1989: The Berlin Wall comes down and the soldiers go home
Video lecture by Dr. Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges
Today is the penultimate of my six lectures on NATO’s history and the key turning points in NATO’s evolution since the end of the Cold War. In fact this week you’re very lucky – you’re getting two lectures not just one. The final one will be on Thursday when we look at Yugoslavia and how NATO used force for the first time in its history in the mid-1990s and the consequences for what NATO is doing today in Afghanistan. So hope to see you back.
But this year we’re celebrating – and I think that’s the right word – 1989: 20 years ago already! Can you believe it? 1989 was really the miracle year, the annus mirabilis in European history when things that nobody would believe they could possibly see in their lifetime actually happened.
Ernest Bevin, the great British Foreign Secretary and one of the founding fathers of NATO back in the 50s, once said that his foreign policy was to go down to Victoria Station in London, buy a ticket and go anywhere that he chose. And of course for my generation growing up in the 60s and the 70s, Central and Eastern Europe was an impenetrable area. It was cut off by 1400 kilometres of barbed wire, automatic machine gun firing positions, watchtowers. Very difficult to get in and even more difficult for people on the other side of course to get out. And at the time everybody hoped and believed that ultimately this system would, would mellow, would change, more people to people contact would become possible.
I spoke last time to you about the famous convergent theory that the communists would become more capitalist, the capitalists would become more social democratic at least and the two systems would converge in the middle. But even on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the great velvet revolutions, even the opponents of communism in Eastern Europe were rather sceptical that much would really change.
For example, I dug out this quotation from one of Poland’s leading anti-communist intellectuals around the solidarity movement in the 1980s who is called Adam Michnik and he once said that the best we can hope for – the best we can hope for, this is just a couple of months before the fall of the Berlin Wall – is I quote, “a hybrid society which is conceivable, one where the totalitarian organisation of the state will co-exist with democratic institutions of society.” In other words, a kind of communist democratic hybrid.
And one of my favourite quotations is from Erich Honecker – you remember Erich Honecker, the leader of the DDR, East Germany – who woke up in January 1989 looking forward to this golden year, the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the state of workers and peasants as East Germany was known as, saying that “the wall will still be standing in 50 or a hundred years, if the reasons for its existence have not been removed.” What a bad piece of prediction that turned out to be.
So the first point that I want to emphasize is that 1989 took everybody, even the most ferociously anti-communist in the West, by surprise. This chain reaction of uprisings, of people power demonstrations on the streets of Leipzig or Dresden, the collapse of the old order … this chain reaction was such that when we looked at this on television and believed that nothing more dramatic could happen for example, than the return of Alexander Dubcek, the hero of 1968 to a platform together with Havel in Wenceslas Square, or the site of the car people, all of the East Germans jumping in their little Trabbis and driving through the open fence between the Czech Republic, or Hungary and Austria when the Hungarians opened up the border in the spring of 1989, or the hundreds of thousands in fact of Germans who climbed over the wall of the German Embassy in Prague saying that they would not leave unless they could be taken in a sealed train directly from Prague across East Germany to the West.
Just when you thought that it couldn’t get any more dramatic, then we had of course the ultimate symbol, the fall of the Berlin Wall. But what I would like to emphasize at the outset is that although the fall of the Berlin Wall is what is very much in our memory 20 years on, of course it wasn’t the only or even the most dramatic happening in 1989. As I cast my mind back in preparation for today over what had happened, certain things stand out. For example, one million Poles in a field outside Krakow listening to Pope John Paul II tell them be not afraid. Stalin once quipped, how many divisions does the Pope have, implying that secular military power would always be more than a match for spiritual moral power. John Paul II proved him wrong. Moral conviction, eloquence, moral authority is able to ultimately defeat even the most encrusted authoritarian regime.
Another memory which I have is of May the 8th 1989 when one million Balts if I can call them that – today of course we call them Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians and they’re all part of NATO – one million formed a human chain which extended 650 kilometres from Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, through Riga in Latvia, all the way to Estonia. I remember too the swearing in of the first democratic Polish government in the summer of 1989. And also Gorbachev attending the ceremonies of the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the DDR in October 1989 and telling Honecker and the East German leadership that life punishes those who stay behind. And Honecker then giving a speech proclaiming that East Germany was in fact the 10th largest economy in the world and it out performed many capitalist countries and Gorbachev snorting with laughter and derision. It was certainly a wonderful, wonderful year.
It reminds me of Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, when on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V goes to harangue his troops and to inspire them before the battle the next day. And Shakespeare writes that what Henry says is that those people who are in bed asleep in England, when they realize that they have missed the Battle of Agincourt and they were not there to witness this creation of a new order, would feel accursed. And certainly all of us who witnessed these incredible events simply wanted to leave our offices, jump in our cars, drive through the night and be there to join in the massive street festivals and the people parties. In fact my boss at the time, a great German Secretary General of NATO who was called Manfred Wörner, did precisely that. He disappeared from the office for nearly a week and at first nobody knew where he’d gone! As soon as he watched on television on the night of the 9th of November and saw the gates of East Berlin being opened up and the crowds flooding through, he was so taken by excitement that he jumped – he told his driver sorry – to be there he jumped in his car, drove through the night to Berlin. Everybody was trying to track him down until two days later, two days later we saw him on German television – Is that Wörner there? Our boss? – in the crowds with Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the German Foreign Minister, at the Berlin Wall!
It became known later as the Sinatra Doctrine. The spokesman of Gorbachev, who was called Gennadi Gerasimov a very colourful figure, said that ultimately everybody had gone ‘his way’, parodying the My Way theme of Sinatra. The Sinatra Doctrine – everybody was free to go their own way and to define their own future. It was like a domino theory in reverse. Not the chain reaction towards more communist states which Marx and Engels and Lenin had predicted, but the reverse, a situation where increasingly the dominos were working towards the spreading of freedom and democracy, which seemed at the time to usher in a totally new world.
Eric Hobsbawm, the Marxist British historian, wrote a book called The Short Twentieth Century. The 20th Century had been shorter than other centuries because it had begun in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War and terminated of course early in November 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The problem however, and of course we historians we like problems, is that everybody knew what we had left behind with the fall of the wall, but nobody knew what we were heading towards. As Douglas Hurd, the British Foreign Secretary at the time, put it, “this was a system [the Cold War], this was a system under which we had lived quite happily for 40 years.” Or as Adam Michnik, again my Polish solidarity intellectual, put it “The worst thing about communism is what comes afterwards.” While our populations were in jubilation in front of the television screens or on the streets of Berlin, governments were, it has to be said, seriously worried about the implications of this unforeseen, uncontrolled and uncontrollable collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the communist system. Tom Wolf, the American author, at the time had a bestseller called the Bonfire of the Vanities and a British MP that I knew at the time famously rephrased that as the ‘bonfire of the certainties.’ All of the reference points with which we’d lived for half a century and which had organized our diplomacy, our military strategy, our ideology, were like as many props that were suddenly pulled from us.
What were the immediate preoccupations of Western leaders? The first one was with Germany. Francois Mauriac, the French novelist, famously said “I love Germany so much, I’m glad there are two of them.” When I was your age or at least the age of some of you, one of the key textbooks was by an American diplomat called Anton W. DePorte, Europe between the Superpowers, where he developed the thesis, which was very popular at the time, that the division of Germany was a good thing because Germany in the middle of Europe had found it difficult to find its natural place, swinging uncomfortably between East and West, too big, too strong to be accommodated within a European collective security system. Also the view was that the division of Germany with the Soviet Union occupying the Eastern half of Europe had been a convenient way, whereby the Soviets had put the lid on resurgent nationalisms, which had been the bug bearer of European security in the 19th, for much of the 20th Century as well. This system may not have been particularly just, particularly moral, but it did provide the cherished stability, or so at least seemed at the time. And as soon as the wall came down obviously the big question was what’s going to happen. Even the Germans were somewhat unsure or confused in this situation.
The famous security policy specialist of the Germany socialist SPD, Egon Bahr, famously announced in the 80s that Germany had renounced its national unity for the sake of peace in Europe. The Germans would sacrifice their unity in order to maintain this balance which seemed to suit everybody. Mrs. Thatcher, or at least one of her government ministers, infamously warned that a united Germany might become a Fourth Reich. I know that this may strike you as totally ridiculous and silly now and I agree. It was also ridiculous and silly to say this at the time but Western statesmen and particularly those who had come through the period of Hitler and the Second World War were very worried, would united Germany be neutral? Would it come under Soviet influence which had been the Soviet design in proposing Germany reunification in 1953? Would it want, could it, stay within NATO?
François Mitterrand, who shared many of Mrs. Thatcher’s worries, once said “I don’t have anything to stop it [German unification] but the Soviets will do it for me. They will never allow this greater Germany just opposite them.” So much of the thought was how could you construct two German states based on a democratic liberal DDR, which would enter some kind of confederation in the same way of course that Bismarck toyed in the 19th Century with the idea of Austria joining a confederation of German states. It was an idea that went around at the time – even Helmut Kohl the German leader, proposed a 20 point plan on the assumption that the DDR would survive the collapse of communism and would slowly but progressively join Germany in a slow way, which would satisfy all of Germany’s neighbours.
Eventually the Russians agreed to two plus four talks. Helmut Kohl went off to Russia and did a bit of ‘sauna diplomacy’ as he called it with Boris Yeltsin. Yes, the unification of Germany was decided in a sauna, as good a place as anywhere else if the outcome is a felicitous one and by 1990 the great powers had essentially agreed on Germany unity going ahead in October of that year. Gorbachev toyed with the idea of keeping Germany in both the Warsaw Pact and NATO at the same time. Can you imagine? Germany would have been a member of two different alliances simultaneously. Mrs. Thatcher famously said that in all of her political career this was, I quote, “the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard of.” Eventually Gorbachev was persuaded to give that up and to agree.
Why did he agree? Well I think, and this certainly is interesting from the point of NATO- Russia relations today, I think Gorbachev actually fundamentally realized that NATO was not an aggressive alliance, that NATO was purely defensive and that if Russia wanted a predictable, integrated, European Germany, the best solution was to keep it within the American security umbrella and in NATO. I’m not sure that all of his countrymen would have agreed to that or will even agree today to that but Gorbachev certainly did.
There was weakness of course. The Germans paid over the next few years in excess of 80 billion deutschmarks to Russia, particularly to pay for the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from eastern German soil. They agreed to renounce certain territories that had belonged to the greater Germany at the beginning of the century or even up until the Second World War such as Kaliningrad and to formalize their Eastern border with Poland along the Oder-Neisse line. But all of the worries about Germany failed to come true.
The second big worry was about the breakup of the Soviet Union. George Bush – not W., George H.W. Bush – President of the United States at the time, went to Kiev in August 1991 and pronounced his famous Chicken Kiev speech, where he warned Ukraine not to push for independence from the Soviet Union. The Americans worried about nuclear weapons. What would happen to the nuclear weapons if Ukraine or Kazakhstan or Belarus, where these weapons were based, became independent states and suddenly you had a situation where Ukraine or Belarus or Kazakhstan would overtake Britain and France in terms of being the largest nuclear powers in the world? What would happen in terms of violence, minority unrest if the Soviet Union started to crumble? Would this lead to a war? Bush was very worried indeed about all of these things and though he of course did not want to stop the emancipation of Central and Eastern Europe, he certainly didn’t want to accelerate it either in a way which would be uncontrolled.
He visited Hungary and Poland in 1989 and in Poland, Lech Walesa asked him for 20 billion dollars to help the Polish economy. Bush gave only 100 million to that effort. He was also criticized in the United States for not welcoming more enthusiastically the collapse of communism, to which he replied that he didn’t much like the vision thing and he said, “I guess I’m not an emotional kind of guy.” This is not meant critically about George Bush, who in many cases was the architect of German unity and who played a crucial role in persuading Thatcher and Mitterrand to go along with it, but it does show that at the time leaders had no idea where this process was going to end up. They’d been brought up in a school where revolutions were always bloody, messy and violent: France 1789, Russia 1917. And given the immense amount of military firepower in the Eastern bloc, given the nationalist rivalries, at the time there was no reason to expect that the process would remain peaceful as well.
The third worry then was very much about the rise of nationalism in Europe. What would happen once the Soviets lifted the lid? Would the Czechs and the Slovaks go back to rivalry and the answer is – yes they did, but fortunately in a peaceful way which led to the velvet divorce in Czechoslovakia in 1991 – 92. Would Hungarians or Romanians once again dispute the fate of Transylvania? Bulgaria’s expulsion of ethnic Turks in 1984, five years before the wall came down, had already been a rather worrying harbinger of the kind of nationalist tensions which were still there under the surface. Indeed, one of the reasons why the United States did not encourage the break-up of Yugoslavia, when Croatia and Slovenia declared independence in the beginning of 1991, was the fear that this would set a bad precedent for what was happening in the Soviet Union. The United States was worried that if nationalist unrest grew Gorbachev and his whole reform effort, the whole arms control agenda with the United States would be seriously undermined.
Final big preoccupation of the western powers – the future of the European Union. Germany of course, had been integrated into the European Union. As Thomas Mann, the Germany novelist, once put it, “I prefer a European Germany to a German Europe.” And for France, particularly given the history of Franco- German relations before the Second World War, an integrated Germany, which was also largely the paymaster general of the European Union, French agriculture in exchange for German heavy industry, was an essential ingredient of reassurance. What would happen once a united Germany came about and was spending so much money on the economic revitalization of eastern Germany (the former DDR) that it would have very little money left for the process of European Union. In fact, one of the reasons why Helmut Kohl committed himself to the euro and giving up the deutschmark, no matter how unpopular this move was in Germany where the d-mark was almost a sacred symbol of post war prosperity and success, was precisely to reassure the French that a united Germany would not slow down European integration. However, once the Germans had agreed to exchange the DDR mark for one German d-mark and once over the next few years they’d paid out in the region of 1.3 trillion euros to revitalize East Germany, making those kind of generous offers was considerably less likely.
Those of us at NATO in 1989 also were worried, if I can be quite honest with you. As much as we were exhilarated by what was going on in Eastern Europe and as much as we could claim that this was the vindication of NATO solidarity, our perseverance during the Cold War, our sticking to our principles, what about our jobs? Were we … would we still be there? There were rumours of massive job cuts. Manfred Wörner, once he’s come back from Berlin, faced the staff and announced that he was certain that NATO had a bright future even though the Warsaw Pact adversary was being wound up and that we would find plenty of things to do. I tell you that at the time he was right but nobody believed him. We were all rigorously scrutinizing the situations vacant columns in newspapers and updating our CVs to send out to perspective employers; we didn’t believe that NATO would still be around. Now of course, I like to joke that I’ve spent the second half of my NATO career earning the salary that I didn’t earn in the first half of my NATO career. But again, the fact that NATO would still be in business 20 years later and busier and bigger and in more places in the world than ever, that would have … if somebody had told me that in 1989 I would have recommended that he seek psychiatric treatment.
Well, what were the factors that caused the collapse of communism? Well obviously first and foremost if you believe in the role of the individual in history, Gorbachev. As much as we might wish as good Marxists to explain the collapse of communism through socially determined factors, one cannot extrapolate the key role of Gorbachev. Andrei Grachev, one of his advisors, once said and I love this quotation, that “Gorbachev was a genetic error of the system. He came out of the system but then destroyed it.” When he first became Party General Secretary in March 1985, he famously said to Raisa, Raisa Gorbachev his wife, “we cannot go on living like this.” Chernobyl, the nuclear accident in 1986, really did convince Gorbachev that the Soviet system was incompetent, it was rotten, it had to be reformed. He was getting plenty of evidence from the KGB that the Soviet economy in the 1980s had actually started to contract. More of this later.
His great actual talent though was not what he did, but what he didn’t do. Gorbachev was like a person peeling an onion skin; every time a layer comes off you realize there are more layers underneath and so the process is endless. Once he started to reform he discovered that the problems were much more fundamental than he’d expected but instead of stopping a process he went, he went on. He let things happen. Was Gorbachev trying to return the Soviet Union to a free market capitalist system? No. His great hero was Felipe Gonzalez, the Spanish socialist. He was very much attached to the Swedish model. He really believed that the fundamentals of socialism could be preserved in a more efficient order. He would have been horrified when he started in 1985 if he’d known that only six years later Boris Yeltsin would have put him out of a job and that the Soviet Union would be no more. But if Gorbachev’s role is completely indispensable, there were other factors at play which historians like to look at.
The cosmic factors first, those big sort of strategic shifts in the international paradigm. First one: new criteria of power. Those of us who sort of studied the period between the wars will realize that at the time there was a big debate on whether democracy had a future. Was it really the best system? Did Europeans prefer to actually live under democracies or authoritarian totalitarian systems? For a long period in the 1930s, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy were genuinely popular systems. The Gestapo in 1939 in Germany was 20,000 to control a population of 78 million Germans. In the DDR, the Stasi was 650,000 to control a population of 16 million. That simple fact tells you a lot. What I’m therefore saying is that immediately after the Second World War and particularly in a book like 1984 by George Orwell, there was a tremendous skepticism whether democracy was really the system of the future. Would it produce the goods more effectively, the more authoritarian command economies?
But what was clear by the 1980s was that democracy was overwhelmingly the most effective system for running human affairs. The number of democracies, notwithstanding the pessimism of George Orwell in 1947, the number of democracies quintupled during the latter half of the 20th Century. Experts point to the rise of education, of technology, the fact that societies started to organize themselves more laterally than in terms of rigid authoritarian hierarchies. By the 1980s Marxism had lost the intellectual battle. My good friend Tom Friedman of the New York Times wrote once and I totally agree, that “by 1989 there were more Marxists in a radical book store on the upper west side of New York than in the whole of the Soviet Union.” He was right. By the end of the 80s there was virtually nothing coming out of the intellectual community in the communist bloc that showed any ability to reform the system. The great heroes, intellectual heroes in the communist bloc were not those who wanted to preserve the system, but those who wanted to destroy it: Pope John Paul II, Andrei Sakharov the nuclear physicist and dissident, Vaclav Havel the Czech playwright, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn the author of The Gulag Archipelago.
Second factor, historians now look at the decline of brutality. Something happened in the second half of the 20th Century that made states increasingly reluctant to use brutal force to maintain themselves in power. Gorbachev wrote a book called Perestroika – don’t know if any of you have read it – where he said “one could always supress, compel, bribe, break or blast but only for a certain period.” From the point of the view of the long term, big term politics one will not be able to subordinate others; let everyone make his or her own choice and let us all respect that choice.
Third factor, the collapse of authoritarianism. In the 17th Century in my country Britain, there was a phrase ‘no Bishop, no King’ that was if one side of the authoritarian system collapses, every other aspect of the system collapses. It either holds together or it falls apart, there is no middle ground. And Timothy Garton Ash, who some of you may have come across who is a European expert at St. Anthony’s College Oxford, wrote about this in a way which I think sums up the general sense of authoritarianism being a hollow shell by the end of the 1980s. He wrote, I quote, “perhaps the ultimately decisive factor is that characteristic of revolutionary situations described by Alexis de Tocqueville more than a century ago, the rolling elites’ loss of belief in its own right to rule. A few kids went onto the streets and threw a few words. The police beat them. The kids said, ‘you have no right to beat us’ and the rulers, the high and mighty, replied in effect, ‘yes we have no right to beat you, we have no right to preserve our rule by force, the end no longer justifies the means’.” When Erich Honecker gave an order in September/October 1989 to his police to shoot demonstrators on the streets of Leipzig and Dresden, they disobeyed in the first sign of dissent and an internal collapse of these elites.
Now in history we all know that underlying strategic causes matter a great deal but we also know that there are immediate triggers, more proximate factors which cause an international system to change. The first one which I alluded to last time but I’d like to come back, is the severe economic crisis in the communist bloc by the mid-1980s. Looking at the history of the DDR I dug up a report which was compiled by a group of East Germany economic experts and which was submitted to the Party Politburo on the 30th of October 1989, a couple of days before the wall came down. According to this report more than half, this is DDR, more than half of all of the industrial facilities were effectively classifiable as scrap. 53.8 percent of all machines were write-offs, only repairable at a cost that could not be justified. Half the transport infrastructure was in a state of decay; productivity was 40 percent behind the West’s; state indebtedness had risen from 12 billion marks in 1970 to 123 billion in 1988. And it was a similar situation elsewhere. In the spring of 1989 inflation hit 1000 percent in Poland. In the Soviet Union the oil price dropped in the 80s; Soviet debt went from 30.7 billion dollars in ‘86 to 54 billion by 1989. In the Soviet Union at the time of the collapse of communism, there was a population of some 256 million all told. That country had only 30 … 300 … 300,000 entrepreneurs in such an enormous population. By the 1970s the famous East German spymaster Markus Wolf, who was the prototype for Karla in the John le Carré Cold War novels, concluded that the DDR in particular just couldn’t work. The problem of indebtedness meant that the communist systems had to go increasingly looking for Western loans in order to be able to survive. George Bush, he had a policy of not giving those loans precisely because he felt that the money would be largely wasted. More and more money was being borrowed simply to cover debt, not to invest in economic reconstruction.
Second factor was the emergence of people power in Eastern Europe. Ironically in the 1980s, and you remember my last lecture, the communist bloc formed these peace movements to lobby against NATO’s cruise and Pershing missiles. This turned out to be a very major mistake by the communists because these movements became the genesis of people power movements which in 1989 took to the streets. I think that the OSCE as we call it these days, the CSCE (the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe), could take a lot of the credit for this because those ideals of the Helsinki Final Act about the right to assemble, the right to form trade unions, the right to listen to Western radio broadcasts, although the Soviets considered these rather cynically at the time, proved very powerful in mobilizing popular support. All kinds of popular movements grew up like Noyes Form in the DDR, Charter 77 in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia, A Public against Violence in Slovakia, Echo Glasnost in Bulgaria proved effective. And once people had seen the images of these popular protests on television, even in the Eastern bloc, there was a feeling well we can do that too. I’m not alone, other people think like me, we are not powerless. Modern communications, even inside the Eastern bloc, had a kind of a knock on effect as one movement inspired others.
The third is the East-West arms race. Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet Foreign Minister at the time, later President of Georgia, calculated that by the 1980s the Soviet Union was spending 50 percent of its expenditure on some form of defence. The Soviet economy was one sixth the size of the United States but was spending three times more than the Americans on armaments. Dwight Eisenhower, the only US President in the post war years to have been a military officer, once warned the United States against the military industrial complex. He said “the problem with defence spending is to figure out how far you should go without destroying within that what you are seeking to protect from without.” Nice phrase huh? In other words if you … if the spending undermines your society, then you are not really benefitting from the protection that you get against external enemies. Eisenhower wanted to warn his American countrymen but that phrase is much more typical of what happened in the Soviet Union. By the mid-80s defence expenditure had become an intolerable burden. Arbatov, Georgi Arbatov the famous Soviet commentator said “we were arming ourselves and arming ourselves with no idea as to what were our real needs.”
Final issue, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. The Soviets withdrew in 1989. They had 150,000 troops; 15,000 of those died. Gorbachev told the party congress in February ‘86 that this had been a bleeding wound. It was. It was the first major military defeat in the history of the Soviet Union. The veterans, the Afghanisti as they became known, became a powerful lobby within Soviet society, calling for military reform, pointing their finger at corruption and nepotism which had undermined the Soviet military effort. The inability to impose communism in Afghanistan showed that communism did not represent the future but was effectively reversible and the Soviet Union had stirred up the forces of Islamic fundamentalism in that region, which not only became then in Chechnya and elsewhere a threat to the Soviet Union and Russia itself, but also as we know from 9/11 and the genesis of Al-Qaida a threat also to NATO and the Western countries itself. This inability to expand communism led to a lot of questioning about internal reform.
So now in the last part of my remarks I come to the inevitable question, well how did NATO survive? Why did we not get our pink slip of dismissal sometime around 1990? Why are we still here today? Now some of you, if you want to be really nasty, could say it’s bureaucratic sort of ineptitude or immobilism, the fact that Italy apparently had a Ministry of the Colonies still 20 years after giving up its last colony. There may be some truth in that. Frankly it’s much easier to create an institution than it is to dismantle one. But I think there are some more sincere and fundamental reasons. Let me enumerate them very quickly.
First of all I think at the time of change when everything is in turmoil around you, you hold on to what you’ve got. In England we say “always hold onto nurse for fear of getting something worse.” And that was very much the mood: keep NATO. Maybe NATO won’t survive forever but at time of change you need an ordinance factor as the Germans would call it, you need a frame of reference whereby Europe and the United States can work together to manage this change. If you, if you sort of change Western Europe while you’re changing Eastern Europe, then you will completely lose control of the situation.
Number two, and this I think is a powerful thing, there was an assumption in 1989 that all of those great intellectuals who had pushed change in Eastern Europe would argue for a new European collective security system, not only should the Warsaw Pact be dismantled, but NATO should be dismantled as well. Indeed, in Eastern Germany there was a group of intellectuals around the writers Christa Wolf or Stefan Hane that launched a for-our-land appeal and actually regretted that the Berlin Wall had come down too early. That the wall had fallen precipitating German unification before they had had time to create a democratic German socialist state in the East, but they were exceptions.
Those early idealists were blown away very quickly and a new generation of Eastern European leader came on the scene. Lech Walesa (Poland), Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic that generally believed that the solution was for their countries simply to join NATO. They wanted not for the West to go East, but they wanted to go West themselves. Havel famously called this ‘the return to Europe.’ Havel came here very famously in 1990, I shall never forget, and gave probably the best speech that has ever been delivered to the North Atlantic Council where he apologized, he apologized on behalf of his people for all of the lies that had been spread about NATO in Eastern Europe during the communist years. Edmund Burke once said about intellectuals that the best were only men of theory, rather unkind but the ideas of Gorbachev for a common European home and the ideas of Mitterrand for a European confederation got nowhere because Western Europe may have been interested but Eastern Europe wasn’t. As far as the Eastern Europeans were concerned NATO was the real thing, the rest was a conversation. So any pressure from the East to dismantle NATO disappeared quickly. Even today the biggest fans of NATO are often on the territory of our former adversaries.
Finally NATO was able to successfully reinvent itself, to change with the times before obsolescence risked to take over. At our ministerial meeting in Turnberry in December 1989 we extended the hand of friendship to the East. In July 1999 at NATO’s Summit in London we produced the best declaration that we have ever produced, the only one which is really readable by our publics, where we offered a non-aggression pact to the East, where we pledged that we would not militarily exploit the vacuum in central Eastern Europe, where we invited Gorbachev to visit NATO headquarters. In 1991, we set up the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, which is today of course the Euro Atlantic Partnership Cooperation Council, inviting these countries not necessarily to join NATO but to come and talk with us about the future of European security. And in 1994 around a lunch table in Truman Hall, the residence of the US Ambassador to NATO, we invented the Partnership for Peace, one of the best ideas in post war history which will allow all of these countries to be associated with NATO and to benefit from NATO’s defence reform whether they wanted to join or not. Douglas Hurd, him again, the former British Foreign Secretary, said that this was a comfortable waiting room while we worked out what to do with these countries of Central and Eastern Europe. I think frankly NATO was also helped by the fact that the European Union at that time was in the throes of currency union, going through the Maastricht Treaty, once again preoccupied with its own institutional reform. The common foreign and security policy of the European Union had not yet been born. The hour of Europe which we’ll talk about on Thursday had not yet arrived in the former Yugoslavia and so to some degree NATO took advantage of the fact that we were the outward looking institution at a time when the European Union was still largely an inward looking institution.
Well ladies and gentlemen as I come to the end, did we manage the end of Cold War well? Well difficult question. Lately a mood of revisionism inevitably has set in – historians love to be revisionists. What seemed at the time to be so miraculous, of course has left an aftertaste, particularly in Russia which of course experienced the end of the Cold War rather differently to its satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe. Putin a couple of years ago said that the biggest tragedy of the 20th Century was the collapse of the Soviet Union when the vast majority of Europeans would say on the contrary, it was the biggest success story and that Ronald Reagan was right when he described that as ‘the evil empire.’ We now know from research, particularly the famous Black Book on Communism, which came out a few years ago, that over 100 million people died at the hands of various communist regimes in the 20th Century and therefore there was absolutely no reason whatever to feel any kind of nostalgia for a system that not only had failed to deliver its vision of an egalitarian society but often had imposed a rather bloody toll on its own citizens. I’m not being a propagandist in saying that, I think it’s objective truth.
But of course the fact that Russia, as a country which had lost its empire but had not found it easy to find a new role, felt humiliated by the process, obviously has meant that the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle, reconciliation with Russia, bringing Russia into the same democratic Euro-Atlantic system has not yet happened even 20 years on and how to do so today is still one of the biggest questions on NATO’s agenda. Of course, Russians experienced the end of the Cold War in a traumatic way. Their standard of living collapsed, the theory at the time was shock therapy – there was a lot of shock but not very much therapy. An egalitarian society, at least on the surface, suddenly became very unequal. By 2004 as the result of privatization via the oligarchs, there were 36 Russian billionaires with a combined wealth of 110 billion dollars, in other words 25 percent of the entire Russian GDP. Not bad huh? Even in the United States with all of these rich bankers you don’t have a situation where 36 people own 25 percent of GDP.
Was the transition too brutal, should it have been slowed down, is a legitimate question to ask. But I don’t believe that the West frankly can be blamed for the fact that Russia still felt badly treated or humiliated. We recognized Russia rapidly as the successor state of the Soviet Union. The nuclear weapons that were in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus were given back to Russia with the support of the Western countries. NATO announced that it would not station forces nor nuclear weapons on the territory of its new member states or in Eastern Europe. Indeed between ‘90 and ‘94 Germany gave Russia 71 billion dollars in various forms of assistance and 36 billion dollars to other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. There was absolutely no desire on behalf of the Western countries to humiliate Russia. In fact Bush was very, very careful to avoid all kinds of triumphalist language along the lines of we won the Cold War, we’re the winners and you’re the losers. But it’s also true of course that countries which perceived themselves to be on the losing edge often invent all kinds of myths as to why that has happened.
By the 1990s the theme that was going around was that of Weimar Russia modelled on the Weimar Republic. The myth of the Dolchstoß: that an empire which had been strong, had been somehow stabbed in the back by Gorbachev and by other devious politicians and that the Soviet Union had more or less given up the Cold War without getting what it should have got in return. In other words should you be rewarded for doing the right thing? This is a key question, but that survives to this day.
Finally the legacy of 1989. Well we all know that history is written by the victors. I love this quotation from Winston Churchill. He said “history will be the judge and I will write the history.” It’s true. In 1989 all of those debates of the earlier part of the century, which I mentioned to you, the debate about you know whether democracy was the natural form of government, whether democracies produced the goods – that debate had been swept away.
Francis Fukuyama, the American intellectual, published his famous article in a national interest The End of History. No more debates, life would be boring, there would be nothing to argue about, no competition of values; the West had sort of won the argument. Der Spiegel said that we didn’t need an army anymore because henceforth the military factor would no longer play in politics. Peace had broken out, we were all harvesting the peace dividend. It’s seen that henceforth as Flora Lewis, the famous columnist of the New York Times put it, “when guns force silence, money talks.” In fact the future of NATO would be as a financial institution. Of course we realize now that that notion of a perpetual peace, a world without challenges, a holiday from history, a strategic vacation, call it what you like, that has all become an illusion. Peace did not break out or only for a short time. Security military forces did not suddenly become redundant, we use them more today in more places than ever. If you’re in the military, your chance of getting killed is infinitely greater than at any time during the Cold War with the exception of Korea of course and Vietnam.
The idea that we could rely only on soft power: wrong. Hard power still counts and we need more of it in places like Afghanistan. Teddy Roosevelt said “speak softly and carry a big stick” and certainly we need a bigger stick if we are to speak softly. We’ve discovered that the paradigm of great power war, which had occupied everybody, had given way to a whole new set of challenges which we’ll talk about on Thursday: Islamic terrorism or at least religiously inspired extremism, the threat of nuclear proliferation. I saw the head of the Atomic Energy Agency, El Baradei, the other day say that nearly 50 countries now have the ability to make nuclear weapons around the world. There is a phrase, ‘you may not like war but war likes you.’ In other words, you may want to escape from these conflicts and declare neutrality, which you still could do in the Cold War, but you can’t do it today.
I was in Munich over the weekend at the Security Conference and President Sarkozy put it a very nice way, he said “you can either have peace or you can be asked to be allowed to live in peace or at least to be in peace, in a sense to be left in peace.” I … leave me in peace, I don’t want to be bothered but as Sarkozy put it if you want peace rather than to be allowed to be left in peace, you have to have a proactive approach for dealing with these problems. If we don’t go to Afghanistan, Afghanistan is going to come to us. So yes in a way it’s true that 20 years on that dream world of 1989, the springtime of the nations, the Immanuel Kant’s period of perpetual peace, the reconciliation of groups of brother and sister, the sort of outlawing of war, no that unfortunately has not happened.
Does that mean that it was all a dream, an illusion, a kind of interlude, a sunny day between storms? No. There is another lesson of 1989 and I think that we should remember that this year. Why this year? Because this year is a bad year 2009: the New York Stock Exchange has lost 14 trillion dollars over the last 12 months, the credit crunch is now producing not just poor bankers but more jobless people. Throughout the world we face not just the recession, but the prospect of a depression which could be as bad as the 1930s. It’s a gloomy time, particularly if you believe in the ability of people to determine their futures. But even, even that arch determinist Karl Marx who believed so much in social forces still said “men make history.”
The lesson of 1989 for us today is that spectacular change is possible. Even the direst situation can be rescued through faith, courage, organization, determination. People can take their future into their own hands. We are not the passive sort of victims of processes over which we have no control. Europe does not have to be as the Czech politician Tomas Masaryk once put it, “a laboratory atop a vast graveyard.” So in this doom and gloom, particularly on the financial front in 2009, let’s just remember or at least try to regain some of the optimism and belief of 1989 to get ourselves out of the mess we’re in. Thank you very much.
Questions and answers
Q: I have a rather personal question to you Mr. Shea. How did you live and witness this 9th of November 1989? Because this intrigues me because I, I have the impression that that particular day had, yeah, was the same, you had the same impression maybe or can be compared to the 9/11 for let’s say people of our generation.
Dr. Jamie Shea: Yeah I mean you’re absolutely right to point out to the 9/11 because in Europe you know the great change was 11/9 as the Americans call it, putting the month before the day, which was a theme of liberation, of happiness, of freedom, of threats being reduced. And of course for Americans the transforming experience was 9/11 which was one of 3000 casualties, terrorist attacks, a feeling of vulnerability, of suddenly safety unexpectedly disappearing. And it was later said that during the period of the Iraq War in 2003 that the fundamental problem between Europeans and Americans is Americans have become much more pessimistic and gloomy about the world and more determined that they had to sort of deal with dangers wherever they were confronted, a loss of innocence, whereas of course in Europe we were still in the honeymoon period of the fall of the Berlin Wall believing all problems could be solved through diplomacy, soft power, through the United Nations, through resolutions and that military force would always make the situation worse rather than better. I think there’s some truth in that, you know because of these two different experiences, 11/9 versus 9/11. The two halves of the Atlantic for a while at least went off in different directions and now of course in NATO over Afghanistan we’re trying to bring those two strategic cultures together, saying to the Americans – well a bit more effort on the civilian side, please and the Americans are saying – fine but then you Europeans, a bit more effort on the military side, please, so that we are more or less doing the equal thing.
For me, it was a surprise just how quickly the communist regimes collapse, I would admit that. The communist, you remember the lectures, the communist regimes had always shown a willingness to impose force: Hungary ‘56, East Germany ‘53, Czechoslovakia ‘68, the Brezhnev Doctrine, you remember. At the end of the day they would experiment with reform, they might even allow some liberalization. Poland, for example, was allowed to develop private agriculture in the 1970s. But at the end of the day if Soviet rule was threatened, then they would intervene to preserve that. They couldn’t allow their security system to unravel.
Well there were two big shocks for me in 1989. Shock number one was that the Soviet Union was … refused to countenance the use of force. There’s a famous example when Rakowski, the leader of the Polish Communist Party, when Solidarity was about to take power in the Polish elections, phoned Gorbachev and said: Gorbachev, what do I do, what do I do, you know, give me your advice. And Gorbachev in a 40 minute conversation told him: let it happen. In other words the communist leaders of Eastern Europe had no autonomy, you know, they had no autonomy outside Moscow. This was strange. They had not managed to build up any kind of national power base which was not totally dependent, you know, they had no idea what to do unless Moscow told them. That was the first surprise, that total degree of dependency.
The second thing was that, have you ever seen the film The Wizard of Oz? Well you remember the wizard, he’s this very powerful dictatorial character and at the end of the movie Judy Garland, who was determined to see the wizard, goes behind the screen and suddenly sees that it’s a pathetic old man with a projector. In other words the wizard doesn’t exist, it’s just an illusion, or if he does exist, he’s a shadow of the real thing. And that was the real discovery, that these structures which on the surface looked incredibly powerful: secret police, military forces, ideology, you know, very hard headed people who had been in the revolutionary struggle all their lives but had in fact no power. They had the appearance of power but there was nothing behind it, rather like the Wizard of Oz, they were sort of completely empty shell regimes and that once there was a little push to challenge it, challenge them, they collapsed. But it also, I think, is a humbling lesson in political science. We think we understand places, we think we understand regimes, we think we can make predictions but at the end of the day we always get it wrong, everything takes us by surprise and we know nothing. We pretend to know but in reality we don’t. It’s always the great sort of revenge of history upon anybody who tries to understand history. It’s like a mountain that can never really be conquered.