The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Derek Chollet explains how the fall of the Berlin Wall affected US foreign policy.
  • Transcript


Question: Why was 11/9 so important?

Derek Chollet: Well 11/9 was November 9th, 1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which in many ways symbolized the end of the Cold War. It was a sort of paradoxical moment because of course it was a moment of great triumph. I mean, the images from that day of people dancing, literally dancing on the top of the Berlin Wall, young people chipping away at the wall, and for the United States it was a great moment of triumph. But the paradox was that within that triumph there was a sense that we had, in fact, been defeated in that fighting the Cold War, perhaps countries like Germany and Japan had really been the winners. And at that moment there was a sense that the U.S. was a declining power. Now what’s interesting, of course, is that the years that followed 11/9, the 1990s were a moment of extraordinary American power in which the U.S., almost incomparable in history, strode the world and sort of was able to wield its power in a way that few countries ever had been able to before. So it’s an interesting moment from which we sort of begin the story because it’s in many ways an ending of the Cold War and the beginning of this era that in some ways looking back many people think about as mostly one of confusion but also of American greatness and unipolarity is the term that sort of foreign policy wants to give it

Question: Who was influencing foreign policy at the time?

Derek Chollet: There were those in and out of government trying to do so.  Starting those in government, George H.W. Bush, President Bush’s father, who was the President at the time of the fall of the wall and sort of presided over the end of the Cold War, he was hopeful that this would be a moment in which the international system that had been created four decades earlier by FDR and Harry Truman and others, the United Nations namely, could finally work.  Because the Cold War had in many ways paralyzed the international system.  The U.S.-Soviet standoff had made institutions like the U.N. basically feckless and Bush talked a lot about the New World Order as he called it, which really wasn’t a New World Order.  It was more about making an old order, which was the U.N. system work, where the great powers of the world could help police international politics.  The first manifestation of that he hoped and believed was the response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990 when the U.S. and Soviet Union for the first time stood side by side and condemned an invasion.  It was a former Soviet client state, Iraq, invading a current client state, Kuwait.  So the type of situation that would have been the epicenter of this sort of super power showdown during the Cold War became what Bush hoped and believed would be an example of cooperation and the U.N. working.  So that was sort of at the beginning.  The New World Order was those inside government.  Outside of government there was a huge debate both among liberals and conservatives about what the end of the Cold War might mean.  One of the more famous essays at the time was written in 1989, actually a few months before the end of the fall of the Berlin Wall but while it was clear that communism was collapsing, written by Francis Fukuyama, who wrote a very famous article entitled “The End of History” and this is probably one of the least read but most cited articles in all of history.  Fukuyama’s point, as many took it to be, was that with the end of the Cold War and the end of communism, the great ideological struggle that had sort of driven international politics for many years was over, and that in that sense history had ended and that it was somehow inevitable in many ways that democracy would spread and that the world would become more peaceful.  Some took from this, and this was not Fukuyama intended, but some took from this as a way of saying the world matters less because the world will be less problematic.  The Cold War was an aberration.  The idea that the U.S. had to spend all this money and be so engaged in global problems was a response to this thing called communism and with that gone we didn’t need to worry about the world so much.  Other countries could take care of their own problems or their own regions and the U.S. could go back to being a normal country.  So what was interesting, the effect of that really on the conservative side of the political spectrum was that they kind of lost their sort of driving force.  Anti-communism had been the glue that had held conservatives together and absent the Cold War, conservatives began to splinter apart when it came to foreign policy.

Recorded on: July 8, 2008.