Have We Forgotten More Than We Remembered About The Fall Of The Berlin Wall?

Robert G. Kaufman Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University
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On Sunday Berlin celebrates the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — a  smashing triumph for freedom and a fatal blow to a radically evil, existentially dangerous Soviet tyranny that had menaced the world since its inception.

The Soviet Union erected the Berlin Wall on August 15, 1961 to stanch the massive exodus of East Germans fleeing through Berlin to the West, imperiling the legitimacy and survivability of Moscow’s bleak, repressive satellite regimes behind the Iron Curtain. Addressing the British parliament in 1982, Ronald Reagan called the Berlin Wall “a grim symbol of power untamed … the fitting symbol of the regime that built it.”

The Berlin Wall also epitomized the titanic struggle between the democratic West and Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism that dominated and scourged the 20th century. What Paul Johnson calls the despotic utopias of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany subjugated, murdered, and unleashed wars killing millions before the United States belatedly led the coalitions to vanquish them.

In a speech at the Reagan Library on October 21, 2013, Adam Michnik — historian, former dissident, public intellectual and editor of Poland’s largest newspaper — summed up best the monumental but provisional legacy of the Berlin Wall’s Fall. “It turned out worse than we had hoped but much better than we expected … It allowed Eastern Europeans for the first time in decades to feel human again.”

Nearly a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world remains considerably freer, safer, and more prosperous than before. That holds especially true for the Eastern European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The genuine danger of Islamism does not come close to reaching the level of existential threat that either Nazi or Soviet totalitarianism posed during the 20th century. Communism has irrevocably lost its force and appeal. Though invoking ideology to justify its monopoly of power, the Communist Party of China no longer preaches or strives to foment world revolution.

Yet beware of taking the legacy of the Berlin Wall’s fall for granted. President Obama has governed as if the Reagan presidency, pivotal for bringing down the wall, represented an unfortunate deviation from the progressive path of greater government control at home and diminished American power abroad.

The president has put the United States on a path to become a Western European type social democracy at the very moment that model has proved unsustainable. Despite a collective GDP slightly larger than the United States, the EU punches much lower than its weight, lacking the political will to reverse its demographic decline, revitalize its languishing economy, or defend itself.

The nanny state, in Margaret Thatcher’s scornful appellation, seeks to impose what Tocqueville called soft despotism where government supplies all our needs and wants. What the world construes as American decline under Obama has enhanced the global appeal of authoritarian alternatives to the open society — particularly a rising, authoritarian, increasingly repressive and dangerous China. Ironically, too, President Obama insists on spending less on one area of government where the lessons of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism instruct we spare no expense: national defense.

His administration has sharply reduced defense budget and dramatically downsized the American military. China’s relentless and comprehensive military buildup has already compromised U.S. naval dominance in the waters of the Western Pacific, terrifying America’s democratic allies in the region. Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, compares what China calls a peaceful rise strategy to the Soviet Union’s attempt to Finlandize Europe during the Cold War. American friends and allies in Asia may have no choice but to follow Finland’s example of subservience to Moscow should the U.S. military advantage over China continue to erode, as it will if  President Obama gets his way.

Yet the president obtusely worries more about the so-called arrogance of American power than threats emanating from tyrannous enemies. In 2009, Obama even skipped the commemorations marking the 20th anniversary of the wall falling. The president has betrayed the grand legacy of the Berlin Wall’s fall most egregiously by his feeble response to Vladimir Putin’s remorseless campaign to dismember Ukraine. The refusal of the administration and our Western European allies to countenance anything beyond conditional, incremental economic sanctions and token military deployments has introduced doubt in the minds of America’s staunchest Eastern European allies about the reliability of America’s commitment to defend them, lowered the costs of Russian aggression, and emboldened Putin’s worst instincts.

Putin’s implacable determination to subvert Ukraine’s independence demonstrates the fallacy of President Obama’s worldview that conciliating rather than deterring adversaries will save much blood toil, tears, and sweat. The struggle in Ukraine has profound significance for whether the grand legacy of the Berlin Wall’s fall will endure in Europe. For Putin well knows that an independent western-oriented Ukraine would doom his illegitimate ambition to reconstitute an authoritarian Russian empire. Conversely,  controlling Ukraine — a country as large as Spain — would place Russian power at the heart of central Europe. Ultimately, Putin aims to humiliate NATO, convince Russia’s neighbors that the Russian army can intervene anywhere in the region without reprisal, and reverse the outcome of the Cold War.

The United States and Western Europe still possesses the overwhelming preponderance of power and are capable of thwarting Putin’s ambitions. Instead, the Obama administration and European social democracies marinate in deep denial about Putin, as they ignore the corrosive consequences of creeping collectivism at home.

On this 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall, we could pay no greater tribute to those heroes responsible than to stop doing what the administration and Western Europe are doing now.