An American Perspective on Today's Europe

Nov 10, 1999

By Robert Hutchings

A decade later, the events of 1989 have lost none of their capacity to astonish. For those of us who lived through these events as they were happening and had a certain role in shaping them, the enormity of what transpired that fateful year becomes even more amazing with the passage of time. Nor should the sober realities of the post-Cold War world diminish the heroic achievements of that year.

Memory takes me back to a conversation with Bronislaw Geremek -- now Polish foreign minister but then a key adviser to Solidarity leader Lech Walesa -- in early May 1989. Solidarity had just concluded the roundtable agreement with the Polish government promising free elections in the summer. I was in Warsaw to plan President Bush's scheduled visit to Poland and Hungary in July and to see how the United States could lend support to a peaceful democratic breakthrough in both countries.

Our judgment within the American administration was that if the Polish roundtable were fully and faithfully implemented, this was the beginning of the end of Communist rule in Poland. And if Communism was finished in Poland, it was finished everywhere in eastern Europe -- including East Germany, which meant that the German Question had just leapt onto the international agenda. Of course, those were very large "ifs"; our appreciation of the potential for such sweeping changes was by no means a prediction that they might actually occur, much less that they might occur within a year.

It was our recognition of just how much was at stake that led the Bush Administration to throw U.S. weight fully behind peaceful democratic change in central and eastern Europe, forging a Western consensus behind this agenda and holding East-West relations hostage to Soviet acceptance of self-determination in this region. It was, in my estimation, the most important single thing the United States did in helping bring about the end of the Cold War. Of course, the United States did not cause these events; those grew out of very deep historic roots. But we did help create an international environment conducive to their success.

By the same token, our seemingly instinctive support for German unification at a time when most of Europe and of course the Soviet Union were opposed, was actually the product of early recognition of this prospect and development of a strategy for dealing with it. This thinking was embedded in American policy during President Bush's visit to Germany in May 1989, long before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We did not cause German unification any more than we did the revolutions of 1989. Unification was coming whether we willed it or not. But if we had joined the British, French, and Russians in opposing unification, or if we had merely remained passive, the outcome for Germany and for Europe might have been far different.

Lady Luck played a role as well, for we were dealing at the end of the Cold War with a Soviet leadership still strong enough to override hard-line opponents domestically but too weak to offer meaningful resistance to the precipitous loss of empire. And of course Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev deserves credit for championing change in the communist world and refusing to resort to forcible suppression even as those changes went far beyond anything he had considered at the outset.

Still, Americans could take pride in the fact that at a critical moment, their government was on the right side of history and successfully pursued policies that were consistent with our principles and our interests. The objectives that we had set for ourselves in early 1989 -- self-determination in Eastern Europe, reduction of Soviet forces to less threatening levels, Soviet cooperation in solving regional disputes, and the liberalization of the USSR itself -- were met and far exceeded, and far more rapidly than we had imagined.

Most of us dealing with these issues in Europe or America had our epiphanies, our moments of realization that the end of Europe's division might actually be at hand -- not just as an aspiration for the 1 990s but as an imminent reality. For many it came with the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9; others may have had premonitions already in early 1989 (although surely not as many as later claimed such prescience). Mine came with the election of Tadeusz Mazowiecki as Polish prime minister in late August. The United States had been working hard to persuade the Soviet Union that self-determination in central and eastern Europe could be achieved in a manner consistent with legitimate Soviet security interests; now, in Poland, the early steps taken by the Mazowiecki government were proof of that contention. By year's end, the entire landscape of central and eastern Europe would be transformed.

Indeed, the scope and speed of these changes -- a generation's worth of history compressed into a few months -- caused us to lose our strategic bearings. The skill with which we managed the challenges of 1989 gave way to confusion thereafter, and the failures of U.S. and other Western policies toward a disintegrating Yugoslavia seemed to herald not a "new world order" but old world disorder. Even more worrying in the broader strategic sense was the failure of the United States and its Western European partners to fashion a new transatlantic balance of roles and responsibilities that would carry us securely into the new century. There were failures on both sides: on ours, we continued to assert a dominent leadership role even as our actions (or inactions) called into question American consistency and steadfastness.

For Americans, the loss of focus at the end of the Cold War was accentuated by the manner in which it ended -- not with military victory, demobilization, and celebration but with the unexpected capitulation of the other side without a shot being fired. We had mobilized as if for war and were mercifully spared the conflict that many saw as inevitable. The grand struggle had ended not with a bang but a whimper.

Americans of an earlier generation knew when V-E Day and V-J Day were; there were dates on the calendar marking victory in Europe and victory over Japan in 1945. But the Cold War ended on no certain date; it lacked finality. The exhilaration Americans felt at the fall of the Berlin Wall was real but somehow distant and abstract; it was detached from our own intense role in the city's history since 1945. The end of the Cold War thus evoked among the American public little sense of purpose fulfilled -- and even less of responsibility for the tasks of post-war construction.

Yet gradually America is finding its way in the new era. Sustained (if belated) American commitment to peacekeeping efforts in the former Yugoslavia is an encouraging sign, as is the U.S.-led enlargement of NATO to embrace three new central European members. Europeans east and west would be wise not to undervalue this renewed commitment, just as Americans ought to show more understanding and support for the ambitious goals the European Union has set for itself. Inasmuch as the 10th anniversary of the revolutions of 1989 is also the 50th anniversary of the Atlantic Alliance and of the Council of Europe, it is an auspicious year to redeem the long deferred promise of a more united Europe and a new transatlantic partnership.

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