Twenty-Five Years Later: From the Fall of the Berlin Wall to… A New Cold War?

On 9 November 1989, the world watched as the Berlin Wall fell and a glimpse of a brighter future pierced the Iron Curtain. The division of Berlin had come to be seen as a microcosm of the Cold War, meaning that the reunification of Berlin (coinciding with the fall of the wall) precipitated the reunification of Germany, the mending of East-West relations and the end of the Cold War as a whole. One of the enduring legacies of the fall of the Berlin Wall is the notion of peace built on a foundation of respect and unity. As the President of the European Commission, Jeane-Claude Juncker, stated: ‘The fall of the Berlin Wall enabled new bridges to be built between people.’[1] These bridges, and similar connections between peoples, were instrumental in crafting a peaceful solution to the Cold War, and they are just as important today.


Lear 21, ©1989, some rights reserved.
Lear 21, ©1989, some rights reserved.

While the fall of the Berlin Wall is undoubtedly remembered in contemporary society, as are the opportunities its fall created for mutual respect and cooperation (as evidenced by the words of Jeane-Claude Juncker), the actions of the West have not always embodied these ideals. Recently, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev accused the West, and especially the United States, of ‘triumphalism’ after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This ‘triumphalism’ resulted in wounds to Russian pride, which, far from promoting reconciliation, has caused Russia under Vladimir Putin to pursue ‘a nationalist agenda to recover ground lost to the West.’[2] As a result of ‘triumphalism’ and the Russian reaction, twenty-five years on from the thaw in East-West relations that the fall of the Berlin Wall has grown to symbolize, it is becoming increasingly evident that relations are once again chilling.

The world has undoubtedly changed since the end of the Cold War, with twenty-first century Western foreign policy largely revolving around the Middle East and the threat posed by terrorism. The last year or so has seen an increasingly confident Russia butt heads with the West over multiple issues, leaving some, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to declare that the world is on the brink of a new Cold War. This may be an overstatement, but it certainly drags the failures of East-West dialogue into the limelight. The failures of Western engagement with Russia can be seen through the Ukraine crisis. With the inability of Russia and the West to agree on a consistent narrative for the conflict, let alone an effective and peaceful resolution, the Ukraine crisis has the potential to remain a source of considerable international tension for the foreseeable future.

It is these sources of international tension that draw comparisons to the Cold War, and it is these sources of tension that the global community should be focused with mitigating, and eventually resolving. The current course of action, consisting mainly of great powers (namely the United States and Russia) insisting that solely their narratives and their solutions are viable, mirrors that of the Cold War; while we may not currently be on the brink of another Cold War, we are certainly moving in that direction. This tragic fact covers the commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall in hypocrisy: we, as a global community, shift back towards a system defined by mutual mistrust and closed-mindedness even as we celebrate our capability to create peace through mutual respect and understanding. This isn’t to suggest that these governments don’t make any effort to increase mutual respect and understanding (the trend towards public diplomacy, for example, is designed to increase political awareness amongst general populations), but that it simply isn’t working.

To put it simply, Western sanctions against Russia have failed. The situation in Ukraine remains as volatile as ever: the 5 September ceasefire is broken on a daily basis, and reports of Russian incursions into Ukraine and the ensuing Russian denials continue to surface. According to a European Leadership Network policy brief on close military encounters between the West and Russia, aside from the Ukraine Crisis, there have been almost forty military incidents between Russia and the West in the past eight months—ranging from Sweden’s search for a Russian submarine in Swedish waters to Russian breaches of other states’ airspace.[3] The same policy brief offers a few recommendations for the West’s interactions with Russia, with the claim repeatedly being made that the West should focus on persuading Russia to exercise political and military restraint, whilst doing so itself. This emphasis on persuasion and restraint differs from the inherently coercive nature of sanctions and is, in my opinion, a more constructive and thought-out approach.

If the fall of the Berlin Wall showed anything, it was the power of a people to peacefully influence their government to peel back major aspects of policy, thus opening the doors for reconciliation and fostering respect and understanding. In the post-Cold War world, this has seemingly been forgotten, and international relations between the West and Russia have suffered as a result. In celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall it is important that we recall more about this historic event than just that it happened. We must seize upon the belief of peaceful reconciliation that was demonstrated in that historic moment and apply it to the world around us. The bridges between societies, cultures, nations, and governments that were built after the fall of the wall are being burnt as antagonism between Russia and the West grows. We must take efforts to improve these relations through mutual respect and understanding before an iron curtain descends over Europe once more.




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