When I think of the Berlin Wall, I’m reminded of how thin the barrier is between freedom and oppression. It’s been that way throughout all of world history. A river or a mountain or a fence has often made the difference between a life of despair and a life of hope. But the Berlin Wall also reminds us that physical barriers are only part of the story. Freedom is also blocked by ideas, worldviews, and tyrants.
That’s why, 25 years ago today, it took more than sledgehammers and manpower to finally tear down the Berlin Wall – it took what Ronald Reagan called “the will and moral courage of free men and women.” It took the patient cries of an oppressed people, and leaders on both sides of the Atlantic who acted on their behalf with historic conviction.
Reagan knew it would require the strength of both American arms and democratic ideals to win the Cold War and stop the spread of Soviet-style communism. So after taking office, he led America through a historic buildup of our armed forces and, I believe, of our national identity. With his iconic communication skills, he made America’s principles and intentions clear to the world. “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War,” he once said, “we win, they lose.”
The result of his assured approach transformed the world. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Reagan proved that American strength – when working together with our partners in Europe – could crumble both the physical and ideological barriers between freedom and oppression. He demonstrated how America can and must use the lamp of liberty to bend back the shadows of subjugation that constantly push in on the world. To him, this was not just an ability, but a responsibility.
Sadly, as we mark today’s anniversary, our current administration is taking a different approach. It peeps timidly from behind an ever-thinning curtain of American strength, watching idly as new and resurgent forces challenge global order. Even as an increasingly hostile Russia threatens a new cold war, President Obama uses baby-steps and half-measures in defense of our allies, our principles, and our people, when he acts at all.
The sanctions imposed by this administration on the Putin regime following its annexation of Crimea have been delayed at every turn and consistently weaker than threatened, avoiding the key arteries of the Russian economy. Similarly, while significant support has been pledged to Ukraine, it has been late to arrive and ultimately inadequate. As President Poroshenko told Congress in September, “One cannot win a war with blankets.”
Meanwhile, Russia is racing to fill the vacuum opened up by a less active and less confident America. It is increasing its military and intelligence activities, consolidating control over Crimea, and threatening eastern Ukraine. It is attempting to block political and economic opportunity for millions, just as it was blocked for East Berliners throughout the Cold War.
Putin has made clear he will invest whatever is necessary into advancing his dubious agenda. So we have to ask ourselves today what future would be best for the world: a future that looks more like Russia, with its rampant human rights abuses and its corrupt, belligerent leadership, or one that looks more like America?
We know the threat posed by Russia today is different than the threat posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. And of course, with ISIL on the move and an increasingly aggressive China blustering throughout Asia, we know that Russia is far from the only danger to American interests. Nonetheless, if we fail to remember the lessons of the Cold War, we are inviting Putin to erase decades of global progress and encroach steadily on the world America spilled blood to help build.
The lessons of the Cold War are clear: we must maintain a strong military, possess moral clarity about what we and our democratic allies stand for and why, and respond with strength to any challenges facing our postwar international order or our modern global economy.
Each of these lessons seems to have been largely forgotten by this administration, and each to devastating effect. Getting back on track will require bold leadership. It will require working with our European partners to support the people of Ukraine and other states that now face Russian meddling. It will require taking steps to ensure that the Russian people are one day free to choose a different path for their country, the same way East Germans were able to a quarter-century ago.
Most of all, it will require communicating the importance of American strength to our people, and presenting a clear doctrine to the world. That is what Ronald Reagan did so brilliantly throughout his presidency. With one iconic speech in particular, he used moral clarity regarding America’s principles to precipitate the historic moment we celebrate today.
History would not remember had Reagan stood in the White House briefing room and said, “I suggest the wall be reduced in size.” History would not remember had Reagan sent a diplomatic letter to Mr. Gorbachev full of half-hearted declarations. History only remembers because President Reagan acted with authority and conviction, because he stood at the physical and ideological barrier between freedom and oppression and spoke forcefully, boldly, proudly:
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”