Thirty years ago, the wall dividing Berlin and Europe came tumbling down, inaugurating a period of dizzying change and unprecedented opportunity. Within months, Germany was reunited, Soviet dominance of Central and Eastern Europe collapsed and Soviet communism and the USSR itself disintegrated. The Cold War, which had split Europe for more than four decades, had ended.
In its stead, a far more optimistic and hopeful future beckoned. A continent torn asunder by two bloody world wars and frozen into two competing blocs now faced the possibility of becoming whole, free and at peace. The United States, as the world’s sole remaining superpower, played a leading role in helping bring that about.
It all started with the unification of Germany. While weary neighbors feared the reemergence of a strong, united Germany at the center of the new Europe, Washington pushed to complete the task within a year of the first breaches of the Berlin Wall. Germany would remain a member of NATO and also committed to revamp the European Union by further deepening economic and monetary integration. Both helped reassure other European nations that a newly powerful Germany would be firmly embedded in European and transatlantic institutions.
With East and West Germany becoming one, the next step was to bridge Europe’s economic, political and military divides. The initial focus was to improve European security without which there could not be the necessary political and economic transformation. A series of arms control agreements were negotiated with the United States, the Soviet Union and European members of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact, ending the military standoff in Europe and enhancing regional security.
Importantly, NATO agreed to open its doors to new members, thus encouraging the countries of eastern and central Europe to undertake the hard but necessary work of transforming their economies, domestic politics and militaries in preparation for membership. Like NATO, the European Union also moved to encourage the economic and political transformation of central and east European countries by offering membership to those countries that had fulfilled the necessary reforms.
Within 15 years of the Berlin Wall coming down, Europe had seemingly fulfilled the bright promise of the heady days of jubilant crowds bringing down the wall. Europe was becoming whole, with most countries having joined NATO and the European Union and others knocking on their doors. It was peaceful, as successful intervention ended the wars that had followed Yugoslavia’s disintegration. The single European market and the introduction of the euro had brought prosperity to many, and democracy and freedom thrived throughout the continent.
Europe’s transformation was a historic accomplishment.
Now, much of the hope and optimism that made this possible has disappeared. The financial and euro zone crises of 2008-10 led to a steep economic decline from which many countries have yet to recover. In its wake, populism and nativism are challenging democratic and civic norms in a growing number of countries. Britain’s decision to leave the EU both deprived the union of a key economic and political member and has paralyzed proceedings in Brussels for too long.
Europe is also buffeted by destabilizing forces from beyond its borders. Russia has reemerged as a significant security threat, both militarily through its actions in Ukraine, Syria and North Africa, and politically through its cyberattacks and election interference. Turkey has turned away from Europe and from democracy, and its actions have further destabilized the Middle East. Growing numbers of migrants are seeking to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better future.
In the past, Europe could count on a strong and stabilizing American presence to help address these challenges. But that, too, has changed. Washington’s ability to effect positive change in Europe has declined over the years, challenged by increasing demands at home, a refocusing of attention to the Middle East and Asia, and growing competition from a rising China and newly assertive Russia.
President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies have only accelerated the decline of U.S. influence in Europe. His active opposition to the European project that helped transform the continent, combined with his reluctance to embrace America’s longstanding commitment to NATO and European security, have created growing doubts about America’s trustworthiness and standing.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Europe had a United States willing and able to help guide its future, which it did in building a Europe whole, free and at peace. Now, Europe will have to decide its own future. It can recommit to unity and play the strong and stabilizing role its collective power and potential make possible. Or it can stand aside and allow divisions and disagreements to deepen and nefarious forces from within and without seek to control its destiny.
Thirty years ago, Europe made the right choice. Will it do so again?
Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.