by Robert E. Hunter

Twenty-five years ago, on “9/11”—November 9th in European date-notation—the Berlin Wall opened and, it seemed, everything changed. Freedom was no longer just an aspiration across much of Europe but a rising reality. The transformation was so profound that it is now hard to remember the bad old days of communist oppression and Soviet dominance, when peoples all across Central Europe lacked hope for the future and feared the secret police.

A quarter century beyond the settlement of the 75-year European civil war (1914-89), what is the balance of achievement following that remarkable overturning of European history and of much of global politics and economics? There is much good, but also some bad, and history did not “come to an end.”

The Soviet empires—internal and external—are both gone, and so is the Cold War, which was the most dangerous time in all of history, when the planet was at risk of being destroyed. The world escaped, although as the Duke of Wellington said about the Battle of Waterloo: It was a damn close-run thing.

Other good things happened, notably a definitive answer to the 120-year-old question: “What do we do about Germany?” It became unified, was anchored to the West, and, with the wisdom of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, it surrounded itself with NATO and the EU and sank the Deutschmark in the Euro. Thus Germany is again becoming economically the top nation in Central Europe, but there is no valid basis for fearing a German national menace.

Meanwhile, President George H.W. Bush led in working to create a “Europe whole and free” and at peace. The US stayed in Europe, NATO was not wrapped up but has continued to keep European history pacified. Central Europe was taken off the geopolitical chessboard with the Partnership for Peace Program and, for many countries, NATO and EU membership. Ukraine was encouraged in its Western, democratic vocation, but without first being pulled into a Western alliance system that could be perceived as a challenge to Russian Federation. (The fact that a succession of Ukrainian governments largely funked the task is another matter).

The first President Bush, followed by Bill Clinton, also tried to prevent the growth of revanchism in Russia, to avoid what happened with the Treaty of Versailles, whose punitive features against Germany helped produce Hitler. This effort, too, went awry, as leaders in the G. W. Bush and then Barack Obama administrations forgot this central lesson and heaped fuel on the fire of Russian nationalism that was set alight by Vladimir Putin. Maybe the result (in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine) would have been the same, under Putin or any other Russian leader who appealed to his people’s sense of lost position and prestige, but the US failure to take account of legitimate Russian concerns certainly did not help.

There have been other negatives, unintended byproducts of success following the Berlin Wall’s opening. Many West European countries wisely shifted limited security resources from military spending not needed after the Cold War to economic support for Central Europe—beginning with the Federal Republic of Germany’s investment of trillions of Euros in the old East Germany. But the US did not. Today in the United States, non-military instruments are starved while it maintains the mightiest military in history at a time where there is no “peer competitor.” Thus, while priding itself on being the “indispensable nation,” the US was caught short by the Ebola epidemic and has done so much less in other countries compared to the good it could do and the security it could promote in the broadest sense of that term.

The US did not totally ignore Will Roger’s warning: “When you get into trouble 5,000 miles from home, you’ve got to have been looking for it.” But after our “9/11,” the US did overdo Afghanistan by trying to get its political and social cultures to leapfrog centuries of development; and the US then committed one of the worse follies in American history, by invading Iraq for no good reason. The results have been  more than 5,000 US servicemen and women dead, thousands more wounded, little promise in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and more than 3 trillion dollars of treasure wasted when it could have been used to refurbish the American homeland and create a more solid and lasting basis for US power and influence.

It is doubtful that either excess—in Afghanistan or Iraq—would have been possible during the Cold War, when the United States had to be worried about a superpower competitor, prepared to promote its own, contending interests. The lesson for today has to be that, just because it is possible to do something, it is not necessarily wise or prudent to do it.

So chto delat? As Lenin asked, “What is to be done?” Here are some ideas, mostly for America:

  • Reassess what we do in the outside world. What is needed for our security and that of friends and allies, and what can be “given a pass” or handed off to others (including our European friends)? Where is it wiser, in our own interests, to stand apart rather than to become engaged?
  • Recruit a first-class team of people in the Obama administration who know how to “think strategically.”  This essential quality began to decline near the end of the Cold War and continues on a steep downward trajectory. With the collapse of the Cold War’s organizing principle, it seemed that less strategic thinking was needed. Yet it has been just the reverse, when so much is in play, there are so many variables, the US cannot “do it all,” it cannot count on the American people to support all foreign ventures, and it thus faces a greater need to set priorities and to make choices than it did when the Soviet threat could justify a wide range of courses of action and involvement. At the same time, press the think-tank community to do the same, instead of continuing to serve largely as means of building political consensus to implement an agreed foreign policy—when there is no clarity of strategy purpose and methodology around which to build a consensus to meet America’s future needs.
  • Put more money into USAID, change the balance of funding between military and non-military instruments from the current 13:1 to a ratio that will better enable us to promote our interests and values, and recreate the United States Information Agency, one of our best “unsecret weapons” that was foolishly scrapped.
  • Recommit the US to being a European power. Washington’s interest in NATO dropped to an all-time low before Mr. Putin stirred up interest by his misbehavior in Ukraine. Now that interest is sinking again, and the number of people in Washington fully engaged in European security or in other aspects of US engagement in Europe is declining radically. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is charged with implementing decisions of last September’s NATO summit in Wales, in part to reassure Central European allies wary of Russia, but it is doling out only peanuts for people in and out of government to think through what has to be done.
  • Challenge the Europeans allies to do even more for security on the continent and in selected places beyond—not through increased defense spending in each allied country to at least 2% of GDP, an American obsession left over from the Cold War. Most of that 2% should go to non-military political and economic instruments to help integrate Central Europe more fully in Europe, to do more in Africa, and to get on with the critical work of building a solid Ukrainian economy. Also tell the Ukrainians to dismantle their kleptocracy and tell Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, either to restore his country’s democracy or both NATO and the EU will send it packing.
  • Start work on a long-term security structure for the Persian Gulf and other parts of the Middle East. End the illusion that getting rid of the Assad regime in Syria is the answer to anything—it would likely only produce more regional chaos and a Shi’a bloodbath. Meanwhile, put the Saudis and others who have turned a blind eye to the export of terrorism and the fostering of al-Qaeda and Islamic State, to stop immediately the flow from their countries of Islamist ideas, money, and arms, as the price of continued good relations with the US.

More needs to be done to deal effectively with the requirements of a world newly created in the wake of the end of the Cold War’s certainties, a product of the Berlin wall’s opening, but this is enough to be getting on with. It befits America’s role as a great power, a champion of freedom, a protector of those most in need of protecting, a beacon of hope. It is what we expect in terms of leadership by our president and Congress. It would be a fitting commemoration of what a lot of courageous people did across Central Europe a quarter century ago. Can we be less committed and far-sighted than they were?

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