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When the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago, it shook up U.S. politics. Here’s how.

Republicans have been divided on foreign policy ever since the Cold War ended.

- November 8, 2019

East and West Germans dancing on the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, has become a symbol of the collapse of communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe and the end to the Cold War divisions in Europe. This victory reflects most of all on the bravery of those behind the Iron Curtain — and the events of 1989 that changed the world in which they lived.

But reflecting 30 years later on how these events shaped a new Europe, it’s equally clear they also profoundly affected U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy.

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1989 turned the politics of U.S. foreign policy upside down

After George H.W. Bush’s victory in the 1988 election, many political analysts believed Democrats could no longer win the presidency given what appeared to be an insurmountable Republican advantage in the electoral college. The GOP had dominated presidential politics for the previous two decades, with the lone Democratic victory of Jimmy Carter’s Watergate-fueled triumph in 1976. The conventional wisdom was that Democrats were too soft on national security to convince the American public they could be trusted to serve as commander in chief.

Republicans celebrated the end of the Cold War divide in 1989 as a GOP victory, reminding everyone that Ronald Reagan famously declared “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” two years earlier. But the collapse of communist regimes undermined the GOP’s advantage on foreign policy, and, in turn, its presidential prospects. As Derek Chollet and I described in our book on American foreign policy, anti-Communist was the glue that held the GOP together during the latter half of the Cold War and fed the narrative that Republicans were best able to protect America.

With communism gone, Republicans splintered. George H.W. Bush Republicans believed in American pragmatic leadership through international institutions; Patrick Buchanan-led isolationists and Contract With America Republicans wanted to turn inward; and neoconservatives called for a Reaganesque foreign policy focused on promoting democracy. While George W. Bush’s War on Terror after Sept. 11, 2001, presented a new opportunity for party unity, it was fleeting. Republicans soon split over the Iraq War and have remained divided on foreign policy ever since.

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After 1989, meanwhile, Democrats finally had a chance to win back the White House. With communism gone, charges of being soft on America’s enemies mattered less to voters. In 1992, despite a lack of national security experience and having avoided military service in Vietnam, Bill Clinton ran on “the economy, stupid” — and defeated a World War II hero who had served as vice president, director of the CIA, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Democrats have now won the popular vote in six out of the past seven presidential elections, even as the electoral vote remains up for grabs.

From containment to a Europe whole and free — and now what?

Nearly six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, George H.W. Bush gave a speech in Mainz, West Germany, calling for a Europe whole and free, which soon evolved to the notion of a Europe whole, free and at peace. After intervening in two world wars in the first half of the 20th century and then containing Soviet expansionism in Europe for four decades, the United States believed it could lead the entire continent toward a brighter future.

When Clinton visited his alma mater, Georgetown University, in 1999 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the fall of the wall, it seemed the United States and its allies were well on their way to fulfilling Bush’s vision. The United States brokered the peace to end the war in Bosnia in 1995 and led a 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999 against Serbia to protect the Kosovar Albanians. Despite Russian opposition to NATO’s inclusion of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as new members, Russia signed onto the NATO-Russia Founding Act. “We are,” said Clinton, “at the height of our power and prosperity.”

Clinton was correct, but not in the way he intended. Over the course of the past two decades, the promotion of a Europe whole, free and at peace became harder to sustain. For a few years, the momentum continued, as countries across Europe joined both NATO and the European Union. More recently, signs of democratic backsliding and rising right-wing nationalism abound. Poland and Hungary have witnessed renewed authoritarianism, and the success of the German far-right party, the AfD, has been most notable in the former East Germany.

Meanwhile, relations with Russia have grown strained, exacerbated by the Russo-Georgia War in 2008, followed by the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Then the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. For the past five years, the continent has headed in a less whole, less free and less peaceful direction.

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There was more to 1989 than the collapse of the communist bloc in Europe

When we say 1989, we think of Europe. But two other events that year produced enormous long-term implications for U.S. foreign policy. In February, the Soviet Union completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, from which al-Qaeda was soon planning the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led the United States into its longest war. In June, the Chinese government cracked down on protesters in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds, if not thousands. While the West was focused on the flourishing of democracy, Chinese leaders after 1989 pursued a different path, giving rise to America’s most important strategic competitor.

The United States spent four decades containing the Soviet Union and then a quarter-century promoting a new Europe, but it no longer has a clear foreign policy strategy for Europe and with Europe. If 1989 was a victory for democracy and rule of law, it’s become a lot tougher in the era of political polarization and rising populist nationalism 30 years later to claim that those remain best practices. University of Oxford scholar Paul Betts pointedly noted, “Open borders, long proclaimed by 1989ers as the expression of freedom and human rights, are now identified as the very causes of insecurity.” Three decades on, the U.S. president isn’t talking about tearing down walls, but erecting them.

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James Goldgeier (@JimGoldgeier) is Robert Bosch Visiting Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of international relations at American University. He is the co-author (with Derek Chollet) of “America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11; The Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror(PublicAffairs, 2008).