Opinion - Politics

30 years after the Berlin Wall's fall, the US and its allies now confront an even more formidable competitor

Key Points
  • U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo will visit Germany next week from November 6-8 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall.
  • He'll deliver a speech on Friday that will rightly focus on "the continuing imperative to defend free nations and free peoples."
  • The problem is that the factors that went into winning the Cold War are lacking now.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, November 1989
Gerard Malie | AFP | Getty Images

Next week's thirtieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall's collapse will be less a moment to celebrate democracy's improbable Cold War triumph and more a time to confront the even more difficult contest ahead with a more formidable competitor.

In my best-selling book, Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the World's Most Dangerous Place, I refer to the Berlin Wall as "the iconic image of what unfree systems can impose when free leaders fail to resist." Perhaps never in human history has both an era's challenge and its finish been made so physically manifest.

Today's world lacks any similar, galvanizing image, but events even of just the past week underscore the greater complexity of today's challenges, the growing intensity of major power competition and the insufficient attention paid by the United States and its allies to the contest.

Authoritarian China this week rolled out the world's largest 5G mobile phone network at home – with technology advanced beyond that of its Western competitors. That came amid a battle for market dominance centered around America's global campaign against countries installing China's 5G gear. This battle is likely to repeat itself across other technologies, from artificial intelligence to quantum computing.

Even as the House of Representatives voted on partisan lines to approve an impeachment resolution against President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping won support from the Communist Party's governing Central Committee at the end of a four-day meeting in a document that used the word "persevere" 57 times.

The message was clear: With China's economy slowing, with its damaging trade war with the US continuing, and with Hong Kong unrest persisting, President Xi was moving to concentrate even more power in his own hands and that of the Communist party for what Beijing anticipates will be a generational struggle.

In Europe, Denmark provided Russia a major boost for its efforts to deepen Europe's dependence on its energy exports. Despite the threat of US sanctions, Denmark removed the last significant impediment for the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, scheduled to be commissioned at the end of this year.

"Denmark showed itself to be a responsible participant in international relations," said Russian President Vladimir Putin with full-throated praise, "defending its interests and sovereignty and the interests of its main partners in Europe." That follows Putin's recent declaration of the end of Pax Americana in a global system that must do more to embrace Asian countries.

It is in that atmosphere that U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo will visit Germany next week from November 6-8 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall. He'll deliver a speech on Friday that will rightly focus on "the continuing imperative to defend free nations and free peoples," as the State Department statement on his travel has billed it.

It will be one of a series of speeches in coming weeks that Secretary Pompeo has said would focus on the competing ideologies and values defining our times, particularly Chinese influence companies and "unfair and predatory" economic practices.

"They are reaching for and using methods that have created challenges for the United States and for the world and we collectively, all of us, need to confront these challenges … head on," Secretary Pompeo said this week to the Hudson Institute in New York. "It is no longer realistic to ignore the fundamental difference between our two systems" and the impact that has on US national security.

The problem is that the factors that went into winning the Cold War are lacking now: a relatively consistent strategy that had evolved over decades, a determined and mostly unified alliance, and a Soviet adversary that was militarily strong but economically weak and one-dimensional, with an economy driven primarily by its energy production.

Time for release around this historic Berlin Wall anniversary, the Atlantic Council this week published two new papers aimed at understanding the historic stakes of the current major power contest and an approach to navigating the future based more on reality than nostalgia.

"The old historical rhythm that has laid the foundations of the Western liberal order has come to an end," argues Mathew Burrows in his paper Global Risks 2035 Update: Decline or New Renaissance. "Without a political, intellectual and, some say, spiritual renaissance that addresses and deals with the big existential tests facing humanity we will not be able to move together into the future."

He lays out three possible scenarios for the coming two decades.

The most likely, and the one the world seems to be slipping into, is one marked by US-Chinese rivalry. He calls it "a New Bipolarity." Burrows argues that this world would be shaped by the emergence of two economic spheres, China at the core of one and the US and Europe in the other. The period will be marked by bouts of protectionism and by slowing growth and growing tensions.

Burrows' most hopeful scenario, "a World Restored," is one in which the US, China and others pull back their bipolar collision course before it is too late, recognizing the unacceptable cost to their societies. "For its part, the Chinese government's gambit of accelerating innovation while suppressing freedoms hits a brick wall," he writes.

Don't rule out the third scenario, "a Descent into Chaos," should leaders lack the vision to avoid it. Burrows lays out a horror picture triggered by a widespread economic meltdown that is triggered by a Chinese economic reversal. This scenario goes beyond economic collapse, though it is a key driver, to the spread of political instability, conflict and violence.

The value of Burrows' intellectual exercise, informed by a career of considering such alternatives in the US intelligence community, is not to predict outcomes but to underscore the value of strategic leadership in navigating the world away from chaos and toward restoration.

An accompanying document, Present at the Re-Creation, Ash Jain and Matthew Kroenig lay out a strategy for shaping the international system that accepts that the status quo can't be preserved. They call upon democracies around the world to deepen their cooperation to revitalize support for a rules-based system, even as they build an inclusive framework that all major powers, including China, contribute to and benefit from the system.

Sound Utopian?


However, the time is now to think faster, more creatively and more strategically about shaping the future before losing too many of the gains in the spread of democracy and prosperity that resulted from the Berlin Wall's collapse.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.

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