Thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell, Western order faces new strains

A man chips away at the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on the West Berlin side on Nov. 10, 1989.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Thirty years after Germans tore down the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War came crashing to an end, the Western order of alliances, disarmament treaties and robust transatlantic relationships is facing new strains.

The fall of the wall in 1989, and the end of the Cold War two years later when the Soviet Union collapsed, opened a remarkable period of relative peace, international cooperation in the West and hope that the emerging Russia and the former Soviet republics on its borders would become stable democracies.

Today those aspirations seem distant; the United States and Britain, the mainstays of the transatlantic alliance, are gripped by crises in Brexit and impeachment. Russia has invaded Ukraine and flexed its muscles in the Middle East in a bid to once again become a superpower.


The United States appears in retreat on the world stage as President Trump pulls out of the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear accord, disarmament agreements and other global commitments. While he has sought new diplomatic deals with North Korea and in the Middle East, none have come to fruition.

“This is a difficult and in many ways painful time for those of us who participated in building the post-Cold War world,” said Eric Rubin, a former career U.S. diplomat who is president of the American Foreign Service Assn., a union and professional organization. “Many of the key underpinnings of that new world are shaky or threatened, from arms control treaties to essential international institutions, alliances and organizations.”

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo will fly to Germany on Wednesday for ceremonies in Berlin marking the fall of the wall and the end of the Cold War. He also will visit some of the 35,000 U.S. troops stationed in Germany.

He will “retrace his own steps” as a young Army officer stationed at the Iron Curtain, a senior State Department official said Tuesday, and visit a synagogue in Halle that was attacked last month on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur by a man linked to far-right groups. German prosecutors called the shooting an anti-Semitic crime.

The trip is Pompeo’s third abroad in the six weeks since the House opened an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate Democrats. In testimony, Pompeo has been portrayed as permitting a shadow diplomacy led by Trump’s private attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Unlike presidential impeachment cases in the past, this is the first that focuses on foreign policy and national security.


In some ways the inquiry appears to be collateral damage from Trump’s unconventional approach overseas, where he has embraced autocrats, and challenged or undercut institutions and treaties negotiated after the Cold War, including the arms control framework put in place to prevent war between Washington and Moscow.

Blaming Russian violations, Trump withdrew this year from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a landmark 1987 pact that eliminated nearly 3,000 U.S. and Russian nuclear-armed and conventional missiles.

The remaining arms control agreement with Moscow, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty may also be scrapped. Trump has said he would prefer a disarmament agreement that includes China, but he has not moved to draft one.

The administration has also signaled it may withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, which allows Moscow and Washington to fly unarmed reconnaissance aircraft over each other’s territory to ensure neither side is building an unbalanced threat. The Pentagon considers the overflights a valuable tool to prevent conflict.

Historians say the Cold War started in 1947 as Moscow and the West jockeyed for geopolitical power around the globe. Both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union were created soon after to protect Western Europe, and both expanded in power and influence after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Trump has sharply criticized the NATO alliance, accusing other countries of paying too little for defense, and has avidly supported efforts to weaken the European Union, including the stalemated Brexit movement in Britain.


“We misread 1989,” said Constanze Stelzenmueller, a German scholar at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington. “We thought we had won and progress was here to stay.... The U.S. and U.K., especially, trusted in their cultures to keep [society] safe and that years of constitutional democracy was a guarantee against the temptation of authoritarianism.

“Now we are really paying for it.”

The post-Cold War order showed strains before Trump was elected. In 2008, Russia sent troops into neighboring Georgia, a former satellite state, to support two so-called breakaway provinces. In 2014, Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, where it keeps a naval base, and is backing an insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Discontent also was growing in the European Union, especially as millions of migrants fled to Europe from wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and North Africa. The EU appears less united than ever, facing the possible withdrawal of Britain and the rise of far-right political parties in several countries.

But the unraveling accelerated once Trump espoused his isolationist “America first” doctrine and began challenging the post-Cold War web of alliances and treaties.

Some historians and experts argue that a reshaping of the post-Cold War order was inevitable, and say the United States footed the bill for too long to prop up security for allies in Europe.

“There is a lot of love in the transatlantic community for the term ‘liberal international order,’ but that’s easy to say when the liberal international order isn’t costing you anything,” said Peter Rough, a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute in Washington.


Trump’s insistence on more burden-sharing among NATO countries helps to redress that imbalance, he noted.

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic say the transition is being bungled by a U.S. administration with a largely freelance foreign policy, and a U.S. president who often in thrall to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The transition of the United States from a “European power,” as President George H.W. Bush declared it in 1991, to a “power in Europe,” as it is becoming, has to be managed carefully, said Daniel Hamilton, an academic and former U.S. diplomat who lived in West Berlin in 1989.

“The question is how to get from here to there,” he said. “You can move in a conscientious, planned way, or just say screw it. Trump has chosen the ‘screw it’ approach.”

Kristina Spohr, an expert on Europe at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said the euphoria after the Berlin Wall fell led to unprecedented East-West cooperation and the belief that global democratization, including in Russia, was inevitable. That did not happen.

“If you want to make America great, America must assume its capacity as an ordering power and must project power,” said Spohr, author of “Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World after 1989.”


“Today there is no spirit of cooperation,” she added. “Everyone bangs about their own thing.”