western allies that would be forced to reconsider their policies. Angela Merkel, of all people, took a first step on May 28, acknowledging with regret that it may be time for Europe to move away from the United States. That was not a plaint of resignation; it was, in its own way, a sounding of the tocsin, an echo of Reagan’s June 12, 1987 speech.
Trump is a dramatic expression of American disengagement, but he is not the first. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations drifted steadily away from working with partners such as NATO. Behind this confusion is an American tendency to believe that the complex balancing of forces in Europe that characterized the Cold War is no longer necessary. Whatever their party affiliation, American experts tend to see terrorism and cyber crime as national American challenges—thus, Barack Obama’s relegation of Russia to the role of “regional power” after its invasion of Ukraine, and thus Hillary Clinton’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership even before it was cancelled by Trump.
For their part, Europeans continue to depend on American leadership, but they have done little to cultivate it. They are too consumed with the internal politics of the European Union. Their loss of trust in the United States has been reciprocated by growing American doubts that when the going gets tough, Europeans cannot be counted on.
It is in fact likely that a steady, unplanned, but nonetheless consequential “Amerexit”—the erosion of active American engagement in Europe and the Atlantic world—has contributed to sagging European defense readiness and stoked the controversies so evident at the NATO, EU, and G-7 summits this past month. Trump’s rhetoric and certainly his body language may be harsher, but a Hillary Clinton Administration would probably not have dealt much differently with America’s European allies.
There is a lesson to be relearned here. We are rapidly entering a globally integrated world in which cooperation across networks will require more rather than less cooperation with partners. Trump and Putin are in essence using a phony vision of past glory to build a political base that fears change. Luckily, the Atlantic community is already a coherent and integrated network that can adapt to new digital tasks much more readily than any comparable other. But success in its new role will require a sense mutual repect that is now sadly lacking.
Today’s immediate concerns, including terrorism, are tiny compared to the overwhelming task of getting control over the truly disruptive domestic and international implications of our digitized, disintermediating form of globalization. Today’s functional equivalent to the Reagan Berlin speech would be a wake up call making clear our need to strengthen civil society, both domestic and global, as a foundation for dealing with the daunting tasks ahead, including the military challenges. The fact is that without Atlantic unity Europe will also dissolve into competing visions and America will find itself fighting alone. Sadly, the May meetings demonstrated how far we are from agreeing on this goal, or even clearly seeing it. Maybe taking a new look at what Reagan did in Berlin will help us understand what is really at stake.