After the Wall

by The Editors | December 4, 1989

The first two phases of Western reaction to the opening of the Berlin Wall are now over. Unbridled euphoria about the liberation of East Germans has given way to delicately phrased ambivalence about the possible reunification of Germany. We might as well complete the cycle by devoting a few lines of unabashed nostalgia to the days when the wall stood intact. No kidding. In terms of sheer stability, the cold war has possessed an austere elegance that is unlikely to be matched by any subsequent arrangement of nations. A world nearly divided into two sides, each headed by a rational leader armed to the teeth with nuclear warheads--can you imagine a planet less likely to be engulfed in war? (On the other hand, can you imagine a war more terrifying?)

To worry a bit about the new world is not, first of all, to regret the passing of the old. Any American politician or pundit who did not react to the breaching of the Wall with excitement bordering on ecstasy must possess either a hopelessly cynical conception of the purpose of U.S. foreign policy or no conception at all. There are few times in history when you can say confidently that evil is losing ground to good. In East Germany evil is now in embarrassed retreat, and it is a retreat whose import can scarcely be exaggerated. Just as slavery was the fundamental moral cause of the Civil War, the denial of political and civil rights in Eastern Europe has always lain at the core of the cold war. To the extent that these rights are restored, the cold war’s gruesome structures begin to crumble. The process is hardly complete and is still not irreversible, but the progress has been palpable and, lately, breathtaking.

Nor does anxiety about the future of Europe imply an indictment of the German people. We would be lying, to be sure, if we said that the word “reunification” doesn’t remind us of the suffering inflicted on Europe and the world by Germanys past. There is such a thing as national character, and if Germany’s hasn’t been mellowed by the last half century’s reflection on its thuggish history--culminating in, but not confined to the particular crimes of the Third Reich--then the world may be in for hard times. Still, the main cause for concern about Europe’s future is not Germany’s past so much as humanity’s. Jumbled collections of nations and peoples have tended to find excuses for war in the absence of some larger ordering principle. And Europe, and the cold war’s demise continues, is becoming a messier, more jumbled place.

A century from now, these anxieties may appear quaint. France and Britain possess their own nuclear arsenals, and for all we know, nukes will have as solid a deterrent in a multipolar as in a bipolar world. And the economic sinews enmeshing Europe may indeed, as everyone is hoping, make war unthinkable. Certainly West Germany is for now fat and happy and as the world largest exporter, loath to threaten commerce. But if the unthinkable happened, a war in present-day Europe would be worse than all the others, believe it or not. It is worth worrying about.

This put the European Community at center stage. The EC remains unlikely to evolve into the Federated Europe some dream of, complete with its own soldiers, but it is nonetheless rapidly acquiring responsibility for Europe’s security. Not only in keeping would-be enemies in the same economic household, but in deciding which waifs from the East to adopt, the EC stands to become a primary source of order in a post-war war world the arbiter of Western Europe’s expansion to the East. This is one reason Margaret Thatcher’s dithering over whether to accept a unified European exchange rate is becoming so tiresome. If she is as concerned as she sounds about a resurgent, unified Germany, then her best bet is to ensure that West Germany’s economic bulk, well before any reunification, is substantially constrained by counterweights. This will mean, first of all, that she quit complaining about some marginal loss of economic sovereignty. Britain among other European nations, must realize that if you want to be an anchor, you occasionally have to get dragged along with the boat. (And this metaphor, really, is overdramatic. Notwithstanding all the talk about the coming German economic juggernaut, the addition of East Germany’s present national product would boost Germany's share of the ECs economic output only from 24 percent to 30 percent.)

And what of the United States? Our stewardship of the world since the war looks increasingly good in the ever shifting light of recent history. Where will we lead it next? Nowhere--at least not by ourselves. The economic maturation of Western Europe and Japan, to our eternal credit, is now complete, and no event has better crystallized our attendant loss of than the opening of the Berlin Wall. As almost everyone has by now acknowledged, it is not we who will who will orchestrate the further unfolding of European history. If the Germanys want to unify they will unify. And the critical charting of the EC’s future, of course, will not be done in Washington. All of these explains why throughout the week of the Wall, TV moderators struggled in vain to provoke sharp disagreement among their guests over the future of American policy. (Do we sense an air of spiritual crisis beginning to emanate from the foreign policy establishment? If so it’s not surprising: one minute you’re standing athwart History in a global struggle against evil, the next minute you’re desperate searching for arguments to the effect that America’s role in the world will be “even more important” after the cold war. It’s not a transition that anyone could make smoothly.)

In the end, the talking heads succeeded in defining only one big issue for American policy makers. It’s one you may have heard of: Whither NATO? This time it has been raised most notably by members of the suddenly growing pool of right-wing isolationists. (You know, the people who four years ago were backing interventionist foreign policy by reference to the downtrodden everywhere, and, now that America’s hide seems safer, are advocating a full retreat into the North American shell.) They propose that we offer the Soviet Union a deal: we leave Western Europe, you leave Eastern.

It is a tempting idea, and the temptation goes well beyond the money to be saved. With Soviet troops gone, Eastern Europe could proceed more calmly with reform, buffered from any sudden reactionary spasms (a palace coup, say) in the Soviet Union. The trouble is that the buffering would hardly be airtight. East Germany is closer to the Soviet Union than West Germany is to us, and the Russians remain less likely then we to ask permission before sending troops anywhere. More fundamentally (if more vaguely), there simple is enough change going on in Europe now without introducing new and unpredictable forces. For the time being, U.S. troops in Europe usefully complicate any premature rush toward German unification, and, more generally, NATO serves to discourage other unforeseen and un-thought-out realignments.

The latest episode of Whither NATO will get its full airing soon enough. Popular pressure at home and in Germany, along with valid fiscal concerns, will (if Soviet reform continues) eventually propel significant numbers of U.S. troops home, maybe all of them. But this is not the moment to hasten this natural process. And, anyway, it is doubtful that the Soviet would buy a zero-zero option. Mikhail Gorbachev’s political base, amid all Russia’s domestic problems, is likely shrinking: his advisers are assuredly not urging him to start bargaining away one of Russia’s last large symbols of global significance.

So, as history would have it, the United States can now best serve the world by doing nothing. Or, at least, nothing epic. It can certainly continue to give aid and advice to Eastern Europe--in greater quantity, ideally, than at present. (France and Britain, too, if worried about an expanded Ostpolitik , might try to rival more nearly West Germany’s sizable aid to, for example, Poland.) And, incidentally, if American venture capitalists are looking for new frontiers, they might ponder East Germany. The East Germans have been more productive than any other Eastern European people under the burden of a command economy, and as they shift toward free markets, they are more certain that any other nation of getting the expertise and capital they need. The United States engineered and supervised the first German miracle. It is in our interest--economically and politically--to play at least a noticeable role in the second.

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