American diplomat on the events of 1989: The biggest success was that the Cold War ended peacefully and ended with the unification of Europe
Daniel Fried, former US ambassador to Warsaw and Belgrade, ambassador-at-large to the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in an interview with the Voice of America Russian Service, dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, shared his memories of the dramatic events of 1989 and the challenges facing the world today.
Valeria Egisman: How do you remember 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall? Many say it came as a complete surprise to them. Was it a sudden event for you too?
Daniel Freed: In 1989, I worked as a simple employee of the State Department, dealt with Poland and very closely followed the events there. By November 1989, a non-communist government was already operating in Poland, so the fall of the Berlin Wall did not come as a shock to me. But yes, for many in Washington, it has become. Of course, everyone knew about the changes taking place both in Poland and in Hungary, and the “Velvet Revolution” was already growing in Czechoslovakia. However, in 1989, the United States was firmly convinced that a divided Europe was an invariable reality. This vision was taught at universities and shared by most of the country’s foreign policy establishment. If you look back in time, this conviction formed the basis of the detente (detente) policy of President Richard Nixon and his US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in relations with Leonid Brezhnev. So yes, the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, moreover, through the efforts of the peoples themselves, came as a shock to many. This became possible because the communism of the Soviet model was collapsing. As it turned out, he could not be reformed, despite all the efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev. I also think that Gorbachev was a decent man – yes, he tried to save this system, but he did not resort to military, violent solutions, as the Soviet Union did in Hungary in 1956, in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, or when a military situation in Poland in 1981. Gorbachev made possible a more peaceful solution to what could have dire consequences.
V.E .: In your opinion, what were the successes and problems of US policy in response to the subsequent fundamental transformations in Europe and the countries of the former USSR?
D.F .: Debates on this issue continue to this day. I think the biggest success was that the Cold War ended peacefully. Secondly, it ended with the unification, not the division of Europe. The Baltic states and many countries of Central and Eastern Europe have managed to successfully transform, despite all the difficulties and criticism of some political decisions.
The biggest setback is that Russia was unable to transform. I think that Americans and Western Europeans made a mistake when they viewed Russia in the same way as the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. We did not fully realize that while these countries viewed the collapse of communism as a national success and the memory of the pre-communist past and belonging to Europe still lived there, things were different in Russia. Yes, some, like Yeltsin, saw the collapse of communism as a kind of victory for the people overcoming an alien ideology. But the collapse of communism was perceived by many as a national failure, especially after Yeltsin failed to successfully reform Russia..
Perhaps one of the reasons for this was precisely the fact that Russia did not have this memory of pre-communist and democratic Russia. There was less support for new development. And it turned out to be a bigger problem than we could have expected..
V.Ye .: What is the relationship between the United States and Russia today, and what do you expect?
D.F .: The relationship is obviously not very good. Putin is hostile to the West, Western democracy in general, and especially to the United States. He believes in another system – autocracy. And this is a problem because Putin believes that the spread of democracy is a threat to Russia and his rule. He sees the Maidan in Ukraine as a direct threat to him, and not an opportunity for this country to transform. And as long as Putin is of the opinion that he should rule Russia as an autocrat and impose autocracy, or at least chaos on as many of his neighbors as possible – which Russia tried to do in Ukraine – Russia’s relations with the rest of the world, especially with West will remain bad.
Many American experts on Russia believe that, by virtue of its history, it will never be better than it is today, that it has a Eurasian, not a Western, path of development. They believe that Russia will never be democratic. I do not think so. There is a tradition of more liberal thinking in Russian thought. I admit that this is a minority tradition, but it is there. I do not think that history seals one destiny, and Russia, like other countries that at some point were considered unsuitable for democracy – such as Germany or Japan – will find their way to better relations with itself and with the world. But I also don’t believe the United States can impose anything here. This must be what the Russian people themselves must do.
V.Ye .: How do you see the development of other post-Soviet countries in this context, many of which, with the exception of the Baltic ones, are still on the way to democracy?
D.F .: They are all very different. The countries where democratic transformation and a free market have the greatest chances of success are probably Ukraine, Georgia, now perhaps Armenia. The Central Asian countries are in a different category – they are more committed to authoritarianism and have much less democratic momentum. It is difficult to talk about Belarus – I have high hopes for this country, but today it remains quite authoritarian.
But I must point out – the United States is not responsible for the success of Poland and the Baltic states, or for the lack of it in other countries. These countries succeed or fail because of their own merit or problems. I think that, for example, Ukraine has done quite little for a whole generation after 1991, and this is due to internal factors. They are trying to change this now and, of course, we must help them. At the same time, I do not think that the issue of NATO membership is the first priority. Yes, this door must be open, but Ukraine must carry out internal reforms to improve its future.
VE: You stressed that the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the unification of Europe. But today we are witnessing the rise of populism and nationalism in some countries, the desire of Great Britain to leave the European Union. The problems of transatlantic unity are also often spoken about. What do you think of it?
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D.F .: Of course, we are not seeing the most beautiful moment in the history of the West. The United States, Britain, and some countries in both Western Europe – Italy, France, Germany, and Central and Eastern Europe – especially Hungary and Poland – are experiencing a rise in nationalism. We are faced with a kind of mixture of authoritarianism, nationalism, corruption and cynicism – in each country, something more prevails, something less. But the general trend, unfortunately, is the following. I think this is the result of some mistakes in Western politics, which led to economic and social stress, created immigration pressure. The US is also affected by the burden of a prolonged military overseas presence – all this combined has led to the emergence of these kinds of trends..
As for the transatlantic relations, from my point of view, today they are in a difficult state. Mainly because President Trump, as I see it, does not value the European Union highly. There was also some skepticism about the EU in the administrations of other US presidents – I saw a small amount of this at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, and even in the Obama administration. But in the Trump administration, this has reached extremes. It seems that he simply does not believe in a united Europe, but believes in nationalism and bilateral relations. This presents a problem. How deep it is and whether it will remain after the departure of President Trump – there is a lot of discussion about this..
However, we must remember that the West has gone through difficult times before. And no matter how difficult our problems are, they are still less serious than those in authoritarian countries. But yes, we must not deceive ourselves – we must take a serious look at our problems and begin to solve them..
V.E .: Are there any other lessons to be learned from the events of 1989?
D.F .: In my opinion, the first lesson to be learned is the need to be patient. In 1989, the United States achieved its goals of ending the Cold War and uniting Europe. But it took much longer than we thought. The second lesson, I think, is not to look for easy ways. In retrospect, President Nixon’s détente policy towards the Soviet Union was not the best we could resort to. And third, don’t expect perfection. Yes, 1989 was a historic and tremendous achievement, but in the end, the former socialist bloc countries have their own policies and disadvantages, like everyone else. This does not mean that we should not appreciate our achievements – we should, and we have already done a lot, just do not immediately expect too much..
Journalist «Voices of America». Prior to that, she worked for international non-governmental organizations in Washington DC and London, in the Russian-language version of the Estonian daily newspaper “Postimees” and as a spokesman for the Estonian Interior Ministry. Interests – international relations, politics, economics