Trump Has Squandered the Legacy of the Berlin Wall

trump-has-squandered-the-legacy-of-the-berlin-wall

Thirty
years ago this weekend, a dour and rumpled East German apparatchik named Günter
Schabowski faced a smattering of reporters and cameras for a press conference
in East Berlin. Rifling confusedly through a sheaf of papers, Schabowski mumbled details about new travel
stipulations for East Germans, hundreds of thousands of whom had recently been
protesting the ongoing brutalities and restrictions of the East German
government. Schabowski, according to later
recollections
,
hadn’t actually bothered to pore through the details of the new travel
regulations—nor, it appeared, had
many of the East German officials who could sense their regime teetering toward
collapse. Shortly before the close of the press conference, Schabowski revealed
almost offhandedly that East Germans could now pass through all border
crossings, including those directly into West Berlin. When asked when the new
allowances would kick in, Schabowski glanced through the memo in front of him:
“Effective immediately, without delay.”

The
Schabowski presser—which left the East
German spokesman rattled, clearly unprepared for the revolution his words had
just unleashed—immediately rippled
both east and west. East Berliners, smothered for decades by Soviet forces and
their proxies in the East German government, clambered toward, and then onto,
the Berlin Wall. East German forces held their fire. Some turned to firehoses; Western
cameras caught the hilarious way these efforts were easily repulsed by those wielding umbrellas. Others, frustrated by
the imbecility of their superiors, threw up their hands and opened the border
gates. Just like that, nearly three decades after Nikita Khrushchev had tossed
up a wall that symbolized all of the hatreds threading the Cold War, the Berlin
Wall came tumbling down.

In
another world, in another timeline, the upcoming anniversary of the collapse of
the Berlin Wall would be cause for trans-Atlantic celebration. There would be
feasts and fêtes, parties and pronouncements of the success
of liberal democratic reforms, and the ultimate impotence of tyrannical
governments who once oversaw those in Bishkek and Budapest and Belgrade. There
would be, in Moscow, introspection, and pledges of reform. There would be, in
Washington, resolve, and resounding support for strengthening the bonds built
on the backs of that night, some thirty years ago, in Berlin.

Instead,
this weekend will be cause for something else: consternation, and concern, and
questions about whether the fruits of that victory have already been exhausted.
There will be theories about where everything went wrong, and how everything
turned upside down. In Moscow, there will be puffed chests and renewed calls
for empire. In Washington, there will be further revelations of the lengths to
which the American president went to pressure foreign governments—those firmly in the U.S.’s camp, no less—to investigate a political rival. And in Ukraine, and all those
post-Soviet states that are now on the frontline between liberal democracies
and the types of modern authoritarianism propped by the Kremlin, there will be
new worries about whether the U.S. will still support their long, laborious
push to join the West. And there will be cause to wonder whether Tweety McTreason,
the man now in the White House, even believes that all those post-communist
nations the U.S. helped wrest from the USSR’s embrace are, as Trump said, “real
countries,” anyway.


It’s
not hard to see why those countries once under the Soviet yoke would feel this
way. Just last week, amid the snowballing insanity of a president siccing his
personal lawyer on a prone government in Ukraine—and
threatening to withhold vital American military aid in the process, all just to
smear a political rival—we learned that, in his
first year in the White House, Trump wasn’t even sure Ukraine was a real
country. In late 2017, Trump prepped for a meeting with Petro Poroshenko, then
serving as Ukraine’s president. Kurt Volker, the man who’d volunteered as
special envoy to Ukraine, ran through a quick refresher on the country for
Trump. Trump, though, wouldn’t have it: The president, per the Washington Post, “peppered Volker with
his negative views of Ukraine, suggesting that it wasn’t a ‘real country’”—and that, for good measure, Ukraine “had always been a part of
Russia.”

We
don’t know Volker’s reaction, but it’s not difficult to imagine the color
draining from his face. The revelation from Trump was as ghastly as it is
galling. Here was a sitting president not simply reimagining Ukrainian history,
pretending that Ukraine had always been some appendage of Russia, rather than
its own independent polity, but insisting that the country the U.S. has done as
much as any to prop up and support was not, in fact, real.

Russian
propaganda, of course, has levied questions of Ukraine’s right to nationhood ad
nauseam
over the past few years. Trump’s comments were almost a verbatim echo
of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “You have to understand, George, that
Ukraine is not even a country,” Putin told President George W.
Bush in 2008. “Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part
was given to us.” Putin reiterated this line in 2014, after he’d launched the
first forced annexation in Europe since the Second World War. “After the
revolution, the Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons—may God judge them—added large sections of
the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine. This was done with
no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population, and today these
areas form the southeast of Ukraine.”  

This
line, that Ukraine hasn’t earned and doesn’t deserve nationhood, plays
directly into larger grievances still swamping post-Soviet Russia, and
propelling the Kremlin’s irredentism. They fit firmly within a perceived Russian
Monroe Doctrine that has existed since the earliest moments of the Soviet
Union’s crumble; as one adviser to the Russian Duma’s Joint Committee on
Foreign Affairs said only a few months
after the Soviet Union’s flag was finally lowered, “Russia should declare the
entire geopolitical space of the former USSR a sphere of its vital interests
(like the U.S.’s Monroe Doctrine).”

This
chauvinistic, neo-imperialistic strain of thought has already led directly to
some of the greatest geopolitical disasters of the past dozen years. Russia
unleashed that line of thinking against Georgia in 2008, sending troops pouring
in to prop up a pair of separatist enclaves in Abkhazia and South Ossetia,
bucking Georgia’s turn toward NATO in the process. In Moldova, Russian
officials have continued to help slow-walk reconciliation between Chisinau and
separatists in Transnistria, a land still covered with
statues of Lenin
. (Will Trump tweet out recognition of these statelets sometime in
the future? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess.)

Even
in countries that aren’t yet carved up by Russia, the rhetorical ground is
already laid. In Kazakhstan, everyone from Russian fascists to luminaries like
Alexander Solzhenitsyn have claimed that a northern chunk
of the country rightfully belongs to Russia. Just a few years ago, an ethnic
Russian living in the region told me Kazakhstan was little more than a
“virtual” country, a post-Soviet “Bantustan.” Little surprise that, in 2014,
Putin claimed ethnic Kazakhs had never known statehood before the
Soviet Union’s collapse.

But
it’s in Ukraine that Moscow has wrought the most destruction, where it’s attempted
to fracture a country that’s undergone not one but two successful
pro-democratic, pro-transparency, pro-dignity revolutions over the past two
decades, ousting kleptocratic crooks in the process both times. The Kremlin
grabbed Crimea outright—and suffocated any human rights local
Crimeans, especially the indigenous Crimean
Tatar population
, could have hoped for—while
supplying the weaponry that separatists used to obliterate a Malaysian
airliner. Thanks to Moscow’s desires to strangle Ukrainians’ push for full
nationhood, 13,000 people have died, with another 30,000
wounded. All of this before Trump decided to echo the Russian line, and
question Ukraine’s nationhood outright.

“What
did they die for? They died because they believed in the ideals of democracy
and rule of law, and they want a future with dignity—that’s why [the 2014 Ukrainian revolution] is called the Revolution
of Dignity,” Nina Jankowicz, a fellow with the Wilson Center and expert on
U.S.-Ukrainian relations, told The New Republic. “And those are ideals
that have guided U.S. foreign policy at least since the Cold War, and certainly
before that too, I would argue…When we’re putting [support for Ukraine] up for
grabs as part of a partisan political battle, it undermines our moral calling
card—not only in Europe, but
around the world.”


Trump
evinces nary a whit of care for America’s post-Cold War legacy, or for
America’s post-Cold War gains. His actions suggest that he would happily toss that all away, just for the
opportunity at a second term in office. He would sacrifice
the unmitigated gains, the unprecedented stability and prosperity, and the explosion
of opportunities in the name of American interests and liberal democracy, all
for another four years—and a chance to avoid
the indictments that are almost certainly waiting for him the moment he leaves
the White House.

In
so doing, Trump would be tossing out the underpinnings of a post-Cold War order
that, for nearly three decades, has kept Europe far more secure than it’s ever
been. Nationhood within the post-communist space is a tenuous thing, even
without the American president throwing borders into question. And the threats
to security don’t just emanate just from Moscow. In Serbia and Bosnia, neo-imperialists have
picked up the torch wielded in the 1990s by genocidal nationalists, making
noise that they’d prefer to redraw regional borders—by force, if necessary. These actors have already begun cozying up to the Trump
administration, and whispering sweet
nothings

of historical wrongs in his ear. They won’t stop anytime soon.

There’s
still time to halt a disaster barreling toward Europe’s eastern reaches.
There’s still a chance that, in a decade’s time, we’ll be celebrating the
fortieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall with the festivities the
occasion deserves. But it may be the case that those best days are behind us.

There
was nothing inevitable about the Berlin Wall’s collapse: As Egon Krenz, the
East German strongman in power when the Wall collapsed, later said, “We were
closer to a civil-war-like situation than many people want to believe today.” In
the end, it was a series of little moments—memos
unread; policy papers that no one paid much mind to, until it was too late—upon which post-Berlin Wall history spun. History could easily turn
again on an offhand comment from Tweety McTreason that threatens to unwind an
entire nation—and which could lead to
America pulling up its stakes, undoing its victories, and abandoning all of the
gains it’s seen since that chilly, momentous November evening 30 years ago.
 

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